Seattle startup’s path to greatness could be this captivating walk through physical and virtual worlds

Seattle startup’s path to greatness could be this captivating walk through physical and virtual worlds

11:20am, 24th February, 2019
GeekWire’s Kurt Schlosser and his son find their way through “Wonderfall: Tale of Two Realms,” a Hyperspace virtual reality experience at Pacific Science Center in Seattle. (Jeff Ludwyck Photo for GeekWire) I tried to reach down and pet a cat that wasn’t real. And with that, 15 seconds into a 15-minute walk through the virtual reality world of “Wonderfall: Tale of Two Realms,” I was sold on what has built and continues to build at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. In a 3,000-square-foot corner of the longtime facility, Hyperspace’s interactive exhibit is part of the broader in which the Science Center is offering space to startups as a way to show off local creativity and innovation to guests. Hyperspace is also looking to show off for and attract a broader investor audience as it has turned to the to raise as much as $1 million. Hyperspace CEO Jeff Ludwyck — who shared his vision on last year — and a team that has grown to more than 20 have been creating both the real-world physical walls and pathways and the in-game experience of “Wonderfall” for a year and a half. Plywood marked with neon tape disappears in game to become the buildings and rooms in a small village. Haptic touches including fans, heaters and vibrating floors are sprinkled throughout, along with touchable props such as books, a spinning globe and a bench to sit on. Jeff Ludwyck, CEO of Hyperspace XR, stands along what turns into the main cobblestone street inside “Wonderfall.” (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) “You can’t have this at home,” Ludwyck said during a visit this week. “You’re standing on real cobblestone. Every little trick cements that immersion, without even really noticing. People come in all the time and go, ‘I felt like I was actually there,’ compared to sitting in your home where you know your coffee table is right there.” Hyperspace relies on inside-out tracking and has partnered with Microsoft on its Windows mixed reality platform. “Wonderfall” follows the story of a young girl named Elena inside the fantasy-magical experience. An experiment goes wrong for the would-be inventor and users get to help her fix it as she looks to re-establish contact with her parents in another world. Fifteen minutes of the 30-minute story arc are complete right now. Users do not have fully formed avatars — just virtual hands and a floating head — and there is no dual-player capability yet, so the interaction with the story is yours alone. Wearing a Samsung Odyssey headset and a high-powered HP Z VR backpack, I walked through with my 11-year-old son, Henry, to get a better feel for how the experience might appeal to the many schoolchildren who visit Pacific Science Center. Hyperspace has partnered with with Samsung and Microsoft on “Wonderfall.” Participants carry the computing power on their backs. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) Throughout the 15 minutes (which costs $15), I listened as Henry reacted and exclaimed over different aspects of the virtual world, shouting repeatedly over the dialog in the headset for me to “come here and check this out!” as we explored parts of the set at a different pace. Some of the more captivating touches involved the ability to catch virtual elements in our hands, such as firefly-like bursts of light or a small rotating planet or a little darting purple creature. Reaching toward certain stacks of books also released 3D illusions such as a dragon, a demon and a clipper ship — all swirling past our heads. A split view shows how the village in “Wonderfall” looks in actual reality, left, alongside virtual reality. (Hyperspace Image) “We tried to put sounds in different locations so you’re constantly trying to find things and look around the environment, and I noticed you guys basically got everything,” Ludwyck said after he watched our walk-through while not wearing a headset of his own. After following Elena out onto a virtual dock, where it looked like we were suspended high in the clouds, the experience came to a close and pronounced that the adventure was “to be continued.” It is here that Hyperspace will extend the physical set and the virtual game another 15 minutes in the months ahead. “So coooool,” Henry said as he removed his headset. “I wish it didn’t end!” As a normal kid who already struggles with disengaging from traditional video games, he clearly wasn’t ready to step back out of Hyperspace’s virtual reality. Hyperspace’s goal is to provide the platform for developers to create their content on and to get other venues to build out similar spaces. But the plug-and-play nature of it all could evolve greatly — and keep Ludwyck from expressing his carpentry skills late into the night. “We’re working with an outside manufacturer to build modular pieces so that a venue could have a kit, basically, of parts that could shape together for a bunch of different experiences,” Ludwyck said. “Walls, flooring, doors, props, all that stuff will be part of an almost LEGOs for VR.” Ludwyck said they have three venues lined up and three projects with outside development teams. He said Hyperspace has the team, the technology, the location and new locations and just needs to “hit the gas,” which is why the formerly bootstrapped company is keen on raising a round right now. According to the Wefunder page, the company projects being in more than 50 venues in five years. Hyperspace has placed props throughout “Wonderfall” which line up with what’s visible in VR. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser) “We want to create an open platform that allows everybody to jump in,” Ludwyck said. “I mean, you should see the list of people … theaters, aquariums, all kinds of random groups are saying, ‘I want to build something like this, do you have the know-how and technology and everything to to do that?’ We’re excited to enable those.” Hyperspace’s Science Center experience has attracted more than 5,000 “travelers” so far. Other startups showing off their entrepreneurial process include , which brings children’s books to life in VR, and , which spent about a year at the Science Center, and will continue to use the space to demo its interpretive exhibits and educational products. “It’s cool because it matches really well with the Science Center,” Ludwyck said of his company’s work. “The whole mission of the Science Center is igniting curiosity and we do it all the time here. Whether a kid is interested in technology or maybe art side or creative, they get to go into this other world in their brain and go, ‘Man, I could really do this someday. I could build out fully virtual and physical worlds. So I think that’s what’s been so exciting about this.”
ModCloth co-founder aims to create ‘world’s most-used cryptocurrency’ with new startup Merit

