Manifesting the Impossible: 30 min inside the mind of SKULLY CEO Marcus Weller
Introduction by Angel Damion Robles
By now, most of us know what the AR-1 Skully helmet is, so in visiting the Skully office we wanted to get under the skull and into the mind of the company. Skully Systems is more than just a helmet, and calling the AR-1 a wearable would be an understatement. So where does the charismatic company fit in your life? Why should you care?
The answer is one you’ll have to decide for yourself. “It is not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” That’s a quote by Darwin that Marcus Weller (CEO) recited in his excitement for the future of transportation. “The world doesn’t care about you. It’s going to do what’s most efficient.” We digress very slightly into the events occurring in Paris, France as taxi drivers revolt against Uber. “That’s what’s so great about Uber, the customer care whether it’s good. Period. Not whether it’s good for certain constituencies, politicians, or special interest groups. It’s just good. We need to ask ourselves that 3 word question more often – “Is it good?” No more, no less. We have made conscious efforts to propagate this mindset at Skully – we are creating something that has value. In the transportation context — that will save lives.”
What makes Weller a great CEO goes beyond his passion for what he does. Skully’s conception was sparked from a vision to enhance our basic sensory experiences. Even more, he invests plenty of thought into what the future of his industry could look like; intellectually spilling about the artificial intelligence revolution and the urgency for people to develop new skills.
Below is the transcription of our exclusive interview with Skully CEO, Marcus Weller.
The tour was great. Our goal was to ship, by that time and we weren’t able to do that because of some manufacturing complexities. And so we decided that instead of just delaying, and putting it up on a Facebook post or sending an email, that we were going to go and take the finished product to the customers before full scale manufacturing. We are moving the AR-1 into the first stages of production and validation. We wanted to put it in their hands so they could experience it for the first time.
We also really wanted to enhance how we were communicating with our customers. This is a tangible physical product, this isn’t just an Ad tech company. We are out there communicating with these customers and getting their feedback and most importantly building relationships. That is a really key aspect that we were able to talk to them about when we met our customer face to face. Our customers were spread out over 67 different countries. We wanted to talk about the shipping delays, and the valid causes for the delay which were related to shipping a highly complex safety product. The customers had questions and concerns, and I encouraged them to speak up in the group public setting where we could address them face-to-face. Because if you are wondering something or have something to say, it is likely that other people are thinking the same thing. It is the perfect time for us to discuss it right here, right now. It was awesome, and it really resonated powerfully with #SkullyNation. Some of our greatest critics were actually the last to leave our event, and ended up inviting us out to dinner. It was a powerful moment for the Skully community to congeal and come together.
Interestingly enough, that was the first time that many of them had ever been in the same room together. Think about it, they are early adopters, they backed something on Indiegogo that costs $1500 a year in advance, they love motorcycling, and the various groups all live in the same area. I think these are four important personal characteristics. Calling that out and saying that this is our community, and we are going to do this movement together was a powerful thing. So now we have these micro Skully nations all over the world. We travelled 55,000 miles, mathematically two full laps around planet earth in 3 ½ weeks. It was incredibly gruelling, and our entire team’s immune systems crashed after so much sleep deprivation. Everyone was hurting. But it was such a valuable exercise for the company. Every customer got a private demonstration, and even that was a logistical challenge, but we pulled it off. All the customers got to try the helmet, and give their feedback, which we were able to get on camera. What has been fantastic is coming back and showing our engineering staff what the customers said, and seeing what really resonates with each of them. We found out that each person had their own way of loving Skully. Some people just love the concept of our company, and are backing us as a result of that. It is something that more crowdfunded companies might want to explore doing. After receiving funding, it was powerful to go and meet the customers face-to-face, especially since we have only been interacting with them online.
TD: Why didn’t you visit Asia during the tour, or invest in the Asian market?
We were interested in going Asia. But we had to make a decision. Hitting the 13 stops in that short amount of time is such a difficult thing to do. There just wasn’t enough time this tour, but we are excited to be visiting Asia soon.
