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Virtual reality and simulation see an uptick during the pandemic

Virtual reality and simulation have the potential to transform the way people work by enabling remote collaboration in ways never before possible. That was the sentiment experts expressed in a discussion on enterprise and “the metaverse” at GamesBeat’s Driving Game Growth & Into the Metaverse conference, which seeks to explore how virtual environments might impact both our daily lives and  industries.

We live in an increasingly virtual world, owing in part to a pandemic that shows worrisome signs of becoming endemic. As the health crises forces engineers, designers, and researchers to build and simulate physical worlds to test their designs, the big question for a growing number of executive decision-makers is whether these changes are here to stay — and what their implications might be.

Richard Karris, an industry general manager for media and entertainment at Nvidia, said he’s seen an uptick in use of Omniverse, Nvidia’s cloud platform designed to support design workflows and real-time coordination. Omniverse, which Nvidia announced during its GTC 2020 keynote event, launched in open beta in October after a yearlong early access program in which Ericsson, Foster + Partners, ILM, and over 40 other companies evaluated the platform and provided feedback to the Nvidia engineering team.

“We’ve seen architectural [and] manufacturing companies … make real initial progress with this platform. What they’ve been able to do is have a higher degree of simulation and a quicker degree of turnaround of ideas, no matter where they are,” Karris said. “We’re seeing some really innovative use cases, like car companies that are using this to visualize their car but tie the backend of the platform to their database for all the materials and components so they can, on the fly, configure a car and see what it’s going to be like in a photorealistic view.”

Christoph Fleischmann, the founder of Arthur Technologies, said he’s seen “huge adoption” of his company’s virtual reality technologies that provide virtual office spaces allowing teams to meet and manage work. These technologies provide employees a way to share ideas, concepts, and data rather than work on physical products, Fleischmann stressed — even during a global pandemic. “[Arthur isn’t] really visualizing the real world — we’re creating a virtual environment where people can meet and collaborate in 3D space,” he said. “In this segment of non-visualization, non-simulation use cases, our general business work is shifting towards this metaverse through solutions like ours.”

Indeed, Statista forecasts that the augmented reality and virtual reality market will hit $ 72.8 billion in 2024, when as many as 43.5 million headsets will be sold. And according to Markets and Markets, the simulation software market size was $ 5.1 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $ 13.45 billion in 2020.

Neither Fleischmann nor Raffaella Camera, a former global head of innovation and strategy at Accenture, believe headset form factors pose a barrier to adoption of virtual reality technologies. They point to the proliferation of affordable, portable products like Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 and Samsung Gear VR among others. However, both agree that realistic avatars remain a major challenge for the industry. Once it’s overcome, Fleischmann and Camera assert virtual reality will deliver emotional connections that today’s video calls can’t because it’ll make users feel present.

To this end, at the 2020 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition, a team affiliated with Facebook’s Oculus division presented research toward photorealistic avatars and full-body tracking. While the team warned that the technology was “years away” for consumer products, the photorealistic avatars, fully tracked from real motion, support the notion that the need for face-to-face interaction might fundamentally change in the years to come.

“If we want to do true meetings, in a virtual environment, whatever the platform, we need to be able to read what the other person is and what the other person means,” Camera said. “I think that once we have that embedded in the solutions and in the headsets or the devices versus just having it in the lab, it will be a completely different ballgame.”

Despite its potential, virtual reality and simulation aren’t likely to replace in-person experiences anytime soon, Fleischmann, Camera, and Karris agree. While these technologies might enable people to participate in events, meetings, and experiences that’d otherwise require travel, they won’t necessarily satisfy the need for socialization.

“One of the things that you get out of attending [conferences] is the, you know, the spontaneous,” Camera said. “You’re walking down the hall, you see someone — those types of things. I don’t think you’ll ever replace all that.”

Still, Fleischmann is bullish about virtual reality in the future. He asserts that enterprise will be a driving force in the adoption of VR, possibly “much faster” than gaming and entertainment because the benefits to companies from adopting this technology could be “huge.” (According to a 2019 PricewaterhouseCoopers report, by 2030, 23 million jobs will be using augmented reality and virtual reality in one way or another.)

“I think that in 20 years, we’ll tell our children that this is how we lived and how we made decisions, but it’ll sound barbaric to them — that geography dictated so much about our life,” Fleischmann said. “While I think there’s one way of looking at this in a really dystopian way — that we’re submitting ourselves to the matrix — I think the very, very positive way of seeing that is that you just make the landscape of opportunities really flat around the world, and you allow anyone to work with anyone in these virtual spaces. You can physically be wherever you want with your loved ones, or are at the beach.”

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