Technology Q&A: How virtual reality has grown,  and where it’s going now

James Gruening is the co-founder and senior vice president of Mechdyne Corp., a virtual reality and technology company. Based in Marshalltown, Mechdyne was founded in 1996 by Gruening, Chris Clover and Kurt Hoffmeister, who had all recently graduated from Iowa State University. Mechdyne’s very first project focused on creating a virtual reality firefighting simulator for the U.S. Navy. Today, the company creates immersive technology solutions for companies around the world. 

Gruening discussed where he thinks extended reality services are going in the next decade. 

Since you started, what’s the growth of virtual reality been like and what have you seen change over the years?

We’re really lucky because we, in our first project, really had virtuality included in it. And it was for virtual training for onboard ship firefighting, actually for the Navy. We’ve seen the technology grow pretty dramatically. We continue to do a lot in [the virtual reality] field today.

Every time we talk to a new client, the industry is growing. And there’s been so much additional coverage and press in the last, really, five to 10 years, which has done nothing but help the industry and help our business because more people are aware of what we’re talking about and some of the uses that they can employ or implement to help their businesses. I think some of the greatest advancements have really come along the lines of computational power, and how we can drive these experiences. 

You talk about virtual reality and augmented reality and mixed reality and experiential reality, so XR kind of encompasses all those other things. When we first started, a computer that would work in this type of environment, that was a million dollars. And so the cost to enter this type of solution was pretty significant to the point that most companies couldn’t afford to do it. Today with computational changes, the computer costs a fraction of that, especially for some of the larger systems. People can collaborate; 10 people can walk in and experience the computer to drive that experience today at a fraction of what it cost 20 years ago. … The actual display technologies become a lot more cost-effective. 

So the barrier of entry is much less, to the point where now it’s great because we’ve got young kids and teenagers playing with this technology at home. … It’s more readily available. I think that historically it is kind of a barrier to entry with some other technology. Now you can program and create the content to make your experience realistic. … Over the last 20 years, content continues to be a critical piece that’s more difficult than it should be. I think we’re getting to the point where that’s getting easier, and that’s an area of emphasis not just for Mechdyne but for a lot of other companies that are trying to provide the services but also trying to implement the technology into their business.

Tell me about the first project that you were working on. You said it was with onboard firefighting for U.S. Navy ships?

So we do a lot of training, content and applications today as well. When you think about that specific first project, I think one of the keys for Mechdyne – and I think for any companies — to be innovative, you really have to listen to your client. And you have to be very inquisitive. So you have to ask a lot of questions because I think most people have an idea of how they want to solve a problem. And I think in many cases they might think the solution is too expensive or too difficult to implement. … Something that Mechdyne is very, very good at is listening to you, and asking you a lot of follow-up questions to try to be creative with an innovative solution. 

We had a client at the University of Naval Research in Washington, D.C. They have a lot of new sailors every year, and the sailors get deployed onto small, tight, very complex ships, especially when you’re below deck. It’s confusing — passageways are small. It’s very difficult to learn how to know where to go and how to maneuver, especially if you have an emergency like a fire onboard. Historically, they would have some physical prototypes, which is a ship that’s docked somewhere, an older ship. And they would try to do training onboard a ship — like how do you respond, how do you fight a fire. Now there’s different attributes to those fires based upon the materials involved. You really couldn’t ever train, or teach me how to fight a fire onboard my actual ship because there’s all kinds of different ships. And so we worked with them and came up with a unique solution for a problem – and in essence it was one utilizing virtual reality. For them to be able to train new sailors to experience different situations, it’s really difficult. As you can imagine, you don’t want to put an actual sailor in an actual fire to teach them how to do it. It’s very dangerous. And so, going through training like that is just a critical step forward. The solution we were able to put together for them really came from listening to the problems they had, understanding the implications that it caused them, and being creative and innovative to provide them with a solution.

Where are things going in the next 10 to 20 years?

