Reality Check

Virtual reality is no longer just for the gaming industry — but how wise an investment the cutting-edge technology is remains up for debate

Back Longreads Mar 21, 2017 By Russell Nichols

You and your son are home alone when you receive an unwanted visitor.

The doorbell rings. Your son goes to answer the door. From the kitchen, you hear a struggle and an unfamiliar voice. Your heart races as you rush out, holding your Glock 17 9mm.

“I have a gun!” you holler.

As you come around the corner, you see the male intruder: a stranger in shorts and a red shirt. He’s got your little boy in a tight grip.

You have three options: shoot, don’t shoot or use your pepper spray. Before you have time to think, the man pulls a knife.

You pull the trigger.

The simulated laser bullet tags the home invader in the neck, a lethal shot. You watch him collapse on the video screen on the wall. Your son is safe. Scenario complete, reads the caption.

This is just one of the thousands of scenarios at Virtual Safe Shot, a firearm training facility in Fair Oaks where students learn how to handle a weapon in a threatening simulation. The business launched in August, co-founded by James Keh, a former deputy with the Santa Clara Sheriff’s Department, and three other retired deputies.

From police shootings to incidents like the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, gun violence has been dominating news cycles in recent years. Additional virtual training could help civilians know how to respond in a hostile encounter, Keh says.

With technology designed for the military and law enforcement, Virtual Safe Shot puts you right in the middle of the danger: home invasions, school shootings, carjackings and office attacks, to name a few. There are no paper targets. There are no real bullets.

During each session, one instructor gives direction while the other is on a computer, controlling the interactive video in real time based on what you say and do. You learn when and where to shoot, but more importantly, how to diffuse tense situations with your weapon being a last resort. The guns weigh the same as real ones, with 70 percent of the recoil and custom-modified to shoot lasers that are accurate to the megapixel, a fraction of an inch.

“These are not toy plastic guns where you can miss by a mile,” Keh says. “This is not one of those game consoles. This is an experience they might not ever get in real life unless it’s life and death.”

“If we’re going to be able to ultimately compete with major urban hubs … we have to be able to demonstrate we don’t have just lower costs and greater quality of life, but also solid connections with key players.”John Gregory, Executive Director, Green Screen Institute

That word — experience — is one that pops up a lot in the expanding world of virtual and augmented reality. New technology immerses users in an artificial environment (virtual reality) or superimposes digital information on a real environment (augmented reality) in a way that transforms what you can see and hear. For startups like Virtual Safe Shot, these tools have become a pivotal part of the business. Since launching in the fall, Keh says, VSS has been increasing its customer base by 25 percent per month and now has eight staff members who handle onsite and offsite events. But VSS uses early-stage VR, more accurate than a videogame, but less immersive than some of the newer technologies. For a bigger glimpse of what the Capital Region has to offer in this arena, take a trip to Nevada County.

There, in the lush Sierra Nevada foothills on New Mohawk Road in Nevada City, you will find the Green Screen Institute, a multipurpose facility that opened last year with a core focus on VR and AR. In January, Jon Gregory, the institute’s executive director, flew to CES, the annual trade show in Las Vegas, on a mission to connect with hardware providers, content studios and software developers.

“If we’re going to be able to ultimately compete with major urban hubs like L.A., San Francisco and London,” he says, “we have to be able to demonstrate we don’t have just lower costs and greater quality of life, but also solid connections with key players.”

After decades of false starts, is this technology finally ready to seize the mainstream? And will the Capital Region play a pivotal role?

Big Picture

Pokémon Go, the location-based AR game, was a phenomenon that swept the globe last summer. Two years before that, Facebook made waves acquiring the Irvine-based virtual reality company, Oculus VR, for $2 billion. Overall, the figures do look bullish. According to Statista, the number of active VR users should reach 171 million by 2018. Forecasts show that revenues from virtual reality products will shoot from $90 million in 2014 to $5.2 billion in 2018.

But looking back on 2016, VR didn’t exactly take off like many thought it would. Why? Cost, for one thing. With the major VR headsets ranging from $600 to $800, the technology isn’t so easy to come by. Another issue is the dearth of available content, especially in comparison to streaming services. But with the ubiquity of mobile devices and bullish forecasts, this is definitely a space investors are keeping their eyes on.

Blacktop Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm based in Sacramento, has reviewed companies in the VR space, but has yet to pull the trigger with any actual investments, says general partner Ben Brasher. Previously, he thought VR was only good for gaming. Now, he sees potential for VR (and more so AR) applications in other areas such as sports and news. But it’s still early. Really powerful VR and AR are still far from broad availability. Brasher wants to wait and see how startups develop and monetize this technology before he dives in.

