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From hacker to Valve and back again

Race cars, computers, hacker toys and augmented reality

Jeri Ellsworth works on her car
| Jeri Ellsworth

Flame-throwing race car driver, circuit board hacker, computer store chain founder, toy maker, game tweaker, car builder: Before co-founding her own augmented reality headset company, Jeri Ellsworth was a technology chameleon, finding niches in electronics and mechanics, mastering them and helping redefine how they worked.

Without formal training, without a high school diploma, Ellsworth MacGyvered her way through childhood and into an industry not only reluctant to welcome women, but not really designed for an autodidact.

Today, Ellsworth is known as a preeminent classic hacker, modding and brute-forcing her way to success. And as CastAR co-founder, she’s also one of two innovators fueling what may be the first release of a major consumer-friendly augmented reality headset.

With the consumer release of a new CastAR headset less than a year away, I sat down with Ellsworth to chat about the company and how she came to help launch it.

The deaths of many appliances

Ellsworth was maybe 8 when it started.

“I got really fascinated with how things work,” she said. “I spent a lot of time just kind of on my own, in the library. That was my place to hang out.”

Growing up on a farm in “the middle of nowhere” (in this case, “nowhere” was a little Oregon town called Dallas), Ellsworth didn’t have much to do with her time as the daughter of a widowed gas station mechanic.

It’s also where she started to develop her lifelong, well, call it an obsession, with taking things apart and putting them back together again. She still remembers her first attempt at disassembly: an old stove from the kitchen that her dad had tossed out back in a junk pile.

“I was out there trying to get the screws out of the thing,” she said. “I was really fascinated, much to the frustration of my father, because a lot of times I couldn’t get my toys back together.

As her skills grew, the first thing she learned to do was reassemble things — perhaps not correctly, but at least so they looked like they hadn’t been taken apart.

“One time, I took apart a VCR and looked inside it and broke it,” she said. “I knew I broke it and I knew my dad had to take it in to get it serviced, so I put a little note inside for the technician to find, like, ‘Please don’t tell my dad, but I think this is the part that I broke,’” and then I closed it up.”

Ellsworth was right, but the technician told her dad anyway.

Fortunately, her dad was the sort who went out of his way to support his daughter’s growing interests. Partly out of that support and partly as a form of home appliance self-defense, her dad placed a box at the service station asking for donations of broken electronics.

“It was to keep me from dismantling everything in the home,” she said. “I would just tear it apart and, at some point, I would start putting stuff back together in different ways, like just changing the color of the LEDs. So I became very fascinated with building and inventing things.”

Initially her inventions weren’t really inventions at all. She would just hammer parts of different things together. When she discovered computers, first a TI-99/4A at a friend’s house and then later a Commodore 64 her dad bought her, Ellsworth’s interests shifted to a different sort of invention: programming.

She still didn’t know how to do anything, but that didn’t stop her from trying. “I would spend hours in front of the computer, just typing on the keyboard, trying to get it to do things,” she said. “I would type on it like, ‘draw house,’ and it would return a syntax error. ‘Paint house.’ Syntax error.”

Eventually she learned BASIC and started to get the old Commodore to do different things. She also fiddled with its parts and components, burning the thing out a bunch of times.

“I didn't understand electronics at the time, but we had these cartridges and there were pins on the cartridges, and I knew that had something to do with the game that was being loaded through the cartridge. So I figured if I could make the right connections on those pins on the back of the Commodore, I could get it to play other games,” she said. “So I’d take knives and forks and kind of scrape it against the pins in the back.”

The crossed connections would short out the computer, but occasionally, before that point, they would make things happen on the screen, like characters popping up. When that happened, Ellsworth would think, “I’m getting close.”

Ellsworth, who was 9 or 10 at the time, never gave up.

Jeri Ellsworth computer tinkering photo
Ellsworth as a teen, tinkering with a computer.
Jeri Ellsworth

By the time she hit high school, she had a strong grasp of electronics and how they worked. She was building transmitters and competing with a friend to build pirate radio stations.

Because she lived in a small town, Ellsworth said, a lot of her early learning came from places like the library, the local RadioShack and ham radio operators.

