Although VR has not yet reached the mass levels of adoption we at its center hope for, one prolific aspect of the community is the sheer volume of VR conferences on the calendar.
Bertie Millis of Virtual Umbrella took a tongue-in-cheek approach to this trend when he posted a fake website on April Fool’s day announcing AFVRC — Another F******* VR Conference. The fictitious “Pro-passes” include compliments and massages (which doesn’t sound half bad, actually).
Alison Raby, Co-Founder of Digital Raign—a ‘virtual accelerator’ and experience-creation firm with a focus on social impact, exponential technologies, and emerging media—refers to the typical expo-style conference as a, “Sit and Get.” You sit at panels and get information from speakers. This is typically followed by wandering the expo floor(s) and stuffing your pockets with business cards.
“There are so many amazing people at conferences,” said Raby. “Often, unless we go and chat them up or they chat us up, we miss each other. We’re not invited to get to know our colleagues.”
But what if there were a better way to connect?
Speaking to Raby and her Digital Raign Co-Founder James Hanusa last week, I was reminded of my own experience with their “Shifting the Paradigm” Summit last year. Raby and Hanusa are equal parts intelligent and groovy. They keep abreast of all the latest AR and VR technologies, without sacrificing their enthusiasm for play—such as Hanusa’s rock-and-roll alter-ego, “Biggie Stardust,” who appears at Burning Man each August. I once described the duo to a friend as being like Kashi cereal—different than what you’re used to, but very, very good for you.
In October of 2016, I drove up the coast to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur for the inaugural “Reality Summit” that sought to explore VR and transformational technology. According to Hanusa, Digital Raign’s origin story “started with a one week experiment, hackathon style, to see if we could build a business.”
For five days, approximately 100 people gathered to explore the world and each other, using the framework of both mindfulness and emergent technologies. Every day I would gorge myself like an exotic goose on organic food and herbal teas. The lack of digital connectivity—apart from a few hours of daily Wi-Fi—actually made it easier to connect.
In hot springs or overlooking the ocean, we talked about art, about life, and the beautiful places this tech could take us. It was dually energizing and peaceful, and being in a place so different than a typical conference floor allowed us to form deeper bonds.
A storm ravaged Esalen this winter; they are now rebuilding the site, with the aim of reopening this summer. Likewise, Digital Raign is restructuring as a company. And the impact of those changes will be felt in their upcoming “Reality Summit,” to be held at Esalen from September 3rd-8th, 2017.
According to the Esalen website, the Summit will bring together “creative technologists, filmmakers, philanthropists, artists, academics, and consciousness researchers to explore the intersection of virtual reality, social impact, and mindfulness.” Essentially, the duo are inspired to make Esalen Reality Summit II a “West Coast Davos.”
Although they originally branded Digital Raign as an executive search firm, Hanusa explained that the company is now pushing into new realms by taking on the role of virtual accelerator.
“We’ve added a number of services through partnerships and studio partners,” said Hanusa. “We can create new content with advanced technology including AI, Blockchain, and AR.”
This will be reflected in the type of content on display and up for discussion at the summit.
“The content we’re interested in is not necessarily on the expo floors,” said Hanusa. “It’s not going to be the same content that’s at the other big expos… there will be a larger focus on arts and culture.”
Digital Raign also has a renewed commitment to activism and social impact, something valuable at a time when diversity remains a huge issue in tech. The duo are striving to bring together the most diverse group of individuals that has ever congregated at Esalen for their event. In addition, Raby wants to directly give back to the center “in terms of their rebuild, their sustainability initiative, and we’re also ‘ALL-IN.’” (ALL-IN is Digital Raign’s diversity and inclusion initiative, which is creating a fund for Esalen and other retreat centers.)
As opposed to most conferences pushing performance and numerical verticals, this event is a respite from the hubbub of Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach. Digital Raign wants to focus on keeping the individual(s) at the heart of companies balanced, and this is a holistic process. Such practices include manifestation, mindfulness, and other elements of self-care. For Raby, high-performing company leaders “need to even more clearly highlight putting gas or biofuel back in his or her tank—otherwise they can’t go anywhere and they certainly can’t take anyone with them.”
Most of all, the conference and the organization are trying to foster not only good tech, but tech for good. To make a real difference in the world. This may seem lofty, but these two will be damned if they don’t try.
The list of some confirmed attendees for the conference this year hints at those larger goals, including such luminaries as: Dr. Tom Furness (International VR Research Institute and the “Godfather of VR”), Robert Scoble (Transformation Group), Nonny de la Peña (Emblematic Group and the “Godmother of VR”) and Jacki Morie (University of Southern California).
So who should attend the event in September? Anyone with an interest in VR is urged to apply, regardless of experience level. In fact, several newbies in the VR/tech scene were some of the most impacted and touched by the Summit last year. Alison and James want to be “inclusion activists,” and there’s enough room around the campfire for all.
In case you cannot attend, it’s worth noting that Esalen is just the beginning for Digital Raign’s slate of events. Additional summits, expeditions and experiences are under development in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and exotic locations such as Bermuda this summer.
Hanusa and Raby are perfect counterweights for each other; they’re both dreamers, yet manage to ground each other.
“I often say that I’ll grow a dandelion and bring it to James and it becomes a big puff ball,” said Raby. “Then he blows it and creates millions of dandelion fields.”
By breaking down walls and pushing the immersive community to reimagine its social structures, Raby and Hanusa hope to use Esalen as a place that can truly foster a new and brighter reality.
Digital Raign’s Reality Summit will be held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA from September 3rd-8th, 2017. Apply for the program here.
Image Credit: Jesse Damiani, Gail Evenari, Evo Heyning