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Meet the duo who left DreamWorks for their own virtual reality startup

It's not just the technology that needs to grow up; it's also the storytelling tools.

Spaces CEO Shiraz Akmal (left) and CTO Brad Herman

Brad Herman has been waiting for virtual reality to become actual reality for a really long time.

He played with the early Disney Quest virtual reality amusement park ride as a teenager in the mid-1990s and was blown away. A few years later he was at the Siggraph computer graphics conference and saw an early system put together by a team at Carnegie Mellon that transformed the user into Spiderman.

"The graphics really weren't much more than boxes with solid colors for the city," Herman recalls. "My hands were big blocky cartoons, and the webs were basically straight lines."

But while the system was monstrously big and the graphics crude, Herman says seeing that system in action was an "incredibly powerful experience."

So he waited patiently for the technology to grow up.

Now, he and partner Shiraz Akmal say the time is ripe to help give the industry the last kick in the pants it needs to become a mainstream entertainment medium.

The pair left DreamWorks Animation earlier this year and set up their own company, Spaces, Inc., backed with $3 million in initial funding. Investors range from Comcast Ventures* to Kai-Ful Lee's Sinovation Fund.

In their first interview since going public about their effort, Herman and Akmal talked about the opportunities that virtual and mixed reality open up for better storytelling as well as the many challenges to getting there.

Spaces CTO Brad Herman
Spaces CTO Brad Herman

While some talk about 2016 as the year of virtual reality, Herman likes to place things in context and compare where VR is today with where mobile phones were in the 1980s.

"We are still at the big gray cellphone stage," he told Recode. "Granted, we have much better industrial design, but that’s where the technology is."

That means it is already powerful enough to transform some lives and businesses, but nowhere near where it needs to be in order to be vital for the average person.

"It’s absolutely going to take time and that’s okay," he said.

As the hardware continues to improve, he said, it gives content creators time to hone how best to tell stories in this new medium.

Herman and Akmal think they have learned a thing or two on that front in doing more than 100 projects for Dreamworks over the past three years.

"We’re working on a range of VR and mixed reality experiences," Akmal said.

It will probably be closer to the end of the year before Herman and Akmal are ready to show the first fruits of their new firm.

"A lot of the work we are doing right now is in partnership with larger companies so it is generally on their timetable," Akmal said.

Among the companies it is working with are Microsoft and Canadian independent game creator Big Blue Bubble.

The list is more impressive when you note the Santa Monica company only has nine full-time employees, people with backgrounds in films, video games and theme park attractions.

"The culmination of the three is what’s worked well, at least for us," Akmal said.

Herman and Akmal say they are building on the approach they took at Dreamworks, with a small core team working on the technology and larger groups brought in on a project basis for specific endeavors.

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