Virtual reality is quickly gaining popularity as the next frontier among technology companies, and one local start-up says it's ahead of the game with a new app that merges social media and a 3-D, immersive digital environment. Minneapolis-based Visual is developing a first-of-its-kind social media app for virtual reality where users can scroll through a 3-D floating menu of Instagram photos by simply looking left or right. The group debuted the innovation at the Launch conference, a tech start-up festival in San Francisco, earlier this month. The Star Tribune interviewed Chuck Olsen, Visual's co-founder and chief executive, who explained more about virtual reality, Visual's product and its plans for growth over the next few years. Here's an edited version of his comments:
Q: What is Visual?
A: Visual is the first social media experience that's native to virtual reality. We give you access to your social media feeds in one unified 3-D interface. And we're also looking at ways to gamify social media with kind of creative messaging and creative social triggers that actually make social media a fun, kind of immersive experience that's only possible in virtual reality.
Q: Why did you decide to go the virtual reality route?
A: When we first tried on a VR headset, it blew our minds, and we knew that this was going to be the future of computing and at least one of the ways that we were going to interact in the near future.
And, in fact, the near future is really today, because we can go buy a Samsung Gear VR at Best Buy now.
All the content is basically video game demos and 360 video demos. There's really nothing that was social.
It's such an isolating technology, in a way. When you put on that headset, you're cutting yourself off from reality. And we're really about making creative and social experiences. With virtual reality, you can kind of make the ultimate creative social experience, and there was just nothing like that out there.
Our prototype today [is] only working with Instagram, but the idea is you'll be able to actually just with moving your head be able to peruse and kind of surf photos. That's something that doesn't make any sense outside of virtual reality.
Q: What's your long-term vision for the company?
A: Almost everything we do today on the Internet is two-dimensional. Being able to create 3-D content is kind of the next stage of the Internet.
We have the rare opportunity right now, creating this social app before anybody else does, to be one of the dominant players. So I guess the short answer is that we would like to be a dominant player in virtual reality.
Q: How do you expect to make money?
A: There are a couple different ways. One of them is through the sale of virtual goods and virtual environments. We're planning to allow people to customize their visual environment, and that could be an individual doing that, or it could also be a company or a brand creating a completely immersive, branded experience.
Another way is we're starting to talk to folks about 3-D [advertising] units, and what that might look like. It could be — rather than just sitting and watching a video or watching an ad — it could actually be a little 3-D experience.
Lastly, we're looking at licensing. Nvidia and Valve and Apple and Google and everybody is making a VR headset, and there's not all that much content. So Visual could be like the native environment to one of these headsets.
Q: What are the next steps for you?
A: Evolving the product. We have Instagram hooked up to it, but we want to hook up more social data streams and really just flesh out the experience to fully represent or to get closer to our vision.
Q: What other tech work have you done in the past?
A: Visual actually sprang out of an in-person interactive game experience we created last year called Futurekave. And that was really a big eye-opener for us, because we realized that we could combine people's real-world movement with a video game environment that they can affect, and we can also mix in like social media and have hashtags trigger 3-D events.
Q: How did it go at the Launch conference?
A: It was really intense. It was grueling. We were just basically hustling and demo-ing constantly. We were one of only three VR projects out of the 250 companies in the demo pit, so a lot of people were just curious about VR.
So we actually had a pretty popular booth. We quite frequently had people just piled up and like wanting to get a headset on and see what it was all about. We took pictures of people while they were in VR, and then actually sent that photo to them in VR, so they could see themselves, so that was kind of our 'wow' moment.
It went really well, and we got some interest from a handful of [venture capitalists] and people that were interested in having those sort of conversations with us.
Q: What's the Launch conference all about?
A: The premise is they launch new companies that you've never heard of before. It's both education for entrepreneurs and it's to get investors and just the tech community excited about new companies that you're hearing about for the first time.
Tyler Gieseke is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for Star Tribune.