A diverse community of digital pioneers are building the foundation for Portland, Oregon to shape the future of virtual reality.
It’s still science fiction to most of the world, but in the Pacific Northwest city of Portland, Oregon, virtual reality (VR) has triggered a real life gold rush.
“VR is sparking the imagination, and people are coming by train, horseback and any means necessary to get here to see if they can claim their piece of VR,” said Tawny Schlieski, founder of Oregon Story Board, an educational resource for both beginners and professionals alike in VR.
After 17 years as a research engineer at Intel, Schlieski knew this was the year to break off and start Shovels + Whiskey, a Portland-based VR prototyping studio aimed at helping industries, academia and individuals from different backgrounds discover new uses for the emerging medium.
“We want to give all those VR prospectors the tools they need to strike it rich and make their dreams come true,” she said.
Called the Silicon Forest for its cluster of semiconductor and high technology companies operating in the metropolitan area, Portland is a laid-back city with an eccentric hipster culture satirized in the TV series Portlandia. Often covered by overcast skies – records show there’s an average of 68 clear sky days a year – Portland has become a hotbed for VR exploration.
Maybe the rain and long gray months force introspection and fuel creativity required to make VR grow, said Joshua Young, founder of creative studio Reflective Brands.
“Portland has a tremendous amount of potential to be a hub for VR,” he said. “The weather, quality of life and cost of living here make a huge difference in our ability to take risks and be creative.”
Young runs the Portland VR Meetup, which brings together people interested in learning about the latest VR projects from local representatives at both small and large national and international companies.
“It really fosters a sense of community and collaboration that I believe is necessary to really be successful as an industry,” said Young.
Quirky VR Hub
Young said people are attracted to Portland’s quirky quality of life, the food carts and the city’s famed Unipiper — a kilt-wearing, unicycle-riding, bag-pipe playing Darth Vader impersonator who rides through downtown.
“Where else do you get that?” asks Young.
Situated along Willamette River, not far from where the historic Oregon Trail ends, Portland shook its 19th century reputation as a dangerous port city corrupted by organized crime and racketeering to become a world class city, ranked in recent years as “most internet connected city,” “best beer town” and “best bike city.”
Nearly 700,000 people live in the city, but 2.4 million residents reside in the greater Portland metropolitan area. Many use nifty terms of endearment like PDX, Stumptown, Rip City and P-Town when talking about their city.
Many people flock to Portland because it’s located between Seattle and San Francisco, two west coast cities with a rich history of digital innovation.
“I’ve lived in a bunch of different places in my life and I’ve never been somewhere where community felt as important as it does here in Portland,” said Corey Warning, cofounder of Rose City Games.
“It’s one of the larger cities that I’ve lived in, but it never really feels like that.”
Before moving to Portland, everyone warned Warning about the rain.
“It’s a good excuse for me to work really hard all the time,” he said.
Warning organizes the Portland Indie Game Squad, lovingly called PIGSquad, which hosts drink and draw networking events to build comradery among people working on 3D and VR modeling.
“It’s a really cool way to get artists who have never worked with game makers — or don’t know how to get a start working in games — all together in one space so they can meet and collaborate with others,” he said.
Collaboration is in Portland’s DNA. As VR evolves, no one single idea will reign supreme, according to Gabe Paez, founder of VR production agency WILD, which hosts co-working space supporting people working in the new medium.
“Collaboration is going to allow everyone ultimately to succeed,” Paez said. “That’s the way I work, and I wanted to create that locally here in Portland.”
Creating for virtual reality requires a shift away from established approaches to designing for desktop and mobile devices, said Paez. Virtual reality is truly experiential, and to create it requires inspiration from books and the real world.
He said Portlanders can easily escape to the mountain and absorb what it feels like moving through the woods then figure out how to replicate that in a digital world.
“The best ideas come from nature,” said Paez. “We’ve got beautiful mountains and water around us and we use those to find inspiration. We also have amazing engineering talent because of the community that Intel and other tech companies have built. It has given us access to hardware and the ability to share ideas.”
Portland is a perfect storm for VR, said Oregon Story Board’s Schlieski.
“We have a creative community that’s collaborative and passionate about technology, support from government and state agencies who are helping those businesses get started, and we have a local economy in which you can still find affordable housing. These elements together really produce an environment that’s really ripe for the next evolution,” she said.
Schlieski believes that VR is one of those seminal technologies that will change the way people communicate, learn and share new ideas.
“I am just over the moon excited to be involved early on and to have a chance to help a bunch of new creators who are imagining new things get started in that,” she said.
The undercurrent of VR in Portland has been swirling for several years. When Schlieski teamed up with pal Vince Porter and Oregon startup chronicler Rick Turoczy to launch Oregon Story Board in 2013, they wanted to ensure Oregon played a significant role in the evolution of the augmented and virtual reality marketplace.
“We saw a new economy emerging that would require new jobs and a lot of new skills,” she said. “It was clear to us that we had an opportunity to develop a diverse workforce. We have been working pretty intently to attract talent and support new businesses.”
If the talent pool in Portland isn’t vast and varied, Schlieski said the local economy growing around VR technology will be short lived.
“We’re not going to be successful because we have one company that works,” she said.
Growing Talent Pool
As the talent pool grows, Schlieski said more companies are turning to Portland-based VR expertise to create compelling new digital experiences.
“Portland has a cultural advantage,” she said. “It’s very committed to open access, open source and sharing intellectual resources.”
She points to how the local wine industry emerged, led by passionate winemakers who shared resources in order to make the region successful. They shared equipment and helped one another through harvests, and that’s how the fledgling VR community is banding together to build a foundation for lasting growth.
“This is going to take two, three, four, five years for VR to really mature and blossom into a stable and healthy industry, but the potential we see in VR is only limited by our imagination, our creativity and what we are willing to explore.”
Editor’s note: The profile of Portland as a hotbed for VR is part of iQ’s special video series on VR creators.