The virtual reality broadcast platform Vreal has raised $11.7 million in series A funding, as CEO Todd Hooper takes another step toward positioning the company to be ready for the VR market's "tipping point."
The new round, which was led by Axioma Ventures and featured contributions from both old and new investors, takes the Seattle-based startup's lifetime funding to $15 million. The size of that amount reflects a confidence in the idea that Vreal is trying to realise: establishing an equivalent platform to Twitch for virtual reality, one crafted specifically for the technology.
CEO and founder Todd Hooper laid out the vision when he spoke to GamesIndustry.biz last year, and this $11.7 million represents a big step towards launching a finished product. In a new interview, Hooper said that Vreal is now in a closed alpha with a select group of "VR early adopters."
"It's still too early in VR to do the broad consumer marketing you might see on other platforms"
An open alpha is expected to begin at some point this summer, and Vreal is very much focused on refining and optimising the experience around Oculus Rift and Steam VR on HTC Vive. PlayStation VR is absent from that group, of course, which is notable due to its solid commercial performance and an encouraging level of commitment to software from Sony. According to Hooper, however, the focus on Windows is down to the particulars of VR broadcasting at this point in time.
"Sony has built a great consumer VR offering with PlayStation VR, and we think it's a compelling option for consuming content," he said. "At this early stage, we need to focus equally on the creation and consumption of content... Almost all streamers are creating their content on the Windows platform, so that's our initial focus for Vreal right now."
Vreal is already working directly with content creators and networks as it further shapes the platform and its production tools. The current roster of partners includes Rooster Teeth, Machinima and Hyper RPG, and building up that list is Hooper's preferred strategy for raising awareness about Vreal and its capabilities.
"VR is an early adopter market, and right now our main focus is finding content creators who are as enthusiastic about VR as we are. We've found that content creators have their own audiences who will naturally follow them into new experiences. It's still too early in VR to do the broad consumer marketing you might see on other platforms."
One of Vreal's angel investors, who has now joined its board of directors, will be invaluable in that respect: Chris M. Williams, who was chief audience officer at Maker Studios when Disney acquired the company for $500 million in 2014. In a statement, Williams emphasised the importance of "unique programming formats" to entertainers of all kinds - and streamers are no exception.
"I, for one, am glad that VR has moved past that 'boom' mentality"
"Vreal has been delivering exactly that to its first group of creator partners and I'm confident many, many more will find it valuable," Williams said.
Also joining Vreal's board is a key figure in the emergence of the market for consumer VR: Chet Faliszek, who joins as a representative of Axioma Ventures, but he was instrumental to the growth of SteamVR during his time at Valve. In his statement, Faliszek stressed the need to move beyond "simple 360 video" in VR broadcasting. "Viewers will demand the freedom they have in VR games to be in their viewing experiences," he said.
Hooper added: "Chet brings unique experience in that he's worked on influential game franchises such as Half Life and Portal, as well as his role in shepherding SteamVR to the market. As it happens, Chet was instrumental in supporting me when Vreal was just an idea in 2015, so having him join the Vreal board now is a great opportunity to continue our working relationship."
All of which leaves Vreal well placed to address the future of VR. Hooper makes it clear that the market is still too young to "expect extensive monetisation opportunities", and while Vreal has already worked out sponsorship deals with Alienware, Akamai and others, making huge profits will be - like so much else - a part of VR's future.
"Many of the early VR forecasts were overly enthusiastic, leading some VR startups to fall into the mindset similar to mobile where world domination was imminent," Hooper said. "I, for one, am glad that VR has moved past that 'boom' mentality, and into the more interesting phase of product development. There is great VR hardware and software in the marketplace today with an audience that is engaged and eager for more.
"We still don't have the perfect headset or the must-have game that will sell ten million headsets, but every month there is continual evolution on both of these fronts. Like any emerging technology, I don't believe you can easily predict when the tipping point will be for VR, or which direction it will come from; our desire is to make sure Vreal is ready when that tipping point gets here."