Our partner PIXO VR aims to bring changes to the current labor market and training approaches by popularizing Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Reality solutions (all combined also called Extended Reality or XR). They offer effective and secure ways of distributing and managing XR content on a global scale. PIXO Apex is a first-of-its-kind platform that provides hosting, account management, and data analysis for VR training solutions. This new approach to employee training provides hands-on experience in risk-free simulated 3D environments. It is applicable in any industry and can be used both to train a new generation of workforce and improve current employee performance.
N-iX Game & VR Studio started cooperation with PIXO VR back in 2018, and since then they’ve been one of our most trusted partners. In this interview, we talk about their training solutions, the state of the VR market, our cooperation, and this turbulent year.
- Jean Kaptur: Chief Operating Officer at PIXO VR
- Stacey Bennett: Director of Operations at PIXO VR
- Daniel Poludyonny: Head of N-iX Game & VR Studio
- Oleg Kozak: N-iX Game & VR Studio Delivery Manager
- Oleksandr Golovakhin: Game Producer at N-iX Game & VR Studio
Beginning of PIXO VR and the state of the market
Daniel: What was the state of the market back in 2018, when we started our cooperation? At which point you guys have seen VR training as a viable opportunity?
Jean: PIXO had been doing console games and mobile gaming previous to seeing the opportunity in VR. When the first headsets came out and our founder, Sean, saw them, he knew that immersive 3D experience was going to be completely a game changer. He shifted the business early, knowing that once you could bring training experiences to life in a headset, it was going to change the way people trained.
He was pretty early in the adoption of that. We built a couple of modules in-house and started hiring a specific team around that in the US. Those first couple of modules were our fall protection and hazard recognition. I think your teams have both touched it at this point now as we continue to evolve those products. But those were just beta, to show people what could be possible.
I believe our first enterprise customer was Consumers Energy. We did a prototype for them. Then Bosch and Ford for whom we did some early stage training so that they could take it out to the market and show their clients what was going to be the future of training.
Daniel: It’s very interesting how you transitioned from entertainment to an absolutely different domain. I guess your physical location was helpful because Michigan is famous for the heavy machinery industry, and Bosch is there, and so on. So that was sort of a match.
Jean: It was an advantage for some of our early customers. Consumers Energy is also a Detroit-based company and some of Sean’s contacts were in the Detroit area. But from a skillset and finding the right resources perspective, we weren’t at an advantage. We didn’t have that West Coast, Silicon Valley, or some of the tech hotspots that you’d find. So, that’s where supplementation with your resources became a strategy that we undertook in 2019.
Adoption of VR over the years
Daniel: Talking about this whole business area, I believe that even up till today, there are people who’ve never tried VR. Even at the VRX conference, there were a bunch of people for whom VR was something new and mind-blowing. How do you feel this situation changed over these four years?
Jean: Well, I think it’s been a slow evolution when it comes to the enterprise side of things. I think that the acceptance and adoption of VR have grown. When you look at the Quest headset becoming readily available from a private commercial perspective in gaming. We now talk to people who may not have been in a headset, but their teenage son or daughter has a headset. They put their parents in here and there to sort of see their reactions. So it’s becoming more mainstream with the adoption of the gaming side. Everyone at this point at least knows what a headset is. And if they haven’t been in it, they know someone close to them who has.
As for the maturity of the industry, I think that the content is not as good as it should be in most cases. I think that we produce some of the best content in the market today. That’s one of the reasons why people come to us – not just for our solution, but for the content itself. Most of our customers are still looking for VR content as their first need. And even though we provide an enterprise platform that allows you to adopt, scale, and grow training or any other use cases, they’re still coming to us looking for content.
We’re still at an early stage. Even though we’re much further than we were three years ago, many large companies are still proving VR out. It’s still not fully scaled or fully adopted, so the opportunity is still there for us to build quality content and drive VR training as one of the integrated options that companies have when it comes to skilling up their current workforce.
Daniel: I guess you could say that there are two sides to this equation. There are companies like ours that create value on the market and create content or platforms for content distribution. But there’s also another side, which is hardware. First, the wireless headset became a game changer, and now there is Quest Pro, which allows you to switch between VR and AR using just a single headset.
