Could Wellington have the world’s first augmented reality island?

In the first in a week-long series chatting to Wellingtonians about what they’re up to in the windy city, Alex Casey talks to ProjectR director Jessica Manins about the robot revolution, the future of film, and the best secret places to have a wine.

It’s kind of fitting that when we showed up to see Wellington’s newest cutting-edge virtual and augmented reality hub, it pretty much had nothing inside it. Wow. I knew the technology was good, but I didn’t know it was that good. To be fair, ProjectR has only just moved in, and there is already a stylish SMEG fridge, a cluster of computers adorned with Pop Vinyl figures, and a ‘girl boss’ mug that fittingly belongs to centre executive Jessica Manins. “At first I thought it was lame,” she says, eyeing the gold appliqué font, “but now I think it’s kind of cool.”

Priorities at ProjectR. Photo: Sean Aickin.

Whatever your opinion on the zeitgeist slogan – the mug fits. Jessica is currently in charge of fitting out the enormous, sunny space on Taranaki Street to connect over 24 different VR, AR and MR Wellington businesses into one disruptive digital rat king to rule them all. As a taster, I got to take the Oculus Rift for a spin, confusedly groaning through what was definitely a game for children (Lucky’s Tale) and a motion graphics experience that was definitely for stoners (Singularity). Somewhere in the middle of those two demographics was me (impressed).

Just like the protagonist in Lucky’s Tale meandering across swing bridges and rolling fields, Jessica has wandered down range of paths before finding herself in the heart of Wellington’s tech world. An aspiring actress originally from the Kapiti Coast, she’s featured in everything from fringe shows at BATS to Victoria University’s Summer Shakespeare series. After meeting the founders of online audition startup StarNow in Prague, she was hired to delete the frequently-uploaded pictures of the actors, musicians and models that were deemed “too racy”.

Jessica Manins outside Egmont Street. Photo: Sean Aickin.

Perhaps a dream job for some, but Jessica would swiftly move on to grow the startup in London, LA and across Australia, and eventually become the Chief Customer Officer for the entire company. And then become the regional director for shared workspace and hotdesk heaven Biz Dojo. And then become the CEO of Blackeye, a VR/AR production studio. And I haven’t even touched on her snowboarding skills, or a stint in Edinburgh setting up lights.

Keen to unplug from The Matrix, Jessica and I popped downstairs from ProjectR for a pot of tea at Milk Crate and to talk through the technological revolution that’s happening just next door, and if she’ll ever find any time to relax before the robots take over.

Isn’t it crazy to go from working lighting in Edinburgh to now running this sci-fi tech hub in Wellington? Do you ever just sit back and be like… what happened here?

Yeah, I do. It’s funny, it’s actually coming full circle for me now because working in virtual and augmented reality draws exactly on my two main skills. I’ve got the theatrical film background as well as the technical background. I was just having a great conversation with someone about how the great storytellers we are seeing in VR come from a theatre background.

Film directors aren’t used to having to direct a 360 degree environment, the people who already have those skills are coming from theatres. You can also now be consulting in the film industry or for all these technical that haven’t had to direct and produce in this way before. I’m always telling my theatre friends that they don’t have to be poor anymore – you just have to jump now, like right now.

Getting freaked out by the future. Photo: Sean Aickin.

Broadly, what is it about Wellington that has made it such a hub for creative tech and creativity in general?

I don’t think we can avoid talking about the fact that we have Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor and the whole of the Miramar Peninsula working on our side. It’s not just in terms of the international talent that is attracted here, but also the local talent that has been able to gain and hone their skills to be world leaders. The creative and storytelling capability within Wellington has always been really rich – that is why we’ve been so successful with our movies – but that feeds through to the rest of the city.

We’re lucky here – Wellington is a city that forces you to be creative, I think. And resilient as well, we’ve got the earthquakes and we’ve got the crazy wind. There are lots of easy things about living in the city because it’s so compact – but that also tests you. Being on the other side of the world, far from where the largest business hubs are, means you have to work a little bit harder. You have to think hard from day one and you have to be that little bit more creative.

