Article

Virtual Connection in a Quarantined World

By Paul Bestul, AIA

“I feel like I haven’t left the house in years.”

This is a common refrain I’ve been hearing from everyone I know. In what was an extraordinary and necessary public health response to a global pandemic, half of the world’s population has been told to self-isolate. Our traditionally social spaces (restaurants, bars, concert venues) have all been shut down by “shelter in place” or “safer at home” orders in an effort to save us from ourselves.

After the mass closures, my social media feed instantly became filled with optimistic messages like “you can still play outdoors!” and “sunny spring days aren’t cancelled!”. The very next day, the parks were all closed. Which is fine since it snowed anyway. Nearly two months into the quarantine it’s snowing again. In May.

Wisconsin has a dark sense of humor.

Stuck inside sometime between the “Spring of Deception” and “Third Winter,” in an effort to ward off my impending cabin fever, I turned to my VR headset (this being the same headset used in my previous discussion on how virtual reality can be used as a design tool and the thought experiment on designing buildings entirely in VR).

What began as a form of escape ended up as a learning opportunity, exploring applications for VR that we will be able to use even after we’re no longer isolated.

Image from InsiteVR

Productivity

Running conference calls among multiple groups of people in remote locations is difficult enough, but when everyone is in a different building it can become a special kind of chaos. Everyone speaks at once. Then 5 seconds of silence. Then everyone speaks again: “no, you go ahead.” Wash, rinse, repeat.

The issue is that not everyone has a webcam and those who do may prefer not to use it. It’s hard to read a room for traditional conversation cues when you cannot see the room.

Enter multi-user virtual reality.

VR headsets are already perfect for virtual meetings. Spatial tracking identifies which direction you’re pointing, controllers translate your gestures like in real life, and microphones are built-in and out-of-the-way. This all comes together to create an illusion as if everyone were in the same room together.

It’s perfect for facilitating coordination, communication, and creativity (whether between two conference rooms or the hundreds of home offices in which we now are working).

Programs such as IrisVR and InsiteVR have simply and elegantly created a platform to take advantage of the hardware by allowing multiple users to inhabit and review the same architectural model simultaneously. Just like a construction site walkthrough or a benchmarking tour, everyone can virtually inspect, explore, measure, and view specs on anything in the building. It allows teams to work together while miles apart without missing a beat.

And as an added bonus for those camera-shy individuals: everyone is represented by the same avatar, so no worries about how your hair looks.

Image from vrhealth.institute

Exercise

Do you remember Tae Bo? It was a kickboxing-like activity wherein you used actual martial arts moves to defend yourself from imaginary foes. While it seemed like it was everywhere in the 90s, it proved to be a fad disappearing quickly thereafter (it was an entire unit in my phys-ed classes well after its heyday which – full disclosure – I did not enjoy). Perhaps the concept peaked too soon – and maybe it simply needed the help of new technology. There is a nascent field of study dedicated to the efficacy of virtual reality workouts that employs the same type of exercise Tae Bo advocated nearly 30 years ago.

Several startups have been founded recently with the express purpose of exploring the question “can video games actually provide a good workout?” YUR Fitness has developed a “virtual smart watch” that tracks your exercise within any VR application. The VR Health Institute runs biometric tests on groups of people as they play new VR games to identify the best workouts, measuring both heart rate and METs, and which real-world exercise it most approximates. Breakout hit rhythm game Beat Saber recently released a fitness-centric song, providing an official industry answer to that question with a resounding “come on, work ya body.”

The top-ranking games in this genre are, unsurprisingly, boxing games. These can rack up 600+ calories per hour, which is exactly the rate that Billy Blanks advertised with his shadow boxing series. Dancing/rhythm games are close behind, burning 300-500 (depending on difficulty level, possibly more) while maintaining a consistently elevated heart rate. I can attest from personal experience that an hour of Beat Saber provides the same exercise benefits as a vigorous game of tennis. Even games that don’t require you to move quickly, or even encourage you to move as slowly as possible while dodging projectiles, provide a solid core-training opportunity (as in Superhot VR).

One of the greatest benefits of using VR as an exercise regimen is that it is fully scalable. By providing different difficultly levels, these games allow people of all skill (and health) levels to explore this as an option when going to a gym, yoga, or kickboxing class is not. Even after quarantines are lifted, I can see enterprising physical therapists and hospital wellness programs incorporating VR to add a bit of play into their sessions. With the amount of data that is being collected on the impact of virtual exercise routines, I believe it’s just a matter of time before doctors are prescribing “30 minutes of hack-n-slash a day.”

Video games are no longer considered mostly sedentary activities. VR will get you out of your chair and break a sweat while staying socially distanced indoors. You may still look goofy, but you will feel like a superhero ninja while getting in a pretty decent workout. Since nobody is around to see you, isn’t that what’s really important?

Image from Oculus

Escape

After you’ve given your clients a virtual tour through their future building and recovered from a vigorous workout, you feel like you have earned a little respite. You put on your shoes, walk outside, but it’s raining yet again (or in the Midwest, snowing). You feel the need to go somewhere, anywhere, to get away. Possibly the mountains, maybe a beach? Then you realize all bus, train, and air travel has been restricted.

Fortunately, virtual reality can help with that as well.

VR-as-TV is quickly becoming one of the most-invested-in sectors of virtual and augmented reality. While stereoscopic 360-degree videos may have seemed like a gimmick when YouTube first supported the format (a perfect content supplement to also-Google-owned Cardboard chock-full of rollercoaster videos), professional filmmakers are exploring what is possible in VR that wasn’t before and pushing the medium forward.

Facebook-owned Oculus has several applications that allow you to enjoy VR without flailing your limbs about. Most recently, the aptly named Oculus TV has released a three-part documentary about the summiting of Mount Everest.

Apple likely already owns NextVR, which has proven itself to be a highly-immersive way to attend concert and sporting events that are sold-out or otherwise inaccessible.

This format was already on its way to becoming an established mode of entertainment. Expect the quarantine to accelerate its development in the near future.

Since the trajectory of headset development is to become completely self-contained, I can see this as a popular distraction in spaces that people share with others but have no opportunity to move, such as those sitting on a plane or laying in a hospital bed.

Conclusion

VR is still a fairly expensive hobby and a highly niche market. I understand that not everyone has access to or can afford a setup. However, it is still one of the best-suited solutions to many of the issues that social distancing creates, and it may become more popular (and accessible) as a result of our extended isolation. I’m looking forward to when we can see each other again in person, but in the meantime you can find me trying to save humanity by avoiding Jeff.

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