Read more about John Vechey in “For Years, VR Promised to Replace the Office. Could It Really Happen Now?”
“A new form of communication”
After leading PopCap Games to a successful exit, cofounder John Vechey started Pluto VR to help humanity transcend physical location through a virtual reality chat app. In this episode, John explains how VR might be used in distributed workplaces to enable people to have high fidelity meetings that capture the nuances of human conversations.
The full episode transcript is below.
Matt Mullenweg: We’ve been hearing about virtual reality since the late ’80s, but this technology still hasn’t yet leapt from the pages of science fiction into our universe—at least not into the mainstream. The VR revolution seems to be always just around the corner, but some people believe that we really are on the verge of something that’s going to change everyone’s lives.
John Vechey, cofounder of Pluto VR, is one of those people. He’s specifically interested in how VR is going to change the way we communicate. John found success as the founder of PopCap Games–you may know them as the folks behind your favorite mobile games like Bejeweled or Plants vs. Zombies. After selling PopCap, he transitioned into virtual communications.
I wanted to speak with John because he’s got some big ideas about how VR will one day be used for work.
Pluto VR is building a communication platform that will allow people with VR headsets to talk to each other in a way that feels far more immersive than a phone call or a video chat. His goal is to seamlessly recreate the experience of speaking with someone face-to-face, with shared presence and context. He wants remote conversations to have more fidelity, so they can capture the nuances and subtleties of communication that humans are used to experiencing.
If distributed work is going to take off, we’re going to need really good communication tools. But how realistic is it to assume that we can have virtual offices that are so lifelike and useful that they replace physical ones? Are we really anywhere near this dream?
Matt: Hello, this is Matt Mullenweg, we are on the Distributed.blog podcast and I’m talking to John Vechey, who I’ve known for a few years now. John, tell us a little bit about your early career so we know how to catch up to where you are now.
John Vechey: So in 2000, I started a company with some friends called PopCap Games. And at the time, PopCap was like, we’re gonna make some games, but instead of for games, which at the time was pretty much sixteen to twenty-five year old males, we’re gonna make games that everyone can play. Our first game was a game called Bejeweled.
Matt: I love Bejeweled! I played it on the Palm Pilot.
John: Nice. And that was like the original, like, great format for it with the touch of that stylus.
Matt: With the pen, yeah.
John: Yeah. Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies, Peggle, we started as a web game company, transitioned to a downloadable game company and then a multi-platform company and then eventually a mobile company. So over the course of like fourteen years there was a lot of different phases of PopCap.
Matt: Of those, which did people get most obsessed about?
John: Of our games, like, Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies were our most popular. And people got obsessed about them in different ways. In Bejeweled 2 we put a Zen mode in so you couldn’t even lose. All you could do is just play. Like, it would never hit a losing condition and there was just points that would rack up. And it was one of those things where I realized that there were people that had spent over a year’s worth of hours playing that mode.
Matt: Last night I told friends I was coming here to Seattle to do this interview and Plants vs. Zombies came up, and it turns out both of them had taken a whole Thanksgiving where they just got obsessed with it and went through every possible level.
John: Yeah. And I think that’s the Plants vs. Zombies story ’cause it had a linear aspect to it that Bejeweled didn’t have. Bejeweled was more like an arcade game and Plants vs. Zombies was like an exploration and collection game. And so you’d hear stories about people like yeah, we went on this vacation and we just beat Plants vs. Zombies, that’s what we did for a vacation. [laughter] I’m like, that’s cool.
Matt: No I totally get it. So PopCap sold to Electronic Arts, right?
John: Yeah, in 2011. We were around four hundred people.
Matt: And was PopCap all in one office?
John: We had a joke at some point that the sun never set on PopCap. So we had offices in Seattle, San Francisco, San Carlos, Vancouver, Dublin… period, I think that’s it. [laughter] So we had a lot of offices and all offices were pretty — I mean they were all kind of doing a mix of regional work and game development so it was definitely a lot of travel.
Matt: So you were a multi-office?
John: We were multi-office, yeah.
Matt: Most of the people working there went into some office somewhere in the world everyday.
John: One of the weird things about PopCap was one of the cofounders, Jason, who was the creative director, he was always remote.
John: So we had this really weird thing where one person was distributed and that actually shaped our culture of game development.
Matt: Where was he?
