Will COVID-19 Change the Fate of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality?

With millions of people forced to work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the very nature of how companies do business is changing rapidly the only question is whether these changes are permanent, or if we’ll all revert back to office life once the threat of the virus subsides.

However long it takes for things to get back to normal (or normal-ish), companies are trying to figure out the best collaboration tools. Already, employees are teaming up via video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom, and chatting on Slack, Teams, and other instant-messaging apps. But there’s another, potentially untapped way for people to work together even if they’re dozens or even hundreds of miles apart: (VR) and reality (AR).

For the past several years, VR has remained a niche industry. Although Facebook, Valve, HTC, and other firms have collectively pumped billions of dollars into developing VR headsets, developers haven’t seemed very interested in developing a robust ecosystem of VR apps. The one exception is games, which seems to be VR’s one area of market-strength; but even then, there hasn’t been a breakout game so compelling that people rush out and purchase $400 headsets in order to play it.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, there was a time when pundits breezily predicted that VR would go mainstream sooner rather than later. In 2014, for example, Bloomberg released a proof-of-concept VR app that showed how finance workers could use a virtual space to absorb and work with incredible amounts of information. In 2016, VR was all the rage at the Mobile World Congress, and Google launched Daydream VR, which was going to bring VR to the masses.

Around the same time, tech firms also began to experiment with augmented reality (AR), which superimposes virtual imagery on the user’s real-world environment. In the summer of 2016, the AR game “Pokemon Go” was a huge hit. Soon after, Apple CEO Tim Cook started talking up AR in a big way, claiming that it would eventually explode into a huge, multi-sector business.

What happened? In the case of VR, companies struggled to convince people to pay hundreds of dollars for hardware. Developers took a look at those paltry headset sales and declined to devote the resources necessary to build cool software. A vicious cycle was unleashed; Google eventually shuttered its VR dreams, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is no longer aggressively promoting Oculus like he used to.

In terms of AR, no game or app has managed to achieve “Pokemon” levels of success, despite some notable attempts that leveraged recognizable IP (for instance, an AR “Walking Dead” game where you could fight virtual zombies on your front lawn). Companies such as IKEA have released interesting AR apps, but nothing that’s compelled tens of millions of people to download and use them on a regular basis.

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