Last week VR World Congress descended on Bristol for three days of VR, AR and immersive video expertise from major companies from around the world, networking, and, of course, the chance to try out the latest cutting-edge virtual reality tech.

We jumped at the chance to have a play, and we were amazed at the multitude of products and experiences on show at the conference, with a large part of it developed here in Bristol and Bath. The demos on offer included being able to touch and feel objects in virtual realities, interacting with virtual microscopic molecules, new intuitive VR controllers, potential revenue streams for indie VR developers and people hacking off-the-shelf immersive tech to make it do what they wanted it to do!

The expo floor was littered with VR and AR experiences to try out, so here are a few that caught the TechSPARK team’s eye and that we think are well worth investigating yourself if you get the chance.

Surround Vision

360 immersive video footage

How would you like to have a ringside seat at a world-class boxing match in amongst the baying crowds while being sat on your sofa at home? Or to experience what it’s like to be in the hustle and bustle of a pit-lane during a Formula 1 race from the point of view of the driver? Well the Surround Vision stall at VRWC let’s you do just that by putting on a pair of VR goggles.

Using unobtrusive 360 cameras, Surround Vision has made it its mission to put you at the centre of the action. It’s not just about sport either – Surround Vision has captured ballet at the Royal Opera house, a tour through an African village and can put you in the centre of an exploding kitchen!

As Founder Richard Nockles (pictured right talking at VRWC) says, “360 and VR is perfect for capturing truly immersive footage. It’s about intimacy and getting right into the thick of it.”



Touching objects in virtual reality

One of the problems when trying to immerse yourself in a VR experience is that your mind is aware that you are unable to physically touch any of the objects around you. However, now, with tech produced by Bristol-based Ultrahaptics, you can touch and feel objects in virtual reality scenarios – and that’s without the use of gloves or controllers.

Its tech uses ultrasound to apply pressure to your skin, which fools your brain into thinking it is touching an object. Matching that ‘haptic experience’ up to what you are experiencing in the VR environment means you can interact in a convincing way with the things around you, in this case, casting spells as a wizard.

As Tom Carter, founder of Ultrahaptics (pictured right, in the red jumper) said at a VRWC panel talk, “Providing the sense of touch in VR makes it feel real – it let’s you really believe you are a wizard!” This is one that definitely needs to be tried to be believed.





Gaming treadmill debut

How do you stop people in VR experiences crashing into the walls of the real world they can’t see around them? You put them in the latest Wizdish Rovr (pictured right) of course!

The ROVR has been developed over 10 years to allow you to walk around VR environments while remaining within its sturdy steel frame. The company debuted version 2 of the ultra-slidey ROVR at VRWC so attendees got to be some of the first to have a stroll in this cutting-edge VR locomotion tech. Not to mention also being able to play Pacman from a first person perspective while they were doing it.


Nano Simbox from Interactive Scientific

Exploring and touching the molecular world

The problem with understanding the microscopic world of atoms and molecules is that it’s really hard to envisage. To fix this Nano Simbox let’s you (and more usually, pupils in schools) see what this microscopic world would look like if you were as tiny as the atoms that make you up. What’s more, its tech also lets you interact with these molecules, to see what happens when they collide together.

Liz Rabone from Bristol-based Interactive Scientific, the company behind the project, told us that, “Quite often the reaction to the Nano Simbox VR experience is surprise. People don’t get to interact with the molecular world in this way very often. We’re taking abstract concepts and making them into a tangible experience.”

The tech is being used in other applications too. Helen Deeks, a PhD student from the University of Bristol (pictured showing us how to tie knots in proteins!), explained she is looking to use Nano Simbox’s simulations to find potential new drug candidates. She told us, “A person in a VR simulation can manipulate drug molecules to encourage them to interact in ways that may not happen at all by random chance so we can accelerate the process of a drug and protein binding together.”


Owl VR

Creating immersive video with bespoke filming equipment

You can buy off-the shelf camera kit for capturing 360 degree virtual reality experiences relatively easily these days, but what do you do if it doesn’t match up to your expectations? Well if you are Bristol-based Owl VR, you hack the equipment to redesign it to prevent it from doing things like overheating and so it produces the effects you want yourself!

As Richard Cambridge Harbutt, director of OWL VR, told us, the company uses these cutting-edge camera rigs to “eliminate the pain points for creatives and production companies who have the ideas for the experiences they want to make, but not the tech.”


Toia Tech (also known as Generic Robotics)

Feeling and holding objects with different textures in virtual worlds

Donning the finger-tip devices developed by Toia Tech whilst in a virtual world does something magical. It lets you grip, pick up and move objects utterly convincingly, even though in reality you are holding on to nothing. Even better than that, though, you can also feel the different textures of the objects – bottles and pool balls feel smooth, wood feels grainy – it completely fools your senses into believing you are interacting with real things.

We got to stack objects, and play with how objects would move in zero gravity conditions. We also got to inject a dental patient in the mouth, in a way that made us feel very squeamish, so convincing was the feel of plunging the syringe into flesh that wasn’t really there.

As Alistair Barrow from Taio Tech explained at the conference, “We’re used to doubting our vision as it is so often fooled, but adding touch to VR makes it more real and more immersive.” He’s also keen to see what people can do with the tech he’s developed: “You don’t see the power of new tech until you put it in the hands of creatives.”



Targetted branding within VR environments

With so many indie developers and creatives working on immersive experiences from games and films to learning experiences, there is a crying need for ways of making money to support the development of this work. This is why Bath-based Richard Godfrey from Rocketmakers (pictured left) has created the ARiVR platform, which lets you put branded VR objects into your immersive environment from companies willing to pay for the exposure.

