Facebook brings software subscriptions to the Oculus Quest

Subscription pricing is landing on Facebook’s Oculus Store, giving VR developers another way to monetize content on Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset.

Developers will be allowed to add premium subscriptions to paid or free apps, with Facebook assumedly dragging in their standard percentage fee at the same time. Oculus and the developers on its platform have been riding the success of the company’s recent Quest 2 headset, which Facebook hasn’t detailed sales numbers on but has noted that the months-old $299 headset has already outsold every other Oculus headset sold to date.

Subscription pricing is an unsurprising development but signals that some developers believe they have a loyal enough group of subscribers to bring in sizable bits of recurring revenue. Facebook shipped the first Oculus Rift just over five years ago, and it’s been a zig-zagging path to finding early consumer success during that time. A big challenge for them has been building a dynamic developer ecosystem that offer something engaging to users while ensuring that VR devs can operate sustainably.

At launch, there are already a few developers debuting subscriptions for a number of different app types, spanning exercise, meditation, social, productivity and DJing. In addition to subscriptions, the new monetization path also allows developers to let users try out paid apps on a free trial basis.

The central question is how many Quest users there are that utilize their devices enough to justify a number of monthly subscriptions, but for developers looking to monetize their hardcore users, this is another utility that they likely felt was missing from the Oculus Store.

#computing, #display-technology, #facebook, #facebook-horizon, #mixed-reality, #oculus, #oculus-rift-s, #technology, #virtual-reality, #wearable-devices

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Oculus Quest 2 gets official wireless-VR mode, 120 Hz support via patch

More hidden features will soon be loosed onto Oculus Quest 2 owners.

Enlarge / More hidden features will soon be loosed onto Oculus Quest 2 owners. (credit: Sam Machkovech)

Last year’s Oculus Quest 2 VR headset remains one of the cheapest—though not necessarily recommended—ways to jump into virtual reality. But even I must admit its sales proposition became more tantalizing on Tuesday with a late-night announcement from reps at Facebook: two disabled features inside the headset are now being unlocked as a default option.

The first is a wireless-VR mode, which Facebook is calling Oculus Air Link, coming “soon” to headset-and-PC combos that run compatible Oculus software. The short version: you will soon be able to connect your Oculus Quest 2 to a gaming PC using nothing more than a local Wi-Fi connection. This feature will be supported within stock headset software, no extra apps required. And it will essentially make connecting to your PC’s VR apps work the same as the VR apps built directly into Quest 2’s storage.

“Not every network and PC setup will be ideal”

“We know gamers want to use Link without a wire,” the announcement says, and sure enough, that cry tends to be the loudest in our VR hardware reviews. No more wires in VR, the readers complain, and Facebook has responded with no more wires. But, gosh, do you really want to use this feature, folks?

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#gaming-culture, #oculus, #oculus-link, #oculus-quest-2, #tech, #valve-index, #virtual-reality

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New Quest 2 software brings wireless PC streaming, updated ‘office’ mode

After a relatively quiet couple of months from Oculus on the software front, Facebook’s VR unit is sharing some details on new functionality coming to its Quest 2 standalone headset.

The features, which include wireless Oculus Link support, “Infinite Office” functionality and upcoming 120hz support will be rolling out in the Quest 2’s upcoming v28 software update. There’s no exact word on when that update is coming but the language in the blog seems to intimate that the rollout is imminent.

The big addition here is a wireless version of Oculus Link which will allow Quest 2 users to stream content from their PCs directly to their standalone headsets, enabling more graphics-intensive titles that were previously only available on the now pretty much defunct Rift platform. Air Link is a feature that will enable users to ditch the tethered experience of Oculus Link, though many users have been relying on third-party software to do this already, utilizing Virtual Desktop.

It appears this upgrade is only coming to Quest 2 users in a new experimental mode, but not owners of the original Quest headset. Users will need to update the Oculus software on both their Quest 2 and PC to the v28 version in order to use this feature.

Accompanying the release of Air Link in this update is new features coming to “Infinite Office” a VR office play that aims to bring your keyboard and mouse into VR and allow users to engage with desktop-style software. Facebook debuted it back at their VR-focused Facebook Connect conference, but they haven’t said much about it since.

Today’s updates include added keyboard support that not only allows users to link their device but see it inside VR, this support is limited to a single model from a single manufacturer (the Logitech K830) but Facebook says they’ll be adding support down the road to other keyboards. Users with this keyboard will be able to see outlines of their hands as well as a rendering of the keyboard in its real position, enabling users to accurately type (theoretically). Infinite Office will also allow users to designate where their real world desk is, a feature that will likely help users orient themselves. Even with a keyboard, there’s not much users can do at the moment beyond accessing the Oculus Browser it seems.

Lastly, Oculus is allowing developers to sample out 120hz frame rate support for their titles. Facebook says that there isn’t actually anything available with that frame rate yet, not even system software, but that support is here for developers in an experimental fashion.

Oculus says the new software update will be rolling out “gradually” to users.

#facebook, #logitech, #mixed-reality, #oculus, #oculus-quest, #technology, #virtual-desktop, #virtual-reality, #wearable-devices

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Microsoft, US Army ink $21.9 billion deal to strap HoloLens onto personnel

A soldier raises a rifle from within a comically oversized headset.

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson | Microsoft | Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the US Army formally moved forward with the largest ever government-related deal for headsets in the virtual and augmented reality sector: a 10-year agreement with Microsoft to provide 120,000 headsets “based” on the HoloLens line.

Reports by CNBC and Bloomberg point to a $21.9 billion value for this week’s updated arrangement, following its initial announcement in November 2018. Neither of those reports point to exact reasons for the deal’s jump from an initial contract value of $480 million, despite that earlier deal confirming similarly high headset numbers.

Official IVAS image as provided by Microsoft as part of Wednesday's announcements. Notice an array of sensors across the top, along with an apparent headset-strapping requirement for this model.

Official IVAS image as provided by Microsoft as part of Wednesday’s announcements. Notice an array of sensors across the top, along with an apparent headset-strapping requirement for this model. (credit: Microsoft)

The headset model in question, as revealed by Microsoft’s Alex Kipman in a Wednesday blog post, appears to deviate slightly from its originally announced intent. While it’s still known as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) and includes an array of HoloLens-like sensors, the model seen in today’s announcement appears to attach to a helmet. Ars previously reported that Microsoft and the US Army intended for this headset to not require mounting on a helmet, arguably to increase its applicability.

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#augmented-reality, #department-of-defense, #gaming-culture, #hololens, #microsoft, #pentagon, #policy, #virtual-reality

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Automakers, suppliers and startups see growing market for in-vehicle AR/VR applications

Augmented and virtual reality have been used for years in gaming, design and shopping. Now, a new battle for market share is emerging — inside vehicles.

Safety-glass windshields offer a new opportunity for suppliers, manufacturers and startups that are starting to adapt this technology: AR overlays digital information or images on what a user sees in the real world, while VR creates a seemingly real experience that changes as they move through it.

Despite all of the pomp and promises about the technology’s potential, there isn’t a clear understanding of market demand for bringing AR and VR to cars, trucks and passenger vans.

The potential for monetizing AR/VR is hamstrung by a number of factors: The long, expensive timelines required to develop, tool and test an automotive-grade product has constrained development to a small subset of startups and several large suppliers.

