This is the second in a series of stories about virtual reality innovation and the North Carolina company with groundbreaking technology that some believe could transform, and take mainstream, the VR industry.
Most big ideas start small. This one wasn’t any different.
Five years ago, David Smith was in a coffee shop tinkering with $2 magnifying glasses—the nondescript credit card-shaped type you might see on an old dresser or in a clearance bin at a bookstore. He stacked two together and placed them to his eye, then four, then six. Intrigued by what he saw, he eventually bought 10 and took them home.
“Most inventions are based on hard science and math, but half is pure observation. The idea is usually there, but you have to know what you’re looking for too,” he recalls.
Smith certainly knew what he was looking for, even if he hadn’t found it until then. At the time of the coffee shop discovery, he had just started as a senior chief innovation officer at Lockheed Martin, but he had been engineering virtual and 3D related gear for some time—he built the world’s first 3D interactive video game in the 80s, developed a virtual camera system for filmmaker James Cameron and constructed flight simulation technology at Lockheed.
But with all of those advantages, it still took a little luck in a coffee shop with a box of cheap magnifying glasses.
“I noticed that if you bent the lenses, even with several stacked on top of each other, they would just slightly come into focus, even if only for a moment—which was worth taking another look at," he says.
Soon Smith would be cutting lenses on a $5 million machine in Lockheed Martin’s labs in Orlando, working to finally reinvent the 3D/Virtual Reality industry. It was only a matter of time before Smith founded Wearality, profiled in ExitEvent this month, and with a Kickstarter campaign underway, that goal to shake up the 3D world is likely to happen within the year as the SKY headset hits the market. Smith’s team at Wearality is convinced they’ve built a product in a total class of its own.
“It’s just better in every way, and significantly better. It’s going to be us and everyone else,” says Wearality’s chief operating officer Gunnar Weiboldt.
Head mounted 3D and VR displays—popularized by Google Cardboard and similar devices that work in conjunction with the screens of tablet and phones — are nothing new, but Smith’s design is, and it’s the first to incorporate such technology. While most VR displays (even the forthcoming Oculus Rift) sport only about a 90 to 110 degree field of view, SKY’s special curved Fresnel lenses produce over 150 degrees, a tremendous improvement over the so-called “tunnel vision” of other displays.
“This wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago,” Smith expounds. “It took six months just to get the first prototype back. But when we saw it we were blown away.”
The SKY mounts two Fresnel-style lens, not entirely different, in theory, from the coffee shop experiment. Fresnel lenses were invented to increase lighthouse penetration, as they increase available oblique light and field of vision. Plus, they’re much smaller and lighter than a typical lens of the same strength. By bending light at such a degree, they recreate a field of view very similar to the naked eye, making quite the significant potential addition to a VR headset.
“The human eye doesn’t have the best vision—20/20 isn’t that good—but it has a fantastic range and field of view. We were the first team to really focus on reproducing that,” Smith adds.
The technological implications are long, from the idea of wearing an “IMAX theater on your face” to 180-degree flight simulators to dirt-cheap virtual reality headsets for the general public as the digital world becomes more and more abundant.
Even with Smith’s pedigree and vision however, the Wearality team is quick to admit they came along at the right time and place.
“None of this would be possible without our relationship with Lockheed, which is ongoing,” said Wiedbolt. “And it certainly wouldn’t be as marketable a product without the advent of common smartphones.”
Smith adds that, “it’s one of the main reasons so many developers want to work with [Wearality] — most startups don’t have access to that kind of technology they have at Lockheed Martin. We’re using equipment worth more than our whole business.”
SKY will work with just about any 3D video or virtual reality app on a common smartphone, and there are hundreds of apps being built everyday through Google Cardboard, which is compatible with SKY. In fact, Wearality thinks that’s why SKY will be so successful upon its release later this year—it’s so easily used and shared. At only ~$69 dollars as a slated price tag, and weighing barely an ounce, it could be the first mass-marketed VR headset in the world.
This excitement is one reason the company has been able to secure over $1 million in funding since last year, and why it’s making it to market so quickly. A crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which the team is using as a pre-ordering and final-push-to-launch effort, went live this month. With two weeks left, it’s more than halfway to its $100,000 goal.
The SKY looks simple, and that’s part of the point. It’s easy to use and make, but with the power of Lockheed and an engineer like David Smith behind it, it could make quite the splash on the VR scene.