Will the Corona Virus Aftermath Lead to a Resurgence in Virtual Reality?

Rizwan Virk, the Founder of Play Labs @ MIT and author of The Simulation Hypothesis explores how the current crisis and VR tech might affect long term social trends.
There’s a memorable scene in the 1993 movie Demolition Man, where Sylvester Stallone’s character is asked by Sandra Bullock’s character if he wants to have sex.  Since he has just been awakened into an unfamilair future after being in suspended animation for decades, he eagerly says yes.  She then hands him a headset and says let’s start, leaving him more than a little confused.  She explains that that sex is now done without any physical contact and without “exchanging any bodily fluids” because that was what led to the downfall of western civilization!
Figure 1: In the movie, Demolition Man, Sandra Bullock and Sylvestor Stallone had a virtual encounter
While they are unlikely to be as extreme as depicted in science fiction, it’s very possible that the recent outbreak of the corona virus (COVID-19), will cause behavior shifts in our society that will end up affecting us much longer than the duration of the outbreak itself.  And these long term trends will be impacted by the capabilities of our tech.
Fear of the virus is already affecting businesses in the US and around the world.  Anyone who had planned to attend a conference in person in the next month has probably seen their conference cancelled, including SXSW (South by Southwest), GDC (the Game Developers Conference), Google and Facebook developers conference, and so many others. Some of these conferences are scrambling to put some content online. UPDATE: the NBA has just cancelled the rest of the season too.
But travel to conferences isn’t the only thing affected. I was at a company recently where they told me they were not sitting next to each other during meetings in their conference room, but leaving an empty seat.  
Figure 2: Behavioral changes are starting ... where will they lead?
I suppose it’s all part of the “social distancing” that is leading to changes in social behavior. While the handshake has been around for thousands of years, it hadn’t really become a default greeting until the nineteenth century and even then only in the west. Recently, handshakes are being replaced by fist bumps, elbow or even foot bumps.  Some are suggesting that Spock’s Vulcan greeting, holding up fingers in a V (and saying “Live Long and Prosper”) will or something similar that requires no contact will become the new normal before too long.
Stanford, Columbia, Harvard and MIT are a few (among many) Universities that have cancelled in person classes, replacing them with online lectures.  More than that, even though young people are less likely to be affected by the virus, MIT is sending students home – essentially kicking them out of their dormitories!
Figure 3:  Classes move online for many universities, including Stanford
Life here in Silicon Valley is already being affected.  Large tech companies like Google and Facebook have already told their employees to work from home.  Coffeeshops, the favored place to work for many budding entrepreneurs and freelancers, are markedly less crowded and keeping shorter hours, though this is being offset by the number of people who aren’t going into the office and working at coffeeshops instead.
Recently, I wanted to go see an old movie at the Stanford Theater in the heart of Silicon Valley. It is a1930s era classic theater that shows old movies, complete with an organ that is played in between films.   It turns out they had cancelled all their films out of an “abundance of caution”, not because there were any specific cases.
Will other movies theaters and public places follow suit?  Of course we are already experiencing a serious disruption in the near term.  The question I wan to explore is how will the changes brought upon by this virus (and perhaps even more deadly viruses in the future) affect social interaction using technology (particularly VR) in the long term?
In the Starz network TV show Counterpart, we were shown a parallel version of Earth which had been ravaged by a virus. When individuals from our “world” went into this parallel world, they were surprised at how empty the public spaces were, even years after the virus had disappeared.  The survivors of the virus, it seemed, had changed their social habits, and these habits stuck.  This was in stark contrast to “our world” where restaurants and other public spaces were full of people.  Could we see a similar aftermath here?
In the short term, conferencing technology companies are enabling alternatives. Companies like Zoom and Webex and other teleconferencing and remote working solutions, not to mention distance learning solutions, will reap the benefits as more and more people cancel in person meetings, classes and conference and opt to do things remotely.