That is a tremendous question, and we joke about this all the time. If our crystal ball was accurate, we’d probably be retired. Actually, that’s probably not true, because we love what we do. … I think even with that first project we did 23 years ago with the Navy, it was very advanced at the time. What they ended up utilizing that system for was … some training but they actually determined best practices and continue to do research on how to train and how to best fight those fires. 

You hear people talking about the term “democratize technology.” We’re starting to head in that direction as the costs decrease in some of the hardware. We still have a challenge with the content creation. In the next three years, I saw some data that said 120 million people are going to need to be re-skilled or retrained due to artificial intelligence, robotics and automation. … If I try to talk to you about something, you’ll take some of it in. If I split up and involve you in it, and you actually experience it, you’re much more likely to retain and learn. So a big area that we’re seeing is not just application of this technology for design and virtual prototyping and research, but really starting to apply this technology to training and learning for folks, whether they’re young or whether they’re older. I’ve seen all kinds of data on these things, but utilizing this technology for training, I think, is going to be something that really takes off and something that’s going to be required really at every level from an educational standpoint.

So I think in the next 10 years, there’s going to be tremendous growth with this technology. As far as dollars and all that stuff, I have no idea. But every time we talk to a client or potential client, they are talking about it internally, how to apply the technology. Many of them already know they have to do some tests with it. … Many of our clients have already implemented it and some of them, like the Navy, we’ve got decades of experience with. And we’re really starting to see the return on investment increasing. We’re kind of getting to the point where if a company isn’t already utilizing the technology and applying it to different problems to disrupt their industry and be more successful in their business, then they’re falling behind. … If you’re not trying to disrupt your industry, you’re probably going to end up being disrupted. And I try not to say that cavalierly, but I mean it’s truly amazing the changes we’re seeing with our clients — how we’re changing their workflows and increasing their productivity and their overall profitability.

Can you tell me about what democratizing
technology means?

The definition is all over the place and it depends who you talk to. … Let’s use the U.S. Navy example. The first lab we installed for them was in Washington, D.C., and a very small number of people got to utilize it in person. So when I say democratization, we’re trying to get to the point that everybody — all the sailors — get to experience this training, this technology. It’s trying to get it to the point where it’s cost-effective not just to train everybody with that, but also to have those training capabilities onboard all the ships. So when I’m deployed, maybe it’s part of my regular routine – whether it’s once a week or once a month or twice a year. 

I think about virtual prototyping and designing something new. In a lot of cases, some of our manufacturing clients, it’s part of their workflow, they don’t create any physical prototypes. They do it all virtually. And even if they don’t do it all virtually, they’re creating far fewer physical prototypes, which saves them a tremendous amount of money. And it also saves them a tremendous amount of time [in] their design cycles. In many cases they have this capability technology in their design studio or their design locations. They don’t have the technology in place out in their manufacturing areas. And so that’d be another example where … it’s easier and more efficient to deploy more locations, because in many cases the people who really have the best ideas … can really complement and improve a product. … We’re trying to make it so we can get that capability into their hands, so they can provide the feedback to the designers and the engineers to create even better products and things not just for business but also for consumers.

When you’re talking about this type of technology and your work with the Fortune 500 or Fortune 100 companies, people don’t always immediately assume this virtual reality company is based in Marshalltown, Iowa. So what are some of both the opportunities and the challenges of your location?

We’re thrilled to be in Iowa. Some of the biggest advantages in Iowa are the people. We’re kind of lucky, we do work all over the world and we have offices all over the place, but our corporate culture and our core values … were all based upon our Iowa roots and having grown up here. I think that’s really one of our biggest strengths. We’ve got great education in the state. And we’re kind of centrally located between Iowa State [University] and [the University of] Iowa and we have a good location in the state, which was great so we can draw upon talent. Cost of living is low so the quality of life for our teammates is tremendous. Marshalltown has been great for us. From a standpoint of growth, they kind of let us do what we do and help us out when they can.  

