How an earth­quake led me to a VR startp

Inc. (USA) - - LAUNCH -

hu­man­i­tar­ian crises as a jour­nal­ist and a film­maker for years, I’ve al­ways felt that tra­di­tional film­mak­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy were limited. When you walk into a war zone or some­place af­ter a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter with a tra­di­tional cam­era or video recorder, you can cap­ture only one thing. That’s frus­trat­ing. There’s noth­ing like ac­tu­ally stand­ing where you can un­der­stand the scale of these things. When I saw VR for the first time a cou­ple of years ago, I thought this could be an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful medium to give peo­ple a to­tally new per­spec­tive.

We were the first group to show a VR film at the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val. It was about soli­tary con­fine­ment. At the af­ter-party, a friend showed me a pro­to­type of the Hero 360 rig, which is just a bunch of GoPros in a 3-D-printed case. That was when the light bulb went off for us. I knew all of our film­mak­ers around the world could shoot on GoPros and, more im­por­tant, that they knew how to fix them in the field. I knew we could fig­ure out the stitch­ing part with our post­pro­duc­tion team.

Then, the next day, the Nepal earth­quake hap­pened. My busi­ness part­ner, David, was go­ing there to pro­vide hu­man­i­tar­ian aid. I called up the kid who had the cam­era and David took it with him. Any­time he wasn’t de­liv­er­ing aid, he put the cam­era on. I’d worked in Haiti with Su­san Saran­don, and she agreed to do a voiceover. About a week later, we showed the video out­side a film fes­ti­val in Tel­luride. We couldn’t get it pro­grammed in the fes­ti­val, so we just set it up on a park bench with a Sam­sung VR head­set and we put it on peo­ple.

We called it the Nepal Quake Project. It was the first time VR had been shot in a nat­u­ral disas- ter area. Every day, we’d go to the street cor­ner to set up and there would be a line of peo­ple wait­ing, and a lot of those peo­ple, when they took off the head­set, they were cry­ing.

Our gam­ble was mo­bile-first, 360- de­gree sto­ry­telling for so­cially dis­trib­uted plat­forms like Face­book and YouTube. If we could make more 360 films than any­body else, then the sec­ond those plat­forms launched, all those pub­lish­ers and brands would call us. Sure enough, the day af­ter Face­book launched Face­book 360, we got in­un­dated with emails from me­dia brands and ad­ver­tis­ers.

As the com­pany was grow­ing and we had more in­ter­est in what we were do­ing, we were about 20 re­ally scrappy kids in a garage in Venice, Cal­i­for­nia. There were six of us at the time, in­clud­ing my­self, who were sleep­ing on the floor of the of­fice, be­cause we were in­vest­ing every sin­gle dol­lar back into the com­pany. When our film Body Team 12 was nom­i­nated for an Os­car, we had no money for an apartment, no money for a tuxedo. I had worked in Haiti with Ken­neth Cole, the de­signer, so I called him and he made tuxe­dos for David and me. I think I was prob­a­bly the only Os­car nom­i­nee who didn’t have a home to go back to.

What AOL loved about us was that spirit. At the time, a year and a half ago, we weren’t re­ally think­ing about ac­qui­si­tion. We were fo­cused on rais­ing a Se­ries A. We had a lot of op­tions, but I re­al­ized I just couldn’t raise money any­more. I couldn’t go to an­other lunch and have a Cobb salad and iced tea and talk about how great my com­pany was. It was tak­ing me out of the field and out of be­ing with my team. What we wanted to do was stop rais­ing money and just put our heads down and start build­ing big.

At Oath, which is what the merger of AOL and Ya­hoo is go­ing to be called, you have two big com­pa­nies that have their own ways of think­ing about orig­i­nal con­tent and branded con­tent. I’m help­ing them re­think pro­duc­tion and how orig­i­nal con­tent is made and also bring­ing a lot of new for­mats to all the brands with vir­tual re­al­ity, aug­mented re­al­ity, and 360. We still bring the same spirit to our work every day. But now I can af­ford a house.

Bryn Mooser is the co-founder of Ryot Films, which pro­duces me­dia for im­mer­sive for­mats like vir­tual re­al­ity and 360-de­gree video. He started think­ing about trans­for­ma­tive tech­nol­ogy while work­ing as a Peace Corps vol­un­teer in West Africa, liv­ing on the edge of the Sa­hel in a re­gion that had cell-phone tow­ers–but had never had land­lines. Ryot ini­tially pub­lished news sto­ries that en­abled read­ers to take so­cial ac­tions, and then piv­oted into im­mer­sive video. In 2016, Mooser and his co-founder, David Darg, sold Ryot to AOL. –As told to Jeff Ber­covici

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