Why is Big Tech Buying Up L.A.'s Virtual Reality Startups?

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

Why is Big Tech Buying Up L.A.'s Virtual Reality Startups?

With two Los Angeles virtual reality (VR) companies joining Big Tech empires last week, the follow-up question is simple: What's going on? The answer is more complicated.

Apple's acquisition of Newport Beach-based NextVR and L.A.-based ViRvii's announcement that it signed an agreement with Facebook's Oculus come at a relative down period for VR. Looking specifically at Los Angeles-area startups, data from PitchBook shows that deal making in VR has fallen steeply from its peak in 2016-17 (see chart). Industry-wide, analytics firm Digi-Capital reported this month that investment in both AR and VR fell at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, down to levels not seen since 2013.

Some analysts and insiders point to misaligned expectations regarding VR's capabilities as the cause of the cool-off. But now momentum is building. And although neither tech giant has publicized its intentions behind these specific moves, their past actions and current trends suggest this is a turning point – which could go in one of several different directions.

"We still have a long road ahead of us," said Tuong Nguyen, an emerging technologies analyst at Gartner.

VC activity in Los Angeles-based virtual reality companies by deal value and count (as of 5/15/20).Data courtesy of Pitchbook

To understand how that road will look, it helps to first look back. Nguyen told dot.LA that consumer adoption to date has been slow for three main reasons. First is a lack of control: the interface by which people are meant to immerse themselves in VR is still a "work in progress." Second, the need to purchase hardware, which can be pricey, has hurt convenience. Third, content has been limited, with relatively few options to fuel the high-tech experience. "It's like subscribing to cable and only getting ten channels," Nguyen said.

What, then, is pushing Apple and Facebook to act now?

In the case of NextVR, which has focused on building VR experiences for live events and has forged partnerships with the NBA, Fox Sports and WWE among others, tech analyst Dan Rayburn doesn't necessarily see Apple's move as a push to expand its VR footprint. "I'm looking at this as a failed VR in consumer (application) and Apple being smart and seeing 40-some patents that tie to so many other pieces of their ecosystem... and engineers who understand the tech," he told dot.LA. "For the vast majority of consumers, people just aren't interested in it." Rayburn noted that the reported (though unconfirmed) acquisition price paid by Apple of $100 million would mean that NextVR, which had previously raised over $115 million across three funding rounds according to Crunchbase, has lost money–despite being widely considered a leader in consumer VR.

Others take a different view.

"One of the biggest issues with our industry is timing, and why and when certain things are valuable," said Cix Liv, a VR entrepreneur and member of LA's 2017 Techstars cohort, now based in the Bay Area. "It's going to get bigger and bigger. The question is just when."

Might that time be now?

Although investment in VR has fallen lately, a forthcoming report from research firm Parks Associates notes that U.S. consumer adoption of VR headsets grew from 6% of the approximately 102 million households with broadband in Q4 2019 to 10% in Q1 2020. Demand for VR headsets has reportedly outstripped supply during the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps motivated by lengthy stays at home, Parks also found that as of Q1 2020, 16% of U.S. broadband households are "likely" to purchase a VR headset in the next 12 months.

Peter Csathy, a digital media entrepreneur and analyst, concedes that "VR's promise hasn't lived up to its hype. But that could change as a result of the global pandemic that has made consumers more comfortable with virtual experiences. And the coming onslaught of 5G will only accelerate VR further."

What does Big Tech make of it?

"I think they realize that VR (as well as AR) is the future of user experiences," Nguyen surmised. These moves look to him like the assemblage of technology and talent for a still uncertain outcome. "They're putting the pieces together for something that doesn't exist yet."

Nguyen also notes that, given a confluence of unmet expectations, intense competition among startups for funding, and the cool-down effect of the pandemic, "it'd be fair to say that (acquisition) prices are increasingly appealing."

"You see how today everyone wants to have a streaming service because winning the battle for streaming is how you get eyeballs on your content?" poses Brett Danaher, professor at Chapman University with expertise in the entertainment industry. "We'll see that battle with VR and AR as well, one day. I think smart companies want to stake out that territory early if possible."

Apple, numerous sources noted, has a reputation for taking a patient approach and swooping in at what it believes is the right time. "Apple has stood by, and has been waiting for the VR market to grow before making an effort to move into this space," said Kristen Hanich of Parks Associates.

