Bright Spark: Digital VR

December 1, 2015

With virtual reality widely tipped to be the next game-changing technology, North East Times speaks to one Newcastle-based company that is staying ahead of the curve by applying this exciting innovation to the commercial sector now

The past 18 months have seen the world’s technology giants pumping vast resources into virtual reality (VR). Facebook bought Oculus VR (which builds the Oculus Rift headsets) for $2 billion last year, with the social media CEO Mark Zuckerberg describing VR as the “future of communications”.

Google has also been investing heavily in VR and has developed the Google Cardboard, a simple low-cost VR headset (yes, made from cardboard) that is capable of transforming a smartphone into a fully immersive VR device.

But while the majority of the big players are looking at VR primarily from a home entertainment perspective, Newcastle-based DigitalVR is delivering the benefits of this emergent technology to clients right now by focusing on the commercial sector.

DigitalVR is the brainchild of Northumbria University graduate Ben Bennett. It is an offshoot of Digital Surveys, a company established in 1988 that is owned by his father, Peter.

Ben joined Digital Surveys from a computing background eight years ago and has helped his father’s company embrace the latest 3D laser scanning technology to create highly detailed 3D models and surveys for the industrial sector.

Forward-thinking Ben has now taken this process a step further by taking the data and – using the latest games engine technology – creating hyper-realistic VR environments which users can navigate in real time.

The technology can be used to produce photo-realistic, fully immersive virtual tours, technical training simulations or project visualisation, and can be applied to the heritage, architectural, tourism, engineering, marketing, entertainment, forensics, gaming, education and training sectors. In fact, it’s difficult to think of an industry in which VR couldn’t potentially be used.

As such, Digital Surveys created the separate DigitalVR division in January this year, to focus solely on this innovative technology.

Ben explains: “The development of 3D laser scanning was quite a disruptive technology to the survey sector eight years ago, when I joined my father’s business, but we were able to embrace the technology and utilise it for the clients’ benefit.

“DigitalVR is now taking this to the next evolution by taking the data and creating more engaging, fully immersive environments, using the Unreal Games Engine.”

Ben has gathered a crack team, gleaned from the geospatial, architectural and gaming sectors, and DigitalVR has delivered a number of well-received projects throughout 2015.

The company worked with the Dundee Heritage Trust to create an interactive VR recreation of the ward room of the RRS Discovery, the vessel that Captain Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton first sailed to the Antarctic in 1902.

DigitalVR has also built a virtual tour of a Suffolk-based Martello Tower, one of many historic defensive forts dotted along the South East coast. The tech company worked with the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Trust to recreate the publicly inaccessible tower as it was in both Napoleonic and World War II eras. The result is a fully immersive tour that can be experienced via various different platforms.

DigitalVR has also focused on the architectural sector and has worked with North East-based firms Space Group and Archial NORR.

“VR is the ideal medium for the architectural sector,” Ben explains. “We can use the data and drawings that firms have already produced and

create highly realistic, immersive visualisations of how their new buildings or interiors will look, almost instantaneously.”

Future plans for DigitalVR are to continue to build its client base and apply VR to new sectors.

By continuing to champion this new technology, Ben is hoping to encourage the development of a VR hub in the region.

“There’s a number of other tech companies doing VR locally, albeit mainly for gaming,” he says. “I’d like to see this develop so that the region can be seen as the UK’s home for the most innovative applications of VR.”

DigitalVR is located at Toffee Factory in Newcastle