The Inventor: Jeri Ellsworth

Jeri Ellsworth is an engineer at heart. In her cluttered basement office in Woodinville, the soft-spoken 39-year-old is working on mad-scientist levels of technical brilliance, but you wouldn’t think it from her tone. What she lacks in loud proclamations or wild gestures, she makes up for in thick electronics jargon: “input device,” “circuit board,” “user experience.”

Ellsworth’s latest invention, the CastAR headset, is a featherlight pair of glasses with two small bulbs on top of the frames. With the flick of a switch, CastAR transforms into the world’s coolest virtual reality device, one that may permanently change the way people interact with computers.

Think of holograms in sci-fi movies, where a 3-D image appears on a blank surface. Ellsworth came up with a low-cost way to make virtual objects appear as if they were on your table by projecting 3-D images directly onto glass lenses—like Google Glass but more intense. Motion sensors work to make those images look real. You can even manipulate the images in real space with CastAR’s simple wand-shape controller, interacting with a virtual Jenga tower, say, or sculpting virtual clay.

Ellsworth has been making gizmos for as long as she can remember. When she was little, her father, a gas station owner in Dallas, Ore., put a box out at the station labeled ‘bring your junk electronics in’ so he didn’t have to buy her toys to take apart. Her self-taught engineering career has followed a similarly wild path. After dropping out of high school, she began racing—and building—high-speed cars, then opened her own build-your-own-computer shops around Oregon. In the early ’00s, she started designing toys, including a highly successful, itty-bitty version of the classic Commodore 64 that blew up on QVC.

Years of toy-making, along with a popular gadget-hacking video series on YouTube, led her to Seattle-area game company Valve Software, where she was hired to lead the company’s first-ever hardware lab in 2012. A year later, her project was canceled, but not before her bosses returned her prototypes and patents—a rarity in the tech sector—and encouraged her to produce CastAR herself.

That plan is now in full swing, thanks to a 2013 Kickstarter campaign that topped $1 million, and the virtual reality glasses are scheduled for release in September. While CastAR was invented at a games company, Ellsworth is excited about its many other uses in architecture, design, medicine and interactive 3-D art.

Ellsworth doesn’t want to define how CastAR will be used. Much in the same way she has spent her life taking stuff apart to rebuild it in interesting ways (which she still does in her spare time, especially with a dozens-strong collection of old pinball machines), she wants CastAR to allow anybody to unpack their digital dreams.

“I didn’t go to school to learn this stuff; mentors helped me along the way. So I love giving back, and it’s super exciting when parents bring their daughters over and introduce me. I’m glad I’m making an impact that way.”

Age 39
Hometown Dallas, Ore.
Greatest inspiration 
Growing up watching my father struggle to grow his small business
Achilles’ heel Feeling unworthy of successes
Current obsession 
Learning to sing

Photo by Mike Hipple.

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