Will Gee | Breaking Into the Video Game Industry, Landing the NFL and PayPal as Clients, and Innovating in Virtual and Augmented Reality

Will Gee 11:00

are watching it. Yeah, and I think that’s, that’s the digitally connected world now, where it’s more of a kind of back and forth conversation and less of creators putting their work out into the world, holding their breath, hoping it’s well received, it’s more of okay, you know, think of like the The TikTok model where your people are constantly engaging or not engaging with content and creators are getting a stream of feedback, versus, you know, what, what did the critics say,

John Corcoran 11:28

right now, a few years into this around 2007. So as a result of your studio laying everyone off, you end up becoming kind of an accidental entrepreneur, right? So tell me about that. You end up starting your own company, or you and a couple of other partners.

Will Gee 11:45

Yeah, four of us, ended up starting a company. But I was really fortunate because both of my parents left jobs in the corporate world and started small companies. And so they were working from home doing whatever. And I get just a front row seat to that growing up to see if you sort of hustle and pay attention to what’s going on out there. Maybe you won’t be a billionaire, but you can cover your bills. And if you’re relatively engaged and smart, you’ll find something that’s valuable to people. And so I took for granted, growing up with that as kind of a background thought process. And so when MicroProse closed and everyone’s laid off, I immediately didn’t really want to work for anyone else, just because of that experience, it was right at the end of a brutal stretch of overtime and trying to really just do whatever we could to get this game out. And so we had this idea for a game, we put that together, it ultimately didn’t quite catch on. And so we’ve sort of found, luckily, a bunch of friendly companies, contacts, people that were looking for, essentially, video game development, odd jobs, and we took them on just as Oh, great, someone will pay us for this thing. Let’s do it. And did that for about 13 years for a number of clients, ranging from museums, to DARPA to the NFL, and so a bunch of different kinds of clients along the way.

John Corcoran 13:20

And you had a fascinating experience. So the NFL, actually, you acquired as a as a client, to do a very early Virtual Reality project back in 2007. So first of all, what was virtual out really, like back then?

Will Gee 13:36

It was bad. It was basically, you know, I think people complain about virtual reality, if virtual reality experiences aren’t particularly well executed, they can make you feel nauseous, they can make you feel your eyes hurt and uncomfortable. Back then the technology was such that it was almost impossible to execute them well. And so they were not terribly immersive. They’re not terribly comfortable. But there was this idea. And I think that part of the spark of have been building these 2d, or these these interactive 3d environments for the last 10 years or so, but I’ve been looking at them on a 2d screen, and suddenly you can step inside and just that idea and that the feeling even for a bit like I think one of the biggest things was we were building a simulator that could also play back 3d versions of actual game footage of NFL football. And so, you know, you can see this play, the quarterback dropped back. This is where the defensive lineman came and seeing them, you know, they look like from the normal camera perspective, just as when you’re watching a game. We zoom in a bit, it kind of looks like playing Madden or something like that. But suddenly going into VR, even in this very rudimentary, not terribly immersive system. Um, it was amazing how real and fast it felt. And suddenly, it was like, what playing backup play from a quarterbacks perspective where a guy’s running at you and whatever, and this guy’s going out. And you could actually see the height of your linemen, as you know, these huge tall guys that you can’t really see over. And all of a sudden, it was just an amazing experience, it just gave me a taste of okay, this is, this is going to be something and I’ve been pretty obsessed with technology, my whole life from pestering my whole family to all chip in to get me an Atari when I was a kid for Christmas to, you know, hooking our computer to the internet for, you know, on CompuServe are kind of the pre internet. So in occasionally, you haven’t come across a piece of tech that’s like, Oh, this is this has that feeling of something different that maybe it’s not going to be today, maybe it’s not going to be tomorrow, but it will be it will have an impact. And so

John Corcoran 15:56

yeah, kind of like a leap forward. Whereas like in the video game world, it’s kind of been a steady evolution over time. And how did you end up you know, getting an NFL as a client? What was your pitch to them? Hey, guys, we’ve, we’ve never worked on a virtual reality project before. But we’d love to have you as a client. And we’ll start with you.

