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Things are looking grim for The Void, once hailed as the future of virtual reality. The company recently defaulted on a key loan, forcing it to permanently transfer its assets, including patents and trademarks, to its creditor, according to documents reviewed by Protocol. Its financial troubles also led to Disney terminating a longstanding partnership, which means that The Void won't be able to use some of its most popular VR experiences based on Disney IP anymore.
Jim Bennett, the new owner of the company's assets, confirmed the transaction in a statement provided to Protocol, and said he planned either to sell the assets, or resume operations after the pandemic subsides.
"The context for our actions is that malls were shut down due to the pandemic and it was apparent that they would not be opening up for a while," he wrote. "We had to take control of the assets and inform the relevant agencies that we were taking over ownership and management of the registered IP as part of our business plan."
A spokesperson for The Void did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Void operated more than a dozen VR centers across North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, with plans to launch a number of additional locations around the world soon. Ticket-paying customers would put on a modified VR headset connected to a special backpack and freely roam across a stage with doors, levers and other physical props that made for more believable immersive virtual worlds. Some of the experiences shown were based on blockbuster franchises like "Ghostbusters," "Star Wars" and "Jumanji."
All of those locations had to shut down this spring due to the pandemic. However, the company's financial troubles began long before COVID-19 hit the U.S. Court documents show that the startup was unable to pay for millions of dollars of equipment last summer. At the time, the company's then-CFO promised to pay up as soon as expected financing went through, and thanked the supplier "for being patient," according to one legal filing. The supplier never got its money and sued; the lawsuit ultimately got settled this month.
It's unclear how much money exactly The Void raised since its founding in 2015. Funders included Verizon Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures and James Murdoch's Lupa Systems. Murdoch's VC company wrote two checks for The Void in 2019, according to a person familiar with the transaction. The Void announced a $20 million cash injection from Lupa Systems in July 2019.
The startup underwent some leadership changes in recent months, with former Lululemon CEO Laurent Potdevin assuming the role of the CEO. Potdevin was forced out at Lululemon in early 2018 over an inappropriate relationship with a staff member, CNBC reported at the time.
Documents filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show that The Void raised debt funding from Bennett in August 2019. To secure that loan, The Void put up its assets as collateral; VR Boom LLC, a company owned by Bennett, was assigned The Void's patents and trademarks as a security interest earlier this year.
That loan, and The Void's apparent inability to pay it back, also seems to have triggered Disney's breakup with the company. Documents posted at The Void's former storefront in Florida's Disney Springs show that Disney terminated its licensing agreement for The Void's "Star Wars," "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Avengers" VR experiences due to a proposed asset transfer to the lender at the end of June. Without the rights to use Disney's IP, the entertainment giant immediately pulled the plug on The Void's leases at Disney's Florida and Southern California properties. A Disney spokesperson declined to comment.
Multiple industry insiders told Protocol that The Void had been trying to secure more funding throughout the year. It appears that those efforts failed: Documents filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in recent days reveal that the company agreed to transfer "substantially all of [its] property," including key patents and trademarks, to Bennett in October.
The corporate entities used for that asset transfer tell much of the story of The Void's fall from grace: After getting a loan from VR Boom LLC last year, The Void's assets are now being held by a new holding company aptly named VR Exit LLC.
Without Disney's IP, it's unlikely that any reincarnations of The Void would be able to sustain anything close to its original retail footprint and expansion ambitions. The startup had a habit of using prime real estate for its VR centers, with locations including the Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, the World Trade Center in New York and the Mall of America in Minneapolis.
The Void's chief marketing officer, Jamie Apostolou, told Protocol in June that the company was gearing up to reopen some of these locations with increased safety protocols in place, but also admitted keeping prime real estate with limited attendance wouldn't be easy. "It's going to be a challenge for everybody, ourselves included," Apostolou said at the time.
The startup isn't the only company struggling to take VR to malls and movie theaters amid the pandemic. Competitor Sandbox VR, which had been backed by investors including Will Smith, Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry, filed for bankruptcy in August. Still, some industry insiders believe that location-based VR could reemerge after the pandemic subsides. VR headsets like Facebook's Oculus Quest are growing in popularity, prompting consumers to give the medium another look. At the same time, these headsets will never be able to offer the same level of immersion as VR experiences like the ones shown by The Void.
Bennett echoed those sentiments in his statement. "Given the fact that two companies are moving toward release of Covid-19 vaccines with 90 to 95 percent effectiveness rates we are quite confident that malls will be re-opening and that location-based VR will be back in high demand," he wrote. "Beyond malls, we are looking at a bright future for location-based VR at professional sports venues, concerts etc. This technology is also extremely valuable for training police and first responders."
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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.