ModCloth co-founder aims to create ‘world’s most-used cryptocurrency’ with new startup Merit

12:00pm, 9th May, 2018
Merit CEO and co-founder Adil Wali. (Photo via Merit) You’ve probably read or heard about cryptocurrency in the news. Maybe your techie friend owns some Bitcoin. But you likely don’t own any digital currencies or let alone know how to obtain them in the first place. is on a mission to change that. Led by , a veteran entrepreneur who previously co-founded ModCloth (acquired by Walmart last year), the Seattle startup today unveiled its invite-only cryptocurrency called MRT. Wali helped come up with the idea for Merit after he and his co-founder wondered why so few people — even those within the tech industry — actually own cryptocurrency. They concluded that it was a problem around usability and accessibility. “If you want to create the world’s most-used cryptocurrency, what do you do? You have to make it simpler, you have to make it safer, and you have to make it a community,” Wali told GeekWire. Simplicity, safety, and community are the pillars of Merit — the third of which is perhaps most important, Wali said. Part of what makes Merit different from other cryptocurrencies, and what helps build community, is the invite-only requirement to obtain and own MRT. Wali explained that the anonymity associated with many existing cryptocurrencies enables hacking and theft too easily. He said Merit enables an “active stewardship model” and can track, across its blockchain, who is bringing in who to the community. Merit also changes the fundamentals of mining, or the process by which cryptocurrency is made via powerful computers. The company has created what Wali calls “proof of growth mining.” Since the service is invite-only, Merit can better assess and control who is rewarded with MRT. “What that enables is folks can actually mine merit without a computer,” Wali said. Another differentiator is how Merit allows its currency to be exchanged between owners. Rather than exchanging long 34-character public key strings, Merit built its own protocol. “We created an escrow on the blockchain that can hold money for you to claim it,” he said. MRT can be created and sent via SMS, Twitter, or various other communication tools. Merit also features decentralized vaults, password-protected transactions, and cancelable transactions. It is launching today without an ICO, as Wali said the company wants the community to determine price. Wali, who sold his most recent startup Fox Commerce to a blockchain commerce company, said his 10-person team is focused on making Merit accessible to just about anyone, regardless of technical knowledge. That feeds into the company’s vision of getting more people owning and using cryptocurrency. “Any currency is only as useful as the number of people who use it. If you can’t transact with it, what’s the point?” he said. “If we have dramatically less than a percent of the world’s population using crypto, it’s a really big problem when you think about the viability of the space at large.” Merit is bootstrapped, with the founders investing an initial $1 million in the company. The business model is split between Merit Labs and a non-profit called the Merit Foundation. A percentage of all MRT distributed goes into a genesis block, which is allocated across the foundation. “The idea of Merit is that with a decentralized launch and a longer-term approach, we are incentivized to make Merit valuable everyday,” Wali said. “With both the non-profit and for-profit, we’ll sell a little bit of Merit over time to continue operations in the organization. As the value of the currency goes up, then we’re able to do that more.” Cryptocurrency remains a hot — yet still relatively misunderstood — area of the startup world. According to PitchBook, 179 venture capital investors in the U.S. in at least one crypto startup deal in the past two years. noted this week that top VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures “are increasingly investing in public blockchains and cryptoassets broadly.” this week reported that the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange is working on an online trading platform for Bitcoin. That followed news of Goldman Sachs’ plan to open a Bitcoin trading unit. Some are still skeptical. Speaking on CBS this week, Bill Gates called Bitcoin and ICOs “one of the crazier speculative things.” “As an asset class, you’re not producing anything and so you shouldn’t expect it to go up. It’s kind of a pure ‘greater fool theory’ type investment,” Gates said. “I agree I would short it if there was an easy way to do it.” Gates previously weighed in on the subject during a in which he called cryptocurrencies “super risky.” Merit is one of several cryptocurrency/blockchain-related companies and organizations sprouting up in the Seattle area. There are startups like and a blockchain consulting group called ; and an investment group called that with blockchain company RChain Cooperative to invest a cryptocurrency equivalent of more than $190 million in blockchain apps and startups. “There is just phenomenally great talent here,” said Wali, who re-located to Seattle in 2016. “We have the ability to be one of the epicenters of cryptocurrency.”