Sphere Play and the future of virtual reality in Montreal

Thre’s a lot of companies that would like to be in the shoes of Montreal-based virtual reality startup Sphere Play. Co-founders Christian Eve-Lévesque and his cousin Stéphane Lévesque only opened a bank account because they needed somewhere to put the cheques that Google Play kept sending them.

Sphere Play launched its first VR media player in 2012 after the two self-proclaimed geeky engineers built it as a pet project in Stéphane Lévesque’s basement. “We kept hearing that VR was a great technology, but no matter how great a piece of engineering the Oculus Rift is, it’s a screen with sensors on a mobile form,” Christian told MTLinTech. “So we decided to do a VR player for Android and it was the first software that allowed VR to be consumed on a phone.”

Cue the money.

Now they have an app, a free and a pro downloadable VR player, and an embeddable product that allows companies with existing webpages and video distribution systems to easily transform their products into immersive 360 experiences.

There are no headsets. And with just a phone or tablet, users get a 360-degree experience.

“You press play and it launches an immersive 360 experience. You can raise your phone up and down and see different places in the virtual world,” said Eve-Lévesque.

Since launching, the company has doubled in size and worked with big media companies including ESPN. It also gets consistent requests for custom versions of the player.

The low-hanging fruit of VR are the sports and pornography industries, says Christian. And while he’s rejected a few requests from the adult industry, he’s more than happy to work with the UFC to live stream fights. “Imagine you’re at the corner of the octagon and watching the fight in front of you,” he says.

Other companies that have approached Sphere Play for testing include the NFL and a team in the NHL. They’ve also been working with Vantrix for nearly a year, incorporating the Sphere Play platform into Vantrix’s turn key VR broadcast and distribution solution.

Kjell Kolstad, Vantrix’s VP of 360 Cloud Services, says the feedback they’ve received from users and potential customers has been very positive. “The application performs very well on multiple platforms and the user interface is easy to use and feature-rich,” he says.

VR, however, hasn’t caught on as quickly as some have expected. A front-seat view of bloody mixed martial artists where you can choose exactly where you want to look isn’t yet an option for the masses.

“The industry’s still experimenting,” says Christian. “The cost of production and the virtually nonexistent market makes it hard to justify big investments from media companies. Comcast did some investment in VR in the last Olympic Games, but after the event the CEO said there’s nothing more immersive or better than TV yet, which is a hit to the industry.”

Other lessons learned since launching include patenting their formerly open source platform and acknowledging that they’re better off staying in tech development rather than content creation.

“So many companies were taking our work and then getting big money with. And ultimately, we’re tech people. Playing the app game where you have to do promotion and user acquisition strategy wasn’t what we were good at. So we’ve changed to a more corporate approach over the last year,” said Eve-Lévesque.

This way Sphere Play can take advantage of all the industries that could benefit from VR, no matter which one explodes first. VR could help travel companies sell vacations by putting potential customers into a virtual version of their dream destinations. Real estate companies could do the same with model homes. And advertisers could even track where viewers were looking during a commercial – valuable data for profiling users to later show them more commercials (and product placement) catered to what they actually want.

Sphere Play

But we’re not there yet, said Eve-Lévesque.. “Expedia could jump on that medium, but if only 10 per cent of their potential clients have devices to watch it that way, it’s not a good return on investment.”

The same goes for advertisers, despite the higher impact of fully immersive ads.

“They come with conversion rates approximately ten times higher [than traditional ads] because of the empathy they can create, and the whole environment is trapped around your head so you’re not going to the kitchen to get a snack in commercials,” Eve-Lévesque told MTLinTECH.

So when will VR explode? “Back in 2014 when Oculus got bought by Facebook, people were saying 2015. Then 2016, then 2017. We can see a pattern there, but we’re definitely convinced that it’s going to happen.”

And according to Eve-Lévesque, it might not happen in Montreal – a city that wants to be a hotbed of VR.

“We’re known as great inventors, great paradigm shifters and we have strong skills with the video game industry, cinema and schools, but when it comes to business, we’re lacking the shark attitude to grab it all. I’m afraid we might be stuck in the research or early tech development part. So I’d say we won’t be as big as we’d hoped but I’d like to be proved wrong.”

In Montreal, a city of great food, it’s time to get hungry.

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