August 7, 2023 7:00 AM
Windup Minds has raised $1.6 million to make truly believable pet simulations.
Image Credit: Windup Minds
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Windup Minds raised $1.6 million in pre-seed funding for a game studio focused on virtual pet games in virtual reality and mixed reality.
The Seattle and Los Angeles company will make games for a variety of VR/MR platforms. With a pet-loving team consisting of industry veterans from gaming platforms and studios such as Oculus, Electronic Arts, Magic Leap, and Bungie, Windup Minds aims to redefine the way players interact with virtual creatures by leveraging the latest understanding of animal cognition and emergent gameplay.
The idea is to bring back some of the joy associated with virtual pet games like Nintendogs, except in a more immersive environment, said Bernard Yee, CEO of Windup Minds, in an interview with GamesBeat. The studio brings the latest understanding about the full range of animal cognition, simulation and emergent gameplay to the new medium that makes your virtual companion feel real.
“We think virtual pets and virtual creatures are the perfect game for mixed reality. A pet lives in your house and that’s really important because that’s kind of signifies they’re part of your family,” he said. “When a dog is on your sofa or sleeping on your floor, it’s telling you I’m part of your your home. And mixed reality is really about being in your house and turning your house into a play space.”
Such games can be deeply entwined with the the idea of living in your home. And when you take them outside of the home through virtual reality, like going to a hiking trail or an agility run, you’re taking them out to do fun things. That helps build a bond with pets. Yee thinks consumer demand for virtual pets will be really strong, like it was for Nintendogs and Tamagotchis.
“We’re obsessed with it. We already know people can fall in love with digital pets,” he said. “And the only medium that can make your virtual pet feel real is virtual reality and mixed reality.”
A seasoned team
The team at Windup Minds brings a wealth of experience in developing influential VR experiences and contributing to renowned game franchises. Their collective portfolio includes notable creations like Dreamdeck, Toybox, Bogo, First Steps, First Contact, TheBlu, Irrational Exuberance, and involvement in games such as Medal of Honor, Plants vs Zombies, Destiny, Rock Band, Peggle, and System Shock.
The concept of virtual creatures traces back to the days of the Tamagotchi, a simple handheld electronic game that allowed players to form deep emotional attachments with digital pets. Windup Minds recognizes the enduring impact of such experiences and aims to take it to the next level.
While modern game AI and engines have advanced significantly, a truly believable pet simulation has been missing a crucial element—the physicality that made Tamagotchis and Sony AIBO robot dogs feel real, Yee said.
“Our relationship with dogs and cats is more than just a pastime—it’s part of the social
evolution of human beings,” said Yee. “If humans have domesticated wolves, it’s equally true that wolves have domesticated humans. We’re hardwired to play with, and love them.”
Windup Minds believes that the transformative potential of extended reality (XR) technology can bridge this gap. XR, encompassing both VR and MR, has the unique capability of building emotional connections with vibrant and three-dimensional characters that feel as real as any pet.
“When we built Dreamdeck for Mark [Zuckerberg] and Brendan [Iribe] to announce the Rift headset at the first Oculus Connect, we saw players tear their prototype headsets off when our T-Rex came towards them,” said Yee. ”They intellectually knew they were in a little demo cubicle, but their instinctual brains
told them ‘there’s a dinosaur in the room with you.’ VR and MR can make you feel like your digital pet is real – and no other medium can do this.”
That experience told Yee that VR was different and it made people believe that the T-Rex was real. With the virtual pets, you can fool people into believing they’re real, in a less threatening way.
On top of that, Yee said that virtual pets should feel smart and dynamic and adaptive to you.
“If we play our cards right, people are going to fall in love with it. And there will be a studio that solves this problem,” he said. “That’s what we are. It’s pretty ambitious.”
The Venture Reality Fund, Acequia Capital, and New Leaf Ventures led the round, with participation from industry leaders including Nate Mitchell (founder, Oculus), Eden Chen (founder, Pragma; Riot Games), James Gwertzman (founder, Playfab; PopCap/EA), Tom Sanocki (Oculus; Pixar), Greg Essig (Apple), and Anthony Batt (Outsider DAO).
“We have been fans of Bernie and Ben’s amazing work in gaming and VR for years and truly excited with their vision of bringing the joy of pet companionship to VR and MR. When they shared their ambitions of creating virtual companions that learn and grow with you, we wanted to support that vision,” said Tipatat Chennavasin, general partner of The Venture Reality Fund, in a statement. “When we think of what’s possible in VR, we hope for experiences that are not just for entertainment but something deeper and more meaningful.”
