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‘It’s the Wild West:’ What you need to know about the brave new world of virtual reality

Virtual reality is here to stay.St. Louis on the Air discussed the technology trend on Monday's program. Host Don Marsh tried a VR headset on firsthand.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Virtual reality is here to stay.St. Louis on the Air discussed the technology trend on Monday's program. Host Don Marsh tried a VR headset on firsthand.

From the outskirts of Shanghai to the Wisconsin Dells, companies are creating entire arenas for the worlds of virtual reality. St. Louis is no different with a score of virtual reality (VR) companies cropping up to capitalize on the futuristic technology trend that allows you to experience another world through a headset and gaming technology.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh took a deep dive into virtual reality with three local businessmen who are heavily steeped in the industry. 

What is virtual reality?

“Virtual reality is a medium, a complete immersion,” said Ian Renz, the founder of Show Me Virtual, a company that produces VR experiences. “It is the use of technology to trick your senses and trick your brain into being somewhere else, where you aren’t physically there. … Virtual reality really allows for experiences. If you’ve ever been afraid of skydiving, you have some primal fear of it, now you can go skydiving, there’s no risk.”

Joe Mason of Turnabout 3D, Ian Renz of Show Me Virtual and Bob Stolzberg of AR/VR Association in St. Louis.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Joe Mason of Turnabout 3D, Ian Renz of Show Me Virtual and Bob Stolzberg of AR/VR Association in St. Louis.

In addition to Renz, Bob Stolzberg, the chapter president of the Global Association for VR and AR in St. Louis, and Joe Mason, the co-founder of Turnabout 3D, joined the program to discuss applications for VR in St. Louis and globally.

Mason, a former television and radio personality in St. Louis who now works in the film industry, started Turnabout 3D because he believes virtual reality will be the future of business communications.

“Much the same way people have tried to reach out with brochures and print, then TV and radio, now with virtual reality they can do something much more impactful,” Mason said. “You can experience a new facility and walk around as if you are there. You can pick up products with your own hands, examine them. In terms of selling products of services, this is unheard of.”

Virtual reality is experienced through a headset, running the gamut from something as cheap and user-accessible as a Google Cardboard visor with a phone slipped into its viewfinder, to a firm headset and hand controls like the Oculus Rift.

It is produced using many cameras and stitching those images together to give a full, 360 degree scope of viewing in post-production. In Turnabout 3D’s case, producers use up to 18 4K stereoscopic cameras, which is a rig setup similar to what Hollywood film producers use, Mason said. That takes up a lot of data, but the amateur VR producer could get started with a much cheaper 360-video camera.

Renz said that the initial ask for the common user to buy and wear such a headset is a big one. In fact, the challenge with VR is not making it. On the lower level of production, anyone can buy a camera and start stitching together images with a free hobbyist account on Unity, but the bigger challenge is making content that would entice a user to isolate themselves with the headset.

“The real challenge is making something so compelling and so impactful that they want to put on the headset and seek out these experiences,” Renz said. “It is a problem that companies across the world are trying to solve and not many have in a meaningful and repeatable way.”

Ethics questions

Another issue that arises in the discussion of VR is that of ethics. As depicted in popular media like Westworld and Black Mirror, the medium may become so advanced it is hard to tell the difference between reality and virtual reality.

“It’s the Wild West, there’s no laws governing this, it is really up to each company or creator to follow best practices,” Stolzberg.

Mason said he is not quite so concerned about ethical issues, because there is still a separation between real experience and a chosen virtual reality experience. He said it is up to companies that are producing content for VR to ensure they are not lying about their products.

Related: Our world has changed:’ Pokémon Go and the future of AR/VR in St. Louis, across the country

Renz said that, in the future, VR may become so convincing you might forget where your physical self is located.

“It will absolutely be used to trick you,” Renz said. “There will be an underworld, a dark side to it. Hopefully it won’t be popular, but it exists, just like it exists on the internet – VR is not immune either.”

The VR scene in St. Louis

Stolzberg said that virtual reality has a rich history in St. Louis and that the Global Association for AR/VR, with a staff of 45 employees, started and is headquartered here. Stolzberg just relaunched the St. Louis chapter of that association and will host an event later this month on the topic at Venture Café.

On a business level, Boeing is leading the way in uses of virtual reality for training, Renz said. Stolzberg pointed to Aisle 411 as another industry leader.

To Renz, the VR scene in St. Louis still has room to grow.

“I think we’re pretty behind the curve compared to other major cities in the country,” Renz said. “A great example is Nashville, about the size of St. Louis, and there’s a thriving community there. You can go to meetups, regularly scheduled collaboration. Here, you meet people one-on-one, but there isn’t that collaboration yet.”

Mason said that the big players in virtual reality are located in Los Angeles, New York and Amsterdam. He hopes his platform, Turnabout 3D, will become one of those major players.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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