Nils Hellberg is the CTO of Virti, an immersive augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) platform tailored to provide training to healthcare professionals.
As such, the company is solidly rooted into the medical metaverse. As Verdict has reported in the past, the idea of the metaverse has gained momentum over the past year ever since Facebook rebranded to Meta in order to highlight the new focus of the company.
From disgraced former UK health secretary Matt Hancock to Microsoft, everyone has seemingly moved to make their mark in this new digital realm.
Investors have not been resting on their laurels, but have actively poured money into metaverse projects.
However, the metaverse is reliant on the mass adoption of VR and AR – technologies that have both struggled to take off over the years.
In the latest instalment of our ongoing series of CTO Talks, the Virti executive discuss what’s needed for VR and AR to finally become mainstream.
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Eric Johansson: Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
Nils Hellberg: Before joining Virti I was running the Bristol Games Hub in Bristol, working on Game Development. Virti’s founder is called Alex [Young] and I went to one of his first pitches at the VR World Congress – and I was immediately intrigued by the problem he was trying to solve.
Shortly afterwards, Alex was invited to an accelerator programme in Silicon Valley and invited me and a developer to go over with him. We built Virti’s first MBP there, brought it back to the UK and quickly realised we were onto something. The rest is history.
Where did your interest in VR and AR come from?
Mainly through gaming. At the Games Hub we had a few companies who were early adopters of VR/AR and used the first Oculus Development Kit. But looking back even earlier, I think it’s always been there. Growing up, I loved books like Neuromancer by William Gibson and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, and also films like Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic and eXistenZ.
People have been predicting that the AR and VR revolution would happen for decades. What has held back mass adoption so far?
Two things: we need more consumer-friendly devices and we need killer mass-market apps. Revolution will never happen as long as you need a gaming desktop computer to connect your headset to. With Quest we’re getting there, but there are now other devices on the market (like the Vive Flow) that look really interesting and make the VR/AR experience more seamless.
App-wise, we need more and better apps that go beyond just gaming – even though gaming will remain a crucial subset of the market and play a key role in driving adoption. Entertainment, shopping, communication/collaboration and productivity apps will be massive once the hardware catches up to the ease of use and resolution of a PC monitor.
What do you think is different this time?
The sector now has a huge amount of backing from big players like Facebook, Microsoft, HP and HTC – which hasn’t always been the case. And the prices for headsets are coming down, so it’s becoming viable for companies to issue personal VR headsets for staff, much like they do for mobile phones or laptops. Cost was always a big barrier to entry which is steadily being overcome.
How big will the metaverse’s impact on this sector be?
It’s hard to ignore the huge amount of money currently being poured into the metaverse, even if it does just feel like a buzzword at the moment. It will be interesting to see how the metaverse can occupy a space between the hyper-local and the hyper-global. There’s a lot of potential to bring people together across geographies and timezones, but the nature of the technology also risks isolating people who lose that balance and disconnect from the real world.
There’s a long way to go before the virtual world can truly compete with the physical world for certain things – namely sports events and music. But the next generation will probably take a different view. They might not want to be sweaty next to strangers on a dance floor. One thing we do need to watch is that we don’t repeat the mistakes made by existing social media platforms, where bullying, discrimination and unequal access have been an issue.
What do people get wrong when it comes to AR and VR?
I think people are still quite surprised at how immersive the VR/AR experience can be; as well as how low the barrier to entry is with something like the Quest 2.
In my field of work there is also a misconception that VR content is hard or expensive to produce. Things like 360 video can be super easy to shoot and put together.
Another misconception is that VR is a fad. It’s definitely here to stay and not just another gimmick.
What one piece of advice would you offer to other CTOs?
Don’t just focus on the tech and forget about the people. Especially when you work in a startup, where you’re incredibly busy, growing quickly and iterating your product, you need your people to be happy, motivated and hungry for success. Without a happy team you won’t get the results.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
Unequal access to new technologies. But this can also be a great driver for innovation: some of the new solutions around mobile data, non-traditional banking and the shift to mobile devices have all been inspired by the need to democratise access to tech.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done for fun?
I try to get an MMA training class in once a week with a personal trainer and UFC veteran. Getting choked out and punched in the face in the basement of a restaurant might not sound like the most fun, but it’s something that I enjoy quite a bit.
What’s the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
There’s a big shift in how people are working and learning in general. Working remotely is the new normal and people are demanding more from their employers: they want to learn and be upskilled in their role. So to attract and retain employees, companies need to rethink how they’re offering their training. It needs to be engaging but also accessible on-demand and remotely. VR/AR is an ideal solution, as the technology allows companies to scale training that would traditionally happen in person, whilst making it more accessible and making it easier to collect objective performance data.
In another life you’d be?
Probably working at a university, teaching anthropology or political science.
GlobalData is the parent company of Verdict and its sister publications.