Alex Shortt and Benjamin Ha founded Spaces to free the world from drab, two dimensional, text-heavy websites. To this end, Alex worked with the AWGE creative agency to release an interactive, VR site that allows users to consume content and purchase merchandise in a virtual store.
The promise of three-dimensional websites dates to the earliest days of the consumer Internet. In 2000, the term “Web 3D” was heralded as the next advancement in online entertainment and shopping. However, bandwidth and hardware limitations couldn’t deliver on the hype. The launch of Second Life in 2003, with its 3D interface on a two-dimensional screen, was briefly successful, though users eventually tired of the clunky graphics and glitchy movements of their avatars.
John Greathouse: Alex – great to connect with you. Spaces isn’t your first venture. Tell us a bit about your Instagram analytics startup and share the lessons you took away from that experience. (Alex’s remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and readability.)
Alex Shortt: Hey John, thanks for the opportunity. I started Metaplug with my cofounder Ben during our senior year of high school. After a few initial pivots, we became a marketing company that allowed brands to leverage micro influencers by finding them and running campaigns at scale. We went through service phases where we helped companies like Columbia Records and Raw Papers which allowed us to launch a total of three products over the three years we ran the company.
One of the biggest takeaways from this experience was the concept of iterating quickly and conducting user testing. We heavily slowed down two product launches trying to add features when it would have been more worth our time to push a scrappy product and face the market. We took this with us towards our third product launch, which we launched in two weeks. There were plenty of problems and missing features, but capturing that early user base with the minimal product was crucial to maintaining positive profit margins.
Greathouse: Very cool that you launched a venture in high school. It’s never too early to be an entrepreneur.
Let’s talk about the state of the 3D world. 3D websites go back to the early days of the Internet. There are a multitude of reasons 3D has consistently failed, outside of adult entertainment and games. Timing is everything in life and business… why do you think the time is finally right for 3D sites to start entering the mainstream?
Shortt: As a web development freelancer, I have recently seen brands trying to stand out by creating 3D websites. After all, many brands’ marketing channels are only their Instagram and website, so a 3D site does really help (them) stand out. Reaching out to these brands, many have been both interested and prepared to make VR spaces. As for the technical side, the web’s capabilities are at the perfect place. Devices have improved significantly, with 97% of devices (in use today) possessing the ability to run VR websites to some degree.
All of this shows that launching a VR space today is a very realistic goal, but the near future only looks more promising. WebXR, a web API that allows for VR and AR content on the web, has been receiving rapid updates recently. That means that once VR peripherals become a norm to own, at the flip of a switch, all previously developed VR spaces will be accessible through peripherals. An investment in a VR space now is an investment into the future of online activity.
Greathouse: I get that new hardware can adequately provide a decent VR experience, but what about the majority of phones and laptops which utilize legacy processors and have limited caching capabilities? They might be able to render 3D, but is it a positive experience?
Shortt: As with a lot of cutting-edge technology, it’s a balancing act between accessibility and expression. Brands are already sacrificing one for the other through more expressive designs that utilize experimental web technologies. The shift towards VR is no different in this regard, besides having a more durable return on investment. To lean towards accessibility, a very simple VR space can be designed that would run smoothly on the weakest processors while still providing a much richer online experience.
Greathouse: You’ve created some art-oriented sites, including a gallery for Chad Knight, a 3D designer at Nike. Graphically rich sites, such as art galleries, make sense to me for early usage of 3D graphics. What other verticals are you targeting in the near term?
Shortt: Art will always be the best application to test a new medium, which is why we started working with artists and are exploring VR cinema as an interactive alternative to traditional film. In the short term, when planning verticals to target, I’ve found the most success in working with artistically driven brands.
Through my freelancing I have worked with many LA and NY based streetwear brands, such as AWGE, that were open to testing new technology, so VR spaces are a very easy next step for them. This extends further to any online presence that is interested in spending marketing dollars on unique online experiences, a big example being cannabis. Also, online events offer scale beyond what any physical event could do at a much lower price point.
