E105: Nolan Bushnell, CoFounder and Chairman at Modal VR – Interview

April 6, 2017


I was lucky enough to be able to interview Nolan Bushnell again. He’s always working on such interesting things. In this interview we talk about his new company, Modal VR. You should check out their videos. What they’ve built is amazing. And it’s coming to a place near you soon.

Here are some other things we talk about:

-Tell us about Modal VR. How’s it different than the Vive, Oculus, Steam? How does it work, sensors, software, headset?
-What’s an example of a game/experience with Modal?

Find our previous interview from June here.

Dave Kruse: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Flyover Labs and today get to talk to Nolan Bushnell again. And we had Nolan on a few months ago and he was nice enough to come back again. So I won’t go into too many details on his background, but as many of you should know, Nolan is the Founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese and he is doing a lot of interesting things now, and he is doing some interesting work in VR launching an ambitious VR company called Modal VR and you should go check out their videos online; they are pretty amazing. So let’s get to it. So Nolan, thanks for coming on the show.

Nolan Bushnell: My pleasure. It’s always fun to talk about VR. It’s my current uber passion.

Dave Kruse: Nice, I like it. All right, well that’s a good way to start. So what prompted you to get into VR? What was an experience that you had and how do you kind of – how did you start up Modal?

Nolan Bushnell: Well I really kind of got passionate with VR in the very early days you know when Jeri was doing it using a very complex system. But the technology was such and the latency was such that you just couldn’t be in that environment very long without being nauseous. And so I kind of felt that VR wasn’t going to happen until you could get rid of the motion sickness problems and I kept watching it, watching it and I got you know – I’m lucky enough that I can always get demos of early stuff.

Dave Kruse: I bet.

Nolan Bushnell: And when I went see the Oculus setup, shortly after the kick starter and felt that it was getting there, but it wasn’t quite there yet and then I have a good friend Jason Crawford who was doing some things and about years ago I basically told Jason that what he was doing was interesting, but until he could solve three problems that I didn’t think that VR was going to work; and the three problems that I said is have to be able to create an environment which doesn’t induce nausea; two, it has to be industrial scale, meaning that if we needed to be able to operate or training not just games, but training, a police training, safety training you know can you simulate a oil rig, can you simulate a bomb scenario. And then the third issues was it had to be able to be rugged and not just a science project, something that could operate 24/7 in a mall. He thought about it for a little while and towards the next year we sort of collaborated on creating that very interesting system. And all of a sudden I said you know, this is a threshold and I decided to become an Investor and a Co-Founder of the new company that used company technology that they developed and because I could see that with a little bit more money and a little bit more time that we could actually get there and we needed that to happened. So we now have a system that can track you with a size of a football field. We can put 10 people in the same environment, maybe more and I think that it’s really ready for prime time and we expect to have systems all over the world by the fall.

Dave Kruse: Really, wow! That’s exciting, interesting. And just for a context, approximately what year did you first experience VR back in the day?

Nolan Bushnell: I was actually trying to think about that and I think that it was in – it might have been as early ‘78.

Dave Kruse: Really?

Nolan Bushnell: But it might have been ‘82, ‘83.

Dave Kruse: Sometimes things take a while.

Nolan Bushnell: Yeah.

Dave Kruse: So Modal VR, so that’s the company, that’s pretty amazing you could track people across a football field up to 10 and that’s wireless too, isn’t it.

Nolan Bushnell: That’s correct.

Dave Kruse: Okay, and how did you – how is the technology developed for Modal? Like is it a completely independent platform from all the other, you know from Oculus and the Vive and did you build all the technology from the ground up essentially?

Nolan Bushnell: Not really. What we have done is we’ve modeled, we kind of – we’re hackers.

Dave Kruse: Okay. [Laughter]

Nolan Bushnell: And so what we’ve really done is taking the systems that have been developed by others, hacked into take care of their deficit and we’ll be able to do some of the things that – and we’ll probably end up you know doing things from ground up as we get into major production. But so far it’s been hacker fun.

