People try out different VR experiences Credit: Lobaki, Inc.

CLARKSDALE –  A father and son duo is training high school students to create their own virtual reality experiences that may produce jobs for the students and their peers in this area.

Vince Jordan and his son, Josiah Jordan, founders of Lobaki Inc., a company that creates and sells VR applications in the marketplace, teamed up with five students during Juke Joint Festival –  half blues festival, half small town fair –  in April to offer them a job becoming VR curators. They guided more than 175 people through VR experiences during the event.

But, in order to get students to participate, they needed to get paid, said Vince. The five students made $900 and split it evenly.

“You can offer them the most elaborate amazing program that other people would pay $10,000 to $20,000 for and offer it to them for free but they can’t come because they’re expecting to get paid,” he said. “So we actually had to raise funds to pay them to be able to take advantage of this program.”

In a partnership with Indigo, a nonprofit that helps to empower high school and college students in impoverished communities through personality assessments, those same students attended the VR Academy in which they created their own experience, Fall Fear Fly Redemption, taking an outer space bow and arrow game to the next level.

Students received $165 a week for attending the academy.

“They created a very challenging game,” said Taylor Mitchell, Clarksdale resident and reporter/editor for the Press Register.

“There’s other bow and arrow games (at the center) I’m pretty decent at, so I may have been a little too cocky going in there thinking I was going to dominate it.”

Mitchell also said the game was very impressive.

At the beginning of the game, you start on a cliff looking out into the water, he described. Before looking around he knew he had to jump, but his mind couldn’t handle what was next to come.

“I stepped forward and jumped off (the cliff) … when you hit the water, you expect a splash or your body speed to slow down or stop, and it didn’t do that. It keep going all the way to the bottom,” he said. “That freaked me out.”

Deuntay Williams at the Crossroad Cultural Arts Center, the new home of the VR Academy Credit: Aallyah Wright

Deuntay Williams, 10th grader at Clarksdale High School and one of the creators of the game noted that he built the ending scene of the game –  shooting asteroids with a bow and arrow in outer space.

He went on to say that it was a collaborative effort between the other students and the teachers.

Seeing his name on the credits was the highlight for Williams.

“I can say I’ve made a game when other people play it. It felt good. I felt famous,” he said. “I always wanted to do this type of stuff when I was little. This is what I want to do. I hope I go a long way with it.”

Now, the VR Academy, opens as a new after school program that is being made available for high school students in Coahoma County to learn more about this technology to create their own products and become entrepreneurs.

The VR Academy is set to open Monday with three instructors and at least 12 students, said Vince, but with extra funding, 12 more students can be added to the class. Students receive minimum wage pay for whatever hours they accumulate.

Students will meet after school for 12 weeks, five days a week, and between three to four hours a day.

According to Vince, the first nine weeks is about introducing and training participants in VR. The last few weeks are spent building a new game to publish. Students will also get paid for participating thanks to a city grant the company received.

Vince said that their company is currently working with local people who are interested in teaching VR classes. Their goal is to grow an industry here by building the economy. Working with regional businesses, healthcare facilities, and others to incorporate VR into their jobs while students teach it can do that, said Vince.

“A company can be created around them,” he said. “If they’re successful and grow, they will employ more of their peers with their own companies. That’ll attract more companies to this place.”

Josiah noted that it’s not just about economic development, but it’s about empowering students and creating voices that aren’t white males.

“You’ve got a lot of game studios out there heavily – honestly – white male dominated in terms of the actual voice created in the games and there’s a lot of indie studios that are different, but it’s still – to actually give someone the tools to say you can build this yourself,” he said.

Vince echoed that, saying learning history in this environment is amazing. He gave a few examples of experiences people have gone through to learn more about different subjects and feel empathy for others.

There are more than 300 experiences to choose from, he said.

For instance, there is a 30 minute experience where an individual is sitting in Buzz Aldrin’s seat in the Apollo 11 mission next to Neal Armstrong and Michael Collins.

There’s another example where someone can experience being a blood vessel going through the blood stream and learning how it works.

Another example he gave is a two minute experience where someone can experience being an autistic person.

“Its an empathy machine, teaching machine, I just want to be transported to Mars machine … It’s really powerful,” said Vince.

Speaking of power, the VR experience had a spiritual impact on Tarra Slack, Cultural Arts Enrichment Coordinator for Coahoma County Youth Outreach.

During that experience, Slack said she had to jump off a building, but when she jumped, she literally fell, but Josiah helped her up.

“It made me kind of think of living in this reality and how we are just basically visitors here on this plane and how there is somebody to catch us when we fall, stumble … (in reality),” she said. “It kind of gave me the parallel of our spiritual presence on this plane and kind of being a visitor in virtual reality world.”

She said because of falling, she would now try out skydiving in real life.

“It was exhilarating and made me notice I can do sky diving. I’ve always had a desire to do that. I think I’d do it now since I’ve tried the VR experience,” she said.

Initially, Slack wasn’t all in for the experience.

“When I put the headset on, it felt very heavy, and I thought who would ever do this. Who would ever want to walk around with a headset on?” she asked.

“Before long, I actually got engaged in the experience and sort of, didn’t even compute the fact that I had a headset on. It became very real after a while.”

VR is going to permeate into other subindustries, said Josiah.

“It’s not just about game design. It’s about education, healthcare, training doctors in VR, training engineers in VR. You actually encode the information spatially in your body and learn much more strongly through VR,” said Josiah.

“Everyone who’s interested in this technology, we want them to be able to come here, experience, talk with us about how would you apply in what I do because there’s very few places in the country where you can do this much alone in the Delta,” said Vince.

“More instructors, more students, more industry … That’s what we’re doing.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.