Aussie Visualisation startups
We've already discussed how visualisation can bring many business processes to another level, but perhaps the best part of this new trend is the sheer number of Australian companies developing some seriously exciting technology.
Visualisation in business might still be nascent, but as smaller, more agile companies begin offering visualisation as a standard for user interaction, the future looks very bright.
Let's take a look at a handful of young Australian companies with their sights set on a more visual future for business.
Start VR was conceived a year ago with the intention of commercialising virtual reality production and workflow. Its founder Kain Tietzel believes VR is a tool of incredible disruption and sees an overwhelming need for specialised expertise in creating immersive experiences that are backed up with quantifiable ROI.
Property developers and architects have been using 3D visualisation tools for a number of years to bring building designs to life so stakeholders can experience the spaces before committing to construction.
This technology is now becoming available to the broader market, and like we saw with the proliferation of digital cameras, new industries will emerge around the technology and new revenue models will be created, according to Tietzel.
"Our Real VR platform is enabling property developers to bring high-end visualisation tools to the consumer, giving them the unique opportunity to see and experience a property before it's even built," he says. "Visualisation [can] reduce marketing costs, increase returns and to provide a compelling experience for potential buyers."
Being able to "live in" an apartment increases sales speed and reduces the fear of buying off the plan. Visualisation is set to disrupt how property is sold as it reduces the need for expensive display suites, provides a more effective sales tool that brings the property to the buyer, which, in turn, reduces the environmental impact of travel.
Tietzel says the scope for exporting visualisation tools and expertise from Australia is enormous and startups in the space are driven to innovate. He sees a broad future for visualisation in business, including HR using the technology to on-board new employees, immersive safety training to dramatically increase learning and retention.
Company name: Start VR
Founder: Kain Tietzel
Visualisation technology: Virtual property sales platform
Main use cases: Real estate visualisation
With a background in visual effects via its work in media and entertainment on films like Happy Feet 2, Harry Potter and Australia, the founders of EngineRoom.io were well experienced in the pipelines and toolsets required to facilitate engaging, digital story telling when Stefan Gillard started the company four years ago.
When it started, the primary focus was on high performance computing and its applications in biomedical, media and entertainment and financial services industries.
"Data needs to be seen in four dimensions, not two. As the market matures and our experimentation makes it into the mainstream we will see a move away from this traditional 2D version of data visualisation and see more interactive, immersive data environments," Gillard says.
"I think there is a current perception by corporates that 'software vendor X' has the only visualisation tool that is appropriate as it's an interactive version of Excel."
EngineRoom.io is working with Xsens motion capture, Oculus Rift VR technology, Unity, Unreal Engine and soon Perception Neuron – a new motion capture technology that can use human body kinetics to navigate and interact with digital environments.
"We have used this tech for navigating complex datasets and schema as an intuitive and novel way for looking for visual clues and connections from disparate data stores and streams," Gillard says. "When coupled with databases and other big data tools, these experimental approaches are a novel way of interacting with live data in a haptic sense."
According to Gillard, Australians have a strong pedigree of storytelling and visualisation is digital storytelling. "Visualisation is all about excellent design, storytelling and user experience. These three things are driving growth in the market as digital natives have made visualisation their vernacular. It's a non-negotiable in everything we consume in a digital context," he says.
Gillard sees the Internet of Things (IoT) as a new frontier for visualisation in business as its implications, adoption and exploitation are all reliant on a simple premise – the capacity to stream analyse, clean and transform a multitude of inputs from both the physical and digital world, and to be able to "mash" them into context and insight.
Company name: EngineRoom.io
Founder: Stefan Gillard
Visualisation technology: Combining visual effects and motion graphics with advanced analytic data pipelines
Use cases: GeoSpatial, economic and research modelling
Nearmap is a geospatial mapping and visual analytics company that captures high resolution and up-to-date aerial imagery.
Nearmap superimposes data on aerial imagery to provide added insights. For example, it can be used for shadow analysis, flood analysis and all types of census information on statistics such as household incomes and composition.
It can also be used to visualise potential consequences of natural disasters, or calculate how much a household can save on energy bills if it installs solar panels. James Rabey, VP of marketing at nearmap, says those championing visualisation still tend to be data scientists, analysts and other specialists, but we're not seeing enough from business units themselves.
"This is a lost opportunity for businesses to gain additional insights that can only be derived through visualising data in other ways, such as spatially," Rabey says.
Nearmap started out a few years ago in a Perth living room, where aerial photographs of large areas were a system for quickly processing and publishing photomaps was developed.
Today it has grown to more than 100 employees and has recently expanded into the US. The technology allows frequent photography of most of Australia's urban areas, providing a high level of clarity.