Rumors have hinted that Apple is looking at designing its own headset in 2021-2022, according to Heiko Garrelfs at Hampleton Partners, a technology M&A advisory firm.

As for Facebook's partnership with ViRvii, a platform that aims to enable music fans to immerse themselves in an album-oriented experience – think being "inside" The Beatles' Yellow Submarine or Pink Floyd's The Wall alongside your friends, says founder Juan Dueñas – "if you spoke to anybody at Facebook," said Liv, "(they think) the next big phase of social is virtual."

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has previously called VR "the next major computing and communication platform." His firm, which bought headset-maker Oculus in 2014, appears to be retaining its optimism.

"Facebook is definitely interested in doing what it can to keep the momentum up and part of that is going to be investing in improving the VR experience and bringing more content to Oculus," observed Hanich.

The social media giant may also be looking to VR as its first opportunity to "control a user experience end-to-end from hardware to interface," notes Liv.

Silicon Valley Virtual Reality attendee trying on a NextVR headset..live.staticflickr.com

Human-Centric VR?

While moving forward with an optimistic eye toward the future of VR or simply acquiring valuable intellectual property and engineers are both viable motives for Apple's and Facebook's moves, there is also a third, more nuanced explanation.

"Apple's acquisition of NextVR and Facebook's partnership with ViRvii," says Csathy, "both demonstrate a new 'human' focus to VR experiences by big tech."

Indeed, Dueñas highlights ViRvii's "bottom-up" focus on music fans compared to the traditional "top-down" approach that has focused on concerts as a key reason why Facebook is interested in his startup.

"Concerts kind of suck," he said. "It was weird why VR was focused there. My idea was to bring it to where the technology and the art creates what you're immersed in."

What comes next?

"I'd expect all the leading vendors – Apple, Facebook, Google, maybe Microsoft – to be looking at these types of acquisition," said Nguyen.

As for what sort of startup might be a prime target, opinion is mixed.

Some analysts think platform technologies like ViRvii, rather than content, will attract interest. Others expect a continuation of growth in gaming and business and military applications, such as training simulations.

Liv thinks timing will continue to play a big role. Firms that are well placed given current and not-too-distant behaviors and technological capabilities will do well, he says. His own company, for example, has ridden the tailwinds of VR gaming. YUR.fit captures health data from VR gamers – who, like pickup basketball players, often sweat and burn calories as they play – to build a gamified exercise experience upon behaviors that are already happening. This contrasts with Magic Leap, a mega-hyped VR company that recently had to make massive layoffs: "That was an example of a company being too early," Liv concludes.

Los Angeles may continue to catch the eye of cash-rich giants looking to make acquisitions. PitchBook pointed dot.LA to the top 10 VC-backed VR firms in L.A. Might one of them be next?

L.A.'s Top VC-Backed VR Firms by Post-value (as of 5/15/20)


Sam Blake covers media and entertainment for dot.LA. Find him on Twitter @hisamblake and email him at samblake@dot.LA

Fuel Innovation: 7 Unforgettable Team Building Experiences in LA
Image Source: Discover LA

In today's competitive business landscape, team building activities have emerged as a crucial tool for fostering a positive work environment, enhancing productivity, and crucially, improving employee retention. Studies have shown that such activities help employees feel valued, with one report indicating that 93% of those who felt appreciated were more motivated at work. Importantly, team building events may improve retention rates, as employees who feel connected to their colleagues and company culture are more likely to stay long-term. With these benefits in mind, let's explore some of the most engaging and effective team building activities available in Los Angeles.


Image Source: Modern Luxury Angelino

Pickleball is a fantastic team bonding activity because of the easy-to-grasp rules and gentle pace make it perfect for everyone, regardless of age or fitness level. The game thrives on communication and teamwork, as players must collaborate and strategize to outplay their opponents, boosting team cohesion. Plus, the lively, fast-paced action sparks friendly competition and laughter, creating a fun and spirited atmosphere that brings everyone closer together. Los Angeles boasts numerous pickleball courts that are easy to rent if you have your own equipment. If you need additional assistance organizing your pickleball outing, there are plenty of full-service companies ready to handle every detail for you.

Resources: Pickle Pop, Corporate Pickle

Escape Room

Image Source: The Escape Game

Escape rooms are a great way to build camaraderie. They require participants to work together, combining their problem-solving skills and creativity to overcome challenges and puzzles. The immersive and time-sensitive nature of escape rooms fosters collaboration and communication. Additionally, the shared experience of tackling complex tasks and reaching a common goal helps build trust and foster positive emotions among colleagues.

