Tech companies working with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) raised more than 3 billion US dollars in venture funding last year, according to analytics firm Digi-Capital, and the sheer amount of cash getting pumped into the industry is expected to continue to surge.

With impressive resources at hand, it seems that universities are uniquely positioned to nurture this next generation of VR, AR and mixed reality (MR) start-ups. They have innovative laboratories, successful entrepreneurship incubators and relevant corporate partners. With the latest equipment and the capital to invest in more, perhaps we should be looking more closely at the potential of educational institutions to produce the disruptive technological entrepreneurs of the future.

Utilising equipment

As large institutions, such as universities, have the capacity to buy the latest high-tech equipment, entrepreneurs, students and developers can work on bringing their ideas to life using kits that they would not have been able to afford on their own.

This includes investments such as those made by École Polytechnique, also known as “L’X”, the leading French institution combining top-level research, academics and innovation at the cutting-edge of science and technology. Aline Becq, who joined L’X as Prototyping Space Manager earlier this year, explains the importance of VR, AR and MR technology being made available to entrepreneurs in universities. In the Fab Lab at L’X, multiple tools are available to students and entrepreneurs, such as a VR HTC Vive set and MR Windows set, making it easier for them to design things such as user interfaces and interactions. The Fab Lab at L’X even owns a haptic sensor set that can be used to create 3D models. The VR sets can also be used to control the various drones that the lab owns, including DJI and Parrot drones.

As tech start-ups continue to flourish, L’X plans to double the surface area of their prototyping space by the end of the year. They will have a space dedicated entirely to VR, MR and AR and plan to purchase additional movement tracking systems. This type of equipment will become progressively more in demand and, as this occurs, the Fab Lab at L’X will continue to build on the range of software and platforms that are available at École Polytechnique in order to design a virtual environment.

Combining with other technologies like IA, big data, robotics, 3D printing, and drones

VR, AR, and MR are often used with technologies such as 3D modelling, printing and robotics. With many universities already equipped with experts and laboratories in these areas, it makes things much easier for entrepreneurs with ideas in these realms to receive guidance and realise their ideas more quickly than they could on their own.

The prototyping space at L’X is currently oriented towards numerical fabrication, which includes a number of different subtypes such as 3D printing or direct digital manufacturing (DDM). VR, AR or MR technology helps to make the design process much simpler and also helps to visualize the outcome of the final product even prior the production stage.

Benefits of engaging with industry

Universities are renowned for being influential and well-connected institutions. They have partnerships with various companies in numerous industries, and can benefit from gaining know-how in using technologies from their skilled partners.

École Polytechnique strives to collaborate with industrial partners specialised in the realm of VR technology. A partnership of this type could be in the near future for École Polytechnique with Dassault Systèmes, a European software company that develops 3D design, 3D digital mock-up, and product lifecycle management software using VR, thanks to its historical ties with the company and in particular with Serge Dassault, graduate of L’X and previous Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Dassault Group.

At the Drahi centre on campus (nicknamed the “Drahi-X”), dedicated to entrepreneurship and innovation, they are expecting to see more projects linked to VR, AR and MR in the near future. They are opening their doors to more and more entrepreneurs and students who aim to develop products and launch start-ups using this type of technology. Currently, for example, an inter-university partnership project at L’X, titled POETESS (Psychiatric and Ophthalmic Early TeLE Symptoms Screening), is using VR technology to help diagnose diseases related to mental health and even perform retina scans to help detect abnormalities or dysfunctionalities of a patient’s eyes. Nicolas Jurado, Biotechnology and Innovation Project Manager of POETESS, says that these VR technologies can help to stock data, gauge the evolution of the disorder, and increase the efficiency of treatment. This essential data can then be incorporated in scientific publications, allowing other medical professionals to benefit from the research performed by POETESS with the help of VR technologies.

Universities can provide connections like these for budding entrepreneurs that are trying to create successful start-ups in the growing realm of VR, AR, and MR. According to research from the International Data Corporation, VR and AR revenues are set to rocket from £4.2 billion in 2016 to more than £130 billion in 2020.

By effectively utilising skilled in-house staff at incubators, making connections with experienced professors and researchers, learning from external corporate guidance, and having the latest equipment on hand – entrepreneurs within universities will soon be cashing in on the boom as well, leading to the most successful VR, AR and MR start-ups in the world.

This article has been contributed by École Polytechnique’s Fab Lab.

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