3D scanning and graphics bring tremendous opportunities invarious industries like medical, construction and gaming. However, the processes in place are so data-intensive that the results are extremely difficult to work with. Thanks to Atomontage, 3D data is available with one click without any loss of quality, even from a mobile phone. "People are really shocked at the possibilities we have opened up. For a long time, many people thought that something like this was technically impossible," say Branislav Síleš and Daniel Tabar, co-creators of the Slovak-American start-up.
The USA and Slovakia are separated by thousands of kilometres. How did you two get to know each other?
D: I started as a game developer and some 10 years ago I wanted to make a 3D version of my successful 2D game. When I started looking for a suitable platform to build on, Brano's project looked the most impressive of all the ones I came across. At the time, he was working on it by himself, funded entirely by donations from patrons. I reached out to him, started contributing to the project, and we gradually built trust between one another and became friends. He gave me access to his technology and I showcased it at game conferences to attract more patrons. That's also how we met our first angel investor - Tommy Palm, the creator of the Candy Crush saga.
So your game never came out in3D?
D: I haven't completely given up hope of building a game with our technology one day, but right now I'm fully focused on our product, which is no longer primarily aimed at the gaming market. It was none other than Tommy that steered me towards not building just a game, but starting a company that will, with the help of investors, turn Branislav’s technological breakthroughs into something much bigger. The company was founded in 2018, we hired our first developer and never looked back.
Where did the original idea come from?
B: I once tried to create 3D graphics with only 256 bytes as part of a competition. It would have been impossible with traditional polygon graphics, so I looked for alternatives. It turned out that using so-called voxels, I could create graphics with much less operations. I created several demos, with which I won several competitions. At the same time, I was really into physics simulation, so I worked on a 3D engine that would emulate real materials and simulate things like destruction in a believable manner. I started developing a highly experimental voxel-based hobby project and gradually came to the realisation that it was a potentially extremely powerful technology that could replace existing solutions.
When did you start to giveyour idea full attention?
B: When I started presenting my results online, a lot of people didn't believe it worked. Some even said I was a fraud. It was uncomfortable and exciting at the same time. Because when people tell you something is impossible and you're already doing it for real, you know you're working on something extremely valuable. It also means it's a good time to start thinking about commercialisation, and that's how this project was born.
3D graphics have been with us for decades. Why didn't change come sooner?
D: There are two main ways of representing three-dimensional objects in the computer world, which were very much in competition at the beginning. Polygon graphics create objects out of millions of points that connect with vertices and form polygons. It looks very realistic, but it’s nothing more than a hollow shell with textures on the surface. Voxel graphics, which are much closer to Atomontage, represent objects as cubes akin to atoms. The result comes close to objects we encounter in the real world. They have their own internal structure, properties and contents. This concept has been around since the 70s, with the most famous example being Minecraft, the best-selling game of all time. The problem with voxels is that you need quite a lot of them if you don’t want the result to look like lego. A single particle, which we call the Microvoxel, is impossible to spot with the naked eye. Such high resolution 3D graphics literally bring an explosion of data that is extremely complex to process. We were able to solve this issue, but it took a series of technological breakthroughs.
So we're experiencing a breakthrough in how we work with 3D data?
D: I like to use an automotive analogy. The very first cars were actually electric and they competed with internal combustion cars. Internal combustion engines went on to dominate for over 100 years because they were much simpler to use at the time. Nowadays, there is a lot of innovation happening in that space and electric cars are on their way to dominance. This transformation didn’t happen with one particular discovery - many things had to come together to make it happen. Voxels have also been around since the early days of 3D graphics, but polygons and 3D acceleration were just faster and simpler back then.
What does this transformationlook like from the users' point of view?
D: Today's 3D games and simulations look very realistic, but this visual fidelity comes at a cost of some important features such as interactivity. For example, Unreal Engine 5 demos show fantastic environments, but all of their dynamics and behaviours have to behand-crafted by large teams of developers and 3D artists. Minecraft’s appeal isn’t in the graphics, but in the fact that it offers a fully dynamic and completely interactive world. You can mine anywhere and destroy or remake your world as you wish. That's what we call deep interactivity. Atomontage can create high resolution 3D graphics from billions of microvoxels, which simultaneously offer deep interactivity and run on a normal phone. You don't need any expensive equipment, just an average internet connection.
Holding on to the car analogy, is Atomontage the Tesla of 3D graphics?
D: I don't know how useful that analogy iswithout a deeper explanation, but I suppose one could say that. We'readdressing an important need not only in the gaming world, but also inconstruction, archaeology, cultural heritage, medicine, research and much more.Each one of these sectors uses 3D imaging, and the same problem exists in eachone - data is generated in such detail that the users are unable to display,share or edit it without dramatically simplifying it and throwing away 99% ofthe information. Even today's modern computers have major limitations when itcomes to this.
B: I can say that people are really shocked at the possibilities we have opened up. Users have gotten so used toall the limitations of polygon graphics that they don't even think about them anymore. Suddenly, you can share high quality 3D scans with anyone on the internet without having to simplify them. We're having a really exciting year, because we're launching a product that will solve a lot of big issues for a lot of users.
So are you actually selling a game engine like Unreal?
