Oct 22, 2015 | Atlanta, GA
Story by Van Jensen
The virtual worlds of Guy Primus—engineer, entrepreneur and Hollywood revolutionary
This kid grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in east Pittsburgh, a blue-collar neighborhood. His mom was a teacher; his dad worked the late shift. They named their son Guy—Guy Primus—and with a name like that, it’s no wonder the kid had dreams.
In high school, Guy worked at his cousin’s convenience store. Saturday would come, and he’d pick up his $20 for the week and head down the street to Stedeford’s Record Shop, where he dropped every last cent to buy four 12-inch singles.
Guy dreamed of music. He wanted to be a DJ, so he built up his record collection, bought a turntable, taught himself to spin. But he wasn’t content to be just another DJ. He wanted to be great.
So Guy built his own setup, decked everything out with fabric and lights. He disassembled a telephone handset and rebuilt it to be his earpiece, a little touch of style to set him apart.
As much as Guy loved the music, the mechanics of the equipment fascinated him even more. His turntable broke, so he picked it apart, fixed it. Same with the TV at home—well, except he never could get that working again.
His dreams changed, and he saw himself designing and building speakers, a scientist with style, just like Amar G. Bose, the MIT professor whose eponymous company was overtaking the sound system industry.
So Guy would be a physicist. And to excel at that, he’d have to head south, to Georgia Tech. It was 1987, and fresh out of high school, he moved away from Pittsburgh for the first time—off to Atlanta.
He stepped onto campus, just another freshman. But he had conviction. He believed he would do something great. He had imagined it, and now he would set about the work of making it so.
Suspension of disbelief.
The British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first coined the phrase in the early 1800s. Writers of the era were obsessed with reality, believing readers couldn’t possibly engage with fiction featuring supernatural or fantastical elements.
Coleridge disagreed. Reality couldn’t contain his imagination, and he focused his efforts into building new realities. But Coleridge knew he must invite his readers to cross into the world of his mind, that he must make his work familiar and true.
He must “procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
The onus is not on the audience to set aside its skepticism. It is the visionary who bears the responsibility for guiding others into his dreams.
The office is in old Hollywood, an unassuming high-rise, built maybe in the 1920s. You walk through, and you can still almost hear the clack of typewriters echoing off the tile—forgotten screenwriters creating the golden age of movies one keystroke at a time.
You take the elevator to the ninth floor, past the offices of production companies where people are hard at work on the latest superhero movie, or the next episode of Dance Moms.
You step into the office, and the first thing that hits you is the view, a vista of downtown Los Angeles rising from the city’s unending expanse. But the office feels more tech startup than Hollywood. Ikea desks sit in tight formation, holding computers and other high-tech gear. A whiteboard along one wall seems to sag, it’s so laden with diagrams and equations labeled with phrases like “cross-collateralized.”
Guy Primus stands over a desk, next to a colleague, scanning data on a screen. He sees you, walks over, shakes your hand.
Guy is in his 40s now, his hair graying, but otherwise with the same tall build, the broad, bright smile. He welcomes you to his latest venture, The Virtual Reality Company, which is creating some of the first content for the nascent VR devices that soon will be widely available to consumers for the first time. He is now the company’s chief executive officer.
Guy has worked at some of the largest companies—Starbucks, Microsoft—and with some of the largest names—Will Smith, Sean Combs—in the world. He has enjoyed success beyond what some can fathom. But, as he says, “I wasn’t going to establish a legacy, working for someone else.”
So he’s taking what is just the latest in a long series of risks, building up an industry that doesn’t yet exist.
“Virtual reality is revolutionary,” Guy says. “There is no seminal work of VR. Being there at such an early, foundational stage is daunting, but it’s a great place to be at. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Guy asks you to imagine the future of entertainment, a world transformed, of revolutionary technology partnered with world-class content.
But you don’t have to imagine it. You can see it.
The vision grew hazy, obscured. It wasn’t so simple as just learning to build the world’s best speakers. Most physics majors ended up working in the federal government, not a path Guy wanted to walk.
Guy struggled to stay interested in his classes, and he questioned himself, his vision of the future. He didn’t know what he’d do. Then he heard the song.
“I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech and a hell of an engineer.”
What the hell was he doing at Georgia Tech if he wasn’t going to be an engineer? He cast around, examining schools, programs. Industrial and systems engineering struck his interest.
“Industrial engineers don’t really create things, but they like to work with people, not stuck in a lab all day,” he says. “Optimization was really appealing.”
