Virtual Arts is launched by former ARM men in Cambridge to serve mobile VR, AR and MR market

PUBLISHED: 00:10 25 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:21 25 July 2017

Nizar Romdan, CEO of new VR/AR/MR company Virtual Arts, at the St John's Innovation Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

Nizar Romdan, CEO of new VR/AR/MR company Virtual Arts, at the St John's Innovation Centre. Picture: Keith Heppell

Iliffe Media Ltd

CEO Nizar Romdan tells us how the company will create the technology and content our smartphones are crying out for.

Nizar Romdan with the team at Virtual Arts. Picture: Keith HeppellNizar Romdan with the team at Virtual Arts. Picture: Keith Heppell

By 2021, industry advisor Digi-Capital estimates that the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) market is going to be worth $108billion.

That represents serious growth from the £3.9billion achieved in 2016 – a fair portion of which can be attributed to Pokemon Go, the mobile AR game that had grown men and women waving their phones about in public to find imaginary creatures. Of course, virtual reality is not a new concept. It’s had false dawns before – notably in the 1990s. But it failed to take off because the hardware wasn’t quite ready.

That obstacle has been swept aside and now the majority of us carry around smartphones powered by Cambridge tech giant ARM’s microchips, capable of making virtual reality and its cousins finally become, well, reality.

And it was at ARM that Nizar Romdan explored the potential for the next generation of mobile games.

Now, after 11 years there, Nizar has left his role as director of developer ecosystem, along with engineering and game demo manager Doug Day, to establish a new company, Virtual Arts.

The Virtual Arts teamThe Virtual Arts team

“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial bug,” Nizar told the Cambridge Independent. “I tried a couple of start-ups after university but I was too young and inexperienced and it wasn’t the right time.”

Nizar joined ARM in 2005, initially as a product manager creating tools to help design integrated circuits before working on graphics tools.

Then as director of developer ecosystem he helped create a market for increasingly powerful ARM chips.

“My role was to explain the capability of ARM processors, particularly for graphics, and to push the boundaries,” said Nizar. “We were working with games developers and the view was that mobiles would become the primary entertainment hub for most people and games on smartphone would be as rich and graphically intense as on consoles or PC.

“What I learned was the capabilities of these devices, where the software can go, what’s possible now and in the future and, more importantly, what is the right architecture on these devices.

Nizar Romdan says Virtual Arts will be different by offering both tech and content. Picture: Keith HeppellNizar Romdan says Virtual Arts will be different by offering both tech and content. Picture: Keith Heppell

“That’s how the idea started for Virtual Arts when virtual reality came along.”

Nizar, as chief executive officer, and Doug, as chief technology officer, wanted to tap into the wealth of Cambridge talent. The company’s quiet formation in December 2016 was followed shortly by an announcement from Sony that it was closing its Guerilla Cambridge studio.

“We were very lucky that Sony decided to shut the studio down and these people became available,” said Nizar.

Now among the team are developers who worked on BAFTA-winning titles Sydney 2000 and LittleBigPlanet, as well as Killzone Shadow Fall and RIGS, which was a Playstation VR launch title.

“We will create a suite of engines and tools, libraries and documentation to help create amazing content for virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality,” explained Nizar.

VR headsets are now selling in significant numbersVR headsets are now selling in significant numbers

“We will start with an engine and we will be unveiling that hopefully soon. Our intention is we’ll use it for our own content but also licence it out.”

Expect more to be revealed in the coming months but Virtual Arts has so far announced Balance Racing VR – a game in which players race a car laden with cargo against friends and the clock past obstacles. It’s the kind of fun gaming experience we can expect from the team, but they are not limiting themselves.

“We intend to create casual content that can appeal to anyone, rather than going after the hardcore gaming market with first-person shooters,” revealed Nizar.

“But we want to have a large and diverse portfolio of interactive content – virtual reality games and interactive experiences in which people enter a world or environment, which could be educational or for entertainment.

“We also have plans to create short animated features in virtual reality – storytelling where you are inside the story. You will look at characters from a different perspective. You will be able to choose to look around and won’t have to follow a camera angle. What is nice is if you watch it again, the story will be different. You can choose to go somewhere different or see it from a different perspective. We will start with short pieces.”

A woman tries out virtual realityA woman tries out virtual reality

All of this is possible thanks to the rapid advances in mobile phone technology.

“The latest devices, like a Samsung Galaxy S8, are ahead of the last generation of consoles, like the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. They’re even catching up with the newer generation – it’s only a matter of a few years before smartphones will have the capability of a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. The devices improve in performance year-on-year by roughly 30-50 per cent.”

Some two billion smartphones will be sold every year by 2020, ARM predicts. And half of them will be at the lower end of the market.

But Nizar says: “You don’t have to have the latest and greatest to be able to experience good content and that’s part of our vision: We believe in making virtual reality and augmented reality available to everyone and our technology will be built with that in mind. We will be very efficient and optimised, enabling our content to run this on even entry level phones that cost £60-£100.”

Virtual Arts intends to stand out from the crowd by providing not just the content but the technology that powers it.

Two billion smartphones will be sold every year by 2020 - meaning the market for VR/AR/MR is growing rapidlyTwo billion smartphones will be sold every year by 2020 - meaning the market for VR/AR/MR is growing rapidly

“Differentiation is always important and at the heart of our strategy,” said Nizar. “Some develop tech without content. You have to make a lot of assumptions and you end up with theoretical implementation. On the other hand, if you just write content you have to adapt it to what the tech can do and end up with lots of workarounds.

“Our tech will be built from scratch for smartphones and for VR and AR, not like existing tech that is imported from other platforms like PC or consoles.

“On the content front, we will differentiate ourselves with the visuals on mobiles – a lot of developers can achieve this on high-end PCs or consoles but achieving that on mobiles requires some skills and we have that in our team.”

Virtual Arts, which officially launched last week at the Develop conference in Brighton, has completed a successful round of seed investment with angels and is now seeking venture capitalists to join the next round of Series A funding.

It is also seeking staff to expand its team.

“We have 11 people and are looking to hire more in all areas – programming, art creation and others. Hopefully some great talent from Cambridge will be interested in joining us,” said Nizar.

The three Rs

If the three Rs still means reading, writing and arithmetic for you, then it’s time for an update.

VR, AR and MR are where it’s today. To the uninitiated, that’s virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality.

Virtual reality involves strapping on a headset to immerse yourself in a computer-generated world. More than 90 million headsets were sold globally in 2016 which – ignoring premature attempts to push the technology – was effectively year one for VR. Some 88 million of these headsets were Google Cardboard units made from, yes, cardboard. Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, HTC Vive and Google Daydream were the other significant players.

“There will soon be a world where virtual reality headsets are as readily available and as easily disposable as coffee cup holders,” predicts Nizar Romdan.

Augmented reality is predicted to outgrow VR massively. Of the £108billion market predicted by Digi-Capital in 2021, some $83billion will be AR, with $25million attributed to VR. That’s quite possibly because no headset is required for AR, which augments your world with digital objects - think Pokemon Go. But in addition to games, AR could be used in professional areas. Architects and building inspectors could overlay blueprints on to an actual structure to enable comparison, for example. AR is expected to become a big part of Apple’s plans, with the release of iOS 11 expected to enable existing iPhone users the chance to experience sophisticated AR apps, while the forthcoming iPhone 8 is rumoured to feature 3D laser sensors to enhance the experiences.

Mixed reality effectively combines the two and enables digital objects and characters to become part of your world. In MR, digital and real-world items can co-exist and interact.

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