A group of companies, academic institutions and government agencies have united in an effort to make Atlanta the hub of the burgeoning virtual reality industry.

When many people think of virtual reality (VR), they think of old flight simulators, video games or Google Glass. But uses of the technology and its cousin, augmented reality (AR), are rapidly multiplying in a variety of industries from entertainment to commercial real estate, from marketing to retail to manufacturing.

Hollywood is known for making movies, Silicon Valley is known for venture capital and turning out the latest new technologies, but no city has succeeded in making virtual reality its trademark, said Chad Eikhoff, founder of animation studio Trick 3D. But thanks to Georgia’s booming film industry, wealth of savvy tech companies and a core group of committed residents, Atlanta has a real opportunity to position itself as the place for VR.

“Georgia is primed to be in that place because we are technical, creative, inherently entrepreneurially spirited and we have this experience with the [film and entertainment] tax incentive,” Eikhoff said. “Instead of playing catch-up as we had to do with film and saying, ‘let’s convince an existing market to move here,’ right now is the time to build the market and be the leader right out front.”

Last November, a group called Georgia VR was founded to try to achieve this goal. It includes schools such as Georgia State University and Georgia Tech, governmental bodies such as the Georgia Department of Economic Development and companies from many industries, including Georgia Power, Trick 3D and CNN.

Georgia VR’s members are already using the technology in innovative ways for themselves and their clients. Atlanta-based marketing agency Moxie, for instance, dedicates its ‘FutureX’ lab to identifying emerging technologies and then exposing the company’s clients to them to show how they can influence business. The lab’s leaders, John Rich and Jerry Hudson, build prototypes that are eventually developed into advertising and marketing tools.

Atlanta-based Moe’s Southwest Grill noticed AR posters at Moxie’s offices and commissioned its own, which now hang in nearly all of the chain’s restaurants. Customers can open the Moe’s app and point it at the poster to watch it come alive. The interactive posters, which feature artfully arranged Moe’s ingredients, move and produce sound effects when you touch them on the screen.

“Moe’s saw it and thought this could be a great thing while people are waiting in line to order, so they can have a fun experience and be entertained,” Rich said. “What’s really cool about AR is everyone has a smartphone.”

But retail brands aren’t the only parties leveraging VR and AR.

The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) created a VR experience that gives potential convention planners a virtual tour of the city.

“Our primary application for this was to sell our convention business,” said ACVB Chief Marketing Officer Andrew Wilson. “We get meeting planners in town and, depending on their needs, show them the venues, facilities and hotels. The problem is they go home and have to present to their board and association and become an advocate for us. We wanted to create a tool to help.”

Rather than using video as some cities, countries and businesses have opted to do, it chose still photography because the organization found many video VR experiences “inadequate,” Wilson said.

“The challenge everyone is facing is how resource-intensive true VR is, because you have to render an environment to make it look as real as possible so people don’t get nauseated and disoriented,” Wilson said.

ACVB has since opened up its virtual tour for consumers. It is also beta testing personalized experiences to send home with meeting planners so they can show their boards the same city tour in VR.

“Nobody’s done this in the world,” Wilson said of the personalized tours.

Trick 3D creates both commercial and original entertainment, some of which uses VR. Six years ago, it created “An Elf’s Story” based on the Christmas tradition The Elf on the Shelf, and every holiday season since, the animated special has landed at No. 1 on iTunes. Trick 3D’s corporate clients include The Coca-Cola Co., Cartoon Network, Aflac and Delta Air Lines Inc., for whom it has created VR experiences showing what it will look like to board jets that don’t yet exist.

In 2016, Trick 3D rolled out Floorplan Revolution, a tool marketed to developers that takes renderings to the next level.

“Floorplan Revolution is the idea of applying digital assets to unbuilt homes, apartments and condos,” said Eikhoff. “The majority of homes being built will show you floor plans and maybe a couple of still images on their website. This takes the floor plan and turn it into a digital space online or on touch screens.”

Floorplan Revolution is a growing part of Eikhoff’s business. In the coming months, Trick 3D will be working with Pinewood Forrest, a 234-acre mixed-use development underway adjacent to Pinewood Atlanta Studios in Fayetteville, Ga.

Next Eikhoff plans to market the tool to retail companies.

“One you have your virtual home, you’ll be able to see virtual products,” Eikhoff said. “When you’re shopping for a couch, instead of looking for a model couch in a showroom, flipping through a book, trying to visualize it and then going home to measure, you can be in that empty space and see it all.”

VIMTrek is an Atlanta-based virtual technology company that creates photorealistic 3D models of real world locations for use in architecture, urban planning and historic preservation. In partnership with the National Monuments Foundation, it created digital models of Moscow’s The Puskin Museum and Sagrera, a train station in Barcelona.

Closer to home, VIMTrek used the technology to render a planned 16-acre park in Vine City, which breaks ground March 7. The park is a reimagining of Historic Mims Park, a 19th century space originally designed by the famed Olmstead brothers and eventually overtaken by a public school. The land slated for the new park, to be called Rodney Cook Sr. Park, is mostly vacant, because the homes that once stood on it were damaged in a 2002 flood and subsequently acquired and torn down by the city.

“It’s a very distressed neighborhood, and they were hostile initially,” said Rodney Cook, VIMTrek partner. “Then we started to show them virtually what they had before in the 1890s. We were able to virtualize what they did have and what they want now. It’s taken five years to get to the groundbreaking, but VR made it happen.”

With help from a $22.5 million grant from the Woodruff Foundation, Georgia State University is renovating a former SunTrust Banks Inc. office building across the street from Woodruff Park into the new Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII).

One of the center’s focuses will be alternate realities, including an immersive cave for VR experiences sans headsets, an interactive public screen lab, rentable headsets of multiple brands and sensor-based motion capture suits. The institute’s grand opening is fall 2017, and Elizabeth Strickler, director of media entrepreneurship and innovation at GSU, said the university is hoping the building will become Atlanta’s VR hub.

“We’re benefiting from a time in Atlanta where all the pieces are coming together — the benefits of the tax credit, the city leadership, the desire to make Atlanta a digital capital and the downtown scene,” said David Cheshier, director of GSU’s CMII.

GSU hosted its first-ever VR Day ATL conference Jan. 12, and Moxie’s VentureX lab has hosted VR conferences for the past two years. Next year the two will combine for a three-day conference to gather companies and organizations from around the world to discuss the latest the technology has to offer.

Jeff Levy, managing director of Nektr, a boutique digital media agency, who also teaches part time at GSU, pitched the conference to the university last year because the timing seemed perfect.

“What other city has CMII going on?” Levy said. “And we have a greater talent pool of VR anywhere, maybe save for Los Angeles.”

Paris, Australia and Vancouver are also trying to make a play to be VR centers, Eikhoff said. But Georgia VR and its annual conference are a big step in making Atlanta’s VR expertise known.

“Government, higher education, large companies, start-ups and quasi-government types of things like the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Central Atlanta Progress are all working together now to help make Atlanta a place where VR and AR content and technology can be created,” Levy said. “I think it’s a very promising, very exciting part of the overall tech landscape in Atlanta and throughout the state.”

KNOW YOUR ALTERNATE REALITIES

  • Virtual Reality: Replaces your world with a virtual one
  • Augmented Reality: The real world with digital objects inserted
  • Mixed Reality: A blend of AR and VR

Mixed reality is a concept that even experts struggle to define. At its simplest, MR is the real world with virtual objects seamlessly incorporated by positioning them according to actual objects, so it looks as if the digital objects are actually there.

Ellie Hensley is an entertainment, health care and general assignment reporter.

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