Virtual Arts proves real deal as Apple ranks its one of five rising gaming stars in Europe
Its latest augmented reality game, Lightstream Racer, captures attention
Standing in the middle of the track, you press down on the throttle.
Your levitating vehicle fires up, and shoots off, with King’s Parade whirring past in the background.
Welcome to Lightstream Racer, a racing game for iOS devices that blends graphics with the world around you.
This innovative augmented reality title has gained the attention of Apple, which has hailed its creator – Cambridge company Virtual Arts – as one of five rising gaming stars in Europe.
The recognition comes two years after the studio was launched by former Arm men Nizar Romdan and Doug Day.
Lightstream Racer is the company’s second title, following its virtual reality game Cargo Racing VR, released on the Samsung Gear VR platform in October 2017.
Three more augmented reality titles are in the pipeline – one that will cast a witch as your virtual companion, an edutainment app that will teach you about geography, and a multiplayer shooter. Further applications could utilise the potential of virtual reality for training and monitoring.
“We were pleased and surprised to be selected among the top five developers to watch – and the only one in augmented reality. The other four are in more traditional mobile gaming,” Nizar, the CEO, tells the Cambridge Independent.
“It’s a very nice validation and acknowledgement from a reputable player like Apple that we have a lot of potential. We’re very happy and proud about that.”
Lightstream Racer has been downloaded on Apple phones and tablets more than 100,000 times since its launch in April.
“Not a lot of games hit that bar,” said Nizar. “Apple are promoting it and are excited about the game. We’ve had a lot of positive reviews – on the UK store it’s rated 4.6/5. People love it. It’s unique and shows why you want augmented reality.”
For the uninitiated, augmented reality is a blend of the real world with a virtual world, and requires no headset. Millions were introduced to its charms by Pokemon Go, from publisher Niantic.
Virtual reality, by contrast, envelops you in a 3D artificial world and requires you to wear a headset.
A third variant, mixed reality (MR), lies somewhere between the two, augmenting reality with virtual objects that look like they are genuinely placed within this world.
Virtual Arts, based at St John’s Innovation Centre, is fully focused on these three modes.
“When we were thinking about what to do in augmented reality, we went into a bit of a philosophical debate,” recalls Nizar.
“Augmented reality is about adding virtual objects to the real world, but why? If you are just going to add virtual objects for the sake of it, it will be cool in the beginning but people will get bored quickly and say ‘Apart from a tech demo or a gimmick, there’s no use for that’.
“It’s something that augmented reality suffered from in the early days when it was introduced. I remember when we were at Arm in 2010-11, we did an AR demo to push augmented reality. But AR never took off because people couldn’t see the use case. It needs to be something you want to have in your living room, or garden, or wherever, but something you can’t really have all the time.”
With this in mind, Lightstream Racer was born.
“A lot of us had Scalextric when were younger and enjoyed playing with friends and building tracks. But we didn’t want to just replicate Scalextric – it needed to be something you can never have, like a futuristic, magnetic, levitated track.
“The team unleashed their imagination. But we wanted the gameplay to feel real. The physics took us quite a long time to get right. That’s how the idea of the magnetic brake came to the game.
“The power of AR is location. So we sent the team to have fun in Cambridge and London and take screenshots.
“We hope people will be able to take screenshots of Lightstream Racer all around the world.”
Players can tackle career mode or compete with others online for the best times.
“While we were playing it, we thought it would be cool if you were inside the track, so we created the 360 mode. Instead of looking at the track from afar, you’re at the centre of it. You control the car and have to turn around.
“It adds another reason why you want it to be in augmented reality,” says Nizar.
An AR showroom was also created.
“You can place the car from Lightstream Racer next to your real car in your garage or your driveway or a car park. You can take a screenshot and then share it,” explains Nizar.
Creating something that is popular and shareable is a great start, but what about monetising the game?
“It’s a big project and we’re doing it in steps,” replies Nizar. “The first monetisation strategy is via ads between tracks. You can remove them for £1.99.
“We’re also thinking about the AR showroom and adding customisation and different cars that people can buy via in-app purchases.”
Apple’s iOS is the biggest AR platform in the world, and its release of ARKit, and support for developers using it, is aiding those looking to work with augmented reality.
Google has released ARCore to help developers do the same for Android, and Nizar is hopeful that Lightstream Racer can be brought to the platform in future.
“We are focusing on iOS because Apple is quite ahead with ARKit. Android has added ARCore, which is really positive, but we’re quite a small team so we can’t do both at the same time,” he says. “We want to have a very good game on iOS and then we want to bring it to Android. We’re hoping Android will catch up on AR and one day we could do simultaneous releases.”
Next up for Virtual Arts is its edutainment app.
“Education is great but it is suffering from the fact that traditional education can seem boring or out of date to a lot of children in the era of smartphones and videos and amazing apps. A lot of concepts could be created in a fun way,” suggests Nizar.
“We want to create an augmented reality app where we expose anyone who wants to learn about geography, the planet and our environment in a fun way. You’ll be able to place things in your bedroom and you’ll be amazed and learning a lot.”
The team has something working already – expect a teaser trailer in the next few months.
By the end of the year, or early next year, Virtual Arts’ witch will fly in with her broomstick.
“The idea is you’ll have a virtual companion who you can do a lot with, but it’s in the early stages. It will feel like the witch is really part of this world and will be doing a lot of cool things,” promises Nizar.
A trailer for its third project, a more traditional shooter but in AR, is scheduled for 2019 and will make the most of the team’s skills.
“Virtual Arts is composed of two core teams,” explains Nizar.
“One half comes from Arm – including myself – and is very strong on the technical side. The other side comes from Sony Guerilla Cambridge, the studio that Sony shut a year and a half ago.
“It has a lot of experience at doing amazing shooter games like Killzone, which is a massive title on PlayStation.
“We thought about creating a multiplayer shooter in augmented reality. It will be a more intense experience and fun,” says Nizar.
Beyond that, the team may return to virtual reality, which is more limited in its reach by the need for users to own a headset.
“We realise there are applications for VR outside gaming – we’re exploring that with partners. So after these three projects there will be something in VR both on the entertainment front and something more serious where VR could add a lot, like maintenance or training,” says Nizar, who has grown the company to 19 people.
“We have grown nicely,” he adds. “We have the two core teams but we have hired other people since then from Disney and others.
“We have very good support and trust from our investors and backers. It wouldn’t be possible without them.”
Virtual Arts is certainly off to a fast start.