Once a familiar face on our TV screens in Hollyoaks and TechSPARK staff favourite The IT Crowd, director of Bristol-based OWL VR Richard Cambridge Harbutt is now on the other side of the camera hacking his way into VR and immersive video.

Fresh off the back of VR World Congress where we got to see his cutting-edge camera rig, we caught up with Richard to find out how he solves the limitations of creating 360 virtual experiences by hacking off-the-shelf equipment. With the development of roving 360 cameras and apps in the pipeline, Richard also tells us how you can get involved with some of OWL VR’s projects.

TechSPARK: What is OWL VR and what do you do?

Richard Cambridge Harbutt: OWL VR creates immersive 360 video presentations, generally for luxury brands and venues that want to let their visitors or customers explore a real physical location, meet the team or explore/experience somewhere special.

TS: How did you come to set it up?

RCH: Coming from a film-making background and being a technology developer, I began to research into what might be the future of video. This was around three years ago, and VR headsets had just started their resurgence.

Having made some 360 photography projects previously for a number of clients before Google Street View became ubiquitous (I developed many history projects on CDROM using 360 video in QuickTime) I dug out an old 360 tripod and began experimenting with dashcams bought off Ebay and a program called ptgui. At the time I was taking evening classes in stage fighting so I began writing a story.

This led to me producing a 360˙film called New Reality that used a crew of around 30 professional filmmakers all bringing their expertise to this new way of working. It was a huge success and still stands up as a good example of what is possible today.

You can watch New Reality here and try out the 360 view by clicking and dragging with your cursor:

 

TS: What have been some of your projects?

RCH: I’ve been really lucky to visit some magnificent places as part of my work with OWL VR. Last year we shot under a type 45 destroyer in refit for the Royal Navy which is now deployed in the Mediterranean sea. I’ve met knights and damsels in distress behind the scenes at the magnificent Warwick Castle and seen under the bonnet of some of the fastest cars in the world.

“We had our own butler for the day, serving us champagne”

 

TS: What have been your biggest successes as a company?

RCH: We spent a day creating a guided tour of the prestigious Savoy hotel in London. This is somewhere which is the absolute height of luxury and we were invited to rooms that normal people rarely get to visit, and I’m lucky to have been involved. We had our own butler for the day, serving us champagne, and the house car which was a Rolls-Royce driving us up to the door.

This location really pushed what we can offer as the combination of movement and mixed lighting meant that we needed to be very technically proficient; making sure we had correct exposure, covered what we needed in a short space of time, and still delivered the top quality finished project that clients like the Savoy and Fairmont group would expect as standard.

TS: You hack off-the-shelf equipment for your own means. Can you tell us how you do this and why?

RCH: If you buy an action camera 360 rig generally they follow a cube configuration. If you want decent quality you would opt for GoPro cameras, as they offer the best image in this small form factor. Using these cameras without modification has overheating issues, short battery life, and the popular cube formation brings with it limitations on camera positioning and stitching possibilities.

“Upgrading the lenses gave me more creative freedom in post-production”

 

Working through the problems though test projects, and the short film, I was able to figure out that upgrading the lenses gave me more creative freedom in post-production and greater reliability as we had camera redundancy. It also allowed for better access to the ports and SD card slots that are always tricky to get at. This led to devising cardboard rigs, then as it became clear they were better than the competition and commercially available rigs, I began to digitally engineer them accurately and have them 3D printed.

Over the course of 20 or so generations, we now have three core rigs, one of which also accepts bullet time sync boards from CamDo in America. The sync boards enable the record function to be activated across all cameras without the use of a dodgy Wi-Fi that drains the battery and rarely connects reliably to every single camera.

TS: You were at VRWC (VR World Congress), what did you think about the experience?

RCH: I really enjoyed VRWC in Bristol and it was great to see what other companies are up to, especially those in Bristol. We create 360˚ video at the present time and have experimental in-house projects in true VR. Most of our work is viewed on VR headsets.

It is an exciting time as video and photography start to merge into computer generated spaces allowing movement within them. I hope that we will soon be able to offer our clients full VR experiences taken from real world locations where the viewer can have the ability to move around within the space.

“Bristol is a wonderful city for innovation and technology merged with creativity”

 

TS: Were you surprised how many local companies were involved with VR and immersive video?

RCH: It was great to meet local companies and there were some exhibiting that I had not heard of before. Bristol is a wonderful city for innovation and technology merged with creativity, so it is no surprise that some of the best have set up here.

TS: How can people in the local tech community get involved with OWL VR?

RCH: 1. I’m looking for a laser cutting company that might be interested in helping develop our 360 rover. We actually had a surprising number of enquiries for this at the show.

2. We have a series of short drama films in development called The Teleporting Detective (Quantum Leap in VR), we are looking for funding for this and already have a Chinese distribution partner interested. Any weird and wonderful locations that might be on offer to support a small production house would be most welcome!

“Unity developers in Bristol who might like to help, or get involved, I’d love to speak with them”

 

3. Presenting 360 video on Gear VR is clunky and requires setting up by someone before viewing each scene. I’m developing a better 360˚ app in cross-content game platform Unity. If there are Unity developers in Bristol who might like to help, or get involved, I’d love to speak with them.

TS: Who else impresses you in the region?

RCH: I am continually impressed with the creativity and talent in the area. Outside of Bristol, I’ve been working with robotics manufacturer ABDynamics over in Bradford-on-Avon and have loved seeing their company grow into a multimillion-pound venture. Some of the potential developments within Dyson are exciting and will be great for the area.

Are you a Unity developer who is interested in getting involved? You can contact Richard via OWL VR’s website. Alternatively, you can watch more 360 content by subscribing to the OWL VR YouTube channel.