Q&A: Bay Area firm focuses on social side of VR | Crain's San Francisco

Q&A: Bay Area firm focuses on social side of VR

Virtual reality isn't just for gaming anymore. You can bring people together around any interest; it's something like Meetup with a headset.

Altspace VRa social platform in virtual reality, blazed a trail in bringing VR to consumers by creating environments for these virtual interactions. You might gather friends for something you’ve done before in real life, like watch a basketball game, or host a wedding that is as kitschy as you like.

The Redwood City-based firm was founded in 2013 and has even moved into civic participation, partnering with NBC to create a Virtual Democracy Plaza during its coverage of the 2016 election.

The company’s co-founder, Bruce Wooden, believes in virtual reality’s potential to enhance individual relationships and impact broad social good. Wooden spoke with Crain’s San Francisco about the future of VR.

Q: What is the status of the industry? How accessible is VR?

BW: Right now it’s definitely early as far as VR for the consumer. The barriers to entry are getting lower as the hardware [scales], but you need the user experience to get things up and running. As a new medium, people are still discovering, what does VR offer?

Q: How much VC money will realistically go to such newbies?

BW: I think it really depends on what you’re building. Right now in the gaming space it’s pretty tough.

If you’re building a platform or something that’s going to power the medium, a lot of that funding right now is in China. China is very excited about the VR market. U.S. investors are a little stingier.

It’s kind of comparative to when smartphones were just starting. Touchscreens are great, but what are [we] doing with this interface? The hardware is definitely getting better but there are still some rough spots.

Q: VR in 2017 would be comparable to what year for touchscreens?

BW: Probably iPhone adoption around 2008 or 2009.

Q: You formed a partnership with NBC. How did that come about?

BW: Through relations with Comcast, Unversal - that whole family. We were talking about what VR might be able to bring. Debate coverage, really great debate parties and townhall meetings.

Q: You have a positive view of virtual reality, from human connection to entertainment media and events. But VR does have the potential to disrupt entertainment venues, like theater and stand up comedy. Do you think the two can co-exist?

BW: The two can definitely coexist. There are people that, wherever they are in the world, get a chance to catch a show. For example, we’ve had musician Reggie Watts on. 

Theater won’t [be replaced immediately]. You need the body language and the facial expression and we’re just starting that [in VR].

It’s really in the Meetup-type things [that you see social impact]. LGBT Meetups and that’s pretty cool. We have people from all over the world.

[But,] I feel like there will always be people who go to clubs or concerts in person.

Q: You have a background in education and curriculum design. What do you think is the next best use of VR in an education context?

BW: That is terribly exciting. What is the next best use in education? I think it’s hands on [learning]. It doesn’t work anymore to have your students looking at a textbook when so much is going on around them. Kids check out. It’s so much more effective and more engaging. Roller coasters [and motion physics], for example. You can have a mini roller coaster right in front of the them.

You can have students access the best teachers anywhere in the world.

Q: Anything you’d like to add?

BW: In general, social VR is different [from gaming] in the way that it’s closer to a face-to-face conversation.

As social VR matures, [its social impact] will be much more evident.


Editor's note: This article was updated on 6/21/17 to correct an earlier version of this article that incorrectly stated Wooden's title, he is the co-founder. The article also stated the wrong founding date for Altspace VR, the company was founded in 2013.

June 19, 2017 - 2:21pm