The pressures of high school and some bullying over being different made Ellsworth “kind of snap,” and she started hanging out with the bad kids and doing what she described as wild and crazy things. That led her to a sudden and intense interest in car racing. Her father had once competed in jalopy races on dirt tracks, and now she was interested in it.

In attempt to stop her, Ellsworth’s dad said she could only race if she built her own car.

So she did.

“I think he figured that would have just ended it for me, but I took it really serious,” she said. “I went out, found a machinist in town that would let me come in and work with him on the weekend.”

Soon Ellsworth was machining her own parts for the car she was set on building. It took her just over a year, but she eventually built the car from the ground up.

Jeri Ellsworth working on jalopy car
Ellsworth working on her car in 1993.
Jeri Ellsworth

As with electronics, Ellsworth ultimately figured out racing, and soon she was so good she dropped out of high school. She was making money in the races and selling cars to other people, and she even came up with a bit of a tech solution for speeding around the dirt-track curves. Her homemade, computer-controlled traction system tended to shoot raw fuel into her car’s exhaust, causing flames to shoot out the side of the vehicle. The audience loved it, but it got so hot that it melted the paint away from inside the driver’s compartment. After some tweaks, Ellsworth perfected the system and started selling it. Soon afterward, it was banned from the races.

After four years living the life of a small-town race car driver, Ellsworth decided to give it up.

“It was really a hard life,” she said. “There was a lot of welding. My hands are all scarred up from welding and hammering on metal. So I got tired of that.”

And so, skilled in electronics, adept at building cars from nothing more than pieces of metal, now in her 20s, Ellsworth made the obvious career change: swapping out welding and hammering for the precision work of building computers in her own shop in town.

HoloLens, CastAR, Minority Report

Ellsworth’s life up to 2017 or so is an open book. She’s more than willing to discuss it, even dissect and analyze it a bit, over a long breakfast in Austin, Texas, in March. It’s a Friday morning peppered with stories of a precocious girl growing up, elbows deep in one form of technology or the other, with a driving desire to never back down from a challenge or give up on herself. In about eight hours, the two of us will be on a stage for a panel at South by Southwest to recreate an abbreviated version of this interview, only in front of an audience.

For now, Ellsworth continues to talk her way through her life, answering the occasional question I shoot her way, as I sheepishly wolf down my food. I can’t help but notice that her breakfast remains untouched: She’s too busy responding to eat anything. I mention this several times, but she dismisses it, saying she’s not much of a breakfast person anyway.

When we get to the here and now, her life, or at least her life’s work, suddenly becomes much less open.

CastAR is clearly working on an augmented reality headset, but Ellsworth is reluctant to discuss any specifics about it until it’s on the market. She does walk me through how the technology works and her own philosophical approach to introducing augmented reality to a broad audience, though.

HoloLens test chamber
Microsoft’s HoloLens headset in a test chamber.

Essentially, CastAR produces a sort of hologram, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, that appears floating on a surface or in the air in front of the user. Ellsworth said that there are basically two ways to do this with a headset. HoloLens uses a technique called “near-eye.” This projects light into a series of lenses mounted in the system in front of the eye. The light bounces around a bunch of times and then reflects into your eye, creating the illusion of a hologram in the real world in front of you.

The problem is that near-eye technology runs into issues with a limited field of view caused by a combination of physics and optics. The result is that while the HoloLens creates stunning images, they occur in a space about the size of a pack of cards held a foot or so in front of your face. That problem has yet to be solved for the HoloLens, but Microsoft has said it’s working on it.

Because the HoloLens relies on near-eye technology, the experiences it creates tend not to be intimate or up close. Instead they’re far away from you, like shooting at aliens coming out of the walls of the room you’re in, or viewing the landscape of Mars from the planet’s surface.

The second technique, the one that Ellsworth and CastAR are betting on, is projection. This uses a special reflective surface that reflects light sent out from tiny projectors built into the headset, and bounces it back to the glasses and then to your eyes.

CastAR reflective surface
CastAR’s reflective surface.

