How an earthquake led me to a VR startp
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