During the first quarter of his senior year, he enrolled in a distributions systems class under Don Ratliff, now the Regents’ Professor Emeritus of ISyE. Even among some fifty students, Guy stood out, “by far the best student in the class,” Ratliff remembers.
One day they talked, and Guy revealed he wasn’t sure what to do after graduation. He told Ratliff that the course was the first one he’d really liked. Ratliff suggested graduate school, but Guy worried his grades weren’t good enough. “I said, ‘That doesn’t make sense. You’re the brightest guy in the class, the top score on everything,’” Ratliff says.
The grades were subpar, but Guy had been involved in more organizations and activities than Ratliff could count, and was a leader in many of them. Ratliff saw that Guy could succeed when he was working on something he was passionate about, so he went to the head of graduate studies and lobbied for Guy’s admission.
“Normally, I didn’t do anything like this,” Ratliff says. “But I thought this guy was special. I personally vouched for him. They let him in, and he did great; he made all A’s.”
After graduate school, Guy joined Ratliff’s software company, Caps Logistics. During his two years there, Guy saw a new world open up, one beyond the blue-collar setting of his youth. He also felt the familiar tug of ambition, to explore the world of management.
He took a job as a consultant at A.T. Kearney, solving business problems using analytics. The firm offered to send him to business school, and he went to Harvard. There, he remembers talking to famed professor Carl Sloane, who told him, “You’re at the West Point of capitalism. You can do anything you want to do. Follow your passion, and the money will come.”
Guy realized he’d gotten away from his first love—music—thinking he had to choose between entertainment or a career in business.
“I stepped back and said I had always wanted to work in entertainment, but I had this analytical bent,” Guy says. “So how could I combine them?”
He set his imagination to work, combining his passions. While others saw the worlds of art and technology as wholly separate, he saw a way to unite them. He would be a bridge.
On one desk sit a pair of what looks almost like ski goggles—it’s a brand-new pair of Rift virtual reality glasses built by Silicon Valley darling Oculus. Guy picks them up, hands them to you.
You pull on headphones, then the glasses. The world goes black, disappears.
Then it reappears, but, no, this isn’t the same world. You tilt your head left and right, up and down. You stand on an island. And the island floats in the sky. In the near distance are other islands. A whale rises suddenly from the ether, and you instinctively reach out to touch it as it flies past.
You’re in a dream, except it’s real. No matter how hard you look for a crack, a seam, you find none. There’s a rustle of wind in your ear, and the knee-high grass undulates with the breeze.
You follow a small girl, running from something now, something dark. She leads you out onto a rickety wooden pier, which extends out into the sky, then stops. The girl leaps, disappears.
You’re at the edge of the pier. You have to jump, or the dark thing will catch you. You look down at the drop, down and down forever.
You’re afraid of heights. Your whole body tenses. Your stomach churns. But the momentum takes you. You leap into the blue.
Then the glasses come off, and the old world returns. And you wish you could go back, to see what comes next.
Out of business school, Guy began using the analytics training he’d picked up at Georgia Tech and applying it to the world of marketing. That drew the interest of Bad Boy Entertainment, the media giant run by Sean Combs, the producer and rapper formerly known as Puff Daddy.
There, Guy learned the power of tastemakers first hand. Combs had street teams, people who knew what parties to be at, to get a feel for what the crowd wanted, what was becoming popular. Bad Boy also leveraged connections to DJs, getting their feedback, testing out music before widely releasing it.
“It’s not enough to just put out a great product,” Guy says. “You have to market it, you have to promote it, you have to connect it to the tastemakers.”
From there, he went to Microsoft, where he saw early the rise of digital music and leveraged it across the company’s platforms like MSN Messenger. Guy reached out to his friends in the music industry to create the Microsoft DJ Summit, which led to a series of playlists from DJs like DJ Spooky and a young Kanye West. The effort won a major advertising industry award. It also confirmed Guy’s theory that the key to success is finding the best content and then using emergent technology to bring it to consumers.
At Starbucks, Guy continued to work in music, developing a partnership with Apple that gave customers download cards for new songs, a different track every week. It became the company’s Pick of the Week program, which is still running strong, almost eight years later.
Guy moved his family from Seattle to Los Angeles to become the chief operating officer of Overbrook Entertainment, the production company of film star Will Smith. Though Guy says he’s never been in awe of celebrities, there’s a definite benefit to working with big names.
“I’m not the most talkative person,” he says. “So I choose who I work with. People know Sean Combs. They know Will Smith. Microsoft and Bill Gates, everyone knows. It opens a door a lot more quickly.”
