February 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 FEBRUARY 2017
  • Had a meeting with Gateshead Council to discuss the possibility of securing space in the upcoming centre for emerging technology, which would help me establish a presence in a key business location once my stay the Start-up Hatchery comes to an end in May.
  • VRTGO Labs authorised me to access their co-working space in the meantime, so I could do my work alongside members of their cluster and get to develop my professional presence and relationships with those companies.
  • Met with Jiaojiao Zhao at Northumbria University, who discussed how I can use tools such as Caffe and TensorFlow to begin exploring areas of AI relevant to games and VR, such as natural language processing (NLP), facial and emotional recognition and 3D object reconstruction.
  • Signed up to attend the additional Grow Your Business sessions ran by the university’s Student & Graduate Enterprise, which are an extension of the Digital Marketing event I attended in December, aimed at helping me avoid the pitfalls that can end start-ups and SME‘s
  • Planned to submit a business canvas and pitch video to the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Award, which could net me a cash prize of up to £25,000, mentoring and start-up support from Santander Business and Banking team and exclusive access to an acceleration week as well as other prizes.
  • Began drafting my own freelancing contracts for TyneMet College and Northumbria University‘s VRV department after attending meetings with them, which will allow me to submit invoices for the upcoming work I will be doing for them.
  • My meeting with the VRV gave me the opportunity to work with them on a project for Sunderland City Council, which involves using my skills and experience to craft a set of media products which showcase certain development sites across their catchment area.
  • Made an application for consideration in the next COLOPL NEXT student/VR startup funding round, who are looking to invest $50 million into VR games development and other forms of VR content production, which along could help me hire employees to take one or more of my prototypes into production phase.
  • Spent time to advanced my knowledge of coding (C++) and used this to further develop the prototypes I made using Unreal Engine 4, as this is the dominant programming language used in game engines.

Autumn 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. This entry is a reflective summary of my achievements and the difficulties I have encountered, in the form of a quarterly report. This includes identifying new skills or competencies I have acquired as well as explaining which existing ones I have applied or developed. To conclude I will explore areas for improvement, plans and actions for further work (e.g. learning, tasks, projects, etc.) which will inform my action plan for competencies and activities for the following quarter.


Achievements & Difficulties

In this quarter I made significant progress towards achieving the goals I set out in my action plan in Summer. However, I didn’t manage to get as far as I would have liked with some of them. Though I still have time to do so this year.

First of all, I dedicated time to create a more professional web presence. Since I had done some work for clients last quarter, I thought it would be best to advertise these services with testimonies, instead of using the single-page portfolio style format I had developed. I also took the advice of Chris Simpson, whose event I digital marketing seminar I attended in December. Chris encouraged me to implement analytics into my design, so I could track the demographics and behaviour of my audience, to better plan and analyse my digital marketing strategy.

Using the skills and tools I had at my disposal I managed to revamp my domain, infinity27.com, though this was not without it’s difficulties. I went in-depth into this in another blog post, but in brief, I found that I needed to spend a day learning the methodology and vernacular of multiple Google products before I could implement a working digital marketing campaign that uses analytics. Looking back, it is evident that this is an invaluable exercise that will help me monitor the success of the goals I want to achieve with my website. A quick glance at the analytics tools gives me insight into how my visitors view and interact with my website. For example, I can now see if the links I include in my e-mail campaign are being visited by the recipients and how effective the landing page for that service is at convincing them to enquire about my service.

This bring me onto the second goal I set last quarter, to secure regular paid work which an sustain my startup full-time. Despite not being able to contract recurring work, I have been able to begin attracting clients who wish to pay for my services. While I continued to trial and develop the VR for Education service with Gateshead College, I created a list of local education and training providers who could benefit from the service and sent them proposals. This led to interest and negotiation with most of the higher education colleges I contacted.

At first I found it difficult to price my services, using the method I had for the VR for Retail service. After consultation with my mentor and a detailed breakdown, I arrived at a selection of flexibly priced services that are tailored towards the customer needs and are offered in a modular structure. Looking at the cost of similar services, such as speakers and workshops, I feel I am able to offer this at a very competitive price, which should be attractive to potential clients.

