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Why virtual reality will be a must-have for our socially distanced future

Picture this: After a long day of work, you walk to your favorite bar and slide into the corner booth where your friends are waiting. Or, you and a coworker take an afternoon stroll down a busy street in the summer sun while talking about a new project. 

Thanks to the coronavirus, this may seem impossible. But it’s not. 

Forget happy hours, dance parties, and distance learning over video conferencing apps — where everyone is two dimensional and talking over each other: Virtual reality may just be the new Zoom

Self-isolating consumers looking for an alternative to flat screens have found that VR headsets are a way to stay connected with family and add a new dimension to working from home. VR manufacturers have seen huge spikes in headset sales in the last six weeks, some selling out completely, while chatrooms on multiplayer social VR platforms are filled with avatars around the clock.

Joanna Popper, the global head of virtual reality entertainment for HP, said the huge uptick in video conferencing platforms like Zoom also extends to virtual reality.

“Our point of view at HP is that VR collaboration is part of the immersive computing future,” Popper told Digital Trends. “And right now that is accelerating faster than ever.”

HP partners with dozens of companies looking to use its VR technology to train their workforce remotely during the pandemic — and potentially after, too. Popper said industries like medicine, engineering, architecture, product design, real estate, and education have expressed an increased interest in VR not only because it can be essential for hands-on collaboration, but for visualization. 

HTC Vive Pro Eye virtual reality headset
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“When you are learning in VR, you actually have the experience of doing, opposed to just someone talking to you,” she said. Popper added that HP has seen a 90% retention rate after training its own printer technicians with VR. 

And though VR can seem inaccessible to those who aren’t tech-savvy, Popper believes the coronavirus may have pushed immersive tech forward in a way that hasn’t happened since headsets first hit the scene.

“The way that I look at it is that we believed this trend was coming, but no one’s business plan was contingent on a pandemic,” Popper said. “We see VR as this next way of computing, and there are pockets of location-based enterprises that have been the first movers, and the interest is being accelerated.”

Not just a novelty

Nick Savarese — a producer for Normal VR, which makes the multiplayer game Half + Half, available on Oculus Quest and Rift — sees the same VR future.

“When you are in VR with another person, even if they are not in the same room, there is something about sharing the virtual space with someone that lights up the entire experience,” he said.

Savarese said having a set narrative in VR helps move conversations along and makes collaboration easier.

Half + Half offers a handful of activities and virtual spaces where participants can float in an endless ocean, play hide and seek, bounce a ball back and forth, or fly around the sky with friends or strangers. And unlike Zoom, you never have to interact with an image of yourself — only an avatar. 

The number of online users has doubled on Half + Half since the pandemic began, according to Savarese. Normal VR has also been fielding many more inquiries from interested companies about its services.

But for some, there is still a barrier.

“People feel like VR isn’t for them,” he said. “It’s been heavily marketed to the hardcore gamer market.”

Half+Half Swim Normal VR
Normal VR

Most headsets nowadays, like Oculus, don’t need a high-processing PC to work. Sets typically start in the three-figure range, are lightweight, cordless, and can be used from just about anywhere and thrown in a backpack. So if you, your friends, or your workplace are looking for a Zoom alternative where visualization is at the forefront, Savarese says looking into a headset may be the best place to start. 

“It’s an important tool and less of a luxury now,” said Savarese. “That’s what is driving VR and AR forward into the mainstream.”

Johanna Peace, a spokesperson for Facebook-owned Oculus, said the company does not disclose headset sales, but reported nearly $300 million in non-advertising revenue last Thursday, April 30, driven in large by “Oculus-related products.”

Peace said there has been less of a distinction between weekday and weekend use since stay-at-home orders were put in place — a sign that people may be using VR for more than just gaming during downtime. Concerts and film festivals canceled by COVID-19 are now being pushed to VR as opposed to livestreams, as are big-name tech conferences.

She also said the most popular trend for Oculus Quest owners right now is the use of apps focused on socializing, working out, and relaxing, like NatureTreks VR, Beat Saber, and VRChat. 

Taking the plunge

“The coronavirus has brought in a lot more people into the VR world now,” said Brandon, a Richmond, Virginia-based VRChat user who asked not to have his last name published. “You do not need to have a VR Headset to play with people who have head-mounted displays, so lots of VR veterans urge their non-VR friends to come and hang out that way to make up for the lack of physical contact.”

Brandon said he’s been connecting with a lot more people without headsets in VRChat recently, and expects many will go out and buy one once shelter-in-place orders are lifted — or once they become more widely available.

Twitter user BLUETOOTH told Digital Trends he’s glad he invested in an Oculus Rift before the lockdowns started, and suspects many others who are using VR now will continue to do so even after quarantines are lifted.

Since using VRChat, he’s found it’s easy to meet new friends.

“I have friends I’ve met in VRChat who I’ve never met in person, and honestly, have no idea what they actually look like,” he told Digital Trends. “But that’s okay, I’m willing to suspend reality. Especially right now.”

Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She writes about tech, social media, and internet culture for Digital…
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