John Vechey had always enjoyed the multiplatform nature of PopCap Games, the company he co-founded.
The post-EA reality of the company was primarily mobile, and last year he decided to leave to try something new. It didn't take long for him to find his focus.
"I went to DICE and heard Palmer Luckey speak, and then at GDC last year I learned more about VR. In fact our conversation, Ben, we spent most of it talking about VR, and I was getting really excited about what it could do for gaming and human interaction," he told me.
This is one of those uncomfortable moments when you realize you may have become a part of the story on which you're reporting. Vechey and I enjoyed an informal lunch at GDC last year, and I had spent much of the time talking about the exciting things happening in the virtual reality space.
"The idea of being immersed in another world, and how that could change society in different ways. The more that grew in me, the more I was thinking maybe it’s time for me to move on and do something different."
John Vechey quickly found his calling: He wants to make VR a social, inviting experience. He also is very much aware of how hard that's going to be.
Vechey's new company, PlutoVR, wants to use virtual and augmented reality to bring people together.
"We live in an increasingly connected world. With video-conferencing, social media, and online gaming, we can communicate and play with others like never before. However, talking into a phone, sharing a video, or looking at a webcam aren’t natural ways of communicating and don’t come close to what it is like to sit across the table from someone and share an experience," the company's official site states.
"With augmented and virtual reality technology it is now possible to feel a sense of presence with other people, allowing you to communicate, collaborate, and connect from anywhere in the world, as if you were there in person."
The company has four founders, including a former Director of Technology at Walt Disney Animation Studios and two other businessmen with experience in the virtual reality space.
Virtual reality, despite Facebook's $2 billion Oculus acquisition, is still largely hypothetical to most people. There are no headsets you can buy in stores, nor does anyone know the size of the audience or what the market will look like in four months, much less four years. Vechey is aware of the precarious nature of the business.
"You have to have a strategy where you don’t know what the platform is going to be yet, you know there’s going to be a bunch of platforms, you don’t know which one is going to be the biggest, you don’t know when they’re coming out, you still don’t know what the fuck the controls are, right?" he told Polygon. "So how do you create a business around the most imperfect information you can have?"
That's the risk. PlutoVR is moving ahead with the idea that someone will make VR a mainstream product, and there will be working controls and possibly a dominant platform. It doesn't matter who that is, the important thing is that someone makes it happen.
"We are dependent upon there being more breakthroughs in VR … As those [problems get] solved, the most important step, the next step, won’t be technical problems. It will be design problems. What does an avatar look like in VR?" he asked.
The sort of questions they're asking about how people interact in virtual and augmented reality, and whether that process can be improved, will become even more pressing as Microsoft moves ahead with its Hololens technology. Virtual reality itself may be in its early stages, but the companies making investments in that space are many, and include some of the largest names in technology.
For now PlutoVR is creating experiences and experimenting with use-cases in their lab. If you want to get virtual people together to play a board game, what information needs to be shared? Are there aspects of virtual avatars that may be disturbing? They're learning the design lessons that will one day lead to fully-formed products and experiences that could allow people to comfortably spend time together in virtual reality.
Vechey can come off a bit ... evangelical when he talks about the possibilities of social virtual reality.
"Physical location is a giant limiter," he explained. "You and I can’t easily get together to play video games, because you’re in Ohio and I’m in Seattle. Could we put a headset on and play some League of Legends? Yeah, but we’re not spending time together. In VR you can be present with someone else in a third space. In augmented reality you can have someone with you in your space."
We think that is the fundamental driver for a whole new way of human beings connecting, collaborating and communicating, and that will include games. Games are probably the number one way I connect with my family and friends," Vechey continued. "Some of its board games or card games, some of it is drinking games, but it’s that social experience of playing with people that brings me closer to the people I love."
This is a long-term play, although Vechey noted that they'll likely release demos and small experiences sooner rather than later. Creating intimacy and bringing social immediacy to virtual reality won't be easy, but the rewards for the first company to do it well could be great.