The 2,000-year-old Tower of David, today one of Jerusalem’s top attractions, hardly seems the most likely location for an innovation incubator. But the launch this week of the ToD Innovation Lab proves that sometimes new buds grow best in ancient soil.
The ToD Innovation Lab will offer work space, equipment and a real-time beta site for startups within the historic citadel built by King Herod. The Reception Hall once used by Ottoman Empire-era governors has been given a NIS 2.7 million facelift (courtesy of the Jerusalem Development Authority) to become the centerpiece of the facility.
The lab’s location in a popular museum is not by accident: Some of the most likely candidates to join the lab will be those developing products and technologies for tourism.
To demonstrate what types of projects the Innovation Lab is looking for, this week’s launch featured a showcase of 20 Israeli startups working in the areas of augmented and virtual reality.
VR uses goggles to plunge the wearer into an immersive 3D interactive environment. AR is more limited, but with a bigger immediate payoff: visual and moving images can be superimposed over the real world using an ordinary smartphone.
An example of an AR app was shown by MARstorytelling. The young company’s “Jerusalem Awakens” allows users to point their smartphones at a particular site in the city and actors appear as if they are walking the ramparts of the Tower of David or through the bustling stalls of the Cardo. The actors allow viewers to “time travel” to key historical moments, bringing to life the ancient city. Users can impact where the video characters take them next.
The more tech-oriented ImmersiveOne demonstrated its “Masada 360” virtual tour of the Jewish Zealots’ one-time stronghold. ImmersiveOne works with Google’s Cardboard development kit.
More firmly on the VR side, the most impressive – and best financed – company at the showcase was Inception VR, which has developed dozens of VR-ready experiences for mobile devices as well as goggle systems such as those from Samsung, Microsoft and Oculus.
Inception VR can take you on a virtual trip to Thailand, down the streets of Tel Aviv for the annual Pride Parade, or behind the scenes of the Broadway musical “Wicked.” The Tel Aviv-based company raised $15 million in August and aims to be “the Netflix for VR.”
Together with ToD, Inception has created a new VR experience for the museum that transports visitors from the present as they explore the medieval fortress and its surroundings with a virtual Crusader knight acting as their tour guide.
AROS is a little bit VR and a little bit AR. At the showcase, the company was demonstrating its ski goggles, which you don while zipping down the slopes while receiving text and visual data on your speed, dangers coming at you and the boundaries of the course (so you don’t veer into someone else’s slope). AROS founder Alon Getz flew F-16 planes in the Israeli Air Force and headed up AR projects at defense contractor Rafael. The company also has goggles for cyclists under the brand RideOn.
A more prosaic technology comes from SpeechCode, an Austrian company now breaking into the Israeli museum and consumer product markets. Its technology essentially takes QR codes offline by embedding the entire text in the code itself and reading it to you on your phone.
TourVR was showing its development platform for creating virtual reality stores you can browse without ever leaving your living room. (Side fact: TourVR CEO Yotam Elal is one of the more popular DJs at Jerusalem’s “Boogie Nights” dance parties.)
Project director Devorah Mason called the Innovation Lab an experimental project but nonetheless “an inseparable part of the overall museum” that will play a major role in the five-year, $30 million renovation announced by the Tower of David Museum earlier this year.
“As the technology and knowhow develops at the ToD Innovation Lab at the museum, it will most certainly be incorporated into other museums and heritage sites in Israel and, based on past experience, be closely looked at by institutions around the world,” said museum director Eilat Lieber.
The full list of companies at the ToD Innovation Lab showcase, including founders and contact information, is online here.