Leonard Olson is the epitome of a perfect woodcrafter. He has a beard like Santa Claus and eyes that sparkle, despite the oxygen tube attached to his nose (he has been in and out of the hospital for a couple of months). Wooden parts and kaleidoscope beads are strewn throughout his kaleidoscope factory in Pocahontas, Iowa. There’s also lots of sawdust, mirror pieces, and bric-a-brac —items customary to any kaleidoscope maker. And then, in the middle of the room, there’s a large virtual reality set-up.
“You want to try some VR?” Olson asks with a sly smile to the next victim that walks into his shop. The customer quickly shakes their head, looking at the VR headset with a mixture of awe and fear.
Leonard is the best—and only—kaleidoscope maker in Pocahontas, Iowa. After a heart attack at 44 years old, he decided he needed a hobby and ordered a kit to create beautiful, wooden kaleidoscopes. He made his first kaleidoscope in 1999 and sold it at an auction for $110.
“So it was actually pure greed that drove me into business,” Olson says with a laugh. “No. I discovered people would pay decent money for my kaleidoscopes. And I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grow up.”
But then Leonard got another hobby. A former computer programmer and software developer, Olson has always been on the cutting edge of trying new technologies. And after a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and heart failure a couple years ago, Olson stumbled upon Tilt Brush, a 3D virtual reality painting application.
“I used to exercise a lot, and I was losing muscle and losing strength and needed to keep exercising,” Olson says. “In the process of looking for something I just tripped over Tilt Brush. I played the video and was like, I got to have that, ’cause it looked like Tai Chi – you know, waving your hands around – and it looked like fun too.”
Using Tilt Brush, Olson constructs beautiful creations that mimic the inside of a kaleidoscope. The vibrant colors, geometrical shapes, and infinite design patterns immerse viewers in a purely aesthetic experience, transporting them to a world of color and shapes. Unlike a kaleidoscope, the VR application focuses on asymmetrical designs that can be viewed from any angle. And in this virtual space, users have the freedom to explore and engage with their artwork, something that is not possible within the limits of a kaleidoscope.
But VR is more than a tool for Olson. It’s also an escape. His favorite virtual reality app is Google Earth VR, which allows him to take virtual vacations without leaving the comfort of his chair.
“My old friend with brain cancer was in here, and he had the best line,” Olson says . “He said, ‘Ya know when we can’t travel anymore, we need a mind vacation to be able to get away.’”
These “mind vacations” are what help him get through the day. Especially when his illness and advanced age prohibit him from enjoying life the way he used to.
“On Thanksgiving, I went everywhere I’ve ever been drunk in my entire life. Well, not everywhere, but a lot of places,” Olson says with a smile. “I also watched the Macy’s Parade from five locations in downtown New York City. Looking around, it was like I was there, except I was warm. You can’t beat that.”
Olson knows that most of the older people in his small town are scared of VR and won’t try it. But that doesn’t stop him from encouraging them every time they walk into his shop. And even if the old people don’t want to put the headset on, Olson still enjoys exposing kids to VR and watching them play and laugh in his shop.
“You hear so much about the younger generation eating together all on their phones,” Olson says. “This is not how VR works. They’re just sitting there interacting, having fun, and talking. What a joy that is just right there.”