VR-EP – from high-tech idea to dementia innovation

Award-winning Galashiels company Virtual Reality Empathy Platform (VR-EP) makes ground-breaking technology that recreates the sensory impact of dementia. With VR headsets and virtual 3D simulations, they help architects, care workers and families to experience how living spaces can feel to dementia sufferers, to increase their understanding of the illness’ effect on people’s daily lives.

VR-EP was founded by architect David Burgher, a former director at well-known Borders company Aitken Turnbull, who left the firm to focus on developing his innovation. As a specialist in the design of age care facilities, David has worked with expert partners including Stirling University and Age Concern Scotland to realise a product that recently picked up a a Silver Award in the Technology and Innovation category at the prestigious Franco-British Trade & Investment Awards. A tremendous achievement for a company whose founder only went full-time during lockdown!

Breaking in with a new product

Recognising a massive new market and breaking into it comes with immense challenges, and David says timely support and expertise from South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) was crucial to their success. “Patenting and trademark protection are a minefield. You just wouldn't know who to speak to initially. South of Scotland Enterprise gave us some very good guidance. I wouldn't have known where to start on that path, or what to expect in terms of timescale and cost. We couldn’t have done it without SOSE.”

SOSE has also helped with the ongoing patenting in the EU and US and the purchase of additional Oculus headsets. David also attended marketing workshops, which were really good.”

David first got the idea by joining the dots from his work and research with partners, including the Iris Murdoch Centre at Stirling University. “There were a lot of product manufacturers who made claims to being dementia-friendly, but when asked the question, ‘How would you know?’ didn’t have an answer. We had access to world-class researchers and the best available guidance hadn’t changed for years. From a designer's point of view, you reached from a folder off the shelf, which said the toilet seats had to be red, and doors had to be a certain colour. We wondered if there was a way to embrace technology, and I came across an app called Be My Eyes which had really high-end 3D visualisations and walk-throughs of buildings. It struck me that we were having to do this anyway, through BIM (Building Information Modelling), but we weren’t really marrying the two together.”

The importance of partnerships

Fast forward and the company designed a virtual immersive environment where filters can be switched on and off to show, for example, the experience of dealing with the aged eye, and hearing impairment. “Dementia can have many different impacts. Your ability to distinguish colours can become impaired, and there can also be a vignette effect which is compounded by the fact that people tend to stoop due to muscle changes. The headset is kind of gyroscopic, so as you move your head about, the filter alters and skews what you see.”

The academic expertise coupled with VR recreation gives users a tangible experience that can help to improve design choices in surprising ways. “We can demonstrate all sorts of things. For example, you might see a threshold as a step, which might cause people to lift their leg and fall. Or some products showed as being wet, and so became a bit of a slip hazard. We’re able to make this visible. There’s no question that once they try the headset and have a face-to-face experience, there’s a real ‘wow’ moment.”

VR-EP are now partnering French multinational flooring manufacturers Tarkett, who have also invested and are helping support further product development. “They’ve redesigned a lot of their products. They worked within the space that we created for them, tested their materials, and then altered them.”

Future horizons and applications

VR-EP are meanwhile looking at working with other products and manufacturers in bathrooms, wall coverings, furnishings. They’re also partnering Age Scotland, who have been awarded the national contract to deliver dementia awareness in Scotland. VR-EP is working with them to provide an immersive and memorable experience for awareness-raising workshops.

Advice for South of Scotland entrepreneurs and inventors

What’s David’s advice to other companies in the South of Scotland with a high-tech innovation?

“We started from very humble beginnings, but with a very big picture in mind. ‘Start small, think big, and grow fast’ is really where we were trying to get to, because it’s a very fast-moving marketplace. And there are lots of new people coming in on the scene. But we have a truly unique product. And we're looking to roll it out as far afield as we can.”

SOSE Chief Executive, Jane Morrison-Ross, says: “VR-EP is a fantastic example of the brilliantly innovative organisations we have right here in the South of Scotland. We’re keen to hear from any other innovative organisations throughout the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, to look at how we can help and support them. While we can offer financial support to organisations, crucially, we can also provide expert advice, contacts and guidance to help them get to where they need to go.”