Pixvana team VR headsets

Pixvana’s CEO Forest Key tells the story of how we raised Series A with a first-of-its-kind VR pitch video.

Today we are thrilled to announce our Series A round of financing and a new set of investors who are backing our vision to realize the potential of XR storytelling.

At Pixvana, we often think about the advent of cinema in the late 1890s as a reminder for where we are today with XR – at the very beginning. Cameras and production tools are early, storytelling is experimental, and almost every experience breaks new ground in viewer interactivity. So when it came time to strategize about our Series A fundraising pitch, we found ourselves realizing there was only one way to tell our story: we would create and deliver it in virtual reality with our platform SPIN Studio. If XR storytelling is the disruptive, inevitable future of mass communications that we believe it to be, why not demonstrate its potential by creating an investor pitch?

Making Sofia

The Story

We called the pitch video “Sofia” as a homage to Sofia Coppola (one of our team’s favorite directors), and kicked off the production by writing a script. The script considered the audience, possibilities of linear vs non-linear/interactive presentation, and the potential usability challenges of a VR roadshow presentation. We chose to stick to the general structure of investor pitches and present the story in a linear format – this wasn’t the place to deviate from the standard narrative of an investor pitch.

  • Meet the Team. The opening shot brings you inside our office in Seattle, where our team of happy smiling faces welcome you with a wave. Interestingly and unexpectedly, about a third of viewers we showed Sofia to actually waved back!
  • Meet the Founders. An animated motion-graphics piece introduces my co-founder’s extensive prior experience in media tech to establish credibility early in the presentation.
  • Defining XR. There is a lot of nomenclature noise around Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality, so we focused on defining the broad opportunity for immersive video in “eXtended Reality” or XR.
  • A Brief History of Cinema and Modern Storytelling. We put you inside a traditional cinema and show classic film images from Hitchcock’s The Birds, then transition into a 360 view to emphasize the difference between watching a 2D screen and experiencing immersion.
  • Experience. The key to our presentation is this 5 minute section of vignettes that take the viewer to a variety of settings and scenarios. We take you to the sidelines of several sporting events, a ballet studio, a corporate keynote, the deep woods, a tour of a beach in Chile, and a fashion show.
  • Explain the challenges and the opportunity. We use immersive point of view motion graphics to show you some of the technical complexities of making XR stories, then introduce our team of product leaders back at the office for a product walk-through and demo.

Sofia the VR Explorer

Sofia the VR Explorer, a painting I commissed from local visual artist Jesse Link.  

Behind the Scenes Technical and Production Details

While the script was standard, the delivery in VR was remarkable. We built the Sofia experience in-house, using a mix of existing creative tools, cameras, and our own software whenever possible. Here are some technical details about the production:

  • We mastered the entire film at 60fps. Not all of our source video was 60fps so some elements were double-printed (repeated frames 2 times each) which mixes together fine with the true 60fps content. This higher frame rate makes the motion graphics pieces smoother and more pleasing and greatly enhanced perceived quality.
  • All source materials were 8K or greater in resolution, conformed as a equirectangular master. Source videos were shot by our in-house production team over the past year using a variety of camera systems, ranging from rigs of Reds and GoPros to various all-in-one systems such as the Insta 360 and Z-Cam.
  • The motion graphics were designed and produced by Matt Silverman at Swordfish in San Francisco, delivered from After Effects as 8K frame sequences.
  • We used our Pixvana SPIN Play application to present the video on Samsung Galaxy 8 devices using Gear VR headsets, as well as on Windows 10 laptops with Oculus Rifts.
  • To master the video we used Pixvana’s Diamond Plane projection technique, which is part of our Open Projection Format (OPF) specification. This format reduces overall video size and dimensions, while preserving as much of the 8K resolution as target headsets can present. SPIN Studio users can also render their own content with diamond plane!
  • To avoid any issues with network streaming as we moved into many unknown wifi environments, we downloaded and cached the presentation locally–about 500 megs for the 15 minute film at very high quality.
  • The viewer presentation was synchronized so that all viewers in the room were seeing the same moments/sequence. This was particularly beneficial at the end of the program, as all viewers in the room emerged from the experience at the same time and would often make eye-contact with each other with smiles on their faces.
  • SPIN Studio gathered analytics for each viewing and over the course of the 3 weeks that I was touring around meeting with investors and showing the presentation, we gathered many insights about ways to enhance the film with some re-orienting of content to make sure various easter-egg were seen by the audience. We created new edits accordingly and I downloaded updated versions onto the headsets.

Pixvana side by side of same video frame

A side-by-side frame of the same video frame as a equirectangular (left) and Diamond Plane (right) projection. By publishing and delivering the video this way the overall image quality is enhanced, and the data-rate and size of the video is greatly reduced–a win-win for streaming highest-quality vr video experiences.

The Roadshow

pixvana cables and devices

Here’s the Octopus-web of cables and devices after a long day of showing the Sofia pitch to investors. Most presentations were done on Samsung Gear headsets with Galaxy 8 phones and Pixvana SPIN Player for Android as the playback application. I used bluetooth noise-canceling headsets to enhance the experience.

Before going on the roadshow, I tested the presentation with about 50 viewers to run though usability, technical issues, and to get feedback on the content that led to some changes in the edit. I tended to not tell viewers how long the presentation would last, rather, I would say “about 10 minutes” to set their expectations that they would not be in the headset for an indefinitely long period. Post-viewing, almost everyone reported that they felt like the experience was “8 minutes” in length, when in fact the full runtime is 15 minutes. This was a positive sign for us that the length was just right and speaks to the dissociative nature of being fully immersed. Time is compressed!

Dave wearing a VR headset pixvana

My friend Dave (and his dog) doing a rehearsal viewing to get his feedback on the presentation. I had over 50 viewers watch beta-versions of the experience, which provided great usability insights regarding getting folks in and out of the headsets, as well as suggestions which led to tightening the script, cutting about 2 minutes of content, and adding a few really important shots and voice over additions.

I spent about 3 weeks visiting SFO, LAX, and NYC meeting with investors and showing Sofia to over 100 individuals. The experience forced viewers to slow down, be present, and really settle into VR. Several folks that came into the meetings jittery/distracted/grumpy, emerged relaxed and friendly. It forced a kind of “reset” to their day, because it was such a unexpected and new way to be pitched. There’s no distractions from cell-phones and email in a headset. Only one person removed the goggles mid-presentation and said “I’ve seen enough”.

Pixvana Investors

Investors from Madrona Venture Group viewing Pixvana’s VR pitch video.

The best way to experience this presentation is in a headset, as it was intended to be seen. To give you a taste, we’ve edited a shortened, public version of the pitch video. If you’re using a mobile phone, you can pan the scene using your phone as a magic window. To see the film in VR, you can download SPIN Play from VR app stores next month!

The Road Ahead

We learned a lot throughout this process and landed on some extraordinary partners in our business. I’d like to thank all of the beta-viewers and investors who took the time to experience our pitch and give us feedback. You helped form this chapter in Pixvana’s journey!

With this round of financing, we’ll expand our vision for XR storytelling with the launch of creative tools and we’ll continue to innovate in the exciting years ahead. To all of our invaluable beta testers and early customers, thank you for helping us shape XR native story tools. We’re still at the very beginning of this frontier technology and we wouldn’t have made it this far without you.

Forest Key
Co-Founder and CEO

Team Pixvana at Manolin

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