Arts & Culture » Culture

Welcome to VR City

Two companies are working to raise Boise's actual profile in the world of virtual reality


The Oculus virtual reality headset turned Jose Saenz's home office on the Bench into the driver's seat of a computer-animated old fashioned car with red velvet interior and polished wood trim, complete with a passenger seat and a backseat.

The car was parked in the cargo compartment of an airplane and poisonous gas began billowing around the windows. Escaping required dismantling a bomb, activating the built-in dashboard bazooka and blasting the doors off the plane, all while dealing with the disorientation and dizziness that often comes with a VR experience.

Once the tasks were complete, Saenz excitedly asked, "What'd you think?"

Saenz became passionate about VR about a year ago. He started the Boise Virtual Reality Project in an effort to inspire local educators, researchers, artists and organizations to join the emerging field of VR.

"You think of certain cities as being film cities, or Austin [Texas] being the music capital, but there is no virtual reality capital," Saenz said. "My hope was we could jump in early enough in Boise and have some really great content created right at the beginning of the virtual reality trend."

Saenz sees the use for VR going way beyond a quick demo of the James Bond-esque game called I Expect You to Die.

"I think when people first hear about VR, they're thinking about gaming," he said. "I think gaming is a great way for people to get excited about VR, but if you really stop and think about who would be using VR, think of someone who is homebound. You can provide them with an experience. They can go to Tuscany, they can walk inside a Van Gogh painting, they can fly across the Alps. There's so many different things they can do that they couldn't otherwise."

Saenz wants to see VR in schools so kids can tour the Colosseum or walk across Mars. He thinks it could be used to help veterans treat post-traumatic stress disorder or phantom limb pain. He suggested using it for therapy, like to help someone overcome a fear of flying.

Since he started the year-long project—now halfway through its timeline—Saenz has put together presentations at the Trailhead and the Discovery Center and has hosted several roundtables with area doctors and educators.

"As soon as they experience virtual reality, whether it's a doctor or a teacher, first they're thinking, 'This is weird,'" Saenz said. "Then about a minute into it, they realize their heart is racing. They start losing themselves in it and as soon as they remove the headset, they look at me and they start listing all the things they could use this for. It just pours out of them."

Right now, Saenz is working primarily with an Oculus headset, which must be attached to a custom-made, powerful and expensive computer, making it largely inaccessible to the general public.

Another Boise-based VR group is working to solve that.

"We don't eat at our dining room table anymore," said Brooke Linville.

The large, wooden table in her Harris Ranch home is covered with various VR headset prototypes: there's a headset made of cardboard and duct tape, another made of legos and several made by the 3-D printer in Linville's garage.

IonVR was founded two years ago when Linville's husband, Dan Thurber, wanted to create a battery-powered wireless headset that didn't require a fancy computer.

The IonVR headset uses lenses and battery-operated mechanics to convert any smartphone screen into a VR platform. The phone clips onto the headset, and the rest—they'll have you believe—is magic, at least until their invention is patented.

"There are a bunch of ways to hold your phone to your face with cheap lenses, like Google Cardboard," Linville said. "The downside [is] a lot of people get sick. I'm very sensitive to VR sickness. Over the last solid year, we've been developing actual technology built into the headset that provides desktop quality on a mobile device. It's not just a magnified 360-degree experience."

Linville and Thurber found their first beta tester hopping around right in front of them.

"Our 3-year-old in particular is really interested," Linville said. "Dan took an app that overlays dinosaurs on the real world, and put the headset on our son's head. So our 3-year-old was out in our backyard, petting a brontosaurus, saying 'Come here, little dinosaur.'"

IonVR has more than 1,000 pre-orders already. The headsets are in preproduction and while some developer headsets will be out early next year, the couple expects the consumer product to be ready by Christmas 2017 2016.

As far as nurturing their little company Linville and Thurber agree with Saenz: Boise is a solid choice.

"This is a really interesting place to be innovating," Linville said. "I think more things happen here than people realize. People [outside of Boise] are always like, 'Wow, you're from Boise?' It's a nice place to be able to do it."