How Dark Slope went from theme park attractions to the metaverse

Raja Khanna is touring his Dark Slope Studios office, an old warehouse on Toronto’s Sterling Road that has been repurposed into a fun factory, churning out video games and TV shows for clients such as Nickelodeon and WarnerMedia. “This place is full of toys and cool people and creative tech,” Khanna says before turning a corner to reveal the company’s motion-capture stage. “This is my dream job. I get to tell stories.”

The motion-capture stage is where new worlds dreamed up by Dark Slope’s creative team come to life. In front of a green screen, actors in form-fitting body suits studded with tracking pins fling their arms around as the company’s technicians record their every move. Fed through Dark Slope’s spatial computing technology, they will emerge as cute animals or monsters or whatever the entertainment demands. It could be the set of a special-effects-laden movie, but these actors aren’t producing a spectacle to be watched. They’re creating a world to be immersed in.

The metaverse takes shape

Dark Slope’s own story is certainly atypical. In part, that’s because Khanna and his team of artists-cum-scientists get paid good money to, you know, play make-believe. But it’s mostly because the venture works in an entirely new field: the metaverse. These immersive online worlds are brought to life with science-fiction-inspired innovations like virtual and augmented reality. But the space is so new that it’s still being defined, which makes Dark Slope a leader in the virtual-entertainment revolution.

Khanna is a serial entrepreneur. His first startup, founded in the mid-90s, created choose-your-own-adventure websites on the infant internet. His next enterprise was a mobile audio-and-video platform that was eventually acquired by AT&T. After that, he took on projects in TV and streaming, as well as board positions with OCAD University and Artscape. Then came the big leap forward.

Through all this, Khanna was keeping tabs on developments in virtual reality, but the idea of ​​a fully-fledged metaverse got a whole lot more, well, real around 2016. Advances in 3-D imaging, virtual reality and 5G happened in quick succession , which, Khanna says, had a “profound” effect on the technology industry and its ability to process massive amounts of graphical data. “What used to cost thousands and thousands of dollars now cost three hundred bucks.” So, in 2018, Dark Slope was born.

The company initially made entertainment installations for theme parks where patrons could put on some virtual-reality goggles and pretend they were shooting aliens. Then came the coronavirus and public-health restrictions that put in-person entertainment on hold everywhere.

The leap to online entertainment

Khanna says that Dark Slope was “hanging on by a thread” in the early months of the pandemic. He decided that remote entertainment would be the way forward. It was a risky move, but one that preserved the venture’s purpose of mass-producing high-tech fun.

In making its pivot, Dark Slope could rely on a pipeline of products fueled by relentless R&D. Another distinct advantage for the company? Investing in employees that are both artists and technical experts. “I’m most proud that our company is made of people who can balance both sides of the brain,” Khanna says. And that unique cocktail of character traits invites perfectionism. Where the average viewer may only judge Dark Slope on the look and feel of its entertainment, the venture’s staff is also constantly grading itself on the speed and power of the machinery under the hood.

The goal is to create a proprietary system of infrastructure (a “world,” as Khanna calls it) that integrates content and devices better and faster than anything else on the market, for both creators and consumers. It means breaking new ground in the metaverse, while simultaneously improving current methods of content creation. Imagine, for instance, a not-too-distant future wherein a Hollywood filmmaker is sitting in his Venice loft, using his phone as the camera, directing a bunch of actors in Toronto wearing motion-capture suits — the performers’ digital avatars instantly rendered without extensive post-production animation.

From Toronto to the (virtual) world

Such a method of production may today seem like a fantasy. However, only two years ago, no one could have imagined that the entire world would shift to hybrid work either. True to form, Khanna is adapting to the changing landscape. More than 30 percent of his new hires are based outside of Toronto. Though it’s a legal and operational hurdle, Khanna is thrilled to cherry-pick from a larger pool of talent. Besides, Dark Slope wouldn’t be much of a metaverse champion if it didn’t at least try to make a tenable virtual workspace. “We’re figuring out how to do business and functions that aren’t Toronto-centric. The ship has sailed on the old world of work.”

Still, Khanna is committed to his real-world home base: “All of my companies have had the option to relocate, but the gravitational pull of the city was too strong.” The quality of life, a diverse economy, tax credits and support from accelerators and non-profits are all selling points. And even though Dark Slope has embraced hiring foreign workers, Khanna asserts that the company’s local talent is unmatched, and that its cosmopolitan make-up allows it to empathize with, and therefore entertain, any international audience.

“The people that work at Dark Slope reflect the world,” he says. Seems like a winning way to ensure that the metaverse — whatever it may become — reflects all people as well.

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