Thursday, May 21, 2009
Interview with Brian Nilles, Evolver
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Last week, Aliso Viejo-based Darwin Dimensions rolled out Evolver (www.evolver.com), an online tool for creating highly detailed avatars. Brian Nilles, the firm's CEO, is no stranger to the 3D animation and computer graphics market, having served for ten years as CEO of Vicon Motion Capture, and he sat down with us to chat Darwin Dimensions and what's special about the firm's avatar software.
Tell us about the company and how started?
Brian Nilles: In December, I left Vicon as Chief Executive Officer after being there for ten years. Vicon became the largest motion capture hardware and software company and our primary markets there were entertainment, computer games, film, and also life sciences and engineering. Vicon makes motion capture devices--reflective markers, along with specialized, high resolution, high speed cameras--which use dots to reproduce motion on a character or to study the movement of a clinical subject. It's used for changing the way surgeons performed surgery, and it has been used on hundreds of films such as the capture of Angela Jolie for Robert Zemckis’ Beowolf. Given that background, I understood the character animation problem pretty well. The problem in developing a character rig--which is a model character in a computer environment--is a complex, custom process. To give you a sense of scale--you might spend four months doing the character rig for just a face.
I was introduced to the founder of Darwin Dimensions, Dr. Michel Fleury, about a year ago. He'd created a windows application that produced very astounding things. It was able to put together a character, and put the process--changing shapes, and textures--in the hands of a consumer. He'd figured out a way to make an interface which is interesting to use, which even a four year old could use to take an assignment--i.e. make a bad guy, make a pretty girl, etc.--all as a consumer tool--and coupled that with the ability to produce very high quality avatars. It takes a process which was heavily manual before now, and boiled it into a much simpler, completely automatic tool. I saw those things, and fell in love with it. I saw that there were a couple of different things we needed to do--one, was to make it a web tool because if it's a consumer tool, downloading would never work, and two, that we'd have to put it in interesting places--to have a transportablity feature and have places for people to take their avatars.
It looks like you've just launched the tool part so far?
Brian Nilles: Yes, our alpha is meant to communicate to our prospective customers what our tools look like. Before that, we were showing our windows app. Once our alpha got out, we had a very heavy couple of days--Twitter was involved, and some other stuff--but we didn't mind. We were slightly concerned about our servers, but it passed the stress test for a reasonable commercial alpha, and based on that traffic, people were enjoying themselves just playing with the tool.
We'll have an actual consumer launch in June, when we will be unveiling the destinations that people can transport their avatars to. There's a broad set of categories, and even others we hadn't anticipated. There are virtual worlds and online games where people would enjoy taking their avatars to. Interesting enough, what has become one of our bigger markets is the enterprise market, which is primarily corporate collaboration in 3D, immersive environments. There are a number of blue chip companies involved in this, who have people all over the world, and are finding telephony and video conferencing is falling short--that was a surprise. We also have a number of deals having to do with avatars finding their way into e-Cards and chat, a bunch of iPhone apps, and even people creating physical models to produce one of yourself. We want to be the avatar portal for virtual worlds and online games, and we're poised as well to be the avatar portal for all sorts of other destinations.
Can you talk about the difficulty of getting your avatar into other things, i.e. virtual worlds--it seems like that's not an easy problem?
Brian Nilles: It is a difficult problem. We have done most of the work, however. We got started after our seed funding on August first of last year and immediately went to work with platform companies. These are platforms on which people build their 3D content. Once we integrated with those platforms, anyone who builds a 3D experience on that platform is a potential client, and the final server to server integration tends to be just a couple of hours. We have completed integration with about 60 percent of the platforms, which represents thousands of worlds and millions of participants. We're also doing this with computer games--we have done this for something like four out of five game platforms. The integration work will go on forever, but the heavy lifting has already been finished.
You mentioned you're VC funded?
Brian Nilles: Yes, we're funded by a VC, Rho Ventures. They're in New York and Montreal. We also have an angel investor, who invested a long time ago and is also involved with the business.
What's the business model behind this--do virtual worlds have to pay to use your technology?
Brian Nilles: There are many ways to participate. You can be a licensee, for those worlds who don't want to build their own avatar generator. The choices are, you can build your own, or we can provide a selection of pre-made avatars you can select on the way in. We license evolver, and embed them into products and with a brand that looks and feels like yours. So, when a participant goes to your world, when you go to the avatar creation phase, it opens up evolver to your liking and customization, so you can select relevant characters. Some might only want children, for example. We also have zones where you can edit your nodes, etc.--there are 68 control zones--but you might only want to expose 14. For example, you can customize your breast, and someone like Disney doesn't want that. You can also manage your own libraries--the clothing, textures, makeup, hair, etc.--they're all heavily customizable. That license fee i sannual, based on the number of avatars anticipated to be created.
The second way is through a partner program, where the transport client is represented on a transport page and when someone goes to Evolver, and they want to figure out what to do next after creating their avatar, they can pay for prominence on the transport page, and we get a referral fee for adding traffic to their site.
We also have a virtual goods component--which isn't present right now in the alpha, since it didn't make sense when we had limited places to go. This will be in place for our public launch. Virtual goods are a billion dollar market--it's on track to hit 1.7 billion in 2009. However, with Evolver, our virtual goods play is slightly different. Evolver delivers avatars going to so many different places, the virtual goods value is seen as higher. In a typical virtual world, goods are something you can select to differentiate yourself from others, but it's limited to that world. Evolver will allow you to make that purchase of clothing, makeup, hair or accessories, and send that something special across many applications. In addition, there's the opportunity for branded clothing, to put styles of clothing of real world brands on your avatar. Another element--which probably only be available for complete avatars at launch is user generated content. Later we will open it up to 3D savvy artists who can create clothing, tattoos, eye colors, shoes, etc. and participate in revenue share.