When Kevin McNamara was 13, he saw the Pixar movie Finding Nemo. Although he'd seen plenty of animated films before that, something about the way the camera seemed to zoom through an coral reef made him realize "somebody spent their life making that thing--this massive, beautiful, virtual world." McNamara thought he'd like to spend his own life making worlds like that, endless lifelike universes conjured from zeroes and ones.
Now--after learning from the best in the business at Pixar, Microsoft, and Apple--the 29-year-old is doing just that. But his company, Parallel Domain, isn't in the business of entertaining people with movies or video games. Its mission is to save lives by offering virtual environments where self-driving car systems can work out their bugs and learn through trial and error.
Road traffic accidents cause about 1.25 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. "We just accept that, and I think that's really strange," says McNamara. "The autonomous vehicle industry has a lot of opportunity to eliminate the dumb mistakes that end up killing most people."
Ready or not, autonomous vehicles, or AVs, are coming to our cities. Uber, Waymo, and BMW have all tested driverless cars on public roads. Former Waymo and Uber executive Anthony Levandowski says he rode all the way across America using autopilot software made by his new company, Pronto.
While those efforts generated headlines, what they failed to do was prove that AVs are safe enough to carry human passengers in traffic. Indeed, sometimes they undermined that proposition, as when a self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Arizona in 2018. According to the Rand Corporation, it may require hundreds of billions of miles of testing to train autonomous driving systems and establish full confidence in their safety performance. "The only way you can practically drive that many miles is in simulation," says Jim Adler, founding managing director of Toyota AI Ventures, which was among the investors that gave Parallel Domain $2.65 million in seed funding in December.
Of the 1,400 deals Adler has looked at since Toyota AI Ventures was founded in July 2017, he has chosen to invest in 19 companies. "We say no a lot," he says. What separated Parallel Domain from the rest, he says, was McNamara, who exhibits "this duality of confidence and humility." While other startups offer their own one-size-fits-all driving simulation solutions, McNamara set his apart by listening to his customers and offering various tiers of products that meet their specific needs.
For Toyota, which already had its own dynamic driving simulation platform, Parallel Domain's ability to render maps into photorealistic 3-D environments was an attractive plug-in offering. "Of course, we liked the technology these guys have brought to market, but we also like how they're selling it," says Adler.
While studying computer science at Harvard, McNamara realized his childhood dreams by landing an internship at Pixar. Working on the film Brave, he absorbed the finer points of procedural content generation, which the CGI studio uses to create complex digital environments like forests from algorithms, without an animator required to draw each tree and leaf.
McNamara put his new skills to work as a technical artist at Microsoft Game Studios. In 2015, Apple came calling. The iPhone maker was in the midst of a push to develop its own autonomous vehicles and recruited him to work on simulations. McNamara liked the work but thought it was too important for any one company to own. "We were building things at Apple that would benefit an entire industry, and at the end of the day, that was going to be used only to benefit Apple's bottom line," he says. "I decided it was a good time in my life to take that entrepreneurial leap." (A very good time: Earlier this year, Apple laid off 200 people from its AV division amid reports it was shifting its focus away from cars.)
McNamara left Apple in July 2017. Within a few months, Parallel Domain was off and running. In January 2018, Ubiquity Ventures founder Sunil Nagaraj met McNamara. Nagaraj was blown away by his wide command of technological disciplines and by the business savvy that allowed him to secure his first customers before taking on any outside funding. "I just said, 'Wow he's a special kind of founder that could have that level of depth in so many domains,'" he recalls of the decision to make Parallel Domain his firm's first major investment.
For McNamara, helping AVs learn safe driving is a noble calling, but also just the start. "Eventually, we want to be a very broad content-generation platform," he says, making virtual environments for any business that needs to run simulations--"or even just for entertainment." Who knows? Maybe someday one of those virtual worlds will blow some young kid's mind and inspire a whole career.