Jessica Manins and the author, doing a resilient strut. Photo: Sean Aickin.

So to put it in layman’s terms for idiots like me… is Wellington potentially the Silicon Valley of New Zealand?

We don’t want to put any other label on us than just who we are, but we absolutely have that ability. With the likes of Xero, there are these incredible entrepreneurs like Rod Drury. He not only built this amazing global business, but still stays so focused on supporting the local eco-system. That’s giving back and that’s regenerating and allowing other businesses to be successful as part of that eco-system.

When I was working at the Biz Dojo, I got in touch with Rod because I was setting up this programme with Wellington City Council called ‘Collider’. It was about finding ways to develop digital and creative tech companies, particularly looking at how we take the leaders of those companies to the next level. Over breakfast, we came up with Step Up Mentoring – taking leaders and mentors from within Xero and pairing them up with tech entrepreneurs in startups.

That’s just one example of how Wellington is a very giving, kind and generous city. You can pretty much get a coffee with anyone and people will give you their time – there’s a real willingness to invest in others. Even the guys who created StarNow started out as developers at TradeMe. I think all those successful Wellington companies give people that little bit of courage to take more of a risk. So yes, why couldn’t Wellington be a global tech capital? It is a tech capital.

The beginnings of something uuuuge. Photo: Sean Aickin.

I read a story somewhere that said that VR and AR could do for the Wellington tech industry what Peter Jackson and Weta did for the film industry. If that’s the case, what do you think will be the defining “Lord of the Rings” project?

Firstly, I actually think AR is going to be bigger than VR. Just last week Peter Jackson released Wingnut AR, which goes to show the potential that Wellington has for the VR and AR sector. The reason I’m saying that AR is going to be bigger is that it uses our phones, a device that we’re already comfortable with rather than having to put on a headset. It also offers so many other possibilities in terms of sectors outside of entertainment and gaming, which is important to note. It will also be in training and development, and healthcare and architecture and design.

One big project there’s been quite a lot of talk about and work done on already is the idea of turning Matiu/Somes Island into the world’s first augmented reality island. I think, if that got the funding, that would just be incredible for tourism ­– it would be like Alcatraz on steroids. A big part of AR and VR is just providing another medium for storytelling. When we would put that lens on it, it’s the ability to tell the stories of our culture and of our heritage in a new way that’s going to engage with international audiences.

The other kind of exciting next big thing is MR, which is mixed reality. If AR puts the digital content overlays it into your real environment, MR actually integrates them together in a more seamless way. We might be looking at this table but it’s not this table at all – you’ll be able to actually touch it and feel it but it’s something completely different. That’s pretty cool from an entertainment point of view.

What do you think movies and television coming out of Wellington will look like in 10 years?

I think we’re just going to be a part of the movie. It will be exactly like a pick-a-path story ­– we’ll just be fully immersed in the stories and have the ability to navigate and make decisions within them. Live streaming and 360 is already available, so it won’t be far until VR disrupts how we view things at home – just like streaming disrupted normal TV.

We also have to think about all the transformative technology changes that have happened in terms of machine learning, artificial intelligence and the internet. Try to imagine what a story could contain when it knows everything about you and your interests. I don’t know what that will be like, but I know it’s going to be cool.

The robots are coming, all you can do is laugh. Photo: Sean Aickin.

On that note: do you have any concerns about the role of this technology in our near future, or worries about reaching the singularity?

Well, first I believe that it’s all definitely going to happen. I was watching that show What Next last night and it was asking if you think a robot can do a better job than you. The answer for me is: “yes, definitely.” To be honest, I really hope so, because then I can go and be able to do other stuff.

I think there are so many possibilities and great things for our world that can be achieved through technology – it’s just about making sure it’s in the right hands. I guess, like anything, there’s always going to be risks. VR and AR is absolutely one of those areas where we need to look at a whole new set of ethics and consideration for public safety. But hey, those can all be new jobs for people when the robots take away their other jobs.

Another job you have – for now – is organising Leading Ladies, why was there a need to carve out that kind of support space for Wellington women?

