While they build digital worlds, Vancouver’s VR/AR leaders reflect on the world around them

Innovators in the space chat catalyzing moments, community and what’s left to do.

Staff Writer for Vancouver Tech Journal is not the only time I’ve been under the tutelage of William Johnson. In 2016, he hired me as a co-op student at the crown agency now known as Innovate BC. Shortly after my hire, our CEO purchased an HTC Vive, a high-end VR headset, and equipped it to the utmost in video gaming capabilities in the office lunchroom. Like clockwork, once the device was operational, I had a meeting request from William.

I walk in to find this scene: my boss, quite literally, in another reality. William, the consummate professional, did indeed go over my weekly goals and set some new targets while in VR. A dynamo, even then. Unbeknownst to me, years before the Metaverse was en vogue, I was playing VR video games in what is estimated as the second grandest ecosystem for the technology not in Canada or North America but in the world, which is a rather large place. 

Dan Burgar, the president and founder of the Vancouver VR/AR Association, told me this when he and I chatted via Zoom last summer. I wish I had a more eloquent response. “Holy, shit,” was all I mustered. “Yeah, that’s what everyone says,” Burgar replied, before giving me a quick history lesson.

“[Vancouver] has a 40-year legacy in film, visual effects, animation, video games—those industries are so prevalent in Vancouver. There’s tonnes of talent here. I saw very quickly that a lot of the talent was moving on to create their own VR/AR companies. That was something that I was really excited about. What I wanted to do was bring the community together because I saw this soup of merging talents building in the 3D, virtual reality and augmented reality worlds,” he told me.

Seeing all the ingredients start to amalgamate, Burgar turned up the burner. “So, I started the Vancouver VR/AR Association. It really cultivates community building and connects startups with the mentorship they need to scale and find funding. It also really gets Vancouver on the map as one of the top hubs in the world,” he said. Burgar estimates that the 15 or so local companies he encountered when he took over as president have grown to about 250 companies now.

Counting startups and innovators is a tricky pursuit, akin to herding cats. While it’s difficult to quantify Vancouver’s output, its rich history here is unquestioned. To learn more about Vancouver’s place as a world leader, like a tourist in my own city, I asked a local—Burgar, in this case—to play tour guide. He helped me fill my Zoom calendar so I could learn more about the local space.

Meet the locals

There was Alen Paul Silverrstieen, the CEO of Vancouver-headquartered Imagine AR, a company that helps brands create mobile AR campaigns, like their recent work with Brazilian soccer team Clube Atlético Mineiro. I also chatted with healthtech leaders Angela Robert and Dr. Danny Goel, founders of Conquer Experience and Precision OS respectively, whose training tools are executed through VR so nurses and surgeons can use the simulator to help them prepare for real-life surgeries. There was also Vivian Chan, a mover and shaker with two decades in the local VR/AR space, most recently as the general manager of Nextech AR. Then, of course, Burgar, a champion of the space on a local and global scale.  

Like most conversations a tourist engages in, my chat with Silverrstieen turned to food. Silverrstieen currently lives in Erie, Pennsylvania but misses a certain Vancouver restaurant. “I lived in Vancouver a few years ago on West Pender. As a matter of fact, my favorite Chinese restaurant in the entire world is in Vancouver. With those hand-tossed noodles, Peaceful. It was game over. Best I ever had. Wherever I've gone, I still go, ‘Goddamn,’” he salivated. 

But, it’s not just the cuisine that draws Silverrstieen and his counterparts into building such a robust space here. I quickly found that a rich history across multiple industries and a strong community with some uniquely Vancouver characteristics has acted as a magnet.  

From film and VFX to VR

One such characteristic is Vancouver’s history related to film and virtual effects. “In Vancouver, you have a huge base of VFX shops and movie companies,” Silverrstieen shared. “That's really where [ImagineAR] originally started. As I came in, I kind of repurposed the company—for lack of a better word—and reoriented it into tech, because the movie business is a hard, challenging business as a public company. It's very difficult to build a recurring revenue-type business, not everyone’s Lionsgate.” 

“With all the VFX studios, there's a rich history of that in town,” Dr. Goel said. “They all dovetail very nicely into what we do with VR and AR,” Dr. Goel said, before sharing that Hollywood shows up to support Holywood North. “We get support from our US colleagues because they're up here filming movies and stuff like that. So, that lends itself to breeding more and more talent in this space.”

It’s in the game

In addition to film and hardware development, gaming has a rich history in Vancouver that lends itself to the rapid growth of VR/AR.

“It really is the catalyst to grow this robust talent base in VR/AR,” Burgar shared. “It’s companies like EA that have been here for so many years that have fed so much talent. Even CEOs, you'll see their resumes or their LinkedIn profiles and they’ll all have EA at some point. It's pretty cool to see even CEOs that are building enterprise VR companies, they've had their foray from EA, which is really interesting.”

Case in point: Angela Robert.

“Ever since I was a kid, I was always interested in different ways of simulating the real world,” Robert said. “Software is part of that, video games are a part of that. I ended up going to school for computer science at Waterloo. After that, I was able to get a job building sports games at Electronic Arts. That felt like a huge winner for my aspirations at the time. Vancouver's just so well-positioned because of our video game industry. So many people understand technology and how to create experiences. [VR/AR] is just a different platform.”

This passion for simulations manifested for Robert in her company and their product, PeriopSim. It’s been a banner year for the company. “In just the last couple of months, we celebrated a couple of big milestones. One is over 100,000 simulations on our platform by 2,000 learners. Then, we're also being used in over 150 sites, such as schools and hospitals,” Robert justifiably boasted.

