Asheville’s Emerging VR Scene: Better Than Unicorns Disrupts Our Sense of Reality

By Isaiah Green

Nine-year-old girls are quick to point out that nothing is better than unicorns.

Although the name of his company may claim otherwise, founder Brett McCall of Better Than Unicorns agrees in principle with that youthful assertion. For him, unicorns represent the limitless power of fantasy — something he and his team work hard to bring to life in an experiential way.

BTU is an Asheville-based tech startup that provides imaginative digital experiences through 3D visuals, interactive games, 360-degree video, and any other tools found under the umbrella of virtual and augmented reality. McCall sees the technology as a portal to new worlds for industries ranging from video gaming to healthcare to advanced manufacturing.

“We mash up game mechanics with architectural designs, sprinkling in behavioral sciences, a dash of mythology, and an oversized lens of future vision to bring the impossible to the experience-able,” McCall says about BTU’s approach. “In most cases, these are first-time experiences for most of our community, and we see ourselves as midwives and medicine men. We pride ourselves on taking great care of the person in the experience as much as we do on maximizing delight in the smallest details.”

Changing the Game

As with all emerging technology startups, BTU is taking some time to determine the path for its own fantasy. Unicorns may be born of imagination, but they need adaptation and endurance to persevere.

McCall and his cofounders originally launched BTU as a software company, developing experiences to present to the public. That strategy evolved, however, as the challenges of the marketplace became more apparent.

“As any developer in the thick of creating immersive 3D experiences would know, this work can get more expensive than most customers can handle,” McCall explains. “When we started, BTU didn’t have any investors or much initial cash, so we were running off the savings from the founders of the company. We all know that can’t last forever.”

The company needed to pivot, and fast. Drawing on his experience as a futurist for Turner Broadcasting, McCall saw how BTU could transform the trend of VR’s expense into an opportunity. Rather than creating software for a platform many found appealing but too expensive, BTU could instead focus on simply exposing more people to the magic inside a VR headset, regardless of whether they owned one at home.

“There are so many people willing to try out this new technology, but they’re on the fence about purchasing and potentially clearing out a room in their house to play immersive games,” McCall says, a look of excitement in his eyes. “BTU saw this market, especially in Asheville, where people are genuinely willing to try these new experiences, and we ran with it.”

A graduate of Warren Wilson College, McCall saw a more receptive audience for BTU’s new model in Asheville than in other nearby metropolitain hubs. The city’s eclectic and creative community, he says, easily embraces cutting-edge ideas such as VR, and the thriving tourism economy provides a constant stream of potential new converts to the tech’s potential.

Scoring an Audience

The BTU team immersed itself in industry research around the highest-quality VR experiences in the global marketplace. Through several strategic sessions with facilitator — and Brett’s wife — Diana McCall, the team began to see categories of business opportunities that lined up with personal passion and market interest. After an additional series of market tests, BTU determined the best way to present VR to the world at its Asheville location.

The result was a public VR arcade, a playground for all types of technological fantasy. The day the space opened in March, McCall remembers, was one of the company’s proudest moments. “The energy in the room was so exciting,” he says. “We held a gaming tournament, and got to open up our studio to people who understood what we were doing.”  

Beyond traditional “games” such as the Space Invaders-inspired Blasters of the Universe and Pong-like SparkVR, the arcade features more open-ended experiences such as the 3D painting program Tilt Brush. In the arena, users can create their own VR masterpieces or watch Asheville artists collaborate on painting a scene in 3D space. People at home can even watch the creative collaboration on a livestream while it’s happening or on-demand after the fact.

Additionally, BTU found a way to capitalize on McCall’s background as an Outward Bound instructor and started to offer Team Building packages for management teams, boards, and teams around the region. As the BTU website explains, “Team Building in VR has many advantages. As an exciting emerging technology, VR often places everyone on the same level playing field.”


On the Horizon

Even after successfully navigating its recent pivot, BTU is still finding its rhythm in WNC. As a founding member of TEDxAsheville and several tech startups, McCall is quick to acknowledge how innovative ventures simply take time to develop.

“While the company might not be growing at the pace that I imagine in my head, to ensure long-term success, the growth needs to be slow,” McCall says. “Expansion needs to happen incrementally, as a response to the growth in the market demand. We can’t rush this.” 

As the company continues to gain a more sizeable footing within the regional marketplace, the entire BTU team works conservatively, leveraging what resources they currently have at their disposal. Like at many local startups, the staff all work part-time — including McCall, who also consults for firms such as Heurista and Elventus (and drives for ride-sharing apps on the weekends).

At BTU, no two days are ever the same as the team pursues its intentional growth and keeps abreast of the still-developing VR industry. One day might be spent scouting an area for a 360o video shoot, the next hosting spine-tingling Halloween experiences at the arcade — but every day features new experiments with disruptive technology.

In addition, the firm just recently formed a new strategic partnership with Looking Glass, another NC-based VR company. Together they are bringing expanded skill-sets to open more fresh and efficient experiential models for more sophisticated clients in manufacturing, training, and marketing.

And BTU remains open to partnerships with other businesses from outside the VR world. McCall encourages companies to pitch an experience, then let his team realize a small taste of their imagination. “This gives us the chance to collaborate, business to business, and ‘play in the sandbox’ with our clients,” he explains.

We at Hatch are eager to watch BTU grow into the kind of experience that every nine-year-old girl would agree is actually Better Than Unicorns. Keep disrupting!

Meet the Founder

Want to see McCall and his VR gadgets up-close and personal? Better Than Unicorns will be one of the showcase companies at the Hatch Happy Hour on Thursday, Dec. 13, held at One World Brewing West from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Come out for some cold beer, killer connections, and the chance to meet Brett McCall.

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