A couple of years ago Virtual Reality (and its cousins Augmented and Mixed Reality) did not have a critical mass of followers in Portland. It does now.
Recently there were three virtual reality events in Portland within five days of each other, and there are five different VR groups on Meetup, the default platform for mingling strangers.
On a Thursday night in the Big Pink offices of New Relic software, several computers, screens and sets of VR goggles were set up for testing. It was the Oregon Game Organization's annual 'Game On' event, an after-work evening of networking and attempting eye contact. After the demos came presentations by the makers and questions about investing from members of the Technology Association of Oregon.
One game, Proton Pulse made by Zero Transform, was like being immersed in a multicolored cross between Pong and Breakout. As the viewer, you controlled a clear, rectangular paddle with your head inside what felt like a racquetball court. Boxy shapes hung in the air near the rebound wall, and were destroyed by the ball. As with Pong, you flick the paddle to add spin, sending the ball spiraling and careening around the court.
Another game, Ship It, made by ThinkOn Labs, was a cross between 3D Tetris and working a short shift at FedEx Ground in Troutdale. The blurb put it thus:
"Fast-paced block stacking VR fun in a playful factory setting. Pack a box with colorful shapes, then ship it to earn your wage. Filling VR boxes is physically satisfying as you grab blocks, rotate them with your hands and smash them home."
The hand controllers make your virtual hands appear as a pair of disembodied, white, Mickey Mouse gloves, and your job is to grab collections of cubes as they float past and stuff them into a rectangular tote so they all fit. Even if you don't have OCD tendencies, there's a satisfying feel to the objects, which are light and foamy, yet sharp and hard. Plus, to make things easier, they help themselves into place, as though magnets were somehow involved. Then you toss the tote on a conveyor into the back of a truck and begin again.
Meanwhile, Peter Lund of SuperGenius Studio in Oregon City showed a highly detailed cityscape of skyscrapers and electronic billboards. It was modeled on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, down to the heavy rain and police drones scanning faces and reminding you to take your meds.
Lindsay Gupton, the president of Pipeworks in Eugene, bragged about his company's high military security clearance and talked about making training games for the services, albeit games "about saving lives, not taking them."
Florida man to Portland
Whether Portland is a hub for Virtual, Augmented and Mixed reality seems to be permanently in debate. Clearly Portland lags behind Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But Paul Reynolds, formerly a senior developer at Magic Leap which had raised almost $1.4 billion-with-a-B by last August, moved to Portland from Florida. He started mixed reality company Torch 3D. Just his presence is a vote of confidence in Portland.
At the Portland VR MeetUp four days later, Reynolds spoke about moving here, as did Sven Mesecke. Mesecke is a Houston native and is the co-founder of wireless VR chipmaker, Nitero. He moved here from Austin in 2015, having visited Oregon often to see chipmakers and his wife's family. Nitero pivoted from mobile to VR chips, establishing a standard for sending data back and forth rapidly between the headset and the computer or console.
The semiconductor industry is rigidly technical but Mesecke, 44, is attracted to Portland's creative scene, from agencies such as dotdotdash to Hinge Digital, especially their VR work. "I was just at Hinge. I was alone in the woods. An elk walked by and I startled it by moving suddenly."
He boils his attraction to Portland down to the 3Zs: Zen, zarf and zoo.
Zen as in the citizens, the free spirits who yarn bomb bike racks and who don't believe creativity is weird. Zarf is a subtle creativity, such as putting a red sleeve on paper coffee cups at Christmas to both make the season and provoke debate. And zoo stands for the Oregonians who came before, recalled in adaptive reuse of historic buildings or in murals and graffiti.
As new content comes online for headsets it will wow viewers who get a chance to look at it. Everyone uses Google Earth, but Mesecke says the VR version of Google Earth blew him away. "You're floating in the atmosphere and look down and there's Earth, and you feel what the astronauts feel." He says Google has made navigation as easy as a flick of the finger, so you are soon zooming around, from space to your childhood home. "You feel like God."
