An internship program focused on virtual reality at Indiana University's Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology has provided a valuable talent pipeline to a Bloomington company and opened greater possibilities for the program's future.
Virtual reality interns from the Cuban Center have become highly desired as employees for RegattaVR. The e-learning company, which started in 2018, uses virtual reality to create immersive learning solutions for clients on topics such as sexual misconduct prevention and customer service.
RegattaVR, 117 S. Gentry St., employs four former Cuban Center interns, who in turn have attracted other former IU students to the growing company.
"Regatta wouldn't exist without the Cuban Center virtual reality internship program," said Bill West, founder and owner of RegattaVR. "Otherwise, it would be outsourcing most of its production."
Investing in emerging technology
Entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban, a 1981 graduate of the IU Kelley School of Business and owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, gave IU $5 million in 2015 to launch the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology, which opened in October 2016.
"Cuban wanted to have a space where students could get firsthand experience with the latest technology so when they graduated they would be immediately hirable," said Brian Hulley, senior technologist at the Cuban Center.
The video, broadcasting and technology center has a focus on virtual reality, a technology Cuban supported and wanted the center to be involved with, Hulley said. Virtual reality digitally creates a real-life setting.
The center's first experience with virtual reality was making 360-degree videos to enhance the fan experience for sports such as football, basketball and volleyball. This was accomplished by connecting 10 GoPro cameras to a spherical exoskeleton, Hulley said.
Andrew Rosner, the Cuban Center director, then had the idea of building a fan experience for gaming by building an arcade-type game. The Media School was asked about students who might be interested in building a web-based arcade game, Hulley said.
From late 2016 to January 2017, Catherine Onofrey built a game that puts a person on the basketball court in Assembly Hall to shoot baskets.
Onofrey's project then led to three students -- juniors Devin Good and Griffin Park and senior Alex Van Halen -- creating two virtual reality arcade games for the Cuban Center. In a baseball game, two players face each other head-to-head as the pitcher and batter. In a football game, players test their skills -- throwing a football through a tire, for example.
"Mark Cuban's goal in giving us the money was that we would use the center as a lab to apply the learning the students received in class and provide support for students, to get them the hardware or software they needed and give them direction on how a Power 5 conference school might use this project," Rosner said.
After Van Halen graduated, Good and Park recruited three more students to create virtual reality games: seniors Jeremiah Stevens, Keegan Gifford and Alex Bowling.
VR is attractive because "it's on the cutting edge of the future of technology," Bowling said. "You can solve problems in new ways."
The students started work during the 2018-19 school year and created a game in which zombie robots try to score goals on a basketball court while the game player tries to stop them using weapons such as baseball bats and T-shirt cannons.
"We've been very pleased with the quality of the students' work," Rosner said.
The benefit of the Cuban Center internship program, Stevens said, was that an intern could come up with an idea, pitch it and develop it into a project.
"You could take an idea and run with it," he said.
Also, interning at the Cuban Center gave the students a broad range of skills, including augmented reality, Gifford said. Augmented reality adds something to one's current state, such as the game Pokémon Go.
RegattaVR was looking for people with virtual reality experience to help make their learning programs more immersive.
The first time West put on a headset and experienced virtual reality technology, he knew he wanted to use it for e-learning.
"We can increase the effectiveness of our solutions well beyond traditional learning," he said, explaining the difference between 2D and 3D technology. "In 2D, you just watch the play. In 3D, you become an actor in the play."
RegattaVR had a client, Bank of America, that wanted a virtual reality customer service training experience focused on empathy, using as an example a customer whose spouse had died. West discovered Good on LinkedIn while looking for people with VR experience, and he learned about the work the students had done. Good had uploaded a video of games he, Stevens, Gifford and Bowling had created for the Cuban Center.
"I told him in a meeting I had a team ready to go if he was interested," Good said.
Good, Stevens and Gifford were hired by RegattaVR as interns in January 2019, and then as full-time employees after they graduated in May 2019. Bowling was brought on part time and then hired full time by the end of the summer of 2019.
"It sounded too good to be true," Bowling said. "It was the perfect opportunity just down the street from IU."
The students interned at RegattaVR while also working at the Cuban Center and creating games there.
"I felt happy for them," Hulley said. "It goes back to the motto of the Cuban Center of making students immediately hirable."
Using VR technology for educational purposes was quite a change of pace for the former IU students, who had been focused on game creation.
"The educational aspect had never crossed my mind," Good said.
The first project they worked on was the Bank of America customer service simulations for a client who has suffered a life-changing event. Three simulations involved the customer coming into the bank in person, while the other three encounters were over the phone. One of the primary goals was to foster empathy in bank personnel involved in the training.
The three in-person encounters use 360-degree video to put a person in a real-life bank setting. They use a branch narrative, in which a participant's response leads to multiple possible responses, and those responses generate additional alternatives. The purpose is to teach correct responses.
The phone simulation involves building a relationship with the client and expressing empathy. For that scenario, Good created a virtual call center.
West said the project helped Bank of America's customer satisfaction increase from 76 percent to 85 percent in one month.
"It really paid off," he added.
'Hit the ground running'
The former Cuban Center interns have now created a library of virtual reality courses for RegattaVR, one focusing on sexual misconduct and the other on negotiations.
"VR creates an intimate experience when you're in the headset; there's no avoiding," Good said. "You can't avoid the computer simulation. You can make an emotional impact and do some good in the world to prevent sexual misconduct."
For example, the sexual misconduct video includes a scenario of co-workers at a bar after work. It puts the participant in the shoes of a woman cornered by a bigger male co-worker whose flirtations are unwanted.
Another scenario involves a male employee facing encounters with a diverse group of women of different races, ages and sizes.
West said being able to hire students right out of college with the VR skills he needs has been a huge benefit.
"There's virtually no learning curve," he said. "In terms of skills, they hit the ground running and produce some really complex stuff."
Another benefit has been Good's connections, which led to other IU students joining RegattaVR. Grace Heppner and Reece Needham, both May 2019 graduates, studied in The Media School. Andrew Fagin, a master's student studying human-computer interaction design, is an intern.
RegattaVR's growth has allowed it to take on more VR tutorial projects, West said. For example:
- Golf club assembly for a golf equipment manufacturer.
- Mass-casualty victim assistance for advocacy groups.
- Patient treatment for nursing school students.
- Fire safety for a large manufacturer of electric cars.
- Situational training for correctional officers in a maximum-security prison.
West said he hopes to hire more interns from the Cuban Center, which is looking to resume the paid internship program this summer. Hulley said he expects VR technology to continue providing the program with great opportunities.
"I think virtual reality is one of those things that it is still a technology most people see as futuristic, so it still has a lot of potential," Hulley said.