Timmu Tõke – Fortune 30 under 30 and a CEO of Wolf3D, one of the world’s leading avatar providers, joins our CEO Cristian-Emanuel Anton to discuss VR avatars, VR meetings, the metaverse, and much more.
Cristian Anton: Hello everybody. My name is Chris and I’m co-founder and CEO of MeetinVR and we are building an enterprise collaboration solution in virtual reality. So basically, you know, a platform which we’re experiencing right now. So today we have with us, and it’s my pleasure to have Timmu who is the founder and CEO of Wolf 3D, and they are building VR and 3D avatars for games and virtual experiences. And he’s also been named by Forbes “30 under 30”. So a real pleasure to have you with us here, Timmu.
Timmu Tõke (00:35): Thank you Chris, awesome. It’s great to be here. Thank you for this virtual interview opportunity.
Cristian Anton (00:42): Of course. I don’t remember when was the last time we saw each other. I think it might’ve been around one year ago. Yeah, probably at Slush I think, or in Munich. But you know, right now it’s actually better like this, you know, because, you know, shaking hands, like this is probably the only completely safe way in which you can do it.
Timmu Tõke (01:04): Exactly. You don’t need a mask, you just need a headset.
Cristian Anton (01:07): So Timmu we’ve been working with him and with his amazing team for the past few months and the avatars, which we’re using now to have these conversations have actually been powered by Wolf3D. And it’s been a huge and amazing pleasure and honor to work with them. They’ve helped us to get the avatars right. You know, the style and the requirements to meet what we want to do and want to achieve here at MeetinVR. So thanks Timmu for that. It’s really, really cool and we’re loving them. Maybe we should actually take a selfie and to remember this. Should we do it?
Timmu Tõke (01:47): Yes. Should I grab mine?
Cristian Anton (01:49): Yeah. Yeah, of course. Give it a go.
Timmu Tõke (01:57): Boom. Just give it a smile. Nice. All right. I’ll make it bigger.
Cristian Anton (02:07): Awesome. Look at us, maybe show it to the cameras as well.
Timmu Tõke (02:14): That’s a good idea.
Cristian Anton (02:15): So cool. All right. So Timmu maybe, you know it would be great if you introduced us a little bit to what Wolf3D does, and then it would be fantastic to hear a little bit about how you started doing what you’re doing now.
Timmu Tõke (02:33): Sure, absolutely. Thank you for the great introduction. We’re very happy to work with MeetinVR as well and figuring out our avatar problems together. We make avatars, that’s what we do: personal avatars. So you snap a selfie and you can generate a personal avatar out of that selfie to represent yourself in a virtual world. And you know, what, why we think that is important is because we see a bigger shift towards virtual worlds for obviously working – the stuff that you are working on, but also in a kind of a different entertainment market: also in gaming. You know, when you look at what kids these days do, they hang out in virtual worlds. That’s where they spend their time. That’s how they form relationships. And we also believe that when those kids playing Roblox and Fortnite today grow up, then they will graduate into working in 3D spaces for work as well. And yeah, because of that kind of bigger shift, we need a better way to represent our identities in the virtual world. That’s obviously what we’re focused on. So our goal is to give people an identity they’re satisfied with that is connected with their real-life self, but, you know, it can be modified to suit whatever you want to look like. And yeah, we work with a lot of big enterprise customers from one end, which is like Tencent, Huawei, HTC, Vodafone, Horizon, WarGaming, some gaming, some VR and obviously, you know, the most exciting space for us and why we initially got interested in making avatars or like making avatars usable for the end-user is kind of via social VR, VR meetings and so forth. So, because I think that’s, you know, the kind of the ultimate way to use an avatar, it’s the most immersive way. And then that’s why this is the most exciting space for us.
Cristian Anton (04:37): Yeah. And that sounds super exciting. And that makes a lot of sense, you know. Right now, I actually feel that I am together with you in this space, in this place, and much more than, you know, in any of the video calls, which we’ve been having before. So that’s super fantastic. You’ve also mentioned to me that you have this vision of making avatars, which could move from one platform to another. So basically creating kind of the standard of the avatars.
