We combine motion capture technology with virtual reality technology to create the closest thing to the holodeck that exists in the world, and we make them available to everyone in convenient retail Sandboxes around the world. The opportunities that this medium enables are literally endless — we think this is a new medium that is every bit as powerful as the moving picture. If you think about all the ways that videos have changed the world — from entertainment to education to staying informed, we believe the holodeck medium will have an even bigger impact of the world. This is to us the ultimate and final medium of expression — it is the most immersive experience possible. Every medium from the written word to the moving picture has been a facsimile of an experience, but with the holodeck, it IS the experience. It is also natively digital. People like to talk about how impactful platform transitions are, and platform transitions happen very rarely. But new mediums happen not even once in a lifetime, and are even more impactful than a platform transition — and we believe that the holodeck is one of those mediums.
As a part of my series about “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that seem copied from science fiction, I had the pleasure to interview Steven Zhao, CEO of Sandbox VR. Steven has nearly 2 decades of game development experience. In 2003, he founded Blue Tea Games, the developer of some of the best selling casual game titles in the world. Blue Tea Games’ Dark Parables series has sold millions copies worldwide in major retail outlets, and became one of Big Fish Game’s best selling titles ever. Blue Tea Games also developed Mavenfall, an online collectible card game for mobile, which received an Apple’s Editor’s Choice award in 2015.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 13, I started developing my own computer games. It went from being a hobby to a career during my college years, when I started developing and distributing online games as a means to pay for my tuition. I soon bootstrapped that into my first company in my early 20s, developing games with complex narrative worlds across desktop and mobile.
However, I realized the extent that users were inherently limited by the medium — the screen was a physical boundary between the user and the world I created. When commercial VR was introduced in early 2016, I realized we could build games where users can truly live and breathe inside the medium itself. That was very exciting to me, and soon after I founded my second company, which today is now known as Sandbox VR.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
No question, it’s gotta be the entire a16z General Partnership showing up a mall in the middle of the Peninsula in the Bay Area on a Monday afternoon. To spend hours with Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, Andrew Chen talking about the future of VR and the history of movies was not something I expected to happen a year ago before we started fundraising.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people? How do you think this might change the world?
We combine motion capture technology with virtual reality technology to create the closest thing to the holodeck that exists in the world, and we make them available to everyone in convenient retail Sandboxes around the world.
The opportunities that this medium enables are literally endless — we think this is a new medium that is every bit as powerful as the moving picture. If you think about all the ways that videos have changed the world — from entertainment to education to staying informed, we believe the holodeck medium will have an even bigger impact of the world.
This is to us the ultimate and final medium of expression — it is the most immersive experience possible. Every medium from the written word to the moving picture has been a facsimile of an experience, but with the holodeck, it IS the experience. It is also natively digital. People like to talk about how impactful platform transitions are, and platform transitions happen very rarely. But new mediums happen not even once in a lifetime, and are even more impactful than a platform transition — and we believe that the holodeck is one of those mediums.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
The worst case scenario for virtual reality technology has been a permanent escape from the real world and the relationships we have in them. We think about this a lot. That’s why it’s really important for us that our holodeck experiences are out in the real world, outside of the home, and we designed it specifically to be social. We want technology to bring people together, closer — and we hope to develop our platform and Sandbox Experiences to make sure that happens.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
I’ve been building games all my life — and when VR started taking off, I wanted to be early. Our team tried a lot of at-home VR, and I was incredibly disappointed by the experience, which I can only describe as sitting in a chair tethered to a computer by yourself at home alone as a disembodied head with two floating controllers.
I thought VR would be the holodeck, or the Matrix. So we asked ourselves why it wasn’t that. Although we’re pretty far from a real holodeck, we also realized that with the current technology available, we could create a “minimal viable holodeck”. The key to this was the concept of embodiment: The ability to see yourself and your friends as naturally as you see them in real life is the key to making the holodeck experience immersive, and even more importantly — social.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Guests will need to be able to go to a Sandbox to experience our product, so we’ll be constructing stores across the US, and eventually globally. With a wide enough network of Sandboxes around the world, a content ecosystem becomes possible, allowing us to rollout new and exciting experiences on a monthly or even weekly basis. All of this becomes integrated through our online platform that connects our guests with their experiences even after they’ve left our Sandboxes.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
Our primary growth channel is word of mouth — the core experience is so immersive and social, and so unlike any VR experience you can get at home. We also render in real time mixed reality video trailers for all of our experiences. Unlike a movie where you get a trailer before you watch it, in our experiences you get a trailer after your experience, starring you and your friends. These have been a hit on social media and has been key to our growth.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That would be our Chief Product Officer Siqi Chen. It helped that we’ve been good friends since college and I was his groomsman, because it would’ve been nearly impossible for me to convince a two-time founder who’s leading growth at a pre-IPO company to uproot his family in Silicon Valley to move all the way to Hong Kong for an, at that time, unknown startup.
Leading product, Siqi gave Sandbox VR an identity, and it impacted every aspect of our development. What I was particularly grateful for was during the fundraising journey, Siqi did everything he could do to ensure I gave the best pitch possible, and stayed optimistic after navigating through dozens of rejections, until we finally gotten our first investor to say “Yes”.
To me, he owns this quote: “A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.”
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’re not where we need to be yet, but bringing the holodeck to every neighborhood in the world is our mission and we think this will bring a lot of goodness into the world.
We all imagine and dream, it’s part of who we are as humans. With the holodeck, we can for the first time fulfill those dreams for a lot of people in the world. In much the same way as when you read a great book or watch a great movie, experiencing an adventure and living a character in the holodeck helps you empathize, learn, and be moved.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
“Be ready to invest all your money into this.”
When the company was out of money, I invested my entire nest egg to give the company six more months of runway and one more shot to launch the holodeck. Soon after we opened our doors, the first Sandbox became 100% booked out for three months straight.
“Learning to say ‘No’.”
We once had an a really lucrative offer from a large amusement center company. It could’ve been a really meaningful amount of cash to us at that time, but it would’ve bottlenecked our expansion in the US, and that would have stopped us from getting to where we are today.
“Hiring your good friend can be a really good business decision.”
Siqi Chen gets that credit, explained above.
“It’s a fast marathon, not a sprint.”
We’re building a new product for a new market, and three years in, we feel like the technology, content, and growth is not even 1% of where we ultimately need to be, and will be.
“Fundraising is a fulltime job.”
Beyond three months of preparation, our Series A fundraising took us to four countries and over a hundred practice sessions and pitches before ultimately landing with Andreessen Horowitz.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
In a highly digital world, most pastimes equates to people stuck to their screens — and it is isolating. Because our experiences are physically social, when guests leave our Sandboxes, we can see that they didn’t just have a good time, they’re having a good time with each other, laughter and smiles all around.
So my hope is to inspire a movement where people will carve out more time to physically be with and play together with their friends and family.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw
Moving to a new country to bootstrapping my first business in my early twenties was unreasonable to my friends and family at the time, but that business grew to team of 50 and our games were purchased by over a million people.
Building the holodeck is an impossible thing for a small team with no money to do, but we did it anyways.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Sandbox VR is the holodeck company, and it’s our mission to bring the holodeck to every neighborhood in the world. We’ve already built it, and we’ve made it work as a business: we’re actually the #1 activity on Tripadvisor in Hong Kong and Singapore. We also recently announced a $68M dollar series A led by Andreessen with participation from Stanford and Floodgate, Alibaba, CRCM, and TriplePoint Capital. In 2019, we will be adding dozens of new Sandboxes around worldwide and bootstrap the holodeck content ecosystem.