Maybe We're Wrong About What Makes for Great VR

by Peter Rojas

Have we been thinking about what makes for great VR in the wrong way? There's a lot of anxiety in the industry lately about sluggish consumer adoption rates, which have been slower than hoped after last year's launch of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Sony's Playstation VR. This anxiety is only compounded when comparing time spent using VR headsets against that of smartphones (which all of us use off and on all day now), television (which still consumes 5 hours of the average American's day), and console gaming.
It's still early, so it's understandable that adoption is happening slowly, but what if total time spent is the wrong benchmark for determining whether VR is valuable to us? This question had been gnawing away at me for the past year or so since I picked up HTC's Vive headset, but it was only after playing the new co-operative quest games that were recently added to popular social VR game Rec Room, that I was finally able to put my finger on it. [I should disclose that betaworks ventures is an investor in Against Gravity, the company behind Rec Room, but to be clear the reason we invested in Rec Room is because it's awesome; hopefully I still have some cred in these matters.] Rec Room currently has two quests: The Quest for the Golden Trophy, which is a dungeon crawler where you use virtual swords, bows, and crossbows to battle a variety of enemies through a number of different levels; and The Rise of Jumbotron, an Eighties-themed laser tag-style campaign that involves defeating hordes of robots. 
Neither quest breaks new ground thematically, but that's not the point. Playing in room-scale VR, where you're physically moving around, brings an entirely new level of immersiveness to the experience and Against Gravity got a bunch of little details right about the collaborative game play. Both quests are challenging -- you almost certainly need three other players along for the ride to finish it -- but it's not so hard that you can't get through it with some persistence, and the first time I played The Quest for the Golden Trophy it took me and the crew of three other players I'd never met before about 45 minutes to get through it. 
Forty-five minutes of gameplay would be short for a AAA title like GTA V or Skyrim (I'm about 55 hours into Skyrim), but what struck me was was how satisfying it felt after I was done. For those forty-five minutes I was entirely immersed in the experience, working hard not to let down the three strangers I'd been randomly paired up with, and absolutely ecstatic when after several tries we were able to complete it. But what I hadn't expected was that at the end I was perfectly content to take my headset off and go back to the real world. I didn't want to keep playing or to spend a couple more hours inside of my headset. Playing The Quest was like eating a satisfying meal, one where I didn't leave feeling either hungry or overstuffed. 

It was one of the best experiences I've had to date in VR and one that's stuck with me, and it has me wondering if a lot of us have been focusing on the wrong things when it comes to creating great VR experiences. It's natural to want to contextualize VR by comparing it to smartphones, television, and game consoles, the other tech platforms it most closely resembles, but that would be a mistake. Mobile is something which we thread throughout every waking moment of our day, but in sort of a light way. We check our phones a hundred or more times a day, but usually for no more than a few minutes at a time. It's not hard to watch TV or play console (and PC) games for hours and hours upon end. 
VR is different. The best VR experiences are heavily concentrated--they draw you completely in and demand more of you sensorially, emotionally, and (if you have a room-scale headset like the Rift or Vive) physically. Judging VR on the same terms as either mobile (as something that we use throughout the day or even every day) or console and PC gaming (as something we can do for hours at a time) doesn't make sense. Maybe we'll only spend forty-five minutes a week using VR, but what we'll get during that time is something so immersive and engrossing that it might be the most engaging, fun, or productive forty-five minutes of your week. 
I don't quite know what this means in terms of where VR goes. In some sense spending time in VR starts to look more like a luxury good than anything else, something that you don't consume constantly, but when you do you savor it and come away immensely satisfied. If that's the case, the benchmark for a good VR experience should be something so good that you'll be happy to take off your headset when you're done. This has all kinds of implications for what kinds of VR products should be created and which businesses should be built -- I won't pretend to know the answers here -- but I'm convinced that VR startups which obsess over offering people the best forty-five minutes of their week will have the best chance of figuring it out. 

