Snapchat set off a flurry of chatter among the technology classes this autumn with the leaked news that the social-media company appears to be preparing a push into virtual-reality hardware.
Much of the talk in the mass media, however, missed an important point: Virtual reality and augmented reality, its closely related sister technology, already represent a $1 billion market -- and the market-research firm SuperData estimates that investors will pump $2.8 billion into VR and AR companies this year alone.
But it’s not just a business of headset-manufacturers and mass-market content producers. An ecosystem of specialized companies is growing up, each targeting a segment of a market whose revenues are projected by market analysis Digi-Capital to reach $120 billion a year by the end of the decade.
Related: Why Virtual Reality Is Vital
A veritable gold rush is developing as entrepreneurs look to cash in. Just take a look at these five companies that are combining old-school smarts with new-school technology to take their piece of that $120 billion:
enerG, a Los-Angeles based fitness and media startup, is laser-focused on a growing niche market -- fitness and wellness -- as it develops content that uses VR technology to bring the hottest workout trends from big-name urban studios to users across the country. Co-founded by Tracey Raftery and Saara Vakil, a couple of experienced television and business-strategy consultants, enerG’s financial strategy includes branded virtual fitness studios as well as revenue from product placements and sponsorships. (It’s already nailed down a deal with Reebok.) First up: An immersive, VR meditation program.
The company is one of four closely watched VR and AR startups that rolled out of an intensive summer-long incubation at Green Screen Institute at the video-technology hotbed of Nevada County in California’s Sierra foothills.
2. Hot Bit VR.
Hot Bit VR is another Green Screen Institute alumnus company focused on VR and AR content. Hot Bit VR plans to deliver "did-you-see-that" stunts in virtual reality as a cornerstone of its programming.
Its founders, feature filmmakers Marcy Boyle and Rachel Holzman of Dpyx Productions, say the company based in Los Angeles and New York also will deliver edgy comedians, games and provocative art. They key to all of it, they say, interaction, immersion and shareability.
In fact, they view Hot Bit as something like “Comedy Central” for VR -- a place where upcoming comedians grab the spotlight and advertisers rush to get their messages in front of the highly attractive audience of VR users.
With a technology that’s generating big buzz among potential users that range from military’s Special Operations Command to the NFL’s Denver Broncos, CrowdOptic draws rave reviews for its “collective awareness engine.”
Essentially, the technology gathers GPS data in real-time and combines it with live-video streaming. The result: An app that calculates precisely where people’s smart glasses or smart phones are looking in real time. While GPS shows where a smart phone user is standing, CrowdOptic shows what the user is looking at.
Firefighters, for instance, can use a version of the technology developed in partnership with Solford Industries, to stream live video from fires back to command centers, where commanders can see what’s happening through the eyes of firefighters.
Jon Fisher, the company’s co-founder and CEO of CrowdOptic, is no stranger to fast-paced technology startups. Fisher previously built an enterprise software security company that’s now owned by Oracle as its Oracle's Adaptive Access.
Crunchbase reports San Francisco-based CrowdOptic has raised more than $10.7 million from investors since its seed round in 2010.
4. Theia Interactive.
Theia Interactive, a San Francisco-based company, isn’t betting on any specific type VR programming. Instead, it’s positioning itself as a custom provider of VR and AR programming.
Some of the early markets targeted by the company include builders -- VR walk-throughs can save expensive, time-consuming issues that aren’t foreseen in traditional renderings -- as well as hospitality and retail customers.
Its four founders, who fine-tuned the company vision at Green Screen Institute this summer, combine backgrounds in movie special effects, game development and digital strategy.
It’s highly likely, says CEO Mark Pullyblank, that no one yet has identified some of the biggest potential users of virtual environments. Theia Interactive’s cloud-based platform is ready to handle applications that haven’t yet been imagined.
Like the fellow who figures out that the real money comes from selling shovels to the miners headed for the Gold Rush, Deniz Ergurel of Haptical is already finding success selling information to the fast-growing audience of people interested in VR and AR.
Headquartered in Nevada City, CA, Haptical is a digital media publication focused on news, information and analysis of the VR industry. The publication describes itself as providing the connections that link motivated VR users from around the globe.
Ergurel, a fellow of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York, already has launched two newsletters, and he’s see the number of monthly visitors grew from 2,000 to 35,000 in just three months.
Ergurel kept up a furious pace of journalism -- he’s producing multiple articles himself nearly every day of the week -- even while he worked with industry experts at Green Screen Institute to shape the vision of Haptical. A priority for the next funding round: Building an editorial team that allows the publication to continue Ergurel’s habit beating competitors on breaking news.
The VR and AR ecosystem demands all sorts of players. As the market booms in the next five years, only one thing is certain: There will continue to be plenty of opportunity for nimble entrepreneurs to stake their claims.