Liverpool Tech Companies: Making the Virtual a Reality

Virtual and augmented reality is finally on the verge of becoming a commercial, real-world proposition – and Liverpool companies are creating some of the most exciting uses for it, finds Nick Huber...

It can put you on the summit of Everest, a couple of feet away from the conductor of a symphony in London’s Royal Festival Hall, or even help cure people of their phobias.

Virtual reality is finally on the verge of become a commercial, real-world proposition. Most of the large entertainment and gaming companies plan to launch virtual-reality headsets this year, including Sony, which has said that it will launch PlayStation VR in October for £350; and perhaps the most eagerly awaited of all, the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift (about £425, due for release in July 2016).

Liverpool technology companies, including Starship, Milky Tea, Uniform and Draw and Code, are also well placed to cash in on the technology.

These, and other companies in Liverpool’s growing technology and gaming industry, have been overseas promoting their virtual and augmented reality wares at festivals and conferences in America and Europe, including at GDC, SXSW and MIPIM earlier this month.

Real-world relationships

Starship has developed a mobile app called vTime, which it says is the world’s first “sociable network in virtual reality.”

“The difference between a social network and vTime, is chiefly down to how users interact with each other,” says Clemens Wangerin, Starship’s managing director. “On a social network, interactions are asynchronous meaning they happen one after the other; I post a photograph, you comment, someone else likes your comment, etc.”

In vTime users socialise just like they would in the real world, meaning interactions are synchronous and happen in real-time. They invite or join other participants in sessions, during which the host of the session is in control of destinations as diverse as a river in the North American wilderness, to sitting on the outside a space station looking at the Earth down below.

The app was released in December. Early feedback from customers has been good, Wangerin says. “We’ve already heard of people dating in vTime and using it in long distance relationships; we’ve heard how vTime has helped someone overcome their social anxiety by meeting people in VR and makes people feel less lonely.”

Passport to the metaverse

Will virtual reality be as huge as its backers predict, or will it fail to live up expectations, like, say, 3D TV? A venture capitalist recently told me that the virtual reality is at a similar stage to mobile phones when Blackberries were popular for sending and reading emails. Virtual reality needs a “killer app”, like Angry Birds for smartphones, he said.

Wangerin reckons that mobile, virtual reality technology will grow quickest. “The fact that you can transform your phone into a passport to the metaverse has big implications in how people’s relationship with their device will change during that time,” he says. “It will certainly come to be an extension of you, not just in the real world but the virtual one as well, and a lot of it will be linked to your Avatar, your virtual representation. I can imagine in 10 years we might have a persistent avatar of sorts that we adopt for many of our virtual interactions, similar to our primary email address today.”

Making sense

Some in the technology industry predict that virtual reality will be used for a lot more than games.

Milkytea, which makes video games, animations and illustrations for customers including America’s National Football league (designing 3D characters for advertising), is working on combining virtual reality and the idea of "serious games", or simulated learning.

Some in the tech industry, including John Keefe, co-founder of Draw and Code, reckon that augmented reality – technology which superimposes information and graphics on to the real world – will be more widely used than virtual reality.

The company is working on augmented reality toys and wearable augmentable clothing. Combining virtual and augmented technologies makes sense, experts say, especially when headsets can be shrunk to the size of normal glasses. Imagine, say, a surgeon viewing medical information overlaid on the patient they’re operating on, rather than glancing up at banks of expensive computer monitors.

Merseyside’s gaming industry, which back in the 1980s transformed home computer games with titles such as Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner, is set to make its mark in the virtual reality arena. About 19,000 people are employed in digital and creative businesses in Liverpool, including within gaming, music, digital media and design, according to Invest Liverpool.

GP Bullhound, an investment bank, says the North now has 11 tech companies valued at more than $1bn, more than Sweden and Germany, the Financial Times reported recently.

Liverpool’s tech companies, it seems, are optimistic about the future of this sector and the role they can play in making the virtual a reality.

Nick Huber is a freelance journalist and copywriter

Twitter: @nickahuber

See all three Binary Gatherings on VR – How Will VR Change the Way We Digest Performance, Hardman Street, Liverpool, 10:00 - 12:30, plus An introduction to Virtual Reality (SOLD OUT), Baltic Triangle, Liverpool, 13:30 - 16:00, plus IoT vs VR, Constellations, Liverpool, 13:30 - 16:00 – on 24 May 2016

Binary Festival 2016 Blog: a special media partnership between The Double Negative arts magazine, Creative Tourist culture and travel site and Binary Blog. See the Festival on 24 and 25 May 2016 in Liverpool, UK

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