In sitting down to recap my experience at Esalen for Digital Raign’s Reality Summit II, I’m reminded of a feeling I had last year around this time: How do I write about this? It’s such a strange, wonderful, and unexpected gathering, and so unlike anything you typically encounter in tech circles, it can feel daunting to try to sum it up in brief.
So maybe the best way to communicate the kind of experience it was is by sharing this, taken from our final day together:
Communicating the depth of human connection is inevitably a tricky endeavor, so I’m hoping this elaborate group hug will handle some of that work for me.
Onto the basics. Digital Raign began it’s life in 2016 as an experiment between Alison Raby and James Hanusa, which turned into an executive search firm—the first in the XR space.
The co-founders wanted to find a way to incorporate impact values into their strategy, and planned a breakout event to galvanize a community. Raby has deep roots with Esalen; she first started going there with her parents as a child, and spent formative years with some of Esalen’s most revered teachers.
They knew that if they could gather together great minds in VR and AR in this place—the birthplace of the human potential movement, having hosted the likes of Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, and Buckminster Fuller—they’d be able to instantly communicate their vision of the future.
That first event, called “Shifting the Paradigm” was, in this writer’s opinion, an astounding success. This year’s event, held in September, was called “Reality Summit II.”
Digital Raign has grown a whole lot since 2016. The masthead has maintained rapid iteration and community-building as a driving ethos, linking with Tom Furness and the Virtual World Society (Raby is now on the Board of Directors and Hanusa is Futurist-in-Residence). Elizabeth Kountze, who Hanusa and Raby met at last year’s summit, was brought on as Chief Impact Officer to help guide the company’s vision and outreach.
The Digital Raign Facebook community now sports over 2000 members, and visitors will notice that the name reads “Impact VR/AR/AI/Blockchain Community.” The focus has broadened to include other emerging exponential technologies; they believe these technologies can work in tandem to collectively elevate human consciousness.
“We’ve always had the capacity to use any tools toward the betterment of humanity—that’s about choice,” Raby said in a recent episode of the The Real Virtual Show. “In terms of Digital Raign, we are focused on social impact, values alignment, and utilizing whatever the new tool in our toolbelt is, whether it’s AI, crypto, VR, AR, robotics, haptics, etc. We started out in Virtual Reality, but we knew from the inception of the organization…we saw all of these technologies coming together to exponentially accentuate one another, and also, with the right focus…accentuate personal development and collective development.”
While Reality Summit II maintained all the powerful aspects of Shifting the Paradigm, this expansion of scope made for the most notable difference between the two years. Thinkers from across the board (and across the country) brought a wide array of expertise; no other event would put one of the inventors of VR in the same room (and conversation) as the founder of DecentraNet, the Director of New America, the Anti-Defamation League’s Director of Technology and Society, the President of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a special-education teacher, transhumanists, venture capitalists, and…a bubble master.
“We wanted to grow the content of the Summit to all emerging tech and have the participant community reflect that expansion,” Hanusa said in an interview leading up to the event. “Given everything that’s happened in the past year, we felt compelled to include cryptocurrency, philanthropy, and impact investing communities as part of the social impact pillar. We also wanted to move the mindfulness pillar to develop deeper exploration of consciousness, neuroscience and brain-computer interfaces.”
For a deeper dive into the diverse range of voices, as well as personal experiences of the event, be sure to listen to the VRScout Report Episode 66:
For all these differences, though: this gathering still felt like summer camp with the best minds in tech. Hanusa and Raby again cultivated an atmosphere where attendees were free to engage in whatever way they liked—whether that meant participating in every single session, going to meditations, or taking personal time at the hot springs.
One of the most valuable aspects of the summit was the smaller-group breakout sessions. These encouraged us to come together based on our values—to let our dreams run wild together and consider the ways we wanted to bring meaningful change to the world using these new technologies.
Some dove into ways to use emerging technologies to curtail climate change, others explored how biohacking could be used to encourage meditative states, and others still built on an idea introduced in last year’s summit: the notion of a virtual nation, and what it would take to actually launch something like that.
The notion of “legacy” played an integral role both within the event and in the context of the evolution of Esalen (more on that in a bit). Hanusa and Raby used the past year to recruit pioneers whose legacy paved the way for the technologies many of us take for granted: Tom Furness, Jacki Morie, Bob Cooney, Dan Mapes, and Loren Carpenter were among those in attendance.
Unlike normal industry events, where these pioneers might give a lecture or speak on a panel, at Reality Summit they engaged directly with up-and-comers. There was time and space for everybody involved to “go deep” with each other, meaning the exchange could extend far beyond small talk, and into storytelling, mind-sharing, and even plan for prospective collaborations after the week was through.
