I’m swimming through crystals, navigating immersive color fields and entangled in the towering vegetation of an alien planet. There is no up or down in this space as vast as a stadium.
I’m also in artist Scott Bennett’s basement studio in North Seattle, with a piece of consumer electronics strapped to my face. Bennett, who goes by Scobot when he video jockeys around town, pays the bills with gigs like painting sets for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, but in his spare time he explores the artistic potential of the HTC Vive. It’s in Bennett’s studio that I encounter the abstract virtual reality art that he created with a program called PaintLab. After an hour of immersion in Bennett’s breathtaking 3D digital mindscapes, I ask if he’s noticed anything different about himself since he discovered virtual reality. He pauses and gives the question some consideration. “In a lot of ways VR experiences feel like lucid dreams,” he says. “I’ve actually noticed that my dreams are much more vivid now. It is possible that by using VR, my mind is developing some sort of ‘muscle memory’ and learning what it feels like to access that area of my brain where dreams take place. Who knows, but the real revolution of VR may be the unlocking of the human mind.”
As you likely know by now, virtual reality (VR) refers to any experience involving immersive digital environments, typically viewed with a headset device that looks like a cross between scuba goggles and a cell phone. Augmented reality (AR) refers to a related experience in which digital elements are integrated with the real world you see before you. The recent Pokémon Go phenomenon, which has people scouring neighborhoods for Pikachu with their phones, is considered AR, but AR also includes experiences delivered via headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens and Magic Leap’s soon-to-be-released device. The most popular VR headsets, the Oculus Rift and the Vive, come with handheld controllers that allow you to navigate and manipulate various elements in virtual space. There’s also the Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear, relatively inexpensive devices which cleverly allow you to turn your smart phone into a stereoscopic display.
Most of the companies responsible for VR and AR hardware have either established offices in Seattle or are about to. HTC, whose Vive is currently the most popular of the VR platforms, has an office in Pioneer Square and has partnered with Bellevue game company Valve. VR company Oculus, purchased by Facebook for two billion bucks, opened a main office opposite the home plate corner of Safeco Field. Magic Leap, the secretive augmented reality company that tapped science fiction visionary Neal Stephenson as an adviser, recently announced plans to open an office in Georgetown, even as Microsoft’s AR device, the HoloLens, is poised to go head to head against it.
While these companies and others, including Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung, and Sony, jockey to deliver the platforms and services that will allow us entrance to virtual worlds, a local ecosystem of creators is waking up to this powerful new medium’s potential. All these new platforms are useless without content: apps, games, and whatever it is we’re calling the VR equivalent of movies these days (most just call them “experiences”). It so happens that a significant portion of this content, and the software used to create it, is being made in Seattle.
For the past couple months I’ve been visiting members of Seattle’s indie VR community in their studios, offices, bedroom workshops, garages, coworking spaces, and at meetups and weekend hackathons. I’ve met game designers, educators, engineers, and artists building tools and applications that may very well disrupt every industry you can think of. Entertainment, social media, education, architecture, pornography, social justice, medicine, and the Internet itself stand to be transformed by this new technology. Seattle’s pioneers of VR may just represent the emergence of the most powerful creative community this city has ever seen. And they happen to believe we’re in for one hell of a ride.
It’s after 1am on a Saturday in May 2016 and I’ll soon lose consciousness in Fremont Studios, a soundstage facility filled with game developers, cases of Red Bull, laptops, and Microsoft’s HoloLens, a wearable computer which superimposes 3D holograms over the real world.
Why am I here? The short answer: Hell if I know.
Longer answer: I got invited to the HoloLens Hackathon because I signed up after hearing about augmented reality as an emerging storytelling tool.
