Spark XR is turning VR/AR into a Ready Player One dreamscape
“Science fiction has dangled the idea of a Star Trek, Ready Player One, Total Recall kind of experience in front of our faces for years, where you could be teleported to another fascinating world,” says Jon Dean, co-founder of Spark XR. “So that’s what we’re doing—we’re making it happen. We want to put people in their favorite movies, give them the ultimate gaming fantasies, and help them travel the world.”
That’s why he’s spent the last few years developing teleportation pods—a new form of location-based entertainment that transforms into a virtual reality experience that actually feels real.
Before Spark XR, Dean and his co-founder Jeff Peters spent over a decade working at Electronic Arts on various video game projects.
“In the world of video games especially, your relationship is one-sided—it’s all trapped in here,” he says, pointing at his phone. “Even in the games that try to make you feel part of it all, like first-person shooters, you’re separated from the ongoings in the game.”
That’s why they want to put you inside the cell phone. “You should feel part of something when you engage with forms of media,” he says. “And that barrier between you and the game, that’s what’s halting those connections.”
Making VR feel more real
Of course, that’s what current VR does. When someone dons the goggles, glasses, or headsets, they’re plopped directly into the virtual world. “Headset technology has come a long way in the past few years,” Dean says. “So have graphic capabilities and PCs. If you used a computer ten years ago and a computer today, you could tell.”
That improved tech has given way to worlds explored in products like Oculus Quest or PlayStation’s VR headset. “As an industry, we’ve gotten very good at creating engaging and immersive content,” he says. “Virtual reality is very dynamic, and it’s allowed us as game creators to do some pretty fantastic stuff. Even with all this previous innovation and development, the end-user still lacks something serious: control.”
Existing VR takes you out of third person into second, Dean says. Decision-making sequences and sensory effects get you into the first-person—all offered in the teleportation pods. “While we’re known as content creators, what we’re building isn’t a game,” he says. “It’s a total and complete experience. When you enter the pods, it’s not just your eyes that sense a difference in location—it’s your whole body. We’d wanted to take the world of VR to that next level for a long time but were just waiting to find the right platform to host it. The pod became a byproduct of that original desire to create.”
Dean says that the pods’ 360-degree sound systems, weather simulators, and sensor-packed flooring have left users tripping and falling when they re-enter the real world. “The combination of the bumps and rubles in the road and the sound of wind whipping around you…it’s all-consuming,” he says. “You’re moving through a world that can’t be anything but real. Your brain will really buy into it—even though there’s no actual velocity, you feel pushed forward in anticipation to keep moving. We have to be really careful when we help people exit the pod because an object that thought it was in motion tends to keep trying to move.”
That was the experience for Kelsie Foreman, senior editor at Utah Business, who demoed the Spark XR AIUa Adventures experience in October.
“I haven’t done much with VR, but I was instantly enthralled with the realism of the Spark XR experience,” she says. “From the second you power it up, you’re transported to a different world, and it feels like real life. And when I say that it’s life-like, I definitely mean it. I thought I was going to run into a rock wall at one point. After I removed my headset, my equilibrium was slightly off for the rest of the day.”
Holidaying in Saudi Arabia with AIUa Adventures
Foreman’s experience was the first Spark XR project, titled “AIUa Adventures.” In collaboration with Manga Productions, a company out of Saudi Arabia, the experience was informed by Dean and Peters’ trip to the country earlier this year.
“We saw the potential to build this new kind of travel experience,” Dean says. “So we took everything we learned while visiting, including drone footage and reference materials, and reconstructed it as a virtual world that you could explore,” he says.
The decision to go to Saudi Arabia came after Manga Productions approached Dean while he was teaching at the University of Utah. After a handful of meetings, Dean showed the Saudi company an early design, and they committed 13 students to help finish out the project as apprentices. When the pandemic started just a few weeks later, the students continued to work with Spark XR’s Utah team virtually.
“What I love about working with Manga is that they are content creators like us, but they didn’t start with all of this tech and design expertise that we have,” Dean says. “Instead, they started out with their vision, their experiences. They are very used to the Western and even Eastern worlds telling the stories of their region for them. They approached us with their own stories to tell, and as people-centered on developing new content, we thought that was great. We jumped on the idea to collaborate.”
The strength of their technology was evident once they started transferring their experience in Saudi Arabia into the pods. “Everywhere we went on the trip was absolutely breathtaking,” he says. “And the location is almost all closed to the public now. The joining of this hyper-real experience with a place that’s nearly impossible to visit now, knowing that we could show anyone else the same beautiful places without them having to leave the state. We couldn’t pass it up.”
The teamwork allowed the entire AIUa Adventures experience to be historically accurate and sensitive to those who live in the region while also being really fun. According to Dean, the goal of the first pod project was to be “more Indiana Jones than National Geographic,” with lots of adventure and excursion opportunities and fewer museum-like exhibits.
