March 10, 2020 – It has been dominating the headlines since January and with new cases continuing to emerge across the globe daily, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 is starting to become a real issue – not only for governments, but for millions of businesses and individuals around the world who are now facing the prospect of cancelled travel plans, changes to working arrangements and even the possibility of self-imposed isolation and quarantine. Needless to say, fear seems to have set in for many, which has created a shortage in supply of face masks and hand sanitizer, as well as shortages of essential items such as toilet roll due to panic buying, and has seen financial markets take a hit as a result of economic uncertainty caused by the virus.
For the tech sector, we have seen the cancellation of some of the world’s most popular conferences, with Mobile World Congress in Barcelona announcing in February that it will not be going ahead this year as a result of the coronavirus, and Facebook also cancelling its F8 developer conference. With no end in sight to the current outbreak, who knows if many more conferences and events will follow suit.
So where does extended reality (XR) technology come into all of this..? Well, depending on what kind of business you operate, the technology could very well solve many of the issues that companies are currently faced with as a result of the ongoing outbreak. The main problem being the congregation and gathering of people in the same place, which could aid the spread of COVID-19. Since the virus is thought to spread primarily as a result of human-to-human contact, one of the first decisions businesses are having to make is whether or not they will be asking their employees to come in to work in a physical office space, or stay at home instead. This is not so much of an issue if your employees can access company servers whilst working remotely, but what about if your business requires physical presence for collaboration? Say for example, an architecture firm, or design studio, which accomplish many tasks through real-time collaborative input from multiple stakeholders. If staff can’t meet physically, then options are limited. This is where technology such as virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) comes into its own.
There are several offerings today that cater specifically to business and enterprise that provide a multi-user virtual or mixed reality experience that allows for real-time collaboration between staff members. Entire teams can connect in a VR or MR workspace and collaborate on projects, without having to ever set foot in the same room, or even the same time zone for that matter. By holding virtual meetings, employees are able to continue to work together in the same way, only they don’t need to put themselves or others at potential risk of exposure to a virus by being physically sat next to one another for hours at a time.
What about if your business hinges around having expert knowledge on-site? Say for example, in the construction or utilities sector, where experts and key knowledge-keepers are sometimes the only ones able to conduct complex tasks. Well, with augmented reality (AR) and remote assist, anyone can complete the task on site, and an expert can be on hand to instruct and guide another worker through the process. Several companies offer AR solutions that allow subject matter experts to monitor tasks and progress through a ‘see what I see’ device, often in the form of smart glasses, or a clip on camera and heads up display combo. No experts willing to go to site? No problem – send someone else along to do the physical work, and the expert can guide them through whatever tasks need doing from start to finish, completely remotely.
It’s not only businesses that face difficult decisions when it comes to handling this sort of outbreak though. Schools and universities are essentially daily gathering sites for classrooms full of students sat in a confined area for (what probably seems like it to the students) a long period of time. How can schools mitigate the disruption to teaching and exam schedules? Why, the virtual classroom, of course. Education is a massive market for VR, and several companies are creating entire curriculums built for VR learning. Potential pandemic aside, VR education is actually a great way to help engage students in an immersive environment where they can learn by doing (virtually). For example, rather than dissecting pigs hearts or frogs in real life, which for some students can be a stressful and possibly nauseating experience, instead, schools can use virtual reality to deliver the same lesson, without any of the downsides (i.e. cleaning up, or the risk of having a classroom full of students running around with scalpels).
Still, it is all well and good suggesting how XR technologies can assist from a business continuity standpoint in the event of an outbreak such as what has been seen with this current coronavirus, but how does it help those people who are already in the thick of things and are actually either currently in quarantine, or even worse, infected with the virus right now? Well, the answer to that is fairly obvious. If you are in quarantine, whether self-imposed or otherwise, 14 days (or however long the quarantine period is) can feel like a long time to be stuck in the same place. The amazing thing about something like virtual reality is that it can help to transport you to somewhere completely different, from the comfort of your own home.
Stuck on a cruise ship in an indoor cabin with no windows? No problem! Put on a VR headset, and you’re able to dive underwater and escape a sinking research ship in a VR gaming experience (although you might rethink your choice of game content whilst on an actual ship). VR even raises the question of whether or not you even needed to go on a cruise at all, as you can pretty much travel to anywhere you’d like in virtual reality thanks to things like Google Earth VR. Plus, tourist attractions such as museums and art galleries are starting to produce and curate virtual versions of their collections, thus creating entire tours in VR and allowing guests to see and experience exhibitions without having to actually go anywhere.
Live sports and concerts also have their own VR solutions. Companies like NextVR regularly show NBA basketball games from a courtside view live in VR, and more and more concerts are being live streamed in VR by the artists themselves.
What if you are one of the unfortunate ones who already has caught the virus, and are in quarantine whilst trying to recover..? Hopefully symptoms are not worst-case, in which case, VR can help aid with the recovery process and keep you distracted from some of the side-effects. Virtual reality is being used more and more in the recovery and rehabilitation process for those with various illnesses (both physical and mental), with some healthcare providers now running entire trials and programs that focus on utilizing the technology as a means of treatment.
Furthermore, even if an individual is suffering symptoms that mean they are hospitalized, there is also the fact that healthcare professionals themselves can benefit from XR technology. Augmented and mixed reality is increasingly being used in operating theatres to assist with complex surgeries, and whether it is to overlay an x-ray on to a patient’s body, or to aid with pre-operative planning, the technology serves an assistive role to aid healthcare workers to work more safely and efficiently, as well as to help minimize patient morbidity and mortality.
This isn’t to say that everyone should rush out and buy VR headsets as quickly as they are buying toilet paper, but, in terms of planning and preparing for the next (and probably almost inevitable) future scenario similar to this current COVID-19 outbreak, extended reality technology definitely has a lot to offer and is worth considering for businesses, institutions, and individuals alike.
Image credit: Auganix
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About the author
Sam is the Founder and Managing Editor of Auganix. With a background in research and report writing, he has been covering XR industry news for the past five years.