Alternate Realities can learn from COVID-19

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Rumi Mitra


Rumi is an MBA2021 from the US with experience in designing and programming AR/VR apps for creative studios and R&D departments at Fortune 500 companies. She has an engineering master’s degree in computer graphics and gaming technology and is passionate about the world of creative tech and storytelling.

COVID-19 upended industries and human interactions. Above the din of how to “survive” remote life, from working at home to countless Zoom cocktail hours, some whispered that this was finally XR’s (an umbrella term for augmented, virtual and mixed reality) moment to prove itself. Though XR has not been adopted very successfully beyond gaming, envisioning how XR could have solved COVID-19’s challenges may focus future efforts to advance this technology that, for years, seemed only possible in science fiction.

Our thought experiment is funneled through 3 key questions: 1) What industries across the globe needed the most help during COVID-19? 2) Of these, which were best suited to XR solutions? and 3) What advances does XR need to boost adoption?

What industries across the globe needed the most help during COVID-19? 

Education, healthcare, retail, dining, travel, beauty, manufacturing, and the performing arts were hit hard by social distancing. However, digitally-savvy companies (ex. those with robust e-commerce platforms) fared better than those without them. For example, Nike’s long-building investments in digital sales, coupled with COVID-19 and the switch to online shopping, helped it reach its e-commerce goals three years earlier and outperform rivals.  XR could be the next frontier; if it was pervasive, it may have saved other industries in similar ways.


Which industries are best suited to XR solutions?

Within the industries mentioned above, we should focus on use cases that benefit from XR’s unique technology, such as immersive experiences (ex. to prevent distractions, create realistic situations, or train), digital information overlays on the real world (ex. try-before-you-buy, location-based digital overlays), or remote guidance. In addition, experiences that are focused on sight and sound, versus taste, smell, or feel, should be the priority. 

We would also have to determine whether AR, or augmented reality (digital overlays on the real world) would be a better choice than VR, or virtual reality (a completely immersive, simulated experience). This choice is based not only on the use case, but also on the audience, where accessibility (deploying the experience on phones or tablets versus a headset) may be important. 

Given these considerations, retail, healthcare, and education appear to be natural fits for XR solutions. Others, such as remote travel, lack the full sensory experience that’s so important in the real version. However, solutions such as immersive therapy or surgery training in VR to trying clothes, jewelry, or makeup in AR before buying, could have stabilized industries during the pandemic. Additionally, school-aged children could have benefitted from interactive learning versus Zoom learning, which, as we all know, pales in comparison to in-person teaching.

What advances does XR need to boost adoption?

1) Graphics Processing: VR frame rates (an important feature for creating a persistent digital reality) have improved, but graphics processing is still hardware-intensive, meaning improvements in 5G and cloud computing will help to reduce the bulkiness of VR devices without sacrificing simulation quality. 

2) Developer & Maintenance Tools: Out-of-the box game engines (such as Unity 3D, Unreal) that XR programmers use to create experiences cannot be easily integrated with enterprise security protocols, leading many XR experiences to be limited to the R&D departments of Fortune 1000 companies. Furthermore, because the technology evolves so rapidly, companies have a hard time maintaining, updating, and scaling XR experiences without a team of skilled XR developers on-site, leading many to only use the technology for one-off branding or marketing demonstrations.

3) UX: VR controllers and learning gestures for AR or mixed reality glasses are not intuitive for most consumers, requiring practice and patience. 

4) Content: Though VR headset prices have fallen in recent years (Oculus Quest 2 has a starting price of $299), justifying the expense is difficult without a library of compelling content. While new VR games have met with rave reviews, the motivation is low outside the gaming world. XR experiences that prove utility (such as cost savings, faster learning times) are important to furthering adoption.

5) Governance & Security: Data privacy, thought manipulation, and long-term physical effects are just some of the governance issues that the industry will have to navigate and regulate in the coming years. With consumer privacy and manipulation concerns being especially forefront, the XR industry will have to assure consumers of its commitment to safety and privacy. 

There’s a lot of room for improvement, but each of these problems is being tackled within the industry. With the right focus, XR can expand in the eyes of a consumer from an entertainment medium to a practical tool. While we may not reach Ready Player One level in the next 5 years, we can, to borrow from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, strive for advancing a technology that is “indistinguishable from magic.”