Virtual reality for fun and business and health in Newcastle

Posted by | July 7, 2018 | Community, General, News

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When British artist Jamiroquai’s hit single Virtual Insanity took off in the late ’90s, it was considered groundbreaking, mostly because of the music video, which featured cutting edge cinematography. Very much of its time, the video showed moving floors and unpredictable wandering furniture. The video won several awards, including MTV’s Video of the Year for 1997.

The catchy chorus of the song was an earworm: “The future’s made of virtual insanity.”

While the video and song might be dated, the lyrics are prophetic. We now have options to experience virtual reality everywhere, in ways more insane, experiential and positive than Jamiroquai could have ever predicted.

Today you can pop into Newcastle’s East End, step into VRXP on Watt Street, don a headset and try to walk a narrow plank off a skyscraper. If you slip, you plummet to the sidewalk below and feel your stomach launch into your throat. If that’s too dramatic, you can just use the hand-held controls to paint colourful nonsense in every hue and brush stroke imaginable, although some artists paint virtual landscapes that you can also explore if you prefer.

Virtual reality (better known as VR) has arrived full force in Newcastle. It’s here to entertain, teach, train, and heal.

Academics, tech nerds, graphic artists, film makers, product designers and even an ex-debt collector all want a piece of the fantasy pie, which can look pretty realistic.

Businesses and institutions are on board to test it out and work with it, including places like University of Newcastle, Newcastle Museum, 2Real (a VR company focused on new home environments) and ctrlspace (a Newcastle consultancy and development studio focused on immersive technologies including VR, augmented reality and mixed reality.

Virtual reality is applicable to a huge array of situations and environments.

Virtual Exercise
Rohan O’Reilly is a neurogenesist from Smart Bodies, Smarter Minds, a virtual rehabilitation centre in Mayfield. O’Reilly says his centre offers alternatives for “medical orphans,” or people who have tried everything else and are looking for a new avenues.

Many successful VR stories happen at the centre. One specific example involves men in their late teens to early 20s. O’Reilly describes it as a “not uncommon scenario” when men at this age develop depressive symptoms and withdraw from life. They start eating badly and stop exercising.

“They come to a point where they know they need to exercise, but they hate the concept of exercise, and this is the VR magic,” he says. “If they’re into gaming, which a lot of these men are, we ask what they’re into. We match their VR experience to what they’re used to in gaming, so they’ve automatically got a source of reward.”

Now, he says, they are no longer sitting around moving only their thumbs; they have to put physical effort into playing a game to get the reward. For example, the centre has what looks like an exercise bike, but when you put on the gear, you are inside a tank and another tank is trying to shoot you. You have to push the pedals around to make the tank move – patients exert huge amounts of physical energy.

“If you said to them get on that exercise bike and go 45 minutes, that’s not going to happen, or if it does, they won’t come back. This [virtual reality] quickly turns them around, so they’re getting rewarded to burn physical energy,” O’Reilly says. “The difference is you’re not telling them what to do, you’re offering them a system to engage in that has these systemic health benefits.”

Fortunately, you don’t need to be unhealthy and depressed to enjoy and appreciate virtual reality.

Dementia Assistance
To get in on the virtual magic, see for yourself at no cost during NAIDOC week (July 8-15), celebrating Aboriginal culture. Head down to Newcastle Foreshore to experience the Dual Names project, a Newcastle City Council initiative. Along with physical interactive signs that explain the pre-settlement names of places, visitors with YouTube on their mobile phones can access a visual experience of what the land and people might have been like in the pre-settlement time. Local artists and linguistic experts assisted on the project. Users can listen to stories told in Awabakal or Worimi while it is also written in English below on the screen. Users standing at a physical location can get a virtual reality experience of what it looked like long ago.

Virtual Perspective are the creators behind the Dual Names concept. The Warners Bay consultancy creates bespoke virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and visualisation software. The team became a business in 2016 after meeting at a co-working space. They are a finalist for the Excellence in Innovation category for Lake Macquarie Business Excellence Awards, but they remain humble with their big ideas, operating out of a modest office.

The Virtual Perspective team is three experts: Ivan Demidov (customer relationship management systems and IT), Tim Davidson (visualisation) and Sam Parker (communicator and project manager).

“Ivan’s the mad scientist and Tim’s the artist,” Parker says.

While some of their commercial projects remain under wraps, they’ve also been hard at work with Hunter New England Health, creating empathy training for nurses and doctors who are treating patients with dementia.

By seeing the perspective of a dementia patient, nurses will better understand ways to care for them. This includes making sure the room is set up in the best possible way.

In the simulation, machines turn into monsters and wires start moving. Shadows on the walls are menacing human shapes. The carpet can look like liquid and the user’s challenge is to get to the bathroom.

“If there’s not enough light and the curtains are closed, it’s hard to get out of bed. It’s hard to do something simple like go to the bathroom,” Parker says.

“Statistics show that if the room is set up improperly, it can lead to falls. If a person with dementia falls the likelihood of them passing away is quite high,” Demidov says.

Virtual Perspective are 70 per cent finished with their HNEH project. They are also working with an RTO that does fire warden training. This simulation teaches soon-to-be fire wardens how to evacuate the building. The training assessment package is graded, and users can do things right or wrong and learn from their mistakes without any lives lost.

“They call it kinesthetic learning, learn by doing,” Demidov says.

“The thing is virtual and augmented reality and new technology in general allows the users to step into new places that they never saw possible, allowing people to do things that are dangerous, to be in scenarios that would be extremely expensive to set up. It’s experiential; it isn’t just audio and visual,” Davidson says. “You can read a textbook on ancient Rome, or you can go and visit.”

