Pattern Matching

Virtual Reality Won. Just Not the Kind You Think.

Online spaces like ‘Fortnite’ and ‘Animal Crossing’ are replacing the physical world

Will Oremus
Published in
7 min readMay 16, 2020


Photo: William West/Getty Images

Welcome to the second issue of Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context. (You can find the first issue, and a brief introduction, here.) I’m Will Oremus, senior writer at OneZero.

As authorities prepare to ease lockdown orders across the country, it’s becoming clear that the “reopening” we’d all looked forward to doesn’t mean returning to anything like normalcy. Like the war on terror, the battle against coronavirus might be one that drags on for years without a real exit strategy.

Against that backdrop, we can expect a flourishing of what I’ll call “pandemic-ready” tech — platforms and tools built for a future in which social distancing is a fact of life, or at least a specter that could return at any time. What these tools have in common is that they obviate the need for physical presence.

Take virtual reality, a term that has its roots in early 1980s cyberpunk fiction but which, these days, is associated with clunky headsets, immersive graphics, and commercial failure. There’s still a chance that coronavirus will make that kind of virtual reality more mainstream: On Thursday, Apple acquired the startup NextVR, which broadcasts live and recorded events for VR headsets. Last week Bloomberg reported that Facebook is developing a smaller, lighter version of the Oculus Quest, its standalone VR headset.

But if you take a broader reading of the term “virtual reality,” there’s a sense in which it has already gone mainstream. For people stuck at home in the pandemic, big chunks of our lives have moved into online spaces, even if we don’t own any fancy VR gadgetry. And some of those changes are likely to stick.

The Pattern

You had to be there. But you didn’t have to be there: