At the time of Corona and the resulting curfew, the business idea of Space Walk became even more interesting: To escape from one's own space towards more interesting realms by putting on special glasses. The media hype about Virtual Reality (VR), which some people expected to be nothing less than a revolution in the consumption of digital content, slowly ebbed away... but the technology remained and became an omnipresent topic, which was enthusiastically received across all industries. But like many great technologies, this one has its initial teething troubles: "About half of the users can't stand the difference between the real and virtual world, they get dizzy or sick. This so-called motion sickness is a major problem of virtual reality technology," explains Eike Langbehn, VR expert at the University of Hamburg. Real and virtual movements rarely coincide here. The result: a feeling like seasickness. Langbehn did his doctorate on this subject at the University of Hamburg. Together with the PR expert Dennis Briddigkeit and the VR designer Hannah Paulmann, he founded the start-up Space Walk to address this very problem.
An interest in computers, technology and games has always been there: Eike and Dennis even founded an e-sports club together in 2006. The two boys grew up in rural Brake, between Bremen and Bremerhaven, so you had to do things yourself to make things happen: "The club still exists today: The big LAN party takes place twice a year with about 200 people," reports Dennis, not without pride. After graduating from high school, he studied journalism and worked for a Hamburg PR agency that looked after the German market for Facebook. Eike, on the other hand, worked for a mobile game developer and concentrated on his studies of computer science. His doctoral thesis under the supervision of Prof. Steinicke from HCI in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hamburg was entitled "Walking in Virtual Reality: Perceptually-inspired Interaction Techniques for Locomotion in Immersive Environments". Eike basically devoted himself to the teething problem of VR mentioned at the beginning: The discrepancy between real and virtual motion. And the associated problems: On the one hand, the user is supposed to be simulated a long way through a house with many rooms, while in reality he hardly moves at all due to lack of space. On the other hand, it was necessary to get a grip on the aforementioned motion sickness.
First contact with the start-up service of the University of Hamburg
In the early summer of 2018, Eike visited the University of Hamburg's start-up service for the first time in order to obtain an assessment of his doctoral thesis with regard to a start-up idea and to find out about potential funding measures. The consultants found the topic of his doctoral thesis extremely exciting and promising for EXIST funding. However, Eike did not have a suitable team at that time, the business model still had to be concretized and, in addition, he still wanted to complete his doctoral thesis. So there was still a lot to do. Meanwhile, the start-up consultant Dr. Andrea Otto kept in touch to keep him informed and motivated. In March 2019 Eike finally decided to submit an EXIST application with Prof. Steinicke from the University of Hamburg as mentor. But not alone: With Dennis Briddigkeit, he meanwhile gained a partner with the necessary business and marketing background. Hannah Paulmann also joined the company as art director, computer game developer and thus the third co-founder.
EXIST application with beyourpilot
The University's start-up service as well as the beyourpilot start-up consultants Dr. Andrea Otto and Dr. Bettina Otto supported the design of the EXIST application in spring 2019. "The focus was on convincingly presenting the areas of 'innovation', 'market & economic prospects for success' and 'team'," reports Dr. Andrea Otto. "We always consult with them, read things through again and then give feedback," adds Dr. Bettina Otto. The application was successful, also thanks to the intensive cooperation between beyourpilot and the University of Hamburg's start-up service. Here Nadine Weitendorf provided support with the submission of applications and administrative support for the projects. Since the start of the EXIST project, the founding team has regularly exchanged information with Dr. Bettina Otto and Nadine Weitendorf about the progress. Space Walk is currently working intensively on an executable prototype: The University of Hamburg has provided them with the appropriate premises and the necessary infrastructure at the Informatikum in Stellingen as part of EXIST. In addition, Space Walk completed the incubator programme MEDIA LIFT from nextMedia.Hamburg in October 2019 and subsequently won the nextReality.Contest in the "Best Innovation" category.
The newly founded "Curvature Games GmbH" receives InnoRampUp funding
Finally, the capital company "Curvature Games GmbH" was founded. Since August 2020, the trio has received InnoRampUp funding from IFBInnovationsstarter for this. The programme supports in particular technologically highly innovative start-ups in Hamburg with a grant of up to 150,000 euros, in order to strengthen the local start-up scene and contribute to the development of promising companies. Since the start of InnoRampUp, more than 100 projects have already been supported in this way.
The start-up company applied with a project to develop an LBE platform: This is a complete package of hardware and software, which is aimed at event locations that want to expand their range of services to include VR. "We are now developing the platform from August (2020) until the end of next year with the funding. This support means a lot to us, as it secures us 2021 and thus a direct connection to our EXIST grant. It means we can continue and it is also confirmation that we are not completely on the wrong track with our idea - the renewed support from the versatile Awards Committee is a strong motivation," says Dennis with relief.
The funding will be used to finance the startup proportionally to the founders' salaries so that the project can be continued. In addition, it is now also possible to pay for any additional personnel required. However, a lot of money is invested in product development. Now the team has a lot to do: "The entire funding project is measured by milestones, so we're not resting on our laurels, but quite the opposite: roll up our sleeves and get going," explains Dennis with motivation. The release of an own VR game is planned towards the end of 2021. So the idea got rolling.
The goal: "Redirected Walking" without "Motion Sickness"
This idea also takes up the majority of the office space in Stellingen. On the floor, carefully marked, there is a four by four metre square. This is the place that signifies the (virtual) world: the start-up has developed a prototype in which the user moves within these 16 square meters, while walking through a virtual world that measures 42 square meters. To do this, they superimpose the images of the virtual space, slightly rotated. So when the user moves in the virtual space, he unconsciously runs slight curves in reality. This discreet manipulation is called "Redirected Walking" and makes more effective use of the available space without conveying the feeling of "motion sickness". In addition, further possibilities are being tinkered with to be able to influence virtual perception accordingly.
Those interested in these techniques are, on the one hand, private individuals, who usually have only a very limited area available for VR. On the other hand, the invention is aimed at operators of large arcades for VR gaming and VR escape rooms. Their operators want to make optimum use of their space in order to have room for as many customers as possible. "In principle, the idea can be applied to all industries that use VR technology in which virtual paths are covered," explains Eike.
The prototype is 90 percent complete, but test operation is of course difficult in times of pandemic: "We had several partners for this, but they have unfortunately closed down due to the current corona situation and it is not yet certain when they will be allowed to reopen," says Dennis, describing the problem. At the moment, the start-up is working on a concept to implement so-called "playtesting" in compliance with hygiene regulations.
The international industry interest in the start-up is great: In addition to the USA and Japan, the University of Hamburg's Computer Science Department is currently one of the global pioneers. "In the field of VR gaming, East Asia is world leader, whereas Hamburg is top in research. Even from Japan, interested parties have already travelled to Hamburg to get up to speed," emphasises Dennis. When it comes to VR, the trio is focusing exclusively on the games industry for the first time: here the three passionate gamers see not only their core competence, but also the greatest economic potential.