The 17th official membership meeting of the Utah Digital Entertainment Network took place on November 29th, 2017, at Silicon Slopes in Lehi, Utah. This was the first UDEN event where the RSVP list had to be closed before the event because the space would be full to capacity. However, on the night traffic in the area meant that only a one quarter of the attendees were there at the start. Even after delaying for an hour, still only half the attendees had made it - some saying it had taken them over an hour to get from Salt Lake City, so we decided to go ahead, concluding that anyone not there by then was probably going to give up and go home instead!
The focus for the evening was mainly networking, where we encourage members to seek out the other excellent talented people in the room, exchange contact info, perhaps some ideas. In addition, there were more chances to get hands on some cool VR and MR technologies, which has been UDEN's theme for 2017. I mentioned that this, being our last event of the year, we thought could be our holiday party! But quite a few people pointed out to me that it’s probably a bit too early for that as it’s still actually November. So instead we agreed that it's our ‘between the holidays party’ instead.
Before networking kicked off proper, we heard from our sponsors and exhibitors, some exciting announcements, plus a look back at where UDEN has been, and a look forward to UDEN in 2018.
I reminded everyone that UDEN is a non-profit trade group run by volunteers, that our membership and our events are free. To remain so, we rely on generous donations from sponsors – mostly space and food. So we began by recognizing tonight’s sponsors!
Food for the evening was kindly provided by J.P. Morgan, a new sponsor for UDEN. Tim Fellow and Jeff Bullock explained how they were keen to expand their support for digital entertainment and UDEN events seemed like a perfect beginning. The delicious food was catered by Argentina's Best Empanadas of Salt Lake City.
Welcoming us to Silicon Slopes, Garrett Clark talked about their mission and how they operated, including the range of activities they provide and invited UDEN members to contact him if they would like to take advantage of any of the opportunities they provide. UDEN 17 was held at the headquarters of Silicon Slopes, which began life when several technology companies in this area decided to group together and to market the sector, not just themselves. It has been a huge success. Its mission has grown to encompass growth and education for all tech business in the state. In January this year Silicon Slopes put on a huge event, the Tech Summit, which was slick, professional and very well attended. They will be holding it again in January.
The Silicon Slopes story is of great interest to us, not only because they held out the hand of friendship to us in the digital entertainment sector, but also because of how they have worked together to grow the tech sector in the state.
UDEN will be three years old next year. I thought that tonight would be a good time to reflect on how we came to exist, where we’ve been, what we have achieved and where we are headed. The following are extracts from my talk:
DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT IN UTAH - PAST
In the early days of Hollywood, Utah became a favorite place to make movies; it was relatively close to the studios in California, it was cheaper and there was an abundance of willing and talented workers. Plus, the locations were stunning and made for varied backdrops. That’s been the case for more than 80 years, a fact being celebrated right now by the Utah Film Commission’s “This is Utah” photography competition. Given such a long and close relationship, isn’t it surprising that Utah didn’t become a greater force in the movie business?
Something else that California dominates is the videogame industry. Yet videogaming famously has its roots at the University of Utah, back in the 60’s. So too does the first virtual reality headset. And yet… Utah never became a hub for the games industry either.
In both cases, film and games, Utah has always been a place where we have had talented creative and technical people that work for – directly or indirectly – those Californian giants.
I think it is fascinating to reflect on why Utah hasn’t been more successful in these industries that – let’s face it – we helped to build, service and then sustain. So good are we, in fact, that we have some of the best university programs in the nation in digital entertainment – but because we don’t have the jobs, every year we’re a net exporter of highly talented graduates who go on to build other states digital entertainment industries!
Film and games are creative and technical industries. Both entertainment industries. Utah clearly like its tech businesses, as we see from Silicon Slopes. But could it be that entertainment has always been too frivolous to be taken seriously in Utah – despite the huge money that it makes?
