“Who wants to experiment with virtual reality?”
Eden Shochat asked one day.
Sounds awesome, right? Wrong. I should have known by then, a year into working as Eden’s executive assistant, never to take his questions at face value.
I assumed it would all be fun and games. And in the end, it was — for our limited partners (LPs).
Here’s how we conducted a major event in virtual reality – and kept our sanity:
Our annual general meeting (AGM), as with all venture capital firms, is the event of the year. Aleph brings all of our LPs from around the world to Israel for a financial update on the progress of our portfolio companies and our funds. But the truth is that it’s also a very personal and friendly event. We all meet and shake hands, our LPs meet some founders, we eat fancy food — and then get down to business.
This year, due to limitations on travel because of COVID-19, we knew the AGM would have to happen virtually, and probably involve the software everyone has grown to love – and hate: Zoom.
True to our motto at Aleph that “Different is better than better,” we knew we had to deliver something better than a giant Zoom meeting.
Could we make everyone feel like they were in the same room and foster real human interaction without the awkward pauses and impersonal communication of talking to a computer screen? Tamar Richardson, my predecessor, suggested to Eden that virtual reality might be the answer.
How about shipping dozens of pre-programmed Oculus Quest virtual reality headsets around the world to all of our LPs during a global pandemic? All in five weeks? Sure, why not? Let’s do it!
Swimming against the tide is never easy, but with virtual reality still in diapers, I had to swim against a beta version of a raging river! Thankfully, I had my team at Aleph to support me. Our engineer in residence Daniel Zautner, who has a combination of phenomenal programming skills and a level of emotional intelligence hard to find anywhere (not just among developers), was my partner in crime. Daniel guided the technology and explored dozens of software solutions, but each came with its own bag of bugs, missing features, or lack of stability and support. His first impression of VR was, “it feels like it will take a techie person 20-30 min to set up, and a not techie person a lifetime.”
At this point, a VR event seemed more virtual than reality. Eventually, we decided on a mix of Zoom and VR. Presentations would be via Zoom, while meetings would be in VR.
Challenge 1: Acquiring Dozens of Oculus Quest Headsets
Oculus Quest headsets are considered the best stand-alone virtual reality headsets on the market today. “Our mission is to give people the tools to feel connected anytime, anywhere and enable a unique sense of social presence,” says Dedi Gadot, Director of Engineering at Facebook Reality Labs, which created Oculus. “The technologies we are building will fundamentally change the way people play, work and connect.” That’s exactly what we wanted to do.
But - we quickly realized that purchasing dozens of them was not that simple.
Inventory is limited and suppliers are not willing to sell more than one device. Even Facebook could not provide us with the devices fast enough.
As we prepared to tediously order one device at a time using a list of suppliers from Amazon, we found an Israeli importer who managed to collect a bunch of Oculus headsets. The rest we ordered one by one, bleeding suppliers dry. Now we were ready to begin the real work.
Challenge 2: Managing the Installation and Distribution of All the Devices Remotely — from Israel.
Once we had the headsets, we had to customize them for each user. Each participant needed their own account and their own personalized avatar (that somewhat resembled them!), and each device needed to have software installed that enabled participation in a large-scale meeting. And all of this had to be done remotely.
Daniel built an assembly line for monitoring our logistics for every LP and the status of their devices. Once a step had been checked off, we moved down the production line, inching closer to the forever-over-the-horizon “done” column.
Now for distribution. Moving physical objects around the world is a challenge in the best of times. Operating in different countries in different time zones, a project will naturally become more complex. Trust reduces complexity, but COVID decreases trust.
With COVID, even the shop on the other side of town is now considered a “remote” destination and might as well be abroad as far as logistics go. So we had a constant fear that things wouldn’t go as planned.
We had to find people we could trust 100%. The siblings of two Aleph employees managed our logistics in Europe and in the U.S., and my roommate’s cousin helped with the local installation at our “assembly line” in New Jersey. In Israel, I was fortunate to have Einav and Susan helping me orchestrate everything and coordinate ongoing communications with our LPs. It was these trustworthy relationships that made the impossible COVID deadline possible.
The issue of shipping presented an additional layer of complexity, as the LPs were now working from home rather than from staffed offices. So instead of simply sending a package to an office, we had to make sure someone would actually be available to receive the package on arrival. One of our LPs was only onboarded two hours before the event, since the shipping company couldn’t find him.
Challenge 3: Making the Event Feel Like the Aleph AGM in Tel Aviv Our Limited Partners Used To
In between two country-wide lockdowns and juggling August vacation time with kids, we decided to create 360 videos of Aleph and our portfolio companies.
Immersive, or 360-degree videos, record a view in every direction at the same time. The idea is that when you put on your Oculus headset, you will feel like you are actually standing inside the film. You can move right or left, turn around, and physically be in that new environment. It’s very cool (and somewhat disorienting).
