Bristol is a small city in the west of England that exudes innovation and regularly punches above its weight in almost every category whether it’s tech, science, the creativity arts, or music. An excellent example of this is Bristol VR Lab, set in the city's old harbor, a stone's throw from the waterfront in the very heart of the city. Excited by the niche combination of coworking and the immersive tech of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), I spoke with Dan Page, Creative Director at Bristol VR Lab, to learn how the idea for the space evolved, how they utilize emerging tech, and where they see VR going in the future.
After a very passionate chat about the incredible street food and Chinese restaurants just a short walk from the workspace, Dan filled me in on the tech scene in Bristol and their place in it. And it turns out that Bristol is home to many innovative and creative industries relevant to VR.
“It’s the most important city in the world for wildlife documentaries,” Dan told me. “It’s also home to some excellent animation houses, the excellent Bottle Yard Studios, dBs Music and the institution that is The Old Vic Theatre.”
You don’t have to venture far to find people who are experimenting with VR and emerging tech, whether they’re large companies or individuals.
“Bristol is a small but thriving city when it comes to experimentation & technology,” says Dan. “We have Boeing, Rolls Royce, Sony, Oracle and other engineering companies playing around with VR and AR. There’s this huge community of people doing interesting stuff."
I wanted Dan's take on how this relatively small city became such an active hub for creativity and innovation.
"There's something about Bristol that likes to break the rules a bit," said Dan, " be a bit weird and kind of play around with emergent stuff. As well as the engineering side, you have the arts and there's a lot of crossover with creative technologists, generally creative people, and developers."
Bristol's size means that the barriers between all these world's aren't as high as larger cities. It also shows that a wide range of people with in-depth skills can collaborate on creative enterprises easily.
And that’s where Bristol VR Lab comes into play as an incubator of sorts, an educational supporter, and community leader in the world of VR.
Community is at heart of every successful coworking space and that has been a big part of Dan’s journey with Bristol VR Lab.
Five years ago, Dan joined Opposable Games, founded by Bristol VR Lab Director Ben Trewhella, who at the time were working on some of the earliest VR games of this generation. It was an exciting time to be involved in VR as Palmer Luckey had just done his Kickstarter for Oculus and broke the records for the highest amount raised at the time, for a total of $2.4M, 974% of its original target.
While the excitement around the possibilities of VR grew, there was no organizational core to build on the momentum and bring the growing community of VR professionals and enthusiasts together. Dan decided that needed to change.
He started with a VR-specific meetup in Bristol, expecting 30 people to turn up. Instead, a whopping 90 people came, from all over the UK. “It was incredible to have that many people interested in VR in the same room,” Dan told me.
The conferences were growing and all the while Opposable Games was building more and more VR-focused material.
“We had clients such as Vodafone, AT&T and Cartoon Network,” said Dan, “and created an Adventure Time VR game. At one point we had four different VR experiences at Mobile World Congress, at a time when VR was particularly new and exciting.”
At the time, Dan and Ben Trewhella were working from Bristol Games Hub, the first games-focused coworking space in the UK that Ben co-founded with Tomas and Debbie Rawlings, and since joined by experienced directors James Parker and Nils Helburg. They aimed to unite all the people that were working in games in Bristol. Soon, an active community of like-minded people started growing, and they began to interact and collaborate, with now over 50 members, including a burgeoning VR community.
But they had one problem.
"VR was so new that it really didn't have a home," says Dan. "There were a lot of people working in it, and we had the meetups and the conference, but nowhere for people to go on a permanent basis. The need for a VR Lab came out of that."
At that point, Dan and Ben had the community, the network, and the contacts to create the space needed for the VR community in Bristol.
The next step, as Dan put it, “was a case of getting everybody together and convincing them it was a good idea, making a case for it and getting the funding.”
It took some time, but ultimately they got the funding and support they needed. With the assistance of companies such as Sony, Dan and Ben were joined by four founding partners: University of West England Bristol, University of Bristol, Watershed, and Opposable Group. What’s more, funding from West of England Local Enterprise Partnership/West of England Combined Authority allowed them to invest in the equipment needed and start retrofitting the space to make it suitable for such a technology-focused coworking space.
Bristol VR Lab officially launched in April 2018 as a proof of concept, existing “to benefit people in a wider community” and aims to become a Community Interest Company in the near future.
Bristol VR Lab's relationships with local universities have continued.
The space currently hosts a group of computer science students from the University of Bristol, who are working on their master's degrees and building VR games using the space's tech. Additionally, Verity McIntosh, Senior Lecturer in Virtual and Extended Reality at the University of England, teaches a brand new MA in Virtual Reality in the Bristol VR Lab.
It’s still early days at the VR Lab so it’s all hands on deck.
“We are dedicated to making the space work, running events and doing everything from consultancy services and providing technical support through to helping people with their businesses.”
With room for up to 40 full-time members and the reality of an ever-evolving VR industry, Dan and the team have created a space that can change with their members' needs. Many of the amenities at Bristol VR Lab are convertible and multipurpose. They have areas built on mobile tracks, whiteboards on wheels, removable panels and much more.
That allows them to run a wide range of monthly events and seminars for up to 100 attendees. Many of these events have proven so popular that they were overflowing.
With the success of their early events, Bristol VR Lab is experimenting with new concepts in the future, with a greater focus on teaching, workshops and more interactive events to build skill sets in the community.
