"Virtual reality is tomorrow's web"
Thirty-three-year old Tom Gauthier is the founder and CEO of Beloola, a first startup based in Lille (France) and San Mateo (California). Convinced that the web has "so much more to offer than just two-dimensional pages", he created the first 3D social network with 100% web content, accessible from any device: PC, tablet, smartphone and from now on any virtual reality headset. Tom talks with OVH about his vision of the web's future.
How did you get the idea to bring together social networks, video games and virtual reality?
When I started my career with Publicis, I saw first hand the Second Life phenomenon, closely followed by the explosion of Facebook and the democratization of the social media concept as we know it today. My dream at the time was to unify the immersive dimension of Second Life with the universal accessibility of a social network like Facebook. In a more general way, I wanted to contribute to the disruption of a web that had barely evolved since its debut back in 1989 when the Internet was just a bunch of 2D static pages. For me, the jump to 3D was a natural evolution of the web experience, a way to make the web browser as engaging, fun and interactive as a game console.
The gamification of the web browser seemed to me like an interesting avenue to explore since video games have been an omnipresent cultural and technological staple since the 80s, first with game consoles then through the explosion of casual gaming as shown by the success of Candy Crush, and then carried further along by the arrival of the smartphone in the mid-2000s. At the beginning of the project in 2009, trying to defend that vision made us look like fools. Today we're at the dawn of a new technological era where virtual reality will play a major role. People are starting to realize the huge potential these technologies can have as far as revamping our web experience goes.
When you started out, it was already the beginning of the end for Second Life. How is your project different from that?
Second Life came out in 2003 to an overwhelming start as it attracted media attention before it went on to woo businesses as well as a few institutions who invested - sometimes massively - to be represented there. Some political parties had even opened virtual campaign offices during the French presidential election of 2007. It must be said though that 2007 Gartner's forecast had predicted that by the end of 2011, 80% of web users would have a second life in a virtual universe.
In retrospect, we can say that Second Life arrived too soon: when the network received a lot of media coverage, its visitors were predominantly early adopters, geeks or people who were dissatisfied with real life. So for example when banks jumped into that virtual universe to recruit bankers, the profiles they found there didn't exactly meet their expectations...
Articles in which the sustainability of Second Life was being questioned then quickly started to get published. Businesses pulled out, the media lost interest and the investment bubble just burst. The situation was only made worse by the subprime crisis in 2008, with repercussions all the way to the internal banking system of Second Life. That being said, Second Life is far from being dead. There are still several thousands of active users monthly and Second Life is still generating over 60M in revenue every year. As a matter of fact, Linden Lab (the company that publishes Second Life) is currently working on Project Sansar, which will be no less than a port of the Second Life experience into virtual reality.
What differentiates Beloola from Second Life is the accessibility and its ease of use and this is mainly due to the technological choices that were originally made. Beloola was one of the first projects to grab WebGL, which allows to create and dynamically manage complex 3D elements directly inside a web browser and from any device (PC, tablet, smartphone), independently from the operating system.
While it was necessary to install software to enter the Second Life universe, you can join a friend's virtual world on Beloola simply by clicking on a URL, making the whole process much more user-friendly and easily accessible. In defense of Second Life though, the inclusion of a 3D display in a browser without the need for an add-on is recent (2010 for Firefox, 2013 for Internet Explorer). And lastly, Beloola has worked hard at creating an ergonomic interface to guide users through their discovery of the social network, thereby reducing the learning curve to a minimum.
"Is being right too early the same as being wrong?"
It's a fact that the history of innovation holds numerous examples of failed attempts (1 ) but some of those failures weren't permanent, it seems. Take the example of the Newton, the digital personal assistant that was launched by Apple in 1993 and failed before reappearing in 2007 as an iPhone, with the worldwide success we all know. As such, the case of devices and technologies linked to virtual reality is an interesting one. With only 770 000 units sold, the Virtual Boy sold the least amount of units in the history of game consoles. Launched in 1995, the device developed by Nintendo was one of the first headsets to allow the display of a stereoscopic image. The same technique has been the basis for the Oculus Rift, which was launched on Kickstarter back in 2012 and then quickly acquired by Facebook.
As a justification for this acquisition, Marck Zuckerberg declared: "Our (Facebook's) mission is to make the world more open and connected. For the past few years, this has mostly meant building mobile apps that help you share with the people you care about. We have a lot more to do on mobile, but at this point we feel we're in a position where we can start focusing on what platforms will come next to enable even more useful, entertaining and personal experiences."
Some commentators have deemed this gamble on virtual reality as bold. Do you think the prediction of Facebook's founder will come true?
Today, innovators and early adopters (to use the terms assigned to the life cycle of innovations) are seizing this new technology, notably thanks to Cardboards. Acquired by Google, this French invention enables to build a virtual reality headset for a few Euros by using your smartphone as a mobile screen (mobile VR). The quality is far more inferior than what's offered by the authentic virtual reality headsets whose prototypes we've been testing on a regular basis (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Gear VR recently delivered on the mass market, or Homido, a mobile VR headset created by a French company). But this is plenty enough to experience what the technology has to offer, to see how fast you can get immersed into it and to assess its potential.
