Disruptive AR / VR: An Interview with Thomas Gere, Founder and CEO of Realities Centre
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are two cutting edge technologies that have the potential to completely transform the world, despite currently using unrefined hardware and having a limited number of user applications. They are a hot topic for discussion among the world’s most influential people in technology.
These are some of the areas that I am extremely excited about and am looking forward to seeing where future innovation will take us. The technology is still young but it will be completely transformative in the future. To understand this space, I plan to reach out to those who are at the forefront of the industry and learn from them.
Thomas Gere is one of those experts! He is a serial entrepreneur and angel investor with experience both in the Far East and Europe. With his passion for AR and VR technologies, he is helping to grow a strong community in London and beyond to develop these areas. He is the founder and CEO of Realities Centre, a co-working space in Central and West London dedicated to fostering innovation in AR, VR, Mixed Reality (MR) and 360 video technologies, through focused conferences and hackathons, alongside an accelerator programme and training academy for startups and corporations.
I was privileged enough to have some of his time to ask him some burning questions I had about him, Realities Centre and the AR / VR industry! Without further ado, please read our riveting discussion below.
About Thomas and Realities Centre
Q) Hi Tom, thank you for meeting with me today! To start with, could you tell us a bit about yourself and the road to founding Realities Centre?
Tom: Sure, I have been involved in the tech world for almost 20 years now. I studied computer-aided design 3D, engineering and business and have created and joined a few startups over the years in CleanTech, IoT and sentiment analysis, like an app using artificial intelligence to monitor people’s behavior and to personalise the experience. In the last few years, I saw a lot of hype around VR but not really any place to help innovation and put corporates and startups together to focus on specific industry verticals, meaning applications for AR / VR such as medical, education, AI in VR, retail, property etc.
That’s why last year I came up with the concept of Realities Centre and I thought it would be great to actually focus on those verticals through conferences, which would feed into hackathons so this way we could know where there is traction and growth in the UK in those different verticals. We have done around 16 events with hackathons, mentors and corporates supporting us such as Microsoft, HP, HTC etc. It has been really interesting as we have built a very big ecosystem and it helped foster our brand and network.
We have 2 locations: in Moorgate at Cocoon Networks, we are focusing on applications of AR / VR for corporate training and remote collaboration. We also opened a month ago in another location, which is focusing on the media and creative industry for AR / VR in the UK, which has a very rich ecosystem. There is a lot of very talented agencies, individuals and artists that are creating amazing content and they need to be helped and showcased. That is what we want to do.
We are also partnering with Huckletree West in White City, which is a very beautiful place and they are focusing on the creative sector. So it is a perfect fit. Also, we are partnering with a post-production studio to actually propose mixed reality services at a professional level but at prices which can be afforded by developers and startups.
Q) I know you studied the intensive Mandarin Chinese course at Fudan university in 2004/2005. What motivated you to do this? Do you think its helped you in working with Cocoon networks and setting up Realities Centre?
Tom: I always had a really strong interest in the Far East and China and that’s why I studied the intensive Mandarin Course in Fudan. In terms of the cocoon partnership in our main location, it’s really fortuitous. It’s a perfect fit because China is the biggest adopter of the AR / VR technologies, especially VR. By being the earliest and biggest adopters, they have been through the hype already. They have been through a bubble that has exploded so they are a bit shy with VR now, but also more sophisticated in identifying potentials. They are really big in AI with many investments this year but they are still looking at VR and they know now what is working.
For us with Cocoon, we thought it would be the perfect match so that we can actually help Chinese VR companies grow outside China, and help VR companies in Europe and US establish themselves, distribute content, fund raise through our network and Cocoon’s network. That’s a very important angle.
We are also launching the Vision accelerator programme around Christmas that will be a bespoke programme. We will work with a couple of venture funds and look at computer vision, AI and machine learning technologies being used for applications in AR / VR. We think this is something that is not yet active in the UK and the potential for growth is great.
There are many interesting researchers and startups using these for FinTech and MedTech but not so much for AR / VR. There’s a lot of content, a lot of talented people and Digital Catapult are doing the CreativeXR programme, which is supporting them but there isn’t anything yet for computer vision, AI and machine learning for AR / VR. So we have been thinking about it for a long time and for us it makes perfect sense. We think investors will love it as well and it will really help the IP and the ecosystem.
Coming back to China, it’s going to be perfect as well, because they have a lot of innovation and interest in AI as well!
Q) As you mentioned, you will be opening a 3 month accelerator programme, Vision accelerator, with the first Cohort joining this Christmas — what are you looking to find through this initiative? How will it be different to the Augmentor programme, of which you were a mentor earlier this year?
Tom: It’s looking to help people, who have been researching and innovating with computer vision, machine learning and AI, such as conversational agents, optical technologies, and depth tracking as well as, middleware technologies for making the technologies of the future for augmented and mixed reality.
We are all dreaming of those lightweight glasses and they are still a long way off. Tim Cook, just two days ago (10th October), confirmed in the Independent that they were not planning to release AR glasses anytime soon. You can see the HoloLens from Microsoft is an amazing device and it will keep getting better in the future iterations. But on the B2C mass market, we are a long way from lightweight glasses and there are a lot of technological challenges to overcome.
That’s why the Vision programme is really relevant — we will be running it twice a year with up to 5 companies, of which some will run in stealth mode. We might make the programme quite stealth in terms of who are the mentors and who are the investors, because some corporates might want to acquire the IP and they might not want people knowing who they are. It will be on a case by case basis and I think it’s great this way as I think it makes it very organic. And then after probably two or three cohorts, we can start our own fund as well if it makes sense to everyone. I think it will be great!
