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Covid-19 Sparks Virtual Reality Boom

Virtual reality (VR) was not developed to offer some much-needed escapism during the Covid-19 emergency but it seems to have fulfilled that role, at least, in part. In fact, VR began taking shape in the 1970s when the first sophisticated flight training simulators began to come online. Of course, as the world became increasingly used to downloading and streaming entertainment over the course of the last decade or so, the rise in popularity of VR gathered pace. And with so many people looking for something they can try out without having to leave their homes in recent months, so VR has caught on even more.

Nowadays, VR platforms are becoming increasingly mainstream. It is not just video gamers who are enjoying the enhanced feeling of immersion it can afford, however. VR has made its way into purpose-made video content and it has also been increasingly used by the arts sector. As well as the virtual theatrical performances it is possible to watch with a VR headset, this technology has also found itself being used by galleries and museums across the world. So, what is going on with VR today and how much of this phenomenon can be put down to the pandemic and how much of it is a wider trend?

The Two Main Types of VR Platform Today

Although there are plenty of options when it comes to software that makes use of augmented and virtual reality devices, there are two main types of platform. Interestingly, both have seen an upturn in usage since national and regional lockdowns came into force in most western countries in 2020. The first category covers standalone systems which have everything needed to a VR experience included within the headset. Oculus Mobile SDK, which comprises Samsung’s Gear VR system, is just one type of standalone VR platform. Another popular one is Google’s Daydream system which runs on the Android operating system.

The other main category is a so-called tethered system whereby a VR headset works like a peripheral that is connected to another device, usually a computer or a gaming console. Oculus, a VR brand owned by Facebook, also make a popular VR platform of this type, known as Rift. Sony has one which was developed for its widely used gaming console, PlayStation. Others in this category include SteamVR and Windows Mixed Reality made by Microsoft.

It should be said that tethered all VR systems have seen an upturn since the pandemic struck. VR software sales for PlayStations went passed the $100 million mark in the course of 2020 for the first time, for example. SteamVR, well-loved by PC gamers, was even ahead of this remarkable figure. Oculus Rift software sales went well beyond the $200 million threshold in the same time period. However, what outstripped them all was another offering by Oculus, a platform that few in the industry had predicted would be ahead of the rest.

The VR platform concerned is known as Oculus Quest. This differs from the two aforementioned categories of VR system. Launched as recently as May 2019, Oculus Quest 2 is a hybrid VR platform which allows a tethered device to operate as a standalone system. It has generated as much as three times the revenue for Facebook as Sony achieved with its Playstation system. In October 2020, Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, said that Oculus Quest would soon surpass the figure of 10 million active units. According to him, it is at this point that the technology would become self-sustaining. “It will only make sense commercial sense for independent developers to prioritise Oculus over other gaming platforms…[at this point],” he said.

With such big numbers, it is easy to see just how VR is becoming the norm in homes these days. What might have started as an entertaining alternative to conventional video gameplay is now breaking out into new areas, largely thanks to its uptake in use during the pandemic. How is this changing the technology landscape?

Shifting Demographics

In the past, the take up of VR appeared to be strongest among video gamers. Of course, that group of people encompasses many different demographics. However, it is fair to say that the gaming community is strongest among males and usually younger ones who have more time on their hands than, for example, older men who have growing families. Of course, this is a bit of a stereotype of the gaming community but much of this cliché about the sort of serious gamer who might have historically invested in VR headset technology holds true.

Or, at least it did until the pandemic struck. According to Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook’s Reality Lab, the part of the business devoted to VR development, the new version of Oculus Quest had a much higher uptake among women than any previous version of the technology it had put on sale. Unfortunately, Bosworth failed to quantify this claim in either absolute or percentage terms, so the rest of the world will have to take his word for it. Nevertheless, it seems that the traditional sales model for such technology was breaking down as more and more demographic groups began to show an interest in a technology in the pandemic that previously it had ignored.

By the middle of the summer of 2020, numerous mainstream media outlets in the United States were reporting on the use of VR for business purposes. A report by the business research group, ABI, came out in July last year which prompted many in the media to realise just how widespread the uptake of VR had already become. Their study indicated, for example, that the rise in VR would strike a growth rate of 45.7 per cent year on year which meant ABI predicted a global market value of $24.5 billion by 2023.

According to CNBC and others, this huge growth in VR was not just down to more people gaming from home with the technology but business usage, too. Spacial, a company that offers online communication services like Zoom or Skype, was often cited as a good example of the phenomenon. Spacial saw a tenfold growth in the uptake of its service between March, when the pandemic first started to bite in the West, and mid-summer. It was also widely reported that the big business consultancy group Accenture had switched to VR for all of its recruitment processes.

It seemed that the world of virtual commerce felt that it needed to up its game with its available online tools and that investment in VR was seen by many as the furthest developed new technology that was worth adopting. In a world that might become increasingly used to online interactions, anything that made them more meaningful or immersive would surely be of benefit to businesses? This kind of thinking can be borne out by another tech company, Vive X. Its VR research and development teams attracted in the region of $60 million in investment because its tools were seen by many as the future of business training and development in a socially distanced world.

Indeed, although the uptake of VR among consumer markets was marked over the course of the last twelve months, many were pointing out that this was little compared to the VR business market. Of course, VR had embedded itself in some consumer markets, notably in the gaming community, whereas it had less of a foothold in enterprise solutions as the pandemic struck. This may account for some of the differentials between the two sectors. That said, both saw remarkable growth throughout 2020 with business usage of augmented and mixed reality solutions being particularly noteworthy.

VR in the Arts

It was not just the traditional business and consumer video game markets that began adopting VR in greater numbers during the global healthcare crisis either. Many arts groups, theatrical companies, entertainment production companies, museums and galleries began to explore its creative possibilities, too. In some cases, these market distinctions were blurred, such as the innovative VR game platforms which used real-life actors to interact with gamers in online performances.

For instance, the Oldham Coliseum, a nineteenth-century theatre in Greater Manchester, used what it called medical-grade VR headsets in a novel way in November when it trialled the technology for a new production. Named Petrichor, the production was the brainchild of the Thick Skin theatre company. Although performances were limited to just twenty audience members in the 550-seater auditorium due to government restrictions, all of the on-stage action took place in a parallel universe which was delivered through headsets. In fact, Thick Skin had developed this production in 2019 for the Coliseum and had simply expanded and adapted it for a world that had since become accustomed to social distancing.

Elsewhere, the uptake of VR in the museum sector was profound. For example, the Riga Motor Museum in Latvia launched a raft of virtual digital services to allow visitors to explore what it had to offer online. Augmented reality techniques were blended with audiovisual storytelling and games to provide a truly immersive online experience. Architectura Navalis was a special exhibition that was set up by the Deutschen Technikmuseum in April. Another good example of how some museums were quick to turn to VR, its offering was initially made available on YouTube and Facebook, among other channels, within a matter of days following the decision to move it entirely online.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. He writes extensively for Culture Geek and MuseumNext. Manuel has a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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