Seattle virtual reality startup Vreal has landed an $11.7 million Series A round to continue building out what it calls the first VR live streaming and broadcast platform.
The concept is similar to game streaming sites like Amazon’s Twitch, Microsoft’s Mixer and YouTube, but it is in virtual reality. Fans will be able to strap on VR headsets — right now the company is working with the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift — create their own avatars and stand side by side in the game with their favorite streamers.
Todd Hooper, CEO of Vreal, tells GeekWire that the platform just entered a closed alpha testing phase focused on streaming audiences. It has also been working with game developers and the streamers who entertain audiences with their play.
Hooper says Vreal combines what he sees as two of the biggest trends in technology. The first is gaming as media — Hooper says people watch Twitch and YouTube the way his generation watched broadcast networks. And the second is virtual reality as the future of gaming.
Hooper acknowledges that virtual reality streaming doesn’t have nearly the potential audience that platforms like Twitch and YouTube command today. No one has yet built the perfect headset or that smash hit game.
“There are new headsets coming all the time,” Hooper said. “There’s a core audience of VR gamers out there that are looking for new content and are engaged every day inside the VR world. That’s enough to build an audience and a product that is ready for when we do get the Halo or Clash of Clans of VR that everyone has to have and the perfect headset that is the right price and the right form factor and you can’t say no to and suddenly becomes a mainstream thing.”
Until virtual reality fully catches on, Vreal’s technology also allows for 2D video streams — making it so viewers using any type of screen can watch a VR gaming experience. Hooper sees 2D game streaming services as complementary to Vreal’s product, not competitive.
“We think that there is a place for both in the world, and they are complementary,” Hooper said of VR streaming and 2D streaming. “Really, those platforms today are where a lot of evangelizing for VR happens. When you’re watching a VR game in 2D, it’s a lot like looking in the pet store window at a cute puppy. I really want to go in the pet store and play with the puppy, but I can’t, because I’m on the outside. It incentivizes me to get the puppy eventually.”
Vreal has now raised $15 million since it was founded in 2015. Axioma Ventures led the round and was joined by new investors Intel Capital and AET Fund, as well as existing investors Upfront Ventures, Vulcan Capital and CRCM Ventures.
Today, Vreal employs 24 people out of an office in downtown Seattle, and the company is hiring. Hooper praised Seattle’s growing VR community, with companies of all sizes working on the technology. Microsoft has a heavy focus on “mixed reality” with its own HoloLens headset and a variety of lower cost Windows Mixed Reality headsets made by partners. Facebook-owned Oculus has a presence just down the road from Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. and is growing in a big way. Gaming giant Valve calls the city of Bellevue, Wash. home. And a variety of VR startups are based in the Seattle area.
As part of the investment Chet Faliszek, who spent 12 years at Valve working on SteamVR and games like Left 4 Dead and the Portal series, will join Vreal’s board representing Axioma. Also joining the board is Chris Williams, CEO of children’s media company Pocket Watch and a former executive at Disney and Yahoo. Hooper called both Faliszek and Williams pioneers in the VR world.
“He was the person that gave me my Vive demo back in 2014, which planted the seeds for me to start this company,” Hooper said of Faliszek. “So he’s been involved in one way or another and been a great supporter and mentor for me personally since the beginning.”