VALENCIA, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 25: Actors Sinqua Walls (L) and Ryan Kelley attend Samsung debut of the first virtual reality coaster powered by Samsung Gear VR at Six Flags Magic Mountain on March 25, 2016 in Valencia, California. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Samsung)
One of the more fascinating startups in the ever-so-heated virtual reality field has to be Spaces. A DreamWorks Animation spin-out in Los Angeles funded to the tune of $39.5 million by U.S., Chinese and Japanese investors, the 16-month-old is doing something that seems fairly far out -- designing virtual reality theme parks in China.
These VR attractions are in prototype stage now at large-sized back lots in LA, Orlando and China, and are set to open by early next year in at least two key Chinese locations. This comes through a $30 million joint venture with Chinese theme park operator Songcheng Performance in May 2016, celebrated at a formal ceremony where the Blue Man Group performed. Now, Spaces' virtual reality attractions will reach 23 million thrill seekers in China who want to experience the latest enhanced rides, stage shows and live-streaming video content -- all without getting nauseous.
"We want to make VR part of the attraction and provide a good first-time experience -- engaging, exciting and fun," said Spaces CEO and co-founder Shiraz Akmal, who is directing a team of 40imagineers, filmmakers, and video game creators to get going.
Akmal will be speaking about how his startup has gotten into China and collected major VC funding at Silicon Dragon LA 2017, July 26.
How did Spaces get into China so fast and seemingly so easily? Akmal said it helped to have 10 years of previous experience in building the China business for video game developer and publisher THQ. "All those years in China finally paid off," he said. "It's not an overnight thing."
But that's clearly not all. A strategy that focused on the broader aspects of entertainment rather than the narrow-cast VR field has been instrumental to scaling up, he related in an interview.
He said Spaces is not only focused on theme parks but about the broader out-of home experience, which can include Hollywood and video game blockbusters.
This broader strategy outside the maze of VR startups helped to convince investors to oversubscribe to Spaces when Akmal and his co-founder Brad Herman were pitching for funds. In May 2016, Comcast Ventures led the initial investment of $3 million along with nine investors that included Japanese investors Gree and Colopl, China's Youku Global Media Fund, Sinovation Ventures and CRCM Capital, as well as Boost VC, the Venture Reality Fund and Canyon Creek Capital in the U.S. These existing investors came in for the second round of venture at $6.5 million that was raised in January 2017.
Key to the startup's quick start is the team's skill set from working at DreamWorks VR-focused DreamLab and the blessing from then-CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg to go out and develop Spaces own IP and technology, which Spaces is licensing.
"We are creating a soup to nuts platform to distribute interactive content that can be experienced on location and that can be changed," he noted. "This will be the next category of theme parks."