Jeri Ellsworth told Newell to either fund her latest augmented reality gaming project, or let her leave with it. Ellsworth had been with Valve for one year and seven months, and she believed in the potential behind her team's progress – even though Valve was firing many of the people involved.
"Give it to them," Newell said.
Ellsworth and fellow former Valve teammate Rick Johnson took their prototypes and started Technical Illusions, where they've been working on Cast AR, a set of 3D, augmented reality glasses. Four weeks after Ellsworth was fired from Valve, she and Johnson hit a breakthrough in the Cast AR project, and everything came together ahead of schedule, she said on The Grey Area Podcast.
Cast AR is a "projected augmented reality" system that throws graphics into the real world, allowing players – multiple players at one time, even – to interact with an artificial projection as if it were actually right in front of them, using a wand-like controller and special mat. Engadget got their hands on the Cast AR in May.
Early prototypes of the Cast AR are hardly bigger than standard glasses for a 3D movie, with spots on the corners from whence the projections, well, project. A camera on the bridge of the nose tracks the surface of the mat, so the glasses know where the player is looking. This set-up allows the wearer to see objects from different angles, and could apply to board and computer games alike. Technical Illusions intend the glasses, wand and surface to cost less than $200, with a Kickstarter planned for early 2014, Ellsworth said.
Best of all, Cast AR makes Wizard's Chess a reality. "You can imagine Star Wars Chess, as an example," Ellsworth said on the podcast. "There's little chess characters just walking around your table. If I'm sitting in front, facing forward at them, I see their faces. And I can stand up, walk around the table, and I can see the backside of the characters."
Ellsworth got excited about augmented reality gaming while at Valve, but her experience overall at the company left her resentful. The hardware team that she was supposed to be in charge of was a skeleton crew, understaffed "100 times" over, and she wasn't able to hire new people for fear of polluting "their precious culture," she said. Valve had a machine shop with millions of dollars of equipment, but Ellsworth said she couldn't hire a machinist for $40,000 a year to use any of it.
Ellsworth found the Valve Handbook, a booklet of rules for new employees that made its way around the net last year, was an idealized, but mostly true, representation of Valve's structure. Valve is "pseudo-flat," Ellsworth said, with a "hidden layer of powerful management structure."
"It felt a lot like high school," she said. "There's popular kids that have acquired power in the company, and then there's troublemakers and everyone in-between. The troublemakers are the ones that want to make a difference." Ellsworth threw herself in with the troublemakers – saying she was fired for being "abrasive" and complaining about communication issues within the company, after all.
Valve's bonus structure didn't promote small, niche projects – such as hardware – since people working on high-profile projects could receive bonuses larger than their actual wages, Ellsworth said.
"I'm sounding bitter, and I am – I'm really, really bitter because they promised me the world and then backstabbed me," Ellsworth said.
Ellsworth and many on her team were fired in February, and the hardware department at Valve wasn't very big to begin with, but Ellsworth said she had no "definitive proof" that Valve's hardware department was dead. Her project, however, was – at least at Valve.
"I'm sorry, Valvers," she said. "I know you guys have a great PR machine, and I love 99 percent of you guys."
Keep an eye out for a Cast AR Kickstarter early next year.
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