Wevr: The virtual reality studio you need to know

Where Hollywood meets VR.

Joseph Volpe , @jrvolpe
02.19.16 in AV
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    It's pronounced "weaver." And you might not be familiar with it now, but the LA-based virtual reality outfit is quietly positioning itself as the backbone of the industry. With one foot firmly planted in the production side of the business (the studio's recent slate includes Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue) and the other in distribution, Wevr is primed for the impending mainstreamification of virtual reality. So when the public eventually goes gaga over VR goggles, Wevr will be right there, ready to deliver that content.

    That approach has helped Wevr amass an impressive roster of clients. The company has dipped into the music scene with rap group Run the Jewels, dabbled in stoner fare with cable network Adult Swim and produced an episodic thriller, Gone, made for Samsung's Milk VR platform. Then there's a planned VR project with spiritual guru and friend of Oprah Deepak Chopra, a partnership with Time that will see Wevr propelling the media company's many brands into the VR space and a collaboration with writer/director Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction). And that's just what Wevr's talking about openly.

    "We have very big, bold, brave plans to grow a community of VR creatives that really love VR and are really committed to the medium," says Wevr CEO Neville Spiteri. "And we're going to invest heavily in building not only individual experiences with content creators, but we're starting to think through what services, what software, what platform capabilities do we need to roll out to support that community."

    At the time Spiteri made that comment, Wevr hadn't yet taken the wraps off Transport, its triple-play solution for serving, hosting and producing VR content across every headset. It's what Spiteri refers to as the "Netflix of VR," a sort of platform-agnostic, one-stop browsing shop. That analogy is slightly off, though: Users will have to download these sizable VR files, not stream them. In that sense, it's more akin to Steam, the online portal for PC game downloads, albeit with an available set of production tools for developers.

    "We're using the term 'engine' instead of 'player' because it's much more than just a VR player," Spiteri says of the Transport software, which will allow creators to make VR content. "It's actually a purpose-built, high-performance, cross-platform software engine that allows real-time video and computer graphics to be blended together. That's based on an open VR medium format."

    A snapshot of Wevr's Netflix-like Transport interface

    At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Wevr debuted three new VR shorts created in conjunction with various collaborators, including Reggie Watts. In the days that followed the studio's successful showing, it announced Transport -- now available in a private beta -- in addition to more than $25 million in funding from the likes of Samsung Ventures and HTC. It's a reassuring vote of confidence from industry players that see a lucrative future market for VR but don't quite know how it's going to take shape.

    "The situation is that the hardware is ahead of the content today," Spiteri explains. "... So if you're an early pioneer developing compelling experiences, you're going to be able to win over an audience and also monetize it."

    "We have very big, bold, brave plans to grow a community of VR creatives."

    Neville Spiteri, Wevr

    Spiteri is quick to point out that his interest in VR predates any of the buzz (and billions) that surround Facebook-owned Oculus VR, whose Rift headset launches next month. While he and his co-founders participated in Oculus' Kickstarter debut three and a half years ago and received one of the first developer units, it was another form of media that ignited his passion for VR: a book. He credits Howard Rheingold's 1992 tome, Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds -- And How It Promises to Transform Society with opening his eyes to the medium's possibilities.

    But that was back when VR first rode its way in on the zeitgeist, only to fizzle out and fade away as a fad: The tech wasn't ready for prime time. Oculus' DK1, as the first dev unit was called, is part of what set Spiteri and his team on their current course.

    "We got the Blu running on the DK1 and it was a turning point," he says. "All of a sudden we really realized that, oh my gosh, there is something very compelling about wearing a headset where you are fully immersed. You are now inside of the experience."

    A blue whale swims by for a closeup in theBlu: Encounter

    It was a visit with video game developer Valve, however, that fully convinced the Wevr team to go all in on VR. There, at Valve's offices, Spiteri and co-founder Scott Yara had an opportunity to demo the Vive, a high-end VR headset created in partnership with HTC.

    "That was a life-changing moment for me. I was up there with my co-founder Scott Yara and we both walked out of that room completely transformed," he says of his first brush with the Vive. From that meeting, theBlu: Encounter was spawned. The demo, itself a spin-off of a web-based experience (and subsequent Samsung Gear VR iteration), was created specifically to showcase the Vive's room-scale tracking, a feature that follows a viewer's body and lets her move freely in the virtual world, when the headset was revealed last year.

