San Antonio — There’s been chatter for a few years about when virtual reality will go mainstream. That day may already be here or, at the very least, near.
VR was one of a few technologies to capture much of the attention at 2016’s South by Southwest. It’s growing increasingly common for personal use, with the advent of applications and hardware being built to view VR on smartphones. And while there are certainly leaders in the space, such as Magic Leap, there remains uncertainty about who exactly will become the dominant force in it.
Either way, there’s definite interest in virtual reality, especially in social media. Facebook acquired Oculus Rift for $2 billion in 2014. Companies are also attempting to broaden the appeal of virtual reality, especially extending it beyond just gaming.
Xconomy recently spoke with Andrew Trickett, the co-founder of San Antonio, TX-based virtual reality headset maker Merge VR, which is used to view virtual reality apps on smartphones. Trickett discussed what’s driving interest in the field, some of the basics of virtual reality, and the software and hardware tools Merge is developing to compete in the crowded VR landscape. This conversation has been edited for clarity and content.
Xconomy: What’s driven such an interest in virtual reality recently? Hasn’t the tech been around for a while?
Andrew Trickett: I think it’s the confluence of a couple things: It’s the smartphone industry, the hardware specs of the performance for the price. VR has always been possible but this is the first time a good enough experience has come into the price range where a household can afford it. The other major driver: You have these independent game engines, especially the dominant one in VR now, Unity. It makes it really easy to create a game. You still need to be a good coder, a good artist. But it’s pretty easy to create a new virtual reality experience with Unity.
X: VR devices can basically be split into two categories, right? The high-tech ones like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive and mobile ones like yours?
AT: With Oculus Rift, you have a high-performance and tethered solution, which has to be hardwired to a PC. So does HTC’s Vive and Playstation VR. They’re expensive and high-performance and they have to be tethered with something. With HTC and Rift, we’re talking about really high class PCs with really serious video cards. Then there’s smartphone-based VR. We call it mobile VR. We’re using the user’s smartphone as the basis for display, for head-tracking calculations, and serving up the game—every bit of it.
X: That’s what you’ve built—a headset that helps users view mobile VR apps?
AT: Our DNA is let’s bring the magic of VR to the mass market. We started with a headset. Whenever a new digital platform comes along, everyone needs the hardware to interact with. The vast majority of the world population does not have a VR headset. That’s going to be the number one opportunity for several years. We’re compatible with [Google] Cardboard. It works with Cardboard apps, and then you have some unique capabilities on our headset.
X: What’s Cardboard?
AT: What Google did is create a software platform, and hardware spec, that they call the Cardboard platform. There’s lots of headsets that meet that spec. There’s lots of Chinese junk out there. Our headset is compatible with that spec. If you have a Cardboard app, you can use that.
X: Developers can build a VR app, and if they build it according to Cardboard specs, a user can view it on their phone using your headset?
AT: It needs to be a reasonably modern phone, with sensors for doing tracking and sensor fusion, and a decent GPU and CPU. We’re careful to say the vast majority of phones sold in the last two years. A lot of models sold at the low end won’t even do VR at all.
X: Why would someone pay for your headset ($99) rather than less for one of the cheaper ones?
AT: We have a number of additional advantages that you don’t get [otherwise]. The developer can use our Merge-Cardboard extender pack software to get access to those capabilities. When you look at our headset, there are two inputs. Cardboard only calls for one single input, but we have two. They can be used independently by the developer. It allows for simultaneous uses in the virtual reality. You run and jump at same time, rather than just running. Also, you can move the lens in and out to match interpupillary distance [the distance between the center of the pupils], so you can get one converged image in the field, rather than multiple. We have other tech that, when you adjust the lenses, can detect where you set them to do dynamic image configuration. It will optimize where you set those lenses.
X: Any other ways it’s different?
AT: We’re worried about durability and hygiene, which I think are the things we’re way better at than anyone else in the industry. It’s a unibody construction made out of a high-end foam formulation. It’s flexible polyurethane. It’s impervious to things like sweat and makeup and contaminants. In the future, we’re adding an antimicrobial element into the foam itself. That’s why we were able to get it patented. We have the utility patent, the unibody construction made out of any soft, compressible material. It’s a broad patent, and we were thrilled when we got it.
X: How much venture funding do you have?
AT: We’ve raised just about $3 million of investor funding. The company was formally established in January 2014. Late in 2014 was when we got serious seed money. That included four people who were previously involved in Oculus, including their former patent attorney, SoCal IP Law Group. We kind of rocketed after that happened, with investors kind of piling in.
X: And you’ve started selling some of the product?
AT: We started shipping in November of 2015. Until recently, just being able to finance the inventory was one of our biggest challenges, but we got that problem solved a couple weeks ago when we got a $1 million line of credit from one of our existing investors. This year, it’s going to be expand everywhere. We’ve got different retailers, some distribution channels are taking us into multiple different countries. We’re going to be introducing some of our new product lines as well.
X: Like what?
AT: Our extender pack software will allow you to use a forthcoming controller, which has motion sensing capability like a [Nintedo] Wii. We read the motion and acceleration. We have all the sensors on the circuit board, inside the controller. We’re actually doing the sensor fusion calculations on the circuit board, so you’re just sending a little bit of data to the app to digest more quickly. Rather than asking the phone to do that calculation, and burdening the phone with that, the controller is going to do it. Because it’s a small data pack, we can use Blutooth LE (low energy), which is much longer data life. The batteries can also last longer. Am I cracking a whip, am I moving a wand, am I swinging a golf club? Where our goggles are your eyes, these controllers will be your hands.
X: There are a few categories of virtual reality, right?
AT: Yes, though I’m not going to pretend that this is how the industry is structured, but this is Andrew Trickett’s view: You have virtual reality applications, where you have a completely constructed artificial world. Augmented reality is where I’m imposing digital data, artificial data, on top of the real world. I’m mixing the two. Then there’s 360 video, which is, whether it’s live-streamed or actually rendered, filming the real world with one of these cameras that’s got this seamless ability to go all the way around me. Let me give you a fourth category that most people don’t think about. This surprised me. This could be the savior of 3-D video. When we fly on trips for business meetings, we’ll watch movies in 3-D on the plane using our goggles. Don’t underestimate good old 3-D video.
X: Augmented reality?
AT: For augmented reality, you’re using the phone’s pass-through camera, so you can see the world around you, but we’re imposing digital imagery around it. Some people call it mixed reality. Let’s call it merged reality [which is where the company’s name comes from]: The merger of the real and unreal, of the physical and the digital.