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"We will not be hardcore! We believe in bringing VR to the masses": Nizar Romdan on the global Virtual Arts mission

"We will not be hardcore! We believe in bringing VR to the masses": Nizar Romdan on the global Virtual Arts mission

Last month, Virtual Arts announced its existence and its intentions. The Cambridge-based company is founded mostly from former members of ARM and Sony Guerrilla and they're on a mission to create VR games and experiences that are accessible to everybody. And that means squeezing the most out of entry-level devices. The first game on the roster is racing title Cargo, which was playable at Gamescom.

Headed by Nizar Romdan and Doug Day, Virtual Arts unveiled their vision at the i360 opposite the Develop conference in Brighton on a rain-swept weekday. We spent time with Romdan, who is CEO and co-founder, to ask him about how the company came about, what their plans are this year, and where VR/AR is going.

The interview was extensive so we've broken it down into sections, beginning with how Virtual Arts got started and what challenges in VR and AR they're particularly keen to solve...


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  • 1 Nizar Romdan Interview Part I

    Nizar Romdan Interview Part I logo

    The Virtual Report: Please tell us how Virtual Arts got started. What's your background?
    Nizar Romdan: We are a team of ex-ARM employees, including Geomerics, the middleware company that ARM bought, and ex-Sony Guerrilla Cambridge people. We founded the company officially in December 2016. That’s when we incorporated. And as of today, we are 11 people – five from ARM and six from Guerrilla. So we bring a huge amount of experience. More than 10 years from ARM in all the tools, demos, tech, working with leading game engine companies and studios. And the team from Sony bring more than 20 years’ experience in making games – high profile games that have won BAFTA awards like Little Big Planet in 2000, and more recently, Killzone: Mercenary or RIGS, which was a VR title that was part of the launch of PlayStation VR that was done by the Cambridge Guerrilla team.

    So huge experience on both sides: the tech front, the content front; mobile through ARM, and also higher platforms like consoles and PC with Sony. So we have experience in everything! We’re based in Cambridge. A great city for education. But also a leading hub for innovation and tech – not only in the UK, but probably all across Europe. The "Silicon Fen" is only 50 minutes from London.

    What challenges do you see in VR and AR that you're trying to solve at Virtual Arts?
    There are lots of them, but there are two main umbrella challenges.

    The first one: for any new platform to be successful, there needs to be content. That's no secret. That content needs to be great, and it needs to be diverse so that your platform succeeds.

    But then: these new platforms are very challenging technically too – VR, AR and MR are not like the previous platforms. Or anything we’ve seen before! They push the boundaries for everything, particularly for mobile battery-powered devices.

    It's our vision to solve these with Virtual Arts.

    The first problem: we plan to develop a strong portfolio of mobile content: VR, AR and MR. And we’ll cover a wide range of use cases. So we’d be doing, of course, games. Also interactive experiences where you interact within the world; not necessarily playing, but you’re engaging and learning, or maybe just enjoying the experience. And also animations, short features, and so on.

    So we’ll diversify, but also we'll target a wide range of users. We will have a casual appeal for our content. We will not be going hardcore, violence, horror! No, we will offer a very casual appeal to a wide majority of consumers. Because we believe in bringing VR, AR and MR to the masses.

    The second problem is the technical challenge. We will be developing the best tech for VR, AR and MR. This will be written from scratch with those platforms. Not like previous technology engines or tools that have been developed for mobile or PC or consoles, and then imported to VR. Our tech will be built from scratch for the new platforms.

    And we will focus on mobile. We believe if we want to bring all this to everybody, people experience content now on internet-enabled mobile devices. So mobile VR, mobile AR – I guess AR is inherently mobile. And then MR, of course. So we will focus on mobile, but it’ll be scalable across all headsets. What we believe in is bringing in great content and great experiences to entry-level mobile.

    Cardboard, for instance?
    Cardboard, or a fifty-dollar kind of smartphone experience – we will enable that. And that’s even more important to have good tech; because if you use existing tech, that can maybe perform only on the high-end scale of the spectrum. So we’re writing content in a way will be super, super optimum so that we can deliver a great experience to an entry level smartphone, like the vast volume worldwide. It’s estimated that more than one billion of these will be selling in a year by 2020!

    Does that mean that your intended market and scope is international? Cardboard is huge in China, for instance.
    Yes: worldwide. We have great connections with China. It’s a massive market. Through ARM, we have great connections in China.

