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How the pandemic made virtual reality mainstream

As lockdowns encourage people to turn to technology for social connection, distraction and exercise, VR no longer seems an overpriced or mystifying pastime.

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When I logged on to the fitness app Strava three weeks into the current lockdown, I was shocked to see that one of my friends had clearly been breaking stay-at-home rules. The map on her latest post showed that she was on an island in the Pacific Ocean, staying in a mountainous part of Teanu. She had recorded her ten-mile cycle that morning. I clicked on it to look at the pictures she’d posted. 

As I swiped through, I realised my mistake: each picture was a CGI image showing a point-of-view perspective from the seat of her bike. She had recorded it using Zwift, a Peleton-style cycling programme that uses virtual reality to allow users to visit countless destinations and experience what it would be like to cycle on that terrain. She had completed the entire route from her London flat, live, with a group of other people across the UK also hoping to experience something foreign.

Virtual reality is often considered one of the least accessible, most mystifying pastimes. It’s associated with astronomical prices, exclusivity and, above all, geekiness – images of The Big Bang Theory and bulky headsets come to mind. But since the beginning of the pandemic, virtual reality has begun to creep into the mainstream: Currys PC World has said its sales of VR headsets are up 350 per cent on the year. More and more people are willing to pay to virtually escape our current monotony. And while many of them went to VR looking for distraction, some have found it has become an emotional lifeline. 

Will, 48, based in Eastbourne, was familiar with VR before the pandemic hit. As a director of TechResort, a digital skills development charity, he had run sessions using virtual reality, which he says were always TechResort’s most popular. However, he had never considered buying a VR headset for himself and his family. That changed as lockdown began to drag on. 

“Like a lot of people, we had been saving for a holiday,” Will tells me. “The money was just sitting there and we were wondering what to do with it, because there's nowhere to go.” After enjoying a few online events as a family – one in particular which showed the power of VR by simulating a Black Lives Matter protest in the US – they decided to use this money to invest in one of the most popular VR headsets: an Oculus Quest. 

Now Will and his son Adam, 13, regularly use VR to break up the boredom of lockdown life: playing games, doing exercise, and digitally travelling using an app called Wander. “It's good to reminisce and revisit the places you’ve gone, but also plan where you want to go next,” Will says. 

“It's no substitute for actually going to a place,” he adds, “but it’s a nice escape from every single day being the same.”

For Adam, who describes himself as very sociable, VR’s main appeal is the fact it allows him to meet his friends in a virtual space. “It's helped me cope a lot with being deprived of all the things that make us human,” he says. “Socialising, talking, communication.” 

VR provides a form of social connection that can feel closer to in-person contact than a phone call or Zoom. David, a 31-year-old secondary school teacher living in the north east, said this is how he felt when he picked up the virtual reality headset he inherited from his uncle, which he had barely touched before March. “Over Easter last year I used it to hang out with my friend – it genuinely felt like we were doing something fun together, without having to use Zoom,” he says. He now socialises on it regularly. 

“It just feels like a way to be with someone… it's hard to express how profound that has felt.”

[see also: It’s OK to complain about how much we’ve lost because of Covid-19]

Luke, a 26-year-old communications officer in Norfolk, has always been interested in gadgets. He bought himself his own Oculus Quest 2, his first virtual reality headset, at the end of last year. Although he largely uses it for solo gaming and virtual sport – golf, in particular – he too has been struck by the feeling of connection that virtual reality can create.

“One of the moments where I felt the true power of VR was playing mini golf with my brother,” Luke tells me. He had moved out of his family home roughly a year before, and hadn’t seen his brother or parents for a few months because their household was shielding. “I walked up to his virtual character and his VR headset had accurately depicted the extra four inches of height he has on me. 

“Being able to joke, laugh and just meander around with my brother again made me more emotional than it really should,” he says. “It has given me an appreciation for VR that I didn’t think I’d have.”

Lawrence, a 31-year-old accountant based in south London, invested in a Zwift bike last February, and although he initially used it for classes and indoor exercise, he began to explore more of the virtual reality elements as lockdown began, “travelling” to Watopia (the name of Zwift’s virtual world).

“During the first lockdown I religiously did an hour on Zwift pre-work with a number of people from my cycling club, replacing my lost cycle commute,” Lawrence tells me. “Maintaining this routine and exercise certainly helped my mental state and productivity.” Lawrence says that, while he is not able to get out into the countryside for solo rides or able to cycle around London with his club, “riding or racing with your friends on the platform is much more enjoyable than staring at the wall for an hour”. 

“The social aspect of Zwift has been important for a lot of people,” a spokesperson for Zwift tells me. Globally, the company's user growth has more than doubled year-on-year; it is 2.33 times greater in the UK than in 2019. With social connections made difficult, impossible even, due to lockdown measures, many friends and clubs have moved their rides to the virtual space. MeetUps – live virtual gatherings Zwift – are up eight-fold, and the platform's peak concurrent users in 2021 is nearly three times the peak before the pandemic.  

While the appeal of VR may be obvious to some, often it is the price that poses a problem. Most mainstream headsets cost around £300, with games priced at around the £40 mark. A Zwift trainer, which needs to be hooked up to a bike you already own, costs roughly the same as a headset. 

However, you can find options that are only a fraction of this price. “The game which has had me coming back for a while now is a virtual boxing game I got for $10,” says Marcus, a 28-year-old bank worker based in the US. By contrast, the coveted, sold out Playstation 5 that cost him $500 sits gathering dust in his living room. 

It's clear that, for those who are willing to pay, virtual reality has a wide-ranging appeal: it can be used for connection, distraction or exercise. And though VR consoles are often seen as a way to escape the real world, many are now in fact using them to try and recreate their pre-pandemic reality.

“It can be an escapist tool for some people,” Will tells me. “But we use it to try to get closer to what we would be doing normally.”

[see also: The game of life: How virtual reality is transforming mental health treatments]

Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.