Despite all of the pomp and promises about the technology’s potential, there isn’t a clear understanding of market demand for bringing AR and VR to cars, trucks and passenger vans. Estimates of the global market range from $14 billion by 2027 to as much as $673 billion by 2025. That wide range shows just how nascent the market currently is and how much opportunity is present.

“At the vehicle manufacturer level, companies are witnessing a complete shift of emphasis of what their product offering is, to the user. Because of that change of emphasis, there’s a whole new paradigm of what the car is,” said Andy Travers, the CEO of Ceres, a Scottish company that specializes in creating holographic glass for AR applications. “There is a huge interest in AR and transparent displays because a car is no longer really differentiated by its engine size, especially as we get into electric vehicles. They are going to be identical skateboards. The question then becomes, how do you differentiate an electric car? You push it toward the user experience.”

It’s no surprise that the implementation of automotive AR (and in limited situations, VR) has been and will continue to be slow. It will largely lag the wider AR and VR market for a number of reasons. Vehicle systems — especially those using computing power and technology needed for AR and VR — must be robust enough to handle tremendous temperature swings, rough jostling and impacts over anywhere from three to 10 years, even if Tesla says that “it is economically, if not technologically, infeasible to expect that such components can or should be designed to last the vehicle’s entire useful life.”

These systems have to be nearly indestructible in extreme conditions for a very long period of time. They must also be compact and power-efficient, especially as electric vehicles become more prevalent. You don’t want your AR or VR system draining your battery and leaving you stranded.

As an example of just how much the automotive technology landscape differs from the consumer realm, consider how long it took for touchscreens to show up in vehicle cockpits. While Buick offered a rudimentary touchscreen in its 1986 Riviera, it was not the easy-to-use interface we’re used to today thanks to the advent of the iPhone.

This is partially due to the three- to seven-year iteration cycles most vehicle makers are on and because the technology simply wasn’t familiar enough to the consumer market to make widespread adoption profitable. In their current form, AR and VR have seen a far more successful uptake rate in industrial usage and application, in part because the technology is still so pricey.

It would be a mistake to exclude a discussion about the development of autonomous driving in this AR and VR conversation, too. The technology is instrumental in the development of fully autonomous vehicles, and while there are no full-autonomous vehicles on the road today, automakers are pushing to make them more than just vaporware.

The players

Many well-established brands like Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen already offer a suite of AR features in their top-end vehicles. Automotive suppliers like Continental, Denso, Visteon, ZF, Nvidia, Bosch, Panasonic and others are the biggest players in the AR and VR automotive space, supplying and making head-up displays (HUDs) and related components for a variety of established automakers.

Most of the AR features in these vehicles are focused on overlaying directional guides over camera images to help drivers navigate in unfamiliar territories or identify a particular building or landmark. Virtual reality, thus far, has been largely applied to the design, sales, demonstration and education of consumers about new technology and features in vehicles, although companies like Audi spinoff Holoride are working to offer passengers VR experiences that can help cut down on in-car motion sickness while simultaneously offering gaming, entertainment or business applications. Even ride-hailing companies are getting in on the AR and VR game, with Lyft and Uber exploring AR and VR options for riders.

#ar, #augmented-reality, #automotive, #ceres, #continental, #ec-market-map, #ec-mobility-hardware, #ec-mobility-software, #transportation, #virtual-reality, #vr

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Rec Room raises at $1.25B valuation from Sequoia and Index as VCs push to find another Roblox

Investor FOMO following Roblox’s blockbuster public debut is pushing venture capitalists who missed out on that gaming giant to invest in competing platforms.

Today, Rec Room announced it has raised $100 million from Sequoia and Index, with participation from Madrona Venture Group. The deal is a huge influx of capital for Rec Room, which had raised less than $50 million before this round, including a $20 million Series C that closed in December. In 2019, we reported that the company had raised its Series B at a $126 million valuation, this latest deal values the company at $1.25 billion, showcasing how investor sentiment for the gaming space has shifted in the wake of Roblox’s monster growth.

Rec Room launched as a virtual reality-only platform, but as headset sales creeped along slowly, the company embraced traditional game consoles, PC and mobile to expand its reach.

In a press release accompanying today’s funding announcement, Rec Room detailed it has surpassed 15 million “lifetime users” and had shown 566% year-over-year revenue growth. In December, CEO Nick Fajt told TechCrunch that the company has tripled its player base in the past 12 months.

The company has been following in Roblox’s footsteps in many ways as it build out its creator tools and seeks to build out an on-platform economy for game creators. The company says that two million players have created content on the platform and that Rec Room is on track to pay out more than $1 million to them this year.

#ceo, #gaming, #madrona-venture-group, #player, #rec-room, #roblox, #series-b, #tc, #techcrunch, #venture-capital, #video-games, #video-gaming, #virtual-reality

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Bank of America is bringing VR instruction to its 4,000 banks

As consumer VR begins to have a moment following years of heavy investment from Facebook and other tech giants, corporate America is similarly beginning to find more utility in the technology, as well.

Bank of America announced today that they’ll be working with Bay Area-based VR startup Strivr to bring more of their workplace training into virtual reality. The financial institution has already used the startup’s tech in a pilot effort with about 400 employees, but a wide-scale rollout means scaling the VR learning platform to more of the company’s 45,000 employees and bringing thousands of VR headsets to its bank branches.

Bank of America exec John Jordan has plenty of ideas of where it will be able to implement the technology most effectively, but is open to experimenting early-on, noting that they’ve developed VR lessons for everything from notary services to fraud detection. Jordan also says that they’re working on more ambitious tasks like helping employees practice empathy with customers dealing with sensitive matters like the death of a relative.

Jordan says the scope of the company’s corporate learning program “The Academy” is largely unmatched among other major companies in the U.S., except perhaps by the employee instruction programs at Walmart, he notes. Walmart has been Strivr’s largest customer since the startup signed the retail behemoth back in 2017 to bring VR instruction to their 200 “Walmart Academy” instruction centers and all Walmart stores.

Virtual reality is a technology that lends itself to capturing undivided attention, something that is undoubtedly positive for increasing learning retention, which Jordan says was one of the central appeals for adopting the tech. For Bank of America, VR offers a platform change to reexamine some of the pitfalls of conventional corporate learning. At the same time, they acknowledge that the tech isn’t a silver bullet and that are plenty of best practices for VR that are still unknowns.

“We’re just taking it slow to be honest,” Jordan says. “We already feel pretty great about how we’ve made investments, but we view this as a way to get better.”

Enterprise VR startups have seen varying levels of success over the years as they’ve aimed to find paying customers that can tolerate the limitations of the technology while buying in on the broader vision. Strivr has raised over $51 million, including a $30 million Series B last year, as it has aimed to become a leader in the workplace training space. CEO Derek Belch tells TechCrunch that the company has big plans as it looks towards raising more funding and works to build out its software toolsets to help simplify VR content creation for its partners.

 

 

#america, #bank, #bank-of-america, #ceo, #facebook, #leader, #retailers, #strivr, #tc, #united-states, #virtual-reality, #vr, #walmart

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Microsoft debuts its AR/VR meetings platform Mesh

Today, at a special AR/VR focused event held inside its virtual reality community platform Altspace, Microsoft showcased a new product aiming to provide their AR HoloLens platform and VR Windows Mixed Reality platform with a shared platform for meetings.

