BUILDING VIRTUAL WORLDS FOR INTERACTION AND NETWORKING: VTIME IS LEADING THE CHARGE
In the ground-breaking world of social VR, vTime, founded by industry pioneer Martin Kenwright, is one of the forerunners. An early disruptor, Martin created 3D flight simulation games like TFX and EF2000 back in the 1990s. The titles were so technically advanced that his company, Digital Image Design, was asked to work on projects for NATO. Two successful companies later – both sold to blue chip corporations – a short break to enjoy the fruits of his early triumphs, and he was back in the market. In 2013, he founded the company that launched vTime, which now boasts one of the most active sociable communities in VR, connecting countless people in real time through virtual reality around the world.
Move Commercial claims that while Samsung, HTC, Sony and Facebook are investing heavily in hardware, with their state-of-the-art headsets promising to change the world as we know it, it’s vTime that’s “leading the charge on the software front”. The company’s managing director Clemens Wangerin describes it as “the fastest growing sociable virtual reality network in the world with active users in over 190 countries”.
What is it?
vTime is an app, free to download from major app stores and designed for use with a head-mounted display. vTime works with everything from the high-end, PC-powered Oculus Rift, to the entry-level Google Cardboard, which works with a wide range of today’s smartphones. Once plugged in, the user is represented by a customised avatar and immersed in a 3D destination. From here they can invite others to join them, or join other users in their destination. The virtual surroundings are selected by the host of the session, and the unique locations include a US national park, an Arctic snowscape, a mile-high cliffside and a satellite orbiting Earth. Each experience, according to reviews “looked and even, to a certain extent, felt like the real thing”.
“In the past two weeks, I’ve had one-on-one experiences with people from Sweden, China, the UK, Chile, Florida, Atlanta and California – all from the comfort of my New York City apartment using the Rift. Unlike the social networks that most of us are accustomed to, we didn’t meet as icons or user names on flat 2D screens. Instead, our interactions occurred in fully realised three-dimensional spaces, each person represented by 3D avatars allowing individual interactivity with almost the same degree of freedom and expressiveness we’re accustomed to in the real world.”
Sociable VR isn’t such a giant leap for Martin Kenwright – a man who brought gamers from all over the world together, created games for media giant Sony that sold in their millions, worked on the launch of PlayStation 3, and eventually sold his company to Sony. What is more surprising is that he has financed vTime entirely from his own pocket, investing a large amount of his own capital to start the new enterprise in Liverpool.
Martin wanted to build his new company in his home city, despite the fact the economy was still in recession. At the time, Sony had recently closed its Liverpool development studio, where games like WipEout and Formula One had been developed, leaving scores of highly skilled technology innovators available on the jobs market. This talent had high level experience in developing 3D games, covering everything from programming to artwork, design and user interface.
“We’re trying to do something unprecedented,” said Martin, on the launch of his new venture four years ago. “The idea is to take some of the best game development talent in the world and move them into unloved and untouched sectors – it’s the first time it’s been done.”
Clemens Wangerin came on board as vTime’s managing director. Originally leading Sony’s development studio in Liverpool, he later launched numerous launch titles for PlayStation and left in 2009 to become a tech entrepreneur and work with other start-ups. “I looked at the exciting things that were happening in Liverpool and it had tremendous appeal to me. It was, and still is, a very interesting, diverse and welcoming tech community to join.”
Tapping into the VR boom became the primary focus in the early days of vTime and the team grew quickly, expanding from four people to 25 in just three months. Martin had assembled a “dream team”, according to Clemens, many of whom had worked together before. “We had all been involved in new product launches at the highest level for big corporate brands like Sony,” Clemens explains. “We were very aware of the importance of releasing something new and innovative right at the start of a new technology life-cycle.”
That “something new and innovative” first manifested itself as a cooking app called CyberCook, which gave users the chance to interact with virtual ingredients and earned the company the support of Oculus and Samsung to release the app on its Gear VR headset. The concept, according to Clemens, revolved around bringing food, friends and fun into a shared virtual space so they could see and experience the same things at the same time. The team then decided to advance with just friends and fun and vTime was born, offering a new way to connect people and to communicate and engage with each other through sharing 2D and 360 images.
“VR is great but at the beginning it was very insular,” says Clemens. “You’re essentially blindfolded and people around you have no appreciation of what you’re immersed in. We wanted to let more people into the same space simultaneously, all experiencing the same thing at the same time, using advanced 3D graphics technology that was previously thought unattainable on a mobile device.
