As the co-founder of PopCap Games, John Vechey helped create some of the most compelling and beloved games for PCs, consoles and mobile devices.
Now, the 37-year-old Seattle entrepreneur sees the same opportunity to develop new applications in the emerging field of virtual and augmented reality, everything from conference room whiteboards that allow new ways for workers to collaborate to games that make it seem like you’re battling next to your buddy on the couch.
“It is a brand new space, with unlimited possibilities,” said Vechey of his interest in virtual reality. “Through virtual reality, we are going to be able to — as a society — move beyond some of the constraints of location for collaborating, communicating and really connecting with other people.”
To get things rolling, Vechey has partnered with virtual reality vets Forest Gibson and Jared Cheshier as well as former Walt Disney animation executive Jonathan Geibel to create a new Seattle startup by the name of Pluto VR.
Operating from a 4,500 square-foot office along Ballard Avenue’s historic strip, the 2-month-old upstart plans to build applications that will work in conjunction with devices such as the Oculus Rift the Microsoft HoloLens or Samsung’s Gear VR.
“We are absolutely not doing any devices,” said Vechey with a laugh. “We are hoping everybody else solves those problems.”
Even so, Pluto VR will need those virtual reality and augmented reality devices to gain acceptance in the marketplace — something that’s still in the future.
“We are dependent upon on other people being successful, for us to even have a chance at being successful,” said Vechey, who left PopCap last September three years after its blockbuster sale to Electronic Arts for more than $750 million. “That said, we are pretty confident that there will be markets in the next couple of years that are going to form.”
In that regard, Vechey is taking lessons away from PopCap, which he said continued to grow as new devices such as Xbox or iPhone emerged. In that case, PopCap simply focused on great content, games like Bejeweled or Plants vs. Zombies. That’s something that Vechey hopes to emulate at Pluto VR.
The new company is focusing broadly on five or six applications or use cases, attempting to build out what Vechey describes as the “design muscle for multi-user interactions.”
For example, he said the company is actively prototyping a virtual reality whiteboard application as well as new ideas for gaming that incorporate virtual reality or augmented reality.
“How cool could it be if you could feel like you are on your couch with any of your buddies playing games together, interacting and laughing and having that experience,” he said. “We are also looking at more direct gaming, playing people more directly against each other, and social games like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity.”
He’s confident that the company could start selling its first applications as early as next year, once the VR and AR devices start hitting the market. The key turning point, he said, will be the release of a solid head-mounted display with a good input. “When those conditions are met, we will try to be day one with something, and say: ‘Hey, here is a cool experience.'”
As Vechey sees it, the market will separate into three distinct buckets: PC-tethered virtual reality like the Oculus Rift, mobile virtual reality like the Gear VR and Augmented Reality like the HoloLens and technologies from Magic Leap.
“They are all very different, but all very important to what we are doing,” he said. “It is letting those things play out over the next six months to see when things are going.”
At this point, Pluto VR is self-financed with Vechey saying that they “have enough money in the bank to not let us be stupid, but enough to have a small team to work and think long-term.” The company is comprised of the four co-founders, but Vechey said they are actively looking for an art director and technical 3-D artists.
Vechey said they spent nearly four months working on names for the business, evaluating thousands of options. They liked Pluto VR since it had a bit more “whimsy,” with Vechey saying that so many companies in the virtual reality space are “taking themselves too seriously.”
“It is more optimistic,” he said. “We are going to bring a little humor to things that are normally boring.”
After a successful run at PopCap, Vechey didn’t have to return to the startup world. But the entrepreneur — who started PopCap when he was 22 — said he likes working and just has a “passion for doing cool things with cool people.”
He also learned a lot about building a business at PopCap, and thought it would be fun to give it another whirl.
“I am a completely different person,” he said. “This idea that I can do something that is creatively fulfilling and really exciting in a new industry, and use those skills I had and get a chance to make new mistakes, is pretty exciting.”