Virtually a Flying Leap into Marketing

Article excerpt

The software company behind the BBC's Cyberzone hopes to break into world markets. Will its virtual reality become total reality? Ken Gofton reports

For millions of TV viewers, the advanced computer technology "virtual reality" has suddenly become a real-life reality. The BBC is claiming a world first with Cyberzone, its Monday evening adventure gameshow in which sports personalities are tested in imaginative situations created entirely by microchips.

Whether or not Cyberzone, fronted by scouser Craig Charles, catches the imagination of its teenage audience, one thing is certain: it is a technical breakthrough and the technology has a very real future.

It's based on software developed by a tiny company in Aldermaston, which may, itself, be heading for international stardom - if it can find a clear flight path through the billowing problems that traditionally face small hi-tech firms sitting on the launchpad awaiting take-off.

Dimension International claims a world lead for its technology, which has applications far wider than game shows, in marketing, sales, design, architecture, and many other fields: "Potentially it can be used anywhere where visualisation is important," says the 33-year-old company founder, Ian Andrew. The common understanding of computer-generated "virtual reality" is that to experience it you have to don a special helmet and wired-up gloves. Projected on tiny screens in front of your eyes will be a view of, say, a room interior. Turn your head, and the, viewpoint changes accordingly. You can move above, within the room, even experience walking out of it, and looking back through a window.

This, in the jargon, is "immersion virtual reality". What Andrew and his team have done with their Superscape software is put virtual reality on the PC screen - or, in the case of Cyberzone, on a videowall.

The concept is the same: you can still change your viewpoint at will within a 3D environment projected on the computer screen. But the picture quality is much better because of the greater screen size.

Superscape is already being tested in the public sector for applications as diverse as designing defence vehicles to assessing fire hazards in proposed buildings, analysing road accidents, and helping children with severe learning difficulties. Commercial uses could be even wider and include: * Kitchen, bedroom and bathroom showrooms. Consumers could provide the room dimensions, choose a style, and the finished installation. * Demonstrating for client approval almost any kind of 3D design or structure, from an exhibition stand to a landscape garden. * Retail market research. * Space planning, from interiors to positioning security cameras. …