The resume of vCAD founder, Dr. Lee Martin, is an impressive one: successful entrepreneur, recipient of many prestigious awards, holder of 20 patents, published author, accomplished academic with several engineering degrees, director of the engineering entrepreneurship program at University of Tennessee, board member, and now founder of vCAD.
His personal resume is equally impressive: married 24 years, father of three, musician, athlete, and active philanthropist in his local community and worldwide. He is also a very friendly and engaging gentleman from Tennessee who immediately erases any (potential) intimidation regarding his many achievements.
I had the opportunity to speak with Lee as he navigated the loud, vibrant streets of New York City – and his excitement and ingenuity rose high above the background noise. His story is fascinating, and it’s rather fun to follow the path of the experiences, opportunities and ideas that led to creation of vCAD. We invite you to join the conversation!
What drew you to the field of engineering?
It wasn’t until grad school at Purdue that I had that “ah ha!” moment that set the course of my career. The class was “Microprocessors for Mechanical Engineers” before the introduction of the IBM PC! When I saw what those little chips could do for controls, I knew that someday I wanted to find “something” mechanical and replace it with smart electronics. Little did I know then that “something” would be the mechanical camera pan and tilt which iPix ultimately replaced with the fisheye lens and silicon.
Please tell us more about some of your (20!) patents
If you were to read the titles of the series of patents that I have, you would think that they are disjointed – state of charge indication, robotic controls, manipulator kinematics, image processing, interactive training systems, telerobotics… but the common theme is “telepresence” – the ability to project human capabilities through a distance to accomplish needed work. In some cases, the projection is sight, sometimes feel, sometimes knowledge, sometimes manipulation. In all cases, distal replication of the human experience for a purpose.
What inspired you to start your first company?
I was set to follow a traditional engineering path and close to finishing my PhD, when my father became ill. I went to visit him in the hospital with my dissertation in hand… “Looks like you’ve got it,” he said. “Yeah I think so,” I replied. Then we fell into a conversation about life that most people wait to have until a loved one is on their deathbed.
My dad was a first generation American of German descent, very spartan and stoic. As a child of the depression, he was not a risk taker and simply wanted to provide for his wife and sons. He believed in service over self and worked incredibly hard for 39 years at the same company, TVA, to keep the lights on in middle Tennessee. After a storm, he was often gone for days at a time working to get power back on – to the point that I was sometimes jealous of the lights that got so much attention.
In that hospital, I finally asked what made him work so hard and what drove him further.
He told me: drive up to plateau on the edge of town, sit and wait. As the sky starts to get dark, you’ll notice a light come on. Wait a few more minutes and more lights come on. Before long, there are too many lights to count. As you look across the horizon at all of the lights, then you’ll understand what it’s like to touch the lives of thousands of people you’ll never meet, and make a difference.
This was the last story he told me and motivation for my career. 90 days later I left a steady job to see how my ideas could make a difference and touch the lives of people I may never meet. It was the right decision! His response continues to drive me to this day.
What key points from your book ‘Techonomics’ anticipated the current virtual age?
Techonomics – theory of Industrial Evolution, Tech trends are filtered by business success to create a never ending advance of society. That advance is best summed up by the summary trend of techonomics (which is a take off of a joke about PhDs!):
“Do more and more with less and less until you can do just about anything from anywhere at any time with almost nothing at all – Virtualization!”
If you look back at the patents – they were about being able to remote human activity in space (distance). The cut line for my first company was “Realizing the Imaginable”. I have come full circle to extending beyond space and into time as we realize and experience things that do not yet exist!
The seeds for vCAD were sown and anticipated with iPix in 1999 – but it took 17 years of Moore’s Law for the computational capability to catch up with the idea (resolution, sensors, transformations, etc). Now we are on the verge of creating experiences of places that do not yet exist much like the immersive photograph made it possible to purchase a house “site unseen” from the images only! We will shortly have people buying condos that do not yet exist from the tours provided by the vCAD models of the designs. My technical journey will have come full circle!
How did your experience get you to where you are today?
Every life experience builds to the next. vCAD is a result of the composite of other chapters – some successful and some not. I am blessed to be surrounded by a great team, both inside and outside the company and that gives me confidence of the success that lies ahead.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
There are many high points: the iPix IPO in 1999, helping start Global Media Outreach and seeing the impact it has made, winning the 1986 National Young Engineer of the year for NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers), earning 2 Research and Development Magazine R&D100 Awards for Products of the Year (1983, 1993), and NASA SBIR Technology of the Year (1994).
