Michael Ronen of Splash
If you think that you need special equipment to create or experience virtual reality, you are mistaken. Berlin-based startup Splash has developed an app that enables everybody to capture 360-degree videos using their own smartphone and share with others via social media. Just shortly after the company had put the app on the App Store it won the South by Southwest accelerator competition in the US. Founder Michael Ronen explains how the app "Splash" records 360-degree experiences, what splashes actually are and why Berlin is so attractive to international founders.
Mr Ronen, before we start talking about your app and your latest successes: You are from Israel. Tel Aviv, too, is known as a startup city. What made you decide to move your international team to Berlin to found your company? What is your opinion of the ecosystem in Berlin?
I came to Berlin in 2007 with the intention of working as a theatre director and to implement an arts project that I had initially started in London. Berlin is a very good place for such projects as you are able to participate in the knowledge transfer and because the city is very diverse. I then gradually moved over from the world of theatre to the entrepreneurship scene and eventually became part of the startup ecosystem; initially as an entrepreneur at Betahaus, then at the "You is now" accelerator and at the Founder Institute or by visiting events such as the Tech Open Air. At my first startup we then had the idea to establish a new platform that would only be feasible in this special and unique environment that Berlin has to offer: we wanted to create the first social network for virtual reality. The question we initially asked ourselves was: How can users create 360-degree content, i.e. virtual reality, without great effort using the means that we already have available - for example our smartphone. One of the advantages Berlin has to offer is that people here are less risk-averse which is due to the fact that the city boasts a well-established arts scene where people are naturally more inclined to take risks. In the city and the surrounding areas there also many talented individuals from all over the world which is a plus when you're looking for new staff. Also, the cost of living is comparatively low here.
Let's talk about one of your recent successes: You managed to beat out as many as 50 other teams at US tech festival South by Southwest, one of the world's most renowned startup competitions. Congratulations on this success! Looking back, how confident were you before the competition and how surprised after?
We went to South by Southwest with only one goal in mind: we wanted to draw as much attention to our company as possible. Our message was: We're here. Splash is here. After all, there's some competition in Silicon Valley. Considering this, there's only one option: We had to cause a storm right at the beginning. Our only choice was to actually win this competition which was anything but easy. The jury was extremely critical and the competition really good. The jury recognised our potential which eventually tipped the scale in our favour. Also, the fact that we put the app on the App Store as a minimum viable product played into our hands along with the fact that we already had users downloading our product which we used as a proof a concept.
Former competition winners include German startup Sonormed, which developed tinnitus app "Tinnitracks" as well as IT giants from the US such as short messaging service Twitter and Foursquare, a local search and discovery service. How much of a stir has winning the award caused you already?
It has brought us a lot of attention, for example from the press. Also, we have been able to win over many new early adopters, i.e. new early users. We now call on the startup scene in Berlin to become part of Splash and to capture and share 360-degree experiences, no matter if it's tours, parties, meetups or any other event. Startups can also show their office rooms, thereby exhibiting their company culture, which could help attract new staff.
Virtual reality is one of the key topics of the year. However, may people still believe that they need special goggles or a tailor-made 360-degree camera to experience VR. However, by downloading your app users can create virtual experiences with their own smartphones through "live stitching" - generating what you call a splash. How exactly does this work?
Splash is an app that enables users to create virtual 360-degree videos in a very simple way by taking pictures of the surroundings one picture at a time. To do so the user presses the camera button several times to capture the whole environment. All those single shots are shown in a splash in a single room in 360 degrees giving the impression of a coherent 360-degree experience to the viewer. Let me give you an example: When I sit with you in a room I would simply capture the surroundings, for example the wallpaper, floor and ceiling, and then I would take a picture of you sitting there and eating. Another person would be standing by the window opening it. All those actions are snapped one by one and stitched together to a single splash. Once I am done I can share my splash with others via social media like Facebook or Youtube. You can use a Google Cardboard viewer if you own one which will give you the impression of standing directly in the room where the splash was taken.
What else can the Splash community look forward to this year?
We have a number of projects in the pipeline. On 20 June we will launch our own 360-degree player which can be integrated on other websites in order to play our splashes. This will enable the user to watch 360-degree videos on any site without having to leave the website. On the same day we will also release an updated version of our app in the App Store. The app we put on the App Store shortly before South by South West is actually more of a publicly available alpha version offering only a small proportion of the actual core product. The new version will offer some new functions, for example users will be able to find and follow other users. Until the end of the year we have some other things planned as well, including a function to like specific areas and things in a splash and leave comments. For example, a publisher might receive a message that somebody liked their shoes they have seen in a splash. Using the comments function the publisher can respond to questions about specific things, for example questions about where they got their shoes from. This is how we enable conversations that are related to specific topics in a splash.
However, VR is still more of a niche technology – when do you think will it be recognised as a mass medium?
For us, virtual reality begins with 360 degrees, which is also the basis for sparking enthusiasm for VR as it enables users to enjoy VR experiences without having to have specific equipment. People like us that are part of the startup scene are early adopters of such technology, however, large corporations such as Google, Facebook or Microsoft are also active on the market. Over the next two years we will see a steady growth of people who consume virtual reality - for example in the games and entertainment industry. Also, there are a lot of things happening in the area of mobile virtual reality. with an increasing amount of cardboards coming onto the market. Eventually, the most significant impact will be coming from mobile VR as we already have all the necessary devices. The development of our app is a key step in this direction. VR will be significantly more prominent than today. In ten years we will see people walking on the pavement without noticing their actual surroundings. Instead, they will both be in the real and virtual reality at the same time using mixed reality glasses. In the future wearing these glasses will be just as normal as owning a smartphone is today.
Mr Ronen, before we wrap this up, let's go back to where your company is currently based. Could you please complete following sentence: Berlin is...
... a diverse, creative city, where important things can be created.