“Today, vTime is available for VR but in the future it will also work with AR and MR and make use of emerging technologies like 5G and AI. All these things have an impact on how people can communicate and access services. They will be able to engage in different and better ways than is currently possible through a flat 2D screen.”
How does it work?
vTime creates all its IPR in-house, using commercial software tools available online and from official suppliers like Escape Studios. It relies on established production software that is widely used across the industry, such as Unity 3D, Adobe Creative Suite and Autodesk 3D software Maya 3D. In addition, the team has developed bespoke technologies in areas including 3D rendering, avatars, voice communication, networking, and vTime’s cloud-based services for content sharing.
What challenges have they encountered?
Having worked with a number of different start-ups in the past, Clemens is positive that vTime could not have happened without Martin’s influence and investment. “When you’re working with small seed funds or grants and £50,000 investment here and there, it’s do-able of course but unless you get enough revenue to sustain the business, never mind grow it, it’s very difficult. For example, if you have a team of two that grows to four, suddenly your costs have doubled. Bootstrapping and not paying yourself a salary is not always an option, or even advisable necessarily, as you will miss out on being able to claim R&D tax relief.”
vTime seemingly caught the rest of the VR industry by surprise when it launched in December 2015. Being a pioneer in social VR and demonstrating high production values, vTime soon caught the attention of Silicon Valley tech investors and giants alike. But with Martin at the helm, vTime was able to resist early overtures and retained their independence.
Many businesses without key investors struggle to survive according to Clemens, because survival becomes a distraction from innovation. “It’s very hard to be a pioneer and disrupt when you are worrying about how you’re going to live from one month to the next.” But, he warns, there has to be a long-term view on getting return on investment, and start-ups need to have investors who are comfortable with that. “The industry needs people who believe in the long-term values of immersive technology and its long-term relevance to the world.”
Martin has also been critical of current business models for investment. “Venture capital is 19th century in its business model. Yet it’s trying to support 21st century business models. Only one in five businesses might qualify for traditional venture capital investment. That’s because venture capitalists can’t invest in a business that can’t be de-risked.”
What happens next?
The company has now grown to just under 50 people and has made a significant impact on the sector. Feedback to date has been positive and – Clemens reveals – almost entirely unexpected.
“We had no idea how people would receive it when we launched but so far it has been downloaded in over 190 countries around the world. People say it makes them feel more connected to friends and family, especially when they are away from home. Single parents have been using it socialise while the kids are asleep upstairs for example – it’s like going out while still being at home. We found that people – especially those who are more extroverted and the life and soul of the party – love it. They can find themselves in conversations with new people from all over the world in an instant.
— Clemens Wangerin
vTime is now on six VR formats and is constantly developing and enhancing its offering. But it’s still early days in the world of VR and while Clemens believes that eventually the terms VR, AR and MR will become irrelevant and converge into one – “they are all just ways to augment the world we live in” – current mobile AR is still very limited in what it can do. It’s good for testing ideas, he says, but the apps available are still quite experimental. The average user time on vTime is currently 20 minutes, he says, and we expect this to be different for people using mobile AR, as the user is in a different environment.
vTime is in close contact with all the big players – the Apples and Googles, Oculus’ and Microsofts of this world– and Clemens claims that the team at vTime is working at an artistic and technical level way beyond most VR developers in the UK. “We are one of the largest independent developers committed to immersive technology in the country. The only other companies that have significantly more skill power in this area are the big corporations.”
And although vTime is most active now in the consumer space, this is not necessarily its only goal and talks are currently underway with partners in different sectors to understand how its technology can make an impact. Initial projects carried out by the University of Melbourne for example, included working with quadriplegics to enhance therapy and breathing exercise experiences by connecting patients remotely around a virtual campfire. “Here the impact on people’s lives has been very personal,” says Clemens, “and it’s provided real value and benefit to them”.
What is the future for immersive technology in social networking?
The future looks bright from the vTime perspective and they are taking confidence from the fact that all of the big players are persistently committed to this space, with Facebook and Oculus, Windows Mixed Reality, Apple ARKit, and the latest Google innovations. However, converging AR and VR is where things start to get really interesting, says Clemens.
“What we’re seeing right now is the 4th Industrial Revolution. We’re starting to accelerate towards another step change that is as big as the introduction of the smartphone and the impact that had on how we interacted with technology, brands, companies and with each other.”