By: Ellysse Dick
President Biden’s campaign plans to promote U.S. innovation and manufacturing included a commitment to investing in key emerging technologies to support U.S. competitiveness. And Monday’s “Made in America” Executive Order makes it clear that this will be a key priority for his administration.
As the federal government explores new investments across industries to strengthen American businesses, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) — immersive technologies that enable users to experience digitally rendered content in both physical and virtual space — should not be overlooked. Government investments in AR/VR content will not only expand the potential of the technology by encouraging development for new and yet-unexplored uses; it will also ensure a robust ecosystem of content providers and users that secures U.S. leadership at the forefront of AR/VR innovation.
AR/VR is already transforming sectors across the country. Affordable hardware, increasingly advanced capabilities in mobile devices, and a growing recognition of the value AR/VR could bring to homes, classrooms, and workplaces have further accelerated consumer and enterprise interests in the technology. Advancements in enabling technologies such as 5G and machine learning open the doors for promising innovations in the future.
Now, the missing piece is AR/VR content that is diverse, high-quality, and accessible. Despite growing demand, AR/VR content remains limited to high-tech sectors, such as advanced manufacturing, or niche audiences, like VR gamers. This relatively sparse selection is holding AR/VR adoption — and innovation — back. It is a classic chicken-and-egg problem: users delay adoption as they wait for more content, and content-makers delay production as they wait for more users. If U.S. companies are to continue shaping the future of immersive technologies, they must be among the first to break out of this holding pattern. Government investment can set this in motion.
First, federal agencies should invest directly in domestic AR/VR content development to support relevant missions. Custom-designed AR/VR content can provide valuable additions to educational tools — agencies like NASA are already taking advantage of the technology to offer virtual tours of locations both on and off Earth. Agencies spark innovation directly by identifying specific use cases. For example, the NIST CHARIoT Challenge offered cash prizes to develop AR interfaces for use by first responders.
Second, the U.S. government should explore potential uses for more advanced AR/VR content that already exists on the market. This will signal greater demand for such products and encourage further innovation. Some products, such as advanced simulations, will require significant time and investment to deliver custom products. But many existing programs, such as virtual meeting spaces or customer service tools, can generally be used as-is, allowing for more rapid integration of tools such as virtual collaboration or “see-what-you-see” support services. The GSA should develop guidance for agencies to implement existing and emerging AR/VR products into their activities.
Finally, government agencies should invest in initiatives that encourage continued innovation and support the next generation of AR/VR developers. This can start with support for university labs, such as MIT’s Immersion Lab or the University of Michigan’s Extended Reality Initiative. By enabling students, faculty, and private sector collaborators to explore applications of AR/VR technologies across disciplines, such initiatives both create more diverse AR/VR content and prepare university students for careers in this growing industry.
The United States has been a leader in AR/VR innovation, bringing the technology from obscurity into a rapidly growing industry with the potential to transform sectors across the country. However, to maintain this position going forward, the Biden administration should prioritize AR/VR alongside other emerging technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence. Federal, state, and local government can all benefit directly from a greater selection of AR/VR content; investing in its development will both encourage innovation and spark more demand for these products, leaving government, companies, and consumers better off.