John: He was up first in Vancouver Canada and then he moved to Vancouver Island. The core of what we were was always distributed. And he came down quite a bit but in some ways it was frustrating for him because he’s like, well, I can come down and not get work done or I can just stay up and get work done.
Matt: You’ve been running companies and doing highly creative and successful development with games for a long time. Why don’t you introduce us to what you’re working on now?
John: I left EA in 2014 maybe, after working there for three years. I knew I didn’t want to make games anymore and so I started looking around at what was happening and I went to D.I.C.E, a gaming conference, and saw Palmer Luckey talk. And he talked about what virtual reality was doing and how it was closer than anyone realized and —
Matt: Say who Palmer was.
John: Palmer was the founder of Oculus. It’s a VR headset and it was bought by Facebook. And I saw this presentation, and I was like, wow, this could be really world changing.
Matt: It must have been a good presentation.
John: There was a lot of passion behind it. And it was like, I wonder if any of this is real. But it was. It was real enough to at least be like, hey I wonder if there’s something there. And so I started just going around town being like, hey let’s say I want to do this type of thing or that type of thing in VR, does anyone know anyone I should talk to? How would I do that, right? I wasn’t an expert in VR.
And I met two co-founders, Jarrod and Forest, who had this startup called Impossible Object. I head up north into the far Seattle suburbs into this studio they had, where they had this high-end professional motion capture set up, and then an Oculus development kit. And their first words were like, take your pants off and put this suit on. So I had to like, put this motion capture suit on.
And I had experienced a bunch of different experiments that they had done where I could like walk around the room, I could look at my own body, I could manipulate things with my hands — things that weren’t possible with the current consumer VR hardware. And so I was like, that was amazing, what are you doing with this? What’s your plan? And they were like, well we’re not thinking that anyone’s gonna buy this forty-thousand dollar motion capture system, but we think this is where VR is going, so we’re trying to learn as much as we can about the future five years from now, instead of trying to think about how to develop for the world right now, which is gonna rapidly change.
Matt: And those are your co-founders at Pluto?
John: Yup. And then with another person that I was friends with.
Matt: How do you go from this mixed reality thing to thinking about work and how people collaborate together using these technologies?
John: I had come from games and I didn’t want to make games. Jonathan, one of the other co-founders, had come from animation, didn’t wanna —
Matt: Why didn’t you want to make games?
John: I was just done with it. You know, you do something for fourteen years and you just want a break maybe.
Matt: So one of your co-founders also was done with games.
John: Well he had been in animation. He came from Disney Animation for fourteen years.
John: Yeah. So his career was interesting ’cause he started with Lion King and ended with Frozen and he’s like — and everything in between was very different than either of those extremes. [laughter] He was like, it was like a long walk down and then a looong walk back up.
John: And I think I was sitting there being like, well I really don’t want to get into VR and then start a game company. So for us, what was important about coming together was that there was something that existed above us and above any kind of decision-making power structure, even ownership structure. Our purpose was to help humanity transcend physical location. So that was important, and that we could align ourselves around that was the second thing.
And then the third thing, what was it? So really we felt that the power of what was happening with virtual reality at the time wasn’t just that you could go to a place, but that you could go to a place with someone else.
John: It wasn’t just like cool, I can essentially take a drug and space out, it was more about like, well what can we do together? And we took it even farther, like what if right now we’re so tied to our physical location, right? Like just today alone I got up, I went to an office, then I went to go have a meeting in one part of town. I came back to the office to have lunch, went over here, right? I’ve already done more trips than I would care to do. It’s nice to be in a car for a little bit, it’s nice to be on a bus for a little bit, but it’s not really serving my life. I could’ve been more present working on something, reading, or just sitting out in the sun.
Matt: Help humanity transcend physical location.
John: And we spend a lot of time on each word.
Matt: Help humanity, as opposed to robots.
John: I think you can actually break it down literally one word at a time. Like “help,” what does that mean? It’s like, to aid, to be a part of, to make something possible that wasn’t possible or make it easier for other people. So I think that the help part really for us came down to — we don’t need to own the solution, we just need to be part of creating something bigger than us and helping other people do something. Like, we are in service of other people.
And then “humanity” is like, who is it? It’s humanity. It’s not companies, it’s not tech bros, it’s not Americans, it’s everybody. Every choice we make we need to think how is this helping all of humanity, right?