There was one panel during the event, held midway through the week. That Wednesday night, Digital Raign invited the rest of Esalen to hear from some of these luminaries, including Tom Furness, Jacki Morie, Bill Tai, and Cassandra Vieten. It was a chance for the community to share its vision of the emerging future. The panel was followed by a demo night, where the rest of the Esalen community could try out XR experiences for themselves.
Esalen: I to We
It’s also been a big year for the Esalen Institute—but in a much different way than many of us in the tech community. Floods earlier in the year forced the organization to shutter for months while the site could be rebuilt.
And this rebuilding applies to more than just the space and land. The Esalen Institute is moving forward with the idea of “I to We” as a guiding ethos. It applies on so many levels; it’s a way to reinforce Esalen as a community, but it’s also a way to indicate that it’s looking back to its roots to find new ways to grow and amplify what it can offer the broader community.
Following the success of last year’s “Shifting the Paradigm” summit, the leaders—including new Executive Director Ben Tauber—were particularly inspired to look into ways Esalen could revisit its futurist roots. After all, some of the most progressive, technology-forward minds of the last century helped grow Esalen into what it is today. Toward the end of the week, these leaders joined Reality Summit to discuss the shape this type of growth might take.
“In many ways, the last 50 years at Esalen have been characterized by this idea of the human potential movement, but in particular a focus on going inward and realizing our individual potential—that’s gestalt, that’s meditation, that’s somatic practice—so much deep inner-work that happens here and will continue to happen here for decades,” Tauber said. “But what I feel is being called, as we have gone through this process of inquiry at Esalen is, that the next 50 years for us are going to be about stepping into the collective. What is the wisdom of this collective, and how do we realize that potential and bring it to the world? This work that you are doing right now, in my view, truly embodies the spirit of collective potential. There’s a collective wisdom in this room that is so much bigger than me, or you, or any one of us, and it’s powerful.”
Tauber asked summit participants what kinds of ways they could see Esalen playing a role in realizing that potential.
“What could be the highest and greatest gift that Esalen could give in shaping the future of digital for humanity?” Tauber said. “What is that gift that we can give? I feel like this is part of giving that gift, but there’s so much more that I wonder about.”
The ensuing discussion included an array of ideas, ranging from historical VR and AR projects using archival footage to blockchain networks that could help support great minds coming to Esalen.
In our final day, a half-day on Friday, we spent some time together reflecting on what we’d experienced together. Everyone was invited to share their experience, thoughts, and ideas for the future “pop-corn style.”
Bob Cooney, an early VR pioneer, thought leader, and advisor, took the lead, pointing out that part of what allowed for such deep personal engagement was the way Esalen immediately humbles and inspires you.
“I think with humility comes a better ability to connect,” Cooney said. “I’m humbled by this land and the beauty of it. As we build these virtual environments, is there some ability to create awe which triggers humility, which triggers better connection?”
In addition to the land, though, Cooney remarked that his journey had been nourished by the community he had the chance to bond with throughout the week.
“On a personal level, I came here with a very clear purpose: my purpose was to help men be more open and authentic,” Cooney said. “My intention was to find inspiration for how to potentially combine virtual reality and technology with that mission. And what I got was beyond inspiration. I found a community that supports me in that mission, and i got a team, and an advisory board, and next steps, and partners who are going to help me launch that. The manifestations that have happened to me this week are beyond anything I thought was possible. So I can’t thank you guys enough for stepping outside of the norm and creating this.”
Many others joined in, expressing gratitude and excitement. Karen Ottoni, a blockchain strategy consultant with Tata Consutancy Services, explained that her initial fears about coming to this event without knowing anybody quickly evaporated.
“I’ve never been around a group that, as soon as you say hello, they’re kind, they see you, and they want to get to know you—in a way that’s genuine,” Ottoni said. “I’ve never been around a group of people like that, and I think that’s a big part of what makes this so special.”
Part of what that created that, in her mind, was the authenticity that comes from people being honest and vulnerable with each other.
“It was that invitation to be your real self—your true self—that lifts us all up that is so so so special,” Ottoni said. “And wow, to be around people who really dream big! That is an uplifting, enhancing force that I think circulates and makes me feel like I can do anything. Yesterday there was a special moment at the lunch table with a few special people here; they showed a level of support and belief in me it took my breath away, I didn’t even know what to say. That’s such a gift that I can’t even—what better could you give someone else?”
This gathering, regardless of what new forms it might take in the future, is something special within emerging technology. It’s a gathering of the exact right people in the exact right place at the exact right time. A place to unplug, bond, and grow. Most of all, it serves as a reminder in this ever-accelerating field we’ve chosen for our lives that, sometimes, the best thing to do is to sit down, share space, and dream together.
VRScout is proud to be a media partner of Reality Summit II.