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Physical reality

Robert wrapped up our chat by shouting out local entrepreneurs. “In Vancouver, just in general, there's a really healthy startup scene with lots of support for tech entrepreneurs. That is really huge,” a sentiment that was echoed by Chan who said “I think we have really, really smart people here.”

For Dr. Goel, the community is paramount, even within his own team: “This is definitely a team effort. Being CEO, you're the face to media and you're writing articles, doing presentations. But that’s one thing that I certainly note is that we have, with my two co-founders, a massive team behind all this, both technical and non-technical to make us achieve where we are today, to get to where we are going,” Dr. Goel emphasized.

“The reason why Vancouver has been such a big hub is the people, people like Dan Burgar who really push the envelope. Talking about companies that are creating content in Vancouver, wherever he travels on a global scale is a very, very big deal,” he continued. 

Multitude of multinationals

When Silverrstieen was looking for solutions to turn ImagineAR into the company it is today, he came across an international piece of hardware with a humble, Vancouver-based origin. “One of the board of advisors was doing some AR stuff, initially from the Microsoft HoloLens,” Silverrstieen recalled. 

I was thrilled by the Hololens anecdote as it represented another Vancouver connection. The Hololens was built in Microsoft’s Vancouver offices and the Seattle computing superpower has continued to invest in the local ecosystem.

The intro via the Hololens to AR stuck with Silverrstieen. “I realized that's the direction we wanted to head into. I felt that was going to be a significant opportunity. Taking the creative side from the movie industry, which I have a background in, and understanding how to apply special effects we have access to in the world of 3D with AR delivered on mobile handsets and headsets. So, it was natural to put the two together and then build from there,” Silverrstieen reflected.

“Then, we have big companies like Microsoft here, Apple’s here and Amazon's here now, so it's just we become a hub for that type of person and that skill set,” Dr. Goel agreed. Why would those huge companies want to set up shop here? “Vancouver is a fantastic place to live. It's an international hub, you get everything from the mountains to the ocean. And so when you put it all together, it's a really ideal package for what we're about to deliver in the space,” Dr. Goel said about the contributions of multinationals. 

Higher education’s higher learnings in practice

Part of Vancouver’s appeal as an international hub status relates to the local universities, something Chan knows intimately.  

She was hired by Simon Fraser University to launch SFU Innovates, the institution’s innovation, research entrepreneurship strategy. She was asked to understand the ecosystem of faculty, teachers and researchers working in VR/AR. “The surprise finding for me after doing that research and meeting with, I would say, close to 30 different researchers, was that there was a researcher in every single faculty minus one. They were all solving different problems. It was this moment where I thought, ‘Wow, this cuts across everything.’ It's a platform technology, it's a way of experiencing things. It's not a singular activity so it really opened my eyes,” Chan recalled. 

After experiencing this at one institution, Chan was curious to see if this energy existed at others. She started to meet with additional schools—UVic, BCIT, Capilano University, UBC—and found a similarly robust ecosystem. It was very exciting to realize that what was happening at SFU was happening at other institutions,” Chan told me. 

“I think the next part is we have to continue to educate and foster the young people who want to go into this industry into schools, like, the Centre for Digital Media, VFS, BCIT, SFU, UBC,” Dr. Goel shared. “I think having programs like that at universities would make a lot of sense. I think that's one of the next steps, that we continue to foster that technology piece.”

Future realities

As the local leaders looked to the future, large-scale events such as Global Summit (this is a shot from the 2019 iteration) were touted as stepping stones.

As the local VR/AR leaders look to the future, they crafted a pseudo to-do list for local innovators to ensure the space continues to grow. “It's a great place to start a business,” Chan said of Vancouver. “But, it’s a hard place to scale it. I was in San Francisco, New York, London. We need to believe that we're going to be the world's best. We have to solve, sometimes, bigger problems. You’re seeing that ambition with all the unicorns, right? So, I always say this to entrepreneurs: ‘do not sell your company for $20 million, please. It's worth more.’ We live in such a great environment for creation. We need to think bigger. That's my big ask,” Chan shared. 

Dr. Goel hopes to see Vancouver grow as an International hub. “So I think the city's already taking appropriate steps to take it to the next level. The Global Summit, which has been happening here for years, is a really good step in the right direction. Number two is to convene a host of big events like that, which broaden the experience for people traveling to Vancouver. I think that, for me, is a really good step,” Dr. Goel shared. 

Burgar supplemented Dr. Goel’s call for something folks from elsewhere can flock to with a nod to the need of a home for locals. “Vancouver needs a beacon in the city, an innovation hub that encompasses all frontier technologies. So, not just VR/AR but AI, quantum, blockchain, eSports—have that all under one roof. Not only would all these companies be able to rub shoulders to collaborate on projects but also pair up with corporates and investors. I think that would be massive for innovation and growth in our city,” he said.

Examples of these exist elsewhere, including Newlab in New York and STATION F in Paris. Burgar knows how pivotal a Vancouver version would be. “I think that would be huge, especially with this technology, because it's still in the fourth or fifth inning. There's still a lot of the ballgame to be played and you need to really embrace it, build it up, and incubate it and then—when it's ready for the masses—that's really when we'll see it be on this concrete foundation rather than stills,” Burgar continued.

With baseball now on my brain, I can’t help but feel confident in Vancouver’s ballclub. A robust legacy from the film, VFX and gaming industries has bled into a new generation poised to stamp the city’s name on the world stage. From healthtech simulations to engaging AR applications, local innovators are leading the charge of frontier tech. It’s all tied together by a community that’s unwavering in its commitment to ensuring local companies are given the attention and credit they deserve. VR/AR in Vancouver is a home run.

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