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Big picture thinking for virtual reality firm

Urban legend has it that at the Lumierès brothers’ first film screening in 1895, the audience was so overwhelmed by an image of a moving train they ran screaming from the cinema. Seeing was believing for 19th century moviegoers and Linc Gasking, CEO of Wellington tech startup, 8i, believes history will be repeated when its virtual reality technology also hits the mass market.

“The reaction we are getting with [virtual reality] headsets is that within a few seconds people are ripping it off, their heart is palpitating, they are sweating, wide-eyed and they’re in shock,” Gasking says.

Linc Gasking CEO and co-founder of virtual reality firm 8i

Linc Gasking CEO and co-founder of virtual reality firm 8i

“We are showing this demo to Hollywood and all sorts of different people and they are all blown away”

“One of them said to me, ‘I feel like it’s 1930 and I’ve just been shown colour film’. That’s really exciting because it says this is not just another version of something, it’s a whole new thing.”

Gasking and his team, which includes award-winning Hollywood visual effects experts Sebastian Marino, Eugene d’Eon and Rainer Gombos, have been holed up in their Wellington office for months building 8iVR, a product they’re calling the next generation in 3D. 

The company’s technology is designed for VR content producers (such as filmmakers) who are creating immersive virtual experiences. The technology turns digitally recorded video into holographic and 3D content. 8i’s works can be viewed on a screen, or through 3D headwear such as Oculus Rift - the technology produced by Oculus VR, the US indie company acquired by Facebook for US$2b in March. 

Gasking’s firm’s holographic technology promises to take existing VR experiences to a new level.

“The new thing about 8iVR is that it is truly holographic. Usually when people think of 3D, it’s the cinema kind which is limited to a single point of view. When you experience this technology, you are immersed into a 360 degree environment where you can move around.

“8iVR technology means that instead of computer generated people and environments, game and filmmakers will be able to use reality instead,” says the Australian-born entrepreneur, who now calls Wellington home.

But it’s not just video game producers and filmmakers who will be using their content making technology, Gasking says.

“Gaming has been the traditional use of virtual reality up until this point but what our technology does is open this technology up to everyone else. I am sure there will be many gaming applications but that’s not our focus because that’s where everyone else is.

“This medium is at an intersection between multiple other mediums. We’ve found ourselves demonstrating next to different types of producers of content, some that have traditionally not been part of electronic media before,” he says.

“Education is an exciting one, because some things are hard to understand in 2D but too expensive to recreate in CG [computer graphics].”

Getting specific details on Gasking’s plan for his company is like getting binary code out of a stone. The company’s technology is under lock and key and is unable to be photographed, but the reason for the hush-hush is extremely apparent. 

The promise of virtual reality “as the next big thing” has been around since the 1980s. Films such as The Lawnmower Man and Tron captured the public’s imagination, but despite big players such as Nintendo sinking millions into development in the mid 90s, VR has never been a mass market reality. But Gasking is banking on that changing.

Facebook’s Oculus acquisition lit a fire in the tech world with companies such as Samsung, Google and Sony escalating development on their own headset offerings. 

US Market research company Market and Markets recently released a report saying that virtual reality and its sister mobile technology augmented reality (AR) will be worth US$1.06b by 2018. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said he believes virtual reality will be the media platform of tomorrow.

“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences,” Zuckerberg said in a statement after the acquisition.

“Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face - just by putting on goggles in your home.

“This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.”

A man uses the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.

A man uses the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles.

Holding a Magic Eye picture book up to his nose as a youngster and squinting hard to see the 3D picture stemmed a lifelong interest in 3D and films for Gasking.

Following his passions has proved to be good business sense. A Star Wars obsession sparked Gasking’s first successful business venture, countingdown.com. He co-founded the Melbourne-based website for film fans which also facilitated fan ticket queues for movies in 1998. The company was acquired by pop.com (whose owners included Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Ron Howard) in 2000 for US$23 million.  