As I lurch toward what appears to be a dog bed made for adult humans, I’m sideswiped by a seemingly inexhaustible 22-year-old named Eva Hoerth. Eva and I are on a four-person team developing a 3D holographic popup book called Strange World. We’ve recently realized that we can blow up our book to the size of a room. Our team leader is Majesta Vestal, a laser-focused recent Cornish grad and visual artist whose mother is younger than me. (I’m 43.) Doing most of the coding on our team is Tarik Merzouk, a UW Tacoma student pushing himself to the limit of his understanding of Unity, the coding engine used to create three-dimensional, immersive worlds. My role on our team appears to be to amuse my young teammates with tales of working as an Amazon customer service rep during the Bill Clinton administration.
“Ryan! Come join our ’80s dance party!” Eva exclaims.
“Jesus, Eva. Were you even alive in the ’80s?”
“Nope!” Eva laughs and jogs over to a group of software developers preparing to embarrass themselves to the stylings of Billy Ocean.
Not only was I alive in the ’80s, I remember hearing about virtual reality back then too. Holy crap, I keep thinking, it has finally arrived. I collapse on the nonholographic human dog bed next to a very real service door that bangs open and shut all night at irregular intervals. As I drift off, my brain starts converting the superimposed holograms of a weight lifter and crime scenes into dreams. I’ve watched the Milky Way galaxy spin around me and I’ve poked around an archaeological dig in Machu Pichu, all while wearing a device on my face that makes me look like an overzealous Daft Punk fan. I’ve even heard the words user experience and the adjective form of dope used in the same sentence.
The ostensible reason for this hackathon is to inspire developers to invent new applications for the HoloLens. But it also feels as though we’re the subject of a scientific experiment and that weeks from now, in some Redmond conference room, behavioral scientists will be puzzling over which snack foods make people code faster. I’m actually cool with that. It’s worth being an augmented reality guinea pig if it means discovering a creative community that knows it’s on the cusp of paradigm-shattering inventions.
After an interval of time in which I’m neither asleep nor awake, an Arcade Fire song compels me to roll out of the human dog bed. I stumble into the final stretch of this immersive geek out. Our storybook app wins an award for best visuals. Other teams unveil such apps as a cardiologist-training program that uses actual biometric data, a virtual garden, and apps that assist the blind by scanning the room for obstacles. When the 44 straight hours of coding and demos come to a close, I emerge blinking into the daylight with my commemorative HoloLens T-shirt in hand, and it strikes me that, once again, the future is being invented in Seattle. This time in Fremont, Center of the Universe, no less.
In The Innovators, a history of the digital age from Ada Lovelace to Google, Walter Isaacson pays considerable attention to the hippie ethos that birthed Silicon Valley as we know it. The communitarian and psychedelic backdrop of the late ’60s and early ’70s Bay Area intersected with advances in transistors to foment a culture of innovation where Hewlett Packard, Atari, Apple, Google, and Facebook bloomed. Isaacson stresses that it’s not enough for engineers to cook up technological innovations; the culture into which they’re introduced has to be prepared to embrace, improve upon, and find imaginative uses for them. To say that Seattle’s tech community is culturally poised to embrace VR is an understatement.
One of the most powerful forces animating much of Seattle VR culture is our own brand of feminism. A community of tech-savvy women—many of whom have endured some serious, grade-A workplace bullshit in the gender imbalanced video game industry—are working to ensure that VR is structurally diverse and inclusive from the get-go.
In June, I visited a Women’s VR Create-athon at UW hosted by the VR/AR Collective, a group that organizes community events and learning opportunities with the goal of expanding the industry’s demographic scope beyond tech bros. Over a hundred women—developers, students, gamers—assembled in teams for a weekend at Startup Hall, where they made VR apps and took in lectures by female industry leaders. In contrast to the somewhat competitive spirit of the HoloLens Hackathon, this gathering felt more mutually supportive and collaborative, more about learning and discovery than presenting and mansplaining.
Among the virtual wonders I sampled at the Create-athon was an application designed to train doctors how to resuscitate an infant, made by a team led by a neonatologist named Rachel Umoren. After donning the Oculus Rift headset, I was transported to a delivery room where a virtual mannequin of an infant lay before me. As the app quizzed me with a series of questions, I committed what can only be described as virtual malpractice on that poor dummy.
