While companies such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and HTC have invested billions of dollars into virtual reality, startup castAR co-founder Jeri Ellsworth sees an augmented reality future. Anyone who’s played the 2016 hit mobile game Pokemon Go has had a taste of augmented reality, which blends virtual characters with the real world.
Serial inventor and entrepreneur Ellsworth worked at Valve Software, helping to found and grow the hardware department. The hardware department teams went on to release other products including the HTC Vive and the Steam Box controller, while she focused more on augmented reality.
That augmented reality platform allowed players to wear specially-designed glasses and use a wand to interact with holographic creations that came to life on a flat surface like a tabletop, much like a real-world version of the HoloChess concept introduced in the original Star Wars back in 1977.
In 2013, Ellsworth decided to leave, and since Valve was focused on virtual reality, she asked Valve president and owner Gabe Newell if she and colleague/programmer Rick Johnson could take that still-early prototype technology with them. He agreed, and castAR was born.
“What I learned from working at Valve and some of the amazing people there was that the company is hyper-focused on the customer experience,” Ellsworth said. “Almost every decision that’s made is studied under the microscope of how it impacts the end-user experience.”
Ellsworth has a solid track record of succeeding across multiple male-dominated industries. She dropped out of high school in her small hometown of Dallas, Ore., and decided to build and race cars -- with no experience.
“I’ve always been an inventor and tinkerer since I was a kid,” Ellsworth recalled. “I was always dismantling everything in our home and making something different of things. My father was perpetually frustrated that any device he brought into the house was going to be dismantled.”
Ellsworth has spent her career learning from mentors and putting in the work. She found a local machinist in Oregon to teach her how to weld in exchange for her cleaning up the shop. She spent six years designing, building, racing and selling custom racecars. She also spent time dirt track racing with her father and competed in the I5 Challenge.
She went from designing racecars to customizing PCs in the ‘90s, running her own retail store called Computers Made Easy.
“I didn’t know how to run a retail business or coordinate teams, but when I opened up my first store I had an insurance guy who came over at lunch and taught me how to run a business and work with employees and keep customers happy,” Ellsworth said.
Once the profit margins dropped for custom PCs, Ellsworth headed to Silicon Valley and began building semiconductors and tackling system-level engineering challenges at companies like Intersil, Ubicom, Rapport, and Zenverge. She designed complicated toys in the early 2000s like the all-in-one video game joystick C64 Direct-to-TV, which put her on the radar of the video game industry. It was ultimately her in-depth weekly science educational webcast with George Sanger, Fatman and Circuit Girl, which dove into tough engineering problems, that attracted Newell’s attention.
Ellsworth’s success in every industry she’s tackled has drawn the attention of very successful entrepreneurs.
“Coming to Silicon Valley without a traditional education, it was mind-blowing the type of mentors I was able to learn from,” Ellsworth said. “Steve Wozniak and Lee Felstenstein took time to give me advice.”
One of those mentors along her journey was Andy Rubin, who she first met at Danger Inc. When Ellsworth was looking to evolve castAR from a successful million dollar Kickstarter campaign into a mainstream business, she heard Rubin was doing a venture fund incubator program for startups, Playground Global. So she sent him an email, and eventually (following a successful tour of the Silicon Valley VC circuit) he replied, and invested.
“A few weeks into working with Andy and his team, he told us the key to creating a successful product is to leverage the talent of the developers out there,” Ellsworth explained. “If there’s something that’s difficult for them to do, focus on making a tool to make it easier. That same lesson applies to making things easy for the end-user.”
Ellsworth said Rubin will randomly drop by the office in Palo Alto and help the team stretch its thinking.
“He’ll spend a lot of time talking about where I want to go with the company two or three chess moves out,” Ellsworth said.
That blueprint is to launch a rock solid augmented reality experience this fall that anyone, including her father, can reach into and mold virtual clay or play a driving game with the grandkids plowing a tractor through virtual corn fields. By the third generation of the platform, Ellsworth wants to lift the experience off the table and allow them to watch movies in the kitchen on a virtual screen or cook with a virtual recipe book next to the smart stove or use the smart thermostat to see how energy consumption has been over the last month. Within 10 years, the goal is to start to replace today’s smartphones and tablets and some general computing with augmented reality and start to use AR for navigation.
“Andy helps you draw a line through all of these things we want to do and how to take the customer on this journey with you,” Ellsworth said. “We talk about creating graphics on glasses and how we can train them up so by the time they’re off the table and moving around they’re already familiar with and comfortable with the technology.”
Ellsworth also learned the lesson of moving the company forward, even if it means taking a loss to satisfy the past. After the successful Kickstarter campaign, castAR engineers were torn between building and shipping the older version of the platform, which connected to a home PC, and the newer (and final) retail project, which doesn’t require a PC. Rubin and his team sat Ellsworth down and asked what she wanted to do. And she said she wanted castAR customers to wander around the world tetherless and enjoy these experiences.
“Andy told us to refund the Kickstarter backers’ money and focus on the future,” Ellsworth said. “We decided to give back their money and give them a free pair of the fully-integrated glasses when they’re ready. Our CFO had a hard time with us giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars in free AR glasses, but the marketing guys said this was great for marketing the technology.”
While introducing brand new technology to consumers will be a challenge, it’s just another hurdle for Ellsworth to navigate. And she has plenty of experience, and great mentors, to help her on this journey.