Liz Nolte, virtual reality runner

Students from the EON Innovation Academy at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges photograph Liz Nolte of Davenport as she and a friend prepare to run the Bix at Six training run in Davenport. Some of the video shot by the students will appear in a special virtual reality project that centers on Nolte's Bix experience.

Andy Abeyta, QUAD-CITY TIMES

For the record, this also is new to us.

That's not a set up for lower expectations. It's just that plenty of us in news don't have technical brains, but we're getting our geek on for future's sake.

Let me explain: Early this year, our executive editor, Autumn Phillips, got wind of a partnership between Eastern Iowa Community Colleges and a California-based company called EON Reality. Dubbed the Innovation Academy, the digital-tech experts at EON came to Davenport to teach college students how to develop content and tools for the up-and-coming world of virtual reality and augmented reality.

Phillips contacted EICC Chancellor Don Doucette to see if there was room in the partnership for us.

"I've been interested in VR (virtual reality) for a long time," she said. "I wondered how to use this local partnership as a learning experience for the newsroom.

"Don enthusiastically made things happen. Lee Enterprises put up the R&D money we needed for the partnership."

Phillips then asked for newsroom volunteers — people who wanted to learn something about virtual reality. Why not?

I had one experience with virtual reality, and I loved it. About a year ago, the Baseball Hall of Fame ("We Are Baseball") trailers showed up in the parking lot at Modern Woodmen Park, and I went down and plopped into a swivel chair and strapped the virtual-reality gear to my head. It was a cool experience, even for someone who can take or leave baseball.

The virtual technology put you right there — in the dugout, on the field, behind the plate.

The only downer was the turning in my seat, combined with the subtly unstable camera shots, made me feel woozy. I since have learned that 360-degree viewing makes many people nauseous.

But technology has come a long way.

"If you look at the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 7S, you can see there is much better stability," said Aubrey Jimenez, training coordinator at the Innovation Academy. "Smartphone makers are infinitely aware of what's coming for this technology."

So, what's in it for Quad-City Times readers?

In March, at the first meeting of our little volunteer group -- publisher Deb Anselm, photographer Andy Abeyta, assistant city editor Liz Boardman, Phillips and myself -- we came up with a plan. We asked ourselves: What story could we tell that would best benefit from this 360-degree technology that virtually brings you all along with us?

My mind instantly went to the starting line of the Bix. In the moments leading up to the firing of the starter pistol, the air on Brady Street feels like the air during a lightning storm. As thousands of voices turn into a white-noise hum, goosebumps pop onto your skin in fleshy anticipation. 

We decided the Quad-City Times Bix 7 would be the perfect launching pad for our first virtual-reality project. But we wanted to do more than shoot immersive images; we wanted to tell a story. So, we agreed we would find a runner and tell the runner's story.

Enter Liz Nolte.

A standout sprinter at Sherrard High School, Nolte went to Western Illinois University on a track scholarship. Now 31, Nolte is married and the mother of two young girls, working full-time. She started training months ago to run the entirety of the Bix for the first time.

She regards running a treat — a way to do something for herself. For those of us who regard running as something to do in an emergency, Nolte's drive is impressive, especially since distance isn't her thing.

The Innovation Academy students followed Nolte on her last Bix at 6 training run.

"We're going to be violating your personal space," Jimenez warned as several students aimed their cell phones and a video camera at Nolte. "We need some close shots."

On Bix 7 race day, we'll have VR professionals from EON Reality Sports filming the event. Nolte will remain in the spotlight from the starting line to the finish line of the Bix, and the thousands of runners and Bix spectators will serve as extras in the 360-degree virtual story that follows.

Our efforts will culminate in a virtual-reality app, called QCT VR. Once the VR experience is ready, we'll provide a link in the weeks following Bix, so everyone can download the free app and follow Nolte's story while reliving the 2017 race. All you need is a smartphone and a set of Google Cardboard glasses. If you want to make sure you don't miss it, sign up for our Bix 7 e-newsletter at qctimes.com/email/ We'll send a link to your email. 

If you want to learn more about virtual reality or this project, stop by the Quad-City Times booth at the Bix 7 packet pickup on Thursday evening from 5-9 p.m. or Friday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at RiverCenter South Hall at 136 East Third Street, Davenport. Or visit the Quad-City Times tent in the newspaper parking lot during the race after-party on Saturday. 

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