SXSW Pitch Finalist: Action Face turns everyone into a hero
It started with 3D-printed action figures of everyday people, but Action Face has a bigger vision.
They want to create a new generation of avatars that are worthy of existing in the metaverse by treading the line between realism and fantasy.
CEO Kenny Davis co-founded the San Francisco startup in 2018 along with chief product officer Joby Otero, chief design officer David Kunitz, COO Don Marini and CTO Luther Miller.
The startup will participate in SXSW's annual pitch competition, now in its 14th year, along with 45 other startups from around the world including one other Bay Area startup, Mozart Data.
Action Face's executive leadership is full of children's toy and entertainment veterans. Otero was a VP at Activision in the 2010s, head of digital marketing Erin Bloodgood has worked with brands like LOL Surprise, and Davis was a marketing director at both Activision and Hasbro.
In fact, eight years ago Davis, 50, helped Hasbro launch Super Awesome Me, a line of Marvel action hero figurines that people could have customized with their face.
3D face scanning technology wasn't as advanced, or accessible, as it is today, though, and customers had to go to participating Walmart and Sam's Club locations to get scanned.
Then Apple launched FaceID with the iPhone X in 2017, potentially putting a face scanner into hundreds of millions of pockets around the world.
"It is the job of entertainers to create a hero that you can identify with. We're creating a platform for people to become the hero," Davis said, and it's also a software platform that can be used "in everything from 3D printing to 3D virtual reality and the metaverse."
The general public has grown more familiar with digital avatars particularly since Bitmoji (acquired by Snap in 2016) launched in 2014. Apple then introduced Memoji to the world in 2018 with iOS 12, and Facebook predictably followed suit with its own version that rolled out to US users in 2020. Nintendo has let users create customizable Mii avatars since it launched the Wii console in 2006.
None of these options come anywhere close to being photorealistic, though, and they typically rely on asking users to manually select and adjust various features like their eyes, nose, mouth and hair.
Action Face goes one step further. It starts by scanning users' faces either via an iPhone or iPad app.
"A lot of the challenge is making it as fun and easy as possible," Otero said, and making the experience consistently high quality regardless of the lighting conditions used. Then in two to three years, "there's a very strong possibility that this is a platform where it's not just a place you come to create your avatar, it's a place where you come to socialize around your digital avatars."
Their software then creates an animated version of the user that comes as close as possible to photorealism, while attempting not to cross the line into uncanny valley territory, a phenomenon that occurs when animated humans start to look creepy.
Users can customize their avatars with different costumes and scenarios in categories like sports, professions, music and lifestyle. They can create a shareable digital avatar, as well as order 3D-printed figurines that are manufactured domestically.
And the company is working on enabling animated GIFs, as well.
But even as the media industry marches towards digitizing everything, Otero still sees an opportunity for something tactile.
"There's still something really powerful about touching something and especially in a world where we're increasingly in distributed, remote teams. Because of the pandemic, people aren't able to get together," Otero said. "There's something that it touches in us that you just don't get from a pure digital experience."
The figures are priced between $44.99 to $84.99 depending on the size which ranges from 2.5 to 5 inches.
Action Face has raised $8.8 million in seed funding since 2018 and also went through Berkeley's SkyDeck accelerator in 2021.
The company currently has 31 employees and this year it's going to be focused on creating partnerships with corporations for in-person events, as well as getting its technology into usage at sports stadiums and theme parks.
Last year two Bay Area startups won the SXSW pitch competition: Los Gatos-based MolyWorks and Cupertino-based Refiberd.