UK INNOVATION HUB: A VIRTUAL VISIT
In a corner of an exhibition space in Liverpool, delegates are cycling through the centre of Manchester.
“It’s crazy isn’t it?” says one as he pedals along Oxford Road. “You can hear the sounds and everything.”
Before he climbs off the Mobike, he pulls off the virtual reality headset that has transported him 35 miles away to a section of road so realistic you can identify shops and individual pedestrians.
The demo has been a feature of the UK Innovation Hub, the government-backed showcase of ‘Best of British’ technology taking up a corner of Exhibition Centre Liverpool for the duration of the three-week International Business Festival.
The demo has been organised by Manchester’s Clicks and Links, which has been working with CityVerve – a smart city project along the Oxford Road corridor – to not only offer safety training but to gather data on cyclist behaviour to help improve route planning and test potential junction options.
“You can use it to prevent infrastructure nightmares,” explains Billy White, who initially developed the product as part of a final-year university project. “Now we just need to convince the politicians to put some money behind it.”
It certainly piqued the interest of Tees Valley Metro Mayor Ben Houchen, who was seen pedalling furiously shortly after stepping off the Futures Stage, where he’d been part of a panel of England’s directly elected mayors.
It seems Mr Houchen was also impressed by the temperature-controlled packing developed by another innovator, Chill Buddy. The Liverpool company has developed lightweight boxes and “shrouds” to insulate everything from food to flowers during delivery. Their silvery material looks similar to the insulation you might find behind radiators, and it’s proven a hit with retailers if the M&S hamper delivery packages on display are anything to go by.
“Ben Houchen thought it was brilliant,” says Chill Buddy’s founder Geoff Lyon. “He told me if I wanted to communicate with all the businesses in the Tees Valley, he’d share my details.”
For Mr Lyon, this is what the International Business Festival is all about. “I’m having a fantastic time,” he says. “I tapped someone on the shoulder before and it turned out he was a global investor from Atlanta and he was very interested in the product.”
Her Majesty’s Government and the export-focused GREAT campaign are showcasing different trailblazing businesses in the UK Innovation Hub each day, depending on the theme.
And companies such as Wondrwall – an ‘intelligent home’ system that uses machine learning to adjust heating, lighting and security settings according to your habits – were hoping to leave an impression on Urbanisation & Cities Day delegates.
Another smart cities company, BlockDox, was showing off how its Internet of Things technology could monitor passenger levels and movements in trains and at stations, to help operators better plan services using real-time data rather than inaccurate assumptions.
“We can do similar things inside office buildings – they’re the gas guzzlers of the office world [in terms of emissions created by heating and lighting] – and there’s a potential for energy savings of 50% or greater,” says director Nicolas Shulman. “We’re already working with the Department for Transport and have run a project in China. We’re hoping to look at other smart cities opportunities in Asia today.”
Even those here on serious business can’t seem to resist trying out the virtual trainer demonstrated by Manchester’s EON Reality. Don the VR headset and you’re transported to a desert setting with palm trees – not entirely out of place given the sunshine that’s bathed the Festival site on the banks of the River Mersey in recent weeks.
In front of you is a simulation of the sort of kit you might find on a gas production plant and – if you can get used to the discombobulating sensation of ‘teleporting’ with the toggle of a handset – you can jump from place to place, reaching out to virtually switch valves with a click.
The experience has been a fun attraction during the Festival’s first two days. But business development director Eamonn Watson says companies need to get past the fascination with the technology's “wow factor" and start making it pay.
EON Reality's team arrived fresh from winning the AR & VR Futureproof Award at London Tech Week's TechXLR8 Awards. The company works across 22 sectors to provide simulators for education and training, where expertise can be shared internationally without the need to fly staff around the globe.
“The best trainer’s knowledge can be captured and delivered in every language across every land,” says Mr Watson. “It’s most useful when it works with something that doesn’t just affect one facility. We advise companies to think about extending it to address global problems so that they get the ROI.
“One company we’re working with sees a real opportunity in developing a set of courses that are relevant not just to them but also to others in their industry, so they can use it to generate cash.”
A broad range of products are being demonstrated on the Hub, from recyclable cardboard desks to electric cycle-powered delivery trucks, but the VR displays remain popular with visitors. Back at the cycling demo, Anna Stella wobbles uncertainly in the saddle.
“Argh! I can’t cycle. I hit the pavement,” says Ms Stella, who has travelled from London to be at the event. Afterwards she tells me: “It was superb; exciting and scary at the same time.”
And so it is for many of those businesses aiming to grasp the nettle of fast-changing tech to shape how we live and work in the future.