Ibo Fung

Superman flying through the air, ET phoning home, dinosaurs crashing after heroes: special effects in Hollywood have been surprising and entertaining people, thanks to computer graphics (CG) for decades. Although CG technologies are mainly applied in fields including construction, real estate, exhibition, animation, games, film and television, in recent years, CG has also appeared in advertisements, industry and entertainment.

Meanwhile, according to mobile internet consulting agency iiMedia Research, the size of the virtual reality (VR) market reached RMB 1.5 billion (USD 227 million) in China in 2015. It is expected to reach RMB 5.6 billion by the end of 2016, and RMB 55 billion by 2020.

What if we could combine CG with virtual reality and create even more amazing experiences?

Chinese company Light & Digital is working to realize this dream.

From a self-learner to a startup CEO

With long hair and glasses, Li Si, CEO of Light & Digital, looks the part of a “literary youth” in China—and so he is. Li considered himself a self-learner when he studied at Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, one of the finest art colleges in China a decade ago.

His works of art in college built up his reputation in his field, and landed him a job upon graduation at Crystal CG, the best CG company in China back then.

Li started as a CG tech worker at Crystal in 2005, then rose to top project manager and finally a group leader.

Li’s greatest work at Crystal was the giant scroll in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He was in charge of two sections of the video. It was the height of his early years at Crystal.

However, as project management took up more and more of his energy, Li found himself mainly communicating with clients rather than doing creative work. He didn’t enjoy it and wanted to start his own business.

So, Li co-founded Light & Digital with other two former Crystal colleagues in July 2014, landing several million RMB in angel investments in May 2016.

Li Si, co-founder and CEO of Light & Digital. Photo from Yijian APP.
Li Si, co-founder and CEO of Light & Digital. Photo from Yijian APP.

CG plus VR

Light and Digital now has 25 staff, mostly technicians and former Crystal employees reporting to the three co-founders.

When it first started, Light & Digital provided CG-related services to its clients, but now, the company is changing direction: they hope their graphics will reach gamers directly.

“We served enterprises for a decade, and we want to enter the VR sector sector for a change to serve more customers,” Li told AllChinaTech on Friday.

Li said average people are unfamiliar with CG technologies because most of the clients of the CG service providers are companies and government institutions. Light & Digital has started to develop VR games for Sony’s PSVR, which he thought will bring the CG technology to common people.

Besides Sony’s PSVR, the company has been working with online video providers, including Youku and tech giant LeEco, to produce video content for them.

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According to Li, his company is better at storytelling than other VR content producers in China because of its art background. So what the company can provide is something between videos and games, which Li calls a “VR narration experience”.

“The uncertainty of the features of our works means more possible applications in the VR sector. We don’t want VR to be only zombie-shooting games,” said Li.

He thinks his company shares some similarities with American VR startup WeVR.

On CG and VR industries

Li noticed that there are much less VR content producers than device makers in China. He thought this was a problem, and that it presented a business opportunity.

“The VR industry in China is like TV. There are many hardware manufacturers making TV sets, quite some TV stations, but few quality TV programs. Light & Digital aims to provide such TV programs,” said Li.

As is obvious to audiences, there is still a big gap between China and Hollywood in terms of special effects in films. Li thought that there are two main reasons: on the one hand, the underlying software of these special effects are developed by foreign teams so Chinese teams have no natural advantage; on the other hand, most people in the Chinese CG field cannot focus on pushing technological boundaries.

He said that CG and VR are interlinked with each other in technology foundations and that CG may have an advantage in certain technologies if it were to enter the VR field.

“China is not less creative than the West. Light & Digital has advantage in narration, and I believe we can make some gains in the VR sector,” said Li.

(Top photo by Light & Digital)

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