Augmented Birthday Parties and Virtual Reality Field Trips with Centertec’s Bill Tustin

Chicken Waffle! Now that we have your attention, check out this episode of XR for Business. Centertec CEO Bill Tustin joins Alan to talk location-based VR “retail-tainment.” Fun, exciting XR technologies are revitalizing America’s malls, and taking kids on field trips across the stars or through the pyramids; places they could never go in real life.

Alan: Today’s guest is Bill Tustin. Bill has owned a location-based VR location for over three years. He’s worked for 25 years in the casino banking industry, teaching them how to implement technologies that increase their revenues, create great customer experiences and have fantastic ROI. He has used that experience to create a successful location-based VR place with multiple revenue sources, including XR educational content and XR programs. His company just made a seed investment in Chicken Waffle — crazy name! — but it’s an XR solution provider that develops innovative solutions with high-quality branded experiences. They’ve created many enterprise experiences in a world for an amazing list of partners and clients. [You can learn more about Bill’s business at www.centertec.com]. They’re working on all sorts of really cool IP, and I want to welcome to the show: Bill Tustin. Thanks for joining me.

Bill: Thank you.

Alan: Thank you so much. You’ve been working in VR a long time. What are some of the best experiences you’ve seen, and what drives you to do what you’re doing?

Bill: Really? The smiles on people’s faces. We work with a lot of children, and the children and the teachers are very excited about learning about VR, experiencing VR. Just, customers’ experiences has been great for the last few years.

Alan: Awesome. You say you were working with children. Is this just location-based entertainment? Or, what are you finding is something that… what is resonating with everybody?

Bill: From the educational aspect of it, where they can go and experience a visual education experience? The teachers actually have been really excited about it; just the fact that they can go, like, for example, to the civil war, and experience of battle with great artwork. It educates some really, really well. Especially the younger they are, the more they get excited about it.

Alan: So, what’s one of the best XR, or VR/AR, experiences that you’ve ever had?

Bill: Well, for children? Space. Anything with space, they get really excited about. Anything underwater. These are all experiences that they can’t experience in real life. You can’t experience space right now — I mean, hopefully in the future you will — and most people don’t really go scuba diving, especially kids. So, they’re going to really experience underwater adventures, or Space Adventures. And then, on the education aspect, we work very closely with the schools on exactly what they’re teaching them, so the education aspect of it is in on the experience.

Alan: Interesting. You made an investment in Chicken Waffle. Can you maybe tell us what’s… what’s Chicken Waffle? As soon as I heard the name, I was like, “what the heck is a Chicken Waffle?”

Bill: The founder of Chicken Waffle actually co-founded TheWaveVR. He actually still owns TheWaveVR, which became a very big social media music platform. One of the reasons why we invested in them is, we saw a need in the education field, where just the content that was there wasn’t really up to par for the children. They really wanted to have more interactive experiences. It just seemed like a lot of educational stuff that exists right now in VR/XR/AR is just real basic. So, we decided that we needed to make our own content with certain partners that we’re working with. And they were the right company when we checked around; everybody kept on referring to them. Their name came up constantly, that they were the right company to partner with.

Alan: So what kind of content are you guys making, then?

Bill: A lot of things that they do are for clients, so I can’t really say names. But to give an example, they’re working on a major museum project, where there’s 20 geo points and it’s a civil war experience. They basically walk around on the battlefield — the kids and families, we have a walk on a battlefield — and through AR, be able to experience the civil war at the exact points where the action happened on this battlefield. So, that’s an exciting project that they’re working on. We’re also talking to the client about us using that type of experience in a VR experience that we can also bring to schools. As it relates to museums and these type of establishments, it’s great when the schools are around them, but they spend quite a lot… like, this client is spending over half a million dollars just on artwork alone. And they’re basically only going to get schools and families that — while they’re major, I mean, people do travel very far for them — but the schools only travel about an hour on a field trip. So, just a partnership with them, and Chicken Waffle will make it to be able to bring it to the LBE [location-based experience], depending on what you want to call it. That type in a VR experience would be real exciting.

