Auckland startup RealityVirtual.co is using drone technology to create new VR experiences

- March 2, 2016 3 MIN READ

Mark Zuckerberg may have said that it will take at least ten years for virtual reality to reach the mass market, but all that means it that companies currently working in the space have ten years to perfect and develop what they’re doing.

New Zealand startup RealityVirtual.co, based in Auckland, is one such company. Describing itself as a “creative technologies research and development collective,” RealityVirtual.co is dabbling in a little bit of everything. Having begun in the cinematography space, it’s now combining consumer-grade equipment like GoPros and drones and techniques like photogrammetry and 360 degree video, combined with post-production hacks, to create immersive VR experiences, on the cheap.

Founder Simon Che de Boer said he was inspired to start learning about virtual reality after a fire destroyed his house three years ago. Quite simply, he said, his family was missing the place, and so he thought there had to be a way to somehow recreate the environment using photos he had of the house.

“[VR] is either incredibly realistic and accurate or more like Tron, where it’s clearly meant to be in the style of an arcade game. I was very interested in finding a way to capture reality, and I knew we had to do it a different way to what had previously been done and in a much faster, more effective way,” Che de Boer explained.

And that, he said, is when he discovered photogrammetry, defined as the science of making measurements from photographs to produce things such as maps, drawings, measurements, or 3D models of real-world objects or scenes. This helps it get past the ‘uncanny valley’, or the unease that comes with viewing a computer-generated figure that is attempting realism.

“My original reasoning [for the company] was literally because of this greater event. We were struggling to deal with the situation and I thought, well, I’m pretty smart, maybe I could just make a photoelastic version. I had no background in any of this, I’m not a gamer, but I’ve always been good with media, computers, pipelines, and stuff like that. I discovered one thing, photogrammetry, then discovered another thing and eventually worked out how to get these immensely detailed points of our data sets running in real time in VR,” Che de Boer said.

With a drone operator who has more than 300 flight hours under their belt, the startup uses drones and ground-level based photogrammetry to capture thousands of photos to recreate ultra-realistic 3D models of artwork, assets, and environments which can be used for the purposes of digital cultural preservation, interactive experiences, gaming, or typology surveying. To showcase its work with drones, RealityVirtual.co first focused on cinematography for brands before experimenting with different aspects of VR and augmented reality, doing a little bit of everything.

Like any early-stage, bootstrapped startup, the RealityVirtual.co team is a small one working with limited funds; as such, it has focused on working cheap and fast. However, Che de Boer said the startup’s use of cheap, consumer-grade equipment and general lack of funds worked to its favour, forcing the team to figure out hacks on the post-production side to create good video.

“We treat it much more like a production company, we’ll scout out locations…we’re much more film than we are gaming, but it’s this great merge between the two,” Che de Boer said.

Another thing the startup is working on is volumetric virtual reality or 4D, capturing the performances of humans and placing them into the photo-realistic environments it has created. Digital cultural preservation, or the recreating of artefacts, and virtual tours are two of the biggest applications for this technology, while the startup is currently producing a music video for a New Zealand musician in volumetric VR.

The startup has produced videos for clients including Auckland City Council, BMW, Ray White, and Lexus. However, Che de Boer said much of its early work was unpaid as RealityVirtual.co sought to build up a showreel. He said the startup has now fielded a few acquisition offers thanks to its drone cinematography work, which he rejected because he didn’t think the proposed buyers properly recognised the potential of its VR work.

“We’d been pushing so hard at the drones videos and the UAV videos I just didn’t bother to really show anyone what I was up to on the other stuff…[these companies] didn’t have the insight to see how it works, and I just knew this was going to happen as soon as the technology was there, it was just logical progression of how things develop,” Che de Boer said said.

The startup is looking forward to taking its technology further in 2016, and will be looking internationally to do so, with Che de Boer explaining that New Zealand is too slow for what the startup is trying to do. Fellow New Zealand company 8i has had significant success in this VR space internationally, raising NZ$20 million late last year from investors including Sound Ventures, RRE Ventures, Founders Fund Science, and Samsung Ventures to help develop its immersive volumetric VR experiences.

First things first, RealityVirtual.co is gearing up for the release of its volumetric VR music video. Said Che de Boer, “We’re super excited to say the least.”