This story was written for WRAL TechWire Advisor partner Momentum Learning.
Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man, AKA one of the heroes of the Marvel universe, has repeatedly used augmented reality and virtual reality throughout the franchise’s movies to show off his cool inventions, identify issues, and solve problems. Though a made-up character, Stark demonstrates that the possibilities of these technologies go far beyond video gaming.
VR and AR oftentimes play a recurring role in science fiction or fantasy movies; but the fact is, they’re actually very real tools that can be used for education and innovation.
Companies like Lucid Dream — a software provider in Durham that builds virtual and augmented reality applications for large enterprise clients — and Momentum Learning — a coding development school in Durham — are collaborating to educate the community on this type of technology.
Why? Because it’s not only cool, but it’s also a transformative new medium for learning and exploration.
“We’re working collaboratively now with most of the largest tech and life sciences companies in the Triangle, creating content on all the new VR headsets and AR platforms,” said Joshua Setzer, CEO of Lucid Dream. “We’re helping businesses leverage these technologies to transform everything from the way they market themselves at tradeshows and events, to how they recruit new employees, deliver training and support their salespeople.”
Lucid Dream and Momentum partnered to open a VR lab at American Tobacco Campus in Durham as a response to the sheer volume of requests from local students, school groups, teachers, and administrators interested in learning about VR/AR and incorporating it into their curriculums.
“We started thinking, what if we had a dedicated space set up to do that?” Setzer continued. “So I shared the idea with Jessica [Mitsch, CEO of Momentum] and we found this immediate synergy between our organizations because Momentum is full time in the business of technology education and teaching people how to code.”
Setzer noted that strong computer programming, 3D and video game development skills are required to build interactive VR and AR content.
“I think there’s a serious misconception that interactive VR is just for gaming, but there’s so much more to its potential than first-person zombie shooters,” he said. “We want to communicate to the community that [VR and AR are] revolutionizing the way humans learn. It’s changing the classroom. This is going to change professional development and the way people develop new job skills.”
Setzer thinks the Triangle is in a unique position to be an industry leader in VR and AR. Locally, Lenovo is a major headset manufacturer, and Epic Games in Cary is the maker of Unreal Engine, a game engine that is one of the primary authoring platforms of VR and AR content. Setzer also pointed out the “long history of VR and AR research” conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.
Gary Radburn, a British transplant to the area, is the director of VR and AR for Dell. Dell provided much of equipment, including high-performance workstations, in the Lucid Dream/Momentum VR lab. Radburn was thrilled to connect with the Lucid Dream and Momentum teams, saying that giving back to the community is one of Dell’s biggest missions.
In Radburn’s global role, he said he is witnessing the benefits of learning through VR firsthand.
“The way people learn is they can either read [or] they can immerse themselves in an experience,” he explained. “We’re finding that there’s a great retention from learning through VR when you’re trying to train up a workforce. There are so many different uses that VR can be used in.”
For example, some doctors are using VR to pre-plan their surgeries by simulating the operation beforehand. As of 2017, Stanford Medicine is using a software system that combines MRI, CT scans and angiogram images to create a three-dimensional model that doctors can manipulate.
Automotive manufacturers are designing and launching their products inside of VR, and municipalities like Durham are employing VR to help with urban planning and development.
Caley Patten, the management analyst in the Office of Performance and Innovation for the City of Durham, is responsible for driving a culture of innovation within the Bull City. She helped develop Innovate Durham, a partnership program that opens City Hall’s doors to local startups, entrepreneurs and small businesses to test their technology and ideas for 12 weeks.
Last year, Lucid Dream was one of four companies that caught the city’s attention.
“Lucid Dream applied and they essentially had a public service motivation to be able to utilize their technology with the City of Durham,” Patten said. “They have clients much bigger and greater than we could ever really be for them, but they really saw virtual reality as a potential engagement tool that the city could be using to better engage with residents. A better educational tool for groups like our planning and our community development departments.”
The city paired Lucid Dream with the Community Development Department, which already had a 3D computer model from the architect of a proposed project that the city was working on — the Jackson Street Affordable Housing Project. Lucid Dream helped create a virtual reality version of it.
“City Council was actually voting on whether or not they were going to be approving [the project],” Patten said. “They were able to come in and put on the VR glasses, and see what this affordable housing project was going to look like and feel like. That’s a really important thing when we think about engagement for our residents, especially on things as impactful as affordable housing.”
Patten said VR is much more effective than a 2D poster board because it gives residents a better sense of how their neighborhood will look, feel and operate.
“You can’t really get that sense from a 2D board, so the VR walk-through allowed our elected officials to make more of an informed decision on how this project was actually going to look and feel if they approved it,” Patten explained.
Looking toward the future, Patten said it would be interesting to explore VR’s integration with things like land usage, and police training where officers are placed in a “live action” scenario.
“This technology is kind of limitless,” she added.
Setzer said VR opens tremendous opportunities and has the power to modernize the centuries-old, classroom-based learning style.
“When you’re learning about ancient Rome, instead of flipping through a textbook or even looking at a slide on a projector screen, you put a headset on and you’re sitting in the Colosseum,” he said. “It’s about making learning magical, so people can experience content in a more intuitive and personalized way instead of passively consuming a video.”
Access to VR and AR, however, is not as widespread as Lucid Dream and Momentum would like it to be, hence the collaborative studio.
Setzer said the more the general public is exposed to this new technology, the better because it will make people aware of career paths and opportunities they may not yet realize even exist.
Radburn said that VR has the “capability to change the world.”
“I firmly believe it’s going to be a disruptive technology,” he said. “What you need are professionals behind it that understand that VR and AR is a whole new medium. I think Jessica and Josh have got the idea that we can make this a really big thing.”
Added Setzer, “VR/AR tech is so far-reaching. We want to broaden the conversation and encourage people to think about how the Triangle can catch this wave.”
The team is bringing two free crash courses to the public, check out links to the events below.
Wednesday, Aug. 15 from 6 until 8 p.m. – sign up below:
Wednesday, Sept. 26 from 6 until 8 p.m. – sign up below:
This story was written for WRAL TechWire Advisor partner Momentum Learning.