From the outside, the new building looks no different from any other park. Concealed within, however, is something unique: a warehouse that doubles as a bank. Or a car. Or the surface of Mars.
Welcome to the largest B2B Virtual Reality laboratory in Europe.
It’s only been a few weeks since the Virtuplex laboratory opened its physical and virtual doors to the world. The laboratory, powered by digital megafirm Etnetera Group, chose to set up shop in P3 Prague Horní Počernice thanks to its strategic location on the outskirts of the Czech capital, nearby major commerce, automotive and manufacturing hubs. Virtuplex were also after space. Lots of it. Our Class-A warehouses provide a perfect backdrop for the creation of just about any sort of virtual experience.
VIRTUAL IN REALITY?
Our reporters spent a day at the Virtuplex lab, together with P3 leadership, Virtuplex co-owners Martin Petrovický and Pavel Novak, and other VIPs, and got a chance to try this breathtaking technology ﬁrst-hand.
“You can remove your glasses or put the headset over them, it’s up to you,” says Martin, handing me a sleek black module that looks like a prop straight out of Star Wars. It’s quite heavy, but thanks to a ﬁxing mechanism like the one on bike helmets, I can attach the whole thing ﬁrmly to my head with no discomfort. He helps me put on a backpack, housing the brain of the whole operation — a powerful personal computer. After a few quick adjustments, a crystal-clear image appears... and off I go.
First off, I transport into a Škoda showroom. There are a few couches and desks scattered around and, as you’d expect, a ﬂeet of top-of-the-range Škoda cars. My colleague has joined the experience and I can see an avatar with her name ﬂoating above it. As I wave, I see an outline of my own hand in front of me; a ghostly, though very cool, effect. I approach the nearest car, a black Škoda Kodiaq. Can I open the door? “Not yet, but we’re working on implementing this feature. But you can simply put your head inside,” says Petrovický.
I bend forward and lean into the car’s cockpit. I can see the dashboard, seats, pedals, and steering wheel in high-deﬁnition; everything you’d expect from a real car, expect that this one exists only as lines of code which, Martin assures me, can be manipulated and updated at the touch of a button depending on the customer’s wishes. Standing back, I feel an overwhelming urge to do something I probably shouldn’t. I approach the car slowly and, despite my senses screaming “stop,” I step up to the car, and then through it. The feeling is other-worldly. My chest intersects with the car roof and, when I crouch down, I sink through the roof and get the feeling that I’m sitting directly within the car, gazing out at the virtual showroom around me. It’s fun. It’s strange. It’s wonderfully addictive. I’ll be back!
THE COMMERCIAL BIT
Companies can now lease space at the Virtuplex VR laboratory to develop products or, for example, work on the layout and design of physical spaces.
The laboratory works along similar lines to a ﬁlm studio, where you can hire the setup and crew you need. “The company ﬁrst prepares the content—i.e., the design of the environment that it wants to test—and sends it to the laboratory, where professionals modify it for the relevant systems,” Pavel Novák explains.
“Most clients come to us with 3D data of their new space, which is usually provided by the architect,” adds Petrovický, who is also Virtuplex’s CEO. “We take this data and only adjust it a little; we can also provide the architect with assistance during the design phase so that the output is as usable as possible in 3D. Also, if the client wishes to use some objects that don’t already exist in 3D, we can design them. Common furnishings, flowerpots and paintings are available in model banks at moderate prices.
And how long does the entire process take? Every contract is different, depending on the size of the building, but “if you’re looking at the space itself, and not materials or colours, it takes a few hours,” says Martin. “If you’re after a realistic visualisation, it can be a day or two.”
Another advantage is that people meeting in VR don’t need to physically be in one place. “You can have a couple of colleagues here in the hall, a few others in Japan and the boss in New York. Everybody can see and hear one another, and they can interact in the same virtual environment,” Petrovický explains.
> Click to watch the Virtuplex teaser video
“We have logistics customers. We have retail customers. We have automotive customers. We even work with manufacturers. But Virtuplex is the first VR customer occupying a Class-A warehouse that I’ve ever heard of. It’s a first on many levels, not least that we have a customer happy with an almost empty building!” says P3 Logistic Parks CEO Ian Worboys, who foresees value in VR for customers in areas including e-commerce and the automotive industry.
“It’s incredible where VR is taking us. An e-commerce building is a highly sophisticated and complicated machine. Taking the risk out of an operation before heavy investment can only be a plus. I also see a huge number of applications for the real estate industry such as virtual staging, remote maintenance, as well as advanced picking and put-away capabilities.”
