For many, the childhood dream of tech possibilities was informed by favorite shows or movies, from The Jetsons to The Matrix.
While others may brush aside those memories as unrealistic, Steve Zhao, founder and CEO of Sandbox VR, is making his vision for futuristic technology a reality with Holodecks — hubs for people to play and socialize through virtual reality gameplay experiences.
“Holodecks are our gameplay areas, and the name is a friendly shout-out to the entertainment portals imagined in the Star Trek universe nearly 50 years ago,” Zhao said.
The appeal of connecting through VR goes beyond that of sharing a futuristic experience — Sandbox VR offers both mental and physical challenges to stretch how adults are able to play and enjoy entertainment.
“Our product brings people closer together through world-class immersive experiences,” Zhao said. “It’s an opportunity to collaborate and overcome challenges, whether that be with friends, colleagues, family members or strangers. There are so few options for adults to have fun and very few of those promote greater physical health. We’re proud to be able to create entertainment options for people who want to lead an active lifestyle.”
Ultimately for Zhao, the vision for VR fully reimagines the possibilities for entertainment and social connection.
“We are building the next generation of cinemas, where every person can be the star of their own movie alongside their friends, colleagues and loved ones,” he said. “When people step into our worlds, they realize that anything is possible.”
“When people step into our worlds, they realize that anything is possible.”
Built In connected with Zhao to learn more about his ambitions for Sandbox VR and the opportunities the company offers for tech talent and consumers alike.
We are constantly calibrating ourselves against three measurements.
First, store saturation. Our goal is to make Sandbox VR available in every neighborhood around the world. We believe that we can and will add over 800 locations and still barely scratch the surface of that goal.
Second, a strong catalog of intellectual property. We have a very good blend of IP products at Sandbox. We’ve got rapidly growing internal IPs, including our Deadwood zombie series, which has brought in over 20 million in revenue in the past year. As we grow, we’ve also been setting our sights on major external IPs. This all started with Star Trek, and we’re also so excited to be launching a fully immersive Squid Game experience in the next few weeks. We are in discussions with other major IP holders about how they can take their big and small screen worlds and expand on them using our Sandbox VR platform.
Third, creating deeply immersive tech. VR as an industry is still in its infancy. There is so much innovation in the space right now, and every upgrade we develop helps our guests further lose themselves in our experiences. Each advancement provides us a great opportunity for new lines of business and revenue streams in the future.
How do Sandbox VR’s values influence team culture?
We have three company values we hold everyone accountable to:
1. We are egoless. We practice humility. We’ve got no room for personal agendas here.
2. We embrace an underdog mindset. We remember where we started and how we overcame constraints.
3. We win collectively. We create an uplifting service environment for our peers and our guests.
One example of how our team puts our culture into action is the story of our zombie mascot, Tatiana. We were just reopening as Covid regulations were lifting, and we were trying to help people understand what our new concept was. One of our district leaders had this idea that he’d get a mannequin and would dress it up in our VR gear — I think he may have purchased it off Craigslist. He then had the bright idea to dress it up in a zombie costume and the VR gear, and people started pouring in. There will only be one Tatiana, but it’s nice to see our other stores putting together their own variations on a mascot.
How do you see Sandbox VR shaping the future of entertainment?
People have long believed that we are all passive consumers of entertainment. We watch other people on TV and as we scroll through our phones. At Sandbox, we want to use our experiences to help people capture an element of play that has been missing since their childhoods. We’re barely even scratching the surface of this technology — we are learning how not only to make it more immersive but also less technologically demanding and more easily accessible.
“We want Sandbox experiences to help people capture an element of play that has been missing since their childhoods.”
How are innovative ideas generated and brought to life at Sandbox?
We’ve built a great team that knows how to focus on strategy while also being willing to roll up their sleeves to work on tactical initiatives. Ensuring every team member at every level is close to the work that gets done here insulates us from isolated or uninformed thinking.
I’m consistently challenging my leaders to search for context over control because we’ve found that the best ideas often come from some of our quietest individual contributors. Recognizing these great ideas in our internal public forums creates a very satisfying loop of more good ideas.
What are you personally doing to future-proof your business model in such a rapidly changing space?
We have a large amount of research and development happening at all times. Right now, I can count at least 10 different initiatives that will force-multiply how we operate, spanning our store experience flow, machine learning and automation, content development, IP partnerships and how we hire and train our staff.
Why would someone want to work with Sandbox VR right now?
We are currently the industry leader and fastest-growing location-based VR startup. Investment has never been higher in VR technology, and we’re well positioned to capitalize on it. For anyone considering working with us, it’s a great time to be part of Sandbox.
First, we’ve tripled our stores over the past couple of years and are continuing our amazing growth trajectory.
Second, we’re investing in our people to help them grow with us. This past year, we promoted over 10 percent of our 750-person workforce. More than half of our store managers hired this year were internally promoted, and that trend line is increasing.
Third, we’ve got the best elements of small and large companies. We emulate small companies by being nimble to cutting-edge changes and put a great emphasis on process improvement and innovation. We also have a very diverse, approachable and involved executive team that are actively involved in both our strategy and our tactics. Mirroring a large company, we are financially stable, and our team members have countless opportunities to create impact at a global scale.
What does it feel like watching these guests experience Sandbox VR?
Growing up playing video games, some of my most memorable experiences were the ‘wow’ moments that came during a game’s epic zenith. I love watching people come out of our experiences with that same triumph and awe having saved the world. That’s how I know we’re on the right track.
“I love watching people come out of our experiences with triumph and awe having saved the world.”