A local company with ties to Lockheed Martin thinks it has “the” game changer in virtual reality technology, with a high-end product that’s both portable and affordable enough to market to the general public.
Wearality, located in Cary, has developed SKY, a handheld device resembling a pair of reading glasses that works with a user's smartphone to view 3D software, games and movies, and the company appears to have the resources and industry connections to make a major splash in VR (virtual reality) this year.
The firm has reportedly raised over $1.7 million, with half of that coming only since September. In conjunction with a just-launched crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which runs through May 6 and doubles as a pre-ordering campaign (since the product is already being manufactured), the team hopes to raise at least $3 million before heading to market.
Similar to products like Google Cardboard, Wearality’s SKY model is cheap (~$69), lightweight (less than an ounce) and requires no dedicated screen other than the user’s phone, which means it can be easily carried and shared with others. The difference however, according to Wearality’s founder David Smith, is that SKY exclusively sports some of the most cutting-edge optical lens technology in the world.
“We’re the first company to really focus on optics at this level,” says Smith, who’s worked at Lockheed Martin for more than five years as a senior fellow and chief innovation officer. “Most VR development has centered on software and hacks, but code can only take you so far. At Lockheed, they’re making optics that can read a license plate from space, so we were in the right place.”
The special curved lenses allow for a field-of-view of over 150 degrees, which mimics the field of view of the human eye—that's a significant increase over the 90-110 degree view of most other VR devices, which is often described as “tunnel vision”.
Smith developed the Fresnel-style lens with Lockheed Martin, and Wearality and the defense technology company both share the 32 patents relating to the design. Wearality has worldwide commercial rights, while Lockheed retains defense development rights for technologies such as flight simulators.
This relationship with Lockheed is a major reason why Wearality has been gaining steam within the VR/3D community, where Smith has extensive experience, building his first head-mounted display over 30 years ago. Before joining Lockheed, he built the world’s first 3D video game, The Colony, and founded Red Storm Entertainment—still headquartered in Cary—with Tom Clancy (who developed Rainbow Six) and Timeline Computer Entertainment with Michael Crichton (who wrote Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain). He even worked on The Abyss with director/producer James Cameron.
Smith’s long resume, coupled with Lockheed’s defense-level funding support, has made Wearality a destination for talented VR designers, engineers and software producers, and it’s a major reason why it's earning funding and industry talent at such a rate.
“We have the potential to be the standard in this field,” says Smith. “And talented people want to work on what is going to be the standard.”
“Our rolodex is pretty big,” he adds. “We’re fielding a lot of offers for professional relationships.”Like Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab and a major investor, and Chris Milk, a player in the VR industry who’s worked on VR audio with artists like Beck. There are even rumors that Wearality has wooed as its next CEO Michael Jones, a high-level executive who left Google just this week. He developed Google Earth and OpenGL—the standard in 3D software. A co-founder of the firm is Gunnar Wieboldt, former legal counsel at the University of North Carolina and general manager of serial entrepreneur and professor Joseph DeSimone's angel investment firm Faster LLC.
Wearality has also been buying up local talent, and recently purchased VR video gaming company Frag, which produces the popular app VR Roller Coaster.
While there is no product release date for SKY, Smith is confident the product will be out “within months” and definitely “by the end of the year.” The crowdfunding campaign promises the product by October.
Meanwhile, a major VR competitor, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, is set to go on sale in 2016.
“The molding and lens are complete, so it won’t be long before we’re selling them everywhere,” Smith says.
*The Oculus Rift is slated to go on sale in 2016, not mid-2015