VR/AR in NY: Cool is not enough!
This October, 20 key players in immersive and interactive media from the Berlin capital region joined us on a trade mission to NYC to drive VR, AR and MR collaboration on an international scale. Initiated by media:net, the region’s largest cross-sector association of media, digital and creative firms, and funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the goal of this year’s delegation was to gain a deeper understanding of NY’s VR/AR eco-system, from collaboration to coworking, to innovative business models and development opportunities.
With this objective in mind, we developed a three-day program that took us all over the Big Apple to connect with forward-thinking VR, AR and media companies and organizations. This is what we learnt.
Day 1: NY Infrastructures for German Newbies | Monday 23rd October
After a get-together and round of drinks on Sunday night at a rooftop bar in Midtown Manhattan, we kicked off the trade mission with an early start at Madison Square coworking space NeueHouse for an official welcome presentations by Jens Müffelman, President and CEO of Axel Springer‘s US operations, and Gerrit Roessler, Program Manager at the German Center for Research and Innovation. Both shared insights into their place within NY’s fast-moving tech landscape, the bridges they create between Germany and the States, and their strategies for growing and maintaining ties between entrepreneurs and innovators across both countries. They also drew our attention to some cultural aspects of doing business in NYC, in particular, the ability of the city’s entrepreneurs to present stellar pitches of just about anything— something we’d see for ourselves over the coming days!
We navigated to our next stop at Wall Street for a meeting at the NY Economic Development Corp with VP of Internal Partnerships Justin Kreamer and Senior Program Manager Carrie Bronsther. There, we learnt more about NYC’s transformations from a historical port city and a manufacturing giant into a hub for services pivoting to digital technology. Along with some telling statistics (NYC is, for instance, the #1 city for women entrepreneurs and the 2nd-largest startup eco-system worldwide), Justin gave insights into how new technologies are poised to revolutionise NYC’s anchor sectors including advertising, finance, retail, news media and entertainment. One of these new technologies is VR/AR. This, as Carrie shared with us, is why the NYCEDC is working with its partners to build an all-new VR/AR Hub opening in 2018 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, creating much-needed space for collaborative innovation and creating 500+ VR/AR jobs in the process.
Another driving force behind NYC’s VR/AR center is the NYC Media Lab. Based out of the MAGNET space at the NYU Tandon Engineering Campus in Brooklyn, NYC Media Lab facilitates vital prototyping partnerships between researchers, designers and engineers across universities in New York and the city’s largest companies in the anchor sectors highlighted at NYCEDC. After a tour of NYU’s maker spaces, Executive Director Justin Hendrix explained the Lab’s perspective on media as data, as a ubiquitous element in our environment, and the crux of a third decade of digital transformation. This shapes NYC Media Lab’s dual focus on accelerating innovation and creating dialogue around the ethics of new technologies, which was in turn reflected in the pitches we heard from two startups from the Lab’s network: StreetSmartsVR, who are building realistic and cost-effective VR training solutions for police departments to reduce police-citizen violence, and Semblance, who use mobile AR as a tool to ensure safe and rapid evacuations from buildings in life-threatening events of shootings or fires. We also heard from EEVOVR, a young startup democratizing immersive and interactive storytelling with their no-coding-required content creation suite.
The mission to eliminate entry barriers to VR and AR also emerged out of our visit to WebVR pioneers Datavized in the heart of Williamsburg. Co-founders Debra Anderson and Hugh McGrory outlined their vision for VR as a transformative extension of digital technology that allows us to access, explore and experience information from a first-person perspective. The implications of this, as we discovered, are manifold. The web will become spatialized, as 3D web pages and interfaces emerge alongside their 2D predecessors. Data representation will become tangible and productive, in the case of industrial applications of WebVR to medicine and finance, and intuitive and emotional, in the use of WebVR for democratized, drag-and-drop experience creation. Finally, VR will become ordinary, and as a result, creators can no longer rely on impressive technology as the justification for why their work matters. Just the accessibility of high-quality cameras to smartphone owner pushes today’s photographers to differentiate their work from the crowd through their artistic vision, tomorrow’s VR creators must be prepared to tell stories with a value that goes far beyond the hype surrounding their medium.
