Gabe Newell sold Jeri Ellsworth Key AR Tech while firing her

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Jeri Ellsworth, CEO of Tilt Five, is working with her team to ship their patented AR technology to Kickstarter backers as they grow from a focused vision starting with AR glasses for tabletop gaming.

About a decade ago, however, Ellsworth was developing some of the core of this technology while working at Valve with a small team of hardware engineers researching forward-looking ideas like AR and VR. The idea was to invent “new user interactions that expand Steam’s user base” that “also bring the whole family together in the living room,” as Ellsworth describes on his LinkedIn page.

Then Ellsworth and his colleagues were fired, leaving the engineer to contemplate the the value of his voice and his ability to speak openly on his time at the company against the amount of money offered in a severance package packaged with a nondisclosure agreement. Regardless of that consideration, what would losing her job at Valve mean for the future of the technology she worked on there? Would she need to work on something else?

Ellsworth made a key decision the day she was fired. In a recent interview with UploadVR, here’s how she describes her memories of what happened on her last day at Valve:

“I feel very lucky to have made a split-second decision the day Valve made their big layoff. I showed up at the office. I met someone in the elevator and they let me know. say, ‘did you hear what happened to Ed? They fired him today.’ And I’m like, ‘that’s my mechanical engineer, working on my project, how could they do that? that ?’ So I stormed upstairs and it was like a bomb had gone off in the middle of the room Everyone was just sitting around moping I hadn’t even opened my email yet to see the request from HR to come see them. And someone’s like, ‘you’re going to get fired today.’ I’m like, what? How is this possible? That was the weirdest layoff I’ve ever had…they just let us hang around the building for about eight hours and we were just assigned a time to talk to HR.

People who knew they were going to be fired were like angry and sad, and there were just tons of emotions. I was later in the day when I was going to get the bad news and so I went upstairs and was like ready to chew someone’s ass about it. I walk through the door and Gabe is there in the room with a lawyer/HR/someone, and I started off as super aggressive. I was like, well, ‘so this is it?’ You know? And then I immediately burst into tears and got emotional. And I’m like, ‘Gabe, you gave me this mission to bring the family together and I can’t believe you’re doing this to me…I was onto something amazing.’ And he said things like, “I’ll always be a fan,” like, oh, okay. And I put myself back under emotional control. And as I walked through the door, I even think I was turning my back on him. And I was like, ‘you should just sell me the technology.’ And I turned around and he was like ‘okay’. And that was it.

He made the decision on the spot to let me take out this optical technique from Valve. It was quite amazing. I could have just walked out the door and gone on to any project after that and never thought about it again… I don’t think people around Valve understood what we were really on at the time, like how we could generate this light field and how comfortable and vivid and how it solved all these problems. It was back when there was still this idea that someone was going to stumble upon a way to create this perfect AR system. And you won’t need to use anything like a game board and people always dream and hope they’ll find a way to make it happen. And these are the laws of physics. It’s really difficult.

The deal was for $100, Ellsworth said, plus the cost of attorneys to make it legal, and “we basically have everything in our dedicated retroreflective eyewear lab which included the prototypes, optical components, software, computers, etc.” The deal would essentially help kick-start development efforts at CastAR, a company that former Valve employees co-founded to continue developing their approach to AR.

“The biggest win was the legal documentation that gave us the freedom to operate,” Ellsworth wrote in a direct message.

Years later, Ellsworth and other CastAR veterans would essentially need to buy it all again – now with actual patents backing their retroreflective optics technique – after CastAR’s demise. Now at Tilt Five, Ellsworth is determined to “take on the big guys.”

“At casTAR and TiltFive, we have made improvements to the original prototype designs and have approximately a dozen patents covering the current design,” Ellsworth wrote.

Tilt Five is working on drivers to allow multiple glasses to run from a single PC as well as drive the system from an iOS or Android smartphone, features that – if well supported by the developers – could offer an accessible way for AR” to bring the whole family together in the living room.

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