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Marty Cooper, inventor of the cell phone, in Seattle this week. (GeekWire Photo, Jacob Demmitt)

It been more than 40 years since Marty Cooper stood on a Manhattan sidewalk and placed the first ever cell phone call back in 1973, but today the now-famous inventor still has a knack for the cutting edge.

Cooper, who previously led Motorola’s communications team and is credited as the inventor of the cell phone, made a stop by virtual reality startup VR Studios during a visit to Seattle this week. GeekWire was invited to stand by as the 86-year-old put a headset on for the first time, grabbed a video game gun and went to war with a horde of zombies.

Marty Cooper straps on a virtual reality headset during a visit to Seattle.
Marty Cooper straps on a virtual reality headset during a visit to Seattle.

We had a chance to sit down with Cooper after his demo, but only when he was finished quizzing the VR Studios team on how they plan to deal with technical hurdles he was throwing at them.

“It’s the birth of a whole new industry,” Cooper said, already brainstorming real world applications.

But that excitement noticeably drained away when we began talking about the current state of the wireless industry. Asked what he thinks of Apple’s new iPhone 6s, Cooper simply said it’s “boring.”

“They’re struggling each generation to come up with something interesting,” he said. “It’s a little bigger, has more pixels, more megahertz and people couldn’t care less. I think the future is the software. They have to figure out ways to make the phone essential.”

Cooper pointed out that there were no personal computers, digital cameras or Internet when his team worked on the first cell phone, so there’s no way they could have anticipated any of that. But the most-used functions of smartphones, calling and texting, he talked about in 1973 — and he says he has newspaper articles to prove it.

“The thought that you could roll all that into a cell phone was unimaginable. Yet, today you have all those things in there and I think we’re only just starting,” he said. “We’re still in the game stage. Even though you can’t get along without your smartphone, there are not many essential services on your smartphone. They’re mostly convenience; you could live without it. Essential means you die without it. A gadget that warns you’re about to have a heart attack — that’s essential. We’re about to go into that phase with smartphones.”

Virtual reality, meanwhile, he says is already moving out of that game phase at a faster pace than cell phones did in the early days. VR Studios CEO Charles Herrick showed Cooper how the company is building virtual reality tools that let architects wander around 3D models before they’re built and allows realtors to virtually show properties from thousands of miles away.

And that’s what got Cooper really excited.

Cell phone inventor Marty Cooper tries out virtual reality at the age of 86.
Cell phone inventor Marty Cooper tries out virtual reality at the age of 86.

“When that first zombie came at me, it felt real,” Cooper said of the game demo he tried out. “It’s an eerie feeling. But you get over the game part very quickly. What’s the biggest function of a cell phone? What does a cell phone do for humanity? It makes people more productive. That’s the essence of this. The game is fun, but it’s about the productivity.”

Here are some other highlights from our time with Cooper.

GeekWire: So, how did your first virtual reality experience stack up against that famous first cell phone call?

Cooper: “The only thing that was in my mind when we made that first phone call was, ‘Is it going to work?’ We had all these parts hand soldered together, engineers standing by with the soldering iron — just in case.”

GeekWire: You said you were bored by the new iPhone. What do you think needs to happen next in the mobile industry?

Cooper: “The cell phone is about to become real. It’s about to become not just a technological achievement of putting a whole bunch of stuff into a box. The cell phone attempts to do all things for all people, but doesn’t do any of them optimally. I think it’s going to evolve into a bunch of optimal devices.”

GeekWire: How about virtual reality? Based on your experience watching the wireless industry explode, what needs to happen in VR for this technology to take off?

Cooper: “Everything always starts out with specialized applications. VR Studios is just at the beginning of this thing. They have to get these industrial applications going so it becomes part of our society. … It’s very exciting to be in at the beginning of this. I might last long enough, for that one at least. Most of the big things that are being invented now, I’m not going to be around for, unfortunately. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to get this far.”

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