One of the most intriguing companies working in the north east’s virtual reality scene is Spearhead Interactive – an innovative business combining emerging technology and creative thought.
Spearhead Interactive is not a normal VR company, says founder Dan Riley. If you wanted to categorise it you might call it an agency. Crucially, it solves business challenges by creating “interactive and immersive 3D software, and experiences, to improve productivity and efficiency”. What that means in practice is finding business uses for drones, 360 degree cameras, laser scanners and 3D printers, but also 360 degree treadmills, haptics and holographic systems.
Dan and the team put together ceaseless curiosity with a thirst for innovation. “Spearhead Interactive is always busy tinkering, testing, conducting R&D into new technologies,” says Dan. “Our team works hard at combining and creating new functionality that will benefit clients in the future. We work a great deal with augmented and virtual reality technology to create next-generation immersive experiences.
“We’re not just looking at the headsets that provide presence inside new environments, but also 360 degree VR treadmills to move around them, body and finger tracking systems to interact with them, and haptic and sensory technology to feel them,” he adds. “The strides we’re making in visualising sensor data using 3D environments allows us to begin conversations with large corporates surrounding big data analytics, smart cities and Internet of Things projects which are all very exciting.”
January 2016 at the Spearhead office allows none of the usual post-Christmas malaise. Two projects are in their final stages – a 3D process flow mapping tool for a petrochemical company and an interactive visualisation for an agricultural project – and more are in the pipeline.
“We are extremely lucky to have an array of clients, from marketing and advertising agencies to offshore energy companies, care homes and architects,” says Dan. “We recently completed work for a global engineering company to inform and engage customers with their products, and a housing agency to visualise a new build development to act as a sales tool for prospective buyers.”
Spearhead Interactive was founded on the back of Dan’s four and a half year tenure at Teesside University, from 2007 to 2011, working in a research and development unit. “We focused on exploring 3D technologies and virtual world environments to benefit businesses,” he explains. “I evaluated more than 300 platforms, conceived the first virtual worlds search engine, spoke at academic conferences and published papers on 3D environments for business and education.”
Spearhead was then launched in February 2013. Within three months of trading the company was nominated in the top ten at Gateshead’s Thinking Digital awards. In less than ten months it had won a UKTI exporting for growth prize and was listed as a top 100 UK start up.
There is a simple company code, says Dan, and that is to keep an open mind and listen to what companies want. Not as easy as it first sounds. Markets are not fully established in VR, drones or digital mapping, and few businesses are aware of the technology or its potential impacts.
“Often we find solutions work for clients cross-sector,” says Dan “A 3D step-by-step animated assembly guide works for any multi-component product or structure, from a toy to flat-pack furniture, to bridges. To target specific industries seems foolhardy because it closes doors rather than opening them. But the more conversations we have, the wider our depth of industry knowledge and the more we see applications for our technology outside of what clients consider to be possible.”
Virtual reality firms will experience exponential growth over the next few years, so for Spearhead to maintain strong links with the VR hothouse, VRTGO Labs (and its annual conference) in Gateshead, makes real sense. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of great things in the VR industry, particularly in the fields of gaming, experiential marketing and commercial visualisation,” says Dan. “VRTGO is a wonderful platform to be able to connect with VR fans, clients and peers. It allows us to talk, theorise, strategise and share our collective knowledge.”
Right now the industry is still fairly small and the technology is far from being established. For Spearhead, it is important to connect people. There is no competition, there are just strategic partners. “It keeps being said within the VR development community, and it’s true, ‘the rule book has not been written yet’,” says Dan. “It’s about working together, communicating and collaborating, to develop a medium that will survive by creating meaningful, purposeful and high quality content.”