How a husband and wife teamed up to conquer the virtual reality market
To say 2008 was a life-changing year for Brooke Linville and Dan Thurber is a pretty major understatement.
In August, their home was one of ten destroyed by the Oregon Trail Heights fire — a massive, fast-moving grass fire in Southeast Boise.
In September, their first son was born.
And in November, Brooke was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a condition that paralyzes facial muscles. A neurological complication caused, in her case, by Lyme disease.
“It was one of those years where you just eventually say ‘uncle,’” Brooke says.
At the time, Brooke, who now serves as CEO for IonVR — a virtual reality hardware company she founded with her husband — was working as a teacher. But the trauma in her life — and the physical challenges brought on by the Lyme disease — made her reevaluate everything.
“After the fire I started a blog. Then I started helping other people with blogs,” Brooke explains. “Dan had the IT background and I taught myself web development. We decided we should start working together.”
So the couple founded a web development company and started to take an interest in cloud computing — the use of remote servers to store and process data instead of local servers or PCs.
This interest really took off when Dan, the inventor of IonVR’s technology, got his hands on a virtual reality headset for the first time.
“A friend of ours had gotten an Oculus and Dan went to play with it,” Brooke says, referring to the Oculus Rift, widely seen as the first broadmarket developer- and consumer-targeted virtual reality system. “Shortly thereafter Dan was hacking the Oculus to make it battery operated and wireless using cloud servers to stream the content.”
“Most people put the Oculus on their heads. Dan took it apart.”
Even from a young age, Dan had the ability to look at a problem and see a solution. Often a solution that was much different than others saw. His experience with this early version of the Oculus Rift was no different.
“As soon as I saw the Oculus, I saw it was the future,” Dan says. “It sucked. It made you sick. But I saw the potential.”
He became consumed by the idea of creating a better technology. Something that would fulfill all the promise virtual reality holds for entertainment, training, medical treatments and more, but without a specific type of motion sickness — often called VR sickness — some people experience when using Oculus and other headsets.
“I was just obsessed with making headsets,” Dan says. “By the time I had filed my first patent, I think I had probably built 20 or 25 variations on VR headsets.”
Early prototypes were built out of LEGO or cardboard, but Dan wanted more. He purchased an industrial-grade 3D printer and began designing prototypes, using advanced optics and new engineering solutions to make the virtual reality experience more real than ever.
Dan also partnered with internationally-recognized software developer ChainFire XDA to create software for the company.
“I was just very interested in making an awesome headset,” Dan says flatly.
Their system, which they hope to have in distribution in 2016, allows users to utilize a normal, everyday cell phone secured in the IonVR headset as their screen. Unlike most virtual reality systems, much of the image processing is handled by the IonVR headset, eliminating the need to be connected to a PC or do complicated processing on the mobile device. But IonVR’s real secret sauce is the technology they’ve developed that virtually eliminates the VR sickness problem.
Even with this innovation, Brooke and Dan were still not completely clear on how they would commercialize their product.
The pair began taking meetings with potential investors, content partners and other potential strategic alliances. Big names. Several Hollywood types. They all showed — and continue to show — real interest in IonVR’s potential.
This month the company will unveil their product to the masses at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Conference, one of the premier technology conferences in the nation.
Fast-growing market (VR is projected to hit approximately $20 billion in sales in the next few years). Cutting-edge technology. Hundreds of pre-orders. Wicked smart team. Still, the process of building a startup is really hard.
“Being a tech startup in an emerging field, you have to believe you are Superman,” Brooke says. “You have to believe you can fly.”
The ups and downs of inventing, explaining and building a company around a new technology is daunting, according to Brooke. A single day can give you feelings of elation when customers or investors “get it” or extreme lows when they don’t.
“As a startup, you have to be the one who believes the most and believes the longest,” she says. “That alone requires a lot of energy. You’re out there and you believe so strongly in your technology, but everybody has an opinion and some days you can get the best feedback you’ve ever gotten and also be rejected. You have to be almost naively optimistic in order to continue doing what you’re doing.”
Photography by Mike Kerby of c308 Marketing