Virtual Switzerland Gathers a VR Extravaganza at Rolex Learning Center, EPFL

Virtual Switzerland, the National Thematic Network (NTN) from Meyrin, was kicked off with style, barging onto the wobbly VR deck with its historic debut by showcasing all the latest VR masterpieces and blossoming buds of the Swiss VR industry at Rolex Learning CenterEPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) to the VR professionals’ and novices’ delight on Monday, 3 April, 2017.

As the virtual world has been taking over the real world since the dawn of the 21st century, the new-born association Virtual Switzerland teamed up with IFL (Information Forum Lausanne) for a conference, themed accordingly, Virtual & Augmented Realities – How they are shaping our future, which consisted of: presentations from leading artists, engineers, academics, scientists and researchers and other pioneers in the VR and AR fields; a networking apéro; an open exhibition with demos from Swiss VR startups, technology-oriented academic institutions and other organizations meddling with VR/AR technology; and a round table led by World VR Forum’s Creative Director and CEO, Salar Shahna with feedback from the public.

VS’s (Virtual Switzerland’s) kick-off went smoothly with much excitement and enthusiasm from the public, as virtual reality has not only hooked the suave, tech-savvy millennials, who, have been raised on smart phones, computers and video games, but also invaded many industries and corporations, initially oblivious to the virtual revolution.


Starting with the warm, welcoming words from IFL’s President, Beatrice Volpe, who officially opened the conference to the audience, the event shined the light on the latest Swiss VR and AR advancements, aiming to inspire the next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs.

Dr. Caecilia CharbonnierChristoffer Lund and Laetitia Bochud of VS, were the first speakers of the day with their presentation, “Introducing the Virtual Environments Interaction and Simulation Network,” as IFL marked VS’s kick-off as they are a new national network supported by CTI (Commission for Technology and Innovation).

Charbonnier, Lund and Bochud highlighted VS’s network’s objectives as a catalyst platform for innovation between the industrial and academic world, helping young companies and start-ups to promote their research, organize events and to develop their projects. In the second part of VS’s presentation, Bochud shared VS’s plans for the near future which include holding the Swiss Pavilion at WVRF’s Annual Summit in Crans-Montana, in May and visiting the World VR LabSomniacs and Industry Connect in June.

Michel Zai, Co-founder and CEO of Somniacs, a Zurich-based VR company which literally means “maniacs of dreaming,” was the next speaker at the conference, who, intrigued the audience with his presentation “VR in Entertainment” during which he discussed Somniac’s high-tech flying simulator Birdly, since in this simulator one gets to virtually experience flying like a bird in the skyscraper-infested skies of Manhattan. Though Zai admitted that “technologically, Birdly looks weird,” showing some photos of its unusual design that keeps the person lying flat on his/her stomach with arms spread out wide in different directions, Zai was also proud to share Birdly’s success at the Sundance Film Festival, and invites to many notable places.

Third in the conference’s line-up, was Dr. Yacine Benmansour, R&D Project Coordinator at HEPIA (Haute école du paysage, d’ingénierie et d’architecture) located in Geneva, who applies VR to architectural projects, presented the topic of “VR for Collaboration in Construction.” Benmansour spoke about the impact of VR in the world of construction and how design and construction are shaping our environment, bringing to the audience’s attention the challenges that come with urban population growth and the idea of constructing smart cities as a solution to this problem.

Benmansour concluded that, “the VR technologies won’t make us better engineers than we are, but will help us to better understand our cities.”

Dr. Mark Melnykowycz, an Artist Engineer at Idezo, Zurich, spoke next, with his very engaging and animated presentation, “Design of VR Experiences.”

“While VR could be fun for game experience and a useful tool for interviewing, VR is not a medium, VR is experience design,” stated Melnykowycz.

Melnykowycz emphasized this point throughout his talk with an argument that VR is an updated version of cinema which started out as moving black and white pictures without sound. According to Melnykowycz, we are now at an early stage of the computer era and VR is part of this stage, spreading across several mediums: film, theatre and game design for user experience and immersive and interactive environments.

