Finding Zoom too tricky to handle for a company-wide event? Virtual reality may be the answer and Irish company VR Immersive Education has created a range of meeting spaces
‘Okay Helen, if you’d like to teleport yourself over here and stand next to yourself.’ As instructions go, it’s quite a surreal one. But while lockdown has been hard, I’m not yet hearing voices in my head. Instead, I’m standing in my living room in North London wearing an Oculus headset, and talking to David Whelan, chief executive of Waterford-based VR Immersive Education, in a virtual world.
Or rather, I’m talking to his avatar. And, because I am only borrowing the headset for the occasion, my avatar appears to be a grey-haired, slim built man who is six feet and two inches tall with rather enormous hands. (As someone who is nine inches shorter – with normal-sized hands, the height difference is slightly disconcerting, and initially I feel like Bambi until I gradually adjust to my new stature.)
The meeting has opened in a giant auditorium, filled with a bizarre collection of items ranging from dinosaur skeletons to small, propeller planes. There’s no social distancing here. Whelan leans forward to shake hands, but bizarrely my real-world right hand offers my virtual left hand for the greeting. It seems I’ve got my controllers in the wrong hands.
The controllers get sorted just as a hippopotamus arrives. On Whelan’s advice I press the trigger button, and the hippo starts to walk. A dinosaur approaches. As he lifts his giant leg, I flinch in anticipation of a foot stomping on my head. Within minutes, I’ve summoned chickens and a goat, who nuzzles up against my host.
So, why am I playing in a virtual menagerie? It started with a LinkedIn post by Robin Tozer, director at SEC Newgate, explaining that his new client VR Immersive Education was hosting an investor presentation in virtual reality, making use of its proprietary platform ENGAGE.
Could this be the future of annual meetings, I pondered. Or an alternative for a world exhausted by Zoom? If travel restrictions prevented a corporate golf day, could it simply move to a virtual world? There was only one way to find out: I had to try it for myself.
Immersive Education started as, its name implies, as a platform for interactive online education and training experiences. To illustrate how this works, I join Whelan in the panelled splendour of Bodleian Library at Oxford University to watch a presentation on Venus by planetary scientist Colin Wilson.
My avatar appears to be a grey-haired, slim built man who is six feet and two inches tall with rather enormous hands
Wilson recorded his presentation in real-time and then Immersive Education worked their magic. As Wilson’s avator starts to speak, a 3D image of Venus appears in front of me, swiftly followed by Earth. These are sibling planets, explains Wilson, that were formed at the same time. Information sheets appear, highlighting the salient points being made. ‘He just recorded his presentation on a camera, and we have an editing system that adds the objects later,’ explains Whelan.
But the platform also allows the audience and Wilson to interact. Like a ‘traditional’ online event, he can share his screen, show PowerPoint presentations, play videos from YouTube, say, or take questions. Audience members can join from anywhere around the world – their avator simply takes a seat in the library – either using a virtual reality headset or by downloading an app on their computers or smartphone.
It’s time to leave Oxford, but not before I’ve teleported myself around the library to explore every nook and cranny. Rather bizarrely my right hand is floating around in front of me, like Thing in The Adam’s Family. Whelan explains that, as my real hand is on my hip, the cameras on the front of my headset cannot detect the controller. I resolve the situation, and Thing disappears.
There’s a backstage VIP area too, although – just like in the real world – I don’t get invited to join
I join Whelan at an internal presentation for HTC that was held in March 2020. I’m ‘sitting’ in a giant amphitheatre with about 50 other avators. While about 2,000 people from around the world attended the event, Whelan explains that the amphitheatre was cloned to accommodate them in smaller groups so that nobody had a ‘restricted view’, and everybody felt they were within touching distance of the stage. ‘We cloned the presenters,’ he adds. I watch as ‘Alvin Graylin’, China president at HTC, welcomes his colleagues to the company’s first ever virtual reality conference.
Whelan invites me to teleport to the top level of the amphitheatre to get a bird’s eye view of the event. Strangely, I feel rather nervous in case I fall over the edge, and so I remind myself that isn’t physically possible. Nonetheless, he has demonstrated his point: wherever your avator is positioned in the ‘room’, you will see only what you would if it were the real world – making it a personal experience.
