“By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use,” author and professor Isaac Asimov once wrote. “Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colours that will change at the touch of a push button.”

He wrote this in 1964, predicting what life will be like 50 years later. But maybe even he couldn’t have foreseen the rising popularity of virtual reality in governments. Its most popular use in the public sector has been in training civil servants.

The benefits are obvious: they allow governments to place their staff in situations that are difficult and expensive to recreate in reality – natural disasters, violent scenarios, and medical emergencies. People in charge of responding to these scenarios can’t afford to make mistakes; the cost can be the loss of lives.

We look at how VR is taking over government, and how it could be a powerful tool beyond training.

Terrorist attacks

Singapore has built the world’s first training platform, combining live and virtual elements to train security staff for counter-terrorism scenarios. The simulators mimic real-world incidents and project local landmarks to make the training as realistic as possible. All of this is interactive, like in a video game, with outcomes and scenarios that change based on the choices trainees make.

Read: Inside Singapore’s VR police simulator

Cancer surgeries

Medical students from around the world can now beam in via VR headsets to observe and learn from surgeries in the UK in real-time. Professor Shafi Ahmed, a cancer surgeon in the country’s National Health Service, first streamed his surgery in VR in 2016, and has gone on to more such operations since.

Read: Why the UK’s National Health Service is moving towards ‘digital-first’

Natural disasters

Taiwan is using VR to train electricity utility staff to cope with natural disasters. The island regularly hit by typhoons and the utility is using simulations to equip its people to respond to damaged infrastructure.

Read: How Taiwan Power is using VR for better safety

A new reality?

Taiwan’s Digital Minister believes that VR can be used for much more than training in government. It can be a powerful tool to bring citizens into the realm of policymaking, Digital Minister Audrey Tang says. It gets people “into the same space in their mind and then feel the solidarity of being in the same space and meeting eye-to-eye, but in places where it was previously impossible to do so”.

She demonstrated this with a recent petition on marine conservation, where participants were able to see how marine life is at risk. “We really can’t have a discussion underwater, it’s just not possible. That’s why VR is really useful,” she emphasised.

Read: Taiwan’s ‘anarchist’ minister wants an AI-powered government

The appeal of VR is that can (relatively) cheaply and quickly transport people to situations that are hard to recreate. Its foray in government has been first as a tool to educate, but Tang’s experiments give a glimpse of how powerful it could be in the public sector. The same tool – just a different scenario and another audience to see their shared reality.