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Inside 8i, the VR company trying to take holographic videos to the mainstream

VR / AR, without the headset

8i’s production studio, from the outside, looks like any other Hollywood movie studio. A series of unremarkable brick buildings crowd the Culver City lot. It’s a place where scenes from Gone With the Wind, The Matrix, and countless other movies and TV shows have been filmed, but you wouldn’t know its spectacular history to look at it.

Inside Stage 8, it’s a different story. This is where 8i is looking to bridge the old world of entertainment with the new world of “content,” by making holograms — ones that you can view and interact with on a smartphone, no VR or AR headset required. The company has turned the soundstage into a giant, cylindrical green screen space, where 41 cameras are set up to capture holographic video of anyone game to give it a try: the actor Jon Hamm, NBA player D’Angelo Russell, a dog dressed up as a hot dog, or me, the tech reporter who is arguably much less famous than even the dog.

8i plans to show off its holographic technology and its upcoming mobile app, called simply Holo, at this week’s Recode Code Media conference in Dana Point, California. The company’s chief executive, Steve Raymond, will appear on stage to preview the pre-produced hologram we made in 8i’s studios a few weeks ago, along with other examples of holograms in the app.

The company also just announced its latest funding round, a $27 million Series B round lead by Time Warner Investments. Other investors include Baidu Ventures, Hearst Ventures, Verizon Ventures, and German businessman Carsten Maschmeyer (of German “Shark Tank” fame), among others. The fresh round of funding brings 8i’s total funding to $41 million, to date; the company lists RRE Ventures, Samsung Ventures, Founders Fund, Ashton Kutcher, and Guy Oseary among its earlier investors.

8i was first founded in New Zealand in 2014 by Linc Gasking and Eugene d’eon, and has since expanded to the US, drawing talent from DreamWorks, Pixar, Valve, and YouTube, as well as New Zealand-based WETA. Since launch the company has received a fair amount of press for what it calls “volumetric capture,” or its ability to make videos of people that have volume and depth, rather that just creating a flat image.

Most of the 8i demos to date have required a full-fledged VR headset, including one demo featuring astronaut Buzz Aldrin. But the Holo smartphone app, which has been in stealth mode for several months, is supposed to change that. The company plans to officially launch the app later this year.

The word “hologram” might immediately call to mind Star Wars-like projections, floating in space in the real world, but what 8i is actually making are photo-realistic representations of people and places that are visible within some sort of display. In this case, the Holo app runs on the Lenovo Phab 2 Pro smartphone, which is equipped with Google’s Tango software and custom sensor set. It’s a giant hulk of a smartphone, one I reviewed in full back in December (which is also when I inadvertently discovered 8i’s Holo app, calling it “straight up beta”).

Using the cameras and sensors built into the phone, the Holo app scans the room and maps the dimensions of the room. Then, app users can choose from a selection of premade holograms in the app — whether it’s a celebrity, a political impersonator, or a cute dog — and “place” the hologram in the room. Using the smartphone as your lens, you can then walk up to the hologram, see it up close, even walk around it. You can take a selfie with the hologram, or shoot a smartphone video while you interact with the hologram.

There’s are obvious caveats that come with all of this this: 8i’s mobile holograms are still rough around the edges, showing some pixelation, though the company emphasized that it’s still in beta. The holograms are also production-intensive, as I experienced myself when I visited the company’s studios. There’s the green screen setup, those 41 cameras, the highly specialized post-production software. (There are even wardrobe requirements when you’re being made into a hologram, it turns out.) And because of the technology required to make it all work, the Holo app only runs on that one Google Tango smartphone right now.

Raymond, 8i’s CEO, is aware of the challenges that come with any kind of AR or VR content, and acknowledged that there’s “definitely going to be this chicken and egg period. The most scarce resource we have in this industry is creativity. So we need to create easier, low-cost tools and give them to the people in the industry who can make great content,” he said in an interview a couple weeks after my 8i visit.

The potential upside, the one that 8i is betting on, is that the company is well-positioned in the AR space if and when the right technology hits more smartphones. Asus and Google have already announced another Google Tango smartphone, the Asus ZenFone AR. And, considering that Apple CEO Tim Cook has said in recent weeks that he sees AR as a “big idea,” one that he’s “excited” about, it wouldn’t be totally shocking if the world’s most important smartphone maker introduced its own solution for AR in the near future.

According to global research firm IDC, shipments of VR hardware technology are expected to jump from 9.6 million units last year to 64.8 million units in 2020, while AR hardware will jump from 400,000 units last year to 45 million units in 2020. But if the kind of “mixed reality” 8i is making does come to everyday smartphones, the market is potentially much larger.

Right now, 8i’s monetization strategy is also in beta, just like its mobile app. Much of the company’s early stuff has been celebrity-centric, an attempt to drum up some buzz around the technology. Raymond said the company is exploring all angles: software as a service, traditional advertising models, in-app purchases, possibly even a subscription service. “We haven’t seen enough yet to have what I would call a solidified point of view,” he says.

But, Raymond says, “We are at the point where Hollywood studios have $100 million budgets for VR storytelling content. And the conversations with potential clients were much more difficult to have when we were only talking about head-mounted devices.” In other words, the the next ten years of futuristic content might just depend on the same thing we’ve already been looking at for the past 10 years: our smartphones.

A version of this story also appears on Recode.