Inside the VR lab
Inside, the facility is divided into two sections. The smaller part contains a bar with seating, a fully equipped conference room, and relaxation zones with flight simulators. The larger section is dedicated to the testing of projects and spaces in virtual reality.
“In the hall, the tester puts on a pair of our proprietary VR goggles, in 5K resolution, and wears a backpack with a computer in it on their back, so that they can freely move around the space,” explains Novák. “Within the experience, users are warned of approaching obstacles or walls, so there’s no risk of inadvertent injuries.”
“You can project a flat, a bank branch or an automobile showroom in the space, on a scale of one-to-one, and move around inside it,” he adds. “So, you can check whether the arrangement of the furniture, the layout of the space, or the placement of the switches, for example, are suitable. You can also have multiple versions, so you can test all of them and decide which one is best for you.”
“VR offers breath-taking possibilities,” says Tomáš Míček, Managing Director P3 Czech Republic. “This was an amazing experience,” he said after visiting the facility. “I can see several ways P3 can use this technology. For our own marketing purposes, we can offer halls to our clients without needing to rely on 2D images and visualizations. We can show clients what we’re capable of, including the fact we can offer spaces for tech start-ups in our parks. And it’s also interesting for our customers, who can model their business this way. We have clients that produce equipment for fast food chains, make packaging lines or piping. They all can model their activities in 3D.
The laboratory’s first client was Česká spořitelna, who designed a new concept for their bank branches in virtual reality. Škoda Auto’s virtual showroom has been another successful collaboration.
Even though VR technology is meant mainly for professionals, in the future the start-up isn’t against offering educational activities or experiences. “I don’t mean some game, but rather building virtual museums, for example,” says Novák. “We are able to create an environment that no longer exists or does not yet exist. Thanks to virtual reality you could walk through the Titanic or across Mars.”
The potential uses of Virtual and Augmented Reality in business are literally endless. If you’ve been following news out of the Microsoft camp, you’ll know they’ve been investing heavily in the development of their HoloLens mixed-reality smart-glasses, which they hope will improve the way a whole host of businesses operate, from performing microsurgery, to the way we communicate and socialize, to the way we try-and-buy clothing. In November 2018, Microsoft even announced that it is readying HoloLens for combat, adding AR headset tech to the repertoire of weapons used by professional soldiers.
Microsoft isn’t the only company betting big on this type of software. Heard of the Oculus Rift? A plucky VR start-up that made early ground with VR computer games and communica- tions services, they were picked up by Facebook in 2014 for $2.3 billion. HTC Vive? A VR headset developed by HTC and online gaming platform Valve Corporation with “room scale” tracking technology. Samsung Gear, the Koreans’ VR play, now developed in co-operation with Facebook’s Oculus, aims to bring a better VR experience to mobile devices.
In terms of pure business applications for VR, there are many bespoke providers, covering five main business-use cases. Let’s look at those:
- Design and prototyping. VR can be used at various stages during design and prototyp- ing, from basic layout through to the very final phases. Think of automotive production. It’s far less expensive to build a new car model in code, and change a feature or colour at the flip of a button, than to build a new prototype from scratch.
- Research and testing. It’s simple to test different alternatives. Traditionally, when companies have needed to optimise retail space, they’ve done it physically: constructing a full-size model to test on people and carrying out their tests during full operation or at night. With VR, on the other hand, you can experience up to 10 different layouts in an hour.
- Training. When a company orders a new production line, it typically takes several months to install. With VR, however, you can use this time to train staff to use the new equipment, or simulate unusual or dangerous scenarios.
- Events. VR is a great place to do teambuilding, making it possible to “visit” practically any place on the planet. Architects, meanwhile, can take inspiration from places that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive to visit. And mechanical engineers can get their virtual hands on machines and devices that no longer exist.
- Presentations. Imagine a tram manufacturer that sells many models, each with a different design and different equipment. In VR, they could demonstrate all those options to clients, including tailor-made fittings. And the client would be to see the new tram in action, in the streets of the city where it will operate.
Tomáš Kubín, Head of Construction CEE at P3, sees VR as a powerful way of demonstrating the full potential of a building to clients.
“We can imagine what our halls and warehouses look like, but some of our clients or partners aren’t familiar with buildings and their inner spaces,” he says. “Exploring a P3 building in virtual reality can help to alleviate the risk involved with real estate development, when a customer can see and interact with the building in virtual space before we ever put a shovel in the ground. To me, this is great added value for decision-making.”