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Friday, Jun 9, 2023

Startup Sees VR Beyond Visuals

During a screening of virtual reality films at downtown L.A.’s Ace Hotel in February, viewers experienced a simulated UFO abduction and boarded a digital spaceship in search of distant planets to colonize and save humanity from extinction. Theater-goers watched from inside glowing egg-shaped chairs that moved and vibrated in conjunction with the film. The mechanized chairs, called Voyagers, are manufactured by Burbank-based startup Positron. The company aims to enhance the virtual reality experience by creating a physical sensation to accompany the sounds and visuals of a standard VR headset. “It’s meant to create a deeper level of immersion and to allow creators to provide a premium experience that people can’t get at home,” said Positron founder Jeffrey Travis. For several years now, virtual reality has been hyped as the next innovative technology to revolutionize entertainment. While VR headsets such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive have caught on among video game enthusiasts, they are still seen as mostly a novelty by mainstream consumers. This stems in part from the fact that consoles are expensive – usually between $200 and $500 – and complicated to set up. Another issue is there isn’t much content available for users who aren’t interested in video games. Many in the industry see “location-based” VR experiences at theaters, shopping malls and convention centers as a means to introduce the technology to a wider audience. Just 51 percent of U.S. consumers are aware of the technology, according to a report last year by Nielsen. “It’s hard for consumers to get a proper demo of VR unless you seek one out, and the devices themselves are far too costly if you don’t know what you’re buying,” said Stephanie Llamas, vice president of strategy at interactive media research firm SuperData. “Having entertainment VR hubs in places where there is regular foot traffic shows off the tech to the general consumer, who are going to be VR’s biggest hurdle.” Weightless sensation L.A. is already home to a host of VR centers. They include a new interactive “Star Wars” experience from Lucasfilm at the Glendale Galleria mall as well as gaming arcades in Northridge, Hollywood and downtown. With the Voyager, Positron aims to introduce VR to venues that everyone is already familiar with: movie theaters. The company plans to sell the chairs directly to cinemas or lease them through a revenue sharing model where it would take a percentage of ticket sales, which would cost around $20-to-$30. The goal is to partner with both movie studios and independent VR creators to create experiences ranging from short videos to and feature-length films. “While a lot of creators are excited about VR, most of the content has either been a demo or something very experimental,” said Travis. “There hasn’t been content where people can sit for half an hour and watch the same way you would a movie.” Voyager is designed to create a more cinematic VR experience by swiveling and turning to guide viewers toward the action as it takes place around them. The chair’s features include responsive “haptic” vibration technology, motorized robotic rotations and even a scent dispenser. The culminating effect is meant to give viewers the sensation of floating weightless through space or gliding through the air. Travis, who has a background as both a software engineer and independent film producer, said he plans to start introducing Voyagers to partnering theaters by the end of the year, with the goal of installing 10,000 chairs globally by 2021. He is also building out a software platform to distribute VR films and videos directly to the Voyager console. Michael Murray, a Studio City-based photographer and filmmaker, collaborated with Positron to show his VR film “Into the Now” at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The film follows Murray as he overcomes his fear of sharks by learning to dive with great whites without the protection of a cage. “(The Voyager) gives this feeling of really being underwater and floating,” he said. “It enhances the experience.” Murray said that watching with an audience in the synchronized Voyagers made the film a group event as opposed to the more solitary experience of watching on a headset at home. “You can really share the experience with people and talk about it afterwards,” he said. Investing in reality The company, which has seven full-time employees and five contractors, earned $1.5 million in revenue last year and forecasts total revenue of $6 million for this year. Travis has secured two rounds of investment funding totaling $1.9 million and is in discussions for a Series A round worth $5 million. He declined to reveal the company’s investors. Travis founded the company in Burbank in 2014. He said the location gives Positron access to a pool of talented creators and engineers as well as proximity to the major Hollywood studios. “It’s the perfect intersection of entertainment and tech,” Travis said. The company has partnered with Walt Disney Co. and DreamWorks on past projects and is in discussions with Universal Studios for a new partnership. In addition to being an entertainment platform, Travis envisions the Voyager hosting therapy experiences to treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. He added that the hospitality industry has begun commissioning VR experiences to preview resorts and hotels. “It’s a much more immersive experience than looking at photos or a brochure,” he said. Despite the increased interest in location-based VR, industrywide growth will likely need to be spurred by consumers buying personal headsets. As prices for the headsets begin to drop, total sales are expected to grow from $2 billion last year to $12.2 billion in 2021, according to SuperData. “Lower prices and breadth of quality content will be the major drivers for growth in the hardware space,” said Llamas at SuperData. Eventually, Positron plans to develop a home theater system for the Voyager. But with a current sticker price of $25,000, the market for the new product will likely be limited. For now, Travis is focused on scaling his current business model while introducing consumers to the still-emerging technology. “A lot of people will buy a $30 ticket, even if they’re not ready to invest thousands of dollars in a VR system,” he said.

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