Ruth Doris: 'The very real benefit of VR'

An Irish startup using virtual and augmented reality is providing training solutions for companies in high-risk industries.

VRAI was founded by filmmaker Niall Campion in 2017. Pat O’Connor joined the team earlier this year as managing director, bringing with him 20 years’ experience in the Irish Defence Forces.

Having served in missions in Liberia and Syria in the latter part of his career, he headed up the organisation's media team driving the development of its social media channels. He was involved in a recruitment campaign with advertising agency Rothco using interactive gaming which won a Silver Lion award at Cannes.

In this role, he recognised the potential of virtual technology for solving problems for training personnel for projects in high-risk environments.

VR lets people go to worlds that they could never imagine being in and lets them experience it in a first person, rather than a third person, scenario

Ultimately, Mr O’Connor says VRAI’s innovative technology can help to save lives by reducing the risk of death and serious injury.

According to Mr O’Connor the areas where VRAI can provide training solutions include offshore and onshore energy production and missions in hazardous environments. "VRAI is focusing on where it can provide the most value to people - in other words, places that are risky, remote and rare," he said.

VRAI's partnership on a project with the United Nations Mine Action Service in Somalia helped to show the challenges of spotting improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

The company has also worked with electronics giant Samsung to create an augmented reality app for its Galaxy S10 phone and with ESB International to develop a virtual reality experience to demonstrate how its subsea cable repair product works.

VRAI is part of the consortium, Holistics, led by the Cork-based Tyndall National Institute, that recently won a €7.4m grant from the State-backed Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF). The funding, over three years, will allow the companies in the consortium to focus on developing technology to provide solutions in health.

Mr O’Connor said the award is an excellent endorsement of VRAI’s work and shows that "what we're doing is not just advanced VR - it's actually cutting edge."

Industry experts estimated the value of the global AR/VR market at $26.7bn in 2018. Mr O’Connor said VRAI operates in the XR space, which is a “catch-all” term for the combined markets of “virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality and good old-fashioned real reality.” Having recently brought in four angel investors with "deep expertise" in its target markets and industries, VRAI is hoping to close a seed investment round valued at €600,000 to include backing from Enterprise Ireland’s High Potential Start-Up fund.

While VRAI has worked mainly in content production to date, post-funding it will focus on product production, and training in particular, and the seed capital will allow it to build out a high-hazard virtual reality training product.

Mr O’Connor says virtual reality can help with training at the bottom of the learning pyramid where people learn the most with "practice by doing."

"The problem is if the task itself is inherently high risk, in a very remote environment or if the knowledge or equipment required for the training is rare."

We can replace that with virtual training where you remove the risk and remoteness and remove the rarity of the training and equipment or knowledge because you can codify it in virtual reality

A recent addition to the team is the former head of Bord na Móna Gabriel D’Arcy, who adopted the concept of the triple bottom line where companies report on their impact on people and the planet as well as profit.

Currently, VRAI’s team consists of four full-time and three part-time employees with a recruitment push in the works to bring its full-time staff to 10 and add another 35 part-time by the end of 2019 in the areas of virtual reality development, database engineers, UI/UX design, marketing and sales.

VRAI has set its sights on providing solutions across a wide range of global markets.

"Our focus will be on international markets and we’re also hoping to partner with innovative Irish companies to make sure that we're solving their very toughest problems. We want to make sure that we're bringing real value to them because while the technology is awesome and amazing, it’s about how you can use it in innovative ways."

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