With Field of Dreams game, Mantis XR’s founder comes full circle

Kahlil Ashanti, former Iowan and now-Vancouverite, dishes on his company’s latest activation.

Kahlil Ashanti, founder and CEO of Mantis XR

Ray Kinsella started to hear voices. The corn farmer looked out over his crop in rural Iowa, and as he did, a phrase started to emanate from the endless rows of green and yellow: “If you build it, they will come.” “They” ended up being the disgraced 1919 Chicago White Sox, a team barred from baseball after throwing the World Series at the behest of a greedy gambler that same year. Sorry for not including a spoiler alert at the onset of this piece. But, given that this movie – Field of Dreams – came out in 1989, I don’t think it should count.

This premise, that “if you build it, they will come,” took Major League Baseball a few years to internalize. Over 30, in fact. But, the league has finally started to play games on what is, essentially, the Kinsella farm. They even had the players walk out through the corn just like Ray Liota and Kevin Costner did on the silver screen. Those players come complete with throwback uniforms, designed to mimic those worn by ballplayers in 1919 but made by a company born a half-century later.

For fans of the famed Chicago Cubs, one of two teams playing in this year’s MLB at Field of Dreams game held August 11, it’s a great opportunity to add some new merch to the closet. Say you want to buy those fancy throwback jerseys? If you’re old-fashioned, you could go to the online or brick-and-mortar team store. Or, thanks to a Vancouver tech company, you could buy them in a barn overlooking the cornfield.

Mantis XR, a company specializing in metaverse-based e-commerce experiences, linked up with Cubs’ team store, The Ivy Shop, which is named after the foliage that lines the outfield walls of the Cubs’ home field. Mantis is powering an activation that allows users to browse Cubs hats, jerseys, or other gear hanging near the Iowa cornfield. Scroll around, and the items come into view. Click on them, and a web store-like interface opens. Next step: add to cart.

You may be thinking this sounds like augmented reality. I know I did at first. But, unlike AR, this activation doesn’t require a user to orient themselves using a smartphone or other handheld device. It also doesn’t need a headset like its Web3 sibling, virtual reality. Instead, it lives in extended reality: the “XR” in Mantis XR. The Cubs build is the latest XR link up for the company as it has found quite the niche with sports teams. In May, the company crafted a similar application for the St. Louis Blues in a less agricultural locker-room setting. The numbers speak for themselves.

According to Mantis XR, the Blues’ extended reality team store — called Blues Experiential Reality — created a definite uptick. The application saw $28,000 in transactions carried out via the activation. The average sale was $60 and the total value of sales from it was seven percent higher than the Blues’ online team store. All this just in the month of May. Now, the company finds itself connected with another top-class sports team. But this one, set in the Iowa cornfields, brings Mantis XR’s founder, Kahlil Ashanti, full circle. Or, at least, back to one of his former addresses.

A military kid, he was born in Germany and spent the better part of his life bouncing around to his family’s varying homebases. An early first stop was Japan, meaning Ashanti’s first language was Japanese. When he was in high school, his family relocated to Davenport, Iowa — a mere 88 mile drive to the Cubs’ one night home at the Field of Dreams set. This combination of factors meant Ashanti was in, basically, an impossible social situation. “I was a Black kid in Iowa who spoke Japanese,” Ashanti explains. “That made making friends a little bit difficult.”

Out of high school, Ashanti joined the U.S. Air Force. Yet, his rank was more headspins than headwinds. He was part of a U.S. Air Force group called Tops in Blue that, as he puts it, was “Band of Brothers with instruments” who spent its time “breakdancing for troops in the most dangerous parts of the world.” But, before he shipped out, Ashanti received a piece of traumatic news. “My mom let it slip that the guy who had been beating the shit out of me my entire childhood wasn't my real dad,” Ashanti tells me.

Despite being in that state of shock, off he went to breakdance around mid-‘90s theaters of war. While popping and locking, he hatched a brilliant idea. His life could be turned into a one-man comedy show. An honorable discharge from the Air Force led to just that. He called it Basic Training. The show caught the attention of (amongst others) Vancouver Fringe, a festival in place to put unique arts programming at the forefront. That brought him to the city. He met his future wife here, which was a wonderful reason to stay.

Once in Vancouver, Ashanti again bounced around – this time professionally. He first dipped his toe into tour management and supported acts like Carmen Elektra and The Pussycat Dolls — all while balancing a career as an artist himself, highlighted by his worldwide performances of Basic Training. But there was always a passion for tech behind the scenes for Ashanti, who built his first website in 1998. This inspired a dive into serial entrepreneurship. He has founded a trio of local tech companies and Mantis XR is the latest, born in October 2020.

I was curious why or how the company landed on sports teams as ideal partners. “Because we've kissed every other frog, to be perfectly honest with you,” he quips. (No wonder this guy is a comedian.) The company’s first forays into the space came via wineries and car companies, industries that didn’t stick like these recent partnerships have. “I feel like we've been really fortunate to be able to define what the metaverse is not,” the ever-clever Ashanti summarizes.

The niche in sports is certainly timely. I used to religiously watch highlight shows on national broadcast TV networks. Now, I find highlights on YouTube or Twitter. It’s a shift Ashanti is seeing, too. “Kids aren’t going to watch ESPN and TSN,” he points out. “They're on their phones, they're in these experiences. [During the pandemic,] fans didn't go anywhere, they just decided to consume differently. It was already happening before the pandemic, but like most things, it was accelerated. We’re able to reach fans who won't sit through a whole hockey game. We’re able to think about that younger demographic.”

In doing so, Mantis XR has found its arena. Ashanti excitedly teased more sports partnerships that should come to fruition shortly, which won’t be the last if the Cubs and Blues are any indication. “If you build it, they will come” must also ring true for the metaverse.

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