Outside of this I have completed a pro bono media production project for the Northumbria VRV, titled Newcastle 2065, which I also wrote about separately. This gave me the opportunity to prove my existing skills on a live brief for them and the arrangement worked well for us both. I now have evidence and testimony for this service on my website and they have a quality production, to their specification, delivered to a short deadline. On receiving positive feedback they also mentioned that they are going to be getting back in touch in the new year with paid opportunities, working on other projects for their clients.

Another of my production goals for the quarter was to develop a VR prototype that I could use to attract clients who are interested in an emerging technology product. Since this is the basis of my startup, I looked to make time outside of my other work to focus on this in particular. I had mostly put this off, due to my other commitments, but also because I knew that Oculus Touch – controllers designed for VR – would change the course of development. Therefore I didn’t get around to developing my prototype until the start of December.

Unfortunately by that time I struggled to find the availability in my schedule I needed to produce a demonstration which I could package and present to people. In the end I had spent only ten hours on this task. So, I have decided to carry this forward and make it the primary focus for the next quarter. I have decided to do so as I feel this is the keystone which will attract the regular paid work which I am most passionate about. Having an impressive, finished example of a VR demo that reflects my abilities, knowledge and creativity should go a long way to convincing the right clients of my capabilities.

One good thing came from this setback however. From the time I had exploring my prototype and the ideas I had for it, I was able to identify a dissertation research topic that interests me. Locomotion and movement; how players move around in a VR world/experience. This isn’t a neglected topic, and multiple solutions have been developed and utilised with the aim of tackling the issue of VR sickness (often referred to as motion/simulator sickness).

For the needs of my designs, I need something different. A solution that closely resembles the freedom players have in traditional first and third-person control schemes, but one that also reduces or eliminates the dissonant feelings that manifest when using VR to experience the content. To aid me I will be keeping a diary of any issues, ideas and solutions I identify during my development and production activities. This should give me a solid basis in addressing the issue in my final year dissertation at university.


New knowledge and skills learnt:

  • Implementing and using analytics to track audience behaviour online.
  • Proposal writing.
  • Providing information, advice and guidance on careers in the industry.

Existing knowledge and skills being applied and developed:

  • Speaking, delivering seminars and workshops.
  • Project management, planning and time-allocation.
  • Animation and character design.
  • Compliant and responsive web design and development.
  • Pricing services and identifying customer segments.

ACTION PLAN FOR THE NEXT QUARTER
  • Complete development of a VR prototype and follow on to produce a demo that can be distributed to the public and potential clients.
  • Contract enough paid work to break even until the end of the academic year.
  • Increase my exposure across the customer segments in which my services target.
  • Solidify a short term and long-term projection for my startup; activities and finances.

January 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 JANUARY 2017
  • Contacted the local colleges on my potential client list who had not yet replied in response to my offer of education services, giving them each a proposal with a pricing list, so I could begin to focus on other ventures.
  • Contacted Carri Cunliffe and Lewis Deans, offering to speak at their VR in Education event, sometime in February.
  • Begin adapting one of my existing portfolio demos to include support for the Oculus Touch controllers, which I acquired in December.
  • Signed up to the Upwork and Freelancer networks, which allows me to bid on internationally posted freelance projects, in order to reach more potential customers and improve my ability to generate an income that can sustain my other business activities.
  • Began canvassing and research on a long-term goal of establishing a virtual reality and games design studio in the local area, which included reaching out to Gateshead Council and VRTGO Labs for residency at their upcoming Center for Emerging Technology.
  • Created a blog post describing the digital marketing event arranged by Northumbria , what I got from it and how I used the wisdom to help improve my business, as well as the overcoming the difficulties I experienced in relation to these activities.
  • Met with TyneMet College who want two and a half days worth of sessions with their students for their work experience week.
  • Took time to develop and e-mail a proposal for a bespoke workshop, for TyneMet College, along with full details of my services and pricing.
  • Reached out to range of people to widen my network of contacts and support options, such as:
    • Prof. Ling Shao from Northumbria University’s Computer Vision and Artificial Intelligence department – who helped me arrange a meeting with his PhD student, to discuss the potential and possibility of combining virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
    • Mercedes Bent, Vice President of Education at UploadVR – discuss the possibility of collaborating to bring their workshop experience into the UK during the second half of 2017.
    • Billy Webber, Chief Operating Officer at Sunderland Software City – who offered free business support in the form of market research, press release and network event services.
    • Campus North to explore opportunities at their entrepreneur community and co-working space.
    • Mark Johnston, from TEDCO Ltd. – discussing my activities and ideas, the customer segments and markets I am targeting, problems faced and their business support opportunities (e.g. workshops).

