On VR: Wevr's Neville Spiteri Talks About The Company, Working With HTC And Valve, And Future Projects

We recently wrote about Wevr and its new Transport VR content platform. In that post, we talked to Wevr’s CEO Neville Spiteri about this new initiative, but there’s a lot more to the company. Wevr is one of the world’s leading VR studios, having developed the lead experience that was and still is shown when HTC demos the Vive, theBlu: Encounter. Wevr is also very active in the 360-video VR space, partnering with well-known artists such as Reggie Watts and Janicza Bravo.

We asked Neville Spiteri, Wevr Co-founder and CEO, how he got into developing for VR, learn more about some of the experiences we’ve already tried, and get his thoughts on the current state of the VR industry.

Tom’s Hardware: How did you get into VR?

Neville Spiteri: [Co-founders] Scott Yara, Anthony Batt and I started Wevr before the Oculus Kickstarter, exploring rich interactive storytelling with our first project, theBlu in 2012. We were aware of the Oculus Kickstarter early on. We got an Oculus Rift DK1 and felt theBlu was a perfect fit for VR. The whole company became focused on VR by Dec 2013.

In January of 2014, we visited Valve and experienced true presence for the first time. It was life changing. On February 2014, we met with Samsung and saw an early prototype of the Gear VR; it was truly eye opening to see the feasibility of mobile VR. We partnered to do a launch title for Samsung Gear VR. [In] March 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus. It’s kind of been rocket ship since then. (I read my first book on VR in 1991).

TH: I see that on your site you call yourself a "virtual reality community," but you are also a developer who has created VR experiences, built a VR media player and are working on the Transport VR content platform. Can you explain what you mean by "community," as Wevr doesn't seem to be structured like a traditional content developer?

NS: We are trying to build a community of VR fans and VR makers. To super-serve the community, we are developing content for fans, partnering with makers to create content for fans, and providing makers with a platform and tools and services -- including a VR media player -- to enable them to create more content. We are not a traditional content developer. In a sense, we're more like a content studio with a platform enabling production and distribution of VR content. But the center of what we are is the community. It all revolves around the fans and the makers.

Wevr Transport is an independent virtual reality content network where creators will be able to publish their work and fans will be able to experience them. Transport is currently in private beta but will be accessible across today's current VR headsets (including Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, Oculus VR) as well as on the Web. The Transport app will be available for download via each platform's respective app marketplace (including Google Play Store, Oculus store, etc.) and will ultimately be the most effective way for VR filmmakers to showcase their work. Wevr's goal with Transport is to provide frictionless publishing and content distribution across today's popular headsets.

How Wevr Got Involved With Valve And HTC

TH: Wevr is most well known for having created the theBlu VR: Encounter demo for the HTC Vive. How did Wevr get involved with Valve and HTC and get to produce one of the first SteamVR/Vive experiences shown?

NS: We are honored that theBlu: Encounter is the experience that introduced the Vive to the world. We have been long-time fans of Valve and the pioneering VR work they have done, which uplifted the entire VR ecosystem and greatly influenced the whole industry, including Oculus. Since early 2014, we began working on and learning about creating room-scale VR experiences. We earned the respect and trust of the Valve and HTC teams and were the first company outside of Valve with access to the first Vive dev kit. affectionately called the "-1.”

Wevr is committed to the highest quality experience and worked very hard in a very short time to deliver a compelling experience, allowing you to have a close encounter with a giant blue whale. An experience that evokes a strong sense of presence (the feeling of "being there") and a surprising degree of empathy.

TH: How long did you work with Valve and HTC before the Vive's announcement? How early in its development did you have access to the SteamVR/Vive hardware? Did any of your feedback during the development of theBlu impact the development of the hardware?

NS: Valve provided constant feedback and were very supportive throughout the whole process.  

TH: TheBlu has been a very well-received demo, with nearly everyone we've talked to commenting how amazing it was to go eye-to-eye with the blue whale. Are there any plans to expand it into a longer experience, and/or bring it to other platforms other than the Vive?

