Tech it out! Virtual-reality hub opens in Navy Yard

Reality: Renderings show what the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s new virtual- and augmented-reality hub, which opened last week, will look like once workers finish its expansion as soon as next spring.
New York University Tandon School of Engineering

A new hub offering virtual- and augmented-reality experiences to students and professionals opened at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Wednesday, funded by a multi-million-dollar investment from the city that officials said is worth every penny because the space will produce the future leaders of the fast-developing industry.

“All of you know what a rapidly growing sector augmented and virtual reality is,” said Julie Menin, the head of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, which ponied up some of the taxpayer dollars the city kicked in to build the facility. “We’re really looking to capitalize on that growth in startups in this field and most importantly ensuring we create a pipeline of talent to enter in these fields.”

Menin’s agency and the Economic Development Corporation doled out $5.6 million to fund the so-called RLab that Mayor DeBlasio last year tapped leaders of New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, headquartered in America’s Downtown, to create and run.

Officials and academics joined roughly two dozen creators of virtual- and augmented-reality demonstrations, the latter of which superimpose computer-generated images on something a person is actually looking at, for the center’s grand opening, where eggheads from media company Viacom, publisher the New York Times, New York University, and several startups showed off their programs.

The simulations included one that let users become a black man in order to experience implicit racism; another that gave users a taste of the leap wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s took from a super-tall tower in his recent flick, “Skyscraper;” and a third that let users dissect a human body, which this reporter attempted before deciding she should not quit her day job.

The programs exhibited at the opening event show how virtual reality can help students and professionals outside of the tech industry grow in their chosen careers, too, by practicing such nerve-wracking tasks as cutting open a human body before they are required to take scalpel to skin in real life, according to Menin.

“There are applications in the health-care field, having medical students use augmented and virtual reality to conduct surgeries without literally spilling a drop of blood, as well as in design and architecture,” she said.

The RLab is on the third floor of the Yard’s Building 22 on Sands Street, and will bring 500 jobs to the shipyard turned high-tech commercial hub — where officials hope to create a total 30,000 jobs — over the next decade, helping Hizzoner meet his goal of generating 10,000 more jobs in industries including technology, life sciences, and manufacturing, Menin said.

Plans for the space, which students and startup companies can now access, include an expansion that will bring new co-working labs, classrooms, and studios to the facility, according to a rep for the engineering school, who said work is set to begin soon with the goal of wrapping sometime next spring.

RLab debuted weeks after local leaders announced plans for a new school dedicated to science, math, engineering, and the arts coming to the Yard’s Building 77 on Flushing Avenue, which is just one of a handful of developments planned for the 300-acre riverfront campus as part of its ongoing transformation into a contemporary commercial and manufacturing center.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.

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