Wanting to be the Biggest Badass in the World is What Stifles VR


Eric Neuman in his VR/AR drawing tool Stroodle Doodle. Neuman is one of Seattle’s VR entrepreneurs who is building the industry one app at a time.

Yesterday over lunch, Stroodle Doodle creator Eric Neuman told me (in so many words) that unicorns are bullshit. Meaning that the urge to become a billion-dollar startup is counterproductive to actually growing the immersive media industry. I nodded my head vigorously. The key to VR’s growth, we agreed, was for a lot of people to pull off a lot of little things really well.

We were dining, if you can call it that, at a fast-casual Mexican place on the Ave in the U District. Twenty-five years ago, during the peak period of white people having dreadlocks, this street was teeming with buskers playing outside bookstores and record stores. A quarter century later, Eric pulled out his iPhone and showed me the latest version of his app, which allowed him to draw a Pac Man and place it in AR space on the wall of our booth.

I started running into Eric at events like the SIXR Cinematic Challenge and a futurist conference a little over a year ago. He’s like many of the entrepreneurs who gravitate to CoMotion Labs–imaginative, driven, and forward-thinking. Every time I see something he’s been working on, it’s more impressive than the last thing he showed me.

Yesterday I read a new piece in the New Yorker about the sexism of Silicon Valley. A depressing, timely read. After talking to Eric, I realized that what’s so grating to me about the world of tech entrepreneurship is this desire to be the biggest, baddest kid on the block. To own the category. To dominate the market. To scale rapidly and neglect your family in the process because that’s just what serious Alpha Dogs gotta do to WIN.

I hate that shit.

These aggressive, competitive attitudes seem part and parcel to being a tech brochacho, to use a term my son taught me yesterday. I think alpha male business school propaganda is the source of some peoples’ frustration that VR hasn’t caught on to the degree they think it should have by now. I’m actually just fine with the VR market at the moment and think it’s probably right where it needs to be, compared to the growth patterns of other mediums.

Instead of a handful of companies establishing market dominance, what if lots and lots of smaller companies made it just to the point where they could eat food and pay rent for the next five years? What we need is lots of time, spread out across as many brilliant minds as possible, so that everyone can work together to build the media that this century so desperately needs. We could use immersive tech to pull us out of the church of social media, where we go for confessions and shame.

Oh, but in order to be considered a serious player you have to scale fast and establish your market share quickly. I suppose if you want to prove to everyone how cool you are and avoid the existential void at the center of your soul, that’s one way to look at it. When this attitude leads to failure, I’ve noticed, the blame gets placed on the medium itself. It’s just not ready. There is no market yet. Rarely does anyone suggest that maybe the problem with these unmet expectations is the expectations themselves.

If you want to create art and invent new media, you need patience, persistence, and lots of alliances. For new media that seem to amplify our empathetic impulses and trends toward social engagement and cohesion, we need traits that have traditionally been considered female. Collaboration, community-building, cooperation, sharing. We need more gatherers, fewer hunters.

When I check the metrics on this here VR blog, I’m struck by two things. One, how very few people actually read it, and two, how those who do read it tend to read a lot of it. Meaning that every new posts spawns hits to old posts. One of the most persistent posts, I’ve noticed, is something I wrote in August called Invest Broad and Shallow, Not Narrow and Deep. My argument being that supporting an ecosystem that can grow collaboratively is the way to cultivate future success, rather than making a variety of bets, hoping that one of them will pay out spectacularly. Seems to me this may have struck a chord.

Twenty-five years ago, when Seattle was the City of Grunge, not the site of HQ1, a creative economy organically emerged that grabbed the world by the eardrums. Again and again, I see that same spirit alive in Seattle’s VR/AR community. I believe in holistic systems that include inventors like Eric Neuman, not single companies that boast about dominating a category. Broadly shared success of the collective whole is necessary for the future success of the few, not the other way around.



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