Geneva VR-tech immerses itself in US training programmes

Source: Lionel Hahn/Dreamscape Immersive.

Dreamscape Immersive has created a virtual reality (VR) education platform in collaboration with the Arizona State University and and has also scored a contract with US Defense and Intelligence sectors, Forbes announced last month.

This is a piece of information that could sound just like any other tech story, if the VR technology used by Dreamscape Immersive hadn’t been developed by a Geneva-based research team, Artanim. Artanim, is a non-profit foundation, created in 2011 by Caecilia Charbonnier, Clementine Lo and Sylvain Chagué. Active in both medical and artistic fields, the team co-produced in 2018 the immersive exhibition “Genève 1850” with the Geneva Art and History Museum.

Its American venture, Dreamscape Immersive, backed up by no other than Steven Spielberg, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros, emerged five years ago, with the idea to develop the Artanim technology for commercial applications. The company started by imagining the first VR multiplex in Los Angeles, on the same model as the movie industry. Instead of going to see a movie, visitors enter a VR experience. Since then, three other centres opened: in Dallas, in Eastern Columbus and Dubai. And this is just the beginning. Plans are also in the making to bring the VR experience to Geneva.

The multiple uses of the technology now inspire the world on an educational level. To learn more about this American venture and its possible developments, Dreamscape Immersives’ co-founder and chief innovation officer, Caecilia Charbonnier, invites us to her Geneva-based lab.

Geneva Solutions: How did Artanim, a Swiss research foundation, become an International VR business venture?

Caecilia Charbonnier: Artanim was created 10 years ago, with the idea to use our core technology, motion capture, in different areas. We focus on two different research axes. One is the medical domain where we're using motion capture to track the kinematics of a patient’s or an athlete’s movement to understand what happens inside a joint. The other strategic research area is virtual reality in general, not only the headset that you use, and this kind of application, but really, I would say working on the virtual environments, animation of different characters and so on.

We wanted to combine VR headsets with motion capture. When we started working on the technology, what existed was only the headset, but you were never able to see your own body. And it was a lonely experience. It was never really social or collaborative. So by combining motion capture and multiple users at the same time in the same space, we could offer something more.

So we started to work on a prototype, which was showcased in specialized conferences first, then in festivals. We could see how the entertainment domain could become a good partner in the development of the project. Sundance first, then Cannes. It was a success. We were really lucky to meet investors early on who believed in the technology and the future of VR entertainment. That’s how Dreamscape Immersive was born.

GS: How does the Dreamscape Immersive experience work?

CC: There are three or four pods in every centre. Each pod offers a different VR experience, that will last between 12 to 15 minutes. All experiences can be shared together with friends or family. Your entire body is immersed in VR. You can choose your character before the experience. There is a bunch of avatars to choose from for each specific experience. During the experience, you see the other participants and can even share objects. You have a torch, for example, that you can use to light up your environment and pass it around. Some elements can be touched to give you an extra sense of the experience, while we play with different wind, water or vibration effects. The point is to bring some added emotion to the experience.

The Blue Deep Rescue. Source: Lionel Hahn/Dreamscape Immersive.

GS: How do you keep up with the rapid developments of technology in the field?

CC: We really need to be on the forefront of technology, as technology is evolving so fast. Like every few months you have new headset coming out on the market, and new tech being designed. So we need to be aware of what's going on in the field and update both our hardware and our software on and on the outlet side, but also on the software side. It’s the only way to be competitive.

GS: What are the future developments in terms of VR technology?

CC: Right now, we are working on two aspects. If you look at our setup, if you want to be totally immersed in a virtual world, you need an infra-red camera system, to be tracked from every angle. The user must carry sensors on the hands and feet. In terms of hygiene, it needs to be impeccable and cleaned up all the time. The user is also wearing a backpack, to be able to move around, as the backpack controls the rendering of the headset. So basically, it's a burden that we would like to get rid of, at some point. The goal would be to put on a headset and enter the universe. 5G and edge computing are promising in that sense, with the rendering being moved to a big server somewhere, and then streamed back to the headset. It is complicated when there are six users at the same time, as you need to be very fast. Another aspect we are working on is to develop a markerless solution analysing the images coming from the cameras using machine learning to determine the movements. No sensors would ultimately be needed.

The idea is to get closer to the experienced pictured in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, where you put on the headset and you are in the experience.

GS: How does your technology then apply to educational purposes?

CC: It's not a total shift, as entertainment will always be part of our activities. But we were really lucky to look forward to different verticals. It is difficult to only count on the entertainment aspects today. And education is a logical move. What we would like to do is to provide universities or other learning centres with our system, but also to help them stay connected from home.

So we started a partnership with Arizona State University, a very innovative University in the US. We believe in the future of education, which could be at some point totally immersed into a virtual environment, not very different from simulation and training. That way, you can learn about an environment in a more practical way, improve your skills, and verify that you learn faster or better as you are really experiencing the environment. We are now launching the first course in biology, using certain assets of one of our entertainment experiences, called Alien Zoo.

Alien Zoo. Source: Dreamscape Immersive.

Alien Zoo, is an experience in a space station around earth, where you have all the endangered creatures from the universe living in a dome that you can visit in the interactive experience. But for the educational aspect of the project, the goal would be to create capsules, where you would be able to, to get samples on the environment, understand the food chain, for example. And to do so we are working closely with professors. The idea is to bring one of their programs into something that is much more practical and immersive.

Another aspect of our educational development is really straight forward, as our system is really highly immersive. We then can train people to face difficult situations, like firefighters or policemen. In addition, the goal is to create training and simulation programs for emergency first responders in case of disastrous situations or catastrophes (natural disasters, pandemic situations, etc.).   It’s very interesting as you have a sense of presence and embodiment that are much more valid in a virtual situation, than working on a theoretical approach. VR will never replace the real-life situation but it can definitely bring you closer to it.

Potential future applications could also be the development of specific programs with international organizations such as United Nations, Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders.

GS: What do you like about VR?

CC: What I really like about VR is that you can really do anything you are not able to do in reality. If you want to go into space or walk on Mars, you can do so in VR, which would be almost impossible in real life. VR is open to everything, just let your imagination do the rest.