So Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, is launching a new virtual reality company called Modal VR, along with Jason Crawford (who invented the Modal tech and serves as the company’s chief executive) and that’s super cool.
But (more importantly to me) I played human Pong in virtual reality at the Machinima studios using Modal’s gear and that was goddamn amazing.
Machinima is going to be rolling out some features where their folks are going to be using Modal’s equipment and putting the gear through its paces. Y’all should watch for that stuff when it comes out, because (judging by the experience I had playing games on the site) it’s going to be pretty wonderful.
Modal views itself as a hardware and software company providing really high end, completely immersive, virtual reality experiences. In an interview, Crawford was pretty reluctant to talk about the specifics of the company’s tech (it’s proprietary), but I’ve seen it in action, and was suitably impressed.
Using standing sensors that follow and record movement throughout a room, and a full-body tracking suit, Modal has created a completely wireless VR platform that can work with multiple users in areas up to 900,000 square feet and tracks a body with under 10 milliseconds of latency.
If you’re having visions of VR arcades dancing in your head right now, you’re absolutely right. That’s just the kind of thing that Modal was built for.
But Crawford and Bushnell have bigger game in mind.
The two envision Modal as a one-stop-shop for virtual reality needs. They see their company as providing an app store for VR developers who want to work with the Modal system, and create applications for the businesses that will buy Modal’s gear.
Yup, Modal’s wireless systems aren’t for everyone. Crawford told me he doesn’t have any plans for this to be a consumer product. Neither he nor Bushnell have determined a price point for the system, which is still very much a prototype, but it’s not going to be cheap enough for the average gamer.
That doesn’t mean that consumers won’t be able to get their hands on the equipment. It just means they won’t own it.
The vision goes back to Bushnell’s early days as a pioneer of video games in the first place. Essentially, Chuck E. Cheese was a vehicle for kids who didn’t own gaming systems to go somewhere and play the games. And that’s one of the ways Modal’s business will probably work too.
Based in Los Angeles, Modal’s story begins with a very intentional meeting between Crawford and Bushnell three years ago on the set of a show Crawford was trying to get greenlit called “App Wars”.
A longtime app developer, Crawford was also a huge fan of Bushnell’s work (although really… who isn’t? He’s the freaking inventor of Atari).
“Most normal kids were fans of baseball stars or music stars, but my brother and I were nerds and our heroes were Nolan Bushnell and Steve Wozniak,” Crawford told me.
So when he had the opportunity to set up a panel of judges for an app-development game show, he insisted that Bushnell be among them.
The pilot didn’t get picked up, but Crawford sought out Bushnell and pitched him on his idea for a new virtual reality company.
Three years ago, in the time before the Oculus Rift acquisition, the VR landscape was still very much in flux, and while Crawford had an idea, his company didn’t yet have the hardware nailed down. Bushnell agreed to advise, consult, and eventually came on board as co-founder.
“We were going to do a thirty-minute lunch and it was a two-and-a-half hour lunch,” Crawford says of that initial meeting.
Bushnell joined about a year ago, but Crawford and his team had been banging away at the technology for much longer. “We failed miserably in a lot of ways for years, doing this,” says Crawford.
The company chief executive actually began working on Modal’s tech almost as soon as he saw the Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign. “I said, ‘Wait a second. This is the perfect time to come back to VR.’ I think this is going to be huge and I want to be a part of it.”
The company initially started out with Crawford’s idea for a destination. “It was going to be a place where you going to be able to fully immerse yourself,” he said.
At the Machinima studios, that’s exactly what I saw. The back room was kind of a skunkworks area for most of the Machinima staff, who hadn’t seen what the company was up to. In a roughly 3,000 square foot room, staff had been playing Pong using Modal’s technology against each other.
When I walked in, two players were scampering side-to-side in the empty space, while a television monitor showed the action in VR. Both players ran nearly the width of the room to get at the virtual ball they were volleying back and forth.
“We have been working to bring ambitious mixed reality content to our fans and Modal VR is well beyond the limitations we thought possible,” said Shaun Novak, senior director of production at Machinima in a statement. “The wireless portability, full-body tracking and massive play area really allows for compelling experience in and out of the headset. Modal VR has been a great partner in showing the fun of VR.”
The critical component for Modal’s technology, according to Crawford, was that it be free-roaming. It had to be wireless so that users could get a fully immersive experience (and it is pretty immersive).
The sensors on the body suit can be a bit tetchy and the system had problems tracking my movements for some of the more complicated experiences where I was manipulating objects in VR with my hands (but it worked great for Pong).
“What a lot of people are trying to do is they’re trying to make a system using one technology to power the whole entire thing,” says Crawford. “Putting them together in the way we have is different. What’s most important is how we’re doing it and we’ve created an end-to-end platform.”
Developers can use the hardware, or simply develop applications for Modal and sell them through Modal’s own version of an app store. Crawford’s seen how tough it is for game developers to make any money (he was one for a long time before starting Modal), so Modal is his way of opening developers up to novel uses for the tech they’re working on.
“Instead of making a $3 million app, why don’t you think about solving problems for police,” he said.
Ideally, app developers can port their skillsets for gaming to start solving problems that businesses have, that virtual reality could help solve, and that could be very lucrative businesses for the entrepreneurs that develop the tools to solve those problems.
Modal intends to make money from the sale of its hardware as well as taking a cut from the sales of whatever applications are made for its platform.
“It’s going to be very similar to an apple ecosystem,” says Crawford. “Nolan’s vision for this is like the Atari 2600… you open the box, you plug it in and you start using it.”
The company has already developed a suite of games and tools that show off the capabilities of the system. I mentioned Pong, but perhaps the one that seems the most impressive is its VR battle game called “Mythic Combat”, which is like a fully realized version of the discus battle game from Tron.