The app is called Microsoft Mesh and it gives users a cross AR/VR meeting space to interact with other users and 3D content, handling all of technical hard parts of sharing spatial multi-player experiences over the web. Like Microsoft’s other AR/VR apps, the sell seems to be less in the software than it is in enabling developers to tap into one more specialization of Azure, building their own software that builds on the capabilities. The company announced that AltspaceVR will now be Mesh-enabled.

In the company’s presentation, they swung for the fences in showcasing potential use cases, bringing in James Cameron, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil and Pokémon Go developer Niantic.

Microsoft’s HoloLens platform has always been at its most impressive when it comes to viewers in a shared space looking at the same digital content in the same room that’s invisible to everyone else. Inside Mesh, other users are represented as cartoonish avatars, a design break that has plagued countless other AR/VR apps and platforms. Microsoft says the hope is to one day beam a user’s 3D photo-realistic presence into the app but that will assuredly require the commoditization of some complex camera hardware.

The company showcased a concept video of Mesh, which seems to be a few years further ahead in several places than the current software is.

Mesh isn’t offering any capabilities that are terribly unique to the spatial computing world — it’s all pretty standard faire in terms of bells and whistles — the distinguishing factor is the breadth of access, something once the unique distinguishing feature of the AltspaceVR platform back in the day. Mesh can be accessed on the HoloLens 2, many VR headsets, phones, tablets, and PCs, providing a window into the futuristic platform for even desktop users.

The software is available in preview now on HoloLens 2 alongside its AltspaceVR integration.


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#altspacevr, #augmented-reality, #cirque-du-soleil, #co-founder, #computing, #hololens-2, #james-cameron, #microsoft, #microsoft-hololens, #microsoft-windows, #mixed-reality, #pokemon-go, #virtual-reality, #wearable-devices, #windows-10

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What the NFT? VC David Pakman dumbs down the digital collectibles frenzy and why it’s taking off now

Non-fungible tokens have been around for two years, but these NFTs, one-of-one digital items on the Ethereum and other blockchains, are suddenly becoming a more popular way to collect visual art, primarily, whether it’s an animated cat or an NBA clip or virtual furniture.

“Suddenly” is hardly an overstatement. According to the outlet Cointelegraph, during the second half of last year, $9 million worth of NFT goods sold to buyers; during one 24-hour window earlier this week, $60 million worth of digital goods were sold.

What’s going on? A thorough New York Times piece on the trend earlier this week likely fueled new interest, along with a separate piece in Esquire about the artist Beeple, a Wisconsin dad whose digital drawings, which he has created every single day for the last 13 years, began selling like hotcakes in December. If you need evidence of a tipping point (and it is ample right now), consider that the work of Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was just made available through Christie’s. It’s the venerable auction house’s first sale of exclusively digital work.

To better understand the market and why it’s blowing up in real time, we talked this week with David Pakman, a former internet entrepreneur who joined the venture firm Venrock a dozen years ago and began tracking Bitcoin soon after, even mining the cryptocurrency at his Bay Area home beginning in 2015. (“People would come over and see racks of computers, and it was like, ‘It’s sort of hard to explain.’”)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that he also became convinced early on of the promise of NFTs, persuading Venrock to lead the $15 million Series A round for a young startup, Dapper Labs, when its primary offering was CryptoKitties, limited-edition digital cats that can be bought and bred with cryptocurrency.

While the concept baffled some at the time, Pakman has long seen the day when Dapper’s offerings will be far more extensive, and indeed, a recent Dapper deal with the NBA to sell collectible highlight clips has already attracted so much interest in Dapper that it is reportedly right now raising $250 million in new funding at a post-money valuation of $2 billion. While Pakman declined to confirm or correct that figure, but he did answer our other questions in a chat that’s been edited here for length and clarity.

TC: David, dumb things down for us. Why is the world so gung-ho about NFTs right now?

DP: One of the biggest problems with crypto — the reason it scares so many people — is it uses all these really esoteric terms to explain very basic concepts, so let’s just keep it really simple. About 40% of humans collect things — baseball cards, shoes, artwork, wine. And there’s a whole bunch of psychological reasons why. Some people have a need to complete a set. Some people do it for investment reasons. Some people want an heirloom to pass down. But we could only collect things in the real world because digital collectibles were too easy to copy.

Then the blockchain came around and [it allowed us to] make digital collectibles immutable, with a record of who owns what that you can’t really copy. You can screenshot it, but you don’t really own the digital collectible, and you won’t be able to do anything with that screenshot. You won’t be able to to sell it or trade it. The proof is in the blockchain. So I was a believer that crypto-based collectibles could be really big and actually could be the thing that takes crypto mainstream and gets the normals into participating in crypto — and that’s exactly what’s happening now.

TC: You mentioned a lot of reasons that people collect items, but one you didn’t mention is status. Assuming that’s your motivation, how do you show off what you’ve amassed online? 

DP: You’re right that one of the other reasons why we collect is to show it off status, but I would actually argue it’s much easier to show off our collections in the digital world. If I’m a car collector, the only way you’re going to see my cars is to come over to the garage. Only a certain number of people can do that. But online, we can display our digital collections. NBA Top Shop, for example, makes it very easy for you to show off your moments. Everyone has a page and there’s an app that’s coming and you can just show it off to anyone in your app, and you can post it to your social networks. And it’s actually really easy to show off how big or exciting your collection is.

TC: It was back in October that Dapper rolled out these video moments, which you buy almost like a Pokemon set in that you’re buying a pack and know you’ll get something “good” but don’t know what. But while almost half it sales have come in through the last week. Why?

DP: There’s only about maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people playing right now. It’s growing 50% or 100% a day. But the growth has been completely organic. The game is actually still in beta, so we haven’t been doing any marketing other than posting some stuff on Twitter. There hasn’t been attempt to market this and get a lot of players [talking about it] because we’re still working the bugs out, and there are a lot of bugs still to be worked out.

But a couple NBA players have seen this and gotten excited about their own moments [on social media]. And there’s maybe a little bit of machismo going on where, ‘Hey, I want my moment to trade for a higher price.’ But I also think it’s the normals who are playing this. All you need to play is a credit card, and something like 65% of the people playing have never owned or traded in crypto before. So I think the thesis that crypto collectibles could be the thing that brings mainstream users into crypto is playing out before our eyes.

TC: How does Dapper get paid?

DP: We get 5% of secondary sales and 100% minus the cost of the transaction on primary sales. Of course, we have a relationship with the NBA, which collects some of that, too. But that’s the basic economics of how the system works.

TC: Does the NBA have a minimum that it has to be paid every year, and then above and beyond that it receives a cut of the action?

DP: I don’t think the company has gone public with the exact economic terms of their relationships with the NBA and the Players Association. But obviously the NBA is the IP owner, and the teams and the players have economic participation in this, which is good, because they’re the ones that are creating the intellectual property here.

But a lot of the appreciation of these moments — if you get one in a pack and you sell it for a higher price — 95% of that appreciation goes to the owner. So it’s very similar to baseball cards, but now IP owners can participate through the life of the product in the downstream economic activity of their intellectual property, which I think is super appealing whether you’re the NBA or someone like Disney, who’s been in the IP licensing business for decades.

And it’s not just major IP where this NFT space is happening. It’s individual creators, musicians, digital artists who could create a piece of digital art, make only five copies of it, and auction it off. They too can collect a little bit each time their works sell in the future.

