July Activity Report

For this series of entries I will be explaining the steps I take in developing my startup during my placement year at the Northumbria Business Startup Hatchery. Hopefully these monthly report-style blogs can be useful to someone in a similar position, who is looking to get started with developing their business idea.

Activities undertaken for July 2016
  • Created a project plan using MS Project and agile estimating techniques, mapping the timescales for the production of a vertical slice (proof of concept) over the placement year, which can be used to seek funding.
  • Developed a spreadsheet that is used to calculate development time for the content (game assets), with initial estimates for each task type being measured against timed practice attempts in order to gauge the viable scope and scale of the project, as well as to test the development pipeline.
  • Generated a list of tasks and relationships using the user stories approach from agile methodologies.
  • Requested more information from Gateshead Council on their digital initiative and opportunities for work.
  • Attended VRTGO Labs launch event, a centre of excellence for VR developers in the north east of England, which was a chance to network and learn from prominent local businesses in the industry.
  • Wrote a blog entry about the VRTGO Labs launch event and shared it within industry relevant social media circles to boost my exposure among the community.
  • Applied for new industry vacancies, such as another advertised Junior Animator position at Ubisoft Reflections, Newcastle.
  • Attended Google Digital Garage at the Newcastle City Library, where I learnt about improving my portfolio/website’s search engine optimisation (SEO) among professional and public directories, and more.
  • Completed the Google Digital Garage online course list to gain further insight into how an online presence (e.g. website, social media, etc.) can help me exploit local and international opportunities.
  • Arranged a meeting with the Intellectual Property Office for August 5th, in order help me better understand how to protect my work, e.g.; copyright, trademarks, etc.
  • Updated my portfolio website using the advice from the Google Digital Garage, including; getting listed on professional business directories, keyword search, URL and page structure optimisation.
  • Pro-actively propositioned local businesses regarding contract/freelance work, e.g. Kuro Dragon, Arcus Animation Studios, etc.
  • Identified and investigated a potential pivot in the business strategy, after identifying the possible need for experienced evangelism that would help drive sales of VR hardware at retail.

VRTGO Labs Launch Event

VRTGO Labs held its launch event on Wednesday evening, in the suitably impressive venue of St Mary’s Heritage Centre, Gateshead. VRTGO Labs aims to be Europe’s first industry-led virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) centre of excellence. While I was unable to attend for long, there were some very interesting things going on inside.

Among the exhibitors was Humphrey Hardwicke, Creative Director at Luminous Group, purveyors of digital architecture, surveys and VR. He explained to me how his company were making use of Unreal Engine 4 to demonstrate interior design visualisations using VR. What grabbed my attention initially however, was that they were using the hand tracking capabilities of LeapMotion paired with a standard Xbox One controller, to allow rich interactivity in their Oculus Rift experience. The improved accuracy of the latest version of the Leap Motion software was exploited well by the Luminous group, and I was able to stylise the room and interact with its objects in a much more intuitive way than I had expected.

HammerheadVR made a brief speech on their AbeVR and Feel Wimbledon experiences. Just two of their projects they felt were successful based on the positive feedback they had gotten, something which may pave the way for even more interactive and emotionally engaging experiences from the studio.

A week earlier I had sampled AbeVR, which places you in the body of a woman from the 2013 psychological horror short by director Rob McLellan. Their Feel Wimbledon experience, made for Jaguar and starring Andy Murray, lets people see what it is like to make the winning strike as a professional tennis player during an intense game. HammerheadVR’s portfolio includes encouragingly varied and noteworthy works with big names like Star Wars, Lexus, Whirlpool and more.

Animmersion had brought along one of their Dreamoc hologram displays, which are gesture manipulable display cabinets that render vivid, animated 3D objects. The clarity and vibrancy of this was immediately impressive, as I had only ever seen very dim holograms in darker environments before. This display was of much higher quality, even though it was being showcased in a church hall flooded with natural lighting.

Other exhibitors at the event included talented work from local studios CCP, Coatsink, Spearhead InteractiveVector76 and Wolf and Wood, who released their highly praised A Chair In A Room, which I am looking forward trying.

Carri Cunliffe, manager of Secret Sauce, welcomed us to the event and explained VRTGO Labs as a mix of office and co-working space, situated at Baltimore House in Gateshead. She made clear how facilities such as a their VR demo room and GTI open source fibre – a high-capacity, high-speed open access fibre optical network – would provide exciting opportunities for local business to co-operate in making the region a hotbed for their VR and AR cluster development programme. Carri then went on to introduce the Mayor of Gateshead, Allison Ilderton-Thompson, who expressed her amazement at the experiences she’d had, and exhuded a positive outlook on the role the council will play in supporting and encouraging technological and artistic innovation in the area.

Despite being only able to attend for a short time, I felt the event further reinforced my hopes that a starting up a VR business could prove to have long term viability. I experienced and learnt about some new tech and opportunities that could be invaluable to me as a startup developer. I eagerly await the next conference and learning from all of these very talented and inspiring people.

June Activity Report

For this series of entries I will be explaining the steps I take in developing my startup during my placement year at the Northumbria Business Startup Hatchery. Hopefully these monthly report-style blogs can be useful to someone in a similar position, who is looking to get started with developing their business idea.

Activities undertaken for June 2016
  • Applied for vacancies in relevant job roles which could boost my professional experience and that I could fit in around my placement, including;
  • Registered to attend the VRTGO Labs launch event in Gateshead, July 6th – Europe’s first virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) networking hub.
  • Began redesigning my portfolio website into a business focused landing page.
  • Began researching my customer market and developing my business idea using the agile methodology, including;
  • Completed the first revision of a Business Model Canvas using the knowledge gleaned from my market research, arriving at my initial problem statement; “There are no deep and affordable, full-game experiences for VR hardware.”
  • Began work on building a prototype VR game product using Unreal Engine 4, to allow me to examine the possibilities and limitations of the technology, as well as to measure my ability to lead development on such a product and highlight the areas where I would need help.
  • Finished reading and applying the exercises (‘lenses’) from The Art of Game Design (Jesse Schell, 2015) to my prototype VR game design, to improve the quality of my work as a developer.
  • Sought information on registering my business as a sole trader, confirming the use of my portfolio websites name, infinity27(.com), as valid through the Companies House register.
  • Designed a business card for myself and had a company t-shirt printed for the VRTGO event.
  • Generated a list of questions for the fortnightly meeting with my supervisor, asking about;
    • Accessing the facilities at the universities Virtual Reality & Visualisation (VRV) Studio.
    • Registering product names, trademarks, copyright, etc.
    • Possible funding opportunities such as through the Princes Trust, for example.
    • When to begin setting up business accounts and keeping records for tax returns.

NU Startup Experience 2016

Last weekend I attended the Start-up Experience hosted at Northumbria University Student & Graduate Enterprise, in association with the Startup Foundation and Santander Universities. The event ran from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon and was a cohesive mixture of informal talks and group tasks which would help us redefine our understanding of what startup means and gave us an overview of the agile approach to product/solution development.


 

During the first evening we learnt that a start-up is not, and should not be thought of as, a company. Instead we were told to think of them as temporary organisations that are seeking a repeatable and scaleable business model, while companies should be seen as entities which are currently executing a proven model. Various historical examples (read: failures) were shown and a convincing argument for adopting lean and agile development practices was given. The slides above briefly highlight the key points covered on Friday evening, including the importance of customer discovery and validation, which was reinforced throughout the whole weekend. Most of the presentations used for the event have also been added to SlideShare by Leon Pal, Chairman of the Startup Foundation and main speaker at the event.

I found these insights very useful, as I have been learning about and practicing lean and agile software development methodologies at university. So it was encouraging to see that those philosophies are somewhat transferable to my goal of running a startup through the Northumbria Hatchery.

For the rest of the evening we assembled groups based on problem themes – topics such as finance, work, travel, retail or any other area we felt passionate about improving – and then set about applying some of the taught strategies ourselves, focussing firstly on the value proposition and customer segments of a business model design canvas. We also tried our hand at – and gloriously failed – the Marshmallow Challenge, which really reinforced the importance of iterative prototyping in order to find a successful solution sooner. An interesting explanation of the challenge and its wisdoms I have included below.


 

Saturday started with walkthroughs of lean startup processes which involved ‘Learn and Confirm‘ and ‘Customer Conversation‘ segments, which taught us the value of getting out of the building and starting customer conversations around the problems we identified in our teams the night before. We refer to these as our problem statements. The idea being that actual primary field research would either validate or invalidate our problem statements and help us decide if we should pivot (a fundamental change in the business model) or proceed with developing a solution. By doing so we avoid developing a product/service based on our assumptions, that has no real customers willing to pay for our product/solution.

Thankfully our team worked well together and we tackled this task well enough to both validate and invalidate different assumptions that had led us to our problem statement. By going back and reviewing what we had learnt we decided to pivot our idea in terms of the customer segment and their needs. This helped grow us from the idea of hiring out food trucks to local businesses to instead aiming to provide a venue for local chefs and ‘foodies’ to try out their own startup at a pop-up stall in key city locations.

The key here is that we again needed to test our assumptions to gather real world data on our renewed problem statement. So we quickly developed a social media presence and spread word among our target audience in order to get validation, in the form of customer participation tests. This took the form of a simple competition in which we encouraged people to submit images of their best culinary creations using the hashtag #icookedit2016. We set a fail condition, a minimum of 100 responses, from which we could find perhaps 10-12 people who would come to cook and sell their dishes at our venue in Newcastle.


 

After promoting the competition overnight we returned on Sunday to the event and started analysing our results in order to help us give a five minute presentation “pitch”, which consisted of an explanation of our journey and key findings we took from the weekends activities. The deconstruction was just as helpful as the activities that preceded it and even helped us understand and identify how we could take the idea further if we had more time to develop our problem statement and solution.

The slides we produced are included above but don’t really explain the concept or the joy of challenge, learning and discovery we all had in developing our startup over the three days. Even though we did not get the results we wanted we had applied everything we were taught and each team member agreed that we could see the benefits of the lean and agile startup approach.

