Feature Article: Austin Makers
Exploring the new landscapes of virtual reality at Capital Factory’s VR Lab
by Ciarán Daly
Photographs by Warren Chang
“Austin really is the perfect venter for VR,” says Brance Hudzietz, the Ambassador of Emerging Technologies at Capital Factory. “It’s got this rich history in gaming, it’s got SXSW film and music, you’ve got the creative scene here, you’ve got art, and you’ve got this bustling tech scene. VR is at the center of all that. You need developers and game designers, but you also need filmmakers and artists who know how to tell a story. You put them all together and VR kind of pops out.”
That’s the thinking behind a new virtual and augmented reality lab in downtown Austin, which opened at Capital Factory last December. Capital Factory describes itself as a cross-industry start-up “accelerator” which aims to give tech entrepreneurs the resources they need to grow their businesses in size and scale. It’s a hub for networking, co-working, and industry events. Kitted out with the newest headsets, games, films, and motion sensor equipment, Capital Factory’s VR Lab hosts the cutting edge in virtual and augmented reality technology. From Oculus Rifts to HTC Vives, they’ve got it all—even one of those treadmills that let you run around forever in VR—and it’s now open to the public.
Having helped run the VR Lab for nearly eight months, Hudzietz is on the frontlines of this burgeoning technology as it develops—a perhaps enviable job. “I get to talk to cool people and play with toys all day. No arguments there,” he laughs.
“I liken Capital Factory to a gym,” Hudzietz explains. “You’ve got all the equipment to get strong, but you still have to do the work yourself. We try to create that atmosphere by getting cool people in the door—investors, customers, other developers, and entrepreneurs who can help each other along the journey. We get them all together and hopefully cool stuff comes out of it.”
Virtual reality technology may still be in its infancy, but many industries are already looking for ways to integrate VR into their work processes. Bringing together tech developers and creatives of all stripes, virtual reality sits at a cultural and technological crossroads. It’s an entirely new form of media technology, and its adoption by entrepreneurs and professionals is integral to its successful development and practical applications. It could very well change the world as we know it in the next ten years.
“We noticed this huge appetite for VR in Austin, but like with any new technology, the scene is fractured. At Capital Factory, we want to be this lighthouse for VR and bring everybody together, so in December, we launched the VR Lab,” Hudzietz says. “VR really has a lot of potential to improve existing practices and processes, and it starts with educating people about what is possible with the technology. Thankfully, VR is fun to educate people about—you get to put on a headset and play around with ‘Rick and Morty.’”
With investors, government officials, and CEOs of big companies visiting Capital Factory all time, it seems like the perfect place in which to promote VR. Yet, the VR Lab quickly outgrew its VIP status, as visitors to Capital Factory demanded to try it out for themselves. It’s open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day, and is regularly packed with school groups and individual members of the public. The visitors are all there for different reasons, united by a fascination with the new tech’s potential. “Kids are coming in and they want to play games with it. People in healthcare are coming in and want to know how they can use it in surgery. There’s construction, engineering, and architecture groups that are like ‘we wanna be using this in design and we wanna be doing it right now.’ That’s why I think the technology will continue to gain momentum.”
The estimated value of the global VR market sits at around $960.9 million, and it is predicted to grow exponentially in the next five to ten years. While the companies developing the hardware aren’t conducting any major marketing campaigns, it is initiatives on the ground, such as the VR Lab, that are driving growth by giving entrepreneurs and the public a chance to become more familiar with the hardware.
So, what are the biggest obstacles facing the development of the home VR market right now? “Price,” Hudzietz explains. “To get into home VR, realistically, it’s going to cost at least $2,000. The headsets are between $400 and $700 and you need a powerful gaming PC to run them. That’s pretty prohibitive for widespread home adoption. Obviously, as the technology gets better, the price is probably going to drop a lot, so I think you’ll start seeing more and more headsets that don’t require connection to a computer. Once those cost less than $500, you’ll see more widespread home adoption.”
Any rapidly developing technology is bound to have some teething problems, and VR is no different. “I’m not gonna lie—I love the technology—but it also frustrates the heck out of me sometimes!” Hudzietz says. “Since it’s developing so rapidly, VR hardware is buggy, bulky, and kind of cumbersome. Obviously, what we’ve seen in the lab is that people love it. Every time someone gets in the headset, their mind is blown. They come away from it saying, ‘holy cow! I had no idea this was possible!’”
Many people had their first taste of VR using basic headsets like Google Cardboard, released back in 2014, which allowed people to view static panoramic videos in 360 degrees. Hudzietz contends that the technology has come on in leaps and bounds since then. “VR has changed so much since I started doing this even a year ago,” he says. “There have been a lot of improvements in room-scale VR, which offers six degrees of freedom. I can look around, up and down, but if I start walking forward, the character in the virtual environment walks forward too. It’s a far more immersive experience. I can interact with the environment, bend down and look under the table. I can walk around something. That’s been the biggest jump—the mass adoptions of systems like the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift and their quality is what’s changed the most in the last year or so.”
Hudzietz predicts that we’ll see a lot more adoption of augmented reality (AR), which uses camera technology to provide us with hybrid digital visualizations of the physical world. Rather than being transported elsewhere by a headset, AR provides an additional layer of information about your current surroundings. “Pokémon GO was a cool example of AR—you’re walking around in the real world, but you’re also seeing this Pokémon overlay,” Hudzietz says. “It’s a goofy example, but its mass adoption shows that there’s a lot of potential there. AR also has a lot more potential in industry than you’d think. Imagine a worker repairing a car. He can take his tablet, iPad, or iPhone, and by waving it over the car he can see all the broken parts that need to be repaired. We’re showing off this technology in our lounge as well. All this technology… it’s really on the cutting edge. The stuff coming out two weeks ago is different from what came out a month ago.”
To help boost the early adoption of VR and AR by industry, Capital Factory also opened up a new ground floor events space in May fitted with VR infrastructure. “Now, any event—whether it’s related to healthcare, education, or design—is VR accessible. It’s awesome that there’s more and more access to VR, because people want to do it, but you just need more headsets and more time. That’s what Capital Factory is doing. We’re giving people more headsets and giving them a more consistent amount of time in which to try them,” Hudzietz says.
With today’s VR experiences taking place so publicly, social and multiplayer VR seems like the logical next step up—enabling you to experience the virtual world with others, turning VR into a communal experience. This principle is quickly becoming visible in new practices utilizing the medium, which Hudzietz thinks are set to take off in the next couple of years. “I’m not a big gamer—I’m a huge movie buff though. There’s this new field called virtual cinema. It’s a kind of passive experience where you’re in a virtual environment and different stories and events are unfolding all around you. You can walk in any direction and interact with it. That to me is mind blowing. It’s kind of like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story, but a ‘choose your own adventure’ world.”
Read more from the Makers Issue | August 2017