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PCH talks with Zi Wang, Founder and CEO of

Quantum Bakery

Makers of Figment VR

Quantum Bakery are the makers of Figment VR, a new way to experience virtual reality that is both affordable and works with a form factor you’re used to: your phone. We sat down with Founder and CEO Zi Wang to discuss why virtual reality is about to go mainstream.

What is Quantum Bakery?

The first question people always ask about Quantum Bakery is, “Why that name?” Even a lot of seasoned journalists and Silicon Valley people ask about that. The reason we call it Quantum Bakery is the juxtaposition of the two words. With “Quantum,” you think quantum mechanics, quantum physics, quantum entanglement and very advanced technology. But with “bakery,” a bakery makes you happy. You think of enjoying the bakery. Quantum Bakery is a place where we hope to make happy computing. Happy computing is about designing technology so that the interface largely disappears, so you can actually enjoy the content, the things that make you happy. We want to make products that millions of people can enjoy.

Another reason we call it a bakery is because several of our key engineers used to work on Android, which named its OS versions after desserts, in alphabetical order: Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean, KitKat, Lollipop and Marshmallow. I spent almost six years on Android, so “bakery” pays homage to six years of my life.

In terms of what we do: we take the vision of science and make it a reality. For example, with our Glow Headphones we partnered with Corning Glass. They’ve made a huge material science breakthrough in the past 10 years in making a glass slide that’s thin and flexible. It’s a gorgeous material that forges a new design language. We partnered up with Corning to use that scientific breakthrough in the world’s first laser headphones.

With our next product, Figment VR, it bridges the gap between Oculus and Google Cardboard. Our vision is to change the entire VR landscape by giving access to the next 10 million users.

All of us are excited about what Facebook has done with Oculus Rift in making it totally immersive and hyper realistic. On the other side of the spectrum, Google has also done a fantastic job with virtual reality by making it really accessible to everyone in that it’s a piece of cardboard that can give you a pretty good approximation of what a virtual reality experience feels and looks like.

But between these two opposite sides of the spectrum, between Oculus and Cardboard, there’s a huge gap. Oculus is relatively expensive: it’s going to be around $2,000 for the entire stack, including the PC, the device itself, and all the other content you have to purchase. Which is not really accessible—$2,000 is a lot of money for a lot of people. On top of that, it’s tethered to a physical thing, meaning you’re tethered to a physical PC or some kind of gaming console. That limits the places you can use this particular device.

On the Cardboard side, it is affordable, but it’s made of cardboard, so it’s not durable—it degrades if it gets wet or once you use it for a couple months—and it’s also bulky once you put it together, so you’re not going to be able to carry it everywhere with you. Also, because it’s cardboard, over time it gets nasty from the user’s facial oil on the forehead.

We’re filling that gap between Oculus and Cardboard by creating Figment, which gives some of the immersive and interactive experience of Oculus but references the form factor of Cardboard. Basically, we’ve taken some of the design ideas from Google Cardboard and made it into a phone case.

When you’re not using the VR aspect of the Figment, it’s just a case. It feels like a normal case: it’s very slender, lightweight, and the glass isn’t really for the device, so it doesn’t get in your way. But for those moments where you want to enjoy VR, you slide the little trigger on the back of the case and it opens up. It’s almost poetic how the thing opens up gradually, flips over, and transforms itself from a case to a VR goggle.

On top of that, we have this amazing set of software that takes advantage of all the applications and video content created by the larger VR community. So you can enjoy a lot of content, including short-form videos and films and VR-enabled mobile games.

“Quantum Bakery is a place where we hope to make happy computing.”

When do you think VR is going go mainstream?

I think we’re right at the edge of that. In the past three years, Oculus has brought a broader, mass-market awareness, meaning you are seeing a lot of Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers making VR content. On top of that, because there’s a lot of creative artist interest in this space, you’re seeing a lot of camera manufacturers, GoPro being an example, making their own, 360-degree capturing device. And then on top of that, the software is also getting better. In the past 12 months, you’re starting to see real-time 360-degree video depiction—something unheard of a couple of years back. The infrastructure that enables mass adoption is pretty solid.

On top of that infrastructure layer, you are seeing a lot more participants: companies introducing different form factors to really experiment with what makes sense for consumers. That’s really at the low-end, introducing through the kids and parents. But also at a high-end, there are big industry reports about Sony, HP and Samsung. They’re all making consumer-ready devices that I can purchase online or at brick-and-mortar retail, which suggests the market is ready.

