Founders’ Forum: The Future of VR in LA

November 21, 2016

In Part 2 of our Founder’s Forum interview (read Part 1, on nurturing a young company in a young industry, here), Survios CEO and cofounder Nathan Burba sheds some light on the unique advantages that LA presents as a homebase for a VR startup. He also offers up his personal predictions on the impact virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will have on our lives in the near future.


You had mentioned that when you were researching other companies’ cultures, looking for a foundation for your own, that it was unique how we merge work and play here in LA. Can you elaborate on that?

NB: LA is very progressive. It’s literally the newest evolution of modern Western civilization. So basically you’re at the forefront of modern thinking here, and the reason for that is because it’s the last area colonized en masse.

So because of that you get the newest thinking people with the newest ideas. For example, I’ll go back to the dog: I can bring Finn into virtually any store here and even if it’s against the rules, most people don’t care. They are evolved enough to where there’s enough harmony in basic society that no one gets up in arms about it. Whereas if you go to the East Coast, everyone wants to stand up and uphold the rules of the place you’re in. Not everybody is like this, but in a general sense people are sticklers for the rules, even if they themselves don’t agree with it. They’ll stick to the rules because they feel that they’re not allowed to bring their dog in, so you shouldn’t be able to either. You know, that sort of thing. So I do think this is definitely helped by the California culture a lot and by LA culture in particular.

LA is basically like this biome that has perfect weather on the edge of Western civilization. You can’t get a better place for doing this sort of thing in the world. The other place that’s like this on the West Coast is the Peninsula, the Bay Area–Silicon Valley. That’s part of the reason why that’s had some success as well. To me, those are the two most important locations on the planet, but LA has a much more eclectic and interesting mix of people. Also, the way it’s designed is a lot more interesting. Silicon Valley, the way it’s constructed, is a bit boring.

So yeah, I think LA is the coolest place in the world. What I like to say about LA is when I was, like, eight, I got a box at my house that when I turned it on, it had images of LA on it. I didn’t know any better than to just follow the signal and to go to the place that it was telling me to. That’s where the media was coming from.


What do you think of LA as far as like how it enables you to do what you’re doing in creating these virtual worlds?

NB: LA is definitely where a certain type of very adaptable, technical and creative person lives. There’s a lot of really good tech people up in San Francisco, but a lot of the time there’s not this deeply moving strong set of cultural values that you find up there–the cultural ideas that inform the film industry in particular. It’s almost like a gene pool. LA has a more dynamic mix of the different fundamental elements like technology, creativity, writing, cinematography…all those different kinds of artistic things. Plus, if you laid it all out, we also have all the technological things like programming, backend development, aerospace…

LA has a more eclectic mix of those things than anywhere else. It has all of them. And this is part of the reason why the mixed reality lab [at USC] was created here. Why Palmer was able to get involved in that. Virtual reality is the newest thing coming out of that primordial soup.

Nobody knows exactly what the original formula for life was, but it probably had lots of different ingredients and the right mix to create something that’s fundamentally new. I think LA is the closest thing to something like that.


Shifting gears a bit. Now that Survios has established itself in LA, what do you think it’s is going to be in five years?

NB: I don’t know–usually in five years is when you really know your five-year plan, ten-year plan. I can’t talk about some of the specifics with the business plan, but I see Survios primarily as a cultural force. It’ll be much larger and producing a lot of really incredible products that people are using much more often as the interests in virtual reality and augmented reality have grown a lot at that point. I see millions of people using Survios products and services, and I see it still having a unique edge to it. We like to think of ourselves as creating new compelling software that’s not boring.

Software is not really the right word for it. Media is not the right word for it either. I don’t know what the right word for it is in virtual reality. Even “virtual reality” sounds kind of boring at this point. Like, it’s more dynamic/interactive. It looks like a film but it’s as interactive as a game, and you’re inside it. That’s what we’re delivering at the end of the day. So I think in five years we are a leader in building this completely new media reality creation.


How about the VR industry as a whole? Being so close to the technology, what do you think is around the corner that the rest of society doesn’t know about yet? How will virtual reality affect our day to day lives?

NB: I think augmented reality definitely has the possibility of being a very large industry. Virtual reality is going to mostly affect people who want to play games and want to go into different worlds on a consistent basis. You know, you want to be part of an MMO or something. That’s really where VR is going to live for the foreseeable future. I think AR is going to live more in our day to day lives. But I also think people only have a certain amount of mental headspace on a daily basis to have their mind blown, to be wowed. Even if virtual reality is the most mindblowing thing in the world and everything works really well in it –like you can flip it on in an instant–you’re still probably only going to want to do it for a certain portion of the day. Because you’re going to be exhausted after a certain point because it’s just so fundamentally immersive and cool and interesting. Movies are this way, too. If you’re sitting in a dark room watching films all day long, you’ll go nuts. In short, it’s too much.

