Thursday, March 23, 2017

Viro wants to make mobile VR development a snap, and raises $2.5M to do it

VR is all over the place, but sometimes it’s not where you most expect it. Plenty of apps out there might could do with a wee bit of VR to help show off an apartment or a bit of 3D content, but those experiences can be pretty labor-intensive. Viro is a new company that hopes to empower mobile developers to easily add VR to their apps using familiar tools and code bases.

“VR needs more content,” CEO Danny Moon told TechCrunch, “and different toolsets allow developers to create different types of experiences. Viro allows mobile developers to build native VR.”

You may think, well, isn’t that what Unity, Unreal and other cross-platform engines are for? Yes indeed, but they also add levels of complexity and don’t always play nice with the tools a developer has built their app with, or the skillset that a company has built up.

“For building a game, Unity is great,” said co-founder Raj Advani, “but it’s not the simplest tool for building applications. You open up a game development platform, you see like a thousand different controls staring at you. Viro is simpler, it uses the same [i.e. mobile and web] codebase, it uses less code to do the same things.”

Moon used the example of Airbnb, which is already experimenting with other social and presentational modes online. If they want to try doing some VR stuff internally, they can’t just tell their app team to learn Unity. They could hire a couple of people or an agency to put something together, but all of a sudden you’re looking at six figures before you can even start working on it.

Viro uses a custom rendering engine, on top of which is React Native, a JavaScript-based app framework that many web and mobile devs will already be familiar with. You don’t even need Xcode or Android Studio. The goal is to get users up and running in a VR environment of their own within half an hour or so, and enable the super-quick turnaround times one expects from a mobile team and perhaps not so much from a content-heavy VR team.

Of course, it’s not as fully featured as those mainstream commercial content creation tools — if you want things like realistic physics and complex lighting, you’ll still want to use them.

“But we don’t consider ourselves Unity lite,” Moon explained. “This is a different tool for different stuff. There are non-gaming apps that people want to build. There are these emergent cases that you see in mobile, like Uber, that people didn’t predict on day one — we’re hoping Viro will enable that kind of thing.”

Today is the first public release of Viro, which is free to use — so give it a try, check out some test code on GitHub or look at some sample work in the Viro Media app (iOS/Android). The plan is to keep the core toolset free and add premium services later when (ideally) companies decide to adopt the service more fully.

The company has raised $2.5 million from Softbank NY, Eniac Ventures, Lowercase Capital and a few others. Moon pointed out that this is the first VR investment for many, but that they were enticed by the idea that they were investing not in VR content, but in the tools to create it. Whether you think VR is the future, a flash in the pan or somewhere in-between, it’s hard to deny that at least for the next couple of years, lowering the barrier to entry is a valuable proposition.

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