Start-up of the week: Immersive VR Education

16 Mar 2015

Our start-up of the week is Immersive VR Education, a Waterford-based technology company that is planning to have a best-seller on its hands this Christmas in the form of the Apollo 11 moon landing through a VR headset.

Immersive VR Education, a tech start-up supported by Waterford Institute of Technology’s TSSG (Telecommunications Software and Systems Group has developed a VR experience that works on Oculus Rift and demos can be viewed on Mac and Windows.

“We create educational virtual reality experiences that place students in any event or allow them to relive any day in history,” said founder and CEO David Whelan.

In the last 24 hours the company surpassed a €30,000 funding target on Kickstarter, raising €36,623 from 1,407 backers.

“Imagine not just reading about how Neil Armstrong walked on the moon but experiencing this yourself first hand or being shrunk down to the size of an atom and travelling inside the human body to see how the heart functions from the inside.

“We enable this to happen using virtual reality technology that will completely immerse students in a world of our choosing and design.”

The market

Immersive VR Education plans to change the face of education forever worldwide for every student whether they are in a classroom, college or university.

“The basis of education has remained unchanged for the past several hundred years with students having to read text or view photos or videos,” Whelan said.

“Even with new technologies like iPads and white boards these are still used to display information to students who then have to visualise the learning concept that the teacher is trying to instil in the student.

“Virtual reality allows for total immersion that will make hard to visualise concepts easy to understand. Virtual Reality also allows students to actively take part in real world situations that they would otherwise never get a chance to experience.

“Everybody knows the most efficient way to truly learn something is to do it yourself. A good example of this is learning how to ride a bike, you can read all the theory you want but until you do it yourself you don’t truly understand the concept. We have taken this a step further in virtual reality.

“If you’re learning about the effects of gravity on the earth and the planets in our solar system why not visit Jupiter or fly around the sun and see it first-hand. Our company tag line is ‘Learn Through Experience’ and we will provide experiences that will go beyond what anybody thought was possible even just a few short years ago.”

The founder

Whelan, a web developer has been running his own business for over 10 years, creating apps and data systems for big clients like insurance companies and some well-known grocery chains.

“I’m also the editor and chief of which has allowed me to build up a big network of contacts in the VR development community both here in the EU and US.

“I’m also the founder of The Virtual Reality Awards which was held for the first time last year. Currently we have a team of four VR developers all working on various educational experiences which we will be announcing throughout the next 12 months.”

The technology

Immersive VR Education is currently using Oculus Rift Development kits until the consumer release of virtual reality which is coming this holiday season.

“The technology itself is really quite simple when broken down into its major components. The virtual reality display currently looks like a ski mask with a phone attached to the front of it. The reason for this design is because that is essentially what a VR headset is.

“It’s a large phone screen that has some lenses placed in front of it. The screen displays tw images side by side so that each of your eyes sees a slightly different perspective of the same image as they would in the real world. This gives the user a visually believable environment as they see objects in the virtual world the same as they see objects in the real physical world.

“To give you some idea of how realistic the world feels if we placed you inside a roller-coaster demo you would feel the drop in your stomach as you go over the edge because your body is completely fooled into believing this event is happening for real.

“The virtual reality headset also includes a tracking system that knows exactly where you are looking at any given time and this info is sent to the image on screen so as you turn your head the image on the screen matches your movement.

“In essence if you look up in virtual reality you will see the sky or if you look down you will see the ground or whatever we wish to project into the digital world.”

Motivation – to transform education forever

Whelan says he wants to change how we educate children and young adults worldwide by giving them a reason to jump out of bed in the morning and to get excited about going to school or college.

“I know I certainly would have been a straight A student if I was going into school knowing I was going to walk on the surface of Mars or visit a trench on the eve of the battle of the Somme.”

Immersive VR Education came out of stealth mode four weeks ago releasing its Apollo 11 virtual reality experience on Kickstarter to gain publicity.

“My inbox has been flooded with requests from schools, colleges and universities for demonstrations and we have also had quite a few enquiries to create experiences for research institutes.

“As virtual reality is not due for consumer release until the end of this year we are still building our team and creating educational content as quickly as possible so we have a slew of experiences ready by the time headsets are widely available.

“We will be looking to attract substantial investment over the next six months to make sure we have the right marketing and support team in place and we are being helped with this via Enterprise Ireland and our Local Enterprise Office. I’ve actually participated in the New Frontiers programme in Waterford and this has really paved the way forward from my initial business plan.”

Rapid release cycle

Whelan says that as with any start up cash flow is the biggest issue especially as it waits for the consume release of its VR product.

“We have secured some funding from our Local Enterprise Office in Waterford and also Kickstarter has helped us out quite a bit at this early starting stage but with the rapid release of consumer VR just around the corner it’s going to take a big investment to make sure Ireland sits on top of this new technology revolution.

“One of the more welcome challenges I have at the moment is with all the publicity we are receiving for the Apollo 11 Experience. We are getting lots of highly experienced game developers and designers coming to us looking to be part of the company as they are just as excited as we are about the endless possibilities that VR has to offer in changing the world we all live in today.”

Get your MVP out there as quickly as possible

Whelan believes Ireland is a fantastic place to start a business if you have a great idea.

“The amount of support and advice that is available in Ireland and in the wider EU is astounding. Gone are the days when Irish people seem to begrudge success. My journey through the New Frontiers programme in WIT Waterford was and still is very enjoyable and immensely helpful not just for the advice they provide but also for the contacts you receive to the wider investment community.

“Everybody in Enterprise Ireland and the wider research institutes like TSSG has been very helpful and all want to see Irish businesses grow and develop and if they believe in your vision they will go the extra mile to help you on your way.”

Whelan’s advice for other tech start-ups would be get your minimum viable product to market as soon as possible.

“I talked lots and lots about what I was going to do in the VR space but once we released our first demo our business progressed quickly and doors of opportunity opened in places I would have never expected. Don’t get focused on the actual feature set or making it 100pc perfect for initial release.

“Deploy something that is functional and shows promise and see if that’s what the market wants. Also getting funding through government or EU schemes can be difficult and a long drawn our process. It’s nearly a full time job filling in applications and you might need the skills of a poet to complete some of the applications as they limit you by characters.

“I’m only at the start of my business journey but my best advice is if your gut tells you you’re doing the right thing then go with that. You will get setbacks and lots of people won’t understand exactly what you are doing or trying to create but if every cell in your body is telling you that this is the wave of the future or it’s going to change the world then you owe it to yourself to pursue it and make it successful.”

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