In the last several months, most of the world stayed home, venturing out only for essentials — groceries and medicine — while coronavirus social-distancing mandates led to cancellations worldwide. Without live audiences and ticket sales, large tech conferences, concerts, sporting events and comedy performances had nowhere to go but virtual.
Some of the concerts are available on CEEK VR, an immersive online platform that distributes virtual-reality and augmented-reality experiences. Users can experience virtual concerts by Snoop Dogg, Quavo Huncho and Lady Gaga, along with celebrity athletes and influencers.
CEEK’s founder and CEO, Mary Spio, grew up in Ghana. When she was 16, her parents saved up enough money to send her to the U.S. Her first job was at a McDonald’s. Since then, she has served in the U.S. Air Force and created content and technology for Boeing, Lucas Films, Universal Music, Miami Children’s Hospital, and Microsoft Xbox before starting CEEK.
Spio describes CEEK VR as the next evolution of the web, a series of interconnected 3D spaces where you can enter environments and have experiences that you couldn’t have in traditional 2D video, according to her bio on Futureofstorytelling.org. She also sees VR as “a delivery mechanism for compassion,” able to place people in experiences so they can experience other people’s pain, learn from it, and become open to unimagined possibilities.
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An upcoming comedy special live-streamed exclusively on CEEK will feature political commentator and syndicated radio show host DL Hughley, one of the original Kings of Comedy. “CEEK VR presents The Laugh Experience” is scheduled for May 15 and it’s a first-ever virtual comedy show for Hughley and friends.
CEEK is based in Chicago but started in Miami, where it still has offices, along with offices in Los Angeles and London. Athletes, producers, virtual reality consumers and businesses use the CEEK platform. Thanks to partnerships with Universal Music Group, T-Mobile and others, CEEK has integrated with many of the largest entertainment brands in the world.
In addition, CEEK sells its own patented virtual reality headset and 360 wireless headphones directly to consumers to access the platform and for custom training opportunities.
I could never have foreseen this happening — the whole world being forced to stay home. We talked about getting there eventually. I don’t think anybody could have imagined where we are now but I built CEEK knowing that the need was there to help creators, performers and schools reach a global audience virtually.Mary Spio, founder of CEEK VR, an immersive online platform that distributes virtual-reality and augmented-reality experiences.
An electrical engineer and computer science professional, Spio told Mogulom she’s excited about the upcoming DL Hughley special and a recently-launched experience with Jon Bon Jovi through CEEK’s platform along with her expansion into the U.K. market. CEEK is only getting started with fundraising from investors, while other VR companies like Magic Leap — which raised $2.6 billion — are struggling to continue on, Spio said.
“Other virtual reality companies have raised billions of dollars, and they still can’t figure out what’s up from down. They still can’t figure it out, the customer or who the customer wants,” Spio said during a Moguldom interview.
Building a worldwide company doesn’t come without challenges. Spio shared her experiences with Moguldom on acquiring 10 patents, building a resilient business and where she sees CEEK in five years.
They say “rough waters make good sailors.” I think that especially Black women, where we’re faced with all these challenges, we are building really strong businesses that are going to outlast anything that’s out here. So, I’m building CEEK for the world.Mary Spio, founder of CEEK VR, an immersive online platform that distributes virtual-reality and augmented-reality experiences.
Moguldom: Why did you start CEEk?
Mary Spio: I started CEEk because I wanted to be able to create a platform for people like myself who are seeking more immersive experiences. People who are seeking the type of content we just don’t see that exists in the marketplace — everything from entertainment to customized knowledge training for healthcare professionals. I wanted to create a platform I didn’t see out there. That’s why it’s called CEEK — for others like myself that are knowledge seekers or who are seeking different things than what exists today.
Moguldom: Please explain how CEEK works
Mary Spio: CEEK is a streaming platform for virtual experiences and events. CEEK is the meeting place of the future. You’d be able to go to a movie theater and watch a movie virtually. Everything you can do in the real world like going to the movies, a concert, a football game, and a comedy club … you could do within virtual reality on CEEK. I see it as the meeting place of the future. The advantage of a platform like CEEK is the fact we help extend the reach of either sold-out shows or undersold shows. For example, Adele had 100,000 tickets available for her concert and there were 10 million people that tried to buy one of those 100,000 tickets. We want to sell tickets to those 9.9 million people that wanted to attend the concert.
The same thing happened with Guns and Roses. They sold 1 million tickets in 24 hours and they couldn’t possibly add more seats at the venues because it’s physically impossible. We are able to extend the reach of artists through CEEK’s platform. Also, we can help up-and-coming artists that cannot fill arenas yet, but they have a million fans scattered around the globe. We can create that place where their fans can come together virtually and feel the energy of each other while experiencing that particular artist. This also helps the artist to not incur the cost of trying to put together a tour.
