Virbela creates an immersive, 3D, always-on world for people to connect. Their idea was to bring people together digitally, just as you would in an office, campus, or event. The Virbela platform can support thousands of simultaneous users in a single instance. The platform can be accessed on iOS, Android, desktops, and virtual reality (VR) headsets. We spoke with the team at Virbela to learn how they went about building their platform using Unity and leveraging technology from our Verified Solutions Partner (VSP) Agora Inc.
Virbela started putting their platform together in 2012 at the Experimental Game Lab at the University of California San Diego. It started as a proof of concept, to build a virtual campus that was both immersive and effective.
At first, they were determined to build the platform with an in-house engine using C++. However, as they progressed the small team decided to switch to Unity. They chose Unity over alternatives like OpenSim or building their own engine because Unity offers cross-platform support, rapid prototyping, and C# scripting, which made it easier to execute their idea of a virtual world, rather than getting bogged down in technical details of building the tools they needed to do it.
The team at Virbela made use of Unity’s existing ecosystem and the Unity Asset Store to integrate the essential subsystems that they needed for their initial collaborative business relatively quickly. Their V1 virtual world required a real-time multiplayer game server, voice and text chat, an embedded web browser, customizable avatars, and 3D environments that enabled users to collaborate with others.
Virbela strives to support as many users as they can in a single virtual space to accommodate large meetings. Keeping users’ bandwidth usage as low as possible while prioritizing voice (and now video) traffic has been key to these efforts. The Virbela team also leveraged the Unity Profiler to optimize client-side rendering. Finally, Virbela recently adopted Unity VSP Agora’s Real-Time Engagement (RTE) platform to further reduce bandwidth and latency in video and screen sharing.
At its outset, Virbela aimed to bring university students together in a virtual world and during academic competitions. In 2015, the company expanded to real estate, powering eXp Realty, a digital-first real estate firm that connects its brokers via its own private campus on Virbela. eXp acquired Virbela in 2018, and last month eXp Realty hosted EXPCON 2020, the industry’s largest real estate event with more than 12,000 attendees from over 35 different countries. EXPCON 2020 not only exceeded expectations but broke Virbela’s record for concurrent users on campus – over 2,900 users.
The current shelter in place created a massive demand for virtual events. As more businesses look to bring their events online, Virbela’s expertise has helped event organizers create virtual expo halls where event attendees can create and customize their 3D avatar, explore different venues, and network with other attendees as they would in the real world. Virbela’s commitment to low latency and performance means the experience it offers is more lifelike compared to other virtual event platforms.
Never straying far from its initial use case, Virbela continues to help shape online classrooms. Where video calls often fall short on engagement, Virbela incorporates elements such as gestures, presentation boards, and breakout groups that create a more realistic classroom experience.
In 2020 the team at Virbela implemented the Agora SDK to power video chat (webcam) and screen sharing on its platform. Virbela decided to use Agora because it took the guesswork out of managing latency, packet loss, and bandwidth. Agora’s SDK was easy for the team at Virbela to integrate into their existing Unity build of the platform. Furthermore, Agora provided security, helping Virbela avoid bad actors, and protect sensitive information.
Virbela started off as a proof of concept in an academic setting in 2012. Today, the team stands at more than 100 employees (and hiring).
Using Unity and Agora, Virbela was able to bring complex virtual worlds to life. With the future of events, classrooms, and work looking like a hybrid of physical and digital elements, platforms like Virbela are here to stay and will only keep improving and evolving as time goes on.