by Henry Gargan
photographs by Tim Lytvinenko
Everyone in the Triangle’s burgeoning virtual reality industry seems to have a story that drives home the same point: No amount of artfully worded description can adequately convey what it’s like to enter virtual reality for the first time, they say, but once the headset’s on, there’s no going back.
The region is full of these recent converts, many of whom have parlayed their revelations into start-up companies that produce virtual reality experiences – and yes, they are called “experiences” – within a thriving local industry.
Virtual reality’s arrival in the region has been decades in the making, a long arc in a uniquely challenging industry. It’s a business that requires a complex, interdisciplinary process involving the coordinated talents of computer programmers, graphic designers, audio engineers, videographers, writers, and directors. Then there’s the challenge of marketing a product few people fully understand, if they know it exists at all.
Thanks to the Triangle’s three major research universities and large population of technology professionals, the region is one of few in the country with the volume and variety of talent readily available to make virtual reality work. The UNC-Chapel Hill computer science department developed some of the technology’s cornerstones, like head-tracking and latency experiments, in the 1990s. Many of the scientists who did the groundbreaking work were still in the area when VR began making inroads into the consumer market a few years ago, and local VR professionals today say the legacy of that pioneering work partially explains why so many industry players are setting up shop in the Triangle.
Cary-based Epic Games, the maker of real-time rendering software crucial to the production of virtual reality experiences, also gets a good deal of credit for its beginnings. To gain a sense of where the industry is headed, it helps to talk with someone who knows better than most where it has come from.
Before Mike Capps was president of Epic, he was an undergraduate in UNC’s computer science department. This was in the 1990s, when his professors were just beginning to fulfill the dreams sci-fi buffs had about what virtual reality could and should eventually become. So where did that first push go wrong? And what’s different now?
“There was a giant consumer expectation bubble that came from the movies and TV that told you what VR was going to be like,” Capps says. “And the reality was nothing close to it. That led to a crash in the business.”
The first consumer products were decent, Capps says, but there was no Matrix-like sense of total sensory replacement, which is what consumers were primed for. And until relatively recently, Capps says he was afraid something similar would happen with the bubble that’s been building over the past few years – that the promise of virtual reality would, perhaps inevitably, always outstrip what was available to the average hobbyist.
“I was like, please don’t overpromise,” Capps says. But when he saw Facebook purchase vitual reality start-up Oculus in 2014, “I told the guys at Oculus: Please don’t screw this up.” He allowed himself to believe that they wouldn’t. Google’s recent release of its own mobile virtual reality technology with its Pixel phone and Daydream VR platform is just one of several steps forward in the consumer sector that appears to be proving Capps right.
Capps says the virtual reality industry’s success here in particular is owed, at least in part, to something he’s uniquely positioned to have witnessed.
“About five years ago, we lost some big gaming companies that had some unfortunate failures,” Capps says. “Even some successful companies lost some staff, so there’s a lot of talent here that knows how to create these compelling experiences. You have all these developers that never saw their home in making things like free-to-play mobile games, and VR is perfect for them.”
Capps, for his part, is tight-lipped about what he’s up to these days, but he still lives in the area and keeps a careful eye on things. His role is often that of a mentor, bridging the gap between the old guard and the new so the leading edge of this most recent wave doesn’t have to reinvent what his professors labored over so many years ago – ensuring this is the time everyone gets it right.
The biggest remaining social obstacle to the success of the technology, Capps believes, is its demand that users isolate themselves. It is both fitting and ironic that he would worry about this, knowing that he and others like him have made virtual reality successful here by remaining anything but isolated, by sharing and teaching one another in ways that suggest the Triangle remains a place where any vision for the world can be made reality.
Indeed, all of these local players have managed to prioritize the success of their medium above competition between themselves, weaving together a collaborative, interdisciplinary business ecosystem in the process.