In about two years from now, I think we'll witness the adoption phase by the early majority, thanks to mobile VR. The number of users will become very significant and usage patterns will be transformed by virtual reality.
What's more, virtual reality headsets are only the beginning. Over the past few months, gamers have been paying close attention to the Omni virtual reality pad. But that's not all: you may also have heard about the Teslasuit, a "haptic" suit allowing to feel heat, rain, etc. by way of an electrical stimulation of the muscles. This project is an extension of experiments done with gloves built to feel virtual objects. These technologies are still unaffordable but they strengthen the concept of immersion by adding the sense of touch to virtual reality.
How will virtual reality shake up usage patterns, and what are the incentives to adopt this new technology?
This major upheaval can be easily explained: the web as we know it today gives access to knowledge. With the contribution of virtual reality, the web will serve as a portal to that experience.
This combination of knowledge and experience opens the door to new possibilities and will certainly bring changes to many fields. Virtual reality is already being used to train military troops (2), pilots, surgeons… What will we be able to learn through virtual reality in the near future? Also interesting is the use of this technology by psychologists during therapies in order to treat phobias (3).
The fields of application are numerous and wide. Here's an example closer to us: some real estate agencies are offering virtual tours of the properties they sell. What if, tomorrow, you could put on a virtual reality headset to move around inside the house you want to buy, through a 360° panoramic view and by zooming in on details that you wouldn't have been able to see if you had been there physically? 360° photo and video are now supported by YouTube and are an important incentive towards the adoption of virtual reality.
Moreover, I believe that Google Glasses were dismissed a little too quickly because they weren't as successful as expected with the general public. But the industry clearly understood the interest for augmented reality (a first step towards virtual reality?). Many players in the field of logistics use those glasses to improve efficiency in their organization. In fact, Amazon hired the inventor of the Google Glasses (4), Microsoft is pursuing its https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_HoloLens"]HoloLens[/url] project (augmented reality through the simulation of holograms becoming integrated into the field of view) and the project Meta (mixed augmented reality glasses, equipped with a motion sensor enabling to manipulate 3D virtual objects and launch commands with gestures), originally released in 2013, is making a come back… Recently, a patent registered by Google and pertaining to connected lens (5) has also caused quite a stir, most likely because this device is a precursor to the next revolution: human enhancement, meaning the enhancement of human performance through technology. A revolution which will soon be technically possible but obviously poses some ethical questions (6).
Finally, I'm convinced that brand names will be the first to integrate virtual reality into their communication strategy. Virtual reality allows to combine experience and storytelling and to renew the relationship with advertising, which is less and less tolerated on the web (see the growing popularity of ad blockers). Another thing is the adoption of new services such as trying on glasses online, or the online customization of products using a dynamic display of the render - a feature that's particularly appealing to the automotive industry.
On this topic, you can read: Experiential marketing and virtual reality.
Some brands have already shown interest in getting their own space on Beloola but the potential goes far beyond that. By the end of 2015, we organized an internal hackathon to create products based on the technology used to build the Beloola universe. In a matter of days, we had imagined a dozen possible ways to work with 3D in a browser to eventually combine it with virtual reality.
In order to promote these new ideas, we have built a second structure called V-Cult, whose goal is to evangelize brands and communication agencies. We're already working with e-merchants to create banners where people can zoom in on a product or rotate it at 360°. In a few months, I think these experiments will start to gradually change the face of the web.
The pornographic industry is said to always be ahead when it comes to innovation. Knowing this, the interest it's been showing towards virtual reality should make you happy!
In fact, several articles show that the pornographic industry stimulates technological advancements and the adoption of new media formats (7). If we look at the success met by streaming, mobile video, etc., which have been undeniably supported by the players in the adult entertainment business, I think it's safe to say that Beloola and V-Cult are contemplating a rather promising future.
That being said, the adoption of virtual reality seems to be occurring at an even faster pace than the innovations that came before it: the media industry in general is already starting to embrace the technology. This is evidenced by an initiative from the New York Times who distributed a cardboard insert with their newspaper to grant their readers access to virtual reality documentaries. Journalists who explore the possibilities offered by virtual reality are still very few but some of them have already gone beyond the "gadget effect", an unavoidable roadblock for early adopters looking for a brand new way to tell stories about the world around them as realistically as possible (8). And finally, the field of culture is also a precursor to the adoption of VR, as shown by an initiative from the Salvador Dalí museum which offered to explore one of Dali's paintings using a virtual reality headset (9).
(1) The rise and fall of innovation
(2) How VR is training the perfect soldier
(3) Virtual reality can help people conquer their phobias
(4) Amazon hires Google Glass founder to ‘work on a few other things’
(5) Google has an idea to make a smart contact lens that runs on solar power
(6) Could Human Enhancement Turn Soldiers Into Weapons That Violate International Law? Yes
(7) How Porn Drove Innovation in Tech
(8) Virtual reality is journalism’s next frontier
(9) Walk Inside a Surrealist Salvador Dalí Painting with This 360º Virtual Reality Video
(10) Watch the technical presentation of the Beloola project with Thomas Balouet (WebGL and webVR developer) at the Mozilla SF WebVR Meetup (starting 14’00)