For the second year in a row, Te Awamutu College Year 12 student Bert Downs has been selected as a finalist in the Skills Bright Sparks competition and is up against 21 other individuals or teams competing in the event.

In 2018 he created a computer programme that allowed a participant to create their own virtual reality (VR) world by choosing a background and then adding trees and other items to interact with.

He was awarded the Emerging Potential Award for that effort.

This year Bert has taken his interest in VR to a different level.

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The first time that Bert experienced VR was at the Air New Zealand 75 Years: Our Nation. The world. Connected exhibition at Te Papa in 2015 and thought at the time that it was very cool.

This year Bert's idea came from a personal need, and something he wanted to build for himself.

"But at the same time I knew that I could use it for the competition," he said.

His project is creating software and hardware called Extend VR and he is creating a virtual hand.

Te Awamutu College year 12 student Bert Downs is a Skills Bright Sparks finalist with his Extend VR technology. Photo / Robyn Taylor
Te Awamutu College year 12 student Bert Downs is a Skills Bright Sparks finalist with his Extend VR technology. Photo / Robyn Taylor

He liked the idea because it combined both electronics and software components - two of his passions.

"I had a general idea of how I could pull it off," he said. "But I had to figure out how to implement the various parts."

Bert had kept up to date with the latest developments in VR technology and had tried to figure out how they worked.

"Playstation has a similar way of tracking based on using a light and camera that I have used."

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Bert started with a standard headset, with lenses and a cavity to hold a smartphone with a screen.

Using an app or a web browser the headset can be used to look around but Bert wanted to add the ability to interact using a custom controller.

"Most of the work for the project is in the controller," he said.

Bert mainly constructed the controller at school and earned NCEA credits.

His original idea used a glove but he decided to develop a more traditional style of controller.

"The glove wasn't accurate enough, it got sweaty and to make it more accurate it would be too expensive - it just wasn't working," said Bert. "But I still wanted to track how my fingers moved."

Currently only the best and most expensive head-sets have finger tracking capability.
Bert's device uses a series of thumb tacks connected to a micro controller - four rows for four fingers.

"When I touch the thumb tacks, the controller knows how much my fingers are bent based on which ones are being touched and which ones aren't," he said.

Bert also had to work on the visual side of the project, making a model virtual robot hand to move.

This was done on the computer and involved using computer code to create basic shapes that were put together to resemble a hand.

"The other thing I had to work on was how to track my hand in space and how to get that message to the computer hand," Bert said.

So he had to learn how to make an Android App that uses the phone's camera to find where the light on the controller is.

The electronic controller, which is held in the hand, speaks to the phone in the headset via Bluetooth.

Bert started his project at the beginning of this year and has worked on it at school and at home.

"This project has been a big project and very time consuming," he said.

"The learning curve has been huge.

I didn't know how to make an app or how to use code to control a camera and I had to figure out how to use each specific component that I hadn't used before," said Bert.

While his Extend VR is working, Bert would not describe it as done.

"There are lots of improvements I still want to make," he said.

A next step would be to optimise the design so it could be mass produced.

Bert has been studying NCEA level 3 this year and is off to Waikato University next year to study Software Engineering but he hopes to get electronics in there somewhere as well.
Bert's big dream is in electronics and software development and he eventually he sees himself working for a Tech company.

"I want to create in VR and Artificial Intelligence and a lot of that overlaps now," he said.
In its 21st year, the Skills Bright Sparks programme is New Zealand's top competition for young inventors.

Encompassing all areas of modern technology, it's the most diverse technology competition in New Zealand.

Skills Bright Sparks accepts entries from more than just electronics and includes inventions with a focus on software, the environment, science, engineering and robotics.