Jean: For sure. Mobile headsets have made it so much easier. When we first started, you had to have a dedicated space to do VR training. You had to spend a lot of time setting it up to make it work. There were a lot of technical issues, as well as just having that cord that tethered you to the computer and limited your mobility. It made people nervous and they got tangled up in it. It required almost someone to be watching out for you at times when you’re going through the training.
Having the mobile headsets and being able to just find an empty 10 by 10 space, put a headset on, and train gives people the opportunity to do it almost anywhere at any time, as long as they have connectivity to wi-fi.
It changes how we onboard customers and how they learn to use the headset before they can even start training others. So the easier the hardware is and the easier the user experiences within our platform, the greater the adoption will be. It continues to get easier every time a new generation of hardware comes out.
Stacey, do you have anything to add there when it comes to onboarding the customers?
Stacey: We’ve seen the shift of them seeing VR as something shiny and new, to see the efficacy of the training. A lot of our customers that were in pilot phases, and once we start to onboard them, and they get into the training, they say “oh, okay, well it only really takes me two times within this and I’m starting to understand the learning and actually retain the information.” I think that that’s been a huge shift within the industry over the last couple of years.
And when it comes to the headsets and setting, it is a very distinctive process that we have to do with them. We usually set up a series of calls and we found that this has the best return for them to get the information that they need to feel successful and roll it out.
We’ll do like one session that’s just all about connectivity and setting the headset up. Then we have to do one session that’s all about uploading the content to the headset. And then we have to do train the trainer sessions, where we’re actually taking them through the content.
We’ve seen great success in that with customers when we’re following that process. I think they end up feeling more confident to push it out into the organization a lot more than they would otherwise.
Daniel: This question is not within our original list, but it’s something that I think the viewers and readers would be interested in. Although Meta does invest a lot to shape the future of the VR market, I feel that their main incentive is still more of an entertainment product. What is your take on it? Do those big players have an enterprise side of things on the back of their minds for the development of VR technologies?
Jean: I mean, it’s hard to know exactly what they’re thinking, but I think that Meta for sure has an enterprise strategy. But I agree with you that they’re starting with the consumer. Their main point has always been consumers, more than an enterprise solution, with all of their platforms.
That’s sort of their comfort zone. That’s where they’re starting. Because of their size and scope, they’re not as easy to work with for an enterprise solution and for integration as some of the other headset manufacturers are.
One of the advantages that we have, is we’re device agnostic. We build most of our content for many headsets. But at the same time, we have to stay open and flexible in an emerging market. You have to keep your options open and you have to design your products and your content to work across multiple platforms. So we’re paying attention always.
We’ll be getting one of those Quest Pro headsets to figure out what that is and if we should be recommending it. We’ll be looking at the Apple device that’s coming out as well. Every time something new comes out, it’s important that we adapt and are ready for it. And we believe that while VR is a really high priority today when it comes to enterprise training, AR is not to be left out. It will also be extremely important in the evolution of training and immersive experiences. A headset that can do both is obviously just a great investment for an enterprise.
Daniel: I would say that we are on the very bleeding edge of technology and I find it very flattering. I have another question in terms of the domains and applications. Previously, you were focusing a lot on construction, oil and gas, and energy domains. Do you see any shift in the demand?
Jean: We continue to see new groups that show interest, new segments. We have chosen to not narrowly focus because we needed early adopters and we needed to determine where the best segments for that adoption are. We have two approaches when it comes to who we reach out to or who we focus on from a marketing perspective.
There are companies that already have their own content or have procured content through other third-party developers. And our platform has the ability to integrate that content using an SDK. So if you have content already, but you have scale issues, you don’t know how to manage that across your enterprise, don’t know track the analytics, or connect that data back into your LMS, our platform has that solution. So we are looking for people who have already built and are using VR content, but just don’t have the ability to scale it well.
We also are looking for customers who need that library content. We have content about construction, natural gas, manufacturing, safety, etc. We also have soft skill content now, so for anyone that needs leadership development or diversity training, we have specific libraries for that. We can instantly give people enough content to make it relevant to them.
