How a Potential Coronavirus Pandemic Will Help (and Hurt) Virtual Reality in 2020

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab. Credit: NIAID-RML

Although I said I would no longer write daily updates about the Wuhan coronavirus (now officially called SARS-CoV-2), I feel that now is a good time to talk about how a potential global pandemic could impact the still-nascent virtual reality market.

The world may be facing a situation not encountered in 102 years, when the 1918/1919 Spanish influenza pandemic swept around the globe in three successive waves in 18 months (in an era before commercial air travel), infecting one third of the world’s population and killing over 50 million people, more than the total number who died in World War I.

Not too long ago, I blogged about the eight tactics used to limit the spread of infectious diseases throughout human history. Of those eight tactics, two—quarantines and social distancing—are already being heavily used in China.

Yesterday, The New York Times reported (archived version):

Residential lockdowns of varying strictness — from checkpoints at building entrances to hard limits on going outdoors — now cover at least 760 million people in China, or more than half the country’s population, according to a New York Times analysis of government announcements in provinces and major cities. Many of these people live far from the city of Wuhan, where the virus was first reported and which the government sealed off last month.

Many infectious disease experts have already stated that they believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can no longer be contained to China. Indeed, we are already seeing cases of human-to-human transmission in many countries and areas, notably Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, including 355 confirmed cases on a cruise ship docked at Yokohama (the largest single infection site outside mainland China). The virus is spreading.

Humanity has no natural immunity to this coronavirus (despite the hucksters taking advantage of the situation to sell you various “immunity boosters”). There is no vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, and there will not be one for at least a year. The World Health Organization has already stated that existing pneumonia vaccines are useless against the specific kind of pneumonia caused by SARS-CoV-2.

In other words, you really can’t prepare your body for this infection. It is true that some people seem to have very light or no symptoms at all (but are still able to infect others). The virus appears to be deadlier to older people, overweight people, and people with pre-existing health conditions, such as asthma and diabetes. (In other words, I am a sitting duck.)

Researchers are still trying to calculate the infectiousness (R0 or R-naught) and case fatality rate (CFR) of this new viral outbreak, and experiments with various treatment options are currently being conducted on infected patients to see what works and what doesn’t. However, all the preliminary reports suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 is about as easily transmissible as the regular, seasonal influenza we see every year.

As an interim measure, it is possible (some would say, likely) that we will begin to see the same kind of social distancing and quarantine policies currently seen in China being implemented by governments around the world. Travel between countries has already been and will continue to be negatively impacted. Major international conferences, such as the Mobile World Conference, are already being cancelled.

All of the preceding discussion is merely preamble to the point I am trying to make: that a potential pandemic will both help and hurt virtual reality.

How will a potential coronavirus pandemic help VR?

I believe that this truly unprecedented combination of circumstances might actually drive more people to embrace virtual reality technology and social VR platforms as a way to safely attend conferences, training sessions, and other events, where it is not physically possible due to pandemic quarantines and social distancing policies. In other words, more people will be exposed to VR, and sooner than predicted, due to the impact of SARS-CoV-2.

Some people (who might not be aware of social VR) are already tweeting about the need for this:

To which I replied:

This situation might even lead to a boom in the use of various social VR platforms (and perhaps even non-VR virtual worlds such as Second Life). We will probably begin to see many more conferences held partly or completely in virtual reality, such as this week’s Educators in VR 2020 International Summit, where presenters and attendees can share ideas and mingle without the worry of being exposed to an infectious virus!

How will a potential coronavirus pandemic hurt VR?

Many factories have shut down production of goods in mainland China, where many of the computer gadgets we use everyday are manufactured. While a potential pandemic might strengthen demand for VR headsets, it might also make it much harder to get your hands on one.

For example, I have already written about the impact that the Wuhan coronavirus is having on availability of the popular Oculus Quest headset, which is now completely sold out in most consumer markets. We can expect to see similar problems crop up with other VR hardware that is fully or partially manufactured by those countries affected by SARS-CoV-2. Tony (a.k.a SkarredGhost) of the VR newsblog The Ghost Howls reports that Beijing-based augmented reality headset maker nReal has completely shut down production, for example.

So, the coronavirus is a double-edged sword with respect to virtual reality.


Good Sources of Information on SARS-CoV-2

Here is my updated list of good, credible, authoritative resources to learn more about the Wuhan coronoavirus (formerly called 2019-nCoV and now officially called SARS-CoV-2; the disease the virus causes is now called COVID-19):

If you want a quick, up-to-date overview of the current situation, here are three good places to check:

Stay informed and stay healthy!

P.S. Effective today, I have created a new blogpost category called Virtual Reality (General), under which I will put those blogposts that talk about VR in a general way that don’t fit under a more specific existing category. I will try to go back and add this category to older blogposts, but obviously, at 1,700 blogposts written to date, I can’t go back and do them all!

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