Dave Kruse: Interesting! And so do you have get like a licensing agreements from some of those platforms or how do you arrange that?

Nolan Bushnell: No, we steal.

Dave Kruse: You steal? All right good, good. Let’s see, okay so can you kind of tell us the difference between let’s say the Vive and what you have and you know what – just for the folks to understand kind of the differences?

Nolan Bushnell: Primarily it’s our tracking system and our tracking system of course is based on a – I like to say it’s almost quantum in temperament, but people laugh at me and you know what’s that connect. And we actually don’t talk too much about the technology. Its kind a secret sauce, but we really prefer to say that it’s as close to magic as you can get it quick.

Dave Kruse: All right, fair enough. So – and everyone should go check out your videos, because I mean you have different videos but the one that I’m thinking about now when the two people on the football field and like they are playing something like, they are doing something like fantasy battle in VR, but when the best shot is when you shoot them just in real lift and looks like they are like crazy people on the football field, but I’ve never seen quite a demo like that, so its…

Nolan Bushnell: It’s everybody’s fantasy of being a super hero.

Dave Kruse: Exactly.

Nolan Bushnell: When you are in that environment, I was – I probably played the game probably four times. I lost every time. But when I get out, I was exhausted. It was a really great physical workout.

Dave Kruse: Really.

Nolan Bushnell: Oh yeah!

Dave Kruse: And so something – was that real time on your platform. Can you guys do something like that right now?

Nolan Bushnell: Oh yeah!

Dave Kruse: Really. Wow!

Nolan Bushnell: Oh yeah! And its, it actually conforms to what I call – it’s one of Bushnell’s laws. The people who develop it, take every change that they can to play it, you know you got a good game. It was very interesting in the early days of Atari. Certain games that we built, we’d setup in the office and some were trying to get played, but some of them they literally if they were available the people in the factory would play them 24/7 if they were available and that was always an indication of a really, really good game.

Dave Kruse: Do you remember one of those that you remember hearing about that you play in the factory?

Nolan Bushnell: Oh yeah! Asteroids.

Dave Kruse: That makes sense.

Nolan Bushnell: Breakout. These were games that somehow just sucked you in and wouldn’t let you go.

Dave Kruse: Interesting. I could see that. So well, yeah you’re answering my next question. I assume that you still have years to go to reach that level of vision that you showed in that video, but it sounds like you are already there, that’s impressive, so…

Nolan Bushnell: I can tell you right now that what we are working on right now would blow your socks off the application.

Dave Kruse: What? How so?

Nolan Bushnell: Well, just think about 10 people and then…

Dave Kruse: Oh yeah! Well, that’s crazy. Okay, and so how – you said that you hope to have this – your plan is to have this around the world by fall, which is quite soon, so you must be talking to people. How would this be distributed? You know you mentioned malls or it would be like dedicated gaming sites, yeah.

Nolan Bushnell: Well, we are not willing to announce our economic model, but let’s just say we will be able to get a whole bunch of partners real quick.

Dave Kruse: Okay, got you.

Nolan Bushnell: And more than that, let me just tell you that the best Halloween experience that we could possible ever have is in VR. I can scare the shit out of you.

Dave Kruse: So have you done this or maybe set something up that’s so scary. What’s that?

Nolan Bushnell: It’s in process.

Dave Kruse: It’s in process. Got you, so maybe coming to Halloween 2017, 2018, we can experience one of your haunted houses or whatever you are going to call it, haunted VR houses.

Nolan Bushnell: Let’s call it ‘The Haunted World.’

Dave Kruse: ‘The Haunted Word,’ I like it. Do you have another kind of game or application that you can share, you know that fantasy one or you could share another one? Is there anything else you can, is there another one you can share? Of course I’m quite curious.

Nolan Bushnell: So we have a spaceship version that was kind of fun.

Dave Kruse: A spaceship. So do you like go through space kind of like you are – and you go through as like a team and shoot stuff?

Nolan Bushnell: Probably.

