Led by a16z and Craft Ventures, Sandbox VR has closed a new, $11 million dollar round of financing that includes notable actors, sports icons, and musicians. Sandbox VR, founded by game developer Steve Zhao, is a free roam location-based entertainment venue that puts up to eight players wearing backpack PCs and VR headsets literally inside the game together.
Earlier this year Sandbox VR raised an eye-popping $68 million dollars from Andreessen Horowitz, the venture fund behind Oculus, Airbnb, Lyft, Pinterest, and Slack. This new round adds Craft Ventures, founded in 2017 by David O. Sacks and Bill Lee, which has invested in startups such as Bird, Reddit, and SpaceX. The celebrity presence was rounded out by actors Will Smith, Orlando Bloom, athletes Kevin Durant, and Honda Keisuke, and former superagent, and CAA co-founder, Michel Ovitz. This brings the total raised by the Location-Based VR start-up to $79 million.
“We’re incredibly honored to be able to work with some of the most talented and influential artists, athletes, and actors in the world,” said Steve Zhao, Founder and CEO of Sandbox VR. “Their support is a vote of confidence that our platform will one day become the new medium for the future of sports, music, and storytelling.” Zhao explained when we spoke that he expected great things to come out of what he characterized as a “strategic round,” meaning it was as much about who invested as how much.
“Sandbox VR is the future of virtual reality. What excites us the most about this investment is that the team at Sandbox is setting out to remaking the entertainment industry,” said David Sacks, Partner at Craft Ventures. “It is not really comparable to anything else we have played.” If you haven’t experienced free roam from The VOID, Dreamscape, Zero Latency, or VR Studios, Sandbox VR is mighty impressive. Free roam is the only true, natural locomotion VR system. We asked Zhao, a veteran of the PC and mobile game industry, why investors who had tried all these fantastic systems chose his particular approach. “Our philosophy is that VR is a social experience and a physical experience. For example, we make you brush stuff off your body and off your friends’ bodies. You’re using touch, and all your senses.”
The company is in the process of an expansive rollout across the U.S. with a location recently opened in Los Angeles and is coming soon to New York, Austin, San Diego, and Chicago with a total of 16 total locations planned by the end of 2019, and fifty by the end of 2020. According to Zhao, business is booming and they have been able to raise their prices due to excess demand. “People aren’t just repeat players, they’re coming back with their friends.” When asked about VR’s deadly utilization issues (too few seats Saturday night, too many seats the rest of the time), Zhao says it doesn’t exist. “People book online. We’re busy 90% of the time.”
The company recently announced a multiplayer Star Trek experience will be released to its simulation centers at the end of this month. Zhao told me last year that he was going to build the Star Trek HoloDeck with a mixture of hardware and Hollywood level content. “You are never going to have the HoloDeck in your living room,” he said when I asked about the future of LBVR against the progress of in-home VR devices. The lead investor on the Andressen side of the deal, Andrew Chen, has stated last year that they liked the “flexibility” and “small footprint” of the Sandbox VR system. Zhao says Sandbox has an SDK (Software Developers Kit) they are quietly sharing with select partners who someday may be able to deliver content to Sandbox VR locations.
There is quite a cage fight developing in LBVR between Sandbox, The Void, Dreamscape, VR Studios and Zero Latency, with a whole lot of other competitors nipping at their heels, like Hologate, which has over 300 installations of its small footprint four-player system. There are lots of other players like Nomadic, ExitVR, Omni Arena, fighting for a piece of the burgeoning industry. The movie exhibition business is in decline. What comes next? Perhaps being in the movie. Big bets are being made on the future of entertainment.