4 UK VR Startups Changing How We See the World
Tech aficionados of a certain age will have vivid memories of the original virtual reality boom of the 1990s. The emphasis back then, as far as most people were concerned, was squarely on the entertainment possibilities of this futuristic, sci-fi technology.
Indeed, VR was typified by big, hulking, fibreglass ‘pods’ in cinemas, shopping centres and games arcades, where intrepid players could don heavy headsets and experience a new kind of fully immersive gameplay. This early iteration of VR was synonymous with one UK-based startup in particular: a company called Virtuality, which was at the vanguard of what seemed to be a revolution in immersive technology.
Of course, that bubble did eventually burst. But, now that virtual reality has made a permanent comeback, we’ve seen the flourishing of many UK companies which are the spiritual successors of Virtuality. Although entertainment remains the most visible focus in mainstream reporting, virtual reality is now also being deployed in eclectic ways that few could have anticipated during that initial 90s wave.
And, while big names like Meta and Microsoft tend to hog the VR limelight, many startups are also making waves, reinventing what’s possible and attracting investment. Indeed, research by Arden Partners shows that £154 million of capital was ploughed into the UK’s private virtual reality sector last year, which was an impressive 72% increase on 2020.
With all this in mind, it’s a good moment to take stock of some of the advances being made in the UK. Here are four of the trailblazing UK VR startups that have attracted our attention of late, and whose innovations may well have a permanent impact on their particular verticals.
A spinout from the University of Oxford, this startup draws on decades of psychiatric research and has recruited developers who used to work in the videogame industry. The latter is no accident, since Oxford VR has taken the bold step of effectively ‘gamifying’ mental health therapy. The developers use their animation and coding expertise to create virtual versions of real-world situations, so patients can involve themselves in challenging scenarios in a safe and controlled way.
The company’s first clinical trial, published in the prestigious Lancet Psychiatry, demonstrated that VR therapy could help people tackle their fear of heights. Oxford VR is also a partner in the NHS-backed gameChange project, which uses headsets to help people with psychosis become comfortable with common but potentially anxiety-inducing situations like getting on a bus or going shopping. Oxford VR’s work has been recognised by those with deep pockets – back in 2020, it received $12.5 million in Series A, which was the biggest fundraise for a VR therapy firm in the UK and Europe to date.
London-based startup Bodyswaps puts VR to use in the workplace. Specifically, its technology aids soft skills training, helping employees to develop communication, collaboration and leadership skills. The company, which has raised $1 million so far, creates virtual group sessions where participants can interact by way of human-like avatars.
This isn’t just a neat way to bring people in disparate physical locations together. It also allows users to see themselves in a new light and develop greater empathy for those from different backgrounds. For example, its anti-racist sessions don’t just encourage discussions of workplace biases and microaggressions – they allow you to switch avatars with someone else, to see how you come across to your colleagues as you recount your experiences.
The Bodyswaps platform has also been trialled as a way to conduct mock job interviews, with college students putting on headsets and meeting with AI-powered avatars of prospective employers. The students received feedback on all aspects of the interviews, from the answers they gave, to how much eye contact they made, to how they sat. Participants reported feeling empowered by these mock interviews, gaining the confidence needed to enter the world of work.
Oxford Medical Simulation
Everybody is glaringly aware of the immense pressures that the NHS and other healthcare systems around the world are under, and numerous healthtech companies have sprung up to tackle a multiplicity of challenges. One of them is Oxford Medical Simulation, whose offices are in London. The startup optimises training for medical professionals by way of life-like visualisations of clinical settings.
In other words, students can put on headsets to walk into virtual hospitals, examine virtual patients, and make diagnoses based on the symptoms they see. They can also interact with their colleagues just as they would in a real hospital, with personalised feedback and performance metrics provided.
Hundreds of hospital scenarios, including those involving ER patients, children and those with mental health issues, are encompassed by the platform. The intention is to speed up the training of healthcare professionals, and the startup is now working with NHS trusts as well as US health systems.
Years on from the start of the pandemic, it’s clear that remote and hybrid working models aren’t going anywhere. Manchester-based company PixelMax has responded to the new normal by providing a way to give people the best of both worlds. Namely, being able to work from home while also inhabiting a fun, dynamic, collaborative workspace that exists in the digital realm.
The customisable online worlds of PixelMax can replicate hip office spaces, complete with wellness and recreation areas, even exercise classes. The intention is to combat Zoom and Slack fatigue by allowing colleagues to mingle via their avatars in a more natural, spontaneous way. It’s hoped that this will also help people regain that clear line separating ‘work’ and ‘home’, since they’ll spend much of their working hours inside the VR realm – even if they’re actually sprawled on the sofa.
Having secured €2.3 million in a funding round last year, PixelMax is a prime example of a company perfectly attuned to the concerns of the post-pandemic era.