This Wilmington tech start-up is fixing what’s missing from virtual reality

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Jeff Guard, founder of Brilliant Sole, wants to take VR to the next level. (PORT CITY DAILY PHOTO / Benjamin Schachtman)
Jeff Guard, founder of Brilliant Sole, wants to take VR to the next level. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

WILMINGTON — Virtual Reality technology has come a long way since its early blocky geometric days, but it still has its shortcomings. One of the major drawbacks becomes apparent as soon as people put on a VR headset; they become completely immersed until they try to walk around.

Jeff Guard, founder of Wilmington-based tech start-up Brilliant Sole, explained the problem.

“It’s actually the first thing I thought about when I purchased my first VR headset and put it on,” Guard said. “It’s an amazing experience, you’re completely inside the world. The Occulus and the HTC Vive, they’re incredible. It’s exactly what I thought VR should be. Then you go to take a step – and nothing happens.”

Guard’s company, Brilliant Sole, is trying to fix this. As Guard told Port City Daily, “right now, most VR experiences use joysticks or hand movements. It’s not any different than the older video game technology and it often involves kind of teleporting around. It breaks continuity, it makes people seasick, it just disrupts the immersion, in general it kind of ruins it a little.”

The Brilliant Sole product prototype looks simple: a slipper with a circuit-board strapped to it. But what Guard and his team are creating is far more complicated. A year in development, the Brilliant Sole system is a two-way interface that allows users to both walk around inside virtual worlds and to ‘feel’ the world in the soles of their feet.

Built with off-the-shelf components, Brilliant Sole's product fixes a problem that's plagued VR for decades. (PORT CITY DAILY PHOTO / Benjamin Schachtman)
Built with off-the-shelf components, Brilliant Sole’s product fixes a problem that’s plagued VR for decades. (Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

“I think of Jurassic Park, with the heavy footsteps getting closer,” Guard said. “You’d be able to feel vibrations of things that happened in the virtual world, you’d also be able to feel the different kinds of terrains. There’s also location sensors, so you could look down and see your feet – or whatever your feet are programmed to be.

“The technology is pretty open: you could be configured to work in a confined space, or in a static mode … you could use a walking-in-place technique while standing or sitting, there are a lot of possibilities,” he said.

While the design details of the actual footwear will stay closely guarded by Brilliant Sole, the software aspect of things will be much more open. Guard said he looks forward to a wide variety of applications using his product. Brilliant Sole could be used for “Guitar Hero”-style games that would allow you to play a kick drum and snare with your feet, or immersive-experience games that would allow users to literally walk around in a virtual world. But the possibilities go beyond that, Guard said.

“We got a nice tweet from [Raleigh-based founder of several start-ups] Scott Moody’s K4Connect, saying our shoes with embedded sensors could be a game changer with senior living,” Guard said. “So that’s a field way beyond the sort of immersive applications we were thinking about. But that’s the point, I want as many people as possible to do what they want with this, I want them to be as creative as possible.”

Moody’s praise came as Brilliant Sole won the ExitEvents Association’s “NC Tech Madness” campaign.

Modeled on the March Madness playoffs, the competition pitted 64 North Carolina technology companies against each other; around 10,000 in the community voted for the company with the best 5-year prospects.

After narrowly winning its first few rounds, Brilliant Sole won significantly more votes in later rounds and took the win with almost 80 percent in the final round (for those interested, the full results – including Wilmington contestants Untappd and nCino – can be found here).

Brilliant Sole will package their interactive footwear with software to connect them to a wide variety of potential applications. (PORT CITY DAILY PHOTO / Courtesy Brilliant Sole)
Brilliant Sole will package their interactive footwear with software to connect them to a wide variety of potential applications. (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY BRILLIANT SOLE)

Brilliant Sole’s prototype was built with an off-the-shelf Arduino microprocessor board, accelerometers and haptic motors (like those that provide vibration effects in an iPhone). Guard said the finished product will be much more streamlined.

The two-part system relies on a smartphone to interpret raw data – transmitted via Bluetooth – and then interface with a desktop (or, conceivably, any number of dedicated gaming systems). Guard said he feels his team is getting close to a finished product.

“We’re still tweaking it, but it’s almost to where it will be really impressive,” Guard said. “It’s a little nerve wracking, I’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t work in the past, so – you know – of course there are nerves. But I think we’re close. We’re looking at taking preorders in the fall.”

The next hurdle is the one all start-ups face sooner rather than later: funding.

Guard believes that Brilliant Sole’s appearance at the State of Technology conference in Durham next month will raise its profile. The conference, hosted by the North Carolina Technology Association, includes a fast-pitched pitch competition for technology start-ups from around the state.

Jeff Guard hopes to streamline the processor size of the prototype. (PORT CITY DAILY PHOTO / Benjamin Schachtman)
Jeff Guard hopes to streamline the processor size of the prototype. (Port City Daily photo/BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

(Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

“We’ve got six minutes,” said Guard. “So, we’ve got to really perfect our presentation. But we hope that our product is intuitive and streamlined and that, as soon as people see it, they’ll be able to see the possibilities.”

The hope, according to Guard, is that investors at the conference will help Brilliant Sole turn the corner to real production.

“There’s no reason people couldn’t be using this technology pretty soon,” Guard said. “It’s exciting. I feel like we’re getting close.”