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Virtual reality's promise to teleport consumers to out-of-reach worlds is still considered a novelty. But in the COVID-19 era, the premise has become a lot more enticing, especially when VR experiences can meet real-world needs.
Los Angeles-based immersive media startup Within recently launched Supernatural, a VR fitness service that seems made for this very moment. The service, introduced last month on Facebook's Oculus Quest headset, takes users to nature landscapes in Iceland, China and Ethiopia, where they can join playful exercise classes under the guidance of fitness experts while competing against friends around the globe. Think Beat Saber meets Peloton.
How the pandemic shapes the VR industry is top of mind for Within CEO Chris Milk, who founded the company with President Aaron Koblin in 2014 and initially focused on creating and distributing VR documentaries and shorts. More recently, they embraced augmented reality with Wonderscope, an app that combines edutainment with mobile AR technology.
In a recent interview, Milk spoke with Protocol about the launch of Supernatural, the potential of immersive media and the current state of the VR industry. He explained why Supernatural became the first subscription service on the Oculus Quest headset, why it's challenging to find an audience for augmented reality, and why his mom finally got a headset this month.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What has it been like launching Supernatural during COVID-19?
We've been working on this for almost two years now, and we were scheduled to release in April for a very, very long time. We had a whole premiere set up at TED in Vancouver with an activation and live demos, and we were going to be running simultaneous live demos around the country. Of course, all of that got canceled.
But having so many people incorporate it into their lives and find meaning in it has been the most magical and meaningful experience for us. We've been in a dark cave, working away on this thing. We just didn't know if anyone was even gonna want to do it at all. And we've certainly had our fair share of both positive and negative reactions.
The ones that really mean something are the ones where someone is writing and saying: This is a lifesaver for me. I haven't been able to go to the gym or haven't been able to do the things I normally want to do, and this opens up a whole new world of opportunity to get the exercise that I want again.
Following early enthusiasm, there has more recently been a lot of skepticism about the potential of VR. What gave you the confidence that the market was ready for a service like this?
We see the Quest as a watershed moment in VR. The all-in-one design, the price point and the simplicity drove us to build a product like this now. I'm not sure we ever would have set out on this journey if it hadn't been for that headset.
I've been working in VR for a really long time, and my mom has asked me many times which headset she should buy. And I've always said: Just wait. Because I know I'm going to become tech support for whatever that headset is. My mom gets her Quest this week. It's the first headset that I've felt comfortable recommending to her.
As Within built Supernatural, CEO Chris Milk and President Aaron Koblin took a cue from Peloton, realizing they needed to offer new daily content and subscriptions.Photo: Courtesy of Within
At the same time, even the Quest is still very much geared toward gamers. How did that play into considerations for launching Supernatural?
The VR consumer industry has coalesced around gaming. That means if you're not into gaming, you're not going to look at VR as something that's for you. We think that's a shame. The more people that are using VR as a technology, the more of an ecosystem there is, and the more opportunity there is for developers, the more that they can take the risk of investing into making products in this space.
Our larger hope is that we can bring in a whole new type of audience into virtual reality that might not have been interested in it for the use case it has been promoted for thus far.
Supernatural is the first subscription service for the Oculus Quest, and one of the first for the VR industry. Why did you choose that model?
A lot of this insight came out of us interacting with other connected fitness devices. My co-founder, Aaron Koblin, and I both had Pelotons, we both tried a number of different apps, and a number of different workout class routines. One thing that definitely worked was waking up and knowing there's a new Peloton class waiting for you. From those learnings, we built Supernatural to have fresh workouts with new music, new coaches, new 3D volumetric environments, new choreography.
We've made this commitment of a new class, a new workout, every day. That is an entire organization of a production studio that every day is shooting new instructors, creating new environments and new destinations, choreographing maps to new songs. And that's a continued expense the same way that Netflix producing new shows is a continued expense, that Peloton producing new classes for their bike is a continued expense. The only way to do that is as a subscription service.
And if you want the best version of a service like this, you need the best music. You're going to be working with the top music industry players, record labels, publishers. If you want to have every artist available to you on these labels, then you're making a catalog deal rather than a single sync license.
Within has been working on projects for VR headsets and mobile AR apps. Those are two very different media. There are far fewer VR headsets out there than AR-capable phones. At the same time, people buy VR headsets to be in VR, and people may not even know they own an AR-capable phone. Given those issues, how do you prioritize as a startup?
The honest answer is: We're still figuring it out. Within is a company that makes products using immersive technologies, and like all companies making products, ultimately, you're trying to build something that has some resonance in enough people's lives that there's a business there.
I think in Supernatural we have something that really solves a problem that a lot of people have, myself included. When it comes to using augmented reality for reading exercises for young children, Wonderscope is an incredible product for that. But there's a much smaller group of people that feels like they are missing an augmented reality solution for storytelling and reading in their life.
For the people that have discovered Wonderscope, they love it and their children love it. But it's harder for people to find. They're not actively seeking out an augmented reality storytelling solution because they don't understand what augmented reality is. Most people don't even understand augmented reality as a concept. Our small little bubble does, absolutely. In five years, I think it's going to be a totally different story.
How do you see VR evolving over the next couple of years?
The hype cycle around virtual reality has had its ebbs and flows. People came to the table with the expectation that the Oculus Rift was going to be the iPhone moment. But if you look at the technology that you're dealing with and the complexity around it, that was unrealistic.
What's great is, for those of us in the industry that have continued through the ups and the downs, we've really been able to dig deeply into the technology and try a lot of different things. See what resonates with people, what would hold some meaningful function in someone's life. While we've been doing that, the technology has finally caught up to the promise and the expectation that it held originally, five or so years ago.
I don't think the wider audience realizes the inflection point that's just starting to formulate right now. But the next year or two are going to be really, really interesting, as virtual reality does come into its own, and people can actually see how it has a meaningful role to play in their lives. That's really exciting.
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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.