John O’Hare is the research facilities manager and technical director of Octave, the University of Salford’s virtual reality environment in the School of Computing, Science and Engineering. He’s also four years into a PhD in telepresence, which he’s due to complete in 2016.
John is an alumnus of the university, graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1996. After a sandwich year in Electronic Development, he went on to set up the network for the National Centre for Virtual Environments, while at the same time completing a Masters in Virtual Reality. John has been at the forefront of the university’s research in virtual reality environments ever since.
"The university has been heavily involved in virtual reality right from the very beginning of the research into it in this country", he says. "We were home to the National Industrial Centre for Virtual Environments, and because I was doing my Masters in the subject I was able to get a job at the centre."
"I oversaw the installation and integration of the virtual reality display systems and the workbench system. There was a lot of new technolog and it was all very exciting. We had a room full of super computers, and I oversaw the installation of it all."
Being in the midst of the emerging technology, John was ideally placed to author a paper on virtual reality, and has since authored or co-authored a further six papers on the topic. Over the last two decades, his academic studies and research have complemented and benefited each other; John has secured funding for roles that enabled him to investigate the benefits of virtual reality for SMEs in the north west of England. His work has included creating visualisations of everything from small products to jet engines and full towns, for clients all over the world.
His work at the university is twofold: the Octave is available as both an academic resource for students, and a commercial facility for external organisations to conduct their own research into everything from developing medical techniques to testing the acoustics of a new car.
"I support others in their research by involving the Octave system", he explains. "The Octave is an eight-sided fully-immersive, multi-sensory virtual reality environment, in which we can create holographic rendering of vision, sound and touch."
Put simply, the Octave allows you to see, feel and hear things that aren't there, from people to cars or the surface of Mars.
"It's useful for everyone, and can be bolted on to any research project or bid", John continues. "We can visually represent big data, create medical equipment before it’s been built, and simulate acoustics for the built environment and architecture. It’s an incredibly valuable asset for the university – it enables research and supports bids."
The Octave isn't reserved for high level postgraduate projects or external organisations. John works with a range of people, from academics to PhD students or groups of undergraduate in projects such as developing games software.
"They have the ideas, and it's my role to help them to implement within the Octave space", he says. "It's a very technical process and different every time: say a biologist wants to use it for representing a biological process, I'd have to do a lot of modelling, whereas supporting an acoustician would be a totally different job as I’d just have to do the graphics. When it comes to writing papers, I'd be providing the words and background for the Octave element of the research."
John is also closely involved with the Institute for Dementia, which is conducting ground-breaking research into treatment of the disease.
"We're looking at how creating a virtual environment of a familiar space could help dementia patients to feel more comfortable and aid memory recall. Obviously you wouldn't bring people with dementia to the Octave, but we're laying the groundwork for ubiquitous displays: in 30 or 40 years from now, they could be in environments where the walls will display scenes that are familiar to them while they’re under a care regime. A huge amount more research is needed, but we’re leading the way."
The university has always been at the forefront of groundbreaking research into virtual reality, and John has been there throughout.
"It's definitely something we've led on", he agrees. "The combination that we've got of acoustics, scale and vision, psychology, and rendering technology is probably about as good as it gets, and it’s a combination we've worked very hard on."
With a huge number of world-leading research projects in the pipeline, John has no intentions of moving on from the university any time soon.
"I'm consumed by my work, I enjoy it, and if you enjoy your work you put a lot of time into it", he says. "I can never see a time when I might move on. I’m working on one of the top systems in the world, and this area is moving ahead so rapidly. Facebook’s got Occulus Rift, Sony has Morpheus and Google is working on something called Magic Leap. It’s becoming mainstream, and the university is at the centre of it all."