“We will carry metaverse experience everywhere”
Ali Hantal is an experienced entrepreneur. With his latest initiative XR Masters, he began investing in metaverse technologies and the surrounding 5G, photorealism, AI and blockchain technologies, and plans on his first project at Taksim Square located at the heart of Istanbul. Hantal was known for Mezun.com and he is also the creator of Mezuncallingcard.com, MezunCicek.com, 444cicek.com initiatives. Today, Hantal’s agenda is about metaverse. The entrepreneur, who wants to create a challenging growth story with his XR Masters initiative that covers AR, VR and MR, co-founded OnSiteViewer 1.5 year ago, which is another AR cloud initiative. Hantal stated that they came to the forefront in the 30.7 billion dollars’ XR market through different solutions and that they want to carry their innovative metaverse experiences to many cities, primarily in Turkey and the USA.
ÖZLEM BAY YILMAZ, [email protected]
When Facebook introduced the virtual space called Horizon last month, discussions on the concept of “metaverse” began in the entire world. In fact, technology enthusiasts have been laying stress on this issue for a while. One of those is the Turkish entrepreneur Ali Hantal. With his latest initiative XR Masters, Ali Hantal began investing in metaverse technologies and the surrounding 5G, photorealism, AI and blockchain technologies, and plans on his first project at Taksim Square located at the heart of Istanbul. Users can download the XR Masters Android or iPhone application free-of-charge and can explore the metaverse at the Taksim Square. The entrepreneur and his team, who have been interested in metaverse technologies since 2014, have been engaging in R&D and software development solely on this subject for 7 years.
HOW DO YOU DIFFERENTIATE YOURSELF?
“Our most noteworthy difference is our approach to the metaverse age with a very important accumulation of knowledge and experience”.
Initially, Ali Hantal introduced himself in 1999 with his informative website Mezun.com, which he created for high school and university students that are interested in studying abroad in the USA. This was followed by other initiatives, namely Mezuncallingcard.com, MezunCicek.com and 444cicek.com. Over time, Ali Hantal successfully exited 444Cicek.com & MezunCallingcard.com, and he continues his path with the Mezun.com and Mezungreencard.com services.
Ali Hantal stated that they plan to exit from XR Masters within the next 5 years. We interviewed him on many subjects such as the AR cloud initiative OnSiteViewer that he co-founded with his Norwegian partners as well as on his investments and on his entrepreneurship.
You established Mezun.com in 1999 and you attained a great success. Would you still be an entrepreneur if you hadn’t gone to USA for MBA?
Mezun.com was one of the pioneers of a digital revolution that we can call the “4th revolution” and it underwrote significant success stories within a short period of time. I would still be an entrepreneur even if I hadn’t received MBA in the USA. I had the first entrepreneurship experience in 1994 when I was still in university. With two friends, we started a Panasonic cellular phone dealer in Nişantaşı. We had to close down this business shortly. When I look back at this experience, which highly disappointed me and my business partners, I see how relevant is the proverb “Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining”. During that process, we realized the importance of personally supervising the work, having realistic objectives, keeping costs under control and making scenario analyses. We drew unforgettable lessons from these. I can say I would still be an entrepreneur even if I hadn’t left for MBA.
“WE HAVE LICENSED OUR METAVERSE SOLUTIONS”
CUSTOMERS: We concentrated on Hololens mixed reality applications and mobile AR applications in 2017 and 2018. We developed projects for global brands and public institutions in the USA and Turkey such as P&G, Castrol, Turkcell, Koç Sistem, EnerjiSA, Opet, Sanko etcetera. Later, we developed mobile applications that offered a hybrid use of geographic information systems (GIS) and AR technologies for Turkcell’s field teams. And in 2019, we began working on our own AR cloud content management platform together with persistent and shared AR solutions that can cover an entire city, which is now called the metaverse and previously known as AR cloud or Spatial Web.