Chatting to an author who was debating whether to sell the rights to his book got Gasking thinking about 3D once again. A chance introduction to former Weta Digital staffers d’Eon and Marino (who won a technical Academy Award for his work co-developing software that simulates the motion of cloth, skin and hair) last year led to the discovery that they were working towards the same 3D goals.

“Author Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From talks about the concept of the “slow hunch”, rather than an instant moment of inspiration.

“8i took years to form, from many tributaries. Sebastian started investigating 3D video from a desire to see his young cousin in the UK.

 “For Eugene, [creating] breathtakingly real faces in 3D comes as a natural progression to his work in facial rendering in computer graphics. “For me, it was the desire to create an immersive, interactive educational experience for a piece of content for which I acquired the rights in 2013,” Gasking says.

Kiwi Fulbright entrepreneurship scholar Joshua Feast came on board, and 8i was formed in May. Gasking, who has been giving back to the New Zealand startup community through his work with Global Entrepreneur week, the Free Range start-up community and mentoring work at the Lightning Lab and Startup Weekend, says 8i is like no other startup he’s ever been involved in.

“I have tended to bootstrap in the past, but this was the first time that wasn’t going to fly,” he says.

“This was not a long term, slow and steady type of startup, this was a really fast-moving one. We’ve gone on an aggressive fund raising and company build.  The sheer scale of the opportunity has all been at another level.”

The rapidly-expanding firm recently completed a seed funding round in August, raising $1.16 million from Australian and New Zealand angel investors such as Xero CFO Ross Jenkins. A significantly larger funding round is currently in place, with some huge interest from big investment players.

Although Gasking has had talks with technology providers about forming partnerships he says 8i’s technology will remain “device agnostic” and viewable on different hardware.

“It’s really early days and we are talking to several potential partners. We’re talking with companies that New Zealand firms have never partnered with before,” he says.

The firm currently has 12 fulltime and four part-time employees, but this is due to “change dramatically” in the next few months. There are a lot of long hours and hard yakka ahead for Gasking and his team, but they’ve got their eye on the big picture.

“Almost every major technology company from Facebook to Google is in the process of making headsets. The CEO of

Head back to reality

GreenButton CEO Scout Houston has always been captivated by virtual reality. In 1991, he left New Zealand for London with big dreams of working in the field. But the promised new platform failed to materialise and he fell into other technical industries.

“There were some companies doing some interesting things, but the problem was the quality of the graphics on the headset didn’t really marry up to what people needed,” Houston says.

“What it needed was some of the inventions from the film industry to come along with things like texture mapping and better graphics.”

Houston has worked at the intersection of technology and the film industry at GreenButton (recently acquired by Microsoft), with clients including Pixar and Nvidea. He says VR is an area he is looking into after the company’s Microsoft transition.

“This could be the next wave of 3D graphics where New Zealand could  excel.

“But I am kind of thinking, ‘where’s the commercial play here?’… is there a business application that needs to be developed that could tip the balance and make virtual reality far more pervasive.”

Professor Mark Billinghurst of Canterbury University’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand (HIT Lab NZ)  has been at the fore of virtual reality research since 1992. A protégé of Washington University’s Professor Tom Furness (one of the pioneers of VR for use in the US Airforce in the1960s) Billinghurst has seen waves of interest in VR over the years, but believes the timing is finally right.

“The technical costs of the VR system are low enough that there shouldn’t be any technical barriers to large scale adoption,” Billinghurst says. 

“There was a lot of hype in the 80s and 90s but the component technology was expensive… and it was time consuming to build the VR experiences.

“I think we will see an entry into a range of application areas.

“I was talking to a fellow from Boeing, who had been doing VR with them since the 90s. He said in the beginning it cost about a quarter of a million dollars to use VR so to justify that spend there had to be substantial performance improvement.

“When the costs get down to about $5000 if you provide a 10 per cent or a five per cent improvement it will pay for itself.”

Billinghurst believes that content creation will steer the technology’s adoption.

“It’s content that sells VR,” he says.

“One of the challenges in the 90s was that people didn’t know how to build good experiences, but now there are companies who come from a film and gaming background who will be able to build powerful VR content, and that will drive the market.”

This article originally appeared on Unlimited