What we bring to the table in accelerating this diffusion is giving people a form factor that’s non-intrusive and something they’re already familiar with, a device that they can anchor a mental concept around. Using smartphones seems to be the right approach, because the mobile phones is the most ubiquitous computing device out there now. Most of us have used smartphones for the past eight years now. Integrating VR with your smartphone, which you already carry with you everywhere, everyday, seems a good hypothesis for diffusion. In the past couple months we’ve demoed some of our early prototypes and people are amazed by the functionality of the case with integrated VR.

With Glow headphones, you came up with the idea but didn’t lead the team. With Figment, you’re heavily involved and running the team. Why did you want to spearhead this one?

The path of entrepreneurship is not linear. With Glow I had an idea and at the time I was working at Google, so it would have been a conflict of interest for me to participate. I sent my idea to a couple of my friends and they decided to work on it. They were very successful with it and I could only look on from the outside in, lusting after the tremendous success they had and wanting to participate myself.

The difference this time is timing. I think the timing is right. I’ve really thought about the VR and AR space, and also with Figment we have an even stronger hardware and software integration story than we had with Glow. Because of my background, what gets me really excited about it is this intersection of hardware and software. It was the right time for me to participate and to lead a group directly, because the process of being involved in a startup’s day-to-day activities is a lot more exciting than just looking on from the sidelines.

“Our vision is to change the entire VR landscape by giving access to the next 10 million users.”

What most excites you about virtual reality?

This goes back to the question about whether it can translate to the mass market or the general consumer. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. I nerded out on the holographic displays of Star Wars, and Star Trek’s holodeck. VR is the first time where the fiction of science—all these things in the popular culture in the past 30 years—are possible. It’s the things you grew up with as a kid that make you really happy and giddy. Now, for the first time, we can make that real. How could I not be excited about that?

I think that’s why a lot of the founders and creators in this space are excited about the technology. Even for someone like Mark Zuckerberg. He’s making a profit, but I’m sure there’s a bit of that excitement because he grew up with that culture.

Even if you didn’t grow up with these touchstones, I think everyone can relate to this idea that VR enables you to experience things you have never been able to experience before. This might be an extreme example, but if you’re paralyzed from the waist down you’re not able to hike to the top of Mt. Everest. But VR can give you that experience. We’re all limited by our circumstances, but with VR you can experience things that otherwise would not be afforded to you. You could go rafting down a level five gorge in the middle of the Colorado River. One of my favorite quotes from the Figment campaign is “imagination will take you everywhere.” You could imagine being on the surface of Mars.

There’s also a planning aspect. If you’re planning your honeymoon, anniversary or just a vacation and you’ve never been to Bora Bora or Palm Beach, you can get a pretty good sense of these locations through VR, and that will give you a better sense for planning your travels.

There’s also sharing experience. That’s a key feature of Figment: it’s meant to be shareable. If you just got back from a trip to Vancouver and you have some friends over and you want to show them what Vancouver looks like, you can take out your Figment and show them a 360 video you recorded on your phone. Or walking down one of the main streets. Or going down a hiking trail. It’s the same concept as a family photo album or the photos on your phone you took on your trip, but much more immersive than a two-dimensional user interface. To relive the experience of walking the trail at Machu Picchu, that’s really fun and exciting.

You’ve decided to operate in stealth mode before launch. Why did you decide this was the best way to operate?

The easiest, obvious answer is that it’s a defense mechanism. You don’t want people copying your product. There’s some truth to that. Most great companies feel very parental about their product. Apple is very secretive.

But the more interesting reason is the path to innovation is never linear. All the thoughts are not right in front of you. You can’t just say, “We’re going to give you these five things and our product is complete.” When we first started, we had a completely different concept for the case and material. Had we been active in talking about our product, we probably would have left people underwhelmed or disappointed.

And then the process of developing and prototyping is very messy. We went through close to $50,000 worth of 3D printing materials. That’s quite a lot of 3D printing. We have probably two suitcases full of different 3D-printed cases. That’s how many prototyping iterations we’ve gone through. I think we were at version eight by the time we started talking about working with PCH.

It’s not so much about stealth, as it is about there being a lot of uncertainties and ambiguities, so why confusing a lot of the people who are not involved in the day-to-day?

