Immigration Makes Us Strong

A couple weeks ago I had lunch with a local VR leader of Indian heritage. We ate burgers and fries and talked about his future plans, which from my vantage point look full of promise. He’s a brilliant and personable guy, one of those people who you brighten’s my mood just by his presence. At one point this friend said that he was considering leaving Seattle and finding a VR community somewhere abroad, like Helsinki. Then he said that he worried that if he left the United States, he might not be able to get back in.

The remark took me off guard. It was one of those comments that reminds me, a white man, that there are certain things I just never have to worry about. And at the time it seemed like a vague and slightly preposterous concern. Of course he’d be able to get back in, right? He was a talented technology worker, who, like many tech workers in Puget Sound, just happens to be from India.

What a difference a couple weeks make.

This weekend, Donald Trump’s un-American, strategically misguided, and morally  repugnant executive decree on immigration galvanized the technology industry, forcing CEOs and others off the sidelines. These policies are offensive for what they do to families and communities, and are just plain stupid for what they do to an industry that requires a diverse array of bright minds in order to innovate and succeed.

Immigrants teach us what it means to be American. My exposure to families of Mexican farm laborers in Skagit Valley as a kid help me appreciate the challenges my own Irish immigrant ancestors overcame. My huguenot ancestors, who fled religious persecution in France, ended up living next door to Benjamin Franklin and played an instrumental role in the American Revolution. The spirit of this nation’s founding is contiguous with the ache in the hearts of refugees fleeing Syria today.

It occurred to me recently that this new medium, virtual reality, is emerging as an empathy tool precisely when we need it. As our callous reality-show-host-in-chief seeks to divide and vilify, we’ll resist these offenses against America by affirming our common humanity. Be strong. Resist. Look out for one another.


A Visit to AIE

Speaking at AIE

Yesterday I had the pleasure of talking to a group of students at AIE, the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, based in a warren of classrooms and skinny hallways upstairs at Seattle Center’s Armory. I had been asked to share my thoughts on VR to people who understand a lot more than me about how to actually create VR experiences. Students at AIE spend two years learning to code and design games, after which they find work in the video game industry. Some students find work in visual effects in the film industry.

The students asked questions about the art of narrative, careers, and cinematic vs. game-based VR. They were thoughtful and engaged across the board, but being young people, many of their questions bore an air of uncertainty about the future. When you’re young it can be hard to grasp just how remarkable your circumstances are. It can be difficult to conceptualize your life, with its day to day concerns, as part of a greater historical movement.

When I was a kid in the eighties, growing up in my dad’s civil engineering office, I didn’t appreciate what an advantage I was afforded by getting such early hands-on exposure to computers. I was able to write stories on my dad’s office’s eyeball-assaulting Digital computer before most families I knew even had a computer. And my grandfather, who worked with the ENIAC, was an early adopter who was one of the first people I knew to own an Apple computer. But if you were to ask me at the time, I wouldn’t have thought there was anything remarkable about my circumstances.

My impression of the students at AIE was that they are getting a massive head start in mastering the technology that’s going to upend our world as much as PCs and smart phones. The market is going to get hungrier and hungrier for their particular sets of skills, and a lot of opportunities are going to come their way. My dad, who graduated from college with an engineering degree in the late sixties, says that companies were so hungry for engineers in his time that they used to lure prospective candidates with paid recruiting trips to their headquarters. We seem to be in an equivalent era now.

Then again, maybe we’re in a bubble and this whole VR thing could collapse. That’s a possibility. But I highly doubt it. I told these students about the early dotcom boom, when there was a flood of companies selling everything from dog food to socks online. And a lot of those startups from the late nineties went belly-up. Did this spell doom for e-commerce? Take a walk through South Lake Union and you tell me.

As with the creation of an individual work of art, there are a lot of blind alleys and tangents involved in getting an industry off the ground. We’re in the rough draft stage of the immersive media age, and this means some rough waters ahead. If I were to put my faith in anyone, it would be in students like the ones at AIE, who stand ready to ride the tidal wave to come.



What I’ve Learned from Playing Video Games

Several months ago I started hanging out with video game designers. The more I got to know this fascinating tribe, the more self-conscious I became about my own lack of gaming knowledge. I realized I was coming across as pretty uninformed, with my points of reference stuck resolutely in the mid nineties–Myst, The Sims, Civilization. I knew that if I was going to work in virtual reality I at least needed to be conversant in some of the gaming conventions that were being ported over from the world of consoles and RPGs. I threw myself at the mercy of my social network and asked if anyone would take pity on a poor book nerd such as myself, lend me their console, and suggest a couple games. I expressed particularly interest in open world, explorable sandbox games.

Members of the local VR community were characteristically generous, and pretty soon I found myself with an XBox One, two XBox 360s, and lots of games. I felt a bit like Christopher Plummer’s character in the Mike Mills film Beginners, discovering house music at age seventy. It’s both humbling and exciting to explore a whole body of knowledge that you’ve otherwise ignored.

