Anyone who’s seen Tom Cruise’s film Minority Report will be familiar with the futuristic predictions it makes for a world characterised by boundless technological possibility.
Strange to say, then, that one Hull company is working with the giants of international gaming and software development to turn some of what it foresaw into reality.
“Some of the technologies we’re working with are, literally, world-changing,” said Lindsay West, Co-Founder and Director of VISR, which specialises in mixed reality software and hardware for gaming and commercial use.
“For hundreds of years, we human beings have inhabited a 3D world but only been able to represent it visually in 2D, from the first cave paintings to modern works of art and computer games.”
Not anymore. Earlier this year, Microsoft launched its ‘HoloLens’ headset, which enables wearers to overlap the virtual and physical worlds to manipulate both, all in 3D. This futuristic device has potential applications in everything from gaming to industry, allowing users to superimpose virtual items onto their real environment, for highly realistic games or help with everything from education to commercial planning and decision-making.
And VISR has been selected by Microsoft as a partner for developing new applications to further enhance the HoloLens’s commercial applications.
Walking into VISR’s funkily decorated offices is like stepping into an episode of hit TV series Big Bang Theory, and it’s easy to see why they’ve been so successful in seizing the attention of the world of computer technology. In one corner, a game producer is busy putting finishing touches to a maiden release VISR is developing. Blending with their seriously high tech is trendy branding, bean bags and loft furniture. Then, everywhere you turn, there is someone sporting a headset, interacting with a world only they can see.
“This will be the norm in five years’ time,” added Lindsay.
“Everyone will have a pair of these glasses and we’ll interact with our world, and the objects and people within in ways we’ve never been able to before.”
VISR is just one example of an incubator business growing with the support of the University of Hull’s Enterprise Centre. It is based in the Enterprise Centre, and Lindsay and the team have access to the resources and expertise of university departments including computer science. Several members of the VISR team are Hull graduates.
“We just can’t thank the university enough for its support,” said Lindsay.
“To have access to such resources and world-leading expertise as a start-up business has been invaluable to us and, without it, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
“As well as growing our business globally, we are passionate about repaying the university’s good will, by providing talented local people with an opportunity to make careers in our amazing industry.”
The concept of VISR stems from 2009, when Lindsay was on the board of the World Trade Centre business association for the Hull and Humber region.
“We set ourselves the challenge of thinking up three different ways in which we could help grow the economic prospects of this part of the country,” he said.
“Renewable energy became one, and international trade another. However, we also wanted to do something different to inspire the area’s young people, to stop the leak of talent to the likes of London, Tokyo and New York. The university was educating them really well but then we didn’t have the kind of companies needed to make them stick around.”
It was a chance comment from a business contact that first drew Lindsay’s attention to Hull’s reputation for gaming expertise. “This put me on a mission to find out more and I discovered that Hull has been involved in virtual reality since the 1980s, and was one of the first three universities in the UK to introduce Computer Science as a degree course, closely followed by bachelor and masters degrees in video gaming,” continued Lindsay.
“Even further back, decades ago, it invented the liquid crystal displays which are now so prevalent in all areas of our lives.”
Inspired by what he’d discovered, Lindsay started to explore how he could collaborate with the university and local businesses to make something of this innovative streak, with a particular focus on computer games and other, real-life applications.
“It’s easy to dismiss computer games as something inconsequential and just for kids,” he continued.
“In reality, they represent one of the most lucrative industries on the planet. Titles like Grand Theft Auto have smashed records for sales, grossing billions of dollars within days of release, while even the most popular movies will only make in the millions on their opening weekend.
“And despite common preconceptions of games as young male hobby, 52 per cent of British video gamers are women.”
Lindsay believes gaming technology is the future, in some very fundamental ways.
“Games are defining the way the next generation expects things to be,” he said.
“While movies take their viewers from A to B, along a path the director wants them to follow, games give their players choices.
“They can create their own characters, worlds and journeys. They are also used to interacting across all channels, from online to social media, as well as within the game itself.
“And that’s not to mention this technology’s real-world applications, including business tools and education.”
In fact, it was VISR’s skills in games development which allowed them to move into developing in mixed reality. Lindsay added: “Creating games involved creating a rich three-dimensional world, now we’re bringing 3D thinking and workflows into business.” Lindsay said VISR is now on a mission to harness this incredible potential regionally, as well as globally.
