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Kainos is pushing the envelope in VR development in Northern Ireland

  • Did you know that Kainos has a virtual reality department? I was surprised this week to find out that the company has not only been developing VR experiences, but has really been innovating in virtual space.

    Belfast-based software development firm Kainos is best known for its IT and consulting services offered to businesses, but it turns out that it's also got a team working on innovative VR experiences. The group has partnered with local artist PJ Holden to create an amazing VR experience for Key Stage 2 students as part of the NI Science Festival that will be on display tomorrow at W5 in the Odyssey.

    A sneak peek at DragonSlumber

    I went down to W5 this week to get a sneak peek of the DragonSlumber adventure experience, and was throughly impressed with both the artistry that went into creating the experience and the technical innovation from the development side. The demo room is an open space strewn with chairs and tape markers on the floor, but put on the VR headset and you'll find yourself on a winding rock ledge suspended over an active volcano.

    While many VR experiences are simple seated demos in a small virtual space, DragonSlumber fills the entire room. A backpack that the instructor delightfully describes to kids as "your battle armour" turns the VR headset into an untethered experience, and you walk around the room like you're in your own little holodeck.

    Though you know that you're standing on a solid floor, you can't help but look down over the edge of the thin virtual ledge and feel like one mis-step and you'd fall. The illusion of perspective and scale really worked, and I carefully edged along the rock ledge laid out in front of me and at one point almost held out my hands to keep my balance. 

    VR for games and experiences

    Coming from a background in gaming journalism, I've played countless VR experiences at events over the years and have seen the technology mature from a stationary seated experience to the immersion of room-scale VR demos. Though the games industry has had a shaky start with VR, the potential for VR to immerse someone in a virtual world makes it an incredibly powerful tool to deliver unique experiences -- even more powerful in that regard than films.

    As a game developer myself, I know that creating all of this was no small technical feat, and Kainos is keen to highlight it as the largest VR experience built in Northern Ireland. The event fills a 15 x 12m space, but projects a much larger world beyond the walking area to make you feel like you're in a land of giants and dragons. The experience was created by Kainos in collaboration with Digital Catapult NI and comic artist PJ Holden.

    PJ Holden told me about the difficulties in creating a huge virtual environment within a small space, highlighting the fact that establishing a one-to-one scale between a real world and virtual environment is a lot trickier than it sounds. Holden himself comes from an IT and is quite tech savvy, and actually built the entire experience within VR using painting and sculpting tools combined with some traditional 3D modelling. The end result is a magical blend of comic artistry and visual spectacle that speaks as much to the skill of the artist as to the amazing technology involved.

    Kainos does VR

    The biggest take-away from the event for me was the surprising fact that Kainos does VR, and does it well. I spoke to one developer at Kainos at length about the technology involved, the problems they've solved, and the things they've learned throughout the project. He was aware of the current research in the field and had some new insights to share about where VR is headed.

    It was clear that the developers involved had real passion for VR, and that they felt Kainos was a company that allowed them to pursue that interest. It will be interesting to see whether this event serves as a proof of concept for further development, and whether Kainos continues to push the envelope in the emerging VR experience industry.

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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