One of Seattle’s most engaging advocates for virtual and augmented reality, Eva Hoerth, just posted this open-ended Q&A on Facebook, asking for feedback about building local VR/AR communities. I just filled out the questionaire myself, and thought I’d share my answers here.
What inspired you to go from enthusiast to community builder?
I went through grunge and the dotcom years and saw how creative economies emerge and bloom. Last spring when I attended my first VR meetup in Seattle, I felt the same way I used to feel in the mosh pits of the early nineties and on the customer service floor at Amazon–that something momentous and world-changing was just getting started. I’ve done community building projects in the past, and I’ve found that much of what motivates a scene like ours is expanding the sense of what’s possible, empowering the amateur enthusiasts to understand they have real influence over the direction of the industry, and cultivating a DIY attitude. I was inspired by the sheer diversity of people attracted to immersive media. Getting to rub shoulders with architects, computer scientists, musicians, game designers, filmmakers, and so many other fascinating sorts of people is massively appealing to me.
How did you approach building up your VR/AR community? What strategies did you experiment with/implement?
I started going to meetups, have spoken about VR at an emerging tech conference and on a panel at RenCon, participated in the Hololens Hackathon, and have written about Seattle’s VR/AR community on my blog and for Seattle Met magazine. I’m also keenly interested in how Washington State could become the center of VR content production. Mostly it’s about developing relationships, celebrating other peoples’ projects, pouring as much good will as possible into our collective dream of VR.
What obstacles have you encountered during the community-building process, AND how did you overcome them? Or do you still face them?
The biggest obstacle for us in Seattle is the same as it is for everyone working in VR around the world–the gap between what we imagine and what the market can currently support. I’ve also been pondering obstacles related to content production. If cinematic VR is an evolution of film (this is a debate for another time), then cinematic VR creators are hobbled by tax codes in Washington State that have historically driven film productions away to places like Vancouver, BC. Washington Filmworks is an intrepid organization that is currently looking at how to pivot from advocating for film production tax credits to tax incentives for immersive content production. There’s also a way, I think, for us in Seattle’s VR/AR community to get behind Governor Inslee’s Cascadia Innovation Corridor initiative, which would foster greater collaboration between Vancouver and Seattle. I think that would be such a game changer, combining our tech with Vancouver’s film talent. Ultimately, these obstacles are so easy to overcome with a little imagination and recognizing the bounty of resources at our disposal. There’s really no excuse why the Pacific Northwest shouldn’t be driving the VR/AR industry. We already are, in many ways.
Tell me about the VR/AR community you are currently building up. What does it look like now?
The Seattle VR/AR Facebook group is over 1,000 people right now. As someone who grew up in a transracial family, matter-of-fact diversity is important to me, and I’ve been impressed at how conscientious everyone has been about welcoming the kinds of people into this industry who you don’t see much of in, say, a typical Seattle tech company. I work out of CoMotion Labs, the University of Washington’s VR startup incubator, and I love the range of projects that are sprouting up around me. Medical tech, games, UX studies, 360-degree movies. I feel incredibly fortunate to be included in this milieu. I’m also thrilled at how many women have taken on leadership positions in Seattle’s VR/AR community. It’s often said that diversity is strength, and I believe that to be 1000% true. The gestalt of so many brilliant minds from so many different backgrounds working together is what is going to propel immersive tech into the stratosphere. I’ve never been part of a more incredibly gifted, ambitious, and generous community.
How do you engage/grow your community in-person and online? Which has been the most beneficial for you?
Meetups are a lot of fun and I have made lots of friends through them. Jordan Kellogg is sort of a one-man meetup himself. If you go to the most obscure VR-related event in Seattle, Jordan will be there, eager to introduce you to the three other people in attendance. I do my best to post something daily on my blog, ryanboudinotisahack.com, then promote the posts on Facebook. Depending on the breadth of what I’m writing about, I’ll post stuff on either the big VR fb group or the more intimate, local Seattle one. For the life of me, I just don’t get Slack. I belong to Generation X, so please be gentle on me. I’ve also been working with Eva Hoerth and Trond Nilsen on seattlevr.us, a slowly-developing but soon-to-be amazing community resource. We should have a new redesign soon! Stay tuned!
Diversity and inclusion are crucial for the VR/AR industries. Are you currently experimenting with ways to build an inclusive community? What has worked for you? What hasn’t?
