Virtual Reality at Oxford University

Oxford University is among the developers looking to explore the potential of virtual reality. Find out more about how our academics are exploiting the second iteration of VR.

Written by Gregg Bayes-Brown

After many years in the wilderness, virtual reality (VR) is poised to have its breakthrough into the mainstream.

There is now substantial enthusiasm about the near-term future of VR from a number of sources, including Oxford University. Driving this support is the increased accessibility of VR. From the entry-level Google Cardboard and Daydream devices to Facebook’s Oculus and HTC’s Vive headsets offering the ability to your living room into a holodeck, there’s now a number of different roads into VR.

The technology is being explored in a number of different areas in media and entertainment. The New York Times and other news websites have begun producing 360 degree videos which can be explored with VR. In film, the Tribeca and Cannes film festivals heavily promoted VR this year, with the latter screening a VR movie by the Oscar-winning Birdman and The Revenant director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Building on the success of Spiderman: Homecoming’s accompanying VR experience as a marketing tool, advertising professionals are waking up to the potential of VR with an increasing amount of VR advertising startups appearing and gaining significant venture funding.

Although it’s developing fast, gaming in VR currently has an early 90s feel to it: it takes ages to set up, the market is inundated with demos, and everyone is anticipating the launch of Doom VFR. Many observers are waiting for a “killer app” that makes VR a must-buy. Doom, Doom VFR’s predecessor, was certainly that when it changed gaming forever in 1993. With Bethesda, developer of both the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series (both of which are getting a VR version), behind the driving wheel of Doom VFR, the early adopters are eager to see if lightning can strike twice.

Oxford University itself could be described as an early adopter of VR, although its focus is away from gaming and entertainment.

One of the shining lights in Oxford’s burgeoning VR scene is the Life-Saving Instruction for Emergencies (LIFE) project. The first project to be financed by OxReach, the University’s crowdfunding platform, LIFE raised £63,126 to develop a mobile app which can teach communities in developing countries essential techniques for saving lives. LIFE has since developed a VR element with support from the Vive’s developer, HTC. Based on the Engage platform, developed by Immersive VR Education, LIFE’s VR app is capable of educating up to 30 people simultaneously in life saving techniques.

While in VR, users are able to interact with medical apparatus and get live feedback from the instructor on their use. At present, the learning platform focuses on how to save a dying infant, but the team hope to expand the scope of what can be taught through LIFE.

Mental health is the focus of Nowican, a spinout OUI supported the creation of in early 2017. The academics behind Nowican are using the technology to create safe environments for people with anxiety and phobias to interact with stressful situations. The team hope that by interacting with their fears in a virtual world, Nowican will help people have the confidence to overcome them in the real one. Nowican is still in development, with an official public launch planned in the coming months.

Another project in the works is Infinitam, which has the potential to break down the barriers to potential developers getting into virtual reality. A particularly labour-intensive part of developing a VR experience is designing the world in which it sits. With Infinitam, anyone with a smartphone will be able to turn their camera into a tool for creating those worlds. Users simply need to go to the location they wish to use, take out their phone, and use Infinitam to record their surroundings.

Academics are also using VR to visualise their genetic data. A team of researchers, working collaboratively with Universita’ di Napoli and Goldsmiths University of London, have designed a programme which allows users to see DNA in 3D space. This is critical for understanding how DNA folding can impact whether genes can be switched on or off — a process which will help increase our understanding of the causes of disease, and potentially lead to new treatments.

These projects are just the tip of the virtual reality iceberg here at Oxford. To further explore what’s going on in VR around campus, we will be hosting the first Oxford Innovation Society (OIS) themed around VR on the 21st September. OIS members and academics looking into VR are encouraged to attend. To find out more, please email Gregg at gregg.bayes-brown@innovation.ox.ac.uk.

Gregg Bayes-Brown is the Marketing and Communications Manager for Oxford University Innovation. You can follow him on Twitter at @GreggBayesBrown, and you can follow OUI for more blog posts and innovation news at @OxUInnovation.