Visbit Raises $3.2M Seed Round To Smooth Choppy VR Streaming

We’re closing out a critical year for the fledgling virtual reality industry, which rolled out a batch of the first consumer VR headsets in 2016 in a wave of media attention. But first impressions can dampen the excitement when technical hitches frustrate eager new users as they try to enter virtual worlds.

Visbit, one of the startups trying to break bottlenecks in VR streaming, has just raised a seed financing round of $3.2 million from a syndicate of venture capital firms from the United States, Japan, and China. The Sunnyvale, CA-based startup will use the money to further develop its nascent software service, which helps VR content developers overcome technical obstacles that can make a VR video look choppy and pixellated.

Visbit CEO Changyin Zhou, who co-founded the company in 2015 with Elaine Lu (pictured), says 360-degree videos and other VR content challenge the live streaming capacity of mobile networks and Internet connections by delivering slugs of data much larger than ordinary videos contain. VR fans can download the videos instead, but that can overwhelm the storage space of a mobile device, and the downloading process can take as long as half an hour for a 10-minute video.

In a closed beta with several companies involved in VR, Visbit has been testing a trial version of its solution to these problems. The startup acts as a technical intermediary between VR filmmakers and their audiences. VR producers upload their content to Visbit’s publishing portal, and it is then prepared for streaming and stored in a Visbit cloud server.

When a headset-wearing fan calls up a video, Visbit sends enough data to present a high-resolution image of the slice of virtual space in the user’s direct field of view at that moment. But Visbit is sparing with the data it sends to construct the side areas outside the viewer’s current focus. The idea is that users won’t notice that these spaces appear in a low-resolution form. That allows Visbit to cut down on the firehose of data it would otherwise send to a user’s device.

Visbit’s name for the technology is “view-optimized streaming,” and other companies such as Facebook (which bought high-end headset maker Oculus) and Seattle-based startup Pixvana are using similar strategies to improve VR video viewing.

A key challenge in using this tactic is to keep pace with the headset user’s movements, and to raise the viewing resolution of a peripheral space as soon as the user shifts focus to that area. Any lag time (computer pro’s call this “latency”) can make the viewer dizzy or nauseated. Reducing latency to a bare minimum is one of Visbit’s goals, now that it has extra capital to hire more staff, Zhou says. The startup now has nine full-time employees.

Visbit’s backers in the seed round were San Francisco-based Presence Capital; Beijing-based ZhenFund; Colopl VR Fund, a venture investment firm in Tokyo; Palo Alto-based Amino Capital;and Hong King-based Eversunny Limited.

Visbit has not been charging companies that have been testing its trial software. Customers in the pilot phase include VR content producers Variable Labs, Cloudwave, and Fluidcast; digital marketing agency Primacy; Swiss IT company WION; and Realiteer, which aims to use virtual reality experiences to enhance psychotherapy.

Eventually, Visbit plans to follow a software-as-a-service model to sell its technology to VR producers and app makers, Zhou says. The startup’s product includes a VR video player that is installed in customers’ apps to make its view-optimized streaming function work on content from each app.

Pixvana, which is developing a similar service and player, raised $6 million around this time last year from Madrona Venture Group, Vulcan Capital, and other investors.

Visbit has been focusing on VR streaming for mobile devices using Wi-Fi or cellular connections, and its technology is now in use with Samsung Gear VR headsets and Google Cardboard. But Zhou expects to extend the company’s reach to high-end headsets “tethered” to desktop computers. Preserving image quality should be easier with computers that have greater processing capacity, he says.

Although VR content providers can use Visbit’s publishing portal to distribute their videos through a number of different platforms, Zhou says he doesn’t see Visbit becoming a sort of public distribution channel, like a YouTube for VR. Instead, he says, it will be more like a behind-the-scenes support organization that enhances VR’s appeal to consumers, and thus helps content producers across the board.

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

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