‘Do you like the Chemical Brothers?’ Whelan suddenly asks. It seems we’re off to a concert. I’m standing in front of an open air stage. An ambulance is located to the right, near the tented bar. There’s a backstage VIP area too, although – just like in the real world – I don’t get invited to join. One of Whelan’s in-house animators has gone wild, adding apparitions and fireworks that react to the musical beat.
‘You can pretty much do anything you want,’ says Whelan. ‘You’re only limited by your imagination. Are you afraid of sharks?’ We move to a 360 degree viewing room. Sharks are swimming around me while a marine biologist describes the scene. ‘Educators get excited about this, because they can build up their lessons and have an immersive class with their students,’ he adds.
To illustrate the point, Whelan ‘meets’ me in a virtual medical school. I use the controller to adopt ‘trainee’ mode, and my surroundings become a maternity unit. I am standing in front of a cot, containing a new born baby who is completely silent. I’m instructed to wrap the baby in a towel, which admittedly is not an easy task using controller hands. I then press a trigger button to rub the baby’s stomach. I turn the baby over, again rubbing up and down.
Can I hear the baby breathing? I put my ear closer to its face but there is no sound. A menu appears in front of me, with three remedial options. I tilt the baby’s head forward, placing a towel under its neck, and put a ventilator face mask over its nose. I then inflate and deflate the mask’s balloon at a regular but slow pace. The baby starts to cry. Its chest begins to move up and down. ‘Congratulations, you’ve saved the baby,’ says Whelan.
The 3D simulation has been created for Oxford University. Its LIFE project offers life-saving instructions for emergencies to any health worker with a smartphone, even those in the remotest of areas with poor connections. ‘They’d go to Africa with a lifelike doll and have 20 people practising on the doll. But that’s quite expensive. They found with virtual reality, the experience is better and students take it a lot more seriously because they can feel the ‘distress’ of the baby,’ says Whelan.
We also have spatial audio. Somebody might be presenting to the whole room, but I can lean across to the person beside me and whisper in their ear
‘But a lot of corporations are now using the platform for business meetings, with collaborations and whiteboards. If you have four or five people on a Zoom call, then that’s fine. But if you have ten to 15 people, say, using virtual reality makes a lot of sense because you can have a lot of interaction,’ explains Whelan. ‘We also have spatial audio. Somebody might be presenting to the whole room, but I can lean across to the person beside me and whisper in their ear.’ He teleports himself to the other end of the room. While I can still see him, I can no longer hear him clearly – just like in the real world.
We enter a conference hall, with exhibitor stands and display pedestals, lecture theatres and break out areas. ‘If you’re on a video platform, you watch a presentation and ask questions. Here, you can physically move around and have private conversations,’ he explains. The company currently works on around two events a month, ranging from small meetings to a branded Expo. Clients usually start with a small event, and, having seen how well it works, often move to larger scale ones. There are 50 locational templates, which can be adapted to a client’s requirements and branded. It is also possible to have custom built locations.
Whelan has two more places he wants to take me. First stop, the Oval Office of the White House. ‘It’s an exact replication but a lot of people are quite surprised by how small this room is,’ he says. Me too. I never thought the Oval Office would fit into the living room of my Victorian terrace, but life’s full of surprises. ‘Now, if you teleport behind the desk, I’ll take a picture of you. Say cheese.’
Final stop, Mars. ‘It’s quite nice this time of year,’ says Whelan, who appears – like me – in the appropriate space suit. The Curiosity Rover is ambling slowly across the foreground at the exact speed it usually moves. We teleport to the ridge of a mountain range, and I can start to appreciate the scale of this planet. Whelan takes the obligatory tourist pictures. ‘There’s a really good view here,’ he says.
All too soon, it’s back to earth with a bang. I remove my headset and re-acclimatise. My email pings. Whelan has sent across the photographs he took of me on my travels. I download the first one, to find a grey-haired man sitting at a desk in the White House and waving. It’s the first time I’ve ever thought I look like President Biden.