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How one virtual reality company took Peloton’s fitness ideas to the extreme

Within CEO Chris Milk on the state of immersive media and how his new fitness service was transformed by COVID-19 quarantines.

Chris Milk

Within CEO Chris Milk, seen here at the 2017 SXSW conference in Austin, says the Oculus Quest was "a watershed moment in VR."

Photo: Amy E. Price/Getty Images for SXSW

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.

Supernatural 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.

Protocol | Fintech

Plaid’s COO is riding fintech’s choppy waves

He's a striking presence on the beach. If he navigates Plaid's data challenges, Eric Sager will loom large in the financial world as well.

Plaid COO Eric Sager is an avid surfer.

Photo: Plaid

Eric Sager is an avid surfer. It's a fitting passion for the No. 2 executive at Plaid, a startup that's riding fintech's rough waters — including a rogue wave on the horizon that could cause a wipeout.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
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A new study shows that before and after the election, far-right misinformation pages drew more engagement than all other partisan news.

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Photo: Brett Jordan/Unsplash

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The study looked at Facebook engagement for news sources across the political spectrum between Aug. 10, 2020 and Jan. 11, 2021, and found that on average, far-right pages that regularly trade in misinformation raked in 65% more engagement per follower than other far-right pages that aren't known for spreading misinformation.

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Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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From privacy policy screw-ups to UI questions, can WhatsApp crack the super-app riddle?

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At some point, WhatsApp was always going to have to make some money. Facebook paid $21.8 billion for the company in 2014, and since then, WhatsApp has grown to more than 2 billion users in more than 180 countries. And while, yes, Facebook's acquisition was in part simply a way to neutralize a competitor, it also knows how to monetize an audience.

The trick, though, would be figuring out how to do that without putting ads into the app. Nobody at WhatsApp ever wanted to do that, including co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton, who reportedly left Facebook after disagreements over ads. More recently, even Mark Zuckerberg has slowed the WhatsApp ad train, with The Information reporting that ads in WhatsApp likely won't come while the company's under so much regulatory scrutiny. So: $21.8 billion, no ads. What to do?

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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