E97: Eric Romo, Founder & CEO of AltspaceVR – Interview

February 16, 2017


This interview with Eric Romo should have been done in virtual reality. Eric is the CEO and co-Founder of AltspaceVR, which is a social VR platform. That means you can attend a concert or talks, and create your own events. It’s a community of people coming together but in VR. It’s the future that’s here right now.

Eric tells us how his team started and scaled AltspaceVR. And where he sees VR headed. Eric is one of the leaders and visionaries in the VR space. We’re lucky to have him on this show.

Here are some other things we talk about:

-Hear about Eric’s great background and why he gets nervous when a SpaceX rocket fails. His background could be two new podcasts.
-What did AltSpaceVR’s initial prototype look like?
-What’s been Eric’s favorite event on AltSpaceVR? Why?
-What was Eric’s first VR experience?
-What’s needed to make VR more widespread?

Dave Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today we get to talk to Eric Romo. And Erick is the CEO and Co-Founder of AltspaceVR, which is a social VR Platform. So that means you can attend at a concert or talks and create your own events. So it’s a community of people coming together, but in virtual reality. So it definitely feels like the future, but it’s here right now.

So I’m curious how Eric and his team started and scaled AltspaceVR and where we see VR headed. So Eric is definitely one of the leaders and visionaries in the VR space, so we are pretty lucky to have him. So Eric, thanks for coming on the show today.

Eric Romo: Thanks for having me.

Dave Kruse: Definitely, definitely. So let’s – before we get into what you are doing now, can you give us a little bit of your background?

Eric Romo: Sure. I’m a Mechanical Engineering by background. So I went to grad school at Sanford and my undergrad at Cooper Union and then I – my first job out of grad school is I went and I worked at SpaceX when that company was just getting started. So I turned…

Dave Kruse: What year was that?

Eric Romo: That was – okay, I started in January 2003, that’s when I started. Yeah, so I think the company had been founded maybe six or nine of something months before that and I was the 13th employee.

Dave Kruse: My goodness.

Eric Romo: So at that time you know nobody knew who SpaceX was. We used to get confused with the company who owned the XPRIZE and then we were confused that the company was throwing the XPRIZE and you know I’ve heard – just kind of lump them all together. But it was cool, it was really a fun job, probably the best job you could ask for as a Mechanical Engineer just out of school. Because you know as a startup you get more and more popularity than you probably should have. And then on top of that I get to blow things up. So you know that was the fun part of it.

Mostly my job was to try and make sure things didn’t blow up, but we succeeded at that some other time. It’s funny now that we see all these launches going on which is great and I still have a ton of friends there at SpaceX and I left in 2004. So it would give you an idea of how long ago that was and every once in a while something will go wrong with one of the rockets and I’ll just cross my fingers saying gosh, I hope that wasn’t my fault. Sometimes I think maybe it was.

But I left and I went back to grad school and I did my MBA and when I was in grad school before I got really interested in the renewal energy industry, you know what was happening there and decided that the best thing to do out of grad school is to start a solar technology company. So I started a company with another guy and we developed a business plan and raised the money and ended up hiring, God, a little over 110 or something employees at the peak and we were building a Concentrating Portable PX Systems.

So everything from basically the steal in the ground to software that ran the thing for customers and our customers really like it, but ultimately we just get clobbered on pricing by commodities out of China. Really interesting kind of geopolitical story, all the money that went into scaling manufacturing in China for solar and now they just decimated everybody in Europe and the U.S. but a story for another podcast.

Dave Kruse: We got lots of stories. Those are two podcasts right there, Concentrated Solar Company. Wow! All right keep going.

Eric Romo: Yeah, so then we in 2012 we decided to shut the company down and so because we just couldn’t really compete on price anymore with China and actually it was September 2012 as we were shutting the company down and I’ve been reading about kind of the technology around Virtual Reality and the Neuroscience around Virtual Reality for actually a couple of years before that.

I got sort of interested starting with so called Infinite Reality that pressure runs the Stanford Virtual Reality Lab another guy wrote and but right around the same time of course Player One came out and I read that, kind of really when it came out and that led me to do a bunch of a research on Neuroscience of connecting with people on virtual spaces and I just, just one of these ideas I just couldn’t get out of head and lo and behold I am shutting down a company and not just as a kick starter and sort of the world sends a signal that they hate us, the odd things might happening.

So we decided to start Altspace in the beginning of 2013 and spent basically the first year sort of by myself building prototypes and thinking about what the right markets to go after would be and ultimately landed where we are today, which is this communication and social innovation and shared Virtual Spaces starting with the consumer market and basically people hanging out and playing card games and interacting with their friends all the way to people getting to go to really cool parties and live events and comedy performances and Al Roker doing a Q&A in the virtual Rockford Plaza. So we’ve come a long way in the last four years.