Will Gee 16:15

Yeah, actually. So that one started through a friend of ours who was was actually involved in in MicroProse, the game company, he was a studio head. And initially they they approached the NFL and said, and specifically the Baltimore Ravens started there. And then it kind of branched out a bit. But the head coach at the time was really into technology, Brian Billick, he was, I think the first NFL coach to use PowerPoint instead of overhead transparencies, you know, so, innovator, yeah, we went there. And it came with this idea of like, what if we take your playbook and feed it into an AI? And it’ll tell you whether or not your play will work or not? And he said, I’m absolutely not interested in that. But here’s what I would be interested in. Could you make it can you show me like as barrels kind of X’s and O’s moving around from a 3d perspective. And you know, that was a good, good lesson in kind of talking to your customer, finding out what they need, don’t just come in with your solution and constantly push that. And so we built this sort of playbook 3d playbook, and then actually added the VR a little bit later as as kind of a an addition, it was something that we got excited about. And so yeah, so it was initially pitched as kind of an interactive 3d playbook. Take something like Madden, and show your plays to the younger players that way. Yeah. And we found that VR was actually a great addition. Because there are a lot of I mean, these guys are all super smart. They have a ton of experience all the athletes, but they’re guys that, you know, learning differences, whatever, they wouldn’t get a play, just looking at a top down diagram, and have to kind of the after that they go out and do what are called walkthroughs, where they walk through a play slowly. And what they saw was the ability to see it in 3d and actually see it from their perspective was was immensely powerful. Just that simple act.

John Corcoran 18:11

Yeah. Now as part of this process with the NFL, it was very early, the goggles that were available for VR was not very good. And you said one of the big epiphanies was, you had initially worked with a headset that cost $250,000 At that time. And then shortly after that, around 2014, you got in the mail, your Oculus headset, which you got off a Kickstarter for foreigner bucks and almost as good, which is amazing to talk about that.

Will Gee 18:41

It was Yeah, I mean, so in order to get that it was it was a huge kind of lightbulb moment, where, yeah, the initial VR headset we’re using, not even the expensive one, just the commercial one, it was about $1,000. It sort of felt like holding an iPad, a couple of feet away from your face, like so there was a screen and when you turn your head, the image would change. But it wasn’t really immersive. It didn’t fill your field of view, it didn’t feel like you’re in there. And so we had the opportunity to try an extremely high end commercial headset that was again about a quarter of a million dollars. And it used a whole stack of screens per eye and it had a cable running out to a rack of computers that were powering it. And it was it was pretty exciting. Obviously it was prohibitively expensive for that application. But it was cool to see it and then the big unlock not even five years later or so was the folks at Oculus Palmer Luckey had realized that okay, if I take a set of lenses and use a essentially a smartphone screen, I can get roughly that same effect where it’s a high speed picture. It updates quickly. It’s very immersive it wraps around. And and it looks pretty good. So it was it was really eye opening and it came at it from display technology advancements that have happened because of smartphones.

John Corcoran 20:12

And so this was inspiring enough that you your first company, digital Steamworks is actually kind of wrapping up. And you end up going as one of your co founders starting your new company Balti. And with a focus on AR and VR, this is about 2015 timeframe. Now, by 2015, where there are clients out there that were looking for these types of services, or did you find that you were kind of like early to the market, and it was kind of like you had to educate or convince clients to work on these projects.

Will Gee 20:48

It was a mixed bag, I will say the one thing we got completely, I got completely wrong was in 2015, you know, saying that, this Oculus, it was like, well, it’s only going to be maybe a year, maybe two before everyone in the world has a VR headset. So let’s just dive in and do that. That timing did not come to pass not even close. But so we did a handful of VR things early, like we found some great clients who were working with Johns Hopkins, they’re using VR to test patients with ultra low vision. So these kind of niche applications worked really well. And actually, I should back up, that was always the thesis was like VR isn’t really going to mean Joking aside, it’s not going to be on every headset, or every coffee table in the world. In two years, what will happen is there’ll be a handful of niche applications that make immediate sense today, that group will expand, there’ll be new ones that suddenly crossed the threshold of return on investment. And then at some point, these things will become more ubiquitous, like personal computers, were, you know, think of thinking about like in the the 80s and 90s. They weren’t. Right? Not everybody had when you kind of use one at school, that was good for certain tasks, but then now it’s it’s crossed the threshold. And so we thought the same thing would happen. So immediately went looking for these kind of niche clients to do virtual reality. And then what we sort of stumbled into was building augmented reality applications that would run on a smartphone are more or less exactly the same as building a VR application that runs on a headset. I mean, from our video game days, it was the corollary is like, basically like building a game for an Xbox and a PlayStation. It’s like a little bit different platform with some slightly different capabilities. But the fundamentals are roughly the same. And so probably

John Corcoran 22:48

a big difference in terms of everyone’s got a smartphone in their pocket versus not having, you know, VR goggles.

