Imagine standing in the Great Hall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. Facing you is a virtual reality Harry Potter. You’ve read all seven books, becoming so immersed you feel you know him better than your actual siblings. His gestures, mannerisms, even speech is so real, you can ask him anything. And so you do.
“Harry, what is your favorite color?”
How would Harry really answer? That was the problem Inmerssion, an El Paso-based virtual reality startup, hoped to solve. Former iterations of virtual agents used the WATSON model of Artificial Intelligence. You may remember Watson as the software that won “Jeopardy.”
“Our first prototype used Watson, and we loaded in all seven books,” says Inmerssion co-founder Ivan Gris. But that kind of AI has a big drawback: It only spits out what is put in, in a very rote and impersonal fashion. So Gris and his team have gone beyond Watson. Team members, who met at University of Texas at El Paso, took theatre improv classes to help explore character, while also tapping into their professors, classmates, psychologists, actors and even passing strangers at the local Starbucks.
Despite these “inputs,” Inmerssion got off to a rocky start. “When we got [to Creative Startups], we went in pretty happy and secure and we walked away with our dreams and hopes shattered,” Gris says. “A lot of the things we were planning to do were wrong. We almost broke up the company when we were there.”
The fundamental problem was a lack of delivery system for Inmerssions’ services, a common problem for virtual reality developers. In many cases, VR companies have technologically advanced much faster than the market for their services. Accelerators such as Rothenberg Ventures’ River, which focuses on companies pushing the limits of current technology, including Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality, are helping entrepreneurs prepare for the imminent arrival of delivery systems for such technology. Mentors at Creative Startups told Gris and his team that they must wait for the market to catch up.
Happily for Gris and team, this catching up seems upon us. The Oculus Virtual Reality headset launched on March 28, and, just as their mentors told them, Inmersion was able to immediately launch a Merlin character in the Occulus app store (which, at the time of this writing is not yet live on the site). They were so successful in making Merlin realistic, Gris says, that some people didn’t like Merlin at all. “He turned out to be arrogant and had a big sense of self importance,” he says, adding, “we are not looking for perfect solutions, but real characters who you may or may not like.”
Inmerssion has already been approached by several investors, Gris says, but, for now, the fledgling company is hoping to develop relationships with other players and potential applications. They’ve also formed a relationship with another Creative Startups graduate, Oscar Galvan from Ver Con Los Manos—to develop virtual reality museum tour guides for the visually impaired.
Once the purview of gamers, virtual agents, with the help of companies like Inmerssion, virtual reality may soon appear in classrooms (imagine joining in on the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and asking Thomas Jefferson a question), in museums and in other applications where storytelling is at the heart of technology.