TechWeek17

Catching up with the reality mechanics at the GridAKL AR/VR Garage

Since opening in October last year, the AR/VR Garage in Uptown has become home to more than 20 companies working across virtual and augmented reality. Don Rowe visits ahead of their ten day programme at Techweek’17.

There are few things in pop culture more futuristic than the idea of virtual reality. Slipping on a headset and witnessing the birth of the stars, the death of the dinosaurs, a formula one car race or even what a certain street in 16th century France might have been like has long been in the domain of science-fiction. But, as ‘Nanogirl’ Michelle Dickinson said at the opening of Uptown’s AR/VR Garage last October – AR/VR aren’t a thing of the future, they’re a thing of right now. And she’s not the only one who thinks so.

Supported by the likes of  Datacom, ATEED, Microsoft, the University of Auckland and more, the Garage is a hub for anyone seeking to integrate interactive mediums in their work. Around 20 companies work from within the Garage. An innovation hub for startups, as long as there’s a virtual or augmented slant to a business, they can operate from the warren of condemned buildings that constitute the Garage in Mt Eden.

“Some of our companies are developers of games for example, or they might rent out equipment. Staples VR started out as an equipment rental service and now they’ve expanded into other VR production. They might be sound specialists because when you put a headset on and you turn around you’ve gotta have the sound coming from the right angles. So all of those sorts of things, with everyone specialising in different areas.

Born of a huge reaction to AR/VR at Techweek’16, the Garage inhabits a series of buildings earmarked for demolition as the Central Rail Link progresses, eventually to become the Mt Eden station.

“These buildings provide some very economic space for start ups to work from so that means that the council are providing something useful for the people in this environment, it’s a good location, we can all be working together, and it all sort of came together as being the right place and the right time,” says Hope.

The business developers at ATEED are constantly searching for international projects to attract money, attention, or just the chance to show that the tech scene in Auckland is as good as anywhere else in the world. A combination of skill sets means the Garage is perfectly positioned to bid on large-scale, multifaceted tenders.

“Ultimately our goal would be that as a giant collaborative we can pitch on international projects because we’ve got all of these different people in the team,” says Hope. “We’ll be able to say ‘Hey, we’ve got the capability in this field, we can do that.’ So that’s kind of what we’re trying to do, to be a landing pad for startups and attract either international money into this economy or grow the industry in New Zealand, and then by having lots of little startups working alongside each other they can work together to be a bigger and better team.”

This collaborative approach is already producing results. In a partnership with Starship Hospital, Garage residents Staple VR mapped the different procedure rooms that child patients may utilise during a stay in hospital, allowing them to rehearse their experiences ahead of time.

“This would typically be things like the CT scan room or an X-Ray room,” says Hope. “There were 5 different rooms that they covered, so that children can put their headset on and they’re in the room, they can hear all the sounds, they know where everything is, and the ultimate idea with that is that they get to practice so that they are less anxious and then they don’t have to be sedated so heavily. Reducing sedation is a bonus with any procedures. So that was quite a cool on-entertainment project. There was another one  with the fire service, they burned down a house and put a 360 degree camera in it, so from your perspective watching it, it feels like you are in a burning house. There’s heaps projects outside of just gaming, which I think is what people typically seem to associate VR with.”

Architecture and construction, home innovation, interior design and all manner of commercial uses have a big scope for AR/VR. On Tuesday of Techweek’17, several different architectural projects will be unveiled in new areas of practical focus for the Garage. One resident company are doing a demonstration of their new architectural system, while another team are unveiling an architectural retail concept.

Marketing is another area outside of, or adjacent to, the realm of video games in which these technologies might shine, augmented reality in particular. Where VR demands full immersion in the experience, AR allows consumers to interact with the world around them – only augmented. One Fat Sheep, a resident of the GridAKL in the Viaduct, have used AR for everyone from Hell Pizza to Tourism Singapore, ‘gamifying’ pizza boxes in order to drive both purchases and brand engagement.

“There is another team doing a personal training system that’s gamified so as you’re doing your squats and so on it’s because you’re jumping over something, or crawling under something, or running from zombies or whatever it may be, so making these boring jobs fun is pretty cool, and is likely how the future of our living and entertainment requirements may be met.

“These technologies are a new level of consumer engagement. Brands that aren’t using new technology will eventually miss out.”


Techweek’17: a week of events bringing together New Zealand’s brightest technology and innovation talent to tackle global issues with local ingenuity. May 6-14, Nationwide. techweek.co.nz

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