Matt: At a global level.
John: At a global level, at an able-ness level, at a gender level. Really being like hey, we need something that serves and can help everybody. And then “transcend,” right, that’s like a — we spent a lot of time on that word.
Matt: [laughs] That’s a big word.
John: It is. And so for us it’s about moving beyond, making something thoughtless. So if you think about things that have transcended something before in our society, you can certainly say commerce has transcended physical, I think would be a pretty fair thing to say. What else has transcended?
Matt: ‘Cause now we have credit cards and…
John: Yeah, how much do you touch physical money, much less prioritize your life around it?
John: It’s pretty rare that you’re like, oh I’ve really gotta go to the bank to do this large financial transaction with physical currency, right?
Matt: Yeah, almost never. Are there technologies in the past that you feel like helped humanity transcend location that you find inspiring? ‘Cause that was actually one of my first thoughts is like, from the telegram to the phone to email, you know, all these sorts of things. Like, we are more connected than ever and I think it’s the primary thing responsible for our progress. So in theory, if your mission is successful, and this new technology brings humanity closer together, it’s just like upgrading the routers and ethernet between a data center. Like, it’ll get faster and better and we’ll be able to create better things.
John: So there’s been this history of community of making the physical limitations smaller to communicate over a longer distance and then at the same time there is a higher quality of communication. And so you think about the telegram to the telephone to the mobile telephone, but then you pretty much get to audio chat and then you add some video — and we’ll talk about video in a second — but then that’s it. And then it’s in-person, but there’s this giant gulf between what it means to be in-person and what means to use video chat or talk on the telephone.
There is all this information you get from in-person that you don’t get from those other mediums. And that information is what is fundamental to what we’re trying to do and it’s fundamental to our purpose. Because you can’t just say we’re making a better video chat. Great, humanity has transcended physical location. You’ve gotta do something that we can’t even imagine right now. The closest we can get is a high def video of you but you’re never watching a video being like, I feel like I’m in the same space as you.
Matt: So what is Pluto today?
John: What Pluto is today is the start of a new form of communication. We call it shared presence and this idea that you can share our presence with someone and feel present. And so we have an alpha version of an IOS client right now that we’re working on. So IOS to IOS, one to one.
Matt: But that has to be a flat screen, right?
John: Yes, it has to be a flat screen but it doesn’t have to feel like a flat screen.
Matt: What does that mean? Mind blown. [laughter]
John: It’s like imagine if you were looking through a portal.
Matt: So I would be holding up my iPhone and then on the screen I’d see you sitting in a chair across from me?
John: And instead of it feeling like you’re looking at video of me, you’re feeling like you’re looking like — think like a magic portal, right? So it’s just a portal in space and you’re just like, oh yeah, I’m holding my hands up like a little rectangle, I’m still looking at you. And it just happens to be that we’re in the same physical space and I’m doing this, but what happens if it’s like, oh, it’s like a magical portal and you can be anywhere?
Matt: So for our listeners, John was just holding up his fingers right in front of his eyes. Now if my phone were there though, the camera would only be showing you like my eyebrow and eye, one eye.
John: Correct, if I –
Matt: So it seems like we normally position these things for the sake of the person on the other side.
John: Right. And so what happens is when you’re communicating with a shared presence and Pluto’s product, there’s a mutualism —
Matt: To position it so you see my face, I need to hold it farther away, right?
John: Yeah. So you can’t just do a small segment of it. And it’s one of those things where it’s like, there’s things you can do on video chat that you can’t use Pluto for. Pluto is really bad for walking. ‘Cause just imagine you’re walking backwards and I’m walking forwards and we’re still trying to talk, like it doesn’t — that’s not how walking communication works.
So like Facetime, for example, or video chat, is really, really good for that type of communication. But if you’re in a long distance relationship and you really wanna connect with someone, Pluto is way better, right? You sit the device up on a stand or on a table or something and it’s like that portal and you can really look at each other. It’s like we’re talking like real human things, like you feel more present.
Matt: What am I seeing on the screen?
John: You’re seeing something that could look like video but doesn’t feel like video.
Matt: What does that mean?
John: One of the challenges that we’ve learned over the past four years of Pluto is it’s really hard to describe what we’re doing in a way that is satisfying.
Matt: Better to experience?
