UW-Madison engineering major Alex Janis uses her hands to bend an aluminum rod, testing how much force it takes to change the shape of the malleable metal. But while the pressure she feels in her hands is real, the aluminum rod exists only in her perception.
That’s because Janis is conducting the experiment inside a virtual reality simulation at UW-Madison’s makerspace on North Randall Avenue. She joins dozens of other students as they navigate this strange, disorienting digital world using hand controllers and headsets that look like large, clunky goggles.
What the students see inside their headsets can be projected onto a screen, offering others a chance to view the video game-like virtual space developed by Madison startup EduReality. The company is one of several Madison-area businesses and colleges building and exploring what many futurists and technology experts see as the next big advance in the internet — the “metaverse.”
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“It did seem real,” said Janis, 19, who grew up in Waunakee. “I haven’t done that experiment yet in the class, and I’m excited to, but it’s really cool that you can make a simulation that accurate.”
Over time, the goggles are likely to become less bulky and virtual reality programs more sophisticated in their aesthetic and purpose, said EduReality co-founder Clayton Custer.
EduReality launched in 2021 after Custer and his co-founder, Taylor Waddell, felt they were missing out on hands-on learning experiences amid online courses at UW-Madison — so they built their own.
Other Madison metaverse technologies so far include a mobile application that allows users to create digital art galleries; simulations that help prospective paramedics respond to a patient going into cardiac arrest; and work meetings held on Mars (figuratively, that is). One UW-Madison course even allows students to take a tour of the human brain.
The metaverse combines “aspects of artificial intelligence, augmented reality and virtual reality, along with social media, online gaming and other services,” Lyron Bentovim, CEO of Glimpse Group, a publicly traded startup focused on building and creating the metaverse, recently told Forbes.
The concept has been around for decades. The term was coined in the 1992 book “Snow Crash,” and movies like “Tron” and “The Matrix,” the TV show “Black Mirror” and the book-turned-movie “Ready Player One” have popularized variations of it.
More recently, researchers have touted the metaverse as the next age of the internet, as well as a climate of software and platforms that aren’t dependent on traditional business models like advertising to buy and sell products. Some view it as a decentralized, unregulated, dystopian hub where scams could run rampant, but also a nearly physical “place” where people can escape pandemics, social unrest and war.
As more companies and schools adopt such technologies, government and business leaders should consider the metaverse’s economic consequences — who might get left behind — as well as the shifting workplace landscape that the pandemic has influenced and accelerated, said Madison Region Economic Partnership president Jason Fields.
Arch Virtual, nestled in a small office above a restaurant in the village of Oregon, has created software that several Madison businesses and educational institutions use for training and workforce recruitment.
Jon Brouchoud, Arch Virtual CEO, said the company started out in 2014 with an interest in architecture — “how three-dimensional worlds visualize building designs.” But once the now-discontinued Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was released in 2016, Arch Virtual quickly made a name for itself, even allowing company employees to have work meetings on other planets, Brouchoud said.
Arch worked with the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce a few years ago on a program to help Madison companies, like American Family Insurance and biomedical giant Exact Sciences, attract staff. The idea, Chamber president Zach Brandon said, was to send a headset to the home of prospective employees who live in another state.
Using the headsets, they can take a lifelike tour of Madison without leaving home. One minute, they are hiking at Devil’s Lake State Park. The next, they’re standing under the Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, or floating above Monona Terrace.
The company is now working with 30 organizations across the country, including schools and hospitals, to train medical professionals using various simulations.
Another Madison company, Gallify, is looking to build what could be the next generation of art galleries, said founder and recent UW-Madison graduate Tejvir Mann. The startup has just under 10 employees.
Pulling up the augmented reality application on his cellphone, Mann showed how creators can sell art pieces they’ve made as “non fungible tokens” or NFTs on the app, and users can purchase them to decorate their space in a virtual world.
NFTs, a recently trending topic in the tech community, can be anything digital, like a drawing, a song or even certain items in video games. Using what’s known as a “blockchain,” or an internet recording device, artists would be able to keep track of who owns the asset.
Using Arch Virtual’s Acadicus software, William Ballo, a non-instructional faculty member for Madison Area Technical College’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, demonstrates how he helps train prospective paramedics. The school is looking for other ways to use Acadicus for several other fields, he said.
While wearing a virtual reality headset, trainees find themselves tending to a young child having an asthma attack (you can even hear the child’s labored breathing). One program simulates a mass casualty event, while another depicts someone in cardiac arrest and unconscious.
Some simulations are so intense for students that they require debriefing sessions afterward, Ballo said, adding that the software doesn’t replace what trainees learn in real life.
Inside UW-Madison’s Virtual Environments Group, a space where students and faculty use projectors directed between the walls of a room-sized cube to create a 3D visualization, assistant professors Kevin Ponto and Karen Schloss teach students about interactive experiences and the psychology of perception, respectively.
With her students, Schloss studies how people respond to certain visual stimuli like colors. Using headsets, she can even take her pupils on a guided tour of the human brain.
In addition to his virtual reality course, Ponto teaches a class about wearable technology. He shares Custer’s view that the technology will only get more sophisticated.
Over in UW-Madison’s history department, lecturer Leslie Bellais is for the first time incorporating an augmented reality application into a project about Wisconsin’s past.
The free app, called Amuz, allows the user to tour any destination on the planet using a mobile device. It’s a passion project of serial entrepreneur and longtime Madisonian Jim Zellmer. With the app, the students will create an online exhibit that features a state object of historical significance so users can learn more about where it came from.
‘Evolving and iterating’
With every technological advancement, “we have to ask ourselves what this means for us,” MadREP’s Fields said, adding that leaders should consider “the computing power” the metaverse could take, as well as its potential environmental, financial and societal implications.
A good example of those combined considerations is the unequal access many rural Wisconsinites have to broadband, said Craig Kattleson, MadREP enterprise department director, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the health crisis.
An estimated 43% of rural residents lacked access to high-speed internet in 2020, according to a Public Service Commission report, higher than the national average of 31%.
But one potential benefit of the metaverse could be helping companies curb real estate and rental costs, Fields said. There is already less demand for office space as more people are expected to continue working remotely, even after the pandemic eases.
Compared to 2020, more people now prefer working from home for reasons other than coronavirus concerns (76% now and 60% two years ago), according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults in October 2020, and again last January.
“Legislators are struggling with what this thing looks like and feels like,” Kattleson said. “There are unfortunately some people that always get left behind in terms of social equity.”
State Journal reporter Barry Adams contributed to this report.
Photos: Office space in Madison