In late 2005 Sankar “Jay” Jayaram was hurrying home with a bag of groceries, chatting with a friend on the phone. He was planning to watch a Seahawks game when he got there.
Jayaram told his friend, “I wish I could be right there at the game, or have the ability to feel like I’m there at the game.”
At that moment he stopped and realized it wasn’t a daydream.
“I knew we could do that,” he said at his Pullman office, where he and a team of co-workers are trying to give consumers a different way to enjoy sports or entertainment events.
Jayaram, a mechanical engineering professor at Washington State University, says the result of that inspiration is 3D-4U Inc., the Pullman startup he launched with his wife, WSU associate professor Uma Jayaram.
“We knew we had to wait until 2012 before really going to market with this idea,” Jayaram said. “If we had gone to market earlier, it would have never had a chance to succeed.”
After more than a decade spent researching virtual reality, the Jayarams realized smart mobile devices and widespread broadband have primed the pump for what they intend to develop: an interactive, 3-D technology giving consumers more control of what they’re watching.
For the past two seasons, the company has given football fans at WSU Cougars home games a chance to test it.
For those games the company sets up six customized video cameras around Martin Stadium’s playing field – two on each side, and one in each end zone. Each camera holds six or more lenses, each of which is configured to provide a 180-degree sweep of the field.
The six cameras are connected by fiber cables to a server inside a control booth in the stadium.
Using the stadium’s wireless network, the server sends the feeds out to people who have downloaded the 3D-4U app on a laptop, tablet or phone.
The user can select which camera feed to watch the action from, allowing for near real-time viewing.
The feeds can be either viewed through 3-D glasses or watched in the traditional 2-D mode.
The app lets viewers rewind and go back to see earlier plays, again from a variety of angles, either speeded up or slowed down.
During a recent office demonstration in Pullman, Jayaram showed how he could back up the video of a recent Cougar game and watch a play from three or more different angles.
The app also lets viewers select and edit segments from the game and quickly share them to social media. “We call that clip or edit a ‘Twirl,’ ” he said.
“Say you want to share that play with a friend because it’s unusual or controversial. You can edit it on the screen and then share it on Facebook in seconds,” Jayaram said.
Version works with Oculus Rift
The Jayarams and their 3D-4U staff say what they’re developing is “a second-screen experience.” They say digitally smart younger consumers are the ideal target group to embrace the interactive technology.
The company’s developers have created a version of their app to work with the Oculus Rift – the goggles-based gaming system that Facebook purchased for $2 billion earlier this year.
Instead of fingers on a touch screen to control the point of view or what’s being watched, the Oculus Rift system will allow users to change perspective by moving their head or by hand gestures, giving even more control, said Uma Jayaram.
Making money is the next challenge. Jay Jayaram said the goal is to turn a profit in 2015. An initial source will be through creating sponsored content, such as having companies pay for ads that will show up on the screens of customers during events.
A second option is licensing the technology to companies or schools. One potential use is for sports teams to use the 3-D technology to evaluate practices or games.
A third revenue source is through shared sales of paid entertainment content. Last year the company helped record an Australian concert by entertainer Ricky Martin. Customers can buy an app that provides all or parts of that performance, using the 3D-4U app. The Pullman company will share a portion of the online sales.
Florida entrepreneur a backer
The company connected with Martin through one of its initial backers, Florida-based entrepreneur John Sexsmith. Sexsmith, who’s made money through real estate and retail franchises, jumped at the chance to be part of the company, he said.
After putting a six-figure investment in 3D-4U, Sexsmith became the 3D-4U board chair and serves as interim CEO.
He said he joined the team because Jay Jayaram is widely recognized by his colleagues as one of the strongest minds in virtual reality.
Sexsmith said he believes the company’s next 12 months are critical. The major challenge will be to showcase the technology and excite large numbers of customers to download the app and try it out.
“I think we can do that,” Sexsmith said. “The bigger satisfaction is working with people like Jay and Uma, who are not just brilliant but truly generous and warm people. Working with people who combine both brains and great character is an absolute joy,” he said.