Alan: The whole idea of being able to take field trips really far — going to the pyramids in Egypt — that’s not really something that most schools (or any schools), you know, “let’s get a flight and fly halfway around the world to go see something.” But in VR, you really can do that, and you can go anywhere in the world instantly. I think it’s really gonna be great for that. And I think it’s hopefully going to create new bonds amongst children and people around the world. You know, one of the most transformative moments I had in VR was the first time I went in Altspace and I realized that there were other people in the space, talking to me. That was a game-changer.

Bill: Yeah, actually, that’s what we discovered. The children do want to interact with each other. It’s funny that you just brought up Egypt, because we just had 120 third graders come in to our location, and that was one of the requirements; teaching them about pyramids. So we actually had a VR experience where they wandered through one of the permits. It was like a 360 video, interactive experience. And the third graders loved it. There would be no other way for them to do it, except in VR or AR. I mean, literally, it was 120 third graders — four third grade classes — and they loved it.

Alan: Are you seeing that 360 video is something that people are resonating with? Or is it more the interactive content that is getting people’s attention?

Bill: It’s interactive. The 360 video, they get bored very quickly; 360 video is just TV in VR. I mean, in my mind, it’s when they could touch things. Like, they go to the Egyptian pyramids, and be able to pick something up — that’s really resonates with the children. The way they could be avatars of different people, and they could see each other when they interact with each other. That’s really where it’s having to. That’s another reason — that’s our main reason — for making a seed investment in Chicken Waffle. They’re able to do that social interactive experience with great artwork.

Alan: It’s pretty exciting, I think, being able to interact. One of the things that I got to do was drive an excavator in virtual reality, and I’ve never been in one before. I started it up and it explained to me how to drive it, and how to use the bucket and everything. And it’s funny, because I was in it for maybe 20 minutes driving around. And I feel — I mean, I haven’t tried it yet — but I feel like I could go and drive an excavator now. I probably wouldn’t be very good at it, but I could do it. I know what the handles do, and I know which… I feel like I’ve driven that thing. And it’s really interesting, how you can give people incredible experiences and trainings, long before they’ve even got to the place of where they’re what they’re doing. So I think it holds tremendous value there.

Bill: Yeah, yeah, I know. Chicken Waffle’s actually done work for one of the clients. Hopefully it’s not an NDA with them; it’s Exxon Mobile, and they’ve done a lot of safety training with them. They’re also working with a franchise Asian restaurant, where they’re doing the training for the franchisees on the rice cooker, which is another safety — you know how — to properly get this rice cooker to work. So you’re right. You are correct. It’s really a great way to do training — especially safety training — in VR. And you could actually have emergency-type situations where you could evaluate that safety training.

Alan: Are you guys doing anything with a AR at all? Mobile phone-based augmented reality?

Bill: Yeah, we actually have four Magic Leaps. Magic Leap just met with Chicken Waffle. They’ve actually changed their API because they’re… I don’t know if I want to say, I’m sorry [laughs]. But it’s actually going to be an open source thing that we’ve just recently did for Magic Leap. So we are working with Magic Leap in an AR capacity. A lot of it’s confidential, but we are doing certain things.

Alan: It’s pretty exciting, when spatial computing comes into your living room. It’s all around you, and it kind of takes… it hijacks the space that you’re in, and really gives you this opportunity to augment the world you’re already in. I think the immersion slider from your reality — or the real world you’re in — to full virtual reality. I think the ability to blend and go in and out of that is gonna be really magical. I’m really excited to see what you guys do on that.

Bill: Yeah. They’ve actually done a lot of work on the MERGE Cube. Mostly the API, most of the MERGE Cube has been done by them. A lot of AR work, actually.