METAVERSE: Especially when Facebook changed its name to Meta recently, this subject became popular globally and primarily in the Silicon Valley. Metaverse is the general name given to the three-dimensional virtual space that exists in parallel with the physical space. It means beyond-space or the trans-space. Technically, we can mention two main metaverse types. One is VR based and the other is AR cloud based… In the VR-based space, the users spend time in a metaverse that is simulated via VR headsets, meet friends and play games or hold meetings. In the AR cloud-based space however, users can, by using mobile devices or headsets, interact with the objects in the metaverse or other avatars of other users, where the real spaces and the virtual spaces live on top of each other.
SERVICE AREAS: We have licensed our solutions to companies located in New York, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, İstanbul and Ankara. The spatial content management tools we have developed enable users to create persistent and shared AR cloud experiences in the metaverse without the need of any coding know-how. We plan to provide similar services to shopping malls, museums, stadiums and municipalities shortly.
Mezun.com became Mezun Group. What does your growth story look like?
When we created Mezun.com, many Turkish students in high school and university aimed studying in the USA. We decided to create a website where we would explain in the most impartial way our experiences and all the things we learned during our education adventure in the USA. 3 months after the launch date, which was January 1st, 2000, we decided to ask our members to share their experiences with other Turkish-Americans living in the US. That is when we activated the “Column of the Week” and started publishing content created by our members on our web site. This essentially made us one of the first web sites in the world to offer user-generated content. We were calling our site members as “Mezuns” during that period. We had a “Become a Mezun” button instead of a “Become a Member” button on the website. (Mezun means Gradute in Turkish) We received enormous feedback for the “Column of the Week” section. This pushed us to modify the title of this section as “Mezuns are Writing” and at the end of one year, we published on the website nearly a thousand posts that were written by our members. At the end of 2001, we became a site with 200 thousand members and we saw that an opportunity existed for innovations in every field that we looked into.
What kind of opportunities were these?
The most important one was Mezuncallingcard.com. During that time there were phone call cards that were sold in gas stations and calling Turkey was costing 60 cents per minute. Being amongst the first companies that sold these cards over the internet, we began selling calling cards directly to users and we reduced our costs. We offered the chance of calling Turkey over 25 cents per minute and within a short period of time, Mezuncallingcard became the most popular calling card among the Turks in the USA. Similarly, we launched MezunGreencard.com, MezunCicek.com, 444cicek.com and in 2004, we became the most rapidly growing company in the Baltimore and Washington DC regions. We changed our name as Mezun Group in the same year.
Did Mezun.com make your dreams come true?
Partially. We aimed at an exponential growth during the first years in platform-based services and for this reason, we launched services in many different fields. But we made some mistakes and delayed critical decisions due to our youth excitement. Although we reached our desired point in terms of respectability and becoming a reference for the industry, we missed the chance of becoming a global brand.
Did you have a chance of making a timely exit?
We didn’t exit from Mezun Group, but we successfully exited 444Cicek.com and MezunCallingcard.com. Our Mezun.com and Mezungreencard.com services are still continuing.
What is the story of VR Masters, your second initiative?
The foundations of VR Masters were laid in 2014, but our corporatization took place in 2015. But this also has a precedent. As Mezun Group, we succeeded in becoming the largest international education portal in the Turkish, Middle East and Central Asia markets in 2013, 13 years after our incorporation. As the first and only company to make a strategic cooperation with the American Consulate in Istanbul, we were organizing educational fairs in the USA as well as exclusive receptions for selected American educational institutions. This enabled prospective students and their parents to have face-to-face meetings with university officers. The system was working quite well but this business model didn’t conform to the exponential growth that we desired. Operations no longer needed me, so I made a decision.
WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?
“We created AR projects for global brands and public institutions in the USA and Turkey such as P&G, Castrol, Turkcell, Koç Sistem, EnerjiSA, Opet and Sanko”.
What was that decision?
