A different view 

The effort to bring Montana to the masses via virtual reality

In the late 1980s, Clarke Richter had a crazy idea. The Havre pharmacist had attended a seminar in Helena, hosted by international trade lawyer David Tang. Sitting among entrepreneurs and economic developers, Clarke listened as Tang told the audience that if Montana wanted to market itself, he had a six-letter word for them: "cowboy."

"That got my dad thinking," says Jonathon Richter, Clarke's son. "My dad was big in the chamber of commerce, and we owned several stores in Havre. He was successful in rotary club and in leading the economic development efforts in town. But after hearing David Tang talk, he started thinking about this bigger idea. He decided to build a big Western-style theme park."

Wild West World, as Clarke wanted to call it, would bundle elements of the West—wildlife, cowboys, Native American history and culture, the Rocky Mountains—into the largest theme park in the country. Jonathon, a 20-year-old college student at the time, was intrigued by his dad's idea and joined forces with him. Together, they banded with partners, including then-state-Sen. Bob Williams, Wolf Vierich (chairman of the World Waterpark Association) and Monty Montana Jr. (whose grandfather started Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show).

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The Richters were particularly interested in using the most cutting edge technology at Wild West World, including virtual reality. At the time, VR was cropping up only intermittently in industry magazines, within military flight simulations and as primitive prototypes in gaming. The Richters were fascinated by its potential. They wanted to build a horse-and-buggy train with moving picture screens on the windows to simulate motion and a wildlife landscape. They had drawn up designs for games with surround sound, wrap-around screens and other forms of sensory stimulation. They wanted Wild West World to be an immersive space where people would feel like they had been transported back in time in a way that was both fun and educational via the newest immersive technologies.

In 1991, as the Richters were working on the park's design, Sega came out with a VR headset. It used LCD screens in the visor, stereo headphones and inertial sensors, which allowed the game system to track a player's movement. It looked like VR was about to blow up, and the Richters were ready to apply it on a grand scale for public consumption. But Wild West World wasn't to be. In the end, the billion-dollar seed money for the park didn't come through and the project dissolved. It was a hard blow to the Richters, but it was also a turning point for Jonathon—a sort of origin story.

"It got me thinking seriously about virtual reality and education," he says. "My dad was a dreamer who would go after his ideas, so I come by that naturally, I guess."

For the last two decades, Jonathon has been working on trying to integrate those two fields. He earned his master's and doctorate degrees in education leadership with an emphasis in technology and future studies—an area that looks at possible, probable and preferable scenarios for the future. He started working in academia, trying to incorporate technology in ways that would help students learn through artificial or simulated environments.

But VR—like Wild West World—never gained traction.

"It was hard to commercialize," Richter says. "The technology itself was too expensive."

In just the last year, however, VR's course has significantly changed. In November 2015, The New York Times came out with an app that viewers could download to their smartphone in order to see news stories broadcast in 360-degree video. Sports Illustrated released a similar feature with its 2016 swimsuit issue. Google hired its own virtual reality expert. Sundance Film Festival screened a couple of VR films in 2015 and six this year. The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival also added a VR thread to its current lineup. Meanwhile, the Oculus Rift—a headset that allows viewers to move through three-dimensional space and interact with objects—was just purchased by Facebook and is set for release to the public in its post-prototype phase. With other hardware rollouts coming from Samsung, Sony and HTC, investment bank Piper Jaffray estimates the market for VR hardware will reach $62 billion by 2025. As content creators like Disney, Comcast and Time Warner buy into the technology, VR content will be worth $5.4 billion.

click to enlarge Jonathon Richter,left, teaches a class at Salish Kootenai College that requires students to develop 2D ideas that will eventually be incorporated into a virtual world. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Jonathon Richter,left, teaches a class at Salish Kootenai College that requires students to develop 2D ideas that will eventually be incorporated into a virtual world.

Industry experts are calling 2016 the Year of Virtual Reality, but such declarations include a significant caveat: Most of the country's population has yet to experience the technology firsthand. As companies position themselves to integrate VR for profit, those at the forefront of the industry wonder how its advances will contribute to or change how we view art, study science, learn in the classroom—how we interact with the world, in general. For those working locally in VR, like Jonathon Richter, these questions hit especially close to home. After all, Montana has something of a home field advantage when it comes to delivering jaw-dropping landscapes, immersive experiences and a sense of place. Now it's a matter of what we do with it.

In Geoffrey Pepos' virtual world, I am flying over Lake Missoula at night. The moon and stars shine above me and the water glows a deep blue below. If I turn my head to the side I can see a light flashing near the rocky shores. "Go toward the light," Pepos says, laughing, though I can't see him.

I'm aware that, in reality, I'm sitting next to him in his studio at the Zootown Arts Community Center on Missoula's Northside. But the Gear VR goggles I have on my face have immersed me in this other space. It's a trick of the brain. In this alternative world, I move in whichever direction I look. I focus my eyes on the pulsing light, until I find myself floating toward it, picking up speed. There are campfires burning on the beach and rocks inexplicably spinning in the air like something out of "Doctor Who." I continue to plummet toward the shore, even physically bracing for impact, as I crash into the jagged cliffs. Flying, as it turns out, isn't easy. Even when you're sitting still.

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