On the heels of its $3 million seed funding led by Comcast Ventures alongside Boost VC, Canyon Creek Capital, Colopl VR Fund, and GREE—virtual reality (VR) startup company, Spaces, has entered into a $30 million joint venture with China’s Songcheng Performance Development, one of the world’s biggest theme park operators.
Utilizing creative tools and technology, Spaces is developing specifically for theme parks. The joint venture will bring new virtual reality and mixed reality (MxR) attractions to Songcheng’s theme parks, which drew nearly 23 million guests in 2015, according to Themed Entertainment Association data.
In Songcheng’s theme parks, VR and MxR elements will be added to existing attractions, including elaborate stage shows that, on their own, attract more than 7 million people annually. Songcheng-Spaces also plans to build unique, standalone virtual reality attractions and parks throughout China.
Spaces will also work with Songcheng to bring its popular livestreaming video site 6Rooms (6.cn), which has more than 33 million unique users a month, to VR and MxR platforms. Spaces will create VR experiences that further enhance China’s largest online platform for performing arts. With 6Rooms, users create and watch more than 50,000 live broadcast hours each day.
Shiraz Akmal, CEO of Spaces, is a former game developer and studio head, as well as the co-founder of DreamWorks Animation’s virtual reality DreamLab. Akmal explains the opportunities Spaces opens up for Chinese theme parks, as well as brands and game publishers in the US.
What was the initial goal of Spaces?
Our goal is to be a company that enables brands and companies to have spaces in virtual reality and mixed reality, with a heavy focus on entertainment companies. We began from the idea of developing tools and technology that can enable companies we partner with to enter the world of virtual reality—and to keep up with it as it grows and changes.
How does this deal with Songcheng expand what Spaces can now accomplish with virtual reality and mixed reality?
We are not only building technology, content and VR experiences, but we’re also creating distribution channels for VR and MxR. Working with Songcheng allows us to play a role in every step of VR and MxR, from start to finish.
From an industry perspective, these technologies will take time to mature in the home market. Theme parks and location-based entertainment venues are a natural place to give millions of people their first and best VR experience very quickly.
How has your experience with DreamWorks in AR and VR prepared you for the Chinese theme park world?
While Spaces is only a few months old, our VR and MxR efforts really started more than three years ago, when my co-founder Brad Herman and I set up the DreamLab at DreamWorks Animation. We started working on VR for location-based entertainment attractions large and small with the idea we could deploy them in any theme park location or LBE venue that was already underway or being planned. Location-based VR is part of the DNA that makes up our company, it’s really part of our “origin story.”
How do you see the initial concept of Spaces connecting with this theme park audience through 6rooms?
6rooms is an incredibly advanced business—we were blown away by the leadership team and the level of cross-functional interaction between Songcheng’s offline businesses, like theme parks, and its online initiatives. Both within and outside of the parks, they already have a great interaction set up, and our real challenge and opportunity is to bring that onto virtual and mixed reality platforms.
What does VR open up for livestreaming?
We’ve had significant experience working with MxR, VR and video capture. What struck us about VR more than three years ago was how close you can feel to animated or live characters. We believe VR will bring people closer to each other, which is also part of what livestreaming does, so VR opens up a really amazing opportunity to feel like you are there in the room with someone, in real-time, even though they are halfway across the world.
VR and livestreaming are enormously complementary. Our technology will give the 6rooms performers and viewers a more personal and rich experience through VR. There is a tremendous power in one-on-one interactions in VR. We have seen this with scripted digital characters, live avatars, and real-time presence capture.
Will smartphones be used to enhance the theme park mixed reality experiences?
Clearly, we are positioned to directly promote VR across any platform to millions of park goers. Smartphone AR is a stepping-stone to true MxR. The power of headsets like HoloLens, ODG and others will be truly felt when they replace our phones as our primary connected device. That’s what excites us for the future. Our partnership with Songcheng gives us the ability show people what this accelerated future can look like.
We’ve seen early experimentation with Samsung Gear VR across select US theme parks with roller coasters. What impact do you see VR having on Chinese parks?
Chinese parks are similar to US parks in many ways with traditional rides and attractions, but they are also quite different. Chinese park goers love having immersive experiences, they enjoy the experience of just being in a theme park—of being somewhere that is very different than reality. Culturally, Chinese audiences are even more open to the addition of VR and mixed reality than anywhere else in the world. Plus, the importance of live stage shows to Chinese theme parks, especially to Songcheng’s parks, gives us some amazing existing attractions to enhance and re-imagine by using VR and MxR.
How soon will existing shows and attractions begin adding AR and VR content?
We haven’t announced specific dates, but it’s going to happen within the foreseeable future, for sure. We are really eager to get these experiences in front of people. Songcheng and Spaces are both used to working at a quick pace.
Will VR-exclusive theme parks impact smaller VR spaces in China, and will they have the ability to constantly change the experience?
This is an area ripe for rapid innovation—fortunately our history at Spaces, and prior, is about rapid innovation, testing and deployment to learn what works. Having a frequently changing attraction may lead to greater attendance and greater marketability, so that is going to be an enormously exciting new development in this area.
One of the great things about working in China is the large amount of space you can use for things. Small things, you can do at home. We are aiming for big experiences.
What backend game engine technology will you be building out these VR and AR experiences with?
We use the best tools for the job. That includes game engines, cloud rendering, light fields, and much more. Virtual and mixed reality are new media and there is no one-size-fits-all approach quite yet. That is something that’s really intriguing and exciting about the future of VR.
What role will E3 play for Spaces next week?
We’ll be spending our time meeting with developers, content creators, brands and hardware technology partners. For us, E3 is about meeting others who are as excited about the future of VR as we are, and who see all the opportunities that lie ahead to use VR in ways that develop personal connections with brands, and that really explore all the possibilities inherent in VR.