John: But when you experience it you’re like aha, that’s it.
Matt: So you’re working on a beta ISP app.
Matt: You have something on Steam, right?
John: Yeah it’s alpha software.
Matt: And you’ve got something on Steam, right?
John: Yeah. So a year ago we released an alpha on Steam and that’s the VR client. So that’s more of an avatar-based human representation. But you have your full screen view and so it’s great for ten person conversations super natural, you have a body language because when you’re using the motion controllers and you’ve got your head movements, like, you feel like oh that’s a person.
So there’s this weird mental thing where if we’re in VR and you look just like you and you’re moving around while you’re talking and then you left, you changed your human representation to be nothing at all like you, and you came back, my mind would so quickly pick up that it’s you.
Matt: Because of the way I move?
John: The way you move, the way you time your movements with your voice. It wouldn’t take longer than a couple minutes for my mind to replace what I was seeing visually with the feeling of you.
Matt: So how this enhances what we would get over a Zoom call, for example — ’cause we have a sense of location, we’d have some way where I’m getting a higher bandwidth sense of your presence…
Matt: We’re on just a 2D kind of camera based video call.
Matt: Anything else people should be thinking about?
John: I mean, that’s the fundamentals right now. So we actually think there’s three key elements to the communication service we’re building. One is the shred presence. That’s like, when you’re in a conversation, what’s the quality? The other two elements are shared context. So in real life you have all kinds of information to know when and how to engage in a conversation and what’s appropriate or not. Like, [when] we’re all in the same physical office building, you treat it differently than if you randomly run into a coworker in a coffee shop, which is different than if your coworker randomly showed up at your house, right? So there’s all this content you have about physical location that gives you insight and control over when and how to engage.
Matt: Am I in this Pluto virtual room all day and you kind of come and knock on the door, or do we schedule it like a call?
John: Right now it works like a call. But I think, when I talk about context, there might be like, oh drop in, if I’m in the work hours, like, John can just drop in and be like hey, whattcha doin,’ right? It could also be like, oh, we schedule a call and as soon as we’re both available for that call we just automatically see each other.
Matt: Hmm, huh.
John: So let’s just take — you’re on [a] three-person call, right? So fundamentally in video chat you can see each other’s video, you can hear each other’s audio, there is no sense of space for audio and there’s no sense of space for video. There is no correlation between what someone is looking at and what your think they’re looking at.
On Pluto, on a three-person video chat, you would hear everyone spatially. So where their mouths were is where the sound would come from.
Matt: And then so everyone would turn in that direction?
John: I mean if that was appropriate. Like you don’t—
Matt: But then I would need a camera wherever I’m turning to, right?
John: And that’s the thing. So certainly right now we’ve done a three-person experiment and on an iPad Pro it works. So when you get a small screen it’s harder, but in iPad you have the depth of a three-person conversation so that you see enough so that when you look at me, the other person, the third person, knows that you’re looking at me.
Matt: So let’s say we’re a three person meeting, myself and let’s call Joe over there is talking —
John: Hi Joe.
Matt: — and Joe says something and then I look at you like…
John: Can you believe this crap?
Matt: That would be a very strong signal to everyone.
John: Right, right. And Joe would see that. And I would know you —
Matt: But today if we’re all on a Zoom you can’t do that.
Matt: I have to send a backchat or something.
John: Right, that’s a perfect example and that’s something you get in real life that you don’t get in video chat right now. We believe in the medium term, right, in the next like three years, there’s gonna be this moment, like the iPhone moment where there’s gonna be a piece of spatial computing hardware —
Matt: What’s spatial computing?
John: So spatial computing at the fundamental level is when computing understands the physical three-dimensional world, it’s also when it can display things to humans in a way that’s more natural to the three dimensional world that we experience.
Matt: So we perceive it in 3D as well?
John: We’ll perceive it in 3D, right. So that can be virtual reality where you put goggles over your eyes and all you’re seeing are pixels, you think they’re 3D and you can move around and use your hands with a controller. And then you’ve got HoloLens or Magic Leap, which are like mixed reality devices, and those are ones where you have a lens over your eyes and you’re mostly seeing the physical world but then it can project digital objects as if they’re mixed with the physical world.
