In our Startup Spotlight Blog Series, we recognize our fellow peers and local companies in the Pittsburgh startup ecosystem. In this Spotlight, we are highlighting Brad Factor, Founder and CEO of EKTO VR, a company that engineers wearable robotics for fully immersive VR experiences.
Can you describe your professional background?
Brad Factor: Coming out of undergrad, I went and worked for Honeywell Aerospace as a flight control systems engineer full-time for five years and part-time for three years. Following that, I went to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for a master's degree in robotic systems development. Coming out of CMU, I started EKTO VR and here we are.
What is the inspiration behind EKTO VR?
I was working part-time with Honeywell in 2013 and that was about when the rebirth of VR (Virtual Reality) was occurring. Oculus DK1 was coming out and HTC was working on their headsets as well. I was looking at that saying, “OK, great, let's assume that everything works with the headsets and that becomes mass adoption. What's the next big problem that we're going to have to solve?” And it was really about: How do we make [VR] a more complete experience? How do we make it a fully immersive experience? The two paths for that were either on the haptics side or the interaction side, which answers the question: How do I feel like I'm actually touching objects in the environment, picking them up, feeling real weight and physically interacting with my hands, with the environment? And then the other path, which is what I chose to go down eventually, was the movement path of locomotion, which answers: How do I actually feel like I'm walking around in really large immersive environments? Just from a personal note, I always really loved immersive entertainment, like ride films from Disneyland. But being part of the experience was something that really inspired my imagination. So wanting to be able to bring that to everybody else is a pretty powerful driver for me.
Can you give us your elevator pitch?
We build wearable robotics that enable the next generation of fully immersive experiences. EKTO One, the company's flagship product, is the world's first robotic VR movement solution that empowers users to walk naturally through digital content while staying safe, comfortable, and engaged. We're focusing primarily right now on operations and maintenance training use cases in chemical, oil, and gas, manufacturing, aviation, and looking to grow that to tactical use cases for the military or for first responders, and then eventually continue that arc to the consumer market.
As you mentioned, your company merges two huge fields together - VR and robotics. In what ways are these two fields compatible? Do you think there will be more fusion between these two fields in the future?
Yes, I think they are complementary fields. There are some exciting ways of how one augments the other, and, to your point, of fusing the two. Flipping to a side that's not quite in our domain, there's been really interesting ways that people have used virtual reality to train robots. I believe it was Toyota that did research where they built out a full virtual environment where a person can virtually interact with a robot and teach it how to grip a refrigerator door to open it, being able to work through it without physically interacting with the robot. From our side of bringing in robotics into our product, they're essentially mobile robots on your feet, and while they're not fully autonomous, they have a lot of the capabilities that you consider in robots.
But kind of similarly along those veins, a lot of the experiences and how you grow the experience in virtual reality is through robotics, and a lot of the haptic solutions you could consider to be robotics as well. I think we'll see a fusion as far as how we use virtual reality to improve how we develop and interact with robots, and then also how robotics will push forward different technologies to make VR more immersive.
Do you feel a sense of community between you and your company and other VR and tech firms in Pittsburgh? And what about just startups in general?
This is something that is very relevant as far as why we would choose to stay here in Pittsburgh. Coming out of CMU, obviously, there's a natural progression there as far as being in the CMU community and staying with them and building upon it. But there's certainly a lot of other options as far as where we could have gone to choose to build up this company. I think it is the community between VR and tech companies and especially in the startup scene here in Pittsburgh that has kept us here and made it make a lot of sense to stay here through going through AlphaLab Gear, first as a guest company, and then officially as part of their cohort and then going through CMU’s Venture Bridge accelerator program.
It was certainly a challenging thing to do last year during the pandemic, but still trying to manage that sense of community. Obviously we're here because of the relationships made in the AlphaLab Gear program. The VR scene is a relatively small but fairly tight-knit community here in Pittsburgh, which is nice. We're able to talk pretty openly between each other, and maybe we don't have the same opportunities and in a much larger space of VR, say, New York or in California. It's been nice being able to be part of that community, especially as a hardware company that has somewhat different needs than software companies. We're all rocket ships, but the fuel's a little bit different, and the payload is a little different. So it's been great building up this company here in Pittsburgh.