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Immersive technologies during and after COVID-19

The AR/VR industry is experiencing both positive and negative impacts as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

COE-EDPCOE-EDP | Updated: 16-06-2020 16:47 IST | Created: 15-06-2020 17:31 IST
Immersive technologies during and after COVID-19
Facebook, lately, announced the availability of Oculus for Business, an enterprise solution for streamlining and expanding virtual reality in the workplace to help organizations introduce VR into the workplace and connect their teams working remotely. Image Credit: Facebook

The coronavirus crisis has given a significant impetus to the development and adoption of new and emerging technologies such as robotics, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR). As physical channels come to a grinding halt due to COVID-19 containment measures, education, businesses, healthcare, entertainment, social interactivity, and nearly everything has gone virtual in response.

Immersive technology is one of the many industries witnessing a significant uptick in demand during the pandemic and as we navigate the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, the AR/VR technology is poised to gain momentum. Virtual Reality uses a digital device to create an artificial 3D environment, immersing the user in a completely digital world that can be entirely different from the real one. On the other hand, Augment Reality overlays visual and immersive content onto the real-world to enhance the reality or actual environment. Mixed reality (MR) involves the merging of the real and digital worlds.

In the pre-pandemic era, companies from across different industries including entertainment, healthcare, gaming, and manufacturing, etc. were already harnessing AR/VR technologies to reach customers and fuel growth. Tech giants including Facebook, Google, Samsung, HTC, etc. have been investing billions of dollars into developing AR/VR products and services for the past few years.

AR/VR technologies aren't just hype

VR and AR technologies have proved increasingly useful in times of social distancing and global lockdown. Both businesses and consumers are more interested in AR and VR than ever before and the trend will likely continue even after the pandemic subsides. If you are wondering how augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality technologies are helping people and businesses during this challenging time, then here are the amazing applications of AR and VR.

Remote working

As more and more businesses are adapting to the new normal of work, i.e. remote working, the demand for AR and VR solutions is also surging to stay connected and boost productivity. PTC, a global provider of augmented reality and industrial IoT solutions is offering free access to Vuforia Chalk, the world's most widely deployed AR platform through August 31, 2020, to help manufacturing organizations capture more value during this crisis. The remote assistance product leverages augmented reality to enable offsite and on-site employees to collaborate in the operation, maintenance, and repair of all kinds of products.

In April, HTC unveiled Vive Sync, a secure and intuitive VR collaboration tool for businesses and remote employees. Vive Sync enables colleagues and partners across the world to interact in a shared virtual space, increasing productivity, collaboration, and team chemistry. The virtual reality solution is free for businesses of all sizes through 2020.

Facebook, lately, announced the availability of Oculus for Business, an enterprise solution for streamlining and expanding virtual reality in the workplace to help organizations meet the early demand for VR-powered training and collaboration to keep up with the tech-driven future of work.

"Platforms and devices like Workplace, Portal, and Oculus were built for a time when the economic opportunity might no longer depend on geography, a time when what you do could matter more than where you are. That time starts now," says Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Product visualization

In times of physical distancing, online shopping is becoming more and more rampant. AR/VR technologies are helping businesses interact with their customers and allowing them to virtually see their products in great detail as in reality. The use of visualization technology in online shopping reduces the time and physical effort of visiting brick and mortar stores and improves customer satisfaction and subsequently consumer-brand interaction.

For instance, in view of the COVID-19 disruptions, Castlery, a Singapore-based online furniture store has developed a new Augmented Reality-powered iOS app to let consumers view intricate details of a wide range of its products. Using the app's true-to-scale AR capabilities, customers can visualize whether its products fit in their space, allowing them to get a good sense of size and proportion. The 3D models of our products also offer a visual representation of design details, texture, and color.

Education / Online learning

As a majority of educational institutions around the world have been forced to close temporarily, they are transitioning to virtual learning to curb the spread of COVID-19 whilst preserving the educational experience for its students.

For example, all the first-year medical students at Case Western Reserve University are attending an all-online anatomy class via HoloAnatomy, a mixed-reality app that uses Microsoft's HoloLens to enhance teaching and research.

