Makers of The Metaverse: Daren Tsui of Together Labs On The Future Of The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries
Seek out a diverse range of voices to gain an all-encompassing perspective that might not otherwise surface.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, we had the pleasure of interviewing Daren Tsui.
Daren Tsui is the CEO of Together Labs, the parent company for a suite of products strategically positioned to accelerate the growth of the metaverse, which include IMVU, the largest avatar social platform; WithMe Entertainment, an upcoming user-generated platform for friendship and shared experiences; and VCOIN, the first transferable digital currency designed for the metaverse. Daren was previously SVP Content & Services for Samsung Electronics where he ran music, video, and sports services. Before that, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of MSpot, a company acquired by Samsung, which provided mobile streaming services including talk and music radio, cloud music storage, and the first movie VOD service.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I’ve been working in the tech space since the mid-90s, going so far as to co-found three separate startup companies over the span of close to 15 years. My last company, MSpot, was acquired by Samsung, and I would later serve as their Senior Vice President of Content & Services.
As great as it was to start from scratch and help build up companies’ presence on the market with something you can call your own, once I moved on from Samsung and searched for the next exciting opportunity, I found myself taking a liking to Together Labs. I loved the challenge of bringing a fresh perspective to an existing giant in the interactive social network space, and I believe we’ve made great strides over the past half-decade since I joined.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
As an executive in the metaverse space, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is required reading. It coined the term metaverse as a virtual reality-based digital construct that succeeded the Internet. It painted a futuristic vision of people living their lives in the metaverse through their avatars.
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the X Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
Well, interestingly enough — my first encounter with IMVU, one of our metaverse properties at Together Labs — is what triggered my interest in joining the company. I remember logging in and creating my avatar and just started exploring the virtual world — it wasn’t until I found myself in a room and inadvertently hugging another avatar that I realized, “Wow, this is such a unique experience where you can express yourself and meet new people but in a totally virtual environment.” It’s such a different experience than, say, logging on to Facebook or Instagram; you just don’t connect with people the same way, even though these platforms are meant to help you connect.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
I actually had a meeting with Jay-Z and his team! At the time, he was repping Tidal, and he wanted to see whether Tidal and Samsung could partner together on a music service. I was in a huge boardroom with Jay-Z sitting right across from me, and though I wasn’t leading on behalf of our team (our North American CEO was there), because I was representing Samsung Music, I was participating in a majority of the conversation. That was pretty fun!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Back in the SkyGo days, right when the internet bubble was bursting, and we were trying to raise money, Derek Proudian would try to introduce Ed Ho and me to as many VCs as possible to secure another round of financing.
The process got so repetitive at the end that I walked into Redpoint Ventures’ offices and sped through our pitch deck. “Blah blah blah, next; blah blah blah, next; oh yes, people love wireless advertising, next…” My partners called me out immediately after we finished, saying it was one of the worst presentations they’d ever seen.
The lesson learned: you have to give each opportunity your all. Even if you’ve done it 50 times over, you need to approach each scenario like it’s your first.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I never really had a career mentor; I feel I owe all of my successes to the way my dad raised me. He was a very successful businessman, ultimately leading the Mercedes-Benz organization in Taiwan. He had a type-A personality and was very competitive. For him, it was more about the win versus the reward; he needed to succeed. That has never been lost on me. I owe all of my work ethic, my drive, based on what I saw from him.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Since founding Together Labs in 2004, we’ve always made it our mission to help users meet new people and build friendships over the internet and explore connections in new and exciting ways.
Later this year, we plan to offer our second foray into the metaverse with the launch of WithMe; a collaborative Friendverse where people can fully accessorize their avatars and explore digital gatherings like video screenings, game rooms, and other social hotspots from around the world.
Additionally, our cryptocurrency vertical, MetaJuice, has just closed the final presale for our upcoming VCORE token. We’re excited to discover new ways to empower our creators within IMVU by providing active users, artists, and collectors with a brand-new way to enjoy our interactive worlds.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The metaverse seems so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
One of the most fascinating aspects of building a metaverse alongside our creators is seeing that it’s a shared effort to help make it thrive. Our 200,000 active creators on IMVU upload more than 400,000 new items to our social platform’s content catalog. As a result, we constantly see new archetypes of user avatars that we’ve never seen before on a weekly, if not monthly, basis.
Furthermore, the in-game options that creators and standard players have to customize their avatars in the metaverse reflect a diversity of expression. Some might seek exclusivity with their digital identity and purchase limited edition NFTs; others are more than happy to sit them out and instead use in-game credits to build out a wide array of outfits to fit as many social moods as possible. All are valid and welcomed in the metaverse.
