Dear event organizers, founders, recruiters, aspiring partners and VCs: despite what you may have read in Bloomberg or on Twitter, we’re not a startup.
Now, as a small VR group in the bay area, I can understand why many people’s first assumption is that we’re a startup. What worries me is that even after learning that we’re in fact a research group, many people assume this must be part of our startup, or in addition to being a startup, or otherwise directly related to some sort of business model. This confusion runs so deep that I’ve started to put some thought into why it’s so common, why it matters, and why it irks me so much.
The thing is, we could not be a startup. The work we do is completely incompatible with startupiness. Not only do we have no scalable business model, we will never have a business model. We will sell no products. There will be no A round. The idea that the kind of research we do could be funded by regular ol’ capitalism is a fantasy, and the pervasive idea that our kind of research should be able to be funded by the invisible hand of the free market is an existential threat to research everywhere.
It irks me that so many people working in this industry don’t know their own history. Everyone knows about Palmer Luckey and Google Cardboard, but not about Mark Bolas’ Mixed Reality Lab at USC where Luckey was a student and the cardboard FOV2GO was developed. Everyone knows you can flap your arms to fly like a bird in Birdly©, but not Brenda Laurel’s flapping bird-embodying VR work from over 20 years ago. Those working on immersive video jump all over it when Facebook or Google open-source a 360 camera, but they haven’t bothered with the many papers on 360 capture that have been free and available for decades.
This is not to say that these new things stole from the old things, or are bad, or anything of the sort, but to recognize a certain disconnect. At a conference recently, Michael Naimark showed us an application he was filling out, with a drop-down menu for “how long have you been working in VR?”. As an artist who started doing foundational immersive video work in the 70s, he chose the longest option: >2 years.
Of course, the reasons for this disconnect are easy to explain, if not excuse. New stuff is news, and the industry spends money marketing every single thing as if it were the first thing ever. Previous VR/AR technology is written off as a failure because it didn’t sell, rather than remembered as necessary steps along the way to current success. Startups tend to be made up of young people who are used to the things and ideas that currently exist, and when you’re working at the pace startups are expected to work, who has the time to learn the entire intellectual history of all of human technology?
We get a lot of credit here at eleVR for doing innovative work, and yeah we’re pretty cool but also: we read papers! We talk to experts. We work in a context of immersive media that includes Ivan Sutherland’s work in the 60s, David Brewster’s stereoscope in the 1800s, all the way back to panoramic paintings, cave paintings, and verbal storytelling. And we can do this because we are a research group, with no need to produce a product or outpace competitors.
There’s a beautiful relationship between industry and academia, startups and research groups. It’s fun to see unmarketable inventions of the past turned into modern business successes by clever hard-working people. I worry, though, when we meet people in the industry who have trouble understanding that we’re a research group, rather than a startup somehow desiring to come up with a research-based business model. I worry that the industry has no idea how much research already goes on, or how vital it is to fund.
Maybe my fears are unfounded, but the stakes are high. Startups are the very tip of the iceberg, floating by virtue of work that was done by other people long ago. If people forget we need to fund research now, we’re going to feel it decades later and not know why. Imagine where we’d be without the government-funded research of the 60s!
Of course, you get the same conundrum with every other field of research, as well as with education. These are things where money invested now will have great returns, but only after a long time, and only to the economy as a whole rather than any individual investor. And for both basic research and education, the timescale and systems at play are complicated enough that we know no hard metrics with which to measure success. Research and education everywhere rely on trust that these things are worth funding, and both are susceptible to tragedy-of-the-commons situations.
So no, we’re not a startup. But if we look that much like one, maybe it’s a sign we’re doing something wrong. Maybe we’re not looking far enough ahead. I like to blame the current popularity of our research on the coincidence of other exciting things going on in VR right now, but every time our refusal of someone’s offer has to come with the same tedious conversation about just how much we are not a startup at all, it makes me wonder. I’m much too ambitious to be comfortable with our research group getting confused for a startup.