Biden should bet on virtual and augmented reality to ‘build back better’

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The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a harsh light on an enduring reality: We’ve had a shortage of nurses in this country for years. As hospitals fill up with patients suffering from COVID-19, nurses are working around the clock at great personal risk and confronting emotional stress as deaths mount. If we lose more nurses to burnout or illness, who will take care of us?

What if we could train more nurses to address this shortage via a new and emerging technology? The good news is we already are. Virtual and augmented reality, collectively known in the tech world as XR, are being used to safely train doctors and nurses to treat COVID-19 patients and prevent hospital infections, among many other applications to medical treatment. Now is the time to scale up this approach.

But the use of this technology does not stop with training medical staff. For each of the incoming Biden administration’s top three policy challenges — pandemic recovery, economic recovery, and increasing access to health care — there are game-changing solutions to be found in immersive technology.

There’s a lot of well-deserved hype these days around XR, in the wake of a pandemic that has accelerated adoption of and interest in tech that allows people to virtually escape the confines of physical lockdowns and quarantines. For example, augmented reality applications are keeping pandemic-battered retail operations afloat, and will transform retail in the economic recovery.

But there remain technical barriers to ubiquitous use of immersive computing. Taking the right path now is critical because it is not inevitable that the United States, the birthplace of XR, will remain the global hub, reaping the economic and social rewards of an American innovation. We need to make the right investments, and we need to do it now.

That’s why it’s important that the Biden administration include augmented and virtual reality among the set of emerging technologies prioritized by the U.S. government, alongside foundational tech like AI, quantum computing, and 5G.

While XR companies are fiercely competitive and proud of their track record of inventing and commercializing life-changing technologies of the future, it’s well understood that there’s an essential role for government in supporting basic research and pre-competitive collaboration. That’s especially true if we want to ensure new technologies end up creating U.S. jobs and economic growth.

XR is already being used at enterprise scale, particularly in sectors like manufacturing, where the technology is boosting productivity, upskilling workers, and improving workplace safety. But research and development will help address gaps in existing capabilities and make the technology more widely available and at a lower cost. Likewise, government has an important role to play in catalyzing pro-social uses for technology, by incorporating new tech into vital government programs, or even just through demonstration pilots.

Fortunately for the incoming Biden Administration, there are already shovel-ready projects that can be used as proof-of-concept pilots for XR’s transformative potential, and which are perfectly aligned with the administration’s policy priorities. 

  • Health and Human Services should team up with nursing schools to train 50,000 new nurses using XR in four years. HHS already has a program in place to use technology-based simulation training for undergraduate and registered nurses, so this could start immediately.
  • The Energy Department should incorporate XR into its SunShot initiative, with a goal of training 50,000 new solar-energy installers in four years. This is one of the fastest-growing occupations, and we need to accelerate our ability to meet the demand. XR training platforms may help pandemic-displaced workers more quickly transition to green jobs.

Beyond such pilot initiatives, which will immediately put XR technology to use creating jobs, the Biden administration should include XR among the list of basic and applied technologies that the United States is betting on for the future. Other countries, including China, have already officially identified XR as a national priority, while our approach here remains undeveloped.

To be sure, the most important thing for XR’s American future is broad federal support for science and technology in general. We simply cannot continue to endure massive cuts to R&D spending on the science required by industries of the future, not if we want to continue to prosper and compete globally. Like any applied technology, XR relies on advances in basic research in all sorts of areas, from computation to vision to materials to artificial intelligence.

So, let’s give XR a prominent seat at the table, but let’s also expand the table and put science and technology at the center of the national conversation on how we build back better.

Elizabeth Hyman is CEO of the XR Association, the trade association representing the companies at the forefront of virtual and augmented reality. For more information on how XR technology can help the Biden Administration advance its agenda please read our white paper published by The Day One Project.

Tags American technology Augmented reality Computing Digital media Immersive technology Joe Biden Joe Biden administration Virtual reality XR
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