TC: Regarding NBA Top Shot specifically, prices range massively in terms of what people are paying for the same limited-edition clip. Why?

DP: There are two reasons. One is that like scarce items, lower numbers are worth more than higher numbers, so if there’s a very particular LeBron moment, and they made 500 [copies] of them, and I own number one, and you own number 399, the marketplace is ascribing a higher value to the lower numbers, which is very typical of limited-edition collector pieces. It’s sort of a funny concept. But it is a very human concept.

The other thing is that over time there has been more and more demand to get into this game, so people are willing to pay higher and higher prices. That’s why there’s been a lot of price appreciation for these moments over time.

TC: You mentioned that some of the esoteric language around crypto scares people, but so does the fact that 20% of the world’s bitcoin is permanently inaccessible to its owners, including because of forgotten passwords. Is that a risk with these digital items, which you are essentially storing in a digital locker or wallet?

DP: It’s a complex topic,  but I will say that Dapper has tried to build this in a way where that won’t happen, where there’s effectively some type of password recovery process for people who are storing their moments in Dapper’s wallet.

You will be able to take your moments away from Dapper’s account and put it into other accounts, where you may be on your own in terms of password recovery.

TC: Why is it a complex topic?

DP: There are people who believe that even though centralized account storage is convenient for users, it’s somehow can be distrustful — that the company could de-platform you or turn your account off. And in the crypto world, there’s almost a religious ferocity about making sure that no one can de-platform you, that the things that you buy — your cryptocurrencies or your NFTs. Long term, Dapper supports that. You’ll be able to take your moments anywhere you want. But today, our customers don’t have to worry about that I-lost-my-password-and-I’ll-never-get-my-moments-again problem.

#andreessen-horowitz, #crypto, #cryptocurrency, #cryptokitties, #dapper-labs, #david-pakman, #gv, #samsung-next, #secondaries, #startups, #tc, #venrock, #venture-capital, #virtual-reality

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Sony announces new PSVR hardware for PlayStation 5

You probably want to put the PlayStation VR headset on your head, not on top of a new PlayStation 5, for an ideal use case. But, hey, you do you.

Enlarge / You probably want to put the PlayStation VR headset on your head, not on top of a new PlayStation 5, for an ideal use case. But, hey, you do you. (credit: Sam Machkovech)

A new generation of PlayStation VR hardware, including a new controller designed specifically for VR, will be coming to the PlayStation 5 sometime after this year, Sony announced today.

The short announcement is light on details and doesn’t include any photos or prototypes of the new headset or controller. But it does mention that the next PlayStation VR will include a higher resolution and field of view than the 2016 original, which is stuck at a somewhat dated 1920×1080 resolution.

For context, last year’s $299 Oculus Quest 2 came in at a total resolution of 3664×1600, and that’s for an untethered standalone headset with much less horsepower than the PS5. Valve’s high-end Index headset, meanwhile, sports a 135 degree field of view, much wider than the ~100 degrees on PSVR (cheaper modern headsets generally have closer to 90 to 100 degree view fields, though).

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#gaming-culture, #playstation, #playstation-vr, #ps5, #psvr, #sony, #virtual-reality

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YouTube to expand Shorts to the U.S., add 4K and DVR to YouTube TV, launch in-video shopping and more in 2021

YouTube has a host of big product updates coming this year, and it just detailed a lot of them in a blog post from Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan. Google’s streaming video site plans to expand its TikTok-esque Shorts mobile video creation and consumption tool to the U.S. (it’s currently in beta in India), make YouTube TV a more full-featured in-home cable alternative, add customization and control options to YouTube Kids and more.

Many of the product updates detailed by Mohan are expansions of existing tests and beta features, but there are also entirely new developments that could significantly change how YouTube works for both creators and audiences. YouTube’s focus on monetization and new formats also indicates a desire to keep creators happy, which makes a lot of sense in the context of the platform’s popular new mobile-first competitor TikTok.

Here’s a TL;DR of everything YouTube announced today for its 2021 roadmap:

  • Expansion of its in-video e-commerce shopping experience beyond the current limited beta
  • Expansion of Applause tipping feature
  • YouTube Shorts launching in the U.S.
  • Adding the ability for parents to specify individual channels and videos for their kids to be able to watch on YouTube Kids
  • New features for user playlists on YouTube Music, and making those playlists more discoverable to others
  • A new paid add-on coming to YouTube TV that offers 4K streaming, DVR for off-line playback, and unlimited simultaneous in-home streams
  • Automatic video chaptering for some videos that don’t have creator-defined ones
  • A redesigned YouTube VR experience focused on accessibility, search and better navigation

YouTube has a big year planned, and some of these changes could significantly alter the dynamics of the platform. Making it possible for every creator to turn their channel in a mini shopping channel has a lot of potential to alter what it looks like to build a business on the platform, while YouTube TV’s transformation narrows the gap even further between that service and traditional cable and satellite provider offerings.

#ecommerce, #google, #india, #neal-mohan, #social-media, #software, #streaming-video, #tc, #tiktok, #united-states, #video, #video-hosting, #virtual-reality, #world-wide-web, #youtube, #youtube-music

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Labster gets millions from a16z to bring virtual science lab software to the world

Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital firm with $16.5 billion in assets under management, has poured millions into an edtech startup that sells virtual STEM lab simulations to institutions.

Copenhagen-based Labster, which sells virtual science laboratory simulations to schools, announced today that it has raised $60 million in a Series C round led by the prominent Silicon Valley firm, including participation from existing investors GGV Capital, Owl Ventures and Balderton Capital. Labster has now raised $100 million in total known venture capital to date.

Like many edtech companies, Labster has found itself centered and validated as the pandemic underscores the need for remote work. In April, Labster signed a contract to bring its services to the entire California Community College network, which includes more than 2.1 million students. Months later, the startup brought on $9 million in equity funding to bring GGV’s Jenny Lee onto the board and expand its Asia operations.

“A16z is very excited about investing in technology companies that have a big impact and potential to become massive global successes’,” CEO and co-founder Michael Bodekaer Jensen said. “The fact that Labster is a platform innovating learning at scale is really what attracted them.”

The new capital will help Labster increase its staff, grow into new regions that include Latin America and Africa, as well as invest in new product development to better support teachers.

Jensen says that today’s raise, which is singularly larger than any capital Labster has raised prior, “dramatically increased” the valuation of the company. Jensen did confirm that Labster has not yet hit the $1 billion mark in terms of valuation, nor did he comment on whether the startup had hit profitability or not.

What Jensen did share, though, is that he thinks Labster’s new capital brings the startup one step closer to two big goals: serve 100 million students in the next few years, and become a platform to “enable anyone in the world to customize and build their own simulations on their platform.”

“We’re not a content company,” the co-founder said. “We’re a platform for immersive learning.”

Currently, Labster sells its e-learning solution to support and enhance in-person courses. Based on the subscription an institution chooses, participants can get differing degrees of access to a virtual laboratory. Imagine a range of experiments, from understanding bacterial growth and isolation to exploring the biodiversity of an exoplanet. Along with each simulation, Labster offers 3D animations for certain concepts, re-plays of simulations, quiz questions and a virtual learning assistant.

Image Credits: Labster

Jensen is hinting that the startup might finally be able to move past pre-determined learning tracks and into the world of customizable immersive learning. Other startups, including Inspirit, are also aiming to bring the creativity associated with games such as Minecraft or Roblox to the day-to-day schoolwork of students around the world.

