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Screening process: How the legacy of Weta is creating a VR monster in Wellington

Actor John Hamm being captured by 8i's cameras for a 'volumetric hologram' AKA #HoloHamm.

The Weta Group of companies smashed the doors wide open to a world of on-screen imagination and along the way provided the anchor to Wellington’s booming screen and technology sectors. Now, a gaggle of talented Weta offspring are exploring new frontiers as they help turn the capital into a global hotspot for virtual reality.

Once upon a time the word Weta would have evoked little more than stories about giant bugs, but the rise of celebrated film prop makers Weta Workshop – along with the other Weta companies – means the word is also intrinsically linked to movie memories and anecdotes.

Weta Workshop helped kick-start a crucial part of Wellington’s creative economy and defined an important part of the city’s modern identity. Proof is easy to see on arrival or departure from Wellington Airport where giant reminders are everywhere.

Sir Richard Taylor, Sir Peter Jackson and Jamie Selkirk are names neatly etched into Wellington’s history books.

In 1987 Taylor and his now-wife Tania started working in the back of their flat with dreams of crafting models and props for the country’s creative industries.

But it was their work on Sir Peter’s Lord of the Rings trilogy that really put them, and Wellington’s film making suburb of Miramar, on the international map. Weta Workshop has gone on to win 36 awards, including five Oscars and four BAFTAs.

When you add in the other influential Weta companies – Weta Digital, Park Road Post and Stone Street Studios – and associated businesses such as the Roxy Cinema, you start to understand why Weta is a Wellington institution.

For his contribution to New Zealand’s screen and creative arts sector, Sir Richard was knighted, given the keys to the capital, named New Zealander of the Year and won multiple Wellingtonian of the Year awards.

After claiming one such award in 2015 he told The Dominion Post that while people had tried to tempt him away with “very persuasive arguments”, Wellington was the place to be.

"I always say don't leave until you've tested the waters ... Wellington is a fertile environment, a great garden bed to plant a seed," he said.

Natural next step

In many ways the formation of Weta Digital and Weta Workshop was the genesis for the collision of the worlds of creativity and technology in the capital, L2VR’s Lance Lones says.

“They brought in world-class talent that has not only stuck around but went on to create a host of interesting startups here in the capital.”

Lones, a former NASA rocket scientist, is well-placed to comment on the influx of talent. He moved to Wellington from Los Angeles in 2001 to help create special effects on Sir Peter’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King blockbuster.

The evolution of VR is the logical next step for Wellington, which is well known for building virtual worlds to begin with, he says.

Like many of Wellington’s creative businesses, L2VR refers to itself as a company of Weta graduates, founded by artists and technologists who are interested in pushing boundaries and exploring frontiers.

Crafting “cinematic virtual reality weapons for revolutionary storytellers”, L2VR is researching and building gigapixel-per-second 3D 360-degree camera systems and tools out of its hideout in Wellington’s former Air Force base at Shelly Bay.

“We see virtual reality as one of the next great transformations in storytelling and myth-making that has the potential to literally change the world,” Lones says. “Like filmmaking a century ago, there are no rules so we get to help find them.”

The community’s connectedness and willingness to support risky ventures gives creative folks in the city the ability to experiment and research in a way that would be much more difficult in places like Los Angeles or San Francisco, Lones says.

The digital frontier

Eugene d’Eon is a shining example of how valuable Weta immigrants are to the city.

In 2014 d'Eon, who moved to Wellington to work on The Hobbit and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, partnered with entrepreneur Linc Gasking to create 8i.

The company’s proprietary technology transforms video from an array of cameras into a photorealistic 3D hologram of a human that can be viewed from any angle, on any device, for virtual, augmented or mixed reality.

This allows someone to create, experience and share a realistic human hologram that feels as if it’s in the same room.

8i already counted Samsung and Ashton Kutcher as investors. But recently they also received a $37 million investment injection from major global venture capital firms to launch its Holo mixed reality app.

8i’s Toni Moyes says Wellington has become a growing technology hub for visual effects and technology talent. 

“The city offers an excellent quality of life, which makes it easier for companies like 8i to attract world-class talent from around the world.”

The community of technologists and entrepreneurs that have built Wellington as a tech hub is largely down to Weta, she says.

“Weta has been a game changer for Wellington. It has acted as a global centre of excellence and an anchor for the tech ecosystem.”

VR and AR present a huge opportunity for Wellington to leverage its competitive advantage and make its mark in one of the most important global technology sectors, she says.

“We want to keep the city at the digital frontier.”

A new world

Chris Mather, the young founder of Point Zero, is also getting in on the action with HoloSpace, the world’s first interactive hologram display.

Mather says HoloSpace provides a new world for digital storytelling that brings interactive visualisations into the world around us – no goggles required.

Using motion tracking technology developed by Mather and his team at Point Zero, up to ten people can simultaneously interact with a hologram by controlling 3D objects with hand movements and gestures.

“It’s virtual reality without goggles,” he says. “It opens up a whole new world for digital storytelling from simulations to marketing to education.”

Point Zero has also used its technology – this time using VR headsets – to allow people to “enter” the human blood stream to observe how cancer immunotherapy treatment works. The six-minute experience sheds light on the different microscopic processes that happen inside the immune system. The work was done in partnership with the Wellington-based Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.

“There is a strong culture of innovation in the city, meaning government grants and investors here are looking to invest in more R&D projects,” Mather says. “And they’re looking at creating more sustainable long-term investments such as high-tech, complex problem-solving.”

Laying the foundation

To cement Wellington as a global centre of innovation those in the VR and AR sectors have joined forces to establish a New Zealand VR/AR Association.

The association is part of a worldwide group of VR and AR innovators aiming to accelerate growth, foster research and education, develop industry standards and promote services of member companies. The association’s 16-person executive committee comes from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

New Zealand VR/AR Association executive board member Jessica Manins says the emergent industry, predicted to be worth US$205 billion globally in five years, has huge potential for Wellington and New Zealand as a whole. 

Within a decade the sector could rival the country’s wine industry as a $2.5 billion export industry, she says.

The mission is critical to help New Zealand companies make inroads into the worldwide market, Manins says.

Manins has finished a feasibility study for a virtual reality complex dubbed PROJECTR with funding from local tech firms and Wellington City Council. The complex opens in April this year to develop a range of world-first uses for VR/AR technologies and feature demo theatres, a startup software suite, a conference room, mixed reality room and desks for up to 30 people.

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