Coronavirus Forced Us to Stay Home. Virtual Reality May Offer a Way Out

Coronavirus may determine how we're going to experience work, tourism and culture from now on

Jonathan Jacobson
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Augmented reality glasses, which fuse virtual elements with reality, on show at the 2018 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Augmented reality glasses, which fuse virtual elements with reality, on show at the 2018 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Credit: YVES HERMAN / Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic is an unusual phenomenon in terms of its potency and scope, but in some senses it recalls the SARS outbreak of 2002. Then, the streets of China emptied out, as millions isolated themselves at home. But together with the gloomy aspects of it, that pandemic gave rise to new technologies. For example, SARS hastened the widespread use of the internet in China, helping to jump-start a new sector – digital commerce – and making virtual video-conferencing more popular than ever before.

“That crisis is an important part of the DNA of AliBaba,” says Duncan Clark, whose book on China’s e-commerce giant, “Alibaba: The House that Jack Built” was published in 2016.

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“Things didn’t happen overnight,” Clark notes about the digital revolution in that country. “After the SARS crisis, people realized the internet was a real thing, not just a niche, but useful for everyday life. Two years later, online commerce was taking place on a completely different scale.”

By the same token, although on a larger scale, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to become a springboard for the growth of certain technologies. It’s already clear that the field of virtual conferences is again heating up. The CEO of Zoom, Eric Yuan, said last month that he believes the coronavirus crisis will lead to a substantive change in the way people work, with the result that we will increasingly rely on services of the sort his company offers. Zoom declined to provide precise figures, but the video conference service of company’s rival Microsoft has already recorded a 500-percent rise in activity in China since the outbreak of the virus.

However, the two technologies likely to gain most from the crisis are VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality), neither of which has to date realized its potential to become part of everyday life, as their developers originally envisaged.

Fire-breathing demon

In 2012, when Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, a leader in the field, that technology was widely expected to become the next big thing in games, education, social media and business meetings. Many companies launched products supporting VR, from glasses to smartphones. It soon turned out, however, that not many people were in a hurry to adopt and use the new technology. Startups in the field began to have a hard time raising funds; AltspaceVR, for example, a virtual-reality app intended to serve social media, and despite initial excitement, seemed to flop completely.

Now, however, under the pandemic’s impact, such technologies are enjoying a revival. Even Altspace, long since left for dead, is now being flooded with requests to host a variety of VR events. Facebook is working on virtual reality social media called Horizon, which users have already been invited to try out. After the launch, it’s likely that Facebook will offer professional conferences, social gatherings and lectures across its new virtual world.

Virtual reality is already trickling into the music field. Under the influence of the coronavirus outbreak, as the live concert industry has come to a complete standstill, complete musical performances are being uploaded to the web, and musicians are performing from their homes for quarantined fans around the world.

But in an attempt to find alternative channels of income, many artists are also turning to new technologies. Melody VR, a company founded in 2018, has signed agreements with the Universal, Warner and Sony music companies, and already has a live-concert library featuring more than 850 musicians. The performances can be viewed through the company’s app or with VR glasses. The app allows the viewer to choose whether to be in the audience, behind the scenes or even on the stage itself.

This year, Melody VR will be launching VR glasses that are set to sell for only $20. In addition, if until today the VR version of a song cost $1.99 and a whole concert $10, Melody VR will soon be coming out with a monthly membership option that will enable unlimited access to concerts and other content.

Texas-based Wave is another example of a new company in a position to reap a profit from the current situation. It uses a mo-cap (motion capture) broadcast studio to follow the movements of performing artists and replicate them by means of avatars. Virtual performances of this kind allow for considerable creativity. Some of these events are held in what appear to be regular concert halls, but others take place in venues like spaceships. The musicians, for their part, can choose an avatar with a human look, but there are various peculiar options. The rapper T-Pain, for example, has chosen to appear as a fire-breathing demon, with viewers invited to take the form of cats, among other choices.

Along with the music industry, tourism has also been dealt a devastating blow. These days, traveling to another country, near or remote, or even a visit to a museum, seem like experiences that belong to the world of yesterday. To tide us over, however, a host of cultural institutions have opened their virtual gates free of charge.

Some have taken the visiting experience a step further. Noteworthy among them is the virtual reality experience being offered by the Palace of Versailles, in which the visitor can relive the arrival of the ambassador of the Kingdom of Siam at the court of Louis XIV in 1686, or the February 1745 costume ball – the Ball of the Yew Trees – that was held in the Hall of Mirrors at the command of Louis XV.

New solutions for the period of the pandemic are also cropping up for workout buffs. VirZoom, for example, is combining exercise bikes with virtual reality glasses, and hopes to become a permanent part of fitness routines.

