The coming digital reality

Technologies that provide us with immersive presence from afar were becoming popular even before the coronavirus pandemic, and they are likely to become even more popular now. NASA’s Dennis M. Bushnell sees implications for air travel and space exploration.


Real-time human interaction at a distance has evolved over time from the telegraph to the telephone to early video and, in the last few years, to augmented reality, virtual reality and holographic projections, all of which provide degrees of immersive presence. Today, we have early forms of telecommuting, teleworking, teleshopping, tele-education, telemedicine, telepolitics, telemanufacturing, telecommerce and teletravel.

Taken together, we are witnessing early development toward virtual worlds satisfying all five human senses. The tele-everything milieu is headed toward real-time actualization, in which a shopper, for instance, will enter a virtual world and personally choose and order an item.

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to accelerate progress toward this kind of sophisticated immersive presence, with potentially profound impacts for air travel and human space exploration.

Teletravel, in particular, appears to presage a significant reduction in the demand for long-haul air travel with a concomitant impact on the need for aircraft research and development work. Digital reality and immersive presence technologies are increasingly less costly with increasing bandwidth, storage and computing speeds. Also, significant progress has been made over the last two years or so on brain-to-machine communications. With these improvements, the technologies are becoming serious competitors to physical business travel and, increasingly, leisure travel.

For consumers, the benefits of teletravel over physical travel are legion and include:

The worldwide virtual meeting market was, pre-coronavirus, worth some $4 billion a year. Now, as societies emerge from the pandemic in which virtual meetings proved invaluable, virtual meetings are likely to become commonplace. Teletravel, that is, travel beyond ordinary day-to-day commuting, provides overall greater efficiency, quality of life and balance between work and family life. As we enter the post-coronavirus period, which will be typified by economic issues, organizations will try to rapidly regain lost business. Given the extensive requisite during the coronavirus period of social physical disengagement in favor of virtual interactions, utilization of digital reality and tele-everything will be accelerated with resultant potential impacts on business air travel.

A sizable acceleration of the ongoing shift from physical air travel to digital reality, if it indeed occurs, would affect the economic health of the air transport industry as a whole, from research to construction of the necessary infrastructures and vehicles. However, there would still be a healthy air cargo industry, and perhaps not much additional impact on the nascent development of unmanned air systems, urban air mobility aircraft and personal air vehicles, beyond the ongoing and long-standing shift to telecommuting/telework. These are mostly short stage length with fewer benefits overall than long-haul passenger digital reality.

One worry is that older members of the population could increasingly be left out of modern society. This issue devolves mainly from the millions of years of human evolution involving direct human-to-human contact. Except for the telephone, the dominant form of direct interaction was still direct person-to-person contact even as the enabling digital reality technology was developed over these last decades. Baby boomers grew up on physical interactions, and many decry the shift to virtual technologies. Much of our employment for teachers and professors, the travel industry as a whole (some 10% of global gross domestic product), the physical shopping venues, medical professions and much more rely on physical interactions. However, more recent generations have grown up on increasing use of nonphysical, virtual interactions, which are, by them, increasingly considered the norm.

There is a classic quote in science that fits this generational transition well. It says that new theories emerge one funeral at a time as adherents to old ideas die. There is anecdotal information that, even at the kindergarten level, children are texting their friends across the playground. Teletravel and other forms of digital reality reflect the fact that humans are, in a sense, evolving through the advent of new technology, including artificial intelligence. We appear to be merging, we and the machines, even as digital reality produces what is commonly termed “The death of distance.”

One impact of this merging could be to force government and industry to reconsider the proper functions of humans in space, given that the costs of equipping humans for survival out there are many times that of robotic operations. Humans would still go, but not right away. Instead, NASA and private-sector explorers could first send robotic devices that would gather up regolith and rocks and additively manufacture this raw material into the equipment required for in situ resource utilization, or ISRU, by the humans who follow. This step would save the cost and risk of hauling the ISRU equipment there and requiring human explorers to check out its performance on the celestial body. Once the robots have produced and proven out the equipment, then the humans could go at much lower cost and increased safety.

This shift to digital reality in aerospace comes in the context of a large number of technological changes. Solutions are being sought to climate change and our crashing ecosystem. Progress is being made on quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 3D-printed superb microstructure materials, renewable energy, quantum and optical communications and more. Humans are on their way to becoming cyborgs given advances in machine-to-brain communications. Nearly everything is changing, and in the aftermath of the coronavirus those changes that are economically advantageous such as teletravel will probably be accelerated.

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Dennis M. Bushnell is chief scientist of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and an AIAA honorary fellow.

The coming digital reality