But CEEK goes beyond just concerts. Even with healthcare training, people are able to do that within our virtual reality technology. And more recently, we’ve had a lot of companies that are looking to be able to have trade shows and conferences and workshops, product launches all of that, within an immersive environment. We can no longer be reliant on just a physical venue.
Moguldom: Do users pay a subscription fee to consume the content?
Mary Spio: Users can register for free. We have some content that’s completely free with registration. We also have content that’s available on a monthly subscription basis and some content that’s available on a one-time purchase only.
Moguldom: Can users experience CEEK with their existing VR headset or just CEEK’s?
Mary Spio: No, any VR headset can be used because our platform is completely device agnostic. A lot of people throw that term around, “device agnostic,” but their solution is not. When I say we are device agnostic we are because you could use practically any VR headset with our content. You can also consume our content on a laptop, on your phone and you can consume our content with or without a VR headset.
There are multiple access points in order to be able to consume our content. For example, we have a comedy show with DL Hughley, Chris Spencer, Bo Last Name Dacious, Ryan Davis, Clint Coley, with music by DJ Lucci that will be live-streamed exclusively on CEEK.com at 9 p.m. EST on Friday, May 15. It will be live-streamed at CEEK.com, but it will also be available for those that want the truly immersive experience, on their Oculus headset.
While you can use any other headset, I created the CEEK VR headset because when I started out in the VR world, I started building everything for the Oculus. I used to get these serious wicked headaches with the devices in the marketplace.
I noticed a lot of women getting serious headaches after using headsets. A big part of it was because all those VR devices were not created for women or children. They were created by men for men. Some of the issues are because the IPD adjustment — the eye distance adjustment — was calibrated for men. For a woman, the headset would really pull your eyeballs apart, giving you this serious headache. The lenses, the focal distance and focal length are factors that weren’t really considered for women. All of these things were corrected with the headset I created to make sure that it’s comfortable and enjoyable for men, women and children.
The CEEK VR headset has the most dynamic range in the marketplace. And most importantly I wanted to make sure there is a device that is affordable, right? When you buy a lot of these desktop devices, you have to buy a $6,000 computer and then the headset and all these other things. Whereas with the CEEK headset, you can use whatever smartphone that you own. We even have a foldable one. All of this is patent awarded, and not just patent-applied-for or patent pending in the process. So, the patents have been granted for all this technology.
Moguldom: You even have CEEK 360 wireless headphones. What makes these unique and is there a patent granted on them as well?
Mary Spio: Yes, the headphones are also patent granted. When you think about standard headphones, you hear left and right in your ears. You don’t hear below you or above you. For example, for VR it is very important because if something is coming from behind you want to hear it. In a classroom learning environment, where you have multiple people in a classroom you want to be able to know where the audio is coming from. Our headset allows you to be able to render the audio in such a way you know the direction the sound is coming from. Otherwise, what happens is when you’re in the 360 environments, a sound will seem as though it is coming from left and right, instead of emanating from above and below. It creates this audio-visual incoherence. Your mind is saying there’s something wrong and it makes for a very uncomfortable experience. The headset was initially created for VR to solve that particular problem of the audio-visual incoherence caused by not having a system that responds to dynamic sound for virtual reality. But I ended up creating one of the what I consider to be one of the best headphones out there for even general use. And I’m not just saying it because I created it, but we have elite athletes and producers that are using it today. A lot of producers are using these now because they can hear the sound exactly how they’re producing it. In fact, they want everyone to use it because they want people to hear the music the way it is intended, not where the sound is crushed and cut short with regular headsets.
Moguldom: How many patents do you have?
Mary Spio: I have 10 plus patents that have been awarded.
Moguldom: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs that need to apply for patents?
Mary Spio: Find a really good patent attorney if you can afford it. If not know you can also do at least the provisional patent where it puts you in line for that particular invention. Because patents are all about being the first to file. So, if you have a novel idea, if you have an invention that you want to patent and maybe you can’t afford to get a patent attorney, you can always do a provisional patent which will hold your place in the line and then you can file it when you’re ready.
That’s one good thing to do. But I definitely advise, especially today, most boards and investors want to make sure that the intellectual property (IP) is protected. Look at Facebook. They were fined over $500 million, that’s half a billion dollars, for IP infringement when they acquired Oculus. When these big companies look at technology companies such as CEEK, they want to know that there’s IP protection out there. It is especially important for minorities too because it’s harder for us to raise capital. A lot of times when you put your ideas out there, it’s easy for people to steal it. If you patent them, you protect yourself. That’s a way to keep your foot in the game.
