The In Conversation series is an opportunity for us to talk to the people that make the Victory Square Technologies subsidiary family great. It’s an inside look at who they are, what they do and how they’ve become phenomenons in their respective fields.
Our latest sit-down is with Alex Chuang, CEO of Shape Immersive. A serial entrepreneur with a track record of launching successful internet startups and projects. Alex sat down with VST’s James Graham at the VR/AR Hub at Launch Academy in Vancouver to talk about the two sides to the Shape Immersive business and what it’s going to take for VR and AR to really break in the mainstream.
James Graham: Can you start by explaining what Shape Immersive is?
Alex Chuang: There are two parts to it. Right now, we are a boutique agency helping brands and enterprises to incorporate VR and AR into their strategies. For example, on the VR training side of things, we’re helping an oil & gas company deploy VR training solutions so they can minimize the cost of training across the board. In VR, you can simulate any type of training or emergency scenarios and deploy across a global network of offices with minimal setup cost. This is where the money is for VR because enterprises are seeing a lot of ROI. On the AR marketing side, we’re helping brands to use AR to engage their customers, whether it’s an AR scavenger hunt or an AR experience that brings their merchandise to life. That summarizes the service side of things. It’s basically what we do to experiment with new technology while solving practical industry problems.
The other part of Shape Immersive is our innovation lab. This is where we tinker with different VR/AR ideas. One of the ideas is an API that will enable massive multiplayer mixed reality experiences. If we have a digital replica of a stadium, for example, theoretically, we can distribute that spatial data across multiple cross-platform devices and allow them to know exactly where they are in the stadium without the use of GPS. Imagine, 18,000 fans throwing virtual fireballs at a virtual dragon in real-time. This API will bring forth so many applications in the sports, esports and entertainment industry. However, this is a very challenging problem to solve right now and nobody in the industry has been able to solve it because it requires 5G infrastructure and state of the art technology to be able to allow phones to share their sensor information with one another.
James: With the talk of 5G eventually coming, how long do you think it’s going to take before something like that is able to manifest?
Alex: 5G is a generational technology. With speeds up to 100GB/s, it’s 100 times faster than 4G and will certainly enable a proliferation of VR/AR applications. The technology is here. It’s well researched. But it boils down to execution. Do we want to deploy a network of small cell towers across our city so millimeter waves can travel around obstacles? What does the upgrade of bandwidth look like on our current base stations? It’s really cool to see a 5G demo within a very controlled environment, but in terms of mass adoption, the infrastructure has to be built first.
We’re talking about maybe five years down the road. 5G networks are already live in some cities and next-generation phones have 5G capabilities built in them. But it will take a few years for the infrastructure to be built everywhere and have the majority of the population to switch over to these new phones.
James: What was your “Aha” moment? What was the moment of revelation when you were like, this is the thing?
Alex: The “Aha!” moment for me was when I discovered this concept called the AR Cloud. At the time it was still very conceptual. Essentially, the AR Cloud is a machine-readable, one to one scale model of the entire world. You can think of it as a digital replica of our world and it’s actually what’s necessary to enable multiplayer mixed reality experiences. It’s the operating system for the spatial era. To demonstrate the potential of the AR Cloud, we built a multiplayer mixed reality experience called “Kitty Kong” to validate why spatial data matters to enable these kinds of persistent multiplayer mixed-reality experiences
James: For people who have yet to see it, what was Kitty Kong?
Alex: Kitty Kong is a multi-player mixed reality experience. We created a 6-foot tall replica of the Empire State Building and we programmed a virtual cat to interact with the building. The cat is spatially aware so it understands the geometry and the structure of the building so it can be occluded behind the building. Players are able to interact with the same digital experience in real time. This is what I think the epitome of a true mixed reality experience is. It’s no longer just computer generated graphics superimposed on top of the real world, kind of like what Pokemon Go did. I imagine a day where your virtual characters or virtual content are context-aware meaning that they have a good understanding of what our physical world is like. For example, they would understand the type of materials that made up our walls, floors, furniture, etc and behave accordingly. They also know the geometry of it so they can actually run up the wall or hide behind couches. This provides a new level of immersion because it doesn’t break the illusion. If virtual objects are able to respond to real-world physics, the illusion is so much more believable. This is what’s going to make AR go. It’s when these experiences are so real that you can’t really tell them apart from your own reality.
James: What’s your elevator pitch for Augmented Reality? How do you explain to people that there’s a pain point that can be filled by AR?
