Gary Underwood’s wire-frame glasses, plaid shirt, khakis and humble demeanor create a mirage of simplicity. He’s a simple man. At least that’s what Underwood wants you to believe. Or maybe he believes it too. But Underwood, who is owner of Greenville’s Computer Direct Outlet, has a plan that could put his small business on the map.
For nearly two decades, Computer Direct Outlet, which is located just off Laurens Road, has thrived off computer sales and IT services for both residents and businesses. Now, Underwood has shifted his focus to the production of high-end computers that can support virtual reality, a market that shows immense promise despite its infancy.
Luckily, Underwood has already produced the technology.
In 2011, Underwood and his team of computer techs started designing a computer that could support high-end programs yet maintain speed and quality graphics. After three years of prototyping, Underwood released the Volta. It became a hit among architects, photographers, graphic designers and other professionals using high-end programs.
“We hand-build every single computer. It’s not some machine sitting on a shelf that may or may not fit your needs,” said Underwood. “We install high quality parts, because we don’t want it to come back. We actually have a lifetime service guarantee. So we really put our money where our mouth is.”
Customers can choose the processor and other components for their computer so that it fits their specific needs, whether that’s email or gaming. Underwood uses a numerical control machine to cut plastic molds, which are red and black, into a rectangular case. He then etches a signature lightning bolt logo onto the front panel. Then, technicians insert the processor and wiring into the casing and test each computer. Each computer requires about five days for full assembly and ranges from $1,500 to $7,000.
The Volta’s virtual reality capabilities have garnered positive reviews from multiple tech outlets. In April, Tom’s Guide issued the Volta an average quality rating of 11. Its closest competitors, Alienware X51 and Asus ROG G20CB, scored closer to a 6.
And with good reason. Underwood expects to see boosted sales for the Volta as virtual reality becomes increasingly popular across the country.
“People get the idea that virtual reality is just gaming. And it is to some degree. But it’s also business,” said Underwood. “Nike uses it to design soccer cleats; the military uses it to train soldiers; the nuclear reactor industry uses it for safety training. Architects can walk through an entire complex that’s a digital replication of their building and look for fatal flaws. I mean you can visit the world. This is just the beginning.”
Turning virtual reality into real money
Virtual reality (VR) is the creation of a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that a person can interact with through the use of a headset, which features goggles and headphones, and a healthy dose of computer engineering. That headset combines 360-degree visuals, a wide field of view and audio to achieve VR.
WATCH: What is virtual reality and how does it work? (Source: Mashable)
The concept dates to at least 1968, when MIT computer-graphics researcher Ivan Sutherland presented his “head-mounted display,” a VR helmet so heavy that it need to be supported by a mechanical arm dangling from the ceiling. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, companies tried to harness VR in smaller headsets, but the bulkiness didn’t appeal to customers. And so it seemed that VR was dead.
VR saw a revival as the smartphone and video game industries emerged as giants throughout the 2000s. Soon enough, computer engineer Lucky Palmer was able to harness VR in a commercially viable headset called Oculus Rift, which was purchased by Facebook Inc. for $2 billion. Oculus Rift was released in April.
But for all of its glory, the Oculus Rift is nothing without a computer system that can support its high-end graphics. Facebook recommends that Oculus Rift owners use a Nvidia GeForce 970 or AMD Radeon 290 graphics card. Both cards are offered in the Volta. These cards provide the 90 frames per a second needed for VR.
Anything less than that, and users could suffer from motion sickness due to delays in the screen’s responses to the user’s movements. A standard PC game runs at 30 frames per second. VR uses 90 frames per second on two video projections (one for each eye) to deliver the natural motion the brain needs to be convinced an image is real.
Not many computers can withstand the strain of VR. In fact, just 13 million PCs across the globe have the graphics capabilities needed to run VR, according to an estimate by Nvidia, the largest maker of computer graphics chips. That means only 1 percent of 1.43 billion PCs can run VR, according to research firm Gartner.
“We’re not competing with many VR machines,” said Underwood. “There are other companies that make some good machines, but we’ve gotten solid reviews across the board. And those are the moments where you wonder, ‘Are we as good as we think we are?’ The reviews show that the Volta is one of the best.”
Underwood and other high-end computer manufacturers could reap the benefits as the VR industry is expected to boom throughout the next couple of years.
According to data published by Manatt Digital Media, VR sales are expected to hit $30 billion by 2020. Those sales are going to stem mainly from video games and hardware, including high-end computer systems such as the Volta. The Consumer Technology Association estimates the sale of 1.2 million VR units in 2016.
