Well before the debut of a slew of virtual reality headsets for consumers this year, game makers and other tech companies were getting ready to feed the expected demand for VR content. But they weren’t the only innovators preparing to ride along as VR emerged as a commercial product after years in headset developers’ workshops.
For more than a year, Linda Franco and her team have been devising some of the first fashions for the VR era. As a participant in the current Highway1 startup accelerator session in San Francisco, her company OBE is refining the design of the inaugural item in its VR fashion line. The sleek OBE jacket is fitted with sensors that give wearers the power to use their body movements to control the actions of digital avatars in VR games. OBE stands for “Out of Body Experience.”
Franco is one of the VR enthusiasts who believe its fans won’t all be quiet introverts obsessively playing games by themselves at home in sweatpants.
“That’s something we are looking to change,” Franco says.
Virtual reality will create new ways of interacting socially with other people, maybe in public places like parks where there’s enough room to run around inside a shared fantasy world, Franco says. If they do that, they’ll want to look good, she says. Her startup aims to avoid the bulky and sometimes creepy-looking designs that have hampered acceptance of wearable products like Google Glass, she says.
“We wanted to make something you’d use in your daily life, because it’s so cool,” Franco says.
OBE is a San Francisco-based division of Machina, the startup Franco co-founded with Antonio Perdigon in Mexico City in 2012 to make products that cross the boundary between clothing and devices. Design was the driving passion, Franco says.
“Fashion is in a crisis,” Franco declares. “It suffers from a lack of innovation. They don’t combine it with other industries.”
Machina’s first and most successful product so far is the sensor-equipped MIDI jacket, which translates body movements into music, Franco says. The company found a market among DJs, but it was a niche product that could never be mass produced, she says. Machina next invented the Audimus jacket with speakers in its hood, for hands-free listening to music from smartphones.
The Machina founders then formed the OBE offshoot with the aim of designing an easy-to-use, affordable, mass-market product for VR and other applications, such as body motion controls for drones. The startup has pre-purchase orders from Gear VR headset maker Samsung, Franco says. The Machina founders have raised a total of $200,000 for the OBE division—-half from San Francisco-based Rothenberg Ventures, and half from Highway1, she says. OBE has six employees, and Machina, which holds a majority stake in OBE, has eleven.
OBE applied to Highway1 because of the accelerator’s expertise in the management of product development and manufacturing operations, Franco says. “They have the experience of launching products from an idea to a mass market,” she says.
The hardware accelerator is a component of Cork, Ireland-based PCH International, a global company whose operations span product design, scale-up, manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. Highway1 connects participants in the four-month accelerator program to PCH’s branch innovation hub in Shenzhen, China. OBE, which has been outsourcing its manufacturing in Mexico City, is exploring production options in China, Franco says.
OBE is one of the nine startups that will present their tech inventions at Highway1’s Demo Day in San Francisco on May 18. The accelerator class includes a contingent of six Bay Area companies, including digital health startups Blumio and Cocoon Cam. The others are sports coaching app maker CourtMatics; Okio, which makes a messaging app to keep kids in touch with their parents; Calliope, maker of a smart water meter; and OpenBike, which harnesses the energy of pedaling to charge a battery that can power electronics such as smartphones.
Among the startups from outside the Bay Area are tech fashion company XO from London, which makes Web-connected clothing that can change its look to reflect the wearer’s style; and Toronto, Canada-based digital health company Sensassure.
At the Demo Day, OBE will show off a beta version of its unisex jacket, which not only captures the motions of wearers but also delivers sensations that match the action in the VR game they’re playing. If a virtual car driver virtually bumps into an obstacle, the wearer feels the “bump” through haptic feedback, Franco says. A “brain center” in the jacket communicates with the VR headset via Bluetooth. The jacket is compatible with headsets including Samsung’s Gear VR, Facebook’s Oculus Rift, and Google Cardboard. In time, OBE plans to make sensor-equipped pants, vests, and shirts as well as jackets, Franco says.
The startup is aiming to have a final version of the OBE jacket ready to show investors in July, so it can take orders from retailers in the fall, Franco says. The company is hoping to raise $3 million from investors so it can scale up production, she says.
OBE plans to offer its ripstop nylon jacket for $189 in sizes from extra small to extra, extra large, Franco says. The company will make the jackets in black and also in a camouflage pattern used in a run of one of its earlier products that sold out.
“People like camouflage so bad,” Franco says.