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From the Emerald City to the Virtual Realm: Inside Seattle’s VR Revolution

By Elke Hautala

You slip on a dark headset. With the touch of a button your ordinary room becomes a landscape of lights. A virtual world where you can feel the sensation of flying through space.

Perhaps your references of virtual reality have been gathered primarily from the movie Tron or begin and end with Oculus Rift. There’s a revolution happening and it’s all about how you experience new worlds. We’ve all heard the expression that you can’t begin to understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes – virtual reality (VR) makes this type of experience possible.

VR is a technology that has the ability to transport you completely to a new environment.” Trond Nilsen one of the organizers for the VR Hackathon tells me. He goes on to talk about how it is more highly engaging than cinema because it utilizes even your peripheral vision.

It’s a new medium the way film was an evolution. Does he see it replacing these more traditional media? “It’s not really a new way to tell stories because it limits the control of the storyteller.”

He explains that people using VR will look at what they want so narrative storytelling doesn’t work here. It’s great for experiencing a story through an environment or atmosphere without distractions.

It’s like opening Pandora’s Box…the world is going to change greatly.” Trond continues, “It’s going to revolutionize entertainment, I don’t know where it’s taking us but I’m really interested to see what happens in about 15 years or so.”

All photos © Toby Fitch Studios, 2016.

All photos © Toby Fitch Studios, 2016.

It could change how we each experience the world around us on a daily basis or it could allow us to enter worlds only envisioned in the mind of game developers and filmmakers. Outer space, under the ocean, fantasy kingdoms with knights and monsters. All of our childhood dreams come to life.

It turns out Seattle is one of the biggest hot spots for VR innovation. Not only because of companies with large local presence like Comcast leading investment in VR, but also because of institutions like the University of Washington.

In September 1989, a man named Thomas A. Furness III wanted to create a space “dedicated to empowering people by building interfaces to advance machines”. This concept became the Human Interface Technology Lab or (HITLab).

Often called the “Grandfather of Virtual Reality”, Mr. Furness began his pioneering work with the U.S. Air Force where he developed a new way of simulating flight cockpits. He has noble goals for the technology. He sees it as an opportunity to solve difficult world problems from the need for green energy to global epidemics.

In fact many developers in Seattle want to move beyond the gaming and fantasy realms into an empathic revolution affecting who we are as human beings.

The annual VR Hackathon is one place for some serious innovation. A competitive creation event that does have a prize but also a larger goal of bringing together a community of enthusiastic and talented people cooperating on new VR projects.


Trond not only works with the Hackathon but also with a company called Virtual Therapeutics. Their aim is to utilize VR technology to induce behavioral changes through gaming that can actually lower stress levels.

Pluto VR wants to revolutionize the way we make connections to each other. As they say in their mission statement: “Our goal is just short of teleporting: to help families, friends, and coworkers better connect from anywhere, as if they were together in person.”

Mechanical Dreams wants to bring technology to a truly human level of connection and understanding with those different from us. They have a cinematic 360 piece currently touring the festival circuit called Ch’aak’ S’aagi (Eagle Bone) that transports the viewer to a beautiful Pacific Northwest beach in the middle of a Native American spoken word and music performance.

The Seattle International Film Festival also had an event last year called SIFFX that featured an array of immersive storytelling. It was organized and championed by local filmmaking pioneers Sandy Cioffi, Gretchen Burger and Lindy Boustedt.

This year, young people will join the movement. NFFTY, the festival for youth filmmakers, will have it’s own 360 section with a headset gallery, boot camp for creating content and demos of Tilt Brush.

Sandy Cioffi in particular echoes many of Trond Nilsen’s sentiments but then adds her own spin on it. “In many ways it has much more in common with theater rather than cinema – you are center stage.”

She describes the mission of her company Fearless 360 as “to continue to work across disciplines to create embodied narratives.” It’s really all about where the audience is situated in the action and the ability to have them experience things in a completely new way.


She explains that it goes beyond virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) into a broader category of immersive content that she calls XR. “Silicon Rainforest” as Sandy describes the Seattle area, “could be known for the humanities version.

A field beyond tech and gaming that uses the technology very much in the way Mr. Furness described above. Immersive experiences for connecting communities, supporting activism and pushing the boundaries of art.

Here in Seattle – we are the Fertile Crescent for this new realm of possibilities. It’s not often you find yourself in the heart of a revolution. Whether you’ve been excited to try out the sensation of flying or you want to connect with your grandfather’s culture, here’s your chance to make your dreams a reality – a virtual reality that is.