As talk of the metaverse abounds, this deep-tech Trinity spin-out has the vision for a new user-generated content reality.
“Even though most of the Big Tech players have an AR roadmap, most of the content that nowadays can be experienced in AR has been created by a professional, a designer or an artist,” said Rafael Pagés. “There is no such thing as user-generated content for AR.”
Enter Volograms, a Dublin start-up out to make the creation of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) content accessible for anyone with a smartphone.
According to CEO and co-founder Pagés, even key tech industry players such as Apple and Snap have flagged content creation as a barrier to widespread AR adoption. “This lack of content creation tools for regular users is a significant market opportunity we are addressing,” he said.
Key to this is Volu, an app for users to capture real-life content using their smartphone and instantly ready it for a bit of AR fun. Think TikTok-style dance videos with a dancer from one video transplanted beside another person’s attempt using AR. At least, that’s one way to do it.
Volograms makes this possible using volumetric video capture, which is a way to capture video suitable for augmented and virtual reality. Rendering a standard video into 3D content for use in AR and VR involves a form of artificial intelligence called computer vision, which Pagés happens to have a PhD in. He also has more than 10 years’ experience in the field of 3D reconstruction, as an entrepreneur as well as a researcher.
In fact, he met his founding team during his postdoctoral research at V-Sense, a Trinity College Dublin research group focused on visual computing. These three founders come from different backgrounds – Pagés from Spain, CTO Jan Ondřej from Czech Republic and COO Konstantinos Amplianitis from Greece. But their shared technical expertise across academia and industry saw them find common ground in Ireland.
Combined, they have more than three decades of experience in computer vision, computer graphics, VR and AR, including work at Disney Research and Siemens. Their names are across more than 100 scientific papers with more than 1,300 citations, and multiple patent applications.
Volograms’ fourth founder, Trinity research professor Aljosa Smolic, now serves as a board member and adviser.
‘We aim to grow Volu into a ubiquitous camera platform for everyone to use on their smartphones’
– RAFAEL PAGÉS
“Volograms is a deep-tech company with a big focus on R&D,” said Pagés. “We use deep learning and other computer vision algorithms for different processes such as image segmentation, 3D skeleton reconstruction, texture mapping, but especially for 3D reconstruction, which we are even able to do with one single image.”
The Volu app is capable of generating images suitable for AR and VR content because of the technology now packed into modern smartphones, such as lidar, which senses depth using invisible light pulses. “Furthermore, we use cloud computing and mobile processing to do the heavy lifting and bring the power of professional studios into smartphones,” added Pagés.
This advanced technology combines so that smartphone users can have fun with dynamic AR and VR content creations that they easily share on Volu.
Last summer, Sure Valley Ventures led a €1.5m investment into the Trinity spin-out, with additional backing from Enterprise Ireland and the Atlantic Bridge University Fund.
“We plan to fundraise a new round in 2022,” said Pagés. This will be used to scale the Volu app and Volograms’ broader mobile technology.
The ultimate aim is for Volu to become the go-to platform for mixed reality, or XR, content capture, while also integrating with other key XR platforms. Volograms’ tech can also be integrated into messaging apps, social media platforms and mobile content creation suites.
“Over time, we believe that the technology powering Volu can become the AR camera that replaces our smartphone camera,” said Pagés. “We aim to grow it into a ubiquitous camera platform for everyone to use on their smartphones and smart glasses to create content for AR, VR and even video games and other 3D realms, as easily as taking the phone out of our pocket to snap photos and videos.”
On this mission to enable mixed reality content capture for everyone from amateurs to professionals, Volograms has already established partnerships and collaborations with creators and brands. “[They] want to use our technology for innovative use cases, typically related to marketing, communications, fashion, sports, culture, tourism and many others,” said Pagés.
He explained that development on Volu – which was originally a longer-term plan – accelerated during the pandemic when the company’s professional volumetric video work was cut down to zero.
Behind this is a team of passionate technologists and creatives. “We are very proud of our fantastic and diverse team of 17 people, who have demonstrated how to bring a world-first product to life in the middle of a pandemic,” said Pagés.
‘As an immigrant who has experienced other start-up ecosystems, the Irish one is outstanding’
– RAFAEL PAGÉS
So far, Volu has seen thousands of downloads since it launched in September, and even caught the attention of CNN.
“It didn’t come without challenges – start-ups always face them,” said Pagés. “But we are trying to keep overcoming them, one at a time. Currently, we are focusing on increasing the value we deliver to our users with new and exciting features.”
Meanwhile, Pagés will continue to grow this innovative company from its headquarters in Dublin’s Guinness Enterprise Centre. “There is, of course, room for improvement, but as an immigrant who has experienced other start-up ecosystems, the Irish one is outstanding,” he said.
“Ireland in general, and Dublin in particular, have amazing start-up ecosystems. There are plenty of start-up success stories for a country of the size of Ireland, which is remarkable. There are a few factors that I think play a very important role for this to happen: there is institutional support for start-ups and new businesses, there is a significant amount of venture capital available, there are processes to transform academic research into businesses, and entrepreneurship is culturally encouraged.”
Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.