Voice-computing Needs Killer Apps

by Peter Rojas

Voice interfaces were all over CES this year. Gadget makers added support for voice-based computing to just about everything they could, ranging from stuff you'd expect like, TVs, speakers, and smartphones, to ones which are little more out there, such as refrigerators, wireless routers, and even air purifiers.

The point is that voice is shaping up to be one of the next big computing interfaces. That's good news for Amazon, which as Ben Thompson lays out in an excellent piece of analysis from earlier this month, has a golden opportunity with its Alexa voice computing platform to build a successful operating system. They failed to accomplish this when they forked Android for their line of Fire tablets and phones (well, just one phone). Ben does a better job than I could of explaining the business models around operating systems and how and why they can be so fantastically profitable, so please go read that piece. Suffice it to say, Alexa gives Amazon a shot at owning a primary computing interface, not unlike how Apple owns iOS or Microsoft owns Windows.

Alexa has proven to be remarkably popular with consumers. While they have not released sales figures, Amazon's line of Alexa-powered Echo speakers are estimated to be present in around seven million US households and appear to have been a hit this past holiday shopping season, with Amazon's companion app for the Echo being the 5th most popular free iOS app the day after Christmas. (It probably didn't hurt that Amazon offered the smaller Echo Dot speaker for just $39, making it a nice, but not-too-expensive gift option.) Meanwhile, partners ranging from Ford, LG, Lenovo, Whirlpool, Huawei, and DISH have been integrating it into their products. With over 7,000 "Alexa skills" and counting made by third-party developers, for now they have a lead over their competitors, which include Google (which is a partner in betaworks' Voicecamp accelerator), Apple, Microsoft, and to a lesser extent, Samsung, which recently acquired Viv. However, for Amazon to maintain its lead -- or for Google or anyone else wanting to build a voice-based computing platform for that matter -- it's going to need to do what practically every successful operating system has done: be a great platform for developers. That means enabling others to build massively successful apps on top of it which in turn develop into massively successful businesses.

The phrase "killer app" gets tossed around casually these days, but Amazon doesn't necessarily need something that'll drive sales of the Echo all on its own, like how VisiCalc, a spreadsheet app, did for the Apple II back in the day (though of course it wouldn't hurt). You can see how the iPhone didn't truly take off until Apple opened iOS up to developers, and even then it took a little while until someone built Instagram, which turned out to be one of the first massively successful apps. Instagram made iOS more valuable and useful to both Apple and its users, and other developers, seeing that success, were driven to create even more apps for the platform, making iOS even more valuable for Apple and its users.

Alexa has over 7,000 skills, and while there are some great ones out there, so far there a killer third-party app for it hasn't emerged. What's tricky is that it's very difficult for any platform maker to engender this intentionally, since you can't just magically make it happen with aggressive dev evangelism. Part of the challenge here is that with any new computing interface it takes time to figure out how to create apps and services that feel "native" to the platform. Platform makers also need to offer a good SDK and the right APIs; often devs are too limited in what they can build in the early days of a new OS. Then there are issues around monetization (whether it's ads, in-app purchases, commerce, etc) and discovery (i.e. how users are going to find and share their apps); according to a report by VoiceLabs, 69% of Alexa skills have one or zero consumers, and retention numbers are poor. People will build plenty of stuff for fun when a platform is new and growing fast, but at some point they want to build businesses around those products. If app makers can't acquire users or make money, they're not going to invest their time into building for a new platform. Not surprisingly, there are still lots of open questions around how to accomplish either of those on voice platforms.

If you get this stuff right, then with enough experimentation (and time) others will eventually be able to build compelling, innovative products which couldn't exist anywhere else. The success of these kinds of products is almost impossible to predict beforehand, yet their emergence feels entirely obvious in retrospect, which is a major reason why we're doing our Voicecamp accelerator. We want to take a bunch of teams building promising new products for voice and create the right circumstances for them to explore what works and what doesn't when it comes to voice. It's possible that at the end of Voicecamp we’ll have a group of noble, but failed, experiments in trying to figure this out. However, we also strongly believe that taking that risk is worth it if there's a shot that one of them will build the first great voice app.

