#150: Tipatat Chennavasin on the River VR Accelerator by Rothenberg Ventures

tipatatTipatat Chennavasin is the creative director of the River virtual reality accelerator by Rothenberg Ventures. Rothenberg Ventures funded 13 different VR companies with $100,000 each as a part of their first class.

They’re currently accepting applications for their next incubator class through June, and they’ll be announcing the next class of companies sometime after July 4th.

Some of the benefits of being in the River VR accelerator include having three months in the co-working facilities in San Francisco and access to the River advisors and the team at Rothenberg Ventures. The intention of River is to help VR companies grow, and he talks about the history of the River accelerator program and how he originally got involved with it. Mike Rothenberg saw that there was a lot of potential for being an early-stage VC to support emerging virtual reality companies get started.

He talks about some of the characteristics that River is looking for including passion for VR, patience since it’s still early days for VR, and finding people that feel compelled to create their visions in VR regardless of whether they’re funded or not. He talks about the collaborative spirit of the first class and how the community formed amongst the participants of the first River program.

He talks about some of the apps and market potentials of virtual reality beyond just gaming, and some of the open problems including input and positional tracking, and doing VR-based presentations, memory palaces, and popular topics that have a lot of brand love like his Unofficial Pokemon VR game.

Some of the advice that he gives to VR companies includes making sure that the demo has a high-enough frame rate, to not make people sick in your demo, and that you have to be scrappy and lean since there’s not a lot of investment checks being written right now. Also, you have to really ask “Why does this experience need to be in VR?” It’s not enough that it’s cool, and you have to go beyond the novelty and it has to be more efficient, effective and add value by having it be immersive.

Some of the unique characteristics of VR include scale for buying products, 360-degree experiences and using your head to looking around, you can give dreamlike experiences in VR and making dream experiences in reality.

He’d like to see easier ways of doing animation in VR in a more intuitive fashion. He’s also looking forward to detective games, memory palace applications, and time travel to historical events to feel like you’re a part of it.

Part of the power of VR is to be able to see through your eyes and walk in your shoes, and how VR really is an empathy machine as Chris Milk has said. VR will help us understand ourselves, our brains, and our minds in a better way from curing phobias and other neuroscience applications. He sees that VR could help enable an experience-based economy that can replicate travel or owning things in a way that’s could be more sustainable.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.968] Tipatat Chennavasin: My name is Tipitat Jenevazin. I'm the creative director at Rothenburg Ventures. So I co-direct the River program with Dylan Flynn. He's head of investment at Rothenburg Ventures. And River is the program for the fastest growing VR startups around the world. We just finished our first batch about two weeks ago. We ended up helping 13 companies from around the world working on things in VR such as gaming and entertainment, of course, but also health care, education, input with eye tracking, 360 camera companies. We're trying to showcase not just interesting startups, but really what we felt like VR needed at this time.

[00:00:46.993] Kent Bye: Great, yeah. So there's really a lot of really innovative companies that were just at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference demoing their different experiences or hardware. And I'm curious, what is the framework or the setup in terms of what do companies get when they are part of this river accelerator?

[00:01:02.960] Tipatat Chennavasin: Oh, sure. So for the River Prem, we offer $100K in capital, about three months of space in our co-working facility in San Francisco, our offices, and then access to an amazing mentor network of about 30 to 40 amazing, absolutely awesome entrepreneurs, not just in VR, but also in tech in general. And really a lot of it, too, is access to the Rothenberg Ventures team and our own VR content production studio that we've built in-house.

[00:01:29.414] Kent Bye: So a company comes in, they get $100,000, they get access to all this network, the co-working space, they go through the three months or however long it ends up being, and then what? What are the obligations for a company for participating in this in terms of what Rothenburg owns or how is that sort of set up then?

[00:01:47.156] Tipatat Chennavasin: I mean, of course, we're asking this for equity within the company, so we take a small percentage. It varies from company to company, depending on what stage you're at, because it's a program that's stage agnostic for a company. We support anything from a one-person EIR to an 18-person gaming studio. And so what we try to do is offer them the most services and supports that they can get that they wouldn't find anywhere else, whatever that may mean. And that's opening doors, making connections, or that's rolling up our sleeves and helping them build product. We can do all these things.

