Another veteran team of Seattle-based entrepreneurs is starting a new business in the virtual reality industry.
This time it’s Pixvana, a startup led by former Buuteeq CEO Forest Key that today announced a $6 million round led by Madrona Venture Group, with participation from Vulcan Capital and angel investors like ‘Soma’ Somasegar, Mike Galgon, Geoff Entress, Charles Fitzgerald, John Keister, and others.
Pixvana describes itself as a “video processing and delivery platform for media and entertainment applications” that plans to help big-name clients like CBS or the NFL with how they prepare, organize, and deliver video to virtual reality headsets.
Key, who sold hotel marketing startup Buuteeq to Priceline last year, told GeekWire that his new company will improve how consumers experience 360-video content while wearing virtual reality headsets. He said today’s technology doesn’t quite enable fully-immersive and flawless video content in virtual reality that creates a sense of “presence.”
“Presence is magical, and magic is something that people like,” Key said. “Even if you know it’s a trick, you still like it because it makes you smile.”
Much like engineers had to figure out the best ways to address issues like latency, usage monetization, or digital rights management when video content first arrived on the Internet and mobile devices, Key said that there’s a similar problem with getting VR video to load and play smoothly on different types of headsets.
Consumers can already view sharp and vibrant photos with headsets like the Samsung Gear or Oculus Rift. But Key said it isn’t the same with video.
“Imagine that image moving at 60 frames per second — that’s what we want to build,” he noted. “That does not exist today.”
Though Key’s last company was involved with online hotel booking — a vast majority of Buuteeq employees stayed with the company after the Priceline acquisition, he noted — the CEO actually spent a good chunk of his career working in digital media. After studying film history at UCLA, he started his career at Lucasfilm on the visual effects team before moving on to places like Adobe and Microsoft where he helped develop important web-based video technologies like Flash and Silverlight.
Key’s founding team is impressive, too, with expertise in software platforms, visual effects, video production, codecs, and content creation. Chief Technology Officer and Creative Director Scott Squires is a well-known Sci-Tech Academy Award winner known for his visual effects work and also a veteran of Lucasfilm. Chief Product Officer Bill Hensler was previously the senior director of engineering at Apple where he worked on photo apps and imaging technologies, while VP of Product Management Sean Safreed is the co-founder of film and video software startup Red Giant.
“We have experience working on this exact kind of technology and business problem,” Key said.
Pixvana, which employs six people and is headquartered in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, will use the fresh funds to jumpstart its go-to-market strategy in 2016. This is another VR-related investment from Madrona, which led seed-round funding in October for another Seattle-based startup called Envelop VR.
When the Seattle firm raised its most recent $300 million fund in June, it said VR was one area of particular interest. Madrona, which also backed Buuteeq, has been “looking at the [virtual reality] space intently for some time” according to Tim Porter, the firm’s managing director.
“Virtual reality and augmented reality give users an entirely different experience of where they are and what they are doing,” Porter told GeekWire. “A medium like this has the opportunity to change how consumers think about entertainment and how business gets done. We are in the early days, but we think that the higher end headsets coming out over the next year will enable truly remarkable user experiences, which will catalyze a strong ramp of usage and a wave of new applications.”
Somasegar, a former longtime Microsoft executive who was recently named the newest venture partner at Madrona, is Pixvana’s chairman of the board and told GeekWire last month that he was bullish about virtual reality.
“One technology area that I am currently very fascinated about is virtual reality,” he said. “I think the kind of scenarios that can come to life both in the consumer space and enterprise space is going to be fundamentally transformational.”
Before that happens, though, Key said that processing video for these new virtual reality headsets must improve — and that’s exactly the problem Pixvana is tackling.
“With virtual reality video, people will tell new kinds of stories and it will require unique technology,” he said.