By Mike Heronemus

Four city commissioners heard Tuesday afternoon an initial proposal to bring virtual reality entertainment and marketing to Abilene.

Jeff Hake spoke on behalf of JNT Company, a software and service firm based in Manhattan. For about 10 years the company has been developing custom software and providing service to business owners and have recently begun to reach out to small communities they feel could benefit from their services.

Abilene has begun a feasibility study to determine whether the city could support another tourist venue or attraction. So far that has been limited to whether or not the community could support a medium sized hotel and conference center operation.

What JNT is proposing would be an entertainment venue — a virtual reality experience, explained City Manager David Dillner, who had met with company representatives in advance of Tuesday’s regularly scheduled study session.

Hake told the commissioners minus Mayor Dee Marshall, who is in Omitama, Japan, for two weeks as part of Abilene’s Sister City delegation visit there, that the company’s first step in that direction had been to develop a virtual reality sleigh ride with Santa Claus as part of Manhattan’s Festival of Lights. That attraction is mounted in a portable trailer and can be moved anywhere it is wanted, Hake said.

Communities can become a “sponsor” and JNT will set up the trailer to provide individuals or groups purchasing tickets the opportunity for a novel virtual experience.

Sponsor levels to use the attraction are set at $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000, with each level of sponsorship offering more use by and monetary return for the sponsor.

Sponsorships could provide for a community’s logo on the trailer, appearance at an event for one to seven days, a 30-second video advertising the community before the virtual reality experience begins and free tickets.

If it wants, a community could come up with its own idea for a virtual reality experience and, for a fee, JNT would develop that experience software, Hake said.

Dillner pointed out the potential economic incentives possible through use of virtual reality, like marketing sites for new business or industry, and for enticing tourists to Abilene.

Casual conversation between Dillner and the commissioners brought out ideas about developing an experience related to the upcoming celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Chisholm Trail. That might not be feasible for this year’s Labor Day event in Abilene, but it might be possible for the 2017 three-state observance, Dillner said.

Other ideas that were floated around the conference table included a gunfight scenario with the participant as one of the gunfighters or as a member of the crowd lining the street watching Wild Bill Hickok shoot it out with desperadoes.

The Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home could also offer ideas for other virtual reality experiences relating to General Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, the assault at Omaha Beach or other possibilities, Dillner said.

The virtual reality experience takes place in a climate-controlled trailer and the videos used can be uploaded to the web so they can be watched and used to promote the actual experience or vitual reality attraction permanently set up.

Vice Mayor Tim Shafer said he liked the idea but asked what the next step would be. Further meetings between the city and JNT would have to take place to decide what direction Abilene might be interested in pursuing, Dillner and Hake said.

Shafer said he thinks more thought and study needs to be done before just agreeing to put up any kind of sponsorship money. “We would need to know where they money would come from and where it’s going,” he said.

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