But, after several years at the company developing its interactive portfolio, Guy felt a familiar pull. He wanted to stay on the cutting edge of technology, as he had his entire career. But he also wanted to build something of his own. Again, it was time to reflect on the vision, to see where it would lead next.
Guy started a handful of companies and worked as an adviser to startups. It was a systematic approach to testing out opportunities, seeing what resonated. It was also exhausting.
“I was stretched too thin,” Guy says. “I was finding myself shortchanging projects that deserved attention and putting too much effort into things that weren’t going anywhere.”
One project that did well was the Marvel Experience, a virtual tour through the company’s world of superheroes that Guy helped develop. Through it, he saw the power of taking people through an immersive experience. He saw the future, and it looked virtual.
The term first appeared in a 1938 book by French playwright, actor and director Antonin Artaud. He described theater as “la réalité virtuelle,” a space where actors, directors, playwrights, set designers take part in an alchemical process, uniting to create a new reality.
But it is not just those who take part in the process that are transported. No, this new plane of existence is one that the audience enters and experiences.
You know a little about virtual reality, that it’s been around in some form since the 1980s, when technologists commandeered the term for the new computer-designed virtual spaces they were constructing. You know that since then, VR has grown and developed in fits and starts, used mostly for training simulation.
While it hasn’t taken off, the signs of its potential are there. You read a recent study by researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory that says virtual reality is a very effective treatment for people who suffer from fear of flying. It allows them to go through their fears, to process them, and to learn to cope. It’s powerful, you see, but relatively untapped.
But VR has never taken off as a form of entertainment. In part because the technology has been too expensive for broad adoption, and in part, Guy tells you, because VR lacks the powerful stories that draw readers and viewers to other media.
“Ted Turner took the best of content and had this distribution that was novel,” he says. “People didn’t know what to do with cable TV, but he did know what to do with it. He made the Braves America’s team just because he knew what to do with emergent technology.
“We’re in the same space today. There’s this really great technology platform that exists, in virtual reality, but there’s no content. There’s zero content. Most of the content being created is very gimmicky. We’re looking to create really immersive, story-driven, character-driven content. It feels like you’re there, as opposed to sitting there and watching.”
You think it’s a risky plan, relying entirely on a technology that remains mostly foreign to consumers. But, you realize, the same could be said for the television, or the computer.
“Silicon Valley only invests in technology,” Guy admits. “It’s a challenge for us. We’re in a tech-driven form of media. Billions are going into VR tech. But no one will buy a headset without content.”
You look at Guy’s three partners in the business, and you think that if anyone could pull this off, this would be the group to do it. The VR you just watched is a preview of There, a fantastical story from the mind of the chief creative officer, Robert Stromberg, who created the virtual world of Avatar and directed the recent Disney hit Maleficent. The chief production officer is Chris Edwards, head of Third Floor, a firm that has created a revolutionary way to streamline the filmmaking process. And the president is Joel Newton, a producer whose credits include the film The Kids are All Right.
Their advisers include former Tech president G. Wayne Clough and Steven Spielberg. You’ve seen all of his movies.
“It wasn’t his name,” Guy tells you. “It’s that he has a vision. He can make a project that still resonates, 40 years later.”
You hear that Spielberg is developing a story for the Virtual Reality Company, a family-oriented project. You make a note, to make damn sure you experience it. You hear about other projects in development, including a documentary about Jerome Bettis, the NFL running back recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, as well as one called The Museum of Supernatural History, and another that’s a virtual concert venue, allowing you to experience a show and even go backstage, all from your living room.
“Something about being in the world, it connects you more deeply,” Guy says. “You feel it.”
You ask Guy about the stories he likes. Family, he says. He lists off a string of shows and movies: Frasier, Scarface, Godfather, E.T. All stories about families, the blood-relation kind and the kind we create.
Guy has a young daughter, and he talks about her, how she’s brought into focus the importance of women’s issues, how technology still has so far to go to be as diverse and welcoming as it can be.
“Women and people of color, historically, we’re always playing catch up,” he says. “We want to have women and people of color involved in the creative process, and to make sure the content is connected to them, that it speaks to them.”
The vision grows, changes, evolves. But it is clearer now, crystal. You can see that Guy knows it, that he sees his moment has come.
“I literally have been waiting for this moment in time since 1988,” he tells you.
He dreamed it, then made it so. Turned his vision into a new world, one that’s right there, just ahead. Would you like to see it? ▪
This story was originally published in Engineers, the Georgia Tech College of Engineering magazine.