With the immense popularity of Snapchat and Pokemon Go, tech companies see virtual and augmented reality as the new frontier in the industry. A Baltimore company is taking that experience a step further and using an unusual tool: temporary tattoos.
HoloTats, are temporary tattoos that turn into augmented reality experiences with an accompanying smartphone app. For example, a temporary butterfly tattoo looked at through the HoloTats app lets the butterfly jump up and fly.
HoloTats is the first original product made by Balti Virtual, a virtual and augmented reality company based out of City Garage, a facility in South Baltimore run by Plank Industries. The company was founded by a group that has been working with 3D technology for 20 years.
Co-Founder and CEO Will Gee got his start working for Hunt Valley-based video game company MicroProse, which is no longer in business. He went on to start a small consulting company called Digital Steamworks with three other people. The company did software consulting and other service-oriented work, including an exhibit for the Newseum in Washington, a virtual reality training tool for the NFL that was sold to the Baltimore Ravens and an augmented reality installation for General Electric.
“We saw tremendous energy moving into the space,” Gee said.
Seeing that trend, the team decided to relaunch and refocus as Balti Virtual a year and a half ago. With the new company, Balti Virtual is trying to strike that balance between paid services and creating its own product, Gee said.
HoloTats was born out of a concept Balti Virtual co-founder David Thompson had in mind.
“He was just really excited about the idea of temporary tattoos and augmented reality,” said Gee.
The idea of the app has been talked about before, but the question was, what was the best way to deliver it?
The firm started by pairing the app with their business cards. They came up with an app that showed a jumping golden frog and pitched it to the Maryland Zoo, along with the idea of a temporary tattoo. The zoo expressed interest and Balti Virtual sent along a prototype along with options for animals.
In July, Balti Virtual signed a deal with Tattoo Manufacturing International, a company based in Tuscon, Arizona, that’s one of the largest producers of temporary tattoos in the world.
Balti Virtual has used its product to make promotional tattoos for Oreo, including one for the cookie maker’s retail business that is sold at Wal-Mart and Target.
While HoloTats is largely a novelty item for kids, Balti Virtual believes the technology has wider implications, including teaching children about the possibilities of building and solving problems using virtual and augmented reality.
The company has a partnership with Living Classrooms, an organization that provides programming for children and young adults in Baltimore and Washington. Recently, Balti Virtual showed off its HoloTats product at the opening of a renovated Living Classrooms community center in partnership with Under Armour called UA House on Fayette Street.
Balti Virtual COO Shawn Flaherty was formerly a development officer for Living Classrooms Foundation and was interested in bringing in companies working with virtual and augmented reality.
“Our main goal is to provide opportunities for youth and young adults,” Flaherty said about Living Classrooms. “This really illustrates an ideal example of that.”
Balti Virtual holds meetups at Living Classrooms once a quarter in which local companies working with virtual reality come and show off their projects in a science fair-style event. Flaherty started the meetups when he was with Living Classrooms.
“I saw that community as one I wanted to tie in right away,” Flaherty said.
The technology Balti Virtual is using with HoloTats can be expanded into the retail space to give shoppers information about products in ways that are more personalized and engaging than simple written descriptions on cards next to displays. For example, Hyundai used the technology to make an interactive manual for its cars.
“Long term, we feel pretty confident that this technology is going to be very widespread,” Gee said.