VIARAMA, Scotland’s first virtual reality company, was set up five years ago to improve the lives of young people and those with dementia. Billy Agnew is currently rolling the service out in England and hopes to eventually go international.
Name: Billy Agnew
Position: Chief executive
WHAT’S THE BUSINESS CALLED?
WHERE IT IS BASED?
East Linton in East Lothian
WHY DID YOU SET UP THE BUSINESS?
I’VE long had an interest in virtual reality, having tried an early system when I was 16 years old. It captured my imagination but that lay dormant until the tech resurfaced around 2015. I got access to an early build of a new, amazing headset, and allowed a group of senior citizens with dementia I worked with previously to try it.
The results were deeply moving and I didn’t expect this response. At that point the harebrained idea to create the world’s first VR social enterprise was born.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and do like a challenge. Before Viarama I was a project manager and the skills and experience I gained doing that job have stood me in good stead.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
VIARAMA uses VR to help three groups mainly: schoolchildren, senior citizens, and 18 to 24 year olds. We train and employ the latter group to take VR into schools, nursing homes, hospices, respite centres, and hospitals. We also create VR experiences for a variety of clients.
We work across healthcare and education, and despite being a wee Scottish social enterprise our work is world-leading, being the first organisation to take VR into many of the places above. Usually an organisation will ask us to come in as a one-off firstly, or on a rolling basis, and they pay for our services. We also do a lot of pro-bono work, and all of our work in hospitals to date has been on that basis, usually after a family member reaches out. We recently let a huge motorbike fan in the last days of his life see his beloved Bealach na Ba on the back of a motorbike one last time, for example.
WHAT IS YOUR TARGET MARKET?
WE use VR to improve quality of life among our three target groups, and we do this in a number of different ways. In a hospice for example, we often allow people to travel in VR.
Imagine if you were in the last weeks of your life and you were unexpectedly offered the opportunity to revisit places around the world that hold real significance in your life. It’s often hugely emotional, and there are many other benefits, such as reduced perception of pain, improved mood, and openness. We’ve made many emotionally cathartic experiences possible for people.
In our work with disabled children and adults we allow people to see and do things that were previously impossible. We’ve enabled kids to see the view from a space station, and float weightlessly around using only their hands.
We’ve had people now unable to travel see the view from their favourite beach one more time. The best feedback we ever received was from a man who said, for a short time, we made him forget he was in a wheelchair.
HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM COMPETING BUSINESSES?
WE largely created the sector we work in, and as such we’re the only company in Scotland, and one of a very few around the world that does what we do.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN RUNNING THE BUSINESS?
THERE are a great many challenges, especially at the moment! As what we do is so new, it takes people a while to get their head around it. Once they do however, we have another advocate, and at certain points over the last few years it’s been the goodwill that we receive that’s kept us going.
WHERE DO YOU HOPE THE BUSINESS WILL BE IN 10 YEARS?
WE are about to deliver our first sessions in England, and would like to make our service available outside of the UK soon. We receive a lot of enquiries from the US in particular, but also from other parts of the world so we’re keen to expand internationally.
In 10 years I’d like us to be working in every school, nursing home, hospice, respite centre and hospital in Scotland, and I’d also like us to be using VR to help people all around the world.
Source: The National