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Seattle Developers Roll The Dice On Virtual Reality’s Success As New Headsets Arrive

Ashley Gross
Adam Sheppard of the design firm 8ninths demonstrating his company's virtual-reality film with the Oculus Rift headset

This is a big week for virtual reality, as Facebook starts shipping out the new $600 Oculus Rift to people who pre-ordered it. Later this week, Microsoft will start sending out an early version of its HoloLens augmented-reality device to developers to try out.

And in May, another high-end virtual-reality headset, the $800 Vive, will start shipping. The Vive is being developed by the smartphone maker HTC and Valve, the video game company based in Bellevue.

All over the Seattle area, people have been working toward this moment.

At 8ninths, a web design company in Seattle, co-founder Adam Sheppard helped me strap my head into a developer version of the Oculus Rift.

I was surprised at how big it was, and it was a little awkward to wear over my glasses.

“Yes, it’s a little bit like a diving mask,” Sheppard said.

His company works on branding for corporate clients. Sheppard said they decided to make a short film to showcase their own brand in virtual reality. The company name, 8ninths, refers to the amount of an iceberg that you can’t see because it’s underwater. So the film starts out above an iceberg.

“You can look around much like if you’re in a rollercoaster,” Sheppard said. “You can look all the way around you.”

Swimming With A Whale

Once the film began, I was no longer distracted by the bulk of the headset. Instead, I was completely immersed in the film, sliding down the inside of an iceberg, following a sea lion, swimming with schools of fish and a humpback whale. It felt like my own personal IMAX movie.

Sheppard said even more than virtual reality, he’s betting that augmented reality, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, will be a big hit in the business world.

Augmented reality means that you can still see the world around you but the headset also projects three-dimensional holograms into that space. An architect, for example, could work on a 3D holographic model of a house. Sheppard said it may even spice up soporific office meetings.

He said it could allow people to create the next generation of PowerPoint and Excel presentations in a much more spatial, visually interesting way.  

“We don’t move onto the next slide,” Sheppard said. “[Instead], we move onto the next elephant that comes stomping into the room carrying the data on his trunk or something bizarre like that.”

No More Laptops?

It’s still the early days for virtual and augmented reality, and Microsoft hasn’t said yet when HoloLens will be available for consumers to buy, but Sheppard said he’s focusing his company on these technologies.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
Gamers tested out virtual-reality headsets at a conference in Bellevue in October.

“Over time, I really do believe the idea of a flat screen and working with a laptop will go away completely,” he said.

More and more people are starting to share his viewpoint.

Matt McIlwain, managing director of Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group, said for a long time he wasn’t ready to invest in virtual-reality startups.

“Virtual reality, to be honest, for many years was a category that I just kind of put in my bucket of, you know, it’s going to happen someday but I’d rather be wrong,” he said.

But he started to change his mind after he tried out the different headsets being developed now.

`Blown Away By The Content'

“I used to joke that, `Hey, if I don’t get sick, because I’m subject to seasickness in these experiences, then there’s something really going on here,’” he said. “And I was not only feeling great after those, but I was blown away by the content and the experience.”

Now Madrona has invested in two virtual-reality startups and every week, McIlwain says he meets with more.

Video gamers are the ones who are most excited about virtual reality. In a Bellevue office tower, James Green, co-founder of Carbon Games, helped me put on an Oculus Rift headset so I could try out his company’s game, "Airmech: Command." It’s one of the games being released along with the Rift this week.

The Airmech is a kind of Transformer robot that you can make fly or land on the ground to wage a battle. The idea for the game stemmed from things Green loved as a child.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
James Green of Bellevue-based Carbon Games

“I want to recreate playing with G.I. Joes, where you can pick up tanks themselves and move them around as a final tweak instead of just watching them,” Green said.

Beyond Games

But virtual reality has potential to be used much more broadly than just for video games, Green said. He imagines a teacher leading a classroom on a virtual tour of New York and spotting a man who’s coughing, so the class stops to investigate.

“Let’s find out what he’s sick with. Let’s zoom down to the scale of his blood cells and see what kind of virus he has,” Green said. “You could really go do this type of stuff in real time. In a couple of years, you’re going to be able to do this.”

But Green said some people are still skeptical about whether virtual reality will become a mainstream hit or will instead fizzle like 3D TV.

He said he thinks it will take some enthusiastic words from celebrities for it to catch on.

“When they start talking about it, that’s going to be what drives it,” Green said. “I’d say Beyonce — get Beyonce to wear it. You need somebody who’s the last person you’d think to actually try it to come out endorsing it and that would be powerful.”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.