Features & Functions

VR and AR are seeing resurgent interest under COVID-19. Veterans of the field think it’s about time.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve ziplined in Maui, toured the Louvre, and visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City — all without leaving my apartment.

Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are having a moment under the COVID-19 pandemic by allowing us to feel closer to one another, moving us beyond the confines of social distancing, and connecting us to our coworkers and the world despite the necessary, but frustrating restrictions keeping us all at home and making remote working challenging. As the benefits become clearer, industry voices are taking note.

But while the current VR/AR conversation centers around the Coronavirus outbreak, innovators within the field have long extolled the value of these technologies across industries as diverse as healthcare, education, and media. Considering the unique opportunities VR and AR offer during this lockdown, it’s high time we take a closer look at how they’re opening up the world.

Where do Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality stand?

The story of VR and AR development and adoption has been uneven at best, with individual and enterprise interest fluctuating from moment to moment.

“Since I got in, there were a lot of ups and downs in the industry,” says Ori Inbar, co-founder and CEO of AugmentedReality.org and the Augmented World Expo. “When the iPhone and Android phones came out, all of a sudden, it’s as if these were the ideal device for AR experiences, cause they had all the ingredients that you would need, and it was already in a user’s pocket.”

Initial excitement didn’t immediately manifest into large advances. “There was a lot of hype around it. It took a few years. As a tech, at the time, honestly, it was really more ready for playtime,” Inbar continues.

For many, the applications, efficacy, and even necessity were unclear. 

“We consider both the AR and VR media as still developing and mostly untapped by the general public. But we’ve also experienced quite a bit of frustration,” Rollin Herold, chief content officer at Visible Things, a cutting-edge VR and 360-degree video developer, explains. “For instance, travel seems to be the most natural sector to adopt immersive content, due to the feelings of [fear of missing out] that most travel vendors would like to elicit from potential buyers. And yet, even there we’ve run into a reluctance ‘to try something new’.”

Graham Roberts, designer and technologist leading digital design at Google Brand Studio Creative, adds, “Both AR and VR have undergone their own hype cycles, including early excitement, but then leading to an inevitable ‘trough of disillusionment’, followed by slower growth as the platforms have matured.”

Innovators like Ori, Rollin, and more though, continue to firmly believe in the technology as a teaching tool, a vehicle for new dimensions of entertainment, and a powerful way to connect people and organizations. 

Explains Andrew Greenberger, CEO of Visible Things: “There’s just a tipping point that VR and AR has to reach, and once it gets to that point where people see it as something that they can use everyday, and get really quality stuff that they’re not seeing on other mediums, it’s going to explode.”

VR and AR opening up the world

While VR and AR might once have had a reputation as best suited for playtime, pioneers in the field constantly challenge that assumption.

For augmented reality, innovative educational applications are making their way to the classroom, allowing students to more thoroughly “interact” with their assignments, especially in STEM curriculums. Resources like Terminal Eleven’s SkyView provide students with a map of constellations that they can examine on their phones, moving alongside the images on the screen, while Lessons in Herstory allows students to scan textbooks to learn about overlooked women in history. 

Similarly, medical schools use AR models to train and support surgeons and nurses in things medical procedures as diverse as neurosurgery to simple needle placement

Medical Realities, developers of the first end-to-end virtual reality platform for the global healthcare industry, has been developing such solutions since 2014, and their experience in the field has been inspiring in what it’s shown them.

“The healthcare sector is a perfect use case for both AR and VR in training, education, and treatment,” says Steve Dann, co-founder and executive chairman, “The isolation and immersive elements of VR work extremely well in training and education aspects, as it reduces distractions and heightens awareness of the task at hand. This makes it extremely useful in all types of training scenarios.”

These technologies are condensing and connecting the world

As VR/AR educational tools are utilized by a wider range of institutions, the wide ranging ways that they could support students, especially remotely, is increasingly clear. Currently, museums such as the Louvre, the Vatican Museum, and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam all offer virtual tours of their collections, heightening interest in museums. Day by day, the allure of VR and AR as a legitimate study tool and educational resource becomes more pronounced.

