Virtual reality is no longer the stuff of games; it is quickly altering the landscape of industries like health care, real estate, and tourism, and Seattle has become a virtual reality hub. But will the technology change our lives as many in the industry promise?
According to the Washington Interactive Network, more than 40 companies in the Seattle area are focused on the virtual reality and augmented reality fields. In addition to technology giants like Microsoft, which has developed the HoloLens, there are dozens of other smaller or start-up companies capitalizing on the possibilities of what used to be science fiction.
“The minute that people get these headsets and start to see the benefits to their lives with normal applications-- they're going to get it,” said Boaz Ashkenazy, partner at Studio 216. The digital production agency creates virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality experiences. He and partner Jamie Fleming showed KIRO 7 how prospective buyers or renters can tour a condo or apartment, as well as amenities like a roof deck and fitness center, before the building even goes up.
“Typically an experience center might have a built-out kitchen or a built-out bathroom where you can physically walk through those spaces,” he said. “Now you don’t have to have as big a space and you can put on a headset and digitally and remotely walk through those spaces.”
But, Ashkenazy said, it doesn’t stop there. He believes people will start using virtual reality for home decoration and renovation.
“I think there's a future where -- if you're going to do a second-story remodel or any kind of remodel, it will be very common for you to test it in virtual reality first, just to make sure,” he said. “Over a certain price point, everyone will want to make sure it’s going to be the way they want it.”
Ashkenazy said a construction client is even interested in conducting safety training through VR.
“So that construction workers don't have to do that training on site, but they can do it in the office using a headset,” he said. “I think it's going to save money. It's also going to save lives.”
Virtual reality isn’t limited to real estate. It’s showing real relief for burn patients at Harborview Medical Center, where work at the University of Washington has produced a game, SnowWorld, that helps burn patients through painful wound care procedures.
Sixty to 70 patients a year are currently helped by SnowWorld, using a virtual reality set-up from Hoffman that does not wrap around patients’ heads, in case they’ve had facial or head burns. Patients click on the screen to toss snowballs at snowmen and penguins as they move through a snowy valley.
“We're seeing a huge increase in the number of people getting into this research space,” Dr. Hunter Hoffman said.
Hoffman has studied the pain relief from versions of this virtual reality game for decades. He walked KIRO 7 through a pain experiment that applied uncomfortable amounts of heat without virtual reality immersion and then with virtual reality immersion.
“We’re seeing 25 to 50 percent reductions in pain,” Hoffman said. “One of the questions the industry is asking is—you know, what good is virtual reality if it’s just for entertainment? Is that really good for society? We’re a good example of it—it has potential being used for things besides just entertainment.”
Hoffman also demonstrated the newest version of the game, Snow Canyon, which will be rolled out at Harborview on two newly-purchased VR headsets and high-powered laptop.
“We know that when people can become completely absorbed in the virtual world, they're going to experience less pain,” said Dr. Shelley Wiechman, clinical psychologist for Harborview’s burn and pediatric units.
Wiechman said as VR becomes more portable and less expensive, people who need physical therapy to recover from surgeries at home may end up strapping on headsets in the future.
Virtual reality is also changing how people plan their time off.
Where you can try out virtual reality:
- HTC Vive-- Microsoft Store: University Village, 2624 NE University Village St, Seattle, WA 98105
- Occulus Rift- Best Buy Stores: (can be limited to certain weekends—call your local Best Buy)
- Living Computer Museum & Labs: 2245 1st Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98134
“You feel like you’re IN the destination,” said Maya Lange, Vice President of Global Marketing for Destination BC.
Back in 2014, the provincial tourism agency spent $500,000 CDN to produce a virtual reality film, The Wild Within. Now, with two more under their belt, the costs have come down to $30,000 a film. In 2016, British Columbia recorded over half a million more visitors in 2016 than in 2015— growth of just over 12%.
Lange credits a new branding campaign and strategy, the exchange rate, and VR for the growth in tourism, especially when it comes to connecting with tour operators and travel agencies overseas.
“It really had this visceral effect on the travel agencies and tour operators,” she said. “You want to stand out… we bought headsets and actually had them at the travel agencies.”
“What do you say to concerns that this might not be as beneficial for tourism because people will feel like they've already been there?” KIRO 7 asked.
“I think it piques interest,” Lange said. “People see it and it just sort of is that motivating factor to go and take a trip.”
See some of Destination BC's videos in the following links:
While Seattle's tourism organization told KIRO 7 it has no plans for VR right now, it did say it is keep a close eye on how the technology develops.
However, Seattle is seeing some virtual reality filmmaking. A local company, Mechanical Dreams, started with a VR piece called Eagle Bone, in collaboration with indigenous activist and filmmaker Tracy Rector. It featured a spoken word poet, the Naak’w dancers, and the voice of the great-great-great-great grandson of Chief Seattle, Ken Workman from the Duwamish Tribe.
Mechanical Dreams is putting together a virtual reality 360 video in partnership with Washington Filmworks that features different areas around Washington. The film will be shown to lawmakers in Olympia on Film Day, March 13, in support of the state’s film incentive program.
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