Nick Grant

DESIGN TECHNOLOGIST

The Pandemic-Fueled Rise of Virtual Reality

WRITING

Did the outbreak of the coronavirus reinvigorate the virtual reality industry? How may computer-generated simulations combat issues that stem from social distancing?

You scan the dimly lit dive bar. The brick walls, neon clicking bottles of beer, and old-school posters encapsulate you. A few feet away, a very familiar figure enters the stage. John Legend sits on a piano stool, which pops out of nowhere. As he plays and sings “All of Me” in front of a bright full moon, mind-numbing yellow and purple sparks fly out of the keys.

No, you are not hallucinating. You are inside the VR platform Wave, which is part of an experimental live concert series. Although the global pandemic forced everybody to become a homebody, VR is an escape from our familiar living rooms. Whether for entertainment, tourism, real estate, or conferences, the emerging media technology restores fragments of normality that are scattered indefinitely.

VR tracks the user’s head and handheld-controller movements in 3D space. Each VR headset puts up a screen in front of the eyes, which eliminates any interaction with the real world. Two autofocus lenses are placed between your eyes and the screen, which adjusts based on individual eye movement. Any immersive experience may be presented to the user.

Facebook bought Oculus, a leader in VR hardware and software, in 2014 for $2 billion. In 2016, Oculus and HTC launched their first virtual reality headsets for the general public, fueling a revolution in the way humans interact with their surroundings. Google, Samsung, and Sony joined the competition to produce the greatest headset for the market.

Three years after the launch of Oculus and HTC, neither company revealed sales data. The silence speaks volumes. Meanwhile, Sony announced that the PlayStation VR reached 3 million sold, which we may assume is the most successful headset on the market. Yet the PlayStation 4 installed base is estimated to be 112.6 million units.

People proclaim that VR is dead. If you ask around, very little people own the device. The headsets were initially too clunky and expensive, resulting in lackluster sales. The content did not appear enticing, but the pandemic launched a plethora of new sources of entertainment that we crave.

The stay-at-home-orders led to a multitude of innovative VR experiences. The applications are not a replacement for the physical, but they offer thrilling imaginative possibilities.

Wave, a social VR venue, raised $30 million in funding. During a 17 minute outwardly live musical event, the digital movements of Legend’s avatar matched that of his real body. Legend wore an advanced MVN Link that featured embedded sensors. His dynamic movements, even the miniscule facial expressions, were transferred to a computer through a Wi-Fi connection and streamed for individual audience members.

In Travis Scott’s immense tour in Fortnite, 12 million players attended the first concert. Without physical requirements, VR concerts may be experienced by anyone in the world. You only need to turn on your system.

Until the tourism industry recovers, the simulated world allows users to witness foreign destinations. In Google Earth VR, you acquire the freedom to visit any destination. Whether the Colosseum or the Great Wall of China, you may fly anywhere and stand at invigorating peaks. Would you like to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night? The Google Arts & Culture VR features content from over 2000 museums.

Perhaps you need to move, but fear visiting houses. Real estate agents began relying on VR to preview rooms for potential buyers. In the Chinese startup Beike, 4 million houses are available on the VR platform with over 660 million viewings. In interactive visits, users choose where to maneuver in a property by pressing on hotspots that augment the user’s field of view.

Moreover, individuals attain the spectacular power to interact with each other in shared virtual worlds. In the first Educators in VR Summit that occurred in Microsoft’s AltspaceVR, 170 speakers spoke about the future of tech and schooling for over six days. During the free global event, attendees playfully interacted and communicated with each other’s avatars.

“The Educators in VR summit was an amazing community-driven effort to showcase what that could look like,” said Katie Kelly, Program Owner at AltspaceVR. “I did a rough estimate and factoring in the travel time and CO2e estimates that would have been spent. This summit took about 9 thousand cars off the road for the week of the summit and saved attendees around 5 million miles of travel.”

Not all VR trends are doomful. In 2018, sales of VR headsets reached around seven million units. By 2023, forecasts project massive growth with over 30 million units per year by 2023.

While a strength of VR is the global ability to connect, a consumer requires a headset, computer, and fast internet connection. Therefore, the field remains small. Even though events in the entertainment and cultural realms are growing, they still lack touch and smell. VR is not a solution to social distancing, but rather a pillar of hope for trapped users who desire connection to the outside realm.

Despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the lockdown, technology enhances our environment. Transformative applications are filling newfound gaps. We are leaning towards the ethereal, carving the success of the turbulent industry.

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