One of the first things Kyle Gagnon did as part of the process to set up his business, Inception VR, was to close up shop.
Determined to make a living through virtual reality technology after encountering it at a demo in West Edmonton Mall in August 2016, the one-time electrician (class of ’16) rented a small basement space on Edmonton’s bustling and trendy Whyte Avenue.
After buying 3 systems with his savings, he began testing the market for a new kind of arcade – but not one just for gaming.
Gagnon was testing consumer appetite for an experience. As an immersive computer technology, virtual reality puts users into artificial 3D environments and scenarios designed to convince the senses of their authenticity.
“I knew I could create new and exciting things that have never been done through VR,” says Gagnon.
What he didn’t know for sure was if he needed a physical space for a business that was based, in essence, on an illusion. After 3 months of operation, he had the answers he was looking for: take the business mobile, enroll in NAIT’s JR Shaw School of Business to hone his skills as an entrepreneur and continue to explore the untapped opportunities – like artistic performances – that he had started in his basement testing ground.
With that, Inception VR as a place was shuttered and done but, as the name implies, its future had just begun – and was on its way to tapping into a global market that might approach $150 billion by 2020.
The power of art
Gagnon may deal in illusions of a kind, but the idea of drawing revenue from VR art isn’t among them. That said, events at the Whyte Ave. location were revealing to him of the technology’s business potential.
Shortly after opening the space, he hosted an experimental art show featuring work by local artists Ariel Durkin, Ryan Weisser and Tristan Stewart.
Over 2 days in November 2016, visitors were able to view VR artworks created using Google’s Tilt Brush, a program that lets users “paint” in 3D space. Viewers were no longer limited to taking in a painting on a single plane – instead, they could experience it from within, as if walking among the brush strokes. More than 300 people attended.
The success of the event told Gagnon he was on to something – something he’ll replicate July 22 at the Art Gallery of Alberta with an exhibition entitled the Future of Art, which combines VR technology with art, dance, live performance and more.
Geoff Gregson would call that success a sign of “first mover advantage.” By pioneering the technology through unique events, Gagnon is “building trust with the community,” says the JR Shaw Applied Research Chair in New Venture and Entrepreneurship. “Then when you're monetizing, you're going to be the one that is going to be the first that they will consider.”
The approach seems to be working. An art show doesn’t make a profit, but it builds interest, awareness and credibility. These days, events Gagnon holds around Edmonton for gaming and even corporate and industrial training bring in $700 to $3,000 each.
Making it a reality
Taking Inception VR mobile has worked out for the better, says Gagnon. He no longer needs to maintain a facility or pay rent and can hire contract staff as the events dictate, which helps control costs as well. He’s also able to operate it alongside his business studies.
“Running a business and going to school at the same time might be tiring,” Gagnon says, but the benefits outweigh the effort. His instructors double as a sounding board.
“I’m literally asking a question that is directly tied into my company. They’re complementing each other.”
As competition in Edmonton’s VR market grows, that may prove an advantage. Gagnon hopes to find ways to develop Inception VR into a larger company. He aims to host corporate events weekly, hire permanent staff to manage sales and setups, and book bigger venues. That is, he intends to keep exploring the entrepreneurial potential of the technology.
In that way, Gagnon may not be much different from the artists he partners with. Each one finds new ways to use VR to create exhibitions that allow viewers to see the world in different ways. As soon as the goggles go on, the possibilities are virtually limitless.