When Ben O’Brien, CEO of StretchSense, a private Auckland, New Zealand-based tech startup that produces motion-capture gloves, and his co-founders first came up with the idea for a better way of electronically capturing hand motions, they decided to go firsthand (no pun intended) to check out whether it was a marketable opportunity. “We hopped on some planes and went and visited some motion-capture studios,” he said. “They were all very good at capturing body motions and facial movements. But inevitably, because they had no good way to capture hands, their figures would have ‘ninja hands.’ But hands are a really key part of what makes us human! So these places would literally have teams of animators drawings hands on the characters. There’s so much detail based on what the character is interacting with. It took months and huge amounts of money, and plus puts the brakes on the creative process. We looked at the gloves that were out there, and they just weren’t used in the actual studios. The sensor tech wasn’t working for fingers.” The team knew right then they had a great product idea.
It took years, but O’Brien is happy with what StretchSense has achieved. “We have well over 200 studios working with us now,” he said. “We’ve built the best motion-capture glove on the market. You can wash it 200 times, and it still feels and works great. It’s got great manufacturability. At the beginning due to bad experiences with other products our customers would say motion-capture gloves just don’t work. So we weaponized honesty. We built deep trust with brutally honest demo videos, and a business model based around two-week trials before anybody pays a cent. This works both because our gloves truly do perform the best, but also because customers can see our relentless progress toward our mission of being the premium solution for hands in the metaverse.”
Getting to this point was anything but smooth. O’Brien first got started on the basic technology when he was studying for his BE in mechatronics at Auckland University. “A friend saw an ad for a summer internship at the biomimetics lab, working on a project for artificial muscles. I met my co-founders [Todd Gisby and Iain Anderson] there. We worked on different things for about five years, and became known for making things that actually worked. We developed and sold half a million dollars’ worth of these $10,000 desktop power supplies, as well as a variety of artificial muscle demonstrator devices. We learned to solve problems and support our products–it was like a finishing school for how to do business. In 2012 we set up StretchSense.”
It was a visit from royalty that set them on their eventual technology path. “When the company was three days old, we bought some Hugo Boss leather driving gloves and put sensors into them to make a hand tracking demo for a visit to New Zealand by Prince Charles,” O’Brien explained. “From there we launched a sensor development kit with really stretchable sensors that were incredibly accurate. Their performance doesn’t change over time–they do ultra-precision tracking, they’re stable, and they’re accurate for years. We developed the ability to integrate them into clothing.”
The team built a business around that product, which went very well–for a while. “We grew the business to 240 people,” said O’Brien. “Then we had one of our biggest contracts canceled by a customer who moved to a smartphone app, and we went back down to 13 people. That made us re-evaluate what to do. AR and VR had blossomed by then, with headset design and streaming driving them. And by then we’d figured out how to design our own garments and developed the technology to manufacture. So that’s when we decided on the motion-capture glove.”
To get back out of the gates with their new business, StretchSense teamed up with the experts. “We partnered with a couple of the best game companies, and got their dream ideas for the technology,” O’Brien said. “At the end of 2019, we launched our first gloves. People liked them, and that kicked off two years of iterating with various customers.” Over the past five years they’ve grown to that customer count of over 200 studios in 28 countries, as they continued to develop their technologies. Since pivoting to gloves StretchSense has closed over $9 million NZD ($6.4 million USD) in funding to drive their work.
The result is the company’s MoCap Pro gloves, which feature multi-segment splay sensors that capture knuckle bend and finger splay separately. They’re made of comfortable stretch fabric that’s machine washable, and feature eight-hour battery life. StretchSense has also developed a proprietary integration software suite, Hand Engine, which provides a ready interface between the glove and most popular animation software packages.
“Game companies and studios are building the future,” said O’Brien. “The average consumer doesn’t realize how they’ll be changing everything soon. VFX companies are pioneers building the metaverse and the content that will flood it. Then it will move on to things like VR training and conferencing, as well as consumer items build around the technologies. The next thing will be ways to manipulate, control and influence items in a digital virtual space. Your partner in a different country can put on a headset, see what you’re doing in real time, and make changes manually. We can create a virtual world we can dip into as we need to. Really high-fidelity hands will be a critical part of that.”
Toward that end, StretchSense continues to focus on continuously improving its products. “We believe in combining our core technologies with our customers’ needs. That could be more sensors or faster data processing. We’re not done until our glove creates a perfect digital representation and captures every movement without the user noticing anything different from the real world. In the virtual world, you pull on our glove and you’re done–perfect hand tracking in zero time. It’s about two things: quality of data and speed of delivery. It needs to be real-time and snappy. We have a whole team of developers working on that.”