Virtual forklifts offer a way out of the lack of showroom models

Andy Van den Broeck started in the 2000s with a communications agency before becoming a specialist in virtual and augmented reality. His company RealityMatters now operates in Los Angeles. ‘In the metaverse you need a plan of action.’

With ‘immersive media’, people often think of virtual reality, which completely immerses the user in a digital environment with a headset. But CEO Andy Van den Broeck of RealityMatters in Mechelen has a much broader view of this. ‘It certainly also includes augmented reality, where the user looks at reality with a smartphone or tablet. And virtual environments that you simply visit on a computer.’



Regardless of the technology you use, you will eventually want to visualize data, preferably in a more interesting way than with a lot of paper.

Andy Van den Broeck

Founder and CEO of RealityMatters

Van den Broeck started a communications and marketing company, UCAN, in 2007 with a fascination for technology. ‘Whatever technology you use, you end up visualizing data, preferably in a more interesting way than with a lot of paper.’ bvba UCAN got an extra leg, RealityMatters, aimed at virtual and augmented reality and virtual environments.

Late last year, the word ‘metaverse’ suddenly became commonplace after Meta Platform’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg detailed his company’s new strategy. This focuses on a future where we do all kinds of activities in digital environments.

UCAN and reality matter

The company UCAN started in 2007 as a communications agency. It now has 18 employees in Mechelen. bvba UCAN includes UCAN but also RealityMatters Europe, which focuses on virtual and augmented reality and on virtual environments. The turnover of the Belgian activities amounts to 1.4 million euros, 40 percent still consists of communication services.

Van den Broeck is now expanding the activities with RealityMatters Inc in Los Angeles. The intention is to have around 18 employees there within a few years.

Not that Van den Broeck waited for Zuckerberg’s announcement. “Just before the pandemic, we were already in the process of creating a metaverse platform,” he says. He had looked at existing platforms with his employees, but was still hungry. ‘Either it was very functional but didn’t look good, or it was very visual but with limited functionality. I also can’t sell it to business customers to make something in Roblox or Decentraland, which looks too much like Minecraft’s blocky world. So we decided to make our own platform.’ This platform enables virtual environments that are interactive, make use of avatars, and where video calls are also possible. The environments are tailored to the customer.

The good relations with Toyota Material Handling Europe played a big role. This company, which has a sales and marketing department in Willebroek, has been a communication services customer since 2007. It provides all kinds of logistics solutions for internal transport.

T-City

The RealityMatters platform is called T-City at Toyota Material Handling. It is used for sales training and events. ‘With the pandemic, there were no more fairs. We had to use other means to reach customers, says operational marketing manager Sophie Meuwissen of Toyota Material Handling Europe. “Now that the shutdown is over, there are supply chain issues.” This means that the sellers cannot always physically show means of transport such as forklifts.

Customers can now assemble their own forklift online and view the unit with an augmented reality app adapted to their physical reality. They can even visualize the turning circle with it, with a smartphone or tablet and drive around the virtual world of T-City.



It is better to start small and immediately aim for good quality.

Sophie Meuwissen

Operational Marketing Manager at Toyota Material Handling Europe

Future forklift drivers can train with the virtual vehicles, this time with virtual reality headsets. ‘Such a simulation does not replace the trainers’, says Van den Broeck. ‘They can focus on individual points of improvement instead of always having to give the same explanation.’ The trucks can also be photographed in the virtual environment. ‘We no longer have to wait for the vehicle to be produced,’ says Meuwissen.

There is a lot to consider when using immersive media. ‘You need to collect and organize 3D files. You have to be careful with sensitive information in those files,’ says Meuwissen. ‘It is better to start small and immediately aim for good quality. Then you have to listen to your audience and learn from each experience.’

Strategy

‘A lot of companies are now saying: ‘Let’s do something and we’ll see,’ says Van den Broeck. “We need a strategy, an action plan. And internal communication. It aligns well with the expertise of our UCAN communications department.’ After pilot projects, it should be clear how different technologies reinforce each other. ‘It also makes a company more resilient if there is another pandemic or another disaster.’



A lot of companies are now saying: ‘Let’s do something and we’ll see.’

Meanwhile, projects have been done for Mitsubishi, Accenture, Engie, Proximus, Asus, but also for Thomas More University of Applied Sciences. ‘Most projects start with the communication and education departments,’ says the managing director. ‘At Thomas More, the students use a warehouse builder with which they build a warehouse in virtual reality, walk around it and then improve their construction.’

RealityMatters currently focuses on smartphones for augmented reality and regular displays. Working with headsets requires more user training and is more logistically challenging. ‘It depends on the customer. Thomas More is about a more controlled environment where it is easier to work with a VR headset.’

Los Angeles

A few years ago, Van den Broeck moved to a new office in Mechelen. “We were four then, now 18.” The Belgian revenue for UCAN and RealityMatters grew to around 1.4 million euros. This year, the company moved to Los Angeles and attracted clients such as Union Bank. It seems strange that a Mechelen, California company can compete with immersive media. ‘In Los Angeles, the competition works primarily for the entertainment industry. We focus on companies, industry and logistics’, says Van den Broeck. He expects to have about 18 employees in Los Angeles within a few years.

The essence

  • UCAN in Mechelen developed from a communications agency to a specialist in immersive media for businesses. That’s why RealityMatters was founded.
  • After Toyota Material Handling Europe, many other big names were brought in as customers.
  • When using ‘metaverse technology’ there must be a clear strategy and internal communication.
  • RealityMatters expands an American branch in Los Angeles, RealityMatters Inc.

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