And then if you think about mobile computing in 2000, it wasn’t one device. Mobile computing was your GPS, your Game Boy, your PDA, your cellular phone. And then over the course of time, there was this time where the iPhone came out.
Matt: It started to coalesce into one.
John: Yeah, this is one thing.
Matt: So you feel like spatial computing is going through a similar coalescence?
John: I think it’s gonna happen in a very similar way, where you’re gonna see all these different things that don’t seem related to each other or they seem like they’re competing with each other and then at some point someone’s gonna release a piece of hardware that has some attributes — like it’s gonna be wearable, it’s gonna be always on or always with you. So either you can always walk around with these glasses or you just — they’re easy to pull off and put on, kinda like the phone. You’re not technically always using it but it’s always kind of on, it’s really accessible to start it, it’s gonna be able to do a virtual reality mode and a mixed reality mode. That inflection point is somewhere in the future, call it two to four years, if you will.
Matt: How does Pluto use spatial computing?
John: Starting with our purpose, it’s like, help humanity transcend physical location. What we’re kind of doing strategically is looking at the different areas of spatial computing, and then asking ourselves, how can we best transcend physical location in that form of spatial computing? So we’re looking at virtual reality and we’re saying, how can we do that in just VR? And then we’re looking at augmented reality, like on the iPhone Xs — what is transcending physical location as a communications product look like there? And then we’re gonna do the same on mixed reality, like the Magic Leap or the HoloLens.
And then what we’re doing is saying okay, those all have different strengths and different weaknesses but we need to make sure that that’s creating one communication service and so that you could essentially say we’ll be ready for the inflection point hardware, when we can have all these different devices that seem very different at an experience level but they all interoperate and they can all create the same communication experience no matter which ones you’re on in any direction.
So you could be on an iPhone talking to someone in virtual reality and you should feel like I’m physically present with them. You should also feel that from an iPhone to an iPhone or an iPhone to a HoloLens.
Matt: Help me understand the problem that’s being solved. One of the reasons I like Zoom is they have what I call the Brady Bunch view. You can see a bunch of small videos all next to each other. So I’m on a meeting with six of my colleagues, we’re all on video, we have good headsets, the audio is good, it’s a really good experience.
Matt: We’re communicating, we’re talking, it’s not perfect. People are looking at their camera, which isn’t necessarily aligned with where the people are… What’s the problem there that we need to improve [upon]?
John: So if you could instantly be in the same room with those group[s] of people for that same conversation, and then instantly not be in the room with those same group[s] of people, would you choose that over Zoom? So you’re gonna have an hour long meeting —
Matt: What would be the advantage of being in the room?
John: The quality of communication that you can have in the room, the body cues, the visual cues, the pace of the conversation, the empathetic experience you can get in person is very different than you can get even on the best that video chat can provide. And it’s because video chat — It’s like, you don’t have a “video,” that’s not a human centered concept, it’s a very computer centered concept. And so it isn’t how you experience people. And so if you had those same six people and they were just all holograms around the room and they were indistinguishable from them in the physical world…
Matt: So there must be something location wise, right? Because I feel like video gets you maybe eighty percent of the way there. You can hear inflections in voice way better than text, we can all agree there, right? You can see someone’s mood, you can get some idea of how present they are there. So is there something about where we’re located relative to each other as opposed to this flat plane that makes it better?
John: Yeah so there’s where you’re located, there’s how you experience each other — So right now we’ve got these microphones in front of us and these headphones on. We don’t actually have positional audio. So if you close your eyes and you hear my voice, where is it coming from? You can’t really point to it, it’s like a nebulous —
Matt: It’s kind of coming from both sides of me, yeah.
John: Yeah. But if we didn’t have the set up of the podcast, you could point to me.
Matt: I could locate you, yeah.
John: Yeah, you could point. And if I moved around the room, with your eyes closed, you could point to me. So on video chat, you don’t really have that choice. But on Pluto, for example, that’s a choice that you do have. How are you physically related to each other in space? It’s a core part of connecting with people is that spatial awareness.
Matt: One of the nice things — we talked about screen sharing but one of the nice things about some of these is that they are multi modal. So we’re sharing links, we’re chatting as well as having the kind of — there’s different layers that the communications happen on, including some of these backchannels.