There are simply too many moving parts and too few experts for any one company to handle every project alone, local industry experts say. And the technology is also advancing too quickly for companies to eschew collaboration and risk missing out on a game-changing new piece of equipment, or fail to adapt to evolving standards.
“If the medium doesn’t succeed, it doesn’t matter who gets a job,” says Jason McGuigan, creative director with Raleigh-based Horizon Productions. “We need the entirety of this to become a thing before we can realize our fullest potential. If we can all help each other out, the industry succeeds.”
If the area’s surplus of tech geeks and media professionals was the industry’s kindling and tinder, it was the spark of RTP Virtual Reality that set the whole thing ablaze.
RTPVR began in 2014 as a meet-up among hobbyists and was accelerated by the 2015 arrival of Alex Grau, a virtual reality whiz who had worked on 360-degree video technology for a company called Total Cinema 360 in Manhattan. For a while, RTPVR was little more than a group of enthusiasts who met up every so often to geek out about the latest technology. But Grau’s experience and knowledge about the business side of things helped inspire a wide variety of companies and hobbyists to dive into the market. Eventually, a core group of VR professionals and their start-ups – about 11 of them, so far – emerged.
Once that happened, RTPVR realized that its role as a clearinghouse for Triangle virtual reality start-ups was a business opportunity in itself. Beginning in January of this year, RTPVR transitioned from its role as a networking collective to an incorporated business.
“Right now, we’re describing ourselves as a consulting group,” says Nate Hoffmeier, who works with Grau at RTPVR. “We’re functioning as an incubator, but also trying to give start-ups access to these businesses coming to us for help.”
Say, for instance, a university wants to develop a VR tour of its campus. RTPVR leverages its connections and knowledge of the Triangle start-ups in the industry to help the university find the company that best suits its needs and budget. Start-ups with complementary areas of expertise will often team up on larger projects.
In addition to sharing technology and best practices among VR companies, the kind of networking RTPVR facilitates is doubly valuable for marketing to potential clients. Because one of the industry’s chief challenges is explaining what the technology can do and how it works, Hoffmeier says, word-of-mouth is critical. So are decidedly old-fashioned, in-person sales techniques.
“People can’t advertise this stuff through a traditional 2-D screen,” Hoffmeier says. “We need people saying, ‘No, you need to try this. This isn’t a fad; this isn’t a gimmick.’”
Unlike many of its peers, Horizon Productions is about three decades removed from “start-up” status. It has long been an industry leader among old-fashioned video production companies in the Triangle.
But the company took a turn to the future about a year-and-a-half ago – “quite some time” in the VR world, according to creative director Jason McGuigan – when a few employees began playing around with a gadget called the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset born on Kickstarter but later bought by Facebook. Oculus is widely known as a pioneering force behind market-ready virtual reality.
Because Horizon already employed people with the graphic design, audio, and videography expertise required to produce solid VR experiences, the company realized it only needed a few key additional hires to become a viable player in the industry. And unlike most start-ups trying to get a foot in the door, Horizon had the capital and client base to support that ambition.
“Looking at the core technology, we recognized that a lot of its aspects we already do, we have in house,” McGuigan says. “Once you discover the power of the medium, it’s very difficult to say, ‘This isn’t going to be a big deal.’”
Since then, Horizon has begun offering 360-degree video products to its clients alongside more traditional services. As Horizon’s multimedia director Jason Cooper notes, they’re often educators as much as salespeople in those cases.
“We’ve made it a focus to be evangelists and do demos and take VR to our clients and the community,” Cooper says. “We‘ve actually introduced VR to maybe more people than anybody else, than someone like Epic (Games), in the Triangle.”
Horizon’s success in the field led to its becoming one of a handful of VR-involved firms chosen to participate in Google’s VR Jump program, which is both a product and a service. Companies like Horizon get to use a GoPro-designed 16-camera rig to capture stereoscopic 3-D video, the production of which has been, until now, an incredibly labor- and computing-intensive process. VR Jump, however, allows participants to send Google their raw footage, where it’s processed within a day or two and sent back perfectly stitched together and compiled into 3-D, 360-degree video.