Digital Marketing

Near the end of the year, I was invited to attend the Grow Your Business With Digital Marketing event, arranged by the Northumbria Enterprise and Business Support (NEBS) and held at the Northern Design Centre. This event focussed on the effective use of Google‘s AdWords and Analytics products, as well as business support opportunities offered by NEBS, such as their graduate internship program.


Introduction to the event was handled by none other than my start-up mentor, Graham BatyEnterprise Manager at the Northumbria Business Start-up Hatchery. Also in attendance were Cissie Tsang, our Enterprise Officer – who I got to speak to briefly during the intermission – as well as Victor Ottaway, the Graduate Internship Manager at Northumbria University.

Victor gave a brief but interesting talk about the support NEBS had given 126 small-medium enterprises (SMEs), by providing quality student interns and a salary subsidy of £4000 for up to 6 months (26 weeks) work. Impressively two-thirds of their graduates stay employed by the SMEs who choose to provide their internship, which proves the value and worth of such a scheme for both the employers and employees. Information on registering interest for the programme was given and I jumped at the chance to add my name to the list. While I don’t have full-time employees at present I do feel strongly about the importance of acquiring new talent, and I definitely intend to use this option in future if the opportunity arises.


The main event was, of course, Chris Simpson, founder of Karma Computing, Northumbria University graduate and example of a successful startup from the same hatchery I currently inhabit.

For the first half of the evening, Chris spoke about the importance of developing a measurable digital marketing strategy and setting up Google Analytics properly, so you can track your goals effectively. For example, if you make blog content to boost your exposure to potential clients, you can find out if the blog post you just spend hours crafting is bringing in any business for you.

The importance of targeted and measured campaigns was not new to me, as I had thoroughly enjoyed reading into this during the New Media Marketing module on my course. Memories of Gattiker, Jobber and Kotler, bubble in my mind. However, Chris added another, Aninashs Kaushik, author of the Digital Marketing Measure Model. Chris suggested reading it first to figure out your D.U.M.B. objectives; Doable; Understandable; Manageable;
Beneficial.)

Start with just one goal and focus on configuring it correctly said Chris, e.g. set a goal to track enquiry forms to completion. We do this by defining the goal in Google Analytics, setting a key performance indicator (KPI) for it and, most importantly, setting a target you can measure it against. Then, using the various tools, such as the live preview function or a plugin for Google Chrome, we can then test that the analytics are triggered when we visit the website ourselves. This means we can follow the customer journey and see how our analytics are collected as users browse our site.

For the second half of the evening, Chris dug deep on tracking. He explained that by linking Analytics and AdWords together we can send our goals and conversion data from Analytics into AdWords automatically. This would be the crux to better estimating the types of customers Google is going to target in our AdWords campaign. You can even track online clicks and attach them to enquiries (leads generated, meetings set up, etc.) in order to account for offline conversions. Say for example you have a contact form to generate leads; when you meet this client you should update your Analytics data to reflect a successful conversion, giving you better data for your future campaign.

Chris also wanted to clear up any confusion over keywords and explain how to use them effectively. His first tip, be as descriptive and specific with your keywords.

  • SPECIFIC – exactly what you’re providing (service/product)
  • HELPFUL -e.g. prices from £12.99 (transparent pricing)
  • ACTION DRIVEN – e.g. “before they’re all gone” (scarcity principle)

Utilise the ‘Negative Keyword‘ list. This prevents AdWords from placing ads on keyword searches that you wish to avoid. The example he gave was rather amusing, involving a jewellery shop in Yorkshire that kept getting visitors who had been searching for Yorkshire cheeses. A quick look at the ‘Keyword Search Report’ and he figured out how people are wrongly arriving at the site. It only required him to add “cheese” to the negative keyword search for Google to know not to waste the advertising budget on the wrong audience.

