Florida’s tech sector turning virtual dreams into successful reality | Crain's Tampa Bay

Florida’s tech sector turning virtual dreams into successful reality

The computer science department at the University of Central Florida in Orlando is losing Ph.D. candidates to West Coast tech titans like Google and Microsoft.

“Some of them bail out” before finishing their doctoral programs, says UCF computer science professor Charles Hughes. “They don’t make a lot of money as graduate students. … It feels good to be making money.”

But with the salaries being offered in Silicon Valley, can you blame them? Hughes doesn’t.

“Undergrads are getting $120,000; Ph.D.s are getting anywhere from $180,000 to $300,000, depending on what their skill sets are,” he said.

But those students might very well wind up back in the Sunshine State sooner than later. Florida tech firms like Plantation-based Magic Leap, Miami360VR, and Tampa's HD Interactive are at the forefront of the virtual reality and augmented reality trends that are generating big headlines and even bigger investments.

Thanks to the presence of Walt Disney Co., Universal Studios and a robust simulation industry spurred by the U.S. military presence in the area, Orlando has become a hotbed for VR and augmented reality innovations. UCF has also gotten in on the act, says Hughes, with a program called TeachLivE, “which stands for Teaching and Learning in a Virtual Environment.”

Judging a virtual character

UCF launched TeachLivE about 10 years ago and has since commercialized and licensed it for use by companies all over the world who want to train employees in virtual environments before they enter the physical workspace. For example, Hughes says the program was used to improve the customer service skills of approximately 15,000 Best Western front-desk staff members.

“The claim coming from Best Western is that they’ve had a 32 percent improvement in customer satisfaction,” Hughes said. “That’s from giving people experience with a virtual character that comes up to them to check in or check out. They’re trying to train people in how to be polite, but also sometimes firm, and recognize the difference between a casual traveler and a business traveler.

"The business traveler wants to get checked in and away from the front desk in 30 seconds, whereas a tourist wants to know every bloody thing they can about the area. They need their employees to be able to recognize different personalities and different needs, and that’s what we can do for them with this.”

Hughes, 73, has been studying the science of simulation since 1962, when he got his start in the aerospace field, and he’s seen plenty of trends come and go. But he’s firmly pro-VR/AR. “There are so many exciting things about to happen,” he said. “I wish I were about 50 years younger.”

Case in point, he cites Magic Leap as a potential game-changing company.

“They’re very secretive,” Hughes said. “I’ve yet to get a demo so to some degree, it’s just 'vaporware.' But I don’t think it’s really vaporware because Google has invested three-quarters of a billion dollars in this company. And I did say ‘billion.’

“What they’re doing is projecting VR images onto your retina, not onto a display in front of your eyes, but into your eyes. The virtual content is picked up directly by your retinas, which process it as part of the real world. That’s a huge challenge because we blink all the time … We turn our heads and look left, look right, and our retinas move as our eyes move. Where the retina is in relation to the real world is changing rapidly.

Sean Carey, founder of HD Interactive, concurs with Hughes that Magic Leap is “the one that everybody is waiting on. Everybody in the know has their eyes on Magic Leap. They’ve received $1.4 billion of investment so far. They’ve gotten hundreds of millions from Google, Alibaba and all these humongous investors. Their product – it’s going to take us a couple generations further.

“It will be the beginning of the end for cell phones. It could also eliminate the need for televisions and computer monitors. … It’s going to be a huge disrupter.”

To hear Carey describe it, Magic Leap seems to be developing a more refined version of the Google Glass eyeglasses, but “Google Glass isn’t anywhere close to this. It’s like an Atari compared to a PlayStation 4.”

While the planet waits for Magic Leap – labeled “the world’s most secretive startup” by Wired magazine – to unveil its creation, companies like HD Interactive aren’t sitting idly by. Carey and his team are busy moving VR and augmented reality technology into the mainstream.

Finding the best view

Earlier this year, HD Interactive partnered with NASA and the NFL on a VR ride at the 2017 Super Bowl festivities in Houston. The 100-foot drop-tower-style ride, dubbed “Future Flight,” allowed riders wearing VR headsets to see and feel what it would be like to be launched into space, land on Mars, and then return to Earth.

“We had real NASA astronauts ride it, we had NFL players and cheerleaders, we had so many people come check it out,” Carey recalled.

HD Interactive also played a small but integral role in the design of the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium. Carey and his team worked with the company responsible for installing the Jumbotrons and other large video screens throughout the arena, creating a virtual environment that allowed team officials to “sit” anywhere in the facility so they could evaluate ergonomics and sight lines before construction had even begun.

“We heard some interesting feedback, like in the front row of seats right on the 50-yard line, it was eye-opening for them because they didn’t realize how much people sitting there would have to look straight up and bend their necks to see the screens,” Carey said. “So, that was a pretty cool use case for the technology. [The clients] got to ‘teleport’ into various stadium seats before [the building] even existed so they could see what the experience would be like sitting there.”

One of the most common VR experiences, however, doesn’t necessarily involve the use of headsets like Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR. Interactive, immersive 360-degree videos have been popping up all over the web and social media. Three years ago in Miami, film and video production veteran Richard Fendelman got in on the 360-degree act and hasn’t looked back.

“It’s the main focus of my business now,” he said. “I still get regular video production clients calling me. There are a million people out there doing video and film production – it’s very competitive – but there are not that many people doing 360.”

Fendelman has landed 360-degree video deals with big-name clients like Copa Airlines, HBO Latin, Telemundo (broadcaster of the Latin Billboard Awards), and JW Marriott. He even produced a 360-degree video featuring Vanilla Ice and former Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade.

HD Interactive is also heavily into 360-degree videos and scored a major coup when it was invited to collaborate with the Google Cloud Platform team on a 360 video tour of the search giant's high-tech data center in The Dalles, Ore.

“One of my goals is to educate broadcast companies, and everybody else, really, about what 360 video is and how to make it work to their advantage,” Fendelman said. “At the Latin Billboard Awards, I was just one small player in a production of thousands, but as soon as I walked onto the red carpet, I had people yelling at me, ‘Hey you’re in our shot. I was like, ‘Well, it’s 360, I kinda have to be in your shot.’”

Fendelman doesn’t have any qualms about going all-in on VR/AR technology. As he sees it, the winds of change are gusting more and more every day.

“You have some people saying that it’ll go the way of 3-D, which didn’t really take off that well. But the big tech companies, they’re investing in this stuff in a huge way. You have Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook. He bought [Oculus Rift] for $2 billion. So they’re developing that, and you’ve got Samsung in it big. All the companies are starting to come out with their own cameras and headsets now. And look at IMAX – they’re getting into it in a big way. They’re putting 360 kiosks in some of their theaters around the world.

“As far as my clients go,” he added, “they mainly want stuff for the internet, for their websites, but I am getting people wanting VR stuff for their trade-show booths, or something they can take around to their clients to demo and have them put the goggles on [to view].”

Just like smartphones disrupted the way people communicate, Fendelman predicts that VR, augmented reality and 360-degree films and videos will disrupt the way people interact with visual media and lead to new consumer behaviors – and desires.

“When I see videos on the web now, I want to slide them around and see what’s on the other side. [Non-360 video] presents such a narrow view. I think the more people get used to this kind of thing, the more they are going to want it.”

June 18, 2017 - 10:22pm