People

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 | China

Beijing meets an unstoppable force: Chinese parents and their children

Live-in tutors disguised as nannies, weekday online tutoring classes and adult gaming accounts for rent. Here's how citizens are finding ways to skirt Beijing's diktats.

Citizens in China are experienced at cooking up countermeasures when Beijing or governments come down with rigid policies.

Photo: Liu Ying/Xinhua via Getty Images

During the summer break, Beijing handed down a parade of new regulations designed to intervene in youth education and entertainment, including a strike against private tutoring, a campaign to "cleanse" the internet and a strict limit on online game playing time for children. But so far, these seemingly iron-clad rules have met their match, with students and their parents quickly finding workarounds.

Grassroots citizens in China are experienced at cooking up countermeasures when Beijing or governments come down with rigid policies. Authorities then have to play defense, amending holes in their initial rules.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu is a reporter with Protocol | China. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, The New York Times and POLITICO, among other publications. She can be reached at shenlu@protocol.com.


Keep Reading Show less
Nasdaq
A technology company reimagining global capital markets and economies.
Protocol | Policy

Google and Microsoft are at it again, now over government software

The on-again, off-again battle between the two companies flared up again when Google commissioned a study on how much the U.S. government relies on Microsoft software.

Google and Microsoft are in a long-running feud that has once again flared up in recent months.

Photo: Jens Tandler/EyeEm/Getty Images

According to a new report commissioned by Google, Microsoft has an overwhelming "share in the U.S. government office productivity software market," potentially leading to security risks for local, state and federal governments.

The five-page document, released Tuesday by a trade group that counts Google as a member, represents the latest escalation between the two companies in a long-running feud that has once again flared up in recent months.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

People

Facebook wants to kill the family iPad

Facebook has built the first portable smart display, and is introducing a new household mode that makes it easier to separate work from play.

Facebook's new Portal Go device will go on sale for $199 in October.

Photo: Facebook

Facebook is coming for the coffee table tablet: The company on Tuesday introduced a new portable version of its smart display called Portal Go, which promises to be a better communal device for video calls, media consumption and many of the other things families use iPads for.

Facebook also announced a revamped version of its Portal Pro device Tuesday, and introduced a new household mode to Portals that will make it easier to share these devices with everyone in a home without having to compromise on working-from-home habits. Taken together, these announcements show that there may be an opening for consumer electronics companies to meet this late-pandemic moment with new device categories.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

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.

Protocol | Policy

The techlash is threatening human rights around the world

Some 48 countries introduced laws to regulate tech last year. But researchers say many of those laws are just attempts at censorship and surveillance.

In its latest report, Freedom House President Michael Abramowitz said, "We really see free expression and privacy as under unprecedented strain."

Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Governments around the world are seizing on widespread frustrations with Big Tech as justification for a spate of increasingly restrictive laws governing online speech, a new report finds, a trend that researchers say puts both free expression and the fate of tech companies' overseas employees at risk.

Over the last year alone, some 48 countries worldwide introduced — and in some cases, passed — laws to regulate tech companies, according to the latest report by Freedom House, a nonprofit that publishes an annual survey on internet freedoms in 70 countries. While those laws have often been passed in the name of promoting competition, protecting people's data and moderating offensive content, the report's authors say that, in many cases, these laws are merely thinly veiled attempts to force companies into censorship and surveillance.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Latest Stories