Eight Questions About Virtual Reality in 2017

by Peter Rojas

2016 was a pivotal year for VR. The launch of four major new platforms -- the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift CV1, Sony's PSVR, and Google Daydream VR -- meant that VR was finally coming into its own (even if headset sales weren't as robust as hoped).

It was also a big year for VR for me personally. I helped make three VR-related investments for betaworks (in and two others that haven't yet been announced). I bought an HTC Vive headset, built a PC to power it, converted my guest bedroom into a VR den, and then proceeded to spend a lot of time there (favorite titles include Google Earth VR, Battle Dome, Rec Room, ZenBlade, Tilt Brush, and Smashbox). I started, and then proceed to neglect, a weekly newsletter called VR Links.

A year ago I asked eight questions about VR in 2016, and a few days ago I shared some of the answers I've found. It only makes sense that I follow up with some more questions about VR in 2017, so here are eight more that I'm asking:

Will Apple skip VR altogether?

It looks increasingly likely. I doubt we will see an AR product from them this year - despite some rumors going around, it still feels too early - but there's no sign of them introducing any kind of VR headset either, and Apple CEO Tim Cook has made it clear that while he thinks AR will be big, VR won't be by comparison. I've never seen a CEO of a major tech company go out of their way to predict that a market isn't going to big and then go ahead and introduce a product for that category, so it might be safe to say that Apple is going to ignore VR.

If Apple does ignore VR, does that damage the prospects for VR app and game makers? There's a widespread assumption that one real quick way for VR to go mainstream would be for Apple to introduce a headset. But let's say they never do. It seems like that would result in a stunted market for VR apps and games, right? There are an estimated 90 million active iPhone users in the United States and most aren't going to switch to Android so they can use Daydream VR or buy a high-end headset like the Rift or Vive (to say nothing of the PC required to power it). That means that if Apple doesn't introduce a solution for them, there's a good chance they won't experience VR beyond the very low-end experience offered by existing third-party headsets like Google Cardboard. This brings me to my next question:


Will 2017 be the year we see some high profile VR startups flame out?

Smart founders spent 2015 and 2016 raising enough money to get them through what could be some lean times for user growth this year and next, but there are likely a bunch of startups which will need to either raise more money or get to profitability this year. Both will be challenging. The addressable market for VR will still be relatively small, making it tough for most startups to make enough money from either sales or advertising to survive, and VCs are reluctant to pour more money into unprofitable companies unless they have "momentum". 2017 already saw its first notable casualty when Envelop VR, which raised a total of $7.5 million from investors, announced it was shutting down earlier this week.

Will 2017 be the year that VR breaks out of its niche?

In my post last week I wrote,

One big difference between smartphones and VR is that even before the iPhone was announced it seemed inevitable...that smartphones would become ubiquitous… With VR it is still very much an open question whether it will remain a relatively niche market or find a wider audience.

I do agree with Tim Cook that AR will be more widely-adopted than VR, at least eventually, but it's very hard to tell right now whether VR on its own becomes something that most people incorporate into their lives. It's entirely possible that VR's appeal only extends to those who want the most immersive experience possible, whether that's for gaming, work, or entertainment, while for everyone else VR is a curiosity that they might try out from time to time, but never feel the need to use on a regular basis. That doesn't mean that large, successful businesses focusing on VR can't or won't be built -- I'm betting some will be -- but I doubt that VR ever has the market penetration smartphones do.

If this were to be the year that VR breaks out of its niche, the natural question to then ask is, what drives that change? I have to admit that it's hard for me to see it happening in 2017 given the current landscape. It'd be dumb to definitively rule out something unlikely like a mega hit app or game that gets millions of people to go out and buy a headset, but I tend to agree with Joe Ludwig of Valve, who recently said on Twitter that the market for VR is going to be limited until mobile VR "adopts the features of high end VR." Could that happen this year? Well, that leads me to my next question:

will we see the first all-in-one headsets this year?

The short answer: probably not. But they're not as far away as they once were.

