When was the first time you saw a hologram? Princess Leia pleading for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s help? Or was it via Star Trek’s Holodeck? For many of us, the idea of holograms is something out of our childhood fantasies, but for VNTANA co-founders Ashley Crowder and Ben Conway, they are a daily reality. We visited their unassuming warehouse in Van Nuys to see where all the magic happens, and to pick the brains of these young, innovative entrepreneurs who are literally building the future.
Stay Curious: This is an audio interview, but we transcribed it below. When turning sound to words, we do what we can to make it readable and authentic. Sometimes the two mediums may not always line up, but we figured you’d rather it make sense without all the “ums” and “likes” – Enjoy.
Boye Fajinmi: Alright. I’ve got the founders of VNTANA with me. How are you guys doing?
Ashley Crowder: Good, how are you?
Ben Conway: Doing good.
Boye : Awesome. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you guys have going on here and who you are?
Ashley: Sure, I’m Ashley Crowder. I’m the Co-Founder & CEO of VNTANA. We’ve created a platform to easily create interactive holographic experiences with built-in data.
Boye: Nice, and you?
Ben: I’m Ben Conway. I’m the Co-Founder & COO. I just work here.
Boye: I’ve been tracking you guys for a little bit, and the idea of holograms in this day and age is beyond me. What made you guys decide to do this, and where do you see it all going?
Ben: Ashley, do you want to take that?
Ashley: Sure. Yeah, it was kind of a crazy idea at the time. I was programming light shows for DJs for fun because that’s what I enjoyed. We really wanted to take those visual experiences to the next level and holograms was a way to do that. When we first started, Ben & I were in his parent’s garage building a hardware system to easily do holographic projection. Then, we started getting a lot of interest from brands who wanted to use it to engage consumers. At that point we officially founded VNTANA, and started building out our interactive software, which makes it easy to create any holographic experience whether it’s on our hardware, or Hololens, or Magic Leap, or other AR devices.
Boye: That’s cool. Where does the name come from?
Ashley: It means window in Spanish. So, the idea is we are giving a view into this other world, this other place. But there’s a lot of window companies in LA called “ventana” so we had to drop the “E” for trademark reasons. We weren’t trying to be cool.
Ben: It’s more Hollywood that way.
Ashley: Yeah! (laughter)
“The idea is that we are giving a view into this other world, this other place.”
Boye: Pretty badass. What gave you the inspiration behind thinking a hologram was even possible to make?
Ben: I think we had just seen it done and we knew that, theoretically, it was possible. Then we thought, well as long as someone buys it we definitely can figure it out.
Ben: And we did, but it wasn’t as straightforward as maybe we would have thought when we first started out.
Boye: Yeah, now that’s interesting because I remember growing up and watching Star Trek, and all these other things, and seeing holograms. Now it’s in real life. It’s interesting to see. So, how have people responded to, Ben as you were saying, ‘buying it’? You guys are creating holograms for other people, for activations. What’s it like as a business?
Ben: As a business, I think it’s always about the engagement. It’s about the interactivity. What is the experience that they’re having? That’s really what we try and focus on as a company. It’s how are fans responding if they’re serving a tennis ball to Roger Federer. How are consumers responding if they’re building their dream car before their eyes? That’s what we really care about, and that’s what our clients ultimately end up caring about. So, at the end of an activation we try and show how successful it was by showing how many smiling faces we have, and then giving them the demographic data behind all those smiling faces.
“Rather than just going out and meeting your friends at a bar and grabbing a drink, you can also come hang out and do cryotherapy along with other things that are health and wellness related”
Ashley: Yeah, the data is what’s key at the end of the day. The hologram is that wow factor that’s going to get people engaged, but while they’re engaged we’re tracking everything. So, we know their age, gender, sentiment, and product preference just by that interaction. We know who they are and we can sync that with our client’s CRM system. So, at the end of the day clients like Lexus have seen us more than double their qualified leads in all the venues we’ve done for them. It’s fun, engaging and personalized for the consumers, but the companies are seeing real bottom-line value.
