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.

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UW’s CoMotion Labs

One year ago, the HTC Vive was still months away from being available to the public. Since its release in April, the device has come to define early VR experiences, upstaging Oculus, whose roll-out by parent company Facebook was rocky and hindered by bad PR. Google released the Pixel phone and the Daydream platform. Samsung, despite its exploding phones, took a piece of the market with its Gear VR. This was also the year that Sony released Playstation VR. AR startup Magic Leap continued to toil in secrecy, with an bunker-like office opening up in our own Georgetown, and Microsoft released its imperfect but beguiling Hololens.

While hardware slowly found its market and big companies invested billions in VR and AR, a community of engineers, gamers, architects, artists, developers, organizers, scientists, and visionaries found each other in Seattle. In January, the Seattle VR/AR community group consisted of 250 members. By this month that number had swelled to over 1800.

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One of the VR/AR Collective’s meetups

The sheer number of people who’ve embraced immersive tech in Seattle is itself  impressive. What’s more striking is how sincerely this community has emphasized inclusion and diversity as a matter of course. A coalition of women, many of whom have experienced the lousy gender politics of the gaming industry, championed inclusion with the VR/AR Collective, which hosted a number of meetups that allowed men to attend only as guests of women. If this caused some grumbling among the bros, it also led to reflection and discussion about how to open the doors wider to the sorts of people who, demographically, haven’t been as widely represented in tech. One shining example of the depth of XX chromosome genius in Seattle’s VR talent pool was the VR/AR Collective’s Women’s Create-athon, which featured 100 creators, all women, creating apps over a weekend at UW’s Startup Hall.

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Opening celebration at CoMotion  Labs

The community–or as Eva Hoerth calls it, the VR/AR Family–came together at meetups and hackathons. I attended my first meetup in April, where I experienced VR for the first time with Invrse‘s The Nest and Verge of Brilliance‘s snowball fight game. A short time later I attended the Hololens Hackathon, where I ended up on a team with Eva, Majesta Vestal, and Tarik Merzouk. Held over a weekend at Fremont Studios, that hackathon was also attended by Pear Med‘s Ryan James, RatLab alums Abhigyan Kaustubh and Trond Nilsen, and various other game designers and enterprise thinkers who would emerge as leaders in this nascent industry over the course of the year. In September, the Seattle VR Hackathon drew 180 participants to Magnusen Park, and by then, many of the participants had already worked with or met each other before.

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Scobot in mixed reality

Companies and projects that were spun off from this single weekend of sleep-deprived coding included DisastARCons, ensoVerse, and Cowboy Arms Collective, whose game “The Offering” was subsequently greenlit on Steam. That same weekend, across town on Capitol Hill, the digital artist known as Scobot participated in an Art Hack  in the space formerly known as Value Village. Among the works on display at that event were two other Vive-based artistic experiences that demonstrated how much the artistic community is embracing the possibilities of this new technology.

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Jennae Numo at Sixr’s Summer Cinematic Challenge

In addition to organized events like hackathons, meetups, and Immerse–the tech conference that drew hundreds to Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Center–numerous other gatherings in studios, warehouses, and various nooks and crannies of Seattle tech provided ample inspiration and opportunities to learn and exchange ideas. One center of the action, CNDY Factory, the brainchild of the tireless Tim Reha, hosted create-athons, meetings with VCs, VJ nights, and demos all within sight of Lake Union. Clutching a beer on the crowded deck of Tim’s VR clubhouse/funhouse, you could sense ideas sparking and new connections forming in real-time.

Sixr, a collective of 360 filmmakers, hosted a series of cinematic challenge weekends which gave creators a chance to learn about the gear and production tools of immersive media. Led by Budi Mulyo, Kewan Welth, Julian Peña, and Diana Fairbank, one of the team’s high points included a collaboration with Seattle Fashion Week. Other VR pioneers pushing the boundaries of 360 video included Eric Neuman of Sprawly and Viar360, a company that relocated to Seattle from Slovenia and who had an impressive showing at the Shark Tank VC pitching event at Immerse. Cinema, in however many degrees it is shot, requires a whole infrastructure of studios, production technologies, and recording facilities, and Seattle stepped up its game in these areas this year, as well. Pixvana, a Fremont startup launched in the spring by veterans of Apple, Microsoft, LucasFilm, and Adobe, tackled questions of distribution and cloud computing, and ended the year on a high note with the launch of Spin Studio, a platform to create and deliver VR video. Meanwhile in a warehouse in SoDo, MoCap Now launched the city’s first motion capture studio. An hour north, in Stanwood, Hollywood composer Ron Jones built out his impressive Sky Muse Studios, providing a state of the art recording facility in the woods of Snohomish County. This was also the year that the local film community embraced VR, a high point being the much-lauded SIFFX festival and the deeper involvement in VR of Washington Filmworks.