John: We don’t believe that like you’re gonna run the Pluto app and then you’re gonna be in the Pluto app all day. We think that’s ludicrous. It’s like you’re gonna be running hundreds of applications. And so it does happen like that where you’re on the call and you drop a little note to your Slack channel when you’re [in an] in-person meeting and then maybe get a response back. It might be lower in-person but you’re still, it’s still a common thing.
Matt: I don’t know if this is the ultimate thing but it seems like people are just going to use this to check Facebook while they’re on meetings.
John: Which would break presence. And so a lot of what’s important about presence, shared presence, is like an integrity to the interactions. Right? It’s like, my eyes are where my eyes are, you see where my eyes are looking. And so we’d probably say right now with everything that we know, with all the experiments and research we have done, is that it’s okay to do that but we have to, we’d want to signal that your attention was elsewhere. You might not want to share with me what you’re doing but in real life, you know, like if you’re checking Facebook while we’re talking I have some signals, we might want to retain those ’cause it makes better communication.
Matt: I think that’s the downside of conference calls today. There was probably a point when conference calls were good, maybe when the internet was boring, VR is always right around the corner. I remember playing a Virtual Boy, did you ever do that?
Matt: But it’s still not mainstream yet. How many people have all the headsets, millions?
John: Yeah, tens of millions.
Matt: Maybe tens?
John: Yeah, so like —
Matt: But not a hundred yet?
John: No probably not a hundred.
Matt: And active usage is probably a lot lower?
John: It’s definitely a lot lower. I mean, so like —
Matt: I think I own one but I don’t —
John: Yeah, like Steam VR, for example, which is probably, for PCVR, is the number one channel, has probably fifty — a hundred thousand DAU, daily active users, who use VR and do something in VR. That is not an exact number but it’s — they’ll have ten, twenty thousand simultaneous users. So it could be a couple hundred thousand daily users. So we’re still doing a lot of learning about what does it mean to transcend physical location, how do we do things, what technologies enable our use case. We don’t have that many ways to communicate. And what we’re doing is saying we’ll have a new one.
Matt: What’s the matter with that? We seem to be getting along pretty well.
John: That’s a interesting take on the world, Matt. [laughter] One could say there is a little bit more war and suffering and destruction than we maybe need.
Matt: So you’re not part of the Steven Pinker camp that things are maybe better than they have ever been?
John: Not necessarily, no. I think that there are ways that things are better and then there are ways that it’s easy, especially in a western country and especially as a white dude, to be like, oh things are great, things are so much better than they have ever been, and to be missing how bad things are for people and how that’s a societal choice we make, not a limit of constraint.
Matt: And you think this is caused by our mediums?
John: I think — I mean I don’t know — I don’t think it’s caused by that, but I do think communication mediums are tools and like all tools they cut both ways. And I’m definitely not of the “technology for technology’s sake” is an answer to our woes — it’s like, hey, it’s just more tools. You need to take a look at social networking, it’s provided a lot of good and it’s provided a lot of bad. What we have to do as a society, we have to somehow make sure that the technology we’re making is serving humanity.
Matt: I’ve heard a lot of non-profits actually starting to do VR experiences ’cause they say that people can really experience in a visual sense, much in the same way you and I went to Ethiopia to experience some of what was going on there, they can get that thing without having to fly halfway across the world. That also worries me though because we have gotten very good at sort of inciting human emotions.
Matt: And we’re not rational beings. And so if I was hooked up to this Pluto ten years from now, amazing system, what is the advertising in that that detects my exact mood and tailors a message exactly to that?
John: That’s a good question. I mean that’s part of the reason why we’re really focused on communication. And so like we’re not trying to create the meta verse.
Matt: Say what the metaverse is.
John: So the metaverse is the idea that like there’s a universe that has — It’s all digital and you go into this world and in this world you can do anything. So if you think about Snow Crash, how that started, I think that coined the term metaverse.
Matt: Which is a novel by Neal Stephenson.
John: Thank you, Neal Stephenson. You take a look at like Ready Player One. So in those cases they’re metaverses. In each case they’re like, oh the people are plugging into these worlds.
Matt: In Ready Player One he has a 360 treadmill so he can walk, a suit, and the suit exercises him, right?
John: Yeah, and then he —
Matt: He can lift weights with it and —
John: Yeah and he puts goggles on his face.
Matt: Goggles on. So he can essentially have total freedom of movement and is moving around in this virtual world.