I see VR as the new incredibly powerful medium that people will start using very consistently like they do other media, such as movies and video games. There will be a culture built up around that that’s very much unique to itself. How large that culture gets is relative to the other ones, it’s hard to say. Like, movies have theaters and popcorn and you take your date to them…they’re bought into by the culture at large. They’re an institution. Video games are an institution, but a smaller one. They make a ton of money, but it’s a smaller portion of the masses that play video games. It’s hard for me to see VR being bigger than the percentage of people who play video games. On the AR side, I can see it being pretty big. People are going to use AR for day to day purposes, more consistently.


If you had to guess, what would some of those uses be. You know, besides catching Pokemon?

NB: Definitely applications with data visualisation: overlaying information and accessing it quickly so it can all work together and allow you to quickly switch in and out, from chatting in a discussion to calling someone to analyzing something to replying to email. The amount of information people have to process today is so incredibly fast, that I would hope AR’s interfaces allow us to process it in a more natural way.

I guess the big dream of AR is this: I don’t want to sit at my computer anymore. I don’t want to look at my phone anymore. I want to be in the world, hanging out with people, right? If I have to engage in information transfer with other people that are not in my general vicinity, I want to do it in a very easy, natural way that slides in and out of my daily life while I’m still doing whatever I want all day long. Maybe in the future people don’t even go into work anymore. Instead you go do whatever you want all day long. Imagine kayaking while you’re wearing your AR something that allows you to do your work while you’re doing other things almost seamlessly. Maybe AR makes work a thing of the past. That’s kind of the big vision. The dichotomy that people are seeing is AR for work, VR for play. Even when you’re playing in AR, you want so much AR to happen that it’s basically VR. That’s how I see it happening, so we specialize in the play side of things. I think the ideal human life is play half the time and work half the time, it’s as simple as that. So for now, we’re focused on the play side, but we’ll eventually do things on the work side and it will bleed back and forth between VR and AR.


Why do you think AR hasn’t really taken off yet? Why have past endeavors like Google Glass failed? Was it a cultural thing that held it back?

NB: Technology. All of these products are trying to bend the fundamental laws of physics… to be manufacturable and to be able to exist. So going back to the topic of intelligence and smart people, the headset that Palmer built before the Oculus Rift…it was amazing. It was amazing because Palmer made like 200 decisions, and all of them were really good. So it was less about him inventing something completely new in a lab somewhere. It was more about taking a bunch of things and molding them into…well, It’s almost like a soup that tastes terrible unless you get all 200 ingredients perfectly right. That’s kind of what it’s like.

There’s that aspect of it where you’re just crunching so much data to get to the right things, which is very hard, but then you’re also inventing new techniques to bend light. To bring light into your eye. There’s just so much that has to be done. All the technology that we have you know is pretty rudimentary compared to what has to be done to get it to actually work properly. You’re talking about this whole other level of complexity, like comparing television to your mobile phone. It’s that level of complexity. Your mobile phone is 20 different chips that have all been developed by different companies around the world and has been engineered to within an inch of its life. The TV is an incredibly simple old-school device by comparison. AR glasses are like that, to your phone. Even the most fundamental thing like showing you an image is now the hardest thing in the world. We’ve been making a 2D image on a flat display for so long, now we have to completely go back to basics to make the thing that shoves light directly into your retina. It’s a completely different animal. So that’s what they’re fighting against with all these devices right now.


Are you eager at all to tackle AR?

NB: I don’t know. AR has the possibility of being mobile and I think that leads to a lot of different possibilities, like Pokemon Go. Because it’s mobile and worldwide, you can do a lot of things with it. We have a new project in the works that would be as great on AR as it is in a full blown VR world. I’m excited to possibly deploy new applications in AR, but I’m not as interested in what they provide as a capability because I believe that’s still yet to be figured out. I like the Hololens and how it scans your room and all of its geometries, but nobody’s figured out an app that people want to consistently use with that because it’s so variable. Everybody’s room is different. What is the thing that you’re actually going to want to do in your room? Nobody really knows yet. We like VR because VR is a blank space. Once you’re in that 10’ by 10’ area, you’re now anywhere. Who cares about your room? We’re telling you where you are. We’re defining all the rules. If you add more variables into it, then it’s harder for the designer to create something you want to stay in time and time again. That’s the fundamental problem with AR.


Thanks so much for reading our first installment of Founders’ Forum! Interested in more thoughts on VR from our industry insiders? We’ll have more insights from Survios’ executive and development teams coming soon!