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Engineering, Business and West Coast Cool

USC Viterbi startup VNTANA delivers an unparalleled entertainment experience with industry-leading holographic technology
December 22, 2014 —
VNTANA's holographic technology enables speaker, comedian and guitar virtuoso Mike Rayburn to perform alongside himself

What began as music fan and mastermind Ashley Crowder’s idea to stream Coachella for those unable to attend has evolved into a new Silicon Beach startup that produces a top quality interactive holographic experience.

The hologram technology is so good, in fact, that VNTANA has produced private events for major brands like Kia and Microsoft. The company brought a holographic version of Nicky Romero, a Dutch DJ and music producer, to life for Kia’s launch of its 2014 Forte compact sedan and put on a complete private show with Manufactured Superstars, an electronic dance duo, for Microsoft’s July 2014 launch of the company’s first post-Nokia acquisition, the Lumia smartphone.

Crowder, who holds both a B.S. in industrial engineering ‘08 and an M.S. in engineering management ’09 from USC Viterbi, teamed with Ben Conway, a USC Marshall School of Business graduate and entrepreneur, to form VNTANA in 2012. Together they have leveraged a combination of patented, scalable hardware and patent-pending software, along with $700,000 in seed funding, to build up staff and production of industry-leading technology.

VNTANA co-founders Ashley Crowder and Ben Conway appeared on the Business Rockstars radio show

“We create 60-frame-per-second HD and Ultra-HD 4K holograms, enabling fans to have the realistic experience of interacting with their favorite celebrities,” said Crowder, VNTANA's chief executive officer. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive reception from musical artists, too, since this is a technology that enables them to reach fans who would be difficult to reach otherwise.”

Crowder’s initial inspiration, Coachella, made news in 2012 by placing a “hologram” of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur alongside Dr. Dre. Video of the performance quickly went viral, bringing holographic technology to the forefront of industry discussion. However, the moving Tupac image was simply a two-dimensional reflection of an expensive computer-generated animation.

Crowder and Conway knew they could do better.

“We don’t come from backgrounds in the music industry or in production, so without a lot of deep context for budgets and history, we had to figure out how to engineer this,” said Conway, VNTANA co-founder and director of business development. “Our solution is driven by an unparalleled hardware and software combination, so we were comfortable taking risks like putting a hologram right next to a person on stage because we knew it would work.”

VNTANA Sizzle Reel from VNTANA on Vimeo.

Risk-taking and trailblazing are nothing new for this tech company, though. Look no further than its atypical management team.

“I first spoke with Ashley about two and a half years ago when we were first starting the (USC Viterbi) innovation institute, and as a female engineer and an entrepreneur, she is a doubly rare entity,” said Ashish Soni, founding director of the Viterbi Student Innovation Institute (VSI2). “I have no doubt she and Ben will be wildly successful and do big things, as the two of them are incredibly passionate about what they are doing and ferociously persistent about perfecting their technology.”

VNTANA uses commodity motion capture technology to create holograms, giving people a holographic view of their favorite celebrities — as real as possible without seeing them live. In the wake of Coachella's 2012 Tupac mania, the music industry is front and center on this trend, but Crowder sees a number of other possibilities for the technology.

“We’ve just started working with avatars, which we believe are going to be another big trend in the usage of hologram technology because it is so widely applicable,” Crowder said. “Imagine kids being able to stand in front of our motion-capture hardware and see themselves become Spider Man.”

Another use the company is exploring is retail.

“Even if you are a huge brand like Dior, you only have one Charlize Theron, but this technology would enable you to make her live in every mall around the world,” Conway said. “We can write our code in such a way that the hologram would actually be able to interact with customers, making their purchasing experience considerably more personal, and, from the brand’s point of view, building loyalty.”

While the ultimate vision involves massive scale and worldwide implementation of hologram technology, Crowder stays focused on her future by remembering her roots.

“My whole life, I always knew I wanted to start my own company, but in the beginning, I didn’t know exactly what it would be,” Crowder said. “The ability to merge that desire with sharing my passion for media with the world — I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.”