If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get too comfortable with what we expect to happen in the future. This is the year that turned the whole world on its head – both socially and economically – and it brought about big changes in the tech sector that look set to stay. So while we might know better now than to expect every predicted trend to be set in stone, we’ve nevertheless pulled together what we think 2021 might mean for immersive tech.
1. Virtual events are here to stay
2020 saw an almost overnight transition to remote working. Something that has always been theoretically do-able but never widely adopted suddenly became “the new normal”. Next year, it will just be normal. And while remote working has been relatively straightforward for industries that don’t rely on bringing together large groups of people, the same cannot be said for the events industry – which has been brought to its knees by the pandemic. However, the rapid need to replace physical events with virtual ones has accelerated the creation of increasingly complex and multi-functional virtual event platforms, which have proved their worth time and time again bringing together international audiences over an internet connection.
While we can all hope that the roll out of the vaccine on a global scale will enable events to start up again in person in 2021, the benefits of holding a virtual event, perhaps in parallel with a physical event, remain strong. Virtual events have vast reach, are easily accessible, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly. So in the year to come, we can expect to see virtual event platforms continue to thrive in increasingly creative ways because, let’s face it, they’re probably here for good.
2. Technology will evolve to support remote needs
On that note, the technology demands of virtual working and virtual events for both business and social use will continue. So we can expect to see rapidly evolving ways to meet those challenges – and this is where we could see immersive technology play an even greater role. VR and AR, for example, offer highly realistic, effective and (importantly) safe platforms for all sorts of use-cases, from virtual conferences to digital fashion shows to training and education. In fact, overall spending on AR and VR headsets, software and services, including consumer purchases, rose by 50% from 2019 to US$12 billion in 2020. While this isn’t as high as pre-pandemic predictions, it was significantly better than worldwide IT spending, which went down by more than 5%. Postpandemic, the immersive tech sector is expected to soar with an annual growth rate of 54% predicted between now and 2024.
Already, we’re seeing device releases with in-built functionality to enable immersive experiences both in everyday life, such as lidar scanners in the latest iPhone and iPad, and in specialist scenarios, such as complex computer vision developments for AR headsets like the HoloLens 2. This type of spatial computing looks set to be an important trend in the months ahead, as we increasingly turn to technology to help us operate safely within and beyond the confines of the pandemic.
3. AR will augment business and enterprise
Likewise, augmented reality (AR) will continue to grow in usefulness. AR can be used pretty much anywhere, in any setting, and with AR technology becoming more and more mainstream through smartphone advancements, it’s likely to flourish in the months ahead. It’s already being used in multiple ways across many sectors, whether it’s huge brands like Toyota using it as a remote expert assistance tool, to local authorities using it to attract tourists to destinations, to marketing teams using it as a new and exciting way to engage their audiences. Even Lego has its own AR app these days.
But its worth goes far beyond entertainment. Research has shown that AR offers a 75% learning retention rate, which is higher than almost any other form of training. And it’s preferred over video in workplaces, with employees finding it improves their problem-solving. While the clash of physical training and social distancing remains in force for the foreseeable, AR offers a quick, easy and highly effective tool to help, such as in medical, oil and gas and other high-risk sectors.
4. The rise of virtual entertainment
In many ways, the pandemic has changed the conversation around physical versus virtual activities, especially with regard to what people actually need to be physically present for. There’s a school of thought that by 2025, 40% of physical-experience businesses will improve financial results and outperform competitors by extending into paid virtual – especially as technologies such as VR, AR, IoT and 5G evolve. Add that to the drive to get people back to the high street safely and later in the year, we could be seeing the return of destination VR venues, which offer high-thrills entertainment in a single destination for groups of people.
These VR entertainment venues could present an attractive option for towns and cities. After all, pre-lockdown 2019 spending on VR games, entertainment and other experiences at dedicated location-based entertainment facilities reached $1.5 billion. In the upcoming months and years, we could well see new VR venues opening which offer affordable and accessible multiplayer experiences for small groups of people – that naturally ensure players stay a certain distance away from one another at all times. These can also be cost-effective for the venue-operator as VR venues do not need masses of space and, after initial investment in the hardware, experiences can be regularly updated – attracting repeat custom. In fact, the entertainment potential of immersive technology is considerable for destinations looking to pull in higher visitor numbers, slotting seamlessly alongside popular location-based entertainment venues such as escape rooms, bowling alleys, cinemas and arcades. So watch this space. 2021 – we’re ready for you.