Pasadena-based BigStage (www.bigstage.com) is one of those rare companies that has taken technology developed from university research, and is now bringing that technology to the commercial market. The firm's technology--which creates a 3D, virtual avatar from digital photos--was originally developed at the University of Southern California for the CIA, and was spun out into a venture funded company targeting the consumer market. We spoke with Phil Ressler--a former venture capitalist from Clearstone Ventures--who is now CEO of BigStage.
For those not familiar with BigStage, tell us what the company is doing with your avatar technology?
Phil Ressler: Big Stage's mission in life is to create a standard way to project yourself into the digital realm. What we've done, is we've taken technology originally developed at USC, a CIA funded project, and gained global commercial rights for the non-security sector. We've developed this technology at the consumer level, further developing it to allow stereo reconstruction of a facial model from a series of monocular images. In simple terms, that means that a consumer can use any old digital camera with at least 2 megapixels of resolution, take three photos--one full face-on, one turn of the face 5 degrees, and a third photo the other way--upload them, and in ninety seconds have a fully skin textured, photorealistic, 3D animated version of yourself staring back at you. In effect, you can have a digital you that can be accessorized to make a little version of yourself, or many different egos for projection into essentially living a digital life.
We see a future, where we have two generations of people who are spending the bulk of their non-working time, and a lot of their working time, in a digital environment. We see this as a way to let them represent themselves in the digital realm. They want a means of representing themselves that is animated, and changeable, and actively communicates in places like MySpace, Facebook, and other social networks. They might make themselves a combatant in a video game or multi-player online game, or they might want to take on the role of the primary actor in a video, TV clip, or movie. It doesn't matter if someone is narcissistically motivated, or they just have a social affinity. They can put themselves and their friends into the media and the digital experience. What we do know, is there is an unbroken line of aggressive projection of self into the digital or online life, and we're going to facilitate that.
Talk about how this works with TV clips and video?
Phil Ressler: If you go to BigStage.com today, you can put yourself into a collection of movie clips, TV clips, still photographs, and also into animatics--which are essentially a series of still images with movement--electronic versions of movies that we have developed. You can put yourself into the replaceable actor, and you can put yourself seamlessly into a movie clip where your avatar will take on the facial expression and vocalization of the actors in the movie. The other thing you can do with BigStage, is you can save your avatar--or what we call and @ctor, into animated form on your MySpace or Facebook profile.
Will we be seeing this soon in virtual worlds?
Phil Ressler: Yes, I certainly see virtual worlds as a primary adoption area. The issue with the game world is that to proliferate this it's all proprietary. When we do a deal with a game developer to do integration, and then do another deal, we have to do more integration, etc. As that world opens up to standards, it will be easier to do that integration, so that if you have a game environment, you can grab our stuff, and have it become part of the environment.
We often hear that it's difficult to get technology spun out successfully from a university. How has the experience for you?
Phil Ressler: There was nothing particularly hard here because it came of a university. There has been nine years of university R&D, serious Computer Science work, that we have been able to capitalize on. Lots of work has also been done to take what was a face technology, and make it into a representation of a full head--and also to make it a consumer-grade experience. One problem with other avatar technology, is that in most competitive cases what people are doing is using a standard head model and trying to apply a face to that model. We were able to make a unique head model, based on a unique face model. We also had to be able to accommodate the chaos of the consumer realm--that is to say, it's much easier to do this if you know what camera you're using, the resolution of that camera, where the exposure are, and you can control the angel for photography. Going into the consumer area, you've got to be able to deal with any old digital camera, which someone is holding up them self or having a friend take three photos roughly consistent with our guidelines, and provide an easy way to upload and automate it. There's been an unusually complex amount of engineering, compared to a web media startup, but that's a good thing. Unlike most web media firms, we've got a real, protectable IP, based on serious computer science, three patents, and five more pending. The effort to bring all this to market has taken longer than originally thought when the company was founded and organized, but it's been a steady march of progress.
As a former VC, why'd you decide to get involved with BigStage and back to the operating side?
Phil Ressler: I was on a panel last night at an event, and I was introduced as a former venture capitalist now on the operating side. However, I've only spent 5 and a half years of the last thirty in venture capital. The bulk of my work experience in my adult life has been on the operational side, so it's not unusual to go back. I had a specific interest in 2001/2002 when I came to the area to live and work, instead of splitting my time between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. That was an interest in the ecosystem level. Two-thirds of my operating career has been in turnaround situations. I saw the same mistakes, over and over again in turnaround situations, and I was interested in taking all I knew and had applied sequentially, and seeing if there was an opportunity to work that at a platform level--to transfer that knowledge to multiple companies at once. Venture capital seemed the obvious way to do that. I had gone into Clearstone at their invitiation, and had a really exciting time, and the experiment lasted longer than expected. However, after 5 years there I started to feel like I'd accomplished as much as I could, and became interested in finding an operating company. I had seen BigStage at Clearstone, and wanted to fund it two and a half years ago, but there wasn't support in the rest of the partnership for the deal. In venture capital, there are no unilateral decisions. But, I continued to follow the company, and developed a relationship with the founders. Around that time, I began to think about what I might do on the operating side, and had a conversation with the founders and they asked me if I would consider helping them build the business. BigStage was one of the two or three most interesting technologies I thought had a large, scalable market that I'd seen in 5 1/2 years at Clearstone, and had potential to win a mass consumer audience. It took six weeks, and we made a deal.
Where's the technology now, and what do you see on the horizon?
Phil Ressler: The last year has been spent focused on getting the consumer interface to a point where it's ready for prime time. We launched to the public on November 5th, after we had an open beta in August. The beta was confined to BigStage.com, but with the launch on November 5th it's the first instance where you can get off the island. That means you can use your @ctor other than on BigStage.com. So that's what you can do now. Where we go next, is we are beginning to turn our attention, for at least a part of our team, towards nonstop, continuous improvement of the fidelity of our face/head model--something we'll never stop doing. The brain is a hungry beast, and it always wants things to look better. We'll continue to refine this. We're monetizing the business through a series of B to B deals, where our technology will be used to make other people's media, messaging, and marketing more engaging, through personalization via BigStage @ctors. We're going to use the marketing presence and penetration of major brands, and their willingness to pay us for more engaging media, to popularize this. We'll be exposing BigStage.com and its avatar technology to 10 million or so people in the next year or two. In the meantime, we have lots of engineering associated with customizing things in a B2B environment, and we are working and developing our methodology to create more openness--making it easier for developers to grab and build and integrate this into their own web media projects. We are also going to work on user generated content tools, which will allow users who are not looking to make money to enable their own media, receive actors, and do their own customization.