Kurtzman, who has muscular dystrophy, surfs in real life through a non-profit organization that helps people with paralysis engage in action sports. With the assistance of a 12-person team from Life Rolls On, Kurtzman can lie down on a board, get carried into the water, and then move into the waves.
The day Kurtzman stopped at the Specular Theory table, he had no idea what he'd be watching.
Then co-founder Ryan Pulliam handed him a virtual surfing experience.
"It was such a trip because I went surfing last week but I was laying down on the board," Kurtzman says. "In the headset I could actually experience surfing standing up!"
The Newport Beach native says he'd never had that sensation before.
"It gave me that awesome feeling —that butterfly happiness feeling," he says. "It allowed me to experience something I thought I never could experience."
Pulliam and her co-founder Morris May were mesmerized watching Kurtzman test out the demo.
“I’ll never forget looking at him, he was stoked,” Pulliam says. "He made us realize this goes beyond empathy—it’s a way to inspire people with disabilities and give them new experiences as if they are real. It’s this powerful, magical moment."
Pulliam and her team created the virtual reality experience by using proprietary software to film professional surfers in California and Mexico. She says the video is not interactive--the user can't move his or her body in real life and see it move in the headset.
"It's a cinematic experience," she says, "where you can look down at the board and feel like you're barreling through a wave."
VR Lures Big Tech
In 2014, Facebook purchased VR company Oculus for $2 billion; analysts predict the company will sell millions of units next year, when its Oculus Rift headset hits the market.
Attendees at the presidential event on the Stanford University campus say Obama even joked that Congress could benefit from the lab's empathy work.
VR for Social Benefit
Honor Everywhere has created VR experiences for aging or terminally ill WWII veterans so they can virtually visit their war memorials halfway across the country.
For younger Americans, the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a program called BreakThru to help students with disabilities pursue STEM careers.
Through virtual reality, students solve complex problems in imagined worlds that may be applicable to their future careers. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program has helped place 225 students in STEM careers.
Though virtual reality has been around for decades, the advancements we're seeing now are momentous.
"It is a pivotal moment in virtual reality," Bailenson says, "as VR migrates from the laboratory to living rooms across the world."
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