Three Thoughts: A Look at the Future of Virtual Reality

By January 21, 2021 February 4th, 2021 No Comments

Last year, as the potential for virtual reality applications to reach the mainstream continued to expand, one of the technology’s best opportunities to demonstrate long-term societal value presented itself unexpectedly. Widespread shelter-in-place orders prompted by the pandemic sent a massive swath of the workforce into remote work conditions and when it quickly became clear that a return to work wouldn’t be anytime soon, companies sought out long-term remote work solutions.

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It was virtual reality’s moment to step in and provide a virtual in-person experience for companies struggling to replicate meeting room experiences – but virtual reality wasn’t ready for the moment and video conferencing platforms instead became the default solution.

1. Video conferencing took off as a remote-work solution during the pandemic. Why didn’t VR?

Some might argue that VR technology wasn’t ready for mainstream adoption when the pandemic hit, that the hardware wasn’t mature or secure enough to handle the applications or that the learning curve for a new user base would have been too much of a deterrent. Others, by contrast, might point out that video communications tools – which were widely adopted by businesses in 2020 – also were not mature enough for the moment.

Platforms such as Zoom had security issues that prompted user concerns in those early weeks and plenty of people struggled with the interface and experience of video conferencing. It’s unfortunate that VR technology couldn’t leverage the opportunity to familiarize a potentially huge segment of the population – office workers – with its capabilities. Oculus, Facebook’s VR headset product, which had some brand recognition, could have introduced VR to the masses, even with a limited offering of services.

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John Carmack, who was the CTO of Oculus before it was acquired by the social media giant in 2014, acknowledged that it was a missed opportunity. With a shift in focus toward high-quality VR apps, Facebook could have virtually connected users – not just remote workers – and introduced them to VR capabilities. But that did not happen.

2. Remote work is expected to be standard practice for the foreseeable future. Is it too late for VR?

The Fall 2020 arrival of the wireless, next-generation Oculus headset, as well as the persistence of the pandemic, has kept a window of opportunity open for VR adoption – or at least experimentation. Certainly, that’s not to say that the remote work opportunity is a do-or-die moment for VR. On the contrary, the technologies, capabilities and products will continue to evolve and other use cases – gaming, in particular – continue to show great potential. The arrival of 5G also creates new opportunities.

Carmack also noted that the technology may have reached a point where some users would be willing to adopt today and evolve with it. Consider how personal computers, mobile devices and even cloud-based services have evolved – the devices and tools themselves, as well as the various use cases – since their introductions.

Users have long been comfortable experimenting with new technologies and as companies expanded the capabilities, the exposure to new markets and the subsequent adoptions have followed. Virtual reality is no different. Consider that personal computers were originally adopted by companies and machines to manage calculations. Today, they are web-connected devices used for productivity, as well as entertainment.

Virtual reality may have missed a huge opportunity to leverage the pandemic-driven remote work shift but that doesn’t mean the technology doesn’t have even greater potential in the future. Between the VR products and AR capabilities, the potential to influence both productivity and entertainment features is robust. And with advanced semiconductors paving the way for innovators to explore new products, tools and services, the unimaginable is unleashed to become a virtual reality.

3. What about Augmented Reality? What’s the potential there?

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It’s important to remember that AR isn’t all that new. It’s been around for years and we’ve seen some early products, such as Google’s Glass. Those use cases weren’t easily identifiable, but some industries have adopted them for specific purposes

In some ways, AR leveraged the remote work opportunity created by the pandemic in a way that VR did not. Increasingly, it can provide the types of tools that companies need for collaboration, such as holographic participation, which utilizes the concept of people as 3D avatars instead of 2D flat videos.

We may still be a ways from the idea of digital spokespeople but with companies like Microsoft investing in futuristic technologies that startups are embracing to roll out new capabilities, the momentum shows no signs of slowing. And from a technology perspective, the ability to seamlessly process the massive volume of data, which grows exponentially as the offerings evolve, depends on companies like SK hynix, which is making continuous investments in the high-bandwidth, low-power semiconductor memories.