This New VR App Is Helping Reduce Social Isolation Among Families

By Erica Snyder Wednesday, September 9, 2020

At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many people turned to virtual means to remain connected with their loved ones. Zoom, a video conferencing platform, saw a large increase in users, to the extent that it became one of the world’s most downloaded mobile applications in March, according to Business Insider. Although Zoom’s popularity primarily rose as a way for teams to work together virtually, it quickly turned into a host for virtual happy hours, trivia nights, and dinner dates. Essentially, it turned into a way to connect with friends in a world where in-person socialization was deadly.

With no end to the pandemic in sight — at least, not until there’s a vaccine — people are still seeking safe, satisfying alternatives to in-person socialization. Recently, AARP Innovation Labs created Alcove, an application aimed at helping families stay in touch with loved ones, for Oculus Quest. Through Alcove, people can create their own virtual home where they can sit and catch up with friends on their couch, watch movies with loved ones, play board games, share old photos, and even meditate. For the more adventurous, Alcove also provides an international travel feature, allowing families to travel the world together without ever leaving home. Users can customize small details, like their virtual home’s wall art, to make their virtual reality (VR) feel like an actual home. 

But downloading Alcove is pricey, despite the fact the application is technically free. To use Alcove, people must invest in an Oculus Quest headset, which ranges from $399 for a 64GB headset to $499 for the 128GB version. At this time, all major retailers are out of stock of both headsets, which suggests there could be an increase in demand. 

Web extensions like Netflix Party also allow people to watch content with loved ones from afar, but Alcove’s approach is slightly different. Alcove attempts to mimic reality with its features by creating an experience, allowing users to engage with their content versus passively watching it. Initially, VR gained popularity as a novel technological endeavor, with companies hopeful that the escapism would appeal to consumers. But given the first VR headsets were extremely expensive and accessed a limited library of games, most people never took the plunge. Like the Oculus Rift, early VR headsets needed to remain tethered to a gaming PC during use, which didn’t help VR gain popularity either. 

According to Fortune, Facebook launched its own in-house VR film studio, Oculus Story Studio, in 2015 after acquiring VR company Oculus. Despite the fact Facebook deemed film the future of VR, it closed the studio a mere two years later after it failed to profit significantly. Facebook then shifted its approach to focus on VR’s overall ecosystem and reimagined the VR headset with the release of its standalone Oculus Go device in 2018, which will be discontinued by the end of 2020. Compared to earlier headsets, the Oculus Go was the first standalone VR device, but it only featured 3 Degrees of Freedom. Essentially, the Go could track head movements and performed best when users were seated watching content; again, it failed to largely take off and was viewed as an entry-level model. 

Only now is Facebook hitting its stride with its well-received 2019 Oculus Quest headset, which is a standalone gaming device featuring 6 Degrees of Freedom. The 6DoF tracks head and body movements without the need for any external sensors, making it great for complete immersion. Per Forbes, the VR industry saw a decline in 2018, with growth slowing substantially compared to 2017. Still, the industry gained momentum once again in 2019 because of interest generated by the Oculus Quest’s release. Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s VP of AR/VR, says that Oculus received $5 million in content sales in the two weeks following the Quest’s release. Overall, headset sales still declined in 2019, despite the Oculus Quest’s success. 

For the first time since 2017, VR isn’t just gaining momentum — it’s actively experiencing growth. A new report by Grand View Research, a market research and consulting company, states that the VR industry will reach $62.1 billion by 2027. Because of COVID-19, VR is seeing a surge in the medical field, as hospitals are implementing VR to train healthcare workers on treating those infected with the virus. CNN Business reports that healthcare workers are participating in a range of VR simulations, including one that puts them in an isolation room as though they’re an infected patient and other simulations that focus on more diagnostic elements. 

Outside of healthcare, VR’s seen a rise in popularity with the general public as well since most people are stuck at home social distancing. The escape VR provides is now more appealing than ever. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, games critic Todd Martens describes VR as a much needed “respite” from his apartment’s dreary surroundings. For a brief moment, he can pretend he’s sitting on a rainy balcony in London instead of trapped inside. And for that brief moment, the world is a little less lonely. 

It’s a bit ironic: people initially opposed VR because of how it would discourage in-person interaction, but right now, it may be one of the best options for socialization. In a world where our lives are mostly stagnant, VR provides an opportunity to partake in new activities with friends and share new experiences, like dancing at a packed club or playing a pickup game of soccer. Even before the pandemic, some predicted that socialization would be the future of VR, but it’s only because of coronavirus that people are now forced to view it as a viable option. It’s a way to safely participate in missed social activities without the risk.

About the Author

Headshot of Erica Snyder

Erica Snyder is a freelance writer and photographer who focuses on tech and LGBTQ+ culture. Their work can be found in a range of publications, ranging from IEEE Spectrum Magazine to Autostraddle.

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