Alan: I love it. The Merge Cube is a small, foam cube that has tracking markers on it, that you can point [at with] your phone. The cube can be a sushi game, where you’re a fish trying to eat sushi one minute; it can be a camp fire the next minute; it can be a trippy cube. It can be a human heart. There’s all sorts of things; they have an open API, so that programmers can make all sorts of really cool experiences on it. And I think they’ve done a really good job at taking “phone,” and matching it with a very inexpensive “toy” or “tool,” and creating unlimited possibilities on this thing called the MERGE Cube. So, really exciting. I had the opportunity to travel to China with the principals. It was really cool. In your experience, what has been the path that businesses have taken to get to the point where they’re ready to invest in this technology? Because — let’s be honest — it’s not the least expensive technologies out there. So what is the path to getting a company excited? Getting them bought in? Is it proof of concepts, then rolling it out? What is the path that you’ve seen that businesses are taking?

Bill: When I speak to business leaders, it really depends on the type. I recently spoke at the retail show in New York, and they’re very interested on the ROI in the retail environment. When you make an investment — and it’s a large investment, especially if you’re doing a custom AR/VR application — what’s the type of ROI there is? One of the things they mentioned to me was they love my story about, um, there’s actually a toy store in Prague, where they had a backpack AR system in the basement — so, it was a space that wasn’t really being used. They’ve had a very large increase of sales at the store, because people come there to do the AR, and then they go shopping. Over at Centertec, we’re in one of the largest malls in the world, Simon Mall — and we all working with them on some other locations — and we bring people to their mall. I mean, everybody says the malls are dead, but the average mall customer spends $108. So, you can get him into the mall — statistically speaking — they’re going to spend $108. So, VR and AR — I mean, like an AR scavenger hunt — there’s a lot of things you could do, especially in retail and businesses, to get a really nice ROI. And they’re looking for partners that can explain that ROI to them, because, you know, it’s a capital expense.

Alan: Absolutely. So, the work you’re doing with Simon, you do have a location set up in their malls, now?

Bill: We’ve been in a Simon mall for three years. They’ve talked about a lot of other VR companies that now… I’m going to use the word “left,” but have gone out of business. We’re now going into one of their outlet malls, which is an agreement with them — it’s more of a partnership — and that outlet mall gets 8-million people per year, and they have 45 locations that they want us to roll into.

Alan: That’s incredible.

Bill: We’re listening to our own ROI on that; gotta take baby steps.

Alan: That’s an incredible use case. I think malls are slowly changing — the face of retail is changing, really — and it’s going from a place where people, they went for entertainment, and to pass the time, and to shop. But I think it’s more moving towards this “retail-tainment,” where people go there for social experiences. A lot of the malls here in Canada have — obviously they have movie theaters — but they have arcades, and stuff like this. And I think VR and AR lend themselves very nicely to these locations. And you’re absolutely right; for every extra minute average that a mall like Simon Malls has, you’re talking millions of dollars in revenue for every average minute that a customer spends in the locations. So, it’s a great way for public spaces to be reunified and revitalized.

Bill: You get the customer back in the mall. I mean, they actually reported to us — they they were studying it — some of the merchants buy us, their sales doubled. Because of the amount of people that we brought into the mall. The first mall we in, it was kind of… I don’t use the word “dead mall.” They wouldn’t like that word. But what I would say, it wasn’t a triple-A mall. We were underneath the staircase. On a Saturday, we’re packed, and the mall’s empty. My partner loves to take photos of that. But the merchants stand by us. Their sales have gone up, so they’re very happy with that; that leads to them giving us a better real estate deal. We have more of a partnership than us paying them rent. I joke around, that they should pay me.

Alan: [laughs] I don’t know about that! But yeah, I think it’s a great opportunity for everybody involved. For sure.

Bill: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, they realize that I’m an asset to their mall. It’s more of me not expanding. I mean, I think they would put us in every single mall that I was willing to do it.

