Can you please give us an overview of your background?
I’ve always been a technical person. Even as a kid, my idea of a good time was taking apart the TV and putting it back together, much to the chagrin of my parents. I’m part of the first generation of people who grew up playing video games. For me, it was an escape, and I think it was especially important as a young female to be able to see myself as a hero, and a maker, and a builder. It was an organic interest that evolved into a fascination with technology. At the time, everybody wanted to play LAN games, and people were building their own computers because it was cheaper to buy the components and put them together. I’ve always been an advocate of encouraging young girls to play video games because I do feel like it’s a gateway to STEM-related interests, and ultimately, careers.
When I was young and living in Los Angeles, I was an actor (sometimes), doing commercials. In the very early days of the web, I was also making money as a creative person doing graphic design using Photoshop and Quark. When the web came out, I started hand-coding a lot of websites; HTML and even CGI programming. I found that it got me into a kind of flow state.
Today, you can build a website very easily, but back then, you could make a good amount of money doing work for the Hollywood studios. I found myself working at a company, Venu Interactive, that did web development, and we did some really cool projects. That was when I started to meet a lot of the LA tech community, which was starting to build in the mid to late nineties. Venu Interactive was acquired by an incubator called eCompanies, and that’s when my career really took off. I found myself with this really cool job prototyping startup ideas. That’s how I ended up at a company called JAMDAT Mobile, which became one of the first big mobile game breakout hits, and I ended up running technology at that company, which was ultimately acquired by Electronic Arts.
What has it been like to work in the gaming industry and how it has changed over the years?
I stayed at Electronic Arts for five years after they acquired JAMDAT Mobile, and I was in charge of the online central services, which was a big initiative. Our team delivered a lot of the infrastructure for the digital transition for the company, driving the change from a packaged goods company to having online services — whether it was multiplayer, in-game transactions, being able to take digital items from one game to another, the global identity, and what ultimately became the foundation for their Origin service. I loved working at Electronic Arts; it was a really great journey and was something I felt passionate about. They had some of the best games in the world, and it was there that I felt this real love for the game industry emerge from me.
After I left EA, I went to a company called Gaikai, which was a cloud gaming company, one of the very first, and run by Dave Perry, who did Earthworm Jim. That company ended up getting acquired by Sony PlayStation and became part of the game streaming service called PlayStation Now. A core group of that team, including Brendan Iribe, went to start Oculus with Palmer Luckey. I made a very small investment in their startup because I believed in Brendan and wanted to support that journey.
I remember when my late husband, Vic, and Zack Norman, who was the co-founder of TRIPP with me, and my cousin Keanu Reeves, the actor, all went down with me to try a very early version of the Oculus. It was the Crescent Bay demo, and I was blown away. It made me realize that the immersion of VR is the inherent property. That is where to really lean into from an innovation standpoint. It’s less about trying to take 2D experiences and make them happen in 3D. It’s, “how can we use that property of immersion in ways that you can’t do with other mediums?”
Please tell us more about TRIPP. What is your current focus on the project?
The idea for TRIPP started to evolve from a visit Zack and I had with another developer, Andreja Djokovic, who was our founding CTO. We made a solitaire game just to experiment with VR, but I had always wanted to do meditation. Originally, I thought, “could we do a digital psychedelic and trigger transformative states?” That’s what led us to come up with the idea of using the name TRIPP. We started to ask ourselves, “can we use VR to hack the way that you feel?” It’s much more than mindfulness in VR and way more effective than just listening to an audio file. Spatial audio is what we’re starting to experiment with in the next iteration of our product.
We want to create environments that you don’t have a real-world frame of reference for so that you can immediately trigger a feeling of awe. We’re already doing this and will continue to evolve it in a more expansive way, especially as devices get better. There’s a wonderful scientist out of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart Milan, Giuseppe Riva, who has a validated scale for measuring awe. I’d like to create an experience with that scale as the foundation for our design.
Another concept we’re exploring is becoming more like Netflix, but around transformative experiences. In other words, a distribution channel for people who make amazing content: beneficial experiences, content that tries to shift someone’s perception, or deepen the connection to themselves. We’re working with wonderful developers to co-create experiences, and that’s been a main avenue for our catalog expansion.
We also have five clinical trials happening right now, including trials in addiction recovery, anxiety reduction, and another in depression during cancer treatment.
You’ve done a great job on fundraising with TRIPP with one of the largest seed rounds in the VR industry. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with this process, as well as any tips you have for founders?
We got our seed round funded in September of 2017, but we raised money a little late in the game. We were just on the other side of the big VR hype cycle, which had a lot of over investments or inflated valuations that had started in 2015. Let me tell you, as the CEO and co-founder of a VR company; it’s not for the weak. There are a lot of biases against VR, and many investors think the install base is too small to put money into or that it’s like 3D television and not going to be that impactful. Many people underestimate the power of virtual reality and our goal is to prove them wrong by building a great VR first company that has real impact on your emotional well-being.
You have pioneered an innovative financial model. Can you tell us a bit more about this and how you envision the future monetization evolving?
