Augmented reality, reality: Auckland's AR/VR Garage opens

Auckland’s very own VR and AR development facility has opened. Does this mean we’ll all be wearing headsets in a few years?

We’re all well aware that VR and AR are the hot new things (not to toot our own horn, but check out Idealog’s latest issue for proof). And we know that it’s only going to become more ubiquitous in our lives. Especially because we live in Aotearoa.

Wait, what? Yes, that’s right. New Zealand is poised to become one of the world leaders in VR and AR development, thanks to the opening of a new hub.

The VR and AR sector received a major boost on Friday, with the opening of the AR/VR Garage – an augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) development facility in Auckland’s Eden Terrace. The commercially-focused facility’s development was helped by international business relationships forged during May’s Tripartite Economic Summit Auckland 2016, and Techweek AKL 2016’s Magnify VR/AR Pacific Summit. The AR/VR Garage’s working alliances were also firmed-up by Friday’s announcement that it will be the Oceania HQ of the US-based VR Society, joining chapters in Beijing and Canada. Last year, the society netted about US$170 million in VR projects for its global members.

And they won’t be alone at the facility, either. The VR/AR Association, a New York-based organisation with satellite sites in London, Amsterdam and Singapore, is also setting up a New Zealand chapter in the AR/VR Garage to help accelerate industry growth in the region, and the International Game Developers Association will also have a presence.

What this all means is that the AR/VR Garage will fuel Auckland’s growing AR/VR community, which includes game developers, screen and film producers, animaters, educators and digital storytellers, and help grow New Zealand’s global digital industry footprint, jobs and investment.

Auckland mayor Len Brown says AR/VR is already one of the most influential disruptive global technologies across diverse sectors. “This technology will probably influence all industry within the next five years,” he says. “So I’m delighted that Auckland has seized the opportunity to catch this wave.”

Those aren’t his only praises, either. “It’s fantastic to see this innovation space directly result from high-level connections forged through the first two years of Auckland’s Tripartite Economic Alliance with Los Angeles and Guangzhou. Having gone from concept to reality in just three months, it shows council can identify and swiftly seize growth opportunities, and lead a project involving diverse partners to drive Auckland’s high-tech economic transformation.”

The Garage comprises two buildings at Auckland Council’s GridAKL/Uptown innovation hub. The operating model, being delivered by Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) is purportedly unlike any other current AR/VR facility around the world – a collaboration between industry, major corporates including multi-nationals, tertiary and research institutions, and local and central government agencies that are all connected to key international players.

VR Society board member and advisor to the AR/VR Garage Jonas Hudson certainly thinks it’s unique. “The VR Society is thrilled with the opportunity to participate in this important initiative, not just for Auckland, but for New Zealand’s digital manufacturing sector. As the leading VR organisation in Hollywood, the society is well aware of New Zealand’s reputation for high quality content creation.”

The Oceania Chapter will be a partnership of like-minded peers with member studios including Walt Disney Studios, Pixar, Marvel, Warner Bros., Universal Studios, Sony Entertainment, Paramount, DreamWorks Animation and the Virtual Reality Company, Hudson says. And he’s more than a little excited for it. “This alliance with AR/VR Garage will enable Los Angeles and Auckland to deliver on the Tripartite Economic Alliance’s goals by driving new business, creating jobs and training programmes in production and technology. It will also grow a Pacific Rim technology corridor for VR and AR start-ups.”

The Garage’s premises are being leased from Auckland Transport until December 2017, when it will likely move to a permanent location. Brett O’Riley, ATEED chief executive isn’t shy in his assessment of the place’s potential. “The Garage enables companies to have a global advantage from day one, and that is hugely important in this fast-paced technology sector,” he says. “They can scale up much faster, connect with the big international industry players, and showcase their work to major international tech investors. While the Garage is a great boost for Auckland’s world-leading screen, digital and creative content industries, VR is becoming a crucial enabling platform for a whole range of sectors, including skills training and education. The future is definitely now.”

Datacom is the Garage’s first corporate partner. Datacom NZ CEO Greg Davidson says getting involved is simply good business. “We’re seeing real interest from companies wanting to know more about augmented, virtual and mixed reality with some of our own customers already actively prototyping,” he explains. “The Garage is an excellent way to develop a safe environment to test potential AR use cases and to use the strength of GridAKL to tap into new groups of early adopters to engage with the AR ecosystem.”

Matt Coleman, the founder of Magnify – which held the AR/VR summit during Techweek in May where the AR/VR Garage concept was announced, and is among the first tenants – also has high hopes. “The AR/VR Garage has the ability to explode this new and expanding sector, and we are delighted to be part of it. With the quality of local and international entrepreneurs and education institutions engaged in the Garage, we can’t wait to see where this goes.”

Seeing where it all goes is indeed the big question. But one thing seems slightly more certain: there’s a lot of excitement around VR and AR at the moment. Whether or not that excitement turns into momentum, however, remains to be seen.