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Bit by Bit Space finds its VR niche

Originally posted by Martin Cash at the Winnipeg Free Press

Back when Facebook acquired the virtual-reality (VR) headset maker Oculus for US$2 billion in 2014, the buzz around VR was nearly deafening.

The hype has definitely died down — some say that deal was one of Facebook’s rare mistakes — but there is no denying the technology has some compelling features.

When Winnipegger Dan Blair graduated from Red River College, he wanted to build a virtual-reality-technology company. But the founder of Bit Space Development would not have predicted the niche in which he ended up finding his sweet spot.

This week, the independent Washington, D.C.-based business-to-business research company Clutch came out with its ranking of the top virtual-reality- and augmented-reality-development companies from around the world, and Bit Space Development is ranked No. 10.

Bit Space didn’t get such a prestigious ranking developing games or using otherworldly images. The company has become a rising star in the industrial training space.

“The dream was not initially about going out and creating educational experiences,” Blair said. “As I set out to build technology, I found out very quickly the niche that we excelled in was the trades, the construction and manufacturing industries. The technology we were creating solved a big problem, which was, ‘How do we train people in hazardous job sites without putting them in danger?’”

After moving into its own space this past summer (Bit Space had been using offices at North Forge Technology Exchange since it got started in 2015), the company now has a full-time staff of 15 and is big on collaborating with other shops in the city.

But with the willingness of organizations like the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association and SAFE Work Manitoba, Bit Space has now developed a reputation as one of the best technology providers for industrial-training solutions.

“Bit Space is a big name in the safety education field,” said Torin Proulx, the community liaison official with Safe Workers of Tomorrow, the marketing arm of SAFE Work Manitoba that promotes industrial trades to students and young people.

Bit Space, along with the Winnipeg marketing agency ChangeMakers, produced an award-winning promotional piece called Level Up, a virtual-reality training simulation that focuses on hazards in the workplace.

The effectiveness of doing injury prevention training with virtual-reality simulation — where there’s no risk of injury — became obvious pretty quickly.

“We wanted to use cool technology that would resonate with young people so we can sell the idea of something that is not normally very sexy, like workplace safety and health, using VR as the medium,” Proulx said.

Blair and Bit Space have been working with the Manitoba Heavy Construction Association for more than three years to produce several different training modules, some of which are now part of the certification curriculum for the Roadbuilders Safety Training System, which is part of the National Construction Safety Officer certification.

Jackie Jones, the education and training adviser for Manitoba Heavy Construction Association, said they were introduced to Blair not long after he started his company.

“We have grown with him,” Jones said. “With our lack of knowledge about that kind of technology, he was able to work with us. We had millions of meetings with him. He would be very patient with us, bouncing ideas about what we thought would be appropriate, and he was able to adapt to what we needed, which was key.”

Bit Space is now doing work for clients across Canada and the U.S.

“While we are finding there is more and more demand, at the same time, the fidelity of the technology from the hardware manufacturers now allows us to do more and more integrated things,” Blair said. “It’s not just putting people on the job site and telling that what is dangerous. Now we can interact with those tools and walk around the job site, and you can identify the hazards and look at the space through eye of the supervisor.”

Bit Space already has a solid pipeline of work to do, and with a growing portfolio and a top-10 ranking from Clutch now in its back pocket, Blair expects the firm will double in size in 2020.

“Being in Winnipeg has plenty of advantages, and our clients from across the country don’t care where we’re from,” Blair said.

From a student project to a growing small enterprise in five years, Blair is the poster child for the kind of tech success possible in Winnipeg.

“We’re very, very proud of Dan,” Jones said.