Naruatsu Baba, the 39-year old billionaire and founder of mobile game developer Colopl Inc. breaks the mold of your typical Japanese executive: he's completely immodest about his success.
"Professionally, I’ve never really made any mistakes," Baba said in an interview at his Tokyo office, sitting next to a life-size R2-D2 and a soccer jersey signed by Japan midfielder Keisuke Honda. "No matter how small a matter, I’ve always delivered something decent regardless of the deadline or the circumstances. But that’s probably a given for anyone who has made it to my position."
Those words are backed by the company's valuation of $1.9 billion on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Baba still owns half of Colopl and wrote most of the early code for games himself, including one that had players earning points by walking around with their phones, an early precursor of Pokemon Go's signature egg-hatching feature.
Now, Baba is setting his sights on what's considered to be the next big leap in computing: virtual reality. He's already one of Japan's biggest investors in the technology through his $50 million Colopl VR Fund, which has taken stakes in about 30 startups this year. His company is also one of the most active VR developers among Japan's gaming companies, having released nine titles in the past two years.
Baba says virtual reality's most significant feature is its ability to trick users into thinking others are physically present. That will soon let humans communicate in a way that approximates face-to-face conversations. "It fools you into thinking that both you and the other person are actually there, and it does this in a way that makes you really believe it is true," Baba said. "That’s probably the real essence of what VR is all about."
Asked why VR has the potential to revolutionize communication, Baba thinks for a full minute then snaps a photo of a teddy bear lying around in his office, the company’s mascot. He says a flat picture is basically the best that current technology like video telepresence offers, while VR can deliver the sensation of actually being with the toy. “Just looking at the picture doesn’t fool you into believing the bear is actually there,'' he said. ``But with VR you can do that. It makes you think it really is.”
To illustrate his point, Baba points to Dig 4 Destruction, the most popular VR title he's released so far. It lets four PC players goof off together—playing basketball, posing for Polaroid snaps, or throwing grenades at each other—in a virtual space. It's the 15th highest-rated VR game among 637 titles on Valve Corp.'s Steam store. The fun of being digitally present with other people is behind the title's success, according to Baba.
He isn’t the only billionaire excited about the social aspect of VR. Last year Facebook Inc. showed off Toybox, a VR title under development that lets multiple players strike silly poses, play games, or shoot slingshots at each other. Mark Zuckerberg said playing ping pong with a friend was the ``craziest Oculus experience I’ve had recently in virtual reality.” Whether people actually want to do these things is another matter. While richer communication might be appealing to families or friends living in different countries, the average user may not want to buy an expensive headset and wear it just to hang out with someone else.
"You have to ask yourself, does it really do something that people are missing?" saidZach Fuller, an analyst at MIDiA Research in London. “Whether or not people want to just sit there and talk, I feel it would have to be socializing while you're playing a game." That’s why Baba is pivoting toward VR games, betting that his years of experience can help deliver compelling content. About 10 percent of engineers at Colopl's offices in Tokyo's Ebisu neighborhood are now working on VR titles instead of mobile games. Baba says he expects to release about one to two such titles a year.
There's still a long way to go until VR can deliver an experience that's close to face-to-face communication. While hand gestures and head movements work fairly well, non-verbal cues such as eye contact or facial gestures are sorely lacking. Baba says it's only a matter of time before those hurdles are cleared. His fund has taken stakes in companies such as Fove Inc., which next month will release the world's first VR headset that can track a user’s pupil.
Asked about Colopl's chances of success with VR, Baba is characteristically confident. He believes it mostly comes down to luck, but detecting opportunities as they come along is a skill he says he’s honed through years of experience.
"I'm not the kind that makes mistakes at work," Baba said. "If I didn't think it would succeed, I wouldn't be investing so much in it.''