Are Most Virtual Things Actually Real?

Last week, I attended a virtual wedding, a virtual cocktail party, and several virtual board meetings. Becker’s Hospital Review reported, “Led by COVID-19 surge, virtual [health] visits will surpass 1B in 2020”. Some schools have said they are all virtual. Everything is virtual. Or is it? I believe none of these things were virtual. They were all real, and we should not call them virtual. To prove my point, let me first describe an example of an encounter which was in fact virtual.

Sometime in the late 1990s when I was Vice President for Internet Technology at IBM, I was invited to visit the Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, outside of Chicago. Argonne is a national science and engineering research lab operated for the United States Department of Energy. It is one of the 17 DOE laboratories which comprise a preeminent federal research system, providing the nation with strategic scientific and technological capabilities.

Part of the tour I received included a review of some advanced work Argonne was doing with virtual reality. Before entering the VR lab, I was asked to wear VR goggles and a pair of VR gloves. The gloves used haptic technology, also known as kinesthetic communication or 3D touch. The VR gloves can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the wearer’s hands. It is similar to the haptic feedback you get from your steering wheel if you cross a highway lane.

After entering the VR lab, I saw a Golden Labrador sitting on his or her haunches with a big tongue hanging out. The executive director conducting the tour asked me to pet the dog. I reached out with my glove and petted the dog on the head. He or she liked it and wagged its tail. Then the executive director asked me to take off my goggles. When I did, I saw an empty room. There was nothing there. The Golden Lab was virtual. The dog was not real.

Contrast this experience with using your iPad for a telehealth consultation with your physician, frequently called a virtual visit. You and your doctor are talking, asking and answering questions. The consult is very real. You and the doctor are real. You might say the consult was remote, connected, or even in the cloud, but not virtual.

Work at home, meetings and conferences from home, and remote medical consultations are here to stay. Perhaps not to the same degree as in the height of the pandemic, but here to stay. Many meetings and consultations just don’t require in person meetings.

For healthcare, more and more mHealth devices and smartphone apps are changing how healthcare is delivered. An Apple watch can take an EKG and check your oxygenation level. The Apple Health app stores a lot of information about your activities, medications, and much more. Smartphone connected devices can enable a parent to place a small snout connected to the phone’s camera in a child’s ear to take a picture using an Otoscope app. The physician can look at the picture and determine if the child has an ear infection. The FDA has approved hundreds of mHealth devices and apps. Digital stethoscopes are available. A fake smartphone x-ray app is out there. At some point the real thing will be. As devices proliferate and apps get smarter and easier to use, healthcare will be transformed.

Remote learning is not a new idea. I wrote about it in Net Attitude in 2001 and it was not even new then. I got my doctorate by studying online for four years. Hopefully, our kids will get back to in-school learning asap, but they can do supplemental learning during summers. Older people can continue learning all their lives with remote learning.

In the case of business interactions after the pandemic, travel will be reduced, real estate square footage will be reduced, and many employees will work from home permanently. In person meetings will come back but not to the level of before, just not necessary in many cases.

Call all these things whatever you want, but don’t call them virtual. They are very real!