This article is part of a new series on Visionaries. The New York Times selected people from all over the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sports.
Jeri Ellsworth began playing pinball when she worked in a bowling alley as a teenager, and a manager there would occasionally give her a few free credits. Today, she has a collection of more than 70 pinball machines, but her passion has moved from the mechanical into a new digital augmented reality, which she believes will be the future of entertainment.
Ms. Ellsworth, 45, is a self-taught computer hacker and chip designer who recently started a new augmented reality gaming company, Tilt Five, based in San Jose, Calif. She is emblematic of a generation of Silicon Valley hobbyists who were passionate about computers and only later turned their passions into commercial enterprises. She originally gained visibility as an independent computer chip designer living in a rural ramshackle farmhouse in Yamhill, Ore.
Ms. Ellsworth was able to squeeze the entire circuitry of a decades-old Commodore 64 home computer onto a single advanced silicon chip, which she then tucked neatly into a joystick that was connected by a cable to a TV set. Called the Commodore C64 Direct-to-TV, her device was able to run 30 video games, mostly sports, racing and puzzle games from the early 1980s, all without the hassle of changing game cartridges.
“I’m a very curious person. Since I was a kid, I’d flip over rocks and just look at what was underneath.”
She was later hired by the gaming company Valve Software, to lead its research effort in augmented reality, technology that uses special glasses or holographic displays to superimpose three-dimensional objects and text on the physical world.
In 2013, she created castAR, a start-up based in Palo Alto, Calif., to design an augmented reality company that planned to design a system to support desktop 3-D gaming. Ultimately, the company raised more than $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign, then gave the money back when it was unable to raise a second round of financing. With other castAR employees, Ms. Ellsworth acquired the original technology from investors and has used it to start Tilt Five, which has raised $1.3 million in Kickstarter funding.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
What would you like people to know about your work?
I’ve always been passionate about making complete user experiences, whether that’s for a kid’s toy for a 12-year-old or something more professional, like, making sure it’s got the complete package, that it’s really easy to use on the physical side. It’s got all the software and the interactions, and that’s what I really get passionate about. And hopefully, people will remember that in my various things I’ve done.
What inspired you to go into your field?
I don’t know if there’s one single person. I think an awesome role model for me was my father who was a really hard worker when I was a kid. And I saw him struggle to do his own business. So I think that’s why I always lean toward doing my own thing instead of going and working for a monolithic company. But along the way, there’s been lots of mentors. Getting to know, first from a distance, people like Steve Wozniak or Nolan Bushnell, whom I later met in person, or all these kind of famous early Silicon Valley folks. I’d like to be like them making these amazing products. So from afar, they inspired me, but to actually meet them later in life was really cool.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be?
I wanted to be an astronaut. Yeah. I was really into space as a kid. At one point, I wanted to be a pilot and actually considered going into the Navy or the Air Force, to be a pilot. And my father talked me out of that. I was actually talking to recruiters and telling them, “I want to fly.” And my dad said, “you know what, they’re going to figure out that you’re really good with radios and computers and communications, and they’re going to stick you in the bottom of a ship running radios.” And so yeah, who knows how it would have happened, but I veered off from that.
“I was just a young kid pulling heads off of engines and lapping valves and stuff.”
Did your dad run a service station when you were growing up?
Yeah. He had me help him. I was maybe 12 years old, just old enough to be able to reach things under cars. He had me changing oil. I was just a young kid pulling heads off of engines and lapping valves and stuff. He didn’t isolate me from any of that stuff, which was awesome.
What obstacles have you faced in your field?
There are lots of obstacles in Silicon Valley, especially for a female entrepreneur. The money that female entrepreneurs can raise is dismal compared to men. It’s like 2 percent. It rewards the kind of male bravado where you go in and get a fist bump and get a bunch of money. That’s how it feels. There’s been some really disheartening surveys recently. They followed 300 women and 300 men, and then they determined, what questions do venture capitalists ask men versus women and men get asked, “tell me all about the upside,” while women are asked, “tell me how you’re going to defend yourself from the marauders.” And so that’s been a bit of a challenge for me.
How do you define success?
I’ve done a lot of things in my life. And not many of them are public, and I think they’ve been successful. Some of them are just my mentoring and giving back. I don’t get much recognition for some of these things. Sometimes it’s the satisfaction of doing something that folks think will be impossible. So, I mean, a few years ago, I built semiconductors in my garage. I began doing research and people told me it would be impossible. They said you have to have clean rooms and millions of dollars of equipment and I decided I think I can do it in any case. I spent like five years researching. It was like a passion project, and then I did it.
“I feel that we’re at the point in history that maybe parallels the early home computers.”
How do you plan to change your field?
Well, I’m super excited about augmented reality. I think it will be the next computing platform. I feel that we’re at the point in history that maybe parallels the early home computers. Augmented reality in the next 20 years is really going to transform the way that we compute. We’re going to be more intimately connected to the way we compute and these glasses or whatever technology comes along that does this kind of augmentation of our world is going to know probably more about us than we know about ourselves. And it’s going to be this persistent improvement in our life because it will change the way we can interact with data, and the way we receive information.
Where do you find your sources of creativity?
I pull it in from all over the place. I’m a very curious person. Since I was a kid, I’d flip over rocks and just look at what was underneath. And so I think that even in my adult life, I’m constantly flipping over rocks. And so it can be almost anything, it can be an interesting optical phenomenon and I’ll decide, I’ve got to understand what this strange phenomenon is. Or maybe some new electrical thing that I see. Or it could be on the art side, I do quite a few art projects. It all ties together and becomes a holistic approach I take to designing products. It’s because I’m so curious in these different areas of science and arts and music. It helps me make better products.
“I’ve always been passionate about making complete user experiences, whether that’s for a kid’s toy for a 12-year-old or something more professional.”
How does technology interact with your profession?
I have to stay up with it, and I try to always be as much on the leading edge of technology as possible. I have optics tables at home and I have plasma etchers. I even have holographic world combiners. I have all this stuff just right in my living room. I try to be fearless when it comes to technology, and I try to adopt it as fast as possible.