[00:02:15.512] Kent Bye: I guess, how did this come about? How did this incubator program start and what was it about VR that really inspired Mike Rothenberg to start this program?

[00:02:24.679] Tipatat Chennavasin: So we're an early stage VC that's actually a startup ourselves. We've only been around for two and a half years. And a lot of our LPs are startup founders themselves, and they're always pushing for like, you know, what's new, what's amazing emerging technology that's going to change the world. And they'd already done three investments in VR by 2014, and they realized that there's something unique about VR that had the potential not just to, you know, be the next gaming platform, but something much more, almost like mobile or the internet, something that was going to touch all verticals and have a profound effect on the way we communicate and interact. And so then they realized, where are the best VR companies coming from? Who's supporting them? Especially in the early stage, which is the most critical at this juncture. And there was nothing. And Rothenberg saw this as an opportunity to step up and show some leadership and be like, you know what? If no one's going to do it, we're going to put our money where our mouth is and do something significant. And it's not just about the money. It's about devoting real manpower. It's not just one or two people that are working on this. The entire Rothenberg team is helping out in one way or another to help make River a success. And really the proof is in the pudding. Talk to any of the companies that we've worked with in the River program and you'll find out that we are not your typical VC. above and beyond because we're a startup. We get that. We work just as hard, if not harder, than all the other teams. We're not hanging out on a yacht thinking about where we're going to throw some money. No, we're like, you know what? What's going to be the most amazing thing that we can work on and devote our resources and help? you know, we quickly realized that VR, it was really like Mike and Dylan, those guys, they were already thinking about a VR accelerator program when I had met them. I actually met them at, they were throwing VR happy hours to kind of, you know, to map out the industry, to kind of grow their network and their understanding of VR, and I met them as just, you know, a guy from the demo scene that was just, you know, from the first SVVR, just going to every event and building demos and just trying to get people, I felt like a rapper selling mixtapes out of the trunk of my car, just be like, hey, I made this weird demo, come check it out, guys. no prospect of money, but just a passion for VR and just understanding. And my background is a serial entrepreneur. I heard they're going to do this accelerator or incubator program. They weren't sure what they're calling it or what it was. It was just an idea. And I talked to them and I was like, well, you know, this is my background as a serial entrepreneur. This is what I'm passionate about, VR. And it's going way beyond gaming. And they were in so much alignment with me. They were like, instead of joining as one of the companies in River, it wasn't even called River at the time, instead of joining as one of the companies in Accelerator, why don't you actually join the Rothenburg team and help run the program and build the program that you would have wanted? And it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I jumped on it and it's been the most amazing thing. And now when people are like, oh, what are you doing in VR? And I'm like, I get to say, I'm helping some of the most amazing, innovative founders in VR. It's just such a blessing. The mandate I had was, find awesome people in VR and support them and help them. I got to do that. Sightline the Chair was one of my favorite demos of all time in VR. When I saw that, I was never so jealous or angry. I was like, this guy's brilliant, smarter than me. Oh my god, this is the demo I wish I was smart enough to think of doing. And I fortunately found his contact. He was in the Czech Republic, Tomas. I sent them a Skype message and it was just this amazing thing where I had to explain what's a VC, what's an accelerator program, how can it help them, what are they doing, and they were just kind of shocked, a little suspicious. But fortunately, after a couple talks, we got them out here and it's just been amazing to see them, support them, and help them flourish as entrepreneurs, but also developers and innovators in the VR space.

[00:05:49.964] Kent Bye: And what were some of the things that you were looking for in the people that were applying to River? What were some of the characteristics or maybe even some of the common themes that you think all of these first batch of companies had in common?

[00:06:01.066] Tipatat Chennavasin: I mean, definitely obvious passion and willingness to understand, too, this was not about a quick buck. We were going to give them $100K, but there probably wasn't going to be a lot of follow-on investment. It's still, Dylan likes to say, it's still the ramen days in VR. And VR startups need to think, OK, when is a commercial headset not till the end of this year or early next year, then when is that gonna reach critical mass, maybe another year after that. So it's like, you have to be lean, you have to be scrappy, you have to be hungry, but find the entrepreneurs that are so passionate about it, they're gonna work on this regardless. And these are things, and when we look at projects, it's not about, oh hey, this is kind of clever, or this is novel, this is nice to have, we're like, no, this needs to exist in VR, and this only works in VR, and that's the kind of stuff that we want to back and support.