NS: Yes, theBlu: Encounter is currently being developed into a full-fledged episodic series, and we plan to make it available on other platforms including the Oculus Rift. We had also previously created a different version of theBlu for the Gear VR, which has been available for the Gear VR since the launch of the Innovators edition last year. That version earned Best Mobile Experience and Best Educational Experience at the Proto Awards this year.

More About The John Wick VR Experience

TH: The next experience that you created for the Vive that we've had a chance to play is the John Wick VR Experience. Can you talk about how the project came about? Who was involved in creating the demo we tried?

NS: Lionsgate approached us with the opportunity to develop a VR experience based on the John Wick franchise. We were immediately excited about the opportunity because we wanted to explore how we can put you "in the movie," not merely watching it, and not playing a game based on the film, either. We signed up our development partner, Big Red Button, and together we created the demo (Chapter 1) that you experienced, from soup to nuts.

TH: We understand that while Wevr is creating this initial experience that is being shown by HTC and will be available to Vive buyers at launch, that another developer is making the actual John Wick VR Game. Can you clarify who is doing what on this project, and if your experience is going to be separate from the game itself, what the differences between the two will be?

NS: Wevr is focused on story-based experiences versus what typically would be described as a video game. We see VR enabling a new category of entertainment that is part game and part movie but is neither game nor movie. The Chapter 1 experience is a great example of this, so we did it. Lionsgate has partnered with Starbreeze to develop a full game.

TH: Will content you are creating for the demo be used in the final game?

NS: Yes.

TH: The John Wick VR Experience was built using the Unreal engine, correct? When we tried it, we were especially impressed by the visual fidelity of the Charon character model. Did you use performance capture of Lance Reddick to achieve this?

NS: Yes, indeed!

What Else is Wevr Working On?

TH: Can you talk about any other content you are working on? Although the two we have experienced have been for the HTC Vive, we assume you are also working on content for the Rift with Oculus Touch too?

NS: Yes. Since our focus is the community of VR fans and VR makers, we are developing content and services for all VR devices. I think great examples of this would be the projects that recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival - Waves, Hardworld for Small Things, Irrational Exuberance.

TH: Are you doing any work for PlayStation VR?

NS: Yes.

Is 360-video True VR?

TH: Recently there has been some talk about the fact that 360-video should not be called VR. Also, the distribution of Google Cardboard by the New York Times last November has been seen by some as bad for VR because it means that many people's first VR experiences will be sub-optimal, potentially poisoning the well. What is Wevr's position in this debate?

NS: It's semantics. It depends on how inclusive your definition of VR is. If VR means "anything you experience through a display you hold in front of your eyes," then yes, Cardboard today is VR. But though you could say "Cardboard is VR," it is definitely false to say "VR is Cardboard." So we have to be careful. I prefer to say that 360-video and VR are different things in 2015-2016. There is a key distinction between rotation-only systems such as Cardboard and Gear VR and positional tracking systems such as the Vive, Rift, and PlayStation VR. Positional tracking provides a degree of immersion and "presence" that is very hard to describe in words unless experienced.

People often throw the word "presence" around. I prefer to keep "presence" a reserved word as originally defined by Michael Abrash in his SteamDays January 2014 talk before he left Valve and became Chief Scientist at Oculus, where he clearly describes a set of technical thresholds that must be achieved/delivered before a human can experience the scientifically documented phenomenon of presence. Sub-millimeter positional tracking is one of these requirements, and you can see and feel why when you're actually in it.

This doesn't mean you can't have a sense of being transported somewhere else with rotation-only systems. Consumers often feel transported and an increased sense of involvement and empathy even on Cardboard and Gear VR. The issue is also complicated further because there is a subjectivity to the experience of presence. I am not at all worried that people are going to be turned off by VR because of Cardboard. That's silly if you think about it. It's like saying people who tried the Internet using dial-up modems first didn't use the Internet when broadband came along.

Now, you could say, wait, dial-up modems were slow and crude, but they didn't make you sick, Cardboard can make you sick. So yes, there is that difference. The onus is on the content creators to ensure they deliver experiences that minimize/eliminate motion sickness. Without positional [tracking], the risk for motion sickness is very real.