Yee noted he got a new dog in 2019 and he started reading books about dog cognition and how dogs think and he found it fascinating.
“It’s a two-way relationship,” he said. “It’s caring for you in its own way and you care for it. I think that’s a really powerful game to make. Can you imagine a game where you feel like your creature is looking after you. I feel like that’s fantastic. But games have not explored this topic.”
Yee, Ben Vance, Amy Conchie, and Stefani Swiatkowski started the company in June. It’s a remote-first team that aspires to set a new standard for creature interaction in video games. Yee was previously working at Meta’s Reality Labs division, but he was part of the layoffs at Meta in November.
Virtual pet market
Yee remembered that Nintendo game designer Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired by his own dogs to create Nintendogs for the Nintendo DS handheld system.
He thinks the game will be different from other virtual pet apps.
“We want to ride the existing expectations of what people think about their dogs and their cats. And if you look at look at a game like Peridot, you get to do things with with your dog right away, like pet it and feed it. And it seems to like you,” he said.
But he also noted that’s not what happens with a real dog or cat. It may take time for a dog or cat to build trust with you, and that is part of the pleasure of training an animal, he said.
“It feels like a big moment when your dog lets you rub its tummy for the first time,” Yee said. “It trusts you to do that. That makes me feel special as a pet owner.”
Yee said he consulted with Alexandra Horowitz, an expert at dog cognition and a researcher and professor at Barnard College. She noted that people love their dogs for their idiosyncrasies. That means all of our pets are a bit different, Yee said.
Yee said it was exciting to be doing his first startup as a founder after working in games for places like Oculus and PopCap Games.
“We have an exciting group of investors, some who are part of the alumni network of Oculus and Facebook people,” he said.
The Meta Quest 3 is coming this fall for $500.
Asked whether the focus will be on AR or VR, Yee said both. You have to be able to see the pets in your living through augmented reality, which blends the real world with animations. And you have to be able to see the living room disappear as you go off into a magical space with your pet.
“If you want to play fetch with it, it’s not going to happen in your living room because you’re living room is going to be too small,” he said.
He also thinks it would be good to make a version for the Apple Vision Pro, as that will blend the different kinds of applications. But Yee said he is also aware that at $3,500 starting next year, the Vision Pro is going to be very expensive for a while and it will take time for it to come down in price to accommodate consumer applications like virtual pets. For now, the primary target platform will likely be Meta’s line of Meta Quest VR headsets, and possibly PlayStation VR 2.
“I don’t know what the timing is for Apple going mainstream with the Vision Pro, but it’s probably a couple of years away at least,” Yee said. “But I want to have a more broadly appealing game that can go across as many platforms as are possible,” like those compatible with the Quest or Snapdragon Spaces.”
The company has eight full time employees and contractors.
“This experience will be both familiar and completely new,” said Windup Minds CTO and game director Ben Vance, in a statement. “We’re pushing on something fundamental and fantastic, and we’ve assembled the most incredible team to tackle this bold experience. We’re capturing lightning in a bottle and I can’t wait to share it with the world.”
Yee said the company is going to focus on good animations such as realistic fur for the pets. But it’s not necessarily going to be all about making tech better for pet simulations.
In one prototype, you can feed a creature in a certain spot and take the food bowl away after it’s done. If the creature is hungry again, then it should go to that spot and look at you.
“I think that these are interesting behaviors,” Yee said. “You might put the food bowl down on your sofa or I might put my son’s food bowl down on the floor. Those are the kinds of things that I think make creatures feel unique and special to the person.”
He doesn’t see some of these types of behaviors in other pet sims.
He added, “I want to mimic what real pet owners expectations are. So when I go away, my pet sitter might send me videos of my dog. Some people buy those devices that you can dispense kibble and talk to your dog or see your dog while you’re away. I think there should be a mobile device where you can interact with your pet when you’re away.”
Yee said that the team has a plan to use generative AI, like an AI machine learning model. But it’s more like a reinforcement learning model, where the inputs into the system determine what the system is like. Almost like a trial and error system, he said.
“That’s how real creatures learn,” he said. “But some of the large language model generative AI work is potentially very useful.”
Over time, Yee said a version of the sim might make it to mobile devices.
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