MLive – Ann Arbor Tech Startup Has Plans for 3D Digital Museum, Cafe and Retail Shop

By |2021-03-19T10:59:10-04:00March 19th, 2021|News|

Originally published on MLive. Last updated March 14, 2021.

Ann Arbor tech startup Saganworks helped the Huron River Watershed Council create this 3D digital space where people can go online, virtually walk through and see displays and educational videos about the watershed. 

ANN ARBOR, MI — An emerging tech startup in Ann Arbor is helping people create their own customized 3D spaces in the virtual world, making digital rooms where they can store and curate photos, videos, music and other items.

These online spaces, allowing users to toggle through like they’re exploring a virtual museum, are called Sagans, which stands for “spatially accessible gallery of archived knowledge,” and they’re the product of Ann Arbor’s Saganworks.

Founded in 2017 by software entrepreneur Don Hicks, the company is now making big moves, renovating the old Melting Pot space at 309 S. Main St. to establish a physical presence in the heart of downtown. It’s there Saganworks plans to host popup business ventures such as a cafe, museum and retail store, while also creating 3D virtual versions of them that people can explore online.

Saganworks is trying to break down barriers between the physical and virtual worlds, Hicks said, predicting Main Street is about to become a hotbed of innovation.

The Saganworks platform launched last May and the company is still in its first phase of high-growth mode, Hicks said.

Its mobile app, available for free download, instructs users to use the “power of spatial memory” to create “a natural and intuitive system of knowledge management that’s designed to cater to the way you think and organize.”

Users can drop and drag files onto digital shelves, hang photos on walls and custom furnish their virtual rooms.

“We think that a big missing piece of how people communicate and what they do with media is to be able to create 3D spaces that people can walk in, that they can arrange and that they can use to curate and share their own little personal exhibitions,” Hicks said. “So, pictures, videos, music — you can put these on flat webpages, but what we’ve found as we explored this is it’s just a wildly different experience when you can walk into a room and everything has a place in the space.”

Saganworks used its software to help the Huron River Watershed Council create a 3D immersive experience for its River Givers program this month, making a custom digital room filled with organized displays, photos and educational videos the group is posting each Thursday.

“Everyone has had to find new ways to do things over the past 12 months,” Watershed Council Executive Director Rebecca Esselman said. “We know we can’t present our annual educational event safely in person, so we moved online in a whole new way to teach viewers about things like climate change, river health, Huron River Water Trail vitality, and what insects tell us about the river.”

The group’s first two videos and more are posted in the Sagan at

“We love that people all over the world will be able to enjoy learning from our amazing staff and imagine they are in person in a Huron River gathering space with the Saganworks technology,” Esselman said.

Other Sagans available to explore on the Saganworks website include one for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The new Saganworks space at 309 S. Main St. under renovation in downtown Ann Arbor on March 13, 2021. The company plans to host popup business ventures such as a cafe, museum and retail store, while also creating 3D online versions of them.Ryan Stanton | The Ann Arbor News

By digitizing and creating 3D immersive experiences, the relationship between an organization and its visitors becomes less dependent on physical location, Hicks said.

Saganworks has flown under the radar the past couple years, but people are going to start hearing about it more, said Hicks, who was the founder and CEO of Ann Arbor tech company LLamasoft, which was purchased by San Francisco-based private equity firm TPG Capital. He now owns the Blue LLama Jazz Club in downtown Ann Arbor, across from the soon-to-open Saganworks Labs space.

Saganworks was working on its idea for a couple years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and accelerated the world’s shift toward all things digital, Hicks said.

The pandemic has called attention to people’s need to have alternative ways to express themselves and share things with family and friends, and businesses have needed more non-physical ways to connect with people, he said.

“If you’re a museum or you’re an art gallery, how exactly do you share your space?” he said. “You can stick stuff on a webpage, but it’s flat. A lot of the joy of these things is you’re walking through the space and encountering it and things are laid out and arranged around you.”

Hicks believes Saganworks has become a world leader in this arena now. It’s a step up from a 2D experience, but not a “put on your goggles and pretend like you’re actually in the matrix” VR experience, he said.

In the next year, Saganworks expects to offer users the option to create an avatar and explore rooms with other users. Sagans also can be connected so people can go from room to room, and some connect to virtual outdoor spaces.

Sagans are not just a neat experience, but also help people retain, organize and share knowledge, Hicks said.

“People’s brains process information visually and spatially,” he said. “Because we live in a world of space and multiple dimensions … our minds are generally much more in tune with giving things a place, and it’s actually harder to think about these things when we abstract it and artificially slap it on a 2D surface. We’ve learned to get used to it, but it’s a more natural way to think about things in virtual space.”

People have created some interesting Sagans so far, Hicks said, mentioning one paying homage to the “Alien” movies.

“One of my favorites is the one that my 10-year-old did,” he said. “When I showed her our new mobile release, she grabbed my phone and then she went into her room and took pictures and basically scanned all the walls and then stuck them in this room, and she made a replica of her room.”

As long as that Sagan exists, she’ll always be able to go back and visit her childhood room, Hicks said.

Users can take different Sagans and create their own virtual networks with map views of them, he said.

As for the physical realm, Hicks’ company Multiverse Investments purchased the Main Street building where Saganworks is expected to open its doors next month.

“We’re going to be using the top floor for offices and kind of get-togethers when people actually go into offices, but for the first floor what we decided to do was make it a showcase,” he said. “We’re calling it an innovation popup lab. We’re planning to open a series of popups in there.”

One popup venture will be local retailer JOOB Activewear. It’s a startup making highly sustainable outdoor wear, but it doesn’t yet have a physical space, Hicks said.

“So, we’re going to have them do a popup retail space,” he said, noting there also will be a 3D Sagan of it. “So, you go in there, you can look at the real stuff, and then scan the QR code and take the store home with you in your pocket.”

One lesson from the pandemic is no one can predict the future, and people need to be able to leverage both the physical and virtual world, Hicks said.

“If you’re a retailer, you have to build a relationship sometimes in the physical world, sometimes in the virtual world, and ideally leveraging both sides of that equation, and we think we have a way to do that through Saganworks,” he said.

“We’re not replacing retail. We’re simply enhancing it by making it so even the smallest one-person retail shop can make a Sagan and bring their entire store online, where they meet people, and people can just take a walk through their store. And as they put more things in their Sagan, they get the latest collection, the latest items, that store is immediately available.”

He added, “That is pretty exciting and we definitely see that this is where the world is going, not just for retailers, but anybody who is building a relationship with consumers and wants to leverage that immersive experience.”

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