He also stressed the importance of making sure you take the time to correctly target your audience through individual campaigns for each of your customer segments. Separate your business and consumer campaigns. Tie the call to action in your ad to the landing page for that campaign e.g. ads that state “contact us to find out”, should bring the customer straight to a contact us button or form. Don’t have a one size fits all advertisement. Be clear and concise.

At the end of the night, Chris took questions and one of the best answers he gave was on budgeting. His final advice:

  • Budget at least £6 a day. By doing so you can call google associate to guide you through the setup, to give you pointers on your ad campaign.
  • Be conversion focused – bid for conversions, not clicks or bids on keywords.
  • Plan, budget, forecast and drive down the cost of acquisition over time.

As I mentioned, this event really got me thinking about digital marketing once again. It was good to see the powerful tools that were available to help me measure my goals, and all of it was free of charge! So the first thing I had to do when I got home was following Chris’ advice.

I opened up accounts for both Analytics and AdWords. I drafted an ad, just to get the feel for it and then took to implementing the analytics tool for my domain.

What was immediately apparent was how powerful these tools really were. Immediately I was overwhelmed with options, jargon and a list of other, compatible Google services that I should deploy to improve my Analytics account.

In honesty, I struggled at points, trying to wrap my head around utilising Google Tag Manager in conjunction with Analytics, in order to track the custom goals I had created using Kaushik’s measurement model.

A completed example from Kaushik.net

However, I persisted in figuring it out and made decent progress the next day. This wasn’t something I alone had experienced. As I discussed this with others from the hatchery who had attended the event, it became apparent that most people opt to get someone to do this for them.


After a day’s work reading the documentation, following Chris Mercer‘s guide – over at Digital Marketer – and using the Tag Manager tools, I reached a point where I was near giving up. The tags I had created to measure my goals were firing, but no data was reaching my Analytics account. So, I left it. Two days later I checked the account and there it was. Data!

Attending this event and implementing Chris’s advice proved invaluable. It helped me understand how to implement these tools to my benefit and guided me to a digital marketing strategy that I can control. As a result, my understanding of SEO improved and I have a clearer understanding of online marketing techniques that are relevant to me.

Despite the time and effort required to get to grips with it all, this was easily one of the most immediate results I have gotten from a conference.

December 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 DECEMBER 2016
  • Wrote a blog post on my experience at the VRy Merry Christmas event arranged by VRTGO Labs, which was an opportunity to explore present and future opportunities in the virtual, augmented and mixed-reality spaces.
  • Spoke with previous collaborators (Grainger Games, Northumbria University VRV, Gateshead College) in order to get testimonies for my services, which I can display on my website to bolster my reputation.
  • Attended the Grow Your Business With Digital Marketing event, arranged by the Northumbria Enterprise and Business Support (NEBS) and held at the Northern Design Centre.
  • Evaluated the advice given at the event in order to create and implement a plan to improve search engine optimisation (SEO) for my own website, as well as a targeted online ad campaign to attract business from across the United Kingdom.
  • Worked with Dayle Traynor from NW Design to implement my digital marketing strategy, which included learning how to the tools to define the goals of my campaign, which combination of analytics would produce the most representative data and how to extract insights from the analytics reports in an effective manner.
  • Conducted two long length seminars at Gateshead College for the HND Games Production students, which included individual one-to-one evaluation and feedback for over two dozen students.
  • Spoke with Gateshead College staff from other courses in regards to providing further support options for them in 2017.
  • Utilised the proposal documents I created in November to contact each potential client in the North-East region in regards to providing the VR for Education service to them.
  • Contacted the Digital City initiative after this years round of European Regional Development Funding, looking for opportunities for help, however they have since re-branded and are now focusing on retail ventures.
  • Began a line of enquiry into the Startup Loan, with the idea of getting prepared to for seeking government backed funding should I begin to turn a profit.
  • Created a professional profile for both Upwork and Freelancer, with a view to seek out and bid for paid VR client projects from an international audience.
  • Priced my services based on the work I had done so far during the year, allowing me to accurately calculate the fixed and variable costs to arrive a sensible price for each service offered.

