Compete Like Artists, Not Like Businesses

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These guys. How I love them.

One of my favorite stories about the Beatles is about how John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It was right before the band recorded the monument to the mundane and sublime that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Having established themselves as the world’s greatest pop song writing duo, Lennon and McCartney kept pushing each other to go further. Paul delivered “Penny Lane,” which vividly imagines a neighborhood from his childhood, teeming with absurd characters and inside jokes. The song is both epic and buoyant, grand in scope and quotidian in detail, a  masterpiece. John must have felt both impressed and challenged, as he turned around and delivered “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a song equally rooted in the past, but committed to the interior landscapes of childhood, shot through with quantum states of self-doubt and moments of salubrious transcendence. The music itself is the result of much studio wizardry, including backwards tracks and the distinctive sounds of a new instrument called the Mellotron, whose cooing, tape-loop notes open the track.

In a Beatles biography I read a long time ago and whose title escapes me (sorry), it was observed that Lennon and McCartney competed with each other like someone climbing the rungs of a ladder. First one would advance, then the other. They spent their career being inspired by each other and then besting each other. This, to me, seems like a good metaphor for what’s happening in Seattle’s virtual and augmented reality industry. Continue reading

2016: The Year Seattle Embraced Virtual and Augmented Reality

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Trond Nilsen addressing the September VR Hackathon

Ed: This post was made possible by the mad compiling and organization skills of Eva Hoerth and Kayla Didier.

As we pull the curtains on 2016, we’re coming to a consensus that this was a horrible, no-good, rotten, very bad year. We lost cherished icons and elevated a reality star bigot to the office of President of the United States. Terrorism, refugee crises, Brexit, and other calamities flowed through our news feeds amid fake news concocted by Russian spies, climate change deniers, and white supremacists. And yet a bright spot appeared this year, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, with the emergence of the virtual and augmented reality industry. Continue reading

VRStudios and the Real World

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VRStudios’ custom-made experience for Muckleshoot Casino.

In America, we tend to think of VR as an at-home experience. We’re imagine being tethered to a Vive or sitting on a couch with a PSVR HMD strapped to our face. Reports from other areas of the world, especially Asia, suggest a more social, public interface with virtual reality in the form of arcades and other sorts of installations. One Bellevue-based company, VRStudios, takes public VR seriously. They’ve established a track record of delivering impressive experiences that suggest where the future of arcade-style immersive tech might take us. Continue reading

What Seattle’s VR/AR Community Means to Me

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As a writer, the emergence of virtual and augmented reality is the biggest story of my life. A year ago I was still reeling from the fallout of an article I wrote about Master of Fine Arts programs for The Stranger. Meant to be an honest appraisal of what it takes to cultivate artistic talent and a call for more profound engagement with literature, the piece backfired, to say the least, and led to the near total collapse of my professional network. Overnight I became one of those people who gets publicly shamed on social media, and the fallout was covered internationally by such outlets as the Guardian, Slate, and Salon. I became a sort of Osama bin Laden figure of MFA programs, and The Stranger referred to me as “the writer you love to hate.” A years-longs, self-funded project of mine to get Seattle designated a UNESCO City of Literature collapsed spectacularly, with the board of directors I had just recruited demanding a public apology before they’d raised a penny or crafted a strategic plan. I refused. One, because I don’t believe in the shaming rituals of public apologies, which never seem to be accompanied by public forgiveness. Two, because I believed that a board whose very first official act was to admonish a writer for something he had written had no business championing free expression. As a result, they promptly quit. After literally traveling the world to raise the profile of Seattle’s literary community, I found myself exiled from that very community. The local publisher of an anthology I edited about Seattle’s literary history informed bookstores that they were welcome to exclude me from promotional events if they found me too controversial. A local reviewer scanned the table of contents of said anthology, tallied the number of contributors who were white, declared me racist in her review, then later admitted, in front of an audience at a reading, that she hadn’t even bothered to read the book. A troll with a lot of time on their hands anonymously registered my name as a domain and it remains the world’s go-to website for all things negative written about me. I’ve seen writers cross to the other side of the street to avoid me.

Interestingly, during this period I was approached privately by dozens of authors and writing instructors who agreed with my article and offered me their sympathy, but who were rightly terrified for their own reputations if they were known to sympathize with my point of view. Some of them gave me money and fed me. These authors included winners of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and a Macarthur Genius Grant recipient who advised me “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.” One author, whose books have sold in the millions all over the world over a decades-long career, took me out to dinner one night. When I asked him why my piece had elicited such a furious reaction, this beloved literary figure offered two words: “inferiority complexes.”

