One minute you’re on stage with Coldplay.
The next you’re gazing at Keyhole Arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, surrounded by sand and the rugged landscape of rock formations.
You soar high above the Golden Gate Bridge, overlooking the Bay from Fort Baker, a historic army post in the Marin Headlands of Sausalito.
Then you’re back to two-dimensional reality in a snap—sitting at a conference table at the downtown Laguna Beach headquarters of hot startup Next VR Inc.
The demonstration of its live streaming technology and content ended, but Next VR is just getting started, thanks to a recent $5 million seed round from private investors.
The funding has given the company a lane in the race to make virtual reality an actual reality for consumers around the globe. It’s also part of what makes NextVR emblematic of Orange County’s emergence as a hub for virtual reality—a segment of the tech world pegged as the final computing platform by no less a personage than Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Virtual reality’s potential for vast applications in social media, gaming, and simulation prompted Zuckerberg’s Menlo Park-based social media giant to throw down an eye-popping $2 billion in July to acquire Irvine-based startup Oculus VR Inc., the maker of a breakthrough VR headset called the Oculus Rift.
Oculus blazed the virtual reality trail here.
Other companies have taken on the challenges of content development, computer processing, and marketing the new technology, putting OC ahead of the pack of tech hubs around the world—even the bellwether Silicon Valley.
“It’s a pretty significant place to be,” said NextVR cofounder DJ Roller, an award-winning producer, director and cinematographer on 3-D and 2-D IMAX films, feature and digital cinema, television shows, documentaries and special effects. “In the Silicon Valley, we would really be far removed from everything.”
NextVR last month signed one of the sector’s first content deals in a partnership with Oculus and Seoul, South Korea-based Samsung Electronics Co., the world’s largest consumer electronics and smartphone maker.
NextVR will supply ultra high-definition, three-dimensional virtual reality technology and content to create 360-degree video in the new Samsung Gear VR headset, which was introduced at the IFA electronics show in Berlin last month.
The headset, which allows users to experience virtual reality through a smartphone app run on the upcoming Galaxy Note 4 phablet, will be available in the next few months, beating other competitors to launch the first VR device to the public.
“It’s the first deal for anyone,” said NextVR cofounder David Cole. “It’s important that we’re partners for the launch.”
Samsung, according to media reports, has already halted preorders of the jumbo screen smartphone in South Korea ahead of its Oct. 17 release in the U.S. amid what’s expected to be wild demand that will generate at least a few hundred million purchases.
Miles of beach-lined shores, sunny days, and warm weather attract talent, and OC’s proximity to Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world, lends an assist.
Perhaps more crucial is OC’s deep pool of engineering talent, which runs from software and hardware specialists around Blizzard Entertainment Inc.’s Irvine Spectrum headquarters down the Santa Ana (I-5) Freeway to San Diego, home of gaming and smartphone chip maker Qualcomm Corp. and supercomputing expertise.
“An amazing talent pool offers a very advantageous position in terms of hiring,” Cole said.
Another ingredient in OC’s emergence as a virtual reality hub is Irvine-based Red Digital Cinema Camera Co., a leader in optical technology behind high-definition cinematography and still photography.
Red Digital, launched in 2006 by Oakley Inc. founder Jim Jannard, has played a key role in changes to filmmaking and photography with its digital still and motion cameras. It also launched Red Studios in Hollywood on its way to an estimated $300 million in annual revenue and more than 500 workers.
Movies and shows shot on Red Digital cameras include “True Blood,” “The Hobbit,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D.”
Roller, of NextVR, worked closely with Red Digital for several years to hone key aspects of the technology when he ran Next3D, a predecessor company, and Liquid Pictures in Atlanta.
He was part of a team that developed the first underwater 3-D, ultra high-definition camera and worked with James Cameron on “Avatar,” as well as the first live 3-D sports broadcast at the 2007 NBA All-Star game in Las Vegas and several groundbreaking nature documentaries.
“The camera technology we built for that, we’ve applied a lot of that know-how and IP to what we’re doing now with these systems,” he said. “And we’re all working together.”
Indeed, NextVR executives were in a meeting at Oculus’ headquarters on MacArthur Boulevard when the Facebook deal was announced.
Oculus last month launched its latest prototype headset in Los Angeles at the company’s inaugural developers conference, which drew more than 1,000 attendees.
Tokyo-based Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. is developing a virtual reality system geared for gaming on the PS4 called Project Morpheus. It could lean on Aliso Viejo-based Gaikai Inc., which it acquired in 2012 for $380 million, to power a cloud-streaming service for the device.
Oculus Chief Executive Brandon Iribe was Gaikai’s chief product officer at the time of the deal.
The fast-growing gaming market fueled the Oculus buy and has other locals developing gaming content for virtual reality.
MEK Entertainment Inc., an independent video game maker in Aliso Viejo, has been working on a multiplayer virtual reality environment created by a community of developers and geared for the Oculus Rift.
The company, which secured $1 million in a seed round late last month, is creating a fantasy world steeped in gaming lore from the 1980s and ’90s from the likes of Minecraft, Terraria and Starbound.
MEK was established by Blizzard veteran Mark Kern with several key developers from Oculus; Blizzard’s Santa Monica-based parent, Activision Blizzard Inc.; Laguna Hills-based Red 5 Studios, which is not related to Red Digital; and ID Software, a gaming company founded in Texas by Oculus Chief Technology Officer John Carmack, a pioneer of 3-D gaming graphics whose hits include “Doom” and “Quake.”
Carmack left ID Software to create the prototype Oculus Rift.
Virtual reality also holds promise for other industries, including its closely related technology known as “augmented reality.” That’s a segment Meridian Graphics in Tustin started researching for clients more than two years ago as print runs of marketing brochures and other materials gradually declined. The company aimed to increase “dwell” time for customers’ print products, basically how long an advertisement, catalog, brochure or other material is viewed.
Consider augmented reality a sister technology to virtual reality, where the viewer isn’t completely immersed in the experience, but the subject in view pops off a page or smartphone display in an interactive environment.
“It makes print more relevant,” said Gary Thormodsgaard, vice president of sales development for augmented reality at Meridian. “It makes it more current, a little more hip.”
Thormodsgaard demonstrates the app-driven technology by placing his smartphone above a marker on a brochure for high-performance tire maker HR Wheels. Moving the phone over different tires creates 3-D images on the phone display, allowing the user to turn them in every direction and check for specs.
Wave the phone over another marker on a page for Wilbur Curtis Co., and a 3-D coffee machine pops up on the screen, allowing the viewer to access a video, dimensions, and other statistics alongside the floating image.
Another app developed for Sage Hill School prompts a video montage of student activities on its Newport Beach campus.
The add-on offering is drawing strong demand from customers in a variety of sectors, including the likes of Edwards Lifesciences Corp. and Mazda North American Operations, both based in Irvine, Directv, and the U.S. Post Office.
Thormodsgaard said the augmented reality service, which includes app development, updating and maintenance, could account for 20% of the company’s $20 million in annual revenue in the next few years.
“We see the future,” he said. “People are pretty much blown away from the experience.”