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Shifting the Paradigm: Unplugged with the Best Minds in VR

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Have you ever been to a tech summit where you howled for joy at the sunset? I have.

Hosted at Esalen, the event was dubbed the “Shifting the Paradigm” Summit, and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to write about it. I spoke a bit about it on the most recent episode of VRScout Report, along with some really exceptional people (hosted by Malia Probst, interviews with Erika Barraza, Evo Heyning, Andy Lurling, Cris Miranda, Barry Pousman, and Kyle Sleeper).

The Wisdompreneurs event was produced by Digital Raign—the recently announced VR/AR/MR-focused executive search firm—as their breakout summit. But the first thing to note about this gathering was the total absence of traditional “networking.” Those familiar with Esalen will understand why; the historic retreat center nestled along the Big Sur coast played a key role in the Human Potential Movement and the countercultural revolution of the ’60s, hosting figures like Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Abraham Maslow, Joseph Campbell, Ken Kesey Timothy Leary, and Ansel Adams, (among many others) as leaders and scholars-in-residence. (And yes, it’s where Don seeks spiritual healing in Season 7 of Mad Men).

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So, it wasn’t just different than a normal conference—tech or otherwise—it was an altogether different order of experience. The closest comparison I can draw would be sleepaway camp…if sleepaway camp included soaking in natural hot springs under the stars, meditation classes, and sharing in amazing organic meals with some of the sharpest minds in your field.

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Esalen has played an integral role in the lives of James Hanusa and Alison Raby (founders of Digital Raign). There were plenty of variables in their initial conversations around hosting a breakout impact event, but one detail they knew for certain was that it would take place in this spiritual hub; Esalen would instantly communicate the kind of fertile, collaborative community they were trying to build in Digital Raign. They wanted this summit to function as a gathering of kindred spirits, where participants would feel inspired to dive into high-level discussions about how this technology could be used to change the world.

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To craft such a group, their application posed questions like, “We will be exploring purpose and social impact what cause, or global issue are you most passionate about and why?” and “Do you have a current personal practice that informs your work and daily life? If yes, what is the nature of it? If not, is there a personal practice that you would like to learn and begin to implement?” For the more left-brained among us, these might read as a tad, ahem, “hippie-dippie,” but it was the very ingredient that laid the foundation for such frank, vulnerable discussion and a spirit of trust and open exchange. And the results were clear; arguably the most remarkable feat of the 5-day summit was the collective Alison and James were able to draw together from across the globe: a multi-generational group of big-thinkers (with a healthy gender ratio). There were professionals from Singularity University, VR for Good, Oculus, Vive, Verizon, and Google; there were premium content producers (for headsets and projection domes), artists, dancers, and documentarians; there were computer scientists, academicians, librarians, and consciousness hackers. Others still came from further outside the tech industry, from arenas such as public health, law, social justice, finance, and social psychology.

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Most of us trickled in throughout Sunday afternoon, getting acclimated with the space, having afternoon snacks of Esalen’s famed tea and toast (replete with peanut butter, jellies, and honey). That night we had our first session. We gathered around an open workshop room in bare feet and perched on comfy pillows, excited chatter already blossoming. James and Allison introduced themselves and asked us to share our names, what drew us to Esalen, and what we were feeling at the moment (“how now”). Turns were determined by the passage of a crystal ball, which we could transfer in whatever way suited us (hand it to the adjacent person, roll it across the room, or walk it over and hand it off).

The introductions that night convinced me I’d stumbled into a pocket of magic—and it was clear I wasn’t alone. All of a sudden we had found ourselves in a room full of like minds, other people who understood how mindfulness dovetailed with technological progress. Phrases like “elevating the vibration” and “shifting the consciousness” sat alongside each other, making for the perfect intersection of heart and mind.

Coming from a social justice background, Peter Teague had minimal familiarity with VR before arriving, but he was struck by the quality of engagement he saw among this community.

“The first thing I noticed was just how excited and optimistic everyone was,” said Teague. “That was a sharp, unexpected contrast to the environmentalist and social justice circles in which I’ve spent much of my career. The second thing was how natural it felt for contemplative practice to be a key thread in the work; meditating, dancing, chanting, singing and laughing were not separate from discussing and analyzing. The third observation is about the remarkable level of creativity I experienced, and the fourth about the ease and egoless character of the one-on-one and small group conversations I got to be part of.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Pam Yoder, who has been at the forefront of major breakthroughs in technology for decades, has seen attended her fair share of tech conferences.

“I arrived at Esalen full of science and CGI, having taken Dr. LaValle’s course on virtual environments, and full of ideas about sensors, senses, sensuality for VR, for which I’m known,” said Dr. Yoder. “I’d anticipated didactic presentations and discussions but found little organized instruction in VR. Instead there was a no-holds barred, open opportunity to actually engage in conversations with industry leaders and players.”

Never ones to think small, James and Alison had made it their mission to create the UN of VR.

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Unlike so many conferences, there weren’t panels with talking points to hit. Instead, certain individuals or groups “co-led” sessions, but all were highly participatory. Mikey Siegel led a discussion about the different forms of biohacking, Dorote Lucci helped us rediscover our bodies and throats with vocal exercises, and Ashara Ekundayo reminded us all of the sacred power of water.

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The lack of rigidity certainly took some acclimating, and moreso, it took us growing into our relationships with each other to determine what sort of structure we wanted to adopt. James and Alison had openly espoused co-creation as the modus operandi, and encouraged us to be aware of our “yes” and “no”; they welcomed us at any session we chose enter, but also wanted us to feel free to tend to ourselves in whatever form that took—going on a hike, soaking in the tubs, carrying on a conversation from earlier, or sipping tea in the lodge. By Tuesday evening, some expressed confusion over the open expanse, and a desire for a bit more rigidity and direction. Over the preceding days, some threads in conversation had begun to stand out, and many were itchy to dive into those in more intimate group settings. Among them: diversity/inclusion, ethics of progress, environmental stewardship, intentionality, and tangible outcomes (both for the event and takeaways in our lives). So we agreed to begin incorporating breakout groups into our afternoon sessions, which became a quick favorite of many participants.

