Could Gateshead be set to become the Silicon Valley of the North?

Gateshead Council is working to turn the Baltic Quarter into a hub for tech firms and games studios.

For many years the North East has been developing its reputation as a hub for tech firms, with much of this coming from the host of start-up companies founded in Newcastle. While these companies have found success, helped along by co-working spaces and accelerator programmes, there has been little done to help these businesses scale-up.

But across the river, in Gateshead, plans are now well under way to grow the town’s tech community from a bubbling community of start-ups to an internationally recognised centre for digital businesses.

At the centre of this plan is the Baltic Quarter development, and the three commercial buildings at its core. Baltimore House, the Northern Design Centre and the recently opened Proto have been designed as a new hub for digital firms: the Silicon Valley of the North.

The initial plans were put forward back in 2008, and Gateshead Council’s involvement was initially going to be limited. But unforeseen circumstances, and an opportune move, saw the council take over the site.

“This place [The Northern Design Centre] was originally a One North East project,” says Chris Pape, portfolio manager at Gateshead Council. “The idea was that One North East would build half this building and the other half of the building would be built by developers, who would build it speculatively.

“The developers couldn’t do their bit any more and we were approached by the authority and asked to do our bit. We entered into a partnership with One North East but the Government decided to close the regional development agencies. One North East then asked if we wanted to do the whole thing.

“We were running the Gateshead International Business Centre and that was full of businesses that were out growing it quickly.”

The Northern Design Centre, with 60,000sq ft of space over four floors, provided a great place for growing tech firms to move into, but the council realised that it could do more to support businesses. Its next big step came when the council acquired Baltimore House, located next door to the Northern Design Centre.

With an additional building in its portfolio, Gateshead Council wanted to provide something new for local businesses, something that would allow them to grow.

“We were just buying Baltimore House and we thought about not just filling it with businesses but doing something within the space.

“We thought about launching an accelerator programme, they were really popular at the time. I was at the VRTGO conference and I was listening to the speakers when I realised 95% of the people there were from Gateshead. They said: ‘We are really excited about virtual reality (VR), and we are writing the rule book as we go along’. That was when I realised there was something going on with VR.

“I thought: ‘What can we do with that space we were going to use for an accelerator?’. We pivoted, and used it as a space for VR.”

The office led to the creation of VRTGO Labs, Europe’s only industry-led VR and augmented reality centre. The initiative allowed companies to access the latest VR equipment, as well as a demo room and co-working space.

Its facilities have attracted some of the region’s top VR companies, and it now houses a Hammerhead, Chronicle VR, Somniator Games, and even a team from Facebook’s VR company Oculus.

A host of North East companies are now focusing on developing, or at the very least, using VR technology. The technology is still evolving but already it has found its way into households through the video game market, with Oculus and Playstation both releasing affordable VR headsets.

As the technology became more prevalent in day-to-day life, Chris and his team realised that to make the Baltic Quarter a true hub for tech firms it would need to look other high level technology. That is now the focus of its latest building, Proto: The Emerging Technology Centre.

“We realised VR would eventually become mainstream so we decided to make it an emerging tech centre,” says Chris.

“As we speak the 360° photo gravity rig is going in. It is 120 SLR cameras all facing a central point. We can put you in the middle and all the cameras would go off and we would have a 360° model of you.

“The next thing to go in is a motion capture suite. We can take that model and get someone of a similar build go in and move around, and it will look like you are doing it.”

By combining the two pieces of equipment local companies will now be able to quickly create 3D models for use within their projects. It means that Hollywood actors or international footballers could be quickly captured and placed within a video game.

The technology paves the way for film companies and game studios in the region to make use of expensive equipment usually only available to larger firms. The ability to do this is a game changer for those based at the centre, such as game studio Pocket Money Games.

“The idea of Proto is to increase the economy by allowing interesting companies access to kit only big companies usually have access to,” says Frankie Cavanagh, CEO of Pocket Money Games. “Every step of the way the council are asking us what we need. Having access to kit like motion capture is hugely significant.”

Pocket Money Games has developed a number of games such as Dimension Hunter and Henry The Hamster Handler. It also runs a division called PerceptionXR, which uses its VR tech for commercial means, such as providing training for companies.

Accessing the equipment at Proto is a feather in Pocket Money Games’ cap, and has allowed it to compete with much larger studios, both locally and in London.

“Publishers don’t understand where I am,” says Frankie. “They ask how much we need and they say: ‘That’s ridiculous, you can’t build a game for that much’. They laugh at you as they don’t know how you can do it. They don’t understand I have a motion capture suite and a sound recording studio. When you take that out, it’s a big saving.

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