Published in Economic Development

Hudsonville VAR company looks to make inroads with tech giants

BY Sunday, March 28, 2021 04:00pm

HUDSONVILLE — As extended reality technology creeps into the mainstream with big names like Microsoft, Facebook and Apple racing to develop the best experiences for end users, the industry still faces several hurdles to mass adoption.

However, a Hudsonville-based company that has hovered under the radar for nearly two decades could potentially hold the solution to helping these tech titans clear those hurdles to improve user experiences.

IMMY Inc. — originally formed in 2002 in Detroit — is developing a display system aimed at curing the typical problems that accompany current head-mounted displays (HMDs) used for virtual and augmented reality (VAR).

These displays — like Microsoft’s HoloLens, Facebook’s Oculus and MagicLeap — tend to cause eye fatigue, motion sickness and other issues that make it less than ideal for mass adoption.

“IMMY represents, to me at least, a dying breed — or at least I hope it’s not a dying breed,” said Jon Peddie, president of Bay Area-based computer industry research group Jon Peddie Research. As a veteran of the graphics industry, Peddie has written a book called “Augmented Reality: Where we will all live,” and is an adviser for IMMY Inc. 

“Here’s a small, innovative company that is doing something that, when you look at it and understand the technology, you say, ‘Holy cow, how did you guys do that?’ They’re still inventing stuff that’s really hard to do and they’re doing it without a $20 billion government contract.”

Peddie became acquainted with IMMY Inc. and its original founder Doug Magyari around a decade ago. Over that time, IMMY — with just three internal employees — has developed a potentially game-changing vision system that can eventually be used in head-mounted displays.

“What IMMY has figured out is how to get an image that is up close and personal to your eye, that doesn’t disorient you or make you sick or confuse you, which is a very complicated optical problem,” Peddie said.

Well-kept secret

IMMY, which recently started doing business as Optique, has stood as a pre-revenue company for nearly 20 years. CEO Salvatore “Sam” Vilardi now reports that the company has raised roughly $14 million to date. This includes a recent rights offering that raised $800,000 for the company.

Vilardi, a West Michigan-based engineer with experience bringing new products to market, has been involved with the company since 2010, taking the helm last year to bring the development of its vision system across the finish line.

Optique’s aim is to develop and perfect its proprietary vision system in order to license it to one of the big-named players in the industry or enter into a partnership. This means that the small IMMY won’t have to go head to head with industry giants.

“Those guys are the big boys with a lot of deep pockets and a lot of resources,” Vilardi said. “What I want to do is be able to offer them the optical display system and let them build the end user product.”

Vilardi compared this dynamic to the way that Intel creates chips and processors to go inside computers rather than developing entire computers.

“I want to be the Intel inside of AR and VR wearable glasses,” Vilardi said. “That’s the approach we’re after.”

Optique’s vision system uses a micro organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display that projects light into a mirror that, in turn, projects the images into the eye. The system does not push light through a lens like existing systems. 

This setup eliminates the eye strain, fatigue and disorientation that often accompanies existing head-mounted displays.

The system was also built with mass production in mind and more cost-efficient production consisting of a few molded components and a frame. The display and electronics are the most costly to produce.

Vilardi said that IMMY has had discussions with potential partnering companies, but could not name them.

“We’ve gone down paths, fairly in-depth and far down, with a couple very large computer companies,” Vilardi said. “Because the technology was still a bit premature at that point, we weren’t able to close those relationships. But they’re actively asking when we are going to be ready and when we are going to have a production version. We won’t have a hard time at all getting some licensing agreements in place.”

Barriers remain

Vilardi said that IMMY is in the process of developing tooled parts and by the end of the year should be in a better position to land those partnership deals.

However, as a veteran of the industry, Peddie highlighted some potential struggles that come with working with big-name tech companies.

“IMMY’s stuff right now is good enough for Microsoft to jump in, and they should,” Peddie said. “The problems you face with big organizations is something called NIH: not invented here. The difficulty you have with big organizations is you have a lot of people with big egos. 

“It’s a problem and the only solution to that problem is luck,” Peddie continued. “You’ve got to find someone in the organization … who doesn’t wear his ego over himself all the time. That’s as big of an obstacle for IMMY as the technological challenges.”

Meanwhile, IMMY is looking to cash in on a $30 billion industry that is projected to grow exponentially in the years ahead. Virtual and augmented reality is used in everything from games and entertainment to employee training in several industries.

Still, the market can only grow as quickly as the technology improves and evolves. Vilardi believes IMMY can provide the shove the industry needs.

“Honesty, I think the only reason (extended reality has) not exploded is not because people don’t want it or the software doesn’t exist to create some really cool experiences,” Vilardi said. “It’s really been an issue of the display systems. (Inferior display systems) continue to let the industry down and not let it go anywhere. That’s where we see our advantage.”

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