When I decided I needed to start a website of my own, I discovered, to my surprise, that  ryanboudinotisahack.com was available. In my old life, a hack is a writer of low talent, an assessment that many aspiring writers in Seattle would still agree with. Soon after I started blogging about VR, however, I remembered that “hack” means something quite different in tech circles. A hack can mean a clever solution. That’s the meaning of the word I choose to embrace.

The more I wrote about virtual reality, the deeper I became involved in Seattle’s VR community. People who started as the subject of blog posts became friends, and friends became collaborators. Writing the article for Seattle Met magazine gave me the opportunity to meet VR creators in workshops, garages, and co-working spaces around the city. The more I learned about what was happening in VR/AR in Seattle, the more I wanted to not simply cover the emergence of an industry, but champion that industry’s pioneers.

There are specific moments that stand out to me from this past year. The moment Eva Hoerth walked up and said, “Hey, can I join your team?” at the Microsoft Hololens Hackathon. Getting my mind blown by Gus McManus’s trippy virtual DJ booth at Tim Reha’s CNDY Factory. Hearing spatial audio for the first time at Immersive Systems. Visiting Ron Jones’s Sky Muse studios in Stanwood just down the road from the house I grew up in. Many a soul-stirring conversation with Steve Turnidge. Scooping snowballs in Evie Powell’s snowball fight game and sniping at robots in Invrse’s The Nest. Watching Mechanical Dreams kick ass, over and over again. Meeting Amanda Knox and admiring her poise and positivity while the troll armies continue to bait her cultural doppelganger. Looking around me on day 1 at CoMotion Labs and realizing that I wasn’t alone in not knowing how the hell I had ended up at a virtual reality startup incubator.

I now understand that I wasn’t ever meant to belong to a book-bound community. My fate was probably sealed when I first started working in customer service for Amazon in 1998. I knew well before most people, just by virtue of being present in conference rooms with Amazon VPs, that the publishing industry was going to get vivisected. While getting four books of fiction published remains one of my proudest accomplishments, I have found that the publishing industry, in general, is structurally and philosophically unprepared to cope with the rate and intensity of technological change in the 21st century. I’d love to be convinced otherwise, but from where I sit, American literature looks increasingly insular, irrelevant to the vast swath of the public, rife with identity politics infighting, and disengaged from our most powerful engines of culture.

Technology has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember. When I was about five or six years old, I discovered an illustration in a magazine of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, her body composed of circuits and gears, with the caption, “Alice in Technology Land.” I remember asking my mother what technology meant. She explained that it meant machines and inventions. I swear that I heard a voice in my head at that moment that said, “Pay attention to this word. It’s going to be really important to you.”

In the past year I realized that I probably won’t ever publish another book. I parted ways with two literary agents this year. I have two manuscripts–a long novel and a short memoir–that I decided this year to squirrel away so that my kids can make money on them after I die. That thought brings me no small degree of joy. I have no plans to put any more effort into writing books. I understand that I am meant to apply my energy and talent to the emergence of the new storytelling medium of virtual reality. I was surprised at the relief I felt after coming to that decision.

And here’s the most striking thing of all. I have never felt more appreciated as a writer. I’ve never felt that more people cared about what I write. The compliments I get these days on my blog posts mean more to me than any positive review I have ever received for one of my books. And as a result I’ve never felt such a strong a sense of responsibility to my readers. I have experienced levels of appreciation this past year that I never imagined were possible. If you’re reading this, it means that you’re taking part in one of civilization’s grandest experiments in meaning and understanding, and I send you my undying gratitude for inspiring me. I tell people that I’m a small-town reporter of Seattle VR, and I’m invested in making sure that this community thrives. If I’m biased, it’s because I’m so blessed.

 

Ugly Sweaters, Beautiful People

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Last night at HBO’s downtown digital team offices, Seattle’s VR community gathered for one last 2016 meetup, with ugly holiday sweaters in abundance. Organizers Eva Hoerth and Kayla Didier read a list of community milestones and accomplishments, from Pixvana releasing their Spin Studio VR creation tool to Axon VR‘s $5.8 million round of financing. Beyond the successes of individual companies, however, the most striking accomplishment had to be that Seattle, without a doubt, has become the world’s center of virtual and augmented reality.

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The Christmas tree on Eva Hoerth’s sweater could be converted into a slice of pizza. How virtual!

Judging by the eleventh-hour frenzy of Facebook chatter, many more people wanted to attend last night’s gathering than were allowed by the 150-person limit. I chatted with Dave Thek, a tech and advertising professional from Nashville who is considering relocating to Seattle, and Lucian Copeland, founder of Nullspace VR, a haptics company that moved from Rochester, New York to downtown Seattle in order to be closer to where the VR action is. When you talk to recent transplants, you start to realize that what we have in Seattle is rare and growing. And it’s near impossible to overstate how directly the camaraderie and inclusiveness of this self-organized community of VR pioneers translates into more companies, more jobs, and more opportunities for all.