Timmu Tõke (05:06): Yeah, exactly. That is our ultimate goal. And always has been – to kind of create this universal virtual identity that travels with you between different platforms. They can change their style and their look and their feel depending on what you want to use them for, but your identity will be consistent. So, you know, we don’t, we believe in a world where a lot of people spend a lot of time, in virtual spaces, but we don’t necessarily believe in a world where virtual spaces are dominated or owned by one big company. So we believe there’s going to be a lot of different apps or different environments where I can kind of jump between. And because of that, we need to create some kind of cross-platform services like identity which is I think the most important to enable that experience. So for the user, you can go from a game to a virtual meeting to a concert all with a consistent identity, you know. You can give it a tweak, you can give it a different look and stuff, but you’ll have a consistent kind of experience across those apps. And I think there’s a very, very kind of important thing to solve for this ecosystem. You know, the buzzword is “a metaverse”. And I think the real kind of metaverse…
Cristian Anton (06:24): Ready Player One.
Timmu Tõke (06:24): Exactly, Ready Player One. But maybe Ready Player One is very, you know it’s a kind of dystopian world, and the virtual world is dominated by one company. And I think that’s not the future that most people want. And also I think that’s not a very probable future.
Cristian Anton (06:48): I think that’s a super interesting thought, like, you know, whether there will be like this kind of dominant player who will rule the metaverse and basically this, you know, this group of people becomes like your gods in a way, or if there’s going to be just a lot of different apps and software who, you know, in effect will create the metaverse and you’ll have probably one social presence, which could very well be, you know, created by you guys. And then you will be able to navigate from one world to another, according to what you want to do. And in our case, you know, we hope to be that part of the metaverse, which is the part of productivity and business meetings and collaboration.
Timmu Tõke (07:26): Yes, exactly. Yeah, very true. And I think if we’re able to create those cross-platform services, then it’s more likely that there’s going to be that route where it’s kind of an interconnected kind of a bunch of virtual worlds where people can easily travel between metaverses like, you know, kind of Facebook solving all those problems on their own. And then everyone else has to kind of work with that. I have nothing against Facebook, particularly, but it’s just an example.
Cristian Anton (07:57): How did this all start? Because I remember, you know, we talked very briefly a few years ago and you weren’t building an avatar just based on a selfie. You had a different thing in the beginning.
Timmu Tõke (08:10): Yeah. Basically, we started more than six years ago building a studio. So we had like a hundred cameras. We did very high-quality face scans and body scans of people. When VR, kind of, became a thing again, after Facebook bought Oculus, we realized that avatars and then virtual worlds, like humans need to evolve and their personalities need to be accessible for the end-user. Because VR is social, we need to have a good representation. So, so then we decided to, you know, focus our efforts on making this kind of scanning and creating avatars easy for the end-user. And that was like six years ago or something like that. And then the first product we built after the studio was this thing. A giant egg you see there.
Cristian Anton (09:02): Oh yeah. So I remember this. It looks super cool.
Timmu Tõke (09:07): I know, I know it does look super cool. I still love it. I always like showing it to people.
Cristian Anton (09:13): I guess you still have it at home, right?
Timmu Tõke (09:15): No, actually it’s three meters high. It’s gigantic. So basically if you want to put that in your home, one of our developers wanted to have it in a home and they figured out that they have to remove their windows and like, you know, crack a part of the wall or something to get it in.
Cristian Anton (09:33): Well, you can skip the Christmas tree this year and just have this.
Timmu Tõke (09:35): Yeah, boom. Well, the challenge now is, well, you need to get a house big enough for that to fit in there, you know. But yeah, so we used to do those and that’s an actual picture of the product, by the way. It’s not the render. And we had like four or five of them around the world. And we scanned tens of thousands of people with this hardware kind of complicated system. Which was still back then, the easiest way to scan someone, because, before that, you had to go into a studio, you know, pay $5,000 for a good scan. So we scanned tens of thousands of people. And then we realized, you know, obviously in the beginning the goal was to make avatars accessible for everyone. So the next step obviously was to go for software. So we took the database we collected and we decided to build kind of a realistic avatar creator, let’s say. So we took like 15 photos from a smartphone like you would rotate your head. And we would generate a very highly realistic avatar.