We’re still experimenting, and we’ve done some things well while also gathering feedback about some things people didn’t love. It’s important for us to figure out how to build a big business. It’s less motivated by greed, and more motivated by continuing to evolve these beneficial experiences, and allow us to reach more and more people. We want to work with great creators and invite them to be part of a force for good. In order to be a channel for amazing content creators, we need capital to deploy across more devices. One of the ways to do that is through investment and having recurring revenue that’s not only dependent on the app store install base, which right now is still very small. It’s growing thanks to advancements in the standalone devices, like the Quest, but it’s still not at the scale that the mobile phone is.
We’ve had to figure out how to be scrappy, and so initially, we launched as an enterprise only offering, going into companies as an employee wellness solution. That allowed us to actually make a decent amount of revenue, even in our first year of existence, which is unusual for an early-stage startup. Most importantly, it gave us real users that used our product regularly and we learned a great deal from those deployments.
When we launched on the Oculus Quest, we were one of the very first subscription products on the Quest outside of Netflix. Of course, we experienced a lot of hate for that because early adopter audience gamers don’t love subscription services. However, it was important for us to be able to set that precedent and build infrastructure around that because we can bring more people to virtual reality through direct marketing and targeted affiliate partnerships with retail partners, as well as continue to support the existing VR audience.
Since then, we’ve lowered our pricing due to COVID-19, allowing one-time purchases so that we can better support people. Our goal is to get more people using TRIPP and do it in a way that is priced for the current market. But we also have to build for the future. So, we ask ourselves, “can we create a channel that will help people who would never think of themselves as VR users?” Once they try our experience, they want to buy a VR device. Let’s grow the audience, because the more people using VR, the more the entire industry will evolve and become healthier.
What advice do you have for people interested in breaking into the XR industry?
Just start working on a platform. We’re built on Unity, and there’s a lot of educational support that they’ve built out. I know that the Unreal team is doing the same as well. I would recommend starting to work with one of those frameworks, and start to create or collaborate with other people.
Ask people for help; that’s how I learned tech as a whole. I find the technology community, as snarky as we can all be at times, is super helpful. Even when they’re yelling at us on the forums or in our reviews, they’re also telling us how to do it better. As painful as it is at times, I really love that energy.
What were some of the most significant challenges you’ve faced while working in the XR industry? How did you overcome them?
I think the number one challenge has been the pushback (just in general) by investors on the VR install base and trying to figure out how to build a big business in VR. Some of that can be solved by creating other touchpoints to the consumer. I think the Wave is a great example of a VR first company that has successfully built a multi-device distribution strategy. It is also important to work with the platform teams like Oculus while scaling out on new devices as well.
I believe there are a lot of people trying to think about how to take old experiences and put them into VR. One of the biggest challenges for us as a community, as a whole, is to figure out how to do things that are VR native. It’s not about just replicating 2D game experiences in 3D. It’s really, “how do we design and develop for the medium, where you can get a deep sense of presence, a deep sense of embodiment, and create new worlds that you can only experience in VR?”
What parts of the XR industry do you think need to be changed? Why?
In addition to my previous answer, I think we have to start to focus on more innovation. I think we got stuck on, “it’s an empathy-building machine or it’s a simulation/training engine.” Our mission is, “can we stimulate different responses from a person?” I’d like to see more innovation evolve, especially from our own team to which we are very committed.
Who have been your favorite mentors? Why? How did you meet them?
I have different mentors for different things. I have one mentor I go to, Gerry Chamales, to adjust my attitude; he’s a great business person, and I love him. I have another one to negotiate my contracts, but I’d say the most impactful mentors I’ve had are a lot of my old bosses. I have had the good fortune of working with some of the best people in the tech entertainment industry: Some that were very influential were David Haddad (eParties), Scott Lahman (JAMDAT and textPlus), Karen Reed (Venu Interactive), Gloria Lamont (New World Entertainment), John Pleasants (EA), Warren Jenson (EA) and Allen Debevoise (Machinima). From each one of them I took away experiences that really helped me grow.
However, the two who really helped me evolve as a leader were Mitch Lasky and John Riccitiello. John Riccitiello was a great boss when I was at Electronic Arts running EA Online. He gave me a tremendous amount of support while still challenging me. I worked for Mitch Lasky at JAMDAT. Mitch has probably had the biggest influence on my career. He actually believed in me and my capabilities long before I believed in myself, and gave me a lot of chances I don’t think other people would have given me. He was tough and is still tough on me, but I run a lot of things by him because I’m no dummy, and he’s a strategic genius. I’ll always be grateful to him.
I also have to acknowledge my sort-of spiritual advisor and friend, Sharon Crain, who has always been there for me and will tell me when I’m not being my best self. As my life gets bigger, I need people who will be honest with me about my shortcomings with the intention to support my growth. Not always easy to hear but necessary.
Are you currently hiring at TRIPP? If so, what roles are you looking to fill? What is the best way for candidates to reach you?
We’re currently looking for 3D artists that can help us create what we call our ‘Tripp loads,’ and those are the assets that we update every day. Also, if you have made an experience that that you feel fits with our mission to use VR for improving your emotional well-being, we would love to help you distribute your content in our channel. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and say it’s for me directly. You can also hit me up on Twitter @nanea. I would love to hear from you.
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