We chat with Chris Milk about raising over $12 million to take this baby medium beyond "virtual reality."
Critically-acclaimed virtual reality tech leader Vrse is making a big change, one that could shift how we think about the medium. In a symbolic pivot away from the "VR" buzzword, CEO Chris Milk is changing Vrse's name to "Within." The announcement, which comes today, aligns with a $12.56 million round of Series A fundraising led by Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capitalist firm known for giving unconventional startups the tools to succeed in Silicon Valley. "They're not like other VCs," Milk explains, seated across from me on The Ludlow’s shady patio and sipping an unsweetened iced tea. Within is now in the company of Facebook, Instagram, Buzzfeed, and AirBnB, and VR fire starter Oculus on Andreessen Horowitz's roster—which is a good thing for the world of immersive filmmaking.
In the middle of an industry with diametrically-opposed camps convinced virtual reality is either the future or a fizzling fad, the name change is a product of both Milk's pragmatism and foresight. “People that were reading 'Vrse' didn’t know how to pronounce it, people that had heard it and knew how to pronounce it didn’t know how to spell it to find it, so that’s a big problem right there,” says the filmmaker, installation artist, and TED alum. But more than that, Vrse’s portmanteau of “VR” and “universe” might soon be obsolete. “I don’t think in ten years we’ll still call it VR, honestly,” Milk prophesies. “It’s the same way I don’t say, ‘Hey, were you on the world wide web this morning?’”
Milk and Within face the challenge of building stories for a medium that doesn’t quite exist yet. He's taken to calling his format, “the last medium,” because in his vision for the VR of tomorrow, there is nothing mediating the user and the experience. “There is no longer a suspension of disbelief,” he describes for his ideal VR experience. “Instead of telling stories about people over there [he points across the patio], we’ve traveled through the frame and we’re now living within the story.” Vrse's former brand of immersive filmmaking has swept Sundance for the last two years, and is sought by media titans from The New York Times to VICE. Milk's prognostication has been as crucial to his career as his talent as an artist, and his experiments with POV storytelling, Kanye West collaborations, and pioneering techniques for interactive video art are testaments to this. For the last few years, he's been betting everything on virtual reality, and thanks to the blessing of startup guru Ben Horowitz, it's hard not to bet with him.
Milk’s status as a tech startup outsider is as compelling as his pedigree. His B.F.A. from the Academy of Art is in film, photography and, computer graphics rather than business or computer science. He’s had to learn everything about startups from scratch. “It’s a complex animal running a technology company, but it’s not that different than making some giant, weird art project,” he tells The Creators Project. Milk has been making giant, border-breaking art projects for more than a decade, from top-tier music videos, to installations like The Creators Project World Tour attraction, The Treachery of Sanctuary. For both prospects, the key is to build a good team and clearly define a goal. “You’re trying to find the most talented, smart people that you can and let them do their their work, inspire them, encourage them. Let them do what they do well.”
Another symptom of—or perhaps cause for—Milk’s unconventional background, is authenticity. Despite the years he's spent working in the medium, he freely admits that VR has an image problem. “Oh it is over-hyped. Sure,” he says of the state of the art. Instead, he’s planning beyond the clunky masks we think of as VR goggles. This year, headsets from Oculus, HTC, and Samsung will hit the consumer market, a moment Milk compares to the earliest examples of technology that could record and broadcast sound. The technology will go farther than the “empathy machine” he outlined in his TED Talk last year, just as film no longer requires darkrooms, developer chemicals, or, well, film.
When I ask him about his dream technology for delivering a Within experience, something clicks. “That’s it,” he says, his eyes alight and mouth curling into an excited smile. “When you dream, that’s exactly it. You answered your own question. Being able to experience a story that takes place in a world that has absolutely no discernible difference in fidelity than our everyday living waking world. That’s it.” In the same way that Milk believes we’ll move beyond clunky headsets soon enough, we’ll have moved beyond clunky verbiage. That's why taking a break from the VR banner could be essential: maybe in 10 years, we’ll just say, “I’m going Within.”Squarepusher's music video for "Stor Eiglass"