Our greatest order density was from the San Francisco Bay Area overall, and the second greatest was LA, and third greatest was New York. Most of our density is very US centric, and I think that’s a result of Indiegogo and the US concentration of tech hubs and early adopters that the tech press reaches.
I think the path of work for Skully is definitely to expand what we’ve developed in the helmet to solve even broader problems. I think the technology we’ve developed here has the potential to solve a lot of different problems. The challenge with AR is clearly defining what the problem is that you are solving. You can trace back the AR products that haven’t done well to the fact that the problem definition wasn’t very clear. So when you’re releasing a general computing platform that you wear on your face people are forced to ask: why am I wearing this? What is this doing for me, and how is this solving something uniquely that only AR can do? Solving a real problem through the visual and AI pathway is actually the big win. So that is what Skully is really focusing on in terms of our roadmap, which is how do we apply this technology to problems that are in need of a solution that is uniquely a fusion of AR and AI.
TD: Would Skully ever receive an assistant like Siri or Cortana?
We have onboard voice control in the helmet, and that is something that we planned to continue and expand upon. It is a very powerful platform. When you are wearing an assistant, or if you have a persona that accompanies you and helps you do things, it’s a very powerful thing. So when we talk about Skully, it is not just the name of our company but more of an emergent persona from our nodes, from the network of interconnectivity that our products create. Skully’s persona emerges not just from the helmet, and not just from the smartphone, not just from the bike, but also from the interconnectivity across all of those. When you are talking about Skully, you are talking about something that is a lot broader than just the helmet. Skully represents an interconnected network and all of those resources are at Skully’s fingertips to help enhance your experience.
TD: How did you come up with the company’s name?
The name for the company came after a very long flight, when I later realized that the name Halo wasn’t going to work out. We started out as Helmet Adapted Locomotion Optimizer, which sounds very military. The idea was that Halo was something you wear on your head, and it invokes the idea of protection.
One day I was going through a shopping mall looking for a toy store to find things I could use for inspiration for the industrial design -What ended up happening was that I found this end cap display that was selling Halo helmets from the video game, and they were actually selling the helmets, so I thought okay that’s not going to work. Then I had a flight a few days later, where I just wrote down probably 1,000 different names for the company. I also was researching how to do trademarking and all that stuff that a startup founder has to figure out on their own at first. And ‘Skully’ came to me as most closely representing what we cared about which was the human experience and the mind. The skull is something that protects the mind, being the universe’s most complex creation. We thought that was an interesting topic to create umbrella for our future products. We also wanted it to be a little bad ass and a little bit whimsical, so Skully just hit the mark and it felt right.
It’s a tough one, but I love this question. There isn’t really a line in between, so to speak. If it’s done right it will enhance your awareness of the situation. But if it is done wrong then it will intervene with your awareness of the situation. The extreme opposite would be if you were to walk around and just look at the screen on your smartphone. That is going to directly occlude and intervene with your experience of the world, which is terrible. That would classify as an interference technology.
At Skully, we focus on enhancing your experience of the world. I think that is the key thing; it should take your senses and put them on steroids. It should help you see more, and be aware of more. And you can see that down to the core DNA of our platform, it gives you eyes in the back of your head, it focuses on infinity, it shows up in a translucent heads up display, its not directly in your in your field of view or line of sight, its actually just out of the line of sight.
I think that’s the key aspect here. People don’t ask if mirrors in cars are distracting, but there are three of them. We have one display that takes up about the same amount in your field of view, and it stitches what all three mirrors would see together into one. What that is telling me is that I don’t have to attend to three different places anymore, I can just attend to one. Is that more distracting or less distracting? The same thing with the navigation and wayfinding, it’s overlaid. Think about all the subtleties of how the Skully AR-1 does the navigation. In the blindspot camera there is a horizon level, and above that horizon level is the sky. The camera sees that sky, and the cars are down below the sky on the road. There is not much going up in the sky that you need to worry about. So where are you going to put the navigation information? Are you going to put it in front of the cars where you need to see, or are you going to put it up in the sky? And that is where we lay it in the heads up display. Above the horizon in the unused space.
