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Virtual Reality in Maine: Part 1

You’ve probably heard of “virtual reality” but likely haven’t experienced it.

The technology is rapidly evolving and becoming more affordable.

Some Mainers are diving into the virtual reality revolution head first.

Leaders in the fields of technology, medicine, entertainment and more say in the near future, virtual reality will change the world.

Wearing a virtual reality headset, users can feel immersed in a simulated environment.

The possibilities – seemingly endless.

Students at the University of Maine in Orono are embracing the emerging technology, discovering ways it can be used to improve everyday life.

10 years ago, a virtual reality device could cost up to $50,000.

Today, consumers can get their hands on the latest gear for less than $400.

“Virtual reality is moving at an incredibly rapid rate,” said Richard Corey, Director of the University of Maine’s Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction Laboratory, the only research facility of its kind in Maine.

Students and professors there are pushing the boundaries of VR.

It opened in 2008.

Richard Corey leads a team of 18 students at the VEMI Lab.

“It is a great time for them to be graduating with this much knowledge of virtual and augmented reality because they’re well ahead of people that have just gotten into it,” said Corey.

But what is virtual reality, exactly?

“It is actually the creation of a computer generated world in which you are completely immersed in and what I mean by immersed is visually immersed in it so you can look all around and experience everything around you with 360 degrees,” said Corey.

The students showed us how to use the recently released HTC Vive.

“So people can get very, very immersed very quickly and easily,” said Chris Bennett, a graduate student at the VEMI Lab.

Their goal is to pioneer research that may lead to the development of technologies that make everyday life easier, improves access to information, and assists blind and visually impaired people.

“The VEMI Lab uses virtual and augmented reality as a tool, as a testing tool to study the areas we’re looking at,” said Corey.

“It’s really an academic unit made up of people from extremely diverse backgrounds. We’ve got people who come from computer science. We’ve got people who come from psychology,” said Kendra Bird, a graduate student.

Much of their research is focused on navigation and spatial awareness.

“Say, you know, you’re in a mall and you’re lost, the ability to augment through the walls so you can see where you are or where you’re going in an airport,” said Corey.

Students are designing VR programs to study things like aging and macular degeneration.

They’re animating intricate landscapes to help alleviate symptoms of mental illnesses such as post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.

We asked the students, “What does it feel like to create this entire world, what it looks like, what it sounds like, and then to step inside it?”

“When people get that immersed, that kind of makes you feel like, hey I made something that really worked,” said Chris Bennett.

Pursuing solutions that, for some, may one day prove to be life changing.

“And it is a great thing for the state of Maine to be able to move into this new advanced technology and this new emerging technology that comes forward,” said Corey.

Coming up Tuesday, we’ll show you a program a VEMI student designed to help people cope with seasonal affective disorder.

We’ll also introduce you to a Bangor based doctor who performed the world’s first surgery documented with Google Glass.