Video Credit: YouTube / Case Western Reserve University

California-based AltspaceVR is supporting educators and students in virtual learning environments by enabling them to host VR events and conferences during this time of isolation.

Healthcare

Healthcare is one of the most promising sectors for the growth of AR/VR. These immersive technologies can help researchers and health experts better analyze viruses or diseases like COVID-19. For instance, scientists are using Nanome, a San Diego-based VR startup whose immersive real-time collaboration platform allows users to visualize, modify, and simulate proteins, chemical compounds, and nucleic acids to accelerate scientific decision making. Artificial intelligence company Insilico Medicine and Nanome are aiding in the COVID-19 drug discovery efforts by enabling scientists to gain insights into the molecular mechanics of the novel coronavirus in virtual reality.

XRHealth, the world's first VR/AR Telehealth platform is providing virtual reality (VR) telehealth services to coronavirus patients at the Sheba Medical Center, the largest and most comprehensive medical center in the Middle East. The hospital staff is utilizing multiple technologies including XRHealth's VR headsets to monitor COVID-19 patients while limiting physical contact. COVID-19 has also fuelled the demand for telehealth and to enhance the experience XRHealth has joined forces with Pico Interactive, an innovative VR and AR solutions provider. The partnership provides patients including COVID-19 or those in need of remote medical care with VR Telehealth kits, Pico VR headsets with pre-installed virtual reality therapy.

Virtual tourism

Tourism businesses are one of the hardest hits by the COVID-19 outbreak due to strict travel restrictions. According to UNWTO's latest research, 83 percent of destinations in Europe have introduced complete closure of borders for international tourism. This proportion stands at 80 percent in the Americas, 70 percent in the Asia-Pacific, 62 percent in the Middle East, and 57 percent in Africa. Amidst this challenge, Virtual Reality has a major role in making a real difference in the sector.

As the COVID 19 pandemic has limited travel and public gatherings, the Tower of David Museum has created a VR project that lets visitors immerse in Jerusalemʼs Old City through a transcendent stereoscopic 360 degrees Virtual Reality Documentary. Touted as the most complex volumetric VR project in Jerusalem produced to date

"With the Holy sites in Jerusalem inaccessible, VR can become a virtual alternative for reaching out to these places of worship, a new form of a virtual pilgrimage than can be achieved. This new immersive experience virtually places visitors in some of the most exclusive and hard to reach locations in Jerusalem as if they were actually there," says Nimrod Shanit, Director and Producer of The Holy City.

Similarly, Denmark's Faroe Islands has asked tourists to refrain from visiting the place to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, it has created a first-of-its-kind remote tourism tool to let people anywhere in the world to explore the island nation as virtual tourists through the eyes and body of a local whilst simultaneously allowing tourists to control the movements of the local in real-time.

Though VR may never replace in-person travels, it could offer time and cost-saving substitute to adapt to the COVID-19 induced 'new normal' within the travel and tourism industry and also help reduce the industry's environmental footprint.

AR/VR post COVID-19

The rapid shift to remote work has also stoked interest in immersive technologies which will likely continue even after the pandemic subsides. Despite being at a nascent stage, AR and VR have proved their potential for businesses and brands struggling to survive and thrive during the crisis. The AR/VR industry is experiencing both positive and negative impacts as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Positive in the way that their adoption and utilization have surged in the past few months and negative in the sense that supply chain disruptions and containment measures are badly affecting manufacturing and shipments of AR/VR products and services. The latest data from Statista shows that shipments of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) headsets are projected to experience a year-over-year (YoY) decline of 10.5 percent in Q1 2020, followed by a decline of 24.1 percent in the second quarter of the year.

We know that the road ahead is bumpy for all businesses, regardless of the industry. The bottom line is that attention-grabbing immersive technologies including AR/VR have huge potential to remotely enhance collaboration and workplace productivity but given the economic downturn and the immature state of the technologies, it will take some more time before they go mainstream.

Centre of Excellence on Emerging Development Perspectives (COE-EDP) is an initiative of VisionRI and aims to keep track of the transition trajectory of global development and works towards conceptualization, development, and mainstreaming of innovative developmental approaches, frameworks, and practices.


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