Dave Kruse: Probably, okay. That would be awesome. Interesting, all right. I mean I’ve got different – well, I don’t know, I’ll ask this question too. I mean have you thought about – I mean I guess yours is more about tracking. I was curious, you know I know of some VR companies that are going after like trying to have like a car simulation. You know you are sitting in a car. Like with the spaceship would you be sitting like physically in a spaceship. Well, not physically in a spaceship, but a simulator that would make you kind of feel like you’re in a spaceship or…

Nolan Bushnell: Well, understand that we can do cars and all that sort of stuff and you know those are interesting. But I kind of think moving around is more and kind of simulating project, you know simulating driving in VR is kind of that.

Dave Kruse: Yes.

Nolan Bushnell: We like to push the envelope a little bit.

Dave Kruse: That makes sense. So and maybe this is too much related to the technology. I know you don’t talk about, like I was curious. You know you are going to have 10 people on the field. Of course they can’t run into each other. Would you kind of have geo fencing set up or how would they – how do you insure it won’t be a massive collisions among people.

Nolan Bushnell: If the software is right, we can always keep you from colliding.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, yeah.

Nolan Bushnell: And you know it, you know it’s actually pretty easy because if you are playing the game you don’t try to walk through walls.

Dave Kruse: That’s true. Right, so you can set up a wall, yep.

Nolan Bushnell: One of the things I’d like to talk about though is this whole idea of when is the turning test for virtual reality, in which when is virtual reality indistinguishable from base reality and I think that’s a very interesting idea to explore and I’d like people to think about it. For example, I got some slides which I do some predictions and I say that we are probably about 80% of the way that we sound, where I can create sound, where you can hear things behind you, in front of you and that where you would swear you were in a telephone booth or conversely a cathedral. So we are really good at picking your senses and we never – that’s really what virtual reality is, it’s a trick. How do we fool you, making you think that you are somewhere where you are not, and so when I say it’s a magic trick, the whole thing is a magic trick, you know and so therefore I like saying it. A good magician never tells you his trick. But visually, I’d say that we are probably only 70% of the way there. We have things that are believable, but they are not indiscernibly different. They are not equivalent to base reality. When it comes to smells we are there. I can pick you and you can’t tell the difference between a smell of real coffee and synthetic provided by international flavors and fragrances; pine, almond all the real smells, we can totally trick you. Tactics where you get fooled with your inner ear, we can only do it in very, very weird things. I don’t know if you have been on a VR coaster, but where the rollercoaster provides the G Forces at the right time, that’s very, very good and very compelling. But when it comes to full body you know, it’s probably we can give you know different temperatures at the right place or if you get punched, you have a suit that makes you feel the punch. You know all this is really, really hard to do and would probably be the last things. And then I’ll say if I were going to try to break the illusion, I think that eating will be the thing that will always break the illusion and would be probably the last thing, because you have the combination of smell and taste and texture and I think that’s going to be very, very hard to do. And that’s where people believe that brain implants will be necessary in order to get to that level of reality.

Dave Kruse: Interesting, I’ve never heard of the turn test of VR that makes. I mean because we are all ready – well, at least I’m defiantly ready to you know be able to jump in a conference call and feel like you are sitting next to a person, that would be amazing. But I’m also surprised that you said that 70% of the way they are visually. But I suppose based on what you have seen over the decades, maybe that is true.

Nolan Bushnell: Well, I’d like to say that with virtual reality we are really now at the Pong phase and when I look at the difference between and Pong and A League of Legends you can see how far things can go in a relatively short time, in less than 40 years. And so if we extrapolate 40 years into the future, I think that most of those things are going to ascentop to indiscernibility.

Dave Kruse: Interesting. And what about – I know you went through all the different senses. What about like probably like spending some time in VR and I can only do it for long with like the current headsets. I usually use Vive or like your VR, you know because sometimes they get a little bulky, a little tiring, especially like the Vive with the cords are just kind of annoying. So how – what needs to be done as far as being comfortable, so that people could spend easily and maybe some people do it easily three hours at a time or two hours at a time. I’m more like 20 or 30 minutes and then like, oh! I need a break.

