This entrepreneur just got $8.6 million to make advanced AR games for phones without Apple's ARkit
- Illumix, a Silicon Valley-based startup, is building augmented reality games and the technology needed to run them.
- It's attracted $8.6 million in seed funding from top-tier venture capital firms.
- Its investors believe that the founder's background in math and machine learning can help the games Illumix makes stand out in a world of games using off-the-shelf AR software like Apple's ARkit.
Giant companies like Google and Apple are betting heavily on augmented reality, an emerging technology that enables advanced graphics to be integrated into the real world through your phone's camera lens.
But top-tier venture capital firms are backing a smaller company, Illumix, that's working on the same vision: building the underlying core technology - and focusing on games as one of the first applications for the technology.
"We are designing first and foremost for: What is the user doing? I think we've come up with a very distinct tech stack," Illumix founder and CEO Kirin Sinha said in an interview.
"No one knows what a great AR app looks or feels like, to this day, if you ask any consumer what is a great AR experience, most people don't know. Most people haven't experienced that before," she continued. "All great content and great applications start with the mentality - what should I do, what is missing, and that is very central to how we have looked at every piece of technology we have developed."
Illumix announced on Tuesday that it had raised $8.6 million in seed funding from firms led by Maveron and Lightspeed Venture Partners.
The first products from Illumix will be a pair of games for smartphones released next year, Sinha said. One is going to be an original title, and the other will used licensed intellectual property from a big game company in the survival horror genre, she said.
"We are going to see real adoption of AR when there are meaningful, retentive AR experiences, that people start to use every day on their smartphones," Sinha said. "Our goal as a company for right now is to be the premier AR studio, and we are dead set on the applications. If it's not fun, the party is over."
One reason that these investors are betting on Illumix is because it's building its own computer vision technology, or the ability to use a smartphone camera to identify where objects and walls are in the room around the user.
"There are lots of companies - Apple and Google, companies that Sand Hill Road is investing in - they're really building developer tools," Nicole Quinn, partner at Lightspeed Venture Capital, said in an interview. "It's very different from what Illumix is doing."
"They're taking a vertically integrated approach, building out very strong technology that we have not seen elsewhere," Quinn continued. "A lot of others in AR are basically going to be using ARkit, and we think if everyone is just building a game on top of ARkit, then they are going to be similar to one another, but Illumix will be differentiated and unique."
A pure math background
Part of the reason why Illumix is building its own technology - not an easy task - is because its founder, Sinha, is used to tackling difficult problems.
Her career started in academia focusing on math and machine learning research, specifically, at a series of prestigious institutions including MIT, Cambridge, and the London School of Economics.
But it was an accidental company that turned her attention to entrepreneurship. She founded Shine for Girls, a national nonprofit focusing on math advocacy for middle school girls, in 2012. It ended up taking off, to Sinha's surprise.
So she ended up going to business school, and looking to start a company. Lightspeed helped out - she was accepted to its fellowship, which included a bit of money as well as other resources like mentors and startup classes.
It also ended up giving her some early office space. Instead of the apocryphal Silicon Valley garage, Illumix - originally called The Looking Glass - got started in the Lightspeed offices.
"We were actually camped out in Lightspeed's old offices, they did not realize we were there for a solid year," Sinha said. "They gave us the access when we were summer fellows, and then I started hiring people, and telling that this was our official address."
"It was pretty awkward, Lightspeed was like 'Oh, can we come to your offices," and I was like, 'Uh, you'll recognize the address,'" she joked.
Now Illumix has about 11 employees, counts several top-tier firms including Radar Partners, Unusual Ventures, and 451 Media as investors, and it's putting together a team full of experts in computer vision, gaming, and design.
Plus, it's not just working on technology for the short term - Sinha has a vision for when AR technology comes off of the phone and starts being integrated into glasses or other dedicated augmented reality technology.
"If you see a true consumer headset, glasses or contacts, 10-20 years in the future, I think that's the biggest entertainment opportunity has ever seen, bar none," Sinha said.
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