[00:06:43.022] Kent Bye: Nice. And so, what were some of the highlights from this first batch? I mean, I guess it's hard to pick individuals and favorites, but I'm just curious about some of the things that you see that have come out of this first batch of companies that you find really compelling.

[00:06:54.913] Tipatat Chennavasin: Sure, I think a lot of this, too, it was just how gratifying it was because this was a huge experiment. Like what I'd seen, you know, in looking at the VR industry and the enthusiasm from all the different communities have spread out in like all the major cities like the Bay Area. There's, I think, six VR like meetups. And that's not even including the Silicon Valley one. So an East Bay one. So maybe seven in like L.A. There's several, but also in Tokyo, also, you know, in the Czech Republic, there are amazing VR guys all over the world. And you sure we sometimes cross paths on Reddit. But to pick the best and the brightest from each one of these communities and bring them together in one kind of crazy social experiment, which is almost like Reddit in real life. But I consider it like the Olympic training camp for VR, you know, get all the best and the brightest and to come in on a Sunday and have a team from Tokyo talking to a team from the Czech Republic, talking to a team from Texas, you're like, this is awesome and they're all working on different things but sharing passion and knowledge that's really helpful and talking about collaborating and you're like this is great otherwise they might not have been able to help each other in these meaningful ways so I don't want to say you know like anyone really stood out but it was great to see a community forum that was real and tangible and you know the River class they exceeded my expectations on what they were able to do and they inspired me every day.

[00:08:07.141] Kent Bye: And what's next in terms of the next, so this one's ending. When does the next one begin and what's sort of the submission timelines for if people are interested in kind of applying and being a part of the next batch of the Accelerator program there at River?

[00:08:20.406] Tipatat Chennavasin: So we're already accepting applications. The official program will probably start after like the July 4th holiday. But so we're looking for July, but we don't want to make the decisions in June. But just apply now. Go to RothenburgVentures.com slash river. Or you can tweet to me at Tipitat, T-I-P-A-T-A-T. Or email me at Tipitat at RothenburgVentures.com. But we're definitely looking for the best and the brightest in VR. And a lot of people think, oh, is this an incubator? Is it an accelerator? You kind of are just trying to drop all of that. We're just a program that helps any stage VR company, because we're going to help you. We might not be the biggest check, but man, we will work so hard for you. And we can open doors that no one else is thinking about. We're doing so much in the VR space. Every single one of our team members has a gear VR. We do things like we go to South by Southwest. We showed VR to about 1,500 people. in the general public. And so if you have a VR demo and you want to see how it goes, we are opening opportunities to test it at a scale that no one else is seeing. So there's all these opportunities that no one else is really attempting or trying, but we're happy to take on because we feel like this is what needs to happen for VR right now. And we want to support the way people are doing it, but we're also willing to roll up our sleeves and get in on it.

[00:09:30.827] Kent Bye: What are some of the biggest metrics that you look at in terms of each of the, either it's a software development or hardware development, what are you telling them that they should be looking at in terms of measuring success and looking at their progress? Like, what type of quantifiable metrics should we all be looking at?

[00:09:45.755] Tipatat Chennavasin: Yeah, yeah. It's a very good question. I think, of course, it varies by company and company. You know, some companies you can look at, like, actually, some companies actually by traction with users like so Sios, they're actually deployed in the field, they're working with 100 therapists already curing people of phobias. And so especially like more like the B2B or the enterprise applications, you can see that already happening in some form of like traditional traction. But for others, a lot of times too, it's just about partnerships and strategic alliances like that are forming. The fact that the Gaming Studio for Argentina is the only South American company with a Morpheus developer kit. I mean, that's pretty awesome. And it's really because of the power of their game and what they're doing. But we were happy to help make those introductions that sped up that conversation to get them to that point. And so every kind of company has different metrics that they need. And we recognize that and we'll work with you to find the right metrics for you and help you guide you and groom you in whichever way that you feel you need to go.