VRy Merry Christmas

A few days ago I got to attend another VRTGO Labs event, VRy Merry Christmas. Hosted by Carri Cunliffe from Secret Sauce, this free event was a chance for the clusters associates to meet up and look at the future events and activities coming up in 2017, as well as hear from a guest speaker while wearing their best Christmas jumper and enjoying mulled wine and mince pies.


Carri started the afternoon by discussing some of the key events they were planning for the new year. Each month they are looking to host an event would focus on a particular sector or industry, including:

  • January – VR in Education and Training
  • February – VR in Architectural [email protected] and Design
  • March – VR Developer Conference; plus, VR Film and Audio at Tyneside Cinema
  • May – VR and Games
  • June – VR in Manufacturing (e.g. Automotive, Process Industry)

She went on to explain how VRTGO Labs will also be developing their online presence and network connections, through having their own FaceBook page (separate to VRTGO, the conference) and reaching out to other virtual, augmented and mixed reality networks (e.g. Immerse UK, Digital Catapult) to share data, knowledge and funding opportunities; to further bolster the strength of the UK developer community.

I am particularly interested in the January and May events, after developing a service around VR in Education while developing my own VR game.


Next up was the guest speaker and Developer Evangelist, Mike Taulty. Mike works in the developer group at Microsoft UK where he has spent the past decade helping developers to understand and get the best from the Microsoft platform.

His presentation, Developing with HoloLens: The Path to Mixed Reality, was an interesting but brief exploration of Microsoft’s exciting hybrid reality product, that lets users see and interact with ‘holograms‘ in their environment. Though, as mentioned on his blog, Mike is not privy to any other information on the Hololens than what is available to the public. However, his knowledge and insights proved quite informative and useful to a less experienced developer like myself, all the same.

Mike gave us a rundown of the tech being used, dispelling any misconceptions we had about the device. He explained that the device is a portable PC, with an array of advanced sensors that record depth, light, inertia (6DoF) and a video feed. All of this information is handled by a holographic processing unit (HPU), which is a performant, low latency x86 device. The processed information is rapidly combined in real-time, to be available to the universal windows apps that run on the devices Windows 10 platform.

Included in the package are a pair of spatial sound speakers, located above the ears, as well as wi-fi and a battery which gives around 3 hours of usage. Most impressively the unit uses custom-built transparent holographic lenses, which use waveguides to project the image into your eyes. Mike stressed that the lenses themselves are often mistaken as a form of LCD, which isn’t true. This aspect of the display can be confusing, so if you’re interested I suggest reading the article by James Ashley, over on his blog, The Imaginative Universal.

What does all this mean for developers? It means you can do some pretty cool things that you can’t on VR headsets.

The headset utilises inside-out tracking and the use of transparent lenses mean users vision is not completely occluded. So, for example, you could develop a 2D projection of your app and then let the user control it with voice commands, gesture controls or even their gaze.  Alternatively, you could build a holographic app that harnesses the full power of the sensor array. 3D avatars can walk around the room and sit on your living room couch. All this because the software can use the real-time information from the sensors to recognise obstacles and boundaries or flat surfaces of a certain height.

Developers can use this environment scanning ability to map a room and then share it with their colleagues. They could then take this data into Unity or the Hololens emulator and start programming an app using C#, C++, DirectX or VB.net. Mike confirmed that the device is constantly scanning, updating its model of the environment to get an up-to-date representation. However, at this point, the system cannot recognise people or animals specifically.

Earlier in the day of our event (8th December) Microsoft also held their annual WinHEC keynote, where they announced that Windows holographic would extend to other devices, beyond the HoloLens. This means that Windows holographic devices would be available in many different form-factors at multiple price points, all with inside-out tracking capabilities. I definitely feel like an interesting future for mixed reality lies ahead.