Co-founder James Keh runs through an intruder simulation at Virtual Safe Shot.

“People much smarter than I are making big bets in this industry, like with Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus,” Brasher says. “Where we are, at early-stage investing, and it being the wild west of VR, it’s too speculative of an investment for us.”

In Nevada County, the future of VR stems back to the region’s video technology past. In 1968, the Grass Valley Group, a small research and development firm, had developed its “notable vision mixer,” a device used to create special effects for video. In the decades to follow, other tech companies sprouted in the area.

Related: Surreal Estate

In the past 20 years, economic downturns have forced some firms to move or close, but Gregory saw Nevada County as fertile ground for his Green Screen Institute. The 27,000-square-foot facility has three components: a training academy, business accelerator and coworking lab for established companies. The idea is to develop the workforce needed for the influx of VR and AR companies.

In December at VRX, a tech summit in San Francisco, Gregory says he was the only exhibitor in attendance that wasn’t a technology company. He met with startups and corporations, showcasing what makes the institute unique. Gregory came out of the event with more than 200 LinkedIn senior level connections. “What we’re trying to overcome is distance,” Gregory says. “That’s why we have to create a virtual hub.”

This month, the institute is calling for startups worldwide to apply to its second business accelerator, a 10-week intensive course to help VR and AR startups go from prototype to workable product. Four startups were selected last year out of about 60 serious inquiries and 30 formal applications. This year, Gregory will be choosing five startups for the accelerator.

Citing the big advertising push for VR products this past holiday season, Gregory says “VR will be enjoyed by an increasingly mainstream audience very soon.”

Extreme Takeover

The Green Screen Institute’s first high-tech tenant is not a virtual reality company. Gyro-Stabilized Systems (GSS), a Nevada City-based company, designs, builds and supports stabilized camera platforms and systems. Jason Fountaine, co-founder and managing director, says he sees much potential for collaboration in this arena.

Related: Back and Forward: Jason Fountaine on High-Tech Camera Systems

For instance, the camera systems they design could be used to make very realistic and up-to-date models of environments from both aerial and ground perspectives. This would serve the demand for AR situations that require more visual awareness than what people are used to seeing on TV. For example, visual overlays in sports broadcasts create a more dynamic experience for viewers. In hockey and golf, AR allows viewers to follow the puck and golf ball better.

“Virtual reality and augmented reality have so many other ways to integrate,” Fountaine says. “Not just in broadcast, but you can literally go and see buildings before they’re even built.” (See “Surreal Estate”)

GSS has been supplying camera rigs to Teton Gravity Research, an extreme sports media company based in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Founder Todd Jones has been using VR tools to immerse viewers in various experiences, from surfing to kayaking, to places like the Marshall Islands in the north Pacific Ocean.

“With surfing, you can put someone in a wave that they’ll never get to surf,” Jones says. “Or put them in an area they’ll probably never travel to. We’re trying to give them an overall experience.”

But overall, he doesn’t think VR has reached its true potential because the technology companies are the ones driving the content. “It’s all still internally in the VR world,” he says. “That’s led to a lack of continuous and great content. It hasn’t really gotten into the hands of great storytellers and directors, so it can’t really get into the craft and push the boundaries.”

Your Best Shot 

At Virtual Safe Shot, Keh didn’t need to make up stories. He and his co-founders (Thomas Lee, Albert Lee and Ron Slusher) bring knowledge that comes from 25-plus years in law enforcement. For Keh, virtual reality has allowed for more enhanced levels of training, not just for novices.

“We have professional shooters that come to us and say, ‘Wow, this is nothing like we’ve expected,’” he says. “The experience they get out of it is much more than a shooting range. In real life, people freeze, people stress out. Do you really want to carry a gun if you’re not going to be able to do anything with it?”

Recently, a woman came to Virtual Safe Shot and told Keh she was a widower who lived by herself in a neighborhood that had been hit with a string of home invasions.

“She said, ‘I really want to have a gun to protect myself, but I’m deathly afraid of them because my husband committed suicide with his gun,’” Keh recalls.

Keh suggested she take a course. At first, she was jittery, not wanting to shoot anything. But with practice, the widower became more comfortable. She told Keh she felt empowered. She brought her daughter back to train with her a second time. By her third visit, the widower told him she intended to apply for a concealed weapon permit.

“That’s my success story from someone who needed protection,” Keh says. “The experience they get out of it is much more than a shooting range. If it will save one life, we’ve done our job.”