Boye: So, when you’re collecting this data is it because the consumers are putting it into a system? Or it just recognizes them?
Ashley: The only thing they enter is their email, and that’s because they want a video of the experience because it’s super fun and engaging. Everything else is tracked passively. We have facial recognition back end, so that’s how we know your age, gender and sentiment. We can tie your sentiment to what product you’re looking at. So, you’re happier looking at a blue RX than a red LC. We track, store and sync all of that data with the CRM, and it allows the client to follow up with you after.
“The hologram is the wow factor that’s going to get people engaged, but while they’re engaged we’re tracking everything.”
Boye: Oh, that’s interesting. That’s smart too. I feel like a lot of businesses these days monetize through data…I wouldn’t have even thought that is a revenue stream for you guys. So, where can people see the Holograms? Right now you work out of LA, but where are these things popping up?
Ashley: We’re honestly global. For people in LA we’ve got an installation at Two Bit Circus for the hologram arcade game that’s super fun. We’re at The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. You get a pep talk from George Halas, Joe Namath, a few famous NFL greats. We just launched Adidas by Stella McCartney in all their flagship stores – London, Paris, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai. We’re everywhere.
Boye: What’s it like running a global business?
Ashley: Exhausting, but fun.
Ben: There’s always something new. There’s always some sort of new challenge. We never really know what tomorrow is going to bring for us. We have literally gotten calls days before events happening in Taipei. There’s this whole specialized freight division that deals with us moving things very quickly into foreign countries. So, it’s pretty wild.
Boye: What’s day to day like for you?
Ben: Most of the time it’s spent working with existing clients, trying to onboard new clients, and managing the team in the direction of the product. So, continuing to tweak and take that client feedback and put it directly into the product. One of the things that we love doing is iterating really quickly, so we get stuff out the door a lot faster, I think, than most other companies. We love to get feedback from clients as quickly as we can so we can keep building.
Boye: Cool. What about for you? What’s a day in the life?
Ashley: I would say it’s very similar. We’re constantly doing business development and what’s exciting is talking with the client and seeing what they find most useful on the platform, what they would like the platform to do, and then translating that to the software team. I think I work a little bit closer with the software team on that, and it’s really fun to hear client needs and then translate that into a broader and more scalable software vision. As of now, we have our first client building their own content with our platform which is super exciting to see. Answering those calls from them saying, “We want to do this now! How do we do this?” It’s been exciting to see them create their own experiences on it.
Boye: Yeah! So, who are some of your clients?
Ben: Adidas, Lexus, Microsoft, Intel, Nike. We’ve done work with Disney.
Ashley: Also Deloitte. And a farm equipment company that needed to show how their farm equipment worked, but they couldn’t bring a cow to the conference.
Ben: You’d be amazed at the different calls we’ve gotten over the years.
Boye: That’s cool. So, what’s it like when you talk to these executives? They are probably wide-eyed saying, “Holograms, oh my goodness!” What’s that conversation like from the initial touch to the actual production?
Ashley: It’s really fun and we’re always trying to get to the heart of the reason they’re calling us. Like you said, a lot of executives will say, “I want augmented reality. It’s the latest, greatest thing. We need it!” And our first question is why? What is your goal? Are you trying to increase user-generated content for social and have more online content? Are you trying to understand product preference? Are you launching a product? Do you just want PR buzz? Once we narrow that piece down, we can start brainstorming on the best experience for you to achieve those goals.
Ben: A lot of times, holograms are just the entry point. It’s what catches people’s attention and then once they see what the software can do, and the value it can bring, that’s when the conversation, I think, gets really interesting.
“As of now, we have our first client building their own content with our platform, which is super exciting.”
Boye: Gotcha. So, where do you see this going? How long have you guys been doing this?
Ben: Six years in August.
Boye: Six years. So, what’s the future like?
Ben: The future is: we’re the platform for creating interactive experiences. The same way you used to have to go to a web developer to build a website, and then Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, and WordPress came along. We’re going to do that for interactive experiences. That’s what we’re doing right now; letting our clients build amazing interactive experiences for all different types of platforms.
