Inside the Bristol VR lab

June 2018

Woman wearing VR headset

Justin 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, based in the heart of the South West of England.

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 and augmented reality and all these immersive fields.

It came about largely because Bristol has always been an experimental kind of place, with technology and creativity, and it hosts a number of companies who are moving into or experimenting with VR in the region, whether they come from an entertainment or technology background. There’s a lot of film companies here, and games developers and technology developers, and it made sense to put it all together.

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, which has been very successful. So we brought together people like 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.’

It took a bit of talking, but the universities ultimately believed it to be the right idea so we began planning getting the space and that formed the partnership between the universities and, Opposable, and 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 and to be operational by April this year. 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 are hosting residents in the space and will be doing more of that; we’re hosting university researchers, whether they are PhDs working on direct research or working groups, 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. We’re not the people at the middle doing all the work; we simply provide the space and run the events so that people can people can get on the right path.

So you’re facilitators then?
Yes, we’re facilitators for a variety of people and companies.

Where’s your own passion for VR come from?
I’m always interested in the front edge of technology, where it works with people, I guess. 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, which was very successful. 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.

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 just games developers, it was also going to be people working in health, people working 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?
What I’m often asked is whether VR is going to be a big thing or if AR is going to be bigger, but I’m not particularly interested in answering that question, I don’t see it as being particularly relevant. Interfaces are going to move away from screens. However, I think interfaces 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. I don’t think what we see today will be how it will be in ten years’ time, it will be a lot more pervasive. Technology moves on, costs come down for equipment, and that’s where we’re going.

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.

The first ten years of mobile applications were pretty much a non-event, with the likes of Nokia and Blackberry. Email- great, browsing the web - great, but it took a long time for the likes of Apple and Google to bring out iOS and Android and it took four or five years for the number of consumers to get beyond critical mass in order for the developers to take in the right amount of investment to develop things to the right level. Even things like Uber were very late in the day really in terms of mobile, and we’ll see the same thing happening with VR and AR. The turbine will spin and more and more people will get involved slowly. It is quite engaging, but it is a challenge at the moment.

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.

A lot of it is privately financed, however, what we have seen is there has been, a couple of years ago, a huge amount of investment that went into VR companies, but then it reduced considerably because these things go in cycles and when a niche is filled no one wants to continue filling it. But we’re now beginning to see the results of that investment now, and it’s looking pretty positive. We’ve got companies like HTC and Oculus bringing out their next generations of technology which are kind of much more there as far as consumers and businesses are concerned. Certainly the hardware, the software, and the functionality are coming together; hence it’s easier to navigate so it’s not just for geeks to worry about. And also we’ve now got a lot of government support going into it too, the universities, and private enterprises are much more understanding. It is a group conversation and the more people begin talking about it the better it will be.

We also have to remember that this is part of a technology cycle, and while mobile applications, website and other technologies are now where the majority is, many consumer services are largely operated through software, or online or via mobile service, and no one questions this, but investors are bored of that now, those are generally filled categories, and you’ve got to be pretty brave to suggest a new mobile app is going to be the next Facebook or something so there is a general march away from the old and into the new, which VR and AR benefits from. They are often lumped in with artificial intelligence as ways of taking problems away from the human; quite a few of the projects we’re in discussion about are looking at how technology can help visualise and also reduce the effort on the part of the human, so VR, AR and AI often get tied in together.

Where do you see the application of VR in the health arena going?
Well in terms of visualising what is happening in someone’s body, or visualising data sets then there are some benefits to be had there immediately. So, on one level you can get a more detailed picture of what has happened to other people, what has happened to a current patient, which is no bad thing, 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, based on that.

But then there’s also lots of other things such as distance diagnosis and surgeries performed by remote operators or robots, which means that essentially drives the market where the people with the skills can operate over a wider field, geographically, than just their local hospital. That’s already begun with online tools like Skype, but we’re also looking towards a future where a doctor in the UK might be able to perform surgery in Indonesia or Australia or communicate with those people in real time, without leaving their office.

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 is the South West part of the UK quite good at developing VR?
Bristol has hosted a good number of TV companies, engineers, games developers, animators, and VFX people for years. There’s a lot of creative technology skills, from across a lot of different industries, based very close to each other here. Different people are experimenting with VR at the moment; it cuts across many different fields, and also, geographically, they can talk to each other about how to solve problems at places like this and at other venues. And that has driven a lot of projects throughout the South West. And part of that situation has allowed us to run the VR World Congress event here, which has placed Bristol firmly on the global map. Now, with this space, we’re looking pretty strong internationally. We are working with people in Europe who are running start-up incubator spaces and other investment groups who are interested in working more with Bristol, which is largely because of the Labs and the Congress, and because of the number of people already working in this field who are based around here.

Plus, Bristol is a nice place to live at the moment - it’s on a rising tide of people moving out of London and coming to Bristol, which is both good and bad for the current residents. It is becoming known as a creative technology place, which perpetuates the continuing spiral of more people arriving to work in this space. There seems to be some kind of ‘gravity-well’ in Bristol that’s pulling more and more tech companies in from other areas, so Bristol’s a good place to be at the moment.

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. So we’re building a game that we’ll be trialling later this year which allows multiple people to play together in VR across a wide space with lots of different scenarios. The technology behind that will be useable in other ways, 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?
While we’re called the Bristol VR Lab, that’s just for simplicity. We’re encouraging AR projects here too. We run rotating talks on VR, AR, surround / 360, and enterprise / cloud topics. So AR is about a quarter of what we’re thinking about. I think games technology, and films and animation tools laid the foundations for VR. 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; they do different things.

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 and 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. Last year Ben Trewhella was awarded the Individual Contribution to Technology Sparky. Previous to his current roles, Ben was co-founder and CTO of Mubaloo, a large mobile app development agency based in Bristol.
 

Image: getty/max-kegfire