How to make AR useful and not distracting
We tend to look at all these things. At a more granular level there are a lot of issues with the ways that your eye performs accommodation. So making sure that you capitalize on infinite focus and putting the photons in parallel, and making sure that the heads up display is extremely robust to direct sunlight, yet can throttle down to very low brightness at night makes it very easy to see in all conditions. The way we designed the visor itself to be photochromic so it automatically adjusts depending on how much UV light is present. These are things that are really key human factors based needs that serve to enhance your awareness of your surroundings. That is the difference. AR companies who have a human factors focus have a better chance at making a product that enhances your human experience, and enhances your ability to perceive your environment. And ones that don’t take the human factors approach seriously run the risk of intervening with your experience, or distracting from it.
Many of the things that the human factors field focuses on are pretty quantifiable. One of them specifically is cognitive load. Basically cognitive load is how much processing power your brain has to put out to do something whether it is complex or simple. The more complex the task is, the more cognitive load you put out. You see really high cognitive loads in tasks where someone is doing something new for the first time. If you are doing something for the first time, you are thinking about every single step. Think about the very first time you drove a car; it was just so overwhelming, there was so much to think about, and so much to do. And now you can eat a burrito and drive. That is basically the idea; once you automate some those things mentally your cognitive load goes down. Automating is key to great AR in my view, and in a heads up display in a transportation context, or in a heads up display system that encompasses the whole experience because it reduces cognitive load. Instead of you trying to figure out where you are going on a motorcycle, and then also ride the motorcycle correctly and not crash into someone while trying to look at your street sign over on the right. Instead of trying to find your way, let’s say you have your emergent persona Skully there with you, saying don’t worry about where you are going I will tell you when you need to know, I will tell you in time, so you can make the turn, just focus on driving. That is removing cognitive load, and removing the distraction from the situation. Instead of me having to look all over and figure out where I am going, someone is taking care of that for me. Skully says don’t worry about what is going on in these tiny little mirrors that are vibrating everywhere, that only see a sliver of your blind spot, I am going to see the whole thing. Just glance down when you need to see the whole picture, the whole panorama.
It’s obvious to us now because we have been embroiled in this for so long, and engineering and working on it for so long. But that is the difference. If I were going to say that there was a line between, I would say that the line is the human factors line, you are either walking that line or you’re not.
What excites me is that there are actually products and platforms coming into the market that have value and use to the mainstream customer. We didn’t design this helmet for extreme racers or fighter pilots. We designed it for the everyday rider, the commuter. And that is pretty exciting. I spoke at a conference awhile back about AR, and it was kind of funny that their feedback was, “Oh wow, we are excited, this is actually a product that people will buy.” I hadn’t had a lot of familiarity with the conference before that point, so I wondered, “if not that, what were you guys talking about all this time?” If not talking about things that people need and want. There has been this lack of ability to transfer what is happening in the laboratory to actionable problems that can be solved for the average customer. So I see that there is a confluence of both viable solutions at a price point that is palatable in the consumer space, as well as a readiness from consumers to take these technologies on, and incorporate them into their lives. That is the magical combination. The technology has to be ready to meet the needs, and the people have to be ready to recognize the technology. And I think that both of these things are happening right now, and it is very exciting.
TD: Have there been dummy tests on the helmet, and if so how safe is it as a stand-alone helmet?
