Seeing your own hands moving on screen as you’re gaming. That’s now possible with the virtual reality gloves created by Manus Machina. The Eindhoven start-up began exactly one year ago and has been on a roller coaster ride since then. We’re talking to CTO Maarten Witteveen at the new office on the Torenallee about the sudden interest from the BBC, the first client from Kazakstan and a lesson in the start-up language along the way.
This is Eindhoven at its best. A start-up at the cutting edge of design and technology that will spearhead developments in the virtual world. (According to the jury)
Bob Vlemmix, Stephan van den Brink and Tim van Veenendaal started Manus Machina in July of last year. Mostly working at the weekends and in the evenings at first. They were all either still studying or had just started a job. Witteveen joined in October and now there are 10 people working on the VR glove. Last month they went to the world’s largest games fair in the United States with a few demo gloves.
You’ve been working on this for exactly a year now. What’s been the highlight so far?
“It was Startupbootcamp HighTechXL,” says Witteveen straight away. “Our CEO, Stephan van den Brink, was working at EY (partner of the programme) and saw the announcement in a newsletter. It came at exactly the right time for us. We had just finished the prototype and wanted to move on to production. Something which involved completely different knowledge.”
Manus Machina began the accelerator programme at the High Tech Campus with ten other start-ups in November. It’s an intensive, three-month-long opportunity to work on your company and your products with the help of more than one hundred mentors. “The information that we gained was overwhelming. Halfway through the bootcamp, one of the Manus team said to me: ‘Maarten, I’m a sponge!’ It’s not just how your business model or the structure of your organisation looks, it’s also the way you sort out your patents: we were terrible at all of it.”
Manus Machina kept their office at the open workspace at the Startupbootcamp until March. “But then we really began to outgrow it,” laughs Witteveen. “We needed more tables for our sewing machine, our soldering station.”
The sewing machine was packed up and Manus Machina moved to the Videolab building on the Torenallee. And there wasn’t much time to settle in. They decided to take their glove to E3, the world’s largest games fair, in Los Angeles. This was two months before the fair. “It was really a case of tunnel vision and then just going! Most companies start preparing six months before E3. We had to do everything very quickly. If someone asked whether we could do this or that in a few months, I said: no, the world stops at E3.” Witteveen laughs. “But we survived and it was really educational.”
What did you take from it?
“The big start-up word is validation. Validating your assumptions. An event like this is great for that. Lots of developers and people from the industry come to try out your product. So you hear right away what works and what doesn’t.
And it’s also educational to see how fairs like this work. Nothing runs smoothly on the first day. Suddenly there were twenty people standing in front of the stand for a demo, the BBC came with a whole camera crew. This caught the interest of other reporters who were there, haha. In the evening we discussed how we were going to tackle the next days and then it went well. Thanks to the fair we got a lot of international attention.”
What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
“Getting the business process going, that’s perhaps the most difficult thing. I’ve only worked at companies where the structure was already fully in place. The word ‘standardisation’ regularly came up at Startupbootcamp. The first phase of a start-up is pretty bumpy, but then you have to converge these standards. How are we going to do this in processes and, very simply, when are we going to meet?”
How was the glove developed?
“It really all began with a running glove into which we built the sensors ourselves. The gloves are now specially made for us. The glove is great in terms of functionality. You can move your fingers quickly and hand rotation is good. What we want to improve now, above all else, is the ‘positional tracking’, that is, keeping track of where your hands are in the space (and on your screen).”
Witteveen describes how fun it is. “Each step we have in mind, we wonder, is it possible? And then, when we succeed, it’s just a party. And sometimes it’s a case of looking. When we were working on our Bluetooth function, it turned out that it was the wrong antenna. Via Metatronics, a company with which we often collaborate, we found a party that could help us right away. All in Eindhoven. Within two weeks, the design was modified and the Bluetooth was working again. Everything there and testing that, it’s really cool.”
So it’s working out well for you here?
“Yes, Eindhoven is a really great place for us. I get on my bike and in no time at all I’m at Metatronics on Strijp-S, which makes a whole design of a printed circuit board and does the testing for it. Or I can just bike to Veldhoven and I’m at Bestronics, where I can set up the production of the glove. There’s so much here.”
“After E3, it’s been a lot calmer at the company, there’s more space to consider the longterm. The first step now is to bring out an early access edition of the glove. They’re going to students at Fontys and the NHTV in Breda where we do a lot of collaborative work. It’s for us to see what stays put, what breaks quickly and which specific features are missing.” A good way of validating then? “Ha ha, exactly, yes, it really is a key concept.”
“Then we’ll bring out a more developed version that will cost 200 dollars. You can order them now . We’re already getting pre-orders from around the world, recently even from Kazakhstan and Russia. So cool.
This is the second profile of an Eindhoven start-up from this year’s Top 10 Start-ups to Watch. Read all of the profiles so far: