Virtually endless

VR technology expanding

Munising resident Rick Saari, top, center, plays an updated virtual reality version of Space Invaders as his wife and grandchildren look on. The family gamed at Edge of Reality VR arcade in Marquette on Saturday, one of only three such arcades in the state. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

MARQUETTE — It might seem like a game to some, with space-age goggles and handheld controllers but virtual reality is a very serious business on many levels.

The technology, most closely associated with the entertainment industry, also has vast implications in medical care, business and education.

Rob Shirlin, owner of the Edge of Reality VR Arcade along West Washington Street in Marquette, said the potential goes far beyond mere entertainment.

“This is what people recognize,” he said pointing to the people gaming around him. “And people think this is all VR is right now — which is not true. VR does so much more and has so much more potential.”

Although the technology has taken hold quickly in Europe and other places overseas, Edge of Reality is one of roughly 200 VR arcades in the United States and one of only three throughout the state.

The concept of immersing a gamer or moviegoer into an environment is not new. There was a boom of a fledgeling version of the technology in the 1980s and 1990s, but the technology did not live up to the hype, and was short-lived.

The term “virtual reality” was coined in 1987, but artists and inventors have been trying to create immersive experiences much longer than that. Consider the panoramic paintings in the mid-19th century, or even the Viewmaster that began as a means of “virtual tourism” when it was patented in 1939 to transport people to places they may never be able to go that ultimately ended up a children’s toy.

VR has the potential to be big business, according to a 2015 report in Digi-Capital. Virtual reality and augmented reality markets are expected to hit $150 billion by 2020, and would account for an audience in the tens of millions.

Shirlin said even though Edge of Reality was built around the idea of gaming, the technology is being used for much more practical purposes.

He said engineers and other contractors can use VR to demonstrate to clients or train employees.

“I had a party here a couple of weeks ago. It was a tunneling company out of Escanaba. They brought their clients here to see what VR was through a 5-hour party here. They created 3-D images of the inside of a tunnel. All they did was find tunnels and conduct repairs and inspections,” Shirlin said. “They could stand inside the tunnel and say ‘We’ve got a bad spot here, or there is a bad spot there.'”

Shirlin said professors from the Northern Michigan University computer science program have sent students in for projects.

“I do a lot of memberships for students so they can work on programming,” Shirlin said. “I have a little mini-station set up for that.”

The arcade started off as an offshoot of a much larger concept. Compelling research shows that VR can have medical benefits for some people, which is what companies like Neurotrainer — a company specializing in cognitive medicine, or brain training — was founded on.

Neurotrainer’s founder Jeff Nyquist said he recently had an opportunity to speak at Harvard Medical School about the future of VR in patient care.

“We are seing many of the applications on phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and chronic pain,” Nyquist said. “It’s magical the effects that VR can provide for those types of conditions, specifically people in a hospital setting or a long-term care setting.”

Nyquist said he has partnered with Great Lakes Recovery to explore how VR can help addicts recover.

The program, with a $6,312 grant from the Superior Health Foundation, will use virtual reality equipment and software to assist individuals suffering from substance use disorder to promote the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself.

It works, Nyquist said, “by teaching them how to gain control over their reward centers to stay a little more in balance.”

Shirlin said he recently helped GLR with the application of that technology.

“I went and trained them. They are using it for guided meditations to help with anxiety relief,” Shirlin said. “Again, it’s not just gaming (it can help with) cognitive decline, concussion recovery — depending on what angle you want to grow, this stuff does such cool things.”

Nyquist said VR is effective because it is doing fundamentally the same thing the brain is already wired to do.

“When we look out through our eyes, we are seeing a representation of the world, and that is exactly what VR does,” Nyquist said. “That’s why all things are possible, from helping someone who has a phobia of elevators to an Iraq war veteran who has PTSD — the sky is the limit.”

Nyquist VR tech has advanced to the point that some goggles are tracking eye movements.

“That is a pretty exciting development. Your eyes are not only a window to the soul, but a good indicator of what the brain is doing,” Nyquist said.

The technology will allow VR characters to look you in the eye, because they know where you are looking, he said.

The technology could also have an impact on education in a variety of fields as well.

NMU aviation maintenance professor Mark Matteson, whose son games at the Edge of Reality, said he can see applications for both recruiting and teaching students.

“Currently what we do, as much as possible is bring people into a maintenance environment and give them an idea of what things are like,” Matteson said. “But for some young people, that doesn’t turn their crank, doesn’t get their attention. (VR) makes them use their imagination and start to think about it in terms of possibilities.”

Matteson said VR technology might also overcome the challenge of finding hardware that is used to give students hands-on training in the field, which is expensive to replace and hard to transport.

“If we would step over to something that was more virtual reality, the high investment is going to be in the system and the peripherals,” Matteson said. “As far as software goes and the type of training that they can get, that would be easier to replace than to bring an aircraft to the U.P., disassemble it, bring it down to the facility at Northern and reassemble it because your just can’t tow an airplane down the highway.”

For now, Shirlin said he will continue to add to the list of dozens of games that the Edge of Reality offers, and help with other local applications of the technology as they come along.

“It’s hard not to get excited about this industry,” Shirlin said. “There is so much potential to help people. Entertainment is important, but it is only the beginning of something much larger.”

The tip of the virtual iceberg, perhaps.