Imagine strolling down a city street on a sunny afternoon. You pull out your phone and look through the camera lens: there’s the street as it looks today, and superimposed over it, you also see how it looked a century ago. A little farther on, a mural on the side of a building seems to come alive, its painted fish, seaweed and bubbles floating out in 3D. And on the next block, an audio stream tells you the story behind that quirky statue that you’ve always wondered about.

The team at EXAR Studios in London, Ont. is doing more than just imagining such things—they’re bringing them to life through an augmented-reality app called Engage ARt.

Augmented reality, or AR, has taken off in recent years. Think Pokemon Go, smart glasses and Facebook’s Spark AR platform, the software behind the National Geographic’s recent launch of the Reimagining Dinosaurs project.

EXAR Studios is using AR to encourage people to get out and explore their communities. At the same time, they are providing a boost to local businesses, tourism and arts and cultural attractions, all of which have seen customer traffic drop off since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.

“We want to create things that are visually beautiful and engaging and that also serve a purpose,” says co-founder Ben Switzer.

EXAR has already deployed its Engage ARt app along London’s pedestrian-friendly Dundas Place, and for community activities such as Halloween.

The company is currently working with business and community partners, including the London-based TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario, on a collaborative project to create an immersive AR experience in London’s Old East Village.

"The Old East Village adventure will be a journey in time, highlighting the past, present and future of local businesses,” says Switzer. “By combining historical artifacts with visually beautiful digital art, and showcasing some of the unique offerings of local shops, it presents a whole new way to shop and explore local."

The project is getting support through the Digital Main Street (DMS) initiative, a program designed to help small and medium-size businesses succeed by embracing technology such as websites and social media.

DMS was first launched by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas in spring 2016. After the onset of COVID-19, DMS was extended across Ontario with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev) and the Ontario government.

Communitech was chosen to deliver Digital Main Street programming in Southwestern Ontario, in collaboration with a number of other regional innovation partners such WEtech Alliance, TechAlliance, Innovation Guelph, Innovation Factory, Innovate Niagara and Haltech. Elsewhere in the province, Digital Main Street programs are being delivered by Invest Ottawa in collaboration with Launch Lab in Southeastern Ontario and by NORCAT in Northern Ontario.

DMS offers several programs, including ShopHERE and Ontario Grants. Communitech is focused on the Future Proof program, which consists of three components:

  • Transformation teams: groups of qualified co-op students and recent post-secondary graduates who have been hired on contract to provide digital transformation and marketing support to small and medium-size businesses. Communitech currently employs 275 students and recent graduates to work on 55 transformation teams in the first cohort, which runs until December. The next cohort, which runs from January to end of March 2021, will employ another 230 students and graduates. So far, Communitech has worked with more than 100 businesses. As the program ramps up, organizers hope to help up to 1,000 small and medium-size businesses. 
  • Digital Main Street Labs: this component builds collaborations between technology companies and communities to pilot innovations that encourage transformational change for small and medium-size businesses. EXAR Studios is involved in the DMS Labs program. The other two companies currently in the Southwestern DMS Labs include: Sociavore, which is based in Waterloo Region and helps restaurants develop web and digital technology; and Look Local, an online marketplace in the Oakville-Burlington area that connects consumers with local businesses in their communities.
  • Community Collaboration projects: these connect regional innovation centres and other community-based organizations in a series of conversations about common issues facing small and medium-size main street businesses, with the aim of developing solutions.

Communitech’s Ahmed ElBedawy, director of Digital Main Street programming for Southwestern Ontario, says Communitech is in a great position to deliver the DMS programming because of the years of experience it has helping startup and scale-up companies grow.

“I think we’re adding real value,” he says. “Even though small main-street businesses are not the typical Communitech client, we’ve been supporting startups and scale-ups in a similar journey for a long time. We always say, ‘We’re helping tech-driven businesses’; now we’re also saying, ‘We want you to be tech-driven yourself as a small business, we want you to be tech-enabled.’”

Switzer says being accepted into the Digital Main Street program has provided EXAR with practical assistance, important connections and validation of its technology and services.

“To be highlighted by Digital Main Street and Communitech, who are leaders in supporting small businesses in digital transformation and in technology across Canada, that provides a lot of credibility for us,” he says. “It’s a validation that what we’ve done is not just innovative but it’s truly providing value to small businesses.”

Fellow EXAR co-founder Daniel Kharlas had similar praise for the TechAlliance of Southwestern Ontario.

“In every step in the development of Engage ARt, TechAlliance has provided us support, from connecting us to stakeholders all the way to helping us understand the funding landscape,” says Kharlas. “TechAlliance continues to support us in this stage as we expand the reach of Engage ARt.”

The Digital Main Street initiative is scheduled to run until the end of March, 2021. For more information, check out the Communitech website.