Alan: What are some of the most impressive business use cases of this technology that you’ve seen so far? You know, something that we’ve tried and said, wow, that is really impressive.

Bill: Well, you know, one thing I was surprised with last week was a woman approached me — I was in my center — and said, “are you the owner?” And I said yeah. I don’t want to, you know, promote it too much, but she’s got cancer, and she’s been come into our place; she bought a membership. And she’s actually a nurse, and she had a lot of anger issues with her getting cancer. She started crying to me, telling me how great our place was, and it saved her marriage, because she had a lot of anger over it, and she’s actually playing a boxing game. She just comes in, and, you know… and we’re not pushing her. She did it on her own. It’s been great therapy for her, just coming in and letting her aggression out in VR. It was very interesting, listening to her talk about that. That was probably one of my most interesting experiences I’ve had.

Alan: It’s funny how… I’ve actually been recording and keeping track of all the different use cases in business, and medical, and health, and automotive, airlines, you name it. And only recently, in the last two weeks, I had to make a new folder: virtual and augmented reality for mental health. We’re seeing all sorts of incredible statistics around this technology being used for mental health, or autism. They’re being able to take kids who are quite a ways over on the spectrum, that don’t socialize well, and really understand their their social cues, and get them used to making eye contact with people in a virtual space, so that when they are in the real world, they’re kind of more understood. Because I don’t think somebody with autism is at a disadvantage; we just never figured out a way to harness their genius. I think these technologies really unlock that, so it’s really exciting.

Bill: It’s funny you brought that up. We just booked an autism — they just booked five days in May; they came in last year — an autism group. Literally, they booked their whole school’s field trips. The kids love VR. The only thing that annoys me about it is, I go to a lot of shows, and they have special autism programs. And honestly, they’re fine on a regular games! They just want to be treated like regular people. They’re great with all the regular games. They don’t need special games. They’re fine with what exists.

Alan: I agree, and I think our school systems were designed to take kind of the bell curve, and educate the bell curve as much as possible. When you get people on either side of the bell curve, the system starts to break down and goes, “well, you know, you don’t fit into our system, so you must be an outsider.” I think it’s going to see a huge pivot in education in the next little bit, as we start to introduce technologies like artificial intelligence, to really study and understand how these students think, what drives them, and what they’re interested in. You can teach a group of 30 kids science — I’d say 10 of them are interested in science, 20 of them don’t care, and we’re still pushing them into that? So I think personalized education is really going to unlock a whole new way for which we educate entire populations. I think if we can figure that out… like, if you look at Netflix, they use AI algorithms to give you better movies to watch. So why aren’t we using that for education? And I think we’re gonna see that very, very soon.

Bill: Yeah. I mean, we work with girls who code. They come in once a week to a place, and it’s just amazing, the skill sets that they have. As relates to programming, some of the things I’ve seen them create — programming — when we work together. They call it teacher bias, too; especially when it comes to girls, with coding and science. And the teachers don’t mean to do it, but they kinda push these young girls into things they shouldn’t be pushed into, because they think that’s what they need to do. And when you just let them be free and they explore and they learn, it’s amazing.

Alan: It really is. Education is it’s an interesting thing; if you look at it from a market size, it’s a $4-trillion industry. It’s four times the size of Amazon. And if you look at it that way, we’re seeing a tectonic shift in the way education happens, and the way it moves forward. I think virtual augmented reality are really going to be a central role in doing that.

Bill: Yeah, if it’s implemented correctly. We’ve been to over 100 schools. We’ve worked a lot with schools. I’m amazed, where they’ll have VR equipment there — I went to one college, and Microsoft gave them a bunch of Hololenses — and they were just thrown into a corner, because nobody from Microsoft ever came down and showed them how to use it, how to implement it. They have these $4,000 Hololenses sitting in the corner, not being used. I was there with my VR stuff, and I saw them there; they were asking me about them. I said, “where’d you get them?” And they said, Parsons gave it to them through Microsoft, but no one ever showed them anything. So, it needs to be implemented correctly. You just can’t hand people all that equipment and say, “bye!” You know, it needs to be executed correctly. Content needs to correct. It’s just not giving them hardware and saying, “figure it out yourself.”