I think some of our biggest challenges are [that] most of our clients are not in Iowa. But we’re doing more and more work in Iowa, which is great because the technology we have honestly can help every company in the state. … I think one of the challenges is our teams are always traveling, whether it’s the state or flying around the world working on projects and things. Another challenge is while we have great education, just the sum of the numbers – unemployment’s at a record low, which is great, but sometimes it is difficult to find some of the talent that we need. 

I grew up on a farm in north-central Iowa, which I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. But one of the challenges we’ve got in the state is access to rural broadband. It’s getting better, which is great. But we have some really talented teammates that like to live in the country, and the places that they [live in] don’t have good access [to broadband]. 

It has been tremendous for our company and our teammates that we call a lot of people back into the state, which is great. People grow up in the state, and they feel like they want to get away somewhere else. They get to the point where they realize it’s maybe not all it’s cut out to be, and they start having a family and they want to come home. We’ve been excited to be able to have some of those higher-rate terminals for technology jobs to pull [people] back. We take great, great pride in that.

Low unemployment is really affecting basically every industry, but specifically the tech workforce because this is still such a new field. What do you think needs to be done in the education system to help increase the tech workforce?

Editor’s note: This question was asked during the pre-pandemic economic environment.

Anything you want someone to embrace, enjoy, be good at and be passionate about — the sooner you can get them started, the better. We have a lot of outreach programs where we’ve worked hard to repurpose technology that some of our clients aren’t utilizing anymore into some of the school systems. And we’ve done that a lot of different places where we have offices, not just in Iowa but outside of Iowa, and even internationally. The sooner you get kids engaged and involved with it, the better. I really do believe as we get better tools that are able to create content training materials easier, and a hardware that’s more cost-effective, we can actually introduce the technology into the classroom. Students not only just learn with it, but can actually start creating content on their own. 

Seventy-five percent of our workforce in 2023, I read, they’re going to be millennials. I’m just excited. It’s folks who have grown up with the technology and want to utilize it to solve problems. That’s important not just in the state, but, I think, globally. … As a business you need to be implementing some of this technology to help you innovate faster and disrupt your industries to be competitive. As a country and the state we need to do the exact same thing. We do a lot of international business, and when I travel internationally, other countries are doing this. They are well ahead of the United States with regards to implementing the technology earlier, whether it’s in the classroom or training, but then also the businesses. It is something that hopefully more and more people are taking seriously and we actually make some more investments to stay ahead of the curve.

Any company that’s interested in innovating, what advice do you have for them to get started?

You can get started very rapidly. I guarantee you, you have someone in your organization today that has interest, that is willing to spend a little bit extra time doing some testing and playing around with it. I think one of the biggest challenges is people seem to be like “Man, that’s overwhelming. I don’t even know how to do it. You know I don’t have these millions of dollars and I don’t have people just sitting around, trying to burn time.” I think a lot of companies kind of block themselves from that regard. I think the advice is just trying. There are so many examples of things that you can try to give you some ideas. And then, you know, obviously call Mechdyne and we will help you. But it’s time to try it. It doesn’t have to be a big investment to start; you can get a couple little wins. Demonstrate those things to some of your decision-makers, you’ll get more time and you’ll get more money because the return on investments that our clients experience is mind-boggling. 

It can really save you a ton of time, and your time is the one resource that isn’t renewable, right? So it can really have a huge impact. … We all have a mobile phone. There’s all kinds of augmented reality applications for your mobile phone that you can download and try. You know everybody seems to love Ikea. Download the app on your phone; it has an augmented reality module and so you can view their furniture in your house. Just try the app and see what it looks like. And then just jump in and give it a shot. … There’s someone within your organization that would, if you ask them, ‘Hey, can you spend a couple hours a week or the next couple months digging into this?” They’re going to be thrilled. They’ve been wanting to try it; they just either haven’t brought it up or thought it’d be too expensive. So there’s all kinds of ways to get started.