Founder of Pond Skater Studio
“When a lot of people think of tech entrepreneurship, their minds go immediately to software and tech startups working around the clock to come up with the next must-have digital product,” Alexis Zerafa says. “That’s the common perception of the startup space. But tech entrepreneurs, and the term startup itself, don’t really fit into any one mold: startups don’t have to be purely tech focused; they can be whatever you’re passionate about”
It would certainly be difficult to fit Zerafa herself into a mold. Part of the time, she works as a digital production artist for a high-end fashion house (not as glamorous as you’re probably imagining, she warns), and the rest is spent overseeing her own enterprise, Pond Skater Studio, which creates custom augmented reality (AR) experiences for brands. (The company motto: Skate Over Reality. The logo: a stylized pond skater, a carnivorous insect chosen in honor of Zerafa’s childhood ambition to be an entomologist.)
She specializes in Instagram’s Spark AR platform, which she has used since its beta phase. Browsing her own Instagram reveals women with lasers shooting from their eyes, colorful orbs raining down from the sky to fill a virtual ball pit, a tiny houseplant that suddenly begins growing watermelons, and the requisite “weird cyborg-esque video,” because, as Zerafa says, “Would it really be an AR studio without one?”
Zerafa, who originally hails from Michigan, chose the Integrated Digital Media program at NYU Tandon, in large part, for its combination of front-end coding, digital production, audio engineering, graphic design, user experience, and other courses — an appealing variety that allowed her to decide what discipline most interested her.
Among her most gratifying student projects was one that consisted of a wearable ring and app combination. When a phone was held over the ring, a virtual flower unfurled and furled rhythmically, allowing users to calm themselves by matching their breathing to the flower’s tempo. Her professor shared the prototype with a few people, and Zerafa received an email thanking her. “Knowing I made someone’s day better, even incrementally, was a really big deal to me,” she recalls.
While she did not initially consider forging a career in AR, she soon realized that it tied together many things she enjoyed, like video editing and coding. “It keeps all my skills tethered and afloat in one place,” she has said.
And while she can make unicorns materialize out of thin air or halos appear overhead, she points out that AR has plenty of practical uses, in industries from healthcare to retail. She is even deploying it in an offshoot venture: she has started to experiment with physical fabrication and has crafted a line of modern jewelry. You don’t have to be at her studio to try anything on, however. You can just do that virtually.