Beaverton-based display maker Planar Systems may not be the first local company to spring to mind when thinking about virtual or augmented reality, but the 33-year-old company is in fact working this emerging market into its business.
The company made a major move in this direction last week when it acquired Corvallis-based NaturalPoint for $125 million in cash. NaturalPoint, which has 60 employees, makes optical tracking and motion control technology, both of which are needed for an immersive VR experience.
“People might not associate (VR) with us,” said Planar chief marketing officerJennifer Davis. “We have been quietly working in the VR and AR space in our visualization technology and displays.”
When you talk about VR or AR, what usually comes to mind is the growing market of headsets and content for that hardware. Virtual reality products — think the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets — fully cover the user’s line of sight and allow the user to experience a completely computer-generated environment. Augmented reality glasses, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, meanwhile, overlay computer-generated information onto a real world view.
However, Planar has been building out virtual reality within physical space with video walls and 3-D visualizations, Davis said. Uses for these high-end setups have included architectural design walk-throughs and big data visualizations or simulations for commercial and military use.
“We partnered with a university lab to co-develop something called the CAVE2," Davis said. "It uses the LCD video wall technology and 3-D glasses, and it’s a full 360-degree display and the data or whatever you try to visualize comes to life and you can interact with it.”
Within the augmented reality market, Davis pointed to Planar’s transparent display technology. Without glasses, people can see information overlaid on a display case pertaining to whatever merchandise is inside.
“We have been in the display space exploring the edges of what can be done in AR and VR, not in the head-mounted world but in the physical world,” she said.
In NaturalPoint, Planar picks up technology that is used to track movement through space. “We see exciting possibilities and a lot more conversations about how to work together,” Davis said, adding that the two companies have some customer overlap already.
Planar is now owned by China-based Leyard Optoelectronic Co., which bought the Beaverton company last year for $157 million.
The emerging VR and AR market is taking root in Portland with several startups, game studios and digital design groups creating projects and content. Severallocal educational institutions are also evaluating how to both use this technology in education but also to train students.
Planar has already teamed up with another Portland company that is working in the augmented reality space. Earlier this year, the company unveiled PlanarView, an app developed along with startup SpaceView to help customers see what a Planar system would look like in a physical space.