So what am I talking about? Well, right now the headset market breaks roughly into two parts: high-end headsets that need to be powered by a PC or game console (like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift CV1, and PSVR) and mobile headsets where you pop in a smartphone (like Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Daydream VR). All-in-one headsets fit in between those two categories, offering the wire-free experience of mobile with the room-scale positional tracking (which anyone who has tried it will tell you completely transforms the VR experience) found in high-end headsets.

Oculus teased us with a glimpse of their "Santa Cruz" all-in-one headset prototype at Oculus Connect in October, Google at least was working on a tweener headset (and may still be), and a startup called Eonite Perception recently showed off a solution for mobile positional tracking. Whether there's enough of a market for a third category is an open question, but it could be an attraction option to introduce higher-quality VR to a wider audience which isn't prepared to spend $1000 and up for a PC and another $600-$800 for a headset. And as Kyle Russell suggested when we talked about this a couple of months ago, in places like the US where the high-end of the smartphone market is dominated by the iPhone, offering a dedicated tweener headset might be the only way for Google to get Daydream VR on the heads of people who are never going to buy an Android phone. Facebook might be thinking those same lines and offer the Santa Cruz headset as a solution for anyone who doesn't have a Samsung phone or doesn't want to spend the money on a Rift and a PC. But as I mentioned above, we may not see any of this come to fruition in 2017, the technical hurdles are still significant. 

What will VR look like on Microsoft's forthcoming "Project Scorpio" Xbox, which is due out before the end of 2017?

We know that it will be powerful enough to offer the kind of high-quality VR you can only get with the Rift or Vive on a PC right now, but beyond that we don't know all that much. Will they build a headset specifically for it, or will it be meant for use with a Windows Holographic VR headset? What about room-scale tracking? Will the Scorpio offer something comparable to what the Vive offers there?

Could harassment kill social VR before it starts?

Trolling and harassment are a persistent problem on social platforms, so it's not surprising that they're found on a nascent platform like VR. However, as Jordan Belamaire described in October in a post on Medium about being virtually groped while playing QuiVR, sharing a virtual spaces offers opportunities to harass and intimidate that go beyond what can be done on Twitter or Facebook. You can't enthuse about the potential for empathy and emotional intimacy that presence brings to VR without acknowledging that those same qualities can lead to abusive experiences as well. The only question is what we can do about it, because if we don't, VR risks becoming a medium where bad actors are able to drive out anyone not willing to submit to a torrent of abuse in order to participate. The makers of QuiVR quickly responded with a set of tools to mitigate harassment; I've chatted with other developers building social games and experiences that have been trying to address these issues as well.

How does Oculus respond to the Vive?

HTC made an impressive showing at CES last week, introducing a bunch of new stuff, including the Vive Tracker, a motion tracking device which will make it easy to turn all sorts of devices into VR accessories. The Vive Tracker will expand the range and immersiveness of VR experiences users will be able to enjoy, including highly-accurate gloves which track hand and finger motions. Once the Vive Tracker ships, Oculus, which just barely was able to ship its Touch controllers before the end of the year, will be playing catch up once again and it's reasonable to expect some announcement from them of a similar device before too long.

Also shown off at CES were a handful of 3rd-party wireless adapters for the Vive. Removing the wires that tether users to a PC is a key objective for high-end headsets like the Rift and the Vive, but getting there requires high-bandwidth, low latency solutions based on new-ish wireless standards like WiGig to work. New HTC partner Intel is said to be working on an adapter for the Vive as well, and there are rumors that the Vive 2, which may or may not be announced this year, will come with wireless built-in. We haven't heard much from Oculus here about cutting the cord on the CV1, but again, it's likely that we'll hear something about this sooner or later.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, as well as the questions you have about VR in 2017. I’m excited to see what this year brings and I promise I'll have a follow-up in twelve months time!

Answers for the Eight Questions I Asked About VR in 2016

by Peter Rojas

Now that it's 2017, I thought I'd look back and see if there are answers for the eight questions I asked a year ago about virtual reality in 2016. Here goes:

"How big will the market for VR be a year from now?"