Cristian Anton (10:41): I think I remember when I got in touch with you the first time you were building these highly realistic avatars, which I thought looked really cool. But as you know, there’s always this debate about how much realism do you want until you’re able to actually, you know, track all the facial features and all the facial movements, for example. So I can see that now you’ve opted out to go to a slightly more stylized version while still, you know, not being forced to have them too cartoon-like either. So this is exactly our goal as well. For us, this was kind of the perfect balance as well, where you have, you know, the proportions of the face are realistic. You know, it feels like I can recognize that person but still, there’s an element of stylization. And we actually look a little bit prettier than in real life. I was slightly, but my mom said, you know the avatar actually looks quite a lot like you, it’s just that he’s a little bit more handsome than you.
Timmu Tõke (11:44): Hahahah. Yeah, exactly. So we had these realistic avatars and we realized that people don’t want that. And then it’s very difficult to make beautiful, great-looking avatars that, you know, look good and people want to use them in a realistic way. So, that’s why we kind of pivoted away from them. From 15-photo super realistic to exactly, as you mentioned, like more cartoony. And the goal is to give people a representation they like, and a better version of themselves. I think that is the goal.
Cristian Anton (12:20): Well in my personal opinion this is a perfect balance. I mean, for a business setting it’s also important that it doesn’t look amusing, you know, it’s an avatar, which you can take seriously when you’re having a conversation. So that’s why you can’t go too much on the cartoon side, you know, as much as you could go, if you’re building a game, for example. So I think that what we have here in my personal opinion is like the perfect balance, at least for what is possible, you know, with the current technology.
Timmu Tõke (12:49): Yeah, for sure. Yeah. Thank you. I think that’s right. And the exact style kinda depends on the environment a little bit. We worked with some games where like, you know, there’s very kind of stylized avatars, but this is the kind of style we’re focused on right now.
Cristian Anton (13:11): So I’d be curious to know besides, you know, obviously, we know how you worked with us, but in general, what kind of services you’re offering? What types of customers and clients do you work with?
Timmu Tõke (13:23): Yeah, so we have like, basically two businesses, right? One is I would say avatar solutions for the enterprise. So that’s like, you know, the Tencent and HTC, and Vodafone and all those are our customers. And they like this kind of, avatar solutions for their applications. So in some cases, in most cases, games, some VR, but we’re also like, for example, we’re doing a marketing campaign with Vodafone at the moment. So, you can create a rugby player of yourself. And then you can like to play some small games and have some AR features there. But, but the thing that we’re most excited about, and I’m personally focused on, and most of the team is focused on now is Ready Player Me, which is the avatar platform that we mentioned before.
Timmu Tõke (14:11): And there, we have semi-standardized avatars that come with their own content library and you can put them into your VR app or into your game into social apps. So we launched it like mid this year. And so far we have almost 30 partners already that we have signed and then kind of integrating with that. So that’s kind of the most exciting part for us pulling this avatar marketplace avatar platform and kind of figuring out how to kind of go to the market with this and so forth.
Cristian Anton (14:48): And I can see you consistently adding new hairstyles, new accessories, new beards. That’s super cool.
Timmu Tõke (14:56): There’s a new game coming out next week – Cyberpunk 2077. And so that is Reiner and it’s a cyberpunk version of Reiner.
Cristian Anton (15:09): Can I have one?
Timmu Tõke (15:09): You can, actually. So let me plug the address: ready player dot me slash cyberpunk. So like, we’re building this right now for people that are so impatiently waiting for the game and we want to give them something cool they can do, meanwhile, and then we created this cyberpunk avatar creator so they can like you know, create their full-body avatar there you know, choose all the customization items and everything, and then it can generate a cool render of you leaning on a car and looking into the distance. Yeah. So we just put it out yesterday and I’m starting to push it a little bit more tomorrow and next week.
Cristian Anton (15:55): You have also had like a Christmas edition of your avatars. Not Christmas, you’ve had Halloween.
Timmu Tõke (16:03): We did, yeah. Well, let me share it then. Boom!
Timmu Tõke (16:09): That is me with a slight mustache and I love those glasses.
Cristian Anton (16:18): Nice. I like that version.
Timmu Tõke (16:19): I like, yeah, I like it too. I wish I could wear that in public, in real life. Probably people would be creeped out if I don’t wear a body in real life.