Portland's VR scene roots are often traced back to ViewMaster, the stereoscopic tourist toy, but that's largely irrelevant compared to modern day VR business, which is a mix of dreaming of venture capital and longing for an indie game hit.
According to CB Insights, funding for AR and VR startups reached an all-time high in 2016. Sony PlayStation's PSVR, a $400 headset, was on track to sell over 1 million units in its first six months. The other common headsets include Facebook's Oculus Rift, HTC's Vive, the Gear VR and the Google Daydream, a felt mask into which you slip your phone.
While gaming captures the attention of people curious about VR, Mesecke cites the B2B potential of what is a new medium (and he counts new media from the Pony Express through the telegraph, broadcasting, the Internet, VR and beyond). He says Amazon is working on VR that will enable a shopper to virtually place a shoe on his or her foot to see how it looks, and car companies are making VR ads so buyers can sit inside the latest model and get a sense of space.
Guns and swords
Bryan Minus is the musician who scored Ship It. He made actual analog recordings of his clarinet and saxophone as well as adding electronic percussion and other instruments from his Moog synthesizer. His goal was to make the factory machine sounds percussive and rhythmic.
"Most VR games are played with guns or swords. VR lets you reinvent classic games, so this is a fast-paced puzzler." Still unfinished, Ship It is available in early release (beta testing) on the Steam platform.
The challenge — and freedom — of VR is that instead of mixing in stereo (two sources) he can scatter sounds around the environment. (These spots are called stems.) In this 3D or binaural audio, someone can whisper behind your ear, or a clank can arise at your feet, even while you use the stereo earbuds that come with all headsets.
Minus is used to composing music for film and animation. For example, he scored the upcoming Pompeii Oregon, a kinographic novel by Mark Andres. He also worked on Undula, a VR game for Oculus Rift in which you reach out and caress virtual waves flowing toward you, making music in the process.
He worked on Undula at the 2017 Global Game Jam, with developers Ian McClellan and Joel McDonald. Minus says that's how much of the creativity happens in Portland's VR scene. Like musicians, people get together to jam for a few days at a time (like a hackathon). A storyteller, a 3D artist, an audio FX person and a couple of coders sit down and brainstorm a game. It's just that in VR, the spaces are bigger, the sounds more complex and the emotions of the player more intense. And the computers must be very powerful to run the game-making software programs such as Unity and Unreal Engine.
Below Triple A
Minus cautions that the headsets have not yet been adopted widely, which could stall the industry.
Ian McClellan, founder of ThinkOn Labs which made Ship It, calls the industry "still up and coming."
Portland will make it, he says, when a "big studio producing triple-A games lands here. We have a lot of indie action and startups like me. And there have been some notable games for PlayStation VR, like Headmaster, a launch title for PS VR."
He was pleasantly surprised to learn the people behind Proton Pulse are from Bend. VR gaming, like other kinds of highly distributable work, can be broken into pieces and done by people scattered across time zones. But there's a lot to be said for being able to look your creative teammates in the eye and hang out with them.
"The PIG Squad (Portland Indie Game) and the Unity Learning Group were a big part of my growth. People hosting regular events....I met Bryan at the Global Game Jam in 2016."
The band played on
The Portland area has some interesting talent, such as Attain Aerial and Aerial Technology International, companies which shoot seamless, spherical video footage from drones with two sets of GoPro cameras on poles which stick out above and below the craft. McClellan was pleased to meet professional game developer Joel McDonald after he moved to Portland too, and has learned some tips and tricks from him.
So are Portland's cutting edge VR makers destined to be stuck on the margins, like indie rockers who think success is a sell out?
"I am torn, I want my studio to be a successful business and create things of value that people want us. On the flipside it's very challenging to do now, very few people are profitable."
Although investors sometimes go gaga for new tech — see Magic Leap and Oculus Rift — making games is still a lot like being in a band. The tools are cheap — Unity is a free download — but without a marketing budget you might spend a lot of time waiting to have a hit or go viral.
"With Ship It my goal was to make something people like and was beautiful. It's like an art project, a resume piece, to show 'Look what we can do'."