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Atlanta Successfully Dives Into the Virtual Reality Experience

by Muriel Vega

When you think of virtual reality, your mind may wander to the latest gaming technology or some futuristic movie. But VR is here to stay — as shown by its current use in live experiences, product demos, and building brand awareness. In fact, VR Day 2017, Atlanta’s first mixed reality conference, drew over 350 people this year to see 30 speakers from across the world, and across a gamut of industries, to discuss the current state of the industry.

“There were a wide range of demos, from gaming to very business-focused, from AR to VR,” says Jeff Levy, founder of VR Day and managing director of VR startup, Nektr. “I think people got a chance to really get their hands dirty, so to speak, and not just hear about it, but try it out.”

By 2026, VR and augmented reality (AR) are projected to be an $80-billion-dollar industry, according to Goldman Sachs. Georgia will certainly see a piece of that pie through VR products and innovation at local universities, startups (check out Trick3D‘s VR product, Floorplan Revolution), and even national news leader CNN.

“For our team, virtual reality is really the promise of fully immersive 360-degree video,” says Edward Thomas, Product Manager of Android Mobile and Emerging Tech at CNN. “Our vision is to be able to bring our viewers into a news story, and enable them to experience the news first-hand — enabling users to witness and live the event themselves.”

So far, their efforts have been a success. CNN’s live 360 coverage of current events from the recent presidential inauguration to the refugee crisis have led the way in integrating VR into news media. “We’re currently producing new 360 features packages each week, which get spotlighted in our CNNVR app, and the goal is to move from a weekly production cycle to a daily cycle later this year,” says Thomas.

Thomas said that the feedback has been encouraging. “There’s been an equal level of excitement from our user base. Both anecdotally and through our reporting analytics, we’re seeing a level of interest and engagement in our content —particularly in our fully immersive CNNVR product — that’s unmatched in our other platforms.”

Large enterprises are also beginning to use VR to set them apart from the herd. Foundry 45 founder Dave Beck has developed more than 50 personalized VR experiences for clients like AT&T and Coca-Cola. He sees great value in adding a VR element to your marketing to raise the bar on that level of interaction with your customers.

“VR is an amazing way for brands to break through the noise and get people to listen to their messages,” says Beck. “The most basic reason brands typically come to us is because they want to generate excitement and buzz for what they are doing (new products, new services, enhances features, etc).”

While in-person events are great for attracting VR-curious users, Beck adds that VR can also bring value to recruiting by showing prospective employees their new working environments without having to jump on a plane as well as training, tourism, and even real estate.

This is equally-applicable for attracting dwellers to a city. At this week’s ChooseATL SXSW activation, Beck helped create an Atlanta-themed VR experience to let SXSW attendees experience what the city has to offer. Viewers could explore three separate vignettes about Living, Working, and Playing in Atlanta.

Levy also talked about another use of VR — communication. “We think of VR as the next communication platform, not really as a technology but as a way for people to interact, to create human connections, emotional, empathic connections,” says Levy.

“The first time I put a headset on, over a year ago, the emotional connection I had to the game I was playing, the hair stood up on my neck, my heart was racing. You feel like it’s happening to you, not just like you’re witnessing it. You’re there. I think those feelings that will really allow people to connect to each other, to brands, to information, to stories, in new and different ways.”

VR can even bridge a gap for artists and musicians, by connecting the performer to their audience in a unique way. Daniel Sabio, director of programs and marketing at TechSquare Labs, is breaking ground in this arena with his project, The Glad Scientist.

“It’s almost like a shared consciousness,” says Sabio of his VR-enabled live concerts. “You can see the movements of the performer and you can see in real-time exactly what they’re seeing, because with electronic music sometimes you just see someone behind a laptop and have no idea what’s even going on. With this interface, you can see exactly what I’m doing — so you get that experience of being backstage while also being front row.”

With SXSW under his belt, Sabio is taking the SoundStage on tour over the next few months.

It’s not just fun and games either — VR’s ability to allow users to look at things in a different way have implications for health and wellness as well. Emory University announced a study using VR exposure therapy, in a system dubbed BRAVEMIND, to treat PTSD due to military sexual trauma. Through a head-mounted video display, the military veteran will experience familiar scenes of his/her time in the military. Think barracks, tents, vehicles, and other imagery.

Led by researcher Barbara Rothbaum, PhD, the study’s aim is to help the veteran confront its own memories and reduce distress over time. Previous users have significantly improved in as few as six sessions. The same VR therapy has been successfully used with assault survivors for over 20 years, according to Emory researchers.

Across town, Georgia Tech’s football department, in partnership with Foundry 45, is recruiting new players with the help of VR. Georgia Tech coaches have been taking VR units on the road to give prospective recruits a real-life glance into college life as a Yellow Jacket. They can take a peek into dorm rooms, classrooms, and of course, the football field.

In addition to sports utility, the university’s Augmented Environments Lab continues to explore the intersection between technology, design, and mixed reality. From games for education to open source augmented reality projects, the lab produces a host of engaging projects and nurtures talent within the university.

Annie Eaton, CEO of future services and technology consulting company Futurus, does caution that while services can be brought on board to enhance your brand, it should only be if they are a good fit. A lot of companies may jump on the trend bandwagon and without the proper guidance, it may hurt the company.

“We wouldn’t recommend a 360 video for a project that would make more of an impact as a full, room-scale, interactive experience just like you wouldn’t advise the use of LegalZoom over a law firm for a Fortune 100 company,” says Eaton. “Virtual Reality can have a huge impact if the content is created properly and if the producer isn’t thinking about development from a future technologies perspective, the experience can fall flat.

Overall, Atlanta continues to nurture the local VR community. “There’s also a great deal of support from the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the same organization that’s turned Atlanta and the state of Georgia into a filmmaking powerhouse,” says Beck of the growing VR community in Atlanta, thanks to a large group of corporations and brands seeking more VR innovation. 

VR and AR panel at ENGAGE: The ATL Digital Storytelling Salon on 11.29.16 – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

“To watch it grow from a time before most people realized the technology existed has been a fantastic sight to behold. I am excited to be a part of a quickly growing industry and to also be in the center of it all,” says Eaton.

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