For the final talk of the day, we had Marissa Brindley, Technology Sector Specialist from Gateshead Council. She was there to discuss the Northern Centre for Emerging Tech. A working title for a new development which will comprise of office accommodation, a research and development testing facility and access to specialist emerging technologies equipment.

The centre is going to combine the existing Open University building located in the Baltic Business Quarter, with a new construction in the parking lot that would act as a research and development facility.

Renovation of the existing structure will allow businesses to access the office, startup and move-on spaces from September 2017. Open access to the RnD building with its specialist equipment and modular is planned to be completed by the end of 2017. Eight million pound of European Regional Development Funding, as well as private investor funding, has been secured in order to allow the council to build and support the centre for the next fifteen years.

Marissa, along with an as of yet unappointed Business Engagement Officer, would be working with the cluster to develop and maintain strategic relationships with businesses in the region. She was also able to show us some of the development plans for the building and was looking for input on the types of equipment and facilities companies would need to help them succeed.


The event was smaller than other VRTGO events I had attended, but I felt it was relevant to my future in building an emerging technology business in the area. I liked the mix of news, technical talk and business, which kept my interest and introduced a lot of new opportunities that I can explore going forward.

November 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.

There are less varied activities this month as each one required more time to complete. However, each activity had me exercising my skills and knowledge to build my professional presence and gain insight into which services/products I should focus on and which direction would be the most worthwhile pursuing.

ACTIVITIES UNDERTAKEN FOR November 2016
  • Over the month I commit around two working weeks to redesigning, iterating, producing and testing a new version of my website that would best reflect my business and services in a professional capacity; this included paying attention to detail in making sure that the site compiled with modern standards, meaning it is:
    • compatible – displays correctly with popular modern browsers
    • responsive – adapts to different size displays across a range of devices
    • efficient – optimised code and assets, scoring well on performance metrics
    • accessible – interactive elements such as navigation buttons are intuitive and appropriately sized
    • readable – the colours, fonts and images that are used are clearly legible, with colour blindness also taken into account
    • minimalist – utilising a one-page design which includes only the information that is important and concise
    • user friendly – the design is consistent and there are no excessive elements
    • user experience – following guidelines on best practices to retain visitors
  • Researched, produced and rehearsed a presentation on VR and games, which gave me a chance to use my existing research techniques, as well as learn methods use for lecturing a class and coordinating group activities.
  • Conducted two hour-long sessions providing VR and games career advice to students on the Level 2 Games Essentials course at Gateshead College; an opportunity to practice and improve my public speaking.
  • Analysed the value proposition and costs of supplying this type of service (‘VR for Education‘) to educational institutions by looking at how the work benefits the students, in the form of supporting their learning outcomes.
  • Obtained feedback and testimonies from both Gateshead College and Grainger Games on the services I had trailed with them, which I used on my website as evidence to support the legitimacy and value of my services.
  • Created a list of potential clients that I could target with the services I had trailed so far (i.e. VR for Retail and VR for Education), and started to form a proposal template which will be used to support my bid for further work.
  • Maintained my professional presence by taking time to critically reflect on my achievements so far, in the form of blog entries which looked at the work I had completed over the previous period.
  • Began negotiations to provide further services for Gateshead College, with a view to secure regular paid work that would involve periodic sessions of feedback with their higher education level (HND Games Production) students.

VR & Games in Education

A fortnight ago I got to spend time teaching two groups at Gateshead College. I had arranged with the staff an opportunity to present a lesson on computer and video games, VR and how they relate, which included activities and talks with their Level 2 Games students. The key objective behind the session was to provide the students with insights and perspectives on an emerging technology and how that relates to their current studies and future career options.

I arrived at the idea, of providing a service to education institutions, after noticing that there is a significant difference in the current usage and direction of VR development against the expectations and experience of the general public. It seems as though the enthusiasm and excitement of VR among developers – those in the realm of video and computer games specifically – is off kilter with the reality that most people in the street have experienced or imagined. This was no more evident to myself than when I held a public VR demo last month. During that time I interacted with a lot of people, some of whom had a very jaded or fanciful impressions of what the new wave of VR tech was capable of, before trying an experience for themselves on a high-end Oculus Rift setup.