Not only that, but those brands can target specific demographics of VR users, so that the object is only shown to, say, 25-year-old Manchester United supporters. They then get detailed reports on which objects were interacted with and for how long. As Richard puts it, “This could be Google Adwords for virtual reality.”

The tech was built in collaboration with Bristol-based Virtual View Productions who are building Spirit City, a virtual reality MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) based on a future version of London inspired by Blade Runner. As founder Stuart Gallop told us, “For developers this represents a way to monetise their work in an increasingly competitive market where people expect to get games for free.”



Chair-based hands-free movement controller for virtual reality

One of the big elephants in the room with VR experiences is that some can leave you feeling queasy. This motion sickness often comes from the disconnect caused by using hand controllers to move around in virtual worlds (where your eyes tell you you are moving while your brain tells you you aren’t), so VRGO has developed a controller you can sit on. Simply lean forward or to the side and you move in that direction.

We got to test it in a game created by Bristol-based VR studio Giznode and wandering around the virtual world was remarkably intuitive. VRGO creator Joe Ryan told us that after a successful crowd-funding raise the first batch of chairs are just being made ready for assembly. This will be the first big job he’ll be doing when he joins the Bristol Robotics Lab later this month. As he told us, he can’t wait: “There is a great eclectic group of developers and hardware specialists there and I’m looking forward to being part of their fantastic ecosystem.”



Multiplayer VR gaming experience

Nymbl offered people the chance to have a try at its asymmetric multiplayer gaming experience. In the game one person challenged another player by introducing spider bots into a VR environment which they needed to fight off by throwing grenades. If they fought off the bad guys they won, if you overcame their defences you won.

It was loads of frantic fun and it was surprising to hear from Nymbl’s client director Sama Talie Alyasari that the Bristol-based company built the experience in just four weeks to show off how they can integrate various digital techniques.

The team specialise in making simple but beautiful VR experiences for brands using “libraries of VR assets to allow for fast iteration of creating digital content”. Sama was keen to stress they weren’t a games company, although someone playing with their tech while we were talking to them interjected “You should be a games company!”


Igloo Vision

360 projections

Igloo Vision’s dome was hard to miss at VRWC. Within it the team were displaying a variety of 360 immersive experiences, some of it interactive.

The 360 projection company provides domes and cylinders for 360 visualisation experiences and collaborative meeting spaces with 5.1 surround sound – and it’s worth stepping inside one if you get the chance to see the cool things you can do with a 360 projection space.


Playing with VR in 350: Roving reporter Alice Whale
interacting with Igloo Vision’s 360 display

BMT Reality Studios

Immersive training scenarios – from building cars to evacuating aircraft carriers

BMT Reality Studios offered visitors to their stand the chance to try out cutting-edge VR tech which allowed them to assemble cars piece by piece. The Bath-based firm are experts in creating virtual reality training for engineering firms, emergency services and the military.

As Simon Luck who heads up the team there explained “Imagine you are going to be working on an aircraft carrier, which is basically a 65,000 ton floating city. People have to know how to get around it safely, so we have re-created it virtually and use it to train people to know how to evacuate as fast as possible in an emergency. Your brain forms memory by making a 3D map of your environment, so our simulation lets you form these memories before you even get there.”

Simon also told us the training simulations can be changed depending on people’s performance in them: “We capture loads of realtime data during the training experience to enhance it, so if people are dealing with the situation too easily we can add extra hazards like fires and floods to test them further.”



Peak performance VR

What do you need for a great VR experience? You need plenty of grunt from the PCs that are running it. And who better to provide that than overclock experts OverclockersUK.

Overclocking is taking a traditional computer processor and modding it to run at much higher speeds than usual. This requires loads of impressive looking cooling tech to prevent the chip from overheating, but it means you get a lot more bang for your buck, and, when it comes to VR, a really great lag-free experience.

Ultraclockers let VRWC attendees see what that extra power can do for gaming experiences by letting them jump into a car racing VR game. Vroom!


Play Nicely

Creators of a VR game for Oculus and the BBC

What do you do when you find out about the amazing Oogpister Beetle featured on BBC Earth that eats ants and then extracts and stores their formic acid so it can shoot it out of its bottom at predators? Well if you are Bristol-based digital agency Play Nicely you make a VR game out of it for the BBC called Oogie.

Play Nicely are VR experience experts and are old hands at creating them for conference type events. Their stand at VRWC (pictured left) was a colourful recreation of the environment Oogie travels around in, but as creative director Scott Fletcher told us there were some tricks in the design of it to control the experience: “The cushioned mats on the floor are hard to walk on, so the viewer is hobbled from walking around, and the ridges on the walls are cushioned, so if people walk into them, they don’t hurt themselves – we like to hobble the environment not the tech.”


Fancy working in VR yourself?

Has this inspired you to think about creating your own VR or AR tech startup? Well there are people in the South West who can help you who we met at VRWC. For example, the Bristol VR Lab is coming to Bristol in September 2017 – a new space for research, development, product design, teaching, company incubation and investment within virtual and augmented reality. It’s being set up in partnership with the organisers of VR World Congress. You can keep updated with developments of the Bristol VR Lab by signing up to its mailing list.

In Bath, the £5 million motion-capture studio CAMERA based at the uni want to help indie developers or those starting out in VR too. Commercial director Oscar De Mello told us, “We’re keen to show off the quality in terms or accuracy and realism of mo-cap for content creators for games and VR. People are put off by the perceived cost and time involved, but we’re here to provide access to high-end equipment for the more cutting-edge and difficult quirky VR projects out there.”


These were just some of the amazing VR exhibitors on the VRWC expo floor – there were lots more! You can find out more about the event on the VR World Congress website and can follow them on Twitter here: @VRWorldCongress