Virtual Reality Goes Social

High-definition teleconferencing has helped to bridge the distance for face-to-face business meetings, but the rise of virtual reality (VR) promises to do that, and so much more.

How about “attending” a virtual event with hundreds of others, playing a round of Dungeons & Dragons with a group of adventurers from around the world, or watching a movie or TV show with a loved one who happens to be on the other side of the planet?

Those are the kinds of social and shared virtual-reality experiences that Redwood City, Calif.-based startup AltspaceVR has in mind as it looks to expand the breadth and reach of a new platform that has already drawn interest from the cable industry.

AltspaceVR, like Facebook’s Oculus, Samsung, Microsoft and a growing batch of startups, are all placing bets that VR (as well augmented reality) is on the cusp of connecting with the consumer mainstream. While there’s still no telling the size of that market, ABI Research believes that 43 million VR units will be shipped by 2020.


The concept of virtual reality has been around for a long time, “essentially since computers existed,” AltspaceVR founder and CEO Eric Romo said.

So, why does it seem to be ready for takeoff now? One big key is the plummeting price of entry for higher-end VR devices that can pack in enough pixels to make it a true-to-life-experience, Romo said.

Products such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift are expected to fetch $300 to $400 — pricey, but not out of reach for many consumers. Technology that was capable of delivering a similar experience would’ve cost 100 times more as little as three years ago, Romo, a former rocket engineer at SpaceX and co-founder of solar technology firm GreenVolts, said.

On the lower end, Google Cardboard, a viewer literally made from cardboard that can be paired with a smartphone, can be had for as little as $5 from electronic retail outlets such as Amazon. Apps for it are flourishing.

“There is this kind of tailwind that largely came out of the mobile industry that’s allowed for VR to have this kind of emergence,” Romo said. “But price is important because that starts the conversation.”

The next part of that conversation involves what consumers can do with VR that’s entertaining, useful and compelling, and that’s where AltspaceVR is trying to enter the picture.

Its focus is the creation of socially driven, virtual worlds that put people together to play games, watch movies and TV shows and even enjoy live events “together,” even if they are thousands of miles apart. That experience includes head and hand gestures and other personal quirks that help to convey face-to-face communication.

“We think one of the underlying threads of a lot of the [VR] experience is going to be interaction,” Romo said. “It’s going to be about people feeling like they’re in the same place together. I think that’s the key emotion that we’re driving at with VR.”


AltspaceVR’s business is still in its early days. The company, founded in 2013, went into open beta about two months ago, following a series of closed beta trials. It claims to have users in more than 50 countries, with average user session times of about 25 minutes.

Romo thinks that’s important because VR has typically been demonstrated in much smaller, bite-sized demos that might run in the range of three to 10 minutes. Early indications are that consumers are willing to stay in these virtualized environments for much longer periods.

“Because everything has been a demo, nobody’s really answered the question whether someone might stay in [the VR environment] and listen for an hour or watch a 90-minute movie,” he said. A few weeks ago, AltspaceVR had a group of people play a table-top game for about three hours at a clip. “We’re one of the few companies that have shown that people are willing to do these things for a long period of time, if the content is compelling.”

To fuel its effort, AltspaceVR has created a software developers kit for its internal group and for third-party developers, which have already created about five apps powered by the company’s platform. Its system is already integrated to run on Oculus (for the full, immersive experience), or on browsers and certain 3D TVs, and works with input devices such as the mouse, Xbox 360 gamepad, keyboards and hand-and-body tracking systems such as Leap Motion and Microsoft’s Kinect v2. AltspaceVR is also looking to expand support to other VR platforms.

“We think being cross-platform is going to be very important for us,” Romo said.

AltspaceVR hopes its SDK and underlying platform — what Romo refers to as a “mashup of game-engine technology and Web-browsing technology” — will spark interest and spawn new apps and services.

“We’re smart enough to know that we’re not smart enough to know what everybody wants to do [with VR],” Romo said. “We don’t know what people will want to do in these shared, virtual spaces.”

Still, the company has already introduced several apps, including games such as Interstellar Defense (a VR homage to coin-op classic Space Invaders), an app called Hats (which lets your avatar don some bizarre headwear) and Solar System (a tour of the sun and planets).

The idea behind AltspaceVR has sparked interest from the pay TV industry. Comcast Ventures, the company’s V.C. arm, contributed to a $10.3 million found of financing in AltspaceVR, which has raised a total of $15.7 million.

Comcast hasn’t said how the startup’s platform might fit in, but Gavin Teo, principal at Comcast Ventures, offered this example in a blog post about the investment: “One of the most compelling features is the ability to watch streaming video from services like YouTube, Netflix and Twitch in VR … Imagine Game of Thrones streamed in a 2D web player in the shape of a TV screen hanging on the wall of a 3D space you are sharing with a friend on the other side of the world.”

CableLabs, the cable industry’s R&D house, has also been dabbling in VR to find out, for example, what the consumer appetite is for it. So far, the results show promise.


The demos “were extremely popular,” Phil McKinney, CableLabs’s CEO, said. The consumer study spanned VR-powered drama, sporting events and music videos. Consumers, he said, were most interest in travel-related VR content.

AltspaceVR is currently working on getting its platform right, but it’s also starting to think about how it can turn its technology into a money-making business. The notion of VR-powered live events, to which users would pay an admission fee, is one of the ideas being pursued.

In the meantime, AltspaceVR has been hosting free events. Last Friday night (Aug. 21) for example, it organized a VR showing of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Also on the docket is the National Football League’s Oct. 25 Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars game, billed as an “experimental stream of a regular season NFL game, exclusively from Yahoo.”

“There’s something about watching things together in larger groups that just makes it a more enjoyable experience,” Romo said.