How the solution to a simple problem became a multi-million-dollar project spanning three continents
By Bernadette Fallon
DoubleMe, a holographic mixed reality capture technology and platform startup, has raised $7.8M in investment and funding in the 10 years since its launch. But the company is not resting on its laurels. Focused on developing a high quality holoportation tool for the consumer market in the near future, plans are also in place to open a holoportal – holographic mixed reality studio – in Tokyo, to add to the company’s existing studios in London and Seoul.
The company was born ten years ago in response to an apparently simple problem. Back then, Albert Kim – who went on to found the company – was trying to create a simple 3D dancing character for a mobile 3D game. Hiring 3D content creators to create this character, who would have a range of up to five different motion settings, proved difficult. Quotes for up to $30,000 over a six-week working schedule were coming in for the job.
“At the time I was working on computer-vision-based projects, so I thought that maybe I should just create a new a new technology to do the job myself and make the process really simple, as well as bring real people into 3D content instead of creating cartoon-like characters,” explains Albert.
And that’s how DoubleMe was born. Not that the project turned out to be simple. “We thought we can make this fast and simple, but it actually turned out to be almost five years’ work,” says Albert.
Launch and investment
By the time he incorporated the company, in San Hose California, with co-founder Michael Kuczynski in 2014, they had already developed a prototype for the technology needed to solve this “simple” problem. And secured $1m of investor VC funding.
“The original idea behind the company was to help the gaming industry, so producers and programmers would come to our studio and generate 3D characters out of their own bodies – or by using actors’ bodies.”
A London studio was established that same year, born out of the desire to help the organisers of London Fashion Week who had expressed a keen interest in creating immersive experiences for the fashion industry. This is when UK co-founder James Marks came on board. It’s also when the partnership with Ravensbourne University London was developed; the university offered the team a space to install their studio on campus in return for granting access to this space and the volumetric video capture tools they were developing to university students.
The world of holoportation
Things really kicked off in 2017 when Microsoft launched its real-time volumetric video capture technology – holoportation. The word holoportation was coined in October 2016 in a paper by Microsoft Research, describing a revolutionary method of generating high-quality digital 3D models of dynamic subjects – human or animal – and sharing the 3D holographic models on mixed reality devices such as HoloLens in real-time.
Albert immediately saw the possibilities this created.
“I thought that we could work with this technology in real time, so that we are not only using it to make a “physical” manifestation of the real person, but we can also use it for communication.”
In 2018 DoubleMe was awarded a $3m R&D grant by the Institute for Information & Communications technology Promotion (IITA), an R&D strategy and planning agency under the Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning in South Korea. This grant was given to fund the development and deployment of a personal “5G-enabled Real-time Multi-user Holoportation System” by the end of 2019. To win the grant, the company teamed up with the University of Surrey 5GIC, led by Professor Rahim Tafazolli.
Existing holoportation systems require complicated and expensive hardware setups to process computationally large data. Inspired by the Microsoft research, DoubleMe started to explore the ways to make holoportation, simple, affordable and accessible.
“Instead of needing four 3D cameras, five servers and a team of engineers to create realtime communication, we’ve simplified the whole process down to one camera and one PC system,” explains Albert. “So you buy a 3D off-the-shelf camera, you use your own PC and you download our holoport app to start generating holograms of yourself, in real time, in high quality, without leaving your home.”
The aim, explains Albert, is to give everyone access to this technology, even when working from their own homes. “If you used to do video conferencing from home, now you can do holographic conferencing.”
But its remit is of course wider than person-to-person communication. The personal holoportation can be used in a variety of other immersive holographic mixed reality applications such as education, healthcare, cocorporate training, marketing, social media, content generation, tourism, art, music and much more – the list is far-reaching. It’s estimated that the technology will be worth $25b by addressing multiple related markets such as the digital holograph, telepresence, VR/AR/MR and 5G services.
Working with the University of Surrey gives the company access to additional skillsets, such as dedicated network engineers, and they also benefit from ongoing consultation, as well as 5G test validation. The ultimate aim of the collaboration is to develop the technology to create a commercialised product over the period of the grant.
“We have been working with DoubleMe for the last two years testing and trialling different VR/AR/MR applications on our testbed,” says Professor Tafazolli. “DoubleMe is a visionary company with many talented people. I am looking forward to our teams working closely together and developing advance VR/AR/MR applications for mass market using 5G networks.”
Advice to startups
Teaming up with academic partners and accessing research grants is a move strongly recommended by Albert to start-ups who may be so focused on VC investment they haven’t considered the alternatives. Particularly if your business is focused on developing innovative technology.
“Research grants are really good if your company is based on heavy research, focused on innovating and developing new technology,” says Albert. “There are a lot of grant opportunities around the world, although in order to attract a specific grant in a specific country you need to have a presence there and then hire a local team to work on your project.”
Challenges and lessons learned
One frustration he voiced was the difficulty of accessing certain grants in the UK if you have a small company. “I’ve seen many companies the same size as ours – 10 to 20 people – trying to get hold of research grants but being asked for their cash flow accounts for at least two quarters. That means you must be established and spend your own money first, which is really difficult for a small start-up, whereas in the US, Korea and China they give you the money upfront.”
Working with the University of Surrey has been an excellent experience, however, as has the company’s relationship with the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN). DoubleMe won a Stationers’ Company Innovation Excellence Award in 2018 for LoopSapce, its application for the HoloLens. The event was sponsored by Innovate UK/KTN, PICON and Mathys & Squire.
Advice to investors entering the sector
According to Albert, there are two types of investment in immersive technology. “If you are an investor who is familiar with the new technology you are investing in, go for it. But if your expertise is in business innovation, you would do better to focus on technology that is creating new business schemes and ideas, leveraging technology to create a different type of business, such as Uber. There are so many opportunities right now in immersive technology.”
And with so many exciting plans in the pipeline for DoubleMe, the future looks exciting.