Dave Kruse: And so when you were on your own for that first year, what type of prototypes or products were you building or I can’t imagine you probably could put the other, that would have been an amazing experience by yourself, but curious what you were building?

Eric Romo: Yeah. So the risk PK1 was getting ready to come out, so I knew that there would be a headset available sometimes soon, but I wanted to put together a prototype of the software experience around connecting somebody in a virtual space. And so I actually used Unreal 3 and the Rift TK1 and then something called the Razer Spider, which is this peripheral that Razer the games company worked on with our company here in Silicon Valley that would track the motion of the hands and fix the Razer for the M series and move your hands around and it would tell the software where your hands were. You know so we are not very similar to how the touch controllers’ works for the Oculus Rifter, the way controllers work.

So I think we’re seeing in those prototypes where you can put on a headset, you look across the table, somebody sitting across the table from you, that person might be anywhere in the world because they were connected over the internet. You know you move your controller, move your hand, you can wave at them and say hi, you can pick stuff up and hand them stuff and throw things at them, which is most of what people did with the prototype was pick up boxes and throw them at the person across the table from them. So it was like a really you know, you know a really junky single programmer, one-eighth of an artist version of the likely Oculus Storybox demo, but in 2013.

So as we started showing that the people I met from the Co-Founder show, also sort of along the way and started showing people in the beginning of 2014 and that’s what kind of spur us to raise some money and in 2014 and really get going.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, okay and I was curious before we get into the MO, what was your – do you remember what your first VR experience was that kind of blew you away?

Eric Romo: Well, my first experience was I actually went over to the Sanford VR Lab, which is called the – its actually called the Virtual Human Interaction Lab which is a really a cool name because they are in the communications department and what they study is the psychology of avatar based interaction, which is like – I think it’s exactly perfect for what we do right. So I’ve read most of the papers that they put out because they are all spot on for what Altspace now does. But I went over there and as they did this economical demo that a lot of people do in VR labs, it’s called the PIT. I don’t know if you know what the PIT is?

Dave Kruse: No

Eric Romo: Okay so the PIT is this demo where you are in a physical space right and somebody hands you a headset and says okay, this headset is going to track you as you move around this space, you know not unlike the [inaudible] right. But back then, you know in the Stanford VR lab this is using the top of it like a quarter of a million dollars worth of hardware to approximately what the buys can now do for $800.

But anyway put on a headset and what you see when you put on a headset is actually you’re in kind of the same room that you were in before. When you look around the walls were where they were before, the floor is the same color and when you look up the lights are in the same place and then you say, okay we’re going to walk around a little bit, just getting comfortable and so you walk around and then you say, okay you seem that we might add you know the little X on the floor or whatever, so you can go stand by the X and then all of a sudden the floor in the virtual room drops away and so you’re standing on this little plank and then all the way at the bottom as the floor has dropped away.

You look down and you know you’re leaning out over the PIT and you see you know, in some of them you just see you know a slot in the floor you know 10 or 20 or whatever is down, other ones you see you know blades, spikes or whatever if you’re trying to make it more scary. But you know it basically now puts you up in heights to a degree where you know somewhere in the back of your head its telling you that that’s – your too far off, you don’t want to fall off and then they say, okay your aware that you’re in an actual physical space and you’re not, there’s nothing there, go ahead and take a step out into the PIT and you know knowing that your conscious brain is totally aware that you’re not going to fall down, then why would you fall down. You’re like here’s no way you’ll fall down and your sub conscious is saying Nah, I don’t want to do that.

And so I had read about this in a few different places using books. I had read about this pit demo and I was pretty sure that when I went over to the VHIL, I was pretty sure I was going to see the PIT and so you know I got all my courage up and I’m like, ‘Pff, I’m going to be fine.’ No problem am I going to have walking across these and some of them lead by where you can walk all the way across like a plank in the middle of the PIT and you just have to you know forget down to being right and you have to see how you feel and this one at the Stanford lab was a kind of balancing one.

