AltspaceVR Finds New Home in Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Ecosystem

Xconomy San Francisco — 

AltspaceVR, one of the forerunners of shared social experiences in virtual reality spaces, has been saved from extinction by Microsoft, which announced Tuesday that it is acquiring the four-year-old company.

The Redwood City, CA-based startup had sounded its own death knell on July 28, announcing that it planned to shut down Aug. 3 due to the slow growth of the VR market and a fundraising attempt that fell through.

But its founders later announced that it was keeping the service alive—though on a shoestring—for the community of 35,000 people who had used it to share family reunions, TV shows, and live events featuring entertainers such as comedian and late-night show bandleader Reggie Watts. Behind the scenes, the stripped-down AltspaceVR team was striving for a long-term route to survival, and found a possible savior in Microsoft.

“Many members of the AltspaceVR team worked hard in the following days and weeks after our closure to make sure the technology lived on,” AltspaceVR said in a written statement sent to Xconomy by the company’s senior program manager Katie Kelly. “We connected with Alex Kipman at Microsoft and found a natural overlap between his goals for mixed reality and our hopes for the future of AltspaceVR.”

Kipman, a Microsoft technical fellow, announced the acquisition in a blog post Tuesday as he laid out the Redmond, WA-based tech giant’s larger vision for its mixed reality technologies, including a new Windows Mixed Reality headset from Samsung called the Samsung HMD Odyssey. Microsoft is helping to usher in the next revolution in computing by embracing “the entire continuum from augmented reality to virtual reality and everywhere in between,” Kipman wrote.

“Our sense of what is possible is set to be transformed as we enter a new era of computing, the era of mixed reality,” Kipman wrote in the blogpost. “We have started to see this transformation take place in the modern workplace and soon we’ll see it in every facet of life. With mixed reality, our ideas move beyond the boundaries of paper, beyond the boundaries of screens, and beyond the boundaries of description. This is the fundamental promise of mixed reality. The barrier that exists between our physical and digital worlds will disappear.”

Microsoft is bringing VR games such as Space Pirate Trainer and Minecraft to users through its Windows Mixed Reality headsets and the Microsoft Store.

Kipman welcomed “the AltspaceVR team onboard,” without naming its new employees. “AltspaceVR is one of the pioneers in immersive communications bringing people together in virtual reality from over 160 countries to attend meetups, comedy shows, yoga classes, dance parties, and large-scale events hosted by NBC, Reggie Watts, Justin Roiland, Drew Carey and more,” Kipman wrote.

Kipman didn’t disclose the terms of the deal under which AltspaceVR is coming into the Microsoft fold. Since its founding, AltspaceVR has raised $15.7 million from investors including Comcast Ventures, Tencent, Lux Capital, Dolby Family Ventures, and Google’s venture capital arm.

In an e-mail message to Xconomy, Kelly said AltspaceVR isn’t disclosing yet how many of the startup’s team members will be joining Microsoft in Redmond, nor what role co-founder and CEO Eric Romo might play. But in a blogpost message to the startup’s user community, Kelly said, “AltspaceVR will stay AltspaceVR.” She added,”Microsoft is most interested in preserving the current community that uses AltspaceVR to connect and interact with new and old friends.”

“The team will be spending a lot of the next few weeks talking to the AltspaceVR community and finding out how they can build an even better place to hang out in virtual reality,” the startup said in an FAQs section of its written statement. “Their new partnership with Microsoft will be an adrenaline shot for AltspaceVR, and they hope to bring new events, features, and activities for their community to enjoy soon.”

Romo described his feelings about the startup’s resurrection in a statement sent by Kelly:

“When we announced our closing, a common sentiment was that we were pioneers, if not ahead of our time. People were sad that they wouldn’t be able to see what we could have built together with our community. I’m grateful that we get a chance to follow through on the story we started five years ago and see how much farther we can take this technology.”

As it explored the possibilities of social VR, AltspaceVR figured out how to assemble groups of friends as avatars speaking with their real voices in a virtual living room; how to create an entertainer’s avatar that would move with his or her own live gestures; and how to clone the performer’s avatar so he or she could perform simultaneously in multiple private rooms where friends could gather with their own selected companions, all sitting in front row seats. The company also created VR re-runs of popular shows it had organized.

AltspaceVR can still be experienced on a variety of computers and headsets, including PCs and Macs in 2D mode; HTC Vive; Oculus Rift; Daydream by Google; and Samsung Gear VR. So far, there are no plans to adapt AltspaceVR for Microsoft’s HoloLens viewers, according to AltspaceVR’s statement.

Image courtesy of AltspaceVR