I was going into the job of regional director of Biz Dojo and I knew I had a big task ahead of me, so I was trying to find some senior mentors to connect with. I knew I’d need to surround myself with smart, inspiring women that would be able to help me through some of the challenges. I also have a million learnings already and failures and mistakes to share, so I basically started stalking people on LinkedIn who I thought were cool.

The first woman I messaged was Toni Moyse [CEO at 8i]. We got together, formed a bit of a plan, and from there co-created Leading Ladies. We continued approaching other women who we thought were interesting, as well as setting up parameters that ensured we drew from across different businesses and different skills. We meet monthly, and we’ve been going strong for 18 months or so now.

Spilling the tea on women’s networks. Photo: Sean Aickin.

Has it flourished here? Does it have the same kind of electricity that a lot of those women-only spaces have?

Yeah, it really does. We’ve actually had to start running some Leading Ladies connect groups, because we had so many other women who wanted to join. I think Wellington generally is really building on this notion of women supporting each other. There’s also Cultivate Mentoring, which is junior to mid level mentoring, as well as the Female Founder’s Group, which has been around for many years.

It’s still really needed too, because it’s unfortunately still very hard to be a woman in a leadership role. I have had many moments in my career where I’ve struggled with sexism, for example being introduced to another senior leader starting on our team at the time who immediately dismissed me entirely because I was a woman. He wouldn’t even look at the work that I had already done, I could tell he just thinking, “where’s that guy I wanted to talk to?”

Luckily, we now have all these increasing networks in Wellington to support women. If things are happening, we all just message each other and say, “hey, I need help with this.” There’s all this talk about all the old boys clubs but I like to talk about the new women’s club. We’re rising. We have some very powerful Whats App group chats going on, and we’re coming for you.

Have you got any time to yourself to chill out?

I have a three and a half year old, so not really. He’s into skate parks at the moment so we spend a lot of time at Oriental Parade. He takes out his scooter or his little bike and annoys all the teenage skateboarders, and I get a coffee. Our weekends are mostly based around parks, so you get to know the city that way. I know all the good parks.

An anonymous source told me that you like to hide out at the Empire Cinema to get work done, can you speak to those rumours?

Who told you that?! Yes, that is my hideaway. I live in Island Bay and so I was there just last night for quite a few hours, actually. That’s my other office – I love that place. I was gutted when they closed it down a few years ago but they’ve refurbished it beautifully and opened it back up. I normally just sit there and work probably with a cider or a glass of wine and that’s my focus time.

Jessica’s home away from home. Photo: Sean Aickin.

When you run a business, you just don’t stop. It’s not a 9-5er, I’m working on weekends and Sunday nights are particularly work-heavy. I have a lot of meetings at Egmont Street, as well as Poquito on Tory St – that’s a really cozy little cute place, good food and good music. It’s run by Barnaby Weir and his mum, and if you’re an old school like me, then you grew up listening to the Black Seeds. That’s just as much a part of Wellington culture as anything.

You’ve worked in LA, London, Edinburgh – all these giant cities in the world – so what makes you want to stay here?

In general, there’s something really satisfying about creating something for your country and the city that you live in. At the moment, a lot of what I’m trying to do is about economic growth for our country and our people. It saddens me that some of the best talents in the world go off shore and contribute to companies when we want to try and retain them here.

I’m still trying to work out how to try and encourage talent to stay here and to work with the New Zealand companies that are trying to build themselves up – it all adds to the value and what we’re trying to create in New Zealand. Wellington is probably one of the most creative places, it’s fun, has great coffee, has good food. It’s a no brainer in terms of the city to live in. I feel very lucky that I grew up in the coast and went to school here. I love this place.

Finally: I’m asking everyone I interview to decide what I should do while I’m here. So: what’s one thing I should do and one thing I should eat or drink?

The one thing you should definitely do when you are here is go to Red Rocks out on the south coast. Walk around and see the seal colony, and you might see the South Island on a good day. After that you should go and get the meat platter at El Matador, the Argentinian restaurant on Cuba Street. You’ll need to take a few people.

[Editor’s note: definitely managed the meat platter between two, but more on that in my journal at the end of the week]


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