EN­ABLING THE GAM­I­FIED WORLD

FOL­LOW­ING AND THE MO­BILE COM­PUT­ERS, PHE­NOM­E­NON, THE IN­TER­NET, THERE’S A FOURTH-WAVE OF TECH­NOL­OGY SWEEP­ING THE WORLD. AUG­MENTED AND VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY PLAT­FORMS ARE ON THE RISE, AND GLOB­ALLY- FO­CUSED DE­VEL­OPER IMER­SIA IS A FRONT- RUN­NER IN THE RACE TO CAPITA

NZ Business - - CON­TENTS - BY GLENN BAKER

AR and VR plat­forms are on the rise, and Imer­sia is a front-run­ner in the race to cap­i­talise on it.

I had to nav­i­gate a scene of up­heaval to reach the of­fice of Imer­sia and its co-founders Dr Roy Davies and Jon Lowther. Oc­cu­py­ing shared space in the aban­doned Her­ald/NZME build­ing in Auck­land’s Al­bert Street, which it­self is one gar­gan­tuan con­struc­tion site for the city’s rail loop, I find the two lead­ing ex­po­nents of aug­mented re­al­ity and vir­tual re­al­ity (AR/ VR).

Get­ting Roy and Jon to­gether had been a mis­sion any­way. At the be­gin­ning of the year they were set­ting up to raise up to $5 mil­lion for a Se­ries A round of fund­ing.

If that sounds a lot of ini­tial fund­ing for an emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy, put it in con­text with the po­ten­tial of the global AR/VR mar­ket. As re­ported at Bloomberg.com, in­vest­ment in aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity reached $1.1 bil­lion in the first two months of 2016 alone.

Imer­sia’s plat­form in­cor­po­rates ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) and a pow­er­ful an­a­lyt­ics en­gine. The plat­form makes the most of gam­i­fi­ca­tion and story-telling tech­niques to present con­tent, to en­gage and in­flu­ence con­sumer be­hav­iour. It uses AR/VR as the medium and cloud com­put­ing as the tool; with mo­bile de­vices and wear­able tech­nolo­gies as the user in­ter­face.

End user en­gage­ment is sim­ple. The re­al­ity browser se­lects con­tent de­fined by the lo­ca­tion and user con­text. The browser

users the cam­era, GPS, com­pass and in­er­tial sen­sors on your mo­bile de­vice to lit­er­ally tap into or ‘see and hear’ a con­tex­tu­ally de­fined mixed re­al­ity world. Think Poke­mon Go on steroids.

It is the ‘ New Re­al­ity’ of op­por­tu­nity (as cov­ered by our Feb 2017 story on Jessica Manins and the NZ VR/AR As­so­ci­a­tion), and the Imer­sia plat­form has been catch­ing the eye of movie stu­dios and other large con­tent cre­ators as a unique way to reach to­day’s con­sumers.

Val­i­da­tion and com­mer­cial tri­als are un­der way in New Zealand, Asia and the US – where a ma­jor stu­dio has en­gaged Imer­sia to con­duct tri­als with a view to launch­ing the world’s first mixed re­al­ity movie cam­paign. As well as the movie and en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­tries, tar­get mar­kets in­clude mo­bile gam­ing, smart ci­ties, and travel and tourism.

Roy Davies demon­strates one ap­pli­ca­tion that’s be­ing de­vel­oped for the des­ti­na­tion tourism mar­ket. Vis­i­tors to Auck­land can learn about the unique Maori cul­tural sto­ries as­so­ci­ated with the city and its sur­rounds by aim­ing their smart­phone at var­i­ous ‘marker’ lo­ca­tions – re­veal­ing an­i­mated 3D mytho­log­i­cal Maori char­ac­ters. One is lo­cated in the mid­dle of Viaduct Har­bour which, on wa­ter, can be viewed and heard 360-de­grees.

Roy ex­plains Imer­sia’s pur­pose as “af­fect­ing be­hav­iour change”. “Other com­pa­nies may track peo­ple, but we also en­cour­age peo­ple to do cer­tain things – much like Poke­mon Go.”

Jon Lowther is quick to point out the dif­fer­ence between AR and VR. The lat­ter es­sen­tially a form of es­capism in­volv­ing a head­set, a ‘stream­able ex­pe­ri­ence’ that can be sup­ported by the Imer­sia plat­form.

