Pandemic boosts demand for virtual reality experiences, companies

Upon the death of his eldest daughter Susy in 1896, Mark Twain once wrote to a friend “the calamity that comes is never the one we had prepared for ourselves.”

Nearly 125 years later, the same quote could equally apply to the Hartford-based home of the great American humorist.

The Mark Twain House & Museum, which typically draws more than 75,000 annual visitors, faced a calamity of its own with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, which forced the 11,500-square-foot home to shut its doors for eight months last year and build a new way to engage donors, educators and would-be visitors.

Like many organizations, the Mark Twain House was able to pivot to an approach that has been growing in the US in recent years but skyrocketed during the pandemic: 3D video and virtual reality (VR).

Pieter Ross, executive director of the Twain Museum, says the virtual experience, which online visitors to gain a 360-degree view of the historic home’s rooms with educational tags to provide additional information, increased annual visitors by roughly one-third to more than 100,000, while expanding its geographic pull from largely regional to international.

It’s an approach that’s gained traction across multiple sectors — including health care, education, defense, aerospace, retail and manufacturing.

In fact, according to Verified Market Research data, the virtual training and simulation market alone is expected to nearly triple from $262 million in 2020 to $626 million by 2028, growing at an annual clip of more than 13%.

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED

Avon-based Capture LLC created a 3D virtual tour (shown above) for Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum.

Better tech, lower cost

That’s good news for companies like East Hartford-based VRsim, a software development firm that creates immersive virtual reality applications for skill development and mastery, with a particular focus on welding and industrial spray painting and coating to support industries like trucking, defense and aerospace.

Matthew Wallace, who helped found the company in 2001 and served as its CEO since 2006, says virtual reality training has grown steadily over the past two decades driven by the declining cost of the technology, greater consumer adoption, improved quality of VR technology and cost pressures on businesses to maximize efficiency.

The company’s first commercial-grade VR units 15 years ago cost about $50,000, Wallace says, but that price tag has dropped to less than $8,000 today.

“The Oculus headsets you can buy for $299 today do more than our original $50,000 headsets,” he said.

And that’s led to increased usage among consumers, which spiked during the pandemic, with more than 71% of US respondents stating that they increased the amount of time they spent using virtual reality gadgets, according to survey data from market research firm Statista.

Additionally, Wallace says, the technology is more realistic and can do more.

He points, as an example, to the evolution of his welding training.

“When we started, we had maybe four or five standard positions to teach basic welding,” Wallace said. “We now support more than 160 positions and things like custom parts.”

And the graphics and sounds are so realistic — including different sounds for different virtual surface metals — that it’s almost as good as actually welding.

The technology also tracks user scoring and evaluation data, which has helped the bottom line of companies that rely on trained welders, by reducing training time and cost.

“By having employees training in our virtual environment, we see about a 40% improvement in the amount of time it takes to [reach proficiency],” he said.

Upskilling opportunity

Ron Angelo, president and CEO of the East Hartford-based Connecticut Center for Advanced Technologies, says there’s another benefit of virtual reality learning that’s particularly relevant for Connecticut.

“As many students that [our state’s] high technical schools are producing to support manufacturing and industrial jobs, it’s not enough,” Angelo said. “We need to get more kids exposed to a high-level experience [in these fields] and engage them on a continual basis.”

Virtual training, Angelo notes, also allows flexibility to perform training without being near training centers. That’s especially important in addressing socioeconomic disparities and providing opportunities for people in distressed communities who may not have as much access to training facilities.

And VR is not only useful to prepare people for trade-based and manufacturing jobs, Angelo says, but to upskill existing workers as well.

“As we look at Industry 4.0 standards, we’ll see more menial tasks automated, so you can escalate workers [through upskilling and training] into the most productive jobs,” he said.

And it’s not just training developers seeing an uptick in business.

Tony Healy, founder and president of Avon-based Capture LLC, says the VR world has picked up significantly since his first company started doing virtual tours of residential homes over a decade ago, initially with high-end homes only, but expanding as costs became more affordable.

Over the past 15 years, he estimates he’s created virtual tours for roughly 14,000 homes. And it’s not just Realtors taking notice. His clientele has steadily grown to include hospitals, historic homes, museums, schools, retailers, nonprofits and manufacturers.

Schools, particularly Catholic and The Goddard schools across the state, have been a growth area for Healy’s company over the past year.

And the technology is being used in the classroom, too. He points, for instance, to the Mark Twain House 3D tour, which he helped create.

“VR allows clients to expand their stories and audience from being local to being global,” said Healy, who predicts virtual reality elements will continue to be a long-term component of his clients’ business model after the pandemic.

Prasad Joshi agrees. As the senior vice president for emerging technology solutions at IT giant Infosys, which has a Hartford office, Joshi said he sees the future of virtual experience only expanding across multiple platforms.

“We are probably five years away, but I think we’ll see [the incorporation] of human senses beyond sight and hearing in the virtual experience,” he said. “An immersive 360-degree experience — where you can look around and hear [the environment] is a good way to learn things along the way.”

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