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Chris Hegstrom addresses an audio meetup at CNDY Factory.

Speaking of which, Mechanical Dreams, a team of intrepid filmmakers led by Lacey Leavitt and Mischa Jakupcak, established itself as literally a world leader in 360 film, attracting international audiences for their crazily inventive shoestring-budget films by Tracey Rector, Wes Hurley, Joe Jacobs, and others. Further, they successfully achieved their Kickstarter goal and served as something of an anchor tenant to CoMotion Labs.

Ah, CoMotion Labs. If there was any one development that sealed the deal on Seattle emerging as a world leader in VR/AR this, it was this brand-new co-working space on Roosevelt above the parking lot of Trader Joe’s. Opening its doors in August, the University of Washington’s VR startup incubator got started thanks to a dynamo of positive energy and brilliance named Elizabeth Scallon. Elizabeth filled the 34 desks with 13 startups, including Invrse, VRgonauts, Sixr, Pear Med, MultiModal Health, and Scobot. And, incidentally, this blog you’re reading right now.

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Chris Robinson and Amanda Knox experiencing The Machine to Be Another

It has been utterly remarkable to watch my fellow startups sprout wings in this facility equipped with a mixed reality studio, just a short walk away from the classrooms where Dr. Tom Furness laid the intellectual foundation for VR. Those of us who’ve jumped into CoMotion Labs together seem to share a general sense of making-it-up-as-we-go-along combined with a growing awareness that the wind is at our backs. And we’re amazed that we’ve only been at it for five months or so. As for my little journalistic endeavor, I was proud to bring on two fabulously gifted writers, Amanda Knox and Chris Robinson, who add depth and invention to what has previously just been a one-man show.

At this point in this blog post, I feel as though I need to take a breath and replenish my electrolytes with a bottle of Gatorade.

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Watching Facebook’s VR presentations at VReal

Pressing on. Social VR! A number of companies looked at this emerging medium and figured out ways to get people to experience it together. There was the launch of Against Gravity, which invites users to play together in VR. PlutoVR launched their social platform to much fanfare. Doghead Simulations sought to bring remote users together in social spaces. In November, game company UGen announced alpha testing of their user-generated VR platform. VReal took on streaming VR with their social platform. VRStudios ended the year with several high-profile projects under their belts, including a VR game installation at Muckleshoot Casino. Speaking of installations, the Living Computer Museum opened its VR exhibit and promised to host events for the VR community in the coming year.

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This is what AxonVR is cooking up

Let’s not overlook peripheral hardware startups. One of the biggest stories in haptics was AxonVR, which announced a $5.8 million round of funding for its technology that allows you to feel heat, cold, and pressure in the palm of your hand. Nullspace VR, which moved from Rochester, NY to our drippy clime to be closer to the action, continued to develop its wicked-looking haptic suit. And one ingenious local figure, Larry James, treated us to his Maker Dome.

Of course, when we think about immersive entertainment we tend to think first of games, and this was truly a watershed year for the local indie game community. Endeavor One, working mostly in secret on Capitol Hill, rode the success of their game Jump as they developed Duel. Wobbly Duck Studios launched Spellbound on Steam. In addition to snowball fights, Verge of Brilliance had gamers playing marimbas.

I know I’m neglecting to mention companies and individuals who made an impact on Seattle’s VR/AR community this year. Keeping track of the variety, depth, and magnitude of what happened in this region this year is one of those difficult tasks that falls under the category of Good Problems to Have. At the end of this tumultuous year, as the world opens its eyes and ears to the possibilities of immersive new media, an essential truth has been confirmed; that together we exceed the sum of our parts.