CommonGround, currently a stealth startup company hoping to redefine online communication, recently secured US$19 million in funding (Matrix Partners, Grove Ventures, and StageOne Ventures). As stated by the company, its goal is to “develop collaboration that’s better than face to face”—lofty goals indeed, and while there is very little known about how the company intends to accomplish this feat, the founders (Amir Bassan-Eskenazi and Ran Oz) have a solid track record within the video industry, founding other startups including BigBand Networks (video, voice, and data solutions to cable operators, acquired by ARRIS/CommScope), Optibase (digital compression technology company), and VCON (video conferencing over IP). The team that CommonGround has assembled, with expertise in computer vision, 3D graphics, AI/ML, and real-time video compression, along with the company’s term “4D collaboration,” gives some suggestions about what the communications platform might look like.
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CommonGround and Rec Room Gain New Funding and AWS re:Invent Fuels the Imagination
CommonGround, currently a stealth startup company hoping to redefine online communication, recently secured US$19 million in funding (Matrix Partners, Grove Ventures, and StageOne Ventures). As stated by the company, its goal is to “develop collaboration that’s better than face to face”—lofty goals indeed, and while there is very little known about how the company intends to accomplish this feat, the founders (Amir Bassan-Eskenazi and Ran Oz) have a solid track record within the video industry, founding other startups including BigBand Networks (video, voice, and data solutions to cable operators, acquired by Arris/CommScope), Optibase (digital compression technology company), and VCON (video conferencing over IP). The team that CommonGround has assembled, with expertise in computer vision, 3D graphics, AI/ML, and real-time video compression, along with the company’s term “4D collaboration,” gives some suggestions about what the communications platform might look like.
On a different front, Rec Room, which historically has been a VR-centric virtual playground where users can play and create games with friends and the online community, recently raised a US$20 million Series C round, led by Madrona Ventures Group (in total the company has raised nearly US$50 million). With the VR market taking time to develop, the company has expanded to iOS, PC, and consoles, and while VR is still leading, Rec Room anticipates mobile to become the leading platform in the near future. In addition to fostering community and friend-led entertainment, Rec Room is enhancing its content creation tools for players to build their own experiences—reportedly more than 1 million of the 10 million registered users have used the creator tools (creators can also earn money from their creations). Lastly, AWS re:Invent ran through its virtual conference, and while much of the messaging remains consistent (of course, with healthy levels of advancements and updates), the 2020 pandemic, which has accelerated migrations to the cloud, compels us to view re:Invent through a different lens, making the previous two company announcements all the more compelling.
It's (or Will Be) a Virtual World After All
We’ve discussed how the pandemic has pushed more workflows to the cloud and greatly enhanced the value of remote collaboration, but it’s more than simply a shift in communication channels and processes; these accelerated trends will, as the saying goes, make the world smaller, by making it virtual. During AWS’s virtual re:Invent, there were many examples of companies moving workflows to the cloud—from databases in the cloud to media production and game development—but perhaps more intriguing was some of Amazon’s announcements to make using AWS easier and more cost effective. Babelfish for Amazon Aurora PostgreSQL (allowing applications running on Microsoft’s SQL Server to run on Aurora PostgreSQL without code changes) and its second-generation ARM-based chip (Graviton2) for Amazon EC2 illustrate Amazon’s push to make the transition to the cloud easier and more cost effective.
As more work and entertainment moves remote, the cloud will inevitably serve as both a facilitator and a driver. In these earlier days, the cloud is often praised for its scalability and promise of efficiencies, but in time the cloud will engender more significant changes in how companies find their employees and the way work is done. Many companies still have a relatively locally biased view for employment, meaning they recruit with physical locations/offices in mind. As workflows move to the cloud and become virtual, the need for employees to work in designated physical locations is diminished. Companies no longer need to acquire and maintain CAPEX-intensive equipment (e.g., workstations), and prospective employees can come from anywhere with a fast enough broadband connection (or proximity to a data center), meaning that companies can recruit across a much wider geographic area without requiring prospective employees to relocate.
As hiring moves in this direction, this will further add to the value and need for virtual collaboration and communication tools. A great deal of emphasis is already being placed here as a result of increasing workflow complexities and the ongoing pandemic, but this need will also accelerate the next-generation forms of collaboration and communication. CommonGround is one potential early example and a company to keep an eye on. The commercial and enterprise space is not alone; the consumer/entertainment markets will also see a decided push towards the virtual and digital. The market value for virtual goods and cosmetics within the gaming industry is an early indicator of how the virtual aspect of the media and entertainment market could evolve. If we consider a company like Rec Room, we can see how the creation of virtual areas and items can become democratized and user generated, just like YouTube kickstarted the trend within the video space. Eventually these virtual items will extend beyond one platform and follow the user throughout their “virtual travels” and eventually come to form a unique virtual presence or identity for each user that could ultimately extend to the virtual workplace as well.
Build Towards This Virtual Future
It’s easy to get carried away with some of these longer-term views of the more distant horizon. While today’s trends suggest such a future is absolutely a possibility, it will take time and an iterative approach to get there. Many of the pieces are there or are arriving, but they are not yet interconnected, and this process will take time. In the short term, the highest value opportunity for most companies will be to embrace today’s collaboration and video communication tools (and cloud compute if necessary) to geographically diversify their workforces, ensuring they reach the best candidates. None of this means in-person meetings/conferences or collaboration will end; rather, it points to a future where companies will have more options. There will still be physical offices, but huddle rooms and meetings will include an increasingly remote workforce and the processes that enable these co-workers to work seamlessly across distances will become essential. This reality isn’t far off as evidenced by Salesforce’s acquisition of Slack. There will be some of the “old guard” that will view these changes with some hesitation or possibly even trepidation. But these transitions will happen faster than some may expect, so while it is ok to start by dipping one’s toes into the water, eventually you’ll have to get in if you want to keep pace.