, a Northeast Minneapolis startup run by co-founders Chuck Olsen and Taylor Carik, has an ambitious vision for “social VR,” a blend of social media, virtual reality and everyday experience. The company’s current app, an interactive social dashboard that hovers in an immersive, computer-generated 3D environment, will soon be available on two virtual reality headsets: Samsung’s Gear VR, an affordable consumer model, and Oculus’s DK2, a higher-end device ideal for gaming.
Visual’s app grew out of Futurekave
, a far-reaching “virtual world platform” developed by Olsen and Carik. To help build it, the pair tapped Dual Reality Games
, a group of talented app designers with members in MSP and Oregon. Users sync their social media profiles with the app, manipulating photos, posts, tweets and profile information using a keyboard or touchpad. Visual only works with Instagram at the moment, but other social networks are in the works.
Social VR’s time has come, explains Olsen. “Facebook is hiring 1,200 employees right now,” he says, “many of whom will be working on building a VR presence for the company.”
“But Facebook [and other tech companies like Apple] aren’t VR natives, like we are,” he adds. “That puts them at a disadvantage.”
As a small, lean startup, Visual is more nimble than Facebook et al. And as possibly the first independent social VR company anywhere in the country, Visual is uniquely positioned to take advantage of what Olsen and Carik believe will be a fundamental change in the public’s relationship with mobile computing and connectivity.
In the short term, VR is about to get a lot more accessible. Samsung is planning a big consumer push later this year for its $200 Gear VR headset, a goggled apparatus that syncs up with the Note 4 smartphone’s screen to immerse wearers in a 360-degree VR. Thus far, the Note 4 is the only piece of hardware that works with Gear VR, though (according to Olsen) that’s not as big of an obstacle as it seems.
“[Gear VR] is going to be under Christmas trees this year,” predicts Olsen. “If you’ve got a free phone upgrade, it’s not a huge commitment to get a Note 4 and then buy the headset.” And Samsung may tweak the Gear VR interface to work with other mobile devices, he adds.
Visual’s social VR app is also compatible with the DK2, a similar headset device from Oculus, the company responsible for many of the recent advances in VR interfacing.
In both cases, the headset experience is incredibly lifelike, with realistic sound, HD-quality video and just-barely-perceptible lag when the user moves his or her head. The big drawback, explains Olsen, is that VR is not yet interactive: You can move your head to look at different parts of the virtual environment, but you can’t reach out and manipulate your surroundings.
Visual’s social VR system could solve, or at least mitigate, the interactivity problem. Olsen and Carik imagine headset-wearing concert-goers using Virtual’s app to post real-time images and video with friends who aren’t at the event, or meet and engage with other social VR users who are present. While users wouldn’t actually be able to manipulate the performers or anything else about the environment, they’d be able to process and share it socially.
Olsen, Carik and the Dual Reality Games crew aren’t placing all their eggs in the headset basket, of course. Longer-term, they’re interested in the concept of augmented reality: a virtual, Internet-connected field of vision overlay, like a much more advanced version of Google Glass. They see Visual as a “hardware agnostic” app that can handle the social element of augmented reality, which some technology experts believe is the future of mobile Internet — the post-smartphone world.
“Imagine having your social dashboard in the corner of your living room, waiting for you to engage with it,” says Olsen. “That could really be powerful.”