“You outrun a sandstorm, discover ancient artifacts, all kinds of exciting stuff,” Dean laughs. “Embedded in all of that, of course, are opportunities to learn—each artifact comes with a card that tells you more about the relevance of the piece. And at the end, we send you an email with a virtual journal attachment, almost like your holiday snapshots of everything you did and saw while on your ‘vacation.’”
Foreman only had one complaint about the experience. “I wish it had some sort of combat element,” she says. “I wanted to fight an ancient pharaoh or something before it was over.”
That kind of customizable experience is exactly where Dean is hoping to take the teleportation pods.
Anything is possible
“We want to install these in movie theaters, airport gates, museums, anywhere that the public could gather,” Dean says. “You’d get inside and be able to choose the experience you wanted to have, be teleported anywhere in the hour you have while you wait for your plane to arrive.”
The pods themselves are engineered to stay on the cutting edge of technology—pieces of the tech can be swapped out as cameras, processors, and more get smarter and faster.
While Dean considers the technology to be in the prototype stage, he says that kind of “jukebox-style” design is the next step for the pods. “The main benefit of our teleportation pods is that they were innovated entirely with the general goal of ‘richer experiences’ in mind,” Dean says. “That’s it. So although my team and I are personally interested in games, our product doesn’t lend itself to only one type of use or a specific kind of person—any industry can take advantage of this kind of innovation. We don’t fit into any boxes or buckets, and that’s why I love the work we do.”
Still, Dean says that the tech will probably stay true to some gaming elements, just as every other VR innovation has. “Nearly every time we’ve seen an attempt at virtual reality or really any new type of tech, it incorporates some sort of gaming element. I think that’s because as designers and players, we always want to find a way to make things more fun, more immersive, and entertaining.”
While entertainment value is where it started, Dean says any experience that benefits from VR could be enhanced tenfold by the pods. The first place it’s headed is likely somewhere in the education industry.
“There are so many current applications for virtual reality,” he says. “Right now, they’re being used often in training spaces, particularly for intensely complicated situations—I’m thinking specifically about things like flight simulators, which allow for people to experience things as if they were there. Creating that kind of learning environment is unmatched when it comes to establishing and retaining knowledge.”
Direct experience feels more real than words on a page or lecture slides on a screen, Dean says. When we’re at the center of something, getting our hands dirty, the memories of what we’ve done and how to do it are stored more securely for the long term.
“We can absolutely see our teleportation pods used in medical training, like for first responders, and even in general education settings,” he says. “We’ve thought a lot about The Incredible Journey—what if you could actually go inside the bloodstream, move around the body?”
And with his hyper-real virtual reality tech, that kind of immersion is more possible than ever. “We can place many kinds of real-world situations in front of you that you’re not only watching but interacting with. Your decisions have consequences, and you can see immediately what you’re doing right and wrong—that’s a major benefit of using teleportation pods for education. What you do is going to stick with you for the long haul.”
In the future, you could be bumping into these pods at school, work, on your commute, and at restaurants and theaters. Dean says you could also see it someday in your living room. “We’ve been asked if we could make a version of it for the home,” Dean says. “And the answer to that, and almost every question like that, is ‘Yes!’”
Gaming is the future
That “yes,” and any other kind of experience or sizing of a pod courtside of the AIUa Adventures experience, will need new sources of funding. Securing those dollars is Spark XR’s focus for the time being.
“We have thousands of different pathways we could take, considering the varied application of our product,” he says. “While they’re all good and important ideas, we obviously can’t do them all at once. We want to find partners who have interests in taking each of these ideas on. From there, we’d be able to branch out as a company, building bigger content teams and hiring more software engineers.”
The wave of hiring that Dean anticipates requires more targeted teaching in the classroom. “We want to bring students on board to help design the future of this industry,” he says. “The Saudi students who worked on the AIUa Adventures project had such a fulfilling experience, and it was wonderful for us to be able to share our skills and knowledge with them and help them build careers off of one project.”
While Dean is happy to take on the role of designer, mentor, and manufacturer, the Spark XR team isn’t keen on doing it forever. “We know what’s needed to grow, and we know what people want to see from our tech,” he says. “We know how to build the pods, we know how to effectively distribute them and the manufacturing pieces—that’s just not how we want to spend our days. At our core, we’re still game developers, content creators. That’s always been and will always be our focus.”
As Spark XR continues to grow and reshape its focus, Dean says they’ve already made a lasting impact on the future of Utah’s international tech industry.
“We were the ones who introduced the World Trade Center Utah to our Saudi partners,” Dean says. “That, in turn, has led to other connections for us and for the state. We’re growing, as are our foreign partners. That’s been an amazing side-effect of this entire project—we’re not just building pods, we’re building bridges.”