The upside of using this technique is that the field of vision isn’t limited. The downside is that it only works on a reflective surface. In the case of CastAR, that’s a mat you roll out on a desk or maybe hang on a wall. The surface is made up of tiny glass beads, which take all of the light that hits the mat and bounces it back directly to the person wearing the headset, and only that person.

To put it simply: In one technique, the projectors are facing your eye; in the other, they’re facing out.

Near-eye reduces the field of view. Projection gets rid of that limitation, though it requires a special material to be placed somewhere to see the holograms.

But Ellsworth argues that the downside of needing a reflective surface can also be viewed as a good thing.

“At Valve we had the world’s best AR systems that didn’t need the mat. When you start trying to do experiences or applications like on this table right here, how do I do an AR game?” she said, pointing to our cluttered breakfast table. “There’s too much debris. So I’d have to clear it off anyway.”

Ellsworth added that the inclusion of the mat gives developers some fixed constraints, which can make game design an easier process.

While CastAR has tested mats mounted on walls that are “bigger than your biggest plasma TV” and used them from across the room with no degradation, that’s not the approach the company will be using, said Ellsworth. This first system will be something designed around creating tabletop experiences: You unroll a board onto a table, hit the power button and start playing.

“Future generations will lift holograms off the table in the comfort of their homes,” she said. “They're going to be able to move around and start to pin 3D Netflix on the wall in the kitchen while you’re cooking, and then your recipe book is going to be, like, a virtual iPad experience.”

Ellsworth sees the technology that powers the headset shrinking to the point that people will be using it to replace traditional screens in the office in the next 10 years. Maybe even tablets and phones.

Minority Report - John Anderton using computer
Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report.
DreamWorks Pictures

Even if the technology to do that were available today, though, Ellsworth doesn’t think it would be a smart starting place.

“I think it’s almost essential that we have to take the user through this journey, and that's why I spend a lot of time with our [user experience] folks on our menu system, as an example,” she said. “We have this rich sandbox where you can make menus fly and circle around and zoom in and out, and it’s very tempting to make a menu system like that.”

But when she sees someone adding all of these unnecessary bells and whistles to a basic interaction like a menu, she usually stops them and tells them it would confuse her father, then suggests going to a more familiar experience.

“There’s going to be something that’s discovered in AR — some interaction that’s awesome — and we will gradually teach the end user how to do that, and then every AR device will start to use that interaction,” she said. “But it’s impossible to go from zero to Minority Report in one go.”

From car racing to toy tumult

It was 1995, and Ellsworth, tired of the racing circuit, was ripe for another idea, another thing to pursue.

“I think the transition for me from racing was, I was hanging out with one of my buddies from high school in his garage and he had an early Windows 3.11 machine,” she said.

The friend explained to Ellsworth that he had managed to trick a vendor into selling him the parts direct at wholesale price, cutting the cost in half.

“My entrepreneurial side was like, ‘Really? People pay that much for these computers, and all you’re doing is bolting them together?’” she said.

She and the friend went in together on opening a local computer shop, but the partnership didn’t last — mostly, Ellsworth said, because she was still so rough around the edges from her racing days. Within four months of opening, the shop fell apart.

Jeri Ellsworth working on a circuit board
Ellsworth working on a circuit board.
Jeri Ellsworth

“It was very traumatic for me,” she said. “I had given up my race car career, and my father had been kind of critical because he was gung-ho behind me at that point. I had kind of disappointed him, so I had some emotional baggage from that.

“So I was sitting in my apartment being all teary, weepy-eyed about it, and I was talking to my friends. Everyone was telling me, ‘Well, maybe you should just quit, go back, go to school.’ And I kind of got mad. I’m like, ‘No. I can't just let this — I can’t fail like this.’ So I took everything I had, all the money, the last remaining money I had, even my rent money, and rented a space down the street from where his computer store was.”

Ellsworth was stretched so thin that she had to live in the back of the store, and didn’t have money for inventory to stock the shelves. To create the illusion that she had products to sell, Ellsworth said she would go dumpster diving behind her old partner’s store and grab all of the empty product boxes from the trash. Then she’d clean then up and put them on her shelves.

