Two DreamWorks Animation alumni have gone out on their own with a new virtual reality startup called Spaces, and they already have funding that includes vr for a Chinese theme park.

Shiraz Akmal and Brad Herman both worked at DreamWorks Animation on immersive experiences, and will bring their expertise to Spaces as CEO and CTO, respectively. Right now they’re funded to around $3 million and have a $30 million joint venture with Songcheng Performance Development Co., a Chinese amusement park operator.

The move is characteristic of other personnel in the animation and visual effects space who have moved on to launch or be part of virtual reality and augmented reality start-ups.

Spaces CEO Shiraz Akmal.
Spaces CEO Shiraz Akmal.

But how did the duo know it was the right time to launch their own vr company? Akmal told Cartoon Brew it was a combination of time spent—more than four years—on DreamWorks immersive projects, seeing billions of dollars being invested in the new industry, and a dramatic improvement in hardware, headsets, and software for virtual reality appications.

He added that although most of the discussion right now is about vr itself, Spaces is also particularly interested in mixed reality. “Microsoft, which is creating the Hololens, has been a Spaces client from day one, and we’ve been closely involved with the Hololens,” said Akmal. “We think mixed reality is going to be transformative to the industry. While it’s important for us to be platform agnostic, we see enormous potential in mixed reality.”

With so many new companies sprouting up in this area, Akmal and Herman are also conscious of the need to have a point of difference. They distinguish themselves as “one of the few teams in vr that has worked on a wide variety of vr experiences, technologies, and hardware platforms,” said Akmal. “We think there’s great potential for vr well beyond games, and at DreamWorks we got to create experiences for theme parks, for location-based attractions, for touring shows, for marketing events, and for consumer apps.”

Spaces CTO Brad Herman.
Spaces CTO Brad Herman.

The theme parks area, in particular, is one that has perhaps generated the most interest in Spaces. Making vr for busy rides and amusement park experiences is a major challenge, the founders admit. “Some of them are the obvious, like the need for commercial-grade headsets that are designed for hygiene and to be worn by hundreds of users a day,” said Herman. “That’s one that gets a lot of media attention, and is something we are very actively working on.”

They point out other challenges, too, such as setting up server rooms, making vr wireless where it needs to be, power distribution for the many computers needed to run large-scale vr graphics, and even the robustness of connectors. Herman told Cartoon Brew that Spaces is actively working with theme park industry and hardware providers on these issues, without giving any particular details.

Of course, hardware and technology challenges are only part of the solution. The Spaces founders have also pinpointed a need for particular skills in this new content-driven medium, and many of those are in animation.

“When it comes to tools and process, it’s amazing how effective it is for us to have our animators review their work in Hololens,” said Herman. “We have our own worklows built around our Spaces cloud that allows them to collaborate and see the same characters in a [HTC] Vive as they do in a Hololens and even across locations. It’s a whole new way to review our work.”

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