Inside the Bristol VR lab

June 2018

Woman wearing VR headsetJustin Richards MBCS talks to Ben Trewhella, the CEO of Opposable Group and co-founder of Bristol Games Hub, about his latest project, the Bristol VR Lab.

How did Bristol VR Lab come about?
Essentially Bristol VR Lab is a partnership between the University of Bristol, the University of the West of England, Watershed, and Opposable, each of which are interested in the future research and commercialisation of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and all these immersive fields.

We, as Opposable, had set up VR World Congress, which highlighted many of the activities in VR in the region and helped put Bristol on the map for immersive technology; we were also involved in the Bristol Games Hub, which is a community space for games developers in the South West.

So we brought together the Bristol universities, Watershed, the BBC, Bath Spa University, Sony and other local technology organisations in early 2016 and said: ‘VR is going to be a big thing, it’s going to cross lots of different industries, so it would be great to create a space for people to get together to work on this stuff.’

As of September last year, we moved in to the Leadworks in order to put it all together.  We’re currently in the process of setting it up. We’ve already attracted a number of residents and members, and we’ve still got a bit of set-up to do first before we’re ready to properly launch.

So how many people are involved at the moment?
We’re a fairly small team with regards to the management of the space; we’re hosting university researchers, and we’ve been hosting a lot of workshops that bring together researchers as well as companies who are either small or start-ups, breaking into business via VR, AR or new technologies, or even large companies who are maybe architectural firms or engineers who work in health, exploring VR in small teams, as part of those larger companies. Essentially we’re an infrastructure to allow people to come together and talk and work on issues.

Where does your own passion for VR come from?
I’m always interested in the front edge of technology, and where it works with people. I was trained as a computer scientist at Bristol University, and after a bit of time working in corporations and consultancies I set up a mobile Apps agency with local investor and entrepreneur Mark Mason, called Mubaloo.

I found apps really engaging, but then moved on to games because I saw a great deal of growth in the gaming categories of the app stores.

So I put a team together as Opposable Games, and then, as virtual reality came out, I immediately recognised that this was a technology, even four or five years ago, that people were really going to pick up on.

It wasn’t just going to be games developers, it was also going to be people working in health, in training, in brands, businesses, and in enterprises; this was clearly going to be an ecosystem of how the next generation could work with computers.

And, whether that’s VR or AR or a mixture of variants on them, I’m not so worried about, but clearly people will be using more natural visual-based interfaces than computer screens and mobile screens in the next ten years. And that’s where I am now, to learn how that works.

What direction do you see virtual reality heading in over the coming years?
Interfaces are going to move away from screens, and are going to get more sophisticated. People move in three dimensions, so if information can be displayed over the real world you can immerse people in environments that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to be in. Those are engaging and useful things to happen. In ten years’ time, it will be a lot more pervasive.

What are the main challenges that VR is facing at the moment?
Because it’s a new technology, consumers have not picked up on it in vast numbers, mainly because they can’t yet see a killer application for it, that’s been made relevant to them yet. The reason for that is that there hasn’t been enough time or investment for people to grapple with and get used to the technology. And the investment part comes full circle because consumers are not there. Time will change this.

It is expensive to develop a high quality VR or AR product. You’re up against technology barriers. Consumer expectations are very high. There are more people involved with more varied skills than are needed for, say, a mobile application or website development; it’s expensive stuff to create - there are millions of developers churning out lots of experimental stuff; the undertaking of a AR or VR project needs more planning, resources and financing. 

But we’re now beginning to see the results of that investment, and it’s looking pretty positive. We’ve got companies like HTC and Oculus bringing out their next generations of technology. We’ve now got a lot of government support going into it too; the universities, and private enterprises are much more understanding.

Where do you see the application of VR in the health arena going?
Visualising what is happening in someone’s body, or visualising data sets; these are some benefits to be had immediately. On one level you can get a more detailed picture of what has happened to a patient, and the other thing is you can display to an untrained person what is happening to their body to a greater degree, far more simply, using 360 degree or 3D technology, and change behaviours or reduce training time.

But there’s also other things such as distance diagnosis and surgeries performed by remote operators or robots, which means that the people with the skills can operate over a wider field, geographically.

The current VR applications seem to be with the games industry though. The reason behind that, I guess, is that games developers live and breathe new technology, with games being about higher graphical power, player AI, and increasing fun levels by upping the tech involved.

Secondly, the tool-sets of the games developers were the most immediately transferable to building VR. So they didn’t have to build 360 cameras, because they’d already been using the technology for years, although with a higher level of computer graphics.

So what are you most excited about both for VR Labs but also for the industry in general?
Well, as Opposable, we are working on a multi-person VR game framework. We’re building a game which allows multiple people to play together in VR across a wide space with lots of different scenarios, and we’re going to explore with the universities how to use that multi-person remote VR in other ways.

I’m also looking forward to the development of new tools that allow more people to work with VR at easier levels so it’s not such a specialist thing to do. It won’t remain like that for long; we will have the WordPress of VR soon. I predict that it will be easier to put it together by any person just following a simple tutorial.

I feel that with new technologies - networking type stuff, that we can control through high performance computing and AI and 5G type activities - we’ll see new architectures which allow many more computers to work together, which will include VR-type experiences. We’ll slowly get to The Matrix (laughs)!

How will augmented reality fit into all of this?
AR does come next, and it does come down to often using the same techniques, skills, people to develop this stuff. So VR is laying the necessary foundations for AR to become a thing, and AR certainly has a wider range of use cases, but I don’t think that AR is ever going to completely supplant the need for VR.

VR seems to be gaining ground currently in training drivers and pilots.
Absolutely! Certainly the US Air Force has been using VR for training purposes for about 15 years. The potential cost-savings there are just enormous. The potential for training in those sorts of applications is huge. Even though simulators are very expensive they’re still cheaper than training pilots in a real fighter jet.

And it’s not just pilots - other staff who also work on the airfield are also costly to train in-situ; you can’t have a plane landing and taking off just to train them! Anywhere there’s a lot of cost and risk VR has got lots of potential to help.

Ben Trewhella manages the Opposable Group including Opposable VR and Opposable Games. He also sits on the advisory or management boards of The Next Gen Skills Academy, Bristol Media, TechSPARK and the Bristol Games Hub. Ben was co-founder and CTO of Mubaloo, a large mobile app development agency based in Bristol.

Image: getty/max-kegfire