Virtual Reality in 2020: How Life Went Virtual During the Pandemic
When you hear the term ‘virtual reality,’ maybe you reflexively conjure the image of a casual VR user sporting a headset and gripping a game controller, fumbling around an arcade or living room. In the near future, however, as the use cases for VR flourish, we’re bound to see that visual of what constitutes a ‘typical VR user’ or an ‘average VR experience’ fall by the wayside. Virtual reality technology has been on the market for a while now, sure, but nothing has solidified its value and relevance to numerous dimensions of everyday life like the new reality of our lives under lockdown following the COVID-19 pandemic.
VR startups have been selling headsets and developing new apps, games, and experiences for the past several years. Still, a number of factors have slowed the medium’s adoption by the greater public. For one, the headsets are costly for the average consumer. One typically needs a smartphone or PC to run the applications on, as well as high-speed internet to enable the seamless, immersive experiences that truly make VR worth all the hassle. According to technology research firm Omdia, only 26 million consumer headsets are owned globally.
However, any uncertainties surrounding the medium’s ability to catch on have begun to subside with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting stay-at-home guidelines. With unprecedented amounts of people cooped up indoors, suddenly stripped of many fundamental aspects of their regular lives—like traveling or going to concerts with friends—those who had priorly viewed VR as a medium reserved for gamers are now donning headsets to make up for the activities they can’t do under lockdown, or to gain a much-needed change of scenery from beyond the four walls where they spend most of their time.
Experts don’t anticipate that this year’s increased interest in VR will be left behind in 2020, either. Over the past few years, a range of new applications for VR that go beyond gaming and entertainment have begun to take hold, and now they promise to revolutionize the way some industries operate. From travel, to architecture, to ecommerce, a slew of new sectors were already hard at work integrating VR into their everyday practices—something that the global pandemic has only accelerated. Now, here we are.
Virtual Reality Has Taken Off Under Lockdown
Lockdown has forced us to get creative about how we communicate with one another. Certain connective technologies became essential aspects of our lives in what feels like overnight, from video conferencing software like Skype and Zoom being used for everything from college lectures to collaborating on projects remotely, to the range of new technologies being developed in an attempt to recreate the feeling of interacting with others face to face.
The virtual reality startup Spatial, which bills itself as “Zoom meets Slack,” takes a user’s photo and turns it into a holographic avatar that can collaborate with other teammates’ avatars in a virtual workspace. Since lockdown guidelines were implemented in March 2020, the startup has reportedly experienced a 1,000% percent surge in usage. Then there’s argodesign’s new concept ‘the Square,’ which uses an LCD screen equipped with four cameras to produce a 3D image, as opposed to a flat screen, of the person standing in front of it. It tracks your gaze as you look around the screen to create an illusion of depth.
The sole purpose of virtual reality shouldn’t simply be to enable us to collaborate as if we’re close together in an office or classroom, even when we’re all isolated in our own abodes. “The environment around us matters,” writes Forbes, underscoring the fact that COVID-19 has made clear that “there has never been a greater need for technologies that can help us enhance limited physical environments.”
Gaming and entertainment, the segment of the virtual reality market that was the most profitable before the onset of COVID-19, has continued to pick up speed—but in addition to fast-paced video games, it’s being harnessed for more leisurely experiences, too. Virtual reality can transport you from the humdrum landscape of your living room to visually arresting environments like Mount Everest, with Everest VR: Journey to the Top of the World, or a series of serene outdoor settings which you’re able to journey through at your own pace, as in Nature Treks VR.
Beyond delivering us to the peak of the world’s highest mountain, developers have stepped in to craft immersive environments that simulate some of the most cherished everyday experiences that we haven’t been able to take part in since the pandemic struck. British VR company vTime partnered with City Football Group to offer users the chance to watch sports from a pub setting alongside friends. Bigscreen VR also enables users to commune with friends, but this time it’s to play games, hang out, and watch movies and live events from an actual virtual movie theater.
Virtual and Augmented Reality for Businesses
Virtual reality isn’t just the next big consumer trend. In fact, in the not-so-distant future, the technology may prove to be even more valuable in a variety of professional contexts. According to Forbes, “enterprises are adopting VR twice as fast as consumers,” and with travel greatly diminished and on-site work facing heightened restrictions, the ability to simulate an environment or action using little more than a headset is only increasing VR’s benefits for work. Based on a report published by ARtillery Intelligence, the use of VR within businesses is anticipated to grow from $829 million in 2018 to $4.26 billion in 2023.
