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29 October 2016

Virtual reality: from game to game-changer

Augmented and virtual reality technologies have a future outside the entertainment industry; Inition chief executive Dr Adrian Leu tells Rohan Banerjee about the possibilities

By Rohan Banerjee

You could be forgiven for thinking that augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) are technologies largely confined to the entertainment sphere. It is within this that there have been the most obvious signs of advances – stereoscopic films, motion-sensing video games, the ability to go deep-sea diving from the comfort of your living room; and admittedly, it all sounds pretty cool.

Cool, though, is an ultimately transient term. As Dr Adrian Leu, the chief executive of Inition, a leading AR and VR production company, puts it: “Cool will only take you so far. People have short attention spans and after the initial novelty has worn off, they’ll be asking what can this new technology do for me? How can it enhance my life? How can it make it better?”

Those questions, Leu explains, form the core tenets of Inition’s broad church. The London-based firm, which is equipped with a 2,000sq ft underground demo studio, specialises in variety. It was founded in 2001 and has since gone on to embark on a range of ground-breaking projects not just in enhancing entertainment but applying AR and VR technologies to such areas as education, art, sport, travel, charity and medicine.

These ventures have included the first 3D broadcast of a rugby match to 40 cinemas around the UK, in partnership with the BBC; a 360-degree VR catwalk show for Topshop, which allowed audience members to watch remotely from the shop floor; a flight simulator for Nissan; virtual showrooms for an assortment of companies wanting to market products too big to transport; and working with the London Philharmonia Orchestra, Inition also turned the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall into a VR access point for people to view and listen to the performance in complete surround sound and vision– a first for that venue. These considerable achievements so far, Leu insists, are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Still, as with any emerging technologies, AR and VR are not without their challenges and beyond the obvious hurdles of cost or complexity Inition is trying to make sure that the pair’s introduction to the mainstream is not simply seen as an indulgence in possibility but rather as a necessity.  “We have to be careful not to fall into this trap of technology for the sake of it,” Leu says, “which is why at Inition we adopt a very consultant approach.  We try to understand what the client wants and discern the scalability of the project.  We ask what they want to achieve. Then we propose a solution that uses the latest technologies.  In any case, the scope of AR and VR doesn’t stop with entertainment; that’s just the start.”

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Leu’s own ambitions are worthy of a Bond villain, even if his altruistic motivations are not.  The son of a surgeon, what interests him in particular is the application of AR and VR in healthcare and medicinal training.  From using interactive holographic diagrams of human organs to haptic and sensory equipment to help understand panic attacks, Leu believes that AR and VR can offer unprecedented insights into the treatment of a host of physical and mental conditions.  “You can use VR for surgical training or to give less experienced doctors a more realistic education.  Previously, we helped make something that is interactive, and recreated a hospital bed with a virtual patient; you can see the influence of the drugs through their body.

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“There is also the opportunity to treat phobias or different forms of anxiety with exposure therapy, with patients being guided through imagined scenarios designed to help them overcome their problems.”

The main advantage of any AR or VR technology, Leu suggests, is in its ability to improve the communication of ideas.  “Not only is it important for technology to have a purpose by design, but we need clients to understand why AR and VR represent the best strategy for them. Why should they use these rather than anything else? What can they do that couldn’t be done or couldn’t be done as well before?”

Empathy, Leu stresses, is at the centre of this communicative drive.  “Often it’s hard for us to describe things. To be able to let someone to see what you see or feel what you feel, that’s where these technologies can bridge a gap.  For example, we’ve worked with a number of NGOs and charities in trying to improve this.  Nowadays, whether for better or for worse, we seem to be quite a bit immunised to the two-dimensional news reports and data we’re getting on TV. Putting someone in the thick of it, in that situation themselves, that will help them to fully understand what other people are going through.”

Of course, a difficulty in describing something is not limited to our emotions. Sometimes, seeing is believing and what Leu calls “virtual showcasing” is paving the way for space or time efficiency in various industries.  “If you are in the property industry,” he offers, “you might allow clients to see 50 houses in VR.  They probably won’t make a decision from the headset, but they might filter 20 from the 50, so it will impact the bottom line. 

“I can also see VR being used in retail, perhaps in the preparation of a new product line.  You can recreate the retail store in VR, reducing operating costs with remote presence.  Say you were a car manufacturer, you can show off your latest model abroad without having to transport it.”

With Leu’s charm offensive in full flow, AR and VR’s potential undoubtedly sounds exciting, but how will we know when they’ve actually succeeded?  “Well, a lot of VR is driven by marketing at the moment; as a point of entry, it will be used to go after the low-hanging fruit. There is nothing wrong with that, obviously, but any project will have to have great content, not to see any wires, be invisible, to have a clear purpose, an application and, ultimately, a sustainable model for mass adoption.”

So, what comes next? Leu refuses to rule anything out.  “Touch? Smell?  The ability to blend the physical with the virtual, perhaps.”  Isn’t that dangerous?  Leu rejects the Icarus implication. “Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality is always going to have its critics, but at the end of the day it’s the users of the technology who comport the risk, not the technology itself.  We’re talking about technologies capable of letting people who can’t walk, have the opportunity to. Is that really so wrong?”  AR and VR, Leu predicts, are on the brink of multiple breakthroughs and the pan-technological Inition is at the vanguard of any progress.