NZ firm tucks into $27m on the back of VR 'hologram' promise

You’ll dance with Beyonce in your living room, vows co-founder

NEW YORK - OCT 15, 2016: Beyonce Knowles attends the TIDAL X: 1015 concert at the Barclays Center on October 15, 2016, in New York. Editorial credit: JStone / Shutterstock, Inc. (editorial use only)
Beyonce Knowles, pictured here at a Tidal concert in 2016, to be forced to dance with you in hologram form. Pic: JStone/Shutterstock

Analysis 8i, a New Zealand based company, last week landed a large B funding round that reads like a who’s who in the Virtual reality world. Its aim is to bring holograms to the masses. This doesn’t actually mean what it says, but it’s still pretty cool.

To most of us, a hologram is something that stands in front of us, created in the thin air, which behaves like a person, animal or thing and is viewable in 3D. It is a photographic recording of a light field, usually created using a laser and can be viewed from any angle like a real object.

If holograms were easy to make, and could work in any lighting situation, they would become the main way of viewing Virtual Reality. But mass production is a big issue. What 8i actually does, perhaps as a step towards this, is get a computer to drive 3D calculations of what an object would look like and lets it appear inside a video, when it was actually not there.

Its website shows videos of people interacting with babies, dancing men and monsters, as if they had been in the same room together. So, while they can produce the video image from any angle, it is only shown in film from the angle you are currently filming from. As the cameraman walks about a person, the “hologram” is also walked around, and appears like a 3D image inside the movie.

In effect, it is a way of merging reality with unreality, which is perfect for augmenting reality (or to mix real things with things which are not real) in a movie – cheaply. It also allows you to show them on a phone. It is clear that everyone loves this and 8i got its first US VC funding of $13.5m in October 2015 from a series of US VCs, but including Samsung, Dolby and Bertelsmann’s VC arms.

This round it has drawn interest from the VC arms of Time Warner, China’s Baidu, Hearst, Verizon and another batch of mostly US pure VC firms. This round was for $27m, and we presume the valuation was higher this time around.

The company creates 3D content by capturing live video of real persons using multiple video cameras and then turning that data into what it insists on calling a hologram – but is in fact a 3D digital movie insert.

"You’ll dance with Beyonce in your living room, virtually test drive a Tesla with Elon Musk, and watch your home team from your sofa with your favorite athlete by your side," said co-founder Linc Gasking on the company’s Facebook profile.

End users right now can only experience this on Oculus Rift headsets and it says that applications include virtual filming, sales, education, and online dating. We're not sure you would want a 3D version of your online date in the room before you actually met them.

What this really is a cheap and clever way of making VR content, filming the "Hologram" separately from the VR content, using multiple cameras, and then putting it through 8i's algorithms so that it is ready to be inserted into VR content.

The company has a production studio in Hollywood and offices in Wellington and San Francisco.

8i demonstrated its system last week at the Code Media conference in California. 8i says it is now introducing Holo, a consumer mobile app that gives people an easy way to create mixed reality content with "holograms" of their favourite celebrities, brands, and characters. It is currently opening up the app to the creative community, so don’t expect any content made with it for a while.

"As consumers are augmenting, mixing and creating new content on their smartphones on a massive scale, mobile presents an unparalleled opportunity for distribution of holograms," said 8i CEO Steve Raymond. "We're thrilled to have the strategic expertise and backing of leaders in media, technology, and communications as we bring audiences new ways to create and engage with content.

"With this global round, we look forward to partnering with our investors from the US, China, Europe, and Australia as we bring our technology to consumers worldwide."

Baidu is clearly coming on board in order to get this product into China, and said so at the event. Holo is powered by Google's Tango application, an augmented reality app from Google and the final system will first go live on Tango enabled smartphones.

8i has a Studios partner program which enables human-driven VR and AR projects from third party creators. Partners record a human performance using an array of cameras through an approach called volumetric capture. The company's proprietary technology transforms the video into a photorealistic 3D hologram, to be easily integrated into a VR experience.

8i says its team has decades of experience with employees from Weta Digital, YouTube, Nvidia, Google, Valve, Microsoft, PayPal, Sony, DreamWorks, Pixar, Bell Laboratories, Viacom, Xero, Twitter, Yahoo, and Zynga.

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