Virtual Reality: What’s here and what’s possible

Mary Spio, founder of Next Galaxy, a virtual reality company, shares her immigrant story at The B.I.G. Summit in Miami Beach.
Mary Spio, founder of Next Galaxy, a virtual reality company, shares her immigrant story at The B.I.G. Summit in Miami Beach. Miami Herald

Will 2015 be the year virtual reality technology goes mainstream?

Industry experts speaking at The B.I.G. Summit this week in Miami Beach believe the time is right for more widespread adoption, and presented ways that immersive experiences are now used in automobile manufacturing, healthcare, sports and entertainment, retail and education.

The executives and entrepreneurs in the trenches of this technology see a transformative year ahead as quality grows and prices of VR headsets tumble. (There’s even a Google Cardboard headset — also available in plastic — for under $35.) Samsung, Sony and other big brands are getting into VR in a big way, and much more content is being developed, executives told several hundred attendees at New World Center on Tuesday.

Miami has always been a magnet for technology conferences in the winter, but this one specialized in the creative industries, an area of focus for South Florida as the region works to build a technology hub. Headlined by Randi Zuckerberg, author, marketing specialist and sister of the founder of Facebook, the new-to-Miami event brought the audience the latest in technologies while ensuring time for industry networking.

From Ford Motor Company’s multiple VR labs around the world, to the Golden State Warriors’ 12-acre ultra-high-tech “campus” housing the team’s arena and more being built in San Francisco, to Lockheed Martin using VR for its advanced aircraft training, speaker after speaker spoke about how they are using the technology now and what’s possible in the near future with the technology, including wearables.

Many of the companies at the summit, some local and others from all over the world, are creating applications aimed at various industries. For instance, a hotel chain might want to teleport its guests to its other luxury resorts around the world. An education company could bring students to the Louvre — without ever leaving the classroom. While Google recently shelved its Google Glass, Vuzix showed conference attendees smart glasses that look like, well, glasses.

“We are starting to see a lot of companies in the creative industries moving here and working with one another. This is an important evolution in building a technology ecosystem,” said Diane Sanchez, president of the Americas Council for the Creative Economy and a longtime South Florida tech executive.

Conference host Next Galaxy recently made South Florida its home, moving from the New York area. Next Galaxy’s founder, Mary Spio, is working with Miami Children’s Hospital to create training courses using immersive technologies, said Dr. M. Narendra Kini, CEO of Miami Children’s.

“We want to develop the world’s first CPR course in a virtual reality environment,” said Kini. “This is a solution that is scalable — it can help millions of people so they are ready when there is a real emergency.”

Kini sees immersive technologies playing a big role in the next generation of healthcare training, an area dominated by the use of patient simulators now. Though the simulators are lifelike, the more advanced VR technology immerses students in a constantly changing medical procedure in a way no mannequin can, he said. And he asked: Could it help teach bedside manner, too?

The opportunities in healthcare technology are massive and shouldn’t stop at VR, Kini told the audience. Not finding all the technology tools it needs in the market, Miami Children’s dove in to develop some itself. “We took the risk of developing an incubator within the hospital,” Kini said. “We have three startups today. We plan to add another half dozen.”

Spio’s company works with brands to create content for VR and augmented reality, which has VR qualities but is grounded in the real world. Her company developed CEEK, a platform to access all sorts of content with one app, and CEEKARS, a 3D audio headphone that completes the VR experience, to “open up the doors to experiences that would be out of reach to most people,” Spio said.

Next Galaxy also partners with EON Reality, which has produced more than 7,000 VR applications for industry, education and edutainment and has offices all over the world. EON’s clients include Boeing, Microsoft, Lexus and Cornell University. Mats Johansson, co-founder and CEO, was named “Global Innovator of the Year” at the conference.

Another speaker was AvenuePlanet co-founder Sanjay Daswani. The company's soon-to-launch product is designed to put the consumer on the streets and in the stores of the world’s greatest shopping districts, bringing window shopping to a whole new level, said Daswani. The London-based company has recently opened a U.S. base in Miami.

The industry can thank Palmer Luckey, a California high school gamer, for the jump start. Luckey started buying VR headsets to see their shortcomings and started building his own prototypes. Posting his plans on a message board attracted interest from potential partners. The company, which eventually became Oculus Rift, sold to Facebook for $2 billion, said Peter Rubin, senior editor of Wired.

The latest Oculus prototype shown at the Consumer Electronics Show has 360 degree tracking and 3D immersive audio, Rubin said. There are a number of exciting companies promising the next big thing with the technology, including Magic Leap of Dania Beach, he said. “I have not seen the technology but I have heard it is mind-blowing.”

Such innovation doesn’t surprise Zuckerberg, author of Dot Complicated and founder of Zuckerberg Media who directed marketing for Facebook into 2011. Calling this “the age of the entremployee,” Zuckerberg urged companies to do everything they can to encourage innovation. One good example, she said, is Google, which allows all employees to spend a fifth of their company time on passion projects. The policy has spawned innovations including gmail and recently, Google Cardboard.

“Imagine what can happen if you gave your employees 20 percent of their week to work on passion projects?” she said.

Spio shared her own story at the conference, receiving a standing ovation. Born in New York, she was raised in Ghana from age 3. In her late teens, Spio moved back to the United States and landed a job as a McDonald’s fry-maker. “When I got my first paycheck, I felt like a millionaire,” she said.

But joining the Air Force stoked her engineering interests, leading to work for Boeing creating a satellite distribution system for motion pictures. She now heads her own company focused on virtual reality innovation and the Internet of Things. Her advice to the audience: “See the world with a sense of wonder and make magic.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.