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zSpace Says It Can Make Virtual Reality Simpler and Less Antisocial (Q&A)

"Social isolation" may keep headsets like the Oculus Rift out of the classroom, zSpace says.

zSpace

The way it’s most commonly used today, “virtual reality” is shorthand for “put this thing over your head and you can look around in a 3-D world.”

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based zSpace thinks the definition should be a bit broader and include its own technology, which puts both the computing power and the display on a desk and asks only that users wear a pair of passive 3-D glasses to view its content. What makes this different from the 3-D movies that are jacking up ticket prices at your local multiplex is that the monitor is embedded with sensors that can locate and track the glasses on a user’s head. As a result, you can lean in toward or look around virtual objects a la positional tracking in head-mounted VR.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSreW6ZK9A0

ZSpace sells hardware bundles — which include 14 of its monitors, the PCs those monitors connect to and software — for between $50,000 and $75,000, with the price varying based on what software is included and the buyer’s professional needs, according to a spokesperson. Now the company is embarking on a two-month roadshow to convince educators to check out its offerings.

CTO Dave Chavez and VP of Product Eduardo Baraf sat down with Re/code to talk about their “real-world virtual reality” technology and what it can do that wearable VR headsets might not.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Re/code: Who are you hoping to reach with the roadshow?

Eduardo Baraf: Some of the roadshow events are at schools, some are district events. We’ll work with anybody. With districts, superintendents, sometimes it is directly with the schools. And there’s still VR labs throughout the United States that are using this, and we have a university program.

Dave Chavez: I was just at IEEE VR in France a couple weeks ago. I was showing this thing and, compared to all the excitement around HMDs [head-mounted displays], our message is, “Hey, this is real. We’ve got real customers paying real money and realizing real value.”

Who are the people making software for zSpace? Where do your developers come from?

Chavez: A lot of them were in the education market to begin with. There was a market with 3-D projectors and shutter-glasses in the classroom. It didn’t go very far, because it wasn’t a very comfortable experience. We find them, or they find us.

Baraf: The strongest wealth of developers is in the educational space. Beyond that, as we look into new areas of opportunity, whether it’s medical, or games, that’s where we’re approaching more developers.

Is there a store where those developers can sell their software?

Baraf: We’re in the process of building out our marketplace. For the most part, in schools or otherwise, whether it’s us selling or with resellers, we sell their content along. Either we’ll bundle it, or have a package of software to buy at the same time. Right now, we’re still establishing ourselves, but essentially it’s moving toward a marketplace.

You mentioned head-mounted displays earlier and the fact this is already available to buy. Do you see virtual reality headsets as the competition?

Chavez: I don’t think HMDs are going to be accepted in the classroom.

Why not?

Chavez: The social isolation.

The fact that the teacher can’t see what the student’s doing?

Baraf: Or the students can’t hear the teacher.

Chavez: They can’t see each other, they can’t interact. Even before the popularity of Oculus, teachers told us, “Hey, this technology is a surprise to us. It helps bring us closer to the students rather than build this gap.” The dynamic encourages collaboration.

Baraf: But I would go so far as to say that in the classroom or out, I don’t think we’re competing with HMDs at all. Ultimately, whether it’s Oculus or any of the various fast-followers, you’re talking about this highly immersive, solitary — and you know, they’re going to, over time, make it networked and things. They’re going to solve these problems. They’ve got the money to do it.

But when you’re a parent at home with a kid, you can imagine the kid lying down on the couch with this thing over their head, you’re calling them to dinner and they can’t hear you. That’s escapism, fantasy entertainment. Great! Super-cool stuff. But if you want to manipulate 3-D objects day to day, even as a professional, like an architect, you want to be able to check your cellphone or go to your email. We allow for that. With an HMD, they’re going to have to move all that stuff over, solve all those problems.

What about wearable augmented reality hardware like Microsoft’s HoloLens or what Magic Leap is working on?

Baraf: Those might be closer to what we’re doing. Those aren’t putting you inside of a box. I don’t know if you [Dave] agree.

Chavez: I look at it as not so much competition, probably because you can’t really do it yet, but even if you could, it’s just an alternative. Our desktop version of this is kind of like a wall of a Cave on a desk. They’re all VR, just different forms of it.

Baraf: All these different technologies are doing different things. Some of it is projecting the light on your eyes, and some of it’s against the wall, and some of it’s a lens and it’s coming through. Everyone’s solving it in different ways, but the opportunity is huge. We’re really trying to establish a benchmark [for] what real-world VR should be. “This feels good, I get it.” My kid is 5, I hand it to him and he’s just using it. You just get it.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.