The impact of virtual reality remains to be seen, but many think that the technology will force humans into more isolation, creating anti-social habits and keeping us from authentic interactions with our peers.
Todd Hooper and his new company think just the opposite.
Seattle startup VREAL is coming out of stealth mode today, revealing a bit about its new virtual reality live streaming platform that’s been under development for the past year.
Hooper is the founder and CEO, starting the company in 2015 after two years as an executive at Unity. Sitting inside VREAL’s downtown Seattle office where virtual reality headsets line the desks, the startup veteran told GeekWire that his new company brings together two big trends: the rise of gaming as an entertainment medium, and the virtual reality revolution.
VREAL is similar to Twitch, the massive live streaming platform that Amazon acquired for nearly $1 billion in 2014, but geared toward virtual reality games. The company’s technology allows developers to turn their gaming environments into a theater-like virtual social meeting place, letting game streamers interact with viewers who want to participate in the experience.
For example, I tried out a few demos at VREAL last week, one of which was a mini putt-putt game. I strapped on a HTC Vive headset — VREAL’s technology works for any VR device — that was connected to a PC and was transported to the virtual golf world, where I watched another player make his way around the course. Joining me in real-time was another VREAL employee — I could see her virtual avatar, and we could talk to each other. We were able to move freely around the virtual world using the touch controllers, giving one another virtual fist-bumps when the other player sunk his putt.
Another demo was an RPG-style game called VR Legends, and this time, the VREAL employee was actually playing. I was still observing, either standing right next to her as she slayed enemies or watching from a bird’s eye view. I could talk and laugh with her as she made her way around the level.
It’s clear that VREAL wants to make virtual reality a social experience, and these two demos certainly showed that.
“Virtual reality can be a new kind of interaction where you actually feel like you are really in a room with people,” Hooper said.
VREAL’s technology lets developers enable these live streaming interactions without requiring many changes to the game itself, Hooper noted. There are no third-party broadcasting applications, as anyone can broadcast their stream directly through VREAL. The platform is not just for those with VR headsets, either, and also allows for 360-degree and 2D video streams — essentially, viewers using any type of screen can watch a VR gaming experience via VREAL.
Hooper said that VREAL can help developers build a community around their games and increase engagement.
“People see other people playing the game, and they get to experience it together,” he said. “That generates excitement around the game. If you look at the games that got big with live streaming, they’ve become these huge franchises — that’s because they found a way to engage people in the game. We think VREAL does that for virtual reality games.”
VREAL lets users access the live streaming experience either directly within games, or from a lobby area like this:
Hooper said there are a couple revenue models in the works, from advertising to selling digital goods, but noted that “it’s still very early days.”
He made the same “early days” comment about the virtual reality industry as a whole, but it’s obvious that Hooper is extremely bullish about virtual reality as the next big computing platform.
“If you look back in history with the PC, internet, and smartphone, there were skeptics for every single one of those,” he said. “I was skeptical of the first iPhone until I used it. Most people skeptical of VR have not tried it. We’ve done more than 200 demos at our office, and I don’t recall a single person not leaving with a big grin on their face.”
He added: “If you look at all the large companies and the amount of money and effort invested — this is not something they are just trying. This is something they are serious about.”
VREAL, which is launching its beta product this summer, employs 12 people and raised a $3.3 million seed round in November from Upfront Ventures, Vulcan Capital, Presence Capital, IT Farm, Dawn Patrol Ventures and Seattle and Bay Area angel investors.
The company is one of many new up-and-coming virtual reality startups in Seattle. Others include Envelop VR, Pluto VR, Pixvana, VRStudios, and Endeavor One. Hooper thinks Seattle can be a worldwide hub for virtual reality technology development.
“We all talk on a regular basis,” he said of his VR colleagues in Seattle. “We are working together to try and lift Seattle up for VR.”