Will Gee 22:55

Yeah, probably 1000 to 10,000 times difference in the size of the addressable market. And so yeah, 90% of our work has been in augmented reality, at least got it

John Corcoran 23:05

got it, does it feel like, you know, you’re just still kind of waiting for that market to develop and hoping that there’ll be more applications? Or what do you do about that? Do you do you go out and try and find companies like you mentioned Johns Hopkins or other hospitals and try and knock on their doors and convince them why they should be doing VR?

Will Gee 23:25

Initially, we did. We Yeah, we we looked for places where they were looking to either do something very specific, we found there are a couple of use cases for VR, where it has a huge return on investment, doing simulating things for training or testing, that are expensive or dangerous to do if you get wrong, those types of things, giving someone a sense of being in a place. Augmented reality, we found is extremely eye catching, and also very rich way to explain something. So you want to show you know, a product or a process, you can have a 3d animation that someone can explore and interact with. And it can convey a lot more information than a video or a wall of text on a website or something like that. So found this very powerful communication tool. So we started looking less at do you want to do virtual reality or augmented reality? Yes, now, and what are you trying to accomplish? Are you looking to communicate a complex process or you’re looking to engage and entertain people for some reason? We’ve even started to focus a bit more within those specialties.

John Corcoran 24:43

Yeah, yeah. Where do you see the market going? I know we’re a little short on time here. But where do you see the market going in the years ahead? What are you excited about in this world?

Will Gee 24:52

Well, a bunch of things. I think, you know, these quick kind of application. Like gaming enter payment applications are always going to be, you know, core of our business. And something that we do is something people look for and engage with and enjoy. I think a little bit further down the road, there’s some really exciting trends, you’re looking at smart glasses, the kind of joke in our industry is that they’re perpetually about three years away. I will say, Yeah, but at some point, we’ll cross the threshold of, you know, glasses that you might wear, outdoors, maybe to exercise maybe to play a game in a park, connect with people like what we saw with Pokemon, where people are playing game, but they’re actually going out in the world, they’re moving around, they’re connecting, they’re socializing. That’s really exciting. And thinking about taking that to the next level. You know, as opposed to kind of the dystopian everybody’s plugged into their own simulation at home. And yeah, you know, playing games. So those are things that are really exciting. I think that the idea of a shift from smartphones to something more immersive, whether that’s like glasses, some kind of headphone system, I don’t know that what that will unlock that’s exciting to me is you know, in my lifetime, we’ve gotten suddenly all of human knowledge is available instantaneously, digitally, on the internet. And it’s not in a particularly useful format. It’s searchable on Wikipedia or YouTube. But what would be great would be to look at an object or a place and get that information, whatever about that is relevant to you at that time. Kind of overlaid. Yeah, yeah. So that’s the part that I think is going to be a huge just

John Corcoran 26:46

A simple, simple example. But I you know, had to get new flooring in my house and recently bought flooring through my buddy towel, his company floor at flooret, it will plug for towel. And super cool that you could take a picture of your living room. And then you can see the flooring overlaid on living room, you know, is just, as you said, total difference between like kind of just seeing it in two dimensions on the website and actually seeing what it would look like in your living room.

Will Gee 27:17

Yeah, that kind of product preview is is one of the early cases for augmented reality where it’s shown a huge return on investment, especially, you know, IKEA, Amazon, all these different groups have an app where you can see the product in your space, see how it fits, see what it feels like. And it helps a, you know, sell more stuff because people feel more comfortable so forth. But really, the big thing is that it cuts down massively unreturned when you think it’s not Yeah.

John Corcoran 27:45

So yeah, you know, what it’s actually whether it’s going to fit or whether it’s going to be the right, you know, look and feel that you’re looking for. This is really cool. Will, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. Where can people go to learn more about you? I know you have a blog on your Balti website. Where can people go to connect with you?

Will Gee 28:00

Yeah, absolutely. Check us out baltivirtual.com/blog to see our latest and greatest thoughts. We’re on all the social media channels, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter. And so that’s it’s also a great way to follow our work. Awesome. All right. So yeah, for having me. I

John Corcoran 28:20

really appreciate it. My pleasure.

Outro 28:21

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