This isn't an easy to question to answer right now. My guesstimate a year ago was that by the end of 2016 there would be around 10 million active users of VR. I absent-mindedly didn't think to define what I meant by "active user" -- I suppose I meant someone who uses VR at least a couple of times a month -- but even if I had been more specific, I haven't seen any reliable numbers on how many people are regular users of VR anyway.

The most reliable-looking numbers I could find were some recent estimates of headset sales from SuperData Research, a research firm based in New York. They released 2016 sales projections in November that put Samsung at around 2.3M Gear VR headsets, Sony at 745K PSVR headsets, Oculus at 350K Rift CV1 headsets, HTC at 420K Vive headsets, and Google at 260K Daydream headsets. That's just over 4 million headsets. They also estimated overall there would be about 16 million VR users by the end of 2016, which means they're almost certainly including people using really basic headsets like Google Cardboard to get to that number.

We can debate whether or not very basic headsets like Cardboard should "count", but if I'm being honest I wasn't including them when I came up with my guess of 10 million VR users by the end of 2016. How did I get to that number? I figured that by the end of the year there would be 3-5 million Gear VR users, 3-5 million PSVR users, 1-2 million Oculus Rift owners, and 500k-1M HTC Vive owners. That's not far off from projections that analyst firm Piper Jaffray made in 2015 (I've included those numbers in a chart alongside those from SuperData).

Here's where things get messy. Samsung announced at CES earlier this week that they'd shipped 5 million Gear VR headsets, more than double SuperData's estimates. That does cast some doubt on the accuracy of their sales estimates for other headsets, but I don't think anyone believes that sales of the Rift or Vive approached anywhere near Piper Jaffray's projections.  

We're still in the very early days of VR -- in my post a year ago I compared where we were to the smartphone market pre-iPhone -- so perhaps it's pointless to argue over whether headset sales falling below some analyst's projections even matters. But one big difference between smartphones and VR is that even before the iPhone was announced it seemed inevitable to most observers that smartphones would become ubiquitous. It was just a matter of how and when, not if. With VR it is still very much an open question whether it will remain a relatively niche market or find a wider audience. How strong or weak sales are at this early stage aren't determinative, but they do give us at least some indication where things are going. I'll have more on this for my questions for VR in 2017.

"Will headsets be a commodity or a source of competitive advantage?"

Too early to say yet, but at the very least Oculus' fully integrated model does seem like it's due for a collision with Microsoft and Google's strategies of working with OEMs to build cheap headsets. I doubt that we'll have any idea of how this shakes out for a few years, but VR definitely doesn't have a shot at going mainstream until you can buy a high-quality headset with room-scale positional tracking (which allows you to physically move around in virtual spaces, leading to a much more immersive experience) for less than a couple of hundred bucks.

"Speaking of hardware, what will the relationship be between high-end and low-end VR?"

There's not much evidence that owning a Gear VR or Daydream headset leads to buying a Rift or Vive (or investing in a PC to power it), but 2016 did see Oculus teasing the "Santa Cruz", a prototype of a self-contained mobile headset with inside-out positional tracking. This could end up being a sort of third category in-between the lower end stuff (which is powered by popping your smartphone into a headset) and the higher end stuff (which offers the best and most immersive experience, but which also requires a powerful PC with a dedicated GPU). Intel showed off an early version of headset along these lines code-named Project Alloy (pictured above), and Google is rumored to be working on something here as well. It's possible that this will be how a lot of people get to experience true room-scale VR.

"Will regular people create and share VR content? If so, how?"

Even though Facebook and YouTube have started supporting it, very few people are sharing VR (and really we're talking 360) photos and videos online. This is partly because you need a dedicated 360 camera for creation (apps for doing this on a smartphone are uniformly awful) and partly because even if you do share something it's unlikely that your friends or family will have a headset for properly looking at what you've shared in 360. I looked at a number of startups building platforms for sharing 360 photos and videos, but ended up passing on all of them, partly because of how small the market still is and partly because of concerns that Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc will eventually drive a lot of this activity since they're where people are already sharing and consuming photos and videos. Underscoring my point, Vrideo, which was building a YouTube-for-360-video, shut down late last year (betaworks was an investor, though this deal was made before I joined). They'd managed to aggregate one of the biggest audiences for VR content to-date and they still couldn't find a way to make it work, and believe me, they tried. I'd love to find something great in this space, but the bar is very high.