When asked about creating tours like these, Kelly Vero, the head of Games Development at VR/AR developer SO REAL, perfectly encapsulates what makes VR/AR so exciting right now: “[While designing virtual tours] we wanted to look at this period of lockdown and isolation as a place to become more diverse in our offering and to drive creativity upwards. In doing so, we’ve been able to visualize how museums of the future will work. We take the ability to reach out and touch or be close to historical and artistic objects for granted. How we interact with objects as individuals is intrinsic to how we appreciate art.”

But this potential isn’t just in the classroom or a museum. Educational and supportive use cases, such as remote expert assistance, extend to industries other than formal education or curation.  

“Let’s say you’re in the field, you’re trying to fix a machine or an electronic board or maybe a pipeline that burst,” Ori Inbar says, “All the information from the manual can be projected to you through smart glasses, and if you kind of run out of ideas, an expert can connect to you and see through your camera what you’re seeing.” 

In the same way, Oculus Rift allows you to see through the eyes of a World War 2 era soldier or a fantastical warrior on a glorious quest, AR and VR are connecting workers in manufacturing, hospitals, and IT organizations with experts providing support and experience, with current developers even using remote assistance to help medical technicians repair ventilators from afar.

Fittingly, Dann sees the current pandemic as a window for further AR/VR intervention in the healthcare industry, especially for the training of new physicians.

“In the current COVID-19 scenario, I see VR being extremely useful in providing remote one-to-one scalable training and education in the medical sector on a worldwide basis. It is obviously extremely useful where group training or lectures are no longer viable options.”

VR/AR are creating powerful media experiences for all of us

Aside from expensive consumer products like the Oculus Rift headset, VR and AR have become an entertaining element of everyday life in ways that we sometimes take for granted. 

Have you played Pokemon Go or changed your Zoom background?  Have you attended a festival or conference with digitally rendered booths or attractions? Have you gone on Snapchat to show your friends what you might look like as a dog, an old man, or an elf? VR and AR are responsible, even if we don’t immediately make the connection.

From operas, theatre productions, and movies sent directly to audiences confined at home, to Netflix Party providing the virtual social experience of watching along with friends and family, it’s clear that there’s a need to be filled, a yearning to recapture the experiences we’ve lost. VR and AR services like Wave — which hosts virtual concerts featuring the likes of Tinashe, and T-Pain, offer the answers to that need.

For both creators and audiences, VR and AR are quickly proving to have unique benefits, many of which are incredibly well suited to this moment. Take film production, where VR and AR offer new ways to envision complex sequences, save money, and even promote social distancing. As per Raffael Dickreuter, the head of film and AR at SO REAL: “A lot about filmmaking now using virtual production is seeing the set design or the upcoming sequence right there in front of you…Virtual sets and previsualization help to save a lot of money, make key decisions early on and also get everyone on the same page.”

As these diverse examples show, in ways both big and small, AR/VR strives to deepen our experiences, and the push to regain a sense of normalcy, productivity, and community proves just how valuable virtual technologies can be.

VR/AR can thrive long after COVID-19

In a moment defined by isolation and distancing, AR/VR technologies give us an energizing connection to one another. Whether through the powerful escapism of media, the empowering energy of the classroom, the vital necessity of healthcare, or the simple creation of community, VR and AR are pushing to find new ways to help reconnect co-workers, customers, and industry innovators around the world. 

And if VR and AR experts effectively leverage that current potential, it could have long-lasting implications for these technologies. 

“I think the general consensus is that nothing will go back to normal [after COVID-19]. I think we’ve learned so many things from this experience, whether it’s on the existential level or on the technical level. And once you try something new, it’s not so scary,” Ori says. “We have like hundreds of millions of people that just tried Zoom for the first time!”

“I think that after this pandemic is over certain things will never be the same again and I believe that it will definitely drive the adoption and utilization of AR and VR in the healthcare and educational fields,” Steve Dann also predicts. “It will also significantly increase the awareness of the potential and usefulness of these new technologies in a world where people realize that they do not all have to work in an office or meet people in person, and that it is easier to remotely collaborate and interact with clients, colleagues, customers, patients, and friends than they thought possible.”

While COVID-19 is providing a window into the varied potential of VR and AR, the underlying technology and vision has been growing and developing for quite some time. Given the ways in which virtual experiences are providing additional comfort and freedom under the current circumstances, engagement is likely to grow once this tumult subsides. We’re just excited to see where innovators like Rollin Herold, Andrew Greenberger, Steven Dann, Ori Inbar and more take VR/AR next!

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