In 2013, I moved to the Silicone Valley to catch-up with new technologies just like I did in 1999-2000. Later on I saw that this decision was very accurate. My experience in 2014 showed that the VR technology, which I previously knew and tested but which required very expensive hardware, could actually reach the consumers with affordable prices. I tried a VR headset, which was the first version of Oculus, and it was that moment when I clearly saw the future. I researched into the subject of VR until the morning of the same night and I ordered my first VR headset shortly thereafter. We created a new team and commenced R&D efforts on this subject.
You changed your company name from“VR Masters” to “XR Masters”. What was the reason behind this change?
We concentrated on 360 videos and VR when we first incorporated the company. But as many companies were providing services in this field, we initially engaged in AR and later mixed reality. We changed our name to XR Masters which means “Extended Reality” and covers AR, VR and MR. Furthermore in 2016, we became one of the companies to use Microsoft’s Hololens mixed reality headset, which is the world’s first mixed reality headset. This allowed us to conduct close R&D and innovation studies with global companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Ernst&Young. For instance, we succeeded in becoming the strategic partner of Microsoft’s Technology Center in Istanbul for mixed reality-content development.
Did you receive any funding for XR Masters?
We have an angel investor. There are some investors interested in us right now. But we don’t have a concretized agreement yet.
What can you say about the growth in virtual activities caused by the pandemic?
In general terms, the pandemic accelerated the conversion of technology in the entire world. According to a research by Emergent Research, the XR market grew by 2 times in 2020 compared to the previous year. Statista estimates that this market will reach 30.7 billion dollars in 2021 and 300 billion dollars in 2024.
Did new rivals emerge during this process?
More and more entrepreneurs are entering the XR field each year and this increases competition. But there are many new companies that start their business by still using old technologies that have been existing for more than 15-20 years. Instead of considering them as rivals, we believe that new companies that enter the market educates the sector and augment the market, as the metaverse sector is still very virgin at the moment.
As a team that succeeded in creating an electronic society during the 3rd revolution, our most noteworthy difference is our approach to the metaverse age with a very important accumulation of knowledge and experience. In addition, we believe that we gained an important advantage in terms of timing as we have been acquainted with such technologies since 2014 and we have been developing R&D and software solely on this subject for 7 years.
Do you have an exit plan for XR Masters?
We are planning an exit within 5 years.
“WE PROVIDE REAL-TIME VISUALIZATION”
HOW WILL THE COMPANIES USE IT? Onsite Viewer is another AR cloud-based metaverse initiative that I founded with my Norwegian partners nearly 1.5 years ago. Using the technology developed with our team, we provide the 1:1 scaled real-time AR visualizations of buildings, for which exterior wall renovation or scratch construction is planned. This enables the stakeholders of construction companies, subcontractors, municipalities and other local state institutions to experience the project in its own real environment and make better decisions.
LUCKY AREAS: We talk about artificial intelligence, virtual reality and digital twins. These technologies are entering our lives in every field. I believe that in the future, companies that provide metaverse services, manufacture intelligent robots, drones or vehicles that can move on their own and the companies that work on neuroscience and genetics will have more chances of receiving investments.
“I AM INVESTING” As an entrepreneur, I don’t plan to start another initiative that actively involves me other than those concerning metaverse. But I also act as a consultant and angel investor. I’m interested in 5G, photorealism, AI and blockchain technologies, which represent our main focal points as XR Masters.
50 PIECES OF AR CONTENT AT THE TAKSİM SQUARE
INDIVIDUAL MEMBERSHIP: We target growing our member base for our XR Masters mobile application that is currently available on app stores. Very soon, we will launch our first project at the Taksim Square and users will be able to download our XR Masters Android or iPhone application free-of-charge.
THE FIRST INTERACTIVE EXHIBITION Everyone can personally experience the test runs of our first interactive AR cloud aquarium exhibition at the metaverse of the Taksim Square. When we officially launch the exhibition, users will be able ti interact with more than 50 pieces of AR content located at the Taksim Square. We will periodically present XR Masters’ members new and innovative metaverse experiences such as permanent and multiplayer AR cloud games, concerts etcetera every two months thereafter. We plan to carry such experiences to other cities worldwide, primarily in Turkey and the USA.