Cathie Anderson

Nevada County sees virtual reality as way to expand economy

Nevada County is taking a laserlike approach to building upon its business successes in the video broadcast industry, founding the Green Screen Institute to help startups pursuing technologies that either create virtual worlds or expand upon people’s view of real-world objects and places.

Last year, the Nevada County Economic Resource Council received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce that it used along with matching funds from local businesses, individuals and government groups to hone its plans for a digital media campus that would keep and attract entrepreneurs in that field, said Jon Gregory, the council’s executive director.

“We have … to take advantage of the unique assets of Nevada County around the legacy of video broadcast companies, the high degree of content- and video-related expertise and the serene outdoors environment,” Gregory said. “We wanted to pick a niche that was authentic and legitimate for our efforts.”

After extensive research with the technology and venture capital experts at San Francisco’s Touchdown Ventures, the council’s task force determined that the region’s current population already had the infrastructure and a talent pool to move into the areas of augmented and virtual reality. With augmented reality, it’s possible to point a smartphone or another digital device at objects in the real world and immediately have video, audio, graphics or GPS data pop up on a screen. In virtual reality, people wear special electronic equipment that allows them to interact with a simulated 3-D environment.

The industry research giant known simply as Research and Markets released a report in March that said these two sectors will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 67 percent from 2015 to 2020. The global market for virtual and augmented reality stood at nearly $4.5 billion in 2014, but by 2020, the research company predicted, those markets could reach $105.2 billion in revenue.

Currently, companies such as Tokyo’s Sony; Aurasma, headquartered in San Francisco and London, England; and Santa Clara-based Nvidia are leading the way. But the technology’s potential has not yet been fully unlocked. Gregory said that the task force felt that the county’s digital media companies speak a similar language as entrepreneurs in the augmented and virtual reality worlds.

“We wanted to differentiate ourselves from the hundreds of incubators and accelerators around the country,” Gregory said. “We wanted to do something where we truly believed we could become a global center of excellence. There is a pretty vast history of video broadcast equipment technology companies, and the Grass Valley Group obviously is the forerunner historically, but in addition to that, you have companies like Telestream, AJA Video Systems and Ensemble Solutions. There’s a cluster of unique expertise of companies that have dealt with studios and media companies and content and video that goes back 50 years.”

The Green Screen Institute will bring together a business accelerator, an investment program, a co-working space for established companies and a vocational training academy for those who want to learn new digital media skills. The campus will be located at 104 New Mohawk in Nevada City, about 200 yards from the Telestream campus, Gregory said, and even though it hasn’t officially opened yet, the Green Screen Institute already has two tenants.

What Telestream CEO Dan Castles likes is that this campus offers a potential home and resources to all businesses within the digital media industry, regardless of whether they’re focusing on AR or VR. He is mentoring a digital media startup right now, he said, that would be an ideal tenant for the Green Screen Institute.

Castles is one of about 20 industry executives who will be serving on the institute’s advisory board. Others include Ajay Singh, an investment principal with Samsung Global Innovation Center; Adam Draper, the founder and managing director of Boost VC; and Richard Hilleman, the chief creative director of Electronic Arts. Gregory will announce all of the advisory board’s members on Thursday afternoon at the Nevada County Economic Development Summit at Veterans Memorial Building, 255 S. Auburn St., in Grass Valley.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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