Imagine being able to create an animated double of yourself that you can place in games, commercials and movie clips, instantly changing your image in real time if you choose.
That’s the concept of Big Stage, which started in Irvine and recently moved to South Pasadena to be closer to Southern California’s entertainment and digital media hub. Its backers say the technology could revolutionize advertising, gaming and social media.
Here’s how that might work. You create your image on the BigStage Web site. Then Coke creates a commercial that allows you to put yourself into the action. Or Blizzard Entertainment creates a game in which you can put your face on the characters. Or you create your own electronic greeting cards or video using the realistic images of yourself and all your friends. “Your” face can laugh or frown appropriately with the action.
Intel is using the technology as part of its keynote address today at the International Consumer Electronics Show.
Big Stage – which doesn’t officially launch its Web site until April – already has attracted more than $4.6 million in equity and debt financing, as well as some well-known software and entertainment industry executives.
The fledgling venture illustrates how entrepreneurial relationships can transform a technology being developed for one purpose into a company with an entirely different market.
The whole adventure began in 2005 whenThe Venture Alliance, a strategic and funding consultant in Irvine, sent Jonathan Strietzel to a technology open house at the University of Southern California.
Strietzel, now 27, was a 2004 entrepreneurship graduate at Chapman University, who was providing technology assessments of potential Venture Alliance investments in exchange for the consultant incubating one of his companies.
“Jonathan is a technology snoop who has unique abilities in getting other people to understand his vision,” said Jim Casparie, partner in Venture Alliance and its investment banking arm TVA Capital.
At USC, Strietzel saw some three-dimensional facial recognition technology being developed under contract for the CIA and Department of Homeland Security. Rather than seeing a tool to fight terrorism, Strietzel saw a boon for advertising.
While Strietzel worked to persuade USC to license this technology to a new venture called Clone.com for commercial purposes, Casparie talked to Jon Kraft, chairman of the Technology Council of Southern California.
Kraft was committed to another startup, but agreed to be a Clone adviser. He also introduced the startup to Jon Snoddy, a whiz with entertainment technology developed at Lucasfilm,Disney and GameWorks.
With those names in the mix, USC said Strietzel could license the technology if he could raise several hundred thousand in equity capital. He raised $30,000 from friends and family, which earned him another six months to raise the rest.
At this point, Luis Villalobos, founder of Tech Coast Angels in Laguna Hills, the nation’s largest early-stage investors’ group, saw Clone’s technology, which could generate 3-D, photorealistic characters with just three still photos of a person’s face.
That simplicity differentiates BigStage’s technology from competitors as does its fidelity to the real face and ability to change an image in real time as the video runs.
“They created my clone, and I was so impressed, I wrote a check three hours later,” Villalobos said. “This is the quickest I have ever gone into an investment. This is the mother lode.”
Villalobos introduced Strietzel and Clone to the four Tech Coast Angels groups, bringing in the rest of the capital needed to win USC’s approval for worldwide exclusive rights for all uses except security.
“I also looked for money from the Silicon Valley, but we only wanted $1.5 million and those venture capitalists wanted to invest a minimum of $5 million,” Strietzel said.
Then Casparie asked long-time friend Robert Kibble, a partner in Mission Ventures in San Diego, to invest.
Recently Mission led the first outside investment round into the company, which had changed its name to BigStage.
“This is probably one of the most exciting investments we’ve made; it could really transform whole industries,” Kibble said. “To be able to put yourself into the action with your image making expressions of joy or anger is eerie.”
In December, BigStage announced that Chuck Huebner, former head of Activision Worldwide Studios, was the new president and chief executive. Strietzel stays as the chief creative officer.
“I have never seen a company or a technology that I believe has the potential that Big Stage does,” Huebner said. “It is a testament to the founders and tech team that they had the vision and the wherewithal to bring the company to this point.”
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