I just started reading a book called The Geography of Genius: Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Places. The author, Eric Weiner, sets out to explore why certain places give rise to high concentrations of creative, innovative thinkers. I’m still early in the narrative, when Weiner is wandering around present-day Athens, ruminating on the legacy of Socrates. He runs into a contemporary poet who points him in the direction of a lesser-known figure from that era, Aspasia, a partner of Pericles. Weiner writes:
Aspasia was a feminist about twenty-four hundred years before feminism and the unsung hero of the Athenian flourishing. As I would later discover, these sorts of invisible helpers are essential to a golden age. These are people who work behind the scenes, sometimes quite heroically, to make genius happen.
Reading about Aspasia, I couldn’t help but picture my friend Diana Fairbank, one of the organizer’s of SIXR’s Cinematic VR Challenge, this resourceful organization’s sixth installment in a series of events that pull together Seattle’s VR community to create experiences over a long weekend. I’ve been to other SIXR cinematic challenges, including one that featured a 360-film shot in a hot tub, and another in a house kitty corner from Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill. For a year I sat behind SIXR’s perpetually messy desk at CoMotion Labs, and I’ve watched in awe as co-founders Diana and Budi Mulyo and their merry band of associates push this boulder called virtual reality up a hill.
This weekend, SIXR’s Cinematic VR Challenge commenced in a wing of the Pacific Science Center, helmed by Budi, Diana, and SIXR board member David F. Durand. Six teams, totalling 30 participants and comprised of 70% women, with help from a dozen mentors, embarked on creating immersive experiences in a windowless room which usually hosts traveling exhibits. This was a weekend when the sun smiled down on Seattle and the March for Our Lives gathered in the nearby pavilion to demonstrate against gun violence, but these pioneers preferred to be inside, sequestered in code and motion capture tech. Sponsors for the event were an impressive list of established tech companies and VR startups, including Adobe, Pixvana, STIFF, MoCap Now, Oculus, and Altspace VR.
I dropped in on the event on Saturday and got to again see local VR phenom Avery Wagar and his dad James in action, working on an animated car chase with game mechanics. There was a camera station set up for volumetric image capture, and various developers hunched over monitors working with Unity to bring their visions to life. Compared to previous events, this one felt more confident, less frantic, and more robustly supported by sponsorship.
Diana messaged me to share some of her highlights from the weekend, which included a photogrammetry demo by Anatomy Next, storyboarding software demos courtesy of Filmmaker Live, and Pixvana dropping by to demo their SPIN player. The finished pieces included “a choir in 360 [captured with a] stereoscopic binaural mic with 8 ‘ears,’ an underwater motion-captured educational environnental piece, a narrative piece [set in a] concentraion camp, and a music video of 5 drag queens in MoCapNow dancing to their signature tunes!”
SIXR has raised their game with every event they’ve hosted, but it’s their sheer persistence that’s most inspiring. They have become an unstoppable immersive media institution in this town, and I’ve witnessed them endure some really lean and uncertain stretches to get here. Through events like this weekend’s and too many other projects to list, SIXR has created an inviting, inclusive, positive atmosphere for everyone from seasoned developers to those simply curious to discover what this VR thing is all about.
The more I study the development of creative economies and vibrant art scenes, the more I appreciate how vital people like SIXR truly are. When we talk about media, we often refer to certain people as gatekeepers, figures with good taste and authority who keep the riff raff out. I’d counter that in the early days of an emerging medium you need door-openers, leaders who enthusiastically welcome creators into their tent.
As Diana said, “There is an alchemy that happens when we put these random people together who want to create VR and empower then with the tools and toys to do it. These CVRC’s are our way of ‘bottling’ that potential for magic to happen. At least three people cried with joy as they were thanking me for doing this.”
The circus that SIXR is assembling inside their tent continues to grow more magnificent, and I know I will definitely keep coming back to see what new wonders they help bring about. They’re just getting started.