The world is more connected than ever before, and the ease of travel makes the speed at which we connect even easier. 

Today, however, travel is being called into question, with the coronavirus (COVID-19) sweeping the globe. Growing concerns have led people, governments and organizations to exercise extreme caution around travel and meetings.

This raises a question – at a time when in-person connection is challenged, how might exponential technologies enable conversations and convene communities? 

Video conferencing tools such as Webex, Google Hangouts and Zoom, a communications software that combines video conferencing, online meetings, chat, and mobile collaboration, support the ability to work remotely. Amid the outbreak, shares in Zoom’s stock were up 40 per cent in February, and the company has already gained 2.22 million monthly active users so far in 2020, compared to 1.99 million gained in all of 2019. These numbers highlight that people are recognizing that technology is the way of now, and are finding new ways to connect in a world that is becoming polarized, in the presence of fear.  

“What we might start to see is that the idea of spending time with people in an entirely virtual environment will become a far more common and mainstream concept.” – Aaron Frank, Principal Faculty, AR/VR, Singularity University

Yet, what if we could take remote conferencing one step further and make it more interactive and human?  This is where Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR and VR) get really exciting.

Aaron Frank, Principal Faculty, AR/VR at Singularity University, is focused on the intersection of emerging technologies and accelerating change. He has closely studied VirBELA, as part of his research on virtual communities.  

“The idea of interacting digitally with people in 3D space is useful for a few very specific reasons,” said Frank. “It helps to replicate many of the social norms and behaviours that you might expect to see in the real world, [things like] personal space, body language and other social cues that humans use to connect and interact with other people.” 

Pointing out that online virtual communities are by no means a new concept, Frank predicts them continuing to develop in unique and interesting ways. “What we might start to see is that the idea of spending time with people in an entirely virtual environment will become a far more common and mainstream concept.” 

Additionally, outbreaks such as COVID-19 should spur experimentation and investments in new forms of helping individuals connect. “I do think that [this outbreak] will be a driving force for organizations to get creative and innovative in exploring other ways to help people connect and feel as if they are physically present with others, even though they are located far apart,” he said. 

While many people may think of AR and VR as existing mainly within the gaming realm, there are some everyday uses that make this technology transformative for the way we live and work. For instance, furniture store IKEA uses its AR app to assist customers in selecting the perfect item of furniture, while clothing store Gap modernizes the shopping experience with the offer of virtual changing rooms. 

AR and VR tools are revolutionizing the workplace. Walmart has trained millions of employees using VR, while Verizon has been using the technology to train its retail workers in how to handle armed robberies. Osterhout Design Group (ODG) designed a product for commercial airline pilots, to aid them in making safe landings in emergency situations. With the appearance of a standard oxygen mask, the AR-enabled Smoke Assured Vision Enhanced Display (SAVED) mask has a heads-up display showing a view from the nose of the plane, and allowing them to see clearly in a smoke-filled cabin. 

online meeting room

A virtual meeting taking place in VirBELA

Enter VirBELA, an immersive software that enables next-generation remote collaboration. Redefining the future of work through a virtual reality experience, the platform allows companies to grow and scale in the cloud, and also hire the best talent, wherever they may be located. Operating as a virtual world, yet with the addition of a 3D layer, it involves the use of personal avatars and three dimensional space. 

For some larger organizations that may be more traditional in their operations and means of communicating, how can they become more open to change? 

Frank pointed out that adaptability and willingness to change are core attributes that may be embedded into the DNA of some organizations, but not all. “It’s not an easy thing to fix if adaptibity isn’t part of the DNA, but it is possible to improve,” he said. 

His advice for companies looking to break out of the traditional norm and embrace innovation? “I would just say that companies should work to stretch themselves beyond what is comfortable, and try things that may even seem crazy.” 

“The first step is to be self-aware about your willingness to be open to change, and from there, try to be intentional about trying new things.”