Grandmas to Gamers
Like Parker, Demidov and Davidson, VRXP founder Andy Gallagher is excited and passionate about virtual reality and all the creative potential that comes with it.

The self-described “super nerd” features old school video and arcade games in his studio because “we’ve got to show the young ones where it all comes from.”

Gallagher is a new parent to an eight month old. He studied digital art at ANU in Canberra and went on to work in video. He relocated to Newcastle five years ago, and he said VRXP was the first public facing VR space in Australia, the first bricks and mortar building. It opened in October of 2016.

To determine the best simulations to offer people, Gallagher and his wife held virtual reality parties out of their own home, testing different experiences with families and friends.

“We had to choose the best options for people experiencing VR for the first time; we were the Guinea pigs to choose the best and most fitting experience for the general public. If things were too complicated it would just get dropped; we stuck with our favourites,” Gallagher says of their decision process.

Like the paint and plank immersions mentioned above, all the customer’s experiences happen within the confines of an enclosed spacious area, giving the user “room scale” virtual reality, a chance to move about freely without getting disoriented.

He said lots of kids prefer the job simulator option, a cartoon- styled job experience, where the user performs everyday tasks.

“Some of the kids are completionists, absolutely ‘I need to complete the job’ and other kids are just photocopying donuts to make a donut stack that goes from the floor to the ceiling,” Gallagher says.

His customers include kids as young as 10 and people in their 60s. They currently employ four other employees, and when he’s not running VRXP, Gallagher puts his creative skills to work in other ways.

Gallagher’s full time job is creating VR films for a variety of clients ranging the University of Newcastle to Yan Coal. He specialises in fully immersive 360 degree cinema from preproduction through to shooting to postproduction. This is a cinematography that allows the viewer to see their surroundings in every possible direction.

“The bad thing about 360 degrees cinema it has such a bad stigma, it’s really blocky and you can’t make out much detail, but the camera system we invested in can give you a sense of depth,” he says. “The benefit is, you feel like you’re literally there; it’s up to the filmmaker to tell the story.”

He’s also working with the heritage archeological company RPS. The employees are finding spots from 1800s Newcastle on the new light rail corridor. They’ll ring him up if they’ve found something interesting that the workers want to demolish and schedule an immediate filming time. After he films it they’ll have the raw footage forever, and it’s up to them whether they want with it.

“It’s a part of capturing the find,” he says.

These are just a projects he’s pursuing while his studio dazzles Novocastrians.

“There’s always something that I’m totally immersed in,” he says.

The Unreal Deal
Twenty-five-year-old Daniel Girgis is the co-owner and managing director of Unreal VR in Charleston, which opened in April of last year.

“It’s something you can’t really understand until you try,” he says of VR. “Someone said something like, it was not what I expected, but it was what I wanted it to be.”

The business is a family affair, with his cousin Matt Thomas co-owning the business with him. His father is also a director.

“Matt was the CEO at the Collection House up in Brisbane, and he retired and was looking to do something fun and different, and this just kinda happened,” Girgis says.

Girgis has a product design background, and says they are now up to 12 employees including himself and his family. They offer virtual reality for ages six and up, and at the beginning of this year they expanded their studio space to accommodate everyone.

It’s not just headsets either.

“We’ve also got some flight simulators; we’ve got chairs that are full motion chairs so you can sit in them and fly a fighter jet, or also (experience) V8 supercars in Bathurst, so you can race any car on any track. It’s surprisingly good,” he says. “I’ve had some of the pit crew come down when we had the V8s on. I’ve had a couple people who use them for training. (It’s) less petrol and less expensive when you crash.”

They also have pilots as customers.

“All (the pilots’) simulators are just front projected, so you can’t look at your wings. If you’re exiting a hanger, you just have to guess how far your wings are. On (our VR) you can lean out the side and look back,” Girgis says. “I’ve been getting the FA team in from the RAAF Base, we’ve been getting them coming in and dogfighting each other.”

Previously he was working with a creative director at the Uni named Jeff Julian. Julian was mentouring Girgis, and they were making lots of things together. Through discussions with him, Girgis started looking into virtual reality.

Along with running the business, he’s established a monthly VR meetup where they can meet other interesting people in the field.

“(We’ve got) heaps of stuff is going on; Matt is a networking guy pulling in people from around the place. We’ve met everyone local.” he says.

Girgis regularly collaborates with people. He’s been working on some of Newcastle’s West End buildings in product design. He’s also working with the Hunter Valley Gardens on a VR tourism project.

What excites him most is starting up something new and being on the “bleeding edge of technology”.

“It’s something I’ve always chased, and now, with Unreal VR and the other ongoing projects, it’s a fulltime job,” he says. “Starting a business from scratch – there was a lot I didn’t have a clue about, and it’s been a good journey.”

Reflecting on past speculations about virtual reality is interesting. Pop culture hasn’t always been optimistic about future technologies. If you read “Virtual Insanity”’s lyrics, you’ll see that Jamiroquai was incredibly skeptical about virtual reality and future technologies, and plenty of Sci-Fi movies out there send warning messages of technology’s dangers. But perhaps they’re all wrong, at least at this stage.

So many more people and initiatives are launching into the experiential space; and a growing number of Novocastrians have their own spin on the power and potential of virtual reality. As VR continues to revolutionise how we work, play and learn, you can either watch from the sidelines, or suit up and jump in.

Source: https://www.theherald.com.au/story/5492752/appeal-of-unreal-virtual-reality-takes-hold-in-the-hunter/

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