Like the entire industry, virtual-reality games have not yet succeeded in firing up the imagination of the masses. Now, though, the field is set to get a real boost. Last year, the World Health Organization classified “gaming disorder” as a genuine mental condition and addiction. However, in the wake of the pandemic, WHO joined the industry’s #PlayApartTogether campaign, which aims to encourage people to play together from home while preserving all the rules of social distancing.

It’s possible that “Alyx,” the new title in the famed “Half-Life” series, which was released late last month by Valve, is the signal gamers were waiting for. The game has been praised by reviewers and consumers alike. Unusually effusive praise came from Yan Feng, a literature professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “This is the future of video games. Or it may be the future of mankind,” he declared.

In your pajamas

The spectacular failure of Google’s augmented reality glasses is well remembered, but AR products – which fuse, rather than replace, virtual elements with the reality around us – are now flourishing, especially in the wake of the coronavirus.

“Augmented reality has been around for over a decade, and works over the web, requiring no special software and supported by almost every [digital] device on the planet,” says Evan Gappelberg, the founder and CEO of NexTech AR Solutions. Its technology enables objects to be scanned in 3D and posted on websites, apps and in platforms like Google and Facebook. Such platforms serve as invaluable advertising spaces in a period when the streets are deserted and the internet is busier than ever.

Says Gappelberg: “Imagine being able to take a couch, turn it into a 3D asset, and instead of having to go to the store and take a picture of it, measure it and then try to imagine it in your living room – you could use AR to place a digital copy of the same couch in your house, looking as if it’s actually there.”

He adds that the technology makes it possible to scan almost any object imaginable, so it will be possible to “try on” a piece of clothing without having to leave your pajamas. Before this, it was difficult to scan large objects.

“Up until now, people had to ship us their products for us to scan them, using our own equipment. This was a choke point for the entire industry – how to get everything to 3D easily, without it taking days or even weeks and costing hundreds or thousands of dollars,” Gappelberg explains. “We cracked the code. We’re about to launch an app called ARitize that’s going to enable millions around the world to create photorealistic 3D images.”

All the client will have to do, he says, is “to take a video of three to five minutes, walking and videoing the bottom, middle and then the top of the object. From there on, the AR takes over. Initially, the scan will be received in 24 hours. But over time, that will be reduced to minutes. We give you a couple of lines of embedded code, like a YouTube video, that you can copy-paste into your website or application.”

The company recently announced that it will be cooperating with Zoom. The idea is for the AR technology at its disposal to make it possible for users to create 3D holograms of people and objects as part of their virtual meetings. Gappelberg explains it this way: “Let’s say you want to have a demo of a new product before a crowd, for training purposes or for clients. You could use the embedded code [of the scanned object] to make that product appear in their room and have an ‘exploded view’ of it – dismantling the object to its different parts, so you could learn about how it’s constructed and what it’s made of.”

What’s happening now worldwide is unfortunate at the human level, Gappelberg noted, in late March, “but from the business point of view, we are located in the right place and at the right time.”

More recently, he added, “There’s a big opportunity here, because everyone is shopping from home during COVID-19. We’re getting a lot of calls, as people from different sectors are looking for our technology. In 2019 we had $6 million in revenue. In 2020 we think we could triple that. With COVID-19, who knows? But we haven’t seen a slowdown in our business so far, it’s only getting better for us.”

One reason for Gappelberg’s optimism is his belief that Apple will succeed where Google failed. “Google was ahead of its time. Google glasses failed because there was no content. What do you do with them? The Holy Grail [for the industry] is hands-free AR goggles, like regular reading glasses. Imagine walking down the street wearing these glasses. You pass by a restaurant and all of a sudden, without having to press a button or anything, a 3D hamburger will float mid-air in front of you. You’re going to want that hamburger.”

Before I manage to point out that some might find the idea of advertisements appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the street a bit dystopian, or at least annoying, he continues, “In your car, all the dashboard information, maps for navigation and so on, will appear through your glasses, and when in a museum, relevant information will appear next to works of art.”

Gappelberg can hardly curb his enthusiasm as he adds, “That’s exactly what’s coming, and when it does it will be one the happiest days of my life. Apple is building it as we speak, and it will change the world forever. They’ve filed patents, there were rumors that it could potentially be 2020, but now it looks like 2021-22.”

Apple is of course not the only company with plans to enter the AR field. Samsung, too, for example, has filed a patent for similar glasses. These are heady days, at least for Gappelberg and his colleagues in the industry.

“I’d say we’re still in the desert, or the valley, between the promise of these technologies and the results. But this might be the crisis they need to popularize the technologies,” says AliBaba chronicler Duncan Clark. “With people confined at home, AR and VR will move forward.”

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