An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Kirin Sinha ’14 can still remember her first exposure to working in augmented reality (AR) as a student at MIT, doing a project with a friend and fellow engineer to build the Ironman desk (a computer system and AI technology that uses holographic projections controlled by hand movement and voice commands). Today, she is the founder and CEO of Illumix, an augmented reality technology and media company focused on developing immersive experiences for mobile phones, websites, and social platforms. 

Sinha’s vision for the company is expansive“to build a platform, a piece of technology that would enable infinite experiences to exist,” she says. And she believes it could be the first wave of technology that really changes the way we live. “We think it is going to be the next version of the internet,” she says of the technology, “and it’s really going to change how we look at and engage with every piece of information in the future.” 

When she founded the company in 2017, she knew that initially focusing on one business vertical would improve the chances of success, so she and her team chose an industry that was already familiar with AR: gaming. Illumix launched Five Nights at Freddy’s, a mobile app with more than 70 percent of the time spent in AR, in November 2019, and within a day, the game had organically gained more than 30,000 users and hit number two on the app store, reaching over 1 million users within a month. Today, the game has more than 35 million downloads. 

“It was literally the first night that the game was on the app store that it went viral, and it was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time,” she laughs. “We got a ton of positive feedback on the core AR interactions, and it gave us a real direction of where we could grow as a company. It also gave us incredible validation of the vision of what these interactions and what the future of entertainmentand I think even the world more broadlymight look like.”

Since the initial success of the game, the company’s second area of focus has been providing AR tools for e-commerce, with offerings like virtual try-ons to give customers the opportunity to interact with products and experience them in a natural and personalized way. “I think we’re going to look back and realize how inefficient the process for purchasing things was—basically ordering lots of things, hoping something looks good, and then sending it back. It produces such an excess of waste.”

Screenshots of Five Nights at Freddy on a mobile phone

Screenshots of Five Nights at Freddy's on a mobile phone.

And what better time to enter this space than in early 2020, just as the whole world was entering a global pandemic and being encouraged to stay home. 

“All of a sudden during the pandemic, I think people had this moment of realization that they had to lean in more heavily onto their virtual presences. So, if a store’s digital storefront in some ways has more value than their physical storefront, but yet shopping online today is not the same as going to a store, how do they bridge the difference? Illumix was there with the quality and stability and the technology that was ahead of anything else in the market.”

The need for change applies even more widely, Sinha says, not just the way we consume or try on clothes, but how we engage with the entire digital world. 

“Think about how much time we spend in front of our screens and in our digital world and how different our presence in the digital world is from our real life,” says Sinha. “This causes a huge amount of friction. Instagram is not reflective of anyone’s real life, but we’re really engaged in these digital worlds. What that means for us physically is, we’re just sitting there pretty inert, passively consuming content. It’s totally different from when we’re out and about meeting friends, actually living life.” 

Sinha predicts that one of two things will happen. Either we get completely sucked into a passive digital world or we break free from passive screens into something truly immersive and engaging. She feels the latter is where the future lies. 

“When we first created the vision for Illumix, it was clear to me that at some point the world would have to move in this direction, away from a passive digital world. And if that’s the case, then the underlying technology companies powering this content would become one of the most relevant and important companies of the future. And that’s what I wanted to build.”

Photo (top): Pooja Dhar.