The Future of Virtual Experiences Post-Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes to every aspect of our lives, no more so than in the way we use technology. As countries and cities imposed lockdowns, the world turned to digital means to stay connected in the ‘new normal’. Everything from work and education to entertainment and fitness classes went virtual almost overnight. In the initial weeks of the pandemic alone, total broadband traffic increased by 32% and video conferencing increased by 212%. There is now evidence emerging that this sharp uptake in digital technology and widespread behavioural change will endure post-pandemic.
Graph from memoori
Virtual Experiences Are Showing Potential
Companies that previously might have been adverse to letting staff work remotely, were forced to adopt digital tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to keep their businesses running — and many have seen an increase in productivity. A recent survey by Sectigo, showed that nearly half (49%) of IT professionals say productivity has increased since remote working was imposed, while only 16% feel it has decreased.
Video conferencing has its perks such as reduced environmental and financial cost of travel, no time wasted moving between meeting rooms and comfort in your own space. Having proven they can make it work, technology firm Fujitsu recently announced that their staff will primarily work on a remote basis going forward and Twitter said that its staff could work from home ‘forever’ if they wished.
Similarly, digital tools have made it possible for students to continue their education during the pandemic. Virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, and e-learning software, have all seen a significant uplift — and it is proving effective. Research indicates students retain 25-60% more material when learning online and that it takes 40-60% less time to learn as students can learn at their own pace. Furthermore, research by childcare start-up Koru Kids, found that 13% of respondents were not convinced about sending their children back to classrooms at the start of the new academic year, so it is likely that virtual classrooms will be mainstay in the foreseeable future.
Elsewhere, organisers of cancelled music festivals are flocking to bring digital versions of their events into people’s living rooms. Defected Records was one of the first to take this step in March with their virtual festival live from Ministry of Sound. Wireless, Download and Glastonbury’s Shangri-La will follow suit and host virtual editions this summer.
Virtual concerts have several benefits such as increased audience size which may make it attractive to organisers long term, especially if they can be monetised. Post-pandemic, it can be expected that organisers will increasingly compliment their real-life events with free and ticketed digital experiences.
In the post-pandemic age, sporting events are looking to digital means to boost fan experience whilst stadiums are empty. Electronic Arts supplied crowd noise for La Liga and Premier League, gathered from their FIFA video game series. La Liga also superimposed fans into the stadium in an attempt to aid the fan’s suspension of disbelief however, they were only a static texture and individual spectators are not rendered individually.
‘OZ Connected Stadium’ presents a more sophisticated solution with their AR-enabled option that lets real fans appear digitally in empty seats. Fans simply sign up on a website where they create an avatar and broadcasters can choose to overlay said avatars on empty seats. Low-latency time synchronisation and AI algorithms manage volume levels, enabling fans to yell as loudly as they like in real-time, without overpowering the audio stream.
Business travel has effectively been replaced, thanks to video conferencing and virtual summits. When the Game Developers Conference was cancelled in March due to the pandemic, Microsoft sprung into action with Game Stack Live where they streamed the content they planned to share. By completely removing the cost and time implications of travel, it is easier than ever before for people to attend multiple conferences and events. Virtual tourism is also showing its potential. Using a VR headset, homebound tourists can take a tour of Machu Picchu and the Eiffel Tower as well as the British Museum, the Louvre.
Transforming Virtual Experiences to Virtual Worlds
Cost and environmental pressures will continue to drive the demand for virtual worlds long-term. The industry now needs to think differently and find a way to support a vast number of connections, often across distributed geographies whilst increasing the output quality of production to create more immersive and realistic experiences. Creators of virtual worlds must also think beyond the constraints of VR headsets which not only inaccessible for many due to cost, the negative impact of the pandemic on supply chains mean VR headset shipments will experience a year-over-year decline of 10.5 percent, followed by a decline of 24.1 percent in the second quarter of the year.
The development of virtual worlds is also being held back by the inability to efficiently maximise resources and harness cloud computing. Developers have been left searching for a way to improve the speed, scalability and reliability of distributed systems, and overcome the restrictions current infrastructure imposes on virtual worlds, including limited user counts, and a lack of rich interactions.
The global pandemic forced us to adopt virtual experiences in our day-to-day lives — and many have been converted. On this foundation lies the potential to take it to the next level. If today’s technological limitations are overcome, virtual worlds could potentially sit outside the confines of limited connections, entity counts and realism, and transform novelty virtual experiences into persistent and immersive virtual worlds.