Pandemic has slowed interest in virtual reality — but it's also helping connect people in surprising ways

Many activities have moved to our screens and online over the course of the pandemic, but we're still much more likely to invest in an ergonomic chair than a VR headset. So what still stands in the way of wider adoption of virtual reality?

Medical college, pilots developing physically-distanced, data-driven training in VR

A nursing student uses a new virtual reality program at Bow Valley College in Calgary. The college teamed up with technology company ICOM Productions. Ltd., to develop an assessment tool that practical nursing students will use in a new, state-of-the-art laboratory starting in the winter 2020 term. (Chris Bolin/Bow Valley College)

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many people to spend more time than usual indoors over the last few months, one might think it's the perfect time to jack into another world with the help of a virtual reality headset.

But while VR and related technologies have been slowly growing in popularity, there hasn't been a COVID-inspired spike in interest among consumers.

"We have seen an increase in adoption over the last year. Do I think that that's necessarily specific to COVID, or that COVID has had a big impact on that? I don't know," said Stephanie Llamas, a head researcher at Superdata, a market analysis company owned by Nielsen that specializes in the virtual reality and video games industries.

Instead, she told Spark host Nora Young, the pandemic may have put the industry's expansion plans on hold.

Not quite cyberpunk

Tech pioneer Jaron Lanier is widely credited with coining the term "virtual reality" in 1987, to refer to technology that plunges a user into a simulated world. It's been pegged as the next big thing ever since. But it hasn't really caught on with the general public.

"People were expecting Tron," Llamas said of the early experimental prototypes in the 1980s and '90s – such as Nintendo's neck-straining, red-and-black flop the Virtual Boy.

"They were expecting to go into another universe — and really expecting what we see [in the latest devices] today."

For now, though, consumer VR remains a slender slice of the bigger gaming pie. Sony sold millions of its PlayStation VR headset since it launched in 2016, but the Japan-based gaming giant was relatively silent on VR's role when launching its newest console, the PlayStation 5 in November.

An attendee tries out the Oculus Quest VR gaming system at the Facebook F8 Conference at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, Calif., on April 30, 2019. (Amy Osborne/AFP via Getty Images)

VR arcades — locations where customers can rent the use of a headset for a limited time — are closed like other nonessential businesses.

Without that first hit, fewer people will be convinced to buy a headset of their own — which could cost anywhere from $400 to over $1,200 — falling back on more widely available solutions like the now-ubiquitous Zoom call.

"We really anticipated location-based entertainment being a huge driver this year, and it's non-existent," said Llamas.

That doesn't mean VR and related tech aren't popular in one form or another, however.

Llamas said that augmented reality, which superimposes digital images onto moving real-life camera footage, is extremely popular. They're just better known as "filters" in social apps like Instagram or Snapchat.

Virtual classrooms

While the pandemic hasn't been a particularly close friend to the consumer VR market, the technology is making headway in applied education, where hands-on training has become more challenging.

Bow Valley College in Calgary, for example, recently incorporated VR training into their nursing program.

"So you put the headset on, and … you see [a digital avatar of] the patient. You see the environment with the bed and windows. The environment is very, very real," said health and community studies dean Nora MacLachlan.

Nora MacLachlan is health and community studies dean at Bow Valley College in Calgary. The school built a training area with multiple VR systems to facilitate their virtual sessions. It's also adapting the software to be used by students at home without a VR headset of their own. (Chris Bolin/Bow Valley College)

Currently, the VR program is designed to simulate observing a patient with possible respiratory issues. Students pick up a virtual stethoscope, and listen to the digital patient for breathing sounds related to pneumonia, asthma or Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Bow Valley College started the program about six months before the pandemic, including the setup of a lab with 11 VR stations for students to run through the classes together.

The simulation is also able to build virtual patients of varying ages and ethnicities. MacLachlan says this is crucial to help patients build familiarity and empathy with many different kinds of patients — potentially more than might be available during the same lesson with a smaller pool of real-life patients.

"It's extremely important for our learners to have the experience with diverse populations and be prepared to have those experiences when they go into the health-care environment," she said.

MacLachlan says they're working on adapting the program for a regular desktop computer for students at home. They're also hoping to expand the program to include scenarios to assess cardiac or EEMT — eyes, ears, nose and mouth — conditions.

VR flight path

Rather than peering down someone's esophagus, David Culos is using VR to help pilots take to the skies.

An airline pilot for 25 years, the Toronto-based Culos found himself grounded along with most of the commercial airline business in March. He's since pivoted his experience in pilot training to develop AlphaVR Flight Simulation, a program that can provide a sophisticated simulation of an airplane's cockpit.

David Culos was a pilot for the Toronto-based Porter Airlines before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a severe drop in commercial flights. (Submitted by Dave Culos)

AlphaVR's setup uses both a VR headset and a simplified cockpit, complete with physical flight sticks. Even with a physical component, Culos said a VR flight simulator built to handle all the tasks required of actual pilot training could cut down operational costs.

"The industry standard for our training … [costs] somewhere between five and 10 million dollars apiece, and cost thousands of dollars an hour to operate with a team of maintenance technicians," he said.

As a pandemic-era bonus, he added that it would allow instructors and students to communicate remotely instead of being in the same room for lessons. It might also help boost the number of training spots that may be needed whenever the pandemic winds down.

Pilot Jack Crone takes a seat in David Culos's virtual reality training setup, featuring a simulated cockpit with flight sticks. (Submitted by Dave Culos)

"We are going to see thousands of pilots come back to work after a long absence, and they're going to need, in some cases, some additional booster training above what's required of them by the regulations," he said.

"With a lower cost solution, we can immerse people and run them through a familiarization session if you would, and get people back up to speed that way."

Refined with more data

Both MacLachlan and Culos noted that incorporating VR technology into their training could help gather crucial session data that could help refine training in the future.

Eye-tracking software can monitor where a pilot looks during a simulated emergency situation, for example, or track exactly when a medical student detects a patient's physical ailment.

Llamas says this kind of data about how people use VR, AR and related technology can not only help refine these training programs and other industry uses, but also help tailor the next generations of consumer devices as well.

"I think there are a lot of assumptions that are made about how people should or will experience virtual reality. That isn't always the case," she said.

"The data is showing us how different folks can create experiences that are going to be the most beneficial."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Olsy Sorokina.

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