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Imagine being able to interact with a popular character like Mickey Mouse or Shrek directly through a phone. Ask the character questions and he responds in real time. He may even ask a question back.
That’s the future that startup Artie is working on building with a new interactive augmented reality technology it is calling the Wonderfriend Engine. The company, based out of downtown Los Angeles, has formally launched out of stealth mode with backing from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s WndrCo, YouTube Founder and former CEO Chad Hurley and institutional investors including Founders Fund, The Venture Reality Fund and M Ventures.
Co-founder Armando Kirwin, who previously worked in virtual reality at Milk and VRSE, has been developing the Artie technology since 2017. Earlier this year he brought on Felix & Paul content chief Ryan Horrigan as co-founder and CEO. The duo believe that AR will be able to provide a more interactive experience than VR.
“VR is about putting you in a world, but you never really felt like you were there because you couldn’t really interact with anything,” says Kirwin. “VR is about the world but AR is about characters.”
Adds Horrigan, “VR and AR are the first time consumers can be inside stories. But you can’t have meaningful human interactions. What you can do is hold a controller and pick things up. We’re interested in this idea of AI characters and how can we help build technology to enable AI characters for immersive entertainment.”
Artie plans to license its technology to entertainment companies, media brands and online influencers that want to create digital avatars that can interact with fans. A studio promoting a movie, for example, could share a link that takes consumers into a few-minute experience where they can interact with that movie’s character and also buy a ticket to see the film. Artie won’t charge companies to license its technology but will instead take a percentage of sales of physical or virtual goods.
The 10-person company is currently in talks with a handful of media companies and individuals about using its technology. It also plans to co-develop an original piece of IP together with a Hollywood partner. “We hope that one day we will be able to enable user-generated content but that’s much more complicated,” notes Horrigan.
Artie’s technology uses a combination of facial recognition, natural language processing, machine learning and sentiment analysis to give its digital avatars the appearance of reacting and responding to a person in real time. Its avatars can identify if a person is holding an object like a coffee cup and whether the person is happy or bored by the interaction.
“We’ve spent a long time working on boring things like speed,” explains Kirwin, adding that if a character “doesn’t respond like a human would, it just breaks that illusion.”
Investor Hurley notes, “I’ve long been fascinated by where the next generation of entertainment might take us. And I believe that intelligent, virtual characters — like the kind you can make with Artie’s platform — will play a key role in how we create and interact with content.”
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