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VR meetup

Matt Nelson tries out Oculus Rift at Madison's first virtual reality meetup, held at 100state on Tuesday night.

Matt Nelson thinks he's on top of an oil rig. He holds his arms out a bit, as if to stabilize himself, and utters a few “Whoa”s.

In reality, Nelson is in an office, wearing a head-mounted virtual reality simulator (an Oculus Rift, to be exact) at Madison’s first virtual reality meetup.

About forty other people are spread throughout the offices of 100state for the meetup, which was organized by Jon Brouchoud, founder of Madison-based virtual reality business Arch Virtual, trying different kinds of virtual reality devices. None of the other experiences elicit quite the reaction the Oculus Rift does.

Nelson shakes his head as he removes the simulator, admitting the illusion of height was a bit unnerving.

“I just knew if we set up a meetup there’d be a lot of people that’d show up,” said Brouchoud, whose business offers virtual reality simulations for everything from architectural projects to medical simulations.

“Right now, there’s an ‘amaze factor,’” said Stephen Monette, who has been working in the virtual reality field for about a year. He’s currently participating in the UW-Madison business accelerator program Discovery to Product, or “D2P,” with his prospective business, Turing VR.

Virtual reality entrepreneurs like Monette mingled with like-minded business owners, academics and enthusiasts at the meetup.

Lisa Frank, a Madison-based artist and photographer, tried on a pair Google Cardboard, a simple virtual reality device (yep, made of cardboard) that connects to a cell phone and allows viewers immersion in a three-dimensional scene.

Frank is currently working on a pair virtual reality-based art pieces. The pieces have aviary and woodland themes.

“I like the idea of being able to be in the world differently — the idea of providing people with an environment where they can access a space in a different way,” Frank said.

She thinks the timing is perfect to create virtual reality art, because of increasing consumer understanding and interest.

“It seems to be the right time to get on this,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”

“There’s a greater consumer awareness of it,” agreed Ryan Pavlik, senior software engineer at Sensics, a virtual reality company based in Baltimore. Pavlik was running a demo of an OSVR headset at the meetup.

Pavlik pointed out that virtual reality has been around for “a long time,” about 20 years, despite a common perception that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey invented the technology a few years ago.

“It’s benefited from economics of scale that smart phones have provided,” he said. “You can piggyback on phone development.”

Despite the increase in customer understanding and accessibility of virtual reality devices, there aren’t a large number of virtual reality businesses in Madison.

“I haven’t seen any other companies really doing VR,” said Arch Virtual’s Brouchoud of the Madison tech scene. “But I think that’s about to change. I think there’s going to be a lot of it in the near future.”

Brouchoud said he’s going to continue the VR meetups in Madison, and expects an even bigger crowd at the next event, which he’s planning to hold close to campus and after school starts for the year.

“We’re going to try to grow as big as we possibly can,” he said.

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