Boye: That’s cool. So, the Hologram that you guys have today is a big set-up. Right? You have the really huge one. How big is it?
Ashley: We do all different sizes. We have our life-size line, which has a few different options. It does life-size people like in our warehouse. Then we’ve got our Z displays, which are the stand alone kiosks, and now we’ve got light boxes that work really great in retail because they’re smaller. Our software is display agnostic, so the same software works across all of those displays, as well as headset AR and mobile AR. When Ben mentioned that we are going to be the WordPress of interactive experiences that includes across mixed reality platforms.
Boye: Gotcha. So, VR?
Boye: Ok, and like glasses and all that?
Ben: We like to let the market decide what the best display will be.
Boye: But, the computing platform is all the same?
Ashley & Ben: Correct.
Boye: Does that mean someone like a Magic Leap could create holograms for VNTANA?
Ashley: They could use our platform to power experiences on Magic Leap.
Boye: Gotcha. Recently on Facebook, I saw this demo of this lady in China holding what looked like a fan, and it produced what felt like the most real version of a hologram I’ve ever seen. I was tripping out. What’s that technology?
Ashley: Yeah, exactly like you said, it’s a very fast-moving fan with LEDs on the blades. It’s spinning so fast that you lose the blades and you just see the LED light that is making your brain think, ‘that’s a floating hologram there.’ They’re really cool. They’re great for signage. If people want a floating hologram logo, that is the way to go. What we really focus on is that consumer engagement and data collection piece.
Boye: Gotcha, gotcha. What’s been the hardest day for you?
Ashley: Oh my gosh.
Ben: (laughing) I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s something we can talk about on here. I’ll talk about a hard day that had a great ending, which was one of the first experiences we ever did. It was for Microsoft. They did a hologram concert for a bunch of influencers, and pretty much everything that could have gone wrong that day was going wrong. A truss almost came down on top of people at the venue. They sent the wrong projector lens.
Ashley: You ran over a fire hydrant.
Ben: I ran over a fire hydrant at six in the morning when we went to pick up the projector lens! There was a parade. We drove down the wrong side of the road for like a hundred fifty yards to avoid the parade. It was one of those days where you’re like, ‘I don’t know if this is gonna happen. I don’t think this is going to happen. I really don’t think it’s going to happen,’…And then we pulled it off! So, when we pressed play at the end of it, and the crowd went nuts. High highs and low lows that day.
Boye: I like that.
Ashley: Yeah that that was definitely a memorable one. I think mine was probably at the at the US Open in 2015 for Mercedes.
Ashley: We did the Hologram of Roger Federer. You could throw him a ball and play tennis with him.
Boye: Oh yeah!
Ashley: I was there the whole 2 weeks with one of our developers, and there were just use cases we didn’t think of. You know, when you don’t have a lot of time to test and a lot of people to test with…Someone walked up and they didn’t have a right arm. Our software recognizes your body, and we had only programmed it for right hand, so I’m sitting there with Bork in a closet, coding to fix this.
Boye: They had lost their arm?
Ashley: They had lost their arm and they couldn’t do the experience. I felt awful. So, we literally fixed it on the spot, had him go back, and then he could do the experience. But, I felt terrible.
Ben: Just a shout out to Bork for coding in the closet on several of our early gigs. #codinginthecloset.
Boye: I asked because many people, when first starting out, really don’t understand how much goes into business. The sweat, the tears. It’s not and is never easy. So, it’s really interesting to see where you guys come from. One thing we always ask people on this podcast is for one piece of advice for entrepreneurs who are also creating their own businesses. I’m curious to know from you guys, who are paving the future, what that might be?
Ashley: I think my advice would be in the beginning you feel like you need to bring on people with this amazing resume. Or, you need to bring in skills to your company. Which, you do, but the more important thing is that big belief in your vision and where you’re going with the company and your culture. I, today, would 100% take someone who is hardworking, willing to learn, and believes in the VNTANA vision over that perfect resume.
