Virtual reality in the time of COVID-19
April 15, 2020
April 15, 2020
Virtualizing: time spent working, interacting, playing or communicating in virtual reality environments (aka simulated 3D digital worlds)
In early March I realized most employees, including myself, would not be returning to the office for a long time, nor would we be leaving our homes for a while. I can't say that I was ready for a total lock-down and the extremity of our current situation. However, it became clear that if I was fortunate enough to stay healthy and be working through these difficult times, I could get started on a long-overdue work plan. As the strategy leader of an immersive team, I realized now was the time to put virtual reality (VR) to the true test for myself, our group, our company and our clients.
I asked my team to purchase Oculus Quest headsets so we could start connecting virtually on a regular basis from our individual homes. Until now, my team had not relied heavily on VR for group collaboration or meetups because it was easier and more productive to meet in person. The best applications of VR for our clients have been in the area of immersive learning and training – specific use cases tailored to certain tasks or situations, rather than integrating VR into daily life.
Now that we need to stay home, can VR close the gap of distance between all of us? Can it help recreate human physical connection? What about VR’s role in helping us to stay active when so much is now on hold? While this technology cannot immediately solve the pain and suffering of so many people, opportunities definitely exist to enhance the everyday experience of collaboration and communication.
With this additional push to embrace emerging technology, my considerations deepened: Will I start using VR meetups to connect with co-workers that I could also easily message online or video conference? Or will I finally pick up my VR headset and visit destinations around the world, like an exotic beach or museum? Will I finally start exercising in VR to such an extent that I sweat within the headset and feel endorphin rushes?
Well, here I am over 3 weeks into 'virtualizing' and the answer is a resounding – yes! In our bi-weekly VR team meetings (using Microsoft’s Altspace VR, among other social VR apps), the group energy and sense of camaraderie are better than with any other mode of communication. We are still figuring out how to share slides or move around into different rooms or worlds, but there is a 'we are in this together’ sense that we’re all craving during a time of isolation. The social proximity, closeness and empowerment of moving through three-dimensional space in VR is quite special. I’ve also found it’s almost impossible to multitask in VR. On video conferences, you can be visually present while sending emails and even watching TV; within VR, your virtual avatar would likely betray your actions.
As I anticipated and hoped, many of our clients are now also asking about how to use ‘virtual’ for their events or conferences that were canceled or postponed, or for new product launches, sales enablement or employee collaborations. With all stores closed and sales representatives at home, brands still need to reach their customers. Just six months ago virtual reality shopping for an automobile was not something most people considered when they could visit the dealership to test drive a new car. Today, if you are looking to purchase a new car, the idea of customizing and visualizing a realistic car in virtual reality seems plausible – even practical – and valuable for shoppers social distancing.
For the clients who are ready to go beyond video and 2D content to either augment or replace current communications, there is no time like the present to start developing a plan of action. During these times of constraint, it is the open-minded and resourceful approaches that can solve best for human and business needs. Although we will eventually return to offices and in-person meetings, our behaviors and norms will have changed; travel might not be as frequent and remote workers and virtual businesses may prove even more valuable. Virtual communications bring zero travel costs with global scale and reach, resulting in a lower impact on the environment.
The benefits of virtual reality extend to the transformative nature of the medium, which physically and mentally transports users to a different environment beyond their own surroundings. Everyone (and I hope anyone who reads this is safe and well) who has been trapped at home for the last few weeks can appreciate freedom of movement. Whether for a business meeting or a ping pong game, VR provides a portal to a different experience, which is priceless during these times of isolation.