AxonVR treated revelers to their big metal box full of haptic surprises. I covered their September open house and gave them some gentle ribbing for keeping their product so close to the vest, so it was gratifying to see them close out the year celebrating the biggest round of financing ever for a haptics company and showing off their technology, which creates sensations of pressure, heat, and cold as you place virtual objects in your hand.

I’ll be posting Eva and Kayla’s list of 2016 Seattle VR/AR community milestones before the new year. As we gathered for one last 360 group photo, the mood was amply celebratory, with an abundance of hope and optimism for the wonders to come in 2017. In a very unreal year, virtual reality in Seattle feels like the most genuine thing going.

More pictures after the jump… Continue reading

SIXR’s Holiday Cinematic Challenge and Other Learning Opportunities

14344245_1736422249943575_7151852877872171384_nSIXR is one of the most tenacious, friendly, and creative teams working in cinematic VR in Seattle, period. I freaking love them. This band of VR pioneers is all about spreading and sharing knowledge via intensive weekend jams. I attended one of them last summer and got to see a 360 movie filmed inside a hot tub. This weekend they’re hosting their Holiday 2016 Cinematic VR Challenge. If your holiday shopping is done and you’re itching to create some immersive video art with some of the most inventive artists working in the medium, you’re well advised to sign up. According to the Facebook page, there will be opportunities to experiment with binaural sound and attempts to create Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). I’m too lazy to consult Wikipedia to learn exactly what that is, but I imagine it involves tripping out while wearing a HMD and listening to Dark Side of the Moon.

Continue reading

1500 Strong

Yesterday the Seattle VR/AR Facebook group grew to 1500 members. That’s almost enough people to fill the Moore Theater. That’s a lot of brains. If you were to connect all those brains together in a massive super brain you’d get–give or take–1,500,000,000,000 neurons.

Who are all these people interested in VR/AR in Seattle? I’ve been fortunate to have met a number of them, and what I appreciate most is the sheer variety of backgrounds, interests, and passions represented in this community. There is so much to learn, and so many people eager to share their knowledge. In the past few months I have learned about VR architecture from Simon Manning and Willard Williams, video games and UX/UI from Dr. Evie Powell, JP Chery, and Tom Doyle, 360 filmmaking from Mischa Jakupcak, Lacey Leavitt, Budi Mulyo, and Kewan Welth, community organizing from Eva Hoerth and Trond Nilsen, open-world sandbox games from Nima Zeighami, empathy from Amanda Knox, AI from Chris Robinson, international relations from Greg Howes, and the mysterious ways ideas come to fruition from Steve Turnidge. I’ve experienced ah-ha moments in conversations with Joe Michaels, Megha Jain, Eric Neuman, Ryan James, Ricardo Parker, AK, Matt Hooper, Elizabeth Scallon, Dr. Tom Furness, and many others.

This community is growing because the world is becoming increasingly aware that Seattle is where to be if you want to make a mark in the immersive tech industry. In the past week alone, I met one guy who just moved here from Miami, and another guy who is considering moving here from Nashville. I had a conference call with a gentleman in Helsinki who wanted advice on making a trip to Seattle to visit our VR scene. This reminds me of the early nineties, when a stream of  Greyhound buses was depositing a steady supply of guitar-slinging young people on the corner of 6th and Stewart, all of them lured to Puget Sound by the Seattle sound .

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once quipped, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I’ve often thought about that quote when considering the growth and development of particular cultural movements. I love the period when success is by no means guaranteed, when the band that will one day sell out arenas is rationing lunch meat in their broken-down tour van, when the coders are in the garage trying to get magic to happen in a box. Those are moments when one’s core convictions are put to the test, and when character is revealed through making it clear what a person is willing to do for what they believe in. The key is to be thoughtful and committed and to find other people who can share that level of thoughtfulness and commitment.

We seem to be in a period in the VR industry when we’re fueled mostly by optimism based on the powerful experiences we’ve all had with the medium. We’re operating on the faith of the converted, while the market, operating like an antsy parent bugging you to clean your room, frets about units moved and whether this is just a bubble, a fad. I remember working for Amazon when the company only sold books, and I heard the same contrarian arguments against e-commerce back then.

In this bootstrapping period, symbolic things keep us going more than financial gain; our sense of worth is tied more to our values than our incomes. The reward structure of a community is biased toward cooperation, reciprocation, and sharing knowledge. The 1500 people who circulate through Seattle’s virtual reality scene are creating a movement and laying the groundwork for broadly shared future success. The energy and excitement I feel at CoMotion Labs, at meetups, and in frenzied conversations over beer with VR pioneers, seems to me an expression of awakening power.