XR internships create new reality for Ann Arbor tech ecosystem

A woman uses a VR headset and interacts with virtual plexus interface in a room with neon light. (©kegfire - stock.adobe.com)

ANN ARBOR – Ann Arbor has uniquely positioned itself as a “sweet spot” for high tech. In doing so, the city has developed a robust ecosystem for growing industries like XR. 

Extended Reality (XR) is an evolving industry that encompasses virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and mixed reality (MR). The technologies combine physical and virtual environments along with human-machine interactions that, to the everyday consumer, might feel like something out of a sci-fi movie.

XR comes to life through video games and other applications that are useful in healthcare, manufacturing, and business. Innovations like Apple Glass, Magic Leap, and Microsoft HoloLens are on the cusp of integrating XR into everyday life. Thanks to XR, human interaction with holograms and the regular use of wearable technology, may be closer than we think.

Ann Arbor SPARK, in partnership with the University of Michigan, has created an internship program to connect students with growing startups in gaming and XR. The program is the brainchild of Austin Yarger, CEO of Arbor Interactive and Game Development Lecturer at U-M, and SPARK’s entrepreneurial services team.

With upwards of 70 XR startups to date across the Detroit-Lansing corridor, the Ann Arbor region has solidified its leadership position as a destination where companies in this industry can locate and be nurtured, accelerating their success.

Historically, the gaming field was predominantly located in Florida and along the West Coast. Until recently, gifted students were relocating for these job opportunities and Michigan was missing out on a goldmine of talent in a fast-growing, emerging industry.

The U-M and SPARK XR internship program is an opportunity to retain accomplished students and supply startups with individuals who are eager to get their feet wet with industry experience. Students gain the value of working on a team and applying their knowledge in real-life environments.

This creates a pipeline where students can join a company and very quickly contribute to the startup’s development. In turn, students remain competitive in the industry which further solidifies our region as a major player in gaming and XR.

“By plugging in the students to these cutting-edge opportunities, they get a jump-start in their careers. We’re also able to support local companies which fuels growth within our ecosystem and economy,” said Margarita Hernandez, director of entrepreneurial services at Ann Arbor SPARK.

Since its inception in 2020, the program has placed five students at four partnering startups, including GaudiumSpellBoundBrandXR, and Perform3-D. Since then, all participating students have maintained full-time or consulting positions and four students reside in Ann Arbor.

Additionally, in 2020 U-M hosted an XR conference that highlighted the best XR innovations across the Midwest, further showcasing the strength of the region as an industry contender. 

Looking towards the future, the internship program is well-positioned to further diversify the companies and talented jobseekers attracted to our tech ecosystem. SPARK plans to integrate XR programming with its yearly a2tech360 and expand partnerships with other local programs to widen the net and display the limitless potential for XR in the region.