[00:10:41.730] Kent Bye: So what were some of the more compelling sort of VR demos or experiences that you were able to see here at SAVRCon?

[00:10:48.392] Tipatat Chennavasin: So unfortunately I was spending most of my time just supporting the River teams and showing off some of the stuff that we were doing too at the River Productions. I heard great things about Morpheus, I still haven't tried the latest gen of that demo. I did get to play some cool games from some awesome, especially from the Oculus Mobile Game Jam. There were a bunch of people, not with formal booths, but just like, hey, try my demo. And it was just cool to see that excitement. Again, getting people, more people, thinking about VR and building cool VR experiences, it's awesome to see. Especially people are like, oh, this was my first time. And because of the Oculus Mobile Game Jam that there are real prizes to shoot for, people really went all out and built some pretty polished and interesting, compelling experiences for VR that I don't think would have existed otherwise. But yeah, that's kind of some of the cool stuff I saw.

[00:11:30.712] Kent Bye: What do you think some of the biggest market opportunities are in the VR space?

[00:11:35.220] Tipatat Chennavasin: You know, this is the one thing I think a lot of people are doing like some of the most obvious stuff and they're all attacking the same problem or the same like set of problems. And I think it's good to start thinking about the ones that other people aren't approaching. One of the things that we're trying to do with Rothenburg is we talk and explain and we evangelize VR to people that are not thinking about VR, not from the gaming space and not from traditional sectors and talking about how VR could apply to things in the enterprise, like data visualization or enterprise tools. I think creation tools in VR are just going to be huge, and I wish that there were more people working on that. I know there's problems with people waiting for input or waiting for higher resolution sets, but those are coming. And so if you know they're coming, plan and build things. But yeah, I think that's kind of some of the stuff that we're looking at. Sorry, going back, I did really enjoy Cerebrum it was like the brain training game. I thought that was really clever and really interesting That was what the ones one of the ones that they were actually a part of the pitch session and I was impressed

[00:12:34.404] Kent Bye: Yeah, I did an extended interview with Aldis and that was probably one of the things that I was impressed most with was all the sort of sophisticated neuroscience and cognitive brain training that they're doing. Still yet unproven in terms of doing these things in VR and making sure that they transfer over to real cognitive improvement and functioning, but I think that some of that stuff that they're doing is really exciting to me in terms of that interface between neuroscience and VR.

[00:13:00.338] Tipatat Chennavasin: It's still really early, but I like that they showed, it was still a quick demo, but the way they're approaching the problem and the way they're thinking about it, I think it's going to yield some pretty awesome results. And I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

[00:13:12.629] Kent Bye: Are there any specific things that you say that you're looking for in terms of big problems to be solved yet?

[00:13:19.093] Tipatat Chennavasin: So yeah, definitely going back, if people can do stuff with input and positional tracking, those are hard challenges that need to be solved for VR and AR. But in terms of just content and experiences, I think there's a lot of stuff in the content creation tool. One of the things people always make fun of me for, but I'm like, If you're giving me a VR pitch, why am I seeing a PowerPoint deck? I should put on a headset and see you in VR explaining to me why this is amazing in VR. It should be a VR presentation. And I want someone to show me what a crazy, awesome VR presentation would be, but then also create the tools that would allow other people to create VR presentations. And I think that could be pretty amazing and compelling. But yeah, creation tools. I think, you know, Tilt Brush is still probably my favorite VR experience I've ever done. And I'd love to see more people thinking about how to create something that unleashes people's productivity, whether that's user-generated content and like building worlds like Minecraft in VR or things like that. Going back into games, this is a little self-serving, but, you know, people are doing all sorts of different types of games, but I did a really silly demo. It was called Pokemon VR. I did it because Palmer Lucky always says he wanted Pokemon in VR, and I wanted to give him a little gift. And so it was like the Leap Jam, and I coded it in about like a weekend. It was really simple. It was really rough. But on YouTube, it got about 400,000 views. And what was interesting even more so was it got, I think, like 1,400 likes to maybe like 50 dislikes, which is one of the most positive ratios I'd ever seen. And the majority of the comments that weren't making fun of me for getting my Pokemon facts wrong were the ones that said, I would buy this game, make this game. Why isn't this real? I want to play this now. So someone please make an awesome Pokemon VR game. And I think you would crush it, and you would kill it. Oh, and the last thing, and I tell a lot of people this idea, and I want someone to really execute it, but memory palaces, mind palaces in VR, this idea that we're bad at abstract memory, but we're very good at visual and spatial memory. So you could take abstract information, encode it visually, store it spatially, then you're gonna unlock infinite amount of memory cognition. There's a great book called Moonwalking with Einstein. They talk a lot about these techniques and how they're used. And someone could create a way, and it doesn't have to be like a complete trainer, but some experience that plays with these ideas, explores this idea of visual, spatial information and memory recognition. I think there could be something really powerful from that. So those are just some wacky, weird ideas And I'm happy to give you 1,000 more. Just tweet at me. Ideas are free. It's all about the execution. And so it's just up to amazing teams to do it. And I look forward to helping.

