Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Photo courtesy of Zebra Imaging

Photo courtesy of Zebra Imaging

A licensing rights agreement with the Walt Disney Company has awakened the force at an Austin company known as a global leader in 3D visualization.

Zebra Imaging is taking pre-orders for the result of that agreement: a 3D hologram of one of five images from the Star Wars franchise, which sell for $125 a pop or $250 when packaged with a bottom-lit display designed to look like Darth Vader.

Zebra Imaging plans to make more than 40,000 images over the next year, and has had to ramp up operations and capabilities to meet their targets.

But selling holograms hasn’t always been this easy.

For years, Zebra Imaging survived off of government contracts. The commercial side was later to catch on, first at trade shows, and then by architects, oil and gas companies and others who used Zebra Imaging’s products for marketing.

The company’s gallery, tucked in the back of its North Austin building, takes visitors from the beginnings of Zebra Imaging – founded in 1996 by graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory – to the future.

In Zebra Imaging’s infancy, the MIT team entered a contest to help Ford come up with new technology to develop cars. The founders had already been working on holograms, or three-dimensional images that are produced by lasers, but the Ford competition got the founders’ idea out of the lab, said Mike Masters, Zebra Imaging’s chief marketing officer.

“They wanted a replacement for their clay models,” said Masters, explaining that Ford used the models to design new vehicles. “So they made holograms. The early models were $30,000 and took four or five days to print.”

Then came the military, which hired Zebra Imaging to make 3D holographic maps that could be rolled up and carried in a tube, then displayed in the field with a flashlight, sunlight or the headlights of a Humvee. Zebra Imaging made more than 14,000 maps for the U.S. Department of Defense of war theaters in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“There were lots of topography challenges,” Masters said. “But they could send a plane overhead, to a Lidar scan, then we could use those to make a map that can be used in the theater.”

In the gallery, featured alongside a giant Mickey Mouse, before-and-after-9/11 images of the World Trade Center buildings and a sheik-commissioned custom interior plane window image of Arabian horses are several of these military maps, all made in the color green.

The federal government grants, including a $30 million one from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, carried Zebra Imaging through the 2000s, Masters said. But due to the highly confidential nature of the work, it also shrouded Zebra Imaging’s operations in secrecy.

“It was initially thought to be hush-hush. That requirement later went away, but we didn’t do white papers,” said Zebra Imaging’s President and CEO Chuck Scullion.

Then came a failed federal contract bid, followed by changes in war strategy that caused the demand for military maps to evaporate. The company hit a low point in 2012, shrinking from about 50 people to 18.

Meanwhile, though, Zebra Imaging had carved out a niche on the cutting edge of technology, polishing every step of the hologram production process down to the hogel, which is striped like a zebra and the hologram’s equivalent of a pixel. Zebra Imaging also created their own printers, the material that images are printed on, and much more – in all, the company now has about 50 patents with more pending.

Reaching out to other markets, Zebra Imaging continued to make images and eventually, the government contracts returned. In September, the company announced an $86,000 contract to create high-resolution 3D maps of the borders for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Customs and Border Protection.

According to Zebra Imaging’s CrunchBase profile, the company has raised $24.5 million in venture capital in five rounds. The Austin Business Journal reported that Zebra Imaging was projected to generate $6 million in revenue in 2015.

Photo courtesy of Zebra Imaging

Photo courtesy of Zebra Imaging

And then there’s the force. After working with a company to produce small, consumer-sized holograms in malls, the idea arose to work on a Star Wars project.

“We didn’t go out looking for Star Wars,” Scullion said Zebra’s President and CEO Chuck in a recent interview. “But it seemed like a perfect fit, and we kind of went all-out.”

After wooing executives in a virtual tour of the company’s gallery, Zebra Imaging secured the licensing rights. Focus groups followed, and uber-nerds of the franchise helped Zebra Imaging’s talented artists and designers tweak products to perfection.

Now, Zebra Imaging will have to decide how to grow. Producing holograms for other franchises like Marvel Comics or Star Trek would be “actually pretty easy,” Masters said, and the company is already working with a children’s TV show on designing playing card-sized holograms. If a customer provides the 3D image, Zebra Imaging can produce a hologram in three hours, at a price starting at $200.

“Whatever we do, we want to make sure we expand properly,” Scullion said. “We can’t grow too fast, but if this grows as we think it will, then debating expansion strategies is a champagne problem at that time.”