When you think about American VR/AR technology centers, where do you think of first? California? New York? How about Orlando?
Defense, simulation, education, and entertainment come together in Central Florida like they do no place else. While Orlando has been a technology center for decades, it might also be a VR/AR technology center.
These Things Take Time
The history of Orlando as a technology center goes back to the early days of the space program and earlier.
“People know the Disney story in Orlando,” Orlando Economic Partnership (OEP) CEO and President Tim Giuliani told ARPost in a phone interview. “At the same time that Disney was choosing Orlando and building their theme parks here, we were going to space and Orlando is in that story too.”
The Orlando area is also home to a number of colleges and universities including Valencia College, Full Sail University, and the University of Central Florida. However, our story begins a little more recently.
“Our technology community over the years was very grassroots. Over the last few years, the Orlando Tech Council came together through the Orlando Economic Partnership,” said Giuliani. I know it looks like this happened overnight, but I assure you, these things took time.”
“The tech community here is rather diverse. It’s in many different sectors and is geographically distributed. The Tech Council really serves as a convening body,” said Giuliani.
One organization that the Orlando Tech Council played host to fairly early, in 2017, was the VR/AR Association.
“We wanted to use the Association as a way to get companies to share information but we also wanted to use the Association to get those companies noticed outside of the area,” VR/AR Association Orlando Chapter President John Cunningham said in a phone interview with ARPost.
The VR/AR Association and the OEP
In 2017, Cunningham worked for Disti, a virtual maintenance training company specializing in aviation and based in Orlando. Cunningham was becoming increasingly interested in the extended reality aspect and regularly attended specialized trade shows.
“Every time I went to a conference, there were people from this group called the VR/AR Association. After three or four of these conferences, I realized that these people at the VR/AR Association were the most knowledgeable people in the industry and I wondered why we didn’t have a chapter in Orlando,” said Cunningham.
The kind of benefit that Cunningham was after required people from different backgrounds with different specializations and viewpoints. Most of the people that he knew in AR and VR were in defense. So, he reached out to the Orlando Tech Council.
“Just through the network down here, I was immediately connected with ten or more industry leaders interested in AR and VR,” said Cunningham. “[VR/AR] really is one of those rare technologies that addresses every industry.”
Cunningham started the Orlando chapter of the VR/AR Association. While he is now the Head of Government Solutions for Unity, Disti remains a member – Disti’s Global Managing Director is the chapter’s marketing director. Members of the OEP and the Orlando Tech Council also sit on the chapter’s Advisory Board.
“A lot of [OEP] organizations have been involved in promoting us and bringing us requests. It’s been a very two-way partnership,” said Cunningham. “It’s really an ecosystem-building partnership.”
The Red 6 Tech Hub
“There is really a number of reasons why we chose Orlando, why we chose Florida,” Red 6 CFO Maissan Almaskati said in a phone interview with ARPost. “It offers an ecosystem that is well-established around certain technologies that are critical to our operation.”
Red 6 is an extended reality simulation company offering an “airborne tactical augmented reality system” featuring “unlimited synthetic training against near-peer adversaries.” Right now, that means pilot training that is significantly safer, less expensive, and more adaptable than conventional training methods for the same skills and scenarios.
“Red 6 was really set up to solve a particular problem that was coming at the U.S. Air Force and broader defense sector when it comes to training,” said Almaskati. Beyond saving time and money, the platform allows trainees to face off against digital versions of an airplane when they don’t have access to a physical version.
The company is based in California but recently announced the opening of a tech hub in the Orlando area. They’re only the most recent organization to do so.
“A company that is in California like Red 6 that is trying to evaluate the tech community here can very quickly see what that looks like,” said Giuliani. “Red 6 talked to a number of members of our Tech Council about what the talent pool looks like.”
Similar cases include Luminar, who worked with Unity to create open-source LiDar models of Volvo Cars. A VR/AR technology company going to Orlando says a lot about the company and it says a lot about Orlando.
“Someone like Red 6, who clearly has a compelling solution, they need to scale and scale fast,” said Cunningham. “Red 6 coming to Orlando validates that this is a very developed and mature industry here.”
It’s true, the reasons that Almaskati gave for Red 6 choosing Orlando included the cost of living and operation, and the concentration of defense offices. However, the company is waiting for its tech hub to open its doors before officially getting involved with organizations like the Orlando VR/AR Association and the Orlando Tech Council.
“Memberships into those organizations will make sense once we’re up and running locally,” said Almaskati. “Most of our partnerships have been with the area’s academic institutions.”
Road Trip, Anyone?
Part of this story is history. It’s safe to argue that Orlando has never gotten the credit that it deserves for fostering groundbreaking technology.
However, most of this story hasn’t happened yet. Organizations like the OEP, the VR/AR Association, companies like Red 6, Luminar, and the Orlando educational institutions, and the larger community are building the future of a generation of science and computing that has yet to fully materialize.