My HoloLens Hackathon teammate Eva Hoerth was one of the Create-athon’s primary organizers. “We had 100 women in the same room creating for VR,” said Hoerth. “No one made a first-person shooter. I was so goddamn happy.”
First-person shooters, of course, are what most of us tend to think of when we think of video games. I’ve sampled a few locally grown first-person shooters in VR and had a blast every time. There’s Invrse Studios’ thrilling The Nest, in which you’re a sniper picking off robots, Matt Matte’s super fun melee-based, skeleton-obliterating game, and Eric Nevala’s atmospherically rich Spellbound, in which you’re a wizard hurling fireballs at zombies in a tomb. These games, all under development as of this writing, are exquisitely designed and massively entertaining, and they feature innovations destined to become industry standards. I had nothing but fun playing them and I’d love to play them again.
But VR also facilitates heretofore unattainable sensations of empathy and intimacy in a digital environment. That sense of presence, in which your brain is tricked into thinking you’re actually there, is leading Seattle’s game designers to ask deeper ethical questions as they establish new game mechanics and themes. Rather than treating VR as an environment in which to grind out the same kinds of flat-screen shooters we’ve grown accustomed to, VR game designers are puzzling over what this new medium alone can do.
One indie game developer who’s set up shop in a SoDo coworking space across the street from Oculus’s offices, Dr. Evie Powell, has been developing a VR snowball-fight game that retains the thrill of combat in a more friendly, nonapocalyptic setting, a snowy field, surrounded by silhouettes pelting you with snowballs. Not only can you create snowballs by “scooping” the snow with your Vive controllers, you can build snowmen that lurch off and attack your enemies. Powell is developing the game as part of the Oculus Launchpad program, which incubates development and may offer a stipend for developers as they create the games that will likely captivate us a couple Christmases from now.
“I’ve had fun with my share of violent games,” concedes Powell, who holds a PhD in computer science from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “A good many of my favorite games from childhood were beat ’em ups, shmups [shoot ’em ups], and fighters. The psychological implications of violence in VR are just so much more concerning because VR players are so much more present.”
She stresses that it’s not about banning or not developing violent games so much as it is about seizing the opportunity to create new kinds of games that only VR can deliver. “This is one of the reasons why diversity of thought is so important. VR has so much more potential than just a platform for people who want to act out antisocial behavior.”
All the VR game designers I’ve met describe a culture of sharing ideas and inspiring one another, coding all night together, and embarking on cannabis-enhanced sessions of Tilt Brush, a popular 3D drawing program for the Vive. The empathy inspired by this new medium seems to encourage these creators to themselves practice more empathy.
Tom Doyle, formerly of game company Bungie, runs Endeavvor One, a bootstrapped startup that I was surprised to learn is headquartered a block from my apartment on Capitol Hill. Turns out that for years I’ve been scowling at the same Red Box vending machine as the lead artist for Halo, whose startup exclusively develops games for VR.
In Doyle’s garage I slip on a Vive headset and settle into Duel, a vivid playing environment that feels like Miami Vice made a baby with Tron. Doyle encourages me to knock down floating cubes with a virtual bow and arrow, a blaster, and grenades. After a round of virtual target practice among some of the richest visuals I’ve seen in any Vive demo, I pull off the headset and blink. I’m back in the garage, standing beside Doyle’s Subaru. Or, to put it another way, I never really left the garage, even though it feels like I did.
Doyle appreciates the community spirit animating Seattle’s VR gamer scene. “Never before in my 16-year career have I seen so many teams doing their best to help each other out as much as possible,” he says. “So many of the walls that divided this type of talent, historically, are being torn down in this fledgling industry.”
Among the walls being torn down are those between VR technology and education. Lisa Castaneda is the cofounder and CEO of Foundry10, a north Lake Union company that provides technology-based enrichment opportunities for schools. Foundry10 introduces schools to VR tech, then studies how they use the technology. This past year, Foundry10’s VR pilot program has expanded to include not only local schools but schools in Hawaii, Toronto, and Finland, among other places. Castaneda buzzes with the enthusiasm of someone who can’t wait to tell you about the Next Big Thing, and regularly drops references to the latest academic research and inserts terms like cognitive load into conversation.