A lot of the employees of Seattle’s tech companies look like me. Recently I saw news of a new startup and I thought, damn, why not just call your company Four Bearded Caucasians? I think diversity and inclusion doesn’t just have to be about white guilt and correcting historic, institutional inequity, which is pervasive and real. It can also be about truly recognizing the contributions of a broad spectrum of people who may, in superficial ways, seem different than yourself. I’m all for positive, celebratory diversity that opens the doors to brilliant personalities who are then able to connect and work together. And I love those moments when you can engage with people on a personality level and these ostensible differences recede far into the background.
Do you think others should get involved in building up VR/AR communities? If so, why? What impact has the VR/AR community left on your city and beyond? Feel free to be specific.
What’s amazing right now is that all of us who are getting into VR, even Mark Zuckerberg, are amateurs. Every last one of us. Well, maybe not Tom Furness. But none of us jumping into wave three of the virtual reality industry really know what the hell we’re doing. And that means we’ll create a lot of accidental mutations, which is just what this medium needs right now to evolve. I was on a panel the other day on VR and someone asked a similar question to this one. I responded that if you want to get into VR/AR in some way but feel like you’re unqualified, quickly disabuse yourself of that notion. VR/AR is in a very punk rock phase right now, especially in Seattle. And like grunge, which I experienced at ground zero between the ages of say 15 and 21, it’s really about mutual support and encouragement at this point. I can’t stress this enough. Giving props to some weird person’s new VR demo is the same as showing up and applauding a local band at a show at the OK Hotel circa 1991.
Do you think VR studios/companies should get involved with the VR/AR communities? If so, why? How does this benefit them?
VR companies or big companies with VR divisions that wall off their talent and don’t engage with the broader community are suicidal. They’re thinking like Robert Moses when, in the long run, they’ll be much more successful by thinking like Jane Jacobs. Every company has to weigh proprietary versus open source. But there is historical precedence for the long-term benefit of open-sourcing your knowledge, namely Silicon Valley’s birth in the communitarian spirit of the late sixties Bay Area. Isn’t it nice that you don’t have to pay a royalty every time you click a link on the Web? I worry that a lot of these big companies getting into VR, with lots of shareholder value on the line, will squelch innovation. I’d argue that there’s a necessary messiness that needs to happen in order for this industry to grow to its potential. A period of mingling, cross-pollenation, serendipity, happy accidents, and chance encounters. That’s what makes places like CoMotion Labs so fertile. Once you let go and swim around in the pond a bit, you discover that what’s actually possible is way bigger and more amazing than what your dedicated team concocted in a conference room, surrounded by NDAs and firewalls.
Do you have any ideas for how VR communities across the world can work more closely together? Have you already done some cross-collaboration? Do you think this brings any benefit?
This is HUGE! Yes, yes, and yes. International collaboration is key. Especially since China is, in many significant ways, far ahead of where we are in VR/AR. We need deep and meaningful relationships with Chinese VR creators. We need deep and meaningful relationships with startups in Helsinki, Reykjavik, Sao Paolo. We share a global culture, and we can only be enriched if we reach across international borders and help each other out. I mentioned the Cascadia Innovation Corridor. We need to build alliances with Vancouver VR companies like Cognitive VR. And let me offer some props to a Seattle guy who has been doing incredible work on the international collaboration front–Greg Howes. He comes from the enterprise side of the industry and has been organizing hackathons all over the world. I envy his frequent flyer miles. We need more people like Greg, building partnerships and crossing cultural boundaries through immersive media.
If someone were to ask you how they can start building up the VR/AR community (from square one) in their city, how would you respond? How do you grow your community?
There’s an old song by Devo called “Through Being Cool” about how all the misfits find each other in a community. It goes, “If you live in a small town / there might be a dozen or two / young alien types who step out / and dare to declare / we’re through being cool.” Identifying your allies is step one. Then refusing to believe that living in a smaller place means that this medium doesn’t belong to you, too. Then, obsessively connect to the wider VR/AR community via all the methods available to us in the 21st century–social media, blogs. Seek out people who can tell you what equipment you should get. Listen to podcasts. Be conscientious about showing up to your meetups. Here’s the thing–in ten years, every small town in America is going to have a VR company, just like every small town now has an Internet Service Provider. If you get in now, you can play a huge part in how this medium is going to evolve. Your game/experience/idea might be the one that takes the world by storm. There is nothing preventing you from influencing history. I’ll say this, too, as someone living in the VR epicenter of Seattle. If you do live in a bigger place, with a robust VR/AR community, you’d be wise to foster a sense of responsibility for other communities that don’t have the resources you do.
