The Infancy Of VR and AR in Seattle


I just spent forty-four straight hours at something called the Microsoft Hololens Hackathon, a gathering of developers, techies, and artists interested virtual and augmented reality. We camped out in a sound stage in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, where we quickly formed teams and spent a weekend developing apps for Microsoft’s Hololens, a wearable headset computer that overlays holograms on the real world. Trying out the Hololens for the first time was one of those this-is-going-to-change-everything moments, like my first Internet search (for Beastie Boys lyrics, 1993) or the first time I turned on an iPhone.

I was on a team of four people and was literally twice as old as every other member of my team. I was nothing but impressed by the tech skills, creativity, and unflagging twenty-something endurance of my teammates. I remembered what it was like to have that kind of stamina from when I was a customer service rep at Amazon back in 1998. In those days I was pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at the same time I worked fifty hours a week in the depths of a UNIX-based CRM database. At one point the word “emacs” made my teammates laugh.

My team ended up winning the prize for best visuals for our 3D picture book, which you can imagine as a holographic pop up book that you can blow up to the size of a house. The lion’s share of the credit for our prize goes to the tenacious members of my team who were toddlers when I was attending various Lollapaloozas. When the weekend of coding wrapped up, I said goodbye to the other members of team Strange World thinking, you guys are about to have such incredible careers.

I’m just dipping my toe into this new medium, and my primary filter is that of an artist. I’m just beginning to see how this industry is shaping up, and I have some thoughts on how Seattle might best take advantage of the talent, tech infrastructure, and lessons from the dotcom bubble as we head into this new world of virtual and augmented reality. I’m planning on posting my evolving thoughts about this stuff in this blog.

Creating a Creative Industry Recapitulates the Process of Creating a Creative Product

first time in vr
My first time in VR, having a virtual snowball fight

To be really simplistic about it, there are two ways to start a creative project. One, you plot it out, creating an outline and a plan. Or, you just grab a pen or paintbrush or guitar and just start making words or images or sounds and see where the process leads you.

I fall firmly into the latter camp. I’ve never made an outline for any of my stories or books. I start with a kernel of an idea and see where it goes, making lots of messes and mistakes along the way. The rough draft phase is full of blind alleys and tangents that end up getting axed in revision. I can’t stress enough how necessary this part of the process is. Making a big mess and lots of mistakes is vital to finding the best ideas.

I suspect that the growth of the entire creative industry of VR/AR will pass through the same phases an artist goes through to create a single work of art. Right now we’re very much in the blank canvas phase, when various Vrtists (I’ll take credit for coining this term; you’re welcome) are making their very first Unity code marks on various platforms. This is the time to fuck up, the more fuckups the better. The more you fuck up, the more you increase the chance that you’ll accidentally make something great.

We’re in the rough draft stage of virtual reality.

Lots and Lots of Little Things are Better Than One Big Thing

 Here’s how various businesses might screw this up. As bigger players—established movie studios, game studios, and software companies–get into the VR game, the very fact that they’ve been successful at something else in the past is going to make it harder for them to be successful in VR. The reason being, the suits who have to answer to boards and shareholders are going to find increased resistance to the necessary rough draft fuckups along the way. They’re going to concentrate on creating a huge, franchised VR experiences, and this tension will interfere with the artistic phase that Vrtists are actually experiencing in an infant medium. In the face of this pressure, the more corporate-supported Vrtists will take fewer creative risks. We’ll see lots of superhero franchises in VR that suck.

Meanwhile, a VR community engaged in creating lots of little pieces of content will produce a handful of runaway classics. These classics will teach everyone the newest and best innovations and create the grammar of the medium. Mistakes are less costly when distributed across a bunch of smaller projects. If your VR project completely blows, maybe you lost a weekend’s worth of work, but you’ve learned what not to do the next time. What you get in exchange is more chances to stumble upon something great.

Model it on the Grunge Scene

The success–by which I mean aesthetic success–of Seattle’s grunge scene was due, I think, to three components that could serve as a useful model for the emerging VR/AR industry.

Audience receptivity to experimentation.

There was an attitude at punk rock shows in the early nineties that artists who were willing to go out on an aesthetic limb were worth at least paying attention to. Bands were encouraged to take aesthetic risks because they knew they’d at least get encouragement to keep going, and at best stumble upon some new, incredible sound.

Ease of transition from audience to creator.

This is the legacy of punk rock. You don’t need anyone’s permission. If you like what you see, you too can become a creator. Jump on in!

Insistence on vertical control.

This is where the moments of truth happen. When some bigger corporate entity comes along and takes you out to the fanciest dinner you’ve ever had, offering “creative control” and “autonomy” with the added benefit of marketing, distribution, and big reserves of cash, do not take them up on it. Instead of buying into someone else’s pre-established distribution system, make your own system from scratch.

Understand the difference between a business partnership and giving creative control to people who weren’t there when you created your cool thing. If push comes to shove, err on the side of regionalism. Work with companies that are local to your scene, where you’ll be able to exert as much influence as you can because of your network of relationships established when nobody was famous or cool.

As to how this pertains to VR, audience receptivity and insistence on vertical control largely involve managing one’s attitudes and expectations. The sticky point, as I see it, is in the ease of transition from enthusiast to creator. The hurdles are equipment and tech skills.

One way we might tackle this is to create an ecosystem of nonprofits, membership organizations, and think tanks (I’m learning that a number of them, like the Seattle VR Meetup group and RATLab already exist) that can help enthusiasts make the leap into becoming creators. We need places where people can share equipment and ideas and take classes on such topics as hologram opacity, attention direction, spatial sound design, etc.

As I mentioned, I am just starting to meet people and get involved in this community of artists, developers, and visionaries. I was drawn in when I started hearing about VR as a storytelling medium and have been thinking a lot about what that might mean. There’s so much to learn and I want to learn more.