When I talk to Tong Pau via Google Meet, he appears as a cartoon medieval cat wearing a helmet, talking and shaking his head, mimicking Pau’s movements behind the webcam. The visor may be hiding a Cheshire cat grin because Pau raised $6.5 million for his San Francisco-based startup Hologram Labs just seven months after launch.
NFT avatars have become commonplace on social media platforms, representing the identity and status of their wearers. But these blockchain-verified JPEGs have limitations; they are static and do not reflect changes in the physical self of a person. Hologram wants to change that by bringing NFT avatars to life.
Pou, who worked at Ox Labs, the creator of the decentralized exchange protocol, and its co-founder Hongzi Mao, Ph.D. in computer science. from MIT have created a desktop tool that uses machine learning algorithms to turn still avatars into motion-tracking avatars. Available as a Chrome extension, Hologram replaces the actual Pow video feed with a cat avatar that is part of an NFT collection called Cool Cats.
“Think of it as a machine learning model, compressed and deployed in the browser. This technology has become achievable only in the last few years, and its speed and efficiency allow real-time work,” explains Pou, adding that the AI model is trained only using publicly available data.
Once the model is deployed in the browser, it passes the face tracking points captured by the camera to an avatar that reproduces the movements in real time.
“Creating motion-tracked characters requires either expensive, deep-tracking hardware or certain platforms that don’t provide the best user experience, so our goal is to create tools and applications that allow users to become virtual characters with a single click,” says the founder .
This motion capture avatar technology is familiar to Vtubers or virtual YouTubers who stream or upload videos of live anime characters.
But I’m a little puzzled when Pau appears as a virtual being – he didn’t warn me. The voice belongs to Pou, the eloquent, reserved young founder, but the expression on the cat’s face is a little numb, lacking the refined facial expressions of humans.
Should I even look into the eyes of the Cool Cat? I don’t quite get goosebumps, but it’s a new experience.
Hologram is working to make its solution even more sophisticated by adding hand tracking. A mobile application is also under development. In addition to animating avatars during video calls, the startup also wants to use its technology to create short and long videos.
The company’s AI model is supposed to be able to display any static avatars, but the startup has focused on NFTs.
Not surprisingly, it has attracted a plethora of crypto investors who provide either financial backing or market entry support. Polychain Capital led a seed round with Nascent, Inflection, The Operating Group, Quantstamp, Neon DAO, Foothill Ventures and South Park Commons.
If you remember the name of one investor, it’s likely Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, who will be working with Hologram on his music project NFT Ziggurats. Other investors include Kalos, founder of Parallel NFT; Richard Ma, founder of Quantstamp; and Naveen Jane, founder Yat Labs.
Hologram is already generating revenue by helping more than ten NFT collections turn their characters into dynamic avatars, including Cool Cats, Deadfellaz and Crypto Covens. After all, the company wants to reach consumers directly. For example, it could allow users to dress up their NFT avatars in virtual branded clothing, a step closer to turning real assets into digital ones.
The two founders of Hologram are among the influx Chinese expatriate entrepreneurs working on web3 projects. In theory, a hybrid understanding of China and the West could give them an edge in attracting investors in both worlds. Indeed, Pou says he hopes to attract Chinese investors in the future.
While Hologram is targeting the Western NFT market, Pou sees an opportunity in China. Despite bans on cryptocurrency tradingChina calls on tech firms create permitted NFT trading platforms and use them to promote IP protection.
“Cryptocurrency is optional for us, and this is really our advantage,” says Pou. He explains that from a technical and product standpoint, the firm’s technology is independent of global blockchain networks like Ethereum or Solana.
For many digital natives, a hologram will help find their place.
Credit: techcrunch.com /