With platform ambition, Labster is pausing its virtual reality efforts, which requires acquiring headsets at scale.

“VR is good for learning, but we need to make sure that we understand and provide services and solutions that work with the hardware that institutions already have and are available,” he said, adding that many institutions have been unable to afford headsets for all students. The fact that Labster is stepping away from virtual reality and framing itself as an immersive learning environment is more than a branding decision, but suggests that the future of scalable edtech might look less like goggles and more like a customizable web page.

“In the early days there was definitely a little naïve entrepreneurial mindset to build it and suddenly all teachers will come,” Jensen said. “[VR] was in no way as revolutionary as we hopped and thought of.”

New investments for the startup include Labster Portal, which is a dashboard for teachers to understand how individual students are using the immersive simulations and what lessons make sense to embed together. The company is also focused on landing partnerships with institutions, on either a country or state-wide level or district-level. Jensen says that the bigger the contract, the bigger the discount because it saves them money on onboarding costs. Labster recently signed a deal to bring its technology to the entire country of Denmark.

Labster currently has more than 2,000 colleges, universities and high schools on its platform.

“Post-COVID, the growth will slow,” Jensen said. “When we have conversations with institutions we are increasingly talking about post-COVID and continuing how we can further use Labster in new and innovative ways.”

#andreessen-horowitz, #edtech, #education, #ggv, #jenny-lee, #labster, #michael-bodekaer-jensen, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #virtual-reality, #vr

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Nanome raises $3 million to help scientists get up close with molecular structures in VR

Discovery and research of new molecular compounds is an expensive business, with development costs exceeding $10 billion per substance in some cases. Part of that comes from the need to closely examine every relevant molecule, studying its chemical composition and interactions as well as its physical structure at the atomic level. Despite advances in software to help model these compounds and molecules, there are still challenges in fully understanding their shapes through a two-dimensional computer screen.

San Diego-based startup Nanome uses virtual reality to solve that problem. The idea for Nanome came out of CEO and Founder Steve McCloskey’s time in the nanoengineering program at UC San Diego, where he saw a need for a better understanding of three-dimensional molecular structures.

“Understanding structure empowers our users to understand how their designs function,” he wrote in an email. “Yet, the R&D process for drug discovery relies on 2D monitors, keyboard, and mouse, which limits the understanding of complex 3D structures or interactions and contributes to massive R&D costs averaging $2.5B per drug.”

Nanome recently closed a funding round led by Bullpen Capital for $3 million to establish new business partnerships, build up the company’s brand, and expand their science and engineering team. “Nanome is reimagining the way we interact with science at a time when innovation in collaboration is more important than ever before,” said Bullpen Capital General Partner Ann Lai in a press release. Formic Ventures, led by Oculus co-founder Michael Antonov, also took part in the round.

McCloskey thinks that Nanome’s platform has become even more relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic, as researchers might be forced to work remotely on occasion, limiting their access to in-lab technology and software.

“Nanome helps scientists get on the same page quicker,” he wrote in an email. “Traditionally scientists working with molecules use screenshots or screen sharing, and rely on the mouse cursor and Zoom to communicate their insights and ask for feedback from other team members.” Nanome streamlines this process by bringing researchers to the same virtual reality space to work on molecule development together.

So far, Nanome has worked largely on projects with companies in the food and beverage industry, as well as another to develop more sustainable batteries. But they have plans to use this new funding to expand into pharmaceutical chemistry, synthetic biology, and even education. Their next product update will feature what McCloskey calls ‘Spatial Recording,’ that will allow users to record their work for later review – basically a screen recording but with a VR experience. “This is not only an amazing feature for asynchronous collaboration among researchers, it is also useful for producing lectures and lessons,” he wrote in an email.

#ann-lai, #biotech, #bullpen-capital, #chemistry, #drug-discovery, #funding, #health, #oculus, #pharmaceutics, #recent-funding, #san-diego, #science, #startup, #startups, #virtual-reality

0

New report on Apple’s VR headset: 8K in each eye, potential $3,000 price tag

The "Sword of Damocles" head-mounted display, the original augmented reality headset, circa 1968. Augmented reality has gotten a lot more mobile in the past decade.

Enlarge / The “Sword of Damocles” head-mounted display, the original augmented reality headset, circa 1968. Augmented reality has gotten a lot more mobile in the past decade. (credit: Ivan Sutherland)

A new report from The Information corroborates and expands upon an earlier Bloomberg report claiming that Apple is preparing to launch a high-end virtual reality headset as early as next year, citing unnamed people with knowledge of the product.

Among the new revelations is that the new headset will allegedly feature two 8K screens (one for each eye) and that Apple has considered a steep $3,000 price point.

The headset (which the report says is codenamed N301) will be able to display rich 3D graphics at that resolution, the report says, thanks to an ultrafast M1 chip successor and because Apple will liberally use an already-known VR technique that involves using eye-tracking to render objects in the user’s periphery at a lower fidelity than what the user is focusing on.

Read 20 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#8k, #apple, #ar, #augmented-reality, #mixed-reality, #tech, #the-information, #virtual-reality, #vr, #xr

0

Facebook Messenger lands on Oculus Quest

Facebook spent more time than usual talking about their success with VR in their quarterly earnings call, taking time to note developer success and their own wins peddling their latest Quest 2 VR headset.

One of the VR platform’s remaining quirks is a general lack of third-party support for apps that go beyond gaming. The headset is a powerful piece of hardware with few VR ports of mobile apps available, even available streaming apps from Hulu and Netflix have seen scant updates due to the relatively small number of headsets out there.

Facebook, a major app maker itself, has seemed to be playing a fairly delicate balancing act in bringing some of the mothership’s utility to the headset without alienating consumers who might be less interested in a clearly Facebook-branded piece of hardware. After mandating Facebook-login last fall it seems like most bets should be off there. Today, the company announced that Quest and Quest 2 users will now gain access to Messenger chats inside the app, enabling users to fire off a quick canned message to friends, use the in-VR keyboard to pound out a quick message, or use the headset’s voice-to-text feature.

For those upset about Facebook’s increasingly heavy-handed software presence on their VR platform, this will likely be another reason to avoid the Quest 2, but for those eager to make their VR gameplay a more social experience or avoid the total isolation that comes from strapping a headset on and ignoring your phone, it will be much more welcome.

Alongside, the Messenger update, Facebook also shared that with the new update, they will be rolling out what they call App Lab, essentially a TestFlight-like feature to allow Quest users to download content outside of the curated Oculus Store. It’s a feature meant to address develop complaints that Facebook has boxed fledgling game designers out from bringing content to the Quest. Users can search for the title by name in App Lab or click a link to be directed to the title. The new feature competed directly with SideQuest, a startup that has been building a hub for more experimental Quest content.

Facebook says that the new update is rolling out “gradually” to users so not all users may see the update immediately.

#app-maker, #computing, #facebook, #google-daydream, #messenger, #mixed-reality, #netflix, #oculus, #samsung-gear-vr, #sidequest, #social-media, #software, #technology, #virtual-reality, #vr, #wearable-devices

0

Inspirit launches to bring Minecraft creativity to biology class

Aditya Vishwanath, the founder of Inspirit, wants to bring the creativity associated with Minecraft to the day-to-day schoolwork of students around the world.