[Laughs] Well if you count me wearing it as a dummy test, then yes. We do a lot of road testing, crash testing, and a lot testing in general. Every time that we do little tweak, we are re-testing it, and we are re-riding it. We do lab crash tests on a regular basis with head forms to measure g force. We have been through probably over 1,000 permutations and reiterations of the product to get it where it is now. And that has been absolutely critical. For example, you have to test an assumption; you say this HDR setting should work this way when we are using it at night. But then you have to test it with all these different headlights shining into the camera, and get a clear assessment on how the camera adjusts. Another thing that we spend a lot of time on is getting the distance perception correct in the camera. Because we have this wide-angle lens and we had to create this warp algorithm that dewarps and remaps the image so that the objects are as far away as they should be when you are looking at them in the heads up display. A lot of these things you have to empirically test. There is the lab, and there are the specs, and there is the data, and you have to get as far as you can with them, but you’ve got to get it out on the road. My recommendation to the team is that you’ve got to get it out on the road early because those rides may inform how you treat the data. That has been extremely valuable.
Another thing that we are doing along those lines is that we are working with a Human Factors Lab, which is one of the leading human factors labs in the world. We are working with them to gather more empirical data about how people actually interact with it, the induction of cognitive load, and reaction times. And really to be one of the first consumer companies to truly understand how wearable AR affects us at the cognitive level in a transportation context.
We designed the electronics to withstand over 200 G’s of impact. The electronics themselves are quite robust. Because we have a very hostile use case, it is going outdoors, it is going fast, it is in a transportation context, it’s out in the sun, and it’s being kicked around in your garage. We very much designed it with all that in mind. There is a lot we have done with the industrial design as well, to make sure that certain elements are extremely high end, but also extremely durable, such as the protected lens if the helmet is dropped. It is kind of necessary, wearable tech should be extremely robust. You shouldn’t have to think about whether or not it is going to break by virtue of using it. That is where we are at right now, Skully will only get more robust over time. And even if we do other products, we will carry that robustness over because that’s the way that these products should go. In my opinion, you shouldn’t ship someone a static product that does nothing but deteriorate and degrade over time. You should ship someone a product, which degrades very minimally in its physical form and continues to evolve in software with the user as the user evolves, and as the world evolves around it. That is the exciting part about how we are doing over the air updates and pushing new features all the time that can radically change the capability of the product, as we take advantage of more and more hardware over time that is within. If you actually peel back the layers of onion in the helmet you will see that there is a lot of hardware in there that we are not even close to taking advantage of yet. And we plan to do a lot more through over the air firmware updates over time. I think that is going to be necessary especially as we see more and more connected vehicles on the road that are both receiving and broadcasting relative position of other vehicles. If we are able to do that, and are able to do that effectively and accurately we can radically reduce the number of vehicles that can run into you. Think about that…overtime if the right things fall into place, the concept of cars just, these giant hunks of metal, slamming into other hunks of metal with people inside, will seem barbaric and archaic. I think that is the way things are headed, especial as AI continues to advance at exponential rates.
We have been incredibly fortunate to have the investors involved that we have so far, and they have been amazing. Early seed we had people that were early in backing Oculus who gave us great advice. And later in Series A, we had Riverwood who backed GoPro back in Series A, when they had zero engineers, and placed the first engineer at GoPro and took them all the way to IPO. We also brought in Intel to help us with consumer electronics. So far we have been extremely fortunate to surround ourselves with people that have been here before and know how this story plays out, and are helping us see around corners and plan for the future. And I think that is the compelling reason why someone would want to invest in Skully. We have taken the approach to not only build great products that leverage leading edge technology to save lives, but we are building a team, and a community around what we are doing that extends beyond what is happening inside these walls. Around the world, we are meeting our customers face to face, and assembling groups of advisors and investors that genuinely care about and understand the problem that we are trying to solve. They are good people. The people that you see inside here at Skully HQ, and our investors and customers, you’ll notice a similar DNA. They are good people, they care about making a positive difference in the world, and the problem that we are trying to solve is not a small endeavor. We are making transportation safer and more intelligent. It requires people who care. Transportation is the most frequent, ubiquitous, and dangerous thing we do. So, it is an extraordinarily important problem to solve. That is the opportunity here, which is to really be part of that hey price of our shared future.