“But the guts of our en­gi­neer­ing is re­ally all about how AI can evolve; what we call aug­mented re­al­ity, or even ‘ aug­mented in­tel­li­gence’ that de­fines con­nect points all around you,” ex­plains Jon. “Think of us as an AR or VR con­tent ser­vice provider.” Roy and Jon met four years ago through a mu­tual busi­ness men­tor. Roy, who has a masters in com­puter sci­ence and PhD in cog­ni­tive sci­ence and hu­man fac­tors, had just re­turned from a 12-year post found­ing and run­ning a Swedish VR re­search cen­tre. (Peo­ple may re­gard VR as a rel­a­tively re­cent tech­nol­ogy, but his in­volve­ment spans 20 years.)

He was also the first CEO, and then CTO, be­hind start-up Nex­tS­pace – a 3D vi­su­al­i­sa­tion hub.

Jon de­scribes his back­ground as eclec­tic. “I was a bit of an early starter. At the age of seven I was get­ting po­etry pub­lished. At nine years old I was the youngest mem­ber of the In­ven­tors As­so­ci­a­tion,” he re­calls. “I was pas­sion­ately in­ter­ested in just about ev­ery­thing.”

An arts de­gree was spawned from his love for music, me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. He even spent time in Ja­pan’s rock music in­dus­try, and run­ning a busi­ness there.

Jon’s pas­sion for com­put­ers came from his father, an air­line pi­lot who taught him an early form of ma­chine lan­guage. “That paved the way to a job at the ASB com­puter cen­tre, which back then was still punch­ing cards.

“It was an in­cred­i­bly mind-numb­ing job, but it was just so ex­cit­ing to be near those com­put­ers. It was like some­thing out of Star Trek!”

Roy and Jon have much in com­mon – they were both spon­sored by Com­modore Com­put­ers at high school and ter­tiary level. “Com­puter work back then in­volved wait­ing all day for a pro­gramme to back up on tape – a pro­gramme that would take about two min­utes to play,” Jon re­mem­bers.

Jon had a start-up too – a ‘first move­ment’ In­ter­net com­pany called Lat­i­tude. His first ex­pe­ri­ence with VR gam­ing came through a part­ner­ship with Sil­i­con Graph­ics In­ter­na­tional (SGI).

“This shows how far back VR goes. This was 25 years ago and both Roy and I were in­ves­ti­gat­ing th­ese tech­nolo­gies back then.”

PER­VA­SIVE COM­PUT­ING

You have to see Imer­sia’s plat­form in ac­tion to truly un­der­stand what it’s all about. Jon talks of a “con­nec­tiv­ity tis­sue that’s hu­man to hu­man”, and the dawn of a new PC – Per­va­sive Com­put­ing.

“The per­va­sive com­puter is start­ing to be­come om­nipo­tent and om­ni­scient. That’s where we’re at right now.

“Aug­mented re­al­ity is re­ally a viewer,” he adds, “and we sup­port AR in its var­i­ous it­er­a­tions through­out our plat­form.

“The big­ger pic­ture is de­vel­op­ing in­tel­li­gence that wraps around ev­ery­thing and pro­vides more vis­i­ble con­nec­tiv­ity ca­pa­bil­ity when you’re least aware of it.”

Roy refers to cre­at­ing a ‘mag­i­cal game world’ that’s all around you. “Imer­sia is about gam­i­fy­ing a retail or prod­uct ex­pe­ri­ence even in an en­tire ver­ti­cal.”

Gam­i­fy­ing is pro­vid­ing hooks and mea­sures and the abil­ity to in­flu­ence peo­ple’s be­hav­iour, not once but many times, says Jon.

For Imer­sia, the key ben­e­fi­cia­ries short-term are con­sumers (user ex­pe­ri­ences) and brand part­ners. Longer term it’s about de­vel­op­ing the in­fra­struc­ture to hang ev­ery­thing on.

On May 1st, Roy and Jon are re­launch­ing the com­pany as Imer­sia Re­al­ity, to end the con­fu­sion around AR, VR and var­i­ous other ‘re­al­i­ties’. What with fund­ing rounds, hir­ing new de­vel­op­ers (in­clud­ing in­terns from AUT) and man­ag­ing de­vel­op­ment teams in the US, Sin­ga­pore and Auck­land, life for the two co-founders has never been busier.

As for the evo­lu­tion of gam­ing, with Imer­sia’s plat­form it’s no longer about the game it­self or ‘ the es­cape’, says Jon. “It’s about en­velop­ing our lives in such a way that it can add value to many dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios. En­abling a gam­i­fied world with stronger, more res­onate con­nec­tions.”

“We’re still in the starter’s blocks of the next race,” says Roy. “And it’s about much more than just AR. But how it evolves and what it sup­ports, we think, will very much play to our strengths.”

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