Here’s a riddle: how can you be somewhere when you can’t be there?
The answer, tech pioneers hope, is virtual reality (VR).
“I think this is VR’s moment,” said Anne Ahola Ward, a futurist and CEO of CircleClick, a digital marketing agency. “With the pandemic, more of our lives will be shaped online – I think we’ll see VR take over in a few different ways.”
VR lets computers create the illusion that you’re somewhere else.
While the technology isn’t new, its appeal has been limited by clunky, expensive headsets and a lack of content. At last week’s VR/AR Association Global Summit, an online conference attended by nearly 12,000 people, Ward and other experts predicted that VR is about to get real.
The reason? With so many of us working, studying and socializing online during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that video conferencing isn’t always a substitute for interacting in person.
But VR and augmented reality (AR) tech – which lets you see the world around you but adds extra layers – could make it feel more like you’re actually there.
From the conference, here are a few predictions of what a virtual future might look like:
You’ll be using VR in the office
You’ve probably discovered that it’s easy to zone out in a Zoom meeting.
While that’s partly because you’re staring at your distracting computer screen, it’s also because you’re not picking up on body language, said VR expert Charlie Fink.
“You’re missing the presence that you’d have in a conference room,” said Fink, a Forbes columnist and former Disney executive. “That presence is necessary for real collaboration.”
For activities like brainstorming, face-to-face interaction is essential, Fink said. He believes VR will get better at approximating it.
Fink predicts that more offices will use VR apps like Spatial, which lets you interact with avatars of your team members as if you were all in the same room.
But you’ll still be using Zoom
VR won’t replace everything – sometimes video calls on a screen will be more practical. “I hope we’ll be medium-hopping back and forth from Zoom to the Oculus Quest,” Fink said. “We do the same thing now between our mobile devices and our laptops.”
A few big players might take over
Right now, more than 120 companies produce VR solutions.
“This is a moment of tremendous fragmentation,” Fink said. “These companies will slowly be consolidated by the Zooms and Microsofts of the world.”
5G will bring smaller headsets
“5G is going to unleash the full potential of many technologies,” said Dr. Behice Ece Ilhan, a futurist and marketing strategist. “VR will be more user-friendly and smaller when 5G arrives.”
5G, the next-generation wireless network technology that’s slowly rolling out now, will allow faster connections, Ilhan said.
That means VR headsets and glasses won’t have to have big processers to create a virtual world – instead, they’ll connect to remote computers that will do all the work.
We might not need headsets at all
Galit Ariel, a futurist and author, predicts that holograms will eventually replace headsets.
With holograms, you can still see the world and the people around you – and you don’t need special goggles to participate.
“Holograms still have a lot of problems, especially outside,” she said. “We’re not there yet, but all the paths are leading to holographic experiences.”
In the future, if you’re buying a couch from Ikea, the store could project a hologram into your living room, Ilhan said.
For widespread acceptance, AR and VR can’t just be for games
“Right now, a lot of the consumer applications are for leisure and first-world problems,” Ariel said. “If we really want this tech to get out there, we need to focus on hard problems.”
For VR to really take off, it will also have to be practical and easy to use.
“We’ll know when the future is here when people use AR/VR without thinking about it, like they use their phones,” Ward said. “It needs to be seamless – face filters [like Snapchat] have been so popular because people don’t know that they’re AR.”
Even if VR takes off, it won’t replace reality
“During the pandemic, all kids wanted to do was play outside,” Ariel said. “We won’t all just jump into a virtual world – there is a craving for physical interaction.”