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Virtual reality in Mt Eden: ‘My descendants will be able to do a haka with me’

It’s more Dilapidated Valley than Silicon Valley, but at the bottom of a hill beneath TV3 in Eden Terrace lies a brand new, hi-tech facility bringing together dudes, nerds and the hopes of a city and government’s innovation plan. Tim Murphy was at the opening of Grid/Akl – Uptown.

If you want cut-through in your Māori welcome at the opening of a new building, Te Aroha Morehu is your man.

Young, vital and switched on, Morehu, the general manager for culture and identity for Ngati Whatua o Orakei, provided a memorable start to Uptown Garage – Auckland’s new base for Augmented and Virtual Reality companies.

Explaining Māori love of storytelling and belief in values beyond what is physically in front of us, he said, “The digital space is this invisible stuff that produces visible stuff.

“I think about myself being someone’s ancestor in the future.  I would have loved to do a kapa haka performance with my ancestors.  With [VR technology] my descendants will be able to do a haka with me. Imagine that.”

Most of the 150 or so people crammed into the double-storeyed twin buildings on Shaddock St, Eden Terrace, could probably do just that.  They’d either been developing AR/VR or, that afternoon, wandering around for a bit with ungainly but uber-cool goggles seeing and doing things unimaginable a few years ago.

The Uptown Garage is all new paint, beanies, caps, ponytails, handlebar moustaches, waistcoats and ambition.  A rare cohabitation of the arty and the techie.

It opened just two months after ATEED – the Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development agency – set its mind to opening the second of its two tech start-up homes.  Grid/Akl is a booming facility in the Wynyard Quarter with 53 tech start-up businesses working alongside each other.

Grid / AKL/Uptown (Image: Supplied)

Grid/AKL / Uptown (Image: Supplied)

The momentum for the AR/VR garage came out of TechWeek and the Auckland-Los Angeles-Guangzhou economic summit in May. A VR conference was attended by 1300 people and it was obvious to many that Auckland had latched onto a high-potential strand of technology that put us up with other international players.

The industry in Auckland is aiming to do big things with movie, television and other screen industries, among others.

Mayor Len Brown, Economic Development minister Steven Joyce and tech luminaries attended the opening.   The AUT’s Colab:Creative Technologies is a key tenant.  It promises to cross the traditional boundaries between creative arts, design, digital media, computing, engineering and entrepreneurship.

Others include the Conical VR Studio, doing apps and games among other story-driven interactive experiences; Magnify, which consults on activations for sports and entertainment industries including Hollywood ad agencies; 360 degrees developers, Datacom and Proxi Cinematic VR, which boasts of “experiences that drop users into the middle of upcoming Hollywood blockbusters.”

All this ambition and genius in two renovated buildings in the depths of a down-market valley between New North Road and Mt Eden Road. Some of the premises nearby make the famously ramshackle TV3 studios at the top of the hill seem architecturally inspired.

But inside the Uptown Garage you’re entering a future that takes you way beyond concrete block walls. Mayor Brown was late arriving at the opening due to Auckland traffic, producing the usual smirks from travel-weary Aucklanders, but when he did get there he was a man augmented.

“This technology will probably influence all industry within the next five years. So I’m delighted Auckland has seized the opportunity to catch this wave.”

He was there at the genesis of Auckland’s focus on high-tech as an economic driver.  ATEED chief executive Brett O’Riley, himself from the technology sector before taking up his role, recalled Brown calling a tech advisory group together from his first weeks in office. It met on Saturdays at a central city hotel and concluded the Super City should aim to be an innovation hub.

VR in action (Image: Supplied)

VR in action (Image: Supplied)

Brown and others lauded the Grid Akl and Uptown Garage’s collegial spirit. “There’s a palpable sense of energy around any of these business that are up here, the ability to share and generate new ideas.”

Joyce told the crowd high-tech ICT is worth huge sums to New Zealand – an industry worth about $16.2 billion, employing around 100,000 people and now ranked as the country’s third-largest export sector.  “In AR/VR New Zealand has shown an ability to grasp and use our creativity and clever smarts.”

The benefit of a shared space for multiple companies is something O’Riley said helped accelerate innovation. “The ability to access tools and kit will enable small companies to take on large jobs earlier and to take part in the major productions coming to Auckland.”

Around the Garage were real examples of the virtual. “The Green Fairy” – the country’s first VR movie was in one corner awaiting goggle-eyed interaction.  People capturing the event on video had what looked like standard cameras with very elaborate fittings on top.  

There were, if you put your mind to it through the goggles, demonstrations in incubation, amplification and opportunity, as one speaker put it.

Who knows what she's seeing (Image: Supplied)

Who knows what she’s seeing (Image: Supplied)

In the crowd was Michelle Dickinson, the Nano girl pop scientist and academic.  She agreed many Aucklanders would have little idea that we had an industry in AR/VR, let alone a facility dedicated to it.

“This set-up is allowing the public to know VR is not just a future thing, it’s a current thing.”

“I’m very interested in using AR for education, being able to take scientific concepts to new and different levels.”

Joyce had a practical, accessible example, too.  He spoke of NZ aviation company Pacific Aerospace using VR to help potential clients see how to land an aircraft on a short runway.

One of the Uptown Garage’s big supports is Datacom – which O’Riley pointed out is an unheralded $1Billion NZ tech company.  Its transformation general manager Kerry Topp said the Garage’s work was a ‘massive opportunity for us collectively…It’s not just about the start-ups.  It’s also about the corporates and the academic society.”

At the opening, the international VR Society sent a message from New York by video, lauding the “coalescing of many disciplines of clever kids in one location taking VR/AR up and down the country”.

O’Riley mirrored Morehu’s belief in VR for broad and deep cultural advances.  “It aligns very well with the immersive storytelling of our tangata whenua, for Ngati Whatua and others, bringing their kaupapa to life long into the future.”

This report is a follow-up to a series commissioned in association with Tripartite Summit organisers ATEED (Auckland Tourism, Events, and Economic Development).

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