Virtual reality start-up goes from Liverpool to Silicon Valley

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A meetings app from vTime demonstrates the technology’s potential for social interaction

Studying vTime’s users has found that the simulated location chosen for a meeting affects the way they behave

Most enthusiasts for virtual reality, me included, believe 2017 is going to be the year the technology moves from its extended fanfare to becoming a significant part of people’s lives. Most VR supporters similarly believe, as does Mark Zuckerberg, who bought the Oculus company in 2014, that social interaction in virtual reality will be the leading use that VR is put to, ahead of gaming, entertainment and education.

But most are still hazy as to how socialising in virtual reality might work.

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A compelling answer is to be found in Liverpool, on the top two floors of a former tea warehouse in Toxteth, right across the road from the sadly defunct Cain’s brewery, which provided virtual reality of a different kind for generations of Scousers.

If the idea of one of the standard bearers of the coming VR revolution being from Liverpool 8 rather than Palo Alto sounds like the stuff of local authority public relations blah, consider this: in May, the company, vTime (“The VR Sociable Network”), was named by Gartner, the analyst, as one of four 2016 “Cool Vendors in Consumer Mobile” — an accolade often given to start-ups on the brink of the big time.

Former Gartner Cool Vendor winners have been Airbnb, Instagram and Dropbox, and between 60 and 80 per cent of Cool Vendors go on to become acquired. In vTime’s citation, Gartner said: “Virtual reality and its immersive experiences are one of the hottest technology topics in 2016, and socialising using VR is in its starting block.”

VTime was founded in 2013 by games industry veteran Martin Kenwright, and funded to the tune of some $5m to date from the sale proceeds of a previous business, Evolution Studios, to Sony. Mr Kenwright started out from his bedroom in a council house in Runcorn, and founded Evolution on a converted pig farm.

The app offers social interaction in VR, from family get-togethers to romantic one-on-ones to business meetings. They are even working with the NHS to “change the face of engagement” — the VR doctor’s appointment may be close, with all the savings in effort and money that could allow.

The system does not require any equipment beyond a smartphone with a data connection, a simple VR headset such as a £5 Google Cardboard and the free vTime app.

You can choose a variety of virtual settings for meetings — round a boardroom table, round a camp fire, on a mountain top, in a Roman city, a sports bar, and so on.

So far so good, but what does the vTime you look like? Here’s the thing that can be hard to get your head around. You build, in the vTime app, a Pixar-like, animated avatar of yourself. Neither the software nor hardware currently available could make a convincing photo-real, expressive you.

And until you’ve tried it, it’s fair to say having your avatar self meet your friends’ or colleagues’ avatars in a CGI ancient Pompeii seems hopelessly lacking in emotional worth.

Yet in practice, it’s bizarrely human and realistic — so much so that not only does conversation quickly become lifelike and unselfconscious, but the real world seems a little colourless and flat when you “come out of VR” — a phrase that I suspect will become common in the near future.

“We’re continually asked, can I take a picture of my face and put it on my avatar?” vTime’s chief marketing officer Julian Price explained in a (real-life) meeting in the Liverpool HQ — shortly before flying to San Francisco to open a vTime office on Market Street, in the heart of the tech action.

“The answer is, if you put a super-real-looking avatar into a stylised destination, your brain sees there’s something wrong — the effect has been called ‘uncanny valley’. Also, if a real, photographic face doesn’t animate accurately, you get actual nausea and discomfort.”

I do see this as the end of the information age and the start of the experience age

– Martin Kenwright

But isn’t a vTime meeting just a glorified — or perhaps not so glorified, given the avatar issue — video conference call?

“With FaceTime or Skype,” says Mr Price, “you’re looking through a window into someone else’s world. With vTime, after a couple of minutes, say, in the boardroom, talking, you’re actually in the same destination together.”

“It’s experiential, and it has a completely different quality. It’s teleporting you to place you’ve never been, and it creates a sense of presence we don’t think anyone else has come close to.” Elements such as seeing your breath in a cold location or hearing 360-degree sound effects make it like being drawn into a “personal Pixar film”, he says.

Being a new form of social media still relatively short of users, random groupings of people on vTime are common.

“We had a real example of a group chatting around a virtual camp fire that included a Nasa rocket scientist, a nurse in India and a geologist in New Zealand,” says Mr Price. “And a couple in the US have met and got engaged in vTime. They’re hoping we’ll build them a virtual wedding chapel and we’re thinking of it.”

Unexpected psychological effects of vTime meetings are accumulating. Users report finding it exceedingly hard to lie, when looking even into someone’s simulated eyes. The simulated location chosen for a meeting also affects the way people behave — they speak more intimately in a bar than in a boardroom.

A team in Liverpool monitors proceedings 24/7 for the inevitable obscenity and other misbehaviour problems. “We’re very strict, we police it and we have zero tolerance,” says Mr Kenwright. “We operate like Facebook, so users have to be real people, with real names.”

The proof of the pudding is in the traction vTime is achieving. The app, launched in December, has been downloaded a third of a million times in 191 countries, with 75 per cent in the US. There are already, says the company, “hundreds of thousands of active users” which is, for any online company, the key metric, and the one they keep to themselves.

No wonder, as Mr Kenwright claims, vTime is well-known to Silicon Valley and his company is co-operating at a high level with several of the behemoths there, although he does not want to make public the details at the moment.

It is not unlikely, he hints, that the California-Merseyside connection may turn out fruitful in the next few months.

“I’m taking a punt here with putting so much of my own money into social VR,” he explains. “But I do see this as the end of the information age and the start of the experience age.”

“The thinking from the beginning was, let’s disrupt a trillion-dollar industry, and let’s do it in the most deprived part of Liverpool and give something back to where I grew up. And we’ve come so far, it’s really Twitter or bust for me.”

jonathan.margolis@ft.com

@TheFutureCritic

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