“It was amazing that having a modicum of rules in a setting as magnificent as Esalen allowed for participants to find like-minded people,” said Dr. Yoder. “We would break into dyads others joined for not only freely sharing but also synergistically enhancing ideas for development of the new #socialVR platform.”

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These breakouts allowed us to share ideas in smaller groups (2-10 among the ~70 of us) and report our developments to the larger group later. In the climate change breakout, for instance, we discussed ways to gamify climate change awareness and encourage participation in green behaviors. And this was just one of many—others included “Creating Sacred Spaces,” “Sonic Spider Webs,” “Biophilic Design,” and “Treatment of Phobias Using Exposure Therapy Techniques.”

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Diversity and inclusion continued to rise up as a major issue both in breakouts and in the larger sessions. Yasmeen Drummond, a UC Berkeley public health professional (and novice VR content creator), encouraged us to remember that even though our present environment hosted more equitable gender representation, women still only make up 6% of venture capitalists.

“We need to make sure that the female data points are included in the creation of these new realities,” said Drummond. “Otherwise they aren’t actually based on reality.”

Peter Teague advocated an action-oriented strategy of defining the problem in order to solve it.

“We won’t solve the problem until we define it in more useful ways,” said Teague. “Here’s one possibility: diversity, it was explained to me by the civil rights historian and Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier, matters for reasons that take us beyond traditional concepts of fairness and equity. In her view, human beings are, by our fundamental nature, problem solvers. Complex problems, it turns out, cannot be solved from a single perspective; the more complicated the problem, the more more perspectives you need to be able to understand it and solve it Lani’s view takes the issue away from the moral scorecard and makes it a practical matter of a group’s ability to solve complex problems.”

By carrying the group’s optimism, flow, and mindful practices into immersive media, Teague imagines the ways this technology could be used as the “empathy engine” it has the potential to become.

“These are all observations about the work you’d want to do to build a successful movement, regardless of technology,” said Teague. “But this is about technology, and we’d want to explore the possibility that the new tools could help us with the challenges of movement building itself. Could they help more people envision (or experience) positive futures? Could they help make us more aware of our own biases? Could they assist us to reach understanding across the kinds of lines that traditionally divide people—race, class, gender, national origin, etc?  Could they help us come up with useful problem definitions?”

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Of course, a summit with such amazing professionals in the New Reality space wouldn’t be complete without a few demos. On Wednesday night, Android Jones, who has garnered significant attention for Samskara, answered questions about his practice and shared the newest build of “Microdose,” an art creation tool (in the vein of Quill or Tilt Brush) that channels archetypal shapes and imagery to induce a vision-trance—ideally paired with dancing. As you move through the complex space, you build multi-dimensional environments that form a living testament of your dance.

Thursday night was our bittersweet “last night” celebration, where we had a chance to share different demos and experiences, exchange feedback, and generally have a good time with each other. Sera Phi showcased the power of interactive audio, syncing healing rhythms with strobe glasses and electrodes. (You read that right).

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The experience was instantly transformative—the graduated color palette and shapes that emerged behind my eyelids (along with the feeling of electricity buzzing down to my wrists) induced an ecstatic, meditative state I carried with me well after the experience itself. Dave Room of BALANCE Edutainment showed us Pacha’s Pajamas, a cutting-edge AR book about a young girl who dreams big—so big that the “characters” on her pajamas come to life and take her on a wild adventure.

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And there were also presentations—Ed Lantz and Mindi Lipschultz both gave us a deeper understanding of how projection domes could be applied to draw large groups together in a single virtual experience. Elana Meta Jaroff gave us a taste of the Meta Method, a way of using dance to catalyze and unite the elemental power within us. A few others displayed the results of their breakout groups and conversations, which had led to significant progress in research (and therefore can’t be posted by name here).

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Instead of a traditional keynote, Chip Conley came by on Friday for an open discussion and Q&A. It was the perfect way to send us back into the real world—his unique mix of optimism, spirituality, and grounded understanding of business made for the perfect cap on all the big ideas that had been swirling around.

Like a giant magnet of goodness, Esalen had drawn thinkers with big hearts. Shifting the Paradigm didn’t feel like a conference or even an “unconference.” It was a family gathering.

And it’s intended to be the first of many. Future iterations are already being planned (in Esalen and other parts of the world) to action on the ideas we shared and see how far we can progress them. We also put together a “Gives and Needs” list for more inroads into collaboration—everybody had the opportunity to list three things they could offer the group, as well as three things they could use, which has helped the community continue to flower even as its members are dispersed around the world.

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James pulled me aside Thursday night amid all the hullabaloo. He said he’d been thinking about outcomes and unifying statements all day. There was so much on the table, what was the uniting thread? He said he remembered a Christian idea from childhood.

“I was thinking about it earlier…what came to mind is kind of cheesy…”
“What is it?”
“They will know us by our love.”
Yeah. Not your usual tech conference.

Image Credit: Jesse Damiani, Stefanie Schwartz Atkinson, Evo Heyning

About the Scout

Jesse Damiani

Jesse Damiani is Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University Press) and the author of @endless$pectator: The Screens Suite #sweetpicsbro #pixelated #loliloquy (BlazeVOX [books], forthcoming). He's Co-Founder of Galatea, a writing and previsualization tool for VR storybuilding. Other writing can be found on Indiewire and The Huffington Post.

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