Baltimore, Washington startups seizing VR revival | Crain's Baltimore

Baltimore, Washington startups seizing VR revival

If Chris Wren has his way, would-be travelers wearing special glasses will be able to touch, smell, hear, see and interact with people in far away places — without leaving home.

“It will be as good as being there,” said Wren, founder and chief executive officer of WrenAR, a three-year-old Alexandria company that specializes in virtual and augmented reality.

Wren and other Baltimore/Washington, D.C.-area VR startups are pushing toward that vision, among many others, as they chase a wave of virtual reality development.

Area companies have revived virtual reality in video gaming. But they also are developing commercial and industrial applications for companies seeking to use VR to train employees and to build their brands by giving their customers an immersive VR experience.

The renewed popularity can be seen in the number of professional gatherings that have formed. In D.C., a Meetup group started with a handful of people three years ago, according to Wren.

Now there are 10 Meetup groups focused on VR. Wren said the original group has a wait list for every meeting.

Will Gee, founder of VR/AR content production studio Balti Virtual, helped launch a Meetup group in November 2015 in Baltimore. The first meeting drew about 100 people, which was a surprise.

“We had no idea if anyone would show,” said Gee. Today, his Meetup group has 400 members. 

Deep VR roots

Virtual reality involves strictly computer-generated images, while augmented reality blends computer-generated images with real images. 

According to the United Kingdom’s Virtual Reality Society, the roots of technology development begin with a cinematographer named Morton Heilig, who developed the Sensorama. The arcade-like machine immersed viewers into a 3D movie that included sound, smell generators and vibrating seats. 

Heilig next invented the first head-mounted display in the 1960s. Other inventors followed in that decade with head-mounted displays connected to a computer instead of a film, according to the Society.

Gee noted that virtual reality saw renewed interest in the 1980s with the rise of personal computers. But the hardware costs were high. According to the Virtual Reality Society, the first VR goggles cost $9,400.

The high cost thwarted broader acceptance of virtual reality for years. Then came Oculus Rift in 2012. The small company that Facebook bought two years later for $2 billion produced a headset for $200.

“That made it more accessible,” Wren said.

But dropping the cost didn't necessarily blow the doors off the industry.  

Tim Merel, a managing director of Menlo-Park, Calif.-based VR/AR advisory firm, Digi-Capital, noted that Oculus and another driver in the market, HTC with its Vive headset, had growing pains. Oculus, for example, launched without touch controllers, and adding them pushed total cost to nearly $800.

“High-end PC VR is compelling,” according to Merel. “However, buying the headset, controllers, PC, graphics card, and premium software to make it fun put it beyond the reach of mass-market consumers."

There are different versions of VR/AR technology, of course. Mobile virtual and augmented reality has proven more accessible to consumers, helped by inexpensive head mounts that incorporate mobile phones. Google Cardboard is a prime example.

So is Pokémon Go, a mobile augmented reality phone app that helped fuel the industry last year.

“Pokémon Go delivered $600 million mobile AR revenue in its first three months alone, making more money through the year than the entire VR games software market in 2016,” according to Merel. 

Digi-Capital projects overall industry revenue growing from about $4 billion last year to about $100 billion by 2021.

VR corridor

Baltimore/Washington is poised to seize on the opportunity because of the confluence of government and the video game industry, according to Wren and Gee.

“Both lend themselves real well to VR and AR development,” Gee said.

NASA, for example, has developed and used simulation for training astronauts. A year and a half ago, the space agency ventured into the consumer world by releasing software that gave those with VR gear a way to virtually explore Mars.

For decades, the U.S. military and its contracts have been developing virtual reality for simulation to train pilots and later tank and ship drivers. Five years ago, the U.S. Army announced it had fielded its first ever fully immersive, virtual reality training system for soldiers.

“You see more engineering knowledge here than you can get at even in Silicon Valley,” Wren said.

For its part, Baltimore became a video gaming hub in the 1990s, with a major contribution from MicroProse and later Firaxis Games, both founded by Sid Meier, according to the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Meier produced the popular “Civilization” series of strategy games.

MicroProse and Firaxis spawned other gaming companies when developers left to start their own companies and lured more gaming professionals to the area. Both Gee and Wren did stints at MicroProse.

“If you’re talking video gaming, you better be talking about VR,” said Wren, who helped create the George Mason University’s Computer Game Design program. He’s taught at the university for nearly a decade.

Wren also works with D.C.-based start-up NotionTheory, a VR software development company that opened a VR arcade on Dupont Circle last August, the first for the East Coast.

Another first came last month, when Insomnia Escape Room D.C. created Oblivion, the East Coast’s first virtual reality escape room experience. There’s one in Los Angeles and one in Seattle. 

Both have added to the excitement of virtual reality industry’s future in the Baltimore and Washington area.

Commercial virtual reality

While VR in gaming is a big driver in developing the technology, commercial applications will also help drive down the cost to make the technology more accessible to the consumer, Gee said.

“It’s got a long way to go before it gets mass consumer acceptance,” he said. “VR is still very much in the wild west phase. A lot is going to get defined in the industrial world.”

Gee’s firm, Balti Virtual, counts Northrop Grumman, PayPal and Under Armour among its clients, for which it provides various types of VR/AR software. With Under Armour specifically, Balti Virtual worked with the Baltimore-based athletic apparel company to create a fun and engaging in-store experience for its customer. Then there's Alexandria-based Brightline Interactive, which has worked with Toyota to create a simulation that teaches teens about distracted driving.

Commercially, training has become a big use for VR technology. D.C.-based Upskill, which was renamed from APX Labs in January, develops enterprise software for augmented reality devices for industrial training. In April, Upskill announced that two of its biggest customers, Boeing and GE Ventures, had invested in the company.

Meanwhile, NotionTheory is pushing the envelope on augmented reality. And that’s where Wren has been working with the company.

“We like working on the weird far out stuff,” Wren said.

NotionTheory is developing a haptic glove, which recreates the sense of touch so a user gets the same sensation in virtual reality as in real life. The glove begins reaching into full immersion where a user can touch, feel, smell and interact with another person who is using AR equipment.

With the glove combined with further advances in AR, Wren said a businessperson wouldn’t need to hop a flight to a business meeting across the country. They could don the glasses and have the meeting in the other person’s office without the hassle and cost of flying. The goal is to eventually have an environment where someone can pick up an object in AR and have the sensation of actually feeling it in their hand.  

“We’ll get to a point where headsets are small and comfortable and worn all the time,” Wren said. “It’s not too far off.”

June 26, 2017 - 10:30am