The assembly instructions used by Boeing factory workers usually arrive in the form of a two-dimensional PDF. But Boeing engineers design parts using three-dimensional software, so some instructions are lost in translation, resulting in errors that must later be corrected. To study possible solutions to this problem, the company commissioned Iowa State University researchers to task volunteer students with building a 50-part mock airplane wing. Students were given three types of instructions: a PDF on a desktop, like those most Boeing engineers receive; a PDF on a tablet; and augmented-reality instructions superimposed on the assembly.

“Between the desktop mode … and the augmented reality, the number of errors went down over 90 percent,” said Paul Davies, a technical fellow at Boeing who specializes in digital visualization. The students using AR instructions also built the wings, on average, 30 percent faster. “Someone coming in off the street, maybe not even an engineering major or a technical discipline, was able to assemble this complex assembly with hardly any errors the first time they tried.”

An attendee of the SEA VR conference Wednesday gets a demonstration of Envelop VR's immersive computing platform. Envelop closed a $4 million funding round earlier in the day.

An attendee of the SEA VR conference, held Wednesday at the Meydenbauer Center, gets a demonstration of Envelop VR’s immersive computing platform. Envelop closed a $4 million funding round earlier in the day.

Stories like Davies’ supported the theme of the SEA VR conference Wednesday in Bellevue: that virtual reality, after more than three tantalizing decades, finally is on the cusp of mainstream use. The wide range of discussion at the conference was indicative of VR’s disruptive reputation. Educators discussed its potential to help visual learners and instill lessons with empathy. Architects touched on its potential to aid in designing and selling projects. Surgeons could use it for realistic, low-stakes training. Second Life creator and High Fidelity founder Philip Rosedale talked about establishing a virtual “metaverse,” and science fiction writer David Brin talked about conference attendees’ roles as “little-G gods” who create new worlds.

Filtering through the grandiose were shots of reality. A demo of Rosedale’s virtual-reality platform, which included a colleague in Bellevue interacting in a virtual conference room with cofounder Ryan Karpf in California, went off without a hitch. Eager conference-goers lined up to play the latest virtual reality games on the exposition floor, and many were satisfied with the experience. Numerous attendees carried Google’s Cardboard goggles, the sub-$30 pieces of VR eyewear that The New York Times will be shipping to print subscribers early this month to accompany its new VR app.

Perhaps most significant, though, was the finalizing of a significant investment. Earlier in the day, news broke that Envelop VR, the event’s organizer, closed a $4 million Series A round led by Madrona Venture Group. It is Madrona’s first investment in a virtual reality firm.

“It takes time for people to see where they fit in an evolving ecosystem,” Bob Berry, Envelop’s CEO, said of the venture capital community’s VR investment activity. “We talked to a lot of VCs in (Silicon) Valley, and they just haven’t figured out where they fit in with the evolution. A big thing is getting them to experience it.”

Envelop’s platform, which is still in development, negates a computer monitor by allowing workers to view numerous screens in a virtual environment. Eventually, Berry envisions Envelop facilitating a virtual workspace complete with avatars, data visualization, 3D renderings, and all the critical 2D software optimized for 3D use. Programmers will be able to develop VR software within a VR platform.

For its part, Madrona announced in June that it would target some of its $300 million fund at virtual reality firms. Partner Matt McIlwain said Envelop was attractive because of its productivity potential. “That’s really targeting an individual adopter who might be a software developer, might be a trader on Wall Street, and they want to have an experience that’s better than their physical-reality world.”

Madrona’s investment galvanized the point that people are beginning to take Seattle’s VR scene seriously, but hurdles remain. One, there’s a disconnect between hardware and software developers. Those making the devices say programmers need to be more consistent by, for example, building room-scale programs with standard geometries. Meanwhile, software engineers say hardware must improve. Today’s headsets are bulky eyesores, and using them while wearing eyeglasses is quite awkward. Furthermore, VR’s reputation is more closely tied to video games than new computing paradigms. At the conference, attendees queued around shooter video games, while the virtual surgery training exhibit was empty for long stretches.

But skeptics at the conference were few. Many there remembered VR’s flash in the pan during the 1990s, and said that cheaper and better hardware alone is enough to keep the industry afloat this time around. A common sentiment was that headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens, the Oculus Rift, and the HTC Vive are the next groundbreaking computing mechanisms. What remains to be seen, then, is how these new machines change the way we compute, interact with others, and work.

One challenge is maximizing VR’s potential while not overwhelming users. When I tried out Envelop’s platform a week before the conference, I could position my screens anywhere around me yet found myself fixated on the area where my single monitor would sit in the physical world, as that’s how I’m accustomed to using a computer.

Ray Davis, the studio manager of Epic Games, highlighted Wednesday that early iterations of smartphones had joysticks and keys on them because those methods of typing and navigation were familiar, but touch-screen interfaces eventually became ubiquitous. The parallels must be found for VR. “What are those completely new interfaces that are not obvious at all, but get to … that next level of super-powering people, really giving them power to manipulate and move and do things? I talk about how much I want real physics in VR, but at some point, people may not even care.”

This post has been updated.

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