The resulting photomaps can then be analysed with rich data set overlays revealing information about a location that can't be seen with the naked eye like population, susceptibility to flooding, current noise levels or public transport systems.
For example, solar panel installers are able to remotely find new opportunities and create estimates and urban planners and developers can go from early stage planning, right through to construction and ongoing asset management without leaving the office.
Rabey says nearmap's successful expansion into the US highlights how Australian visualisation technology can be exported to the largest markets.
Company name: nearmap Australia Pty Ltd
CEO: Rob Newman
Visualisation technology: Orthorectified aerial photo mapping
Use cases: Remote site monitoring, site planning and compliance
OOm Creative in Melbourne started with vision to combine spatial design, data and technology, and foresight that data into becoming a communication channel.
"We've developed a range of government interfaces and systems, and easy to deploy installation and exhibition technology," Founder Greg More says. "There's definitely growing adoption of data visualisation techniques within business and an understanding of the value it brings."
OOM Creative delivered a project for the City of Melbourne to digitally visualise 70,000 city trees.
How will new augmented and virtual reality, including wearable technology, change the visualisation landscape? More believes it is all part of the ever-changing digital landscape.
"Data visualisation will always evolve to new platforms and needs – its efficiency has been transformed by moving from paper and pen to code and opened up new opportunities through interactivity. And no doubt we will see it integrated as part of business strategies to let people get data to where and how they want it – be it augmented, virtual, on, or near the body."
Company name: OOm Creative
Founder: Greg More
Visualisation technology: Data visualisation services and software
Use cases: Government, other industries
When Frank van Cappelle needed to give a conference presentation and wanted to present data in a unique and captivating way he created StatSilk for data visualisation. van Cappelle was also inspired by research he had done in India where the power of visual interfaces allowed illiterate children in remote areas to effortlessly use a computer with no one to teach them.
"I had that in mind when I tried to create a user-friendly visualization tool. The prototype of what became StatPlanet was developed back in 2007," he says. "I had never seen another interactive mapping or visualization product before, and weren't many at the time, at least not Web-based."
StatPlanet was developed further at UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning and, while designed as a generic product which could automatically visualise large amounts of data, van Cappelle initially had in mind UN and government agencies, which need to disseminate large amounts of data to the public, researchers and policy makers.
StatSilk now counts dozens of government agencies as clients, including around 20 UN agencies, the World Bank, the OECD and the European Commission and it took off after winning the World Bank's Apps for Development competition. A new mobile-friendly HTML5 version will soon be released.
"A unique feature of the software is that you can visualize an entire database without needing to do any customisation," van Cappelle says.
Within Australia, StatSilk's focus has been on real estate, government and research. "When it comes to government and research, I have not seen much evidence of Australia pushing the limits of visualisation technology," he says.
"The website myschool.edu.au makes good use of visualisation, but in general government Web sites in Australia still disseminate data the old-fashioned way – via spreadsheets. The purpose of visualisation is to discover the sparks of insight in clouds of data."
After purchasing the Oculus development kit about a year ago, van Cappelle felt: "This is it – this is the future of data visualisation!"
"I particularly see the enormous potential for educational purposes. My specific interest is in the intersection between data visualisation, education and storytelling. One of the biggest problems right now both for businesses and in the research and public sectors is that we are swamped with data, and our ability to interpret data is limited," he says.
"You still need to be able to interpret the visualisations [and] I think this is where VR can and should play a role – to use all that virtual space to guide through the visualisations, to tell stories with data in ways no one has dreamed of, and to teach about the data."
Company name: StatSilk
Founder: Frank van Cappelle
Visualisation technology: Insightful and interactive data exploration
Use cases: Government, non-profit, corporate
Australian businesses need to go beyond the notion that visualisation is simply about the beautification of data and add meaningful interactions and utility to help solve specific problems efficiently, according to the founders of Small Multiples.
"Visualisation should be seen as a medium that is ubiquitous rather than the end product. At the moment organisations treat data visualisation as the 'hot new thing' rather than a well thought through and integral part of day-to-day processes of an organisation," says Jack Zhao.
Born out of Sydney University at the turn of the decade, Small Multiples' first project was a data journalism pilot for the ABC in 2011. Since then it has developed a Web-based data visualisation platform that enables organisations to 'create once, publish everywhere' and is now working with technology partners on a visualisation product for linked data, allowing people to find connections and insights from multiple datasets with a unified interface.
Zhao says Australia's advantage is we are bringing together experts from different fields instead of trying to be 'one-stop-shops' for visualisation.
Wearables are on the radar and Small Multiples recently worked on a project that analysed biometric data collected from smart wristbands of attendees at a major sporting event to capture and visualise the emotion of the event.