When a customer saw something they wanted, she’d tell them that it had to be ordered. She would ask for a 50 percent deposit and then order the item. Soon her store, Computers Made Easy, became a chain, with four locations in tiny nearby towns.

Jeri Ellsworth working on a board
Ellsworth working on a board.
Jeri Ellsworth

But it wasn’t long before cheap computers and big-box stores started cutting into her profits. By the time she left the computer store business, she had poured almost all of her funds back into keeping the locations afloat and her employees paid, nearly running herself into bankruptcy.

With almost no money in the bank, Ellsworth, once more prodded on by friends and family suggesting she return to school, decided to take a leap of faith and try to land a job in Silicon Valley.

She took day trips to the area to attend trade shows, where she showed off the circuit boards she had made herself. She managed to land a few small jobs, but the low pay forced her to get a second job selling parts at an electronics store. She was also still commuting on Greyhound buses to Silicon Valley from Portland, Oregon, to work and hunt for jobs at those shows.

Finally, someone at a show invited her in for an interview. But once the HR representative saw her resume, which included things like race car driving and owning a chain of stores but no education, the person told Ellsworth that she didn’t have the credentials for the job.

As she was walking, dejected, down the stairs, the guy who called her in for an interview found out what had happened, and took her to a lab to meet with a bunch of engineers. The discussion turned into an impromptu interview, which became a contract job with a living wage, she said.

C64 Direct-to-TV
A C64 Direct-to-TV.
Mammoth Toys

With a solid recommendation from that job, she was able to build up her network and land another job, and from there, another. Eventually, she was contracted to make a toy: a Commodore 64 all-in-one joystick nicknamed the C64DTV.

The 2003 creation for Natural Sciences Inc. became a viral hit, mostly because of Ellsworth's attention to detail and the team’s ability to sneak in Easter eggs.

“A group of us got together, some programmers and I did all the hardware, and we're like, ‘We’re going to make this extra special. We’re going to put a lot of Easter eggs in it,’” she said. “On my side, I’m going to put Easter eggs in the hardware so you can take it apart and download your own games into it and hook disk drives up to it.”

It was Ellsworth’s first custom integrated circuit, and the team only had six months to create it.

“We got all these Easter eggs in it,” she said. “But then we had a couple of disasters in China, like they’d redesigned a circuit board and completely broke the design.

“We were just weeks away from producing hundreds of thousands of these things, and it didn’t work.”

After a trip to China, and getting the company to go back to the original specs, the manufacturing was back online. Somehow, the project came together just in time and the team managed to pull everything off.

But then Ellsworth made the mistake of pulling up one of the stick’s secret menus in front of one of the company’s executives. When he saw the menu and one of the pictures included — a photo of a bunch of the team drinking beer with a famous programmer — he flipped out.

He told Ellsworth that no one on the team could let anyone know about the secret content, which also included extra games.

But the team couldn’t let its work go unnoticed.

“A friend of mine at the time made a fake blog that was all date-coded back that had all these blog posts,” she said. “It was supposedly a worker in a factory that liked to hack on toys that he worked on. So he made this brilliant little blog that looked legit and, like, four or five days before the product hit the market, he released it. Like, ‘Hey, I’m modding this thing that I’m building in the factory and look at this. I can just solder a disk drive in.’”

The blog post offered up complete details on how to get into all of the controller’s secrets and how to mod it.

“I had the president of this company screaming at me on the phone,” Ellsworth said. “He’s like, ‘I know it was fucking you. I’m going to sue you.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”

The controller and its secret stash of moddable, playable content hit Slashdot and went viral.

QVC was the first company to sell it, and the company sold out of two months’ worth of product in a week.

While the C64DTV was the toy Ellsworth became most known for, she also worked on a similar Williams all-in-one toy and did some chip design for a tricaster.

And it was that work on video compression chips, along with a popular experimental YouTube channel she ran, that first caught the attention of one of the biggest game companies in the world.

Valve Visionary

Ellsworth loves to experiment with things, and at some point she decided it would be fun to start creating YouTube videos to show off that tinkering.

