Will Coronavirus Be the Tipping Point for Virtual Reality?

September 30, 2020

At no time in recent history have we been more limited in our movements than during the coronavirus pandemic. The desire to escape, if only for minutes or hours, has become an obsession, creating the perfect tipping point for virtual reality.

At ILMxLAB, we use VR to transport people — inviting them to “step inside our stories” as never before. We believe VR offers users the unique opportunity to “be in a world” and establish deep and intimate connections to story and place. Indeed, during this pandemic, we’ve seen people traveling to a galaxy far, far away and coming face-to-face with Darth Vader through our award-winning virtual reality series, “Vader Immortal.” The series was developed for the Oculus Quest and Rift headsets and will soon be released on Sony’s PlayStation VR system. It is worth noting that because the Oculus Quest is a tetherless device that does not require a PC or console, it appeals to a broader audience. During these lockdown days, many have experienced fantasy fulfillment wielding a lightsaber with full 360-degree movement.

While in-home VR appears to be thriving during these unprecedented times, location-based VR, an early driver of engagement, has suffered a significant setback. Location-based VR represents compelling experiential entertainment by virtue of giving users control of 100 percent of the environment, evoking all of the senses through 4D effects, and enabling premium quality multi-user experiences. However, now its strengths have become its greatest challenges. For location-based VR to survive, the industry and operators must re-establish trust with the consumer in the post-pandemic world.

The VR industry as a whole has proven resilient and innovative in the face of the COVID-19 challenge. Some location-based entertainment is transitioning from physical to virtual locations. People are engaging with one another in VR chat rooms and VR events, and we’re seeing the evolving concept of virtual real estate. Imagine designing a virtual space that brings your brand alive in a way that transcends the laws of physics and invites consumers to safely engage in a world of possibility.

Several weeks after the lockdowns began, the team at ILMxLAB decided to change up our virtual Friday Happy Hours by meeting in a VR chat room. Two of our creative leads established a simply decorated space where we could meet privately. The resulting interactions felt fundamentally different from the daily video conference calls. Dressed as avatars of all shapes, sizes, and forms, we could literally hang out and talk. There was a genuine sense of proximity, and somehow the screen barriers of Zoom and Google Meet momentarily disappeared.

Headsets, network robustness, and sophistication of graphics will continue to improve, but the key to wider adoption of virtual meet-ups in VR will be ease of use. If new visitors find it di1cult to figure out how to enter the virtual space, we will lose the opportunity to convert doubters to adopters.

A quest for innovation coupled with necessity recently prompted +e Academy of International Extended Reality (AIXR) to collaborate with VRChat to deliver the Fourth International VR Awards around the world. AIXR intends to bring the awards to life with a first-of-its-kind design that takes advantage of VR’s unique capabilities. If successful, this may be an example of transitioning VR events from a novelty into a compelling live experience that eliminates geographic boundaries and creates lasting memories. It’s easy to be consumed by the challenges of the present, but the pandemic has also illuminated possibilities for the future. At ILMxLAB, we aspire to transition from storytelling—one-way communication—to “story-living,” where you’re inside a world making meaningful choices that drive the narrative forward. An escape from the four walls of our apartments and homes.

ILMxLAB’s upcoming project, “Star Wars: Tales from the Galaxy’s Edge” extends the boundaries of Black Spire Outpost in the Disney Parks and allows visitors to discover new stories, meet both new and iconic characters, and explore new regions of the planet, Batuu. Crafting stories and experiences that blend the real and digital worlds can be the foundation for the next generation of immersive storytelling, and VR can be a key driver of such potential. 



Vicki Dobbs Beck is the Executive in Charge of ILMxLAB, the award-winning division launched by Lucasfilm in 2015 to pioneer in the field of immersive storytelling. ILMxLAB wants to make it possible for people to “Step Inside Our Stories” in ways never before possible, using new technologies like virtual and augmented reality.

 This piece is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.