People are saying these times are unprecedented but that is something of an exaggeration. There have been devastating pandemics before, some of them within living memory.
What has made this one so prolific has been how networked we are now; people can travel all over the world with great speed and that means they can take a deadly disease with them. Ironically, being networked may have been our undoing in the current crisis but it has also moderated some of its worst effects. Many people are now obliged to work from home but are able to do so (subject to their broadband not giving out) thanks to remote access to servers, shared drives, video-conferencing and so forth. Thirty years ago this would have not been so easy.
Extended reality is coming into its own in the new world we live in, as its champions are eager to point out, in a variety of ways.
Firstly, audio- or video-conferencing is keeping us connected but it doesn’t quite have the immersive immediacy of meeting for real. VR meet ups come much closer and, in fact, go one step better. Even when the lockdown ends it’s unlikely I’ll be attending a client or team meeting in a James Bond villain’s lair with a stunning view of the Alps but I can in the virtual world. (Thanks, Glue, for giving me the opportunity to do this when I visited your offices in Helsinki.)
Secondly, teams which can no longer congregate physically can train and design products in an immersive world which, as well as offering all the benefits of AR and VR facilities which industry and academia are already aware of, also confers the now invaluable benefit of safety. You can’t contract Covid-19 from a VR headset however close the avatars are standing to you.
Finally, a lot of people are now worried about their health, their jobs and where the world is headed in general. Enforced isolation makes this worse. Immersive technology can offer entertainment to make the lockdown more bearable and therapeutic products are already proving effective at addressing the mental health issues borne of this crisis.
Of course, the benefits of XR in the current situation come with some risks and challenges. For example, in a virtual collaboration to develop a new vaccine or ventilator the participants will still need to be mindful of the following:
- The rush to get started shouldn’t blind everyone to the need to put a contract in place, detailing who will do and pay for what, who will be liable if anything goes wrong and how intellectual property generated under the project will be owned and exploited.
- Virtual projects are potentially more prone to hacking and unauthorised access, especially if the participants are working from home. Are the requisite cyber-security measures in place? Do all participants appreciate the need to take care? Is insurance cover in place which can be called upon in the event of a data breach?
- Linked to this point, personal data will inevitably be stored and processed in the virtual world of the collaboration. The regulatory obligations to protect it are heavy, all the more so in the case of medical data, and a Covid-19-related virtual project is likely to be using or generating plenty of this. Are the collaborators aware of their responsibilities?
Industry pioneers forget these issues at their peril. If they remember them they can make the most of the current situation and, one hopes, some good can come out of the bad.
At the beginning of this article I said it was an exaggeration to call the times we are now living in “unprecedented”. In the same way, it is probably also an exaggeration to say, “Nothing will ever be the same again”. In many ways, we will go back to the way we lived before, as we have in the past. However, the benefits and potential of virtual meeting and collaboration are now clear for all to see, and once we start heading back into the office or to the airport again, those who have started realising their full potential are unlikely to kick the habit.