Many of the early videos were created with George Sanger (an 8-bit musician nicknamed “Fatman”), and posted under the show title of Fat Man and Circuit Girl. In the videos, Ellsworth and sometimes Sanger would do things like discuss homemade liquid nitrogen, and show how to lift fingerprints with super glue or cleave silicon wafers.

Over time, though, her YouTube channel became a collection of videos showing Ellsworth messing around with whatever happened to capture her fancy, from chemistry to optics to electronics.

The show, along with Ellsworth’s obvious wide knowledge of electronics, hacking and optics, attracted the attention of Valve and its leader, Gabe Newell.

Once Valve decided it wanted to bring her on, the company started trying to convince her to come work for them.

“They chased me for a long time to get me to come work for them because they wanted to move from the PC into the living room and bring a broader demographic onto their platform,” she said. “Because they felt very worried that the Windows platform could disappear. There was some trouble with acceptance of the new Windows operating system that was coming out. The Metro interface [for Windows 8] was spooking them.

“So they wanted to move into the living room and have some other outlets for their platform, just in case something happened to the Steam platform.”

Someone at Valve called Ellsworth and asked her to come up for an interview, and she passed because she was happy doing what she was doing, she said. But Valve discovered that Ellsworth was a big fan of pinball machines — she has more than 80 of them now — and the company started sending people to pinball shows to try and corner her as she played her favorite tables.

That didn’t work, either, so finally Gabe Newell himself flew down to Portland and called Ellsworth to invite her to lunch.

“He’s pretty blunt, which I respond very well to,” she said. “He was like, ‘Hey, we’re a big fucking deal. I really like what you’re doing. Our team likes what you’re doing. We think you could really run our hardware department. Just come up for a day and see if you like Valve.’”

Gabe Newell and J.J. Abrams at DICE 2013 (Poly watermark)
Gabe Newell (right) speaks at DICE 2013 with J.J. Abrams.
Mike McWhertor/Polygon

Ellsworth finally accepted and flew out for the interview, which she described as “kind of a trap.”

“They stuck me in a room with, like, 10 people and it was the craziest kind of interview even though I was told it wasn’t an interview,” she said.

For instance, they asked her how she would make a game controller, and she walked them through the process from design to manufacturing. Then they asked her how she would make a set-top box.

“An hour into this barrage of questions, most of the room gets up and leaves,” she said. “Gabe and a couple of his folks are there. So he walks me down to the fourth floor and he’s like, ‘We’re remodeling the fourth floor. This is your floor.’

“He’s literally just like, ‘It’s going to happen.’”

Ellsworth was intrigued.

Valve’s offices

“I knew they had a lot of money, but I was scared they weren’t going to be serious about this,” she said. “Why would I divert my career to do this thing? But then he took me to the fourth floor and said, ‘This is your floor. You have a budget of whatever you need. We’re sitting on piles of money. Hire all your cohorts. Make a dream team.’”

He also convinced Ellsworth, who was there for the day, to stick around for a few more days, getting someone to run out to buy her toiletries and handing her a bunch of Valve T-shirts to use as changes of clothing.

When she returned home, Ellsworth spent a week thinking about it. Then she went back to Newell with her own proposal, asking for a team of one-third researchers, one-third rapid prototypers and one-third product people. Newell agreed to it all.

“Valve’s a really awesome place,” Ellsworth said. “It’s just a different environment than any place I’ve ever worked. They pride themselves on customer focus. You can’t walk 5 feet in the company without hearing someone say, ‘What would the end user think about this experience?’

“The latitude they give their employees is pretty amazing.”

steam machines
Concepts for Valve’s Steam Machines.

Ellsworth started at Valve during the summer of 2011, and over the next year and a half did a lot of “amazing, crazy stuff,” she said.

“One of my favorites was we had the remote control human, where we ran small electric current in behind your ear, which would mess with your sense of balance,” she said.

The experiment was supposed to solve motion sickness, but the team soon found it could literally steer people left and right with currents as they walked down a hallway.

“They couldn’t control themselves,” she said. “It was hilarious, but, again, we had the filter of ‘what’s the customer experience?’ And it kind of burns the first time you run electric current in behind your ear. So immediately we knew this is not going to fly, but it’s kind of fun.”

