Last summer I was walking in San Francisco listening to an interview Tim Ferris did with Kevin Kelly, where he talked about dividing a creative career/life up into 5-year increments. Kevin Kelly was an advisor to the very first startup I ever joined (eNow/Relegence in 2000) and his seminal book Out of Control is a big reason that I work in digital media to begin with. His 5-year chunk concept for careers dovetailed with the feeling I was having: that my immersion into the world of mobile video and influencer content at Big Frame and AwesomenessTV was drawing to its natural conclusion. The company I had co-founded in 2011 was sold, the investors had their final payouts and the team I’d built were assuming leadership roles in one of LA’s fastest growing and most exciting businesses. It was time. I started making arrangements to formally hand over the reigns and embark on my next journey.
Seven months later I’ve joined the amazing team at 8i as President of Studios to help the company commercialize its incredible technology and play a fundamental role in the birth of the volumetric content industry.
What is Volumetric Video?
Simply put, volumetric video brings human beings into immersive volumetric experiences (virtual reality, augmented reality, or mixed reality) using the video camera the way that storytellers in Hollywood have been using since the invention of the silent film. Most of the 3D experiences we have consumed up until now have been computer generated (CG), using some combination of a wire mesh computer model, motion capture technology, and game engine mechanics to generate facsimiles of human beings. Because it’s hard, expensive, and never comes out looking quite human (the Uncanny Valley), creators mainly fall back on cartoonish characters. Want humans? Record them. Volumetric video puts a real person in front of an array of cameras, captures their performance (Lights, camera, ACTION!) and then creates a high fidelity 3D hologram that can be used just like a CG asset.
Even more simply put: volumetric video is the scalable path forward to the holodeck from the USS Enterprise! Over the next decade thousands and thousands of hours of volumetric video will be created to populate the myriad games, stories, stores, and social experiences we consume through Virtual (VR) and Mixed (MR) reality devices like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Magic Leap, Google Tango and other consumption technologies.
Are VR and MR really going to happen?
Kevin Kelly thinks so. So do Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Sony, Verizon and a host of other companies that are already investing billions to prepare. Spend any amount of time with the people who really “get it” and you’ll start talking about some futuristic idea (I’ll be able to see a life-sized 3D model of clothes before I buy them! I can talk to Jack Sparrow when I’m waiting in line at Disneyland! Military trials are going to happen on holodecks!) and realize that it’s only a matter of time before it’s going to be possible.
Many people have only as yet consumed 360 video as a jumping in point to VR. Its interesting, but the consumption points for VR/MR content are all moving towards positional awareness, where volumetric content will be required.
I was lucky to join the YouTube content ecosystem at almost exactly the right time, and some of LA’s most exciting and fastest growing companies (Maker Studios, ZEFR, Tastemade, Big Frame, AwesomenessTV) have emerged in response to a perfect storm of fundamental disruptive forces:
- A sharp decrease in the cost of video production (cameras, editing software)
- A fundamental change in the type and quality of content people wanted (shorter, vloggier, watching other people play video games)
- A huge shift in the point of consumption (from the living room to mobile)
- The availability of open, gatekeeper-free distribution and monetization (initially YouTube, then Facebook, Go90, and a host of others)
All of these disruptions have a clear analog in the VR/MR world, but the implications are of a different order of magnitude. If you’ll indulge a Wild West analogy: If the MCN explosion was The OK Corral, VR/MR are The Revenant. Volumetric content is going to be much harder at first to make, with consumption points that require more investment, so the ecosystem will need considerably more ramp than short-form mobile did. But since there is ZERO library to start with and soon every mobile phone will have positional awareness, the opportunity is likely even greater for companies that can figure out content development, marketing, and distribution.
I looked at several different industries, but this industry really pulled at me to the point where I felt like I had no choice.
Not immediately, but within 15 years, the bulk of our work and play time will touch the virtual to some degree. — Kevin Kelly, Wired Magazine May 2016
The number one reason is what you see and feel when you put on a VR headset for one of our demos, but here are four more:
Core technology. You know what’s really hard? Building a valuable company on someone else’s platform. While a lot of us (founders and investors alike) tried to convince ourselves that there was a fundamental technology play in the MCN space, in the end we were playing in Google/YouTube’s sandbox. 8i’s technology is a clear industry leader, and would be prohibitively expensive for content creators to build on a one-off basis. Conversely, the industry needs an inter-operable standard format to emerge, not a mishmash of competitive formats created by the consumption platforms themselves.
Team. The founders and early investors of 8i have built a fantastic team with an incredible culture and drive to win. The resumes of the founders are a who’s who of visual computing and content delivery at scale. In the two years since they started they have accomplished the impossible, and I’m humbled to join them.
But you aren’t the Founder? Probably the most difficult piece of soul searching any entrepreneur has to do when figuring out what to do next is to determine whether to start a new company or join an existing one. Truthfully I did spend a lot of time trying to come up with a company to start, both in the VR/AR space or somewhere else.
But founding a company is really hard. Having worked in startups over half my adult life, my experience is that the only way to succeed is to identify a truly groundbreaking business opportunity that you have great passion for. Josh Kopelman (@joshk) tweeted recently about the importance for founders of picking the right opportunity, especially those that have had success and will be funded whatever they pick. My corollary to this is that being a good picker means you aren’t always going to be a founder. When you feel it, you’ve got to go!
#LongLA. Like many Angelenos, I’m not from here, but I can’t imagine living and working anywhere else. For diversity, creativity, opportunity and life style, LA is unbeatable. But for many years working as a technologist in LA meant holding down a satellite outpost of a Bay Area company, or grinding it out in some afterthought division of a Luddite old media company. I’ve done both.
On a professional level it’s profoundly gratifying that companies like 8i are choosing to locate themselves in LA. It’s a testament to those who’ve been here a while and have laid the groundwork of LA as a technology hub in its own right, and it’s going to be a game changer for the city and those who come along next. LA needs big important tech companies to be HQ’d here, and I’m proud to help 8i become part of our local fabric.
8i’s R&D team is based in Wellington New Zealand, but we will be growing our LA operations quite aggressively over the next few months. We need to put the gear for capturing volumetric video into the hands of thousands of creators - first professionals, then everyone else. We need to codify what good story telling means in VR/MR. We need to make sure all of the authoring and editing tools content makers need are compatible with volumetric. We’ll be looking to fill product, ops, BD, and content roles— keep an eye out for great people and keep an eye on our jobs board!