Erica, who leads marketing at Aleph, is the best storyteller I have ever met. Her ability to dream big and excite people with her enthusiasm (and her journalism background) made her the ideal person for the challenge.
Here’s what she learned:
1. Find the best team. “My former colleague Alon Farago had just come off producing a 360 video production, so he understood everything involved and could help me prepare – quickly – and Barak Brickner was an experienced VR videographer. Most importantly, they both understood the end product — the experience we wanted to create — and how to get us there with virtual reality. It’s critical to explain to your team exactly what your needs and expectations are so they can help you achieve that end goal.”
2. Preproduction is key. “In sharp contrast to traditional filmmaking, in 360, your editing capabilities are very limited. Add in too many cuts or edits, and it becomes a nauseating experience. So every character and scene needs to be planned and coordinated to perfection in advance to avoid ugly cuts in post production. Also, post-production involves a complex stitching and rendering process, and you don’t want to spend days rendering footage you aren’t going to use.”
3. Script like you’ve got to do it in one shot. “Because you kind of have to if you want to see the speaker talking and avoid the aforementioned cuts. Pre-interview each individual in advance, write up the script and make sure they are familiar with it. Hiding a teleprompter in 360 is somewhere between complex and impossible because you’re filming every direction. Barak solved this by attaching an iPad to the tripod of the 360 camera with the iCue software.”
4. Timing (as always) is everything. “There’s only so much time someone can spend inside a virtual reality video with a heavy headset on their head. The videos had to be long enough to tell a story, but short enough so people could actually watch until the end. Barak recommended that after four minutes or so, the brain needs a break. We kept each video to under two minutes.
5. The virtual reality experience is maybe 75% of the awesomeness, but you still have to tell a story. “When you put on the headset and find yourself in an alternate reality, it’s just amazing. You might even reach your hands out to touch something that isn’t there in real life (and all your colleagues will laugh at you). But it gets old quickly if there’s no story to tell.”
6. Go beyond. “If you really want to wow people in VR – get creative. We used a drone. Imagine flying over Tel Aviv, seeing the clouds all around, and the buildings, cars and people down below. Whether the viewers are exhilarated or seasick, you’re making them feel something. They’ll never forget it.”
In the end, we created three 360 videos. The guests were welcomed with an aerial view of Tel Aviv, a stroll down Rothschild Boulevard and a stop in front of our office.
Then they enjoyed a visit to Melio with CEO and co-founder Matan Bar. The LPs “sat down” with Matan as he talked about the company and its mission to keep small businesses in business. They walked around the office and enjoyed a panoramic view of Sarona market. Finally, we flew them to Fabric’s grocery micro-fulfillment center in the heart of Tel Aviv. They met Avital Sterngold, Fabric’s general manager, who explained how Fabric’s solution makes profitable and scalable on-demand e-commerce a reality. She gave them a virtual tour of the site, where humans work with over 100 robots to gather every order in under five minutes; they even got to experience it from the point of view of a tomato. It was definitely a highlight of the event for our LPs.
Challenge 4: Our AGM Takes Place Every Year at Aleph. But the Meeting Space on the VR Platform is a Basic Boardroom. We Had to Spice it Up.
For the breakout sessions with our LPs, we chose MeetinVR as the place for everyone to virtually “meet,” as they are the only VR platform that allowed for the customization and intimacy we wanted to achieve.
Uri, who is one of the best UX & Product people in Israel and a rockstar (and looks like one), magically transformed a typical virtual boardroom into our meeting space at Aleph. But when Uri first heard that the meeting would take place in VR, he wasn’t as excited as I’d hoped he would be.
“Honestly, I thought it was a gimmick,” he recalled. “The platform didn’t lend itself to be designed, so I didn’t think I would play much of a part. It was with skepticism that I put on the headset and entered the virtual meeting room. As I moved around the room I experienced the same thing I have before in VR — novelty that wore off very quickly.”
But then Uri stumbled upon a hack.
“I started experimenting with placing images in the space and scaling them up to the size of a wall. My previous experience of designing real-time 3D environments led me to guess that adding a few images, each one requiring only two polygons, would not place too much stress on performance.”
So Uri designed the “walls,” “banners,” “signs” and “screen” in the room. He used photos of our physical meetup space as references and created the famous Aleph “Different is better than better” wall and the gallery of framed portfolio company logos. He “baked”’ artificial lighting into the images to help them blend more seamlessly and naturally into the virtual room.
“My favorite graphic is the room sign where I added the room name in Braille,” says Uri. Since he was hacking the system, there were no design tools to work with, which meant “placing” everything in the room manually.