They also messed with motion controls, tried reading people’s minds with electrodes, hooked up cameras to measure pupil dilation to try and track what people were looking at on a screen, even worked on creating a system that could read a player’s body language. Some teams broke off to work on the Steam box or on the Steam controllers. Others stuck around, digging into the possibilities of virtual reality and augmented reality.

“Our mandate was to bring a broader demographic into the Steam platform,” she said. “But because of the flat structure internally, getting momentum behind that kind of thing was really difficult. When we moved from the research stage and we proved out all these really cool things we could do and we tried to product-ize them, moving the momentum of Valve from ‘extreme hardcore, extreme experiences’ to a more broad ‘Dad can play, Mom can play, the hardcore gamer can play, the casual player can play’ was difficult.”

Eventually the work Ellsworth was doing came down to one of two schools of thought: developing an augmented reality system or a virtual reality system. While she was an initial advocate for VR, she later became convinced that AR was the way to go.

“They hunkered down on VR, which is amazing,” she said of Valve. “I love VR, but it is a hard sell to a broad demographic.”

Ellsworth thinks Valve went with VR because ultimately, the core of Valve’s audience is the hardcore user.

“The general consensus of folks in the lab was, ‘We have a hell of a lot of fun when we do AR games, but we’re having a hard time finding a way to align it to Valve’s direction.’”

Ellsworth found out about Valve’s decision to back VR, not AR, the same day she found out she was leaving the company.

Augmenting her reality

I asked Ellsworth how she knew when a decision had been made about VR over AR.

“They kind of made it for me when they cut off the entire AR group and let us go,” she said. “It was pretty much anyone who was associated with the non-core, what Valve thought wasn’t the core thing, was let go.”

In this case, that was augmented reality.

Infuriated by the decision, Ellsworth said she walked up to Newell’s office to chew him out.

“So I walk in, trying to puff up, but that quickly devolved into me saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re killing off AR,’” she said. “I got weepy, and he was saying things like, ‘I’ve always been a fan. I believe in you. You have great ideas.’ And he’s pumping me up. Then I was just like, ‘You should give me the [AR] project.’ And he said, ‘It’s yours. You can have it.’”

All of that augmented reality research and work done at Valve ended up costing Ellsworth about $100 to take with her, no strings attached.

CastAR headcrab prototype
A CastAR prototype nicknamed “the headcrab.”
Jeri Ellsworth

Ellsworth’s departure from Valve in 2013 underlined a key difference of opinion between her and the company, she said.

While Valve was convinced that virtual reality was the next best step for game developers and the company, Ellsworth was convinced that the technology could never gain enough traction to be of broad appeal.

“It’s really hard to deploy VR into millions of homes around the world, because the experience is that you clear your furniture in your living room and you hang a bunch of sensors on the wall,” she said. “I was actively involved with the Vive project, but I thought it was a really high-friction user experience.”

She said VR can be awesome, but it's hard to set up and expects a lot from its users.

“With AR, you can bring the whole family around the table,” she said. “My dad knows how to reach in and push the lemmings off the cliff with [AR]. Put a VR system on him and give him a crazy controller where he’s tripping over the dining room table — that’s more difficult.”

CastAR founders Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson
Ellsworth and Technical Illusions co-founder Rick Johnson.

The month Ellsworth left Valve she formed her own company, Technical Illusions, with another former Valve employee, Rick Johnson. The purpose of the company was to take the AR tech first conceived at Valve and turn it into something that they could get into homes.

Johnson and Ellsworth worked out of Johnson’s home after they left Valve, working around the clock to build a prototype. Eventually, they had five prototypes, all made of scavenged parts, solder and hot glue. They took the headsets to the Maker Faire, a sort of massive tech show-and-tell, and it was an overwhelming hit.

They showed attendees a little zombie game, a flight simulator and three other experiences, one running on each of the only existing prototypes. Soon they had an hourlong line that was so backed up that the fire marshal came to investigate.

“Everything survived all weekend and we’re like, ‘Oh, shit,’” she said. “Being able to get in there and touch a hologram, being able to share a space with two of your buddies and interact directly, it’s really special and different, and we knew we were onto something. So we doubled down. We worked really hard. We did a roadshow with various prototypes. We improved them. Then we did the Kickstarter. Then we did this insane road show during the Kickstarter.”