So how is educating students on games courses going to help? Surely they are already in the know, right?

Not exactly as you may expect. Being a student myself I simply looked to my peers, who have been watching VR, have even tried it, own it or even develop for it themselves. It was slightly surprising to find that even the future developers of VR content sometimes have little familiarity with the applications, possibilities and limitations of the tech, beyond the idea of it replacing traditional displays as an output device.


Since I had gained knowledge of – and experience developing for – VR, I decided to give the students a non-technical crash course in the subject. Something that wasn’t going to be patronisingly basic, but also something that was technically and verbally orientated to their level of comprehension. My aim was to get them to start thinking more broadly about the potential of what is essentially a new medium through which to experience, learn and play. I want to try and use this approach to begin bridging the gap of expectation and reality that I had witnessed. After all, the students are making their first steps at crossing that bridge, between the public and industry.

I arrived early to setup and test my equipment, which proved crucial as I had to work with the staff to overcome some technical difficulties that would have ruined the presentation I had planned. These moments of worry were trivial however, as by arriving early and coming prepared I even had time for some speaking exercises after working around the issues.

I kept the talk dynamic and alive by constantly asking the students to explain what they know about the different aspects of VR, then challenging their expectations and explaining away any misconceptions around where the tech is currently at. It was great to have a snappy and literate conversation and I found that as the students became more comfortable and interested, that they would frequently ask questions and start exploring their own ideas. This was a great outcome, as the students started explaining things to each other, reinforcing their own knowledge while expanding that of their peers.

I hadn’t any formal training in teaching to a class, so I had prepared for the event by seeking advice from experienced tutors I knew as well as reading around the matter. For instance, to keep the students tuned in I followed some advice on varying the activities every 7-10 minutes, encouraging the students to stay active with group activities that aided the transition between segments of my presentation. This worked really well and I noticed that I managed to keep most of the class engaged at almost every point. However, getting a class to shout out suggestions didn’t work quite as well when the vibe in the room was more conservative or there was a single dominant voice. This is something I look to address in my approach in future but overall was acceptable in this first attempt.

The most successful activity I felt, was the inclusion of the Marshmallow Challenge, created by Tom Wujec. I decided to try and inspire the students to improve their attitude towards their study of games and VR, by adopting a leaner, iterative approach towards the development of their personal and academic projects. My reasoning behind this was to show the students that they should not be afraid to fail, that they should test their assumptions early and be ready to adapt their plan to overcome any difficulties they face. At the same time I wanted them to experience working together in unfamiliar teams, to a tight deadline with shifting expectations and sometimes less than optimal tools. This would hopefully show them that failure is not the end but simply a stepping stone on the route to a true and worthwhile success.

I tied the presentation up by reflecting on how I went from where they are now to where I am today. I made sure to provide the students with a step-by-step approach on how to progress and backed it up with inspiring examples of success, stories of dedicated people such as Yang Bing. An open Q&A to round off the lesson was a chance for me to clear up any burning questions and became the chance for me to really enthuse students with that can-do feeling that we all need to keep us moving forward in life.


Feedback on the day was positive, from the students and the staff. I feel I have learned just as much as the students and it was great to see a younger generation that can be just as, if not more, effervescent and imaginative as those I see working in the VR industry today.

Gateshead College games department have invited me back for more sessions with their students, as well as involving me with the deployment of a live brief that includes feedback and ongoing support for their higher education level students.

This is an exciting time and I am looking at how I can expand this service into more institutions across the region. I have created a page dedicated to promoting this service, which I call VR for Education.

Newcastle 2065

At the start of October I worked on a project for a client, the Northumbria University Virtual Reality and Visualisation (VRV) group. The task was to adapt one of their existing videos from their Newcastle City Futures project, into something that could be presented to children of around 8 years of age.

This was a challenging commitment, as there were only two weeks until the deadline. Furthermore, collaborating with the client to produce an agreeable design would take half of that time, leaving around four working days for the development and production of the assets, as well as consolidating them into a final cut. However, this goal was made achievable through the use of tools and techniques I had learnt from my experiences in education. This also gave me the opportunity to develop my existing skills as well as acquire some new ones along the way.