“Our focus right off the bat was on the non-gaming applications of this technology, but we’ve actually moved into that realm as well,” Cooper says. “We’re one of the few players in the area that has done projects for major corporate clients.”
Among those clients are local LED producers Cree and hardware retailer Home Depot. Horizon has also recently produced 360-degree video packages for the UNC football team – Cooper’s a UNC grad – as well as the Carolina RailHawks.
Duke’s VR therapy
Cynthia Jones’ Virtual Reality Therapy for Phobias clinic isn’t the only place on Duke’s campus using virtual reality; the technology you’ll find there, compared to what media and gaming production companies are working with, isn’t necessarily cutting edge.
But that’s not what’s important, says Jones, a counselor with the Duke Faculty Practice whose clinical work using virtual reality to treat phobias has expanded the technology’s reach into places even the most interdisciplinary development teams might never have considered.
Virtual reality’s application as a phobia treatment makes a lot of sense once you learn a little about how phobia treatment has traditionally been approached. People like Jones often use what’s known as “immersion therapy” to help patients understand and control their psychosomatic responses to their phobic triggers – flying in an airplane, for instance.
But traditionally, immersion therapy hasn’t actually been all that immersive. Patients with a fear of flying might have been asked to imagine themselves in an airplane. They would then evaluate their responses to that imagined input and practice controlling them. Even that can be surprisingly successful, Jones says, but the power of suggestion that comes with a 360-degree video experience – combined with physical cues like a rumbling seat – adds a new dimension to the treatment.
“VR allows me to take that in-between step of what you imagine in your mind and kind of having a virtual world to play with before you go into the real world,” Jones says.
Duke’s clinic started using the technology in the early 2000s as a result of the hospital’s partnership with Emory University, where it was pioneered. The modules Duke has adopted, each crafted to address a specific condition, are developed by a company called Virtually Better. Virtual reality’s clinical uses have also expanded to addiction treatment, post-traumatic stress, and motor skill rehabilitation in patients who have suffered traumatic brain injury.
Jones says VR helps some patients overcome the stigma associated with certain phobias by making the process of overcoming them feel more like a discrete task. The modules she uses recommend between eight and 20 45-minute practice sessions, but Jones says most patients only need a handful.
“They can think, ‘I’m going to go in and practice with this set of equipment instead of going in and feeling like a crazy person,’” she says. “People will use VR, particularly men, because they want to come in, get the job done, and get out of there.”
As creative director of online education at N.C. State University, Mike Cuales has worked for the past 14 years to find and develop tools that transcend the limitations of remote learning.
Once he discovered virtual reality, he knew it represented a total shift away from – and a vast improvement upon – everything that had come before it, including classroom learning itself.
“From an educational standpoint, the ability to immerse somebody in an environment and put them in the scene holds immense promise for almost anything I’ve been working in for the last decade,” Cuales says.
In 2015, Cuales began LEVR Studios. For now, it’s a low-budget, boutique operation that Cuales and his business partner Arthur Earnest find time for when they’re not at their day jobs. Cuales 3-D-prints his 360-degree camera rigs himself and uses his background in education to his advantage.
“With a small company, I can do the projects for a school, for example, or a nonprofit,” Cuales says. “Someone who can’t foot the bill for a Hollywood production.”
That suits him just fine. Cuales says he’s not in virtual reality to become an industry tycoon. As an educator and researcher, his passion lies more in finding out what happens when artists and documentarians get their hands on the technology he’s grown to love.
Cuales also understands better than many in his field the challenges virtual reality will face if it hopes to become more than a futuristic novelty. His job requires him to think about what will capture students’ attention, and unlike the bulk of technological innovation that’s come along in the last decade or so, virtual reality’s immersive premise demands that attention in an undivided form. That kind of focus is wonderful for learning, Cuales says, but it’s no mean feat to get students and consumers to commit to it.
