Virtual reality is changing lives and offering hope for jobs to Mississippi’s young people.
Life isn’t always easy in the Mississippi Delta, especially for youth trying to find a meaningful path. For years, the general approach has been the bricks-and-mortar solution with eyes turned towards community centers, more schools, and small business infrastructure. But what if the life-changing answer lives in another world just a headset away from hard reality? Enter a new company called Lobaki, started in Clarksdale and now located in Jackson, Mississippi.
When Josiah Jordan or any of the Lobaki team, including his father Vince and brother Vinnie, begin talking about the emerging field of virtual reality, the concept takes a minute to sink in.
“Virtual reality puts you inside of an experience,” he explains. As I stood and listened in their former Clarksdale studio, more questions came to mind with each of his explanations. Despite our early conversation, he was right. To truly understand virtual reality, I had to experience it for myself. Then, the practical makes sense. VR literally has thousands of applications. This group has designed a 3D airplane interior for a client to walk through. In health care, they are working in oncology, therapy and physiology. For example, instead of rehab patients just walking on treadmills, they can walk through a virtual redwood forest.
The physical VR space is about 16-square-feet with two small sensors (like cameras) opposite each other on tripods. Jordan explains that I can choose from a list of virtual reality experiences and suggests the deep ocean trip. He places the headset on my head and adjusts the ear pieces. The headset is lightweight and a screen sits just inches from my eyes. When he turns it on, the effect is a bit dizzying.
Suddenly, I am standing on the ocean floor surrounded by sea debris – old bones, a shipwreck and swimming fish. In the background, a huge whale floats by, then slowly moves my way, circling me and staring at me with his lifelike eye. Everything happens in 3D and that is key to understanding the entire virtual reality experience. I’m not watching a movie or playing a game, I am actually living the experience as the whale floats by me. What’s even more mind blowing is I can move through the space, bend down to look underneath objects or turn 360 degrees and see the entire ocean world surrounding me. I am part of the environment not just an observer. “This technology actually maps the space,” explains Jordan.
Virtual reality technology has been used commercially for years. Until now, the technology was highly inaccessible for private use due to costs. What changed in the last three years is the headset itself. “This Oculus headset runs about $400 and is now affordable,” says Jordan.
Today, the U.S. and China are leading the field and Lobaki’s team is dedicated to growing the technology in Mississippi. “We are turning around the tech desert, and like to say we’re practicing VR evangelism,” says Jordan.
As I struggle to understand the practical implications of this technology, Jordan encourages me to design in a 3D space. I hold two controls in each hand. With the headset, I see the controls as a pen and a palette. The background is blue and he encourages me to write on the space. I make lines – which appear to be two dimensional. Then, he tells me to walk around and write again. The words and lines hang suspended as if in air, and I can see them from all sides. Jordan and his teammate Michael Everett laugh at my reaction, which mirrors many people who experience VR for the first time.
Lobaki, the company Vince and Josiah Jordan started in 2016, came to Mississippi only in 2017 through a series of happenstance conversations. Jordan and Michael Bezzina, a friend, led the first summer academy set up by his father Vince Jordan. Today, Josiah travels between New Zealand and Mississippi, spending more time here.
Vince Jordan is most recently from Boulder, Colorado where he has always worked in the technology industry.
“I wanted to see if we could take these kids and train them to become developers,” says the elder Jordan. And in a short time, he did. Six teens who were high school sophomores entered the world of virtual reality from the developer side.
“What I found is that these Mississippi kids are just as smart as any kids,” says Vince.
Teammate Michael Everett who joined Lobaki in 2018 is living proof of a VR career path. Raised in Maine, Everett lost interest in high school and struggled to find his place.
“I am self-taught and have been using computers since I was seven,” says Everett. “My teachers knew I was bright, and I knew what I wanted to learn but there wasn’t a clear path.”
He left school and started working – all while teaching himself more skills. His breakthrough came when he worked at a local animal shelter in Boulder.
“They built this new, state-of-the-art facility that had a lot of tech in it.” Every time there was a technical issue, Everett volunteered his talent. Soon, the information technology director took notice; when he left, Everett assumed his role.
Everett understands students like Deuntay Williams, who lost interest in school. Williams met the Lobaki team through a friend and began working with them. Today, he designs VR environments that are nothing short of stunning. As he sits in front of the computer, he shows me his work. “It took me two weeks to create this house,” he explains.
Williams is using a program called Unreal Engine, and projects can take one-to-two weeks to complete. He moved with the team this fall from Clarksdale to Jackson, where he is now working full time. When asked if he ever thought he’d be doing this work, he laughs and shakes his head. “I make what I used to watch. I never dreamed it. Now, I want to learn coding and animation.”
His seatmate, 19-year-old Shalin Jewett, graduated from high school in May 2018 after joining Lobaki in September 2017. One of her projects involved designing a new VR lab for Clarksdale High School, which is now a reality. She encourages other young people to look at the field. “I love computers and I didn’t know anything about this field,” she says. “If they like computers and don’t like working in fast food, they should explore this.”
Virtual reality isn’t just for recreation or entertainment. Born in the aerospace and automotive industries, VR is now moving into healthcare, film and manufacturing. Equally key is having a workforce that can support the industry.
“We can’t find enough people around the globe who can fill the positions available today,” says Josiah. “To create a virtual reality environment takes coders, developers, artists, designers, and writers.”
In October, Lobaki celebrated the grand opening of their new 15,000-square-foot studio in Jackson where they are developing a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. C Spire has been a dedicated Lobaki partner throughout the journey.
“We also have a separate workforce development academy we’re creating in Jackson,” says Josiah. He also believes the entire Lobaki team is excited about the future, especially for those working and living remotely as he explains.
“All it takes is the hardware, an education and the internet and you can do this job from anywhere around the globe.”
What It Takes
To build virtual reality experiences, students must learn: