Virtual reality startups in Hamburg
Build your own world
On with the glasses, off we go: virtual reality is poised to become a mass medium. Our author Georg Dahm visited Hamburg startups and took a look around their parallel universes.
“It's just a video! Just! A! Video!” flits briefly through my head, but the brain is fully occupied with not switching to total panic mode. I'm standing high above a street canyon on an ominously swaying girder. I swing round – and there's this killer robot making a grab for me. My pulse races, my legs give way – I rip the virtual reality headset off my head and sink to my knees, gasping for breath.
“I like to show people this game to give them an idea of what VR can do nowadays,” says 3D designer Tobias Wüstefeld with an innocent smile. It worked: virtual reality has truly arrived. The technology has developed at such speed in the last five years that it's about to become a mass medium.
This is how it works: 3D designer Tobias Wüstefeld draws in virtual space.
“It's incredible how many colleagues of mine are buying VR equipment right now,” says Wüstefeld, who has set up a studio in a backyard office in Hamburg's Altona district. His speciality is miniature worlds with a loving eye for detail; customers such as Ferrero or Russian Railways order camera trips through fantasy landscapes, absurd buildings and machines. At one time he would have created them on screen with a 3D program. Now, he puts on his VR headset and builds freehand in space. Infrared sensors measure his motions, two controllers make tools of his hands. “What I build this way looks much more genuine. Because it's not so perfect”.
Even two years ago the required technology would have been unaffordable. Today, anyone can buy themselves a complete VR bundle for 450 euros – but you do need a PC with powerful graphic capabilities. For example, the professional graphic cards alone cost 900 euros. Wüstefeld has several installed in his computer.
Virtual reality has been a vision since the 1960s. However, its breakthrough only started in 2012 with the Oculus Rift, an affordable VR headset. Oculus now belongs to Facebook, corporations such as Samsung, Microsoft, Sony and HTC are also pushing into the market with their own technology and investments in startups and studios – because now they all need applications that work in the market.
Which is why the City of Hamburg is to invest a total of 300,000 euros in 2017 and 2018 in next.reality Hamburg, a development program, intended to establish the Hanseatic city internationally as a VR centre. “We've a lot of exciting players here, but we have to give them more visibility and integrate them better,” says Frank Steinicke, a professor of informatics at the University of Hamburg. He heads the project and also works with the emerging “VR Headquarter” in the historic Speicherstadt district – a co-working space for VR startups. Some of these startups arose from his bachelor's studies in human-computer interaction. “We're seeing a huge run,” says Steinicke. “The courses are all packed, though we've doubled our capacity”.
Welcome to VR Headquarter
A vibrant scene of pioneering men and women has emerged since the launch of the Oculus Rift. People like Sara Lisa Vogl. When still a design student, she met designer Nico Uthe in her shared flat in Hamburg. Together they designed “Lucid Trips”, one of the first games for the new tech generation. In it, you immerse yourself in a dream world where you jump, glide, fly, apparently freed from the force of gravity. “Nico had a dislocated shoulder at the time and couldn't do any sports, that's how we happened on the Oculus Rift,” says Sara. Together with her mother, she stitched a mount for the player, a drone found an alternative use as a wind simulator – all very home-made, all very complicated. Today, anyone can play “Lucid Trips” on HTC Vive – Sara got to know its development team in Copenhagen and talked them into giving her the first developer version for Germany.
Another survivor from the pioneering days is the startup “VR-Nerds”, co-founded by Uthe, which will move into the planned co-working space in the Hafencity. The company's still based in an old industrial building in the Billhorn district, trains rattle past to right and left while fantasy worlds are created inside. VR-Nerds is known in the scene for the specialist blog of the same name, but is also an established creative studio. It builds VR installations for trade shows for customers such as Beiersdorf, for example.
“2016 was the absolute year of hype, everybody wanted a piece of VR,” says project manager Christian Grohganz. Though in his view big money doesn't always lead to better results: “We've seen VR productions from major game studios that failed in the community,” says Grohganz. VR-Nerds produced its “TowerTag” game without a large budget. In it, the players move through a virtual paintball arena with their entire body. It's already in action at the Mundsburg Center arcade. “Our marketing focused on public arcades, not end customers,” says Grohganz. “Despite the boom, not that many people have a VR set at home so far”.
The company Noys VR also developed its first product with the resources to hand. And at the moment the rings round the founders' eyes reveal that their everyday lives are even more stressful than usual: “We've been living on Californian time for the last ten days,” says co-founder Fabio Buccheri. The cause of the last-minute rush: the startup attracted the attention of VR giant Oculus, which offered it a highlighted placement in its app store.
Noys VR constructs virtual stages where musicians can give concerts. The fans beam themselves into the action by VR headset. “We're musicians ourselves and we know you can't mimic a real concert experience,” says co-founder Fatih Inan. “But in the worlds we build, you can have a concert experience that's totally different from the real world”.
Music city Hamburg drew the founders to the Elbe – and is supporting their market launch. Noys VR is now on the radar of labels such as Warner Music. “The city is doing a lot for us,” says Buccheri. “For example, we were able to present at the Reeperbahn Festival” – an opportunity they earned as part of the Music WorX Accelerator of Hamburg’s “Kreativ Gesellschaft” development agency. Another factor, he says, is Hamburg's strong games industry: “You have very highly skilled people here because of it”.
It's clear enough that the games sector will be a major force driving the VR industry, says informatics professor Steinicke: “Gamers already have the required hardware, they can get started straight away”. He can see from dissertations on his degree course that the possibilities of VR go beyond games. “There's a lot going on in the therapy field, for example, for Parkinson's patients and in the treatment of social phobias”.
There's been extreme acceleration on the research side, says Steinicke: “If you had an idea ten years ago you could take your time. Nowadays, you Google it and find somebody else is already onto it”. Is it just more hype? No, says Steinicke: “This technology isn't going away”.