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Virtual Reality In The North State: Chico State Students Test New Tech

3-D technology – these days you can experience it at the movie theater, your closest big-box electronic retailer and sometimes even at your local library. But what does the future of virtual reality really look like? NSPR’s Nolan Ford headed to Chico State where its Department of Media Arts, Design and Technology  recently got some new top-of-the-line VR headsets to find out.

I’m sitting in a class called “Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality for Media and Gaming” and I’m in the back of the room, anticipating the big announcement.

“So we have little presents for you all. We bought you all cardboard headsets,” said Chico State journalism professor Susan Wiesinger.

OK, the VR headsets gifted to the students weren’t the superior models I was expecting, but it’s still exciting…and necessary. The next assignment for the class is to find a local landmark, something visually interesting, and create a three-dimensional image using their brand new headsets.

Since the beginning of the semester, students from the Departments of Journalism, Gaming Design and Media Arts have been testing out VR devices, including the Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens.

“We did a VR tour of a forest and it was telling us different facts about bears," student Christian Saechao said. "It would bring a bear right next to us which I think is very helpful. When I was a kid I’d probably enjoy that more than reading from a book for like six hours and never being able to see what I’m reading about."

Saechao hopes to someday have his own gaming company that will utilize VR for a fully immersive user experience.

Eduardo Acuña is studying video editing and says it’s possible he’ll use VR technology in the future, but isn’t so sure how useful the technology is today.

“But I feel like once there’s more content and more stuff you can do on it, there’s going to be a bigger market for it – just not right now I don’t think,” he said.

If it feels like you’re having techno-de-ja-vu, that’s understandable. VR headsets first appeared back in the early '90s and never really took off.

“But now we have cell phones that are 100 times stronger than those computers back then. Like one of the headsets we have right now — it’s literally you just slide your cell phone in, open up an app and you get to experience VR,” said Lance Mitchell, a student assistant for the upper-division class exploring VR and AR design.

Although VR is better known for its entertainment value, the technology is also being utilized by some Chico State alumni for professional purposes. Stephen Phillips is the cofounder and CTO of Theia Interactive.

“We take their architectural files and turn them into three-dimensional, fully realized, immersive, realistic walk-throughs and other interactive ways of going through spaces that don’t exist yet,” he said.

Media Arts, Design, and Technology Department Chair Jennifer Meadows remains skeptical about the role VR will play in the film industry, but foresees it potentially transforming the way we experience our daily news.

“I think it’s a wonderful way to incorporate environments into news stories," she said. "So you know we can watch the flooding going on in Houston, but to be able to put on a VR headset and be sort of standing in the water and seeing the devastation around you gives you a lot more information about what’s going on than just seeing it on a flat screen."

After learning that virtual reality might be the future of news, I felt it was important to experience the technology first-hand, or at least second-hand.

Jeff Underwood is a lecturer in the Computer Animation and Game Development Program at Chico State, and agreed to give NSPR reporter Sarah Bohannon a demonstration.

“I think I could get into this, let’s see ... and now there’s something really big coming at me through the wall, and there’s scorpion robots! I don’t know what to do!" Bohannon said as she tested out a headset.

For members of the public who are interested in trying out virtual reality for themselves, the Butte County Library is offering five free sessions next month.