“This turned out to be a bit more challenging than I expected,” Uri continued. “It is very strange to ‘hold’ and ‘lift’ a weightless image that is seemingly twice my height, super wide, and try to straighten it on three different axes. A tiny misstep of less than a degree makes the image go through the virtual wall, and because the system was in beta, I would find myself hovering seasick over a virtual abyss. In one of the sessions, someone moved a little coffee table in the room after I had marked the safe walking zone and was already fully immersed in the VR environment. I crashed into it and people ran over because of the noise. But, eventually, the room looked like Aleph.”
“It was only when we tested the room with our teams in Tel Aviv and Finland that I started getting excited about the experience. It felt as if we were in the same room. The virtual environment felt much more real and human than a video call. You don’t have to raise your voice for others to hear you loud and clear, and your voice comes from where you ‘are’ in the room. This experience was much more than a gimmick. It fosters real human interaction.”
Challenge 5: Now we were ready to prepare for the event itself.
While the Oculus Quest is a relatively simple device, the experience is far from intuitive, especially for first use, and required support to minimize friction during the actual event.
The moment our LPs received their devices, we sent them an email with a customized tutorial on how to operate the device step by step and strongly urged them to set up a short onboarding session with us.
An unexpected benefit of these sessions was creating personal connections with each of our LPs while gearing them up for the event, which increased their commitment to learning the platform.
As a woman, it was incredible to witness the different approaches of both men and women. Women were much more careful and exploratory with the device, whereas men had no issue randomly pushing the wrong buttons in an attempt to make it work (just like in life).
By far the biggest hurdle we had to overcome was a surprise rollout of a completely new UI for the Oculus that was gradually released to some devices in the days just before our event. We had dozens of users and three different UIs. We had to find a broader language that would communicate the steps regardless of the interface. In rare cases, we even had to ask the participant to describe the exact layout they were seeing.
When the day of the event finally came, we were still trying to anticipate what could go wrong. The schedule was tight, so we had to detect and solve any issues quickly and efficiently. Luckily for us, nothing went wrong, and the biggest problem was the VR motion sickness some of our LPs experienced (we found alternative options for their participation).
Honestly, even though everything worked technically, I had been very doubtful about the value of the experience from the very beginning. I have simply never subscribed to the notion that technology can replace human interaction. But when the participants joined the meeting, they could recognize each other, speak, shake hands and feel like they were really together. Something we all used to take for granted before Corona. This event turned out to be a good reminder of the value of human interaction, even when virtual.
On a personal level, I’ve learned that when attempting to create something new, it’s better to squelch your doubts. I’ve never thought of myself as an entrepreneur, but I realized that the word “entrepreneur” was extremely fitting for this project; we managed to find every obscure technology out there and create a meaningful and memorable experience.
Some Feedback From Our LPs:
Elizabeth “Beezer” Clarkson, Managing Director of Sapphire Ventures:
“This was an incredible idea that brought us together in a different way that was better than better. VR allowed us to all be together in 3D — something none of us have had the opportunity to do since the start of the pandemic. For many (all?) of us LPs it was the first meeting in VR we’ve ever had. Because of our Oculus headsets we were able to experience Tel Aviv, ‘meet with the Aleph team’ and visit Aleph’s portfolio companies like we were actually there in person.
“Why do venture funds have AGMs? The obvious answer is to provide an annual update on the state of the firm and its portfolio companies. But annual meetings are more than that. They are a time to connect, to have a shared experience around who a venture firm is and in so doing deepen the understanding between a venture fund, their LPs and the entrepreneurs in which the firm has invested. Aleph’s VR annual meeting was a fantastic way of creating a new shared experience for us all that spoke volumes about the originality of thought and investment in people that is at the core of who Aleph is.”
Hunter Somerville, General Partner of Greenspring Associates
“Aleph always set the bar for annual meeting season and continue the trend even during Covid. Super forward-thinking approach and still embodies how much of an emphasis you as a firm put on community. The community of founders, syndicate partners and LPs. Always a special group to be a part of from our standpoint. We are honored to continue to be your partner.
Also really enjoyed jumping in and out of virtual rooms and surprising Michael.”
Laura Thompson, Principal at Sapphire Ventures:
“I just wrote a blog about virtual annual meetings so the subject is top of mind for me. Using VR, Aleph managed to make the meeting come alive instead of feeling like just a head in a zoom window. It felt so personal and real “standing” with founders of the portfolio companies as they gave updates and we heard their stories. We even got to “go” to a live demonstration at Fabric and watch groceries be efficiently and automatically collected into orders in a fulfillment center. I felt like I was standing next to the moving bins because the quality of the sound and optics were so high. I work in the tech ecosystem, but it was still eye opening to see how “real” everything felt — my mouth was hanging open! Experiencing these company updates directly also gave me such a better understanding of who these entrepreneurs are and what they are accomplishing.”
As face-to-face events are probably still months away, if you are planning a virtual event and would like to incorporate VR, feel free to reach out, I’d be happy to help: email@example.com