Written by Daniel Walton | Photos by Evan Anderson
When they call their virtual reality company Better Than Unicorns, Brett McCall, Justin Hamilton, and John Kreisher aren’t exaggerating. “We can actually change our reality,” predicts McCall.
A makeshift plywood sign stands as the sole indication that the future is underway within the River Arts Makers Place (RAMP) Studios on Riverside Drive in Asheville. The letters V and R, each printed on a separate sheet of paper, are taped above and below two bold black arrows that beckon the reader into the building. At the bottom of the sign sits the geometric logo of a horned horse and three lowercase words: better than unicorns.
Those who follow the arrows find themselves in a spartan corridor, a bare concrete floor flanked by cinderblock to the right and drywall to the left. The racket of power drills and circular saws echoes through the air, spillover from the contractors working on the French Broad Chocolates factory elsewhere in the building. But at the end of the hallway, around a corner, another printed Better Than Unicorns sign announces a different type of construction site.
It’s a room about the size of a racquetball court, dimly lit, with white walls and high wooden ceilings. The project isn’t visible, and the only sounds of work are the soft clattering of keyboards and clicking of mice. All the assembly is taking place inside a collection of desktop computer towers—Better Than Unicorns is creating virtual realities (VR).
“The impossibles and the what-ifs and the fantasy worlds: We want to be a part of making those come true,” says Better Than Unicorns CEO Brett McCall. Together with his cofounders, Justin Hamilton and John Kreisher, McCall hopes to build the company into Asheville’s vanguard of what he calls “the last mass medium.”
Blueprint of the Future
McCall vividly remembers the moment, a little over a year ago, when he first felt the true potential of VR. He was visiting his friend Jonathan Schenker, developer of the popular virtual archery game QuiVR, when Schenker encouraged him to try a climbing simulator called Climbey.
“I was jumping to reach a wall, and at first I missed it and fell to the ground. No big deal,” he recalls, of his virtual climb. “When I jumped again, I actually jumped over the wall, and as I was falling, I turned around and tried to grab hold. I missed it. My heart rate goes up, I break into sweat, my breath stops, and I realize that I just believed everything was absolutely real.”
That evocation of thrilling physical danger was tailor-made to resonate with McCall at the time. A top-level Ultimate Frisbee player—he won a world beach ultimate championship as part of the North American All-Star team in 2008 and served as the first head coach of the professional Charlotte Express franchise—he had broken his fibula and torn several ligaments while playing soccer in 2016.
The injury had an 18-month recovery period, and McCall was barely mobile when he experienced Climbey. But despite his real-life situation, VR had convinced his mind and body that he was an athlete in motion. “At that instant,” he says with a snap of his fingers, “I recognized that this medium has superpowers over any other medium that we’ve ever seen.”
McCall’s professional background also made him receptive to the virtual revelation. From 2011 through 2015, he worked as a futurist and trends researcher for Asheville’s Native Marketing, keeping abreast of innovations in pop culture, entertainment, and media. Based on his experience with divining the cultural impacts of technology, he predicted that VR was set to make massive waves.
“It’s similar to what we saw with moving pictures when they first came out. People believed that what was happening on the other side of that screen was actually happening,” he explains. “That’s what is happening with VR, only it’s immersive and interactive.”
Gathering the Crew
Although McCall briefly studied artificial intelligence and computer science at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he grew up, he had earned his bachelor’s degree in community leadership from Warren Wilson College after moving to the Asheville area in 1999. His background told him that he would need technical support if he planned to start a VR production company.
Luckily, he had a chief software developer in mind: Justin Hamilton, whom he’d met during a VR get-together at the home of Hamilton’s brother. Like McCall, Hamilton had also become interested in VR after a formative experience, but one much further back in the medium’s past.
“At the Mountain State Fair in 1994, they had this hang-gliding VR setup where you were actually leaning on a bar,” Hamilton remembers. “It was pretty primitive, and I did not land the hang glider very well, but I was blown away.”
Combined with another taste of early VR through a version of the classic shooter game Doom, the Mountain State Fair encounter led Hamilton to begin designing his own games. He went to school for computer animation in 2003 and taught himself programming, all the while imagining what could be possible in the medium.
“I had this vision of somehow running around in laser-tag fashion in VR,” Hamilton says. As consumer systems such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive made their way onto the market a couple of years ago, he knew that the technology was finally coming to make his dream a reality. When McCall approached him in early 2017, he jumped at the chance to start Better Than Unicorns.
The final piece of the puzzle was fellow VR creative John Kreisher. He admits that his title within the company’s startup culture is difficult to pin down, but Kreisher is used to being flexible—in more ways than one. A practitioner of the human gymnastics technique acro-yoga, he first came to Asheville for a circus training program.
