Oben raises $7.7m to speed up development of 3D VR avatar

Oben, a California-based startup that is developing artificial intelligence technology to be used in virtual reality experiences, has secured $7.7 million in a Series A funding round.

Artificial intelligence startup Oben has raised $7.7 million from a consortium of investors in a round led by CrestValue Capital, the investment arm of China's DunAn Group.

Oben, which is part of technology incubator Idealab, said the financing will be used to speed up product development, hire more scientists, and identify new partnerships.

The Pasadena, California-based company is in the process of building its "virtual self" product, which is scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 2017.

Oben explained in an announcement today that creating a virtual rendering of a person requires expensive hardware and hours in a professional studio. As such, the technology is inaccessible to most users.

In addition, the startup said virtual reality (VR) avatars have previously been cartoon-like.

Oben claims that its technology can quickly combine a person's image and voice to create a virtual identity that feels a little more "real" when the person is engaging in VR and augmented reality (AR) experiences.

Users will be able create a 3D virtual self using a smartphone, and transport themselves into VR and AR environments such as musical concerts and classrooms in space.


Oben 3D Virtual Self

Screenshot: Tas Bindi/ZDNet

Nikhil Jain, co-founder and CEO of Oben, believes the startup will help "move VR beyond its preliminary stage".

"In the same way a dream feels real because you are actually in it, VR needs to go beyond pure simulation and become a platform where users can interact and have shared and shareable experiences with their social circle," Jain said.

"With Oben's personalised, easy-to-create avatars, we're shifting the entire experience from an individual one to a social one and we make it accessible to everyone."

In July 2016, HTC selected Oben as one of 33 companies to participate in its VR-focused $100 million accelerator program.

The HTC Vive X program has garnered 1,200 applications from around the world since the company kicked it off in a bid to help grow the global VR ecosystem.

Oben isn't the only company looking to improve VR avatars. Last month, at an Oculus Rift press event, Mark Zuckerberg used his own look-a-like avatar to demonstrate avatars that tracked emotion, thanks to the Facebook-owned Oculus hardware.

In the onstage demo, an avatar of Zuckerberg chatted with his wife in real-time. However, the Oculus avatar is still cartoon-like, unlike what Oben is attempting to create.