Does Austin have the largest VR community outside of Los Angeles?
This was a question I asked myself several times last summer before moving. I was familiar with Austin, Texas because of SXSW — having attended with my previous employer, Emblematic Group. But visiting the city for work was wildly different from uprooting my life. After resigning from my job, I stalled a bit before making the decision — ultimately, major power players like Patrick Curry from FarBridge, Aaron Lemke from TheWaveVR, Cy Wise and Autumn Taylor from Owlchemy, and more recently Wallon Walusayi of 3Data all influenced my choice to leave everything I knew to investigate whether or not this rumor carried any weight.
The VR community in Austin was a bit of a late bloomer compared to other cities. By 2014, Nonny de la Peña had premiered Project Syria at the World Economic Forum and Palmer Luckey was a household name.
But while others were gaining legitimacy in the space, organizers of VR Austin were struggling to find attendees for their first event. Only twenty seven curiosity seekers showed up at a nondescript bar in strip mall plaza for drinks and demos. All the tangibles, however, were there. Austin already had a robust music scene and a contingent of tech professionals — the two needed to be fused.
You only need to delve into the tech history of Austin to see how it’s an ideal ecosystem for startups. Michael Dell relocated Dell’s headquarters to North Austin in 1984. Texas’ business incentives have attracted the attention of IBM, Motorola, Apple, and Indeed. And with SXSW making Austin the center of the universe for two weeks, it was only a matter of time before virtual reality would take off. This year was a perfect example of that. What began as a couple of experiences at SXSW gaming, has no expanded into a VR takeover spanning several floors at the JW Marriott.
This sharp progression is all too real for Aaron Lemke, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of social music VR platform, TheWaveVR. A local Austinite, Lemke sees Austin as having “a rich culture of music and technology. It’s like a unique place in that way where it has this kind of psychedelic, hippie pedigree because of Willie Nelson.”
For Lemke and co-founder, Adam Arrigo, TheWaveVR needed to start in Austin. The connection to the music industry, plus the low cost of living gave them the freedom to build something that would deeply resonate with artists and “improve their lives in a positive way.” The team could experiment and focus on what they wanted to offer the community without the high burn rate looming in major cities. This uninhibited expression played a part in the company’s quick rise in popularity and success in raising a round of $6 million in funding this year alone.
The same rings true for Owlchemy Labs, the award winning studio behind Job Simulator and Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality. “There’s a unique flavor of VR that exists in Austin— the cross-pollination of industries like film, gaming, and tech that make the VR scene here truly ‘Austin’” said Autumn Taylor, Studio Director of Owlchemy and a co-organizer of VR Austin. The culture has shifted a bit, originally “leaning quite heavily toward developers with deep programming knowledge and business professionals on the cutting edge of the industry” to becoming more accessible to the masses. This accessibility is a combination of headsets built for the consumer market coupled with grassroots approach that Austin takes to virtually everything. In May 2017, Owlchemy Labs was acquired by Google.
Relative Austin newcomer, Wallon Walusayi is the CEO of web XR platform, 3Data; where users can collaborate from any device to build and present 3D graphs and charts to each other. A native of Milwaukee, WI, his journey to Austin followed a similar path as mine. Like me he “discovered” Austin through SXSW. Walusayi states that the appeal of Austin is its “room for innovation when it comes to the medium as a whole. There’s not too many people who are really looking into our use case of enterprise for virtual reality and augmented reality.”
Echoing previous sentiments, Walusayi stresses that lower startup costs, a “hotbed of talent and affordable living prices” makes Austin “one of the top attractions for people like us to find our place and find our niche.” After scoring a partnership with Microsoft, they’ve talked at length about relocating to San Francisco. The surplus of resources makes Silicon Valley attractive in many ways. The major difference, however, is that “Austin has no ceiling right now and nothing but opportunity for people like us.”
Longtime contributor and community leader, Patrick Curry, has been instrumental in shaping the VR community in Austin. On starting FarBridge with his business partner, Melissa Swanepoel, Curry states, “it was really important to us that as we build this new company we use the opportunity to build a diverse team and a diverse community.”
Outside of the company, Curry and Swanepoel are involved in providing opportunities for the VR dev community to continue to grow and create. FarBridge hosts the annual VR Austin Jam which gives up-and-coming creators the chance to showcase their work. VR Austin and its yearly Jam has become a rallying point for VR creatives in Austin. Spanning a weekend, the Jam is a little like a hyper-speed incubator, encouraging teams to come together to create VR and AR apps, games, and experiences. Swanepoel shares that the Jam has “a pretty good track record with projects either going on to be published or teams going on to start up together.”
This sense of camaraderie and creative collaboration is further reflected in FarBridge’s gaming division FarCade. Known for their 4-person multiplayer game, Jar Wars, FarCade’s playful approach encompasses what social VR is all about. Premiering at Fantastic Arcade in 2017, they had even larger draws at SXSW and RTX 2018.
So does Austin have the largest VR community outside of Los Angeles?
After attending VR Austin’s May and July meetups at the Google Fiber space downtown—and working in the space—I can safely say there’s truth to it. What’s more is there’s a stronger sense of community here. When moving to a new city, there’s always some back and forth. Am I making the right decision? Will I even fit in? Austin’s flavor of VR has been incredibly accepting of the different—so that makes it worth the effort.