When a two-time startup founder purchased his first virtual reality headset in 2015, he observed something about the device that both intrigued and annoyed him.
Though the headset provided the overall immersive VR gaming experience he’d expected, Jeff Guard was disappointed at how difficult it was to move his character through the game’s fictional world. Rather than being granted independent motion and the ability to freely roam through the terrain, he was restricted from controlling his own movements. It led to a dizzying, motion sickness-inducing experience.
As he shared this observation with other gamers and VR enthusiasts, he found it to be a common gripe. And it wasn’t long before it inspired his third venture, Brilliant Sole.
Fast forward to now, as the one-year-old Wilmington startup comes out of stealth mode to win the inaugural NC Tech Madness. The win is somewhat unexpected, given that Brilliant Sole was pitted against several startups at much more advanced stages, some with large amounts of funding and/or years since founding.
Guard, who bootstrapped the company so far, has spent nearly a year with a group of developers creating the product—a line of sensor-embedded footwear that wirelessly connect to VR devices that are used to play mobile or desktop games.
The opportunity extends beyond gaming too. Brilliant Sole’s shoe sensor technology can be broadened to serve simple, everyday uses, such as tracking step count or measuring the time people spend sitting or standing throughout the day. See an example of an early prototype above—note that the technology isn’t exclusive to Yoda-themed slippers, though.
Guard is working at the UNC Wilmington Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, alongside Brilliant Sole team members Andrew Keener, an NC State grad and software engineer for UNCW administrative departments, software developer Alec David (who serves as lead developer at Brilliant Sole), and Ryan David, a business analyst and consultant who helps with technical operations and product design.
Guard previously co-founded GuardianPay, a financial services tech company, and WhittleDATA, a web-based platform that manages and syncs small businesses software services into one platform. These startups never really materialized into what Guard says he’d consider “proof-of-concept,” so that’s what motivates him to ensure Brilliant Sole is a startup of long-lasting substance.
He has a steep road ahead though. Within Brilliant Sole’s niche, companies that develop VR gear have not yet succeeded in optimizing locomotive features for their technology, and funders and gaming companies so far, have hesitated to fund innovation in the field. There just aren’t enough VR users yet.
Still, developers recognize the great potential, and many are rushing to solve the problem in their own unique ways. Motherboard lists a few examples—including a developer that increased allowance for head movement in headsets and a game maker that created a plot wherein players’ characters can teleport rather than walk an area.
Ironically, Motherboard also points out that the audience might not be biting because they’re waiting for the technology to improve to the point where it’s worth it for them to buy a headset.
This industry uncertainty is what motivates Guard to get his product, which is patented, to the market as soon as possible. He points to a recent article on UploadVR, in which an Oculus executive producer says the answer to the locomotion issue could be years away. In the meantime, the market will decide itself—players will acclimate to whatever technology becomes the standard first.
Though players may be getting motion sickness in VR games now, the executive recalls a familiar time years ago when first-person gamers also felt uncomfortable switching from a keyboard/mouse to a controller setup.
Guard believes his product will make a difference once it’s on the market. And the time-dependency of VR demand prompts him to make plans to get orders out by the end of the year. He just needs to raise money to fund manufacturing first.
Guard says he’s talked to a few investors who love the idea. Despite the fear that someone will get to market before Brilliant Sole, he’s proud of his work so far, saying it gives the startup a “long enough headstart.”
He’s shooting to land his first investor and begin collecting pre-orders around September.
The NC Tech Madness exposure comes at a timely period in the company’s journey, when it needs funding to put the finishing touches on the product and broader awareness around VR’s biggest challenge to widespread adoption.
If Brilliant Sole’s momentum continues, Guard believes he could be the first to solve it.