The original video is, in places, quite text heavy with a moody soundtrack that carries the viewer along on a train that is journeying into a future version of Newcastle upon Tyne, set in the year 2065.

Discussing the clients needs, ideas and expectations helped me to arrive at a concept for the video that they were happy to see developed and that I felt happy to deliver on schedule. Producing a project plan that included task estimates based on my prior experiences really helped me to pin down the scope of the project, as well as reflectively measure my progress as each day passed. Having a plan that is realistic, flexible and which is informed by a risk analysis is something that I knew would be key to producing quality work within the given time-frame.

With a plan and measures in place I proceeded to arrange the necessary equipment and resources, which included securing people to complete the soundtrack and voice-over work I had planned. Drawing from my experience working with artists on games projects I made sure to schedule plenty of time to allow them to produce their best work by following the creative and iterative processes that give them freedom and me control over the end product. I am very happy with the work, and despite some technical difficulties that we had to overcome I felt we managed to get a pleasing result in the form of the soundtrack and voice-over that are present in the final version of the product.

As you can see in the final cut, we used the theme – a train journey to the future – to develop two characters who would be seen as conductors of the experience. Drawing from existing designs and using the original video as a starting point, I developed the characters to enforce the narrative. To do so I used familiar techniques, such as producing a mood board, storyboard, sketches and an animatic. These not only helped me iterate through my design effectively, but also served as a good example to the client; keeping them in the loop and allowing them to provide feedback and suggestions. I knew that these opportunities for discussion would be invaluable, as it reduced the risk of me moving ahead with a design the client would be unhappy with and give me the chance to rationalise my decisions, especially those that that were essential to rein in any unmanageable requests the client may have had.

vrvconceptwork


While I would have liked to have had more time to add more animations and flourish to each scene, I feel that we have done justice to the piece while ensuring enough attention was given to each aspect of the adaptation in a respectful manner.

The client themselves were positive about the result, and feedback from the event let us know that it was also well received by the audience. I am looking forward to working with the VRV on projects in the near future.

October 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.

There are less varied activities this month as each one required more time to complete. However, each activity had me exercising my skills and knowledge to produce a product for a client and to research and arrange a new type of service. This focused approach will carry forward into future entries.

ACTIVITIES UNDERTAKEN FOR october 2016
  • Used my knowledge and tools (Microsoft Project) to plan and executed the VRV project to a tight deadline, which included scheduled time for client feedback and refinement of the production; important steps that would ensure a positive outcome.
  • Arranged and executed audio recording sessions with both a voice actor and a musician; proving my ability to adapt, manage and direct resources, time and people to produce quality work that adds value to the final product.
  • Utilised and improved my skills in animation and video editing to produce the final product, Newcastle 2065.
  • Booked and committed to completing an intense driving course and driving test, which would give me the ability to travel further for work, as this was a frequent request from my potential clients.
  • Purchased a Sony PlayStation VR unit, which is an important product in that it is positioned to be a more accessible and affordable alternative to more premium devices, while still providing a quality experience; performing tests with this device allowed me to explore the benefits and limitations of what is most likely going to be the most popular high-to-mid-level consumer device on the market.
  • Began market research and customer conversations around the trend towards VR being used in businesses that look to provide arcade-style venues.
  • Secured tickets to Grads In Games Get In The Game career event at Northumbria University, an event that aimed to give insight into improving my employability prospects within the games industry.
  • Arranged two hour-long sessions with the Gateshead College, providing VR and games career advice to students on their Level 2 Games Essentials course.
  • Started part-time work with the National Careers Service, providing information, advice and guidance (IAG) to the public, which greatly helped me prepare for the upcoming sessions with Gateshead College students by training me in the methods and resources that are used to provide IAG to young people and adults across the UK.
  • Began collating my own research points on VR and games careers that would be used to inform the production of a presentation that would accompany my talks, as well as devising relevant activities that the students could learn transferable skills from, such as the Marshmallow Challenge.
  • Spoke to tutors and read articles on speaking to groups of students, as I felt I could make use of some advice and techniques that may help with speaking to groups of students and sustaining their attention for a longer period than what I had in the past.