"Will there be an app which drives mainstream adoption?"

Didn't happen in 2016. But if you're building this, definitely find me. That said, VR apps in general did shoot up the iOS App Store charts this past holiday season, which presumably means a lot of regular consumers received basic "pop your phone in" headsets as gifts and started giving VR a try.

"What will be the user experience paradigms which define VR?

This still feels entirely up for grabs, but we did see a ton of experimentation, particularly in gaming. Related to this, developers of social VR products and games were forced this past year to confront thorny issues around harassment in virtual environments. It's not something which can be easily shrugged off, and while there is a long way to go, I'm starting to see some developers rolling out solutions to try and address the problem.

"What will Microsoft end up doing?"

Well, we got our answer, at least in part, with the announcement of Windows Holographic and the line of VR headsets which partners are making for it, but we still know very little about how VR will factor into the upcoming "Project Scorpio" Xbox due out before the end of the year.

"What will Apple end up doing?"

I'm highly skeptical that Apple is building a clear iPhone 7 for AR and VR, but apart from that rumor we don't have a strong sense of what Cupertino is going to do here. We do know that a few months ago Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed skepticism about VR, saying that it, "Is not going to be that big compared to AR," so it's entirely possible they'll continue to ignore the market and focus instead on launching something related to AR in a year or two (or possibly more).

Ok, thanks for reading! I'll be back with my questions for VR in 2017 in a few days.

My favorite history podcasts

by Peter Rojas

I love podcasts, having been both an avid consumer and on-again-off-again producer of them for over ten years now. But what might surprise you, at least if you're familiar with my work, is that the podcasts I love most are about history and that I almost never listen to shows about tech. Good history podcasts can be hard to find, especially as they tend to get buried in the "Education" category in iTunes and other directories, so I thought I'd share my list of shows I listen to. And please hit me up with any suggestions for podcasts I've missed that I should check out!


History podcasts I listen to regularly:


If you know any history podcasts you probably know Mike Duncan's The History of Rome and Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. Both are legendary, in terms of both their quality and how many other history podcasts they've gone on to inspire. If you haven't listened to any history podcasts I'd suggest starting with these two.

Hardcore History

Dan Carlin's Hardcore History isn't just the best history podcast ever made, it's a serious contender for best podcast of all-time. Dan only produces a few episodes a year, but each one is epic in scope and length (seriously, it's not unusual for an episode to be three hours long) and is amazingly well-researched, engaging, and in-depth. Each episode or short series of episodes covers a specific topic, ranging from the Mongol Horde, to WWI, to the fall of the Roman Republic. If you're only going to subscribe to one podcast from this list you have to make it this one.


The new series from Mike Duncan of The History of Rome fame, this one follows different revolutions throughout history, beginning with the English Revolution, then the American Revolution, the French Revolution, (the absolutely compelling, but little discussed) Haitian Revolution, and now is close to wrapping up his series on the wars of Latin American independence (I have a fourth great grandfather who fought on the losing side in Peru). This is one of the must-listens when it comes to history podcasts.

My History Can Beat Up Your Politics

I don't listen to that many American history podcasts, but this show by Bruce Carlson hooked me because he does a masterful job of putting the political issues of today in historical context. He's especially good at digging up bits of American political history that have mainly been forgotten (like obscure fights over the House Speakership in the late Nineteenth Century) that I find utterly fascinating.

The Ancient World

A series on ancient history by Scott Chesworth, this may be the most underappreciated podcast on this list. Now in its third season, for season one Scott did a wide-ranging survey of ancient civilizations, beginning with the rise of Sumeria and finishing up with Alexander the Great, looked at the archaeologists that rediscovered these civilizations in season two, and now in season three is tracing the family tree that begin with Cleopatra and will end with Queen Zenobia.

