What do you get when you mix a group of computer science PhDs, a vibrant startup culture and an ultra-supportive university department?
You get Impulsonic, the Carrboro-based startup that’s pioneering work in the software of computerized sound, while making the case for the innovation and investment payoff that can come from ventures in local brainpower.
Launched in 2012 from within UNC’s GAMMA Lab in the computer science department in Chapel Hill, Impulsonic is producing unique work in the field of sound simulation software, with two main applications: simulating realistic sound for video games and virtual reality, and helping architects and designers understand how buildings and spaces will sound once they are built.
The first of the two is more likely to resonate with the general public, and Impulsonic CEO Dr. Anish Chandak says his mission there is pretty simple: “to make it easier for video game designers to create immersive sounds.”
Providing a critical element to VR and gaming
Dr. Chandak’s team at Impulsonic has produced a suite of three software products that make it lightning quick for a game designer to authentically recreate how a spacey cathedral or open field or crowded kitchen room sounds. No hardware is involved—the products are built to simulate and modulate sounds via purely software changes.
Not only does Impulsonic help recreate those sounds naturally (and quickly), but the team has also developed a way to “bake” those sounds directly into gaming code so the performance doesn’t lag, creating a significantly better experience for gamers (and eventually virtual reality as that sector grows). This has huge implications in virtual reality and gaming as creating fully immersive worlds—those that nearly replicate real life—become the industry standard.
While most gaming and VR discussions focus on graphics, it’s not hard to see that virtual reality doesn’t have much of a future if it doesn’t sound like reality—making advancements in this arena vital.
Applications of interest to government and developers
The second application might have even more long term use, and it has been a major source of funding for the organization, earning two National Science Foundation grants (a Small Business Phase I and Small Business Phase II) totaling over $850,000. Impulsonic is working with architects and building designers to simulate how certain rooms and concert halls will sound. The technology is not in the market yet but will have major applications in the future as buildings become more green and environmentally friendly.
Both applications rely heavily on the technology of “occlusion sound” which helps predict how sound moves around objects, both in the real world and virtual or simulated worlds.
The SDK (software development kit) Impulsonic has developed is built in C++, and Dr. Chandak says his team’s expertise is mostly from the software and computer science fields. But that explanation of Impulsonic’s combined talent is an understatement: every full-time Impulsonic employee carries at least two advanced degrees, and all are from UNC’s doctoral program as faculty or students in computer science.
UNC vital to success
The relationship between UNC and the startup has been vital to the success of the project, of course because that’s where the research started, but also because of the university’s commitment to fostering such development in good faith. Impulsonic is using the Carolina Express License which streamlines the startup process—the school doesn’t keep any equity and only retains a small exit percentage fee if the company is acquired. UNC typically licenses about 2-4 startups a year with this method.
Thanks to this kind of support, Impulsonic’s funding is equity free, and it is financed through at least 2017.
It’s nearly impossible to separate Impulsonic’s success from the startup culture in the Triangle. The founders first connected with the startup incubator Groundwork Labs in 2012, then participated in the first batch of companies at Launch Chapel Hill in 2013 (another startup incubator). They received an NC IDEA grant of $60,000, and have benefited enormously from the help of the computer science department at UNC.
Already serving clients, and nearing profitability
The startup isn’t working solely on funding however—it has around 50 (mostly gaming studio) clients, and the plan is to be fully solvent within six months. In fact, the business is growing quickly and a position is open for a junior programmer with game engine experience. The company makes most of its revenue from licensing its software products to game developers.
With such a meteoric rise, it’s easy to wonder what’s next for Dr. Chandak and his team considering their talents. (Dr. Chandak is a prolific academic—35 of his works are listed on Google Scholar alone and he’s been cited over 300 times since 2008.)
But when pushed on his prospects by this reporter, he was coy, stating all he’s worried about now is “helping designers create great sounds.” And, frankly, in this reporter’s opinion, when you see such a community-driven project, it’s hard not to believe him.