A San Francisco artist's basement apartment. A welcoming jug of water with Styrofoam cups, a bowl of sodas, chips, and about 80 mismatched folding and kitchen chairs set up theatre style in front of a projector screen. Smiling proudly over their hard work, the organizers make sure their Skype connections are reliable for presentations coming in from other parts of California, as locals start to grab their seats. Everyone is casual; most have already known each other for some time. Meanwhile, exhibitors set up their virtual reality demos with notebook computers and Oculus HMDs on tabletop displays. Cost for admission? Nothing. Cost for exhibition? Next to nothing as someone has to buy the coffee and beer, pay for the internet, etc.
Whether it's 100 people or 500 people, this is a Meetup. Maybe it's a sign of my age, but it takes me back to what used to be called the "Get Together" or "GT" in the days just prior to the Internet (man, I really AM old!) for the Bulletin Board System (BBS) community. Bulletin Board Systems were what discussion forums are today, but they were strictly local or as far as your dial-up modem can go without racking up long distance charges. Man...every sentence of this makes me sound even older...oh well. By the end of this article, I'll be talking about how milk used to be left on our porch.
The first Meetup I went to was in San Francisco (San Francisco VR Meetup). They invited me to speak, so I planned a consulting trip around it so I could go. Wow! I really had a great time. The people were friendly, exhibitors featured Condition One, zSpace, and Tactical Haptics - it was fun.
With time, the Meetups grew in size with participation levels in the hundreds of people. Silicon Valley VR Meetup and VRLA (Los Angeles VR Meetup) are working examples of this. Of course they feature lots of exhibitors, and the costs are negligible if existent.
I would go so far as to say that these California Meetup communities are comparable to professional conferences. They are obviously more informal and no one is wearing a name tag - or heaven forbid a tie - but as long as people are willing to volunteer their time and venue, people will show up on a regular basis. It's relatively easy to do because in Silicon Valley as well as other parts of California, many if not most of the professionals are locals. Free exposure, free networking, free food (well, you can hope!) - how could anyone really say no?
Meetups have of course been great for VR and immersive technology in general. To make great content, it's important to have access to the expertise and get a feel for the market. If you're in business, you have to have a pulse on things too, so Meetups are a good method for keeping an ear to the ground.
The caveat is that as excited as we all are about immersive technologies like augmented and virtual reality, the industry has to grow beyond the confines of California. 60% of Canada's game development industry is driving distance from Toronto (30% Ontario, 30% Quebec). In the US, all the states are equally capable of releasing content and being influential in this space. Epic Games is based in North Carolina, for example, while Austin is teaming with game developers, and so on.
While Meetups are forming up across the USA and Canada, it's only in California that organizers have easy access to local professionals, investment, and strong networking opportunities. The enthusiasm is the same, the audience counts can get high too, and yet it's difficult to get the same level of expertise to walk through the door on a regular basis because they don't live next door. The model is just harder outside California and the West Coast.
This challenge goes well beyond Meetups, though. Shows like Game Developers Conference, CES, SIGGRAPH, and E3 Expo all take place in California or Nevada. 100% West Coast! The inaugural Oculus Connect? Hollywood, California. Pax Prime? Seattle, Washington. Nvidia's Game24 is travelling the globe at least. Let me rephrase: HOPPING the globe from Los Angeles...to Shanghai, Stockholm, London. That's just how things are.
With traditional games and cinema content, this is less of an issue. The hardware is readily available, there is less experimentation happening because the learning curve isn't the same amongst professionals, and the expertise is well established. In contrast, in the immersive tech world of AR and VR, everyone is learning. Even the technology makers with billions behind them are still learning, figuring things out, and prototyping. Samsung's Gear VR is an "Innovators Edition" after all!
For this market to take off, access to expertise, investment, and meaningful networking has to expand outside of California. The East Coast has a lot to offer and build from given the chance; we just have to free that hand that is tied behind our back. From what I've seen, the biggest difference between a Meetup held in California versus a similar event elsewhere is that much more of the content is about what's happening elsewhere. We really need to start thinking about how to foster growth and development beyond the confines of what is perceived as the industry's backyard.
The Immersive Technology Alliance decided to find a solution for this. We are launching Immersed in Toronto, Ontario this coming November. It's being held on November 23 and 24; we picked these days so the general public can try the technologies out for themselves for free on the Sunday afternoon. Topics covered include virtual reality, augmented reality, stereoscopic 3D, and more.
As a non-profit organization, we want an event that will fill a real need and help build the industry by bringing in a level of expertise that is difficult to access otherwise. Some of the names confirmed as speaking include John Gaeta, Creative Director of New Experiences for Lucasfilm, Habib Zargarpour, Creative Director for Microsoft Studios, David Traub who did the CG for Lawnmower Man, Neil Trevett, President of the Khronos Group, plus AMD, Nvidia, Sebastien Kuntz from I'm in VR...lots of top people from all over.
While it's not free to attend as there are real costs involved in doing this right, it's designed to be very inexpensive for qualified new developers and innovators to show their stuff to the public, media, and investment community. We are also offering deep discounts to ITA members. Basic level ITA membership is free for qualified content makers, so it's just a formality to get a discounted registration or exhibit.
Immersed is the first time we've done an event like this, and we felt it necessary because the industry needs to attract new faces, new innovators, and equal access to some great expertise. Government representatives will be there, the investment community will be there, the media will be there - we'd really like to share the tools needed to help build this industry. Interested speakers should reach out; it's still a work in progress.
So...I'll see you at Immersed...on the EAST coast!