​Startup Spotlight: Pete Forde of itsme

By Janet Ho ● May 23, 2017 11:25

If you could create a 3D version of yourself in virtual form, what would you have your avatar do? Maybe you’d like to see yourself in a video game, busting out some crazy martial arts moves in your quest to defeat villains. Maybe you’d use your avatar for online shopping to make sure the next jeans you buy will be the perfect fit. Or maybe you simply want a replica of yourself to live on forever.

The concept of itsme started off from a heartfelt request: to create a 3D keepsake of co-founder Aidan Tracey’s family dog. It would be two years before he and co-founder and CEO Pete Forde would achieve the task, eventually leading them to explore the practical value of realistic virtual representations of people.

Here, Pete Forde shares how 3D human avatars may eventually be integrated into our everyday lives.

What inspired you to create itsme?

Pete Forde: I'm a serial entrepreneur and this is my third company. Weirdly enough itsme is the first company where I did not come up with the original concept. itsme began as Rememborines, which emerged from a request from a former client: my co-founder, chairman and lead angel investor Aidan. He told me that the family dog wasn't well and he asked me if I could 3D scan their dog so we could 3D print him and have a keepsake forever. Everything ended up being much harder than anticipated with very smart PhD types telling us the problem was not solvable in a general way.

It was two years before we'd succeed at creating an automated capture, but we'd switched our focus to humans and in a true Eureka! moment realized that we could animate those humans. This was right around the time that Facebook bought Oculus, so it was clear that we were going to need a fast, automated and financially viable way to scan everyone on the planet.

Ultimately, it took us three years but we did finally scan the dog

Black dog looking at miniature 3D version of itself

That's a cool keepsake. What other uses are there with the technology?

Forde: I see itsme avatars as a key technology that will define how we represent ourselves online in the future and there's no question that my avatar is going to outlive me. I see clearly how we are building the infrastructure required to power a future where we use avatars to work and to play.

For itsme, the obvious first opportunity is the world's 1.3 billion gamers. This isn't just a hobby for kids anymore: last year gamers spent $20 billion on in-game items. The characters people play in these games are part of their lifestyle and identity, so they have no trouble spending money to gain status or an advantage. For the first time, we're giving gamers the opportunity to skip the avatar creation process and look exactly like they do in real life. That's not something people have ever been able to do before. Anyone who says that gamers don't want realistic avatars is kind of missing the point because gamers have never had them before. As Henry Ford once said, "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they'd have said 'faster horses'."

We’re also really excited about several verticals and opportunities—retail, business teleconferencing in VR, education, health—but it won't make sense to decide until the VR/AR/MR market becomes more established. I actually believe that business applications are the true profit machine of VR; you can ask any executive how much time and money is wasted travelling to meetings. I've seen estimates of $2.3 trillion spent every year spent on flights, hotels, taxis and lost productivity, not to mention time away from their young families. Virtual humans are going to be the single most important aspect of making VR/AR a significant part of our everyday lives.

Ultimately, I will be content if a shift towards realistic identity in shared online spaces helps to dismantle the anonymous and very toxic culture of harassment and bullying that has brought out the worst in some people. Facebook takes a lot of flack but their principled insistence on people using their real names is their greatest contribution to online society.

What's been your greatest challenge as an entrepreneur?

Forde: It's my first time as a startup CEO and I've had all of the usual problems: fundraising, sacrifice, trying and occasionally stumbling in my attempt to be the inspiring leader I need to be for itsme to have the best chance of success.

However, by far the hardest thing for me about being an entrepreneur is that I have to replace myself as the lead technical doer of all things. I might be able to hack out a rough prototype of my idea before I absolutely have to recruit people way smarter and way more talented than me. They’ll take my prototype, interpret it and learn what they can before starting over and building the forever version of the product. There's always going to be emotions attached to letting go and trusting the people you bring in. And often it can seem like you're doing bookkeeping while they get to play with the latest cool technology.

In the end, I get the best of both worlds. I see my ideas come to life and I get to learn from experts while it happens. How cool is that?

Pete Forde
What made you want to join the CFC Media Lab's IDEABOOST Network?

Forde:When we applied to IDEABOOST, I was really quite pessimistic about the concept of an accelerator that isn't named Y-Combinator or TechStars. We saw it as a cash injection and if I had to do some trust-fall exercises along the way, what could be the harm?

It’s true that not all accelerators are created equal. But having talked to friends that have gone through YC, they all say that the process is surprisingly hands-off, which made me politely skeptical that IDEABOOST could really teach me anything I didn't already know.

In short, I have been totally humbled by the CFC's coaches and extended network. They are actively thinking about my business and doing everything they can to help us succeed. So if money was the reason that we came to the program, it's become this distant, tertiary perk after everything else. I've told them as much and we can laugh about it now, but this program is amazing and I am not obligated to say that. itsme is so grateful for the opportunity to be involved. Best cult I've ever joined!

What's next on the agenda?

Forde: We are participating in TOJam, a 500+ developer game development hackathon here in Toronto. We're hoping to meet with developers and show them our avatars; we want developers to be excited about itsme and start experimenting with the tech. We want to be able to demonstrate real grassroots interest when it comes time to do our next fundraising round. Our intention is to release itsme SDKs for Unity and Javascript this summer in the hopes that there will be several game titles that support avatars available early next year. This could be new games, but I'm excited to help studios breathe new life into existing games as well by bringing recognizable avatars into familiar titles of experiences people already love and make them even more emotionally relevant.

Pete Forde

Where do you see yourself a couple years from now?

Forde:I have some ambitious goals for itsme to achieve. I would like to see millions of people using smartphones, laptops, Amazon Echos and other devices to create new avatars every day. I am confident that people will use their avatars not just for games, but for communication, shopping and entertainment. People will wake up and check the itsme app alongside other social channels to see what their friends did last night. Experiences will be captured and expressed through their avatars. Avatars will absolutely be another primary category of user content, and it will be the most personal medium for expression. People will come to realize that for all intents and purposes, their avatar is them and it will continue to stand in for them long after they are gone. Unlike, say, a Facebook memorial page, it will become common for people to visit someone's avatar when they miss them. It will become increasingly important to make sure that our avatar knows how we feel about everything and what we'd like to say to the people we love the most. Isn't in incredible to think that our avatars will have confident opinions about things that happen after we die?

In the same way that self-driving cars are already safer than human drivers, our avatars will soon know us better than we know ourselves. We might even find ourselves asking our avatars, "What do you think I should do?"

Hopefully, my avatar would say, "You have to decide. It's not that I don't care; I care very much. Whatever you do, please don't fuck this up for us."

IDEABOOST Accelerator is a four-month boot camp for tech companies that want to achieve success and scale in the media and entertainment ecosystem. An initiative of the Canadian Film Centre’s Media Lab, in partnership with Corus Entertainment, IDEABOOST provides high–potential Canadian startups with seed investment, mentorship and access to its network. Join Network Connect to find out more.

This interview has been edited and condensed.