COVID-19 & Tech: VR/AR

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


Despite the lockdowns, quarantines, and closures, the technologies of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) (previously highlighted in my HHH blog post series) have not been placed on the backburner during the pandemic.

Three areas where we use VR/AR more are to help us with our shopping, to encourage social distancing (while alleviating us of boredom), and to attend live concerts socially.


RETAIL & AR

When brick-and-mortar retail locations were closed and completely inaccessible, it meant browsing and shopping had to be done online. Retailers who deployed AR to assist shoppers benefitted from a 19% spike in customer engagement with customers becoming 90% more likely to buy when engaging with AR versus those that didn’t.  (Source: Vertebrae). 

Why this sudden love for AR? There are a few reasons. Shoppers need to make more considerations before making purchases, and as they can’t go to the store and actually check out the merchandise themselves in person, they are more amenable to things like 3D & AR to answer their questions and give them the info and confidence they need to buy. It helps that most are using their mobile devices to shop, rather than their workplace computers as they would have before, as AR is designed for mobile; for example, you move your smartphone camera around and see products superimposed within your home – something impossible to do with your computer at work.  When you’re already stuck at home while shopping, you might as well directly use your immediate living space to help you make the decision. And retailers have begun to notice. Recently, Etsy launched an AR app for iOS for the first time, allowing shoppers to preview potential art on the walls of their home.

Photo of a smartphone  pointing at a blank wall; the screen shows a work of art from Etsy appearing as if on the wall

SOCIAL DISTANCING & AR

Existing AR games like the massively popular Pokemon Go pivoted completely as soon as the pandemic arrived in the U.S. They changed their game mechanics to support and encourage social distancing. For example, more monsters were programmed to show up near the player’s house, competitions that used to require being near other players could now be played remotely, and anything in the game that pushed the player to travel out in the world and engage with other places (normally one of the mainstays of the game) was removed.  

Promotional image of "Pokémon Go Fest 2020" showing a photo of someone's backyard and cartoon Pokémon characters appearing. I have added a bunch of silly speech bubbles to make the charcaters ay, "Wash your hands!", "Avoid other humans", "Please don't leave your backyard!" and "Stay safe!"

As a piece of entertainment, Pokemon Go is designed as a diversion for its players, a way of gamifying the real world. As part of the fun, it encouraged players to interact with the environments around them in new ways (spotting, battling, and collecting monsters). So it’s interesting that the game adapted to the real world circumstances that prohibited people from interacting with their spaces in the same way as before. In fact, they actively performed the positive role of encouraging the same environmental interactions towards safety.


LIVE CONCERTS & VR

As a result of COVID-19, any kind of location-based entertainment had to be shuttered, and it’s taking time for many to reopen for attendees to visit again.  Live concerts are one thing that’s been able to continue in a new form via Virtual Reality.

One popular social VR venue, The Wave, recently announced partnerships with Warner Music Group and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to produce concerts with their rosters of talent—a clear sign the music industry has embraced this technology. Virtual, live-streamed entertainment have actually become a new source of income for musicians and their labels. It’s cheap for the audience to attend, and the artist stands to make a lot more money than the traditional, in-person shows.

Animation showing a violinist in a motion capture suit performing live as a virtual avatar performs for a audience during a VR concert.

Besides the three examples above, AR/VR technology can help us in other ways during this time. As XR researcher and author Helen Papagiannis recently described:

  • It brings the outside world in (for example, take a virtual vacation tour of a famous landmark or distant location).
  • It helps us transform our immediate surroundings into totally new spaces that help us with learning, work and entertainment. You can use AR to make your living room function as your office.
  • It helps people feel less isolated in their homes – either with actual people via social chat and meeting programs, or by interacting with virtual humans.
  • It can educate and inform about the pandemic, helping us understand how it works and its impact. We’ve seen VR/AR projects that help people visualize the effects of climate change and air pollution (link forthcoming). Imagine experiences that show us how the virus spread and was contained, or the impact of nationwide lockdowns on the environment, for example.

THE FUTURE:

Here are three things to look forward to with regard to AR/VR:

Photo showing a man wearing Facebook's proof-of-concept AR glasses that resemble sunglasses.

1) We’re not done yet with innovations in this area. Just last week, Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) showed off a proof-of-concept pair of AR goggles that look like a compact sunglasses. No more big, blocky boxes strapped to the front of our faces. The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.

Animation of a man pointing to his sunglasses while singing. The lyrics "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades" are superimposed.

2) If you’re getting tired of working at home, staring at your flat computer screen for hours on end, and attending all those work meetings on Zoom, you can look forward to VR providing you your collaborative workplace some day soon. Products like Rumii give us a chance to ditch our webcams and escape our distracting home environments. The idea is we’ll feel like we’re immersively inhabiting an office space with our co-workers. Plus, it will facilitate social distance and safety if necessary.

3) And lastly, coming soon, XR Libraries has used their recent experience of running an Emergency Workers POP-UP Childcare Center to develop socially distanced protocols for cleaning and use of XR. These new safety guidelines will allow libraries to continue providing XR (Extended Reality) experiences for their patrons.

Image showing an senior citizen using VR to view the pyramids. She's wearing a face mask and gloves.

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