Jadu Recruits Jake Sally As Its First-Ever Chief Operating Officer
Former Head of Development at Ryot to lead operations, partnerships, and development of next-generation immersive projects at social hologram startup.
This story originally appeared on Forbes.
Jadu has had a big, strange year. Less than two weeks after announcing its launch, governments around the world met an unprecedented pandemic with lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders. Many companies didn’t survive—but Jadu is a different sort of operation; its business is holograms on your phone, so it works wherever its users happen to be. And its early slate, which included Vic Mensa, Poppy, and Pussy Riot, let fans connect with artists in a novel way. At a time when in-person events weren’t possible, users could place 15-second augmented reality (AR) holograms of the performers into their own environments to “co-create” content with them.
Over the months that followed, Jadu further built out its library, drawing talent ranging from influencer Josh Richards to singer-songwriter Omar Apollo to ASMR pottery TikToker Dax Newman; this month, Lil Nas X joined the ranks.
Now, Jadu is evolving. While social holograms are still a core component, its latest project, Curse of Calypso: A Palaye Royale AR Experience, pushes the social hologram format deeper into the realm of interactive storytelling. Rather than a 15-second loop, it’s a roughly 10-minute narrative experience that plays out in a user’s own space. It’s a glimpse of the immersive future Jadu is trying to build in its next wave of offerings.
To do so, Jadu is scaling. Notably, the company has raised $2M—and now welcomes its first-ever Chief Operating Officer (COO): Jake Sally. Sally, an Emmy-nominated producer, was formerly Head of Development at RYOT, Verizon Media’s branded content studio. While in this role, he was instrumental in supporting cutting-edge artists—whose work spans a wide spectrum of technologies including XR, AI, 5G, projection mapping, and motion capture—helping them fund, produce, and distribute their work.
One such artist was Jadu CEO Asad J. Malik.
“Our first major project, Terminal 3, benefited significantly from the fact that Jake believed in it,” Malik said in an interview with the author. “Since then Jake has become a dear friend and has been a producer on every major project we’ve made, except Jadu. He is one of the most focused and dedicated workers I’ve ever met. His unique background will allow him to oversee creative, technical, and business goals as we start building our slate of AR experiences for Jadu.”
During that time, Malik ran a studio called 1RIC, through which he produced festival darlings Terminal 3 and A Jester’s Tale. But as Jadu has gained momentum over 2020, Malik has decided to merge the two entities under the Jadu banner.
“For us this move represents confidence in Jadu and a desire to focus,” Malik said. “We’ve spent four years creating one-off AR projects that have been critically acclaimed but limited in release. In the process we’ve built a world-class team with custom tools and creative and technical processes that now allow us to make some of richest augmented reality available on mobile. Our mission has always been to lay the foundations for using AR as an important new medium of expression on a cultural level. Right now, this mission is better served if we transition from being a service studio to a product company.”
For Sally, joining Jadu at this juncture was simply a matter of right place, right time, and most importantly: right people.
“Asad has brought together an incredible team with a background in AR technology combined with creative storytelling, and has positioned them to build some of the most ambitious AR content mobile devices can handle,” Sally said in an interview with the author.
As COO, Sally will oversee day-to-day operations, head up the company’s partnerships, and work to develop a forthcoming slate of next-generation projects at Jadu.
“I think of Jadu much like a never-ending project that I'm producing,” Sally said. “In a project, you want the technology to fade away, so the person experiencing it can have a great time and have it feel like magic. Similarly, with the building of this company, we want the operations to fade away so that the technologists and the creators can really focus on what they're here to do, which is make amazing projects. They're not here to figure out what's the best way to do payroll.”
While a telecommunications giant and a startup might not seem to have much in common at first blush, Sally’s role in building out Ryot earlier in its life cycle within Verizon have prepared him for some of the ops demands in his new role.
“Being able to help build the foundation of a company that currently is relatively small—but that is set up for success in the long term, to scale rapidly over time—is very much where I sat at Ryot three years ago,” Sally said. “Their expansion taught me so much about the best way to do that—how you build a lot of the operational procedures, greenlight procedures, things that I was able to absorb and help influence in a positive way.”
C-suite positions at startups often bring with them unique needs and challenges—along with unique opportunities to map out what falls under a given title. Sally brings deep experience in producing and partnerships for immersive and new media projects. At Ryot, Sally played a key role in facilitating partnerships, such as with TIME for The March, a large-scale VR experience that recreates the historic March on Washington, including a photorealistic Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. In addition to the workflow aspect of his role, Sally will parlay his network and expertise in producing in his role at Jadu.
