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This startup turns video from your phone into movie scenery

Streaming video brings movies to your living room. Now a startup called Urus Entertainment wants to build your living room straight into the movie.

Urus Entertainment

If you stream a movie tonight after dinner, you'll see the same thing as your neighbor or a person on the other side of the continent. But a startup called Urus Entertainment thinks it's got a way to bring that movie closer to home.

A lot closer to home. So close that some scenes will look like they're playing out in your living room.

Urus Entertainment founder Kevin Niu, left, and chief scientist Yuanchen Zhu

Urus Entertainment founder Kevin Niu, left, and chief scientist Yuanchen Zhu

Urus Entertainment

With the company's technology, you use your phone to take a panoramic photo of your surroundings. It reconstructs a 3D model, then blends in the movie action, said Kevin Niu, a producer and Urus' founder. In his view, that means you'll see movies -- and care about what's going on in them -- in an entirely different way.

Urus' first phase of business aims to use the technology for promotional efforts -- think two-minute movie teasers with characters tromping around your house. But Niu eventually hopes to rework video entertainment writ large.

"Long term, the idea is we'll be making original videos," Niu said. "I want to utilize this to create a different form of storytelling."

It's an ambitious idea, as anyone who's tried to reshape Hollywood with 3D, virtual reality or 360-degree scenery can attest. But changes do catch on sometimes. Technologists have succeeded in bringing new dimensions to entertainment, like wraparound sound, rich color and immersive wide-screen vistas.

A scarier horror film

Placing characters into a familiar environment might sound a bit gimmicky. It'll look familiar to people using today's crop of augmented reality apps for phones that are often just entertaining novelties.

But Niu thinks it'll bring a new level of immediacy. Imagine, for example a horror film with a scene in your own house.

Urus Entertainment's scene-blending technology starts with an original video captured with a green screen so elements can easily be removed. Next, you scan new scenery with your phone, then Urus builds that imagery into a 3D scene. Last, the original video is married to the new scene.

Urus Entertainment

"That's going to make a horror film a lot more scary," Niu said. A Harvard physics Ph.D., Niu has experience in the area, for example as an executive producer on the horror film "Abattoir."

Urus hopes to to launch its technology with a beta version of the app by the end of 2018. Initially that'll be used to capture a scene and show promotional videos. "Once we have ton of content, it'll look more like video-on-demand platform," Niu said.

Scene-scanning app

Modern smartphones have capable-enough cameras to capture a scene in detail. The process takes about 30 seconds for a scene, Niu said. You have to sweep the phone around enough to capture what's all around you.

You might be prompted to include particular details in the scene, like a table or steering wheel, said Urus chief scientist Yuanchen Zhu, who developed much of the technology. And you might be prompted to move some, too -- enough to match the camera motion in the original video that will be married to your own scenery.

Urus then analyzes all the video frames your phone captured to build a full model of the scene, Zhu said.

Creating a 3D scene

"Our algorithm is not simply pasting character-containing video on top of user provided video. Instead, we are reconstructing the user's scene in full 3D, so we know the size of the objects and characters in relation to the scene," Zhu said.

Urus can also modify your home scenery to match the look of the movie -- including the visual style of an animation.

The result is a convincing blend of realities, Niu said. When you see familiar surroundings in a movie, you'll naturally feel a connection, he argues.

"It really engages the audience in a different way and makes it personal," he said.

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