'It’s an exciting time to build hardware': Emerge’s CEO on building metaverse devices

The company’s ultrasonic touch device went up for preorders on Kickstarter on Tuesday.

Emerge Home ultrasonic touch device

Emerge co-CEO Sly Lee said that his company is looking to build an alternative to the way touch has been portrayed in science fiction.

Photo: Emerge

On Tuesday, VR hardware startup Emerge debuted its first product, Emerge Home, on Kickstarter. Emerge Home uses ultrasound to convey the sense of touch in VR without the need for any complicated gloves. For $499, early adopters also get access to the Emerge Home app for Meta’s Quest headset, which lets them play tactile minigames with other Emerge users in VR.

At Protocol’s How to Build the Metaverse event, Emerge co-CEO Sly Lee said that his company is looking to build an alternative to the way touch has been portrayed in science fiction, which has included haptic gloves and suits. “Those are silly,” Lee said. “Those won’t happen.”

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Meta from working on its own pair of haptic gloves — which brings up an interesting question: What role do hardware startups have to play in building the metaverse when today’s platforms are being dominated by companies with billion-dollar budgets?

“There's actually a lot of nuance to building your own hardware,” Lee told Protocol in a follow-up conversation this week. Common sentiment among VCs is that hardware is hard, with consumer hardware being especially challenging.

Lee disagreed. “It's an exciting time to build hardware, because there are so many available off-the-shelf components,” he said, adding that Emerge was able to develop its entire product with just one hardware engineer, allowing the rest of the company to focus on software. Getting that software experience right was key for a startup like Emerge to succeed, Lee said.

Early on, Emerge was looking to build a platform and simply open up the product to third-party developers. However, the company quickly realized that it didn’t have the money or market power to win over developers. “We very quickly found out [that] this is not scalable as this small company without a Facebook budget,” Lee said.

Instead, Emerge built its own app with half a dozen mini games as a starting point. The company has started to have some conversations with VR game developers to add Emerge support to their apps, but Lee said that it could take years before the company can release a full-fledged SDK.

Emerge wants to use that time to fine-tune its hardware, which includes cheaper and higher-fidelity versions. Lee also said that the company could add other modalities or features in years to come, and he argued that VR headsets might become just one of many hardware accessories for the metaverse.

Whatever the future holds, Lee said that there’s room for hardware startups like Emerge in it, which is why the company has no plans to license its technology to companies like Meta. “We've always been very interested in creating a consumer brand and a consumer product,” he said.

Update: This story was updated Feb. 8 to clarify that Sly Lee is a co-CEO.


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Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

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The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

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Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

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Donna Goodison

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Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

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Kate Kaye

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