He and University of Hull graduate Louis Deane created the company in 2014. In 2010 Lindsay set up a mentoring scheme called Platform for aspirational computer scientists at the university, as a vehicle for fuelling the growth of this industry locally. He shared with them his experience as a director of successful family corrugated cardboard packaging business Garthwest, based on Sutton Fields in Hull, which makes movie point-of-sale displays for Universal Studios’ blockbuster films like Despicable Me 3 and Spiderman Homecoming.
Louis then approached Lindsay to collaborate on VISR as a joint venture, having already established his own games development business called Gateway Interactive. And they have achieved phenomenal success already in the three intervening years.
Their first ‘gig’ was producing hardware and software for a cutting edge new offering called Google Cardboard.
“Two years ago, Google’s Parisian team realised they could take virtual reality one step further, by enabling people to achieve the same effects using their smartphones – thanks to their rapidly increasing processing power,” Lindsay added.
“They created Google Cardboard, which uses cardboard headsets into which users insert their mobile phones and bespoke codes to interact with a variety of virtual, 360-degree worlds. One of the first things we did as VISR was to take a prototype Cardboard-inspired game to the Game Developers Conference in California.
“We had a tiny, very humble stand within that enormous event, but the head of Google Cardboard approached us to take a look and said ‘it’s better than ours’. Within two days, we were back in the UK, sitting in their offices negotiating a deal, which has resulted in us designing and manufacturing most of Google Cardboard’s items in Hull.”
And Google isn’t the only big name whose attention these talented entrepreneurs have grabbed. Between them, they have beat off thousands of other hopeful businesses to win the coveted title of ‘Microsoft Ventures alumni’ – not once, but twice.
“Louis had already secured this status for Gateway Interactive, as well as having X-box developer credentials,” said Lindsay.
“Then we also selected for Microsoft Ventures together for VISR.”
And gaining this influential recognition was no mean feat – VISR was one of just 360 organisations worldwide who pipped 20,000 hopefuls to the post, to join Microsoft’s Ventures accelerator programme.
They are also part of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Partner Programme, working alongside it to develop new applications for the HoloLens, as one of 14 to be selected from 2,000 businesses.
VISR is now using this support and privileged access, to develop new gaming and business-focused software applications suitable for use with Microsoft’s game-changing mixed reality headsets.
They have just returned from Microsoft’s ‘Future Decoded’ annual conference, where they showcased their new ‘Software as a Service (SAAS)’ platform, called Vertx. Developed in partnership with Microsoft, Vertx is a ground-breaking design tool which lets users import 3D models into a single platform and view them using HoloLens and other mixed reality headsets. Lindsay explains, “It’s absolutely cutting edge technology. At the moment, we’re working with lots of companies to explore how mixed reality will completely change the way they work.
“It has endless potential applications, from testing products and design against real-life environments, to productivity. For example, a manufacturer could use it to place a new machine in situ on their production line and see how it looks before actually going ahead with it.”
VISR is now focused on three areas of activity – Vertx, Google Cardboard and the development of their first major game, called Scrap Attack: A Botanika Story, and due to launch before the end of this year. This blends a classic arcade game-style ‘shooter’ (Scrap Attack) with a prelude to their adventure, challenge and world building game Botanika, the full version of which they plan to launch in 2018.
“Scrap Attack is a fun cartoon-style game, whereas Botanika is a really beautiful and inclusive environment appealing to everyone, including people with conditions like autism,” said Lindsay.
“Launching our first game and our first SAAS product is a big deal for us and we want to become a mainstream name that people recognise, to put VISR on the map and help change the way Hull is seen globally.”
And he said they couldn’t have come as far as they have without the support of the university.
“We’re incredibly grateful for their help in getting us to this point,” he said.
“Now, our virtual reality and HoloLens-related technology could take us anywhere.
“As well as being successful in our own right, our mission is to make change happen, to help others succeed too.
“We want to do world-leading work so that there’s no reason why talented young people shouldn’t stay here to develop careers.”
Lindsey Nicklin, who took over as the University’s Enterprise Centre Manager this year, said: “VISR is an incredible example of a business that we have supported with the basic needs of a base and access to the right people and expertise, and is now flying.
“We’re incredibly proud of what they’ve achieved and excited to see where the future takes them from here.”