The Virtual Reality of university life

Features Posted 16/06/17
Entrepreneurial company helps students see their chosen campus from the comfort of home

Young people hoping to study at the University of Surrey no longer have to imagine what life will be like on campus – there’s an app for that.

Technology adapted by three young entrepreneurs at Surrey Research Park allows prospective students to download the app, pull on a cardboard headset and take a virtual tour of the university, its accommodation and the city of Guildford – all from the comfort of their home, anywhere in the world.

As Jake Kuliczkowski of Diverse Interactive explains: “The app-based VR (virtual reality) experience allows budding students to ‘visit’ Guildford from wherever they may be. A user can explore interactive maps and launch six 360-degree VR tours featuring the university campus and accommodation, music venues, the High Street, pubs, clubs and restaurants. Everything the newly independent student needs.” A number of 360-degree images were taken for the virtual tour app, allowing an all-round experience. One menu features the various types of accommodation on campus, from Band A to F.

Jake adds: “Parents and students can discover each room without having to visit the university and dedicate their time to exploring housing options. The cardboard VR headset experience will allow the user to ‘see’ themselves in their potential home and examine every corner, the bed, the window, the position of the door and even the size of the wardrobe.”

The idea of virtual reality is far from new, of course. Fans of the 1980s and 90s TV sci-fi series Star Trek: The Next Generation will remember the Holodeck, a room in which members of the crew of the Starship Enterprise were able to act out various simulated scenarios. That technology is now being put to practical business use – with potentially huge bonuses for the companies developing it.

Diverse Interactive was set up in 2014 by Jake and his colleague at a digital agency, Ben Fryer.

Jake said: “We were working 9 to 5 for the agency, then sitting up till midnight, developing our freelance projects. One day we looked at the massive list of work we had to do privately and realised that even if we didn’t sleep for three months we would never complete it all. Something had to go.”

The two young men – Jake is still only 24 and Ben 36 – decided to leave the agency and set up their own company, at first working from home, then renting space on a farm and finally hooking up with the research park, first in a starter unit and now in a stand-alone office. Chris Elson, 40, joined them in January 2017 and is exploring marketing potential for the VR and augmented reality (AR) software.

Jake proudly tells me about two applications the company has already completed. It built a virtual tour for a major new theme park in the USA and provided American Airlines with the photo-realistic computer-generated experience to present a virtual tour of the cabin interiors of its fleet of aircraft.

Several exciting projects are now being pursued, including one with a prestige manufacturer interested in using VR technology to sell its luxury cars. Chris explains: “The nature of car dealership is changing. Few companies can afford the high cost of renting showroom space in London. We are offering to develop a combined VR and AR (augmented reality) that will allow the customer to immerse themselves in the vehicle of their choice, configure every aspect of its interior and exterior, then enjoy a full 360-degree virtual test drive of their vehicle, all at the push of a button.”

AR, which imposes computer-generated images on a real-world landscape, is another field being pursued by the company. Following last year’s international phenomena of the Pokemon app, drinks manufacturer Ribena approached Diverse Interactive via an agency to develop the technology needed to launch a new online game.

“Doodle Your World”, which hit the streets on 29 May via specially branded drinks bottles, allows app users to “doodle” on their surroundings using characters within the app they download on to their mobile phone, iPad or tablet. The resulting animated cartoons can be shared with friends via social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. It’s expected to be the craze of summer 2017.

Chris showed me how the AR app worked, using his iPad screen to make one of the cartoon characters appear through the top of an office stool in front of me. Amazing!

He explains that the 3D tracking technology which makes the AR possible is the same used in Pokemon Go! The cartoon characters are “fixed” to the landscape filmed by the user using a complicated bit of kit called Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping, or SLAM for short.

Before I leave the Diverse Interactive office, my head spinning with all this new technology, I ask Chris what will be the next Big Thing. “An AR revolution,” he says, beaming with the sheer joy of his role. “The tech world is changing so fast it’s really time that people started to take note of what’s possible with this experiential tech.”

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