Personally, I have a great family and 3 loving children. Seeing them become contributing citizens is a blessing and it looks like there may be some entrepreneurs in the fold!
Who do you admire in the field of engineering or VR?
Although not an engineer and certainly admired by many besides me, Steve Jobs is my vision of an innovator. Seeing the future and garnering great talent to realize it. And changing the world. Wow.
A little known inventor that is a dear personal friend is a guy named Vig Sherrill. He is in the middle of his 6th startup and creating a machine to mass-produce graphene, which is a revolutionary (strong, thin, flexible, conductive) material.
What events led you to start vCAD?
The last thing that I did at iPix before leaving was to create a VR headset for looking at 360 images in cooperation with Vuzix (then called Forte). The display was small field of view and there was some lag, but this was the real way to look at 360 images, not on a screen. I kept following the developments, tinkering, waiting, watching and then Palmer Luckey created the Oculus Kickstarter. I had a senior design team create a mockup video game TANX that lead to addressing and solving the VR motion sickness issue. I filed a patent and then started working on the concepts for vCAD, but I wanted to do something that was not game related. Continuous, full volumetric navigation is the basis of the vCAD experience. Interactive visualization is what we are now coining as Pre-reality. It takes the iPix 360 imaging experience from the point location into the entire CAD model with volumetric navigation for things that do not yet exist. A great visual communication tool for ideas. Realizing the imaginable.
How did you get into VR and interactive visualization?
This is the journey from immersive imaging of real spaces to interactive navigation of conceptual spaces. Everyone has a dream – we are developing the tools to let you experience those dreams before they are constructed.
How would you explain ‘interactive visualization’ to someone new to the term?
Interactive visualization puts you in control of what you see and the path you take. It’s not a passive experience (such as watching television) as this is your vision and your path of exploration. You are able to move around freely with fly-through, and can do this anytime, anywhere.
Pre-reality is another term I want to emphasize. You can fully experience a design as if it exists before it is constructed. You can explore a design before it is real – pre-reality – which is amazing, powerful, valuable, and enjoyable.
In your opinion, how is vCAD a game changer?
PowerPoint transformed presentations from transparencies to computer projections (tangible to virtual!). vCAD transforms the cardboard design model into a fully navigable experience. The days of the cardboard concept model are numbered, but it is more than that. Ever play with a dollhouse to design a room? vCAD will ultimately allow you to remodel, refurbish and experience any room, anywhere anytime, with any furnishings and color schemes without lifting a finger to move a piece of furniture or knock out a single wall. Game changer, game over!
In your opinion, what is the ‘top selling point’ that vCAD offers?
The foundation is intuitive continuous navigation. The user can go anywhere in the model with ease. But the major advantages do not stop there – we can distribute this experience universally – to a smartphone, to a desktop via the Internet or a link, and to a board room via presentation projection. Unleashing CAD from the designers desktop to the client’s world.
What functionality and component is most exciting to you about vCAD?
We have made a great Pre-reality bridge between CAD and VR with either a full screen experience that requires no additional viewing hardware (compelling and inexpensive) and we retain the VR option for full immersion in a smartphone with an inexpensive with VR holder.
How have you seen vCAD help students?
We used vCAD in an academic setting last fall at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Engineering students created CAD models of campus facilities and experienced them in VR with vCAD. It was a great test application to inspire student designers.
It’s magic motivation – when a student can walk inside their creative special designs – they get the joy of the creator that is indescribable. It’s powerful to see the transformation as their ideas become real to them in that instance.
How have you seen vCAD help professionals in various industries?
We are just starting down this road, but it enables architects to pitch their ideas in a much more compelling way leading to competitive bid success. It helps engineers study site plans and volumetric interferences through visualization. It helps developers pre-sell their units before construction. It helps design educators inspire their students and see the nuance of design without construction of models.
Where do you see the industry heading next?
The VR industry is looking for the Killer App in the game sector. There will be hit games, but the tethered systems will cede to the smartphone approach due to cost and availability – it is inevitable. That is why we are already playing the game there because it is where the industry will end up. We want to blaze the trail of professional uses of Pre-reality and believe we have happened upon the killer app – bringing people’s ideas to life. We will continue to make it easier and the experience more beautiful imitating the world visualized more closely with each tech step until you will say “is it live or is it vCAD” because you can’t tell the difference between our visualization and a photograph of the real space!
We imagine by this point you have already downloaded the app to give vCAD a try. It truly is a game changer by making your designs a tangible experience before being built. Per Lee’s vision: pre-reality is now possible, you can realize the imaginable.
Lee and his team are committed to innovation and making a difference. Learning about his past, you can be confident that many great things are ahead!