With two minutes and a selfie, anyone could be singing in Chinese in VR

Sedonah, 5, speaks Chinese fluently but her father doesn't know a lick of it. So when Sedonah saw a video of him singing a Chinese song, she lit up with amazement.

Nikhil Jain didn’t spend any time practicing to impress his daughter. But he did spend two years training a computer to sing in his likeness.

A technologist’s daughter isn’t the ideal unbiased tester, but Sedonah’s response to the singing routine is what’s making her father bullish about the software he’s developing.

Jain’s Pasadena start-up Oben, which received $7.7 million from investors this fall, is tapping into the buzzed-about areas of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

Jain, the company’s chief executive, took a photo of his face on his smartphone and Oben’s app guessed what the sides and back of his head looked like. It could do that because Oben used a database of 3-D scans and photos to train its online system.

The app used the estimates to create a 3-D virtual drawing of Jain’s face and placed it on top of a customized virtual body. Jain now had an avatar of himself that he could stick into apps for virtual reality headsets such as the Samsung Gear or HTC Vive. It eventually could be used in smartphone and augmented reality apps too.

Next, he recorded about two minutes of himself talking. Most tools that synthesize human voices today — like Apple’s Siri — require someone to record hours of speech, mostly common words and phrases that automatically can be stitched together on the fly. But Oben needed something much quicker to convince consumers to use it. Jain set the limit at about 2½ minutes, or, he says, about as long as it takes people to set up a smartphone’s fingerprint sensor.

Oben gets a sense of a person’s voice spectrum from the sample and uses it to approximate how the individual would sound saying different words, Jain said.

On voice, the 25-employee company is trying to maximize intelligibility, clarity and similarity. On the look, it’s trying to optimize for being pleasurable, memorable and realistic. Jain declined to say how much those qualities could improve over the next year as Oben refines its system.

The plan is to make an early version of the avatar and voice-builder available to the public next year. People would use their Oben creation in other apps, with Jain seeing applications in healthcare, education and entertainment where having a realistic-looking virtual reality avatar can provide a more emotionally engaging experience.

Oben built the idea of partnerships into its name — German for “up” or “above” -- to signal its intention to layer on top of other software.  The company targeted potential customers when it was raising cash. Investors now include the venture capital division of China’s Tsinghua University, a subsidiary of South Korean music giant S.M. Entertainment Co. and Taiwanese hardware maker HTC. Pasadena start-up incubation program Idealab holds a stake too.

Oben faces widespread competition, with Facebook and start-ups such as Pinscreen trying to evolve how faces are digitized.

The idea for Oben traces back to the struggles of Jain’s three young children to fall asleep when Jain was traveling for his previous gig running a clean-tech incubation start-up. His daughter can now strap on a Samsung Gear VR headset at their Altadena home and see and hear from her father even if he’s in the middle of a meeting in China.

Sedonah has begun jotting down a list of places she wants to travel to with her family’s avatars in virtual reality. Mars tops the list.

“I didn’t have to give her the Kool-Aid," Jain said. “That a 5½-year-old wants to do it in VR -- it’s validation.”

Snap leads the way in election fundraising

Employees of Snapchat maker Snap Inc. have donated twice as much money to this year’s presidential campaigns as employees of a dozen other Westside start-ups combined.

The funds pale in comparison to the millions of dollars that people tied to Silicon Valley companies, including Google and Facebook, contribute to candidates and other political organizations. But Snap’s lead — at least among a local sample — teases the influence the Venice technology company could have in the years to come. 

Snap has breezed past 1,000 employees in the last year. And in 2017, it could go public and reach $1 billion in annual revenue, mostly through ads it places alongside photos and videos shared on Snapchat.

Snap employees have backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with more than $17,000, according to federal election data surveyed by The Times last week. Smaller amounts went toward supporting Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush.

The company’s director of partnerships, Ben Schwerin, led the way with $5,400 in support of Clinton. Other executives financially supporting Clinton groups include Tom Conrad, vice president of product, and Steve Horowitz, head of the Spectacles glasses team. At least one person from Snapchat's content curation team, James Molinaro, wrote a check. Molinaro’s LinkedIn profile says he primarily curates videos from college campuses.

Such donations could raise growing questions as Snapchat becomes a bigger player in producing and distributing journalism.

The Times looked for individual donations in which the person listed an employer as being one of 13 well-known tech, media and e-commerce companies in Santa Monica, Venice or nearby communities. No donations were tied to BloomNation, DogVacay,  Honest Co., Jukin Media, Mitu and Winc.

Tinder, Zefr and JustFab followed Snap with a few thousand dollars each from its workers. ZipRecruiter, Scopely and Tradesy were linked to a few hundred dollars each.

Most of the non-Snap money went to Sanders’ campaign. No donations from the companies surveyed backed Republican nominee Donald Trump.

Snap employees have been involved in other races too. Workers have donated in support of the state ban on plastic bags, Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, a Santa Monica rent control board candidate and a committee seeking to defeat a Santa Monica ballot measure that would increase voter say in real estate development. In his only donation ever, according to federal records, Snap Chief Executive Evan Spiegel gave $1,000 to California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris’ campaign for the U.S. Senate in May.

Snap declined to comment.

— Times staff researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

Rubicon Project cuts 125 workers

Online advertising go-between Rubicon Project announced layoffs of 125 people across the world. Amounting to 19% of its workforce, the cuts are expected to bring about $18 million in annual savings, according to the Playa Vista company. Rubicon is struggling to grow new lines of revenue off smartphone and video ads as demand and prices fall for traditional banner ads.

The company said the cuts reflected combining teams in sales and engineering divisions and shifting focuses.

Separate budget cuts are expected to bring $12 million in annual savings, the company said.

Financial analysts at RBC Capital Markets expect Rubicon Project to pull in about $280 million in revenue this year and a profit about $2 million. Rubicon Project shares have fallen from a peak of nearly $20 earlier this year to $6.48 on Monday.

Elsewhere on the Web

Meal replacement maker Soylent is pointing to an algae-based ingredient as the culprit for sickness some customers have suffered, according to Bloomberg. The producer of the algal flour that was used in Soylent products denied the accusation, but Soylent is planning to forgo it in future products.

Snapchat maker Snap received an investment from CapitalG, an Alphabet Inc. investment arm that makes investments geared toward generating returns as opposed to aligning with the Google parent company’s business interests, according to Business Insider. A CapitalG spokesperson declined to comment on how the interest in Snapchat came about.

Snap founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy are expected to maintain voting control of the company in the event the company goes public, according the Information.

Snap’s advertising department is on a hiring spree, according to Digiday.

“League of Legends” players will be able to compete in tournaments held at theaters, according to Yahoo.

Los Angeles software firm Replicated has picked up $5 million, according to TechCrunch.

In case you missed it

Blizzard Entertainment, a division of Santa Monica’s Activision Blizzard Inc., announced  that it will adopt hallmarks of traditional sports leagues to form an e-sports league more instantly relatable than others that spawned in the last few years.

How I Made It: Billionaire's right-hand man Chris Hollod on becoming a big fish in a big pond.

Online discount store Hollar raises $30 million and moves headquarters to Commerce.

Coming up

The Los Angeles Auto Show kicks off on the tech side during the weekend with a hackathon that invites developers to make apps for cars that take advantage of various technologies, including Amazon.com's Alexa virtual assistant service.

paresh.dave@latimes.com

Twitter: @peard33

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