Scott Ball / Rivard Report
From the basement of a small office building on Convent Street, you can rappel into the heart of an active volcano, trek among the planets in our galaxy, battle with Captain America, or fully experience the iconic Abbey Road Studios.
It may "just" be virtual reality, but that’s how the very real team of inventors and developers from MergeVR are working to put San Antonio on the VR map. Their first endeavor: a set of virtual reality goggles that can take you virtually anywhere.
“Our goal is to merge the physical and the digital,” says MergeVR co-founder Andrew Trickett, explaining how the company name came to be. “We want to merge the experience of the real world and the virtual world, but also from a digital aspect and physical aspect – (we want to mix) those things together into a merged reality.”
Developer Franklin Lyons used a 3D printer to create the first prototype of the MergeVR goggles that hit the market late last year after the startup incorporated in January 2014.
“We were the first universal mobile VR headset for sale on any brick-and-mortar shelf in the world,” Trickett said. “And we are proud of that.”
MergeVR goggles are compatible with most smartphones and, unlike other VR headsets on the market, the goggles’ patented compressible, lightweight material makes them both durable and easy to mold to most faces. The lenses are adjustable and it’s the only headset around with two input buttons.
“I wanted something that felt more natural and friendly,” Lyons said. “I’m always looking at how to make things less tech-like and more simple and enjoyable. We are all so inundated with technology that I wanted to create something that was fun and playful. I imagined that people would be somewhat apprehensive to try a VR headset, so along with the soft material I chose a disarming shade of purple.”
Available in 3,000 stores around the world and online through retailers like Best Buy, Walmart, AAFES, and Amazon, the headset sells for about $79. It’s being called the “must-have” gadget for the upcoming holiday season.
“Sales keep skyrocketing,” Trickett said. “We just keep getting new orders and reorders, and it’s keeping our factory busy. We get inquiries from literally around the world, both physical and e-commerce stores. We have distributions in Japan, Argentina, and even Kuwait in a store that sells high-end gadgets.”
Trickett added the company recently signed a large distribution agreement that will make MergeVR “explode” on the market in several European countries.
Most individual buyers who have purchased virtual reality headsets of any kind have been mostly technology-forward consumers, gamers, and early adopters who want to try the next big thing. But, “VR is the hotness in the tech world and we think it’s going to be for quite some time,” Trickett says.
So, like the virtual world to which they are creating a portal, the limits for MergeVR don’t end there.
“Our belief is that this is the next giant digital platform on par with when we went from mainframes to PCs and PCs to mobile – it’s going to be that big,” Trinkett says. “Every time a big new wave happens, you need the fundamental hardware. You can’t play Angry Birds without a smartphone, for instance. It’s the consumer’s first need.
“Right now, the vast majority of consumers don’t have any kind of virtual reality headset. So that’s why we started where we did.”
Next, MergeVR created a web app, which is currently the only curated site for all facets of VR content in the world. The site's content is screened for quality and appropriateness, so anyone with a VR headset can drop into an active volcano, place themselves inside a Goosebumps story, or even check out the inside of a cellular organism. There are more than 200 pieces of content on the site, and new apps are being added every day.
The various uses for virtual reality have ignited imaginations in countless sectors – from marketing and education to medicine, the arts, journalism, engineering, military, and business – since VR technology has become more widely used in the last decade.
Trickett said he gets calls from school districts looking to incorporate virtual reality in education and from architects who want to use it to show designs. He also once heard of a mining company in South Africa that used VR technology to evaluate whether its heavy equipment operators were sober enough to work.
“It is much bigger than entertainment,” he said.
Now the River Walk-level digs, where MergeVR opened its offices just last month, are humming with the work of an entire content development team – talented designers and coders who all hail from the San Antonio community – who are focused on the software side of the MergeVR strategy.
“It’s about not only helping people find good content, but creating good content, and showing off some of the features of the product,” Trickett says. “We’re not a VR headset company. We’re a VR company. That’s our DNA.”
Funding to launch MergeVR came from the Geekdom Fund, patent attorneys and others at Oculus, the first big name in VR, as well as venture capitalists from New York City, angel investors from Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, and Los Angeles. The effort to attract investors is ongoing.
Before becoming "the business development guy" behind MergeVR, Trickett owned and then sold a successful startup named Virtual Alert and led a business incubator at UTSA. In 2013, he met Lyons at startup incubator Geekdom in 2013. Both founders' roots are in San Antonio, so they wanted to build the company on their own stomping grounds to show what the city is capable of, Trickett said. “It’s our bigger ambition that San Antonio takes advantage of this big new platform and becomes one of the leaders in VR. We’re going to shape where the industry goes.”
“Virtual reality is the biggest tech movement I've ever seen," Lyons added, "and it's just getting started.”
Top image: Rivard Report Marketing Director Jaime Solis explores virtual reality with Merge VR goggles. Photo by Scott Ball.