Trish Dromey learns of the Waterford virtual reality firm that started with a moon shot product, and is now aiming even higher
WATERFORD startup Immersive VR Education is preparing for the launch of Titanic VR — an immersive experience which allows users to see the events of the doomed ship through the eyes of a survivor, and also to virtually explore the wreck on the seabed.
This follows the release in 2015 of the company’s first offering, the Apollo 11 VR — a recreation of the 1969 moon landing which now sells on all VR platforms including Playstation VR.
Immersive VR Education has sold 70,000 copies and has also collected seven international awards.
Company co-founder David Whelan said that although these VR experiences are effective showcases for Immersive VR Education, they only form a small part of the company’s plan, which is to use VR and augmented reality to revolutionise education globally.
“We have created a VR education platform capable of giving hand on lessons anywhere in the world,” he said, explaining that the platform called Engage is the first of its kind to use VR in this way.
“By creating a virtual classroom you can allow people for all over the world to interact and engage. In a virtual environment you can hold a marine biology class on a sea bed floor or even drop in a dinosaur.”
Mr Whelan and his wife Sandra set the company up in 2014, and used Kickstarter funding to develop the Apollo 11 VR which was launched in early 2016.
Signing up for the New Frontiers programme and establishing Immersive VR at Waterford Institute of Technology, Mr Whelan shifted the focus to the development of a distant learning educational platform for universities in 2016. Discovering that a large percentage of people who participate in online education don’t finish their courses, he saw an opportunity to create an experience which would be as engaging as a real classroom.
During 2016, the company became an Enterprise Ireland high-potential start-up client and raised just over €1m securing funding from Kernel Capital and Suir Valley ventures. Immersive VR Education has since grown its team from four to 17.
This month it moved to Cleaboy Industrial Park in Waterford where it plans to employ an additional 10 people by the end of this year.
While working on developing the Engage platform, the company has collaborated with Oxford University, New Haven University in Connecticut, and the University of Washington.
“Engage allows educators and trainers to create their own immersive content using the tools provided on the platform,” said Mr Whelan, explaining that the company’s projects include a VR medical training course which simulates the resuscitation of stillborn babies. He says the success of Apollo 11 VR has helped the company attract the skilled developers it needs for current and future projects.
“We won the Time Warner — Future of Storytelling award — which was huge for a small company in South-East Ireland,” he added.
The second showcase project, Titanic VR, is an even larger project, for which a Kickstarter campaign was held earlier this year. Mr Whelan says the publicity generated by this campaign is as important as the funding.
Titanic is set for an early release in the summer while the full version will be launched before Christmas. The company has already released an alpha version of the Engage platform and is developing language programmes which will be released early next year.
Offering the Engage platform to universities free of charge, Immersive VR will use a revenue-sharing model and charge a percentage when the universities begin charging for the content next year.
“In 2016 there were just half a million high-end VR headsets in the world — this is now set to grow to 4m this year and 12m next year,” said Mr Whelan, who believes there are vast opportunities in this space for Immersive VR Education.
Plans for 2018 include the commercial launch of the Engage platform, and the company is now looking at options for a third showcase virtual reality experience.
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