San Antonio virtual reality toy company Merge VR wants to capitalize on its informal successes in the classroom.
Merge VR develops hardware and content for virtual and augmented reality. The company is known for its soft foam headsets that work with smartphones as well as its cube. Both are sold at big box stores like Walmart and Best Buy.
Merge Labs was founded in 2014 and has raised more than $11 million from investors.
WATCH | Merge VR's headset at the Consumer Electronics Show
Its headsets compete with Google’s Daydream but at less than half the price. Its cube product allows developers to make their virtual items tangible in the physical space.
“Hold a hologram,” its website boasts, while someone looking through their phone and an app appears to be holding a skull.
The cube runs less than $20.
These price points appealed to teachers without marketing or ad dollars, and Merge VR leaders said they keep seeing educators on social talking up the product on social media.
A February blog post for the education tech training company Janus highlights teachers across the country filling carts with the cube after a recent sale.
“For educators, being able to render any content you want on an augmented physical platform, such as the Merge Cube, is really, really cool,” said Peter Dorofy, director of science, technology, and education for Palmyra Cove Nature Park in New Jersey.
Dorofy was looking for a way to give students a way to interact with his augmented reality app HoloGlobe, which streams live weather from satellites on a digital globe. He said he likes that the cubes and headsets are durable and inexpensive, so he can give them away.
A Merge VR facebook group for teachers is already at 2,000 people, and company leaders said it would be at 5,000 by the end of the year.
Jeremy Kenisky, vice president of creative at Merge VR, said he and other Merge staff always knew education would be a good market for them eventually, “but then we see all these educators buying up our product and saying now, ‘Great, you have all these cool stuff we can do with it, but what do we do with it tomorrow? What do we do with it next year? How do we make sure that it’s not something that gets used once then put on a shelf?’ ”
As a result, company leaders announced it would develop free curriculum and resources for the cube with teachers. The company also said it will connect teachers with one another and with companies trying to do VR and AR work in the classroom.
“It’s been organic,” said Steve Patti Merge, chief marketing officer of their recent growth. “This is going to be more of an intentional roll out.”
Patti said the company made its entrance into the education market at this year's International Society of Technology in Education conference. With 15,000 educators, ISTE is one of the biggest conferences of its type, representing an edtech market that organizers peg at between $10 and $15 billion annually.
The company announced Thursday its partnership with CoSpaces Edu, a company that develops curriculum and a platform for students and teachers to create their own VR content. The company is also in early talks with Experience Real History, the company that developed the Alamo augmented reality app.
“You can build products or you can build an ecosystem,” said Patti. “And we’re building an ecosystem.”