May 13, 2020 - Technology

The next pandemic could be VR’s moment

An illustration of lights shining on a VR headset.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Many have pointed out that, as hard as the pandemic is, it would have been much harder 10 or 15 years ago, without today's high-speed internet connections, multiple streaming services, and apps like Zoom, Slack and Google Classroom.

Yes, but: Another way to look at this is that in just a few years, the experience of sheltering in place might be way better, once augmented and virtual reality become mainstream.

Here's how a more mature VR environment could make our time apart more meaningful:

The virtual office could look a lot more like a traditional office, with face-to-face interactions using realistic avatars and facial expressions, as well as better group interactions.

Education is struggling mightily to meet the challenge of the moment. For many, especially younger students, a series of back-to-back Zoom meetings is not a reasonable replacement for the classroom.

  • A headset wouldn't solve everything, but it might be more compelling to learn about dinosaurs with a 3D roaring animation than a PowerPoint presentation. While VR has a lot of potential in this space, today's headsets aren't recommended for pre-teens and younger children. And like any technology, it will only work for school if all kids have access.
  • Presumably these hurdles could be overcome as the technology matures.

A sense of physical proximity to each other could be better replicated by more sophisticated VR than what’s currently on the market. One of the hardest parts of the pandemic is being physically distant from people we care about.

  • A clunky avatar, though, probably isn't much more compelling than a stable video chat.
  • Both the technology and the interfaces will have to make a lot of progress to make a meaningful difference.

Be smart: While the technology isn't ready to be a savior during this pandemic, its obvious future utility may help the industry figure out where to put its energies.

Between the lines: Many big players have long seen the promise of this space, but have also been measured in their investment, recognizing the technology wasn't yet ready for mass adoption.

  • That's why Microsoft's HoloLens remains largely in the hands of developers, for example, and probably why Apple has yet to introduce any of its long-rumored products.

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