Future Opportunities

VR to make couch potato tours of the world's landmarks a click away

Martin Bernetti | AFP | Getty Images

Visiting the pyramids of Giza, the pantheon of Athens or the Grand Canyon may not be feasible for many but thanks to virtual reality, these historic sites could soon be accessible from anywhere in the world, including your couch.

A Singapore-based start-up, Hiverlab, is working to preserve heritage sites in a virtual world where users can get a close look at these famed structures and learn about the histories through interactive links within their virtual reality, or VR, headsets.

"Heritage will eventually decline and to be able to digitize it at this very moment is one way of conserving it," Ender Jiang, founder of Hiverlab, told CNBC in an interview. Jiang's ambition runs deeper - he wants to eventually amass enough VR content to create a digital library of an expansive history of mankind.

But Hiverlab is starting small. Earlier this year, the company collaborated with an art historian at the Nanyang Technological University, Michael Walsh, to create a prototype VR model of the Armenian church in Famagusta, Cyprus. The church was built in the Middle Ages and is one of the oldest surviving buildings of that era in the region, bearing a rich history.

Hiverlab received three-dimensional (3D) scans of the church from an international company that Jiang did not name and research materials from Walsh to design an interactive model that took nearly two months to put together. Users can walk around the modest-looking church and click on built-in hyperlinks using motion controllers, which are available with high-end VR headsets like HTC Hive.

The hyperlinks open up nuggets of information about the church's history and Hiverlab built a time-lapse feature that allows a user to go back in time and observe how the church might have looked at a certain period in its history.

"When we have built up enough enriched information, we (will be) able to produce something beyond sightseeing," said Jiang.

VR is at the forefront of technology development.

Data analysis company IHS Markit said in October consumers were expected to spend more than $11 billion on VR technology by 2020. Much of the VR space is now dominated by the gaming and entertainment industries, but companies are looking to expand the technology's reach in other areas such as education, social interaction and tourism.

For example, a company named HelloVR created a VR-based simulated living where users can walk or play chess with a friend thousands of miles away.

Having worked as a creative director in advertising agencies in the past, Jiang's love for storytelling drives much of the direction for the company.

"Technology should be able to enhance the way we communicate with people," he said, adding the company's emphasis lay on creating more than just a 360 degree virtual experience. "For us, moving is very important."

Augmented reality for your goggles?
Augmented reality for your goggles?

That meant more time and equipment is needed for high-quality production. Hiverlab designs and 3D prints its own camera rigs, for example, to test out various ways to capture motion. They have a dedicated office in China that handles much of the post-production work.

Projects can, as a result, take a long time to complete. In 2015, Hiverlab started a project for the Singapore International Foundation to create a VR diving experience aimed at differently-abled people. It was a series of trial and error for Jiang and his team to decide on the best form of storytelling in a virtual world and it took 15 months to complete.

While creating independent VR content is key, Jiang said developing a good platform to house that content was even more crucial. Much of Hiverlab's content sits on Storyhive, an online VR platform that the company developed.

It allows multiple people to experience the same virtual world together and communicate using voice chat. The technology can track individual data to analyze user interest and behavior. It makes the platform conducive for classroom learning and group presentations.

The company received an initial funding of 200,000 Singapore dollars ($140,607) from an angel investor last year and is backed by some of the biggest names in tech. Samsung is a hardware sponsor, providing the company with its Galaxy Gear VR headsets, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba provides cloud support for the Storyhive platform while Huawei provides internet infrastructure.

Jiang estimates the Storyhive platform will be available to the public by the second half of next year.

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