[clip of movie plays]
John: So much so that almost all of his life is existing in that virtual world, such that that is more of his world than the physical world where he’s living in a stack of trailer parks.
Matt: Which some people might define their internet experience as that today, like their friends or connections already transcend their physical space.
John: Oh yeah. I mean one of my closest friends is someone I play this board game with online and I’ve never met him. He lives in France, but we play this game a couple times a month and we always spend half the time talking as we do playing. So it’s like he’s just as much my friend as someone else is.
Matt: You’ve said you felt like we’re two or three years away. What give you that kind of confidence? ‘Cause you’re not a guy who says those things lightly.
John: There’s movements happening and starting with like OpenXR, which is an open standards body — participation in that and that they’ve got the provisional specification that — they just announced it at a game developers conference. So things like that are now saying hey, what if, as an application developer, you could just do a spatial application and that could run anywhere? So concepts like that — Like right now, if you want to make an application, if you want to make an iPhone Air application, it’s completely different than doing an Oculus Rift application, which is different than a Magic Leap application. But with OpenXR spec it’s really exciting because, as that gets adopted and more run time supported, you’ll just be able to make a spatial application and it’ll be able to work anywhere.
Matt: Tell me a little bit about Pluto the company, just as we start to wrap up. How many people is it today?
John: We’re about twenty people.
Matt: And how do you work together? Do you have some sort of futuristic — Do you all wear VR headsets all day?
John: Yes. So all of our stand ups are in VR.
Matt: Say what a stand up is.
John: A stand up is where like they — everyday all the engineers get into VR — actually they’re often sitting — and then they just go around the room and so I do a check in, here’s what I did yesterday, and here’s what I’m getting done today and there’s some live troubleshooting of issues if need be.
Matt: So everyone is in the same time zone or do you have people all over the world?
John: Right now everyone at this moment is in the same time zone.
Matt: It helps a lot, yeah.
John: Yeah, we’re still very collocated because what we’ve done is made the choice to have an in-person culture and then we’re now slowly eroding at that, just to create a more distributed layer on top of that that leverages Pluto.
Matt: So the Pluto office somewhere that everyone goes into everyday.
John: Yes, we have a Pluto office. But then I spent thirty days working from Venice Beach, California. And especially — ’cause like hey we’re about to launch the IOS version, we need to use it a lot. And so I’m like, great, I’m —
Matt: So you took one for the team in Venice Beach?
John: Well what was cool is that it seemed like that. But then I’m like well I’m more connected with people, probably ’cause I’m talking to them more, but we could really maintain a connection, so much so that we had two employees start while I was gone and I had two meetings with one, three meetings with the other, and there’s this moment where you’re like wow, I feel like I’m with you, when I saw them in person it wasn’t like, nice to meet you, it was like, oh we’ve been hanging out.
Matt: Do you imagine a day some day where no one goes into the office at Pluto?
John: Yes. So we’re actually actively working on kind of the Pluto 2.0 phase. And that is one where we will be office optional. So we do have a need for an office because we do have a lot of cutting edge new hardware.
Matt: I bet, yeah.
John: We have a laboratory type thing and that does require physical space. But we are moving towards a world where what it means to be a full time Pluto isn’t tied to where you’re physically located. So it’s really — this year is the year of how do we live our purpose? We’re at the forefront of that, not at the backend of that.
Matt: Twenty years from now, what percentage of jobs do you think will be distributed?
John: Oh I think it’s gonna be like eighty percent, ninety percent. I think it’s gonna be a huge percentage.
Matt: Thank you again.
John: Yeah, thank you, Matt.
Matt: This was John Vechey. I really appreciate you coming by.
Matt: Looking forward to seeing more of Pluto in the future.
John: Thanks for having me.
Matt: That was John Vechey. You can find him on Twitter at @johnvechey, that’s J-O-H-N, V-E-C-H-E-Y, and check out Pluto VR at plutovr.com.
When I was playing around with my janky Virtual Boy headset in 1995, I never could have imagined that one day there would be hundreds of millions of people using VR. But that future is already here, so it feels pretty safe to assume that a lot of us will do work in VR very soon. Distributed employees work best with a wide range of communication technologies, but there’s something special about face-to-face communication in 3D space. Here’s to folks like John who are trying to bring that experience to people who are communicating across oceans and beyond.
Thanks for joining us.