Alex: The digital information that we interact with on a day to day basis has been trapped inside a rectangle, whether that’s our phones or our laptops or a TV. We have always been consuming digital information through a 2D interface. But humans are three-dimensional beings. We perceive things in a three-dimensional way, we’re spatially aware. So it makes total sense that the most intuitive way for us to interact with information is actually when it starts to become a part of our three-dimensional world. This means that a web browser that we look at could actually exist in the space around us. So we’re not limited to that two-dimensional interface, which is what’s limiting us right now.
This means we get to interact with digital holograms. We get to design cars in a way that we had never imagined before. AR is going to bring forth this new dawn of creative economies and completely transform the way we live, work and play. It’s because the information has now been set free into our physical world and now we can actually interact with it in a meaningful way.
James: We know that AR and VR are going to be huge in marketing terms. How long are we looking at till mainstream acceptance in that context?
Alex: VR and AR are on two different trajectories, so maybe I’ll talk about AR first. With AR, things are going to start to take off on mobile platforms. In the next two to three years, the install base for both AR Kit and AR Core is probably going to hit a 2.5 billion. This means a large percentage of people on this planet are actually going to have access to AR capable devices. This doesn’t mean that they’re going to use AR but they would have the devices that are capable of it. So whenever there’s a large enough audience, brands and enterprises are going to actively engage people using this technology.
Ikea, for example, developed an AR application where you can place furniture virtually in your home. You can decorate your place with virtual furniture and be able to see what it looks like under very accurate lighting conditions. We’re definitely seeing a lot of these companies experimenting with the technology. Houzz saw ten times more sales when they incorporated AR as part of the buying experience.
In terms of mass adoption, we have to look further ahead because mobile AR is just a stepping stone, we have to look at AR Glasses. When AR Glasses become ubiquitous like smartphones, that’s when things will start to click. When you wear these glasses, you can navigate yourself in any foreign city. You could go to a concert where you can see the special effects or at home, you could interact with a context-aware virtual pet.
But for glasses to take off, there are some privacy concerns that need to be resolved. Who would want to wear glasses with cameras that are constantly scanning the world?
James: That was an issue even as far back as the early launch of Google Glass.
Alex: Everyone’s thinking that Apple is going to make the consumer-friendly AR glasses that are also stylish. But AR experiences mostly rely on camera sensors. So how will engineers figure out a way in which the cameras are scanning the world, but the data does not leave the device to a different server where that information can be processed? So we are beginning to speculate on the regulations around that. Are these glasses going to be ubiquitous? Or are regulators going to put a stop to it because of privacy issues? I’m thinking next year Apple is probably going to announce something around AR glasses. They have been building the software for it for quite some time now so once 5G becomes more prevalent, the market would be ready to adopt this type of wearable.
Now on the VR side, it’s a different trajectory. Oculus Quest just came out and it’s proving to be the iPod moment for VR. I was just at Best Buy this past weekend trying to grab one. They were all sold out and Best Buy was saying they had to order something close to 400 more units. It just means that there is demand for this standalone VR headset.
Aside from games, there’s really not that many use cases for VR right now on a consumer level. You can use it as a form of entertainment, but it’s not like you’re going to watch a movie in VR. There’s actually no point because the resolution is lower. Why jump into VR to look at another 2D interface? But using VR to connect with your friends from across the world could be interesting. What VR really does is defy distance. It gives you the ability to teleport. It gives you the ability to immerse yourself into a different world. But in terms of practicality, it’s still early days because the computing power on standalone devices is fairly limited.
The ultimate VR experience will be combining foveated rendering, high resolution, robust eye tracking, zero latency, 6 degrees of freedom, hand tracking, spatial audio, and among other groundbreaking tech to give consumers a fully immersive experience. It’s still going to take a while before VR can be massively adopted, where every home will have at least one of these devices. Perhaps it has to start with location-based experiences? I can imagine a scenario maybe 10 years down the road or even sooner where operators are managing empty space. But they can re-skin that space into any type of world and then people can start using their own headsets, kind of like a scene from the film Ready Player One. It’s like paintball. Some professionals bring their own paintball guns and that’s the type of recreation we’re going to start to see more and more of on the location-based side of things.
James: What differentiates Shape Immersive from the competition?
Alex: With Shape Immersive, what I have done in the last while is assemble a team of really senior dev talent. These are some of the very few people in the world that can actually do full stack VR/AR development. Aaron Hilton, for example, has been working on mixed reality experiences with us since last year and his skill set and knowledge are unparalleled. It’s the team and the deep industry knowledge that we have as a team that allows us to solve practically any type of VR/AR problems. That also gives us the ability to actually create proprietary technology as well. So rather than being a service based company that works on standard projects using off the shelf products, we can actually take that to a different level and really push the boundaries of these technologies.
