The innovation bubbling across Metro Vancouver spurred Tam to act. Recognizing the wealth of potential offered by the Lower Mainland’s companies, the then B.C. Tech president spearheaded a push toward setting up an incubator for the region’s VR and AR businesses. It would be a place to nurture early-stage companies, and allow them access to the partnership-ready Cascadia Innovation Corridor: the swath of land that connects Metro Vancouver to goliaths Amazon and Microsoft in Seattle. The workspace was dubbed the Cube.
“B.C. Tech has always been committed to making our province the best place to grow a technology business,” he says. “We’ve supported developing companies for many years by providing acceleration, mentorship, and a whole range of services to connect aspiring entrepreneurs with the resources and coaching to help them to succeed. The Cube in many respects was an extension of that, but hyperfocused on augmented and virtual reality.”
Opened in October 2017 by dignitaries including minister of innovation, science and economic development Navdeep Bains, B.C. minister of jobs, trade and technology Bruce Ralston, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, and director of Microsoft Vancouver Edoardo De Martin, the Cube was created so that startups can share new developments. Offering workshops and training from local education hubs such as BCIT, as well as speaker sessions on topics like how to raise capital, the Railtown workplace proved a breakout success. Within months, it had run out of desk space.
“I think the Cube tapped into a vein of passion for many,” Tam says. “It’s a place where people can experiment with development techniques, and help each other along the way. We have the benefit of being a small enough city to have a tight-knit, community feel, almost like a village, and yet be able to together create an industry that can compete on a world stage. It’s important for us to nurture that.”
The power of partnerships
In Tam’s view, Metro Vancouver’s strength in VR and AR is based on collaboration. While other tech sectors are notoriously aggressive and cutthroat, the Lower Mainland’s virtual- and augmented-reality ecosystem thrives on cross-pollination. Developments in the trade come fast, and homegrown businesses are constantly adapting to everything from new hardware releases to breakthroughs in 3-D coding. Understanding that Metro Vancouver’s ranking as a world leader is dependent on multiple companies succeeding, the local industry embraces cooperation.
But while Tam focuses on promoting collaboration within the region, industry thought leader Dan Burgar stretches that concept further. As president of the Vancouver chapter of the VR/AR Association—a worldwide organization that links companies working in virtual and augmented reality—Burgar believes that the Lower Mainland’s success comes from its ability to connect across international borders, and to network with companies outside of the tech sector. In both areas, the district is excelling.
“Vancouver is the model chapter of the VR/AR Association,” he tells the Straight on the line from his office, pointing out that his outlet includes members from across the Lower Mainland. “There are branches in countries as far-flung as New Zealand, Russia, and the UAE, but with our talent pool from the visual-effects and gaming sector, we’re the fastest growing division in the whole organization.
“Five years ago, VR and AR was nonexistent in the Lower Mainland,” he continues. “Even in 2015, there were probably just a handful of companies, maybe 10 to 15, working in the space. Now we have upward of 150. We’ve gained a lot of ideas from talking to other international chapters. Our proximity to San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland has been a driver for a lot of business-to-business enterprise development, and it’s only going to get bigger from here. I think 2018 is the year when Vancouver really spreads its wings.”
Growth in Vancouver’s division of the VR/AR Association is exploding partly because of Burgar’s vision. As well as welcoming VR and AR companies, the president reaches out to organizations that are set to be disrupted by the technology. Connecting with industries from fashion to fitness—both of which are being transformed by VR and AR apps—Vancouver’s chapter helps firms plan for the upcoming restructuring on their own terms. By linking local virtual- and augmented-reality companies with clients in their own region, business is booming.
But despite his efforts, many industries have yet to realize how VR and AR will transform their business models. Pitches and discussions can only go so far in describing the technology, and convincing companies to invest with just a portfolio of screenshots is no mean feat. To realize his goal of mainstream acceptance for virtual and augmented reality, Burgar believes it’s vital to put more executives in headsets.
“It can be really difficult to understand what the technology is without experiencing it yourself,” he says. “That was definitely the case for me. I was at a tech conference in Barcelona with a company I was working at. I saw that a booth actually had one of those strange VR headsets. I put it on, and it was this weird cooking and cleaning app. Suddenly it transformed this seemingly mundane task into something really fun, and I was completely immersed in this virtual world. As soon as I saw the technology, I knew it would change everything.”
With its strong connections between VR and AR developers and professionals in different sectors, Metro Vancouver has carved a niche in the business-to-business space. Advancements in firefighting techniques, architectural design, and visualizing oil pipelines are a few of the many ideas currently in development by local companies. Burgar believes that finding solutions with the potential to transform industries, like those demonstrated by Lower Mainland outfits, will drive VR and AR adoption by businesses around the globe.
“Imagine being in a foreign land where you don’t know the language,” he says. “It’s super tough to get around. Now imagine having AR glasses that can automatically translate all the words that you see. Or picture walking down the street, and having flashing arrows on the road showing you which direction to go. That’s becoming a reality. On the VR side, already companies like Walmart are using virtual reality to train their workers at home. Surgeons are operating on bodies in virtual theatres to give them the muscle memory to make incisions on real patients.
“We’re going to see a huge drive in education, training, and use by different industries,” he continues. “VR and AR are going to totally change the way we communicate in the next three or so years. We think that for the next one to three years, enterprise is going to drive the technology. As the prices drop, we’ll see consumer adoption follow. Vancouver is a leader in creating those solutions.”
Expertise in the business-to-business field
One of the industries where Metro Vancouver’s VR and AR companies are already excelling is the mining sector. A trade that relies on collecting data from huge archives—an area where the region shines—mining has already seen many multimillion-dollar firms use the technology to streamline their planning processes. By allowing those businesses to examine huge amounts of information visually, local companies like LlamaZOO and Finger Food offer the tools to simplify designing new mines.
Currently, much of the information used to draw up mine plans exists in different formats. Complex and unwieldy, the data is tough to read, particularly for upper-level executives and government officials who are often not trained to interpret files like technical CAD drawings or maps. In order to secure their permits, mine developers must lease the land from local authorities, and the challenge of understanding the information holds up an already slow process. Typically, it can take up to four years to get a site approved.
LlamaZOO, a leading VR and AR company with offices in both Vancouver and Victoria, has created software that can shave six months off that time.
“We have a program called MineLife VR,” Kevin Oke, cofounder and VP of sales for the company, tells the Straight in a downtown coffee shop. “It lets people visit a mine site in virtual reality. You can look at the area at its life size, and zoom in and out. You can easily compare historical, current, and future data for the site, including the locations of pits, drill holes, ore bodies, and infrastructure. The way that we’ve combined big 3-D data sets and geospatial information is really engaging and easy to access.
“Instead of physically flying people up to a site—which is terrible for a company’s carbon footprint, has major safety risks attached to it, involves big insurance costs, and needs careful scheduling—you just need to put on a VR headset,” he continues. “You can determine things like where you want the pit, what angle to position a ramp, and how wide to make a bench. We’ve got a collaboration feature, so you might be in Peru at the mine, and I might be in the Vancouver office, and we would virtually both be together at the site, at its one-to-one scale, totally immersed in it. By putting all the data in one place, and not having to send people to a physical location, you can save a lot of time and money.”