In closing I got a great deal from the event and would highly recommend this or similar events to anyone looking to go into, or even considering from a curious distance, running their own startup. At least reading up on and trying out different methodologies will help you avoid the pitfalls of that blinkered approach we too often default to in life, and help you stay focussed on developing a minimum viable product (MVP) which is backed by a viable business model and has proven worth to customers that are actually willing to engage with it.

A thanks to all those involved! Invaluable.

Lesson learnt: Don’t build so fast that you didn’t have time to test your assumptions, because your assumptions are mostly wrong. Aim for a solid, stable base (MVP) and iterate rapidly through your testing phase to find out what exactly that base consists of. You have to be able to build a skateboard before you can start to get anywhere near building a car. Learn, validate, re-learn, re-validate…repeat until $$$.

VRTGO VR Developer Day 2016

Attending the VRTGO virtual reality (VR) developer day was a great experience, which helped me understand some of the issues and potential solutions that VR developers are working with today, and how that will have an impact my own designs. While some of the talks got very technical I felt I could keep up and took away some valuable insights which I can use in my future projects.


I felt the most technical talk was by Roberto Lopez Mendez, Senior Software Engineer at ARM. He took time to explain the challenges faced in porting an experience made in Unity – their Ice Cave demo – to the GearVR platform. Since GearVR makes use of relatively lower power mobile hardware, Mendez also detailed how they optimise different aspects of the experience, such as; lighting, reflections, refractions, etc. and how we can adapt what they learnt for use in our own projects.

The result of their work is a rather impressive demo, which I got to try for myself. By using the techniques they outlined in their presentation, they were able to create a vivid interior environment, which had beautifully rendered effects that really made the scene feel realistic and believable. All of this was running on a Samsung S6 smartphone, which uses the Mali-T760 graphics processor. This is very inspiring, when I consider what this could mean for my personal projects. If you’re a VR or mobile developer I highly recommend their Mali Developer microsite, which contains lots of useful resources.

Attending the event were some of my previous tutors from Gateshead College, who were showcasing their Level 3 Games Design students’ work. A VR environment modelled off of places I frequented while studying there. It was interesting to find out that the students were able to reproduce the environments convincingly in only seven weeks! Hopefully I’ll get another chance to see what the students and staff have been up to in the future!


Other talks on design and programming tips for VR included:

Patrick Connor, Principle Engineer at PlayStation VR - discussed the importance of reprojection and how asynchronous reprojection is used in PlayStation VR
Oliver Kibblewhite, Head of Special Projects at Rewind Studios - explained the spectrum of applications for VR, as well as tools and techniques to improve our workflows.
Eddie Beardsmore, Project Manager at Coatsink - discussed the journey they took while working towards their latest title, Esper 2
Paul Colls, Creative Director at Fierce Kaiju - similarly explained the lessons his team learnt when evaluating their game, Viral
Rachel Derbyshire, Co-founder & Creative Director at Chronicles VR - did a more experience focussed talk focussing on considerations for the first time user and the importance of understanding your audience's ability level
Dan Gilmore, Head of UI & UX at Atomhawk - talked through designing user interfaces for VR and how their work affected the high profile VR title EVE Valkerie


Each developer talked a bit about their history and the unique challenges they faced in producing VR content for a range of different clients, as well as tips on how to avoid making the same design mistakes they had. I found all of the topics interesting and respect that the speakers and the event staff took time to put this together for us, as the event was an invaluable source of inspiration and advice for me. Too much information, in fact, for me to write in detail about here. However, one thing I’d like to point out was the mention of VR Together, an organisation with a mission to encourage people to produce meaningful VR experiences that will improve human lives. This is something I gravitate towards, because I feel that VR needs to be approached as a new medium in itself and that we should use this opportunity to create content that has a positive impact on us as the audience.

VR Together
Oh look, another infinity symbol!

The day ended with a final round of questions for the attending speakers. Most interestingly, some good discussion took place around the subject of how we could rate and label virtual experiences, with some developers feeling that the current classification and rating systems (i.e. PEGI) may be insufficient in dealing with virtual experiences. Kibblewhite argued that due to their unique form of immersion and presence, virtual experiences, unlike other mediums, do not need creators to push visual and auditory elements to extremes in order to elicit a strong emotional response from a person: and I agree. Though you could argue that some of the most touching moments you’ve had with games, film or literature can be triggered by their nuances or subtle juxtapositions and I would also agree.

I think this is an interesting take-away, because if we really are going to view this as a new medium we should probably also build up a new lexicon with which to discuss and describe the experience from a consumer standpoint too. Without these considerations – and even with – I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before we see the headline ‘Child kills sibling playing VR murder simulator, Minecraft VR’.


I felt this space needed a picture and found I had none. So here’s one Freddi Jeffries took at the event.

While walking home this got me thinking about my HND dissertation, where I looked at how game design choices can have reaching consequences and the importance of those consequences to society. That’s when it hit me. I had learnt so much at the developer day that all of the things I had learnt since writing my dissertation were now fitting together. Older ideas I had were being discarded or overwritten and pieces of knowledge which were only loosely connected before felt reinforced and crystallised.