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COVID-19 Could Accelerate Government Adoption of AR, VR Tech

As the demands of remote government work extend from weeks to months, public-sector agencies must begin exploring tools like augmented and virtual reality for improved communication and collaboration.

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With the staff of many government agencies forced to work from home because of COVID-19, government CIOs have had to move quickly to adapt. While the initial focus has been on ensuring workers have the basic tools they need to do their jobs — fast and secure Internet, laptops and mobile devices, and access to essential online systems — as weeks turn into months, more government agencies must start exploring opportunities for better remote collaboration, communication and training. One opportunity on the horizon is expanding the use of immersive computing technologies, like augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR), that create new modes for users to experience digital content through computers, mobile devices and headsets. 

There are some immediate ways that government can use AR/VR, such as to improve training for workers. AR/VR lets agencies simulate real-world situations, giving workers the opportunity to gain experience in a controlled environment. This type of training is particularly useful for law enforcement and other first responders who encounter situations where there can be severe consequences from mistakes made during on-the-job training. Learning in an AR/VR environment has been found to not only increase recall, but also allow trainees to develop muscle memory for specific tasks. And perhaps most importantly, AR/VR may also be the most feasible option for remote training for workers at home or who cannot travel and would otherwise be unable to attend onsite training. 

AR/VR can also be useful for recruiting prospective employees. For example, the Indiana Department of Child Services reduced its 50 percent annual turnover in case workers to 17 percent by implementing a VR simulation that gives job applicants better insight into what their daily job duties would entail. At the federal level, the Marine Corps began exploring earlier this year how the use of head-mounted VR simulators might improve recruiting, particularly among college students, after its past successes using flight simulators. 

Immersive computing may also help government agencies better engage with the public. Cities like Boston and Seattle have already piloted using various forms of AR/VR to help city planners, elected officials, citizens and others better engage in community planning. Instead of just looking at basic 2-D design plans, AR/VR can enable individuals to interact with 3-D models or virtual video simulations, thereby allowing them to better understand what a new development might look like or the impact it would have on traffic patterns. As more communities invest in smart city technology and generate significantly more data, AR/VR applications may become one of the primary ways of visualizing this information. 

Finally, cities can also produce AR/VR content for the public, which may prove especially useful in a post-COVID-19 world. Museums have been early adopters of this technology as they let visitors experience virtual exhibits even when museum facilities are closed. And cities, such as New Orleans, have also created virtual tours, allowing would-be tourists to, for example, experience the French Quarter and learn more about the city’s history and culture. And AR mobile apps not only provide enhanced navigation, such as showing pedestrians walking routes, but they can also layer on additional content such as information about points of interest. Such apps can not only deliver more information, but also create more touchless encounters, like replacing shared paper menus at restaurants with virtual ones. 

The eventual goal of many AR/VR developers is to allow for virtual meetings. While many more people are now using video conferencing, complaints are already stacking up about how it fails to sufficiently replicate the in-person experience. AR/VR technology is not yet ready or widely adopted enough for this type of collaboration to be mainstream, such as for VR town hall meetings, but the ability to have small teams collaborate in a virtual environment is starting to be deployed.

Some cities are seizing this opportunity. In 2018, New York City established RLab, the first publicly funded AR/VR facility to support economic development, academic research and entrepreneurship. Not every city can or should follow in its footsteps, but there are a number of potential applications of AR/VR in government, and the timeline to adopt these technologies has likely been accelerated by the pandemic. Agencies should use this opportunity to begin planning for, and piloting, this new technology.  


Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.