Then lastly, we never turn away strategically good custom content customers. We’re working with Chick-fil-A and building content for them. They’re one of the largest and best-known quick service restaurants here in the US, with very strong operations and innovation when it comes to what they do in their stores. And right now we are working with them on the training of how to onboard their employees faster and ramp up their throughput so that they can improve their profitability.
So we have lots of initiatives, and we’re not narrowly focused, but we do try to strategically focus our marketing and sales efforts on the ones that apply to those three types of use cases.
Beginning of our cooperation and its scaling
Daniel: Moving back to our cooperation, we first started when you reached out to us with 3D models and we did that. Then I think you were looking for Unreal Engine Team Lead to do some co-development, and by the end of 2019, there were a couple of developers. Later we ramped up with a game designer and additional developers to do full-scale projects.
Could describe how that cooperation scaled up from your perspective? When did you decide to move from art production to full-cycle development with us?
Jean: We wanted to prove this out first before we put much risk into our process. We needed an expansion on our art team, so that was the natural place for us to start. Instead of hiring an artist here in the US, we knew that you had a pretty established art pipeline, and that was something that was easy for us to start with. To sort of feel each other out and learn how we would work together.
Then, when we brought in the first Unreal Engine Lead from N-iX. He interacted with us as one of our team members. He attended our daily standups, we got to know him, we joked with him, we asked him how his weekend had gone. He was really just one of our team members, fully integrated into the PIXO team.
We wanted that immersion because it was important that we didn’t lose our quality or our own processes in the transition to onboarding your team. We felt we needed to let that developer and then the couple of developers that started after him understand how we worked and what was important to us. At the same time, we started to identify and gain efficiencies through your experience and your processes.
So it was a really collaborative approach for that first year before we launched a project, where you were fully running and managing it. And of course, it was a learning experience and we had our highs and lows there, just like any production team. But that slow immersion is one of the things that got us comfortable with it, and allowed us to ramp up effectively with you.
Stacey: Yeah, we started small with the art, and then as our business grew, we needed to have those resources integrated. At that point, we had a lot of projects in the queue and it was like that turning point. It made sense at that point to just bring on your designer and project manager to help us with deadlines and efficiencies.
Oleg: We both had different approaches in management, design style, and so on. Do you think that sharing experiences between teams helped the project?
Stacey: I do. I think that our teams got to learn a lot from each other in terms of style or how we had done things previously or how we planned to do them in the future. So I do think that having those different perspectives helped make everything more successful for sure.
Oleg: I actually counted that over the last three or four years, we made over 11 full-cycle projects for you guys.
Jean: Yeah, and there are also the ones you guys modified or updated that probably make even more than 11. Definitely, around 20 projects that you’ve touched on in some way or another.
Oleg: How do you feel that affected the Apex platform?
Jean: Having more content is obviously huge for us. If you only have two or three pieces of content to choose from, you’re not likely going to put a full-scale investment into a platform. So having that available library content was a big opportunity for us to bring on.
Without that library content, not every company can invest in a hundred thousand dollars project with us. Being able to get someone on board for $15,000 a year versus a hundred thousand dollars upfront has definitely been a spark to move that adoption curve along and to get more companies trying VR.
Cooperation that is changing enterprise training
Oleg: What we really like about your projects is that they help train real specialists that work in hazardous and dangerous fields. How do you think the PIXO platform influenced the training process for these specialists and the VR interest as a whole?
Jean: I think the ability to have randomized situations that are really hard to reproduce in real life has been key to the efficacy of VR. When we talk to some of our customers, they would’ve spent a million dollars creating real-life simulations for how to train specialists. Especially in the natural gas industry, they had to spend millions of dollars to simulate only one situation.
With our solutions and being able to randomize that, you can have thousands of unique situations come up in a training experience. This allows specialists to see things that they would probably never, hopefully, face in real life. But if they do, they have seen it, they have practiced it, and they’ll have some idea of what they’re facing when in a realistic setting. And that’s really hard to reproduce without VR.
