Jadu, a Los Angeles-based augmented reality (AR) startup, has raised $36 million to build a gaming platform that lets players roam the real world with their NFT avatars.
Bain Capital led the Series A round and was joined by existing investor General Catalyst Partners. Other investors include LG Tech Ventures and Alumni Ventures. The new raise brings Jadu’s total funding to more than $45 million.
Launched in 2020, Jadu is developing an AR mobile app that connects to players’ Ethereum wallets, letting them turn their 3D animated NFTs into playable avatars. The app, which is expected to emerge from beta testing this summer, can integrate avatars from NFT collections like Deadfellaz, CyberKongz and FLUFs, as well as some from “The Sandbox” video game, according to Jadu.
Unlike other AR experiences where users navigate from a first-person point of view (think “Pokemon Go”), Jadu players can stay put and move their avatar characters around bedrooms or backyards. It has the effect of playing a third-person video game—with the real world as the landscape.
“Adding an avatar in the middle of [a player’s] view is a novel concept for AR, and it's kind of counterintuitive,” Jadu founder and CEO Asad J. Malik told dot.LA. “However, when you do it, suddenly it becomes really effective because your AR becomes super visual. You can actually see a representation of a character going around the room doing things.”
The roughly 50-person company—which has much of its leadership team, including Malik, based in Los Angeles—started with an AR mobile app that let users dance next to life-like holograms of music artists like Lil Nas X and Pussy Riot. The idea was that users could record clips and post them on social media, showcasing complex AR experiences that weren’t available on other platforms, according to Malik. Some videos went viral on TikTok, and the initial iteration of Jadu was briefly among the 30 most downloaded entertainment apps in Apple’s App Store, Malik said.
But the goal was always to build a more expansive AR platform, and the Jadu team saw a chance to do that with the emergence of NFTs and the larger phenomenon of Web3, a vision for a decentralized version of the internet based on blockchain technology. Jadu quickly pivoted to building AR gameplay for Web3 avatars, selling accessories like jetpacks and hoverboards as NFTs. The startup earned more than $5 million from initial NFT sales, Malik said, and collects a 5% commission on the roughly $25 million in secondary sales those NFTs have done to date on platforms like OpenSea.
“We had always been looking for the right business model for AR and nothing had ever clicked,” Malik said, adding that in-app purchases or ads didn’t make sense. So when NFTs came along “that opportunity became so glaringly obvious to us that we immediately hard-pivoted,” he added.
Jadu plans to spend the new funds to grow its team and build out the gaming platform. Malik said the company is focused on releasing its first collection of in-house avatar NFTs, which is expected to be its primary revenue source this year. As the platform matures, Malk could foresee Jadu eventually charging commissions for third-parties to develop game items or experiences on its platform, he said.
The Jadu founder contends the near-term future of the metaverse—the loosely-defined term for the immersive and extensive online worlds—is with AR and not virtual reality, where users are completely immersed in 3D digital environments. He noted consumers have been slow to adopt VR headsets like Meta’s Quest or Sony’s Playstation VR; by contrast, more than a billion mobile devices can support the AR experiences Jadu is developing, Malik said.
“People are building out the metaverse as this interoperable virtual world,” Malik said. “We are building out what we call the ‘Mirrorverse’ as the AR reflection of that, and the ‘Mirrorverse’ exists on the physical planet—it exists on top of the world as we know it, and we think that's super compelling.”
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