VR In the Times of Coronavirus

VR In the Times of Coronavirus

I don't usually like to get out my crystal ball - I'm pretty bad at making predictions that don't rely on simple underpinnings, like demographics or regulatory changes, for instance. They are pretty simple for most people to understand. That's why I like them - I'm a simple guy. My personal investment portfolio is all based on demographics and things that I hopefully can predict years in advance. LearningLeaders wasn't founded on a particularly controversial thesis. I don't try to be an iconoclast just to be one.

But I'm going to go out on a limb here - and you can hold me to this prediction and we can laugh at it together if it completely fails to materialize: Within the next 12 months, the sports and entertainment industries will completely change the way the world interacts with VR.

Let's remember what VR is really good for: 1) experiences that are too rare to organize in person, 2) experiences that are too dangerous to organize in person, 3) experiences that are too expensive to organize in person.

VR is great for touring a villa in Italy without needing to travel there. VR is great for viewing a live concert from the front row when you can't afford a $800 ticket. VR is great for a first person shooter game that you wouldn't want to actually do yourself in real life. VR is great for public speaking, which for most people is perceived as too dangerous to one's ego to practice in front of real people.

VR is also not great for a lot of things. In fact, it's probably not great for more activities than it is suitable for. Many experiences you really don't need to be immersed in to enjoy. These might include: writing an email, reading a book, or viewing a cooking video.

So what's going to happen in 2020 that changes the course of VR? People's fear of getting sick.

Spectator events are going to change fundamentally as a result of the coronavirus (I'm just going to keep calling it coronavirus - apologies for the poor science - but ten years from now I think people will still be calling it coronavirus, not covid-19).

Tokyo has cancelled the March 1 marathon to outside participants and spectators. Dozens of globally-important sporting events (like rugby, F-1, and yes, WIDPSC) have been cancelled or postponed in the months of March and April.

Just this weekend, with the advent of over 100 reported cases in Italy, professional football matches are being cancelled. With teams traveling all over Europe to play at each other's home stadiums, it's not too much to think that within the month there will be cancellations all over Europe.

Many people will simply be too scared to attend large-scale spectator events - but maybe more importantly: stadiums, leagues, teams, and franchise owners will be too risk-averse to have anyone get sick 'on their watch' over the coming months.

Professional sports teams may soon be playing to empty stadiums.

Professional musicians may soon be playing to empty festivals. While to me, this is ludicrous, large groups of people respond differently than individuals.

A change in quantity often precipitates a change in kind.

The Tokyo Olympic Games will have a certain number of countries withdraw, prompting the event organizers to fundamentally re-think how they are going to commercialize the Games. The Olympic Games are historically the most watched event on planet earth - the most recent games all attract over 3 Billion viewers over the two-week period. In person ticket sales this year are going to retail for about 1 Billion USD in Tokyo.

As for concerts - last year I wrote a piece about Marshmello's concert in Fortnite. Expect to see a lot more of that in the coming 12 months...

So this is all happening on the demand side.

In parallel, the supply side has fundamentally changed in the last year.

Between 2018 and 2019, interviews for AR and MR engineers grew 1,400%, according to Hired, a job search firm based across the US and Europe. This was 10x faster growth in positions than gaming and computer vision and even 15x faster than machine learning positions!

Larger companies, like Apple and Microsoft (and Facebook, as we already know), are betting big on mixed reality. Their timelines are all within the 2020 - 2022 range. That's why they're staffing up in preparation for larger launches in the coming years. But in the short term, in 2020, all these companies will have more MR engineers than they actually know what to do with.

And we'll be facing not only the 'largest work-from-home' experiment in the world, but also the 'largest watch-live-sports-and-entertainment from home' experiment in the world. Microsoft is really focusing on the business and AR space, but I don't think it's crazy at all to see Oculus partner with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to provide free content in order to hook more people on headsets. In fact, I bet there's already a press release in the works.

Locally, let's remember that Chinese internet users have the greatest penetration of VR usage in the world. And boy oh boy, will they want to see their athletes dominate this summer. For the last decade, China has absolutely crushed the Summer Olympics (though still struggles in the Winter Games). Expect there to be a red wave of patriotism for this Summer's Games, especially as the central government wants to pursue an agenda of nationalism and 'revival' or 're-awakening' in the wake of the coronavirus.

By the summer, my guess is that China's containment of the virus will have largely worked and the number of cases will be small. But in the rest of the world, who doesn't have or is less willing to enact the same invasive authoritarian mechanisms of restricting citizen movement, the spread will be painfully extended. This summer, although most Chinese citizens may not be able to travel to see the Olympics, there will be absurd amounts of patriotism - some of it delivered through a Xiaomi or Huawei VR headset.

The caveat to much of this is unfortunate reality for virtual reality today: internet speeds are not where they need to be for earth-shatteringly immersive experiences. Even with download speeds of 50 to 200 Mbps and while using foveated rendering, the experience won't feel completely immersive to the viewer in live form. If 4G tops out at 100 Mbps and 5G tops out at 10 Gpbs, then it won't really be until countries have fully souped up 5G networks would this virtual-live-stream-from-home experiment work perfectly.

So for the doubters out there - you're absolutely right: we're not all going to be watching the 2020 Tokyo Olympics live in VR all day. The tech specs are still just behind what we need to make it a seamless experience.

But what will happen is that this year, when many people feel unsafe about going to crowded places and public events (including sporting events and concerts and the like), they will search for the next best thing.

Much like what we're seeing right now in the education industry in China - many parents and students simply don't have a choice. They have to learn from home for the next few weeks. So they will learn to work with online education, warts and all.

My rather sad prediction is that the perceived threat of the coronavirus in countries all over the world is going to take longer to 'clean up' than we hope.

There will still be daily news reports and updates of the number of infected and number dead for months to come. For most of us, we'll resume nearly all of the habits of our 2019 lives in the coming weeks. Undoubtedly though, with an increased sense of caution.

And this may mean people are still wearing masks at the Louvre in July. And this may mean that football teams play to empty stadiums. And this may mean that Taylor Swift cancels part of her summer tour.

And this all means that the world's relationship with VR will change