[00:15:51.413] Kent Bye: What's some of the top three to five pieces of advice that you find giving to VR companies over and over? Either common mistakes or just to help them, guide them in the right direction.

[00:16:01.868] Tipatat Chennavasin: OK, your demo has to be a higher frame rate. Come on, guys. Yeah, definitely don't make people sick in a demo. Make sure that you're hitting all the technical things that Oculus has specified. So again, you don't want to make it off-putting. You don't have people to look over the stuff that's making them sick. And what's really bad is I get sick very easily in VR. I do one bad VR demo in the day, that kind of ruins me for the rest of the day. And so it's really tough. The other things too is, again, there's not a lot of investors lining up to do anything significant. We're hoping to be the bellwether and rally the troops. And more and more people are getting interested, but that doesn't mean a lot of checks are being written. So just know that you're going to have to be in this for the long haul. You have to be hungry. You're going to have to think scrappy and lean and ramen, instant ramen, not the fancy one. But also think about why in VR. Palmer touched on this really well in the consumer VR talk that he did, but it's like some people are just tacking on to VR thinking, oh, like, yeah, now I can do this in VR and this is cool. And it's not enough to be cool. I think like Joe Kraus from Google Ventures, he said something really powerful. It was like, you have to go past the novelty and find value. A lot of times when you try something, you're like, oh, this is cool, this is interesting, but it's just a tech demo that wears off or doesn't show why is this better in VR? Why does this have to exist in VR? Why is this more efficient or effective or valuable in VR? I can look at a wall of photos. Is that really the way I want to look at photos? Is that really that much better than swiping on my pad? No. If you could do something really powerful with that and think, okay, I spatially go through my photos and view it in a way that helps me remember better or helps me travel through my history or an event in a way that I couldn't have just looking at flipping through a photo album, then that could be interesting. But I see most people just doing like the bare minimum, having it working in VR and be like, look at what I've done. And it's like, go beyond. Like, think really like, okay, this is like the first iteration. I need people thinking at the 10th iteration and finding that value and finding like why this is better in VR.

[00:17:59.753] Kent Bye: Yeah, what do you think are some of the things that are special affordances or things that are very unique to the immersive virtual reality medium that transcend what can be done in 2D? Sure.

