In 2035 you’ll start the workday by picking up the email icon with your hands and throwing it against the wall. Your inbox splashes open in front of you. As you open each message with your hands, you reply by typing on a virtual keyboard or dictating your reply out loud as the VR headset types your words. When you need to reference a spreadsheet, you say “Open Project X, Version 5.” Suddenly, the spreadsheet appears and you can toggle among cells using your hands.
This is how Russell Ladson, co-founder and CEO of Drop, envisions the future. Ladson believes that within 15 years, virtual reality is going to have its “iPhone moment” — the point of no return when society can no longer live without this technology. The VR market, it is estimated, will be worth $60 billion by 2023 and $101 billion by 2027, according to MarketWatch. But so far, it hasn’t found significant traction outside of gaming, though the entertainment and retail industries are slowly embracing it too. For broader acceptance, the technology needs to move to a stage where we can navigate VR as easily as we surf the internet on laptops and smartphones today. Ladson is building the VR web browser to make it possible.
Raised in west Philadelphia, Ladson, 29, grew up working class but always went to private schools. His mother, a nurse, and his father, a small business owner, highly valued academics, which rubbed off on him. “I was a complete dork,” Ladson says, grinning brightly. “I was really into history and wanted to know how the world came about.” Well, that and NBA Live 1999, though he was never a “hardcore gamer” because his studies came first.
Ladson majored in economics at Morehouse College, a historically Black school in Atlanta where “I came into my identity as a Black man, and I also realized how important art and culture are to everything you do.” After Morehouse, it was on to New York City to work in investment banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Ladson was checking all the boxes: a successful career, good money, lots of friends.
Then in 2013, Ladson was involved in a near-fatal car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike. “The doctors said I should’ve been dead,” says Ladson, who suffered lacerations to his face and arms and injured his thigh bone. After recovering from the accident for several weeks, he returned to work at Rice Financial but quickly realized he didn’t want to be there. He took some time off to figure out where he did want to be.
“I had always suppressed an obsession with information discovery,” Ladson says. “I started thinking: What happens when our iPhones are no longer our primary computing device?” There needs to be a more anticipatory artificial intelligence system, he thought. But what does that look like?
A user testing Drop with hand gestures.
Ladson began researching AI and VR, and the idea for Drop slowly formed. Then, as so many tech founders do, he moved west. Ladson enrolled at Draper University in Silicon Valley, the school for entrepreneurs founded by longtime venture capitalist Tim Draper. There, he met his co-founder, Geoffrey Griffin, who was immediately drawn to Ladson’s tenacity. “He’s the embodiment of grit,” says Griffin. It played out during Drop’s fundraising period, a grueling effort that left both founders defeated at times. “Neither of us had fundraised before, but where it started to impact me was seeing our competitors get more money for the same thing with the same background,” Griffin says.
Ladson and Griffin both partially attribute this to venture capital’s notorious lack of people of color. “Raising capital was the most difficult part of starting a company as a Black founder,” Ladson says. “We had exceeded every [metric], and they kept saying no.”
Still, Ladson kept going. The breakthrough came as major tech players such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Mozilla jumped into VR browsers. In 2015, Ladson met with HTC in Taipei at a fortuitous time: The firm was launching a VR/AR-specific fund and, after seeing Ladson’s pitch, was eager to invest. “Drop took off after that,” Ladson says. The company, now in its Series A round, has also received investment from Backstage Capital, started by Arlan Hamilton, who solely invests in underrepresented founders.
Drop is now one of the top downloaded VR titles on the HTC Vive headset, and is also available on Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens 2. The interface shows web search results, your email inbox and entertainment options in separate columns, with a controller to toggle and a virtual keyboard, but no voice capability. Ladson concedes that Drop’s resolution and ease of motion need improvement. The company is working to improve the headset and controller, and superfast 5G data will boost the user experience eventually. “Most of the work being done right now is foundational computing work,” Ladson says, “like when desktops didn’t even have the basics.” Seamless VR browsing isn’t coming next year, he says, and that’s OK.
But when is it coming? Ladson exudes confidence, but it’s tough to imagine a world with ubiquitous VR headsets — where we’re even further disconnected from other humans. “Any tech we try to put on our face tends to flop,” says David Ryan Polgar, tech ethicist and founder of think tank All Tech Is Human. “Think Google Glass or Snap Spectacle, and Oculus hasn’t really transitioned outside of gaming.” The problem, Polgar says, is when technologists are so focused on utility, when adoption is “based on social norms and expectations.” If you’ve ever tried a VR headset, you know what he means. Abruptly losing the ability to see your real surroundings is quite disorienting.
Ladson disagrees. He believes Drop is making the iPhone of the post-smartphone world, which will be dominated by spacial computing. “We believe it’s a type of virtual wearable,” Ladson says, “like kimoyo beads from Marvel’s Black Panther.”
Always a nerd at heart, Ladson plays chess at Mechanics’ Institute library in San Francisco in his free time. But like any good Bay Area resident, he’s also passionate about hiking, yoga and meditation — which means unlike many founders, he doesn’t dwell on regrets. “Because of my Zazen practice, I try not to concern myself with past moments,” he says.
A good call for someone betting his career on an as-yet-unrealized future.