Two-time Emmy nominee Kim Cooper, who just sold her Spatialand startup to the retail giant, talks getting more women in tech and bootstrapping a business from scratch
There’s nothing virtual about her success.
Store No 8, the technology incubator owned by Walmart Inc., said Tuesday that it had acquired a virtual reality startup called Spatialand for an undisclosed sum. The purchase is a milestone for Kimberly Cooper, who founded the company just over a year ago with no experience in VR technology. She’s staying on at what’s now a 10-person startup under Store No. 8, which works on retail technology that may only be used a decade later.
VR allows users, who typically wear a headset, to immerse themselves in a simulated environment. Walmart isn’t saying what projects the Venice, Calif.-based Spatialand will be working on, but a peek at the company’s projects offers some clues. For one, it’s working with Intel and Linkin Park to create a VR experience in which fans can make art to the band’s music. Last year, it created an activation for Store No. 8 that simulated setting up a tent at a campsite.
“If you’re going to get camping gear, wouldn’t it be great to be in a campsite so you can understand how to use it?” says Cooper, now Spatialand’s chief creative officer. “You’re creating memories because they’re experiences and you understand information faster. It’s like a burning stamp in your brain. I don’t want to read complicated instructions [but now] I know how to set up a North Face tent!”
Cooper became interested in VR when she was running Prologue, a visual effects company that worked on the “Iron Man” films and video games like “Metal Gear Solid.” An intern insisted that she try out a headset from Facebook-owned Oculus VR and she quickly became hooked. “It was horrible looking and not even anything, but I understood that he was saying you can be immersed in a space and transported now,” she says.
“Take that moment when Tony Stark is interacting with data,” she adds, referring to a scene from “Iron Man 2” in which the titular character works with technology. “With VR, you can do that. To me, we’re not there yet at this moment but I’m going to try and figure out how we can get there.”
While augmented reality, in which digital objects are cast into the real world, has become relatively commonplace, VR still remains more concept than creation. (None of Spatialand’s projects are available to the public, though they’ve been previewed at conferences.) But IKEA has created a VR experience in which shoppers can examine furniture, while China’s Alibaba in 2016 produced a “virtual mall” in which customers buy stuff at a VR Macy’s.
“Spatialand’s a really small acquisition that’s not likely to have an impact on the business anytime soon,” says Joe Feldman, who covers Walmart for Telsey Advisory Group. That said, he thinks it is “a cool idea to try and test to see how they can leverage it. Walmart is smart to get ahead on things like” AR and VR.
Though women are scarce in the world of tech, Cooper will now be working with Store No 8 principal Katie Finnegan, who’s serving as the startup’s interim CEO. “VR is saturated with men because it’s not easy to get into. How do you transition? I didn’t know anyone in the community,” says Cooper.
She began attending conferences, checking out what the competition was doing and got a booth for Spatialand. “It was just me manning a station and running to the bathroom,” Cooper says. “I’m sweating because in the moment I think ‘OMG I’m not able to set this up.’ But I figured it out. There’s that moment of getting over your fears. If you believe in something, you can do it. As a female entrepreneur, this is a tremendous time and opportunity.”
Indeed, she thinks women are uniquely important for VR to takeoff. “We add a certain touch and tone to the experiences,” she says. “You go into a store and you feel so good in a store. There’s a certain feeling and things they’ve done to give you that feeling. You can’t quite put your finger on it and but they’re why we travel or go to certain restaurants. These are the things I want to bring to the table.”
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