The real deal in virtual expertise

Martin McDonnell remembers being lifted as a child so that he could reach to play on Atari’s arcade game, Battlezone. It was the 1980s, the era of the ZX Spectrum, of gaming code published in hobbyist magazines and Marty McFly’s virtual reality glasses from Back to the Future II. Then there were the 90s, and the video games Doom and Quake.

“Fast forward to 2000,” said McDonnell, chairman of the Glasgow-based digital visualisation company Soluis, “and, luckily, I’ve managed to turn my passion for playing around in 3D into a business, making images and movies of things for clients.

“Being the geek that played Battlezone and Doom I had tried and failed to bring games technology into our space. I wanted to allow the client, the architect or the engineer to be able to walk through and experience the project – but it was prohibitively expensive.

“Then, in 2010 three Danish guys came along and completely disrupted the games industry with the Unity gaming engine, where the licence was $1,500 instead of half a million. It was literally a game changer for us.”

The first big project was the Gatwick South Terminal where clients such as Harrods and Selfridges were able to ‘walk’ through their retail space, using 3D glasses and a monitor. The next breakthrough was Oculus, a Kickstarter project ultimately bought by Facebook for $2bn.

With the big electronics and software companies now heavily invested, virtual reality (VR) has essentially become “democratised,” according to McDonnell. Google’s Cardboard VR viewer costs £15: “We have even delivered high-end projects using Google’s Cardboard. There is huge potential for Cardboard in education, museums, heritage and so on.”

With VR, you disappear into a virtual world, detached from reality. With augmented reality (AR) you can see the real world, but information and visuals can be overlaid.V R AND AR will be revolutionary in business and industry and in the design of civic and personal spaces, said McDonnell.

One area with the earliest potential applications in a sector such as construction, is in training and health and safety, he said. In the near future there are also incredible efficiencies to be gained in manufacturing where complex, precision processes that currently take more than 10 minutes could be reduced to “sub-minute”.

Another medium is ‘immersive’, said McDonnell, such as Soluis’s dome which allows people to stand together and view in 3D.

This year, Soluis has been working with Crossrail after winning an Innovate UK competition for its augmented reality software that allows construction site staff to both access and upload data via a smart helmet’s ‘heads-up’ visor display.

It has also an established relationship with Los Angeles-based Daqri, whose smart helmet has been deployed in the aerospace industry. Called In-site, the Soluis app pulls information about buildings or structures from the cloud to the helmet and then overlays it as augmented reality on workers’ visor screens.

Further ahead, predicted McDonnell, he could have “Iron Man powers”, using augmented reality to inspect a workplace or installation to ‘see’ the health of equipment in real-time, ‘look’ through walls and ceilings, retrieve information and then file reports.

One recent development exciting McDonnell is Skype for Microsoft’s HoloLens which will allow people to “dial in to my reality” and interact on a project or inspect work; it could be a breakthrough for the oil and gas industry, he said.

Scottish Enterprise has played a key role in supporting the growth and diversification of the company. The agency appointed a dedicated account manager and Soluis has received funding to accelerate product development. Support has also allowed it to travel to overseas events and seminars, helping advance their international expansion plans – with particular focus on the USA and the Middle East.

Scottish Enterprise provides training and support to high growth companies based in Scotland. Attract investment; develop your management team; do business outside Scotland; develop your organisation; develop new products and services; license technology; improve your business practices; support for entrepreneurs.

The company is one of several in Scotland that is working in VR, AR and AI (artificial intelligence). Edinburgh-based Cloudgine, co-founded by Dave Jones of Realtime Worlds and Rockstar North fame, has partnered with Microsoft for the past two years on its game Crackdown 3.

Emerging AR and VR devices are set to change people’s lives, but with them comes an unprecedented demand for processing power.

In gaming and related activities, these new devices place huge demands on PCs, consoles and mobiles, requiring 90 frames per second stereoscopic rendering and high performance tracking for an acceptable and enjoyable experience. This leaves very little device compute power for the applications themselves.

Cloudgine is using cloud computing expertise to create an AR & VR platform that will “restore and dynamically amplify the compute power available to applications”.

It allows developers to have a high-frame rate, low latency view into huge worlds powered by complex AI, physics and logic. Its cloud platform also brings as standard its multiplayer and social support to AR and VR worlds, now fully optimised for 90fps interactivity.

By leveraging the immense power available within data centres, computationally intensive game components such as physics and AI can be “supercharged” in order to deliver game experiences that go well beyond what any console or PC can offer now or in the future.

With its extensive experience in online games development and distributed computing the company is “uniquely positioned to help game studios of any size transition to this new revolutionary paradigm by providing tools and expertise throughout the process.”

Stand Out Games, based in Dundee, is a three-year-old mobile and virtual reality games company. The firm has two titles available in Google Apps Marketplace: Heavy Snake, a remake of the classic Nokia game Snake; and Quickslide, a tile-sliding game and recently-nominated TIGA finalist in the social game category.

Featured by Scottish Development International at its stand at the 2016 Games Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, Stand Out Games is also developing the mobile game Hotel Havok, a 2.5D side-scrolling adventure, and VR games for the Oculus Rift, with one VR title in development – Chariot Chasers – which it is looking forward to releasing towards the end of this year.

Dundee has a long-established reputation in the games sector, with Abertay University being home to both the world’s first computer games degree courses and the UK’s first centre of excellence for computer games.

Maintaining its status as one of the best universities at which to study games design, as recognised by The Princeton Review 2015, Abertay offers a range of Skillset-accredited undergraduate courses in games technology, art and management. Postgraduate opportunities include a Masters in Games Development (MProf), plus various PhD research options.

Among the many innovative approaches developed at Abertay is Cinemotus, a collection of techniques and methodologies that allow games hardware to mimic the behaviour of high-end virtual production systems currently employed in Hollywood; a proof of concept technology dubbed internally as “taking movies beyond Avatar, for under £100”.

In the last six years the film industry has been shifting to a new film-making technique known as ‘virtual production’. This technique is employed particularly in films that utilise a large proportion of computer-generated elements, or entirely 3D animated films.

The initial techniques were pioneered during the production of Avatar. For the first time, it is now possible to perform traditional camera work – which has a much more organic, creative feel – in computer-generated media.

There is growing demand for virtual production in areas of the film production pipeline such as pre-visualisation and scene layout. This digital storyboarding process is used to establish the make-up of every scene and shot before films enter production. Even major studios with virtual production systems cannot give access to the technology to the whole creative pipeline because of the expense.

Cinemotus has been developed as a commercial plug-in software for the industry-standard 3D modelling package. It uses an off-the-shelf gaming motion controller as a motion capture device and allows the user to perform the same virtual production techniques as the high-end Hollywood hardware for a fraction of the cost, right at their desk or by remote, networked, control.

It also encompasses a set of library functions that allows the virtual camera system to work in any real-time visualisation system.

It provides a potential cost effective solution for film and other media production pipelines. Research is ongoing using the latest iterations of games hardware and branching out to include other cutting edge interactive technologies, such as virtual reality, to blur the edges between the games and film industry even further. As an internal university technology, Cinemotus is also an integral component of several ongoing research projects.