“It’s harder than you think, but it’s also easier than you think.”

What advice would you give somebody who has an idea for a hardware product but isn’t sure what direction to take it?

It’s harder than you think, but it’s also easier than you think. It’s harder than you think because all of the things you take for granted, especially if you come from a software or creative digital space. In software, for example, if you have 20 lines of code that you need to modify, you can modify that and update the users fairly quickly. With hardware, you just can’t. That sounds so pedestrian, but it’s so true. Most people are very meticulous, very detailed, but with hardware, you need to turn it up a notch. Any mistake you make is very apparent and much harder to correct.

We made a prototype, I think it was version four, where one of the grooves was off by only half a millimeter but that rendered an entire case useless. And that case was a hand-built model. It took two weeks to assemble—it cost $4,000. Then we needed to go back and fix it, so that’s essentially three or four weeks’ time wasted. The costs of mistakes are a lot more pronounced with hardware.

But it’s also a lot easier because hardware is a lot more gratifying. It’s much easier for a consumer to grasp what a piece of hardware is than it is for them to grasp apps or software. Humans like the tangible. We like to touch and feel and hold the actual physical thing. That makes it a lot easier to share your ideas and get other people excited, and that’s probably the most gratifying thing: when someone holds and uses your product for the first time and they have a big smile on their face. That’s been true with Glow and Figment. Also, hardware is so integrated with software now that I think the combination of the two is a lot more exciting for entrepreneurs.

Peter Thiel asks companies that he’s looking to invest in, “What’s something that you believe in that nearly nobody agrees with you on?” What’s something that you consider yourself a contrarian on?

There are two main things that I get challenged on quite a lot. With Glow Headphones, if you’re in a bad mood and you’re somewhat jaded with technology, you might think, “Well, it’s just a pair headphones that glows with light.” That makes it sound like a gimmick. Especially in Silicon Valley, it’s still very logical and utility driven. There’s still a lot of resistance to the notion of something that’s stylish, cool, fashionable—the things that get people excited by getting to their emotional side. I see things differently. With all great technology, especially in this day and age, you need to have that cool factor that gets a person’s adrenaline pumping, and that’s something I’m very mindful of.

The bigger, more controversial, not-very-popular idea I’m contrarian on is that the mobile phone in some way needs to gradually disappear. It’s annoying that everywhere you go you have to carry a phone with you. A lot of the things we’re doing with Glow Headphones and Figment are about a gradual migration to a world of computing not so driven by a touchscreen. Things can be a little bit more ambient, a little bit more immersive, a little more assisted. With Glow Headphones, the software creates a new set of auditory user interfaces so that a lot of things you do on your smartphone—control your music, make a phone call, use Siri or Google Now—you don’t have to take out your smartphone to do. We designed the Glow remote to do that. It’s offloading some of the common features from the smartphone to a wearable. With Figment, it’s the same idea. The camera in the back of the case is exposed so we can use it for features. Searching for information without having to type on a phone screen, for example. And I think that’s something that hopefully in the next couple of years, we’ll get a chance to prove to the larger public: that this is the right direction to go, beyond mobile.

What’s your current state of mind?

Chaotic.

When and where were you happiest?

When I proposed in The Maldives.

What is your idea of misery?

Failure of a concept.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Having friends from the past 20 years.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Consumer gadgets.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Exciting.”

Which talent would you most like to have?

More focus.

What is your greatest regret?

Not starting to do my startup in my early 20s, or even younger.

What is your most treasured possession?

A photo of me with my grandma when I was four.

What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?

Being an asshole.

What’s next for Quantum Bakery?

Hopefully we can march towards a larger ambition of what Quantum Bakery is supposed to create. I talked a little bit about this notion of ambient intelligence, where the world around you is going to be more and more connected and wearables can all start interfacing with that world. That’s one aspect we’re really excited about. The second thing we’re really excited about is the notion that the computing devices in your house don’t have to be a desktop, a laptop, a tablet, a phone. They could be more traditional appliances. There are a lot of new categories of appliance we can create to offload some of your computing away from these traditional PC-driven devices. Amazon Echo does exactly that. A lot of activities you’d typically do on your smartphone you can do with a smart speaker. That’s the world we’re hoping to build: a world full of ambient intelligence where devices are more connected, and transforming these dumb devices into smarter, more useful things.