When most people think of up-and-coming Lexington industries, they may not think about video game development. That would be a mistake.
Take, for example, the company RalphVR, which was started earlier this year by Richard Hoagland and Shea Rembold.
The two young men recently won a $100,000 second prize in a national game-development competition sponsored by Oculus VR, which makes virtual reality headsets in conjunction with the South Korean electronics giant Samsung.
That funding allowed Hoagland and Rembold to finish their entry, a virtual reality game called Daydream Blue, which has sold more than 650 downloads at $9.95 each since it was launched in late September.
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They are expecting another wave of sales for the holidays after releasing a multi-player version last week. That makes Daydream Blue one of the few virtual reality games on the market where friends anywhere can play the same game at the same time and feel like they’re together.
Hoagland is in San Francisco on Monday for an industry press event featuring his and nine other companies. And he recently returned from a trip to China, where RalphVR won in another competition. While there, he made contacts with Chinese companies he is now talking with about future game-development opportunities.
Before going to China, Hoagland spent three months in San Mateo, Calif., as one of two dozen startups chosen for Boost VC, a respected technology business incubator program run by venture capitalists.
“It's been a very crazy five or six months, kind of a whirlwind,” Hoagland said.
But their sudden success has been several years in the making.
Hoagland, 32, is a Lafayette High School graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Kentucky. He took classes with UK assistant professor Dmitry Strakovsky, who combines art with computer technology.
Rembold, 27, is a California native who graduated with a computer science degree from Eastern Kentucky University, which now offers the state’s first bachelor’s degree in game design.
Both previously worked with Super Soul, one of several game development companies based in Lexington. Others include Gun Media and Frogdice. Hoagland is on the board of RunJumpDev, a non-profit organization that fosters networking, learning and cooperation among Lexington game developers.
Hoagland did the graphic art for Daydream Blue, and Rembold did the computer coding. They both brainstormed ideas for the game, which was inspired by Hoagland’s experiences camping and exploring Kentucky forests as a child.
The game is set on a lake amid mountains. Players can do things such as fish, skip stones and play golf — but the virtual reality versions of those activities are nothing like in real life.
“We just sit around and think about what would be interesting, what would we like to do,” he said. “With virtual reality, you can make it happen.”
Hoagland and Rembold are excited about being entrepreneurs in the early stage of virtual reality technology, which they believe will have big implications for gaming — and much more.
“There’s a lot of money and frenzy being put into VR today,” Hoagland said. “We really believe that it’s a new medium in the same way television was, or radio was. In VR, you actually feel you are in another place to an extent that I’ve never experienced before. That allows you to make new experiences for people.”
For example, one of their friends has a company, Unimervis, which is developing virtual reality applications for the education market. One of its products gives a virtual reality tour of a reconstructed Roman Colosseum, which makes students feel as if they are there in its heyday around 80 AD.
Hoagland said the game development scene in Lexington seems to be taking off for several reasons. Among them is the community being created by RunJumpDev and the support provided by the Bluegrass Angels and other local investors and Warren Nash, who runs the Lexington office of the Kentucky Innovation Network.
“Lexington really does have a growing independent game community,” said Nash, whose organization works to foster skills among game developers to help them start their own businesses and make them successful. “Our local investors are seeing the value in these companies.”
Nash said there is a lot of game-development talent in Lexington, and the more the industry grows here the more critical mass it will create for continued success.
“I think you’re going to see a lot more of this growth,” he said. “It creates jobs for Kentucky, and these are really decent-paying jobs.”