The Magicians of Shinjuku
Masa san leans over with his characteristic look of deep contemplation and says “do you want to create the future or not?”
At 26 he was the youngest CEO of any publicly traded company on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. He was plump back then, dressed in a bankers black tie and suit. These days he hangs out with God Scorpion creating augmented reality visions of giant glimmering whales that hover above the city streets.
Styly as a company grew out of a need for artistic expression and a series of coincidental connections. Situated in a quiet street just north of the bustling Shinjuku city center, fashion obsessed designers and former google engineers write code in a three story townhouse that at one point housed a colony of endangered monkeys. The meeting room would be perfectly suited for Timothy Leary’s experiments with LSD and yet somehow real, meaningful work gets done. Japanese people have an amazing ability to blend an ultra dedicated work ethic with touches of whimsical self expression. For a company that provides a platform for artists to express themselves in 3D, there is certainly no shortage of real life fantasy and eccentricity.
In my time exploring the world of virtual and augmented reality I’ve only come across a few visionaries who are truly and totally convinced that in the near future we will all use mixed reality as a seamlessly integrated daily tool in the same way that we use our smartphones as an extra body part in the current decade.
Masa San is one of those few true believers. In that sense Styly is more of a religion or secret society than a company. Only those indoctrinated into the secrets of a mixed reality utopia are allowed in.
I wish I had such audacious faith in the industry. Maybe one day I will. But I tend to approach all interests with a fair bit of skepticism. There is certainly no doubt in my mind that mixed reality will be an integral part of our lives at some point in the future. I just don’t know when and in what manifestation. One thing I know for sure — nobody wants to wear a heavy piece of computing equipment on their face for hours on end. Mixed reality will only thrive when it feels like wearing regular reading glasses.
Companies like Styly are trying to lay the foundation for this future, hoping that by giving creators the tools to express themselves in immersive spaces they will spark an increase demand for lighter headsets. Content is certainly king when it comes to new modes of expression and communication. Perhaps if Styly gets millions of people to create their own VR spaces, hardware companies will have no choice but to make cheap and comfortable mixed reality glasses so that the world can live and breathe in these new immersive environments.
Masa San likes to talk about the inverse relationship between technological complexity and network effects. As the Styly community grows, the importance of the particular hardware features decreases. There is a transfer of value from technology to community. That’s certainly been the case with social media. Of course it relies on the assumption that there is a community of people out there who want to consume 3D content in a pervasive way.
When I think about Mass san and his crew of avant-garde artists and brilliant C# masters I imagine the artistic and literary societies of the early modernist movement. Dadaism in French painting. Miguel de Unamuno and the Spanish existentialists. The overriding factor is an urgent need to change the way we see the world.
How much more could we experience if only computers allowed us to? Could we magnify or distort reality so that time runs backwards or even radially? Why do we limit our experience to the physical world around us when we can create digital utopias?
This is the ethos and mission of the VR pioneers in Shinjuku. I hope that their enthusiasm for the future will spread like a virus and bring about the enhanced reality that they dream about.