The same goes for the increased use of augmented reality for corporate purposes. Augmented reality is being wielded for flexible on-the-job training, work meetings, and customer service. In the 2020 XR Industry Insight report, a survey of AR companies showed that only 37% are developing products and software for consumers, while “65% of the AR companies surveyed said they are working on industrial applications.”
In 2019, about $19 billion was spent on virtual and augmented reality products, and an extensive portion of this spend is attributed to the healthcare, automotive manufacturing, and education industries. To underline this shift, a PwC report from 2019 forecasted that “nearly 23.5 million jobs worldwide would be using AR and VR by 2030 for training, work meetings or to provide customer service.”
With virtual reality so decisively picking up steam and stepping in to fill the gaps created by lockdown, there should be no question that VR is going to prove to be a beneficial utility well into the future.
Here are eight different industries that are taking advantage of VR’s capabilities. Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are gradually reinventing the workflows of many of these sectors, and can potentially leave an enduring imprint on the way we experience our world.
8 Industries Being Revolutionized by Virtual Reality
Travel and Tourism
The pandemic dealt the tourism industry a pretty harsh blow. Without the opportunity to travel, many are turning to their headsets to simulate the experience of getting out of the house, whether that’s simply to calm down during a tranquil walk through a forest, or to meet up with friends for a virtual movie screening.
However, Norm Rose, a senior technology analyst with Phocuswright, sees the potential for virtual reality to help travelers plan vacations and research destinations that they want to visit once the pandemic has subsided: “VR can help people plan an actual vacation,” explains Rose.
Companies that have similarly tapped into this opportunity include VResorts, an online travel agency that creates virtual tours of hotels and resorts that VR users can experience in 360 degrees while determining where they would like to book a stay. “The next phase in travel booking,” says Romain Baron, chief marketing officer for VResorts, “is the VR phase. Early adopters will want VR as a kind of proof before booking somewhere, similar to how we use online reviews for proof today.”
QuaQua and Sygic Travel are two other companies that offer virtual tours of popular travel destinations, while SkyLights and Inflight VR both have a stake in the travel industry by providing VR headsets stocked with a library of in-flight entertainment for passengers to enjoy while flying from one destination to the next.
Events and Conferences
This year saw conference after conference forced to cancel or postpone due to pandemic-related travel restrictions and distancing guidelines. Yet a few of these conferences were miraculously still able to go ahead thanks to the capabilities of virtual reality. For example, HTC, maker of the VIVE headset, decided to stream its Virtual VIVE Ecosystem Conference in virtual reality this year. A whopping 1.1 million people viewed the livestream.
Another event that pivoted to virtual reality in the nick of time was a conference held by the Laval Virtual Center, a hub for immersive technology in the French town of Laval. The virtual event, dubbed “Laval Virtual World,” spanned three days, featured 150 speakers, and amassed over 10,000 virtual attendees. Laval Virtual World turned to virtual software company VirBELA to host the conference, which allowed attendees to embody avatars in an environment that replicated the conference experience, complete with an auditorium where presentations took place, as well as a picturesque outdoor mingling space.
While a number of educational institutions rapidly transitioned to online instruction this spring, returning to campus is a reality for many students. At the same time, touring a series of potential college campuses isn’t the easiest activity for a would-be freshman, even without the pressure of a pandemic.
YouVisit is a service that provides virtual reality tours of several major college campuses in the United States, enabling students to immerse themselves within the environment where they may be spending the next four-odd years of their life. It’s a helpful tool under any circumstances, but it’s grown even more valuable in the wake of the pandemic’s travel restrictions.
Workplace training may never be the same after virtual reality. Training programs conducted through VR are providing all sorts of unprecedented ways to align large volumes of employees across remote distances, and simulating on-the-job scenarios that could never be experienced before virtual reality came along.
One company that has really seized the potential of VR for workplace training is Strivr, which “offers modules for training employees to do everything from treating customers with empathy to dealing with an armed robbery in the workplace.” Walmart is one of the largest corporations that uses Strivr for all of their training, with more than 17,000 headsets distributed to their employees. Other growing use cases for virtual reality training include flight simulators for pilots in-training, and automotive manufacturers working with 3D models.