Boye: Good to know.
Ben: Mine would probably be everyday is a new day. Because sometimes with lack of sleep and over work, you can end the day feeling like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to happen.’ And some days, you wake up the next day and you’re like, ‘Alright! I can do this today!’ We still have days where I’ll get a text from Ashley and she’s just like, “We got this! We got this today!” And, you know, maybe the week before I get a text like, “Oh my God. How are we going to get this out on time?” So, everyday is a new day.
Boye: I like that. Ashley, touching on what you were saying, I’ve heard something similar before and it’s hire for culture over skill. As long as, obviously, they’re willing to learn, having someone that fits the vision and the brand will take your business a lot further than someone with that skill. And sometimes those people with the skill have the ego, and they don’t always work out. Have you ever been in a situation where you learned that the hard way, and you had to let someone go?
Ashley: Yeah. We learn most things the hard way.
Ben: I was going to say, that’s the only way to actually learn it.
Ashley: Yeah, definitely learned that the hard way in the beginning. We’ve had to let some people go. But I think the team we have now is pretty incredible. Part of it is, some people wouldn’t be happy working here if they want that big company and they want to focus on one thing. We’re a company where a lot of people wear a lot of hats. You get pulled into different things, and that’s super exciting and fun for some people. Other people, that overwhelms them and they don’t like that. So, I think it’s a two-way street. I think we’re trying to make sure we’re hiring people who will fit in with a culture not only to help move our company forward faster, but so they’re happy here. And then everyone else is happy working with them.
Boye: Yeah. Did you guys raise a round of financing for this?
Ashley: We raised a seed round. So, we raised a little over 2M in seed funding, and then we were able to reach profitability last year. So, we’re more than doubled every year since we started which is exciting. But we were thinking about taking on some more capital, so we’ll see.
Boye: Take it to the next level…Before I let you go, I’m curious to understand this ecosystem. Who else is doing this and where do you see the future of interactive experiences?
Ben: What’s kind of interesting is that so much of the ecosystem has been focused on the hardware aspect of it or heavily focused on entertainment. And so, there are a lot of conversations about trying to make hyper realistic humans, avatars of humans, and things like that. I think where we’d like to see the market go is back to some of the basics; things that will get adopted quickly. I think that’s good for everyone in the space. A lot of times, people are trying to solve really big problems or difficult challenges, but for stuff that might be 5-10 years out as opposed to asking, ‘How do we get this in the hands of people today? So, as far as where the ecosystem is right now, I think that most of consumers’ interactions with AR are probably on phone apps because there are not a lot of AR headsets that are readily available. And it’s cool that people are doing stuff like that, but I think there’s other experiences that can be happening.
Ashley: Yeah. I agree.
“A lot of this stuff is a step up in technological innovation. It’s not necessarily a linear progression. It’ll be something else that cracks things wide open.”
Boye: Do you see a near-future where we can see 360 holograms next to us?
Ashley: Yeah. That’s light field technology, and there are a lot of people trying to solve that really hard problem. We’re not close yet. Microsoft just opened up their volumetric studio here as we are starting to capture volumetric, capture light fields, but it’s so much data that we realistically need quantum computing to be there. We need lasers to be less expensive. We need a lot of things to happen for that to become a reality, and an everyday reality that’s affordable and feasible.
Boye: For sure.
Ben: A lot of this stuff is a step up in technological innovation. It’s not necessarily a linear progression. It’ll be something else that cracks things wide open.
Ashley: And we can’t wait for that! Because we’ve built this software platform to work on that as well, so we’ll still be powering those interactive 3D experiences.
Boye: Cool. Well, I can’t wait! It was awesome talking to you guys today. Curious where can we learn more about you guys? Where can we buy some Holograms and get them integrated into what we’re doing?
Ashley: Yeah. Check us out at our website, VNTANA.com. No “E” as you mentioned.
Ben: That’s V-N-T-A-N-A dot com.
Boye: Cool. Awesome, guys.