While Kreisher’s master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder gave him the technical chops in coding and 3D modeling needed to join Better Than Unicorns, he believes that his circus experience with Boulder’s theatrical dance/acrobatics/aerial arts troupe Fractal Tribe informs his VR design philosophy. “We’re in this realm of always pushing our boundaries,” he says. “I’m interested in game mechanics that make me more aware as a human being.”
McCall and Hamilton nod as Kreisher continues to flesh out his attitude toward the technology. “You can just change the rules of your reality in VR, experiment what it’s like to be in a world with different rules,” he explains. “I think that’s really valuable.”
Nuts and Bolts
No matter the world being visited, every journey begins in the same place: one of Better Than Unicorn’s VR setups. The founders use the term “rig” to describe the complete package, which consists of a headset that totally envelops the eyes, a wireless controller for each hand, and a computer with enough processing capacity to handle the inputs and outputs.
VR’s taxing technical requirements demand top-of-the-line machines. To create the illusion of depth in a three-dimensional world, the headset displays a slightly different two-dimensional picture to each eye—much like an old-school View-Master reel. Therefore, the attached computer must render the same scene from two unique perspectives, then do it again 90 times per second to maintain the sense of motion. “It’s like a video game on steroids,” Hamilton says.
Further complicating matters, this perspective must respond to the motions of the headset in three-dimensional space. Like current smartphones that can detect tilt and movement, early VR systems used internal sensors for this purpose, such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers. The current generation, however, uses infrared tracking.
By emitting or receiving quick pulses of light below the human visible range, VR headsets communicate with base stations placed elsewhere in the room, giving the computer the raw data necessary to calculate position. The same technology is also used to track the rig’s handheld controllers, meaning that users can naturally reach to grab or poke objects in three-dimensional space. Gaming-style thumb sticks and buttons on the controllers provide additional control possibilities.
Better Than Unicorns currently uses rigs from both of the two main players in VR, HTC Corporation and Facebook-owned Oculus VR. McCall predicts that, in contrast to the conflicts seen with other technology like the Betamax vs. VHS format wars, there’s room for multiple “flavors” of VR rigs.
“Each of them has different attributes, and we’re just going to have to get familiar with using different ones for different purposes,” McCall says. “Oculus focuses on publicly accessible, consumer-grade VR, while the Vive is aiming for more of the competitive and professional market. It’s like a Honda and a Porsche.”
Laying the Foundation
For a user, all of the technological details take a back seat to the experience of the fantastic made real. Meditating on that core essence of VR led McCall to adopt his startup’s name—spurred by a hit of inspiration from his wife, Diana.
“The morning before I gave my Creative Mornings talk about VR, my wife was teaching yoga, and on the computer where she was checking people in was a sticker,” McCall explains. “It said, ‘You’re better than a unicorn because you’re real.’ Two weeks later, I needed a name for the company, and she suggested BTU.”
With its name in place, McCall set out establishing a market for the new venture. He found his first client in Deltec Homes, an Asheville-based builder known for its round house designs. The company contracted Better Than Unicorns to produce virtual walkthroughs that could introduce potential customers to its unconventional floorplans.
The result is the next best thing to actually touring a Deltec property. Through VR, users get an accurate sense of the home’s dimensions in relationship to their body and can walk around different rooms to imagine themselves living there. They can peek into closets or teleport outside the building for a breathtaking mountain view. The model even includes a soccer ball that users can bat around the house with their controllers.
McCall shares an example of the walkthrough’s power from a home expo where Better Than Unicorns recently showed off its technology. “A woman came up to me almost apologizing; she said she was interested in VR but had no interest in buying a cylindrical home,” he recalls. “After five minutes, she was blown away and wanted to get in touch with Deltec.”
Beyond driving sales, VR can provide those in the real estate business with valuable data about how potential customers respond to their properties. “We know where people are looking by tracking their headset,” explains Kreisher. “If they’re not drawn to the kitchen at all, for example, we can change something—and everybody always looks at the red pillow on the couch” he adds with a laugh.
Better Than Unicorns next produced a similar project for the University of North Carolina at Asheville, which hired the company to make a tour of their new apartments and existing residence halls. In partnership with Crunchy Bananas, an Asheville software development firm, they created a smartphone app that gave prospective students 360-degree views of their potential college digs.
Similar collaborations with other companies, McCall says, will be key to Better Than Unicorn’s continued growth. “Producing VR is like film production, audio production, photography, interior design, and animation all rolled together and times five,” he points out. “Our biggest challenge is going to be project management and leveraging all of our people and players to multiply their creativity.”
The company is growing its own ranks: Besides the founders, Better Than Unicorns has hired a number of part-time employees for specific projects and brought on three interns, with two more to come for marketing support. McCall anticipates that demand for their services will grow quickly, mentioning both regional players in the tourism industry who see VR as a way to build new business and global interests in VR gaming such as HTC and Epic Games.
