It’s no surprise that the Geekdom Event Centre was packed for Monday night's Startup Week session where Mike Troy of the Geekdom Fund interviewed Andrew Trickett, co-founder of San Antonio-based virtual reality company Merge VR.
The company, founded in 2013 as Merge Labs, Inc., develops a broad range of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) products focused on young users. It recently unveiled the HoloCube by Merge at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where it was deemed by Tech Radar as the most unique product of the show.
HoloCube by Merge is the world’s first holographic toy, which uses augmented reality technology so users can hold and interact with holograms in new ways. By pairing the HoloCube with the company’s foam-soft Merge VR Goggles – which turn your iOS or Android smartphone into an immersive virtual reality experience– users can interact directly with holograms while freeing both hands for a fully immersive experience.
Augmented reality tasks can range from drawing with music to caring for a virtual space pet to building a mini-block world.
(“Minecraft VR changes the game to the point where you can play more realistically, like peer around corners for a strategic advantage,” my 12-year-old son informed me.)
“Toys are the tools we use for growing up, and our HoloCube offers brand new ways to learn, play, and connect with others,” stated Merge VR founder Franklin Lyons in the HoloCube news release. “Rather than using the typical interfaces of 2D screens, we’re developing physical products that merge the real world with the digital, and creating new ways for imagination and creativity to flourish.”
Before you can start using some of the apps or games you've downloaded, you may need to configure your smartphone for VR use by installing and launching the Google Cardboard app, then scanning the QR code from the bottom of your Merge VR headset. Then you can slide your phone into the Merge VR headset and start playing.
Once the HoloCube and goggles are set up, the company’s curated VR content that is compatible with the Merge Goggles is ready for users to explore.
VR START is the company’s portal to virtual worlds with hundreds of curated, virtual reality apps and experiences, from gaming to 360 videos to other immersive experiences. The VR content is compatible with Google’s Cardboard platform, also allowing you to use the Merge VR Googles to view YouTube videos in 3D. The goggles also have the capability to run augmented reality, adding virtual fun to the interactions of the real world.
Merge VR also has a universal motion controller for mobile VR use.
Trickett, Merge VR co-founder, leads fundraising, business development, and general administration at the company.
Before the StartUp Grind panel, the Rivard Report spoke to Trickett about Merge VR and the launch of the world’s first holographic toy, the HoloCube by Merge.
RR: How did you and Lyons get Merge VR started?
AT: Franklin Lyons is the inventor while I’m the business guy. He was an early recipient of the Oculus kit and the first thing he did was play around with it to see how you could use this with your cell phone and with augmented reality rather than just virtual reality. That was the genesis for Merge VR — we were working in this space before Samsung or Google.
RR: What has Merge VR been working on lately?
AT: At CES 2017, we revealed the HoloCube and won Tech Radar’s most unique product of CES award. We’ve also developed the world’s first universal motion sensing controller for VR that also works with Macs and PCs.
We’ll offer dev kits for the HoloCube and universal motion sensing controller pretty soon. Then we’ll look at bringing them out as a consumer product later this year.
We’re doing a soft launch of the SDK for the HoloCube by Merge. Our initial plan was to take this to market with accompanying apps developed by our team, but we decided to open it up to the development community so that they can build their own holographic experiences.
RR: What has the startup experience in San Antonio’s tech ecosystem been like for the company?
AT: What was fortunate was that early on we got support from local angel investors and found critical employees to develop momentum. One of the things we’re facing now as we build our content development team is (the knowledge that) we’ll need certain skill sets that are pretty rare in San Antonio.
When a company is doing well, you run thru a life cycle progression when you are raising more and more money at each stage.
At some level, the capital requirements will require us to look outside of San Antonio and Austin to larger VCs that are typically in San Francisco. Those investors typically want you to be located a 20-minute drive away.
RR: What do you see as the future for Merge VR?
AT: We’ve been blown away from the interest from retailers, distributors, and press covering CES. We’re going to innovate lots of other things and create new apps for [the HoloCube by Merge].
We view this as just the beginning of the holographic toys where we happen to focus technologies on the intersection of VR and AR. We will strive to produce high quality, affordable toys at a reasonable price – it’s what we’re always going for.