Splashy Athlete-Backed Hologram Tech Takes Shape at Super Bowl Events

If you are in Los Angeles attending events surrounding Super Bowl LVI this week, you may have caught a glimpse of the future. Portl, a live 3-D interactive 4K hologram platform, appeared at four Super Bowl-related parties and activations. The technology in itself is eye-popping. But it was the number of athlete, and former athlete, names in the company’s cap table—57—that caught our attention. Marshawn Lynch, Albert Pujols, Deandre Ayton, Robert Griffin III, Nneka Ogwumike, Breanna Stewart, Luke Walton, Cincinnati Bengals safety Vonn Bell and Los Angeles Rams running back Sony Michel all participated in Portl Inc.’s $12 million Series A round (announced in mid-November).

It is fair to wonder how so many athletes ended up as shareholders in a company that has nothing to do with sports. Doug Raetz (CEO, True Capital Management) is the common link. His firm, which provides wealth management services for a roster of athletes and entertainers, invested in Portl’s seed round and led its Series A (which valued the company north of $100 million). But as Lynch explained, Portl technology solves a pain point that athletes can relate to—the inability to be in two places at one time. Heavy travel and the demands of the job “put me in a position where I’ve missed out on a lot of [events] that I would have wanted to attend or be a part of—my niece’s birthday party or my nephew’s graduation,” Lynch said. Having the ability to beam in remotely would have given him the opportunity to partake in those memories.

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JWS’ Take: Portl is a next-gen telepresence technology. Raetz said the first time he saw it, he thought he “was looking into the future” in terms of its ability to beam people anywhere in the world, at any time.

The best way to think about Portl is a company filling the space between 2-D video chatting (think: Zoom, FaceTime) and the live, in-person experience. “It’s 4K volumetric resolution and full body reality,” David Nussbaum (founder and CEO, Portl Inc.) said. “It’s not VR. It’s R, as close to it as possible.”

To date, Portl has largely been used in marketing activations (see: Kia at the Australian Open, T-Mobile at MLB All-Star Game) and/or for entertainment (see: Diddy beaming into his son’s 23rd birthday party). But Nussbaum believes the technology has many use cases and could help redefine several industries, including fashion, education, fitness, medicine and law. Just imagine “being able to transport professors into classrooms or doctors into hospitals,” Raetz added.

Portl has “well over 100 [units] out in the field right now,” Nussbaum said, across 20 countries. Most are permanent installations—including one inside of the AT&T Perch at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium. The Falcons and Atlanta United use the machine to create opportunities for fans to interact with players (think: meet and greets, photo ops).

Raetz expects Portl units will become a standard part of stadium buildouts, as teams strive to provide fans with memorable experiences. The company said it will be announcing several new venue deals across the U.S. and Europe in the coming weeks. Portl’s commercial unit starts at $65,000 (there is a financing option available).

Portl will also rent its units for one-time activations such as the one this week in L.A. “In any given month we’ll do dozens of [them],” Nussbaum said. “And [each of] those activations will run anywhere from break-even, because we think it is a great idea, to tens and tens of thousands of dollars.” Each rental brings with it opportunities for mainstream media and social media impressions, too. “When a Portl shows up somewhere, so do eyeballs,” he added.

CBS Sports HQ rented a Portl unit this week in Los Angeles to beam guests live from radio row to a rooftop set where their talent—and an audience—were stationed. Merging Vets and Players and the Beach Agency Group had a Portl at their Big Game kickoff charity event too. Rolling Stone, in partnership with Coinbase, will feature an “Epic” unit (seven-feet, built for commercial use) at its famed annual Super Bowl party tomorrow night, and the Denver Broncos plan to do the same at the team’s private watch party in Beverly Hills on Sunday. (Like Sportico, Rolling Stone is a subsidiary of PMC.)

Portl is “super close” to breaking even, Nussbaum said, and the company “hit [its] numbers for 2020 and 2021.” But with supply chain issues and the continued evolution of the technology, he was hesitant to say it would be profitable in ’22.

Hologram technology has always been too expensive for the average person to use. But Portl plans to change that, expanding beyond the commercial realm with the introduction of its M-unit later this year. Nussbaum envisions a day when there are miniature Portls in millions of homes (imagine beaming into grandma’s house). “I think this is the future of [live] communications and connections,” he said. The M-unit is expected to be priced like “the higher-end of a home computer,” Raetz added.

In-home Portl units will allow users to beam themselves into another user’s location. But Raetz said the two-way technology will also allow the user to “beam an experience into their own house.” It is not hard to envision broadcasters using the technology to bring the courtside experience to the fan on their couch as they imagined VR would do.

Portl has raised over $15 million to date ($3 million seed, $12 million Series A) from several VCs (including Tim Draper), “multi-billionaires with huge tech portfolios,” strategics and athletes.

While the athletes might not seem like a natural fit, Nussbaum explained that with the company trying to create a new industry, there is a lot of information to be communicated to consumers—and athletes have the platforms to relay it. “When you’re a start-up and you have some of the world’s most famous names say, ‘our investment is not just our money, it’s us.’ If you need us to talk to … ESPN, or go on an activation or say, ‘Hi I’m so and so with Portl,’ there is a lot of value in that.”

Portl believes the hologram market is worth “tens of billions of dollars,” Nussbaum said. “There are [actually] several markets. There is the digital display market. There is the live communications market. There’s fashion and other forms of entertainment,” he added. FWIW, a Portl investor deck pegs the video communications market as a $15 billion market and experiential marketing as a $75 billion market.

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