So for us, that really brings us back to our mission of trying to make workers safer, stronger, and more able to manage situations. The safety side and saving lives are never lost on us. With some of those situations, like simulated tanker explosion, it’s really important to us that what we’re doing actually makes those people safer if they ever face that.
Benefits of Unity engine integration
Oleksandr: I remember a few years ago there was quite an interesting project, but we were short of Unreal Engine talent. We offered you to open Unity development direction to provide talent diversification and flexibility. Could you tell us how this new stream affected your company and did it bring any value?
Jean: Having the ability to build in both engines has been an advantage for us when it comes to some of our customers who long-term want to build their own projects. They will eventually staff up and hire Unity developers on their side and use our SDKs and our other project tools that your team has helped us develop to be able to create their own content.
As the market evolves, we believe more companies will make investments in that, and then we can keep up our SDKs and our other tools that allow them to do so and put their own content directly onto the PIXO platform. So without that evolution of Unity, we probably wouldn’t have attracted some of those customers that we now have.
Giving third-party partners more responsibility
Oleksandr: What is your opinion on giving third-party partners more responsibility and technical leadership over a project?
Jean: I think it’s a fine line. We want to be as productive and optimized as possible, but we also want to keep some of that technical expertise within our company. So it’s really important to figure out how to align your strategic and technical leadership with ours, and have a lot of communication and sharing of knowledge and ideas and innovation.
We have leaned on your team exclusively in many ways on the technical side because we made some changes in our staffing about a year and a half ago. We reduced the team size on our end and put more of that onto you. And it worked out really well for us at that time.
But we realized that we need some of those developers in-house as well. So we’ll be expanding our team in the near future to bring some technical leadership back onto the PIXO side. I think the next step in our evolution is to have that tech lead be very close to your technical leadership. To develop a relationship so that when we grow in ideas and strategy, you are growing as well and vice versa, that we’re learning and growing from what you see and what you do.
Daniel: This is actually a very interesting topic because it brings the partnership to another level. There are clients that treat a vendor only as work for hire. That’s what we’re trying to change in the perspective of our clients. We are able to create this additional value by closing the gaps that you might have on your end with some technical expertise on our end.
Jean: Absolutely. We see you as an integral partner and not just the vendor. I think that it becomes apparent when you’re working with people on a daily basis, you’re talking with each other through Slack, you’re meeting on video calls.
We consider you all to be part of our team. Oleksandr and Oleg and others are in day-to-day meetings with our team. So if that connection point is there already, why wouldn’t we leverage it so that both sides can optimize what they learn and acquire from each other. I think that’s the sign of a true partner. That’s how we want to treat all of our content developers, partners, and customers. We really believe that when we’re all working together, we’re gonna drive the adoption of VR and make experiences better.
Teaching a new generation of specialists
Daniel: Back in 2019, we partnered with Lviv Polytechnic University, and we prepared the Unreal Engine program. Two years later, in 2021, we completed our first course, selected three of the best students, and offered you guys to run them. To augment the team with these guys to eventually improve their skills. They fixed some bugs in a common code and did other tasks that a senior-level developer doesn’t really want to do. This year we’ll have another group of graduates since we received an Epic Megagrant and opened an Unreal Engine training center. So since we’re trying to create value for our clients, were these interns of any benefit to you?
Jean: We don’t know exactly how each developer is doing because we’re trusting that whoever the project manager is at the time is managing those resources. From a theory, I love it because I did something similar at one of the previous companies I worked at. We couldn’t find enough resources that we needed due to some economic downturns here in the Midwest. So we built out a little program very similar to what you were doing. We trained people that didn’t have experience, and it was very successful. We took people who didn’t know how to do something and within six months to a year, they were experts in it. We were able to grow not just our own internal resources but also feed the whole market. It was a win-win for everyone.
So when you told us about it, it instantly made me think of the success we had in a slightly different industry. If you can teach and grow people in an industry where there’s a shortage of labor, you’re basically doing internally what we’re trying to do with our whole mission. To skill up an unskilled workforce and make them efficient and productive. To give people an opportunity to earn a fair wage and make their lives better while also satisfying what your customers need. So that to me, is an optimal situation. We’re more than happy to participate in any way.
