During the coronavirus pandemic, work from home became the new reality even in those professions where face-to-face meetings are considered essential. Extended Reality technology is providing a solution for bridging distances that is far more advanced than video chat.

Tamás works for the Budapest office of an international media communications agency. The firm reacted quickly when the pandemic struck the country, one week before the lockdown all employees were told to work from home, requiring a fast adjustment to the reality of distance collaboration.

Face to face meetings with clients, which is an essential part of Tamás’s line of work, now have to be conducted online. „When we have a problem, usually it is much easier to communicate it personally”, he says, since nonverbal communication plays a big part in convincing negotiating partners.

There are conversations, where on-line video chat programs just will not cut it.

Limitations

Video-meetings became so ubiquitous during the pandemic that it is becoming hard to imagine the moment when eventually meetings in rooms with actual people will make a comeback. However, web cameras and built-in microphones have their limitations.

For virtual meetings to stay relevant and appealing in the post-pandemic era, technology has to provide more than a mostly low-quality video stream.

Enter XR, short for Extended Reality. XR is a mix of immersive technologies (Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality) that one day will enable you to send your avatar, a digital copy of yourself, to a meeting room, where you will be able to interact realistically with other virtual attendees.

Think of it like the realisation of the holograms you saw in sci-fi films like Star Wars, only in real life you will need to wear a VR headset.

Virtual Reality has been around for decades, in video games at least, but it matured as a technology only recently. Real-time rendering of virtual 3D environments is very taxing even on modern computing hardware, but the advancement in graphics and multi-core processor technology makes it possible to render more and more complex environments and characters in real-time.

Consider the recently released videogame, Half-Life: Alyx, that transports you to a meticulously detailed virtual city, with cinematic visuals, realistic physics and characters with believable facial expressions. It is a technological showcase of what is possible in VR, especially if you consider that for business purposes, you do not need to render whole city environments.

A boardroom is considerably easier to recreate virtually, which leaves more computing bandwidth for the realistic details for your avatar.

But what if you do not need a full-fledged virtual environment, you just want your colleagues or negotiating partners to appear at the other side of the table in your office? This is where Augmented and Mixed Reality comes in. AR makes it possible for virtual characters or objects to appear in a real environment.

One of the most popular applications of this was also a video game, called Pokémon Go, which made millions of people worldwide hunt virtual monsters using their smartphones a few years back.

Mixed Reality or MR takes it one step further. It allows you to interact with the virtual and physical environment at the same time, blending the real and the computer-generated world.

There are already dozens of Extended Reality services existing today ranging from educational, medical, collaborative to even military applications. One of these is Spatial, a New York and San Francisco based startup that enables teams to turn their environment into a virtual workspace using AR/VR headsets.

Medical applications

The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of students and teachers to get accustomed to distance education.

Take Gábor for example, who teaches emergency care for university and high school students in Budapest. In each class, he is required to use online tools mandated by the different institutions he works for, so he constantly juggles between different collaboration and video services. As he soon found out, keeping students engaged online is a constant challenge.

What if Gábor’s students, instead of just listening to lectures and completing online tests, could practice first aid on a 3D-model in a virtual environment? This is exactly the service that Health Scholars, a Denver-based VR startup has developed. Medical professionals use their software to get training in advanced cardiac life support.

Wearing VR headsets, a student is placed in a virtual room where he or she has to direct a team of paramedics to save the life of a virtual elderly man who just had a heart attack.

There are countless other applications of Extended Reality technologies in the medical profession. Using AR, highly trained surgeons can guide doctors performing surgeries thousands of miles away, CT and MRI scans can be projected to the patient’s body, giving doctors X-ray vision.

VR can even improve empathy towards the elderly, showing doctors what it feels like to have age-related illnesses.

The current crisis shows that our healthcare system is highly reliant on face-to-face meetings with our doctors. Wider adoption of XR technologies could make it possible to have access to healthcare even when visiting the hospital is not possible.

 

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Freelance journalist, editor and videographer


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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