Why Vancouver is a Global VR/AR Leader (and Why it Will Keep Growing)

By BrainStation October 23, 2018

It would have sounded surreal only a few years ago, but Vancouver has become a world leader in virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR).

And it happened fast, with a rapidly multiplying number of companies looking to Vancouver for the latest innovations in this futuristic technology.

“What’s happening is an explosion of VR and AR technology,” said Dan Burgar, President of the VR/AR Association Vancouver, who has worked in VR/AR for around four years.

“When I first started the VR/AR Association of Vancouver, there were maybe 15-20 companies in the space. Now, there are about 220-plus, and Vancouver’s listed as No. 2 in the world for VR/AR development. It’s just crazy where it’s at right now.”

If it still doesn’t feel real — or you want to understand how this happened so quickly — here are some of the reasons behind Vancouver’s VR/AR boom, and what it means for the future.

Vancouver’s Film, VFX, and Gaming Industries Paved the Way 

With the arrival of the Oculus Rift DK1 in 2013, VR became something of an obsession in the tech world, and Vancouver already had a solid foundation in place for tech jobs.

The city was also uniquely poised to become a major hub for the swiftly developing technology.

“With more than 17,000 people working in VFX and so many more in the creative industries, Vancouver is a virtual hothouse for the advancement of VR/AR,” said the B.C. Tech Association after consultation with Board members of the Cube society, adding that the city’s strong historic backbone in the gaming industry was a key factor.

“Large companies like EA and Microsoft have been key jumping-off points for VR/AR founders and leaders.”

Vancouver’s status alongside Toronto as “Hollywood North” certainly helped. The city’s bustling film production, VFX, and animation industries, along with that robust video-game production foundation, and the efforts of organizations like BC TechDigiBC, and VRARA, created perfect conditions for companies needing talent to learn a fledgling technology.

“A lot of these folks in those industries moving into building experiences for VR and AR, because those skills are quite transferrable,” Burgar said. “With that ecosystem already in place, some government funding and the different tax credits, that has helped turn us into a major hub.” 

So far, the VR, AR, and 3D space has already led to 17,000 new jobs and more than $2.3 billion in revenue for B.C. (For the uninitiated: the difference between VR and AR is that VR is immersive, while AR blends digital elements to a live view.)

Many Companies (and Industries) Are Involved 

Microsoft has indeed been “crucial” to the growth of the industry, notes Burgar, while Archiact and Finger Food were also an important part of “putting Vancouver on the map.”

But Vancouver’s booming scene spans many industries and different types of organizations. Precision OS brought together orthopedic surgeons and high-end game developers to create a realistic medical orthopedic simulator for training purposes. LlamaZOO uses VR/AR to communicate data in the mining, oil and forestry industries. LNG Studios specializes in bringing VR to the architecture and real-estate space.

“It’s interesting because you’ll find companies in every facet of the industry that are really building these experiences and really pushing Vancouver as the content capital of the world right now,” Burgar said.

Demand for VR/AR Talent is Creating Opportunities

Although we’ve covered how Vancouver was well-positioned to launch a robust VR/AR industry, the rapid growth in this area has threatened to drain the local talent pool dry.

A recent survey published by the B.C. Chamber of Commerce found that 66 percent of respondents replied that there was a general lack of qualified applicants in the region. The crunch might be felt particularly in the VR/AR realm. 

“As can be seen across the technology sector in the province, VR/AR firms from startup to scale-up are experiencing a talent shortage, with more open positions than there are workers,” the B.C. Tech Association said.

“Some good examples of growing companies that are actively hiring are: Archiact, FingerFood Studios, LlamaZOO, CloudHead Games, LNG Studios, Stambol Studios to name a few.”

The trouble, however, is finding people with the right backgrounds to fill those positions.

“The major issue is being able to train people as fast as possible because as the industry grows, we will run into a bit of a job shortage,” Burgar said. “We want to be able to both attract the best talent to Vancouver and build at the grassroots level. There are just a lot of opportunities for job-seekers and companies looking to move here.”

The VR/AR Market is Just Getting Started

Looking ahead, there’s little reason to believe Vancouver’s VR/AR boom will slow.

The Cube, a 6,000 square foot incubator, was recently established as the first VR/AR hub in Canada, ensuring a place for small and mid-sized AR/VR/MR companies looking to grow.

Even beyond the potential locally, there’s the broader expectation that the VR/AR industries more generally are on the cusp of exploding.

It was recently estimated that the VR/AR market will boom to $170 billion by 2022. This is stunning growth when you consider that it only broke the $1 billion barrier in recent years.

The technology is still maturing, but once it does, this boom could seem minor in comparison, and Vancouver tech professionals will be well-positioned to take advantage.

“We’re at the cusp of it right now,” Burgar said. “Companies are building enterprise solutions that will really drive this technology to the point where consumers are adopting. We think it’s about two-to-three years away from mass adoption. We’re very close.

“I see this only getting bigger and bigger.”