It seemed a little unusual this week when the former CEO of hotel marketing startup Buuteeq announced plans to launch his next business in the virtual reality space.
But that’s just how much Forest Key believes in the burgeoning technology.
He knows there’s been a lot of false starts for the industry over the years, but this time he says it’s about to become real. And he’s so certain, that he’s betting the fate of his next startup on it.
“When you get your first VR demo on Valve’s Steam VR powered HTC Vive, it’s an experience that is immediately recognizable as ‘something I’ll be doing a lot more of in the future,'” Key said. “It’s the way I felt about the internet in 1999 when I ordered my first book on Amazon.com, and the smartphone in 2007 when I watched a YouTube movie on a handheld screen while on a bus. VR is going to be huge.”
Key, who sold Buuteeq to Priceline in 2014 in a deal reported to be worth between $125 million and $140 million, is co-founder and CEO Pixvana. That new company just raised $6 million from a high-profile list of investors with an idea to help clients like CBS or the NFL prepare, organize and deliver 360-degree video to virtual reality headsets.
VR hardware is finally getting to the point where it can create an immersive experience, so Pixvana wants to work on the software side of the equation.
Key said there is a common thread between Buuteeq, Pixvana and everything else he’s done throughout his career, which includes a film history degree from UCLA and stints at Lucasfilm, Adobe and Microsoft. Above all else, Key says he’s designing tools for storytellers — whether that’s helping hotel owners tell stories about their properties, or television networks deliver a movie through a virtual reality headset.
Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and why do you do it? “I build technology for storytellers. In my career I’ve built film making tools for CGI artists, UI construction tools for web designers, video authoring and streaming systems for digital agencies and media companies, and marketing systems for hoteliers so they could tell their guests stories about their hotel. I started off wanting to be a film maker. But when I started my career working on feature films at Lucasfilm, I realized that I was much more drawn to the tools, technology and processes of making films than I was to actually telling the story itself. I guess it is the frustrated film director in me that led me to entrepreneurship, since as a CEO I am the one who crafts the narrative for the team, investors and customers around a common mission/vision.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “Virtual reality is going to be much bigger than you realize, for the reason that it is much better than you know or can even imagine (until you’ve seen it). Futurists and researches have been talking about VR since at least the 1960s, so I think there is a general skepticism among some that VR might just be hype. But the inflection point has arrived now that the hardware form factors and components (which were driven down in cost and quality by the smartphone boom) actually works, and its time to build software!”
Where do you find your inspiration? “My inspiration comes from listening to other people’s stories and carefully observing their craft and technique. My favorite storytellers include the Argentinian novelist Jorge Luis Borges, the film director James Cameron, the documentarian Errol Morris, the music video director Michel Gondry and the musician Bjork. They are each absolute masters of their mediums and adept at using technology to tell new kinds of stories we haven’t yet seen. I learn best and lessons stay with me longest when my mentors tell me stories, and I’m best as a manager and coach when I can lead by telling my own.”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “Microsoft PowerPoint is a great tool for organizing thoughts and crafting them into succinct, visually driven stories that are scalable to convey information to an audience. Not everyone is a great builder of PPT decks, but it is a powerful and sublimely nuanced software tool in the right hands. The expression that a photograph is worth a thousand words is true, and a good PPT slide is worth 10,000! That said, it would be useless without photographs, so I better include my Sony A7ii with the 90mm macro 2.8 lens, since that’s what I now reach for to capture silky soft images.”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “My workplace right now has been my home office (while I’ve been starting Pixvana). This chilly morning as I’m banging out the questions for this article, I’m cuddled up in my favorite chair by the fire. For Pixvana, my co-founder Bill Hensler and I were dead-set on being near our homes in Wallingford/Phinney. So we are thrilled to be moving into our new office in Fremont in a few weeks. Imagine a big open space with exposed wood beams and concrete floors with lots of VR cameras and large 4k monitors to look at footage.”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.)? “Make sure you are as passionate about your work as you are about your family/personal time. If it is a natural equilibrium, then it is effortless and you can focus on the work and play and not on the challenge of having one win over the other.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “The cloud.”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Charlize Theron’s Furiosa from Mad Max (the best movie of 2015).”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Time Machine, as it makes for really good stories.”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Donate it to Code.org, so they can teach 7 million kids how to code, who can then launch hundreds of thousands of startups.”
I once waited in line for … “3.5 hrs for dinner at Manolin, the new hot restaurant in Fremont.”
Your role models? “I was a voracious reader of Tintin and Asterix comics as a kid. I think I learned a lot from them even though they are idealized and fictional. They seek adventure, handle adversity, and count on their friends in good times and bad.”
Greatest Game in History? “Super Mario Bros 3 on NES.”
Best Gadget Ever? “JPEG compression software. It has made digital imaging possible.”
First Computer? “Apple II Plus.”
Current Phone? “iPhone 6.”
Favorite App? “SmartThings (controls the lights in my house).”
Favorite Cause? “Code.org.”
Most important technology of 2015? “Ubiquitous video and still photography via cell phones.”
Most important technology of 2017? “VR.”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “VR is going to be huge. Check it out — you’ll love it!”