2020 is already a year of seismic change. The way we communicate as individuals and teams has adapted to incorporate technology that – while readily available and used by many – was still a long way from the norm just a few months ago.

As the world comes to terms with a new normal, tools such as Zoom, Teams, Skype, Facetime, Webex and TelePresence are now an integral part of everyone’s every day, relied upon to keep business, and society, functioning.

Enter, stage right, the next protagonist in this evolution of communication: virtual reality (VR). Given how quickly videoconferencing has been accepted, albeit out of necessity, as ‘the way we do things around here’, it is likely that this step will be both easier to take and taken more quickly.

The fact that VR tools are already freely available – and that, at their most basic, no dedicated hardware (in the form of headsets) is required – will only facilitate matters.

VR meetings offer benefits and advantages way beyond those of the tools we are using currently, which in turn are an improvement (in terms of the ability to share data and collaborate on projects) on the real-time, face-to-face that we relied on before now. (Which is not, of course, to say that person-to-person meetings will fall by the wayside – the advantages of real-time physical interaction are too great.)

According to this Data Center Knowledge article in 2018, “the entertainment and aviation industries were the first to use VR, but the technology is proving to be a major asset in real estate, defense (sic), healthcare and education”.

“In real estate, for example, VR allows builders to ‘show’ prospective clients their structure in 3D, before construction teams have ever broken ground. In healthcare, VR helps doctors prepare for important surgeries with intricate, real-time simulations.

“Even the sporting industry is ripe for VR. The technology can transport viewers from their couch to the 18th hole at Augusta National, and let NFL quarterbacks go beyond film study to ‘play’ against their opponent’s 4-3 defense (sic) before taking the field.“

Obviously this same application of VR technology could apply to other sports. What chance the famous Arsenal offside trap being so successful had Tony Adams et all been facing teams equipped with VR training methods in the 1990s?

An article in Wired last month explores the solution offered by a startup called Spatial, which – while the experience has so far required a headset to join a meeting – has announced support for web browsers on desktops, Android, and iOS.

In addition, the platform is now completely free and open to everyone – and if you want to use VR or mixed-reality headsets, it allows multiple brands – from Microsoft’s HoloLens and the Nreal Light to the Oculus Quest.

Spatial’s CEO and co-founder, Anand Agarawala, says: “In light of Covid, we’ve actually had an intense amount of demand—about a 1,000 percent increase. Zoom is not a good replacement for being in the office with other people, whereas something like VR gives you that level of presence and personification.”

On 19th March 2020, Taiwanese consumer electronics manufacturer HTC Corporation held its annual conference as a VR event. It was made possible by advances in network technology which enabled a host of important new features for virtual worlds and telepresence. These included allowing users on any kind of VR and AR (augmented reality) device, even a smartphone, to be present. The company used upgraded servers to allow for 5,000 attendees.

The rise of VR presents a massive opportunity, however, it also presents its own unique challenge. VR meetings and events generate massive amounts of data and to work effectively, the experience must be seamless and completely immersive. Any delay in accessing the data will break the user’s immersion with hiccups, glitches and freezes –frustrating users, disorienting them and, in some cases, even causing VR sickness (a type of motion sickness).

According to one estimate, multi-camera VR-based media will generate about 230 exabytes of data by 2021. In context, the dataverse (all the data generated globally per year) is expected to exceed 175 zettabytes by 2025 (1ZB = 1,000EB). However, we should not underestimate the growth curve  of an innovative sector that raised $3bn of funding in 2017, nor should we ignore the ongoing effects of this year’s Covid-19 pandemic on the way we are choosing to communicate.

From a data centre perspective, our focus needs to be on providing facilities that can accommodate the storage and retrieval solutions that this burgeoning technology needs to function effectively. We also need to consider the bandwidth requirements – and the potential latency issues – associated with managing this amount of data within the timeframes that will be specified.

There is no doubt that enabling VR to achieve its potential is a huge challenge – but the opportunity is equally great. Arguably, the events of this year have handed it to us on a plate. Like most innovations, it simply requires a willingness to take a risk, and a willingness to invest for the future.

An article in Forbes in March this year provided a run-down of just some of the companies that are offering tools and platforms that are not only highly relevant now, but will define how people will work together in the future. It’s well worth a glance.