Drop Software Inc. wants to change the way people access information in virtual reality. Its flagship VR title, Drop, provides a 360-degree environment that folks can use to browse the internet. It raised a seed round of an undisclosed amount in August, drawing investments from HTC as well as firms such as Macro Ventures, Autochrome Ventures, and Backstage Capital. Drop is available on the HTC Vive headset.
“If I told you to open your MacBook right now the first thing you’d do is open Safari or Google Chrome or something along those lines,” said Drop Software’s CEO and co-founder Russell Ladson in a phone call with GamesBeat. “We’ve done it on desktops. We’ve done it on mobile phones. For our team, we asked ourselves, ‘What does this look like in VR?'”
Ladson says that users spend an average of 26 minutes inside Drop, typically performing actions such as sending emails, watching videos, and reading articles. Its audience is primarily folks who use their VR headsets six to eight hours every week. Some of its users have called it a “virtual Pinterest board,” referring to how they can visually organize content around them in a 3D space.
Drop has had to tackle a few issues in the course of developing its user interface, a few of which it’s still working out. Ladson says that input is a big challenge, particularly because the team doesn’t believe keyboards are the best way to interact with a virtual environment.
“We built an initial version of Drop using hand gesture technology and a keyboard, and we found that—the idea of using hand gestures in the environment makes sense when it’s a one-off action, but it can’t be the primary part of the interface, because of arm fatigue,” said Ladson.
Other issues include readability of websites and figuring out how to optimally use the 360-degree environment. In Drop, users can point at a window and pull it toward them, enlarging it so it’s easier to read. When they’re done, they can toss it away and it will poof out of existence.
“The tutorial is the first thing you have to use before it even allows you to search in the environment. It’s almost mandatory,” said Ladson. “The reason we did that was because people wouldn’t necessarily know, once they did a query, that all they had to do was point the laser pointer at that web link, and that panel will fly out to you.”
Drop isn’t the only virtual browsing space out there. Earlier this year, Oculus announced a new Dash interface for its Rift headset, which can run PC applications. It also has developed the Oculus Browser, which enables folks to surf the web and look at 3D content. Google also released a version of its web browser Chrome that is VR-capable.
“That’s what we’re seeing right now in this idea that VR does have this amazing use case, to be a productivity suite, a place where I go and I lock in for the first two hours of my work day,” said Ladson. “That’s where I get everything done. That’s going to change the way that people work. I think we’ll move from this idea of how open floor plans became so popular to everyone having some type of VR station. Especially as more standalone headsets become available on the market.”
It’s not just VR, either. Drop is talking to some companies that specialize in augmented reality and exploring how it could create a similar browsing environment for AR. It’s also interested in incorporating other technologies, such as AI assistants that use voice, such as Amazon’s Alexa.
The main challenge it has to solve is distribution, which Ladson says it’s approaching by talking to more hardware providers. Not only will that get Drop in front of more users, but it may help with monetization down the line. Most browsers bring in cash by signing deals with search engines, as Mozilla did with Google in the early 2000s. By the end of 2018, Drop is planning to roll out to the Rift as well as Microsoft Mixed Reality headsets.
“We want to create that first piece of hardware that replaces the smartphone and becomes as ubiquitous as the smartphone,” said Ladson. “But we know that for us, that’s a 7-10 year vision type of thing. We just felt that it made sense to start here today with the early adopters, the early enthusiasts, and start understanding the space from there.”