Within: Making VR a Truly Human Experience

Posted June 16, 2016

credit: Jonny Ahdout / Within

If you think back on any of your life’s most indelible experiences — meeting someone special for the first time; stepping off a plane in an utterly foreign place; a meaningful moment with family and friends; watching a band tear through a favorite song — all your sensory memories come back. It’s what you saw, heard, and felt in that moment … all around you. In combination, those experiences represent a big part of what it means to be human.

Now, what if you could tap into these experiences whenever you want? Certainly we try all the time — just witness the billions of photos and days (not hours) of video we’re all shooting, and consuming. But that’s preserving a moment or an event; it’s not recreating one. The promise of virtual reality (VR), however, is to do just that: To offer the full human experience — immersing you into a sphere of images as well as a sphere of sound — bringing together the sensory elements that made things so mind-blowing to begin with.

It’s easy to think of VR as an extension of today’s filmmaking, but it isn’t the next evolution of movies — it’s a complete revolution in storytelling. That’s what’s so exciting about VR. As an undefined new medium and technology, it stands a chance of reflecting back our humanity with a poetry and drama that we’ve never been able to pull off before… until now.

The people getting closest to this, we’ve found, are Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, the co-founders of Within (formerly VRSE). As early leaders in embracing the virtual reality medium natively, they have been steadfastly developing a new vocabulary and approach to storytelling with VR. While much of the VR world has been focused on gaming applications, Within develops and distributes immersive experiences through an app available on all commercially available VR hardware platforms. The product is therefore device agnostic and can also be watched (without a VR rig) on your phone.

My favorite question Chris asks is for you to imagine your best experience in your life, think through the details that excited you the most, then ask yourself if they would have been enhanced by experiencing them through a rectangle? As VR rigs get lighter, and more human-natural, virtual reality will become one of the most special experiences we can go within and experience in totality.

The Within product already merges storytelling and technology in ways that could never have been done in a rigid, rectangle viewer like a TV because Chris and Aaron are the people who intuitively understand this mix of technology and how it can be used for storytelling. Whether it’s the type of sound that they’ve created modeling how humans hear, or how they deploy subtle pointers inside a VR experience to make sure you don’t miss something that is happening behind you or in a quiet corner, the resulting experiences suck you in, take you to the place. You are there. But you can also be everywhere. They transport you beyond any 1:1 experience you could ever have.

It’s still early days, but Within has already created many firsts in VR storytelling, including the largest collective virtual reality viewing in history (at TED). They’ve won various awards, from being featured as a best new app in iTunes to best in show at the AICP Next to official selections at festivals such as Tribeca and Sundance.

They’ve created a diverse range of work for media outlets like The New York Times, bands like U2, brands like Toms, and real-life stories about people — like “Clouds over Sidra”, a 12-year-old Syrian girl’s experience in the Zaatari Refugee Camp (which won an award in the interactive category at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015).

Chris and Aaron are endless oracles of ideas around how to use VR technology to tell stories. Chris, who began his career directing music videos for the likes Kanye West, Arcade Fire, Beck, Jack White, Johnny Cash, Gnarls Barkley, The Chemical Brothers, John Mellencamp, and Courtney Love, won multiple Grammy nominations and top industry awards for his music video and commercial work. Before he was CTO at Within, Aaron formed — and led — the “data arts” team at Google for seven years, and won numerous awards including the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Interaction Design and the National Science Foundation’s award for science visualization. He also received an Emmy in 2014.

So they’ve both not only crossed, but merged, science and art. And most importantly, their energy, passion, and leadership is both magnetic and contagious: At Sundance, I witnessed firsthand the stunning respect they had already garnered from artists not just technologists. They already have a following of directors and content creators that want to use their technology platform, to help build it out, to scale it.

That’s why I’m happy to announce that following our initial seed investment in Within, we are leading their series A so they can continue to build out their vision for the future of VR content.


credit: Marla Aufmuth / TED, via Within