"The benefit to organisations is that there's a new medium to engage with audiences in innovative ways, for example, stepping through a 3D data field of previous visitors to a museum," Zhao says.
Company name: Small Multiples Pty Ltd
Founders: Andrea Lau and Jack Zhao
Visualisation technology: Web applications, mapping, linked data
Use cases: Infrastructure mapping, journalism and communications, decision making
When NICTA (now Data61), developers of the NationalMap service, realised the underlying 2D/3D geospatial visualisation software would be useful for other applications they made the core front-end visualisation software available as open source software on GitHub. As a result, Terria was born.
Its namesake code library, TerriaJS, is now used for developing custom mapping systems for government and commercial customers. Terria has built a spatial predictive analytics engine based on a specially developed spatial machine learning stack with novel analytics techniques.
This engine can be used with TerriaJS-based maps to provide features such as "spatial detailing" to predict data (such as unemployment or crime) for regions for which the data is not available and then visualise this on an online map.
This can be used for government policy development, demand prediction for products for different regions and a vast number of other spatial applications.
Company name: Terria Pty Ltd
Founders: Peter Leihn, Bill Simpson-Young, Kevin Ring, Lachlan McCalman and others
Visualisation technology: Federated spatial data exploration and analytics
Use cases: Policy development, demand prediction, infrastructure planning
Another gem which was influenced by the visual effects industry is Doarama. The brainchild of Chris Cooper at NICTA, now Data61, Doarama is an online 3D visualisation engine for geo-located activities.
Cooper says there is a lot of advanced visualisation expertise in Australia with our long history of Australian companies doing visual effects and he is a winner of a Scientific and Technical Oscar for work on visual compositing while at Animal Logic.
While working on Web-based 3D visualisation technology for underground geology for geothermal energy exploration Cooper had the idea to use the technology to take a GPS track from cycle rides, together with online terrain data and online satellite imagery, and generate an immersive 3D visualisation of the journey.
Doarama is now being used by sports people around the world for visualising their sports activities including paragliding, hiking and sailing. It is also now used by many drone operators for visualising drone journeys.
Doarama has support for Oculus and for WebVR. People with VR headsets can go to doarama.com and view a Doarama visualisation of other people's sporting activities as a totally immersive experience.
This includes reliving paragliding trips over the Swiss Alps, Red Bull X-alps extreme sports events. An interesting application is using the technology to view bird tracks (uploaded by people after they have put trackers on birds) and, with a VR headset, relive the bird's flight.
Company name: Doarama
Founders: Chris Cooper, Bill Simpson-Young, Craig Sketchley
Visualisation technology: 3D visualisation engine for geo-located activities
Main use cases: Sport and drone journey visualisation
A fresh and young visualisation gem is Scann3d, which started in mid-2014 as a result of frustration with the current "very broken" open for inspection system for properties.
The old system had people visiting 10-plus properties every week, only to find out that 80 per cent of them weren't suitable, Scann3d founder Trent Clews-de Castella says.
His interest in 3D technology led him to start a 3D printing consultancy in Melbourne, quickly finding a pain point for people who were unable to use CAD to create 3D content.
The wide range of commercial application and potential for 3D scanning was then realised. Scann3d develops software for 3D content and its first big project was creating a stand-alone app that compressed and optimised 3D models to run efficiently through any smart phone device.
Now the company builds tools that create automated videos from any 3D model allowing real estate agents to create simple videos to market their properties. The technology can also automate the floor plan process to provide traditional floor plans with measurements.
"We have recently been developing applications for augmented reality devices that allows six axis motion detection," Clews-de Castella says.
"This enables a user to experience a location in the same way they would if they were physically there. Visualisation, in one form or another, has been around for decades. However, increased accessibility via smart devices now allows for new exciting possibilities previously not available to the general public. Creating content for VR and AR, the visualisation industry is still in its infancy, however as the technology rapidly improves, it has reduced barriers of entry and allowed for a wider reach within Australian businesses."
According to Clews-de Castella, the biggest key to making visualisation ubiquitous is educating the public in regards to how it works and what the applications are.
"Outside of the USA, Australia is leading the way for utilising 3D technology in various industries," he says.
"There is a small visualisation community here in Australia, but a lot of interest surrounding this technology. The biggest the hurdle to overcome is the limited infrastructure that we have access to here which would be necessary to foster rapid adoption of 3D technology. We look forward to a future where the VR and AR content we create can be easily accessed by everyone at the touch of a button."
Company name: Scann3d
Founder: Trent Clews-de Castella
Visualisation technology: Engaging and immersive 3D content
Use cases: Real estate, heritage and preservation, 360 media