Mind Goggling

Inside the World of Virtual Reality

Local pioneers push the boundaries of new technology.

By Robert Bowden March 29, 2017 Published in the April 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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The author reacts to an ultra-realistic simulation of looking down from dizzying heights.

Image: Barbara Banks

I'm in the Roskamp Exhibition Hall at the Ringling College of Art and Design. Physically.

But my vision tells me I'm standing in a swanky penthouse of a Miami high-rise. I'm way up—way up—and the floor-to-ceiling windows across from me yield a panoramic view of the city. I scan the horizon as I turn my head. Dizzying, almost. I don't like heights. I return my gaze to the room.

There's a fire in a fireplace built into a wall. I see the flames. I do not feel heat. I do not hear crackling.

I hear … crowd noises. Murmurs of conversations. Yet I see no one. This reality is not complete. This million-dollar penthouse I see through the lenses on a helmet I wear is an example of virtual reality. Imagine your head inside a globe with visible surfaces of photorealistic art stretching to infinity. That's what virtual reality is like. It has depth and movie-like movement. This penthouse I'm “in” is a deception created by the Sarasota firm of HALVR/Hoyt Architecture Lab.

It’s the future, Dorian Vee, vice president of HALVR, tells me. See before you buy. He creates a future for interested buyers to see.

I'm in another area of the hall now, with Jeff Hazelton, chief technology officer of Sharecare Reality Lab of Sarasota. On this evening, Hazelton and others are showing a select crowd just how far virtual reality has progressed—and the stake some Sarasota companies have in this pioneering technology.

Hazelton has taken me inside a human body. I'm looking at a beating heart. I see a 3D representation of that heart through my VR goggles. It's pulsing. But I do not hear it go thumpa, thumpa, thumpa.

Can you show me stenosis? I ask. A helper guides a light pointer down a menu and the heart valves pop into close-up view. They are clogged with fatty deposits. More deposits pile up as I watch blood gush through.

Soon the valve is not opening and closing as it should. The passage between flaps has become narrowed. I feel no pain. But this heart needs help. Surgical help.

From an artery in the VR image, a probe appears. Like a needle, it threads through the valve, and an attached balloon inflates. The expanding balloon forces the valve to open wider. I'm fixed with this now common procedure I can preview pre-surgery. “Can you combine fiber optic images with VR and show me my own heart?” I ask.

Not yet. Today, these Sarasota-created VR presentations, shown by Dr. Oz, a Sharecare investor, on his syndicated TV show, aid in the education of patients and medical students. They show a condition that might be difficult to explain or understand.

I exit the body and move on.

A blond woman next to me is first to try a tennis game in VR. A TV screen shows bystanders in 2D what she sees in her 3D VR headset. A tennis court. An opponent. Empty bleachers.

She raises her left hand and we see that it holds a virtual tennis ball. The game requires her to toss the ball up, then swat it with a virtual tennis racket held in her right hand. In reality, of course, she has neither ball nor racket. She tosses gently. The ball drops to the court. She tosses harder. Swings her right arm awkwardly. Misses. Over and over. We who are watching realize how difficult this is.

Venus Williams is safe, I joke with the woman. “That's for sure,” she replies.

Ringling College, its president Larry Thompson tells us, is preparing the young people who will pioneer this new art medium. The computer power required to model virtual reality content is expensive and substantial; less than 1 percent of computers can handle the task. Ringling has 35 of these powerful computers for students to work and play with.

This is not 3D in the way we are accustomed to. VR is not a cinema presentation. It does not have a fixed point of view, as do TV and movies. A viewer wearing a headset is not merely watching something. The viewer is participating.

It's the nature of that participation that interests Scott Ross and Brett Leonard, principals in Virtuosity, a Hollywood company that has worked on projects with George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg; the two are speakers today at the event.

How will VR entertain us?

Right now, Ross jokes, “VR is like sex in high school. Everybody does it but nobody does it well.” The possibilities are limited only by the imagination of creators, he says. Its future is where these creators, including today’s students at Ringling College, take us.

Virtual reality is real to the person experiencing it, says Ross. “It hard wires the brain.” The brain records to memory things that happen in a virtual world. He tells about a group of “hard-core gamers” who were invited to play Russian roulette in VR. They found it intriguing at first. Pick up a single virtual bullet. Load it into the chamber of a virtual pistol. Spin the chamber. Put the virtual pistol to their head. Pull the trigger. As might be expected, mostly “clicks” were heard as the experiment went on. But for those whose guns “fired” … “They suffered PTSD,” Ross tells the suddenly quiet crowd. Some required months of counseling to recover from the experience. He and Leonard agree that ethical issues must be considered in designing virtual reality. It can’t become just a series of violent games.

A virtual world can take us to any place. It can take us inside a human body or a building not yet constructed. That's being done by these Sarasota companies. But it can also take us anywhere in time.

“I have a dream,” I tell Ross. “I want to take the photos in my high school yearbook and create avatars of my friends. I want to walk down my town's main street as it was in 1959. I want to have a Cherry Smash at Royal Palm Pharmacy and play pinball at Arcade Cigar Store.”

“You will be able to do that,” Ross assures me with a big smile. “You will be able to go back in time, then jump around to a new time, a new place, a new visit.”

I have seen the future. I hope it becomes reality before I—not so virtually—end life on earth.

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