Nolan Bushnell: One of the biggest issues weight and balance. The groups haven’t done a good job of balancing. So whenever you have a moment inertia, whether it is pulling your head down, that’s one issue. But also there is a just the rotational math of maybe if you have a balance you have too much weight. We actually believe that our system, we are going to be able to take it down a few ounces and that’s going to be worth playing. But since we are going to be mostly in public spaces, separate and very, very strong and robust because you know public spaces and kids break things.

Dave Kruse: Right, that’s where the commercial ruggedness comes in. Yeah, I mean if you are going to be using it all the time that will be impressive. All right well, we are almost out of time. I had a couple of other quick questions. Well, one is not quick, but we’ll make it quick. I know you also have been interested in education and you mentioned training at the beginning. Do you see using your platform in education and training?

Nolan Bushnell: Absolute. In fact our brains are actually designed to learn in a immersive environment. I means all our brains were created 35 million years ago when we were hunters and gatherers, where we remembered the location and food source and what criteria that what eating them would come from and I’m convinced that it would be very interesting to attend as a ghost, you know [inaudible] the formation of the constitution wanted between Bingaman Franklin and the conversations with Alexander Hamilton and get a concept of what was going? What are the issues that were involved there and just participate physically. I’m also very interested in the whole idea of for instance the VR movie as in where instead of the director controlling the camera angle, the audience can wander about the set and view the action from the multitude of position. And it was a play that was done in New York called ‘The Mora’ in the 80’s that was brain training, which the audience could follow the actors around and the play was going on all around them. It was in New York and it played for several years and was really fun. I don’t know if you’ve been to Sleep No More in New York right now, where you are wondering around a 100,000 square foot facility that has been turned into a 1920’s hotel and they are putting on the best. You know it’s – those are physical world situations, but clearly all of that can be done in VR.

Dave Kruse: Interesting and are you guys going to work on something like that or are you just maybe down the road?

Nolan Bushnell: Well, we got so many projects.

Dave Kruse: Yes, I bet.

Nolan Bushnell: We got lists and lists and lists and all of them are interesting, but you can do it – you try to do everything by doing nothing.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, yeah exactly. All right, well last question, I was curious what’s been in the last 35, 40 years, you’re most memorable or – it could be memorable or favorite VR experience.

Nolan Bushnell: Oh boy! I think that being a super hero in mythic combat, that is my favorite; its compelling, its fun. We’ve also done a demo that’s kind of been like a giggle, which is virtual Pong, in which two people run back and forth where you are the paddle.

Dave Kruse: No way. That’s sweet. I can see why this can be like physical exhausting and I’m amazed that you can run with those headsets. They must be pretty, like you said light weight, but also like just fit through your head, because you cannot do with the Vive or your VR headsets. They would just fly off.

Nolan Bushnell: Well we’ve put about 500 people through that, both the Pong VR. We’ve been at the Nano Conference in San Francisco; we did the two bit cut circuits you know and you know just trying to makes sure that we have things that were robust and able to spin out.

Dave Kruse: Interesting. All right, well unfortunately that just about does it, but Nolan I really appreciate your time and thoughts. I mean I knew you were working on something coon, but I didn’t know – I didn’t have to wait that far along, I couldn’t quite tell. So I’m excited. Yeah, I’m pumped to try it sometime.

Nolan Bushnell: We will be in our environment, nausea you know virtually.

Dave Kruse: Well, all right. Well, I can’t wait.

Nolan Bushnell: I shouldn’t use that word nausea, because you don’t get sick in your system. Nobody hasn’t gotten sick in our environment.

Dave Kruse: That’s right, I’ll be immersed in your environment soon.

Nolan Bushnell: Exactly. Okay.

Dave Kruse: Yeah, I’ll let you know when I first try it and maybe in a year I can have you come back on after I’ve tried it or whenever it comes up.

Nolan Bushnell: That will be fun.

Dave Kruse: All right, well thanks Nolan and thanks everyone for listening to another episode of Flyover Labs. As always I really appreciate it. Bye everyone, bye Nolan.