After she launched the VR program, Castaneda observed that kids don’t just want to consume experiences in VR. They want to use VR to design experiences of their own.
A bit up the hill from Foundry10, in a house near 50th and Latona, recent UW grad student Nick Connell and soon-to-graduate Todd Little demo their VR language-learning app in a bedroom converted into a studio. I strap on the Vive and find myself behind the counter at a cafe, where I’m asked to prepare a variety of foods in response to orders in Spanish. The app is definitely in a prebeta phase, but I can already tell how useful it will be to students who want to learn another language.
“VR is a new medium to explain ideas,” Connell says after the demo, over a pleasant array of wine and cheese (I mean vino y queso). “What you’re going to start seeing in VR are certain things you can’t accomplish in other media. Presence will improve retention.”
But will VR just make us all homebound, plugged into devices, and even further isolated from real people?
This is the kind of question that occupies Troy Hewitt, the cofounder and director of communications and connections at a Kirkland-based startup called uGen. It’s in a conference room at uGen’s offices that I play a virtual game of capture the flag against opponents who control their avatars in the next room on PCs. It’s a blocky, Super Mario kind of experience for now, with greater texture and functionality to come. Hewett is passionate about uGen’s mission to create virtual spaces where users can create their own games, then invite their friends to play in them together. It’s multiplayer social gaming in customizable worlds, and it’s precisely as spectacular as that sounds.
After I launch myself into the sky using a jet pack, I realize that I have to come back down. As the ground rushes up to meet me, my real-life knees tremble and my body braces for physical impact that never comes. I pull off my headset and blink at a nearby whiteboard covered in UX terminology. I hear uGen’s team chuckling at me in the next room.
One place to interact IRL (in real life) with Seattle’s VR pioneers is at Cndy Factory, a multimedia production facility and community gathering space on Dexter north of Mercer. The brainchild of new media expert Tim Reha, Cndy Factory occupies a building that in previous lives has been a literal candy factory, a jazz recording studio, and a clandestine pot growing operation. Word has it there’s a fully equipped SM dungeon in the basement. If there ever was a perfect epicenter from which to launch a media revolution, this has to be it. Case in point—this summer, Cndy Factory hosted a gathering of local VR leaders and the Virtual Reality Venture Capital Alliance, an organization representing $10 billion in funds for VR/AR startups. The conversations happening at Cndy Factory are already leading to new projects, startups, and alliances.
Reha wants to establish Seattle as, not just a place where big VR hardware and software companies vacuum up local tech talent, but as a major VR content creation center that can go toe to toe with Hollywood. As film studios in Los Angeles launch their VR divisions, Reha and others who orbit Cndy Factory are figuring out how to convert the energy of a community that’s bursting with ideas into content production. There’s no reason, Reha believes, that we should assume LA alone will deliver the cinematic VR experiences of the future.
“We’re in the rain shadow of these big hardware companies, and no one is writing checks for content,” Reha says.
Maybe so, but places like Cndy Factory are attracting the talent that is producing the next wave of VR apps and experiences. In June, I attend a Cndy Factory VJ night where video artists project their work on the walls and a young musician named Gus McManus demos his new VR DJ-mixing tool. I strap on an Oculus Rift headset modified with a motion sensor, which converts my hands in front of me into robotic hands in VR. Suddenly I occupy a massive DJ booth, surrounded by a variety of buttons and faders. As I manipulate these controls in virtual space, the real space of the Cndy Factory throbs with the loops and samples I trigger.
After I pull off the headset and hand it to the next DJ, I stand alone on Cndy Factory’s deck and take in a late-night view of Lake Union, back in physical reality. I feel fortunate to exist at precisely this time, in precisely this place, witnessing the birth of a mysterious new medium. The pioneers of virtual reality have arrived, and to a person they sense the magnitude of what’s coming. The city that invents the future just discovered presence.