Mobile company uses AR and VR to create virtual worlds for work and training

3rd Realm Creations combines AR, VR and film techniques to take users anywhere they need to be

Nathaniel Nuon (pictured) and business partner Charles Phanthapannha combine their film background with new technology to create a virtual world for work, training or leisure. Photo by Dan Anderson.

Mobile plays host to many notable industries. From Airbus and Austal to downtown eateries and health care providers, you can find Azalea City businesses virtually everywhere. More recently, a tech company focusing on virtual reality and augmented reality wants to take clients virtually everywhere.

Founded in 2009 by Nathaniel Nuon and Charles Phanthapannha, 3rd Realm Creations is a full-service augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) development company located near Mardi Gras Park in downtown Mobile. Nuon and Phanthapannha attended college together at Full Sail University in Florida, majoring in digital media and film. Both worked in the film industry after college and worked on virtual effects before returning to Mobile. Nuon says that’s when it became time for a career pivot.

“We were just kind of stuck,” Nuon says. “It felt like we were working dead-end jobs. We got this opportunity when a friend of ours put us in contact with a company out of Huntsville. This was in the early stages of virtual walk-throughs for the military, so we jumped on that project. Coming from a visual effects background and having learned programming as a hobby, I didn’t think anything of it.”

Their military project lasted close to three years, after which the pair decided to reinvest in film passions before fully committing to virtual reality.

“We started our own little production company just doing small commercials here and there,” Nuon says. “Then in 2009, we got asked to come up with a solution for VR for Abbott Medical. We formed 3rd Realm Creations, and we spent a while on that project developing a cath lab for them.”

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A catheterization laboratory, commonly referred to as a cath lab, is a facility equipped with imaging technology to diagnose and treat cardiovascular issues. 3rd Realm recreated Abbott’s cath lab in the digital space after studying with the company’s doctors and filming them for VR. Abbott still uses 3rd Realm’s simulation internally for training and educational purposes, an area Nuon sees as ripe for growth in his industry.

“We’re always getting requests from these companies to help develop training,” Nuon says. “We’re able to help them cut costs but also put their trainees in the VR space in a position they normally wouldn’t be able to get into. There are some situations you can’t replicate in the real world, but you can in VR in safe manner.”

The company has also been approached about developing lineman training for Alabama Power and police de-escalation simulations. VR isn’t for everyone, Nuon says, but he sees its future as more of a tool than an entertainment vehicle.

“I say that training is going to be a big part of this industry, because these days everyone is constantly distracted by their phones,” Nuon says. “Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter, and I think VR is great in that once you are in that headset, everything else is irrelevant around you. You are immersed and forced to be in that moment.”

Relatively newer technology, VR isn’t fully immersed in the market yet, but insiders see potential for extensive growth. According to a Fortune Business Insights forecast report, the global virtual reality market share in 2021 was valued at $11.64 billion, with a predicted 45.2% annual growth rate to some $227.34 billion by 2029.

While originally founded to pursue VR and AR projects, 3rd Realm has branched out to digital film production as well. Disney’s use of VR technology and LED walls was “inspired,” Nuon says. “I thought to myself ‘Why are we not doing that?’” Nuon says. “Coming from a film background and with all the software we were using to build the VR simulations for Abbott, that really played into what we’re doing now. We partnered with a couple of vendors and the city, and we were able to bring the LED wall to Mobile. We started producing film projects with the LED wall, and that sort of launched 3rd Realm to where it is now. We’re a VR/AR company, but we also have a full-stage virtual production side, too.”

Nick Hampton, property manager of Innovation Portal, tests a 3rd Realm Creations virtual training program. Photo by Dan Anderson.

3rd Realm currently operates two stage spaces at its Mobile facility. Nuon and Phanthapannha’s film background have helped position their company as a major player in the digital film production space, as well as shape how they approach the company’s VR projects.

“I don’t think a lot of people look at it from the perspective of having to direct the user through the headset,” Nuon says. “It does take someone with a storytelling background or a film background that understands composition and how to guide an audience. That was actually something we had over our competitors early on.”

What started out as two friends in a garage with a dream, 3rd Realm has grown to more than 15 employees. Nuon says he has always considered his business more of a research and development (R&D) company, where he and his partner always try to have a hand in anything that might be a good future technology.

What continues to draw him in, he says, is the limitless potential of shared experiences.

“In the Megaverse project, we’re able to put six individuals or a whole family in this 4D theater we have,” Nuon says. “It’s tetherless, so you’re free to roam. I was able to watch a family in the theater recently ranging in age from 8 to around 60. We’re able to transport them together to a space they typically wouldn’t be able to go to.”

Nuon is optimistic about his company’s future. As an R&D-focused company, 3rd Realm is always striving to make breakthroughs and find the next great element in the industry. “We’re actually applying for another patent that we came across as we were developing,” Nuon says. “We realized we were doing something in the VR space that nobody’s actually doing yet.” That meant a trip to the patent lawyers in hopes of aligning themselves at the front of the pack with a new technology.

With multiple contracts freshly signed, this is just the beginning for 3rd Realm. Before going back inside an industry conference, Nuon reflected on his goals for the company and his gratitude for its continued success.

“When we started out, the backbone of 3rd Realm was just me and my business partner, Charles,” Nuon says. “We were given a problem to then go out and find the solution. I consider us more of an R&D company. For us, we’re always trouble shooting and forever growing. Until technology stops and there’s nothing for us to research and develop anymore, I think we’ll keep going. I enjoy solving problems and facing challenges. I get to do what I love here at home, and I’m around my family. Right now, I feel like I already made it.”

Crystal Castle and Dan Anderson are Mobile-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the May 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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