The Lay of the Land

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Morning at CoMotion Labs. It’s still early.

I’m editing a directory of Seattle VR/AR companies and organizations for the Seattlevr.us community website. I’m positive that I’m missing some key players, so if you’re reading this and don’t see your organization listed, please contact me posthaste.

I think we can all agree that the Seattle VR scene is vibrant and growing. In the past week I’ve heard from people in LA and Helsinki who are well aware of the bubbling cauldron of immersive tech that’s happening in Puget Sound. As I write this, groggy developers are stumbling in to CoMotion Labs looking caffeine-deprived. Most everybody in this coworking space has kept the Husky-purple signs that were posted on our desks for the recent open house. Looking around the room I can see names of companies that I haven’t yet spent enough time getting to know: Timbre Interactive, Hocus Focus Productions, Fearless 360. Most days I feel that I can’t possibly keep up with everything going on in this industry in Seattle.

Most of us, I think, spend our lives with our noses to the ground, knocking one task after another off our lists. Grinding through our routines, hustling for our deadlines. It can be both dizzying and revelatory to stand back and take a longer view of what’s happening around us. From where I sit, it looks like everybody is trying to figure out how to make just enough money to keep this industry percolating. And looking at the list of organizations in the directory, I can’t help but entertain a morbid thought–how many of these companies are going to fail?

Let’s talk about failure, then. In recent years it’s been fashionable to say that failure is necessary for innovation. Personally, I have failed at a great many things. I’ve been laid off from jobs three times and fired once. I’ve blown opportunities, pursued dead-ends, face-planted, stumbled, and fallen on my ass. One of my failures was even covered in the international press. I’ve concluded that the trick to innovating via failure is to fail at things without thinking of yourself as a failure, and to always, always, attach learning to failure.

Sure, getting laid off sucked, but what would suck even more would be if I was still writing copy for Drugstore.com. Getting fired from Amazon for being honest during my employee review was, in the end, well worth it. Sticking with one company and doing the same thing for forty years sounds like hell on earth to me. The sheer variety of roles I’ve been able to inhabit in my career–novelist, teacher, web producer, community organizer–is a direct result of things going sideways. I’m grateful for all that I experienced to get me to this point.

The wonderful thing about a community like ours is that even when individual companies fail, the community itself can succeed. This success relies on something called exaptation, a biological term that describes the repurposing of a trait. Feathers initially evolved as a way for creatures to retain heat, and later became a means to fly. As it relates to the local immersive tech industry, a skill you develop at a VR gaming company may be useful in a different context at a company doing something totally different.

Fail better, Samuel Beckett implored us. Maybe the strength of an industry lies in how well it cultivate conditions in which it’s safe–or at least safer–to fail. When you survey the landscape of Seattle’s immersive tech, it’s easy to see a community positioning itself for success.