Darcy Ryan and Liam Groves are two third-year Civil Engineering students at La Trobe University in Bendigo with a lot in common.
They both grew up in small towns – Kyabram (Darcy) and Tatura (Liam) – as part of farming families. They both have a self-admitted love of “pulling things apart”. They went to the same high school.
Finally, they are both part of the latest intake of the La Trobe Accelerator Program, a business incubator program that is providing them with $1500 non-equity seed funding to help accelerate commercialisation of their idea for DELVE, aka Driver Education and Learning in a Virtual Environment.
Replacing the Hazard Perception Test
“It’s a Virtual Reality hazard perception simulator that maps actual Victorian roads to provide excellent context for young learner-drivers and contribute to the overall improvement of road safety,” says Darcy when asked to describe the concept behind DELVE.
Liam points out that the current hazard perception test used by VicRoads as part of their driver license test lacks nuance. By requiring users to click a mouse in response to what they see on a computer screen, the test mainly measures whether a hazard is seen or not. In contrast, the DELVE system is intended to measure a range of reactions to driving hazards.
“In our simulation, for example,” says Liam, “you might accelerate up to 50kph, and then a car pulls out in front of you. Do you turn right or left? If you turn right and there’s a pedestrian there, do you turn into them or do you slam on the brakes?”
As well as being able to measure a wider range of possible responses to driving hazards, a VR simulation would allow DELVE to provide more familiar and realistic contexts for driving tests by modelling the simulated environment on local roads and local conditions.
Developing the concept
The original concept for DELVE came out of Ideas to Innovation, a second-year Engineering subject at La Trobe University. Ideas to Innovation is designed to help students develop “soft” skills like innovative thinking and public speaking, which many employers look for in graduates.
As part of Ideas to Innovation students were given a range of briefs to respond to, including ways to make better use of public land. Liam and Darcy decided to look at how to make roads safer.
“We initially thought about kangaroos,” says Darcy. “It turns out they make up less than 1 per cent of crashes. We did some more research and found one of the biggest problems is drivers themselves not being educated enough to perceive hazards.”
Once the problem was identified, virtual reality seemed a natural solution.
“We were after a way of improving the realism and the immersiveness of the system,” says Darcy. “VR was pretty much an obvious choice for us because how else can you mimic a real-life scenario safely?”
“We saw how the hazard perception test had been upgraded over the years,” continues Liam. “It’s gone from no test to paper-based to computer-based, which is what got now. We think VR is the next step. Research indicates that VR is better than what we’re currently doing.”
The two are now working with a Melbourne-based VR company to work out how to realise the technical side of the concept. They were introduced to the company’s co-founder, Venkatesh Alagarsamy, a fellow engineering graduate of La Trobe University, by their lecturer, Eddie Custovic, who developed and teaches the Ideas to Innovation subject.
Entering the Accelerator Program
Darcy and Liam are the first undergraduates to have been accepted into the La Trobe Accelerator Program since its commencement in 2016. At 21 years of age, they are also the youngest entrepreneurs to undertake the program.
After fine-tuning the DELVE concept within the Ideas to Innovation subject, and its complementary Business Enterprise subject, Darcy and Liam met with VicRoads to pitch the idea. While VicRoads did express an interest in the concept, they indicated that they would need to see a prototype before deciding whether to participate in further development.
The logical next step was to get involved in a business incubator program, and the La Trobe Accelerator Program was a natural fit. As part of their application for the program Liam and Darcy attended a two-week intensive boot camp that put their idea through its paces.
“The idea developed as much in those two weeks as it had in the entire time since we started,” says Darcy. “Even if we hadn’t progressed into the accelerator, just the primer would have been beneficial to the whole project.”
Acceptance into the La Trobe Accelerator Program comes with both financial and professional support to help take DELVE to the next stage. At the moment Darcy and Liam are considering whether to funnel that support into developing a short VR sample to demonstrate the capacity of the simulation, or to invest in a campaign that demonstrates the real demand for an updated hazard perception test.
“VicRoads liked the idea when we spoke to them,” says Darcy, “but they had trouble visualising how it would look, or how they could implement it. If we came back with a better way of explaining that side of things, it might be easier to proceed.”
While the original DELVE idea was purely aimed at VicRoads, Liam and Darcy are also exploring other commercial avenues for a VR driving simulation. Potential clients they may investigate include ambulance and fire-fighting services, insurance companies and direct end-users who could download a training app to their own device.
Finding a balance
As well as their work on DELVE, Darcy and Liam are also involved in another technology project, the Smart Rural City Community Hub, one of the Bendigo-based projects shortlisted for the Victorian Government’s Pick My Project competition.
This project would see a permanent community space set aside in La Trobe University’s new Engineering building, due for completion in 2019. This space would provide a community outreach program to allow access to and training in new and emerging technologies.
“Bendigo would be a perfect site for something like this,” Darcy says. “To have access to things like drones, 3D printers, to learn how to code or make virtual reality, using new tech that people may not otherwise have access to, would be amazing.”
Managing a third-year Engineering workload on top of outside work and sport commitments is daunting at the best of times. Throw the development of a new technology business and establishing a community tech hub into the mix and it might sound like you’re adding too much fuel to the fire. Darcy and Liam are philosophical about their work-life balance, however.
“It’s pretty full on,” Liam agrees, “but we make time every now and then when we can for the project.”
“It’s not a chore,” adds Darcy. “When it’s something you want to do it makes it easier. We’re trained to think outside the box and tackle problems methodically. The skills we’ve learned, the general engineering skills and our soft skills, are helping us get on with it.”
These two young entrepreneurs have known each other since Year Seven. This early friendship seems to have helped them stay calm in the face of the so many demands.
“We know each other’s work styles,” says Liam. “There are no real clashes. We can get down to business, but afterwards we have a few beers and muck around. I feel like if we weren’t such good friends, the idea wouldn’t have developed as far as it has.”
To find out more about studying Engineering at La Trobe University, visit https://www.latrobe.edu.au/engineering.