Community feature: Immersive uses virtual reality to solve real-life problems

Erica Thompson
Will Burris [Photo by Julian Foglietti]

Imagine a world where you can be fully immersed in the beauty of a Caribbean island before booking the flight, or travel to your roof to see a repair work demonstration without leaving the ground. Philanthropists can get a 360-degree view of day-to-day life for at-risk populations before writing a check. And companies can pull up virtual images for consumers, rather than haul actual products to trade shows.

That world already exists, and a company in a small co-working space in Italian Village is helping facilitate these experiences for clients in Columbus and throughout the United States. Founded in June 2017, Immersive offers three types of content: virtual reality (realistic simulation of an environment), augmented reality (enhanced reality using superimposed, computer-generated images) and 360-degree video (immersive or spherical recordings).

The company utilizes some of the latest gear, including Oculus Rift, Oculus Go and HTC Vive virtual reality headsets, as well as Windows Mixed Reality headsets. Founder Will Burrus predicts the technology will “disrupt” all industries, and has provided services for most.

“We've had everything in here,” Burrus said during a late-August interview. “Manufacturing, home improvement, health care … engineering, athletics, talent management, training, retail. For a while, we had a bunch of LED panel manufacturers coming to the table wanting us to build content for that. We did a 360 video with the New Salem Baptist Church.”

A partnership with OSU Athletics yielded a study on how the hockey team could improve recruitment. Through collaboration with the Ohio State Dance Department, dancers used augmented reality software to read and write Laban movement notation. There was even a project with a former Disney star.

“We did a fitness video for a group called ‘Secrets 2 Sexy' out in California, a 360-degree workout program with Jake T. Austin from ‘Wizards of Waverly Place,'” Burrus said. “It's as funny as you're thinking it is. … We tested gear, trying to figure out if you can work out in this stuff. And it actually works.”

Immersive has evolved along with the technology. Burrus and staff members Dr. Alexis Yamokoski and Dana Howell recalled the challenging early days before they had a brick-and-mortar location.

“We were traveling around and doing remote VR presentations where we literally would show up in a meeting room and set up all this gear, and it was a train wreck,” Burrus said. “Alexis would stall them while Dana and I were sweating through trying to get these things up and running.”

Dr. Yamokoski, who specializes in behavior and experience, facilitates focus groups with potential clients. “Because the tech is so early, and people are still trying to identify what the business-use cases are … we look at it as a [research and development] opportunity,” she said. “Let's talk about your business problem. Is there an opportunity to help you solve that, utilizing this technology?”

One project Burrus found most rewarding was an epilepsy simulator Immersive developed for a company to reinforce the value of cannabis-based medicine.

“You can literally see what it feels like to have a seizure,” Burrus said. “When you're lying there … it would fade you into an infographic that showed you how you have natural cannabinoid receptors in your brain, and that's why cannabis-based medicines stop seizures immediately. … It was powerful.”

Immersive's next area of focus is on virtual learning.

“Learning is really stuck in the industrial age,” he said. “They ring a bell. They put you in lines. They reward you for doing what you're supposed to do. … We've been taking this old model and trying to shove it into this new world, and it's just not working.”

Acknowledging the link between technology and isolation and depression, Burrus hypothesized that virtual reality may help.

“Maybe the way out is deeper in,” he said, pointing to the ability to interact with realistic beings in the virtual world. “I think this may be a way to fix that a little bit by reintroducing a notion of presence and empathy and awareness that demands a social acumen [or] social grace in order to function in that world.”

But it comes with its own set of new problems.

“The downside is, I think, vices and gluttony are going to go through the roof, because I can do it any way I want to do it,” he said. “I can do it in a dive bar. I can do it on top of the Eiffel Tower. I can be anyone. That's the risk that the addiction and the desensitization is going to become the new anxiety.”

“We have to be accountable,” he continued. “More of us have to figure out how to use this for good purposes before the porn industry gets a hold of it. … There's incredible good that comes out of this.”