Visual Purple, SLO firm that helps train troops, has a new mission

Ed Heinbockel, founder of Visual Purple, sits in front of computer screens showing his business’ many projects: GisterPRO, a Web-based research tool, and combat simulation games.
Ed Heinbockel, founder of Visual Purple, sits in front of computer screens showing his business’ many projects: GisterPRO, a Web-based research tool, and combat simulation games.

Editor’s note: This is another in an occasional look at technology businesses operating in San Luis Obispo County.

Edmond Heinbockel, president of Visual Purple, is not a computer programmer or gamer. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Cal Poly in 1980, returning to get an MBA four years later. He started his career in marketing for Christen Industries, an aircraft manufacturing company.

Back then, starting a firm specializing in intelligent training simulations to help soldiers make decisions on the battlefield was not a part of the plan.

For one thing, at that point, that type of technology didn’t really exist, he said.

But in the mid-1980s, Heinbockel got a taste of the gaming business as chief financial officer and controller for Sierra Online, a video game entertainment company based in Oakhurst from 1985 to 1990. A year later, he established Tsunami Games, which produced PC games featuring interactive full motion video and Hollywood quality content.

He founded Visual Purple in 1997 near Yosemite after receiving a call from the FBI saying that one of its top brass had played a Tsunami-produced game, “Silent Steel,” and wanted to use that type of gaming technology as a training tool. He sold Tsunami two years later, and then moved Visual Purple operations to San Luis Obispo in 2000.

Visual Purple’s mission is to provide soldiers, many of whom have been raised on video games, with virtual world instruction. The company has built custom training simulations for the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and for corporate clients who use it for sales training and safety.

But as rewarding as producing training simulations has been, Heinbockel said the future of his company lies with GisterPRO, a Web-based exploratory research tool that allows government analysts and researchers, corporations and computer-savvy individuals to dig deeper to uncover hard-to-find and more insightful information on a wide range of topics.

In 2007-09, Visual Purple developed an algorithm that allows Gister to quickly read what’s called unstructured data — emails, documents, tweets, posts and Web pages — and “then take the strongest data signals to tell a story visually of what the data is saying,” Heinbockel said.

“It’s as though you could speed read thousands of documents in seconds and understand everything you’ve read and draw a picture of the most important information presented,” he said.

“The future is about information and, in particular, finding the information you need,” he said. “It’s not enough to find the needle in the haystack if you don’t even know in which haystack to look.”

Heinbockel declined to disclose financial information about the company, but he said that Visual Purple is profitable and that it has experienced double-digit year-over-year profits. Visual Purple is on track for GisterPro revenues to exceed simulation revenues this year. Revenues from GisterPro currently come from a service that allows clients to do exploratory research. Clients sign up and pay a monthly or annual fee to use the tool to “look across many company or organization databases,” Heinbockel said.

Plans are in the works for an initial consumer launch on the iPad at some time in the future, he added. Right now, Gister has few competitors. One such company is Tennessee-based Digital Reasoning, but Gister is outperforming it in government evaluations, he said.

“We hope to continue to be so lucky,” he said.

As for the future of Visual Purple’s training simulations, Heinbockel said there’s room for that, too.

“We are only taking on new simulation work that we find intriguing and believe can help meet a mission or save lives,” he said.