Together with its outreach to the corporate world, Better Than Unicorns is also trying to build popular interest in VR throughout the Asheville area. For three hours every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday night, the startup’s RAMP Studios location transforms into a public VR arcade where curious users can experience the technology themselves.
While Asheville may not have the hi-tech cachet of larger cities such as San Francisco or Seattle, McCall feels that the area’s other qualities make it appropriate for building a VR movement. “Asheville’s an adventure town, so people are willing to try new things in general,” he says. “And because Asheville is comparatively small, it’s possible for us to move new ideas into the community more rapidly or effectively than in larger areas.”
On a typical Saturday evening, a dozen or so people crowd into the Better Than Unicorns space and watch as a projector shines a public view of the in-game perspective, its light supplemented by pink Himalayan salt lamps and red Christmas bulbs. The room feels like a cross between a nightclub and the basement of the coolest nerd in town: Chill electronic and hip-hop beats play underneath the action as posters of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and R2D2 from Star Wars stare from the walls.
Most in attendance are waiting for their turn in a tournament of Sparc, a two-player game that moves like a cutting-edge cross between dodgeball and tennis. Players strive to strike each other with glowing balls of energy as they use a racket-like shield to protect their own bodies. When McCall dons a headset and controllers for his match, he seems transported back to his championship ultimate days, vigorously ducking balls and batting shots at his opponent.
As McCall competes, Hamilton notes that this sense of social interaction is critical for VR’s continued success. “A lot of people assume that VR is kind of isolating, that when you put the headset on, you’re cut off from the rest of the world,” he says. “But in my experience, it’s caused a lot of communication between people. You get to interact in new ways that you wouldn’t normally get to experience.”
He and Kreisher took socialization into account for PrizmPong, the most recent experience developed by Better Than Unicorns. Competitors in this VR update of arcade classic Pong occupy a playing space of the same size as their real-world room, so they can bump fists using their actual bodies and virtual avatars at the same time.
The company’s dream is to expand the arcade vibe into a larger arena in the River Arts District, roughly four times the size of the current location, that could accommodate up to 12 players simultaneously. While the move still has many hurdles to clear, such as the development of wireless headset technology and raising approximately $250,000 in funding, Better Than Unicorn’s founders agree that collaborative experiences are the next frontier in VR.
Room for Living Well
Entertainment may be the driver of the planned new arena, but McCall emphasizes that the VR arcade is “very much the gateway drug into the medium.” The Better Than Unicorns team sees applications for their technology in fields far beyond gaming.
Consider medicine, as dramatized through a recent commercial for Samsung’s Gear VR headset. In the ad, a woman with a new prosthetic leg powers herself through physical therapy with a little virtual assistance: When she looks down, she sees two strong, real legs striding confidently along a beach. Researchers with Duke University have already taken this concept a step beyond by using VR as a treatment to partially restore muscle movement and sensation in paraplegic patients.
VR could also play a role in psychological exposure therapy. Kreisher points to Richie’s Plank Experience, an extremely convincing simulation of walking on a foot-wide board 80 stories above a busy city street. “We’ve had people fall off the plank before because they get so scared and close their eyes,” he says. Under professional supervision, similar stressful experiences may help people overcome their fears.
McCall, who worked as an Outward Bound instructor in Florida before moving to the area, is particularly excited about VR’s ability to promote teambuilding. “I used to have people imagine they were in the water and that a wall was the edge of a boat they needed to climb into,” he offers as an example. “In VR you could actually see the boat and water with sharks coming at you.”
“Humans behave differently when there’s a catastrophe. They drop all pretenses and start helping each other,” he continues. “I’ve always looked for a way to simulate something traumatic that could also be safe, some way to have that humanness come to life for long enough that we could then become better humans.”
To that end, Better Than Unicorns hopes to build collaborative VR escape room puzzles for the new arena, akin to the real-world offerings of downtown Asheville’s Breakout Games and Conundrum. Hamilton and Kreisher say that few other developers are creating these types of experiences, leaving them ample room to explore group dynamics and the collective intelligence of players.
But perhaps the deepest application of VR, McCall proposes, is helping people realize that all reality is virtual. He mentions the Buddhist and Hindu concept of the “veil of Maya,” the idea that human sensory experience creates an illusion that hides the true nature of the universe.
“Taking the headset on and off, we start to realize that even without the technology, we’ve still got a headset on,” he says. “If I had no eyes, ears, or nose, I’d be swimming around in a dark pool of nothing—it’s just these inputs that give us a sense of lightness and beauty. If we could figure out how to remove that, to put the lens on that we want to see, then we can actually change our reality.”
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