Prof. Marianne Schmid Mast from UNIL/HEC (University of Lausanne), spoke on “Immersive Virtual Reality for the Study and Training of Interpersonal Behaviour.” Schmid Mast emphasized how everyone’s behaviour is not independent from one another which is problematic for independent behaviour research. Schmid Mast discussed one of her studies on public speaking with the use of female and male avatars (using famous politicians as examples), in which she discovered that women’s public speaking skills significantly improved after they were exposed to the speeches of female avatars. Schmid Mast further shared even more exciting VR public speaking experiments: training in a Walking Immersive Virtual Environment with audience feedback with a twist, involving an elevated VR platform; negative feedback for job interview training in a VR setting; and the use of VR doppelgangers.

According to Schmid Mast, “smooth interaction is still a challenge in VR, as everything has to be programmed in.”

Jakub Vohryzek of IFL, gave a presentation of the “IMAGINE IF! Accelerator Launch.” Since IMAGINE IF! from Lausanne, is an innovation forum, accelerated forum for startups designed to help them develop, network, get exposed and to pitch ideas in front of a jury of investors, Vohryzek informed the public about the Accelerator kick-off event that will take place in June. Vohryzek also shared the quirks and perks of IMAGINE IF! and shared some innovative projects they helped launch, such as the Andreas Implant which is a chip inserted into your hand with your travel information, scanner-ready for air travel.

Dr. Stephan Emmerth, Business Development Senior Manager at BaseLaunch in Basel, spoke about the “Biotech Accelerator,” how BaseLaunch and its partners support young, starting-out healthcare companies with a fast access to grants. Emmererth shared how the Accelerator programme provides participating teams with the necessary funding for their companies’ launch.

Phil Norris, Strategic Project Manager at VirtaMed in Zurich, gave a talk on “VR Simulation in Surgical Training” sharing the details about this project, which include hyper realistic graphics, real instruments and fusion of renders and how it trains medical students to perform surgery. Norris compared this simulation to the training of pilots who also have VR simulators as part of their training programmes, which simulate flying and emergency situations. Norris noted that the statistics for major accidents and death are significantly less in aviation than in in the medical field, where one of the leading causes of death are medical mistakes.

Mikhail Chatillon, Technical Evangelist at Microsoft Switzerland presented the fascinating topic of “Microsoft Holographic Computing,” demonstrating in the visuals a new VR technology, Windows holographic Microsoft HoloLens, which is a holographic computer built into a VR headset that lets you see, hear, and interact with holograms through your hand movements and gestures within an enclosed space such as an office or a living room. Chatillon informed the public about 2D and 3D apps for HoloLens and that it’s a new interactive device.

Tobias Fueter, Director and Co-owner at Stories AG in Zurich, was the final speaker of the conference’s line-up with the subject of “VR Movies” with emphasis on VR storytelling, as VR is a great evolutionary tool for telling stories. As a new form, it adds another layer to the famous, yet slightly haunting song lyric, “video killed the radio star.” Although, Fueter admitted that games are the second largest market for VR, his heart is set on the development of passive VR content, as “we have to be initiated into the ritual first.” According to Fueter, for people who try VR for the first time, VR games can be too overwhelming causing dizziness as they are not used to the 360° view with eye punching graphics.

We should feel responsible, create positive content people can enjoy and relax with, concluded Fueter.


VR Expo with Demos

In addition to the conference, IFL included a networking apéro and a meaty VR exhibition with some spicy VR project demonstrations throughout the day from 16 organizations, many of which gave speeches at the conference.

WVRF’s VR café included eight VR experiences, with the game Anshar Wars 2 about an intergalactic space battle (also demonstrated at the OZWE Games booth from Lausanne, as it is their project) and VR animated film Pearl  from Google Spotlight Stories, USA, about a musician father and his daughter being the most popular, followed by Notes on Blindness from Agat Films & Cie-Ex Nihilo from France and UK based on the audio diaries of writer and academic John Hull, taking the audience into Hull’s gradual descend into darkness and Our Baby from La Generale de Production, France, where the audience experience the phenomenon of birth, but with a twist, as the video is shot from the newborn’s perspective, who happens to have a birth defect.

