AltspaceVR Launches Social Media-Virtual Reality Combo

Virtual reality has been pegged as the province of 18-35-year-old males eager to enhance their gamer experiences, AltspaceVR CEO Eric Romo says. But it won’t stay that way for long, if Romo’s entrepreneurial vision comes true.

Romo’s Redwood City, CA-based startup today launched its free software designed to appeal to a user base as broad as Facebook’s. AltspaceVR has created a mash-up of virtual reality and social media—a set of virtual meeting places where groups of people can talk to each other live while they share Web activities like watching YouTube videos or learning trigonometry from an online course.

“We think of ourselves as a communications company,” Romo says.

Here’s one way the AltspaceVR experience could work: Friends from college who now live all over the country are planning a reunion. But first they call a virtual meeting to decide where to hold their big get-together. They each don a special headset plugged into their computers, and enter one of AltspaceVR’s dimensional rooms—perhaps the San Francisco high-rise lounge with the big-screen TV. They appear in the room as moving avatars, but speak in their own voices. Relaxing on virtual couches, they browse online travel sites on the big monitor, and banter about the merits of five different Caribbean beach resorts until they make a decision.

AltspaceVR virtual room

AltspaceVR virtual room

Interestingly, AltspaceVR is trying to expand the uses of virtual reality—a more dimensional experience than visiting websites—by importing that flat 2-D Web content into its virtual rooms. Rather than elaborately building out an entire virtual game world, AltspaceVR is trying to make social sharing of Web content more dimensional. The amount of that Web content is vast, compared with the bite-sized amounts of virtualized experience so far available to consumers, Romo (pictured above) says.

Why would an AltspaceVR social collaboration be more satisfying for the college friends than if they all logged into a conference call while they browsed the same travel sites on their computers?

Romo says the AltspaceVR gathering simulates the emotional experience of getting together in the same physical space. The non-verbal parts of communication—invisible in a phone call—are captured in virtual reality, he says. As a headset-wearing participant nods in agreement or turns to address another group member, those movements are replicated by his or her avatar. Sounds fade as a user moves further away from the noisy video on the big screen to start a quiet chat with another person in a corner of the virtual room. Romo calls this “the physics of human interaction.”

The potential applications of the virtual meeting places are many and varied, Romo says. Collaborative product design was one of the first uses he considered when he founded AltspaceVR in 2013. He formerly worked for a company where employees constantly had to fly back and forth to China as they worked together on a project. Instead, they could meet in a virtual conference room.

“It sounds like a typical Silicon Valley overstatement, but it’s going to change the lives of those people if they don’t have to fly,” Romo says. AltspaceVR and other companies are developing technology to bring 3D images of objects into the virtual meeting spaces, he says.

In other possibilities: The college friends might stay in touch after their reunion by getting together virtually in AltspaceVR’s cinema room for a movie or to cheer on their favorite athletes as they watch sports on Twitch. Fellow professional workers could watch a webinar together, then break off into small groups, discuss what they learned, and trade contact information.

After completing a beta testing period of its software by users in 50 countries, AltspaceVR aims to expand its user base by making the program free, Romo says. Meanwhile, the startup has been exploring early revenue opportunities. One prospect is to offer ardent fans of a comedian, musician, or other celebrity the chance to attend an interactive performance or gathering with their idol. “We could sell 50 tickets to a comedy show,” he says. Of course, the virtual audience members could still heckle the comedian if they liked.

AltspaceVR is up to about 16 employees now, and in September it completed a seed funding round that netted $5.2 million from investors including Dolby Family Ventures, Google Ventures, Lux Capital, Foundation Capital, Rothenberg Ventures, and SV Angel.

The startup faces the same barriers to adoption as other virtual reality companies—including the cost of user equipment. AltspaceVR’s software works with a headset that sells for about $350 as a developer kit—the Oculus Rift DK2. Work is also under way to adapt the software for use with Samsung virtual reality viewers that draw content from mobile phones, Romo says. Although AltspaceVR has designed its software to work with the lowest-end PCs and Macs possible, users must have an adequate graphical processor, Romo says. A laptop would need to be something like a Macbook Pro with an Nvidia processor, he says.

AltspaceVR is working on improvements to its original, simple avatars, so that users can be more identifiable to their friends or colleagues, Romo says. Beta testers said they wanted to be recognized by people they know, but Romo says even movie studios can’t yet create photorealistic avatars quickly and at low cost. Instead, AltspaceVR might offer something like a choice of avatar accessories, such as eyeglasses or mouse ears, to help an avatar stand out.

If anything, Romo says, the most terrifying challenge he faces is the broad range of possible applications AltspaceVR could pursue—in fields such as entertainment, educational technology, and business collaboration.

“Startups don’t die of lack of opportunity,” Romo says, quoting a Silicon Valley dictum. “They die of too many opportunities.”

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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