I was intimidated by the complexity of console games. The vaguely amorphous controller with its multiple buttons and two joysticks always looked unfathomably complicated and I couldn’t imagine ever mastering it. As I loaded up the first of what would prove to be a series of deep gaming experiences, Red Dead Redemption, I felt as though the reprogramming of my brain had begun. Continue reading

Dr. Evie Powell Coming to CoMotion Labs

Dr. Evie Powell

I’m ecstatic to announce that Dr. Evie Powell is going to start sharing my desk at CoMotion Labs. I first met Evie ages ago (last March) at Indies Workshop in SoDo. Her snowball fight game was one of my first experiences in VR and it remains one of the most fun.

Evie made a huge impression on me when I met her the first time. I could tell right away that she understands fun on some chromosomal level. Over a number of conversations I’ve come to admire her imagination, her intellect, and her respect for the seriousness of play.

It occurred to me recently that I could get other people access to CoMotion Labs if I named them as members of my “team.” Evie mentioned that she’d love to have more access to UW’s VR startup incubator, so it just seemed like a no-brainer to sign her up and get her a key card. I look forward to seeing the collaborations and projects she dives into among the other VR pioneers who share the space.

A little more about Dr. Powell’s background, from her offical bio:

Dr. Evie Powell is a life long games researcher and game designer.  She received her Ph.D. in computer science in 2012 and, as a graduate student, focused her research on socially pervasive game experiences and context-aware gaming using mobile technologies. These days she works on VR game experiences, NUI based game interactions, and other experimental game designs. She is the CEO and Creative Director at Verge of Brilliance LLC.  Evie has been a consultant to several companies on various VR / AR based projects.  Her work has been showcased at events like Seattle’s GE2, and IMMERSE VR.  She’s also been a panelist at several popular VR and gaming conferences including PAX 2016 and GeekGirlCon.

Pressure’s on, Evie! Show us your brilliance!




Reality Distortion

Damn, was I ever hit by the nasty flu bug that seems to be making its way through Seattle this week. I’ve always found the worst part of getting sick is the accompanying feeling of uselessness. What the hell did I even get done these past couple days? While I wasn’t aching and sleeping I was reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. I recently got to the part about Jobs’s “reality distortion field,” or his ability to bend other peoples’ conception of what’s possible to his will. Meanwhile, just to make myself feel even more lousy, I’ve been following the articles about the incoming Trump administration and  “potential grizzlies.” Add a couple capsules of Excedrin PM to the mix and reality does indeed begin to look distorted.

But back in base reality, I didn’t want the week to go by without mentioning a few upcoming events. Kicking off tomorrow night at Indies workshop is the Global Game Jam. If you’re in the mood to spend the weekend bringing your game idea to fruition, this looks to be a can’t-miss event.

Next week, on Thursday the 26th, is another Seattle VR meetup. It’ll be at Pluto VR in Ballard. I’ve always found these meetups to be friendly and welcoming. The theme of this meetup is New Year, New VR Friends.

Starting to feel groggy…


Are You Looking for VR/AR Jobs in Seattle?

Last week’s VReality event at Microsoft’s Building 99 in Redmond. About a third of this audience raised their hands when asked if they’re looking for a job in the VR/AR industry.

Every morning, sometimes before I even roll out of bed, I check my email for my VR jobs alert. They come time-stamped around 6am, with subject lines like “4 new virtual reality jobs in Seattle, WA.” Here are a few of the listings I’ve seen recently:

Program Manager, Oculus Education

UX Designer, HBO

Technical Artist, Daydream (Google)

User Experience Designer – Virtual Reality (HTC)

Autism Research Fellowship, Seattle Children’s Hospital

Analyst – Advanced Concepts, Blue Origin

I’ve been paying attention to VR job listings since March of last year. At that time I discovered that a startup in Fremont called Pixvana was hiring software engineers. I suspected that in time, companies like Pixvana would start hiring for more non-technology related positions. At some point these companies would need marketers and other creative minds to communicate their technology to the world.

I still think that’s going to happen, but most of the VR job listings I see are still related to coding, engineering, UX, and testing. Chris Hegstrom, who recently worked on HBO’s Westworld VR experience, characterized the state of VR jobs in Seattle with a handy metaphor, saying, “If 2016 was the year of opening all the VR presents on Christmas morning, 2017 is the year of rolling up our sleeves and assembling the content. We spent last year looking at the marketing image on the box & imagining what it will be like once completed but there was more conjecture than actual building. This year is all about opening up the box, scanning the instruction manual & hoping we have the correct tools & batteries (& we don’t have to steal them from the emergency flashlight!) Because of this, we’ll see more jobs around content creation and VR production design opposed to research and experimentation.”

I hope Chris is right. And I’ll be curious to see where these content and production jobs come from, whether from the startup community or from the big players.

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Reasons for Optimism in a Downer of a Week

This seems to be a week of bad news for Seattle’s VR/AR community, with two developments of Debbie Downer-level magnitude. One, Bellevue-based Envelop VR has closed. Signs didn’t seem good at Immerse a few months ago, when Envelop, a sponsor of the conference, conspicuously reserved an empty booth. I have little information about the company’s closure so don’t feel qualified to offer much comment. I do want to say, however, as someone who has been laid off three times, that I hope Envelop’s former employees find new opportunities soon.

The second bummer piece of news is that the City of Seattle rejected a proposal to convert warehouse space at Magnuson Park into a film production facility. A number of passionate local film/VR professionals have worked on this proposal for over two years, and I imagine this comes as a tremendously dispiriting development. I’m sure they feel like this:

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