In a world that offers virtual experiences, how will society change?

Imagine a world in which VR (virtual reality) technology enhanced and improved reality in urban planning and building, product design, education and training, and beyond. Imagine how seamless VR-enabled telecommuting and telepresence capabilities could change the way cities operate—for instance, by redefining the need for physical transportation systems—or alter the way humans engage in cultural experiences like art and music? Imagining the possibilities of virtual reality and its partner in crime, AR (augmented reality), isn’t the hard part, unfortunately. The hard part is making it real on a grand scale.

Augmented reality, in which real life is blended with virtual reality, has already found many uses in both the business and consumer worlds, but virtual reality, in which users are immersed in a virtual world they can interact with, is still a bit of an enigma outside of gaming. However, MarketsandMarkets Research,, suggests the global virtual reality market will reach nearly $34 billion by 2022, which implies a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of about 58% during the forecast period of 2016-2022.

While the VR market is facing several hurdles on both the hardware and the software sides of the equation, innovative companies with a vision of how VR could enhance the world are attacking these barriers to widespread adoption on both fronts. For instance, on the software side, incredible progress is being made via virtual city platforms that allow users to immerse themselves in, well, whatever they want—be it commerce, cultural experiences, entertainment, or education. But how will these advances translate into real-life applications of the technology? What ethical or broad societal considerations should the industry start considering now?

Smart Cities and Virtual Reality

Today, outside of the experimental realm, very little is being done in terms of leveraging virtual reality technology to make cities and their citizens smarter and more connected. Todd Richmond, director of the MxR (Mixed Reality Lab) at the USC (University of Southern California) Institute for Creative Technologies,, says while there are some experimental uses in architecture and other verticals, VR is still in the early adopter phase with limited commercial market penetration, most of which is in the entertainment sector. He adds: “Business verticals still don’t know what to do with it.”

However, Richmond is among those who believe virtual reality technology has the potential to completely transform what defines a city, as well as what defines home and workplace. “I say ‘potential’ because we still are in the infancy of immersive AR/VR/mixed reality, and we don’t really have a good language for creating and understanding content and experiences,” Richmond explains.

VR-enabled applications could allow a business executive to have a conversation with someone who is thousands of miles away, while feeling like the person is physically in the same room. Virtual reality conferences and meetings could bring stakeholders together in the same virtual space, even if those stakeholders span continents, thereby reducing the need for business travel. Technologies like Skype already make teleconferencing possible, often via computer screens, but VR could deliver experiences that rival face-to-face interaction, and Richmond suggests this could have massive consequences for cities.

“If done right, (telepresence and telecommuting) could transform the way cities are designed, and may obviate some of the infrastructure work being done,” Richmond says. “For instance, if light rail or other mass transit is being implemented in order to facilitate work commuters, and in 20 years only a fraction of the population actually physically commutes to work, are we wasting our money? These are questions we need to be asking now.”

The idea that VR-enabled telecommuting could decrease a city’s dependence on a transportation infrastructure is rife with implications, and a world in which the need for physical transportation drops off is currently a foreign concept. Also rife with implications is the potential combination of seamless telecommuting with AI (artificial intelligence)-enabled assistants, which could also drastically improve worker productivity by allowing people to be in two or more virtual meetings at once.

In social situations, both business and personal, Richmond adds a caveat that humans probably won’t want to replace all face-to-face interactions with virtual reality; we’re just not built that way. “Humans still are human, and realtime social interaction will remain important,” he says. “The question will be whether virtual versions can be as or more compelling. For certain things, the answer will likely be yes.”

Virtual reality may also impact economies and the industrial industries that support economies by making it possible to design anything—from buildings and bridges to pretty much any type of product—and then test these conceptual designs in a life-like virtual environment, potentially even with end users. Richmond believes this capability will completely transform design, as well as manufacturing and sales.

