Alumni Success Stories: How This Grad Used Data to Build AR Filters — and a Business

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What began as a hobby soon became his own technology startup — with help from a few machine learning skills he picked up in between. Learn how GOWAAA Co-Founder and CTO Boon Jun is combining art and what he learned in General Assembly’s Data Science Immersive (DSI) course to create augmented reality (AR) filters with some of tech’s biggest companies.

My name is Boon Jun — I own an augmented reality (AR) creative technology company, GOWAAA, that specializes in creating AR effects for brand activations. I started off creating AR effects as a hobby with nearly zero relevant knowledge back in 2019. I got so hooked on AR creation that it got me to enroll in a GA data science course to help me understand how machine learning models used in AR works. Since starting GOWAAA in 2020 (after I graduated from GA), it has become an official Spark AR partner of Facebook and has created AR effects for multiple brands, NGOs, and government agencies in the APC regions.  

What were you doing before you came to GA? What was difficult or dissatisfying about it that prompted you to make a change?

I was an environmental business consultant before I went to GA. Other than the reason I stated above, I also find that I lack hard skills that will keep me relevant for my future career. Furthermore, I have always been interested in data science and coding, so the Data Science Immersive course at GA was perfect for me!

What was it about data science specifically that intrigued you to explore it as a career? What were the defining moments that pushed you to move forward?

I am always intrigued by how machine learning models — such as face tracking and person segmentation — function because of my work in AR. Data science is the foundation of understanding those machine learning models, and that’s what motivated me to take up the data science course. 

What motivated you to choose GA over other programs? 

Among all the data science courses I have found in Singapore, GA has the most established and holistic curriculum, which gave me the confidence that the course will be worth my time. 

What was the best thing about DSI for you? And the GA experience overall, both during and after?

The best thing about DSI is that it covers a wide range of data science topics, which helped me understand the foundation of machine learning quickly. Overall, I have a very positive GA experience as my instructor, Divya, was very helpful during the course. Even after the course, my career coach, Stefanie, helped me get exposure by inviting me as a speaker at an online GA event, as well as setting up this interview!

Since you graduated in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic happened halfway through the program. How did you stay resilient, especially with the state of the job market at that time? 

I would say the start of the pandemic is definitely not the best time to start a company. It was not easy, especially during the first few months. Thankfully for us, our digital AR service is the exact solution most brands are looking for to continue engaging with their followers during lockdowns. 

Tell us more about your company, GOWAAA. What inspired you to start your own business? 

GOWAAA creates augmented reality effects for brands to creatively engage with their target audiences on social media platforms. Since the start of 2020, we have created over 100 AR effects for brands, NGOs, and government agencies in the APAC region. My interests in AR and computer graphics are what drove me to start my own business in this field. Seeing that most consumers are already bored of the usual video/image advertising content, I believe AR will play a huge role in the future of digital marketing. 

You describe GOWAAA as an “art and technology” company. Can you speak to how you balance those two disciplines and how new professional or technical skills can create opportunities for artists and their work?

AR itself is already a new form of art. Here at GOWAAA, we combined the knowledge of digital 2D/3D design, understanding of augmented reality, coding skills for game logic and visual shaders, and also UX/UI to create all the AR effects for our clients. All of these disciplines are equally important, so understanding the constraints, duration of the project, and the target audience is essential  to finding the balance. 

If you are an artist that is not familiar with digital creation, you can use AR not only to  engage with your audience creatively but on a deeper level through real-time interaction as well. With the support of National Arts Councils of Singapore, GOWAAA has collaborated with four Singaporean artists to transform their non-digital artwork into AR effects. Those are some of my most satisfying projects because of how all the different disciplines came together.

How do you think your background in engineering and project management prepared you for your current role as a co-founder and CTO? 

Engineering helped me appreciate technology in general, which keeps my mind open to different technologies — and starting a company is not possible without some knowledge of project management. I am glad that all of my past experiences actually came in handy as I venture into a new stage of my career!

How has GA been a resource to you in terms of starting your own company? Additionally, how did the skills you learned at GA help you launch your company?

The machine learning knowledge I gained from GA helped me to understand how AR machine learning model works, which helped me manage my clients’ expectations around AR effect performance.

What has been the coolest project you’ve worked on so far?

The coolest project I have done so far is a real-world AR effect that GOWAAA created for Avène to promote their biodegradable sunscreen. The AR effect encourages you to keep the ocean clean by allowing you to plant corals wherever you are! The more coral you plant, the more marine life you will see, signifying the importance of corals for a healthy ocean!

Have Instagram? Try it yourself!

How has GA made an impact on your career?

GA expanded my knowledge of data science and machine learning, which helped me understand how machine learning models are used in augmented reality. Since my capstone project involved using neural style transfer, the GA data science course has also helped me to see the huge potential of digital art.

With respect to data (or your company), what do you want your legacy to be? Is there a change you want to inspire or a mission that defines the work that’s important to you?

Most people use their coding and machine learning skills to solve practical needs, which are important and helpful to our daily life. However, I prefer to use the skills I learned from GA to create visuals that can make everyone GOWAAA (go “AAAH”)! I believe digital art will serve the same purpose as traditional arts but with a much bigger impact.

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