Reality Revolution: Virtual reality is ready to take Utahns to new landscapes

Imagine being able to scale a mountain, visit outer space or conduct a meeting in person—all without leaving the comfort of your own couch. Thanks to virtual reality (VR), these types of experiences are becoming more and more possible. While the technology still has a way to go, leaps and bounds are being made across the state of Utah to make VR a daily experience for consumers, whether for entertainment, educational or business purposes. Two organizations, Salt Lake City-based Morph 3D and Lindon-based The Void, are just a couple of examples of this VR technology that’s quickly becoming mainstream.

Morph 3DThe rise of virtual reality

Morph 3D, a company that creates characters, or avatars, for virtual reality use, began as a 3D modeling and CG company and has since evolved to focus mainly on virtual and augmented reality (AR). The avatars available to consumers can mimic what they look like or can be completely stylized. Morph 3D has over 350 body shapes to choose from and an artist community of over 800 artists who work with the organization’s parent company, Daz 3D, to continually create new options.

“About a year and a half ago, we pivoted our business to take our technology into more mainstream markets like game development and augmented and virtual reality,” says Jim Thornton, CEO at Morph 3D. “We built a very unique platform for avatar creation that allows you as a user to create an online identity for yourself and have that identity persist on multiple platforms. Our roadmap is to be that avatar solution for multiple platforms across social VR, educational VR and gaming. We’ve anchored a good position in game development, AR and VR.”

Another Utah VR company, The Void, originally started as a concept for an experience that would be inside Utah Valley’s yet-to-be-built Evermore theme park, a project The Void’s founders began working on first before realizing The Void’s potential. Curtis Hickman, chief creative officer at The Void, says as he and his co-founders were working on Evermore, they began to toy with the idea of an immersive world people could go into and actually be a part of.

“There’s a number of challenges with doing that, and VR solved a lot of those issues,” he says. “As we started on working on The Void, all of our time was focused on making it a reality. It’s not just VR. You won’t only see amazing things, but you’ll feel them too. You will feel the wind blowing, or if you’re by a fire, you’ll feel the heat. We add extra sensory effects to the experience so you don’t just see the world around you, but you also feel it.”

The Evermore theme park is still on the docket for future creation, Hickman says, but The Void currently takes precedence. While The Void’s Utah VR presence hasn’t opened to the public yet, the company did open its first public experience in New York City in mid-2016.

the void ghostbusters“The Void is doing something with VR that no one else in the world is doing,” Hickman says. “Sony saw that and was excited by what we were doing, so they asked us to create a Ghostbusters experience in Times Square at Madame Tussauds. It was a natural fit, because you put a backpack on and you’ve got your VR goggles and a blaster that you hold, and those things are easy to connect with the Ghostbusters world. Plus, the timing worked great with the release of the new film.”

Hickman says in 2017, The Void expects to expand into a number of new locations, both nationally and internationally, but the organization is remaining tight-lipped on those expansions for now.

Beyond a solo experience

Chris Madsen, director of AR and VR at Morph 3D, says when it comes to the ways VR is being used, there are limitless solo experiences where it’s just you in the experience, but more and more, VR is becoming a social platform.

For instance, Madsen points to a company called Immersive VR Education, based in Ireland, that does simulations where students can actually participate in historical events. “For example, they have the Apollo 11 recreation, where you get to stand there with Buzz and Neil, lift off in the rocket, circle the earth and land on the moon,” he says. “They are also creating a platform called Engage, where educators and scientists can hold a live lecture filled with students. And you’re not limited to our earth. Educators could pull up the solar system and fly students around Saturn or bring in a dinosaur to the classroom. Retention will be better than anything you could do other than a tangible experience, because you’ll remember it as if it’s something you actually did.”

Madsen says other social uses for VR in the future could include the travel industry being able to allow people to “visit” resorts or hotels before they book their vacations, archeological sites being made available to people to “walk around” inside the site, or real estate agents to allow clients to see homes in real scale or “walk” through them without actually being there.

In addition, Madsen says other organizations, such as Google, are releasing apps with unlimited future possibilities. In November, Google released an app that includes all of its data from street view, satellites and Google Earth and now works with VR. “I can literally be hovering over the earth and zoom myself down to any place on the planet,” Madsen says. “The other day I literally went to my home and walked around my 3D rendered car and yard. And another guy on our team is a rock climber and zoomed in on and visited Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.”

A VR trained workforce

Cesar Sanchez, manager at the Sorenson Center for Discovery & Innovation at the University of Utah, says because the University of Utah has such a well-known video game design school, it’s not a surprise that VR technology is continually coming out of the school. Although VR is not a dedicated degree at the university, classes in VR are a part of the U’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering (EAE) program. In addition, gaming competitions are held regularly at the school which also promote VR education.

“We have a highly educated population in Utah, which means we have a very large maker space,” Madsen says. “The maker community is doing all kinds of things with technology, and many of these makers are coming out of programs like at the U. The EAE program at the U is actively involved in the VR community.”

Hickman says these programs are a good start, but he expects local universities will “absolutely” need a dedicated VR degree in the future. “We’ve still got to find our way through the ups and downs of this new medium, because in the end it’s a very different way of design and creation that has been extensively studied or taught before, but in the end it’s here to stay. It’s going to be important to continue to bring young people into it.”

Creating a VR future

While VR may be novelty technology now, reserved for those with the means to afford it, Madsen predicts within the next few years, it’ll catch on and be used by the general public.

That’s why he founded Utah VR, a grassroots organization that connects people who are working in, playing in and just interested in VR. What began with a dozen members has now grown to over 500 members, and currently a number of local businesses are working to put together a business-focused VR alliance group to boost Utah’s VR profile.

Sanchez says even though this organization is excelling, one thing holding VR back is the fact that every local organization working on VR has yet to connect and come together.

“We have companies like The Void that are growing and hiring a ton of people,” he says. “We have the No. 1 video game design school in the country teaching video game design. If we were to orchestrate everything that’s happening right now in a better way, we could grow faster and better because we have the human capital and infrastructure,” he says. “Right now not all of these organizations are working together, but once this whole thing gets moving in the right direction, it’ll be huge.”

Another thing holding VR back from becoming totally mainstream is its sheer size. “We need VR to shrink,” Madsen says. “Right now it’s a big computer system with cables coming out of it, but we’re working on getting to self-contained headsets. And ultimately, we’d want a pair of sunglasses we could put on, or even contacts, but that’s way down the road. Right now it’s outside cameras and lasers working in conjunction with a headset, but we’re working on new technology that is tracking objects in your environment to tell the software where you are in the space, so no longer would we need those wires—just the headset.”

The VoidUltimately, Thornton says if VR-focused companies do their jobs right in the future, VR will be something that the general public participates in daily. “Right now if you ask people if they’ve done VR, most say no and most haven’t heard of it,” Thornton says. “But if we do our job right, people will be wanting to do it every day because the content is so cool that you’re missing out if you’re not doing it. It’s going to be the social aspect that’s going to make daily users.”

Hickman agrees. “A lot of good will come from this technology,” he says. “Not just the technology of VR, but adding on top of that VR to create immersion in an experience. VR is not going to just change the world with entertainment, but in other ways as well. We’re excited to not just benefit society, but specifically Utah with the things we’ll be doing.”