Virtual reality becomes real business tool

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Virtual reality is no longer virtual.

Very soon, using only a smartphone and a $100 headpiece, businesses will be able to interview potential employees to judge how they respond to various real-life scenarios using virtual reality technology. The technology can also be used to train business staff and new employees.

Next week, virtual reality will be used to transport people onstage to be with their favorite bands as they perform at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

John Bourbonais, owner of Bourbon Street Productions in Colorado Springs, will film the bands performing, stitch the electronic videos together and then share the VR experiences with concertgoers the next day.

To Bourbon Street, VR is more than just new cutting-edge technology, Bourbonais said.

“For the first time in my career, I’m seeing a new industry,” he said.

For more than 20 years, Bourbonais honed his video production skills. Most recently, he used high-definition video to produce work for the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Discovery Channel, NBC, ABC, CBS, E! Entertainment Television, Pepsi and cable companies.

He worked years transitioning his employers and clients to high definition from standard definition, the “reinvention” of a technology.

“That was interesting, but VR to me and augmented reality just opens the door so much more,” he said. “It’s a new landscape, and from a business perspective, it’s a barren landscape. When I rode out the wave of high definition, that was a great wave. I got to travel … I went to 50-plus countries, did work for the Discovery Channel and every network in the country. That was a fantastic ride, and I really thought that was going to be my career.”

Then came virtual reality technology.

“It really sort of re-energized me,” he said. “It got me thinking in a different way. The parameters of video production are fairly set, but the parameters of virtual reality are all to be determined.”

The photo above is from a series of videos taken by Bourbon Street Productions, creating a virtual reality experience of playing hockey in a full-size arena. It is a 360-degree photo of the rink. Below, John Bourbonais shows the headgear used for virtual and augmented reality experiences.

Immersion

Describing the VR experience is best done through demonstration.

“I’ve really given up trying to explain it on the phone,” he said. “I probably give five to 10 demos a week now.”

The experience is immersive, he added, as if the person experiencing it is completely removed from the current reality. One demonstration “tape” places the user in space, floating above the earth watching the sun, planets and stars.

It works by taking a smartphone with the correct software and clicking it into a headset made by Oculus or Zeiss. Using the touchpad on the side of the headgear, the user launches software that drives the virtual reality experience.

The VR video is created by first recording an experience using up to 16 digital video cameras. The experience can also be computer-generated. The footage is then electronically stitched together to create the new reality.

The experience he gained in high-definition video and the business contacts made through decades of work kickstarted his entrance into the VR field, still in its infancy.

“I would be surprised if 1 percent of the public has tried VR yet,” he said. “It launches this year.”

For the consumer, the VR experience doesn’t cost much. The software is free and the headgear costs around $100, but Samsung is giving the headgear away with the purchase of a new phone.

Augmented reality is technology where the user is able to interact with others in real-time using virtual reality. Bourbonais said the widespread use of AR technology will lag behind that of VR.

At the same time, industry specialists see the implications of AR as vastly larger than VR, he said.

Business uses

Bourbonais hired actors to create six AR demonstration tapes that he pitched to a major national retailer two weeks ago.

In the tapes, a prospective employee reacts to different customer service needs. The experiences begin  at a simple level: A customer needs direction to the cosmetic counter. The job candidate then interacts with the program, choosing an answer from options given and then moves on to the next scenario.

“It gains in difficulty,” he said. “This time you have more of a disgruntled customer with a grievance of some type, and again, you have a multiple choice [answer]. Finally, you have a flock of disgruntled customers for the purpose of this demonstration. This could be in terms of sales training. This could be in terms of employee hiring, how you screen people. Why this is different from video is that this is much more immersive.”

A jet engine

Technology is now being developed where augmented reality can be used by professionals in different areas around the world to create and refine the schematics for a jet engine, for example.

“They’re in office spaces in opposite parts of the world. It doesn’t just have to be two people; it could be 30 people around the globe interacting with this object at the same time,” Bourbonais said. “This is probably 24 to 36 months out. But there’s a lot of people focused on this.”

Bourbonais said virtual reality is now being sold to the public. AR technology that uses retina-tracking software will continue to evolve, as will practical uses of both augmented and virtual realities.

Bourbonais’ specialty is video production becoming virtual reality.

“There will be many, many applications,” he said. “Ultimately what we’re seeing is the replacement of the keyboard and the mouse.”


Bourbon Street Productions

Employees: 4, plus two contractors

Established: 2003

Location: 1753 S. Eighth St., Suite C2

Contact: 471-0862; bsphd.com