“These students are coming from TikTok and playing Roblox games [that are] highly interactive and highly engaging,” he said. “Then, they’re coming to the classroom and watching a 20-minute lecture from a person.” As a solution to this staleness, he and his co-founder, Amrutha Vasan, built a solution.

The virtual science platform lets students and teachers create and experience STEM simulations, from DNA replication to projectile motion experiments. Similar to how Minecraft empowers users to create their own worlds, Inspirit wants to empower users to low-code their way into personalized science experiments and learning worlds. The core technology is a 3D platform built atop Unity, a game engine used for editing games and creating interactive content.

The startup is starting with complete control over creation to understand how users naturally gravitate toward certain materials. Teachers can currently build lessons on top of pre-made tracks, such as an exploration of the moon or a eukaryotic cell, and add in annotations, quiz questions and voice-overs.

The company is starting off with this microlesson approach, but Vishwanath sees the real potential in building a Minecraft for educational purposes. The underlying belief powering Inspirit is that students across different stages in their lives want a self-directed, engaging way to learn to supplement in-school learning.

While the tool is not yet technically using virtual reality technology, the first priority is going hardware-agnostic to find product-market fit and get the biggest base of users. It is experimenting with integrations to Oculus Quest, but hasn’t yet made the option accessible on widespread basis.

After launching a waitlist in September, Inspirit had 50,000 users within the K-12 world sign up for access to the private beta.

A gamified, VR-based approach to learning has long been used in edtech to increase engagement and excitement around learning. The startup, which has not yet launched publicly, has a fair share of competitors. Labster, a well-funded Copenhagen startup, was founded in 2011 to provide lab simulations to replace science class. The startup recently expanded its lab software to Asia, after usage on the platform surged. Vishwanath thinks that Inspirit differentiates from Labster because it urges kids to become creators, instead of users.

Another recent example of edtech merging with virtual reality is Transfr, which raised $12 million to upskill workforces. Transfr is selling to an entirely different market than Inspirit by targeting trade workers, but it similarly has invested in creating a library of modules to help scale its curriculum faster.

The biggest test for Inspirit will be if it can truly recreate the spontaneity and magic of Minecraft. Will students feel inspired to create on the platform? More importantly, will they come back over and over again? The dynamic here to think about is that Inspirit is a supplement to school, which currently relies heavily on curriculum-based learning to teach. If a student wants to use Inspirit for comprehension, the possibilities aren’t exactly endless, but instead are bookended by a mandatory set of rules.

It’s the dividing line between what makes a game and what makes an interactive simulation.

“I have a strong feeling and reason to believe even the early science of engagement; the drivers of Inspirit are not going to be teachers,” Vishwanath said. One 12-year-old student used Inspirit to build a Quantum funnel using pre-made modules, he explained.

Amrutha Vasan and Aditya Vishwanath, Inspirit co-founders. Image Credits: Inspirit

Beyond that, the startup will need to prove outcomes and efficiency before it can ethically sell to end users. It’s clear that virtual reality has a huge potential to help people comprehend complex topics, but bite-sized bits of the technology used once in a while might not.

Long term, Vishwanath thinks that edtech will shift to focus on creation, instead of simply consumption. He’s already convinced a number of investors on that vision. The startup announced today that it has raised seed financing to pursue its lofty goal. The $3.6 million round was led by Sierra Ventures. Other investors include Unshackled Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, January Ventures, Edovate Capital, Redhouse Education and Roble Ventures.

The money will be used to figure out a business model and monetization plans, as well as hire a team. The blending of edtech and gaming, Vishwanath thinks, will be able to save them from becoming “another graveyard education company out there that has hypergrowth and doesn’t know how to make money.”

#early-stage, #edtech, #january-ventures, #sierra-ventures, #tc, #unshackled-ventures, #virtual-reality

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Google open sources Tilt Brush VR software as it shuts down internal development

As Facebook and Apple begin to fire up more projects in the AR/VR world, Google has spent the last year shutting down most of their existing projects in that space.

Today, the folks at Google announced they had ended active development of Tilt Brush, a VR painting app that was one of virtual reality’s early hit pieces of software. The app allowed users to use virtual reality controllers as brushes to construct digital sculptures and environments.

While the company will not be pushing any new updates to the app, they did announce that they will be open sourcing the code on github for developers to build their own experiences and customizations. Google also notes that the app will continue to be available in the app stores on VR headsets.

“[W]e want to continue supporting the artists using Tilt Brush by putting it in your hands,”a blog post from Google reads. “This means open sourcing Tilt Brush, allowing everyone to learn how we built the project, and encouraging them to take it in directions that are near and dear to them.”

Google acquired the small studio behind Tilt Brush called Skillman & Hackett back in 2015.

Earlier this month, Tilt Brush co-creator Patrick Hackett announced he was leaving Google and would be joining the studio I-Illusions, the game studio behind VR title Space Pirate Trainer. According to LinkedIn, co-founder Drew Skillman stopped working on the VR project back in 2018 and now is part of the Stadia team at Google.

Last month, Google shut down Poly, its 3D object library which allowed users to share digital art including design made in the Tilt Brush software.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment further.

#augmented-reality, #co-founder, #digital-media, #google, #spokesperson, #technology, #tilt-brush, #virtual-reality

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Augmented reality and the next century of the web

Howdy friends, this is the web version of my Week in Review newsletter, it’s here to entice you to sign up and get it in your inbox every week.

Last week, I showcased how Twitter was looking at the future of the web with a decentralized approach so that they wouldn’t be stuck unilaterally de-platforming the next world leader. This week, I scribbled some thoughts on another aspect of the future web, the ongoing battle between Facebook and Apple to own augmented reality. Releasing the hardware will only be the start of a very messy transition from smartphone-first to glasses-first mobile computing.

Again, if you so desire you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


The Big Thing

If the last few years of new “reality” tech has telegraphed anything, it’s that tech companies won’t be able to skip past augmented reality’s awkward phase, they’re going to have to barrel through it and it’s probably going to take a long-ass time.

The clearest reality is that in 2021 everyday users still don’t seem quite as interested in AR as the next generation of platform owners stand to benefit from a massive transition. There’s some element of skating to where the puck is going among the soothsayers that believe AR is the inevitable platform heir etc. etc., but the battle to reinvent mobile is at its core a battle to kill the smartphone before its time has come.

A war to remake mobile in the winner’s image

It’s fitting that the primary backers of this AR future are Apple and Facebook, ambitious companies that are deeply in touch with the opportunities they could’ve capitalized on if they could do it all over again.

While Apple and Facebook both have thousands of employees toiling quietly in the background building out their AR tech moats, we’ve seen and heard much more on Facebook’s efforts. The company has already served up several iterations of their VR hardware through Oculus and has discussed publicly over the years how they view virtual reality and augmented reality hardware converging. 

Facebook’s hardware and software experiments have been experimentations in plain sight, an advantage afforded to a company that didn’t sell any hardware before they started selling VR headsets. Meanwhile Apple has offered up a developer platform and a few well-timed keynote slots for developers harnessing their tools, but the most ambitious first-party AR project they’ve launched publicly on iOS has been a measuring tape app. Everything else has taken place behind closed doors.

