Virtual reality lab offers Austinites a chance to try out new tech

Capital Factory's virtual reality lab allows anyone to come in and test out various VR applications. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Capital Factory's virtual reality lab allows anyone to come in and test out various VR applications. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With all the talk of virtual reality these days, you might have been wondering what all the fuss is about.

Downtown Austin’s technology startup accelerator Capital Factory wants to make it easier for Austinites to find out for themselves.

Virtual reality, or VR, is really an experience-it-to-believe-it technology; that’s why Capital Factory recently opened its VR lab to the public. What started in December as a place for developers to test out ideas is now available for anyone to come in and try out various virtual reality applications.

The lab is set up with several different VR headsets and controllers, with monitors so others can watch what’s happening. Users can shoot free throws, use a bow and arrow to defend their castle against invaders, and prepare virtual meals.

But the space is for more than just games.

A popular VR experience in the lab is using Google Earth to take virtual tours of anywhere in the world. The camera moves with your head movements and the controllers zoom down to street-level to explore.

Entrepreneurs are working to harness the technology to apply it to a wide range of industries and professions, including medicine and education.

The latter is where Kate Peiler’s interests lie. She set out to answer one question: How do you make books more interactive?

“I was always a tactile and visual learner,” Peiler, the founder and CEO of the educational technology company DisruptED, said.

She’s developing a series of books for pre-K and kindergartners that use augmented reality and virtual reality to engage kids.

“I realized, oh my gosh, this is how visual learners like me can dive into a book,” she said.

In the augmented reality, or AR, version, readers open up a physical book, then use the camera on their smartphones or tablets to enhance the pictures in real-time. What’s flat on the page turns into 3-D animations.

In the VR version, users are transported into the story and can look around as narration explains what’s happening. “So it’s bringing that story to life,” Peiler said.

She’s developing several educational books, including one about shapes, one about letters, and one about colors.

Peiler got help developing her project at Capital Factory’s VR lab.

“There’s no excuse not to try VR,” Brance Hudzietz, Capital Factory’s ambassador or emerging technologies.

“We noticed that in Austin there’s this huge appetite for virtual reality, both on the entrepreneur side and the consumer side,” Hudzietz said. “But there wasn’t this centralized place for it.”

The VR lab, which now anyone can try out, is just the start of the company’s investment in the new technology. Capital Factory conference rooms are now equipped with VR capabilities, Hudzietz said.

“You can be showing off the innovations that are happening in healthcare and VR,” he said. “If it’s an education event, an edtech event, you can be showing off really interesting educational VR experiences as well.”

“They get it,” Peiler said.

She’s working on a pilot to test out her book series with families and others in the tech space; that’s thanks to the VR lab and the connections it brings, too. Without it, she said, she wouldn’t be ready.

“It would take me a lot longer,” she said, “and I just — no I couldn’t. I tried.”

If you’d like to try out the VR lab, you can take a tour of Capital Factory Tuesday through Thursday at 4 p.m. and play around in the lab for about an hour afterwards, or email cr@capitalfactory.com to set up an appointment to check it out.

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