Welcome to the Virtual World

So what’s virtual reality (VR) got to do with all this?
When Facebook bought Oculus in 2012 (for $2 Billion), it was a shocker and many people suddenly bought into the idea that VR was going to become the “next big thing” for gaming, education, social networks, business travel.  HTC soon came out with the Vive headset, Samsung with its Smartphone based VR, called Gear VR (also based on Oculus technology) , and Sony with its Playstation VR. Suddenly, VR content companies were being funded and seemed to be flourishing, making everything from VR games to VR movies to VR exercise and VR social networks and VR business meetings, etc.
Only they weren’t really flourishing.   To quote a friend of mine who worked at Facebook in those years – Facebook’s own internal studies found that people only wanted to use VR very rarely – maybe once a week. If you compare to how often people used their mobile phones, this was a bit of a disappointment and signaled the coming decline in VR startups. Suddenly,consumer facing VR startups, many of whom had raised quite a bit of funding from 2013-2106, found that it was hard to raise for VR content and they started to fold.
With the failure of the few VR social networking apps like Altspace VR, etc., the dream of VR, which was shown in the 2018 fim by Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One, died an untimely death.
In Ready Player One, the physical world is depressing (as a result of some tragedy that isn't fully explained). As a result, the favored way of doing anything is to put on your lightweight VR headset and enter the Oasis, a VR MMORPG.  
Instead of going to schools, students would attend virtual classrooms.  Instead of playing sports in real life, everyone exercised in VR, and they could be anywhere from the comfort of their homes.  Relationships were virtual, using an idealized version of ourselves as avatars. And although they didn’t get into it in the PG-13 rated movie, you could extrapolate that like in Demolition Man, an all pervasive virtual world was likely to have virtual sexual encounters!
Figure 4: In Ready Player One, the Oasis VR was used for most social interactions
It wasn’t the first time a vision of people escaping to the virtual world seemed like it might happen but didn’t.  When Second Life was introduced, there were numerous articles on how people lived, played, and worked in the virtual world, had relationships and even kids.  But that petered out as well, though Linden Labs, the company behind the virtual world released a VR version of the world in 2017, which didn’t really take off either.
Game Over, right?

The Resurgence of VR in these times?

Surprisingly, even before the corona virus hit in early 2020, VR was on a comeback track. With the successful release of the cheap and standalone headsets like Oculus Quest in 2019, and the rise of corporations using VR applications for training (it is much cheaper to train employees in VR),in Silicon Valley and elsewhere prospects for VR were optimistic for the first time in years. In fact, Facebook had manufactured enough headsets for a modest demand; in stead, the Quest was sold out for months (and remains so to this day at many retailers).
Amidst this resurgence, Facebook was also already working on its own version of the Oasis, called Facebook Horizon, which was set to go into closed beta in early 2020.  As of the writing of this article, no specific date for the release of horizon has been set, but you can be sure that they are looking closely at the need to hold conferences in different ways.
One interesting tidbit with all of the cancellations was that HTC, makers of the Vive headset, announced that instead of having a physical developer’s conference, would hold their conference in – virtual reality!     They will use VR Education’s ENGAGE platform. And it seems like the death of AltspaceVR, which was written about extensively, was exaggerated, and they are not only around, but getting requests to host events in VR!
And it makes sense. One of the biggest reasons that people go to conferences in any industry is not just to watch the presenters, but to meet other people in their industry who they don’t see in person very often.   
Facebook hasn’t announced any VR component of its cancelled F8 developer conference yet, though they are promising lots of online content. While online conferences are great just for watching content, they don’t provide the visceral ability to interact with other people, and VR may just be the solution for this.  With the release of Horizon, expected this year, you can bet that Facebook will pushing for virtual world conference and interactions in the near future.
Figure 5: Will Facebook Horizon be the first VR world on the road to the Oasis?
As more and more schools around the country cancel classes for a few weeks, it’s very possible that contingency plans will need to be made for longer term closures, and with the release of Horizon and other VR-meeting platforms.  When I was running Play Labs @ MIT, one of our companies was creating science lab VR sims, which could be used to allow students to run experiments that would be too expensive for the schools to have in physical labs.  Could the same concept be expanded to all labs? 
As the fear of going to public spaces increases, will people start to avoid the gym? Just like in the Oasis, will VR be used to exercise at home.  In fact, one VR company that provides a VR set for biking, VRZoom (a company that i'm an investor in), has told me the most convincing way for them to show their product to investors is to do the presentation inside virtual reality! 
Coming back to my desire to go to a movie theater to see an old movie, one of the more unexpected popular activities in Second Life was to have avatars sit in a movie theater and watch a movie on a virtual screen! At one point, the Netflix VR app, which provided a similar experience of sitting in a virtual theater watching any of the Netflix programming, was the most popular app in the Samsung Gear VR (and presumably, the Oculus) app stores! 
Many companies have cancelled all non-essential travel. Most large tech companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, have told many employees that the can work from home.  Using zoom or skype or slack is great for messaging, but it just doesn’t have the same impact when you need to have a meeting with colleagues that you might know, and those that you don’t know. 
While the debate thus far has been on whether the media and the government is over-reacting or under-reacting to the Corona virus, perhaps what we should be watching is the change in consumer and social habits that will go with the aftermath of this (and potential future) pandemic.
As people spend more time at home, forgoing gatherings with lots of other people, in addition to the teleconferencing providers, delivery services like Amazon, will no doubt benefit in the short term.  
It’s also very possible that this may be the behavior change will prompt people to put on their VR headsets rather than venturing out to the phsyical world. 
 The virtual world may end up being the best way to interact, especially with idealized versions of ourselves as our avatars. And that was the promise of VR all along: that it’ll be more fun (and much safer) to use VR for everything from going to school, attending a conference, and perhaps even virtual relationships!
Welcome to the future.

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