The History of Byzantium

There were more than a few people who wanted Mike Duncan to keep The History of Rome podcast going past the collapse of the Western Empire in 476 and follow the story all the way to the fall of Constantinople and the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. He didn't do that, but it opened up the opportunity for someone else to tell the story and fortunately for us Robin Pierson jumped on it and started The History of Byzantium, which picks up right where Mike left off. I'd actually argue that as good as The History of Rome was, The History of Byzantium is the better of the two podcasts in that Robin tends to go into more depth and offer more context as he tells the story.

History of the Crusades

The audio quality is a little rough in the early episodes, but this series offers a balanced look at the Crusades, beginning with Pope Urban II's call for the First Crusade in 1095 all the way until the fall of Acre in 1291. I found this about two-thirds of the way through the series and at one point was binge-listening to three or four episodes a day in an attempt to catch up. Host Sharyn Eastaugh has been continuing the series by looking at the crusade against the Cathars of southern France.

The History of English

This one is worth checking out even if you're not all that interested in the origins of the English language -- though you should be! The early episodes discussing the Indo-Europeans and the Proto-Indo-European language which is the source of not just English, but of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Persian, German, etc, are especially fascinating.

10 American Presidents

A series that plans to do shows on ten different American presidents, each with a different history podcaster handling narration duties. Mike Duncan of The History of Rome and Revolutions did the first episode on George Washington and Dan Carlin of Hardcore History followed up with an episode about Richard Nixon.

History of the Papacy

I'm not religious, but the history of the early Christian Church is a lot more interesting than you'd think. Host Stephen Guerra does an excellent job of teasing out the intricate theological debates that raged during this era, as well as how events intersected with the wider historical landscape.

A History of Europe - Key Battles

A series that looks at key battles that were turning points in the history of Europe, beginning with the Battle of Marathon. Host Carl Rylett doesn't offer as much of a blow-by-blow of the battles themselves as he does on the political and historical events leading up to the battles (which is totally fine with me).

The Podcast History of Our World

Doing a podcast about the entire history of the world is pretty ambitious, so don't expect as much depth as you'd get on a more focused show, but this one is an enjoyable survey that's 70 episodes in and just now getting to the Romans. Not updated very regularly any more.


Hosted by historian Brady Crytzer, each season of Wartime focuses on different topic. The first covered the French & Indian War, the second the empires of the ancient world, the third the American Revolution, the fourth on "gamechanging" historical figures like Alexander the Great, the fifth on turning points like the Mexican-American War and the Battle of Midway, and the sixth on some of the lesser-known rebellions of colonial North America (for example I knew nothing about the Pueblo Revolt that took place in New Mexico in 1680). This one is less of a dates-and-battles podcast and more about understanding the forces that shape history. I'd start with Season 2.

In Our Time

A roundtable format podcast hosted by Melvyn Bragg for BBC Radio 4 that features a single topic per episode discussed by a panel of academics. This one isn't just about history -- they also cover science and culture -- but they manage to cover topics ranging from the Gettysburg Address and Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Sikh Empire and Hatshepsut.

New history podcasts (or that are new to me) that I recently started listening to and am excited about:


History on Fire

This is one of the few shows that consciously tries to emulate the depth, length, and even style of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History (which is not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned). Only four (very long) episodes have been released so far, two on the Slave Wars of ancient Rome, one on the body of a Bronze Age ice man who was discovered in the Tyrol mountains a few years ago, and one that begins the story of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries who went to fight in a Persian civil war some 2,500 years ago. Host Daniele Bolelli, who teaches history, does have a strong Italian accent, but you sort of don't notice it after a bit and I'm enjoying his shows.

The Maritime History Podcast

Begins with the earliest known seafaring activities (i.e. ancient Sumaria) and after a couple of dozen episodes is now up to the Phoenicians and Carthage.

Wittenberg to Westphalia: Wars of the Reformation

A promising new series on the religious wars of early modern Europe. The history of this era can be tough to untangle and I look forward to seeing how host Benjamin Jacobs handles it.

