Oculus Rift gives hope to beleaguered Rhode Island economy

Langevin tries Rift. (Photo by Maria Korolov.)
Congressman Jim Langevin tries the Oculus Rift. (Photo by Maria Korolov.)

Rhode Island Congressman Jim Langevin didn’t even have to get out of his iBOT wheelchair to board the new roller coaster at the Warwick Mall. With a pair of headphones and an Oculus Rift headset, a virtual reality program catapulted him through flames, into mid-air and upside down in a loop-de- loop. When he took off the gear he was still at the Nexperience kiosk where a virtual ride is being sold for $5 a pop.

“This is amazing. Oh wow. That’s awesome,” said Langevin while on his virtual roller coaster ride.

Langevin was in town to show support for a company which he said he’s hoping will drive economic ripples into Rhode Island’s beleaguered economy.

That company, Providence, R.I.-based Nexperience, is a software firm designing software for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

“I can certainly see the broad applications for this type of virtual reality technology,” Langevin said. “Not only for young people who would use it as an educational tool or companies or workers that would use it for job training or NASA that would use it for potentially exciting the next generation of space explorers. But I can also see it being used for people with disabilities to explore the world around them, to potentially have the experience of doing something that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to do.”

The 2d district representative has been wheelchair-bound since he was 16 when a bullet from a gun fired accidentally. At the time he was a volunteer with the Warwick Police Department. The gunshot severed his spinal cord making him a paraplegic.

Aaron James, marketing director for Nexperience, LLC, says he and his partners opened the kiosk in Aug. 1 to draw attention to the company’s Kickstarter initiative that hopes to raise $15,000 by September 22.

In a video accompanying the Kickstarter pitch James says he hopes Nexperience will provide employment for 15 area programmers “right out of college and fresh with talent.”

The Hatch Institute, an incubator that has also produced CleanTemp, a self-sanitizing food thermometer manufacturer, already provides a physical space for the programmers, many of whom are graduates of the nearby New England Institute of Technology.

“I love the fact that Nexperience is partnering with New England tech and working with New England tech students,” said Langevin.

Other backers present for the congressman’s visit were attorneys Eric Hall, and Kevin Murphy, a son of the founder of the Warwick-based Home Loan Investment Bank.

Nexperience founders say they are hoping to write a new page in the history of investment in on-line gaming in Rhode Island. The state’s quasi-public Economic Development Corporation last year lost an estimated $100 million in taxpayers funds when it invested in 38 Studios, a gaming firm founded in 2006 by Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling which went bankrupt after producing one game.

Along with Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), Rep. Langevin co-chairs the Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“He and I are big proponents of Perkins Act funding,” said Langevin, referring to the federal grant program that funds vocational training at post-secondary institutions. “We’re always looking for opportunities to closing the skills gap and job training.”

With Rhode Island’s unemployment numbers vying with Mississippi for the worst in the nation, Nexperience’s founders say they hope their little kiosk in the mall can help the state transcend virtual reality so it becomes a new and better economic reality.

“When it’s done right it can really trick your visual cortex,” said James about the Oculus Rift. “Our aim here is to raise enough money to hire developers to make those experiences come to life.”

Bill Marcus

Bill Marcus is a freelance business and technology reporter based in Boston. He is a regular contributor to Fox News Radio and the Albany Times-Union and also writes for Computerworld, Agence Presse, Pitssburgh Post Gazette and other media outlets. Follow Bill on Twitter.