Alan: I agree. I think there’s a couple things that need to happen. The hardware is gonna just keep evolving, and that’s fine. But I think it’s more on the platform side, and really creating content that is uniform across multiple headsets, and easy for a facilitator or a teacher to bring to the students in a way that makes sense. But to your point; without training, without getting these people ready to go, it’s kind of useless. It’s like, “here’s a bunch of VR,” and if you don’t train them and don’t get people… you need one champion — at least — in every school. I think a very important.

Bill: The teachers, and the students, and the school administrators, they are very interested in VR. I mean, they get it. The ones who don’t get it, I see more social media — people attacking me about kids, man, and headsets. And I’m like, *sigh* — the people who aren’t there are the ones who aren’t getting it, you know? And that’s always a problem with education: the people who don’t know think they’re the experts.

Alan: Absolutely. I think this comes up a lot. VR is something you just have to try. Same with AR. You put it on; you have to try it. And once you see it, you get it. You’re like, “oh, this makes perfect sense. I get it now.” And it’s one of those things that, if you don’t put it on your head, you’ll never really know what you’re missing.

Bill: Yeah, yeah. I’m also amazed by, you know… I tell this story. I went to Villanova University, and I asked how many people in that class did VR. Only three of the college students raised their hand. That was on a Friday. Then on Monday, we went to an elementary school, and it was all third graders. I asked them how many did VR; every single one of them raised their hands. And that really shocked me. It really tells me something with older people, that they aren’t willing to try VR, or there’s something going on there. That really opened my eyes to, “wow.” I mean, there’s such a drastic difference. But when the Villanova kids did the VR, they loved it. So it’s almost like they had a kind of negativity towards VR? I think a lot of it has to do with the type of VR content that they tried in the past. They maybe had a bad experience, so they don’t want to try it. What’s great is, the young kids are all doing it. I mean, everybody says, “you guys are doing [VR with] young kids?” I’m like, “well, that’s who’s playing VR.” But they’re gonna get older.

Alan: Yeah, I think so. And it’s it’s like anything. I don’t know about you, but I’m not… no, I am on Snapchat, but very barely. But if you if you miss the Snapchat thing, or you’re a little bit too old, you know, you go on Snapchat, you’re like, “what is this dumb thing? What do you mean, I can’t save my photos? What the heck?” So I think there’s definitely a generation gap. And we’ve noticed when we’re doing Hololens demos, that adults — almost anybody over 40 — has a hard time with the gestures to click — the bloom and all that — almost everybody over 40 has a problem with that. Everybody under 20 that we’ve put it on instantly gets it. Like, within seconds. We put it on, show them the commands, and then that’s it. They’re off to the races. They’re running around doing their thing. One of the challenges that we keep seeing — and I’m seeing it right across the board — is the facilitator controls; being able to control experiences, and know what somebody is in. When somebody is in VR, you can’t really see what they’re doing; being able to have facilitator controls is important as well, so that a teacher could lead a class of 30 students through a pyramid discovery, and know where they are, and kind of speak to that as well.

Bill: That’s 100 percent correct. They need a teacher established… well, I wouldn’t even call it a teacher established. We guide people in our VR center. We don’t let them guide themselves, because of different experiences are different. You need any to guide people right now.

Alan: Agreed.

Bill: I think you always need [a guide], because it’s always going to be different controllers, different ways of doing it. It’s a guide. Definitely.

Alan: Absolutely. What do you see as the future for virtual, augmented, and mixed reality, as it pertains to business and education? What is the future?

