Annie Eaton started her career in marketing, but after a chance meeting with now-business partner Peter Stolmeier, the lure of mixed/alternate reality technology (Augmented and Virtual Reality) and its use in non-gaming industries got her attention. They founded the Atlanta Virtual Reality Meetup in 2014 while the industry was still young, to foster connections and mingle with like-minded technologists.
While that group is still going and is currently 800+ strong, the meetup grew into something bigger. First named ATLVR, Eaton and Stolmeier went on to found a company that provided consulting on how brands can create engaging, interactive experiences using virtual reality. Now called Futurus, a future technologies company, they have pivoted after expanding their services across different technologies.
“When we rebranded, we made our mission to explore new technologies and stay on the cutting edge of immersive experiences. In our industry, things change on a daily basis,” says Eaton.
Under Eaton’s leadership, Futurus has become one of the top players in Atlanta’s emerging VR/AR scene. Futurus helps clients, such as auto-focused digital marketing platform PureCars, stay on trend by effectively using VR/AR to attract and retain customers. They also currently have an early access partnership with HTC Vive to explore their new technologies and recently were spotlighted for their experiments with the new Vive trackers.
“In our industry, things change on a daily basis. While we can never be certain, we look forward to creating new solutions to problems that people don’t realize exist yet,” says Eaton. Here, she shares more about Futurus’ journey so far and how she hopes to see the VR industry evolve.
What attracted you to the world of VR/AR?
I have always loved technology and I come from a family that has worked and been involved in STEM fields. In my career, I initially went down a different path — marketing. It was in one of those opportunities that I met my business partner, Peter Stolmeier, who brought the technology into our former office. Immediately, the gears started turning on ways the technology could be applied to non-gaming industries. The best part about the VR/AR world are the endless possibilities which always keeps me on my toes.
How did Futurus (at the time ATLVR) come together as a company?
We knew we wanted to do something in the field of virtual reality, so we initially founded the Atlanta Virtual Reality Meetup. We had such resounding interest and enthusiasm about the technology from locals that we realized it would be a great time to get into the field. I think we started at just the right time — before the consumer headsets came out — and we were the first company of our kind in Atlanta when we founded.
When we started out, we were only providing virtual reality development and consulting. After about 6 months, we started to take on 360 video work and after another 6 months, we decided to expand into augmented reality development as well. The technologies overlap in ways that worked well for our clients and we realized we needed to rebrand to match our new offerings. It was a tough decision, but we’re happy that we’ve taken the name Futurus as a symbol of the forward-thinking, cutting-edge work we do.
How is the VR/AR industry evolving overall and within the region specifically?
The virtual and augmented reality industry is booming right now, especially in Atlanta. I have so many great peers in the region and it’s interesting to see that most are focussed on non-gaming applications as well. Atlanta is such a good hub for technology and marketing, with so many Fortune 500 companies that have offices here. It makes sense that the two would blend and support these new mediums.
I’ve noticed trends in the type of work that we do. We saw 360 video as a popular choice for customers last year with support from Facebook and YouTube 360 platforms. This year, augmented reality is keeping us on our toes as the newest thing our customers want. I see a need for more education in the field. Local universities are already starting to support curriculum for these platforms, which is a big deal for companies like mine. We will need the workforce to support the technology as it continues to grow and evolve.
How can other industries incorporate VR/AR and 360 video into their marketing and branding initiatives?
Each case is different and that is one of our favorite things to explore. For an experience about recruiting, the client may rather have a 360 video to showcase the company culture and environment as it is in real life. If a client wants to showcase a product and how it works, a virtual reality experience could be more powerful and allow the audience to examine the product, manipulate it and understand it on another level.
For augmented reality, we’re seeing benefits in bringing products to life. If the client has a B2C approach with their marketing, AR can be more powerful since it can currently reach a larger audience. Each technology has its strengths and that’s where we come in — to determine what the most impactful experience will be and how to achieve that.
What are the biggest challenges/misconceptions you’ve encountered about VR/AR/360 when interacting with clients?
Something that comes up quite often is nausea in VR. We will get people who don’t want to try the systems we use because they have “gotten sick” before. There are several reasons why people have discomfort in virtual reality and we pride ourselves on the fact that we would never put a program out that would cause those symptoms. This can come down to bad programming, improperly set up equipment, and moving too much when the experience is more passive (like trying to walk around in a smartphone-based system).
You can’t walk around while experiencing a 360 video, but you can when you’re in a fully rendered world in the HTC Vive. If the user is educated and the developers took the time to make sure everything is correctly designed, there should be no issues.
You’re working on packaging through VR. Tell me a little bit more about this initiative.
We’re working on an internal project surrounding retail layout and packaging testing through virtual reality. For example, we have a virtual recreation of a grocery store. We can modify how things are laid out in the aisles and set up several different layouts to test. We then take participants (very similar to a focus group) and give them an objective. They go shopping in the virtual aisles and we’re able to gather data on their choices and behaviors to recommend the optimal store layout. We’re still in beta with this program, but are looking for interested parties to pilot the system.
What about your partnership with HTC, a virtual reality hardware provider?
Since the first developer edition of the HTC Vive, we’ve been included to receive the hardware early to get a head start on development. At the beginning of this year, we got early access to their Vive Trackers — hardware that you can attach to anything to see it in the virtual world. This has been beneficial in many of our efforts and HTC published a recent blog post about what we’ve been working on. We appreciate their continued support for developers like us and their initiatives are helping to grow the field of VR.
What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
We have been integrating beacon technology into our recent augmented reality experiments to have hyper-localized experiences without the need for scanned image trackers. We are also starting to explore Apple’s new ARKit, which is available to developers at this time. We’re looking forward to integrating these technologies into our future projects.