[00:18:08.338] Tipatat Chennavasin: I think scale. It's one of the most obvious ones, but like when you see things at actual one-to-one scale and understanding that, like, especially for something like shopping, how many times are you like, you know, trying to buy like jewelry And you're like, I don't know how big that is. And on your screen, on your phone, it's like, that doesn't give me a sense of scale. And those kinds of things can be really valuable. Definitely 360 and looking and understanding using your head as input and playing with that. And how does that mean? And this is why I like Sightline of Cher a lot. It played with line of sight. When I looked away, something was magical. Something was powerful. And tying back into that, that feeling that you can get from VR. I was trying to explain this earlier to someone. The most powerful experiences I've had in VR are the ones that made me feel like I was living a dream. Like, you know, when people come back and they hug me and say, like, that was a dream come true after they tried an experience like, yes, that's what you want. And, you know, Pokemon kind of played with it because it wasn't about playing with a joystick and a controller. It was about grabbing a Pokeball with your hand and throwing it and then shouting to Pikachu, lightning strike, and then having him understand your voice. And that felt like. That was how I always dreamed of Pokemon, right? Not as selecting the menu button, hitting the D pad, pressing the A button. No, it was talking to Pikachu. But Birdly was a great example of this too, where, I don't know if you've ever tried it, but you strap up in this crazy contraption, I thought it was going to be awkward and cumbersome, that they figured out to make the UI feel so natural that I was soaring around San Francisco and I was like dive bombing, going under bridges and flying and it just felt right. And you're like, This was a dream come true. Those are the experiences to me that I'm like, yes, strive for that and go for that kind of excellence and making a dream reality.

[00:19:48.012] Kent Bye: So what do you want to experience in VR then?

[00:19:51.094] Tipatat Chennavasin: I would love, I've seen people kind of play with this already, but like an animation tool in VR. And again, playing with scale. The sense of like, if I could animate in VR, but it was like a puppet like a full-size mannequin that was like a stop-motion puppet I think that would be a cool way of animating and like moving and working and playing in VR and creating stories and like if someone gave people those kinds of tools to reimagine the workflow like modeling and animation I think that would be really awesome and it's not about you know just let you do it faster but just do it more intuitively like throw it away and yeah like Stop motion is usually this tiny little mechanic. It's hard to do little moves, but it's like, you can have it as big as you want. You can move and you can point the face like it was a real person. That would be awesome. What other experiences? Definitely the Mind Palace. I'd love to see someone playing with that and doing something interesting, especially in the sense of even like a detective game. I don't know why there aren't more like, you know, people make fun of like hidden object games, but this idea of like, you know, like a CSI game that just showed like in VR, like I'm looking at a scene, I can kind of recreate, like if I put all the pieces together, and I can recreate what happened, it would play back to me, and I'd turn around, I could view it from different angles. I think that would be pretty fantastic and phenomenal. And this idea, too, of historical time travel. One of the companies we invested in, Discover, they're working on that, especially for ancient Rome. But I would love very high-end production teams to do this thing where it's like, I wanna be there when Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech, and see him, and be in the audience, or stand on stage with him, or just understand these points of history that, again, are so important, so powerful, I've only heard of it, I'd love to be a part of it in a way that made it feel like a memory.

[00:21:27.087] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:21:33.110] Tipatat Chennavasin: So for me, I think a lot of people think of virtual reality still as just games and entertainment. But I think it goes way beyond that. It's a new way of communicating with one another. I think when it comes to investing in an emblematic group, they're pioneers of virtual journalism. But you think about communication and what it represents, it's all about trying to get people to understand what you're seeing, see through your eyes, walk in your shoes. And virtual reality literally lets you do that. He calls it the empathy engine, and it's so true. But then, now that you have that, what are the stories you're gonna tell and how can you make that powerful? And I love to know that people are working on social good and explaining these topics that are often hard for people to understand or contextualize in a way that makes it relevant for them, but VR has the power to do that in the most powerful way. Yeah, I think what we're also gonna see is VR is gonna let us understand ourselves, our brains, our minds at a better way, PSIOS, curing phobias that unlock so much potential in people. But then, you know, I also think with VR, we're going to do just interesting things where I would love to see us move away from a materialistic economy. where we value goods and things that we own, but if we can replicate it virtually and make it feel just as good or more compelling, and if we can give access to experiences like traveling around the world and being more cultured, but do it in a way that has no environmental impact or doesn't cost too much money, then we can really move to an experience-based economy, and I think that would be fantastic. So thank you so much. Thank you so much. It really is an honor. I love being a part of this community. It's amazing. I meet the most passionate and also most friendly and available people. And I hope I can continue to contribute to that in a meaningful way. Please, you know, reach out to me. I'm just at tip of tat. Try my demos. Tell me what demos I need to try. Hopefully, I'll continue to push out some cool VR stuff for you guys, as well as support amazing VR innovators.

[00:23:21.013] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you, man. And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.

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