Covid-19 and the acceleration of extended reality

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is having a major impact on the world economy, it is in many ways fuelling a new acceleration in the development and commercialisation of digital/extended reality technologies (‘DxR’). This technology offers a means of social interaction with reduced human-to-human contact, a particularly relevant concern in the current climate, and interest in the potential applications of such systems is spiking.

Not only are the home working population using DxR headsets to play video games, explore virtual travel destinations and partake in online entertainment, they’re seeking human interaction through social VR platforms such as Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Bigscreen and VRChat.

Businesses are also experimenting with DxR platforms to train employees, hold conferences, collaborate on projects and connect employees virtually. For example, scientists worldwide have turned to Nanome, a VR software platform for molecular design, to collaborate on coronavirus research and potential treatments. There are also several start-ups racing to be first to market with DxR based medical training systems and seminars, with workers in the health industry having an obvious and timely incentive to social distance themselves from their colleagues where-ever possible.

VR headset maker HTC held its first virtual “VIVE Ecosystem Conference” in March, entirely in VR. The event drew 2,000 registrants from more than 55 countries, marking the first physical industry event that was fully hosted under such a medium.

“Prior to this virus pandemic, the mindset of many people is that XR is a nice-to-have technology,” the company said in a press release. “Post-outbreak, the benefits of XR to overcome the physical barriers between people could make it a must-have technology over time. … Working-from-home, distance learning, home-based fitness, immersive entertainment and networked social interactivity will all be part of the new normal in our lives and made more agreeable if more users could adopt XR technologies.”

DxR is also finding its way into other medical settings, such as helping hospital patients facing extended periods of isolation. XRHealth, a US-based provider of therapeutic VR applications, announced in March that it would provide VR-based telehealth services to Israel’s Sheba Medical Center to treat quarantined coronavirus patients. The project will include headsets that collect patient data and enable patients to take virtual tours of various destinations. Eran Orr, CEO of XRHealth, said: “The ability to strap on a headset, lay back, relax and virtually visit any location they want will help patients to remain connected with the world and cope with feelings of isolation while being quarantined.”

As this crisis continues, it seems entirely plausible to suggest that DxR technologies will continue to provide evolving, innovative solutions for social engagement, entertainment and training, helping to provide a level of interaction and accessibility that simply isn’t achievable with current video conferencing systems.