Fanaticus XR co-founder Ernesto Escobar didn’t know he would be in the business of extended reality, or “XR,” until one day a few years ago he found himself watching a game made famous by Harry Potter books played in front of him, by actual people.
“I was reading an article that said in order to create a startup, you need to find something people are passionate about,” Escobar tells Hypepotamus. “On that same day, I saw people play Quidditch in real life. And I thought to myself, this is crazy! I’d never seen it before.”
Escobar said the game looked a little funny, because instead of flying around on brooms (which humans unfortunately have yet to figure out the technology around), the game involved players throwing volleyballs at each other, with pieces of PVC pipe between their legs.
“The balls are not magical,” Escobar says with a laugh. “It’s a dude in a yellow costume, running around. It’s so far away from what it’s supposed to be, but there are people around the world doing it, with their own leagues. Some colleges in the U.S. have Quidditch as an official sport. The more I dug into it, the more I realized how big it was and how much people care about it.”
Escobar says that’s how the idea for Fanaticus XR came about. He realized there was potential in turning a real-life experience into something that a larger number of fans could enjoy. “I said to myself, ‘We can improve that one experience for them, and make it much better, using virtual reality.’ And it evolved very quickly.”
The Atlanta-based company is built upon fandom, not just technology. It delivers immersive experiences by turning virtual reality into digital entertainment, not only for individuals but crowds.
Fanaticus XR’s first experience is the Flying Broom VR Simulator, which Escobar says can transport users “anywhere,” at a high degree of immersion. “You can give them powers, make them feel like they’re anyone and can do anything. It’s really creating a new world and putting you in that world.”
But Escobar also says the company isn’t “married” to VR and its limitations. Aware that not everyone is comfortable with VR’s current technology, he says Fanaticus XR’s current prototype puts people in VR, then adds additional people who can have the same playing experience through mobile devices and tablets. “So in the case of the Flying Broom Simulator, we can have four people racing on brooms, then also people racing on iPads in the same race. People on brooms are trying to catch those on iPads, who are shooting stuff at the people on brooms. We can extend the virtual experience to other people.”
He says he wants to set Fanaticus XR apart by going even further beyond VR using projection mapping: the use of multiple projectors and software to connect and transform an entire room — as many as a couple hundred people — into a joined experience.
“Our goal is to create three layers of immersion and provide different price points, to have a whole community in the same space. We can have people come in and be in that world without having to use or wear any device; they can just be an audience.”
Fanaticus XR is still in the early stages, having been launched in fall 2018. The company has raised capital from friends and family, as well as The Farm accelerator program.
Escobar says he’s continuing to test the experience (they’ve had more than 500 people test it so far, ranging in age from five to 73 years old), and wants to have a pop-up this spring in Atlanta as he and the team look for commercial real estate. He says they’re actively raising additional funding.
“From a geographic point of view, the access to sophisticated immersive experiences in themes is very limited,” he says. “If you think about the problem we’re solving, and the experience you have at Disney — the high degree of immersion — you’re part of the community. The quality and sophistication you have there is extremely good.
“But then you have to invest a lot of money and time. It’s not cheap, and they’re only in a few places around the world. You have other types of entertainment locally, like Dave & Busters. But that’s a totally different experience than you have at Disney.”
What he wants soon is for Fanaticus XR to serve people who can’t be with their communities as often as they’d like, mentioning conventions like DragonCon, MomoCon, ComicCon as examples of events and experiences that he wants to replicate, but with greater inclusivity and frequency. Having studied behavioral science for his undergraduate degree from Utah Valley University, he believes in the power of the experience Fanaticus provides.
“Fandom is extremely powerful, and it’s never gonna go away. It may change to different things or be more popular, but the concept will always be energized. Quidditch helped us observe and understand the concept, but the same power of fandom Harry Potter fans have, and that Star Wars, Marvel, and Atlanta Braves fans have also.
“We’ve done a lot of homework really understanding the market,” he says. “We’re still learning, there’s a lot more to do, but we know that community is the most important thing.”