Over the past year or two, the RYOT crew have become the cool kids of VR. Not just because they dress cooler than the rest of us, which they all do, or that they avoid the inevitable drama of an adolescent industry getting too big for its britches, which they also do. It’s because they know who they are and they give a shit. This is their story, with pictures.
In 2012, RYOT was founded as a small news desk with a mission to connect every news story with an action. A couple years later, they started experimenting with VR and 360 video to tell more impactful stories. Those experiments established RYOT as leading immersive journalists and led to a recent acquisition by the Huffington Post.
The acquisition was big news. The first in VR by a major media company. So we wanted to stop in, give you a peek behind the curtain and let you see what the folks at Huffington Post, AOL, and Verizon saw. To do so, we brought cameras down to RYOT headquarters in Los Angeles. It’s an unsuspecting building on Venice Boulevard sandwiched between a liquor store and a local non-profit. I’ve driven past it dozens of times and didn’t realize it was there.
The best way I can describe RYOT’s brand of cool is this “cultured roughneck” thing they have going on. It seems to permeate the entire staff. They travel all over the world in leather jackets and wide brimmed hats, determined to leave it better than they found it. Corporate culture like that is impossible to fake. It almost has to be a reflection of its leadership.
For RYOT, that leadership starts with the three people who started it all: Bryn Mooser, David Darg, and Molly DeWolf Swenson. Darg was somewhere else in the world when we took these photos
CEO Bryn Mooser joined the Peace Corps in Gambia out of college, then moved to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to help build a Cholera center and secondary school. There, he and David Darg teamed up on a pair of documentary shorts before co-founding RYOT in 2012. That same year, Darg and Mooser were named two of Esquire Magazine’s Americans of the Year.
Over the same period of time, Molly DeWolf Swenson had graduated from Harvard, wrapped up an internship at the White House, made it to the Top 50 on American Idol, and embarked on a career advising celebrity philanthropists before meeting Bryn and David to join them on their mission to change the news industry.
They poured everything they had into their mission and built a team around them willing to do the same. Together, they forged their brand by sticking to their guns and cranking out a lot of great work including The Nepal Quake Project, Pencils of Promise, The Dolphin Project, and Seeking Home.
Before the acquisition, multiple employees were living out of the office, include Mooser himself. The photo above is the conference room where he slept on a fold-out couch. He said it’s also where he put on his tux when they were nominated for an Oscar for Body Team 12, joking that he might be the only homeless person ever nominated.
To the left of the American flag in the photo below is a hot, tiny room room with low ceilings they call “The Chateau,” where a number of other RYOTers tucked in at night.
Today, RYOT has a staff of 30 based in Los Angeles. Working to expand by developing international outposts for immersive journalism within each of Huffington Post’s 15 global editions. Their mission hasn’t changed. It’s just bigger. With these new outposts, they believe they now have the largest 360 network in the world.
RYOT’s current output is about three videos per week produced for viewing on mobile phones. While HMDs like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are now technically in-market, they provide a small fraction of the reach Facebook and YouTube have opened up for 360 video. They’re weighing innovation vs. impact.
By the end of the year, the goal is to publish a new story every day and begin producing pieces for consumption on high-end HMDs as they become more widely adopted. Bryn says they’re also working on new methods of storytelling beyond 360 video using VR and AR and are excited to partner with Verizon on their VR initiatives in the works.
The photo above shows the aftermath of an incident Molly describes with a smirk and a head shake. She came into work one morning to find Bryn had spray-painted over RYOT’s mission statement in frustration. When I asked Bryn what inspired him to do it, he laughed and said “whiskey.”
As they make the transition from scrappy underdog to media giant, we congratulate them and ask just one thing. Don’t lose the spirit that got you here. There’s a war going on. Keep fighting.