So there’s actually you see a virtual thing for you to walk across, but then you know you’d lean out over it and its pretty far down and as soon as the floor dropped away and as soon as the proctor said, okay go ahead and walk across the balance beam, my knees started shaking and a total subconscious reaction, right. My conscious brain is completely aware of the fact that I’m no danger whatsoever, but my subconscious is telling me, ‘okay, you know just stop, you know what is this. So that was my first experience which is and at that’s a part now with a lot of peoples first experience in VR, that sort of thing, and that was a – yeah, so a really good way to start, because I was so loaded up knowing what I was going to do, but yet I still had a reaction I didn’t expect.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, that is cool. Yeah, I never experienced that. I was curious, what’s been one of your favorite events or occasions that’s happened in AltsapceVR and then if somebody actually wanted to go to the next event like that, you know kind of describe how a person can walk through your system in order to locate something like that. How does that all work?

Eric Romo: Yeah, I think my favorite, probably my favorite thing that I’ve attended in Altspace is getting Reggie Watts to the Late Show and James Corden is – and it’s just super, super talented musicians/comedian/improved person who just loves VR and he has done a bunch a stuff in Altspace, which we are incredibly thankfully for, because he sort of just – he is really experimenting with what this medium is, being together in a Virtual Space, because it’s not the same as any kind of other live performance and so he and a guy named Justin Roiland who is a create of Rick and Morty got together probably two months ago or maybe three months ago in Altspace and they say, hey, we want to come into Altspace and we want to do something. And we said okay great, you know.

If these two guys want to come and handout in Altsapce you know we are never going to say no, right. And we asked what they are going to do and they said ‘well, we are not really sure yet.’ And we said, ‘okay, whatever’ you know it, I’m sure you guys are hyper created and in touch with VR, you will figure it out. And so what they end up doing is, it was right – yeah, actually it was right before Halloween, so yeah, it was October, it was the end of October.

We had this space that was sort of spooky Halloween themed right. So there is like a spooky barn and there is a little crazy dog and there is a scary scarecrow and there is a crashed car and you know just kind of things that are like, you know Halloween sort of creepy. And they just, they came in the space and we used this technology, we called the front row where it can be like thousands of people that are attending the events that are all sort of feel like they are in the same place as Justin and Reggie, but Justin and Reggie are kind of there interacting with a subset of those people. And anyway so they just went into that space and they just improved for like 90 minutes they improved. But the thing that was really cool about it and just different then if you went to some theater and probably saw them on stage.

They are moving around the social environment, right. So they are like playing off the environment and telling stories and the other part of it that was cool is that the audience was sort of all around them and you know among them, right. It wasn’t as if they were you know set off in stages. So the experience from the audience perspective was all right, I’m hanging out with these guys. You know I’m hanging out with them. I’m not really saying very much, you know I’m not in the conversation very often, but I’m hanging out with them and then when they go over to the bar I’m going over to the bar and when they go to the cemetery, I’m going to the cemetery.

So it was just this type of content that it’s really hard to describe you know what that is right, it’s not – that’s not a TV show, that’s not a stage performance, that’s not a podcast. It’s almost like they were – did get to hang out with these two guys in a virtual space. And so it was just – for me why I think that was my favorite thing, is it’s just a really good example of that. We don’t know what this medium is yet, and we don’t know what the best content is going to look like yet. So what we need is this platform and stability to experiment and Justin and Reggie were so gracious to just experiment and I think it was just really delightful what they ended up with.

Dave Kruse: Well, and I think people who haven’t gone into AltspaceVR, like they will be really surprised by the kind of the social interactions and how personal it might feel. You know like, you’re an avatar. You don’t really look like a human, but you still when people get close to you, you are like, man, you are getting pretty close. It’s a real weird felling. You know you shouldn’t feel that way, but you do.

Eric Romo: Yeah. So it’s a really – I mean that’s the key, right, is that feeling that you are actually there with people and when those people are your friends or people who are becoming your friends, that’s cool because you get to feel like you are hanging out with them in a deeper way than you would if you are in a text chat or something. And when that person is somebody that you see on TV or you see on YouTube or that you look up to in some ways, you get this feeling that you are actually in the same room with them. And that ability to be and to share a room with somebody that you only get to see on TV, you know maybe you are living in LA or whatever, you get to have that experience from time to time, but for most of us that is not a thing that happens, right, and it’s hard.

I totally agree with you; it’s hard for people to sort of imagine how that feels until you experience it. But one way to go inside and you see the language that the people use to describe the experience they just pass, and when people come out of like a show like that, Justin and Reggie show, they use language where they say things like I just got to hang out with you know these guys right, which is not what you would say if you watched a YouTube video, right. You wouldn’t say you are hanging out with them. They are in the little corner of my screens. You wouldn’t say that, but you would say that if you were together in Altsapce.

Dave Kruse: Definitely, yeah its quite cool. So how – can you just describe for somebody who gets to gear VR and they download your app and then they are like ‘oh, what’s next?’ Can you kind of walk them through kind of their options, kind of what you would recommend for them to get familiar and comfortable with Altspace?

