Wellington startup 8i, whose virtual reality technology uses the Oculus Rift headset to immerse viewers in the entertainment they're viewing, has secured a million dollars of new investment to seize on what it calls a huge global commercial opportunity.
UK analysts KZERO estimates there will be 171 million virtual reality users worldwide by 2018 and 8i co-founder and CEO Linc Gasking says giants like Facebook (which bought Oculus VR earlier this year), Sony and Samsung are rushing to bring virtual reality hardware to market.
"Industry leaders are calling for more compelling, immersive content to meet the growing demand," he says. "This is where 8i comes in, because [the] technology will enable content creators worldwide to make incredible experiences for VR."
It remains to be seen whether it will partner with such giants, but its technology will be compatible VR headsets from a range of producers, says Gasking. "While we've already had interest from a number of potential partners, it's too early to say whether 8i will go down that path."
The $1 million seed investment came from private individual investors on both sides of the Tasman. Among them are Xero CFO Ross Jenkins, Ice Angels, designer Lee Corleison and former Telecom Retail CEO Alan Gourdie.
"8i has had fantastic support from the tech, creative and professional communities in Wellington and New Zealand more broadly," Gasking says. "It also rings true to my belief that every time startups get an exit, the great thing that happens is that those investors and serial entrepreneurs are able to invest in the next generation. You start to build an ecosystem of exits and capital being reinvested from one generation of startups to the next."
8i is also working with Callaghan Innovation to apply for an R&D project grant and says the government-led organisation has also connected it with talent. Most new hires have been for computer vision, graphics and software engineering roles, Gasking says. "We are fortunate that Wellington's world class screen industry and technology startup scene provides a good pool of talent."
He adds the million dollar investment was a "good signal for the international market" and a vote of confidence in the company's team and its commercial opportunity.
The company has had a global outlook since it was established in May and has recently recruited Emmy award-winning visual effects supervisor Rainer Gombos as its executive creative director.
While it plans to keep its HQ and R&D in Wellington, Gombos will be based in Los Angeles and will work with 8i's clients in the US.
Gombos won an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects on season two of Game of Thrones and was nominated for an Emmy for his work as the visual effects supervisor on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.
Gasking's co-founder Joshua Feast is New Zealand’s first Fulbright Scholar in Entrepreneurship and commercialised IP from MIT’s Media Lab to launch Cogito, a multi-million dollar business delivering analytic software that senses human behaviour and infers psychological state.
Fellow co-founder Sebastian Marino is is the founder of Jig Lab, where he built proprietary IP to lay the groundwork for holographic content on the Oculus Rift. He's been in the film industry for more than 15 years, working with Industrial Light and Magic, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Weta Digital.
Chief scientist Eugene d'Eon was also recently at Weta Digital and is a research scientist in computer graphics.
Gasking co-founded film and technology startup CountingDown.com from Melbourne in 1998, and it was acquired by Pop.com in 2000. In 2013 he co-founded Free Range with Feast, visiting 20 startup cities to write a paper on successful startup ecosystems.