Making Remote Collaboration More Productive – and Fun

Avatour virtual audit technology.

Remote work meetings can be less than productive, especially if some people are remote and others are on site. Remote workers can feel disconnected from their colleagues, and it’s easy to get distracted if the kids are noisy or the dog needs to go out.

Startup Avatour is trying to address some of those issues, at least in part, with its innovative “live 360-degree remote presence” system that enhances traditional video conferencing while not tethering workers to bulky virtual reality headsets. This is Avatour’s origin story.

Figuring Out What Works – and What Doesn’t

According to CEO and co-founder Devon Copley, the four-year-old company offers an innovative remote collaboration platform for site meetings. “We’ve essentially created a new version of video conferencing that’s really optimized for the kinds of meetings that don’t happen in conference rooms,” he says. “Meetings that happen on-site where the context of the real-world location is part of the meeting.” 

Copley says he and his co-founder gained some experience with VR technology while working at Nokia. They had a hunch that VR-based tech could enhance remote collaboration, but they weren’t sure how. “We didn’t have the specific product in our minds,” he says. “I think the key insight is that we knew there was a set of new technologies that were creating new opportunities, and we knew that communication was a valuable application.”

However, the question was how to apply these technologies to enhance the communication of a remote workforce. Answering that conundrum took “two years of trial and error, trying a bunch of prototypes, going to random trade shows, and trying to put things in people’s hands and trying to see who was interested,” he says. “We bootstrapped that entire process, which got a little stressful eventually, because… we didn’t really have a product on the market.”

Developing a product required an iterative process in which the company built several prototypes that used various combinations of VR-based video content that could be used to capture remote meeting locations.

“I think our original concept was real-time immersive technology, which was a much more general idea,” he says. “Then we found this specific use case of collaboration for site meetings, which was something that resonated in the marketplace. It was something that made sense to buyers and brought value to our customers. Since then, we’ve just been running at that, like very, very clear understanding of what we’re doing.”

Fortuitously, Avatour launched its first product commercially in March of 2020 as the pandemic hit. “Suddenly the phone started ringing,” he says. “We were fortunate. Timing is always the biggest thing that you really can’t control in a startup, especially a technology-focused startup. We just had the good fortune to have the right product for the right moment.”

Division of Labor

Copley says that for him, it was not only important to find the right co-founder but to make sure there was a clear delineation of responsibilities to help avoid conflict. “One of the beautiful things about our partnership is that we’re bringing equal commitment and equal effort, but different skill sets,” he says. “So it made for a very simple conversation about how we split equity and these sorts of things.”

There is a very clear division of responsibilities given their different backgrounds. Copley went to business school, so he is responsible for things like finances, fundraising, and sales and marketing. His partner, with two master’s degrees in engineering, is Avatour’s CTO.

Virtual Reality Meets Video Conferencing

Copley says that at first, he and his co-founder thought the best approach would be to design a 100% VR product for on-site meetings, complete with a VR headset and related hardware. That would allow users to look around in a 360-degree environment, see realistic lighting, and otherwise have the most immersive experience. However, they soon realized that wasn’t what their potential customers wanted. “We listened to our customers, and what we heard was that VR headsets are a pain in the ass. You create a big hurdle for the person who’s going to use the product.” 

Instead, the company settled on a sort of video conference-VR hybrid where the user can experience a meeting in 360 degrees inside of a web browser. This approach offers a similar (although somewhat less immersive) experience that greatly reduces the hardware investment and training required. Plus, the VR headset is entirely optional. “Being able to look around everywhere at a given place is valuable all in and of itself,” Copley says. “It is also way easier to access. With Avatour, you can literally just click on a link and then you’re there. It’s like a real-time Google Street view.” The company’s software is relatively hardware agnostic and can be used with off-the-shelf 360-degree video cameras.

What’s Next for Avatour

At present, Avatour provides business solutions. “We are quite deliberately leaving consumer applications aside for now,” Copley says. “We have a plan for how we’re going to handle them in the future, but the audience is still small, and there are other challenges. So focusing on business is just the sweet spot for us right now.” Enterprise software allows Avatour to “provide value to any company that creates value at locations. So that’s such a broad range. It’s manufacturing, it’s retail, it’s supply chain and logistics. It’s utilities, it’s maritime, it’s franchise restaurants. We have customers that fit all of those categories.”

Copley says the company’s long-term vision is to build a “broadly horizontal” product. “When you ask what’s the right vertical for Zoom, [it’s] all of them. We see site meetings as not quite as universal, but still extremely horizontal across a wide variety of industries. We’re trying to build the category-defining product for that category.”

Initially, Avatour received a lot of demand from the pharma sector. It still does, but other industries have since expressed interest as well, such as retail and franchise restaurants.

Marketing is “still very much a work in progress.” The company had been heavily dependent on paid search, but it’s trying to move away from that somewhat to “longer-term lead-generation strategies.” Avatour is also trying to figure out how to incorporate broadband as it becomes more popular. “We’ve come up with an aspirational framing for the product, that it’s not just about saving money” by reducing corporate travel costs, Copley says. “It’s about redefining your operations. It’s about bringing innovation to your firm. It’s about leading the way in your industry.”

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