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City Wants to Fund Virtual-Reality 'Lab' to Propel NYC to Forefront

By Noah Hurowitz | December 15, 2016 11:59am | Updated on December 16, 2016 10:49am
 Maria Torres-Springer tries out a virtual-reality headset at a press conference announcing plans for a virtual-reality
Maria Torres-Springer tries out a virtual-reality headset at a press conference announcing plans for a virtual-reality "lab" in the city.
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DNAinfo/Noah Hurowitz

NEW YORK CITY — The city is looking to fund a virtual-reality development lab in a bid to propel the burgeoning industry in New York to the forefront, officials said Wednesday.

The project aims to create a hub to support the city’s fledgling virtual and augmented-reality companies and investors and help connect them with members of the academic community and create job-training programs, said Maria Torres-Springer, president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation.

Details on the project are not fully fleshed out, and will become more clear early next year when the city issues a request for proposals, Torres-Springer said. The “lab” could end up in any of the five boroughs, she added.

“There’s no specific geographical area we’re targeting for the lab, but we do want to make sure that wherever it’s located, it provides resources for entrepreneurs and residents of all five boroughs,” she said.

The VR/AR industry in New York has seen more than $50 million in investment in the past year, according to a statement from EDC, but the city lacks a central hub for companies to develop new technology, bring together innovators and investors, and find ways to use the technology in a variety of ways, Torres-Springer said.

Torres-Springer said the hope is that the VR/AR industry will launch far beyond its current use in video games and entertainment, and help make advances in other industries that are cornerstones of the city’s economy.

“One of the things I’ve heard in learning about the city’s nascent, emerging VR sector is it has the capacity to be the fourth major platform shift in tech, if you think about the predecessors being the PC, the web, and mobile, and now hopefully to VR/AR,” she said. “It has the capacity to disrupt our anchor industries like including healthcare, education, real estate, retail, and entertainment."

Among the companies getting started on virtual reality in New York is Datavized, a Brooklyn firm that is experimenting with new ways to use virtual reality to present data.

In one display at Wednesday's press conference, the company's chief technology officer, Brian Chirls, showed a virtual-reality video in which census data on race was displayed as multi-colored dots above New York. As the viewer moved through the city, demographic shifts became clear based on the color of the dots.

Datavized co-founder and CEO Hugh McGrory echoed Torres-Springer's comments on the contributions virtual reality could bring to the city's economy, as well as the cultural landscape.

“The last time an enabling technology like this hit New York was the boombox, and the minute the boombox dropped below $100, we got hip-hop,” McGrory said.

EDC plans to release a request for proposals in early 2017 for the project, which will be a public/private partnership, with EDC pledging up to $6 million, but hoping to get a contractor who is able to raise considerable private funds for the lab, Torres-Springer said.

“We’re putting in seed money that will attract other funding,” she said. “One thing we’ll be looking at with proposals is how much funding respondents can leverage, either philanthropically, from other sources, it’s a model we think is very successful.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote a from a representative of Datavized.