Regarding the Augmentor programme, it’s very different. Augmentor was very general, it was a great partnership between Seedcamp and Digital Catapult and we were a partner as well in some way. It was a starting point to get started on helping the AR / VR community in the UK and identifying what it needs. That’s why now the Catapults are focusing more on content creators and helping them with small funding to get them started so we can get a lot more traction and content.
Q) Any tips for those applying to the Vision programme?
Tom: They need to have a very innovative IP / technology that has either a short, mid or long term application, where they can make a really big difference in the progression of how those 3 technologies (computer vision, AI and machine learning) can help the AR / VR hardware and middleware.
Q) I know that Realities Centre held a MedTech event in December last year and a HealthTech event in June this year. Healthcare is currently being transformed by a change in consumer expectations, ageing and growing population and increased health awareness by consumers. VR is being leveraged to create revolutionary treatment methods like treating phobias (Psious), improving eyesight (Give Vision) and helping stroke victims (Immersive Rehab). How do you see AR / VR further transforming this space and which technology do you think will have more of an impact?
Tom: There are two different ways to look at that. VR is a lot more immersive so if you want to have training and put people in situations of stress e.g. future doctors rehearsing surgeries and emergency treatments under stressful circumstances, you can recreate a very realistic situation like we did in the first hackathon, which was about ER and medical emergency applications. It was making the most of what VR can offer, which is presence and immersion so you get an experiential training tool.
One company, Dual Good Health, came out of this hackathon creating a product for ER and CPR. They went through Bethnal Green Ventures and now, they are starting to work with different medical organisations.
For AR, it’s great to use as a mixed reality tool so for example, during a real surgery, you are augmenting the tools and the information about the patient, as well as having social interactions with other doctors in the room or elsewhere in the world, like Dr Shafi Ahmed showed recently. You can actually have a richer and faster experience and save more lives since you are potentially doing it quicker. That’s really transformative and that’s the very short term that can already be applied and is being done so.
Q) You have recently opened a new space in White City at Huckletree West so you are expanding. Where do you see Realities Centre heading to in the future?
Tom: Our ambition is to have more partnerships with more co-working spaces around the world and open centres in more places in Europe. We will open some in China, which is already in the plan. We want to serve the AR / VR community and help them accelerate. It’s looking very exciting so looking forward to it! We are working with corporates more and more as well through workshops and courses from our Academy.
AR / VR Space
Q) Moving onto the general AR / VR space, where do you believe the AR / VR Space is heading to in the very near future in the UK?
Tom: In the very near future, it’s really corporate training and remote collaboration for engineers and designers. I don’t think we are there yet for example with property on the B2C level. With medical, I don’t think it will make a difference in the short term — you should research what Professor Robert Stone did for a long time. They have been trying to do medical training applications in the 90’s and it was about how realistic it was. It’s getting there now but still needs some innovation to make it useful and convince the medical industry.
Apart from that, in the UK for experiential marketing, there is such a creative and innovative community that can really help spread the use of VR by agencies and brands.
Q) As you mentioned earlier, Tim Cook mentioned Apple will not release AR glasses anytime soon. Recently, Apple has released ARKit and Google has released ARCore. How do you see ARKit and ARCore impacting the AR space as it provides developers with new platforms to work on?
Tom: I think it is fantastic to have middleware development stack from two of the biggest platforms. There is a lot of hype around it. I think it is fantastic for preparatory work for the variables you were mentioning. It’s like cooking — you prep a lot of stuff very early in the morning and that’s where it is at the moment. It’s going to be helping the augmented reality vision of the future. We are going to see what’s working and what’s not for big brands like Airbnb, hotel chains, tourism organisations and so on.
It’s really going to help to understand the user experience and design for AR — what should you show and not show, how do you use machine learning and combine with user data from platforms such as Facebook and Google, so you don’t overflow information to people.
So I think it’s great it’s happening now so when the AR glasses come out, we are better prepared for better user adoption as you don’t put off people with too much information. It is getting developers onto this train and it will be a long journey so we need to get good volume adoption and good traction.
Q) Are there any startups that have really intrigued your interest recently?
Tom: There are a few in the AR scene using neural network search and you have some working on technologies using webpoints, cloud, buffering for VR and AR, and creating SaaS based platforms. Some of them are relying on distributed computing and these have massive potential. I’m looking forward to have them apply this to many different applications, not only gaming. I know I didn’t name any startups — don’t want to say any right now!
Q) What would you suggest for the reader to read to learn more about AR / VR?
Tom: There is a lot of coverage at the moment especially more on the content and artistic side. VRFocus are doing really good news reporting. You need to keep up-to-date with other sites as well such as Cnet, Techcrunch, VentureBeat and VRScout. There’s a few books coming out e.g. “The Fourth transformation” from Robert Scoble, it’s a very good book. They have written something really good that came out six months ago — I would recommend it.
Q) Finally, what do you like to do in your free time to unwind from all the immersive technology?
Tom: I started triathlons six years ago, I like it but I am doing a little bit less at the moment as I have a new baby. Otherwise, I like music — I like the piano and saxophone. I also like the visual arts a lot and cinema as my father was in the movie industry so I am addicted to movies, science fiction especially. I enjoy nature and try to be in contact with the British nature as much as I can. I am based in East London so I go to Greenwich park and along the docks.
Thank you very much for your time Tom. It was tremendous getting your thoughts on the industry and your ambitions for the Realities Centre. I am now even more excited to see what will happen in the future! Readers, I would recommend you to follow Tom and Realities Centre on Twitter for the latest happenings in the industry.
If you are an AR / VR startup, that is really excited about the development of this space and the new accelerator programme from Realities Centre, please get in touch by replying to this post, LinkedIn or Twitter!
By Abhilash Dubbaka