Day 2: Driving VR/AR innovation with NY’s VCs, Corporates & Accelerators | Tuesday 24th October
We began the second day of our program with another early start, this time joining The Glimpse Group, one of NYC’s biggest VR/AR holding companies with a diverse portfolio of startups. CTO Rod Recker shed light on what it takes for VR/AR companies to be a worthwhile investment, captured by the maxim that today, “cool is not enough”. A startup with solid answers to the questions of what their product really brings to people, how they reduce costs and how they envision developing their business is one that’s worth supporting, no matter how unconventional their idea is otherwise. Delegates road-tested a range of demos at the Glimpse Group HQ, from popping bubbles in VR for stress-management to solutions toward sharing MR experiences on social media.
Our next stop was Samsung NEXT, the corporate accelerator tasked with bringing software-focused innovation to the global hardware giant. Principal investor Christina Bechold Russ shared the thinking behind NEXT’s early-stage investment strategy with an eye to pre-emptively disrupting Samsung’s core business, and how their VR investments over the past decade fit into this picture. Aiming to help build the VR ecosystem from the ground up, NEXT seeks out the best company in each layer of the market to ensure that there are content and demand for VR/AR products by the time they launch. Jason Michas, Founder and CEO of Unclip, an immersive video-editing startup acquired this May by Samsung, gave us his take on the advantages of joining forces with a corporate, from international opportunities to exclusive access to new hardware. Looking forward, the coming years will see Samsung NEXT apply their ecosystem-building strategies in tech hubs across the globe, including Berlin.
The lessons about investing in VR/AR continued at German Accelerator, where CEO Christian Busch and Head of Operations Teddy Goldstein hosted us for a rooftop meeting to share their approach to helping German entrepreneurs take on the US market. With a network of 150 expert mentors across both coasts and alumni of over 150 companies in the past 6 years of the accelerator program, German Accelerator works to give scalable German startups with a seed round under their belt the go-to market strategy and soft landing they need to carve out their niche in the States. With the hype cycle around VR in the US passed two years ago, NYC companies are seeking companies with real revenue. Industrial and enterprise applications of AR along with products seeking to take advantage of NYC’s legacy industries undergoing a digital transformation, from e-Commerce to AdTech and FashionTech, have particular potential for the years to come.
After a quick group photo, we were off to up-and-coming immersive content distribution platform Littlstar, where community manager and VR Evangelist Matt Braly and Senior VP of Business and Legal Laura Jeffords Greenberg offered a fascinating look into their role for the future of immersive content. The details are under wraps for now so we can’t say more, but we did get to test out their Voyager VR!
We concluded the day by venturing back to Samsung NEXT for the October ARNY Meetup, where delegates Sven Haeberlein of Trotzkind and Martin Adam of menschortweb presented their work in VR and AR to a jam-packed crowd.
Day 3: Location-based VR and wrapping up the Trade Mission | Wednesday 25th October
After two full days of navigating all over Manhattan, Day 3 of the program gave us a chance to catch our breath with a tour of the VR World with Senior Director of Biz. Dev. Jonathan Elkoubi, offering us a peek into America’s largest VR experience center before opening hours. With a mix of immersive art, interactive horror and some of the world’s favourite VR experiences produced so far, VR World’s opening this year has marked the beginning of a mission to take immersive media mainstream, by offering thousands of individuals their first ever VR experiences.
We then made our way around the corner to the Empire State Building, where we debriefed on the Trade Mission over lunch, exploring what insights we gained and new ideas for future international delegations to connect Berlin-Brandenburg’s creators with the rest of the world.
The NYVR Expo and Conference | 26th-28th October
From Thursday to Saturday, several delegates stayed on to apply what they’d learnt about doing business NYC-style as attendees and speakers at the inaugural NYVR Expo and Conference at the Jacob Javits Center, catching up with some of our host companies and making new connections with startups and organisations from NYC and across the States.
We’d like to extend our thanks to media:net and the ERDF for making this Trade Mission possible, to all the fantastic NYC innovators that hosted our group and welcomed us to the ecosystem, and to our delegates as representatives of VR/AR innovation in Berlin-Brandenburg! It was a wonderful, action-packed and eye-opening week, and we can’t wait to see what’s in store for the future of Berlin-NY collaboration in immersive and interactive media!