Moguldom: A lot of people find it challenging going through the manufacturing process. Is there a lesson you can share from manufacturing your own products?
Mary Spio: There were a lot of challenges. It’s taken four years, maybe five, to get the product out because there’ve been several iterations. I’m an electrical engineer and in computer science by trade. I’ve been in the lab for a very long time, wanting to develop and make sure that we put a good product out there.
You cannot manufacture without going out there and camping out in the factory before you commit to any manufacturer. You have to vet the factory and know them inside out. You have to go to the factory. You have to be there. I was in China for close to a month in daily meetings getting to know the first factory I was working with. They ended up being shysters.
Before my product was out there, they tried to put some of it in the marketplace. You really have to vet your manufacturer. The current one I work with are the same people that manufacture most of the Xbox accessories. They work with Microsoft and Apple in the past. It is not Foxconn, by the way, and they have a track record with big tech giants. They have a lot to lose if they try and screw others over, right? Besides, if they’re going to try and counterfeit something, it is not going to be CEEK. It is going to be Apple. So, make sure you work with manufacturers that have a good track record.
Moguldom: On your website and LinkedIn, it shows you are located in Miami, but you have team members around the world.
Mary Spio: Yes, we have offices in Miami, where we started. We just relocated to Chicago, but we do have offices in Los Angeles and in London. We spend a lot of time in Los Angeles and in the U.K. The U.K. is a great place to be in order to leverage a lot of opportunities. We have close to 24 team members now.
Moguldom: In order to scale worldwide, how much money have you raised for CEEK thus far?
Mary Spio: We’ve raised in excess of $5 million, probably closer to $6-or-$7 million and our revenue is about $3.5 million.
Moguldom: As a Black engineer who’s the sole founder of your worldwide company, do you still find yourself being challenged in this space despite all of your patents, growth and access to huge artists for your platform?
Mary Spio: I mean, I don’t know which areas you can be in where being Black is easy. It’s especially difficult in tech. It’s all about who you know. It’s about the network, right? People look out for people that look like them whether we want to accept it or not. Being a female adds on a whole other layer of challenges. And then, being Black adds on another layer. I came from building a technology company for Boeing that sold for billions. So, this is not my first time building a multibillion-dollar company. And yet I feel like there’s so many invisible boxes that I just can’t check. And a big part of it is all about who you know.
Moguldom: When you built CEEK, you knew we would eventually turn to online and virtual experiences. Did you see it happening right now, with coronavirus forcing us all to figure out how to incorporate virtual reality into our business and personal lives?
Mary Spio: I could never have foreseen this happening, you know, the whole world being forced to stay home. We talked about getting there eventually, but I don’t think anybody could have imagined where we are now. I didn’t anticipate it, but I built CEEK knowing that the need was there to help creators, performers and schools reach a global audience virtually. But I didn’t think it would all happen so quickly.
Moguldom: Where do you see CEEK in five years?
Mary Spio: I see CEEK with an enterprise offering. Right now, we have such a high demand from schools, enterprise clients, as well as the consumers. We have comedians. We just released Bon Jovi and we have Demi Lovato. We have huge, huge, huge acts that want to be able to connect with their fan base virtually. In five years, I see us with hundreds of millions of users, consumers and enterprise clients on the platform.
Our tagline is “CEEKing new reality,” but virtual is the new reality. So, I see ourselves at the forefront of all of this. From the very beginning I built for mobile, because I understood that the world is mobile, and people will access education through mobile.
When you go to developing and emerging worlds, everything has to be able to be accessed through mobile. And the streaming has to be high quality and fast, but also accommodate the needs of not just the U.S. The U.S. is only 4 percent of the world. What about the other 96 percent?
I built a platform for thinking of the whole world, not just the 4 percent, which is why mobile was a huge criteria. Other virtual reality companies have raised billions of dollars, and they still can’t figure out what’s up from down. They still can’t figure it out, the customer or who the customer wants.
As a Black woman and as a woman, you don’t have the luxury or the privilege of trying to figure it out as you go along. You have to be very innovative, and you have to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s realistic, what’s real. This has allowed us to continue to be around in spite of not getting to raise hundreds of millions of dollars (like) a competitor that recently had a fire sale because they didn’t have a business model.
They say “rough waters make good sailors.” I think that especially black women and minorities in general, where we’re faced with all these challenges, we are building really strong businesses that are going to outlast anything that’s out here. So, I’m building CEEK for the world.