D: That was our first idea when we started the company. We were building a traditional game engine based on voxel graphics. That could itself be an interesting product, but we were soon approached by some really big and important companies to test our technology on their projects. This accelerated something that was only in our long term plan- streaming voxels to the user from our servers. We realised how powerful a tool this could be and decided to pivot. We also introduced our product to John Carmack, the gaming legend behind the Quake and Doom franchises, who warned us about having game studios as primary customers. They are very budget sensitive and rarely risk using new technologies, because they risk quite a lot with every new game. Selling them a whole new way of creating 3D graphics wouldn’t be impossible, but it would certainly be difficult.
B: We saw how much more powerful it would be to build a cloud platform where everything is available as a service. When you upload your 3D projects to the cloud, their size and complexity suddenly stops being important. People view them via a link and enjoy the experience in mere seconds. There is no need for special devices, apps and downloading large amounts of data. We knew we had to take this route.
What is your vision now?
D: Our goal is to make sharing and building interactive 3D worlds easy for both individuals and enterprises. Agreat example of this is Roblox, a native cloud-based game creation platform that was recently valued at more than Unity and Epic games combined. Half of all American teenagers have a Roblox account, but it still uses traditional polygon graphics. Our vision could be summed up as Roblox + Minecraft + a higher resolution, with the secret ingredient being our technology for highly efficient compression without content loss.
What kind of customers are you targeting when you launch a product? You certainly don't have the marketing capacity to target everyone at once.
D: We had to think about that a lot. We're creating an all in one platform for sharing, creating and monetizing 3D content, but that doesn’t happen overnight. First we have to find acommercially viable use case that doesn't lead us astray. That's precisely why we're focusing on a few key verticals that we’re already able to create value for. For example, 3D scanning in construction, archaeology and mining, biomedicine, virtual art or game development. These users are primarily scanning professionals who often spend days or weeks converting buildings or other objects into 3D and have datasets with hundreds of millions to billions of polygons. They then have to go through a painful process of simplifying because rendering, let alone sharing the result, is close to impossible on normal hardware. So in a way they have to destroy their work and make the result worse than it could be. We provide them with a simple way to upload all the data to our servers, voxelize it and transform it into something we call a Montage.
B: It's like YouTube, where you could upload a video that’s an hour long, but once you upload it to the cloud, nobody cares how big the file is or what format it was in, everyone can see it right away. That's the experience we're offering for viewing 3D content and soon for interacting with 3D content. No installations, no downloads. Extremely detailed 3D objects available in seconds, even on a mobile phone. That, in a nutshell, is our product.
It almost sounds like you're the only one who has all the pieces of the puzzle. What competition do you have?
D: We look at everything that’s to do with voxels because it's our passion. There are many projects in various stages which constantly come and go. We've seen dozens of people and teams that tried to tackle this challenge, but none of them made it. We really don’t know anyone who dedicated 20 years of their life to bringing this change to life in a comprehensible way like Braňo did. We even saw big companies fail - Google's Stadia service costbillions of dollars only to shut down at the beginning of this year, because it wasn’t a scalable solution. It required expensive gaming consoles all over the world, each of which could only serve a few players at a time. This shows us that you can’t serve hundreds of millions of people using polygons. It was clear to us from the start.
B: Our advantage is that we don’t requirea lot of computing capacity. From an infrastructure point of view, we only need completely generic machines, so the solution is very scalable. That's just never going to happen with polygons. Meta is now investing billions in the Metaverse, but it's building it on technology that has huge limitations. We can see how hard they struggle with creating appealing and vibrant worlds that don't look like a basic, stripped down 3D environment.
Who are your existing investors who share this vision?
D: We have two institutional investors, one being J&T Ventures and the other Makers Fund, which is a fund focused on the gaming industry that joined us a bit earlier. We've also been fortunate enough to have great angel investors. They are people who know the challenges of creating 3D content, so they’re incredibly relevant to what we do. The aforementioned Tommy Palm invested in us several times, as have most of our angels. Our most recent angel is Palmer Luckey, founder of defence tech startup Anduril and before that Oculus. Beforehand, we were joined by for example Cliff Bleszinski and another gaming industry veteran, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, CEO of the cult classic MMO Eve Online, along with other smart and brilliantly connected people. We're really happy to have them onboard.
Is the current investment from J&T Ventures a seed or Series A?
D: It's somewhere in between the two. We are a team of 13 people and we still consider ourselves an early stage startup. We closed our first seed round in 2021, and we are planning another large round later this year depending on how things unfold with respect to world events. That's also why we’re focusing on rapidly growing our market share. We know who we’re targeting, we’re gaining traction as we speak and we’re doing everything we can to show good numbers later on.
What is the purpose of this "intermediate investment"?
D: Given the wild and quite scary events of 2022,we wanted to get some more capital to provide safety in between investment rounds. We want to be flexible in respect to the timing of our Series A, because we’re aware of the current problems in the world, especially the war in Ukraine. We even have some Ukrainian customers that are trying to create 3D copies of their cultural heritage and their monuments before they are damaged or destroyed, despite the numerous electricity outages and all the other issues. It goes without saying that we don’t have to deal with that kind of difficulty, but it does affect the market as a whole.