Most people now working in virtual reality can recall a point of revelation, a Damascene moment where they put on a headset and the future came into sharp focus.
Todd Hooper was Unity Technologies' vice president of online services in Seattle when his moment arrived. He received a call from Valve, inviting him to try some exciting new hardware it was making with HTC. One session with the Vive later, and Hooper was thinking about little but VR for the next 12 months; six while still at Unity, six while trying to identify the best way to enter this exciting new market.
"This is where games are going," he says, recalling the idea that grew in his mind during that period. "It's not this year, and it's not next year. It's a few years out. We still need better hardware, we still need better content... But this is where we've been trying to get to as gamers for a long time.
"If you accept that as a fact, look at the other big trend in gaming: people like to watch games and hang out around games with streamers."
"We still need better hardware, we still need better content, but this is where we've been trying to get to as gamers for a long time"
The result is Vreal, which started with the aim of being the first native streaming platform for virtual reality. When I saw Hooper take part in a panel at Casual Connect USA, he neatly - and perhaps inevitably - summarised the idea as 'Twitch for VR', but that description conveys neither the experience as it exists now, nor its potential going forward. As with so many VR applications, Hooper says, Vreal must be tried to be properly understood - an assessment that rings true based on my own demo session at the company's offices in downtown Seattle.
The demo opens in a social hub space, where Hooper and I are represented by customisable avatars, and we are surrounded by games and experiences that we can choose to enter - Hooper as the player and host, and me as a spectator. Once inside a game, I can switch my viewpoint to anywhere in the 3D space, in much the same way that VR games allow players to navigate spaces using teleportation. I watch Hooper playing Surgeon Simulator, gleefully hacking away at some poor soul's innards. I spectate standing beside him, from the lip of an angle-poise lamp on a nearby desk, and, most memorably of all, from the perspective of one of the patient's ribs as Hooper wildly swings his scalpel.
In addition to the sense of freedom, the most impressive aspect of Vreal is the way the sense of scale alters based on the placement of the camera; I could look down on the entire scene, or position my view so that even a coffee mug looked gigantic. One can easily imagine switching from a god-like view to being beneath the tracks of a tank rumbling across the battlefield in an RTS, or right beside a hero as they battle it out in a MOBA.
"You could be up in the heavens, or down in a lane watching the players as they rush past," Hooper says. "But the real magic is how to re-render the game for all those people, in real-time, and make it performant. That's our secret."
This "very technical" re-rendering process is what Vreal has been working on for more than 18 months, creating an effect that, as Hooper rightly insists, is not accurately described by a glib phrase like "Twitch for VR." It is the streaming concept amplified in much the same way that the sense of immersion in a game is amplified by VR, and Vreal's tech is built to scale to an audience of any size.
"Trying to stream VR today, where every time you move your head the camera moves, it's just not acceptable"
"That was one of the criteria: it has to scale like broadcast media," says Hooper. "You're not gonna try and render thousands of people in that room - you're computer just can't do that - so what we do is group up people in parties. You go in with a group of your friends, or you find a group of people. But from a streamer's point-of-view there can be many, many parties in the stream. That's how we scale it."
The best possible use case for Vreal is the one I experienced: VR gameplay streamed to spectators using VR headsets. However, it is also possible to stream to 2D-viewing platforms, allowing streamers to reach the largest possible audience and ensuring that Vreal can work in tandem with Twitch, YouTube, and the sector's biggest companies.
"Trying to stream VR today, just from the headset, where every time you move your head the camera moves, it's just not acceptable," says Hooper. "I think streamers realise that. They're trying to create content that people engage in; not content that makes them feel sick.
"We've trended towards [working with] the larger streamers, because they're more looking to push the boundaries of what can be done and create more interesting content... Ultimately, it's got to be democratic; anyone that wants to create a stream is where the technology has to go eventually."
"From the streamer's point-of-view that's a win-win. From Twitch and YouTube's point-of-view, it feels like a win"
Vreal has already formed partnerships with prominent streamers like Rooster Teeth and the Hyper RPG Show, and it is actively pursuing key publishers and developers currently working in VR - though Hooper acknowledges that the former doesn't stretch far beyond Ubisoft at this point in time. Even so, Hooper says that Vreal is letting streamers point the way, as it is "hard to pre-judge" which games will work on the platform before you've seen them in action.
Here, again, we encounter the enigmatic quality of VR, where sending accurate messages and gathering useful information is only possible through first-hand experience. At the very least, Hooper is prepared for the long-haul, making incremental gains over a "two to three year" period until a "much bigger group of people with VR headsets" is in place. In the meantime, Vreal has VC money backing its ambitions, and Hooper mentions both sponsorship deals and advertising as immediate revenue streams.
"It's easy enough to bring that in," he says, citing an existing sponsorship deal with Alienware as evidence. "I think the [user] avatars can be monetised as well."
Many have categorised that two or three year wait as a threat to the VR market, but Hooper believers it is a window of opportunity. Twitch and YouTube are inevitably thinking about how to better support VR, but both are simply too large to launch a full product with the market at is current size. The stage is set, then, for Vreal to become "Twitch for VR," and a great deal more besides.
"Vreal gets out there, we help streamers to create great 2D content for their Twitch and YouTube channels, while also creating great VR content on Vreal," Hooper says. "From the streamer's point-of-view that's a win-win. From Twitch and YouTube's point-of-view, it feels like a win.
"When will VR be big enough for Twitch and YouTube to add a bunch of stuff onto our existing platforms to support VR? I think that's a few year's away, which is good news for us."