How do you determine if your community is happy? What does community success look like?
Success and happiness correspond, in my experience, to autonomy. Another lesson from the age of grunge. I remember when it was wonderful and exciting, and I remember when it started to suck. It started to suck when the imitators jumped into the fray and everyone started to do that Layne Staley throat singing thing, and had songs with lyrics about “Jay-shush Chraaaiist.” The killer is greed. Greed makes you susceptible to making the deal that offers more financial stability at the cost of your autonomy. We really could blow this whole Seattle VR industry thing. And the way we’ll blow it is if we start thinking of our community as a market. The moment we do that is the moment we stop trusting our weirdest ideas and start banking on the examples of past successes. That’s why mainstream Hollywood sucks so much. They figured out a super hero formula and they’re going with it. Our community will be happy if there is a lot of opportunity and many successes spread as widely as possible. This requires us to embrace the idea that communal success is more important than individual success. And that can be incredibly difficult.
One of the biggest obstacles to VR/AR right now is limited access to hardware. Have you encountered this in your community, and if so, have you approached it?
Hardware is expensive. I actually don’t even own a VR device more sophisticated than a Google Cardboard. But I’m fortunate for CoMotion Labs, which just opened up a mixed reality studio. I’ve found that people are pretty generous with their hardware. Jean-Pierre Chery hosted an open Vive demo awhile back that just gave people the opportunity to try stuff out. If we still trust in Moore’s Law, we can all take solace in the fact that the hardware will get cheaper and more powerful in due course.
Have you experienced burnout? If so, how have you managed that?
It’s hard to work at something when the reward isn’t guaranteed or seems far off in the future. But every time I’ve gone through a difficult period, I play a little mental game in which I project into the future and “look back” on the time in which I now live. When you do that, it often becomes clear what it is you need to do. I’ve gotten to know an audio mastering engineer recently named Steve Turnidge who wrote this thoughtful and entertaining guide to life called Beyond Mastering that I highly recommend. He talks about how to send positive energy back to your younger self. I realize this all sounds a bit metaphysical, but it’s really just kind of a mental framing device. If you feel burned out, think about the success you’re going to be enjoying in the future, and ask that future self for encouragement. I’ve found this to be incredibly effective.
What VR/AR community groups (online or offline) would you classify as role models in the space? Please provide links!
I really like the AR/VR Collective, CoMotion Labs, CNDY Factory, and the Seattle VR Facebook group. I’m too lazy at the moment to provide links. You know where to find them.
Do you recommend any VR/AR community-builders to follow? You can answer with their Twitter handles or full names.
Well, for starters, you, Eva Hoerth. Also Jordan Kellogg, Bridget Swirski, Trond Nilsen, Kayla Didier, Elizabeth Scallon, Tim Reha, Kim Voynar, Nathaniel Pinzon, Amy Lillard, Sandy Cioffi. There are a ton more. This is by no means comprehensive. At all. Lots of people doing important work in VR in Seattle.
Do you know of any companies or startups that are big supporters of VR/AR community-building, or that are looking for community builders to join their team?
I’ve been impressed by HTC’s outreach efforts. They hosted a home run derby last summer for kids that was cool. We should recognize Booz Allen Hamilton, Amazon, and Microsoft, too. They’ve all sponsored hackathons and pitched in.
Do you have any books/online resources that you’d recommend to someone who is interested in community-building?
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson. Brilliantly concise read, all about how innovations actually occur. Learned a lot from this one, my favorite book of the past year.
Beyond Mastering, by Steve Turnidge. Mentioned above. Steve brings his audio mastering expertise to bear on bigger life questions. “The universe creates the playlist.” Much to learn from here.
Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin. The classic guide to presidential leadership and one of Obama’s favorite books. Abraham Lincoln’s life as a lesson in humility and pragmatism.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by Jon Gertner. A look at one of America’s most dynamically creative work environments.
The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson. This one’s a primer on the digital age, going all the way back to Ada Lovelace. This was the book that made me realize what a big deal it was that my grandfather got to work on the ENIAC.
In the Penal Colony, by Franz Kafka. This one might seem a little counter-intuitive, but it’s a great example community building going horribly, horribly wrong.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to mention?
I’d like to mention that this is one long-ass questionaire, Eva.