Transforming 360 VR Content: How Kagenova Became the UK’s Hottest VR Startup
Today’s 360 VR experiences have great promise. They are photo-realistic and relatively easy and cheap to acquire (requiring only an off-the-shelf 360° camera), but critically, they lack immersion and interactivity. On the other hand, alternative VR experiences that are based on computer generated imagery are typically not photo-realistic, they are expensive and time consuming for experts to construct, but provide a much greater level of immersion through interactivity.
Kagenova is developing core technology to democratise VR content creation and deliver the best of both 360° and CGI experiences. Their copernic360 technology takes 360° photos and videos and turns them into life-like immersive virtual worlds that the user can walk into, achieving photo-realism, cheap and accessible content creation, and interactivity. To put this in more technical terms, Kagenova is working to transform 360 VR content into 6 DOF (6 Degrees of Freedom) experiences.
What do astrophysics and VR have in common?
Kagenova is working to create technology that engineers photo-realism and interactivity for VR at the same time and at scale. Remarkably, there is a great deal of similarity between astrophysics and VR. In astrophysics, observations are made on the celestial sphere, resulting in spherical data-sets, such as the cosmic microwave background, the relic radiation from the Big Bang. In VR, the 360° photos, videos, light fields, and reflectance functions that characterise VR environments also result in spherical data-sets. Kagenova was founded to exploit their expertise in analysing 360° data for astrophysics, to solve open problems in VR. Their unique multidisciplinary approach, combining physics, applied mathematics, computer graphics and vision, and machine learning is key to unlocking interactive photo-realism.
Eliminating motion sickness for an improved 360 VR experience
At the moment, 360˚ VR experiences allow the user to be transported somewhere else and to look around. However, these experiences are not interactive since they are based on footage from a camera at a given position, which means that the user cannot move about in the virtual scene. No matter how the user physically moves, they remain frozen in the virtual world. The inability to move in the virtual world causes two big problems.
Firstly, it induces visual-vestibular conflict. When the vestibular system (i.e. inner ear) senses the user’s motion but the visual system does not also experience it in VR, then the two sensory systems of the body are in conflict. This sensory conflict is experienced as nausea. Visual-vestibular conflict is the biggest cause of motion sickness in today’s experiences.
Secondly, the inability to move, while a user is actively in an experience, breaks the users’ sense of presence as the virtual world no longer feels realistic or authentic.
Challenges with 6 DOF
Today’s 360 VR experiences support what is called 3 degree-of-freedom (3 DOF) rotational motion, where the user can look around but they cannot move. To allow the user to move about in the scene, 6 DOF motion must be supported. 6 DOF motion includes 3 DOF from rotational motion (looking about) and 3 DOF from position motion (moving about).
The latest standalone VR headsets, such as the Oculus Quest, Lenovo Mirage Solo and Vive Focus are now opening up the VR market and making it more accessible for consumer and enterprise users alike by eliminating the need for a high-end computer to power a tethered VR device.
For the first time, these standalone devices now support 6 DOF at the hardware level. However, content remains 3 DOF, which has lead to a disconnect between the capabilities of the latest hardware (which support 6 DOF) and what is supported by current content (which only supports 3 DOF). This means 6 DOF 360° VR experiences cannot be delivered to users today, restricting their ability to move about in the scene and subsequently inducing cyber motion sickness and breaking the user’s sense of presence.
One of the key reasons behind Kagenova’s recent success and growth relate to the identification of this disconnect between the capability of VR hardware and current VR content.The company’s goal is to eliminate motion-sickness with copernic360, a huge barrier that is holding VR back from mass adoption.
What is copernic360 – And how does it work?
Kagenova has developed copernic360 to solve this problem. copernic360 provides the missing component, bringing new life to existing 360˚ VR content by retrofitting it with 6 DOF to exploit the capabilities of the latest hardware.
By providing 6 DOF 360° VR experiences, copernic360 converts 360° VR content into explorable virtual worlds, so that the user can not only look around but also move around to explore the scene. This eliminates the biggest cause of cyber motion sickness and greatly enhances realism and, in turn, the user’s sense of presence. Users can spend more time viewing 360° VR content and enjoy more engaging experiences, from storytelling, entertainment and live events, training and retail, to promoting empathy, and more.
copernic360 consists of two systems working together. On the viewer side, copernic360 includes a game engine plugin (e.g. Unity, Unreal) for ease of integration into other apps and platforms. On the processing side, copernic360 involves cloud-based AI techniques to process users’ 360°content so that 6 DOF motion can be supported by the copernic360 plugin.
copernic360 has received a great deal of interest already and a number of pilots are underway, including integrations with international broadcasters to bring copernic360 to live 360° streaming, for example for sports, music, or other events. Kagenova are also exploring the applications of copernic360 for indie filmmakers and photographers for upcoming 360° films and enhanced atmospheric photos.
What’s next for Kagenova?
In recognition of their innovative approach, Kagenova were selected for the Augmentor accelerator programme, run by the Digital Catapult for the top 10 VR startups in the UK, for the global HTC Vive X accelerator and, for the Machine Intelligence (MI) Garage, a programme run by the Digital Catapult to support the most promising AI startups in the UK. These accelerators were invaluable in providing advice and mentorship for Kagenova at an early stage, connecting them more deeply to the VR community of content creators and providers, and also investors, and for helping to position themselves for a fundraising round. Kagenova raised a pre-seed round that finally closed in April 2019. In fact, they had so much interest from investors they re-opened the round to take further strategic investment. They were recently shortlisted for Audience of the Future Immersive Technology Investment Accelerator ran by Innovate UK. Their proposal, based on an ambitious R&D programme to further expand their AI for VR technology, was rated the top proposal of the call. Kagenova were recently profiled in the Createch Ones to Watch list, a list of 50 of the most exciting innovators in the UK in the creative technology industry, and were selected as a finalist for Rising VR Company of the Year at the third annual VR Awards.
VR has experienced a resurgence in recent years from the early systems of old due to improvements in technology. It is, however, acknowledged that outstanding technological problems must be solved to facilitate mass adoption of VR. Mark Zuckerberg stated in 2017 that it would take 10 years for the technology to mature to the level needed for widespread adoption. Kagenova is building precisely this missing technology to reach the level of realism and interaction required for mass adoption, with copernic360 being the first step in this direction. It is through their bespoke AI techniques, specifically tailored for VR, that Kagenova are making these critical technological contributions to VR to help progress the technology for all.
For a limited time, Kagenova is offering free access to an early-adopter alpha version of copernic360.