Resources: The Escape Game, 60Out

Day Trip to Catalina Island

Image Source: Love Catalina

Catalina Island is a perfect day trip for a team because it provides a break from the usual work environment, allowing team members to relax and connect in a new setting. Shared experiences during the trip, such as exploring new places and participating in fun activities, help build stronger relationships and foster a sense of camaraderie. There are numerous team-building activities such as an arboreal obstacle course, an island tour, scavenger hunts and more.

Resources: Catalina Island Group Activities

Top Golf

Image Source: Topgolf

Topgolf is an excellent team building event because it provides an inclusive, relaxed atmosphere that accommodates players of all skill levels, fostering personal connections and improving team morale. The unique blend of competition and entertainment creates an ideal setting for building trust, enhancing communication, and revealing hidden skills among team members. Additionally, Topgolf offers structured team building packages with guided activities, discussion prompts, and lessons on culture, change, collaboration, and strategy, making it a versatile and effective platform for strengthening relationships and boosting overall team performance.

Resources: Topgolf El Segundo

SoFi Stadium Tour

Image Source: Discover LA

A SoFi Stadium tour offers a unique, behind-the-scenes experience of one of the world's most advanced sports venues, allowing team members to explore exclusive areas like premium suites, team locker rooms, and the player tunnel together. The tour provides a shared, memorable experience that can foster camaraderie and spark conversations among team members, regardless of their interest in sports. Additionally, the stadium's state-of-the-art features and impressive architecture can inspire creativity and innovation, while the group setting encourages interaction and collaboration, making it an engaging and enjoyable activity for teams of various sizes and backgrounds

Resources: SoFi Stadium Group Tours

Corporate Volunteering

Image Source: L.A. Works

Volunteer work serves as an excellent team building activity by uniting employees around a shared, meaningful cause, fostering a sense of purpose and collective accomplishment. It provides opportunities for team members to collaborate in new ways, often revealing hidden strengths and leadership qualities that may not be apparent in the regular work environment. Additionally, engaging in community service can boost morale, enhance the company's reputation, and instill a sense of pride among employees, leading to improved workplace relationships and increased job satisfaction.

Resources: Habitat for Humanity, L.A. Works, VolunteerMatch

Corporate Improv Sessions

Image Source: Improv for the People

A corporate improv class encourages spontaneity, creativity, and quick thinking, skills that are valuable in the workplace. It promotes active listening and collaboration, as participants must work together to create scenes and respond to unexpected situations, fostering better communication and trust among team members. Additionally, the playful and often humorous nature of improv helps break down barriers, reduces stress, and creates a shared positive experience that can improve team morale and cohesion long after the event.

Resources: Improv-LA, Groundlings, Improv for the People

🎬 Paramount and Skydance Are Back On
Image Source: Paramount

Happy Friday Los Angeles! Hope you all had a fantastic Fourth!!

🔦 Spotlight

Paramount and Skydance Media have rekindled talks to merge after negotiations abruptly halted in June. The proposed deal, contingent on approval from Paramount’s board, aims to combine Paramount’s extensive media holdings—including CBS, MTV, and Nickelodeon—with Skydance’s film expertise showcased in hits like "Top Gun: Maverick." This merger signals a potential transformation in the media landscape, positioning the new entity to compete more effectively amid challenges from streaming services and the decline of traditional cable TV.

Led by Shari Redstone, Paramount’s controlling shareholder via National Amusements, the deal represents a pivot towards revitalizing Paramount’s strategic direction amidst financial struggles and shareholder concerns. The involvement of major investors like RedBird Capital Partners and David Ellison underscores the financial backing aimed at stabilizing Paramount’s operations and addressing its $14 billion debt burden. Importantly, the agreement includes provisions to protect National Amusements from potential legal challenges, addressing previous hurdles that stalled earlier negotiations.

The deal also includes a 45-day period for Paramount to explore alternative offers, highlighting continued interest from other potential buyers like Barry Diller’s IAC and media executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. This flurry of activity underscores the significant stakeholders’ interest in Paramount’s future and its potential as a key player in a rapidly evolving media industry.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • Sidecar Health, a startup that offers personalized health insurance plans to businesses that allow members to see any doctor and pay directly at the time of service, raised a $165M Series D led by Koch Disruptive Technologies. - learn more

LA Venture Funds

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