Imagine, in the middle of the night “here” in the Triangle—more specifically, in a 3D metaverse digital twin of a Crabtree Valley Mall store—a single mom from the Philippines can log in as a customer service avatar and sell a pair of Nikes to a man from Berlin, who is also shopping as an avatar in the Crabtree metaverse.
This is the future—where companies have increased ability to monetize and workers have new avenues to make money—envisioned by Robert Rice, the CEO of Raleigh-based startup Transmira.
“By doing that, we suddenly give Crabtree Mall and all of its businesses the ability to be generating more money, not just limited to store hours or on the website,” Rice said. “We’ve also given somebody in a different country the ability to get a job and raise her economic level.”
Or imagine this: You want to learn Spanish. You could get Rosetta Stone or hire a tutor. Or you could actually immerse yourself in the culture by placing yourself in a 3D digital twin of Madrid, interacting with actual residents in the city.
“You’re talking to real people, you’re making friends, you’re picking up the accent, you’re getting the culture,” Rice said. “Things like that are what the potential for metaverse is. This is what our DNA is. Like, where’s the utility? How do you monetize it? And how do you make it useful?”
Taking the metaverse and creating real-life applications like this are what has set the company apart from its competitors. Rice only half jokes that Transmira’s goals are world domination, and it’s understandable why he feels this way.
The metaverse could open doors to companies, governments and citizens to interact with the world around them in entirely new ways. Because of this, Transmira has taken its time in perfecting the technology.
“This is one of the things that makes us different,” Rice said. “Why we’ve been a little slow in terms of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it is to get all the technology right.”
Rice wasn’t always a virtual or augmented reality pro, though. At one point, in the early 1990s, he had just dropped out of college and opened his first business, a comic book store that flopped after Superman’s death. Not long before the store was set to close, a man walked in, asking if he could put his virtual reality machine in the store.
Rice said yes, and a few weeks later, he had a new job working for the man’s early VR arcade game company, Alternate Worlds Technology. After this stint, Rice moved to Raleigh, where he started his first software company, Arckosian Entertainment, which provided the industry’s first real-time 3D massively multiplayer online game.
As a pioneer in the VR and AR space, Rice said a lot of the tech came too early for the market. But the timing was finally right when Transmira incorporated in 2014.
When Facebook announced it was changing its name to Meta, Rice said it was a wake-up call to Wall Street that the future of meta was now.
“That was the big ‘aha, holy crap’ moment for everybody,” Rice said. “If Facebook is going to—not a new division, not a new initiative, but they’re changing their actual name. That was the signal to Wall Street in those markets that O.K., well, maybe this is real, it’s time.”
Now Transmira, which has a team of 15 people in eight countries, is ready to show the world what the metaverse can actually be. It goes beyond the typical social VR world many envision when they hear the word “metaverse.” With Transmira, it can be a blend of AR and VR, a crossover between the physical and visual, a way for businesses to increase monetization and share content. Ultimately, Rice sees it as the future of commerce, expecting marketing experiences to surpass what was once believed possible.
That’s not to say when Rice started Transmira that he had the business entirely figured out. At first, he focused on specific applications in the medical and industrial spaces. But soon he realized the low-hanging fruit of consumer marketing and the advertising experience might be the best way to break into the industry, with the ultimate long-term plan remaining the same.
“When I started it, I thought we’d be one of those rare companies that knew what we wanted to do and we’re going to stick to it and that was it,” Rice said. “But that’s no startup, ever.”
Since Rice has been in the Triangle since 1995, he’s watched the highs and lows of the region’s tech hub growth. He recognizes the talent and innovation is strong, but securing investments here compared to Silicon Valley provides its fair share of challenges.
“There’s a lot of talent here,” Rice said. “There’s a lot of awesome startups here, a lot of really good stories and good history. On the funding side, it’s really difficult. You have to really be an insider or somebody’s sweet spot.”
Still, at this stage, Rice believes Transmira is primed to change the world. They are even capable of producing an entire digital twin of a city. In its next “breakout year,” expect Transmira to create a fully immersive virtual city, likely for either Miami or Dubai.