Meet Bristol’s world-leading haptics and VR specialists

Steve Cliffe

Business Leader Magazine recently sat down with Steve Cliffe and Heather MacDonald-Tait of Bristol-based haptics and VR specialists, Ultrahaptics.

Cliffe and MacDonald took our team around their incredible office in the heart of Bristol’s ‘Enterprise Zone’ and gave an overview of the industry and how they are changing the future of the sector.

Can you give our readers a brief history of Ultrahaptics?

SC: Ultrahaptics use focused ultrasonics to create mid-air feeling. It is high frequency sound that we focus on your hand. You can actually feel the pressure on your skin and it slightly displaces the skin. It is there to give you the interaction and understanding that you are engaged with a piece of equipment or that you are touching something.

Applications range from automotive gesture control, right the way through to making it feel like spiders are running across your hand! When you put one of our virtual reality headsets on, what you see suddenly becomes very real!

At the moment if you put a headset on and reach out for something and your hand goes through it or you see something run across your hand and you don’t feel it – we are the next evolution of it and makes it a more immersive experience.

In terms of the history of the business, Ultrahaptics was originally a final year project at Bristol University in 2009. It then morphed into a PHD and then into a spin out company back in 2013.

I started talking to Tom Carter, who is our CTO and one of the founders here in November 2013. We put a business plan together, went out and got the funding and then I joined September the following year.

Can you explain the funding process and how Ultrahaptics have grown?

HMT: In terms of the history and the funding, the first funding we got £600,000 and that was based on taking a demo to Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, which we now do every year – it is huge. We showed it to a few different people but some car manufacturers were particularly interested because they had already bought gesture recognition to cars. However, the current ones have a fundamental problem which is that people make the gestures but don’t feel anything so they take their eyes off the road to look to see if the volume is coming up, even though they can hear it. The problem is they don’t feel anything. It is like looking for a light switch in the dark without looking – you need to have the sense of touch. We have that sense of touch.

We identified the problem that people were taking their eyes of the road, so car manufacturers were really impressed in the technology and that led some traction which then led to our first £10 million raise in 2015. And then our latest raise was £17.9 million. The automotive clients have been massively excited about this and are ready to adopt it. They have the gesture already and this just completes it.

SC: Tom and I were introduced by a guy called Greville Commins at the Engine Shed. We were on a board of directors at a VC backed company and were on the same board. Greville also taught the entrepreneurs course at Bristol University when Tom was studying. We got a plan together and here we are four years later.

Now there is 72 employees. We have grown quite quickly in a reasonably short period of time. A third of the office now has a PHD – something like 18 PHDs. A third are from Bath, Bristol and UWE. And a quarter of the workforce are women. We do try.

Is that a focus for you? To get more local people and women into tech?

HMT: Absolutely. We did International Women in Engineering Day at the Arnolfini this year. We hosted a ‘Girl Geek’ dinner later in September. We went to the ‘Women in Technology’ conference which was in Bristol earlier this year. We are definitely trying and we are getting to the size where we can see results and ask ‘where can we help?’ and ‘how can we make this better?’. We are 25% women which is great but it would be great if we were 50% women.

SC: We have got three PHD ladies, about 19%, so we need to get our lady PHD numbers up.

Is it good to have those links to local universities and getting local people employed here?

HMT: We have the local universities – UWE, Bath and Bristol – and we make sure we get the very best graduates from there. We also have 14 or 15 different nationalities – and that is not including our US presence. That means we have lots of different approaches to problems as people have had different educations. They address a problem or a challenge in a different way, which helps us overcome challenges quicker and more collaboratively.

SC: We have got British, Irish, Italian, Nigerian, Norwegian, French, Polish, South African and Mauritian. In terms of degree qualifications, electronics and electronical engineering dominate but we also have computer science, gaming and other related topics. We also have bio-medical engineering, physics and acoustic engineering – so in terms of what we need to create feeling in mid-air – you need to understand how the nerves work, for example. It is such a diverse group of people.

Your haptics applications range from car volume/heating to DJ decks – what other things are you working on?

SC: We attended our first VR conference a short while ago, which was in San Francisco in December. We basically had a small demo where they put on the headset and they could effectively hit and play with virtual blocks and actually feel them. If there are no haptics turned on, someone reaches out and closes their fingers and pick up the block – the haptics make you feel as you would normally. It is weird to just be able to do that, to pick up the block and feel it.

When you pick up the block and turn your hand over and the sound waves are hitting the back of your hand but the cube is on top of your hand, your brain goes ‘that can’t be right…’ and it fixes it so you feel it on the palm of your hand. This is where the biomedical engineering and psychology comes from, in terms of tricking the brain into thinking what you see is real.

Can you tell our readers more about your team expansion and culture?

SC: We started as a team of four people and we are now 72 – including the US office who have eight team members. Fundamentally, when we put this together we built a team that had a few grey hairs. We needed to make sure we had experience. I have known David Own (VP Business Development) and Barry Dennington (VP Engineering) for 25-30 years, so I know what they are capable of and what they can do. It was about making sure we have a suitable team that had done it before and knew what they were doing.

Is that important when you’re in a start-up company?

SC: Yes, because you are given a certain amount of money to achieve a certain goal or objectives and you can’t get it wrong. You can’t learn on the job when you have got fixed money and fixed timing, so we put these in place. The average age is 34 – I think it is 31 if you take the management team out of it. But, it is all about having some management in place that can take some young and very enthusiastic computer science graduates and turning them into a crack squad.

I brought Barry in as he is one of the best managers I have ever met and will manage an engineering team. We now have ISO9000 approval because we have all the processes and procedures in place to manage the business correctly. We have really moved that team on and it now works fantastically.

We are bringing in some more younger guys, in terms of management positions, and so on, to build that up. We have got a whole tier of management now and significantly younger. One of our VPs is 29 and that is what it is all about. It is not about how old you are, it is what you can do.

Are you going to expand more in this office?

SC: We are probably going to get another 20 in this office and then we’ll be done here. This is basically core development and engineering and we have already opened an office is Palo Alto, California – and there are eight people there. It is then a matter of building teams around the globe that can support locally.

Will your HQ be staying in Bristol?

SC: Absolutely. This is headquarters, this is where the core engineering takes place. In the US, we have got things happening, in terms of local support and so on. Fundamentally, it is about local support.

HMT: When we looked 12 month ago, we said we want to get to 100 employees. When we say 100 total employees and done, that is on the current business plan, where we are right now.

SC: When we raised the £10.1 million, we were never going to get above 64 – and now we are 72.

HMT: So, we have a couple of things to keep us moving. One of which is the Advanced Research Centre (ARC), we call it ARC. Tom spends a lot of his time now, concentrating on where else we can take this technology and what we can do with it. It is not like one trick pony, we have a product and we will keep pushing it out. We have a lot of bright minds and some of those are in that group with Tom.

We also have an academic programme, so we work with universities around the globe. Everything from MIT to Stanford, the University of Tokyo to Bristol, Sussex and Glasgow. There is a whole academic programme. We have a specific person who manages that programme.

Next week, BLM will bring you part two of the interview with Steve and Heather, where they talk about the future of the industry and what the future holds for VR, AR and haptics.