Coronavirus could be the kick VR’s needed this whole time

Gracie Page, Emerging Technology Director, VMLY&R London

Best come out right now with it: I’ve never been drawn to virtual reality (VR).  I find the idea of sitting in this rich, textural, smelly, strange, beautiful place we humans call home and blocking it all out with CGI all a bit weird. And I’m not alone.

The VR industry has failed to deliver on the years-long promise of becoming the next entertainment arena for the masses. With just 6 million VR units shipped globally in 2019, it’s safe to say augmented reality (AR) has stolen the limelight. Thanks to low barriers to entry (all you need is the phone in your pocket), zero-tether mobility, and the endorsement of major consumer platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, AR has been quickly adopted to measure your carry-on, test a sofa out for size, and pick the perfect shade of lippy.

Commonly cited reasons for VR’s adoption-flop are distribution and the lack of a killer app. Although entirely valid, that’s not the full story. VR replaces your entire reality (whereas AR augments it), and that replacement represents an intangible barrier. It can feel quite solitary.

Here’s the thing; our discomfort is more granular than we think. It’s not that we hate VR. We’re perfectly OK with it when used to help combat loneliness, deliver therapy, or even facilitate cooperative gaming experiences. Where it gets uneasy is the consumption of a virtual world getting in the way of real-life interactions.

But the current global situation has changed the game.

Around the world, millions have been self-quarantining, remote working and practicing social distancing. With the UK government still telling the majority of the nation to remain at home where possible, and research from Imperial College London showing social distancing may last for as long as 18-months.  The economic impact of these new life patterns is still being calculated.

If major players like Facebook — who bought Oculus 6 years ago for $2.3bn — can make the VR offering buyable enough for mainstream audiences, the global pandemic could just be the kick up the bum the VR industry’s been looking for.

While the world obsesses over Zoom’s stock price, virtual reality represents a rich and untapped space for engaging in deep work. 

Picture it: you’ve got the brief, and now it’s time to brainstorm. Instead of one person leading a video call with a thousand blurry sticky notes and six teammates who can’t get video working, you’ll slide on your Rift and enter the White Board Room. Each participant walks up to walls to read the crystal clear Post-Its colleagues are sticking up in real-time, and “write” their thoughts by merely speaking into their headsets.

The tech providers who create new virtual workspaces and leverage VR to do it will get to define the future workflow of nations.

It’s not limited to work gatherings either. Getting the gang together for coffee or beer, playing team games and sports, or consuming content in tandem will feel closer if done inside a shared virtual space compared to FaceTime. At £399 for the cheapest bundle, Facebook would do well to revise pricing downwards in a bid to mimic the aggressive strategies Google and Amazon have used to drive mass-adoption of voice assistant devices. But the hardware alone isn’t enough: smart software, strong connections and seamless customer experience are all necessary to appeal to mass markets of users who’ve never dreamt of going on a virtual jolly. Content creators and the platforms we already use and love in droves (I’m looking at you, Netflix, WhatsApp, Instagram) will need to create smooth flows into and out of those virtual worlds that integrate deeply into the mental models and subscriptions we already subscribe to.

While I’m not about to start playing Beat Saber while my better half sits next to me on the couch, VR for a new world order could be just what the doctor ordered.