The Weekend VR Became Impossible to Ignore in Seattle

Trond Nilsen presenting awards at Seattle VR Hackathon IV. Photo courtesy Shawn Whiting.

September 16-18, 2016 was a watershed moment for Seattle’s VR/AR community. For anyone drawn to creating or experiencing VR/AR, there was literally too much for one person to absorb. VR Hackathon IV at Sand Point, the Art Hack on Capitol Hill, and the VR Maker Dome at Seattle Center all delivered big on the promise of this new medium, and Seattle is never going to be the same.

It’s remarkable to witness a community of such rich diversity stitching itself together. And I mean diversity in every possible way. Consider for a moment what a confluence of pioneers from different backgrounds VR/AR is calling to. Has there ever been a medium that has attracted architects, musicians, civil engineers, game designers, disaster relief experts, filmmakers, archeologists, teachers, storytellers, and software developers under one tent?

Seattle VR Hackathon IV was the big event of the weekend. (And btw, I’m updating a post on the community site to aggregate the hackathon’s contest results, links, and media clips. Please send me updates.) I definitely didn’t catch everything worth experiencing, but what I did experience left a big impression on me.

Innovation can happen when you put people who wouldn’t normally interact together. And when these people form teams to tackle a project, they start blending technologies. I spent a fair amount of time observing a team at the hackathon that included Evie Powell and Gus McManus. I’ve admired Evie and Gus’s work since last spring, and they brought their expertise together to help create a multiplayer, interactive VR audio experience. When I saw what their team was making, my jaw hit the floor.

Yesterday, Abhigyan Kaustubh showed me the impressive disaster relief project his team worked on for the Hololens. He explained to me how relief workers could use this holographic system to identify and prioritize hazards after a natural disaster. As I tagged various props representing hazards with holographic icons, I could easily imagine such a technology saving lives.

Then there was the Invrse team, who dubbed themselves “Witness Me” for the weekend. They strapped a Vive controller to a computer keyboard, hacking together a virtual guitar. Their game let you become the flame-throwing guitarist from Mad Max Fury Road, laying down riffs and destroying dune buggies in a racing game. I got a laugh when I told those guys, “You guys focus so relentlessly on what makes VR fun and have no sense of social responsibilty at all. And that’s precisely what makes this so fucking great.”

The creativity on display was astonishing. It was a real treat to watch Nima Zeighami seriously freaking out on his team’s VR motorcycle game, which involved straddling an actual motorcycle while wearing a Vive headset. Or Paulo Tosolini grabbing 360 photos of everybody, Tim Reha of CNDY Factory editing interview clips on the fly, or Emily Price herding virtual cats. For being a competition of sorts, the biggest reward of all was in getting inspired by other teams’ brilliant creations.

Describing what I saw at the VR Hackathon sounds like I’m describing a dream or a hallucination. I threw human beings from a parade float to gummy bear spectators, watched my hands turn into bunny rabbits, encountered the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft in a tomb, peeked in on a prehistoric family’s flickering campfire in a cave, and floated in space.

Throughout the weekend, a team of intrepid individuals kept the catered lunches arriving on time, shot troubles, and set the tone of inclusivity and respect. Trond Nilsen, Eva Hoerth, Greg Howes, Karl Spang, Heather Henrichs, and Bridget Swirski all poured themselves into this event. The beaming smiles I saw on peoples’ faces yesterday were the direct result of their generosity and hard work. They were assisted by an army (more like an elite SWAT team) of volunteers–Alan Au, Caitlin Esworthy, Fran Vieux, Jae Nwawe, Jingyu Yang, Matt Mullen, Michael Wong, Ryan James, and  microphone maestro Jordan Kellogg. The mentors and judges are just too numerous to name. We’re so lucky these talented individuals made this magical weekend happen.

But lest you think the event was simply the result of good folks with can-do attitudes, the participation of corporate sponsors signaled how important this hackathon is to the tech industry. Amazon sent over a team from their Alexa voice command team to help teams integrate the technology into their projects. Booz Allen Hamilton, Aquent, Microsoft, Pluto VR, HTC Vive, and let’s not forget Red Bull all had a hand in making the hackathon happen.

But that was just one event. Up on Capitol Hill, at the Art Hack, I discovered a couple pieces of virtual art–a sort of interstellar rowboat experience and a novel use of 360 spherical photography–that pushed the medium forward. VR is becoming another medium for visual artists to explore, and the Art Hack went a long way toward presenting VR as a viable artistic medium.

Visitors to the VR Maker Dome at Seattle Center got to try out the Vive, Rift, and Hololens. Photo courtesy Larry James.

I didn’t make it to the VR Maker Dome at Seattle Center, which organizer Larry James tells me drew over 500 spectators, most of whom (Larry says 80%) had never experienced VR before. The dome let visitors try out the Vive, Rift, and Hololens, and it’s easy to imagine that a fair number of people who got their first glimpse of VR/AR worlds at the Maker Dome will want to jump in and be part of creating this new medium.

In the past week I’ve heard variations on the same story: after so-and-so’s first exposure to VR or AR, he or she quit their job, or moved to Seattle, or otherwise dropped everything to become part of this community of pioneers. Virtual reality is inspiring the inventive and fearless among us to imagine a medium that holds great promise for the future of humanity, a medium that can used to save lives and blow up imaginary dune buggies in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, where you can barrel through city streets on a motorcyle or surrender your body to music.

This weekend in Seattle, this community started to show the world what it’s capable of. It’s just getting started. Just you wait.