Northern Michigan Entrepreneurs Bet on Virtual Reality

Virtual reality and augmented reality markets are projected to be a $162 billion industry by 2020. In northern Michigan, this market remains largely untapped … for now.

Aveopt, an Ann Arbor-based company co-founded by Glen Lake native Tim Nash, develops relevant and practical AR/VR solutions for clients in various industries. Nash’s company builds the hardware necessary to collect data for end solutions, and then puts that data into goggles or headsets  for AR or VR usage.

Nash, who serves as Aveopt’s vice president of technology solutions, studied micro- and nanotechnology at University of Michigan. He’s also a veteran of the United States Marines.

The fascination with VR/AR lies in the user experience. VR stimulates the user’s vision and hearing, making them feel like they are “there.” AR layers computer-generated images on top of something real, enhancing the user’s experience of it.

It is a growing field that is not without its growing pains. Recently, Aveopt collaborated with Real Tour Vision (RTV), a Traverse City-based service that creates virtual walkthrough tours of local properties. The idea was to use 3D property images, allowing users to “walk” around rooms and explore.

One necessary element ended up killing the plan.

“It was basically because the realtors … didn’t want to put the goggles – these big, bulky things – on their clients,” said Nash, who ended up shelving the technology.

Nash thinks that AR and VR will see wider adoption in industries like real estate in time, but not until the technology gets a bit “sleeker and sexier.”

The clunky nature of AR and VR headsets is a barrier to entry, and one of the reasons that neither technology has really seen true mainstream adoption yet. Aaron Harris, a local tech enthusiast who does demonstrations of VR and AR technology in northern Michigan, reiterated the concern.

“VR is not comfortable right now,” Harris said. “Headsets like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, you can use them for 30 minutes to an hour before they start getting annoying to wear. It’s like wearing a motorcycle helmet.”

Despite the comfort issue, Harris has gotten positive feedback from his demonstrations. He said he often encounters people around town who think they know about VR, but don’t realize the true power and potential of the technology.

“I get people who don’t know what they are getting into … and their minds are blown every time,” he said. “I’ve talked to neurosurgeons, teachers, nurses, and they’ve all said, ‘This is the future, how do we make this happen today?’”

Ultimately, Harris thinks that VR/AR can double or triple the speed of educational and training processes, simply because it allows for seamless hands-on visualization.

There is a price to pay, however.

The most notable VR headsets right now are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The former goes for $399, while the later is $599. The best AR headset on the market, meanwhile, is the Microsoft HoloLens — a $3,000 piece of hardware.

In spite of the barriers to entry, some Traverse City residents are diving in. Software engineer Russ Ryba has spent the past couple months developing games for VR platforms like the HTC Vive. For the holidays, he built a game called “Red Sleigh Down,” where Santa crashes his sleigh in the Arctic tundra and is besieged by evil, magical snowmen. Players must get Santa back to his sleigh without being killed by the snowmen. The gameplay involves throwing snowballs at the snowmen and knocking off their hats, which robs them of their powers.

Ryba says that cost might deter some from playing “Red Sleigh Down.”

“To run my game, you need around $2,000 of equipment,” Ryba said. “It’s not like buying an Xbox and plugging it in. You need a pretty hefty video card to go along with the $500-$700 VR goggles.”

Ryba estimated that there are about a million consumer VR headsets out there currently, which means that the market for VR games and apps is pretty small. Game developers have more opportunity in the Android or iOS sphere, where virtually everyone has a smartphone that can run their games.

As for augmented reality, Ryba said even the most expensive headsets only “sort of” capture the experience.

“With augmented reality, the computer has to map out everything in the environment you’re in,” he said. “It has to happen in real time, and it has to be responsive. If [the mapping] takes more than 20 milliseconds, it doesn’t feel right. So, to get all that data combined into something you put on your head, that’s a lot of work. Microsoft has HoloLens, which sort of does it, but it’s $3,000 per headset.”

Still, Nash thinks the cost barrier might not affect large corporations or hospital systems. For instance, Boeing is testing augmented reality to simplify work for its electrical wiring technicians.

Large hospitals and medical companies have experimented with using AR during surgical procedures. By overlaying CT or MRI scans on the patient’s body, AR can show surgeons the internal workings of the body while surgery is in progress.

Ryba thinks the cost barrier will soon “disappear.” When that happens, northern Michigan companies that have already expressed interest in AR and VR will likely take the plunge. The shift could also coincide with the arrival of high-speed fiber in Traverse City, which would make the area a software developer’s dream.

In the meantime, it’s up to people like Ryba, Harris, and Nash to spread the word about AR and VR technology and lay the groundwork for widescale adoption.

“We’re developers, right? This technology is what we want,” said Ryba. “So now we need to show people why they need it.”