Axon VR and Balancing Secrets with Community

This was not what I tried at Axon VR’s happy hour. I repeat: I did not try this.

Last night I attended a happy hour and demo at Axon VR, a haptics company headquartered a mini donut’s throw from Pike Place Market. They also have an engineering office in San Luis Obispo, which, incidentally, is where I once threw up in the parking lot of Hearst Castle (long story).

Before I did the demo we did a little shuffle over how much I was at liberty to write about here. I try to be as sensitive as I can about various companies’ proprietary information. So let’s just say I tried out this thing that they’re working on.

If you visit Axon VR’s website, you can get a sense of the tech they’re focused on developing. Haptics that convey pressure and temperature via such hardware as smart textiles and exoskeletons.

Of the various tech advances promised by VR visionaries, haptics seem the most difficult to execute. Though the tech I tried out at Axon’s office has a long way to go before it’s ready for the consumer market, they’ve clearly poured a lot of engineering brain power into it, and I hope they pull it off. They’re a talented crew of people working on something that could be quite transformative.

I got to thinking after the event about how all these VR startups have to balance trade secrets with sharing knowledge with the ecosystem. This is perhaps an unavoidable tension. Some of my favorite passages in Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators were about how the communitarian spirit of flower power San Francisco led to such widely and freely shared technologies as HTML. Silicon Valley’s billionaires would not be enjoying their payouts today had it not been for a bunch of hippies who believed in giving things away for free in the early seventies.

There is a similar, albeit less deodorant-averse, culture rising in Seattle right now. The spirit of the hackathons and meetups is to share knowledge, orient newcomers, and celebrate the success of others, even potential competitors. I see innovators like Eric Neuman of Sprawly and Dejan Gajšek of VIAR 360 reaching out to the community with opportunities to use their platforms, while companies like Endeavor One and Axon VR keep what they’re developing closer to the vest. Every VR/AR company has their own approach to public vs. proprietary information.

Of course we don’t want our original ideas to get ripped off. I’d be livid if someone tried to take my intellectual property and make money off of it. Secrecy and NDAs make sense. I get it.

At the same time, we have to view the success of VR/AR as a collective effort. No single company is going to succeed in a vacuum. We’re not building a bunch of businesses, we’re building an industry. Part of the success of that industry depends on being invested in the success of others.

A couple people I spoke to from Axon VR last night asked me questions about the tech I’d seen at other companies. It suddenly occurred to me that I have this panopticon view of the industry that allows me a more expansive view of the industry than if I were at a company, huddled under an NDA. The double edged sword of being protective of your own product seems to be that you cut yourself off from knowledge about other companies’ products.

What if every VR startup asked themselves what they’re doing for the community? If sharing knowledge about what you’re developing is out of the question, then perhaps there’s some other way you can contribute to the larger ecosystem of VR/AR pioneers. Maybe a company could sponsor scholarships for Unity or Unreal Engine classes at Chronos Global Academy. Or simply provide space for a meetup or the pizza for a hackathon.

Community building and outreach is an investment in itself. The code warriors you once fed or the attendees of the meetup you hosted are going to remember the good will you offered. The companies that most deserve to succeed will be the ones that best understand that we’re all in this together.