Hong Kong immersive Virtual Reality startup Sandbox VR has won investment from several A-list celebrities, including Katy Perry and Will Smith.
The firm has raised US$11 million from the Hollywood names, together with venture capital firm Craft Venture, to put towards its cable-free escape room VR experience that features full-body motion capture technology. Players in the VR rooms can battle aliens or submerge themselves in a pirate experience.
The virtual reality market has developed slowly since hyped predictions made five years ago fell flat in the face of slow consumer pick-up of the technology. In a Nikkei interview, Sandbox founder Steve Zhao blames the lacklustre consumer response on a clunky user experience that fails to let the user see her own body or move freely.
“When I looked into the consumer VR headset, I tried it and I was sitting down and was tethered to a computer, and I’m holding two controllers,” said Zhao. “No, this is not VR!”
Sandbox launched its first store in the US last year and plans to roll out 16 locations by the end of next year, having partnered with mall operators such as Westfield. The Hillsdale Shopping Center location experiences 90-per-cent occupancy during peak hours, prompting the firm to expand its lease.
“We found out that over 80 per cent of our customers had never visited the mall in the past year, and for 60 per cent of them it was their first visit to Hillsdale Shopping Centre,” Zhao told Nikkei. “They came because of Sandbox, and I think the landlords are incredibly excited about that.”
Zhao said the firm will certainly look to expand in Asia, with China and Japan presenting compelling opportunities.
“We believe that VR is finally ready to take off as a mass-market phenomenon in malls, where it can be optimised for a social experience,” said Craft Ventures co-founder and general partner David Sacks. “We chose the Sandbox team because of their background in game design. Their VR experiences have a level of interactivity – with both the VR world and other players – that we couldn’t find elsewhere. We believe that Sandbox VR is poised to become the first VR experience for millions of consumers around the world.”
Sandbox’s Hollywood investors are expected to open doors to future potential collaborations that could lead to movie-themed experiences – a Star Trek project is already underway following a deal with CBS, and should be released later this year.
“Their support is a vote of confidence that our platform will one day become the new medium for the future of sports, music and storytelling,” said Zhao.