The Power of Virtual Reality: An Interview with Viarama Founder Billy Agnew

As the world’s first virtual reality social enterprise, East Lothian-based Viarama is opening up a whole new world to people of all ages.

“I was deeply moved by the many messages of support we received from all around the world,” says Billy Agnew, founder of Viarama. “It appears that people believe in what we do and why we do it, and coming as it did at the lowest point for us, it was even more valuable.”

In February this year, Viarama was dealt a hammer blow. During the night, the East Lothian-based virtual reality (VR) social enterprise had been robbed and the culprits made off with VR equipment worth around £20,000.

The thieves stole headsets and computers which had enabled the firm to offer VR experiences to schoolchildren, the elderly and terminally ill people across the Lothian region – even a hospice collection tin was taken in the raid.

As a result of the theft, Viarama was forced to temporarily put its work on hold; cancelling visits to Granton Primary School and St Columba’s Hospice. Its work with the latter has proved an invaluable tool for bringing joy to people who may find little when battling a terminal illness.

In the days and weeks to come, an outpouring of support for Viarama followed. People from the local community in East Linton and from further afield, from all walks of life and from many industry sectors donated to a crowdfunding campaign launched by a local resident, Helena Johnson.

This crowdfunding campaign was crucial for Viarama, says Agnew, and, within a few hours raised more than £1,000. To date, the crowdfunding campaign launched by Johnson has raised in excess of £3,000.

“We learned quickly that Helena Johnson, a member of our local community, had set up a crowdfunding page for us to help get going again, and this, as well as the kindness we received in the form of donations from our community near and far, was overwhelming for me personally and professionally,” he adds.

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Getting the company back on its feet has been a difficult task, Agnew insists. Financially, keeping the company going was already a significant challenge. However, as he points out: “It’s always a challenge doing something new, especially if, like us, you don’t receive any funding.”

The support Viarama received appears to have emboldened Agnew and the team. He plans to continue expanding its client base in all sectors and the company is now working in partnership with several organisations.

“We’re looking to expand in the near future and have highly ambitious plans,” Agnew says. “VR will eventually be in every school, nursing home, hospice and respite centre in the country and we want to train and employ more young people to provide that service for them.”

The more institutions that Viarama can engage and work with, he explains, will inevitably lead to a greater appreciation of the benefits of VR for a range of purposes; further expanding the number of people trained and employed a field that is raising eyebrows globally.

The applications of virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) in education and healthcare are tantalising. Last year, VR pilot schemes in the US played a crucial role in the treatment of veterans and emergency service personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Closer to home, schools across the country are beginning to embrace VR tech as an important tool in education; the immersive, interactive nature of the technology is proving to be a hit with schoolchildren who, unlike generations before them, have technologies such as this deeply-woven into the very fabric of their daily lives.

In the midst of an era dominated by technology, one in which the skills of future generations are hotly debated, the use of VR could prove to be a game-changer for education practitioners across the country.

“There’s no better way to encourage pupils’ interest in STEM subjects than for them to experience the very best technology available to them,” Agnew asserts. “We often work in schools in deprived areas and the work we do there has many benefits for pupils, aside from increasing interest in STEM subjects.”

For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, VR could also become an important piece of equipment in an educator’s toolkit; piquing their curiosity and opening them up to the possibilities of a career in a host of industries.

“We want the kids in those schools to aim high with their career choices and, to date, we’ve encouraged pupils to be interested in becoming doctors, pilots, engineers, coders, programmers, entrepreneurs and many other occupations,” Agnew explains.

Working with St Columba’s Hospice, Viarama has also helped enrich the lives of people later on in their life journey. The Edinburgh hospice was the first palliative care facility in Scotland to offer its patients the opportunity to experience travel through VR.

Six of the patients at the hospice were able to visit exotic, far-flung locations or to revisit some of their favourite destinations and rekindle fond memories. One man even opted to fulfil his life-long dream of visiting Jerusalem; exploring the vibrant culture and historic streets of the ancient city.

Agnew admits that Viarama’s work with hospice patients is often an emotional experience and showcases the power of this immersive technology.

“Our work with hospices and, in particular, the wonderful St Columba’s Hospice, is something we are very proud of,” he says. “Virtual reality in this setting is, for many people, a hugely emotional experience. We’ve had many sessions that have been particularly memorable, where people have gone back to somewhere that, given their situation, they thought they would never see again.

“Childhood homes or school, honeymoon or cherished holidays, places where they did their national service, where they proposed or were proposed to are just some of the many places we’ve taken people to in our sessions.”

Whatever the future holds for Agnew and Viarama, one thing is for certain; the desire and motivation to continue inspiring people and engaging them with technology is, in part, brought about by the inspirational support the company has received.

“The support we received [following the break-in] meant that we just couldn’t stop, even if we wanted to. Which we don’t!”



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