Finally, because of the sheer millions of unique aesthetic items created, we’ve seen across metaverses that what the masses wear on their avatars come and go like waves of fashion trends. It’s amazing to see the seasonality of a hot item in January becoming old news later that same year, much like you would see in high fashion trends within the physical world. It adds an immersive feel to the metaverse where one can sit on the cutting edge or hang back comfortably in a bygone era.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
The biggest concern I have is the lack of devices on the market. If you look at last year’s trends, Meta’s Quest sold fewer devices than the year before. The other concerning trend is that those devices are getting more expensive; they’re like $1,000 devices now. Prices are not going in the right direction. With that said, we’re still believers in VR, XR, and MR, but it feels like the time horizon has gotten stretched.
When it comes to the metaverse side of things, It would be difficult to ignore the uncertainty in the cryptocurrency exchange markets, especially when it comes to highly speculative assets buoyed by false figures. Our current offering, VCOIN, is set to a consistent value of 250 VCOIN per $1 USD, meaning that the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid out to creators within IMVU that use the token to sell or buy NFTs won’t be left in the lurch based on what’s going in crypto outside the confines of our social network.
Speaking of NFTs, a group of Web3 companies just launched the “Ethereum Climate Platform” initiative at COP27, addressing the carbon emissions generated for providing proof of work for the Ethereum-driven blockchain. Reducing the carbon footprint within critical operations remains crucial to the bright future of the metaverse, and we hope more companies involved in this space seek options to become 100% carbon neutral with companies like Immutable X or Artrade.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR and the metaverse are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
One of the biggest reasons why people lament meetings that “could have been an email” is that they miss the fundamental reason why people “meet” in the first place; to come together and engage. A Harvard Business Review study showed that 62% of respondents said meetings “miss opportunities to bring the team closer together;” and that the connectivity issue is something best addressed in the metaverse.
Meeting rooms no longer have to exist within the confines of a nondescript corner of a Zoom call or the hustle towards the same long table in a static conference room. In the metaverse, you could set yourself up on a desert island resort or a high rise, in rooms complete with immersive 3D video presentations and minigames to play while you’re waiting for that one person who always shows up late to finally arrive.
The metaverse adds functionality, entertainment, and, most importantly, variety to the workspace, especially when the focus is collaboration. Anything that turns the meeting from a requirement to an event brings life to moments that might otherwise be unlively.
I recently hosted a fireside chat with Oppenheimer analyst Martin Yang within IMVU to discuss the launch of Oppenheimer’s first digital avatar industry research white paper. It was great to showcase a strong example of the potential consumer application of digital avatars; with a high-profile investment banker working and meeting within the metaverse.
Are there other ways that the metaverse can improve our lives? Can you explain?
Most anything you can do in the physical world, you can do in the metaverse. You can join a social club and dive deep into a hobby, team up with new friends to create a competitive team, or even commit to a group willing to keep each other accountable in their dietary changes and weight loss progression.
The power of friendship and social connection makes it easier to achieve a self-improvement task, especially when progress is slow, methodical, and not immediately rewarding. Having your buddy cheer you on in a virtual workout room as you push out that last rep or two is a great feeling, even if you are physically separated by cities, countries, or continents.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
One of the biggest misconceptions about working in this industry is that you’re working on a fad or a trend. Certainly, there’s been a notable uptick in interest from the tech sector to invest over the past few years, but as a company with almost two decades’ worth of experience pioneering the early stages of the metaverse, that sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth.
Console RPGs didn’t replace the tabletop role-playing game, much like the introduction of the Battle Royale genre hasn’t killed off the traditional multiplayer lobby. The social network landscape is large enough to have dozens of top companies co-exist in the same space, especially when what they bring to the table in the metaverse is varied from group to group.
Another concern is the misunderstanding and the generalization of the terms “metaverse” and “Web3.” People think, “Companies aren’t selling as many headsets. Therefore the metaverse doesn’t work.” The metaverse, just like Web3, is many different things and offers a wide arrangement of experiences.
We’ve yet to scrape the surface of what the metaverse can produce. Quantum computing allows massive groups of users together in scale environments, interconnectivity within a litany of metaverses, improvements to visual fidelity, and advancements in AR, VR, and MR functionality; the possibilities are endless. There’s so much more to the concept of the metaverse than what’s currently possible.
What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career Working With The Metaverse?”
First things first, you must always listen to your core audience. Seek out the shared vision both you and they desire and cut through the fluff.
Seek out a diverse range of voices to gain an all-encompassing perspective that might not otherwise surface.
Build thick skin but a soft heart. Do not be deterred by those who oppose you.
Connectivity and interaction should come first and foremost when working on the metaverse.
Finally, when working on a new metaverse project, constantly ask yourself one question when iterating on it; “Is this fun?”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
What I really want to do is create a positive, authentic social network that I would have no problems with my kids using. That’s the movement that I want to start.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would love to have breakfast with Elon Musk so we can catch up! Elon’s first company, Zip2, bought the first company I started, Pantheon. I worked together with him for about two years, and Zip2 was a big success; we sold the company to Compaq AltaVista for $305 million in cash.
There have been quite a few things that have happened since then, and I’d love to hear all the details!