Pandemic Innovation and the Rise of Social VR

Contributed by Leila Amirsadeghi

Over the last several years, the XR community has proclaimed that this “will be the year for VR”. Each year disappointment ensued. Then comes 2020: a global pandemic that forced social distancing, cancelation of all outdoor/indoor events, and the huge disruption to the workplace as we’ve known it.

Suddenly, concepts like remote-work and virtual-events begin to go mainstream in the struggle to find connectivity and community during this time of human-physical separation. Most companies that started to use spatial technologies in their business, doubled-down their efforts, while others jumped on the bandwagon as they sought affordable, scalable solutions for remote collaboration, training and more. Consequently, AR & VR adoption increased.

It was not Ready Player One with its dystopian environment, and endless eighties pop- culture references; nor the introduction of the Oculus Quest as the first untethered gaming-ready headset that made an industry full of promise, finally take off. The tipping point was the result of a far more and real dystopian reality, one of a global pandemic, triggering the need to connect in new ways at work and home.

Don’t take my word for it: the numbers speak for themselves. Facebook reports over 60 games on the Quest and Quest 2, making north-of $1M since the beginning of 2020. Sales of the Quest 2 were a huge portion of their Q4 earnings, estimations of 2M-plus devices sold during this period.

COVID-19 forced companies to have their employees work remotely, moving many in-person functions like training and onboarding, to AR and VR. Thereby enabling scale at a fraction of the cost of in-person activity. These days as employees are sent a VR headset at home, no matter their user-case, they immediately become a consumer of the product, on the hunt for connected experiences in gaming or other.

As innovation happens, so goes entertainment, leading to a rise in virtual-events platforms and experience. As popular events from around the world were canceled, new means had to be formulated. One of the biggest such events was Burning Man, a communal immersive art and music festival held in the Black Rock desert. Because of its vast landscapes, and large-scale art installations, VR jumped to the fore: a no-brainer when it came to think of ways to experience Burning Man virtually.

The domino effect from the explosive use of VR across all commercial enterprise, education and healthcare has created a vast new consumer base growing at exponential rate; and the launch of BRCvr – introducing VR to new audiences while bringing new audiences to Burning Man – accelerated the adoption of Social VR growing the community in the sphere of Virtual Reality.

Suddenly the VR community found itself spending more time on apps like Rec Room, VR Chat and Altspace, and in doing so, brought new users in. Overnight, virtual “meet-ups” and “world-crawls” replaced the party scene, pub-crawl and other non-COVID activities. BRCvr has proven connection in VR between avatars is not only achievable, but sustainable making community growth all but inevitable. As long as there is real-time eye-contact, even through animated avatars, people are able to feel connection with the person on the other side of the headset.

Experiencing the global excitement witnessing exponential growth in VR, we can ascertain the growth of a powerful medium, which will have lasting effects on everyone through unique experiences that can instill empathy, compassion and community when used efficaciously. This is evidenced by incredible, award-winning content out there: both location-based, and at home.

From Alexander Inarritu’s Carne y Arena and to Marshmallow Laser Feast, We Live in an

Ocean of Air, and Chris Milk’s Clouds over Sidra, or Roger Ross Williams’ Traveling while

Black. There are numerous meaningful experiences leveraging the visceral nature of new

technologies able to tap into the soil of the earth, and soul of the people.

When meeting-up in real life is made impossible, reuniting with friends through VR watching

music concerts, dancing the desert, walking in space, taking in a dome show, running around VR-dressed as your favorite superhero, or simply watching a movie, will be the way of the future. VR’s healing abilities are another dimension of the debate all together, left for another time perhaps. Today one of the most important emotional and psychological lifelines is VR’s ability to bring people together, regardless of geography, beliefs or nationality.

This article was originally published in VR Trend Magazine, a bi-monthly publication that gives a voice to the VR community. Visit our Patreon page to subscribe to the print or digital edition.

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