Google Tilt Brush artwork

Making the virtual a reality

In Liverpool, it feels as though we’ve been talking about Virtual Reality for a long time; it’s capacity, potential and possibility.

Yet, until now, VR has needed, if not a push, then recognition from the public that this truly is a technology that will change our gaming, education, entertainment and social interaction.

Pokemon Go isn’t the first example of a hugely successful AR application, but it’s probably the one with the most headlines. With 2017 widely predicted to be the year VR goes mainstream, It’s Liverpool caught up with key figures in the city’s tech community to talk about why VR’s fanfare is finally being heard.

At REALSPACE, based at Liverpool Science Park, Rob Black says their strategy for VR is simple “our focus is squarely on using VR and AR to make life more delightful. Our speciality lies in enhancing that immersiveness, and making that illusion believable”.

“Liverpool has the potential to become a real hub for immersive technology…”

In Liverpool, the digital and creative community has long been highlighting the importance and significance of VR. Phil Charnock from Draw and Code explains what the city’s specialism is:

“Liverpool has the potential to become a real hub for immersive technology; just look at the existing games studios like Milky Tea, VR startups such as Starship or mixed reality specialists like ourselves at Draw & Code. Throw in the facilities at Daresbury Sci-Tech centre, some brilliant academics working in the field such as David Reid at Hope University and Visuality who are newcomers to the city currently building a dedicated VR and 3D production facility - all the ingredients are here.

“We can confidently deliver just about any VR or AR content as it stands - and this sector is only just getting started. The emergence of a new technology is the perfect time for small independent studios to make their mark before a new status quo is established.”

With the city’s rich diversity of SMEs, exciting young companies are exploring how they can adopt and adapt the newest technology on the market.

Rob Black says this is bringing out some of the best in VR experimentation, “Ozo 360 stereo capture with our new production company Zero Degrees, drone photogrammetry with our research partners, advanced 360 audio, coding/mocap/rigging expertise with our team of freelancers and finally human factors expertise to bind it all seamlessly. The result is a gobsmackingly immersive and extremely high fidelity virtual reality experience.”

So where does it come from?

Draw and Code’s SwapBots

It’s logical, says Phil Charnock, that a city that makes video games has been able to create virtual worlds.

“Sony has left us with an embarrassment of talent in the city. Just about every studio features ex-Sony staff in some form or another. Aside from that, I think we are just an unusually creative and resourceful city.”

Jon Holmes runs Milky Tea, a creative agency who’s taking their popular XBoxOne and PS4 game Coffin Dodgers into VR later this year.

There is, he believes, lots of talent. “It’s the exact same skillset in games in building 3d worlds and experiences. A video games builder will always think about narrative and gameplay”

This, inevitably, helps to build those immersive and engaging environments that so win over consumers.

Pokemon Go gameplay

However, Phil from Draw and Code says there’s a need to tread carefully.

“It only makes sense to commit so heavily to VR if you’re gearing up for an exit or you have money to burn to see your ideas through. VR is so much more engaging than conventional digital delivery, if that’s your metric then it’s the medium for you, but if your business model needs bums-on-seats then VR may not be mass market enough for you yet.”

Don’t forget it’s AR (augmented reality) which has proved to be so popular with Pokemon Go.That doesn’t mean, however,  VR isn’t generating a huge amount of enthusiasm, says Rob Black

“There is clearly greater demand for this technology than previous technology cycles. People experience a moment akin to the Lumiere Brothers train coming into the cinema when they try this stuff for the first time.”

Google Tilt Brush - “The impossible is now possible…”

So what do VR technologists get excited about. For Phil it’s Google’s Tilt Brush “It opens up a whole new way of creating as you paint and sculpt within VR, it’s almost a medium in and of itself.”

For Rob it’s the versatility,

“My favourite thing at the moment is to download 3D models (of which there are millions) from a site, and set up my Vive controllers as torches. Within seconds of thinking of say, Angkor Wat, I can download it, put it into VR and be exploring it. (Including the bits the general public don’t actually get to see.) Virtual tourism is going to be huge, although it may not quite resemble our preconceived notions.”

Liverpool Vision’s Creative and Digital Investment Manager, Cathy Skelly is keen to stress that whilst producing outstanding work in the world of entertainment technology, our city region’s AR/VR strengths are by no means limited to this sector.

“People often think of AR and VR potential in terms of entertainment, but it has applications way beyond that. Liverpool has always pushed boundaries and we’re using this technology in ways that other cities currently aren’t.

“As just one example, through a partnership with the Virtual Engineering Centre; Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, is pioneering a new surgical planning technique using VR tools developed for the automotive sector.

“Using emerging VR technology, the children’s hospital developed a prototype system that will allow surgeons to be better prepared for complex heart surgery, reducing risk and improving the likelihood of successful operation, first time around.

“This is life saving stuff and it doesn’t stop there. VEC is also working with global clients on high tech research and solutions using these technologies in the automotive, aerospace and energy sectors.  Liverpool City Region isn’t just seeing potential, we’re actively developing it and taking it to the next stage.”

The world as we know it is changing, it’s being enhanced and brought to life through new and different realities. It’s good to know that Liverpool, as ever, is on the front-line shaking things up the most.

Published: 12/08/2016