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Vrse Gets Down to Business to Become Virtual Reality's HBO, PBS and Pixar

The future is interactive: "I don’t think we’re talking about movies any more."


In one moment, I’m sitting at a desk in an office building in San Francisco. In the next, I’m in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. But I could just as easily be in the audience for “Saturday Night Live,” or in the middle of a lake about to be struck by a train floating above the water.

All three of these are scenes from some of the virtual reality films produced by Vrse, a buzzy Los Angeles-headquartered startup. The first high-end consumer VR headsets are heading to market in the coming months, and Vrse is trying to get out in front of content production and distribution for what it sees as a groundbreaking new medium.

 New Vrse COO Drew Larner
New Vrse COO Drew Larner

To that end, it has hired former Rdio CEO Drew Larner as its COO and raised seed money from a diverse group of investors that includes Andreessen Horowitz, Live Nation, Vice Media and Annapurna Pictures.

The company’s goals include producing its own content through a studio arm, Vrse Works, as well as distributing its content and others’ through a dedicated app for VR devices simply known as Vrse.

“I don’t think we’re talking about movies anymore,” Vrse CEO Chris Milk said in an interview with Re/code. “What we’re talking about is the ultimate experiential medium, because it feels like real life. What is the most interesting thing that could have happened to you today? That’s a story.”

Some of Vrse’s most-talked-about projects are its mini-documentaries “Waves of Grace” and “Clouds Over Sidra,” produced in partnership with the United Nations. They center, respectively, on a woman living through the recent ebola outbreak in Liberia and a girl caught up in the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.

“I want to engage an audience on a deeper human level than any other medium that has reached them,” Milk said. “We talk about virtual reality as ‘the last medium.’ … Ultimately, what we’re talking about is a medium that disappears, because there is no rectangle on the wall, there is no page you’re holding in your hand. It feels like real life.”

At the same time, Vrse wants to balance those PBS-y aspirations with hopes of becoming a sort of HBO for VR, a place that will be associated in consumers’ minds with all types of premium content, documentaries being just one of them.

Larner acknowledged that he is a relative newbie to VR, but brings with him experience from both the movie business and the tech world, having advised startups like Kazaa and Skype before five years as CEO of the music-streaming service Rdio, where he is still on the board. He said he expects a key component of the company’s growth will be continuing to strike partnerships, as it has in the past with well-known brands and content creators like the New York Times, Nike and Beck.

“The goal right now is for Chris to drive a platform with established content creators,” Larner said. “We believe we can tell their stories better than anybody else.”

There will be some serious competition for that claim, however. Disney recently co-led a $65 million round in cinematic VR startup Jaunt, while smaller startups like Vrideo and Penrose Studios are also working to establish themselves as go-to destinations for VR video.

However, both Milk and co-founder Aaron Koblin suggested that terms like “video” and “film” are merely good-enough-for-now descriptors of what they want to do.

The longer-term vision is to differentiate from competitors by developing a new form of content that lies somewhere between a movie and a video game. Becoming more interactive would make this content possible only through Vrse’s own technology — hence the need to have a dedicated app rather than hosting non-interactive videos on a platform like YouTube.

“What we’re trying to do is not just be another video player, but to actually think about the opportunities here for us to change the narrative, for us to take advantage of the level of immersion and style of editing that’s going to go into these things,” Koblin said. “There’s an interesting sweet spot for experimenting with interactive narratives.”

In the near term, though, Koblin said there are practical technical considerations to solve, such as “how do we keep you from puking on your shoes?”

“It really is just hacking your senses to convince you that you’re somewhere else,” he said. “Whatever we define it as now will evolve and change. We plan to evolve and change with it.”

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