    In theBlu: Encounter viewers are placed on the deck of a sunken ship for a face-to-face meeting with a blue whale. The effect it achieves, the feeling you get from looking directly into the eye of a blue whale, is one of awe, as anyone who's tried the experience will tell you. It's no wonder that Wevr has received two Proto awards (think the Oscars of the VR world) and several nominations for theBlu franchise. Future installments are already in production, with plans to launch on the Vive first before rolling out to other platforms.

    "The hardware is ahead of the content today. So if you're an early pioneer developing compelling experiences, you're going to be able to win over an audience and monetize it."

    Neville Spiteri, Wevr


    Before VR was even a consideration for Spiteri and his Wevr co-founders Yara and Anthony Batt -- before Wevr as a studio was even an idea -- there was one motivating force uniting them all: "How can the internet express itself as a creative art form?"

    That was back when the trio was a part of a data analytics company called Greenplum and was trying to come up with ways to transform the web into an entertainment platform. But the company's mission soon pivoted. Spiteri, whose resume highlights include a stint at James Cameron's visual effects house Digital Domain, moved on to Electronic Arts, where he worked as a producer and development director. It was there, during the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era, that he became fascinated by the real-time, HD graphical capabilities of mass-market home consoles.

    "The world was very different," says Spiteri of the perfect Web 2.0 storm that allowed him and his co-founders to revisit their initial vision of the internet as art form. He credits the rise of social media like Facebook, smartphones and cheaper and more powerful hardware, driven by advances in mobile technology, with enabling the company's debut interactive project.

    theBlu makes its debut in Times Square

    Inspired, he left EA in 2009 to form Wemo Media (as it was then called) and joined forces once again with Yara to brainstorm their new company's first project: an underwater odyssey known as theBlu. Spiteri says the project was meant to ape the nature documentaries produced by the BBC, National Geographic and Disney, albeit as an interactive, online one that could connect people from around the world.

    Armed with that idea and empowered by the smartphone explosion, Wemo Media launched theBlu in New York's Times Square in May 2012. The interactive project, which played for five minutes at a time over a span of six hours on NASDAQ and Thomson Reuters screens, prompted passersby to access a web app on their smartphones and build out their own virtual aquatic menagerie.

    "We had people on the street with fish swimming from the big screen onto their phones," Spiteri says. "It was an experimental project." That "experiment," however, would go on to not only define the nascent company that eventually became Wevr but also bring it various accolades.

    Today Wevr, which is home to an eclectic mix of Academy Award-winning filmmakers, game designers and engineers, is a 50-plus person operation, and its handprint shows up everywhere there is VR. From its showing at this year's Sundance Film Festival to the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival to even Sports Illustrated's latest swimsuit issue (for which it shot and will produce nearly 40 VR videos), Wevr has secured its standing as a key player in the industry.

    For its 2016 swimsuit Issue, Sports Illustrated partnered with Wevr.

    It's not by accident, either. Spiteri says the plan is for Wevr "to be a great home for ... VR natives." To that end, the studio is actively seeking out talent, whether that's indie filmmaker Janicza Bravo or keeping its options open creatively so that it doesn't turn away a potential hit in favor of a narrow genre or style. This approach, of course, also serves to help build out Transport.

    With considerable momentum behind it, Wevr and Spiteri in particular are confident the appetite for VR will be explosive. And that optimism is not unfounded: Market intelligence firm TrendForce recently estimated that the VR market will reach about $7 billion this year and is projected to increase tenfold, to around $70 billion, by 2020. So any talk of whether or not VR is here to stay is moot.

    Those numbers highlight a growing consumer appetite for VR that Spiteri believes will culminate in a situation where demand for headsets in 2016 will outstrip supply. This is despite recent protestations from the gaming community over the cost of VR hardware, namely the $600 price tag for Oculus VR's Rift headset, a device that packs a hidden cost: It requires a capable PC to run it.

    Reggie Watts in the VR short Waves

    "That's not such a leap when you think about the fact that people went out and bought iPads even when they were $600 or so," Spiteri explains. "And not a lot of people use their iPads today. That's not to say that's going to happen with VR headsets. But the point there being, there's a lot of noise about the price tag being too high. It's not too high. It's for the hard-core tech community that is super jazzed about the device."

    But there's an unfortunate downside to all of this VR hype: scarcity of, well, content. It's something at the forefront of Spiteri's mind and certainly why his studio is working so fervently to ensure viewers have not only a storefront to access content but also plenty of it to peruse.

    Regardless, Spiteri believes any content drought won't necessarily put off early adopters or even mass market consumers; it'll just leave them wanting more.

    "I think once you try VR, people generally, by and large, want more of it. It can be quite addictive."

    [Image credits: Wevr; Sports Illustrated (Swimsuit VR)]

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