Cristian Anton (16:35): No, that would be a bit, a bit weird. In VR, it is great. You know you don’t need… Seriously why would we need elbows in VR? As for me, this kind of floating hands works better for now, than, you know, having inverse kinematics and having the whole arm not moving properly and twitching. And, you know, if you think about it in real life, would we actually need elbows? If our hands could float, you know, or our elbows designed to actually hold our hands.
Timmu Tõke (17:02): Good points, I always hit them like into walls and shit.
Cristian Anton (17:08): Yeah. That’s the worst, you know like the elbows are the worst when you hit them. But also, now I can see through you, and basically, I can see more. You know, you’re not obstructing the whole view. So this is actually better in so many ways. I’m not even kidding. When you take a screenshot or when you take a picture and you see it outside of VR, then you know, it makes more sense to see a full human, because it’s something you associate with and you can understand better. When you’re in VR and you see the movements, you know, your brain forms the connection and you don’t really need the other things to get the nonverbally communication because you know, that’s mostly the movement of the hands unless I want to do like the chicken dance or something, I don’t really need the elbows.
Timmu Tõke (17:54): Good point.
Cristian Anton (17:56): I mean, I can even do things like macarena and stuff like this. That’s what I’m doing, you know, so.. What I’m also thinking, and this has been something on our mind while we were designing our avatar. So far when we’ve had our own, a lot of different iterations of avatars and in the beginning, my initial thought was in VR, you have all the possibilities in the world. Why would you necessarily choose to be human? Like if you could be anything and choose your body, why would you necessarily want to be human? So actually, let me show you what our first avatar looked like. So we had this kind of robot and we thought, you know, in VR you have superpowers and why not be able to just, you know, fly around. Why not be able to just project a hologram from your robotic hand, then, you know, when somebody is offline, they would kind of retreat and just have this kind of part of the body.
Cristian Anton (18:47): You know, it would be kind of just like this spiral over here, when it’s expanded, you know, and then, when it retreats your hands, kind of get back together and you’re, you’re standing like this and your eyes turn off kind of and it’s a little take on, you know, maybe Wall-E or this kind of robots. But you know, when we actually try to show this to companies and to businesses, they couldn’t associate with it. And it’s like, is this a game? Or is this an app? You know, so the world is not prepared for non-human avatars. And maybe after we pass the point of completely realistic avatars and complete digital twins, people will actually think like, you know what, why can’t I be somebody completely different in VR?
Timmu Tõke (19:30): Yeah, that’s true. And I think also like you know, this is kind of definitely a problem with people that are not used to being represented as an avatar or by an avatar. But people that, you know, our kids today or even not kids necessarily, they used to play different games, having a lot of different avatars, communicating with avatars, you know, communicating with their friends’ avatars. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see how their professional look is going to evolve, you know, when they grow up using spaces like that for communication, you know, and I think definitely, you know, we’re focused on personal avatars and that’s I think that they’re the very big unsolved problem, but I think people will eventually want to have, you know, many different avatars.
Cristian Anton (20:21): No, definitely. And I mean, having an avatar brings so many benefits, like, you know, you never age as an avatar, your avatar that always looks fresh and sharp, you know, just like you had a shower and you’ve cleaned yourself really nicely. Like sometimes I wake up in the morning, you know, and I realize that I don’t have time to actually get ready and get prepared for my first meeting or, you know, I want to spend more time on breakfast or whatever, when I put the VR headset and I am in virtual reality, I’m all fresh, you know, and I always look great.
Timmu Tõke (20:51): No, eyebags, nothing. So, yeah. Cool.
Cristian Anton (20:54): I mean, and there are so many cool benefits to having these avatars but you know, I’ve briefly mentioned these digital twins. There’s a lot of people who ask us when we could expect to have avatars, which are exactly like you. So basically then you could kind of start even replacing in some cases, video calls when you could have an exact replica of yourself with all the facial movements and with all of these details in virtual reality, basically like a complete identical hologram of yourself.
Timmu Tõke (21:30): Yeah. I mean, I think you know, like faces, human faces are in general, they kind of the Holy grail CGI and they’re so, so hard because like such a big part of our brain is just focused on you know, understanding the face and emotions and the micro details on the face. And as soon as something is a little bit off, like we’re creeped out about it, you know? So the effect is called the uncanny valley effect, for those who don’t know. It initially came from robotics. So like, if you imagine a robot that has a semi-realistic face, and then it’s smiled in this kind of creepy way that is not natural, the feeling you have then is like, Oh my God, this is like creepy as fuck.
