From healthcare to family fun, virtual reality is a hot commodity in Sacramento | Crain's Sacramento

From healthcare to family fun, virtual reality is a hot commodity in Sacramento

  • Virtual reality headsets are becoming a popular leisure tool for young and old alike. | Photo courtesy of Dillon Hill, Gamers Gift.

    Virtual reality headsets are becoming a popular leisure tool for young and old alike. | Photo courtesy of Dillon Hill, Gamers Gift.

  • Virtual reality headsets are becoming a popular leisure tool for young and old alike. | Photo courtesy of Dillon Hill, Gamers Gift.

    Virtual reality headsets are becoming a popular leisure tool for young and old alike. | Photo courtesy of Dillon Hill, Gamers Gift.

  • A woman experiences an outdoor scenario at Zion Virtual Reality, a Sacramento-based recreation center. | Photo courtesy of Zion Virtual Reality.

    A woman experiences an outdoor scenario at Zion Virtual Reality, a Sacramento-based recreation center. | Photo courtesy of Zion Virtual Reality.

  • Two men play a game at Zion Virtual Reality, a Sacramento-based recreation center. | Photo courtesy of Zion Virtual Reality.

    Two men play a game at Zion Virtual Reality, a Sacramento-based recreation center. | Photo courtesy of Zion Virtual Reality.

When the idea of offering an on-site video gaming and virtual reality program designed to help depressed, elderly or injured persons first occurred to Dillon Hill, it was deemed worthwhile but more likely to be a bright spot on a resume following college.

Hill, 18, a Sacramento native, is a sophomore at the University of California, Davis, studying cognitive science and managerial economics.

After more than a year, Hill and his comrades at the Gamers Gift are finding that virtual reality tools have a much bigger role in the Sacramento-area public and business communities. And perhaps beyond.

Gamers visits primarily nursing homes and children’s hospitals, offering residents free use of interactive gaming equipment. The results have been positive, according to Hill. The nonprofit has received more than $50,000 in funding donations and computer equipment from industry giants such as Asus, Valve and Logitech. Meanwhile, the residents are asking for more.

“In the beginning, we only offered video games,” Hill says. “But then we were able to add virtual reality headsets to the picture. We never expected how people would react to them.”

Children like holographic target practice and trips to the moon. Seniors enjoy real-feeling visits down memory lane and participation in marathons. There are also “new” adventures. In a curious twist, many of the nursing homes’ adults prefer the teen-oriented action shooters. Teenagers, on the other hand, opt for games when they perform regular jobs such as grocery clerk or bank teller.

“In general, it gives people a chance to do things they have never been able to do, or haven’t been able to manage in years,” Hill says.

Such successes also provide the senior homes and hospitals a look at how effective the technology can be in improving residents’ health, and can even put personally purchased virtual reality products on the radar in the future.

The products include the current heavy hitters such as Galaxy Gear, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Playstation VR, which routinely sell for $400 to $700, Hill notes. “[Virtual reality] has unlimited potential,” he says. “We’re [all] on the cusp of figuring out how to best use it. But it’s going to be huge one day.”

Bringing people together

A similar reaction has been experienced by Zion Virtual Reality, a Sacramento-based recreation center that has seen a steady increase in popularity since its opening in December 2016. “People like the fact they can play at the same time, as opposed to playing alone at home,” owner Sean Le says.

Zion – Northern California’s only virtual reality station, according to Le – features nine virtual reality stations offering more than 40 games ranging from boxing matches to a zombie apocalypse. A key selling point is that participating is generally more fun as a group than on single units, which is all a person can operate from their home devices. There’s also the family element, where everyone can play together, Le notes.

And there’s the fact that virtual reality systems in general are expensive – up to $3,000 each, which makes a business catering to that form of gaming even more attractive, Hill adds.

Overall, “people are wary at first, but after they get used to it, it’s a lot of fun,” Le says.

Money to be made

Hill, Le and others better get ready for their own kind of fun. According to a report by technology analyst firm CCS Insight, sales of virtual reality devices are expected to hit 24 million by 2018, about 10 times what they were in 2015. The market should also top about $4 billion within a year.

“Most consumers find virtual reality a mind-blowing experience the first time they try it,” CCS Insight Chief of Research Ben Wood stated in Forbes. “We expect this democratisation of the technology to deliver growth not just in affluent mature markets but also in emerging markets where smartphone penetration is stronger than ever.”

As for businesses, the more people embrace devices such as VR headsets, the more companies will need to supply them, according to Skip Rizzo, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. “Pretty soon, a virtual reality headset is going to be like a toaster,” Rizzo told KXTV-Sacramento reporter Irene Cruz. “Everyone is going to have one. You may not use it every day, but every home will have one.”

Translation: “It’s going to huge big for everyone,” Hill says. 

A nano-fair in Sacramento’s future?

Michael Weiss, CEO of World’s Fair U.S.A., also sees a huge future for virtual reality. Many cities have already begun showcasing such products at the company’s various World’s Fair Nano shows nationwide.

Eventually, other cities will showcase the benefits and enjoyment of virtual technology. Sacramento isn’t off the list of possibilities, according to Weiss. “We’d consider any city that could handle it logistically and wanted to have us,” he says. “The two main tricks are the land and the logistics.”

Weiss estimates any eligible city would need to have at least 1,000 vacant acres near its downtown or civic center. “It would also need to be able to accommodate 50 million to 100 million people over six months, have a sufficient number of airport terminals, overnight accommodations, and public transit options,” he adds. “Some of that is added for the fair, but it’s tough to add all of it.”

June 20, 2017 - 4:29am