In an example at the MxR Lab, Richmond describes how they’ve used “mixed reality prototyping” to create autonomous drone systems that interact with humans. “We first build everything in a virtual space, (including) humans and machines, and prototype interactions and algorithms. We then move to a mixed reality space, which combines the virtual in realtime with some physical aspects—e.g., real drones flying in a controlled environment. Then, once all of the parameters are understood and developed, we can move to full physical world prototyping.”

For companies developing a new product, using this process or a similar one could be game changing. Companies could potentially create a virtual version of a product and enlist the public to “use it” via crowdsourced game play. Feedback received throughout the trial would then go into redesign, and this workflow could potentially result in a more effective and popular product. In other words, with virtual reality product design, companies could accomplish user testing and collect valuable feedback without creating expensive physical prototypes or spending capital on initial product runs.

“Humans still are human, and realtime social interaction will remain important. The question will be whether virtual versions can be as or more compelling. For certain things, the answer will likely be yes.” —Todd Richmond, USC Institute for Creative Technologies’ Mixed Reality Lab

Becoming Reality

Michael Jansen, chairman and CEO of VR company Cityzenith,, says virtual reality is probably at least 3-5 years out for cities. However, he can easily add several what-ifs to the proverbial Pinterest board of possibilities. He says: “It is quite possible that cities will take up VR as a tool for some functions; in particular, (for) urban planning, security and emergency evacuation, and environmental risk modeling.”

Jansen views the cost of VR-enabling hardware as an obstacle for adoption, alongside the lack of context-rich 3D virtual city platforms to make the VR experience useful. Cityzenith is one of the companies trying to change the software side of this reality. The innovative company has developed a CIM (city information modeling) software platform called 5D Smart World, a next-gen tool that enriches AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) workflows with contextual urban data and custom project analytics.

As new, feature-rich, and more affordable VR headsets come to market, Jeffrey Rassás, CEO and cofounder of TimefireVR,, hopes companies like his will also help fill in the gaps in the content and applications realm. In March of this year, TimefireVR announced the alpha launch of its Hypatia VR platform, which, among other things, supports an advanced virtual reality city that offers users an immersive social environment and the opportunity to engage in virtual but rich cultural and educational experiences.

“Hypatia’s ecosystem is built on pillars of social integration and experiential learning,” Rassás explains. “While the city’s core infrastructure has been developed by our team of 30, it should be thought of more as a giant life stage where the user becomes the story all while participating in commerce, cultural immersion, entertainment, activities, art, and education.”

Rassás says the platform’s benefit to the greater VR space is that it’s a safe, scalable environment in which millions of users can share knowledge and creative assets. “Hypatia citizens will discover, create, and implement new ways to collaborate and teach through an experiential process that includes voice and AI embedded personal docents/assistants—think next-gen Siri,” he says. “Real life will benefit by these observations and (the) skills acquired through this ecosystem.”

By bridging economic and geographic barriers, virtual reality applications could help facilitate arts, culture, commerce, entertainment, and education. For example, Rassás envisions a young person in rural America who is unable to travel to Paris being able to virtually visit the Louvre. Virtual reality technology could be citizens’ ticket to a rich, multi-cultural, creative, and participative world in which users immerse themselves in experiential learning and gain global friendships. “As a platform to acquire and expand one’s social, cultural, and educational skills through experiential learning, we are really on to something positive,” Rassás adds.

However, hardware and software hurdles aren’t the only issues that need to be addressed before virtual reality technology and its applications transform cities and societies. While imagining the possibilities of VR and calculating its implications for smart cities, connected citizens, and beyond—from cities’ physical transportation infrastructure to workplace productivity—MxR’s Richmond says some key societal and ethical issues also need to be tackled.

“Will VR lead to personal isolation? Will persistent advertising have negative effects? Will people be tortured or gaslighted in VR environments?” Richmond asks. “Any technology is inherently agnostic—it is the application implemented by humans that can lead to positive or deleterious effects. We need to be thoughtful in our development rather than just blindly chase ‘the future’. We want to try and avoid a future with digital regrets.”

Bethanie Hestermann is an editor-at-large for Connected World magazine.