TSSG’s Barry Downes: ‘Our computer sciences need to embrace VR and AR’

28 Oct 2016

TSSG CEO Barry Downes. Image: Conor McCabe

Ireland’s academic landscape need to embrace augmented and virtual reality to meet the future needs of entrepreneurs and industry, according to Barry Downes of TSSG.

Out of all the academic campuses in Ireland, the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) has developed an uncanny ability for spotting new trends, spinning out start-ups and achieving undreamed exits.

It seems to have developed a methodology that takes the latest – or future – trends and pulls together students, researchers and entrepreneurs to rise to the next challenge, whether it is in telecoms, gaming or internet of things.

‘Investment in basic science and education in the areas of AR, VR and AI will be crucial’

Masterminding this frenetic activity is Barry Downes, CEO of TSSG.

To get a sense of the pace, Downes is also the founder of FeedHenry, the software company bought by Red Hat for €63.5m.

There are others in the pipeline that could also take the same path.

The shape of what is to come next

“The interesting thing about TSSG is we have this combination of SFI and EU-backed programmes, as well as a pipeline of start-ups. We have an interesting number of companies in development at the moment.”

One of those interesting companies is Immersive VR Education, a Waterford-based technology company that is planning to have a best-seller on its hands this Christmas – with the Apollo 11 moon landing through a VR headset across platforms including Oculus, PlayStation and HTC’s Vive, to name a few.

Downes sees companies like Immersive VR Education as forerunners of a new era in computer science-related spin-outs that are taking the best that artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) can offer.

“The goal here is that there is going to be a winner in the VR education space and we want to produce that big winner. The challenge is to compete with Silicon Valley, but it is actually realistic to expect that European and Asian companies can be very competitive too.”

To compete, Downes says it is vital that computer science education equips graduates with capabilities in AI, AR and VR, because as well as entertainment, these technologies will form the bedrock of future enterprise apps and start-ups.

“I think there needs to be more investment into machine learning and AI. I would encourage SFI to do even more of this.”

He said that as well as its core AI research team, social network giant Facebook would have up to 1,000 employees working as researchers in AI, and all the big tech giants from Google to IBM are doing likewise.

“If you look at how a lot of finance theory has worked its way to the markets to form the future of fintech – and you have lots of PhDs in physics working as quants in Wall St firms – technologies in the lab today could be in our lives tomorrow.

“I see the progression of AI being very similar. So, investment in basic science and education in the areas of AR, VR and AI will be crucial.

“For example, among our various research projects with industry, we are working on the use of AI in dairy right now.”

The future of tech start-ups

Downes pointed to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s use of AI to create new customer experiences for businesses, as well as his view of VR not only as a gaming device but as a communications platform for businesses as indicative of the future.

He also cited Facebook-owned Oculus’s acquisition of Cork tech firm InfiniLED.

“There is a lot of investment in AI and VR companies and we are starting to see the uptick on the hardware side.”

He also pointed to how companies like DAQRI are creating hard-hat systems for engineers on construction projects to employ AR and VR in the course of their daily work.

“It turns out that languages like C and C++ are important software languages again, because the programming and scripting for VR is all done in C-sharp.

“From a policy perspective, I believe the academic institutions need to get behind a drive to ensure we nurture and develop skills in machine learning and AI, which will be vital in the next generation of computing platforms.

“I see AR and VR as the next computing platform for enterprise apps and I see AI spreading everywhere,” Downes concluded.

“Anyone looking to do start-ups need to realise that VR and AR are great spaces to target, particularly around enterprise.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years