Virtual reality is potentially vital engagement tool


The new wave of virtual reality (VR) is here, allowing users to visit distant planetscapes, pilot a fighter jet, or clock a quarterback's point of view as he surveys an opposing defense.

Not everyone believes the hype, but the business world sees a potential in virtual reality technology that goes far beyond gaming or entertainment. VR's high degree of realism and efficiency has local firms excited about developing fully immersive experiences that market products and solve real-world challenges.

While household names such as Apple and Netflix are creating VR experiences to reach wide audiences, Cleveland companies are experimenting with what they deem a robust customer engagement tool. Video production firm Goldfarb Weber Creative Media is building curated VR projects for its corporate clients. A pilot effort for Lubrizol Corp. took users on a theme park ride through the chemical manufacturer's newest formulations, projecting a brand message far stronger than any simple video could provide.

"There was an Oculus Rift (headset) and motion controllers that let you see your hands and interact with the world," said Kyle Stanley, Goldfarb Weber's art director and senior editor. "It was really amazing, especially when so many people haven't tried VR beyond Google Cardboard."

Riding the leading edge of VR innovation locally is critical when condensing client information into bite-sized, entertaining videos able to elicit emotion from a viewer, said the firm's president and creative director, Ron Goldfarb. "Any tool that can help clients tell their story in a more robust way makes sense to us," Goldfarb said. "Our interest is in the immersive part of VR, because it lets you move the needle on your storytelling capability."

The dream of VR has gone through numerous incarnations over the decades, beginning 78 years ago with the View-Master, which displayed stereoscopic images in glorious 3D. Twenty-first century advances in computing power, along with the ubiquity of smartphones and the gaming industry's push for high-end graphics and faster real-time rendering, has reignited VR hype and hopes.

Cleveland may not be as active as the coasts in terms of its utilization of VR or lesser-known augmented reality (AR) — which superimposes digital images on a user's view of the real world — but the city hasn't been shy about dipping its toes into the virtual water. For example, Case Western Reserve University is using Microsoft's HoloLens platform to teach anatomy to medical students. And in April, North Coast VR and AR experts shared their vision for the field at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

Reynaldo Zabala, who spoke at the CIFF event, is the managing partner and founder of RazorEdge, a B2B e-commerce company. He's also a co-founder of CLEVR, a nonprofit advocating for creation of VR/AR content as a means of improving Cleveland's socioeconomic status. A research team at his company is focusing on VR and AR applications related to the HoloLens, Samsung's Gear VR and the Oculus Rift, bought by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion.

"This is the prototype phase," Zabala said. "Most people haven't touched this stuff yet." Businesses are just starting to embrace VR as a cost-effective engineering and design tool, he said. Theoretically, Boeing could put an engineer into a virtual room to fully assemble an airplane part. Safety education is another application of the nascent technology. "We have heavy construction and building materials industry clients who would see benefit in mixed reality safety training where employees can be tested on their reactions within a virtual real world scenario," Zabala said. "Reduction in safety incidents is an immediate return on investment."

Think Media Studios, producer of sleek promos for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Playhouse Square, Progressive Insurance and The J.M. Smucker Co., began working with VR camera rigs five years ago. Last summer, the studio partnered with Tourism Ohio on a simulated sightseeing trip throughout the Buckeye State, with Cedar Point and Columbus' Short North neighborhood among the stops. "The visual experience of VR is much better than it used to be," said Think Media owner Brian Glazen. "It's much smoother, the production process is easier and you're saving money."

Despite feverish press coverage, about two-thirds of the U.S. population remains unaware of virtual reality's capabilities, according to a survey by media agency Horizon Media. Quality VR headsets are expensive — a single HTC Vive headset runs for $800 — and all run off equally pricey external computers or game consoles. However, Zabala and other Cleveland-based tech heads expect the forthcoming price competitions for VR-ready graphical processing chips to drive down headset costs. "If I can get you into a headset, you're pretty much sold right there," said Matt Mazur of MAZVR, a producer of virtual reality media for desktop and mobile. "The hardest part is convincing customers to try it out."

Chris Hatala, event director of Games Done Legit, a video game events company, said ongoing education will remove many of the impediments facing VR, particularly as the technologies drop in price and improve their current-generation processing limitations. Hatala envisions a headset-clad sewer district official mapping out a pipeline, or an architect extending a skyscraper's skeleton via the motion of their hands. "Businesses are afraid to invest in brand-new technology they're not sure will be around in five years," Hatala said. "To sell this, you have to have metrics on why VR is a solid investment."

Goldfarb Weber's Goldfarb believes virtual storytelling experiences can proliferate rather than vanish, though it's gaming that will likely provide the yardstick for future success. "Gamers will pave the way as businesses try and figure out their place," he said. "I'm glad we have a project under our belt. We just have to see how the industry shakes out." (source)