Studio visit

Intensifying the experience: a visit to VR startup Wevr

Working from its base in Venice Beach, Wevr has set out to convince not just its Hollywood neighbors of the huge benefits of VR technology. And the startup has done a pretty good job so far with its initial pilot projects. From coming face-to-face with an enormous whale to interacting with cute fantasy creatures in the film Gnomes & Goblins, which was produced in collaboration with Iron Man director Jon Favreau, Wevr creates fascinating virtual worlds that do more than just entertain – sometimes they even change the lives of people who have taken the plunge into the world of VR. We pay a visit to the HQ of this highly acclaimed startup.

Photos
Adam Fedderly
Words
Anne Philippi

It’s not that easy to find Wevr. A slightly grayish door, a matte white garden fence next to some stone stairs: its founders are obviously not eager to be overly conspicuous. The startup, regarded by many as one of the most exciting prospects in the field of virtual reality (VR) technology, works from an unassuming building in Venice, Los Angeles. However, this unremarkable-looking structure was actually designed by star architect Frank Gehry and has been home to top innovators for some time now. Before Wevr moved in, Hollywood rebel Dennis Hopper lived here. After Hopper died, his now 90-year-old landlady decided against having big celebrity names as her new tenants. Instead, she opted for the forward-looking visionaries of the new generation, just as Hopper was back in the day. “The landlady told us that Dennis symbolized progress. He was one of the driving forces back in the Hollywood of the Sixties and Seventies. She seemed to see something similar in us,” recounts Wevr co-founder and CEO Neville Spiteri over the first coffee of the morning. “Seemed to see something similar” is charmingly understated and not very Los Angeles-like, in a city where people like to show what they have and like talking about it even more.

Startup company Wevr is currently seen as one of the big hopes in the VR business, because its products and new technologies show what the future holds for storytelling. They specialize in transforming the scripts and ideas behind the narrative into the new world of VR, which ranks among the most promising technologies of the future – not least since Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion. Besides the technology and films developed by Wevr in-house, startup has also launched Transport, a VR platform that looks to become the YouTube of the VR world. Users can upload films to Transport and share their latest creations. The tech community obviously has faith in Wevr, with backers having already invested $25 million in the company.

It will take visionaries like Anthony Batt – the second co-founder and executive vice president of Wevr – for the company’s big plans to ultimately be crowned with success and revolutionize the media world. In his thinking, Batt already lives in the future, and during the interview he ponders a world without flat screens. “Screens will soon be a thing of the past, as virtual reality is not about just watching,” explains Batt. “It will be about entering and immersing yourself in another world. VR has a powerful influence on the brain. It’s like when you encounter the ocean for the first time in your life: your entire nervous system fires up, it becomes more alive, it can grasp more,” he enthuses. However, because the technology has such a profound and intense effect, not everyone’s system can handle VR right away. This is demonstrated, for example, by theBlu, a series that Wevr created: it’s impossible to exit theBlu or simply look away. Once you have put the VR headset on, you are fully immersed in a breathtaking underwater world. Suddenly, a gigantic whale swims by. It blinks, swims closer, it seems as though you could touch its eye, its mouth. But what would happen if it opened its mouth right now? There would be no escape. The situation feels threatening – and astonishingly realistic.

“VR will be about entering and immersing yourself in another world. VR has a powerful influence on the brain. It’s like when you encounter the ocean for the first time in your life: your entire nervous system fires up, it becomes more alive, it can grasp more.”

Anthony Batt, co-founder of Wevr

It is not just VR technology that Wevr develops. First and foremost, the company works on new ways of telling stories with the help of virtual reality.

“There’s actually no need to be afraid. Whales are vegetarian, so you’re perfectly safe,” says Anthony Batt. For some people, though, this direct virtual encounter with the whale from theBlu can be too much to take, because it seems so realistic. “We’ve had a few cases of test subjects feeling nauseated or tearing off the headset and running out of the room! VR challenges the human psyche. You can provoke great fear and great pleasure in equal measure with VR,” adds Batt. Would it be possible to enrich the experience further by adding a tactile element to the visual intensity of the encounter with the whale? “We’re working on that. A virtual shoal of fish could then brush against your skin under water, for example,” replies Batt, and you can tell he can hardly wait to experience this for himself.

