In times of quarantine and social isolation, stock prices of leading video communication companies such as Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts are surging in response to the worldwide increase in usage. When physical contact has been reduced to an absolute minimum, visual communications surge to become more important than ever. Yet, video calls still fail to deliver the same feeling of physically being in a room with colleagues and family, and are often clumsy as participants talk simultaneously or misread non-verbal signals of other participants in the call.
A promising solution could be emerging virtual reality (VR) technology. Within VR, people are fully immersed in a virtual 360 world, such as a conference room or a lecture hall, and can socially interact with each other. Most innovative VR solutions allow people to virtually experience others in VR, enabling users to see hand gestures, body movements and even facial expressions. This allows for virtual interactions that feel much more like a physical meeting than your average Zoom call.
One of the challenges with VR is the mass-adaptation of VR devices for the end customer. While VR glasses have been widely pushed on the customer markets in the past year, an expensive price tag and limited applications have made adoption slow. Prior to the pandemic, VR was widely smiled upon as being an interesting gimmick that, mainly applicable to the gaming industry, even if initial applications were in the areas of elderly care (providing elderly patients with the possibility to experience a journey to a nice holiday destination) and phobia treatment (e.g. virtual exposure to heights) exist. The need for virtual interaction that resemble physical interaction has surged in the past weeks, and VR companies have registered an immense demand for virtual events, such as lectures, webinars, of virtual conferences. Even the supposedly less “serious” uses of VR are looking more and more like necessities than gimmicks. With tourism on hold, an hour on a virtual beach could impact user’s moods in a positive way, providing much needed stress relief.
Another class of technologies that is widely available on people’s devices is called Augmented Reality (AR). Different to VR, AR users are not fully immersed in a virtual world but experience a combination of holographic and “real” content in their visual field. This mixed-reality is evident in today’s online meetings using Zoom — a software that allows users’ to virtually change their background while the user himself stays in the video, a mix of physical and digital content.
Other (more useful) examples of AR in daily life include various applications on smartphones that offer support in this time of crisis. SureWash’s application uses AR to teach users to wash their hands using the WHO methods.
SureWash Pocket — An AR application that helps you washing your hand following the WHO guidelines. Link to the video of the app: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=42&v=1dhXr2K3eTo&feature=emb_logo
However, not all AR applications are socially beneficial in the time of COVID19. Facebook, SnapChat, and Instagram are reportedly having to deal with a new wave of AR filters and effects that contribute to the spread of false information on how to predict, diagnose, treat, and even cure COVID19.
Despite this negative or false information, there is emerging preliminary research by academics on how AR and VR technology can contribute to solving issues related to the COVID19 pandemic. Augmented ReseARch (https://www.augmented-research.com/), a global research consortium from the Netherlands, the UK, and Australia, has started to investigate how AR can be used to increase the understanding for the need of social distancing. Recently SnapChat has also introduced an AR lens to promote social distancing, highlighting the potential use of AR to fight COVID19.
Snapchat’s Social Distancing AR feature. Source: https://www.digitalinformationworld.com/2020/04/implement-social-distancing-with-snapchat-app.html#postimages-1
Visualizing technologies such as VR and AR could support the society in these difficult times if implemented ethically and with the right intentions in mind. Whether to teach people how to properly wash their hands, how to keep distance, or allowing them to virtually try out products from their home, COVID19 might unfold the potential of holograms and virtual worlds to the fullest.
Dr. Jonas Heller is a post-doctoral researcher at the Brightlands Institute for Smart Society (BISS) of Maastricht University. He has a strong background in digital technologies, consumer behaviour and sensory aspects of technology. He completed his PhD in Marketing at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). His research investigates how emerging digital technologies (such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality) impact customer experiences when consuming products or services. In particular, his research studies how new forms of data visualization impact customer’s cognitive and affective responses and how these responses translate into customer behaviour in retailing and service contexts.