Silicon Valley is, of course, the tech powerhouse of the modern world. What we see today, is that here in Utah, we have a strong and growing tech sector, ably represented by our friends right here in Lehi (Silicon Slopes). How smart are these guys? They’re even taking California’s name and using it to market themselves! (Silicon Valley > Silicon Slopes)
DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT IN UTAH - PRESENT
The case for collaboration
What the good folks here at Silicon Slopes show us is that technology and innovation can survive and sustain a healthy ecosystem here in Utah. That didn’t happen overnight, but it has been very deliberate. So why has it not been possible for the same to happen in film or games here? Because it has in other states and parts of the world. Austin, New York, Montreal, Vancouver, the UK – all have thriving, healthy film and game ecosystems, all competing on the global stage. These too didn’t happen overnight – they evolved over time.
In each case, the main characteristic we see is that the participants – as individuals and companies – came together for a greater good. They shared knowledge and know-how; they prioritized quality, they demonstrated innovation, they added value, they fostered a start-up culture, they planned for the long term. They collaborated. That’s what we see in Austin, New York, Montreal, Vancouver and the UK. It’s also what we saw here that led to the creation of Silicon Slopes.
That has not happened with digital entertainment in Utah. If anything, it’s been siloed and self-interested, accepting the role of servant to the Californian client rather than master of its own destiny. That’s not to say there hasn’t been success: there have been, some quite remarkable success stories. But it hasn’t been sustained because it wasn’t leveraged for the long term benefit of the community, and ultimately those jobs went away.
Digital entertainment here has a yo-yo economy in Utah - we have a few bright sparks that burn really bright… before burning out and we’re in darkness… until the next one pops up. Which really sucks when its your job that keeps going away, forcing you to consider leaving the state, uprooting your family and all that relocation entails.
Which brings us to UDEN. Those of us who work in digital entertainment and who like living in this state need to step up, collaborate, plan and make our own destiny. That was why UDEN was founded, to bring the creators of digital content and technology together, to create that startup culture, figure out how we add value and then go make it happen. Working together in a focused, deliberate way, for the greater good. We have the talent. We have the creativity. We have the technical chops.
Made In Utah
When we started, we modeled ourselves on the successful ‘Made in New York’ community of digital entrepreneurs and we were called ‘Made in Utah’. Our fresh membership very quickly came together and showed great promise, deciding overwhelmingly that MIU was a terrible name, not least because its widely used elsewhere in the state, including by cheese makers! Huge debate followed and eventually we compromised on the least offensive variant of words being proposed, and the Utah Digital Entertainment Network – UDEN - emerged.
Our goal was to bring the various, separate interests together with a common voice and shared objective – to become a community. Our primary tool for this has been our networking meetings. At these we have tried to inform, connect and grow our community.
Our meetings have grown from around 50 people to over 200 at UDEN 16. We have been to some wonderful places, had some excellent sponsors, held educational panel discussions and had some truly insightful keynote speakers. We have also had community information slots in the form of our Hive Ignite feature, and this year we began to include live exhibits as well. We’ll put together video highlights for the next meeting.
While the meetings have been really important for networking and education, UDEN has also:
- advocated for the creators of digital content and technology in many venues including local and state government as well as national policy;
- we have represented our industry sector on many high-school career panels;
- career days, including Microsoft's;
- UvU’s STEM days;
- participated as part of the Governor’s 25K jobs initiative and the Governor’s Economic Summit;
- advised other groups on behalf of this community;
- represented our industry in conversations with companies considering relocating to Utah;
- helped to setup the UCDA digital summit last year and the inaugural Lightspark Digital Summit earlier this year
·We know that through these UDEN meetings, hundreds of connections have been made and dozens of collaborations have begun. So we’re proud of the start we have made, but it’s just that – a start. Effecting real change requires action, action from everyone here. UDEN's job is to focus those efforts and keep us on track. It’s a sobering thought that we have less people working in digital entertainment in the state today than we did when UDEN started almost three years ago. So – where are we headed?
DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT IN UTAH - FUTURE
Silicon Slopes Partnership
Looking ahead to 2018, we’re excited to announce that the Utah Digital Entertainment Network will become the official Silicon Slopes Chapter for digital entertainment. Through this partnership, UDEN and Silicon Slopes will work together to identify ways in which we might leverage the respective skill sets of our communities, fostering collaboration and mutually beneficial opportunities. This will include sharing of knowledge, capabilities and services in addition to the cross-promotion of events. Joining forces with Silicon Slopes will help UDEN toward its goal of building a strong ecosystem for digital entertainment across the entire state of Utah.
CALL FOR VOLUNTEERS!
2018 needs to be about action – not just from us, but especially, from you, the community. We are a volunteer organization with, frankly, very few volunteers! So, if you can spare a few hours each month and would like to do something for UDEN, please let us know as we have some ideas that we think could be really helpful in building our ecosystem and be really useful to you! (To volunteer for UDEN please email us: info@utahDEN.org)
For example, when we setup the website, you gave us hundreds of ideas for features that you wanted. We all agreed that a jobs board was a must! Well, we have had a jobs board for two years now. No-one uses it. Truth is, it needs someone to manage it to be useful. So let’s be pro-active – have someone make a regular search for open jobs, gather the details, and post them on the jobs board. The more jobs it has, the more jobs it will attract, the more useful it becomes to job seekers and recruiters alike. Simple. And powerful. If you think this is the kind of thing you might like to manage for the community, let us know!
UPCOMING EVENTS PAGE
Similarly, we have an events page. You asked us for it – but very few people use it, including our own members! It has really powerful functionality, like EventBrite – you can post your own meetings on there, you get your own link to share and get notifications of RSVPs etc. Here, then, is another example of a central location that could be a useful resource for all of us in digital entertainment and will help us grow. Again, if someone would like to round up any events you see out there and post them – including cross-posting things like the Silicon Slopes events, or the ones from the Film Commission, or the universities, or the Games Guild etc – it’s a few hours each week. Interested? Please get in touch.
Perhaps you have ideas for resources that might be really useful to help build our community? One of our advisory board members, Corrine, had just such a great idea - what about a page that has a list of projects looking for contributors? It’s a bit like a jobs page, but more for contracting, either paid or unpaid. I think it would be super helpful in making connections – if we can find someone to manage it.
Again – if you have ideas, better yet, if you can volunteer a few hours to make those ideas a reality – let’s talk!
UDEN ADVISORY BOARD
We have had a terrific volunteer organizing committee since we started, and starting in 2018 we’re going to renew these positions on an annual basis, allowing for new people and new ideas to influence our direction. If you would like to volunteer for our advisory board for 2018 please get in touch. These are unpaid positions, requiring a few hours each quarter to attend meetings, as well as a few hours helping to arrange these meetings, finding sponsors, fund raising. (To volunteer for UDEN please email us: info@utahDEN.org)
DONATIONS TO UDEN
Asking you all to step up is hard. Who has the time? Well perhaps the answer is that UDEN needs to be funded so that we have resources to effect the kind of change and progress that we have seen Silicon Slopes achieve. What do you think? Are you ready to put your hand in your pocket? We’ll be announcing a donation strategy in 2018.
MEETINGS & FOCUS IN 2018
Making things happen needs to be our focus for 2018. Again, that means all of us. For UDEN's part, we’ll continue to do what we're doing including organizing meetings.
Right now, we’re working on two events in January during Sundance – we’ll share more details soon but they include a social mixer event in Park City, with the Utah Film Commission, much like we had this year. We’re looking for a sponsor for this – so if you know anyone that wants some prominence during Sundance, please get in touch!
The other event will be held in Salt Lake City over three nights, intended to showcase to the public the best of Utah digital entertainment. Lots of hands-on interactive activities, live VR, music, film and performance art. We’re also looking for someone to write a simple AR app for use at the event in return for exposure. Interested? Get in touch.
