Virtual-reality startups strive for real success

On any given day inside the studio office of RazorEdge, a technology consulting firm situated on the second floor of The Agora concert venue, one can experience multiple realities. One day, take your virtual dog to the grocery store; the next, mark up designs for a construction gig (with your hardhat). Or maybe play a game of 3D Angry Birds right on the floor before your feet.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Reynaldo Zabala, RazorEdge’s founder, stood behind his computer station in an orange sweater and a flat cap, surrounded by a series of state-of-the-art virtual-reality (VR) headsets. He said loudly, “Alexa, can I schedule an appointment at the vet, next Friday?”

A nearby LCD screen showed a virtual woman, a brunette in red. If you wanted, you could slap on an HTC VIVE and stand, virtually, right next to her. 

“OK, Reynaldo,” the woman replied. “Would you like me to send a text confirmation to your phone?”

“Yes,” said Zabala. His 22-year-old assistant Ocean Young, a graduate from the Cleveland Institute of Art with hair dyed pink, monitored the demo carefully.

“Confirmed,” sais Alexa.

Zabala looked up, pleased. “Can you imagine the possibilities?” he asked.

After 20 years in the extended-reality (XR) business — encompassing both virtual and augmented reality (AR) — as head of RazorEdge and CLEVR, Cleveland’s VR community, Zabala has made a name for himself as an encyclopedic nucleus for all things virtual in Northeast Ohio.

After debuting VR’s latest and greatest at the Cleveland International Film Festival in 2017, Zabala went on to guide and mentor a number of VR-orientated startups in the Cleveland area. Those now occupy a good percentage of what he’s dubbed the XR Belt, an 18-city chain of VR innovators popping up around the Midwest, from gaming gurus to techies buddying up with the Cleveland Clinic. That belt, Zabala said, is centered right here.

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With anywhere from a dozen to two-dozen VR companies comprising the Cleveland portion of the belt, Zabala estimated, the technical friend-to-all said he’s sure the scene here can someday grow to rival what Vancouver already is in the VR world.



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