Touching the virtual void

Technology | Wed 23 Sep | Author – Niamh Mac Sweeney VR reality
Charlie Duke serving on Capcom for Apollo 11

Creating a virtual reality university that allows educators worldwide to upload content and create lessons inside a unique digital environment is all in a day’s work for David Whelan, as he tells Niamh Mac Sweeney.

In 1962, president John F Kennedy passionately implored the people of America to embrace the exploration of space. “No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come… The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time. Those who came before us made sure that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention and the first wave of nuclear power. And this generation does not intend to flounder in the backwash of the coming age of space.

We need to be a part of it. We need to lead it. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. People may ask: ‘but why choose this as our goal’? And they may well ask ‘why climb the highest mountain’? But we choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it is hard – because that goal will serve to measure the best of our energies and skills.”

Kennedy could never have envisaged the pace of change that has developed in the course of the last 46 years, nor could he have imagined the significant developments and findings the space programme has unearthed. Equally, he would never have thought beyond the space landings, nor how four decades later we would relieve these iconic and historic moments via virtual reality technology.

KICK STARTING

One company that has a clear vision for the future is Immersive VR Education – a company focused on transforming the delivery method of educational content using virtual reality technology. The company was founded by David Whelan in November 2014. An early adopter of the technology, and with more than 10 years’ experience running his own web development company, Whelan is no stranger to working in virtual technology development. He was one of the original Kickstarter backers of the Oculus Rift back in 2012, which has been responsible for the launch of this new wave of VR technology.

Two years ago, Whelan started a tech review website called Virtual Reality Reviewer, and through his extensive network within the VR community he has put together one of the strongest VR development teams and started to create VR content of his own – the first release being the Apollo 11 VR Experience, which puts you in the shoes of Neil Armstrong.

Although mostly self-funded, with additional support from Enterprise Ireland through its New Frontiers programme, Whelan’s company was also successfully funded on Kickstarter and raised €36k in 30 days.

REVOLUTIONISING SPACE

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Astronaut Charlie Duke, the 10th man to walk on the moon

Virtual Reality has been used for training and educational purposes for many years by the military, law enforcement, research labs and even NASA. Only now has the technology become available for the average consumer, as mobile phone technology has revolutionised the space. Advances in home computing have also had a major effect, as they now provide realistic simulations through computer-generated graphics that only 10 years ago would have seemed impossible.

“Immersive VR Education is a company focused on transforming the delivery method of educational content using virtual reality technology,” Whelan says. “Virtual reality (VR) is where a user puts on a pair of VR goggles and we replace everything they see and hear with a digital environment that they believe to be real. We create simulations of real events or visitations of hard-to-understand topics such as particle physics to help educate students and re-engage them into education,” he explains.

Immersive VR Education’s platform is a social virtual reality university that will allow educators from around the world upload their own content and create lessons inside a digital environment, providing students with fully immersive and interactive environments that will apparently transform lessons and courses into educational entertainment.   

REACHING TARGETS

According to Whelan, there were a number of key challenges to overcome when establishing and growing this type of business; however, he says that the challenges with starting any business are the same no matter what industry you’re in.

“Funding day-to-day running costs is the number one challenge we all face,” he admits. “This is especially true for us as the consumer release of virtual reality is still eight months away, so we have to make sure we survive until consumers get their own VR headsets and purchase our software.”

For others thinking of starting a Kickstarter, Whelan has this advice: “Don’t use it to fund an idea, use Kickstarter as an advertising platform for an idea that is already or almost ready for production or release.” Whelan says he has seen many campaigns trying to raise small amounts of money in the hope that they will far exceed the target goal so that they can properly manufacture their promised product. “Most campaigns will fail and those that are successful are only successful by a very small margin, only just reaching their target. Make sure you set a realistic goal that will enable you to deliver your product on time.”

Whelan is quick to point out the positives too. “Kickstarter is a fantastic tool to get noticed. We received worldwide media attention due to our campaign and it’s still attracting traffic to our website. Running a Kickstarter campaign is a time-consuming process as you have to answer backers and publish frequent updates, but it is very rewarding – and not just financially – when you get it right. If you have a great idea and are fortunate enough to get people to back you, people will always encourage and help you through the hard weeks, as long as you are open and honest with them and keep them up to date with your progress.”

We create simulations of real events or visitations of hard-to-understand topics such as particle physics to help educate students and re-engage them into education

REAL WORLD ALLIANCES

VR technology can deliver realistic simulations, especially when it comes to historic and real world events. It provides an educational experience that can educate and entertain students and get them more engaged with their studies. Not only will Immersive VR Education recreate real world events, they will also create intuitive visualisations allowing students to interact with atoms at a nano level or explore the human body from the inside. “We aim to make all our experiences relevant to the school curriculum as a valuable teaching aid that will inspire the new generation to reach their full potential,” Whelan enthuses.

Although Immersive VR Education is still building its educational platform, it has been shown as a working demo to educators who have all come back wanting to know when this is available and how much will it cost.

“Waterford Institute of Technology, University College Cork and the Royal College of Surgeons have all agreed to provide content on the platform and we are in talks with some international institutes, so watch this space,” Whelan reveals. “We have shown our Apollo 11 experience to schools in Ireland and the student response has being overwhelmingly positive. A lot of students get emotional when inside the experience as it’s so immersive and powerful to experience the first-ever moon walk first-hand.”

When asked what the future holds for Immersive VR Education, Whelan is assured in his response: “We are going to be the Netflix of education. Our platform is going to have a lot of educational content from both educators on our system and content makers, along with fully immersive experiences that students will enjoy rather than suffer through to get good grades.”

The world is on the cusp of a technology revolution and Immersive VR Education is at the core of this wave, ensuring that Ireland has a big role to play in shaping that future. 

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The Apollo 11 VR Experience