Yesterday I caught up with Elizabeth Scallon, the Associate Director of CoMotion Labs. It’s been a little over a year since I started renting a desk at this VR/AR startup incubator overseen by the University of Washington. I’ve seen a couple startups come and go, while others, like Mechanical Dreams, Invrse, and Pear Med, have persisted in this uncertain period we all seem to be navigating. Elizabeth, in many ways big and small, has been at the helm, peering ahead into the fog for all of us.
A year ago, Seattle’s VR pioneers were flying high with a sense of possibility, eager to venture into emerging markets. A year later, everybody seems smarter, more sober-minded, and less confident about the future. I attribute a lot of this to the general sense of discombobulation that marks the hopefully short Trump era.
I also can’t help but compare the state of VR to the process of writing a novel. In the beginning, you’re so excited to start a novel that you delude yourself into thinking your first draft is so good that it will need hardly any revision. Just a quick polish and a spellcheck. Then one day you wake up, look at your manuscript, and discover, to your horror, that it is oozing and misshappen and disgusting. You start questioning the reliability of your own assessment of your abilities, which can lead to crippling self-doubt.
At this point, it’s tempting to berate yourself for being so foolish as to believe what you were writing a year ago was any good. But this period of uncertainty and general nausea simply indicate the emergence of stronger critical thinking skills. This is the engine that allows you to actually improve. Heading into revision, the name of the game is to make as many incremental improvements as you can, work smarter, and be led by the pleasure of the craft itself rather than the promise of some imagined, future recognition or reward.
Elizabeth is fixated on making sure the startups at CoMotion Labs succeed. She has her eye on the big picture and the industry at large, and is constantly applying her strategic mind to the fluctuations of the ecosystem. Yesterday she shared with me some of concern that Seattle VR startups aren’t getting the level of funding we need, particularly from Silicon Valley. This led us into a discussion on a topic I just can’t seem to shut up about, the early nineties Seattle music scene.
My point was that back then we didn’t care about validation from the rest of the world. We went to shows, played in our bands, bought music from local labels, and cultivated an accepting attitude toward musical experiments that fell far outside the mainstream, the weirder the better. The pleasure was derived from the undertaking itself, not external attention. In fact there was a sort of taboo against being too ambitious and wanting too much attention. This attitude can be detrimental, too.
In college, when I decided to seriously commit myself to the craft of writing, I discovered that the best way to ensure my success in the face of an uncertain future was to convert the writing process itself into the primary reward. This allowed me to spend, say, four to five years working on unpublishable books in solitude and not go insane. I wrote about 1500 pages of polished, final draft fiction that has never been read by anyone, and I don’t consider the years I spent producing it a waste of time in the slightest. Those experiences were necessary to get to the work that did see the light of day.
In a lot of ways, I think the whole VC system, particularly when it comes to emerging immersive media, is not ideal. The framework for funding startups existed before our current crop of VR/AR startups, and when small teams started establishing themselves, VCs who’d made fortunes in other technologies seemed eager to lecture everybody about How This Is All Supposed To Work. If you’re a VR startup, you have to jump through these particular hoops, giving away control of your company in the process.
My attitude is that VCs should be so lucky as to get a meeting with any number of the VR startups I see busting ass around Seattle. The future of this industry is going to grow from human imagination and innovation. When I attended the latest hackathon last month, it occurred to me that a truly visionary investor would simply figure out how to fund every person there, ask them to self-organize into a company, give them a building to work in, then leave them alone.
I keep hearing that “the market’s just not there yet” or “it’s still too early,” or “there just aren’t enough users.” This is the thinking of people who are impatient that the rough draft isn’t publishable. What’s important at this point is steady, incremental improvement, not short-term returns on investments.
Recently in a yoga class, an instructor said something that resonated with me as metaphor for the state of the immersive media industry. She said that wobbling when you’re trying to balance is evidence that your brain is learning how to get better at balancing. In other words, you’re not wobbling because you have bad balance. You’re wobbling because you have the capacity to attain better balance.
That’s what’s happening now at CoMotion Labs. Entrepreneurs trying, failing, and helping each other get better.
As I finished writing that last sentence just now, CoMotion Labs’s ever-helpful Xuny Haley stopped by my desk and asked if I’d gotten an email about Microsoft’s offer of free mixed reality headsets for all the lab’s startups. I’d missed that one. As if to illustrate the very point I’d just made, it looks like I’ll be getting some gear just for showing up. Funny how the world continues to work that way.