OTOY: Bringing the big screen experience to browsers

May 16, 2013, 10:45 AM UTC
OTOY founder Jules Urbach: “Our goal is not to build a storefront to sell games or apps in the cloud but to build the intermediate layers.” Credit: OTOY

FORTUNE — Streaming movies via Netflix (NFLX) or music from Spotify are one thing, but games? Those are a computational challenge 38-year-old OTOY founder Jules Urbach will tell you are in a league all their own.

For the last nine years, the French-born, Los Angeleno has worked on a cloud-computing product that will let users seamlessly play current-generation games and control demanding software on almost any device — a PC, tablet, or smartphone — from the web browser. How powerful the device is won’t matter: All the computational work is crunched remotely on OTOY’s servers, then transmitted to the user’s device over Wi-Fi or even 4G without noticeable delay. In theory, letting users play games with Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3-level graphics should be no sweat for OTOY, using just 1/10 or so of a graphics chip on the company’s servers — the equivalent of 10 cents an hour, Urbach points out. And earlier this month, OTOY announced a partnership with software community Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser. A new bit of code called ORBX.js means users can run high-end applications like Adobe (ADBE) Photoshop CS6 or watch high-definition video in their Web browsers without the need for popular add-ons like Apple’s (AAPL) QuickTime or Adobe Flash.

“Our goal is not to build a storefront to sell games or apps in the cloud but to build the intermediate layers,” explains Urbach. That’s a different approach from say, competitor OnLive. The cloud-computing startup founded by former president & CEO Steve Perlman earned recognition with its own cloud-streaming service, first by offering an online storefront for games-streaming across devices, then branching out by streaming whole operating systems like Microsoft (MSFT) Windows. But OnLive never quite got traction with users, and so last fall, Perlman’s company restructured, brought in new management, and ultimately let go of nearly half its staff. “I believe OnLive’s mistake was that they were too closed off for them to have a meaningful ecosystem,” says Urbach. Another similar firm, Gaikai, was purchased by Playstation-maker Sony (SNE) for $380 million last year.

MORE: Why the fax machine refuses to die

Urbach is thinking bigger, and always has. Born 40 minutes outside Paris, Urbach’s family moved to L.A. when he was nine. Six months later, inspired by the coding potential of personal computers like the IBM (IBM) PC and Apple II, he started tinkering with code himself. By 16, he had recreated a version of the popular 80’s arcade game Dragon’s Lair; at 18, he worked on the computer game
Hell Cab
for Time Warner’s (TWX) Interactive Media Group. He formed OTOY in 2010, backed with an undisclosed amount of cash from AutoDesk (ADSK), Taylor Frigon Capital Partners, and The Roddenberry Trust.

Early on at OTOY, Urbach subsisted for days on giant lattes — loaded with six expresso shots each — and the occasional steak. “He had a haunted hollow-eyed look and spoke in a pell-mell stream of nerd-speak that unnerved some potential investors,” remembers writer and Discovery Institute co-founder George Gilder, an early OTOY backer, who calls Urbach the most inventive software engineer he’s ever met. “I thought the world would have to come to him eventually.”

“Jules is able to see where technology is going years before it goes there,” agrees Alissa Grainger, a former angel investor who now serves as OTOY President. She was also blown away by his work ethic. “He works all the time. He loves what he does. It’s his life.” (Indeed, Urbach sleeps three days a week in the office, and other days often doesn’t sleep at all.)

Urbach is now setting his sights on making OTOY work with upcoming hardware like Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset with a 7-inch screen that already has converted gaming industry vets like Doom lead programmer John Carmack. It’s his belief that TVs will one day get phased out, replaced by devices like the Rift as they become more affordable and more compact. “With these devices, you can have any screen size you want — it won’t even be a phone, or a watch, or whatever,” he offers. Spoken like a man with a vision.