Timmu Tõke (22:20): Right. And the same thing converts into virtual avatars and virtual robots. Avatars right. So, that’s why, you know, the more towards realism you go with an avatar, the creepier it gets, the more difficult it is to make it easy to consume so to say. And because of that, you know, like it’s very, very, very hard to make a convincing avatar that is not creepy, that is realistic. And even if you spent manually a lot of work doing that you know, a team of artists does it, it’s still, you know, next to impossible. It’s very, very, very hard.
Cristian Anton (23:03): It’s also a question whether it is desirable to do that, or not aside from what I understand, you know if we want to have something which, you know because as you said, we’re noticing every small sort of micro expression of a person. So if that kind of thing doesn’t work properly, then you kinda feel creeped out and you feel that something’s fake. I mean, I guess the next steps would be to actually implement facial expressions. So like, they’re these new headsets coming out which can kind of have some cameras or some sensors inside of them, which can track some of the muscle movements of your face. So if you’re using those, you can actually bring our real-life expressions to the avatars.
Timmu Tõke (23:43): Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s definitely desirable to have more expressions and more kind of real, you know, that kind of communication that mimics the real world, even more, I think that’s going to happen, you know, gradually over the years. Maybe there’s a big leap that comes from like, I don’t know, Facebook or someone that spends a lot of money on doing, like making realistic avatars. Maybe there’s some kind of 4D scanning things, like volumetric capture, where it would have like a special kind of studio or set up in an office and then, you know, you could have a lot of cameras and they kind of transfer this 4D capture. But you know, I think it’s more likely that people will get used to this kind of, you know, more cartoony setup and they will prefer that over the long run to like a completely realistic version, but who knows.
Timmu Tõke (24:39): Honestly, I never, I never feel the need, like at all to have anything more than this at least, you know, I never felt the need, honestly. And at some point, we’ve been experimenting with reactions of generated avatars, which were super realistic, and we’ve gotten a lot of reactions where people when they saw their completely generated avatar, were like, is this actually how I look like in real life? And, you know, then it kind of started being self-conscious about their virtual avatar and you know, this we want to avoid. We wanna have a better, comfortable version of ourselves, you know?
Timmu Tõke (25:14): Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. And I’ve seen that so many times I’ve seen that happen. Like because we made full-body scans of people initially, very high quality. People don’t even… They’re like, what the hell? That’s not me. I don’t look like that, you know, and the face, you know… It is you actually like sorry to tell you.
Cristian Anton (25:37): No, but the thing is, you know, our faces aren’t symmetrical. When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we’re so used to it that we don’t notice these things anymore. But when we see ourselves from the third person, that’s when we actually realize these kinds of small defects, let’s call them maybe or whatever, which we haven’t noticed. And then we don’t want it to feel self-conscious, you want to have the best version of yourself, or even more than that, the best representation of, you know, who you think you are and what represents you as a person best.
Timmu Tõke (26:08): Exactly. I completely agree though. I agree with that. And I think when people kind of experience with themselves to understand that this is a desirable outcome.
Cristian Anton (26:22): I think you have to get people in here and you have to get people to actually have the experience. You know, no matter what you show them in videos and images it doesn’t even get close to the experience of being here and realizing that this is all, you need to have an amazing conversation, you know, like we’re having now, you know. It’s super dynamic, we kind of figure out based on our movements when somebody else wants to talk or wants to say something.
Timmu Tõke (26:47): Yeah, totally. I completely agree. And the magic is to get a lot of people to try it out and then experience it and then get used to it.
Cristian Anton (26:59): That’s why I think that you’re ready player one, you know, the initiative is great because people can just try out and, you know, play around with the avatars. Of course, they got to embody them as we do and that kind of takes it to an additional level. So, you know, obviously recommend anybody who wants to try and have an experience with an avatar like this in VR can just, you know, sign up for a free trial and have this experience and try them out and meet with their friends like this, or they colleagues from work because, you know, this is, this is our focus here. And that’s when you really understand how this is going. All right, Timmu so, to finish up I’m going to propose a small mini-game or exercise where we’re going to use sticky notes from our tablets to do a quick brainstorm of how do we imagine that humans would interact with each other 10 years from now and how, you know, this metaverses which we’ve been talking about, and this human representation would look like 10 years from now.
