The Hottest VR Company in Seattle Right Now is from Vancouver

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Companies like Laborbot shared their products at the expo portion of the Immerse Summit

There’s a sobering moment when grand visions for the future give way to the reality of the work required to get there. Yesterday’s Immerse Summit at Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center felt like that kind of pivot point. October, 2016 is awash in a lot of hype and hope for virtual reality, with big hardware launches affirming that this is the next technology that will transform civilization. How does an indie community continue to evolve in this ecosystem?

In the Pacific Northwest we’ve reached a period of critical mass–our community of creative and ambitious VR pioneers has knitted itself together in a web of relationships that’s going to prove incredibly valuable in the years ahead. Someday we’ll mark our involvement in this industry by whether we attended Immerse 2016.

At the same time, Immerse struck me as decidedly low-key and devoid of hype. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that companies that could have had a presence at the conference decided to sit it out. No Oculus, Google, Sony, or HTC, for starters. Perhaps as a result, there wasn’t much of the kind of corporate triumphalism you might expect at this kind of event.

The stand-out keynote for me was from Elizabeth Barron from Ford Motor Company. Barron described in detail how Ford has embraced VR at nearly every stage of the design and production process through something called FIVE–Ford Immersive Vehicle Environment. Through FIVE, Ford is pioneering a methodology called Immersive Cinematic Engineering. (You’ll notice that Ford has a thing for acronyms.) Here was an example of a company exploring how VR could be a useful tool integrated into existing processes. It made tons of sense.

The big event of the program was a live Shark Tank where five startups pitched to a panel of VCs. Two companies’ pitches stood out to me. Notably, both were founded by people who either live outside Seattle or who immigrated here. Viar 360‘s pitch was impressive. They’re a team of Slovenian developers and risk-takers who decided to move their company to Seattle to be part of the epicenter of the industry. Their product is a platform that allows users to create navigation within 360 videos, including easy drag-and-drop UI. They’ve already partnered with a camera manufacturer, and came across as having made smart, early strategic moves.

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From left: Richard Tapalaga, Senior Investment Manager, Qualcomm Ventures; Steve Hall, Managing Director, Vulcan Capital; Robert Merki, Director of Product, Cognitive VR; Tony Bevilacqua, Founder and CEO, Cognitive VR; Bill Richter, Venture Partner, Madrona Venture Group. Two of these guys call napkins “serviettes.”

The Shark Tank winners, who received some hardware and a promise of further consultation with the panel of VCs, were a company from Vancouver, B.C., Cognitive VR. Earlier in the day when I stopped by their booth, I was immediately impressed by their product. They focus on eye-tracking and other methods of observing the user experience in VR, then present this data with an analytics suite. This is the sort of nuts-and-bolts, back-end product that is hard to spin into a sexy story about how VR is going to change everything, but it’s precisely the sort of product this industry can embrace. Cognitive VR’s product can help myriad other VR companies with user testing and can become a key component of the development process.

It’s also interesting that these guys are from Vancouver. As you may know, there have been efforts underway recently to establish something called the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, a formal campaign to get our Northwest cities working better together. It would be fantastic if more Seattle companies partnered with Cognitive VR and signed up to use their product. The only bum note in what was otherwise a masterful pitch by Cognitive VR’s founders Tony Bevilacqua and Robert Merki was the revelation that they currently have under 200 customers. I’m betting that this number is about to jump.

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Nima Zeighami gets 3D scaned by Paolo Tosolini at Immerse

Final thoughts on Immerse? More women, please. The keynotes were well-balanced, but I’m assuming that the three white guys comprising the Shark Tank panel would have welcomed at least one woman to provide her insights into these competing business plans. The keynotes were instructive and I found something of value in each presentation, but the conference could have used someone who, if not delivering a Category 4 Balmer, could have brought a little more adrenaline. It also would have been cool to see a presentation of actual VR content on the conference stage.

I offer these as the mildest of criticisms. For the most part, the organizers, presenters, exhibitors, and volunteers all came together for a day that’s going to result in more partnerships, new ideas, and a revived commitment not just to dream about virtual reality, but to work to make it happen.