That said, it is clear beyond any doubt that people today are intrigued even by an experience as minimalistic as Cardboard. It only further proves the power and potential of immersive media. I think in 2016, 2017, it's helpful to keep the conversation explicit around the difference between 360-video rotation only experiences and full-fledged positional immersion. Once mobile systems have positional tracking, things will get better. By 2018, most of this will be moot.

What About Gear VR?

TH: The consumer version of the Gear VR came out last fall. Do you think a product like this is a better introduction to VR than Cardboard? Is Wevr creating any new mobile VR experiences for Gear VR (or even Google Cardboard)?

NS: Definitely. Gear VR is the highest quality mobile VR experience available today, as far as we know. A terrific low-cost yet high-quality way that's super accessible (assuming you have a Samsung phone) to consume VR. As I mentioned earlier, we had one of the very first titles available on the Gear VR, called theBlu VR, which won Best Edu and Best Mobile Proto awards this year.

In December, the Gone project was announced, a Skybound production for Samsung's Milk VR in which Wevr was the VR production partner. This project delivered several innovations in VR storytelling which were achieved in collaboration with our partners. And of course, the Adult Swim Brainload on Cardboard has been a favorite. And we have several experiences in development with incredibly talented creative partners that will be made available on Gear VR and Cardboard starting in early 2016.

Future VR Predictions

TH: Stepping back and looking forward a little, what does Wevr expect to see happen in the next 6-12 months. Which of the three main HMDs (Vive, Rift, PlayStation VR) do you expect will be the most successful?

NS: I hope they will all be successful and think there is a very good chance they will be and can co-exist in the marketplace. Consumers will make different buying decisions based on many factors. They all deliver a quality VR experience, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. That said, if "winning" means "number of units available in the market," then don't forget about Gear VR, Cardboard, etc.

TH: At CES, the pricing for the Rift was announced, and although pre-orders sold out, there were many who felt the pricing was too high. With the Rift and Vive at the top of a stack of good/better/best as the pinnacle (that consumers can buy equipment to experience) of VR experiences, do you think this high price point could slow adoption to the point of having a negative impact on VR as a whole? [This question is in some ways perhaps the inverse to the previous question about low-end “bad VR” poisoning the VR well].

NS: The Rift’s price is maybe high for mass consumers. But there is no doubt there are more people out there more than willing to pay the price to get their hands on this amazing VR hardware. Demand will outstrip supply despite the cost.

TH: At CES, HTC and Valve showed off the Vive Pre, which features a front-facing camera for the new Chaperone system. We were told that developers have full access to it, so we were wondering if Wevr has had the chance to experiment with it much, and if there are any results, or ideas as to how you'd use it for future projects you can share with us.

NS: The Vive Pre front-facing camera and [improved] Chaperone system is a huge step forward in making the experience safer and much more comfortable and opens up a lot of exciting new possibilities for creatives. We're experimenting!

Wevr, A VR Studio To Watch

Wevr is certainly one of the most exciting studios working in VR. It's interesting that unlike many developers who are working on longer, more video game-like experiences, Wevr is producing bite-sized VR experiences in partnership with talented artists. Much of this content pushes the boundaries of what is possible in VR and play an important role in growing the VR community, whether it’s the first room-scale VR experience someone will have or introducing a significant artist to VR at a film festival.

Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware and Tom's IT Pro, covering Smartphones, Tablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow Tom's Hardware on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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  • cptnjarhead
    Not sure why people confuse 3dTV and VR. Thinking VR will be a fad or gimmick, and never make it off the ground. VR is a totally different experience, with tech the grows exponentially, because mobile phones and VR are joined at the hip. TV's are an appliance that people hold onto for years, phones are constantly being upgraded. Everyone with a smartphone made in the last year or so has a VR capable device that they carry with them everyday, and with in the next year, most smart phones will have dedicated VR tech built specifically for certain platforms. VR is not only here to stay, but it will evolve very quickly, and O.R. will push the tech even further. Stop focusing on strapping something on your face, and look beyond.
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