Dan Thurber and Brooke Linville want to be first in line when virtual reality becomes mainstream.
An assortment of blocky headsets is scattered across the kitchen table in the couple’s East Boise home, showing the evolution of Thurber’s yearlong effort to perfect a mobile virtual reality headset.
Once an expensive novelty, virtual reality headsets are expected to become broadly accessible when Facebook’s Oculus Rift is released worldwide in early 2016. The Rift headset will plug into a computer, giving virtual reality its first true console. It is listed at $350, though experts expect the price to fall ahead of the release.
But Thurber and Linville believe that tethering the headset to a computer will limit one of VR’s greatest potentials: moving your real body to dictate the movement and game play on the virtual plane. They have created a VR headset they say will be compatible with almost any smartphone.
Thurber and Linville, who are married, say their headset and their company, IonVR, are the first to do this. They say their set has solved motion-sickness problems that dogged previous mobile VR efforts, including the affordable and mass-produced Google Cardboard, a $4 cardboard headset that holds plastic lenses and a phone whose screen image is split into two, one for each eye.
They say interest picked up after IonVR was featured by Forbes. Now they hope to bring their headset to market before they lose their head start on competitors.
Q: What was your first try at making a headset?
Dan Thurber: It was cheap lenses on top of taped cardboard on top of a phone. We’d done Google Cardboard more than a month before Google Cardboard came out.
Q: How is your set different from Google Cardboard?
Thurber: When you have a virtual reality headset on, it recognizes your movement. You are literally walking around in another world.
Q: How is it different from Oculus Rift?
Linville: Because Oculus requires you be tethered to a PC, you can only move so far. Our system is wireless. When you walk around a room, or when you build a house or take a 2D blueprint and convert it to a three-dimensional space, you could virtually walk around in it prior to spending money on a house that you could only vaguely conceptualize.
Q: Virtual reality is best known for video games, and there are big-budget Oculus Rift games in production. It sounds like you guys have other applications in mind as well.
Thurber: Games are the cheapest way to test if mobile technology will be adopted. Games don’t need FDA approval [like] a medical application would that allows doctors to look around a brain. It’s easy entry into the consumer market.
Q: So virtual reality games and applications would be downloadable on smartphones, just like they are today?
Linville: There are already a small number of apps in development. But app development is a huge industry. Everybody knows VR is coming, and everybody is working on it. We know Hollywood studios are working on VR production. We know that major game studios are working on game content. We know indie app developers are working on content.
Q: You say you have nearly 1,000 pre-orders on your website. Are you pricing pre-orders?
Linville: We are not. We know it will be competitive with the other mobile headsets, probably around Gear VR’s price point. [Gear VR, made by Samsung, costs about $200.] The pre-orders are mostly just to gauge interest based mostly on social media. That’s without a full marketing launch.
Q: You say you are the only developers who have cracked the secret to sickness-free mobile VR. The world is full of smart people. Will they figure it out and crowd the market?
Linville: We have several patents pending, so we have intellectual property that we’re protecting. Gear VR is another quality mobile headset. It’s just limited to a few Samsung devices. We’re the only universal quality option at this point.
Q: What needs to happen before consumers can buy this?
Linville: We’re talking to a number of venture-capital firms about a Series A funding round. We’re talking to retailers. We’ll have a limited run early and a more complete consumer version and launch in 2016 right alongside the other major players.
Q: What will it cost to get this off of the ground?
Linville: It depends on the quantity we decide to run. Our initial raise is for a few million dollars.
Q: What’s your plan for manufacturing?
Thurber: We have 500 sets of lenses upstairs. We have our manufacturing channels already, at least for a small release.