Access Salt Lake
Longer term in 2018, we plan to hold two week long events at our home at Access Salt Lake, each day having a different theme within digital entertainment. For example, Monday might be indie games events, Tuesday might be vfx related activities, Wednesday might be AR technologies, Thursday might be Education, Friday might be interactive movie focused. Each day could have keynotes or working sessions. We think a game jam or the movie equivalent might be fun as well. We’re still at the idea stage, but we would like to talk to groups that might like to ‘own’ a day as part of such a week. Interested? Please get in touch.
Raising money is always a great topic for this community, so we’re thinking about a series of ‘Shark Tank’-like events where a handful of you can pitch your ideas to a group of potential investors or other professionals, to hear their critique.
We hope that through such activities everyone can improve their pitching skills as well as broaden the mindset of potential investors into the potential that exists in this space, locally.
A longer term idea that we’re also working on is digital apprenticeships. The goal here would be for UDEN to manage a digital trade apprenticeship program in conjunction with local businesses. These are not internships, these are paid two-year positions, during which apprentices work on live digital projects 80% of the time, learning the trade and coming up with their own projects in the other 20% of their time. The idea is that such a program would fill the gap between people who know how to use the tools of the trade but perhaps aren’t ready for the workplace yet, or who with some mentoring could learn how to add value rather than simply do a job. The hope would be that after two years the apprentices will start new businesses. We will see if we can get a sector fund to invest in such businesses. If the apprentices don’t want to start new businesses, they’ll be work ready for either digital entertainment or our friends here in Silicon Slopes land.
So – that’s what we’re thinking about as we head into year 3. We’re still very excited about the prospects for digital entertainment in Utah and we hope you are too!
Let me close these thoughts by thanking you. To those that have been to all, or most of our meetings and supported us, thank you. If this is your first time, please join UDEN on our website and become a regular – social media is the best way to stay in touch with us. In either case – let’s make 2018 the year of action. Let’s Move The Needle, just like Silicon Slopes has!
At most of our events this year we have been focusing on VR, AR and MR technologies. Many of you have told us how much you liked the opportunity to get hands on with different types of these technologies. So tonight, as the last in our VR themed year, we have two more very cool technologies for you to try. The first is called Mixed Reality – or MR. As a reminder, MR applies the technologies of Virtual and Augmented reality to allow you to interact with digital objects superimposed into the real world around you. We are super excited that the Microsoft Store from downtown Salt Lake City have been kind enough to bring along some of their MR equipment for you to try tonight. Here to tell us more, please welcome Corbett and Steve!
Let’s keep talking VR for a few minutes… you might recall that we introduced you to the VOID many months ago at UDEN – as you may know, the VOID VR is brilliant - it's also huge and takes up a huge amount of space. At the opposite end of the scale are VR headsets you plug into your phone, or perhaps your home PC, like Microsoft's Mixed Reality. Inbetween these two types of VR, there is VR Arcade, which is typically larger than you get at home but small enough that you can try multiple different experiences in one location, often in a store.
Virtualities have opened a VR Arcade downtown Salt Lake City, and they have been kind enough to bring some of their VR Arcade experiences here for you to try tonight. Here to tell you more about what they do and is Ryan Burningham!
Now its time for networking, and on the rolling video behind me you'll see your checklist challenge of things to do next; but before we begin, I would to say thanks to a few people:
- to Jeff Peters for arranging tonight's meeting and to Clark Stacey for helping to run UDEN;
- to Jacquie for volunteering to help us tonight as well as Jen;
- to Silicon Slopes and JP Morgan for sponsoring tonight’s event;
- to Microsoft and to Virtualities for the hands-on VR and MR experiences;
- to our advisory board for their counsel and support;
- and of course, to you all for continuing to support UDEN
Wishing all of you the very best for the rest of 2017, and a very happy holiday! Thank you!