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Interview: Spaces is the most exciting VR startup you’ve never heard of

Spaces VR DreamWorks

Virtual reality startups like Spaces, a new Los Angeles-based VR shop, are in a race for eyeballs.

For some companies in the space, it’s about the wow factor of shiny hardware that gives users awe-inspiring VR experiences. For an enterprise like Spaces, which was launched by veterans of DreamWorks Animation with $3 million in funding, a key piece of the game plan is teaming up with bigger companies like media brands to get the startup’s VR content in front of as many people as possible.

That’s one reason, for example, Spaces secured a $30 million joint venture announced earlier this month between it and China-based Songcheng Performance Development Co. Ltd., one of the biggest theme park operators in the world. Spaces will be using tools and technology it’s developing specifically for theme parks to help bring VR and mixed reality into Songcheng’s properties, which drew almost 23 million people last year, according to Spaces.

Not bad for a company that’s only a few months old and was born out of its founders’ itch to capitalize on the exploding market for VR content and experiences.

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The founding team includes CEO Shiraz Akmal, who prior to January had spent more than two years developing technology, experiences and games for VR at DreamWorks Animation. He’s also worked for almost a decade at THQ as vice-president of operations-product development and helped establish THQ China.

Brad Herman, meanwhile, is Spaces’ CTO who also came from the trenches at DreamWorks. He served as head of DreamWorks Animation’s DreamLab, among other things, and served as crowds supervisor on DreamWorks Animation productions like “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

The name they chose for their new venture refers to the base unit of virtual reality.

“We’re a technology company that has creativity at its core,” Herman told BGR a few days before the Spaces team met with development partners at E3. “We make creative software, predominantly in the enterprise space. We’re about creating spaces and enabling people to create spaces.”

One example is the agreement with Songcheng, which Spaces is co-managing from its L.A. headquarters. In Songcheng’s theme parks, VR and mixed reality elements will be added to existing attractions, including elaborate stage shows. The Songcheng-Spaces venture also plans to build unique, standalone virtual reality attractions and parks throughout China.

Spaces appears set to tap into something spelled out in the 2016 Virtual Reality Consumer Report released a few days ago that presents the latest consumer research on this topic from Greenlight VR. The bottom line, according to the report — when more than 1,200 survey respondents were asked about their personal interest in different VR use cases, gaming came in at number six.

The top use cases were actually things like travel, tourism and adventures; movies and recorded video and live events.

“I think this is where our customers and partners like Songcheng — all these companies believe in this kind of future,” Akmal said. “It’s not because they think it’s cool. Of course they think it’s cool. But they also see all these other trends, like the fact that there’s all this major investment money pouring in and all the major companies — from Microsoft to Google to Facebook and Apple — all investing in this perceptual computing wave that’s coming our way.

“So I think for us, we see that and say that for all of that to be successful, people are going to want something cool to do. They’re going to want something interesting to use their hardware for. And that’s where content and technology tools will help enable our mission of helping our partners bring their content libraries and brands onto these devices.”

Another important point to note: forget the video game console war between Sega-Nintendo or Xbox-PS4. Same with iOS vs. Android. The Spaces team decided that there’s enough of a multiplicity of VR devices — and not, Akmal argues, likely to be one dominant platform or winner — that made now the right time to dip their toe in the water and formally launch their own company.

“If you’re a media and entertainment company, these discussions started happening 12 months ago,” Herman said. “Like, every large media and entertainment company 12 months ago started having these discussions, like ‘We have to have a 360-video/VR strategy because our competitors are doing it.’ Kind of like the early mobile era. They didn’t necessarily realize why they were doing it, they just realized the market was going in a certain way and they have to do it. It’s going to take a little longer for it to reach something like your neighborhood pizza place, but I don’t think it’s going to take as long as people think.”

Andy Meek profile photo

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming. Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.