Learning from the outside in: bringing anatomy to life with mixed reality
Virtuali-Tee was born out of Curiscope’s co-founders, Ed Barton and Ben Kidd’s passion for immersive technology and their drive to create products that spark imagination and inspire people to explore topics that they’ve been disconnected from. For Ed and Ben, science and anatomy was an obvious area to focus on. “We’re blasé about how incredible our bodies are” Ed observes. “It’s fascinating what exists inside us, yet we’re not curious about it.” Their response was to develop Virtuali-Tee, a product that mixes realities in a unique and innovative way.
What is Virtuali-Tee?
The Virtuali-Tee combines a smart T-shirt designed with an augmented reality-based app that work together to teach anatomy. The T-shirt’s cryptic design, a digital rib cage, provides the gateway to exploring the workings of the body using both augmented and virtual realities. The Virtuali-Tee app, when viewed against the T-shirt, opens up the insides of a photo-realistic and animated body. Mixing play with learning, viewers get the chance to go on an anatomical exploration, shrinking down to a microscopic level, journeying through parts of the body, honing in on animated organs and finding out key facts about what they are experiencing from the Virtuali-Tee guide.
Designed for a mass audience, the app is widely available on IOS and android to ensure experiencing through phones and tablets is easy. For those wanting a more immersive experience, it’s possible to explore with cardboard VR headsets. Ed comments: “it appeals to an audience who don’t even necessarily know they want a VR or AR product, and they don’t even necessarily know what that is– it has to be a good product beyond it being good AR or VR.”
How Virtuali-Tee was developed
Virtuali-Tee was conceived to reach out to a younger audience; to inspire them to get engaged with the physiology of the human body, bringing it to life in a way that is fun and educational at the same time. Curiscope wanted to create something interactive that would get kids learning with each other, as well as with their teachers and parents, rather than something that was more of a formal educational tool that was aligned with the curriculum.
Coming from a CGI and film background, delivering a product that was highly realistic was central to the development of the project for Ed and Ben; the point is to feel like you’re really looking inside someone in front of you. The Curiscope team grew from two to ten people, to ensure they had the core in-house skills and developed the app using Unity. Specialists were brought in to create key animated content, as well as gaining advice on its medical accuracy. Re-locating the business from London to Brighton helped to access the right talent pools, as it gave Curiscope the chance to tap into the community of games developers based there. Ed also believes it helped them to stay focused on their vision for not only the product, but the company too.
“We try and be different, try to innovate and try and do something that no other company, certainly in the country is doing, but hopefully in the world is doing…we’re trying to be completely innovative.”
— Ed Barton, Curiscope
Funding through Kickstarter
The Virtuali-Tee story began in earnest with a Kickstarter campaign that launched in March 2016. “We raised $117K, and we had to deliver to around 1,500 people, so we ended up in a good place where it was still possible for us for us to produce the product with enough funding to pull it off but not so much that we’d have to scale up too soon.” Ed explains. He recognises that financing immersive projects is difficult for start-ups, and Kickstarter does not provide an easy answer.
“Kickstarter as a medium is very hard to do right; you’ve got to do a huge amount of work beforehand and the success of your Kickstarter is completely based on how much you put in. We put in around 4-6 solid weeks into marketing beforehand. If I was doing it again, I’d probably put in 3-4 months as I don’t think that was enough. Luckily for us, it’s a product that’s very visual, so it went on TV at the time on Sky News and Fox News in the States and we did really well off the back of that.”
Having a diversity of enthusiastic backers who cared about the product wasn’t just financially beneficial, but also helped with the development and delivery in a practical way, for example helping to make supplier connections.
The practicalities of working in mixed realities
Logistics and fulfilment provided Curiscope with a challenge that ordinarily wouldn’t be an issue for a digital business. The principle of ‘fail fast, fail often’ works for digital companies, but when producing a physical product, this approach would have spelled disaster.
“You don’t view logistics in the same way. When you’re releasing an app, two weeks later you can ship a bug update, you can add features and you can react to what people are saying. But when you’re producing a product on a scale of tens of thousands, you have to commit to it for six months and that’s every single detail on the product, whether that’s where it’s made, barcoding, the amount each one costs, what the cost of material is, you have to think about revenue on it and you’ve got to re-purchase. It’s a very different business environment to start-ups where you’re often doing pure digital stuff and you can refine it over time. It is all about getting details right.” says Ed.
Can reality be too real?
Developing such a realistic product created an unexpected issue and one of the biggest challenges faced by Curiscope. Many social media commentators within the VR/AR community who saw the product online without trying it, it appears too good to be true! Ed explains:
“There is a perception that very good AR and VR is either just doesn’t exist or it’s fabricated in a way because you’ve got film people working on it. You’ve seen other companies putting out videos on what the future of AR could look like, so when we put something out that actually exists, we’re tarred by the same brush… It’s very interesting, but a big, big challenge for VR and AR more broadly; how do you communicate products that kind of seem like magic?”
Getting people hands-on with the product and getting it to market through a variety of channels has helped Curiscope to tackle this issue. Having Virtuali-Tee available in shops and seeing it on TV has also helped to change perceptions and build trust in the product.
The response from consumers has been overwhelmingly positive since released to a mass market in October 2017. Available from a broad range of outlets from the Science Museum, Selfridges and John Lewis and online via Amazon, it’s proved to be most popular amongst 8-13 year olds.
While 2017 was all about getting the product right, refining the app and developing the packaging for a retail audience and developing a reliable supply chain, the future possibilities of expanding the commercial reach and creative development of Virtuali-Tee are numerous.
Ed sees extending the content available as an exciting next step, with showing disease as an obvious area for exploration. He sees the potential in using it as a tool to explain invisible illnesses, to help kids understand conditions that are affecting them, or people around them, which could make a tangible difference to people.
There’s also more commercially-driven opportunities to grow and go global. Although already available in 70-80 countries around the world, translating the product into different languages will move it to the next level in making it more accessible for very young people who can’t speak English.
The future of AR
Ed sees an interesting future over the next 5 years, and that the huge grey line between what is real and what is not will become increasingly blurred. Based on his experience in the delivery of Virtuali-Tee, he believes one of the biggest challenges for the industry will be to ensure that AR continues to wow people, without misdirecting or mis-communicating.