CastAR concept
CastAR early concept image

Technical Illusions launched the CastAR Kickstarter in October 2013; the campaign hit its $400,000 goal 56 hours later. By the time it wrapped up, the funding drive had raked in a bit more than a million dollars.

That first project was really just meant to put money into the company’s coffers. Instead of being the self-contained augmented reality headset the team had always dreamed of, it was a PC peripheral that could run applications.

“It was like, ‘This is going to be your first taste of what AR is going to be,’” Ellsworth said.

With that first million, the company made developer units and got them out to a bunch of the Kickstarter backers and developers. Then it raised some seed money and used it to move out of Johnson’s home and into a real office in Silicon Valley. Once moved, the company went to venture fund and design studio Playground Global to raise $15 million. It was Andy Rubin, one of the fund’s founders and creator of Android, who not only backed the concept, but convinced Ellsworth and Johnson to essentially start from scratch.

They knew that the Kickstarter product was really not the sort of device they had always wanted to create. They wanted a self-contained unit that is its own sort of platform.

So Rubin told Technical Illusions that it should return all of the money it raised through the Kickstarter campaign. The company agreed, but also decided to still send out the promised units to those backers.

Now, free and clear of any backer guilt, the company — now known as CastAR — has been secretly toiling away on creating its vision of a self-contained AR headset.


I wrap up our interview with a barrage of questions about the tech itself, and learn a bit more about the minutiae of detail behind the launch of CastAR.

The system will have its own storefront, for instance, and CastAR is currently working to make it easy to publish to it.

CastAR and Ellsworth have no desire to be a game publisher. They just want to kickstart that process with their own content and build the tools for outside developers, whether they’re creating games or other software.

Developers, she said, can not only mess around with software, but can tweak how the hardware works. Specifically, they can design surfaces like the mat that are used in different ways, like as playing cards or even a book.

The glasses themselves are 50 percent polarized and transparent, meaning they shouldn’t impact your vision with things like rainbow artifacts when you’re wearing them. They also won’t occlude your eyes for other people looking at you.

While the technology can handle rooms about 16 times more brightly lit than the original Kickstarter headsets could, it’s still not really designed to work in the sun or bright light.

The device itself will be a pair of glasses attached with a thin wire to a small hub device that you wear on your belt. Everything you need to get started will be in the box the CastAR ships in. No photos have yet been released of the new device design.

Multiplayer gaming is the thing that has Ellsworth currently most excited.

“In multiplayer, a developer can choose what each person sees,” she said.

And the system will support online multiplayer.

Photo of Axis & Allies board showing infantry, air, and sea units across the English Channel. There are dice in the background as well.
Axis & Allies
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

So, for instance, my son could be away at college and we could join a game together through CastAR. In the game, his movements across the board would be represented by holographic arms and hands, and the gameplay might look different depending if you were looking through my son’s glasses or mine.

Ellsworth said that my son could put a dragon figure down on the mat and then point to it and say, “I’m going to burn your village down.” I would hear him speaking and see his disembodied hand point at a holographic dragon. And then flames would shoot out of the dragon’s mouth.

He would still see his real figure, but holographic flames would shoot out of its mouth.

It’s this ability to directly interact with other players, in the same room or not, that Ellsworth sees as a big distinguishing factor in the system.

“I think there is a hunger out there for more intimate interactions within games,” she said. “In most games, you’re facing TVs. When you first experience the cast system and playing against someone and have eye contact, you’re like, ‘Oh, I get it.’”

She also anticipates what this tech might do for board games.

“I love board games, except for the situation where everyone knows the rules and I don’t,” she said. “And I’d like to pause it and come back later and be able to move it.”

CastAR could quietly feed a player a tutorial as a group plays a game, and it can certainly support pausing and quickly rolling up the mat.

“I love thinking about what it’s going to look like in a decade,” she said. “Imagine if we meet here once a week, we can have our Axis & Allies waiting for us. And you don’t have to do anything to put it away.”

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