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Idealog tries ‘the world’s most realistic VR’

The art gallery was empty.

That was odd, since the floor was heavily scuffed from what looked like shoeprints. Maybe it was because it looked like a clear, sunny day outside, with only a couple of clouds in the sky and a light breeze.

At one end of the room was a large statue, cracked with age. At another end was a fireplace, next to which was an abstract painting, caked thick with layer upon layer of acrylics in rich reds, deep golds, brilliant blues, and more. Birds could also be heard chirping outside; yep, this place was emptier than Auckland on a long weekend.

Suddenly, a voice called out. It came across a great distance, as if it were the voice of God, or one’s conscience speaking out loud.

“What do you see?”

The voice cut through like a knife; none of this was real. The Pah Homestead in Auckland is real, of course, but this VR recreation of it is not.

Such is the power of realityvirtual.co. According to founder and creative director Simon Che de Boer, it might just be the most realistic virtual reality (VR) experience in the world today. Giving it a try, and even on an experience he says isn’t nearly as realistic as some of the ones he’s done, it’s hard to argue.

And Che de Boer is not alone in his assessment. “Bad ass,” says Dana Cowley, lead sales and marketing at Epic Games. Loughborough University’s Stuart Franey calls it “A standard of visual fidelity to aspire to.” Spectra VR’s Rick Pearce says, “There is next level and then there is next dimension. Simon opens the door to the latter.”

Then there’s what Ng?ti Wh?tua Or?kei’s Te Aroha Morehu says. Che de Boer and realityvirtual.co “have been fundamental in our paradigm shift and with sensitivity and care navigated us through a development in virtual reality, whereby we established a product of profound inspiration. It is part of our ambition to reconnect our nation to the epicentre of our cultural heritage, our marae, and his team fulfilled those aspirations with an effortless aplomb of dignity and deliberation.”

Or hear it from Animation Research’s Ian Taylor: “I have no hesitation in saying that the work that Simon and his team are doing at realityvirtual.co is some of the most exciting I have seen.”

The plaudits go on (and on, and on), but you get the idea.

What’s amazing is how the New Zealand-based Che de Boer does it. Often, he’ll visit locations in person, then take thousands of images using a process known as photogrammetry. And he travels all over the world, too – when we met, he’d just gotten back from Egypt. “I’m doing this and there’s five guys with AK-47s there the whole time.”

But it’s important to be able to preserve sites – especially historical sites and archaeological sites in danger – in digital form before they’re lost to the ravages of time and human activity.

With the photogrammetry and his technology, Che de Boer can recreate places in basically unlimited detail – including effects like roughness extrapolation, different light levels, and shimmer. In other words: it’s so real you can’t tell that it’s, in fact, not.

Che de Boer got his start about five years ago. At the time, he was in a band, and was a survivor of an arson at his house on his 31st birthday. From that, he wanted to rebuild memories of the house. “When you get handed lemons, you make lemonade.”

As incredible as what Che de Boer is doing – especially considering its realism – it’s easy to immediately think it could be used for ultra-real VR games. But that’s not what it’s about, says Che de Boer. “The stuff I’m really into is ‘slice of life.’ If you create an environment that’s so real, you don’t need to gamify it.”

The applications can extend beyond just preserving natural and cultural heritage, however (though on that topic, Che de Boer says one place he’d love to be able to preserve and recreate is the Christ Church Cathedral, heavily damaged in the February 2011 Canterbury earthquake and set to be rebuilt). According to Che de Boer, it can also be used for classrooms, medical training for doctors and nurses, and even the film industry, where it can be used to re-light actors for a more realistic greenscreen effect or outright digital recreation (you hear that Disney and your weird, waxy-looking “recreation” of the late Peter Cushing in Rogue One?).

The realityvirtual.co team may consist of just a few people, but Che de Boer says collaboration means working lean is possible – and can even be an asset for getting things done efficiently. And as for the work itself? “Every project is a milestone.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Che de Boer has strong views about VR, how we use data, and how organisations in New Zealand can make a name for themselves. “We undersell ourselves way too much,” he says. “If it wasn’t for my international clients, I would’ve gone bankrupt a long time ago.”

He offers a solution other organisations, designers and entrepreneurs could follow. “There is a whole world out there. To put yourself on the world stage is the best thing to do. The Internet is your friend. Networking is your friend.”

Simon Che de Boer.

The data Che de Boer and his team use can be repurposed, too – which is important, he says, since VR technology is always improving. “the beautiful thing with these datasets [we use for our VR projects] is we can always reprocess them.”

And as for who uses the data Che de Boer collects – which can take 8-12 hours to process (for something like a tomb) and a month to process (at present – much is being done to speed that up)? “We think data should be free. These are treasures of the world.”

And another amazing thing about all this? Che de Boer does it despite having low vision.

And another amazing thing: with the exception of the headshot of Che de Boer, all the images that go with this story come from ?realityvirtual.co’s VR experiences.

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