While VR shows promise, Underwood continues to market the Volta as a machine that can do it all. Various professionals, including architects and engineers, use the computers for CAD programs. So far, most of its sales have remained in the Upstate.
“I want to reach everybody that needs a machine like this. So yes, I’d like to see sales go across the country,” said Underwood. “But my first priority is my customers. I have a lot of customers and businesses that buy servers and desktops from me. They also count on us to be there for whatever technology improvement or solution they need. We’re their in-house IT group. I don’t think we’ll abandon that for the Volta brand.”
The man behind the machine
Underwood has spent decades as a computer guy, but he didn’t always know the difference between a solid-state drive and hard drive.
Underwood, a Texas native, received an engineering degree from the University of Missouri at Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology) in 1979. He got his first job at Reynolds Aluminum in Little Rock, Ark., where he designed and developed surface mines in various countries, including Jamaica and Haiti.
Underwood returned to Texas in 1983 to design and develop lignite (an early form of coal) mines for the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) in Austin. In 1992, he graduated with an MBA from the University of Texas, with hopes of one day becoming an entrepreneur like his father, who owned a service station.
But he continued to work for the LCRA. In 1995, Underwood’s lignite mining operation was canceled. He became the manager for the company’s fuel and energy services, where he and a team ran an energy price risk management program for natural gas, crude oil and fuel oil using NYMEX futures and options. He then started marketing energy for the LRCA until 1996, when he left for a business development job with Pan Canadian.
But the new job wasn’t enough to keep his mind off being his own boss.
“I really wanted to be part of a small business, to do something different and be part of it. So I started looking at my connections and found a friend who had started Computer Direct Outlet in Greenville. So I packed my bags in ‘98 and didn’t look back. But the transition was very difficult, because I didn’t have a background in technology.”
While managing the store, Underwood started training under fellow employees to understand the technology side of the business. He learned quickly. Computer Direct Outlet (CDO) became the go-to store for custom computers and parts as well as IT services such as software updates and data recovery.
Underwood soon became the CEO and later purchased Computer Direct Outlet from Rinehart in 2010. The business saw a boom, and in 2011, CDO repaired more than 3,000 computers and sold more than 600 custom computers. Just as the industry changed and business grew, Underwood started to put a premium on customer service.
“It’s not about treating someone the way you want to be treated,” said Underwood. “It’s about treating them the way they want to be treated. So for us, it’s really about providing a great experience and giving customers the products and services they want and need.”
That concept led to the creation of Computer Direct Business (CDB), a division of CDO that focuses on customer relations and marketing. It also inspired him to create.
“I had always known we made great computers. In the past, we had just assembled computers, making sure the parts were compatible,” said Underwood. “We wanted something we could call our own and something that could fit the needs of the user.”
As Underwood and his team of computer techs continued to build and test prototypes of the Volta, CDO continued to change with the industry. Soon enough, CDO was replacing touch screens and other smartphone components.
The future of computing
In 2013, Underwood adopted cloud storage – the storage of data on remote servers accessed through the Internet – and partnered with Utah-based company Storage Craft. CDO then released the Volta in 2014. It opened the door to sustainable practices.
The high-quality parts that are used in the Volta allow the computer to last between six and eight years, according to Underwood. That lifespan is important, as more than 20 million pounds of electronic waste is emitted each year, according to the EPA.
“All of our products are made with sustainability in mind. We want it to be a wonderful world for our kids and their kids. We try to teach our customers that they can upgrade their computers to last longer. I’m okay with them putting their hands inside the computer. I really don’t want them thrown in the dumpster,” Underwood said.
When a computer or other product reaches the end of its lifespan, CDO collects it to re-purpose it or process it through licensed electronic recyclers. CDO also donates a portion of the electronic waste to charities and nonprofits, including Goodwill.
Underwood’s passion for sustainability fueled his newest creation.
CDO is set to release a computer that is the first of its kind – the Volta V. The computer will have a case made from sustainable woods, including maple, walnut and cherry. The computer will also be smaller than other models, measuring 21 inches long and 11 inches wide. It will also have four legs, allowing users to store their keyboards underneath.
In 2015, Underwood got the idea from his son and game designer, Ty, who wanted a smaller version of the standard Volta. Since then, the father-son duo has worked through five prototypes with computer techs. The computer, which can support VR and other high-end programs, will be released later this year. A price hasn’t been determined.
“We wanted to build a highly sustainable computer with a very small footprint that our customers would be very proud of and one that would never go out of style,” said Underwood. “Ty is a very talented, creative person who thinks big.”
For more information, visit computerdirectoutlet.com/consumer/