That secrecy tends to make any reporting on Apple’s plans particularly juicy. This week, a story from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman highlights some of Apple’s next steps towards a long-rumored AR glasses product, reporting that Apple plans to release a high-end niche VR device with some AR capabilities as early as next year. It’s not the most surprising but showcases how desperate today’s mobile kingpins are to ease the introduction of a technology that has the potential to turn existing tech stacks and the broader web on their heads.

Both Facebook and Apple have a handful of problems getting AR products out into the world, and they’re not exactly low-key issues:

  1. hardware isn’t ready
  2. platforms aren’t ready
  3. developers aren’t ready
  4. users don’t want it yet

This is a daunting wall, but isn’t uncommon among hardware moonshots. Facebook has already worked its way through this cycle once with virtual reality over several generations of hardware, though there were some key difference and few would call VR a mainstream success quite yet.

Nevertheless, there’s a distinct advantage to tackling VR before AR for both Facebook and Apple, they can invest in hardware that’s adjacent to the technologies their AR products will need to capitalize on, they can entice developers to build for a platform that’s more similar to what’s coming and they can set base line expectations for consumers for a more immersive platform. At least this would all be the case for Apple with a mass market VR device closer to Facebook’s $300 Quest 2, but a pricey niche device as Gurman’s report details doesn’t seem to fit that bill quite so cleanly.

The AR/VR content problem 

The scenario I’d imagine both Facebook and Apple are losing sleep over is that they release serviceable AR hardware into a world where they are wholly responsible for coming up with all the primary use cases.

The AR/VR world already has a hefty backlog of burnt developers who might be long-term bullish on the tech but are also tired of getting whipped around by companies that seem to view the development of content ecosystems simply as a means to ship their next device. If Apple is truly expecting the sales numbers of this device that Bloomberg suggests — similar to Valve’s early Index headset sales — then color me doubtful that there will be much developer interest at all in building for a stopgap device, I’d expect ports of Quest 2 content and a few shining stars from Apple-funded partners.

I don’t think this will me much of a shortcut for them.

True AR hardware is likely going to have different standards of input, different standards of interaction and a much different approach to use cases compared to a device built for the home or smartphone. Apple has already taken every available chance to entice mobile developers to embrace phone-based AR on iPhones through ARKit, a push they have seemed to back off from at recent developer-centric events. As someone who has kept a close eye on early projects, I’d say that most players in the space have been very underwhelmed by what existing platforms enable and what has been produced widely.

That’s really not great for Apple or Facebook and suggests that both of these companies are going to have to guide users and developers through use cases they design. I think there’s a convincing argument that early AR glasses applications will be dominated by first-party tech and may eschew full third-party native apps in favor of tightly controlled data integrations more similar to how Apple has approached developer integrations inside Siri.

But giving developers a platform built with Apple or Facebook’s own dominance in mind is going to be tough to sell, underscoring the fact that mobile and mobile AR are going to be platforms that will have to live alongside each other for quite a bit. There will be rich opportunities for developers to create experiences that play with 3D and space, but there are also plenty of reasons to expect they’ll be more resistant to move off of a mutually enriching mobile platform onto one where Facebook or Apple will have the pioneer’s pick of platform advantages. What’s in it for them?

Mobile’s OS-level winners captured plenty of value from top-of-funnel apps marketplaces, but the down-stream opportunities found mobile’s true prize, a vastly expanded market for digital ads. With the opportunity of a mobile do-over, expect to find pioneering tech giants pitching proprietary digital ad infrastructure for their devices. Advertising will likely be augmented reality’s greatest opportunity allowing the digital ads market to create an infinite global canvas for geo-targeted customized ad content. A boring future, yes, but a predictable one.

For Facebook, being a platform owner in the 2020s means getting to set their own limitations on use cases, not being confined by App Store regulations and designing hardware with social integrations closer to the silicon. For Apple, reinventing the mobile OS in the 2020s likely means an opportunity to more meaningfully dominate mobile advertising.

It’s a do-over to the tune of trillions in potential revenues.

What comes next

The AR/VR industry has been stuck in a cycle of seeking out saviors. Facebook has been the dearest friend to proponents after startup after startup has failed to find a speedy win. Apple’s long-awaited AR glasses are probably where most die-hards are currently placing their faith.

I don’t think there are any misgivings from Apple or Facebook in terms of what a wild opportunity this to win, it’s why they each have more people working on this than any other future-minded project. AR will probably be massive and change the web in a fundamental way, a true Web 3.0 that’s the biggest shift of the internet to date.

That’s doesn’t sound like something that will happen particularly smoothly.

I’m sure that these early devices will arrive later than we expect, do less than we expect and that things will be more and less different from the smartphone era’s mobile paradigms in ways we don’t anticipate. I’m also sure that it’s going to be tough for these companies to strong-arm themselves into a more seamless transition. This is going to be a very messy for tech platforms and is a transition that won’t happen overnight, not by a long shot.


Other things

The Loon is dead
One of tech’s stranger moonshots is dead, as Google announced this week that Loon, it’s internet balloon project is being shut down. It was an ambitious attempt to bring high-speed internet to remote corners of the world, but the team says it wasn’t sustainable to provide a high-cost service at a low price. More

Facebook Oversight Board tasked with Trump removal
I talked a couple weeks ago — what feels like a lifetime ago — about how Facebook’s temporary ban of Trump was going to be a nightmare for the company. I wasn’t sure how they’d stall for more time of a banned Trump before he made Facebook and Instagram his central platform, but they made a brilliant move, purposefully tying the case up in PR-favorable bureaucracy, tossing the case to their independent Oversight Board for their biggest case to date. More

Jack is Back
Alibaba’s head honcho is back in action. Alibaba shares jumped this week when the Chinese e-commerce giant’s billionaire CEO Jack Ma reappeared in public after more than three months after his last public appearance, something that stoked plenty of conspiracies. Where he was during all this time isn’t clear, but I sort of doubt we’ll be finding out. More

Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski
Trump is no longer President, but in one of his final acts, he surprisingly opted to grant a full pardon to one Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer convicted of stealing trade secrets regarding their self-driving car program. It was a surprising end to one of the more dramatic big tech lawsuits in recent years. More

Xbox raises Live prices
I’m not sure how this stacks in importance relative to what else is listed here, but I’m personally pissed that Microsoft is hiking the price of their streaming subscription Xbox Live Gold. It’s no secret that the gaming industry is embracing a subscription economy, it will be interesting to see what the divide looks like in terms of gamer dollars going towards platform owners versus studios. More

Musk offers up $100M donation to carbon capture tech
Elon Musk, who is currently the world’s richest person, tweeted out this week that he will be donating $100 million towards a contest to build the best technology for carbon capture. TechCrunch learned that this is connected to the Xprize organization. More details


Extra Things

I’m adding a section going forward to highlight some of our Extra Crunch coverage from the week, which dives a bit deeper into the money and minds of the moneymakers.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech
“After setting a $35 to $39 per-share IPO price range, Poshmark sold shares in its IPO at $42 apiece. Then it opened at $97.50. Such was the exuberance of the stock market regarding the used goods marketplace’s debut.
But today it’s worth a more modest $76.30 — for this piece we’re using all Yahoo Finance data, and all current prices are those from yesterday’s close ahead of the start of today’s trading — which sparked a question: How many recent tech IPOs are also down from their opening price?” More