In many lines of work, theoretical training just won’t cut it, and that’s why virtual reality can assist in providing experiential training that can receive constant updates to keep up with evolving technology. Automakers such as Volkswagen, BMW, and Audi have implemented VR simulations for employee collaboration, vehicle assembling training, and virtual prototyping.
Designing and constructing new buildings is costly and requires rigorous planning. IrisVR is an innovative company that allows teams working in architecture, construction, and engineering to build 3D models and experience spaces with real depth before they’ve even been built.
Matterport is another game-changing company that captures interior spaces in immersive 3D. Its technology is useful for a variety of applications, including photographing and tagging retail spaces for ecommerce, 3D photography for the likes of Google Maps, and the aforementioned vacation planning. But one of Matterport’s primary uses has actually been to bring real estate to life in 3D, and many brokerages have been eager to adopt it. With a feature that enables users to trace and measure the dimensions of a space, Matterport makes it convenient to take an in-depth tour through a prospective living space without the need to leave your own.
While online shopping feels like it’s been around as long as the internet has, virtual shopping is a particular trend that may really take off under lockdown. Ecommerce retailer Obsess developed a number of virtual stores that users can browse to discover clothing items off of a rack, just like they would were they actually wandering through a physical store. The immersive shopping experience engages customers, and for those who enjoy shopping more as a hobby than a means to an end, virtual showrooms may just be the next big thing.
The ecommerce platform Shopify enables its vendors to craft their online stores using AR and VR. With Shopify AR, customers can interact with 3D models of products they’re considering purchasing by rotating them, zooming in on their details, and even using augmented reality to visualize the product in their home through their smartphone camera. According to Shopify’s data, “shoppers are 2.5x more likely to convert when interacting with 3D models.”
Arts and Culture
In the wake of the pandemic, the majority of spaces where people normally seek communal cultural experiences closed their doors, and bingeing streaming content from home became the go-to cultural pastime. If you’re somebody who preferred to visit museums and other cultural institutions, you may have initially assumed that you were out of luck. But that doesn’t exactly have to be the case.
Google Arts & Culture, which launched in 2011, offers a number of virtual reality tours of everything from James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, to the ancient ruins of Sicily’s Valle Dei Templi.
There’s also the award-winning Met 360 Project, which invites users to explore various exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 360 degrees. Since lockdown began, its digital team witnessed “a 4,106% growth in streaming viewership, with YouTube video views up 150%, and both socials and the website experiencing significant increases in engagement.”
When Art Basel canceled its Hong Kong rendition earlier in the year, the annual art fair debuted a virtual replacement featuring online viewing rooms, 234 galleries, and a total of 2,100 works. “Online exhibitions can do things that brick-and-mortar exhibitions can’t,” explains Lucas Zwirner of David Zwirner Gallery. “They can embed videos, longer excerpts of art-historically relevant material, and artist-created content.”
With the temporary closure of gyms, most people’s personal living space automatically began to double as their exercise space. For those who feel more motivated to exercise when they’re removed from the same setting where they also live and work, the fitness training app Supernatural is a godsend.
Released by VR studio Within, Supernatural allows users to wear their headset and work out immersed in awe-inspiring locations with world-class trainers and uplifting pump-up music. The best part about Supernatural is that it can transform any old workout room into a beautiful backdrop that even beats heading to the local gym. If VR fitness catches on, the possibilities it harbors for the future of exercise are pretty unlimited.
Finding the Right Voice for Your Virtual Reality Project
Virtual reality is an immersive medium that primarily relies on its visual nature to transport its users to new, engrossing environments. For this reason, some VR developers and filmmakers underestimate the importance of sound in generating a wholly immersive experience.
Since virtual reality spans so many industries, selecting the right voice will be dependent on the type of project you’re producing. The most sought-after qualities in a voice actor for video games include animated, aggressive, authentic, charismatic, and authoritative vocal styles. However, if your immersive experience is more intended for educational purposes, then seeking out an articulate, educational, conversational, friendly, or informative style of voice over will likely set you up for greater success.
Virtual reality is evolving the way we experience the world, and as the medium hurtles on into the future, your brand might as well climb aboard for the ride. Find the perfect voice for your virtual reality or augmented reality project today.