By BECKY GILLETTE
There are industry forecasts that the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) industry will grow from what was a $16 billion industry in 2016 to a $100-plus billion industry by 2021. The VR Academy based in Clarksdale has been created to provide young people in Mississippi both access and opportunity to the growing industry of VR and AR, said Vince Jordan, who is director of the non-profit VR Academy and CEO and president of the for-profit VR production company Lobaki, Inc.
“In the next few years, hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created in hundreds of industries requiring the skills we are training young people for at the VR Academy,” Jordan said. “In addition to a career development path for their students, the VR Academy has a secondary mission of introducing Mississippi schools to VR and AR technology for use in both the classroom. We assist in the adoption and application of VR and AR in the schools.”
Jordan said with the industry growing so fast, it is important to provide a skilled workforce. He said by bringing this technology to Mississippi at this time, they are giving students the opportunity to take advantage of exciting and very well-paying employment opportunities.
The VR Academy is a 12-week course of personalized instruction that leads toward a final VR project that the students work to complete. Then, based on a collaborative discussion, the team decides whether to release the project commercially. Jordan said if the project shows promise, a marketing plan will be developed and, in some cases, a new company formed.
In addition to outreach to students in Clarksdale, Jordan has been traveling around the state visiting schools to introduce students to VR through a partnership with the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement at the University of Mississippi.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It could get pretty big in Mississippi. We hope to be instrumental in helping the schools in Mississippi adopt this technology both in the classroom and preparing young people for careers in VR and AR. We also intend to build a VR and AR production studio in Clarksdale and put many of these students to work creating VR and AR experiences and applications for customers regionally and around the world.”
VR is about more than playing games. Jordan said it is currently being used in architecture, automotive design, health care, education, employee on-boarding and training, tourism and many other industries.
“Today, if you go to work for UPS, you will spend your first days in VR being trained in a variety of activities,” he said. “New employee crane operators are being trained in VR. You can fail spectacularly in VR and live to tell about it, but at the same time you really experience it and are unlikely to make the same mistake again. Surgeons are being trained using VR. Jaguar and Volkswagen are designing next generation automobiles in VR. The list continues to grow. The use of VR will only grow as industries realize the effectiveness of this technology in their day-to-day businesses activities.”
VR is something that captures the attention of students like few other mediums. VR appeals to a much broader range of students than computer coding.
“Creating a VR experience is more like creating a movie,” he said. “You have storyboarding, set design, character design, lighting, sound, animation, and when all of that is done, then some coding. Many of our students have learned the tools to do the above, but not coding because we need so few coders.”
He also sees the future of education is in VR. Instead of reading about or watching a video, students will experience history by having a virtual experience going back in time.
“They will enter the body and travel through its various organs, they will travel to the geographical places they are learning about, they will fly through the solar system and visit the planet and moons they are learning about, and they will handle atoms and molecules,” Jordan said. “They will see and handle math. The list goes on.”
To date, Jordan and his sons have been the primary funders of the VR Academy. They also received a grant from the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, computers from the City of Clarksdale and MIT, and donations from private individuals.
They have also been providing students with real life experiences with a paycheck. With their for-profit organization, Lobaki, they have started winning some VR and AR projects, and the students get employed by Lobaki to complete those projects.
Jordan said they are providing underprivileged and underserved high school and community college students the opportunities to learn and work with the very latest technology on the planet.
“These students are getting direct exposure to the latest technology advancements, and provided with a pathway to pursue a career in tech related businesses,” Jordan said. “Lobaki is helping them find their place in the VR development world, which may be right here in their hometown of Clarksdale, but could be anywhere in the world where this technology is being developed and used. The VR Academy is teaching the tools and techniques used by VR production studios world-wide. With the help of local partnerships, these students will also learn what it means to be an entrepreneur themselves and could go on to create their own businesses here in Clarksdale.”
He sees Clarksdale as just the start. He is hopeful it might provide an economic development boost to the entire Mississippi Delta.
“It is widely considered that VR technology and applications are where web technology was in the early 90s and smartphones in the early 2000s,” he said. “If the region as a whole can take advantage of this emerging marketplace early on, it can find itself becoming one of the leading tech hubs in the country.”
Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, currently has 443 job openings.
“These young people we are training can all apply for those jobs and have a number of the required skills, including lots of experience with VR and Oculus,” Jordan said. “That’s just Oculus. There are already tens of thousands of VR/AR job openings around the world. Many more to come.”