Is New Rochelle Becoming An Augmented-Reality Hotspot?

With the emerging commercialization of augmented and virtual reality, New Rochelle is hoping to capitalize on its assets — a close-to-NYC location, plenty of available office and studio space, and attractive housing — to get in on the ground floor of this burgeoning industry.

A new nonprofit, IDEA New Rochelle (Interactive Digital Environments Alliance), will use underutilized real estate in the downtown area to provide startups, artists, and technologists with the space and equipment for immersive technology. IDEA New Rochelle emerged from a partnership between Amelia Winger-Bearskin, an artist and creative director, and Ralph DiBart, the executive director of the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District (BID).

“In 2016, we pursued a number of art-related initiatives,” says DiBart. He discovered Winger-Bearskin, reached out, and the two began to brainstorm. They spent the next nine months researching, looking at spaces and extensively networking.

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The Summit was sponsored by Consign it on Main and Sweet Preserves at their store at 542 Main Street and participating Dine Downtown New Rochelle restaurants. 

For Winger-Bearskin, New Rochelle has everything that might be on a technologist’s or artist’s wish list. “There’s the residency space, the proximity to the city if you have meetings with gallerists or investors,” she notes. Real estate prices in New York City often end up pricing technologists out of the market and into Los Angeles, she says, so keeping innovators on the East Coast requires the right spaces for them to experiment. “New Rochelle has the space and the people behind the initiative,” she says.

IDEA New Rochelle gives smaller startups and individuals the space and resources to experiment and test out new technology. “Smaller startups might get funding from bigger companies [such as Facebook, Google and Apple] to do more research,” says Winger-Bearskin, “but they still need access to certain facilities.”

“Being so close to New York City can be a double-edged sword,” adds DiBart. With it so well-established as a capital of the arts, immersive technology is a niche field. There are very few facilities, and most are tied to universities.

So far, IDEA has created studio space and a three-bedroom apartment in the second floor of the New Rochelle train station as a live-work space for artists and technologists. The nonprofit will expand into other spaces in the area — a black box theater, studio space, and hopefully an interactive museum.

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In August, DiBart and Winger-Bearskin hosted a summit of leaders in immersive technology – independent designers, people from companies such as Facebook, and startup founders. The summit consisted of panels in immersive technology, talks from Emmy-nominated virtual reality directors, workshops, and immersive technology performances from the attendees.

A New Roc City space that will be one of two maker spaces.

“We wanted to see if we build it, will they come? This community really wants to develop their own community,” says DiBart.

IDEA hopes to foster endeavors into augmented and virtual reality and digital fabrication. Despite the alien names, these are things that are already being incorporated into daily life: The video game Pokémon Go blends virtual reality with the physical world to produce augmented reality. Digital fabrication, such as 3-D printing, allows for rapid-prototyping in smaller startups, producing one-off products for beta-testing.

New Rochelle is unique in the way it’s supporting immersive technology at the ground level, say DiBart and Winger-Bearskin. “The purchase of Oculus [virtual reality hardware] by Facebook made everyone open their eyes and go ‘wow,’” says Winger-Bearskin. “All these major companies are purchasing augmented reality teams; we’ve got to take notice.”

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The future of immersive technology is “true interaction with a larger audience,” stepping beyond the isolated experience of putting on a virtual reality headset, Winger-Bearskin explains. “We’re right at the beginning of this movement, getting in at the bottom of an industry.”


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