Timmu Tõke (28:03): Cool. Okay. So basically what this means is I think in 10 years people will communicate with fewer amount of real people in real life. So it will be friends, your family, people you know better, people that are in your geographical area and whatever. And for that with them, you will continue kind of speaking in a real-world, they’re going to meet them. You want to have these authentic conversations. But then these balloons here, they’re not actually balloons, they’re virtual worlds. They represent everything else in the world. I’m not sure if you’re beaming yourself into them or they’re being themselves into you, but basically what it means is that I think this is like Picasso.
Cristian Anton (28:58): It’s actually pretty cool. I think I’m going to remember this representation.
Timmu Tõke (29:01): Nice, nice. Yeah. So to sum it up basically: this is like few people that they are speaking and interacting with in real life. And with the rest of the world, you’ll increasingly communicate virtually and it can be through video calls and stuff as well, but that’s, you know, I think it’s going to be an evolution of that. 3D spaces are the natural evolution of that. So I think increasingly more people you’ll interact with in virtual places, in virtual worlds, through games, through MeetinVR to virtual concerts and so forth because it’s just so much less friction. You don’t have to travel that much. It’s just less friction when those experiences become more and more authentic, they will increasingly become a bigger part of our lives. But you also have some people you want to meet in real life.
Cristian Anton (30:01): Definitely. I think if we move everything, which is not necessary to have kind of in real life, into virtual worlds, we can actually protect our real environment better instead of expanding our society only, you know, by using the resources of the planet and, you know, basically kind of, we’re going to get to a point of overpopulation or, you know, just if we can move everything, which is not that necessary in VR, and by the way, it’s going to be much cheaper to do it like that. Once the VR experience becomes kind of indistinguishable from real life, almost everything will be cheaper to do VR, just like a screen like this, it’s a pretty big screen. This would cost a lot of money to have in real life in VR, you know, it’s free, you just make it a little bit bigger. And if the quality of the experience is identical to real life, why would you spend that additional money for basically having the same experience? You know? I completely agree with you that we’re going to start expanding more and more in these Metaverses, and that’s what I wrote also on one of my sticky notes that we will be spending a lot of time in them. So I guess the different metaverses will kind of compete and make us spend as much time as possible in each one of them.
Timmu Tõke (31:23): Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. And I think, you know people that live in a kind of developing places or places where real world, the real world around you is not that kind of pleasant, you know, either don’t have enough space or pollution or whatever will actually spend even more time in virtual worlds then like the developing societies are now, you know, here because we got the headsets and we have this like, you know, equipment, but that will become cheaper and cheaper. And I think in places where you still have a, you know, a nice, real world around you, you still want to spend your time there. And I think nobody wants a future where we’re, we’re in the dark, in the underwear, in our bedroom strapped with a headset on your face the entire time. Right?
Cristian Anton (32:12): Yeah, definitely. Cool. I mean, I think this was super..
Timmu Tõke (32:17): What was yours? What was yours? Where’s your, where’s your brain dust?
Cristian Anton (32:21): I feel you already covered some of the things which I wanted to say. This is beautiful. Like, look at it. You know, in VR you have all these superpowers. Basically, this is our vision in MeetinVR to give you superpowers and to make meetings even better than in real life. And we can do this because, you know, we’re creating this whole new universe, which is designed specifically for business meetings. So we don’t have gravity. I can just leave this floating up here, you know, in real life, if I did this, you know, I would have to buy a new tablet most likely. In VR, it disappears in mid-air. So we have all these kinds of superpowers. So once you have this super high-quality VR, super cheap, super small, and you have all these possibilities of things, which you can’t even do in real life, you know, that the value proposition for this is just unimaginably big.
Timmu Tõke (33:18): Um exactly. I agree. I’ll draw a portal for us so we can go through that back to the real world.
Cristian Anton (33:22): Yes, let’s do that! Okay. Timmu it was a real, a real pleasure to see you again, looking forward to continuing some great collaboration and speaking to you soon.
Timmu Tõke (33:39): Thank you for having me.