Greathouse: Your company is currently working on a VR website that will take the place of the AWGE’s main website. What are the upsides of having a VR space over a 2D site?
Shortt: A VR space can provide a much more immersive experience while maintaining the same functionality. From their current site, I was able to carry over the same videos, images, shop, text, and external links. Offering input on the design of the space came very naturally to them as we spoke about topics like building design and prop placement, rather than complex web UI concepts. At the same time, the average time spent on the site is expected to go up 150%.
Greathouse: Spaces is currently selling a shirt that comes with a VR space. What is your endgame with regard to allowing users a VR space – do you intend for them to build their own sites?
Shortt: We’re calling our shirt a portal, or a way to enter a VR space. Our core product is and always will be VR spaces, but portals allow for an intuitive sharing and visiting of the spaces to enhance the user experience. The shirt launch also demonstrates how to create spaces at scale, as each space is customized using data from the customer’s Instagram, including images, videos and captions. This means that every new shirt sale will result in a unique space for each customer to treat like their personal art piece. This is one step in the direction towards an immersed online experience, where all of our online activity takes place in VR.
The end goal for this change is not as simple as creating current 2D features in VR – rather, our relationship to common concepts such as personal profiles will fundamentally change to complement the medium. I see the personalized space that comes with the shirt as a new version of a profile page on a social media site.
Greathouse: What do you say to critics who believe most consumers, “don’t want” a VR website experience? Obviously, traditional text-based sites are a great modality for conveying straightforward information that can be quickly digested. What product characteristics or brand attributes tend to result in a killer online VR experience?
Shortt: When it comes to an entirely new medium, the same story is always told – arts and entertainment are the first players that are eager to test new tools. Then, as people become accustomed to the medium, more traditional brands and companies leverage the medium to stand out, while making a sound investment. As for more conservative companies offering dry experiences such as bank statements, they respond to convenience, and therefore would only utilize the medium once it was more convenient for the end user.
The same is true with VR. I saw this immediately and started building galleries for artists, leveraging their reach to steadily build our brand while receiving the flexibility to experiment with new UX concepts. We are gathering this information and turning around to target brands, starting with the least conventional. After working with them, we will follow down the chain until, inevitably, bank statements are more convenient to check in a VR space than on today’s medium.
Greathouse: Another argument against VR sites is they are more expensive to build and more cumbersome to maintain, as compared with conventional sites. To what extent is this a valid critique?
Greathouse: Like many tech companies, Spaces is currently a service business, building custom websites for notable brands. However, I know you have a bigger vision. How do you plan to leverage the success and experiences you’re gaining from building VR sites as coders for hire?
Shortt: Building these sites does a lot for our company’s growth in the short-term including revenue, access to developers, and the ability to capture our clients’ audiences. Our goal is to build an interconnected ecosystem of VR spaces, so gaining early adopters is a crucial first step. To help push this goal forward, the first product we’re building is an algorithm to categorize virtual realities so that we can offer users an intuitive way to search for VR content. From there, we will be able to leverage the traffic to connect third party spaces with our own. This will lay the foundation of an interconnected VR experience.
Greathouse: (The movie and book) “Ready Player One” is an inspiration fueling Spaces’ mission. What do you envision the typical VR web experience will be like five years from now?
Shortt: Generally, peripherals will become a lot more common and convenient. Oculus’ recent release of the Quest 2 at $300 shows a promising push towards the norm of owning a headset, the same as a phone. The technology itself is improving its capabilities of input and output through features like hand tracking, eye tracking, and rumble packs for added sensory control.
With a maximally immersed experience, a natural evolution of the Internet would be a connected multiplayer experience with information scattered more naturally than current discrete sites. Spaces is here to provide a cohesive user experience through upcoming technological breakthroughs that are bound to shift the norms of online activity.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.