Imverse from EPFL’s students was an amazing new technology which allows you to have volumetric rendering of space from a simple 360° picture in which you can maneuver and move objects.

L’Avenue Digital Media, also from Lausanne, included three VR projects, all with animated graphics: Architect, where you could change the colour of furniture and interior design in the 360° room; ICS where you could explore different time periods and transportation in 1819, 2010 and 2050; and LHC, a hockey demo game.

Swisscom The VR Experience from Zurich, showcased ENRJ, a VR concert with some stellar interactive features.

Artanim from Meyrin, demonstrated their applications for the HoloLens, software apps, providing the IFL’s attendees with an opportunity to try out their device.

IODD from Geneva, presented electronic identifier technology which identifies all the possible data of electronic storage devices.

Right Here/Right Now Productions from Geneva, introduced their latest VR short film Tangerine, which blends philosophy with Sci-Fi and which was recently shown at the CineGlobe Film Festival, about a ballad-singing, guitar-strumming space cowboy and two hipsters separated by the time-space continuum.

There were three organizations utilizing VR for medical purposes: VirtaMedHEds-GE and Vedavi Medical.

VirtaMed showcased 3D printed simulators of various body parts with surgical tools and interactive VR which is used for the virtual experience of performing surgery to train medical students before they are ready to perform it for real.

HEds-GE demonstrated radiographic 3D skull models with different colours on various parts of the scull also to teach about surgery performance as well as a VR guide on how to put back together broken bones and how to build prostheses for the bones.

Vedavi Medical from Zurich, showed 3D VR educational medical animation videos designed to enlighten customers and patients about different health problems and medical conditions.

Idezo which is experimental based with 360° movies and VR simulations, did not fail to impress with demo videos with sensor-smart interface demonstrating how a drone is flying; a SmartstrapCARUNDA 24, which is a device resembling a watch for monitoring blood pressure; and Mindfulness, which is designed for neurological monitoring of the brain during meditation.

UNIL’s FNSNF included VR human relation projects: VR interviews in a job environment, where you are interviewed and receive negative feedback from your potential employee; and doctor-patient relations in a hospital environment where you are the doctor giving the bad news.

Hes SoSchool of Management and Tourism from Valais demonstrated a charming, educational AR game called Adventures-Mat, developed by Prof. Antoine Widmer.

However, not all companies in the exhibition were directly involved with VR and AR, though, they have expressed a strong interest in incorporating these technologies.

IMAGINE IF!  provided information about their innovation forum for young start-ups and entrepreneurs and Buhler, a food processing company from Lausanne, also simply provided booklets and brochures about their organization, but, admitted their plans to integrate VR later on for marketing purposes.

Round Table

Last, but not least, IFL concluded with a Round Table discussion: “The Future of VR/AR Technologies,” moderated by WVRF’s Creative Director and CEO, Salar Shahna.

According to Shahna, “Switzerland is currently the world leader in VR and newcomers can benefit greatly from our labs and technology.”

Shahna also talked about how smells were included in some of the VR projects such as Defrost  from Feral Dog Productions, from Los Angeles, USA and Reframe Iran from João Inada, USA, at last year’s WVRF’s Annual Summit to make the VR experience even more realistic and received positive feedback from the audience.

With the collaboration from Dr. Ronan Boulic, Senior Scientist at EPFLImmersive Interaction Group (IIG)Bara Caldova, Head of Marketing at Nomoko, Zurich; Arijana Walcott, AR/VR Evangelist and Director for Consumer BD at Swisscom and strong remarks and questions from the audience, the Round Table was a perfect culmination to the conference, covering topics such as the embodiment of fictional characters, internet VR, interactive café, robotics, location based VR, cost of VR technologies and the designated age of the VR users. Currently, VR is aimed at the 13+ demographic, however, Walcott mentioned that she let her three-year-old son try VR and that with the right apps and content, there could be VR for kids as well.

Finally, Beatrice Volpe and Caterina Bigoni gave their closing remarks, “hope we have convinced you that VR and AR are interactive technologies of these decades,” which put the finishing touch to an already spectacular day.

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