Internet of Business unpicks the future in business for virtual, augmented and mixed reality – or VR, AR and MR – with Aurelien Simon, new head of immersive at UK government-backed incubator Digital Catapult.
What is your background in virtual and augmented reality?
Most recently I was head of VR at UNIT9, a multidisciplinary production company, leading on the creation of over 60 immersive productions during my two-year tenure. I’ve also previously held roles at FGreat Studio and OpusEntertainment, amongst others. I’ve worked on partnerships and productions for organisations like Google, Microsoft, Samsung and Facebook, as well as smaller companies at various stages of development.
One production I recently worked on – ‘Bedtime VR Stories’ – was an Innovation Award finalist at SXSW. Research has shown that a third of parents aren’t able to be with their kids during bedtime. With VR, we created an environment where families could wear headsets and see each other remotely, allowing parents to read kids a bedtime story. Projects like this show the reach of immersive technologies beyond just the entertainment industry.
Having joined Digital Catapult in March, I’ve overseen the launch of our Augmentor program, which is helping early-stage tech businesses develop applications of immersive technologies, and the launch of the Immersive Lab, which is a space to demonstrate, innovate, test and experience the latest immersive technology and content.
Which immersive technologies do you see the greatest demand for? Is mixed reality a popular middle offering?
Analysts and economists tend to break this technology down into segments: AR, VR, MR. But the reality is that content creators – the creative minds producing these experiences – see them all in the same sphere. The concept of VR or AR will all merge into one banner: ‘immersive technologies’. The overarching potential for the technology encompasses aspects of all these variants. You can see this already in the way certain tech companies are approaching the sector. Facebook and Microsoft, for example, have offerings for both VR and AR, as they see the disruptive potential for both.
At Digital Catapult we’re recognizing this, with our Immersive Lab catering for the growing immersive community within the UK – from companies specializing in AR, VR or MR.
So how do you think immersive technology will disrupt business and the wider economy?
Immersive technologies have the potential to disrupt various business sectors. VR or AR can really help with product development, for example. The technology can improve production pipelines and ultimately enable better products to be made, with designers able to see the end result on a 1:1 scale.
Collaboration is another benefit offered by the technology. VR can be seen as a lonely experience, as you’re putting on a headset that cuts you off from the world around you. However, it’s also a great tool to actually interact with teams, no matter where they might be around the world. You’re linked together within a virtual environment, allowing products and designs to be worked on simultaneously with live feedback, which will again speed up production pipelines.
And how does immersive technology fit into Digital Catapult’s future strategy?
Immersive technology is one of the areas that Digital Catapult recognizes has the potential to boost the UK economy. The UK has a rich background in film and entertainment – we’re a nation of storytellers. We’re historically one of the best nations in the world for content creators to work, with a deep pool of intellectual property already managed here. VR and immersive technologies require a high level of understanding of VFX, whether that’s in film or gaming, which are already core aspects of the UK economy.
We’re going to build on this and lead the UK into new areas where immersive technology can have an incredible impact; from the creative industries to digital manufacturing and digital health and care. One way we see this happening is by involving academic research in the sector, developing the capabilities of the technology and new forms of content.
Which business sectors in particular will be affected?
Most people understand the potential for immersive technology within the creative industries. Passive entertainment like games or films can be turned into something far more engaging, as people are placed within the content.
But its potential is far more wide-reaching than just that. Digital manufacturing is set to be transformed, with the ability to vastly improve the speed of product development. Designs can be developed as virtual prototypes, allowing for advanced modelling and simulation, all of which can be interacted with in real-time. Through the use of VR or AR, projects can be visualized before anything needs to be physically produced.
There is also a huge opportunity in healthcare. For example, immersive technologies offer a new approach to therapy. One of our Augmentor cohort, VRTU, is doing some amazing work for dementia sufferers. VRTU creates environments from people’s childhood, so that when a patient puts a headset on, they are offered a form of reminiscence therapy. They’re presented with something they know, and which already has an emotional connection for them. The engagement we’re seeing with this kind of immersive technology is far beyond anything seen so far. Currently, VR tools like these are in the early testing phase, within care homes for example, but clinical trials are underway in the UK and the rest of the world. I expect that these trials will help prove the benefits of this technology as a therapeutic tool.
How will Digital Catapult work with companies to advance the use of this tech?
We’ve just launched our Immersive Lab, which is a space available for hire that is equipped with the latest range of augmented and virtual reality hardware. It aims to encourage commercial innovation from the UK’s growing immersive community.
In the UK we have a large talent pool of immersive content producers, but there are often barriers around access to newer, more expensive or rare equipment. The Lab offers access to equipment like this, helping companies to develop experiences for the next generation of platforms.
We’re also running Augmentor, a 10-week program that provides technical and business mentorship to early stage companies operating in the immersive sector. The companies involved in Augmentor have been some of the first to make use of the Immersive Lab.
What projects will you be working on first?
One of my areas of focus is on helping establish standards for immersive technologies. We’re proud to be working with the Khronos Group and wider industry leaders to clearly establish what these standards must be. There’s a slight disconnect at the moment between hardware and software providers. We need to make it easier for immersive content creators to do their work – and having clearly defined standards will help achieve this. This might mean having platforms (like those from Unity or Unreal) that work across a wide spectrum of VR headsets, for example.