The Almost Forgotten

A show where each episode highlights a single individual who hasn't exactly been lost to history, but who doesn't get anywhere near the attention they deserve given the impact they had. Only ten episodes so far, but they've covered a number of fascinating figures, including Otto the Great, Chandrgupta Maurya, and Mithridates.

Our Fake History

A podcast about "myths we think are history and history that might be hidden in myths," this one tackles stuff like whether the Chinese beat Columbus to the New World, was there actually a Trojan War, and who really killed Rasputin. Host Sebastian Major does a great job of being enthusiastic while skeptical.


History podcast series that have ended, but that I recommend:


The History of Rome

A history of Rome in 179 episodes, all the way from its semi-legendary origins down to the fall of the Western Empire in 476. Almost every history podcaster points to this series as the one inspiring them to start their own podcast. Host Mike Duncan is now working on a new series called Revolutions (see above).

12 Byzantine Rulers

A limited series by Lars Brownworth that starts with Diocletian's splitting of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves and then tells the story of the surviving Eastern half as it becomes the Byzantine Empire through twelve of its most important rulers.

Norman Centuries

Another limited series by Lars Brownworth, this one on the impact the Normans of Northern France had on medieval Europe.

A History of Alexander the Great

Follows the life of Alexander the Great. Which I guess is self-explanatory. Hosted by Jamie Redfern, who also does A History of Hannibal.

Belisarius - A History

A series about Belisarius, a Byzantine general during the 6th century, is about as niche as a podcast can get, but the story of his life is absolutely fascinating, especially given how overlooked the period just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire is. Only sixteen episodes.


Other history podcasts I subscribe to but don't listen to frequently:



One of the few podcasts specifically about American history that I subscribe to. Each episode is on a single topic related to American history or culture, like alcohol, shopping, or oil.

Ancient Warfare Podcast

This one is an offshoot of Ancient Warfare magazine and features a roundtable discussion of the theme of the magazine's latest issue. Audio quality can be rough, but where else are you going to get a show about the Seleucid Empire, the organization of the Assyrian army, or the Roman conquest of Spain?

History Extra

A weekly podcast produced by the BBC History Magazine. Focus is mainly on British history -- which is not unexpected -- but the interviews with history scholars are engaging no matter what the topic.

History Books Review

Mainly an extended review of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire mixed in with the occasional episode on another history book. Irregularly updated.

A History of Hannibal

By Jamie Redfern, who also produced A History of Alexander the Great. Not just a recounting of Hannibal's exploits, this one provides a lot of background on how Rome and Carthage ended up at war.

Life of Caesar

Covers the life of Julius Caesar, just like it says. Though now that they've reached the Ides of March they've moved on to the life of Augustus. Co-hosts Cameron Reilly and Ray Harris have a pretty conversational style which some people don't care for.

The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast

An earlier series by Cameron Reilly, this one with co-host J. David Markham.

Ask Historians

An off-shoot of the AskHistorians subreddit. Audio quality can be rough, but the breadth of topics is great.

The British History Podcast

An astonishingly in-depth series covering the entire history of Britain that kicks off about 70,000 years ago and after 227 episodes is only up to King Alfred.

The Egyptian History Podcast

Like The History of Rome, but about Egypt.

The History of Iran

This is a series that held out so much promise -- I personally find the history of Iran and ancient Persia to be fascinating -- but new episodes are posted infrequently.

When Diplomacy Fails

This show does short series on various wars and conflicts (the Seven Years War, the the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, etc), but looks mainly at the events leading up to the outbreak of hostility rather than the emphasizing the fighting itself.

History podcasts on my list to check out:

These are shows that I've found over the past few years, but for one reason or another haven't listened to yet (or at least not beyond an episode or two).

The Anglo Saxons

The Lesser Bonapartes

The History of Alchemy

The Myths and History of Greece and Rome

History of Germany

Medieval Archives

History Bomb

The Great War

The Podcast of Doom

The History of Pirates

Russian Rulers

Ancient Rome Refocused

A History of the World in 100 Objects

Stuff You Missed in History Class

Emperors of Rome

Professor CJ's Dangerous History Podcast