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Startup Success: Integrating Virtual Reality with Enterprise Software (Episode 68)

Russ Rive is a serial entrepreneur with experience building virtual reality and enterprise software as a service companies.

Growing up, Russ really enjoyed taking machines apart and putting them back together again. He had a bunch of different remote control toys, and was always fascinated by being able to remotely use his actions to affect something from a distance.

When it came time to go to university, he dove into everything electronics. At that point, he was able to build virtually anything, piece by piece. He naturally moved into software, realizing that the next layer of tech would be software. It was 1996, the first internet boom in Silicon Valley, and he was asked to work with his cousin to start up a company as a summer job.

Russ packed up, traveled from Vancouver to Silicon Valley, and found himself in a completely new world. The internet boom was taking off and the energy was off the charts. Long story short, he never ended up going back to complete his computer science degree.

He started working for Webmaster, the plumbers of the technology world at the time, and entered into a constantly evolving industry.

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EverDream

In 1998 he ended up starting EverDream, which was acquired by Compaq a couple of months later. Meanwhile, he worked with the startup, using his background of automating data centers, and growing up as the geek of his family who was always called for any and all computer problems.

As he developed his skills, following the needs of the industry, he began to realize that everything he was working on had a “remote control” or virtual reality type of quality to it.

They managed to survive the “.com crash”, and their little steam engine became a real little business. At the same time, Dell was starting to get into the services business, and needed to layer services onto their computer hardware business. Russ’ company was the golden ticket, and they became part of Dell’s services.

They were onto version eight or nine of the platform, constantly improving and updating the automated services, when he felt the itch for something more. He needed to get his creative juices flowing again.

By chance, he met Liana, a Brazilian who is now his wife, at Burning Man a couple of years before they sold EverDream. She was working on her master’s in Interactive Media at NYU, and they started dating long distance. He attended her showcases, seeing incredibly creative electronics, software, and even artistic projects, and started some projects of his own.

He began playing, getting back to soldiering and building, and he ended up moving back with her to Brazil, just to take a year off and think about what he wanted to do next.

They began building these little creative experiments for interactive, physical computing: the art side of technology, design and architecture. At the time, there wasn’t anything like it: you actually had to be a software engineer and electrical engineer to discover it.

Russ and Liana were a prototype factory of insane experiences, electronic sensors, body skeleton tracking, and pushing the limits of technology interaction.

They ended up with an educational museum of installations, full of things like a periodic table of elements with reverse engineered interactive glass that allowed you to drag the elements into a “magic cauldron” that could combine and create all sorts of things, and then tell you what it could be used for.

This evolved into big party virtual reality experiences, with full-immersion, massive DJ stages with lasers, smoke machines and projections, creating virtual layers in the real world and teleporting you to another place.

They were the early pioneers of thinking beyond the screen, beyond the keyboard, beyond the feeling of physical technology.

SuperUber

After EverDream, Russ co-founded SuperUber, a high-tech, immersive experience design agency, working at the intersection of architecture, design, art, and technology.

SuperUber’s projects included Beyonce’s performance at the United Nations headquarters, World Humanity Day, and projections for the closing ceremony of the 2016 Olympics.

SuperUber is still working on really interesting projects through experimentation and research. In the SuperUber lab, where they are constantly playing with new concepts that aren’t commissioned, they have an artistic creative process. They experiment and play with things they would eventually like to see, and create learning opportunities.

Because of this unique dynamic, an architect can solve a software problem, and a software engineer can solve a design problem, because everyone on the team has a chance to solve a problem in a different way.

Russ’ current project is SuperViz, which was born out of SuperUber’s need for remote collaboration, combining mapping reality and virtual reality into one experience.

SuperViz

Their headquarters are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but SuperViz do projects all around the world. Recently, they did a piece for the London Design Museum about moving to Mars with the Science Museum in Miami.

Russ had to do remote visits at installations, or technical visits at places across the world, which got complicated quickly during the pandemic. They had to quickly come up with new systems in order to fulfill these important needs without having to get on a plane and fly.

Luckily, because they had already thought and imagined spaces in 360, when they started thinking about this new need, they used the same techniques. They asked themselves, what if they took a regular 360 degree photo, threw it into a unity app, and then built a meeting place inside of it?

They found even if it was only 70% as good, it was an amazing solution. Most of the time, you’re needing to solve really basic problems – where should the cables run, what’s happening with the projector, etc. Using this technique, you could have a very productive meeting instead of a regular 360 degree photo.

SuperViz has the benefit of locking in the provincial memory. This is incredibly powerful because it activates a very different type of memory than just if you’re watching a video or a PowerPoint. For example, if you ask someone to describe the hotel room from your summer vacation two years ago, chances are you’re going to remember specific, accurate details about the space and how it functioned.

Because it’s a provincial memory, when you are somewhere, you smell it, you hear the memories, you’re more alert than ever. You are able to be truly present. Normally,  being in-person somewhere is a very visceral sensorily central experience compared to just watching a webcam or listening to music, but SuperViz took that assumption as a challenge. Not only do they have simplified versions that use standard mouse-grab navigation, but they immediately applied virtual reality technologies to the immersive experiences.

Creating Events

Right now, Russ and his team have pilots going on, where they live stream a popular location, allowing friends to meet together, rather than just supervisors or business teams.

This allows businesses to keep business moving, and create VIP tables at virtual events where you can see each other in webcams or avatars, with branded entertainment experiences.

Of course, with any startup, the danger is broadening your focus too quickly, and with Russ, the temptation to experiment and push the limits is always there. Since they’ve chosen to build a platform for companies to use, it gives their team the consistency of feedback and updates, while they toy with the newest ideas that haven’t yet been implemented, like live 360 feeds.

Virtual Reality for Educational Purposes

Some of their clients are using it for employee onboarding during COVID. For example, lots of people have been hired that have never seen the original, physical office. In some cases, that office doesn’t even exist anymore. The ability to walk a new employee through the virtual office, introduce the departments, give them a tour of the factory, and introduce them to team members often makes the experience and commitment more real for new hires.

They also have cultural centers using their platform, creating art exhibitions, or 360 degree environments that show video art. For these clients, the most important factor is that they can take them in groups. The curator can do group tours, take people through specific areas, give them the full experience, and make sure the educational value stays the same, especially for student groups.

They’re still able to cultivate the whole experience: access to the guide, being there with other people, talking to your friends, and conversations that simply can’t happen with a static virtual experience.

This is one of the many ways Russ hopes to address the growing issue of Zoom fatigue.

Whether it’s on a beach or the surface of Mars, having the option to meet somewhere else through a high-quality platform experience helps bring life back into virtual meetings.

The Future

Russ and his team are well aware of the many concerns involving long term virtual reality technology. Certainly there have been dozens of conversations started, both through literary fiction and as technology advances.

While the technology isn’t quite there yet, Russ is already opening up conversations through social media, getting as many experts’ brains involved as possible, to continue looking at the benefits and consequences at every possible angle.

To keep up with these conversations, you can follow Russ on LinkedIn, or his current project’s website, SuperViz.

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