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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 1, 2014 at 6:45 PM

Virtual reality: Seattle’s next gold rush?

It may be another year or more before virtual-reality headsets enter the mainstream, but a growing cluster of Seattle companies is pouncing on the opportunity.

Piyush Agrawal does battle with a drone in a light sword virtual reality experience created by Atomic VR, and on display Wednesday at a showcase here organized by Envelop Vr. (Photo by Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Piyush Agrawal does battle with a drone in a light sword virtual reality experience created by Atomic VR and on display Wednesday at a showcase organized by Envelop VR. (Photo by Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

The latest is Envelop VR, a four-person Bellevue startup building tools for developers creating games and other experiences for virtual-reality hardware.

Started by veterans of Bellevue’s Uber Entertainment and Intel, the company wants to enable developers to build their software in a virtual-reality environment — writing code while wearing headsets such as those being developed by Samsung, Sony and Facebook’s Oculus.

Chief Executive Bob Berry,  who also leads Uber Entertainment, said VR companies are starting here or gravitating to the area because of its deep expertise in 3-D game development and complex software challenges.

“The wave is coming and it’s coming big,” he said. “Seattle is perfectly situated for being a major, if not the major, hub for development.”

Virtual-reality, in which users are immersed in a digitally created environment projected on a widescreen headset, has been “just around the corner” forever. Berry, who went to Japan to work on a Ph.D. in virtual reality in 1998, said it’s the “tech that’s been 10 years away for 40 years.”

But he and others in the industry think the time has finally come because of advances in hardware and software.

Envelop invited more than a dozen local and national companies working on VR technologies to a showcase Wednesday night at Paul Allen’s Living Computer Museum, near Starbucks headquarters. (See a Photo Gallery from the showcase, by Seattle Times photographer Dean Rutz, here.) The event was Envelop’s coming out and a chance for Berry and others to schmooze with potential partners and investors.

Demonstrators ranged from Nordstrom, which has developed virtual models of store spaces and displays, to hard-core game companies like industry giant Epic Games.

Epic is based in North Carolina but has a team in Bellevue building virtual-reality capabilities into its platform and producing demos that Oculus has used to show the capabilities of its latest hardware. The one displayed Wednesday — and at the recent Oculus developer conference in California — puts the user in the middle of a shootout with a robot-like alien.

Wearing the headset, you feel like you need to jump out of the way as bullets, debris, garbage can lids, a car and Chinese food containers swirl around. Moving your head around you can see the action above and below, and even duck down and peer into the car as it rolls over your head.

Nick Whiting, Epic’s first employee in Bellevue and a VR lead who programmed the demo, said tools like the ones Envelop has proposed could be a “huge timesaver,” particularly when designing game levels.

But Envelop better hustle. Epic’s team in Bellevue is working on similar tools to speed up virtual-reality development.

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