Virtual Reality Is Finally a Reality Again
That time Zuck threw up all over the idea of 3D shopping, and other milestones in my VR journey.
VR is back, baby, with a vengeance.
In 1994, Mark Pesce and I worked with the world wide web development community to create the Virtual Reality Markup Language, also known as VRML. The goal was to develop a standard way to represent 3D virtual worlds connected through the burgeoning Internet: Habitat cum Snow Crash as front end to a potentially world-encompassing web.
It didn’t matter that the modems were 14k dial-up, the computers ran at 60Mz (that’s with an “M”) and that the “web” at the time was AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. We had a vision, and nothing could stop us. We roped in big companies like Netscape, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, and IBM to come along for the ride.
Fast-forward to 2004. VRML had gone bust years earlier, but I managed to sell my VR startup before the crash (yay irrational exuberance!). I took an extended break from pushing 3D rocks up virtual hills, and moved on to other things. Then, possessed by God knows what, I dove back into a 3D project. This time it was X3D, the successor to VRML featuring “modern” graphics and XML (because everybody was doing it). The idea was that broadband infrastructure and hardware had caught up to the vision. We still needed a plugin because 3D didn’t come natively in a browser. But, no problem: we were up to the task. We built some cool demos, including a kick-ass shopping experience in partnership with eBay.
Nicole Stenger in 1992, using a VPL Dataglove and high-resolution HRX goggles developed by Jaron Lanier. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Nicole Stenger
They put us in front of Zuck, who promptly threw up all over the idea of 3D shopping in eBay. “Why is this better?” he asked.
We spent the next two years pitching investors who didn’t get it. I could barely see through the blood streaming past my eyes from beating my head against the wall so hard. And then, something wonderful happened: Second Life made the cover of Business Week, and a new virtual world land grab ensued. I wiped the blood off, dusted off my pitch, brought in a hotshot Valley CEO and promptly raised $10 million from top venture firms to fund Vivaty, a browser-based virtual world. Good things come to those who wait, I guess.
Ultimately, Vivaty came up short, a victim of internal misalignment, strategic misfires, and goofy product decisions… but mostly timing. 2009 was a bad year to try to raise a B round. The VCs were all jumping out of their second-story windows over the recession. We sold our great technology to Microsoft and moved on.
(Little known story: during those lean years, we pitched Accel, who had just pumped $13 million into Facebook. During due diligence, they put us in front of Zuck, who promptly threw up all over the idea of 3D shopping in eBay. “Why is this better?” Why indeed? Needless to say, that deal died stillborn. But no matter: we eventually got our funding from people who got it.)
An exhibit of VR helmets at CES 2014. Image: Alex Pasternack
Fast-forward again to 2014. WebGL is here, there, everywhere. Phones and tablets do kick-ass 3D. There are no more reasons to not build great shared 3D experiences. We have the rendering, the broadband, and a huge base of multimedia-savvy developers. Oh, and Oculus VR is now Facebook, thanks to a $2 billion deal that was just this week approved by the FTC.
In one stroke, virtual reality has been validated, vindicated, and safeguarded for a new generation of entrepreneurs. Those of us with a passion for creating anything virtual are now free to try virtually anything regarding new types of user interaction and out-of-the-box business models. And I’m back at it, thinking about how to launch a VR startup.
What a difference a decade makes. Er, two decades.
Tony Parisi is an entrepreneur and software architect. He has developed international standards and protocols, created noteworthy software products, and started and sold technology companies. He is the co-creator of the VRML and X3D ISO standards for networked 3D graphics, and continues to innovate in 3D technology. A version of this article appeared on his blog.