Tony Price still remembers the precise date and time of his first virtual reality experience – Thursday, May 12 at 7:00 pm. Oculus had just launched Rift demos at 48 Best Buy stores a week earlier and Price wanted to check out the new tech. What he didn’t know then was that the experience would change his life and inspire a fantastic product for VR gamers.
As a child growing up in Akron, Ohio, Price spent a lot of time mowing yards, delivering newspapers, and plowing driveways to save money for videogames. He recalls that Sears Telegames were around $60 each, a lot of money for a 12-year-old, but he put in the work to reap big rewards.
“My brother and I loved video games,” he states. “He was a natural who could pick up any game and play it as if he has played for years whereas I’ve never been very good.”
When the TRS-80 Color Computer came out, Price and his brother talked their father into buying a used one they found in the Akron Beacon Journal classifieds for $350. They convinced him that they wanted to learn programming, but they actually wanted access to a library of less expensive games.
“There have been a few breakthroughs in videogames over the years,” says Price, referring to Pong, Atari, Nintendo, and Playstation. “Virtual reality always seemed like an unattainable goal, always waiting for technology to catch up enough to make it possible.”
When the Oculus DK1 launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, Price was hesitant because there had been other products that didn’t quite live up to the promises of a realistic immersive environment. But by 2016, when Oculus announced the Best Buy demos, Price was ready.
As he waited in line for a man and his daughter to finish their experience, Price says he was ultra-hyped because he knew he was going to see what was in store for the future.
When it was finally his turn, the Oculus representative went through some pre-awareness training and reminded Price that he needed to stay in one place so he wouldn’t pull cables out of the computer, run into the desk, hit any passersby who walked too close, etc. He was listening to the representative, but like a kid awaiting his turn on an amusement ride, Price was anxious to begin the experience.
“The demo went off without a hitch and I was hooked,” he says. “Oculus had accomplished what I thought was impossible. I knew that we had reached a new level in gaming and computer use and that new potentials would be realized with VR now a reality.”
After a “forever” wait of about two weeks for the Rift CV1 to come back in stock, Price moved everything out of his home office that wasn’t absolutely necessary. A playspace of about 6 ft x 8 ft remained and he began to experience the immersive environments of games like Google’s Tilt Brush that would allow him to draw in thin air.
“At the time, I was on my hardwood floor in an open space environment,” Price explains. “I had the digital chaperone system in place and it gave me an indication as to when I was getting close to the boundaries, but beyond that I had no idea where I was in the room or which direction I was facing. I would take the headset off and I was amazed at how I had lost orientation – being way off from where I thought I was – even being tethered with the cord.”
Price works at a company that sells industrial supplies such as hydraulic hose and sheet rubber. It dawned on him to make a round mat and stick it in the middle of his room so he’d know where he was. He cut some anti-fatigue foam rubber in a large round circle, but he discovered that he was getting lost on the mat.
This was not a problem. In the spirit of a true inventor, Price began to experiment with different versions of the mat. Eventually he added a forward button on the mat, which he says gave it personality and made it look like a mat with a purpose. The button also helped him retain a forward-facing position, which is necessary for certain sensor set-ups.
Around the time he was working on the mat project, Price introduced a friend to virtual reality. When this friend asked about the mat and discovered that Price had made it, the friend encouraged him to do a patent check to see if anyone else was making something like it.
Fortunately Price took his friend’s advice, contacted a patent attorney, and began the time-consuming process of obtaining US Patent number 10350488. He says it took about three years that involved a lot of financial and time investment, but it was a learning experience as he found solutions to problems and continued to improve the mats.
They also came up with the name ProxiMat, which is short for Proximity Mat.
I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Price at E3 in June 2019 and began to work with him on a VR esports version of the mats. Since most VR esports games limit playspace to 4 ft x 4 ft, it was important to have a mat that provided athletes with those playspace parameters. With input from VR esports players in games like Ready At Dawn’s Echo Arena, Downpour Interactive’s Onward, and others, we began to discuss ways to make the best possible mat for athletes who want to stay focused on gameplay and not on whether they’re getting ready to smash their hand into a wall or computer screen.
“The Leaderboard mat is approximately 48” x 48” with a nice curve and we’ve incorporated buttons into the four corners, as well as center and forward awareness,” Price explains. “It is our goal to make the best positional awareness mat for the VR esports industry and to support that community as best as we can.”
The ProxiMat team continues to find ways to improve their products. They’ve been focusing on mats for specific audiences and they can print league or team logos on the mats as well. They’re currently working on a design-it-yourself version.
In addition to visibility with VR esports teams, YouTube creators, casual gamers, developers, etc., you’re also likely to see a ProxiMat in the upcoming Space Jam 2 starring Lebron James. Set to be released in July 2021, James’ son in the movie is a VR programmer with a VR space in their mansion. Although the movie’s release is still over a year away, it’s exciting to know that it’ll feature virtual reality.
Although the first seeds for ProxiMat were planted when the Oculus representative at Best Buy was telling Price to be careful not to move outside the playspace, the ideas for a practical, comfortable solution that would help VR gamers continued to develop and grew into a useful product.