Orlando took make-believe adventure and excitement to new heights by building a vast local entertainment and tourism economy over the last half century, anchored by masters of the industry including Walt Disney Co. and Universal Studios.
But alongside attractions such as Epcot, SeaWorld and the Hogwarts Express, the Greater Orlando area has been building another economy, this one based on digital technologies and native mastery of gaming, modeling, simulation and augmented and virtual reality, including a growing cluster of semiconductor design and manufacturing enterprises.
Add it all up and the Orlando region is emerging as a nucleus of the budding “metaverse,” combining its traditional leadership in creating fantastical experiences with cutting-edge development of the technologies that are constructing a new virtual realm with seemingly unlimited potential to transform the economy and much of life.
“Is there really a virtual world we’re going to live in some day?” asks Tim Giuliani, president and CEO of the Orlando Economic Partnership (OEP). “I have no idea. But those ideas from the imagination of Ready Player One are certainly coming to life. And Orlando is the place where all the elements are working together to make it happen.”
OEP itself is one recent beneficiary of these capabilities. The organization recently deployed a 3D “digital twin” of the region. The ambitious project, completed by some of Orlando’s gaming and simulation giants, promotes economic development opportunities in a visually dramatic and highly convenient fashion, highlighting potential sites across a three-county area.
“Orlando has emerged as a tech cluster,” says Daryl Holt, a senior vice president of Electronic Arts and general manager of its considerable presence in Orlando. “Technology companies are thriving in particular areas, and the education community is growing, so there is a strong ecosystem that has come together in the last several years. Just a few years ago people would say, ‘You don’t know the half of it’ about Orlando. But now there is a real recognition that, based on our decades of tech leadership, the potential and opportunities for tech companies in the Orlando region is Unbelievably Real.”
In fact, Orlando also was “a haven for semiconductor design and engineering as early as the 1980s,” says Dave Rhodes, senior vice president of digital twins for Unity, the world’s leading platform for creating real-time 3D content, which has major operations in Orlando. “That’s what brought Unity to the area.”
The rise of Orlando as a digital-technology hub goes back more than a half century, to when the nascent U.S. space program, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and contractors including Lockheed Martin, rather suddenly required the employment and training of thousands of engineers, computer scientists and technicians to work at Cape Canaveral and what became Florida’s “Space Coast” on the Atlantic Ocean. Soon after, Disney placed Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, near Orlando, launching an entire new economic sphere for the region.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) arose to meet the needs of the space program, and even today, 29 percent of Cape Canaveral employees and 25 percent of Lockheed Martin’s huge local workforce are UCF graduates. UCF also built up its expertise in the tourism industry and eventually founded the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, which became the No. 1 ranked program of its kind in the United States.
UCF now has the largest enrollment of any university in America, with about 69,000 students, and many of them comprise a pipeline of new talent that flows directly to Orlando’s fast-growing economy in digital technology and tourism. Other major educational institutions in the area include Stetson University, Rollins College and Full Sail University, which specializes in entertainment-media training. More than 500,000 college students can be found within 100 miles of downtown Orlando.
“The story has always been the same for us: alignment with the needs of our community,” says Dr. Andrew Cartwright, president of UCF. “We’re fortunate enough to be in a region where there is so much growth and so much industry that we’re able to focus our efforts in areas where we know diverse talent is needed. We are able to provide well-trained and focused graduates in large enough numbers that it helps the region.”
Another example: “The Central Florida Research Park right next to [UCF] has $6 billion to $7 billion in operations that flow through there every year, and our school of modeling, simulation and training is co-located there,” Cartwright says. “These companies are very closely connected to the U.S. military. Almost all of the simulators for flight that the military uses, and the software, come from this research park, for example.” The sixth-largest research park in the country, Central Florida Research Park is home to the simulation commands of all five branches of the U.S. military.
Electronic Arts has become one of the bedrock tech developers and employers in Orlando. The company has grown into a global leader in digital interactive entertainment, with more than 500 million registered players around the world going at one another on Madden NFL, Battlefield, The Sims and other EA games. EA Orlando is home to more than 1,000 playmakers working across multiple teams and organizations, including the EA Tiburon production and development studios.
EA Orlando is located in a 176,000-square-foot facility in Downtown Orlando’s Creative Village, a 68-acre urban-innovation district and hub for the city’s digital-media industry. That’s where EA is working on what Holt calls “the fourth wave of computing,” involving the metaverse and “going into 3D space and interacting. We will need gaming talent and rendering engineers and people who understand the gaming components, because that’s how we’ll process entertainment” in the incipient metaverse.
Orlando also is a great place for EA to make strides in the metaverse specifically because of the strength of its legacy tourism industry. “Entertainers in Orlando have been speaking the language of storytelling for a long time,” Holt says. “There are aspects of that which lend themselves to gaming and vice versa, and we’re seeing the convergence of those.”
Indeed, says Giuliani, OEP “used to view the tech community as in different silos, but then we began to create a narrative around these seemingly unconnected areas of technology. And as the metaverse begins to come into focus, we realized that all the different silos we have from a technology standpoint comprise the majority of the tech stack for the metaverse. We’re actually at the center of the metaverse, the city that is bringing it to life through modeling and simulation, gaming development and semiconductors.”
As all of the economy is increasingly “gamified,” applications for the expertise being concentrated in the Orlando region are multiplying rapidly. These include extremely close-to-home harnessing of such technologies at the Naval Air Warfare Systems Training Division in Orlando, where soldiers use augmented-reality glasses with real tanks so they can more effectively understand how to repair the armaments.
Even closer to home for OEP is its digital twin of 800 square miles of the Orlando region. The idea behind it was that when the organization hosts business leaders who are considering where to put or expand operations, the demands of touring them around the Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties that comprise Greater Orlando can be considerable—and slow.
“It’s a great solution to be able to create a spatial understanding of everything in the area, from the Space Coast to Lake Mary to NeoCity,” the 500-acre master-planned campus near Orlando International Airport designed to serve as a global center of advanced digital research, human performance and life sciences, Giuliani says. “Also, when people come to visit, they want to know about our active tech hubs and our entrepreneurs and whether they’re scaling companies, and we want to be able to communicate those things, to show why we are a tech hub even though we might be under the radar to some.”
So OEP huddled with EA, Unity and other local companies to create the digital twin. It consists of two aspects. One is a 700-square-foot room at OEP headquarters that presents an interactive, digital, 3D replica of 800 square miles of the Orlando region, with 40 square miles recreated in high-fidelity, allowing visitors and businesses to explore Orlando via a tablet without having to drive for hours on end. “It’s like King Kong versus Godzilla—it’s that immersive,” Rhodes says.
Also, OEP representatives can bring the digital twin to visit prospects by lending them an iPad or Oculus VR head set and “let them interact in real time with areas that are compelling for them.”
Phase two of the digital-twin project, Giuliani says, involves “inviting others in the area to build into the digital twin with their own coding, to zoom inside the features of a particular building, to illustrate the connectivity within the region and to showcase future development for prospects.”
The OEP project is “one of the very few large, city-scale digital twins that exists in the world today,” Rhodes says. “This is an important way Orlando has invested in driving its economy further toward innovation and technology development.”
The Orlando Economic Partnership recently teamed up with Visit Orlando to launch Unbelievably Real, a joint tourism and business branding campaign that speaks to both leisure and corporate audiences and showcases the Unbelievably Real aspects of the region, including its thriving tech and innovation ecosystem. Talent and business leaders interested in learning what makes opportunity in Orlando Unbelievably Real can learn more at InvestOrlando.org