When yesterday’s innovation is old news today, “Break things faster” is a good mantra.
It’s the rallying cry at the Portland, Oregon–based OntheGo Platforms. The tech startup has created an interface that allows single 2D cameras on mobile devices to recognize hand gestures. It’s also seized an early lead in an industry that is predicted to swell to more than $100 billion by 2018.
At the helm of the seven-person company are two Skyview High School class of 2005 alums: Ryan Fink, CEO, and Ty Frackiewicz, who oversees partnerships, projects and products. In the decade since their high school graduation, the duo has worked to advance gesture-recognition technology and anticipate consumer appetite for wearable devices. Their trajectory hasn’t been without setbacks and tough breaks, but in just a few years the company has leapt to the forefront of a bourgeoning market.
While OntheGo’s rise in the gesture-recognition space has been rapid, Fink and Frackiewicz have been planning to go into business together since meeting in the fifth grade at King’s Way Christian Schools.
The original plan was to open a Baskin-Robbins. The then-new Skyview, which opened in fall 1997, attracted the boys with its reputation for great teachers and programs. Transitioning to public school was easy.
“Our class had cliques, but we all got along,” said Frackiewicz.
Skyview also provided the future entrepreneurs’ first immersion in technology. Frackiewicz’s natural enthusiasm for gadgetry infected Fink, who by then planned to be an inventor. After graduation, Frackiewicz spent a semester at Clark College, then headed east to Montana State University. Fink enrolled at Azusa Pacific University, in California.
Out of dorm rooms they started and operated Anatomy Clothing. The e-commerce site sold Frackiewicz and Fink’s own T-shirt designs and name-brand clothing, primarily to their classmates.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2009, Fink returned to the Northwest and opened a brick-and-mortar location for Anatomy in Portland’s Alphabet District. But without the built-in customer base, Anatomy shuttered in 2010.
Running with ghosts
Fink spent a year as an armed guard for the Department of Energy, and then the impetus for the pair’s next move materialized during one of his daily runs around H.B. Fuller Park. He had an idea: What if he could compare a current run to previous workouts by essentially racing a ghost of himself?
Over the course of a year he researched existing products, raised cash from friends and family and built GhostRunner on a Vizux heads-up display. The application records the user’s route and time, and then allows him or her to race a 3D avatar.
With his savings from Anatomy Clothing, he filed two patent applications.
Fink now acknowledges the difficulty of building GhostRunner. He questioned the potential for its long-term market success.
As wearable technology began to shrink in size and expand in capability, Fink had another important realization: The technology needed a new way for users to interact with it. Wearables needed a new interface.
“Voice doesn’t work well in loud scenarios. And touch is very limited,” he explained. “It breaks the user experience when you move into different wearables and interactive scenarios.”
He marshaled his resources to focus on gesture recognition. Frackiewicz, who earned a construction engineering degree in 2011, worked remotely from Montana.
The resulting Augmented Reality Interface, or Ari, uses a suite of subtle motions, such as swiping right or left or making a fist. Kind of like Siri for gesture recognition; that it does not require added hardware is a bonus. Ari was first built to operate on Google Glass, which challenged the team with its limited central processing unit and battery power. “If we could get this technology to run on that, it would runanywhere,” said Fink.
In the business world, there’s a proving ground for startups. Seed accelerators provide mentoring, due diligence assistance, exposure, capital and a network of supportive contacts. OntheGo has completed three such programs: the Portland State Business Accelerator, Portland Seed Fund and Startup PDX Challenge.
“The PDX Startup surrounds you with other startups. Everyone knows the situation you go through and celebrates milestones. The startups feed off of your energy. It’s cool to experience it with other people,” said Frackiewicz, who returned to the Northwest in 2014. Both he and Fink now live in Vancouver.
OntheGo officially incorporated in 2012. Ari’s beta launch came in April 2014, with the first official release in late October. Developers and Fortune 100 companies have come calling. The music, athletic and auto industries also have expressed interest.
Unexpected applications for Ari have pushed the technology into new markets for people who operate in environments where touchscreens are undesirable— scrubbed-in doctors, for example. “We think we’re creative until we talk to other people. They come up with cooler things,” said Fink.
But Fink and Frackiewicz aren’t oblivious to the room for dominance in their field. In addition to two patents for GhostRunner, Fink has filed six others. OntheGo’s work has expanded to smartphones and tablets, and recently Ari was selected as the interface for Epson smart glasses.
And though gesture recognition may be the next big thing, OntheGo already is planning the big thing that will follow it: an entirely natural, intuitive interface. To hear Fink and Frackiewicz illustrate this concept, such an interface would automatically turn off the stove and lights when the user put on his or her shoes, recognizing the act as the precursor to leaving the house.
Every development is a step closer. Said Fink, “There’s a small window of opportunity, and if we make it, we’ll be successful. If we don’t, one of the other guys will get it. We’re just trying to run as fast as we can.”
Break things faster.
Android users can test Ari’s capabilities by downloading the BrainWave app. BrainWave allows users to control music players such as Pandora with gestures.