The one upper. (A report from the Boston VR community)

We all know the type. There’s no anecdote that he can’t top. Just did your first sprint triathlon? Let’s hear about the last half Ironman he did. Went apple picking? Let him enthrall you with details of the cider press he’s building. But at our next monthly card game, when he sees my bit of trivia and tries to raise me, I’ll have a true ace up my sleeve. Meeting his gaze head on with an “Oh, yeah? Good for you,” I’ll then whisper in my best Dirty Harry, “But I’ve played Jenga on Mars, pal,” and revel in his royal flush.

And how was I able to cross such a unique experience off my bucket list?

The Boston/Cambridge area has long been a hotbed of tech innovation and incubation grounds for such game-changers as radar and Facebook and now it is at it again. The virtual reality scene is thriving, and with a well-established, healthy startup ecosystem, it’s worth your while to stay tuned.

For example, at October’s Boston Virtual Reality meetup, attendees were treated to demos from startups and established companies, looking to achieve the two key criteria that will establish the virtual realm as a viable environment for self-contained innovation: utility and tactility.

Startup VirZoom gave us a glimpse of interactive fitness, with a headset-agnostic and stationary bike-enabled racing environment, in which the user pedal-powered a horse, a racecar, and again, a horse (only this time, it flew. Yeah, for real).


In addition to a daily cardio workout, my key takeaway is that the “motion sickness” issue doesn’t need quotes: the struggle is real. One minute of flying around on —and trying to land —a winged horse had me breaking out in cold sweat. This issue will have to be resolved prior to widespread adoption and it appears as though the technology is being developed accordingly.


3d Systems accomplishes both utility and tactility with their dynamic new virtual tool, a haptic stylus called Geomagic Sculpt. Wearing Oculus headgear, users were treated to either a simulated Martian landscape (derived from actual Mars Rover footage; no sign of Mark Watney) that featured a Jenga tower on a floating platform, or a model bust, which users could sculpt. I demoed the Jenga game only and this experience – probably because my target was stationary – provided no dizziness or discomfort afterward.

The haptic stylus essentially functions as a liberated mouse attached to a mechanical arm, with buttons to initiate activity, such as selecting and moving pieces or executing sculpting functions. The resistance the stylus simulates is truly remarkable, and a – if not the – key component of its utility. For obvious applications such as mechanical engineering and medical science, simulations will need to be conducted in conditions that are not near-real, but exact. 3D Systems’ technology creates the type of tactile boundaries that could accomplish this and ultimately make VR truly immersive.


The Wild Card? Archean Worldbuilder. There was a lengthy line to demo and I wasn’t able to make the cut. The company formally known as VRMT will soon make its debut on Kickstarter, and boasts that “Archean Worldbuilder is a VR-first creation game and tool designed to let players and developers build virtual worlds, inside VR.”



I watched participants navigate with high enthusiasm their virtual canvases and, with dual joysticks, build structures and conjure crops out of thin (or at least virtual) air. Rest assured that when I get a chance to demo the cities will be majestic, the crops plentiful, and I’ll always be dealt full houses. Take THAT, one-upper.

November’s Meetup promises to be equally engaging, with demos from XIMMERSE, demonstrating a “stereo camera-based system that tracks joysticks, haptic gloves and head position inside-out”, and nod Labs a “gesture recognition and motion tracking company” that “builds intuitive products that communicate human intent.”

Check back next month for photos, video recaps, and reviews.

Matthew Cooney is principal product marketing manager in Education Services for EMC. His professional background includes over 15 years of combined social media, direct, and digital marketing management experience, project management, search engine marketing and optimization (both organic and PPC), and events and communications management.

You can follow Matthew on Twitter @matthewcooney.