Angad Arneja and Akshat Jagga on their latest deepfake lip-synching app and the future of digital entertainment.
By Vikram Nijhawan, Senior Arts and Culture Editor
Ever since Mark Zuckerberg and his peers founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room in 2003, the image of social media apps springing from elite undergraduate minds has become cemented in our generation’s imagination.
While once treated as a novelty, such a feat is now often viewed by outsiders as a necessary milestone for ambitious, entrepreneurial students who hold the gleaming destination of Silicon Valley in their sights.
Case in point: WOMBO, a Canadian lip-synching app launched in February 2021, whose popularity surged across the country over this past year.
Through the innovative artificial intelligence process known as “deepfaking”, users of the app can generate countless uncanny photo and song combinations, from making a close friend sing “I’m a Barbie Girl”, to a deceased relative belting out “Another One Bites the Dust”.
Ben-Zion Benkhin, WOMBO’s CEO, was a former UofT student who conceived the initial idea for the app and dropped out of school to build the company. Soon after, the young entrepreneur approached Angad Arneja, then a third-year Rotman Commerce student, to bring him onto the development team.
Benkhin first pitched WOMBO to Arneja expecting it to be “the most viral app of 2021”. This lofty projection turned out to be all too accurate. In its relatively short lifespan thus far, WOMBO has become the fastest-growing consumer app in Canada, with over 60-million users.
“I think especially with COVID-19 when people are stuck at home, they just want something to make them laugh and smile,” said Arneja.
As far as deepfaking apps go, the WOMBO team is the new kid on the block, but their app’s rapid success caught the attention of many prominent investors, including actor Ashton Kutcher’s firm Sound Ventures. During the first half of this year, WOMBO amassed $6 million in investments and continues to generate revenue through advertising deals.
Deepfaking is a testament to the progress of artificial intelligence technology in recent years – indeed, it’s borderline magical. Akshat Jagga, a Computer Science student who helms most of WOMBO’s coding, described the app’s ability to bring static images to life through movements as “Harry Potter-like”. Once a user uploads a picture of a face, the app’s machine learning model captures key facial points to animate movements.
“The A.I. we use enables people to be surprised by what’s possible with technology, while also making fun of their friends,” said Jagga, summarizing the main appeal of the app.
Arneja and Jagga, two international students from India, met each other as first-year students at Trinity. They cut their teeth in the startup world together, while working on a news curation app in their home country called Ooze, back in 2019.
Through this endeavour, the two realized how well they were able to work together, and would later bring this synergy to WOMBO. Arneja originally aspired to be an investment banker, but Jagga encouraged him to enter the tech industry.
Arneja and Jagga’s close-knit relationship, in conjunction with the rest of the WOMBO team’s work, laid the foundation for the app’s meteoric rise. The company drew upon the reservoir of business and tech talent in Toronto to fill their ranks.
“It feels funny recruiting interns from the Rotman program, who were just like me in first-year,” shared Arneja.
As a second-year student, Arneja began a podcast with other business-minded peers called Beyond the Degree, where they interviewed several successful UofT alumni (and the occasional dropout), many of whom went on to found lucrative tech startups.
He attributes the confidence and skills he gained from working on the podcast to helping him in his current position at WOMBO, where he is responsible for reaching out to investors and hiring new employees on a regular basis.
“Through the podcast, I was able to connect with CEOs of companies which raised tens of millions of dollars, just by cold-emailing them,” said Arneja. “It was a major realization for me that people in high places are accessible.”
Arneja and Jagga speculate on the future of WOMBO as an “AI-powered media content house”, with similar deepfaking technologies setting the stage for highly personalized entertainment in the future.
“Imagine communicating with a friend through WOMBO, but your online avatar is a chicken, and your friend’s is an egg,” proposed Jagga.
“It could also be lamb,” Arneja added amusingly.
The two app developers opined that deepfaking technology has the potential to usher in a new anonymous entertainment economy, where creators can hide behind fictional digital personas.
“A platform like YouTube is pretty constrained with just one medium, and it’s better at content consumption than content creation,” explained Jagga, “WOMBO would be good at both because of the cutting-edge machine learning that powers it.”
Those more knowledgeable about deepfaking technology, such as York University computer science professor Marcus Brubaker, have addressed the wider implications of manufacturing facial video content, stating in a Globe and Mail article, “While this is a fun, light kind of viral-memey-type application, it’s technology that will play into a lot of different applications that are much more serious.”
After all, nobody expected that the social media platform Facebook would help facilitate the civil uprisings of the Arab Spring at the start of the last decade. The minds behind WOMBO, however, view the advent of this technology more positively.
“Deepfakes are inevitable. They’re going to be there in the future whether you like them or not,” said Jagga, “so we see WOMBO as a way to inform and educate people about them in a funny, lighthearted way.”
As we continue to navigate our current global health crisis, the creators of this game-changing app aim to show that not all things that go viral are dangerous.