Eric Romo: Yeah. I would say that there are things that people do in Altspace that are scheduled, so these events, hence so we have both on our website and in the product calendar of events that are going on and actually increasingly you can say that you are interested in a particular event and you will get a notification email and pretty soon you might get a little buzz on your phone that tells you that’s coming up. So I think that there are these scheduled times when there is you know either on MeetApp or a talk or a presentation or a performance like these ones with musicians. When our dance club Echo Space is opened on Wednesday night. So things like that when they kind of at a particular time, these scheduled events and that’s how a lot of people use Altsapce.

And then there is sort of the anytime ad hoc hang out with people part of Altspace and that sort of has two parts. One is who you are going to hang out with, right and so we are going to tell you to add your friends and to just get your friends online and to you know go directly where your friends are and then what are you going to do once you are there with those people. And when you are in, are you going to do anything from people play a version of the Austin game cards Against Humanity in Altspace, its really popular; people get together and watch YouTube videos together for hours on in. They play Dungeons and Dragons, we have a couple of different artistic apps drawing and painting Apps that people do. So there is kind of a wide variety of different experiences that people have, but it’s all about interacting with other people. You are getting to know with friends that you already have.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, okay. That’s helpful. I never went to a scheduled event, but I went to some of the – like I went to – I don’t know if it’s a German brewery, like an old whatever it might be.

Eric Romo: Yeah, yeah.

Dave Kruse: And so what do you think – because I love to spend, have a lot more people in VR and spend more time in VR, you know have conference calls in VR. You know what do you think is necessary to make that happen, just better tech to make it more realistic and use it to get into and are more comfortable or how do we…?

Eric Romo: Yeah, I think the fundamental challenge is really around hardware and how easy it is to adopt. If you look at how people can get VR in their lives right now, its – you own a high end Gaming PC, you go buy with your life. You own one of a subset of android phones and you get your VR Daydream or your own a PlayStation IV and you get that PSVR.

So that means if you are a Mac book, Air user with an iPhone, you are out of luck, which is a lot of people. Right, I mean that’s a lot, lot of people that describes it. So I think what’s coming is the next wave of devices in VR and you see some of this with the Oculus Santa Cruz prototype with Intel android prototype, with the Qualcomm’s VR820 where these reference designs around standalone headsets that don’t require you own a particular PC, don’t require you to own a particular phone where you can just go down to BestBuy and buy a press button turning on and it works. I think that’s sort of thing is what’s going to be required for it to be real mass market adoption in VR, you know luckily those devices are coming, so that’s pretty exciting.

Dave Kruse: Got you, okay. And we are almost out of time, but what makes you nervous and keeps you up at night. Because I mean you have a sweet platform, but you know you need the hardware almost to catch up. But it feels like the hardware is almost there. Like is that what you are worrying about, the adoption rate or what kind of keeps you up at nights?

Eric Romo: Well, I think I sleep pretty good. No I think what we are spending our time on is understanding really what’s the right way to get into a product like Altspace. So like say what are the patterns of use that are going to work for people going forward and then what do you want to do once you are there. What are great fulfilling experiences and how do we build the hardtech around scaling those experiences.

Like if you told me 14 months ago, before the first time we’d ever done a comedy performance in Altspace, hey, they are going to be some of the most transformational things you are going to see in Virtual Reality, are going to be these live comedy performances over the next year. I wouldn’t have guessed that, right. But here we are and so what we are all looking for is what are those that we are going to discover over the next year, that people want to do it in VR.

Dave Kruse: Got you, yeah. So well you live in the future. So that’s pretty exciting what you are building and you know you mentioned of course you already played one and you know that’s the ultimate Sunday. And so well maybe not like the whole society, but the actual game and the actually world, oh man! I’m in that – I can’t wait. So I’m glad you’ve built this ..

Eric Romo: Absolutely.

Dave Kruse: And so unfortunately I think that just about does it for this podcast, but definitely Eric, I appreciate your time and thoughts and what you are doing and I’m excited to spend more time in Altspace and I’ll have to make sure I stay tuned to all those events, because they would be fun to check some of those out.

Eric Romo: Yeah, absolutely. The next time we can do with the podcast in the Altspace with a live studio audience.

Dave Kruse: Well, that’s awesome yes. Yeah, I like that idea. All right, sometime I’ll hold you up for that. But yeah, thanks again and thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs. As always, I greatly appreciate it and we’ll see you next time. Thanks Eric. Thanks everyone. Bye.