In a shared office space above a coffee shop in Barre, a small startup company is making lofty plans. And like with so many other big ideas, one of the first stops on this journey was a trip to the local library.
But business partners Andrew Glover and John Parker didn’t go to Aldrich Public Library to check out books. They were there to make a prototype. Their company is called Immersive Technology Studios and Glover says it’s Vermont's first virtual reality, or VR, studio where they produce virtual reality tours.
"We create highly realistic interactive and immersive virtual reality environments that people can explore on VR headsets, as well as computers and mobile devices," explains founder Andrew Glover.
He says that last part is important. Immersive Technologies’ virtual tours are accessed from a web browser instead of an app. That means the tours can be viewed on any computer, tablet or smartphone. Right now Glover says his biggest customers are real estate agents offering virtual tours of properties for sale. However, he says, there are more than commercial applications.
"We’re actually looking at educational applications, doing virtual tours of national historic sites, as well as our most recent project, Vermont Peaks, where we’re hoping to hike our VR equipment up to the top of Vermont’s five tallest mountain tops," says Glover.
On Friday the company launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the Vermont Peaks project.
"It’s a combination of art, photography, nature and technology all combined into this virtual reality experience," Glover says. "We’re planning to hike our equipment up to the top of Mt. Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, Killington Peak, Mt. Ellen and Pico Peak and capture these environments with our VR equipment, bring it back and convert it into a tour that people can experience these really awe-inspiring views."
Immersive Technology Studios founder Andrew Glover's selfie with his 36-lens camera:
Campaign backers will get early access to the Vermont Peaks project, which will eventually be freely available online. And backers at the $25 level will be sent a VR headset through which they can view the tours. High-end VR headsets cost hundreds of dollars, but the cardboard version Immersive Technology is distributing is more affordable. It looks something like an old-fashioned View-Master toy.
"What I have here is what’s called a Google Cardboard VR headset," says Glover, showing an example. "And it’s literally just that, it’s just a piece of cardboard. It has some special curvature lenses in it that you use as your viewport and it has a flap that you can open up and you place your phone right into the headset, close it down and you’re ready to go."
The Vermont Peaks project involves hiking specialized equipment, such as a 36-lens camera that looks something like a Wiffle ball, up some of Vermont’s steepest terrain. And, as Glover explains, they also use some more traditional photography equipment.
"What that consists of is a very sturdy tripod with a special mount that a DSLR camera with a wide-angle lens can perfectly rotate every 30 degrees around a central point," he says. "And it is essentially able to capture the full environment. We bring those images back to our studio where we can stitch them together into what we call a photosphere."
A photosphere is a 360-by-360 degree photograph which the studio can manipulate and add interactive elements to create a virtual reality experience. To explain how that works, Glover walks us through the virtual tour of Aldrich Public Library.
Take a virtual tour of Barre's Aldrich Public Library:
"So as you walk through the library, you’re able to select where you want to go. So right from the start, you’re going to go right into the entranceway," he says. "And then you’ll have the option, do you want to go upstairs or do you want to continue right into the main room? And you can literally select all this right from your computer. Or if you have a VR headset on, you can use your head to look around and really feel like you’re there."
While virtual reality is an emerging technology, Glover says the premise of his business is something much more engrained in the culture.
"We’re all about telling stories," he says. "That’s the heart of a lot of life, is telling people stories."
And with that in mind, the local library seems like an appropriate place to start.