James: You are a notorious serial entrepreneur, this is not your first Rodeo. How has being a serial entrepreneur affected what you’re doing now?
Alex: Being a serial entrepreneur just really means that you’ve tried a lot of things and you’ve failed many times and through these failures, you’ve learned how not to make the same mistakes again. So every time you create a new startup, you’re doing it at a faster pace than your previous one because of all the things that you’ve learned along the way. Being a serial entrepreneur means you have to really embrace failures as part of the process. That also builds the tenacity that you need to be more ambitious, to dream big. Most people will shy away from solving problems for the AR Cloud. But for me, I see a massive opportunity. I can see an ecosystem brewing. So what can I do within the means of my capabilities to create a product or technology innovation that’s going to serve this massive ecosystem? So really figuring out that position for Shape Immersive definitely helps us gained more confidence in this area and to be more ambitious with our goals.
James: What don’t we know about Shape Immersive that perhaps we should?
Alex: Shape Immersive has only been around for a year. People are generally surprised when they hear that. We pivoted a few times in the last 12 months, but now we’re beginning to find our footing.
James: You’re very big on the idea of community, it’s evident with your involvement with the development of the VR/AR Hub at Launch Academy and your work with the VR/AR Association.
Alex: By building a community, what we realized is that we quickly established ourselves as the thought leaders in this space. We’re not waiting for us to become this massive company first then give back; we’re giving back on day one. At the end of the day, it’s about the people, and it’s about creating more opportunities and value for the people you surround yourself with.
This is why I’m bringing people into various projects. It’s also to educate enterprises, customers, and brands on the value of immersive technologies and how they can unlock the potential for these technologies. That became a part of our mission. We realized that educating for adoption is just as important as building products and solutions. Because without the adoption, there’s no point in building all those things out. So you have to figure out how to balance the demand and supply a little bit and be able to encourage people to invest in the industry because our success depends on the adoption of various industries. It’s really about putting money where your mouth is.
James: Where do you see Shape Immersive five years from now?
Alex: Five years from now, I imagine us being one of the leaders in creating mixed-reality experiences and VR training modules. We also hope to create proprietary technology to solve very practical real-world problems. We can prove to the world that hey, there is value and there is value to incorporating VR/AR into your strategies.
James: What does the future hold then?
Alex: The future is actually quite exciting because we’re definitely seeing companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and HTC investing heavily into both VR and AR. We’re seeing the product landscape change super quickly and at a much faster pace. This means that we’re going to hit an inflection point where the technology has now been accelerated and now we have to figure out what the use cases of these technologies look like. Shape Immersive is really riding this tidal wave at the forefront of it. This is the reason why I published that article on computer vision. The idea is to get more people involved in spatial computing because once they understand that and once they know how it to apply to their businesses, there’s no shortage of opportunities. And for us, we’re creating a very agile team that’s able to tackle some of these opportunities when they do arise in the future.
James: Anything we’ve missed?
Alex: I think people need to know that VR/AR is inevitable. Right now the industry is nascent and it takes a bit of time but if you’re at the forefront of it, if you invest now, you’re also one of the few people or organizations that have enough experience to deliver high-quality work. It’s the same reason why Microsoft has invested a lot of money into creating Hololens because they want to make sure that they’re able to capture this massive market opportunity in the future.
Everyone asks me, who’s in VR/AR right now? My short answer is, everyone. They don’t seem to quite get it. “What do you mean, everyone?” And I’m like, everyone. Really, every single tech company that has basically shaped the way we work, live and play is heavily invested in VR/AR.
James: They’re in it, you just haven’t seen them yet.
Alex: Exactly. The tidal wave is coming in, there is value in staying ahead. There’s value in learning more about the industry. There is value in doing experiments right now even though it’s really tough to generate any sort of meaningful revenue. The investment now, it’s going to pay solid dividends in the future because once everyone wakes up to it, once people start demanding these types of solutions, it’s the people who started early that are going to reap the rewards.
You can learn more about Shape Immersive at www.shapeimmersive.com
Alex Chuang is the CEO of Shape Immersive. He’s also the Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer of Launch Academy, Western Canada’s leading tech incubator.
James Graham is Victory Square Technology’s resident content guy, he’s still running half marathons.