We will always take reduced labor if Oleksandr and the team think it’s adding to the output of the company. We’re very supportive of those innovative solutions that you came up with when it came to finding and developing talent that didn’t exist. So congrats to you guys on that.
Ukrainian outsourcing market and PIXO VR’s support
Daniel: What is your experience working with Ukrainian partners? How would you compare it with your experience working with outsourcing studios from other regions?
Jean: I was a little bit concerned about the time zone since I’ve worked with outsource partners that tend to be pretty similar in time zones. So we looked at Central or South America for most of our outsourcing because it was important for us that we keep communication times, and that we don’t lose a full day by someone responding at the end of their day.
But your team from the beginning was very flexible. I’d say we adjusted to the timing, trying to be considerate of when your day was done. But the team has always been willing to answer. I know that Oleg sometimes answers me when he should probably be sleeping. We don’t expect that, but we appreciate it, of course.
I think there are probably many cultural differences, but that doesn’t show through on our side. I think you accommodate our culture as much as you can. English proficiency is high on your team, that’s obviously a huge requirement for us. Of course, we still have to do some proofreading and make sure that the designers’ language transfers to US English in that exact region or that exact company. There’s a bit of nuance to that, but that’s not a major hurdle in any regard.
I would say that it’s been really a great experience. We’ve overcome some of our challenges, and the willingness and cooperation that you’ve shown helped to do that. So I don’t know if that’s a Ukrainian thing or if that’s just your company and your team since I’ve only worked with you, but it’s been a good experience.
Stacey: I’ll add a little bit more to that. Sometimes we would have to have some difficult conversations with you and we might not have liked what we heard, but ultimately it made for a better end-customer experience and showed how we’re more of partners than anything else.
If you guys would’ve just said “yep, we can do it,” which some other vendors say, and then they underdeliver and overpromise, you guys were very truthful with us. To me, this is invaluable because if we’re not presenting to our customers the truth, it’s very hard to make them feel successful or happy with an experience. So working with you guys, I think I learned to appreciate those tough conversations, even though sometimes maybe I wasn’t happy, which I think is great.
Daniel: Since Ukraine is in a rather difficult phase right now, I actually wanted to thank you for your tremendous and unconditional support this year. Your press release early this year, stating your support for the Ukrainian team was very important to us.
Jean: Obviously, the situation is so difficult on multiple levels for each of you. First of all, there’s a humane side. You are all part of our team, as we mentioned, we see you that way. So if we can do so little but offer our support. We’re so removed, we’re so safe, we’re so privileged, and we recognize that every day. It’s very hard for us to know our team is in danger and under the stress that each of you has been under.
So anything we can do to keep you working, to keep revenue coming into your company, to keep paychecks coming into your team’s hands is important to us, as well as the business side. Of course, it’s hard, we saw the mounting risks of war that you were facing. We had conversations with you, and both of us didn’t think that this would actually happen, and we hoped that this wouldn’t happen.
We’re pretty invested in you. So we knew we had to stick with it and do everything we could to keep you guys working, and keep us delivering projects to our customers. The fact that you’ve been able to do that is quite miraculous. We hope that this situation gets better for you. If it does, then that will be fantastic, and we will celebrate. And if it doesn’t, we will stick with you as long as we can. As long as we can be there to help you guys in any way, to bring work to you, and to continue supporting the team.
Daniel: Thank you so much. I do understand that there are business implications. If we, at some point, lose the ability to deliver services, then it’s gonna be a problem. I think that this year, Ukrainians have shown the world an example of resilience.
Jean: We always try to build a team that has resilience and can take the ups and downs of a startup environment, and it’s not always easy to find. And then when we have this team in Ukraine. We’re on calls and I hear the sirens go off and it makes me emotional. We can’t put ourselves in your shoes.
It’s amazing that you can stay focused on PIXO VR development projects when you’re literally facing life-and-death situations. My family and friend circle are like “You’re talking with Ukrainians in the middle of a war?” It’s like, yeah, they’re working, and we’re talking to them on a daily basis. It’s been amazing what your country has taught us and what your team has taught us. Our violence comes from within our country most of the time, versus from outside. And it’s very humbling to say the least.