It was precisely this sort of creative restlessness on the part of the Wevr team that almost instantly catapulted the startup into the ranks of the most innovative VR companies. The three founders have known each other since 2000, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the paths of Batt, Spiteri and the third partner, Scott Yara, finally converged. Spiteri had previously spent a lot of time working in the gaming industry and in the new field of interactive storytelling. Yara and Batt had met while working together at various startups. But it was Wevr that seems to have teased out the trio’s true talents. It was not long before they had developed their first prototype for a virtual reality headset and come up with the idea for a film studio of the future. Today, Wevr is seen as the new tastemaker for all sorts of industries. “More and more companies are looking for ways to interact with their customers. Carmakers are interested in us, architects and real estate companies already invite their clients to walk around in virtual houses, something made possible by VR. We see virtual reality as a ‘wedge’ technology – in other words, a technology that is capable of transforming and redefining all kinds of industries,” says Neville Spiteri.

One of the reasons behind Wevr’s success could be that the company and its employees don’t approach their work from a purely technical perspective. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink can be found on the shelves of the Wevr cafeteria. And in general, as Spiteri explains, “The philosophy of reality and VR is important to us. The same goes for Joseph Campbell or William Gibson’s work Neuromancer. Of course we do talk about hard-core tech geek issues or the usual startup problems, but we’re nevertheless also very interested in the theories and psychology of the future.”

The objective being pursued by Wevr with its VR worlds is not simply to establish new forms of storytelling, but to give users the feeling that they are living in the moment. That might sound strange at first – technology is, after all, something we often perceive as a source of stress. Our iPhone presents us with multitasking challenges and, for some, becomes an addiction. “VR, on the other hand, has the same effect as a yoga class. You feel as if you are in the here and now, and you don’t get distracted when you walk around in a VR world. We often get feedback that shows how a lot of people feel more plugged-in when they put on the VR headset, more alert than in real life,” says Anthony Batt.

“Of course we do talk about hard-core tech geek issues or the usual startup problems, but we’re nevertheless also very interested in the theories and psychology of the future,” explains Wevr founder Neville Spiteri.

High-impact technology: “We often get feedback that shows how a lot of people feel more plugged-in when they put on the VR headset, more alert than in real life,” says Anthony Batt.

High-impact technology: “We often get feedback that shows how a lot of people feel more plugged-in when they put on the VR headset, more alert than in real life,” says Anthony Batt.

This was the very effect that brought Wevr to the attention of Deepak Chopra, the well-known meditation guru on the West Coast. After just one minute, he took the VR headset off and had exactly four words to say: “That is the answer!,” as Batt recalls. “He was convinced that everyone could be persuaded of the benefits of meditation with the help of VR.” Wevr created a film for Chopra that makes it easier for viewers to slip into a meditative state and push aside the demands of daily life. Batt sees this as a major step forward for the human psyche. “We have enormous energy and power inside us. And these are unleashed when we concentrate. Technology can help us do that.”

Needless to say, Wevr’s activities and the imminent VR revolution have not escaped the attention of the company’s Hollywood neighbors. Wevr has already participated in a number of collaborations. Working in partnership with Iron Man director and Avengers producer Jon Favreau, the startup developed Gnomes & Goblins. This is not so much a movie as it is an accessible world in which users can feed nuts and fruit to its diminutive fantastical creatures. It’s a cute alternative to the menacing whale from theBlu. However, integrating VR into the world of Hollywood will be anything but a simple task. “You need a brand new type of training for VR, which has nothing to do with traditional filmmaking. Imagine you’re a radio producer and have to learn how to make movies. That’s how big the difference is,” says Batt. But Hollywood is certainly doing its best, as the new world of VR is just too enticing. According to his own account, Steven Spielberg felt like a big kid when he put on the VR headset, and he is now working on his first VR project. As Batt sees it, the movie industry has no choice but to get involved.

“Whenever an industry comes under intense pressure because of an innovation, something new comes out of it. It’s been a similar story in recent years with television – the internet, Amazon and Netflix came along and TV suddenly became a whole lot better. ‘No pressure, no diamonds’ as they say!” Spiteri is particularly mindful of the consumer, for whom there will be no going back at some point. “It’s like what happened with the wheel – once it had been invented, nobody wanted to do without it.”

The people at Wevr understand the reciprocal effect between technologies, and that VR could even lead to the rediscovery of the analog world. “We live in a digital world but, at the same time, we love the farm-to-table movement, i.e., buying and eating food that is harvested locally. That’s actually pre-global,” says Batt, who scribbles his drawings for the next groundbreaking VR ideas in a small notebook, rather than on a tablet. It’s certainly very comforting to know that the ambassadors of virtual reality aren’t losing themselves in it and are, instead, discovering anew the virtues of the real world through their work. It could point ahead to the sort of future where this technology is part of everyday life and where people enjoy the virtual reality experience – but it also inspires them to live their real, analog, daily lives more consciously and in a more fulfilling way.

The objective being pursued by Wevr with its VR worlds is not simply to establish new forms of storytelling, but to give users the feeling that they are living in the moment.

07/12/17