Hologram raises $6.5M for blockchain-based avatars that you can use in video calls

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Hologram, an all-in-one platform for virtual beings, today announced that it has raised $6.5 million in seed funding for avatars that you can use in video calls.

The whole aim is to enable avatars to move across applications, much like you would expect them to do in the metaverse, the universe of virtual worlds that are all interconnected, like in novels such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One.

The San Francisco company lets you use non-fungible token (NFT) images or characters as avatars, and you can use those avatars to represent yourself as a lip-synced character in a Zoom or Google Meet call. I did an interview with CEO Tong Pow, and he used his avatar the whole time. So I don’t know if it was really him or not. Pow calls this “the pseudonymous economy.” This gives some utility to those Bored Apes and other NFT imagery that lots of folks are criticizing now for being a bunch of hype.

Polychain Capital led the round, with participation from Nascent, Inflection, The Operating Group, Quantstamp, Neon DAO, Foothill Ventures and South Park Commons.

Other angel investors include Mike Shinoda (cofounder of Linkin Park and advisor to Warner Records), Kalos (founder of Parallel NFT), Richard Ma (founder of Quantstamp) and Naveen Jain (founder of Yat Labs).

The company (dba Hologram Labs) will use the money to expand the team with several key hires and increase capacity to support the rapidly growing influx of partnership requests.

Tong Pow’s avatar.

Hologram is building technology to give people more ways to express themselves and socialize in the pseudonymous economy, Pow said.

Leveraging the latest developments in machine learning, 3D and web3, Hologram empowers any online community to create, own and engage with immersive virtual characters, goods and experiences at scale. Users can connect with others, create content, and build their brands on any video or gaming platform, like Zoom, Twitch, VR chat and hundreds more as their digital characters with one click.

After a successful launch with the Anata NFT community in April, Hologram is already integrating its technology with more than 10 NFT communities, including popular projects like Cool Cats, Deadfellaz and Crypto Covens. This strategic round will enable Hologram to expand its offerings to many more online creators and communities in the upcoming months.

“Hologram brings exactly what we promised to our community — magic,” said the Crypto Covens team, in a statement. “Part of the appeal of profile photo NFTs is assuming an identity you find beautiful, remarkable, powerful and WITCH Holograms take that further than we could have imagined. They are the perfect conduit for anon community building, roleplaying and immersive magic-making.”

Hologram lets you use NFTs as avatars.

“So much of the magic of web3 comes from taking the practice of experimenting with identity so common to the early internet and fusing it with the technologies we’ve developed in recent years!” said Xuannu, the founder of Crypto Covens, in a statement. “Hologram has meant that we have pseudonymous identities with a richness of expression I honestly never expected to be able to have.”

Pow and Hongzi Mao, co-founders of Hologram, began working on the project in December 2021. Before Hologram, Pow built consumer-facing crypto products at 0x Labs and 3D digital twin applications at an ML robotics startup, while Mao did research on machine learning and video processing in places like DeepMind and MIT, with thousands of citations under his belt.

After meeting in South Park Commons, they started Hologram and made rapid progress on both product development and partnership front towards becoming the go-to solution for bringing online communities and brands to life.

Hologram said it is building an all-in-one platform for virtual beings. Leveraging the latest developments in 3D, machine learning and web3, Hologram empowers any online community to create and engage with highly immersive digital characters, goods and experiences at scale. Users can connect with others, create content and build their brand on any video or gaming platform, like Zoom, Twitch, VR chat and hundreds more as their digital characters with one click.

“What that means is that we’re building the creation framework to enable any online community to create digital characters, wearables and just digital assets at scale,” Pow said. “And also building the tooling to enable any user to become their virtual characters and visual identities on with one click on any video platform.”

Hologram founders
Hologram founders Hongzi Mao (left) and Tong Pow.

Pow notes that the promise of the metaverse is to make worlds where you can be anyone you want to be.

“And so the idea of pseudonymity. And we’re really, we really take from that angle,” Pow said. “So starting with video, which is the most accessible and engaging medium for communication and self expression, we are building essentially the infrastructure layer to enable anyone to become their digital identities.”

Right now, the company supports both 2D and 3D avatars. Pow believes that avatars help create a sense of presence, that you’ve been transported to some other place in the metaverse. And it makes sense to use NFT art and other imagery that people think of as representing their personalities. Yet with video calls, people are forced to show themselves on camera, and that makes some people uncomfortable.

For Google Meet calls, Hologram has created a Chrome extension that enables the app to see the avatars owned in a crypto wallet. So it can see which NFTs that you own, and then it can take one of those avatars and turn them into what the company calls “holograms.” Then Hologram brings life to that image as an animated avatar, and it can move the mouth of the character in lip-sync as you speak.

Thanks to its partnerships, users now have access to tens of thousands of avatars that they have created across various platforms.

“What we sell directly is utility for your NFTs,” Pow said.

The company is generating revenue through its partnerships with various NFT and avatar makers. In the long term, it hopes to directly monetize consumers around their customizations. Over time, the company hopes to make collections of avatars available to others to use, with permission.

As for competition like Ready Player Me or Genies, Pow is excited.

“I’m very excited about the fact that there are more avatar creation companies creating their own IP, their own brands,” he said. “With Hologram what we’re thinking about is really about supporting yourself and self-expression, and enabling that in immersive experiences.”

Hologram also hopes to score points among influencers and Vtubers, or the virtual characters that people use to express their personalities on livestreams and recorded videos. Vtubers have taken off in a dramatic fashion in Asia.

The company has a team of six people now and it is hiring.

The company has contracts that require users to respect intellectual property, so it’s not OK to use avatars that infringe on someone else’s copyright without permission. Hologram will have to enforce that.

Pow grew up in Shenzhen, China and he loved playing Chinese massively multiplayer online role-playing games, and he thought of these as the metaverse when he was young. The main fantasy was to become someone else in a virtual world. Extending that to the current idea of the metaverse, whether it is on 2D screens or in virtual reality or augmnted reality, Pow believes the self-expression part is even more important.

“I believe that these identities really matter,” Pow said.

Pow admits he is very embedded in sci-fi and crypto culture, and so wearing an avatar is perfectly normal to him and his friends. He can feel self-conscious if he shows his real face in business calls, and he thinks a lot of people might feel that way. On the other hand, business meetings often require trust and so business people may want to show their real faces. Pow points out that many people are recognizable for the work they’ve done and their reputations, and so they may not need to show their faces in calls.

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