“It’s a big ask for our audience to sit down, put on this headset, and make sure you have enough space around you to move around and really check out to some degree,” Cuales says. “We’re not doing a tremendous job of preparing users for that.”
As exciting as it is to don the headset for the first time, it’s also hard to completely let go and forget how goofy it must look to the outside world to be flailing about and remarking on things no one else can see. Cuales says he’s noticed that sense of vulnerability in demonstrations he’s been a part of, and he worries that could be an even more pernicious barrier.
The solution to these problems, he thinks, is two-fold: Start people out with short experiences, and be conscious of the environment you create when introducing people to the technology.
“That’s why I’m so passionate about its application in education,” Cuales says. “It’s a captive audience. If I say you need to take the next five minutes to step into this manufactured environment, that’s exciting because they’ve already made the commitment to be here.”
The founders of this Durham-based start-up are eager to discuss virtual reality’s big-picture future, but for now, they’re content to meet the market where it is.
“What we’re not doing is games; I’ll start with that,” says Joshua Setzer, one of Lucid Dream’s co-founders. “Games are going to be a huge market in VR, and there’s going to be a lot of interesting possibilities, but we’re interested in VR mainly as a sales and marketing tool.”
But even within that focused mandate, Lucid Dream has chosen to grapple with virtual reality at the conceptual level, partly because of the shared responsibility industry members feel to advance the technology, but also because a fundamental understanding of what makes virtual reality work promises to make their products more effective.
“We’re hacking the conscious mind,” Setzer says. “We’re trying to hit the minimum threshold so that the human brain says ‘yes, this is reality.’”
Mike McArdle, another Lucid Dream co-founder, is a former Apple Store employee who used to specialize in helping neophytes navigate Apple products. He has also dabbled in bringing the technology into the classroom through a separate initiative called the Virtual Reality Learning Experience. McArdle says virtual reality holds the promise of unprecedented accessibility in a way that takes away the abstraction of user interfaces, making tech-based tasks easier for even true tech novices by mimicking their real-life equivalents.
“If you think about it, we’ve gotten used to abstractions with mouse and keyboard,” McArdle says. “(Virtual reality) is this crazy flat circle where we’re using the most insane, cutting-edge technology to make interaction with technology a lot more human, a lot more intuitive. VR could, ironically, bring a whole generation of people back into computing.”
McArdle’s skills are complemented by Setzer’s. The Duke graduate used to work in architectural rendering designing yachts, and he has a strong familiarity with 3-D modeling and the types of clients in the market for Lucid Dream’s work. So far, those include real estate developers, car and boat manufacturers, and product designers, all of which can benefit from the ability to give potential customers a tour of products that are either not present or don’t yet exist.
In addition to possessing a near-complete virtual reality skill-set in a three-man team – RTPVR’s Alex Grau completes the trio – Lucid Dream’s co-founders are willing to discuss the cultural and philosophical implications of the medium, both the value and danger that awaits a society that places a premium on augmenting and replacing sensory input with something other than one’s immediate physical surroundings.
“We have different mental constructs because of how we interact with different technologies due to the spread between the wealth of the world and the poorest of the poor,” McArdle warns. “This could accelerate that. It might be the great equalizer if enough of this technology gets around, but it might be the great divide where some people are able to start living in a virtual world.”
Setzer chimes in with a more optimistic perspective.
“It also has the potential to be the greatest empathy machine that man has ever known,” he says. “There are all these really interesting immersive journalism pieces that take an audience into another person’s world and life in pretty haunting ways. There are so many opportunities to build understanding.”
The two agree that virtual reality, like the internet, is simply another media tool that expands access to both the real world and to refuges from it. What becomes of this tool will depend on how those who pioneer virtual reality define its place.
“It’s business, but it’s much more than just business,” Setzer says. “It’s society-changing technology. There are a lot of important conversations to be had.”