By now, followers of castAR already know that Jeri Ellsworth created the projected augmented reality glasses back when she worked for Valve Software. But not everybody knows that its invention was, well, an accident. "I was trying to figure out why people got sick when they wore virtual reality rigs," said Ellsworth to us as we chatted in the tiny castAR booth tucked away in the corner of Moscone North during GDC 2014. "I put a reflector in backwards so that it wasn't projecting into my eye ... There was a piece of reflective fabric in the room, it bounced an image back to me, and it was beautiful."
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Intrigued, she started cobbling together projector headsets (she affectionately calls them "head crabs"), began analyzing and exploring the technology and slowly became a huge proponent of it within the company. "I was like, 'Oh boy, this is really going to take off!'" she says. Unfortunately, it didn't quite fit within Valve's master plan and she and her team were let go. Still, Ellsworth has fond memories of her time at the company. She tells us how she was wined and dined to join Valve's hardware team due to her long history as a chip designer and a hardware hacker. Indeed, Gabe Newell flew down to talk to her himself, and they even brought her to the Valve office, telling her that she could build her own space however she wanted. It was a wonderful place to work, she says. "I love the folks at Valve. The team we assembled was awesome."
The good vibes continued even after she was laid off, it turns out, as Newell happily let her keep working on the project on her own, fully divorcing the company from it. And so she did, along with former Valve engineer Rick Johnson under the company name Technical Illusions. After months of developing the castAR rig and bringing it around to trade shows, they eventually launched what turned out to be a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, and were at GDC 2014 to show off what they've been up to thus far.
"Now we're heading towards manufacturing," she says excitedly. She humorously pointed out that her new engineering partners were rather taken aback with the previous castAR rig that she built herself, and promised her they could do it much better. Indeed, Ellsworth tells us they're just a few weeks away from getting new projectors and cameras, which are supposedly of much higher quality than what they have now. "The next step is to get the plastics built for the early dev glasses," she says, hoping to have them done by summer of this year. She also wants the Kickstarter deliverables shipped by Q4 at the latest. But fulfilling that initial Kickstarter isn't the end of it. "For 2015, we're seeking out more funding through Series A, VC funding, angel investors, so that we can make it more commercial." It's clear, then, that even though Valve didn't believe projected augmented reality would take off, Ellsworth and her team certainly do.
Video shot and produced by Emily Price