Virtual reality may seem like a concept couched in sci-fi novels and space-age movies, but the cutting edge technology is becoming more accessible every day. One Eden Prairie High School graduate and his St. Louis Park company are taking the technology beyond entertainment and showing the Twin Cities and beyond just exactly what it’s capable of doing and how the technology can open doors for people from all walks of life.
“We want to make [it] something that everyone can enjoy,” says Amir Berenjian, a co-founder with Travis Hoium of REM5 Virtual Reality Laboratory, which opened in October of 2018. REM5 (which is supposed to signify both the REM cycle one experiences while sleeping and dreaming and the five senses experienced by humans) has the feel of a brewery (with appetizers, pizza and local brews to match), but here, all of the entertainment is provided by the virtual reality headsets that allow their wearers to fully immerse themselves in whichever world they choose from the menus offered at the front desk.
Adventurous players can do everything from slaying zombies to playing dodgeball with their friends, while those who are just dipping their toes into the VR waters can channel their inner Bob Ross with a 3D painting simulator, go deep sea diving and swim amongst digital turtles, get frosty during a snowball fight, engage in different careers with job simulators and even walk on a plank several stories above a busy city.
“It goes beyond gaming,” Berenjian explains, who is, self-admittedly, not that much of a gamer himself. Berenjian, however, sees the power virtual reality has in both entertaining the masses and changing lives for the better. While the list of examples Berenjian has of virtual reality being used altruistically is a long one, a highlight is the work REM5 is already doing for education.
After three months of being open, more than 100 teachers began looking into the educational applications of REM5. Once a group of students with autism from Southwest High School in Minneapolis visited the site and utilized the offerings, Berenjian saw how something like virtual reality could benefit those who see the world a bit differently. “We have a job simulator that allows people to live a day in the life of a bunch of different careers,” he explains. “Seeing those students using the VR in that way was really cool but also reaffirmed why we’re doing what we’re doing.” (Those students will use the laboratory twice a month for the duration of this school year.)
As REM5 grows, Berenjian hopes to not only continue to entertain families from around the Twin Cities, but also continue to use the tools in an educational way. “We’ve already had companies come in to do company events,” he says, with REM5 only being open for close to six months. “VR is perfect for things like diversity [or] police training. It puts people in the moment.”
The scope of virtual reality will surely continue to develop with its monetizable growth unknown, but some of its benefits are simply priceless. One day, an older woman came into REM5 with her family. After strapping on some goggles, she chose one of REM5’s tamer virtual reality options: Google Earth. “She had always wanted to see Paris,” Berenjian said. “With VR, she was able to stand in front of the Eiffel Tower.”