The Transformative Power of Digital Realities

The Transformative Power of Digital Realities

An enabling environment and carefully thought out mainstreaming could be key for Augmented and Virtual Realities

According to the most recent statistics released from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), approximately 3.7 billion people –accounting for almost half of the global population – remain offline. This statistic is especially alarming in the least developed countries, where only 20% of the populace receives access to online services. Even those regarded as ‘connected’ may not be enjoying the full digital experience owing to slow speeds and high costs of devices and bandwidth. Of the several transformative services offered in a digital environment, those missing out are falling prey to the growing innovation gap – a digital divide soon set to greatly exacerbate global inequality if not tackled head-on immediately.

Image: The number of people (in millions) in each region not connected to the internet
Source: WeAreSocial/Hootsuite

Novelty No More

For the privileged few with regular access to growing digital technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), the impact is transformative – being used in almost every aspect ranging from entertainment to e-commerce to healthcare to just about everything else in between. AR and VR technologies today have come a long way from being just novelties used by the gaming community or on social media platforms even a few years ago. It has now found widespread usage across several mediums: virtual shopping assistants, virtual tourism, virtual apartment visits and even high-end industrial solutions, such as professional flight simulators.

The potential of humans interacting with computer-based objects in a virtual world through AR/VR systems is boundless – the only issue at the moment being increasing accessibility. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), “COVID-19 has shown that we need to work harder to change this picture fast and this is where mainstreaming technology such as AR/VR can play a critical role in delivering meaningful connectivity.”

In this regard, the WEF outlines two major ways to help close down the ever-growing digital divide and enable greater inclusivity in digital economies: (i) establishing a ‘sound enabling environment for digital transformation’; and (ii) fostering ‘collaborative digital innovation systems that address “Main Street” problems.’

Enabling the Augmented

As countries around the world combine to build greater resilience into a future of sustainable industrialisation, the establishment of an enabling environment which promotes inclusive growth while fostering innovation will be key. In the case of the establishment of AR/VR technologies, the development of several other parallel industries, as is the case with many other ICT solutions as well, will be crucial to its success. This will include 5G for connectivity, artificial intelligence for software algorithms and video standards for visualisation, among several others.

This will, of course, inevitably lead to the formation of a multi-layered interdependent ecosystem that will be central to the digital revolution, ranging right from the grassroots level: starting with local innovators addressing the right problems in their own communities. Several aspects will be crucial in this regard, including “development of a strong talent pool, R&D investment in technology, streamlined access to markets and incentives for private sector investment.”

According to Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU): “to make AR/VR ubiquitous, it is critical to establish an appropriate vision for the technology and to develop the right strategies and policies by, in turn, enabling various underpinning technologies including 5G. Without these technologies, the necessary conditions for an immersive AR/VR experience will lag behind. New, enabling infrastructure also needs to be resilient and digitally safe for the entire target population.”

In the rather arduous process of developing resilient infrastructure, a significant challenge will be that of scale, i.e. in the replicating of small-scale solutions at a wider level for it to have any sort of effective impact. The education sector, for example, is one in dire need of large-scale robust digital frameworks: a truth shed to light astutely by the COVID-19 pandemic. The use of AR/VR technologies, in this regard, could prove to be mighty beneficial.

Bogdan-Martin writes: “Most schools were wholly unprepared for a crisis of this scale and rushed to offer a limited education experience reliant largely on videoconferencing. Yet, using technologies already widely available, a well-prepared school district would have developed a strategy to include immersive courses in its curriculum, as well as immersive virtual classrooms that offer more interaction between content, students, teachers and parents.”

Mainstreaming the Augmented and the ‘Giga Project’

Although the use of digital realities in education isn’t a novelty by any means (there are already several big players in the field), the distance separating communities requiring a solution and those with solutions, resources or innovators (such as private sector entities or funding organisations) is rather large. As a result, it becomes rather difficult to ascertain localised solutions to problems. In such a scenario, it becomes crucial to ensure that AR/VR technologies go ‘mainstream’ soon.

The mainstreaming of AR/VR technologies requires the coming together of several facets of industry: including hardware, software and the amalgamation of novelties. Bogdan-Martin adds, that “in some communities, solutions owners may face prohibitively high barriers to developing a prototype – such as a lack of the prototyping centres, educational programmes, opportunities and resources that trailblazing innovators can take advantage of to develop their ideas before moving to commercialisation.” Such an instance is a collaboration between the ITU and UNICEF is called the ‘Giga Project’, ‘to expedite digital transformation in education, including connecting all schools to relevant content including immersive AR/VR content.’

The bottom line, however, shall read ‘collaboration’ above all. For adequate and efficient use of digital technologies – such as Augmented or Virtual reality – policymakers, innovators and technologists will have to collaborate with small and medium businesses and lawmakers to facilitate the formation of fully inclusive digital societies with equal empowerment for all.

Reference: Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director, Telecommunication Development Bureau, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for World Economic Forum.

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