Ir­ish firm in van­guard as vir­tual re­al­ity is de­ployed in com­bat zones

Content stu­dio VRAI is working with the UN on a project which helps to iden­tify con­cealed bombs

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS INNOVATION - Ciara O’Brien

The con­voy of mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles makes its way slowly down a dusty road in Mo­gadishu. Scan­ning ahead, I am try­ing to fig­ure out if that lit­tle dis­tur­bance in the road’s sur­face is from a pre­vi­ous ve­hi­cle or some­thing more sin­is­ter – a hid­den ex­plo­sive de­vice. It’s not worth tak­ing the chance, so I point at the of­fend­ing patch and wait while the ex­perts fig­ure it out. It’s all clear, so we con­tinue on. I have never felt as stressed. This isn’t real life though. My ex­pe­ri­ence is purely in vir­tual re­al­ity, cre­ated by Dublin-based content stu­dio VRAI to sim­u­late the chal­lenges faced by troops in the Mo­gadishu re­gion ev­ery day. It’s a project that was des­tined for an event in So­ma­lia on In­ter­na­tional Mine Aware­ness Day, a United Na­tions ini­tia­tive that took place on April 4th.

There are five im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices (IEDs) buried on the road, and I am fail­ing mis­er­ably at find­ing them. The VR ex­pe­ri­ence ends with a dis­ori­en­tat­ing ex­plo­sion after I miss a buried IED. There are sud­denly sol­diers ev­ery­where as I’m (vir­tu­ally) ly­ing on my back. To my right, there’s a sev­ered limb. It’s hor­ri­fy­ing.

But that level of re­al­ism is the whole point of the ex­pe­ri­ence, cre­ative di­rec­tor Noel Cam­pion says, from the grisly phys­i­cal ef­fects to the difficulty in spot­ting the de­vices in the first place.

“No one ever gets them all,” he says.

Re­al­ism

The footage of Mo­gadishu is real, shot on a 360° video cam­era. The truck you are trav­el­ling in is the in­ter­ac­tive el­e­ment added af­ter­wards. “If it’s fully CG it starts to look fake,” Cam­pion says.

Hav­ing that sense of re­al­ism is cru­cial for the project to work. VRAI was brought in to help con­vey the dan­ger posed by IEDs.

More than 1,400 civil­ians were killed or in­jured by im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices last year in So­ma­lia, fig­ures from the UN Mine Ac­tion Ser­vice in­di­cate. Last Oc­to­ber, more than 500 peo­ple were killed and more than 300 were in­jured in what was de­scribed as one of the worst IED bomb­ings on the con­ti­nent, when a truck bomb ex­ploded in Mo­gadishu. Sol­diers are at risk of death or in­jury on pa­trols from IEDs.

The com­pany it­self is rel­a­tively young, founded just over a year ago. Cam­pion is a film maker by trade. He went from mak­ing films in col­lege to be­ing an edi­tor, de­signer and di­rec­tor. If you’ve watched RTÉ’s news bul­letins lately, you’ve seen some of Cam­pion’s work – he cre­ated the sky­line back­drop for the pro­gramme, which com­prises about 500 dif­fer­ent bits of video and pho­tog­ra­phy to make up the com­pos­ite im­age.

A few years ago he de­cided to look into 360° video. The tech­nol­ogy was still rel­a­tively new, so he bought his first 360° cam­era – a Ri­coh Theta – and be­gan to ex­per­i­ment.

“From an edit­ing per­spec­tive, I found the lan­guage of it in­ter­est­ing,” he says. “How do you tell a story when you can’t re­ally put in cuts? I think 360 is more like the­atre.”

Clients be­gan ask­ing if he could cre­ate content for them us­ing the 360° cam­era, so he took on a few jobs. One was to shoot the 1916 an­niver­sary pa­rade, which he did from a po­si­tion out­side the GPO, for a two-minute video com­pris­ing time-lapse im­ages of ev­ery­thing pass­ing the land­mark build­ing.

It was an in­ter­est­ing ex­per­i­ment and taught him a bit about what works and what doesn’t.

“What ended up be­ing nice about it was the stills I got out of it,” he says. “But watch­ing the whole thing in time lapse makes you feel a bit sick.”

Ser­vice

The com­pany has been trad­ing for just over a year, and has done some work with ESB and the Kerry Group, along with some VR ex­pe­ri­ences for the De­fence Forces. “I got this idea that I would start try­ing to sell VR as a ser­vice I’m of­fer­ing – long story short, it’s all that I do,” says Cam­pion.

The en­tire oper­a­tion is based out of the Dublin city-cen­tre of­fice. But it has also started working with in­ter­na­tional projects, shoot­ing 360° video for a charity in Viet­nam, be­fore working with the UN.

It was the De­fence Forces work that brought VRAI to the UN’s at­ten­tion, and de­cided it could work for the sit­u­a­tion in So­ma­lia.

It was a short run for such a ma­jor project – a mat­ter of weeks be­fore the event – but the firm pulled it off. The footage was shot over a two-week pe­riod with the In­sta360 Pro, which shoots in 8k, but Cam­pion used the Sam­sung Gear 360 as a ve­hi­cle-mounted cam­era to get more footage. “If it falls off, or gets shot off, it’s not too ex­pen­sive to re­place,” he says. When film­ing, the VRAI crew needed an es­cort and full pro­tec­tive gear, a stark re­minder that they were in a vo­latile zone.

When needed, VRAI can call in ex­tra re­sources from the other com­pa­nies in the build­ing; video com­pany Noho is on the floor be­low.

VRAI has four full-time staff, and a cou­ple of part-time peo­ple who are brought in de­pend­ing on the job. They share re­sources with other com­pa­nies in the build­ing when nec­es­sary; in the days be­fore the UN event, Noho was working with the com­pany to make sure it was ready on time.

The small of­fice is filled with VR equip­ment and props, from the Pico Gob­lin head­sets used for the Viet­nam video to the Ocu­lus Rift head­sets and con­trollers, along with nu­mer­ous com­put­ers. Cam­pion pulls a prop out - the dis­mem­bered leg I saw in the after­math of the IED. It looks less trau­ma­tis­ing in real life, some­thing peo­ple caught in the real-world ver­sion of an ex­plo­sion are not spared.

The com­pany trav­elled to So­ma­lia for the UN event, bring­ing four Ocu­lus Rift head­sets and four com­put­ers to show­case their vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence.

VRAI di­rec­tor Alan Haverty says the ex­pe­ri­ence was well re­ceived at the event. Its last­ing ef­fect though will take a bit longer to gauge.

Ul­ti­mately, the goal is to cut the num­ber of deaths from IEDs. “I’ve been say­ing: sav­ing lives through VR,” Cam­pion says.

“That is the ul­ti­mate aim.”

VRAI cre­ative di­rec­tor Noel Cam­pion briefs African Union troops in So­ma­lia; VRAI di­rec­tor Alan Haverty po­si­tion­ing a 360° cam­era; the UN vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ence from the player’s per­spec­tive

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