Ashton Kutcher, Samsung among investors in Wellington virtual reality company
A group of global investors, including movie star Ashton Kutcher and Samsung, has invested $20 million into a Wellington firm's technology, which shows humans in virtual reality for the first time.
The funding will also see Wellington become the global research and development hub for 8i, with the company now hiring in the capital.
8i, a consumer media platform, was founded in Wellington by Joshua Feast, Linc Gasking and former Weta digital staffer Eugene d'Eon in May 2014.
The company had attracted leading technology investors such as Kutcher's Sound Ventures, Samsung Ventures, Elisabeth Murdoch's Freelands Group and the discovery channel founder Andrew Hendricks.
"The reason they came on board is because this is the first time they have ever made eye-contact with someone virtually," Gasking said.
The "immersion" software would change the movie industry but would also be beneficial in other areas such as education, sales and online dating, he said.
The business employs 27 staff, split between Wellington, San Francisco and its production studio in Hollywood.
Gasking, the chief executive, said 8i wanted users to connect with each other in the closest way as possible to real-life with its recording software.
"As the internet transitions to 3D with adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality platforms, we want to give people the best way to connect. 8i records people in a new, more advanced approach than cinematic 3D, allowing viewers to move around freely and experience an authentic feeling of emotional connection with the person they're watching."
There was only so much that visual effects could create in terms of movie content, he said.
No motion capture or artists were involved in the process, which made it much faster and cheaper to produce.
"8i uses multiple video cameras and turns it [the person] into a hologram, which makes it look so real. We may see a new type of movie where you are immersed inside it, or walking through it with a director or actors, while in your living room."
8i's visuals team, made up of former staff from Weta Digital, YouTube, PayPal, Microsoft, Sony, DreamWorks and Pixar, solved the problem of creating a human that looked real.
The platform will enable users to create, experience and share immersive lifelike 3D video of real people.
Its proprietary software transforms regular video from off-the-shelf cameras into realistic experiences.
The content produced by 8i was now live and ready to be used by third parties when they manufactured and marketed headsets.
The $20m would see 8i through the next phase of development, which included hiring for the Wellington R&D hub.
Wellington was a breeding ground for talent across computer vision and graphics, data compression, cloud infrastructure, software and design, Gasking said.
He cited "visionaries" such as Peter Jackson as the reason 8i was created.
"He [Jackson] brought talent to Wellington…and now we want to attract the best talent New Zealand has to offer and bring talent from around the world to Wellington for this groundbreaking work," he said.
8i recently opened a showcase studio in Los Angeles, plugging the company directly into the global hub of entertainment.
Jim Robinson, from RRE Ventures, who led the investment round and joins Scott Nolan from Founders Fund on the 8i board, said the investors were big believers in 8i's unique technology, team, and long-term vision.
"8i's breakthroughs enable realistic 3D video capture of people for the first time ever. What they have achieved is what media companies see as the holy grail of virtual reality. I'm excited to see what the next generation is going to create with it."