From the upper floor of the city’s gabled-roof train station house, New Rochelle has taken the first steps in a quest to become a hub for immersive arts and augmented and virtual reality.
For the past two months, the train station’s top floor has hosted the IDEALab Fellowship program, a live/work residency project focused on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) arts.
The fellowship space has been outfitted with a lab and studio, as well as living space, for three resident artists. Another five fellows live off-site but work within IDEALab’s studios. The lab is equipped for VR, motion capture and other immersive arts, while the rest of the floor contains a lounge, bedrooms and living space for the three resident fellows.
The first cohort of artists, chosen through a competitive selection and interview process, are pursuing projects and studies focused on smart cities and sustainability efforts, along with VR, AR and mixed reality.
IDEALab is the first major program launched by IDEA New Rochelle, a nonprofit founded last year through the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District, with support from the city government. IDEA New Rochelle is led by Amelia Winger-Bearskin, an award-winning artist and graduate of New York University’s Interactive Technology Program.
The overall goal of IDEA New Rochelle is to brand the city as a hub for immersive arts and augmented and virtual reality. By capitalizing on the city’s proximity to New York City, along with its anticipated growth under a downtown development master plan, the nonprofit plans to develop a connected community of artists and technologists.
AR includes the popular Pokemon Go! phone gaming app, while the Oculus gaming headset is an example of virtual reality. Both AR and VR are part of a growing immersive media sector encompassing art, entertainment, medicine and education.
New Rochelle BID Executive Director Ralph DiBart described the IDEALab Fellowship as an artist residency meets business incubator, as many of the artists are also launching businesses.
The program provides both a place to work and artistic support. The space is equipped with expensive equipment that’s difficult to access outside a university setting, including Alienware gaming laptops, Oculus headsets and 360-degree cameras. But IDEALab also hosts weekly artist conversations that allow the residents to engage with speakers ranging from venture capitalists to designers to cybersecurity experts.
“It’s really a dream situation the way the residency is set up. The apartment is brand new, the facilities are fantastic,” said Barak Chamo, a resident fellow of IDEALab. “I think the main thing for us has been able to work and exchange ideas with each other.”
At IDEALab, Chamo’s work is focused on exploring new ways to engage performance arts and emerging media, such as through developing narrative-driven experiences in “extended reality” and using large-scale projection-mapped space for immersive storytelling.
Emir Fils-Aime, a fellow at the IDEALab, said he has benefited from the access to the workspace as well as from engaging with other artists in the program and through the creative conversations.
“I’m in a state where I just graduated from school and can feel a little overwhelmed by my project,” Fils-Aime said, “so it’s good to speak to other people, other fellows, who can help you rethink the ways your thinking about your work.”
At the IDEALab, Fils-Aime is working on a VR project called “Gaze,” which permits a viewer to embody a young African-American man’s perspective. The piece is a meditation on double consciousness — influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois’ “twoness” — and individual perception of agency in the United States.
Charity Everett, a resident fellow, said her work has been helped by “just having everything at my fingertips, I literally just walk out of my room and down the hallway and then I have access to all of this stuff. And being in this environment, with other creative people working on other creative technology, has been very valuable as well.”
Everett is using IDEALab to develop “Go Back Fetch It,” an episodic AR storytelling narrative of humanity from its origins. Everett recently launched a clothing line that features images used in the story. Through an app, a viewer can simply point their phone at the clothing’s image to have the story come to life.
The city provided the space for IDEALab, while the equipment and furnishings came from a number of sponsors and supporters, including Consign It on Main, Signature Bank, Community Preservation Corp., Cooley LLP law firm and Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital.
DiBart said IDEA New Rochelle is partnering with each company to help the incubator side of the program. Since several of the artists IDEA is working with are also launching businesses around their work, the initiative’s partners can provide guidance in those efforts: Cooley can host legal workshops on protecting intellectual property, Signature Bank can discuss how to establish banking-business relationships and Montefiore can help guide planning for health insurance needs.
IDEA New Rochelle expects to expand its offerings in the city soon. The organization’s plans include a downtown maker space with VR/AR technology labs and a full motion capture studio. The location, which hasn’t been announced yet, will also include a molecular gastronomy lab and a business incubator.
Under a downtown master plan approved in 2015 by the city, thousands of apartments as well as retail and office square footage are expected to be built in the city over the next decade. As those buildings rise, IDEA New Rochelle will be part of the city’s efforts to utilize arts and technology to draw people and business to the new spaces.
“We want a downtown and community that not only are economically successful, but also culturally vibrant and look toward the future with a sense of creativity and excitement,” said Mayor Noam Bramson. “By attracting creative technologists to New Rochelle, by integrating immersive technology into our planning efforts, we think we can design a healthier community in a way that includes the public more fully and has the capacity to grow an industry that would be new to the Hudson Valley.”
The city’s efforts to integrate immersive technology into its city planning has made it a finalist in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 U.S. Mayors Challenge, a nationwide competition that encourages innovative problem solving and economic development.
The city is developing a platform to use virtual reality technology to allow city planners and residents to visualize development plans for buildings and public spaces. The aim is to allow broader participation and comment during the review of public and private development proposals .
Bramson said the city’s goal “is to integrate the IDEA philosophy fully into our economic development efforts,” such as by encouraging expansion of downtown space dedicated to artistic uses, adopting zoning for an arts and cultural district, and fostering the development of artist housing.
IDEALab fellows have exhibited at city fairs and events, as well as pitched in with development of the Bloomberg efforts. The city has won the praise of its first artist residents.
“We’re thinking about our futures in this field, looking at rents in Brooklyn and trying to mitigate all of these things,” Chamo said. “So being introduced to New Rochelle, being introduced to the possibility of building a creative community here — it’s something that can create a much more sustainable path for artists in this field that are in the city and are looking to be close to the heart of things, while also developing their own practice and living a sane life.”