Finland at the virtual frontline
With virtual reality the next frontier for digital innovation, a growing number of Finnish companies are offering a pioneering look at things to come.
Science fiction has always offered far-fetched future imaginings of various shapes and sizes. Sometimes, however, this crystal ball gazing also comes true. A self-driving car? Google now has the answer. Video conferencing? Thanks Skype. How about virtual reality, then? Well, the virtual and augmented reality industry is tipped to reach 120 billion US dollars in the next four years.
Given Finland’s status as a global player in IT, it’s no surprise then that it’s also home to a hive of VR development. Alongside individual companies increasingly attracting funding, the local VR community Fivr also received a 250 000-euro capital boost in April from the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation.
In light of VR’s healthy forecast in Finland, here are three local companies at the forefront.
Focussing on VR games, independent Finnish developer Mindfield Games recently released its first title, sci-fi explorer Pollen.
“We are one of those smaller indie studios who are very proud of what we do,” explains Ville Kivistö, CEO and co-founder. “Not many developers can brag about having more than 2.5 years of experience in VR development.”
During this time, the 15-person company has seen VR’s user base gradually widen from hardcore gamers to a more casual audience.
“VR headsets have a chance to change the world by providing a completely new platform for games and other content in a totally unprecedented way,” Kivistö explains. “The immersive experience is so different from any other media that our biggest problem has been how to explain the feeling to someone who has never tried virtual reality before.”
Nonetheless, there are many in close proximity to give them a hand. Similar to its games industry, the Finnish VR community is extremely open and supportive.
“We have lots of talented and focussed people who know how to create great content and will make sure the end product is polished and plays good,” Kivistö states. “We share knowledge among ourselves. The future seems very bright.”
Helsinki-based company Vizor enables users to easily create their own VR experiences with a web browser.
“We see VR and 360 as just another media format; just like pictures and video,” explains CEO Antti Jäderholm. “What we are doing is just going to live in social media, in Twitter and Facebook. It’s a link; you click on it and get the VR experience.”
Vizor is compatible with different VR headsets, including Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Google Cardboard. Interestingly, it also works without a VR headset.
Having landed 350 000 euros in seed funding in September last year, Vizor is busily attracting various user groups, such as people using 360 cameras.
“We are also seeing lots of educators coming to Vizor,” Jäderholm states. “Schools all around the world are using it to introduce virtual reality to students. A lot of schools see Vizor as an easy starting point because it’s all on the web. Their teachers don’t have to install anything on their workstations.”
Nonetheless, Vizor’s biggest user group is made up of professionals from marketing agencies and media houses.
“We are working on making our service a lot easier to use,” Jäderholm says. “Vizor is going to be in beta testing for the foreseeable future. It’s already completely usable; anybody can come and check it out. The editor is all open source and it’s free to use.”
Having made a name for itself developing interactive image and video annotation software, Thinglink raised 1.2 million euros in funding back in February from private investors. This capital boost has helped spawn its new VR editor.
“People use Thinglink to annotate images and videos,” explains CEO Ulla Engeström. “Supporting 360 images and videos seemed like a natural extension to our existing product.”
The company has flung open the virtual doors to various sectors that are harnessing this new media format as a publishing platform, headed by education.
“In our new app VR Lessons, we take students to visit different kinds of ecosystems, and they can learn by looking around, spotting details and unlocking additional information about plants and animals in a narrated virtual reality tour,” Engeström explains. “Our new VR editor lets users also add background audio to 360 images, such as the sound of the wind, birds singing, a narrating voice or their own music.”
Elsewhere, alongside advertising, Engeström lists interactive real estate tours, magazines, music videos or documentaries, shoppable spaces and art galleries as other potential segments of use.
“Many of our larger publisher users believe mobile VR is the new Internet,” she enthuses. “In four years, six billion people will have a smartphone in their hands, and every smartphone user is a potential VR consumer. Thinglink will continue to build innovative solutions for making all our visual environments ‘clickable’, engaging and more meaningful.”
Text: James O’Sullivan