    But not just China. Everywhere, I think. Wherever the tech can be used. And I think people will experience amazing content for the first time worldwide through VR and AR. Imagine witnessing, for instance, Ancient Rome. Many people in the world would never be able to travel to Italy. (And experiencing it when it was in its glory days; even for the wealthy that's impossible!) Through virtual reality we can enable people to have experiences they otherwise cannot have, because economically maybe they cannot… or also physically it might be impossible!

    Games, too, and through animation. We will be able to enable anyone in the world to have that. So that’s what we believe in: mass market; we believe in mobile; and we believe in bringing this to the entry level of the spectrum, to enable it for everyone in the world.

    But that doesn’t mean that we will not provide great features for the high-end subset of the market in mobile. Or why not other platforms? Because you can always get a mouse to fatten up to make it fit the room, but it’s almost impossible to get an elephant to slim down to fit in a car. You can always intend to work on a more powerful platform, rather than the other way around. So if we had to port to a PC or a console or whatever, that’s easy.

    That’s our vision. And for that, we’ll be focusing on mobile devices. In the West, that’s primarily Gear VR. And Daydream. That's nearly a year old now! Cardboard, of course – we are huge, huge believers in Cardboard. And Cardboard today is the most ugly, clunky mobile device, but we think in the future they can be as cool and small and elegant as the disposable 3D disposable glasses you can get at a movie theatre. They’re super-slim, disposable; you use them and you throw them. They’re available anywhere like, I suppose, disposable coffee cups.

    On the AR and MR front, we’ll be focusing on existing devices. For AR, these are primarily based on tablets and smartphones. You have mainly two categories here. You have the new devices that are emerging, like Project Tango by Google, which are based on specialised depth cameras to allow tracking of the objects in AR. Or the standard devices that you see, like a 2D camera, like any mobile phone, whether it’s iOS on iPhone or Android, and tablets.

    On the mixed reality front, we’ll be supporting the new headsets that are appearing. The HoloLens, which is probably the first flagship product in that category. But other devices that will appear, like the highly anticipated Magic Leap device, and we believe there will be plenty of those in the future.

    So our focus is really on mobile VR, AR and MR.


  • 2 Nizar Romdan Interview Part II

    Nizar Romdan Interview Part II logo

    There are still a number of challenges to be overcome in the development of VR and AR projects...
    The challenges come from maybe four or five main angles. Performance-wise, the challenge is mainly that you have to render twice – both right and left. But then also you have to render a very, very high resolution.

    The other challenge is that these devices are powered by battery. You can do the brute force on PC to match the performance and quality resolution that you want. To do that with a limited-power battery on a phone, then it’s harder!

    Of course, we have to add to that the user interaction. You see someone trying VR for the first time. They get so excited, but then they think it’s the real world, and they try to grab things. That’s when they realise they don’t have hands in the virtual reality world. People are trying to solve that problem with controllers. But we think it’s gimmicky. It’s not natural. We believe in natural user interaction and allowing the person to have that physical presence in VR.

    Motion sickness is another challenge that has to be fixed. It needs to have great, great software and great tech to reduce any motion sickness. For business, that can be a curse.

    And also, another issue is that when you’re on VR, you’re seeing what’s there, but people around you don’t see that. It’s trying to have that presence – whether it’s eSports or sharing content, it’s also going to be of importance.

    So our tech will be built bearing all those constricts in mind. So we will build it from scratch for VR, AR and MR. We will use the latest techniques introduced by hardware guys. Here, we bring, of course, our experience from ARM. So low-level graphics API like Vulkan that are appearing in devices, or the multi-core and multi-threaded technology from ARM. There’s hardly any existing engine users today. I mean, the latest phone I think has a 16 core CPU? In fact, the Unity engine runs on two cores. So you have 14 of those! Our core engine will be written bearing all of that in mind.

    Also, we will write it from scratch to be very, very friendly to power consumption. So it’ll be designed for minimum battery usage. Everything will be super-optimised when it’s not needed. Any feature that’s not needed, will be shut. So: intelligent power management.

    As I mentioned, it’ll be scale-able from low-end, entry level mobile, to the high-end mobile, or even beyond. So in summary, our tech will solve all these problems. That’s, in short, Virtual Arts, and what our goal and mission is.

    You’re not the first people to identify that those problems exist. So why are you going to be the guys that solve it?
    The simple answer to that is our pedigree. We come from many backgrounds. Myself, I was around for 12 years. ARM is probably the best company in the world in terms of processing and mobile, and it’s revolutionised everything. Smartphones, all that, probably exist thanks to ARM. It’s true that Apple made the smartphone where it is with the iPhone, but under the hood, if it wasn’t for ARM processes, then we probably wouldn’t have this amazing experience! So we bring very, very, very deep expertise from our knowledge of how the hardware works, but how to solve these problems.