Dan told me that a lot of people are good at a general skills (e.g., architectural visualization) but that it can be difficult to translate those skills to VR because VR is so specific. Dan says it's instrumental for people to be able to build a prototype and get an early working version of a VR project created. And that's what new courses such as the 6 week course on Unity VR aims to do.
But that’s only one example, and Dan aims to test many such concepts.
“The idea is to see what the demand is,” says Dan, “and see what the response is. Let people lead the demand rather than us dictating what’s happening.”
Naturally, technology is at the heart of Bristol VR Lab, from the facilities they offer to how they manage the space.
Dan and Ben, being technology leaders in their field, knew from the outset that it was important to get their workspace management tech stack right. But being a niche workspace, they had needs that strayed further than the most coworking spaces. They chose Habu over other workspace software solutions because they resonated with Habu’s focus on simplicity and increased member autonomy, while also providing the flexibility their workspace needed.
"We use Habu for both billing and booking meetings," says Dan. "But we also use it to book the kit. We have a bank of eight Oculus rifts with computers that are booked out regularly for long periods. The students also have access to these. Habu is really helpful for this. Nobody has to ask me ‘Can I use this bit of kit on X day?' They can just book it out on Habu, which is a huge operational time saver."
For day-to-day communication within the team and with members, Bristol VR Lab relies on Slack. Slack allows the team to stay organized and communicate needs around the space quickly. It also lets them answer questions from members and organize informal get-togethers.
Beyond the space, Bristol VR Lab has an extensive network of people interested in the space and VR in general. For this, the team publishes a weekly VR & AR newsletter via MailChimp.
As with all new and exciting technologies, there is a feeling of risk among some who feel that once the hype fades, VR will struggle to grow beyond a hobby interest. I asked Dan where he sees the future of VR going, and he made an interesting analogy.
“Ben often compares and contrasts VR to mobile apps,” says Dan. “Mobile apps got off to a shaky start. No one was really convinced that they needed an app for their business. Ben was walking around offices showing people apps and being laughed at. The usual response: ‘Why would we want this?’ There are a lot of similarities to what’s going on in VR today. I’ve seen it go from ‘what is VR?’ to everybody trying it in one form or other.”
“Some industries may enjoy a steady boom,” says Dan, “taking off in a straight diagonal curve, there is much more of an uppy-downiness to emerging tech.”
Innovation also triggers inflated expectations, leading the same journalists that once hyped VR as the next biggest thing in the world to now decry it as a massive disappointment akin to cryptocurrency. But if you look beyond the sensationalist headlines, VR is seeing steady growth.
“I think as we go forwards,” says Dan, “and the headsets become more comfortable and cheaper again, it breaks down that barrier of actually trying VR. I think that's one of the major things we are fighting, in regards to home use.”
When it comes to enterprise, behind the scenes, plenty of people are adopting VR and AR, especially in areas like science and engineering, planning and architectural design. For example, Bristol based scientist, Dr Dave Glowacki, has pioneered a VR chemistry lab enabling chemists around the world to simultaneously work on the same problem, all in virtual reality. In fact, that bit of tech was on display during the official opening of Bristol VR Lab, with a virtual reality molecular ribbon cutting ceremony.
“It’s a thriving industry with many companies that have been around for quite a while,” says Dan.
With Bristol VR Lab officially open for less than a year, as well as working in such a new niche, Dan has some great, actionable insights to ensuring early success of a space.
“You can’t assume everything is always going to work,” says Dan. “Always assume that everything might fail. The power might go out, as it did during an event once (though Dan would like to point out that this was a widespread power cut across the area and not due to any dodgy electrics at the lab). Having contingency plans if you’re running events is really important.”
Bristol VR Lab uses minute-by-minute productions schedules because, if something goes wrong, it can throw the whole event off. Having a production schedule to refer to reduces the impact of delays and panic amongst the team.
They use this principle throughout the entire management of the space, from demonstrations of the technology to looking after somebody arriving at the space for the first time.
"That point from arrival to sitting down and having a cup of coffee," says Dan, "to showing them a relevant demo is an important process to have right, so you don't flounder or forget anything. That initial perception of how you run your space is very important to nail down."
Also, Dan advised that other coworking operators shouldn't underestimate the work involved. It's essential to ensure you have enough staff and don't overwork yourself by doing too many tasks at once. A lesson we can all appreciate, I'm sure!
VR, AR, and immersive tech are amongst the most exciting areas in technology today, which makes for a particularly exciting coworking concept. And for now, it looks like these industries are only going to grow and become more innovative and sustainable.
But like all new technologies, the early days can present a lot of volatility for the people involved, businesses and individuals alike. This issue is exasperated somewhat by the current unpredictability around Brexit in the UK.
But that’s where Bristol VR Lab comes in. It gives small businesses and projects the space to experiment and test new ideas, working with bigger companies and collaborating on new concepts, with a degree of stability amongst the noise and uncertainty.
And as they build on their early successes, continuing to experiment with formats, the team are hard at work recruiting new members that will complement their current member base and add to the ecosystem they have created at Bristol VR Lab.
Finally, if you or a friend are hip to emerging tech and looking for the perfect home, be sure to book a tour or register your interest in taking a desk. That said, if a move to Bristol seems a bit out of reach, you can keep up with Bristol VR Lab and the latest in immersive tech by signing up to the BVRL newsletter.
Marketing Director at Habu, founder at Coworking Insights, coworking maven, digital nomad, lover of wine & tacos.