“There's a content development and partnership side that is front-and-center for what I'm doing,” Sally said. “Bringing that larger network that's been built out over the last five or six years to bear, to really help in both technology and content partnerships, to help bring these experiences to the next level.”
Beyond the Jadu team, Sally sees an inflection point forming through the convergence of the latest generation of smartphones, the rollout of 5G, and the literacy with (and appetite for) virtual experiences.
“I've worked with bleeding-edge technologies for the better part of five or six years,” Sally said. “This felt very much like the right time; with the latest wave of AR-enabled devices and expanding 5G networks, the dream of interactive 3D experiences for everyone is finally becoming a reality, and the creative technologists at Jadu are at the forefront of this acceleration.”
Curse of Calypso
Earlier this month, Curse of Calypso: A Palaye Royale AR Experience debuted on Jadu. Like past Jadu work, the project features musicians as AR holograms—but the similarities end there. Curse spans ten minutes and incorporates three tracks from the band’s album, The Bastards.
More importantly, Curse finds Jadu pushing more deeply into interactivity—a tricky enough needle to thread in headset-based AR installations, much less mobile devices. At key points throughout the experience, users are invited to participate directly, in one case by spraying graffiti, in another by playing keys on a piano.
Early data from the past two weeks reveals that the customers who bought the experience have returned to it multiple times—despite the fact that it asks them to get up and move around their own space rather than sit back and consume.
“The engagement rates have been really rewarding,” Sally said. “The average person is doing the experience three times, and we even have people doing it up to 10 times. In the current attention economy that is quite an extensive amount of time to spend in anything, much less a mobile AR experience.”
Sally attributes these engagement rates to the artists and the Jadu team, but most of all Malik, who has established a body of work and expertise as a director of volumetric capture for immersive and interactive experiences.
“Without a doubt, Asad is the most accomplished and thoughtful volumetric capture director in the space,” Sally said. “Every time I talk with him—as someone who's done a fair amount of volumetric capture—I always learn something new when we dig into where the technology is and where it's headed.”
The fluency to produce these more demanding AR experiences is rooted in Malik’s experience creating high-end immersive installations. A Jester’s Tale tapped musician Poppy to play a leading role in a dark narrative experience that involved AR headsets, live actors, and a physical buildout. Translating these capabilities into mobile experiences meant to function in a variety of different spaces, on anyone’s respective device, is a bid to leverage a resource that many might not realize is underutilized: musicians’ creativity.
“Musicians are often pigeonholed as ‘just’ musicians, but they’re so much more than that; they’re cultural icons, they're gamers—there's a kaleidoscopic range to what a musician is and does,” Sally said. “So I think it's only natural to have an expansion of the types of experiences that can kind of fall into that bucket. As people who love music, everyone's dying of thirst to do something fun that utilizes music. So it feels like it's a very natural first step.”
Curse predates Sally’s arrival, but he sees much of his charge as COO as helping facilitate more premium experiences like it—and to ensure that as many people as possible can see them without needing any additional hardware beyond their smartphones.
“I’m excited by the idea of really delivering these experiences at scale to as many people as possible,” Sally said. “I want Jadu experiences and holograms that dynamically adapt depending on what device the user has, so that no matter what you're on, you're really getting a good experience.”
Jadu fits into a burgeoning ecosystem of platforms seeking to facilitate novel experiences among artists and audiences. Sally sees Jadu differentiating itself as offering robust interactivity and premium content that isn’t locked to particular times.
“For us, ‘live’ is real-time interaction, which is something that you're not getting with most of these virtual concerts,” Sally said. “We want to make sure that everyone is able to do these experiences regardless of timezone or their work schedule.”
Who are the artists that Jadu is looking to build high-end immersive experiences with?
“The artists that will have the most fun partnering with Jadu are ones that are either already building worlds that they want their fans to engage with or folks who may have been tentatively exploring what world-building looks like for them and haven’t had an entry point,” Sally said. “Technology is generally scary for people; we do a really good job of making the tools of that creation process friendly and fun. That's something Asad in particular has done a really good job of turning into a seamless process; it's very turnkey.”
What should we expect from Jadu in the months t0 come? Certainly more music experiences that push the bounds of what can be done at the intersection of volumetric capture, interactive storytelling, and AR. But Sally also hinted that all the creative capital that Jadu has built up is unlikely to remain exclusively in the domain of music.
“The technology stack that Jadu was built on is currently being utilized to create narrative interactive musical experiences, but the toolset and that back end can easily be adapted to work for a range of different experiences that I think will go far beyond music as we continue to march forward.”