Bill: There’s so much coming at me lately, with all the new headsets! Huh, wow… definitely, interactive VR experiences where everybody wants to be avatars. I mean, if you just look at Fortnite and Apex Legends, everybody wants to be an avatar. Nobody wants to be themselves. Everybody wants to interact. People are craving social experiences, even though they don’t want to admit it. Everybody’s so connected nowadays. It’s like children want to be social, but they don’t want to be social. I mean, if that makes any sense.

Alan: Actually, I have a perfect example of that. My daughter, we went to the mall and we’re walking — she’s 14, so she’s a teenager — and she’s said, “all my friends are at the mall.” So, do you see them? She goes, “no, no, no. I see they’re on Snapchat. I can see they’re at the mall.” Oh, OK, cool. Whatever. Then she saw her friends from across the room and she’s like, “oh, there’s my friends!” I said, “well, go over and say hi.” “No, no, no, no, no. Oh, I can’t do that.” [Snicker] They’re your friends on Snapchat; you’re standing in a shared space in the real world; and you don’t want to go over and say hi? What?

Bill: She would’ve with an avatar. An avatar would interact with them. It’s funny, the girls like to be boys; the boys like to be girl avatars. I could take another story. We used a lot of trampoline instalments when we first opened, because those trampoline parks are very, very popular. One of the things they discovered is almost half the people don’t jump on the trampolines when they pay to get in. They go there, they stand in line. And what the girls, she’ll stand behind a boy she thinks is cute. But when it’s time for her to get on the dodgeball court, she’ll bail out. It’s all about the wait in line. About queueing the people up; it’s kind of like why we go to bars. The popular bars have discovered that the whole social scene. It’s why we go to restaurants; we go to look at other people at restaurants — we all can eat at home! My wife is a very good cook. We’re human beings. We’re tribal and we crave social experiences. We just don’t want to admit to it. VR really helps with that, and so does AR.

Alan: I think the social aspects of it… there’s all sorts of really great social experiences coming out. You’ve got VRChat, Altbase, Facebook Spaces, High Fidelity, Sensar. There’s a number of these experiences coming out, where not only can you choose your avatar and what your representation is to the world, but you can also choose the world you are going to communicate in. You can make these virtual worlds. I think it’s just gonna be spectacular. It’s very Ready Player One.

Bill: Yeah. Yeah, are you really talking to another person? Or is it AI you’re talking to?

Alan: That’s a whole next question, for sure.

Bill: Or a deep thing, like who you really fall in love with. It could be an AI character.

Alan: I think that’s going to be a real thing, man; AI-driven avatars are gonna be a thing. And we’re getting close to photorealistic avatars, as well.

Bill: Yeah, yeah. But definitely, people are interested in VR. It’s happening. I mean, you just go to a Centertec on a Saturday/Sunday; we’re packed. Schools are coming in during the week; camps are coming in; autism groups are coming in; people for medical reasons coming in. I think that’s why LBVR and LBE is so successful in VR right now. They don’t want to do it at home. They want to go out and do it. It’s like the movies. People go to the movies, and they watch TV at home. So I think there’s a place for both. I think an LBE, it’s definitely in the social experience, and the educational experience, and at home would just be more like watching TV. Maybe 360 videos. But definitely, interactive is an LBE.

Alan: Well, is there any other closing remarks before we wrap this awesome episode of the XR for Business Podcast?

Bill: Nah. VR and AR has a great future. I believe they can combine with esports. I mean, actually, I believe education, VR, AR, and esports are all going to clash and come one. And it’s happening.

Alan: I agree. I think people crave challenge; and VR, it can open worlds of challenges that we never even thought of. And I’m really excited. The headsets are getting better. They’re actually becoming untethered. There’s so many technological advancements coming at us faster than we can read about them. There’s haptic gloves. There’s haptic suits. There’s the suits that give you cold and hot. There’s scent machines; we’re really trying to hijack all of the senses. And I think it’s an exciting time to be in this industry.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of business? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRforBusiness and connect with Alan on LinkedIn.

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