    I ran a development system in ARM and created various engines to solve these problems, and we experimented on all of this for more than eight years. So it’s all that knowledge and expertise that we’re bringing. I don’t think there would be so many teams in the world that has that experience.

    And on the content front, it’s not just any guys. The Guerrilla team was part of Sony! They have super, super experience, and made really stunning content.

    So combining two teams of that profile is extremely hard to do. And that’s why we believe that we’ll be able to beat anyone else. You can assemble a team to do an engine. You can assemble a team to do great content. But they will have to learn a lot. We have already got that experience from what we’ve learned. So that’s the head start we have.


  • 3 Nizar Romdan Interview Part III

    Nizar Romdan Interview Part III logo

    The guys from Sony Guerrilla Cambridge have come on board. That was kind of a fortunate occurrence, that you were working on a project and Sony let them go at the same time! What would have happened if they didn't?
    What would have happened was very simple. We had them in our targets to headhunt!

    We know some of them, actually, because we’re all based in Cambridge. So over the years, we got to know each other. So our initial plan was to go and get them excited. “You’ve been with Sony for so long. You probably want to do something else exciting.” So we sell the idea to them…

    But Sony said, "It’s okay. Happy Christmas. You don’t have to do any work!" So Virtual Arts just said, "Thanks a lot, Sony. You made the job for me very easy!" But they were already in our targets.

    You’re targeting VR and AR and mixed reality as well, and you’re going to build tech for that. Will the same engine deal with all of those situations, or are you building a number of different technologies?
    We are at this stage saying we are building "tech". Like at ARM, we will do the right thing for the right usage! At ARM we created three different engines. It could have been one.

    We will go initially with an engine. It might be the engine for all of those, or we might have an umbrella of engines.

    If I use the ARM processor as an example: very few people know, there isn’t one ARM processor. There is the application class, which is the most famous one used in the smartphones. That’s what runs games and so on. But there is the real-time class which is used, for example, in automotive (in ABS) and so on. It’s based on the same principle, but they’re totally different processes. And there’s the micro class, which are super, super, super-tiny, and part of the internet-of-things revolution. So there are three different ARM processes, but they’re all part of the same umbrella. ARM did that because you can’t take the same processor and force it into different uses. But they reuse lots of the architecture and the techniques.

    We might apply that strategy in Virtual Arts. It’s a question we can’t answer upfront until we hit each problem one by one. I can envisage at some point probably us forking because we might have different user needs. But we will be doing the right thing for the right task.

    That’s why we like to say we’ll be doing tech for VR, AR and MR, and this combination of engines, tools, libraries, examples and all that. And here, again, probably we’ll probably bring in the expertise and knowledge that we learned at ARM, which is: do the right thing for the right task, and not force one process or one tech on everything.

    Some other engines that do this, like Unity, is the other approach. Probably people are finding out that yes, it’s great to use across everything, but if you want the best for each view space, then you don’t do that. At the end of the day, it’ll compromise what you’re after.

    We’re not trying to build an engine that will replace existing engines for everything. We want to do the best for virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. So we’re not going for traditional gaming on console or traditional gaming on PC or whatever, mobile. No, we are building this tech for people that believe in virtual reality and want the best in virtual reality.

    Will you consider licensing that tech to other VR companies?
    Absolutely, yes. We are doing it to make a lot of content; but it’s certainly part of our strategy to enable other studios, other developers, to do that. Probably we’ll follow existing business models that are very friendly. So probably there will be a free option and then a professional option, and – why not? – a B2B option. All that is not yet finalised.

     

    You can read our interview with the Virtual Arts' marketing manager Ryan Booth on the subject of the studio's first game, Cargo Racing VR, here. Full disclosure: Nizar Romdan is an advisor and contributor to The Virtual Report and our sister site PocketGamer.biz.

     

    Get more essential insight into the world of VR gaming this month, and network with VR/AR/MR studios, at our upcoming conference XR Connects. It takes place in Helsinki this month, 19-20 September, and tickets are available now. 


Chief Operations Officer

Dave is Steel Media's Chief Operations Officer. He gets involved in all areas of the business, from front page editorial to behind-the-scenes planning. He began his career in games and entertainment journalism back in the 1990s when Doom came on four floppy disks. Please contact him with any general queries about Pocket Gamer, Blockchain Gamer and Steel Media's other sites and events.

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