I’ve been fascinated with virtual reality (VR) ever since I was a kid and first strapped into an antique rig at a local arcade back in Wisconsin. This fascination was reignited the first time I tried an HTC Vive and a Playstation VR about four or five years ago. At the time, I saw what was coming: a potentially immersive, disruptive technology that could change everything we knew about experiencing gaming and film. Unfortunately, the industry seems to not be able to find its footing as it stumbles with poor consumer adoption, lack of content, and traditionally high barriers to entry due to the cost to set up your own rig. Enter REM5, a virtual reality business co-founded by Amir Berenjian and Travis Hoium, with its consumer-friendly operation located in St. Louis Park. At its physical location and during non-COVID times, you can sit and enjoy an adult beverage while a VR concierge escorts you through a cultivated experience. There’s never a lack of employees; typically, REM5 staff have a 3:1 ratio of concierges to consumers, helping you have the best experience possible with the technology.
REM5’s entertainment business has a wide variety of rigs in the store, including HTC Vive Pro, Oculus Quest, and many more. Unlike the Void, REM5 takes a more intimate approach to VR, allowing you to have a cultivated, cozy experience in the location in St. Louis Park while drinking a craft beer. During normal operations, it tends to put about 15,000 people annually through experiences. This is just the tip of the iceberg for REM5, as it has numerous other endeavors, including a focus on education and what Berenjian calls “cultural competency,” which uses VR to amplify empathy for corporate employees or people looking to understand others’ lives. This business stratification is currently helping REM5 weather the current pandemic.
This business stratification is rooted in the reason why Berenjian believes his company exists: to change the world for good through virtual reality. Berenjian comes from a background that cultivates entrepreneurship, stemming from his time in the investment banking industry focusing on mergers and acquisitions. In the mid 2010s, he first tried virtual reality and was floored by the potential of the technology and its ability to change the world. His focus is less on the gaming applications of the technology, but more on the effect that the technology can have on society through empathy-building and its ability to democratize experiences that are unattainable for some.
This focus is best demonstrated by REM5’s education business. As soon as the pandemic struck, REM5 quickly updated its homepage and curated quarantine-friendly educational content, trying to connect parents and kids with additional at-home VR/AR content. One of the more prominent services allows students to rent out an Oculus Go and do virtual reality learning every Monday. Additionally, the business is hosting Zoom calls every week through a program called the Youth Innovation Lab, which is free for kids and focuses primarily on educational augmented-reality experiences. Typically REM5 also hosts in-person classes that focuses on STEM learning initiatives such as immersive tech 101 and designing for the future, and caters applications for healthcare, mental health, and building empathy among students. On top of all of these educational experiences, the company recently created a simulated art experience allowing you to walk through a digital art exhibit with an avatar, which is available across VR platforms. Berenjian is hoping to expand this virtual art exhibit capability to soon be used for other applications such as fundraisers, galas, festivals, and other virtual meetups to allow connections to occur outside your average weekly Zoom call.
Like many entertainment companies, REM5 was forced to temporarily shutter its entertainment operations and furlough a significant portion of its staff due to the recent restrictions related to COVID-19. It reopened to the public on June 10 and can now to accept reservations with additional precautions to ensure safe indoor use of their equipment. To those Minnesota geeks who are still hesitant to visit the in-store location, REM5 can continue to help augment some of the at-home learning, or, better yet, take their kids out of Fortnite for a few hours.
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