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020
“Wrapping our look at how the venture capital asset class invested in 2020, today we’re taking a peek at Europe’s impressive year, and Asia’s slightly less invigorating set of results. (We’re speaking soon with folks who may have data on African VC activity in 2020; if those bear out, we’ll do a final entry in our series concerning the continent.)” More

Hello, Extra Crunch Community!
“We’re going to be trying out some new things around here with the Extra Crunch staff front and center, as well as turning your feedback into action more than ever. We quite literally work for you, the subscriber, and want to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth, as it were.” More


Until next week,
Lucas Matney

#alibaba, #anthony-levandowski, #app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #ar, #arkansas, #asia, #augmented-reality, #ceo, #computing, #engineer, #europe, #facebook, #google, #head, #high-speed-internet, #instagram, #itunes, #jack-ma, #lucas-matney, #microsoft, #mobile-computing, #mobile-developers, #oculus, #oversight-board, #poshmark, #president, #siri, #smartphone, #smartphones, #software, #tc, #technology, #trump, #twitter, #virtual-reality, #vr, #xprize, #yahoo

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Daily Crunch: Apple might be working on a VR headset

A new report suggests there’s a pricey Apple VR headset in the works, Facebook’s Oversight Board will examine one of the social network’s most consequential decisions and we review the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra. This is your Daily Crunch for January 21, 2021.

The big story: Apple might be working on a VR headset

Apple is developing a standalone virtual reality headset that could debut in 2022, according to Bloomberg.

The headset is supposed to include a processor more powerful than the M1 chip currently included in the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro. And it would cost more than most competing products (so possibly in the $1,000 range or more).

It sounds, in other words, like this is meant to be a specialist product, perhaps paving the way for a more mass-market device later.

The tech giants

Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump — Facebook VP Nick Clegg called the circumstances around Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action.”

Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra review: Camera refinements are nice, but the price drop’s the thing — The updates are mostly iterative for an already solid handset, but we won’t say “no” to a $200 price drop.

YouTube launches hashtag landing pages to all users — The company has been quietly working on a new feature that allows users to discover content using hashtags.

Startups, funding and venture capital

TripActions raises $155M at $5B valuation as corporate travel recovers from pandemic lows — The company became something of a poster-child for the impact of COVID-19 on certain startup categories.

Omnipresent raises $15.8M Series A for its platform to employ remote-workers globally — Omnipresent says it ensures the process of remote-hiring costs a fraction of what it normally would.

Soci raises $80M for its localized marketing platform — National and global companies like Ace Hardware, Anytime Fitness, The Hertz Corporation and Nekter Juice Bar use Soci to coordinate marketing across individual stores.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Eight VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021 — In 2020, more of us saw our doctor on video than ever before.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech — Lemonade is a great example.

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team — In this week’s Decrypted, we look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds breach and who the incoming president wants to lead the path to recovery.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

The biggest step the Biden administration took on climate yesterday wasn’t rejoining the Paris Agreement — Instead, it was a move to get to the basics of monitoring and accounting, of metrics and dashboards.

How Bitcoin is helping middle-class users survive the pandemic — People like Saeed, an Iranian immigrant to France, see cryptocurrency as a necessity.

MIT aims to speed up robot movements to match robot thoughts using custom chips — The method results in custom computer chips that can offer hardware acceleration as a means to faster response times.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#apple, #daily-crunch, #hardware, #virtual-reality

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Report: Apple’s VR headset will be a pricey, high-end niche standalone

HTC/Valve Vive VR headset, on a hairy tech journalist

Any excuse to show former Ars UK reporter Seb Anthony excited about a VR headset is a good one. (credit: Sebastian Anthony)

The last time we heard any details about Apple’s long-rumored plans in the Virtual/Augmented Reality space, the company was implementing a two-year internal delay from a previously planned 2020 launch. Today, Bloomberg cites “people with knowledge of the matter” in reporting some new supposed details for the standalone Apple VR headset, which Bloomberg suggests could launch in 2022 as a precursor to a more mass-market AR headset.

From a tech design perspective, the most notable detail in the report is that Apple’s latest VR prototypes have “removed the space VR gadgets usually reserve for users who need to wear eyeglasses.” That could help avoid some of the “ski goggle” bulk usually associated with the “eyebox” on most current headsets. For users with poor eyesight, the prototype apparently utilizes “custom prescription lenses” in the headset itself, according to Bloomberg’s unnamed sources.

Bloomberg also reports that the Apple headset prototype currently sports a fabric exterior to reduce weight (shades of Google’s defunct Daydream VR there) and a fan to help cool internal processors that reportedly “beat the performance of Apple’s M1 Mac processors.” Some prototypes also reportedly include built-in hand-tracking and the ability to type on a virtual keyboard through a custom-built OS.

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#apple, #gaming-culture, #oculus, #virtual-reality, #vr

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Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

#app-store, #apple, #apple-inc, #arkansas, #augmented-reality, #ceo, #display-technology, #facebook, #hardware, #iphone, #oculus, #playstation-vr, #science-and-technology, #tc, #technology, #tim-cook, #virtual-reality, #vr, #wearable-devices

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Startups at CES showed how tech can help elderly people and their caregivers

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a harsh spotlight on the challenges many elderly people face. Older adults are among the highest-risk groups for developing cases that need hospitalization and nursing homes were especially vulnerable to outbreaks. While dealing with COVID-19, the elderly have also faced many other problems, including the difficulty of accessing medical care for chronic conditions during lockdowns and isolation.

Many of these issues won’t go away after the pandemic. According to the United Nations, the global population of people 65 and over is growing faster than any other age group. At the same time, there is a critical shortage of caregivers, especially for elderly people who want to continue living at home instead of moving into nursing homes.

Tech can help in many ways: by helping caregivers (and reducing burnout), allowing seniors to perform health monitoring at home and creating tools to combat isolation. During CES, there were several “age-tech” presentations. One of the most notable was AARP Innovation Lab, the non-profit’s startup accelerator program. It presented nine companies at the virtual show.

Zibrio's smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

Zibrio’s smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

One common theme among AARP’s group was tech that helps elderly people “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities instead of moving into a nursing home. For example, Wheel Pad designs accessible home and work spaces that can be installed into existing structures and sites. Mighty Health is an app that pairs users with health coaches, certified trainers and personalized nutrition plans, while Zibrio, a scale that assesses users’ balance to predict if they are at risk for a fall, can also be incorporated into at-home routines.

Other startups from AARP Innovation Lab focus on helping caregivers, too. For example, FallCall Solutions’ creates Apple Watch apps that send alerts if a fall is detected and help family members check on users. Another app, called Ianacare, helps family members coordinate caregiving tasks and ask for support. End-of-life planning is one of the most emotionally difficult processes for families, and Cake, an “end-of-life platform” helps by providing tools for estate and health care planning, as well as resources to help relatives cope with caregiving issues and grief.

Other startups center on medical care. For people with chronic conditions, Folia Health helps monitor the progress of treatments. On the clinical side, Embleema’s software allows clinical investigators to share data and design studies, making pharmaceutical research more efficient.

Other noteworthy age-tech startups at CES included Nobi, a smart lamp that automatically turns on when users stand up and sends alerts to family members if they fall. Nobi can also be used in residences and nursing homes.

Caregiver Smart Solution's app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solution’s app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solutions is a multi-faceted platform that makes it easier for seniors to stay at home with a machine learning-based app for early detection of potential health issues, fall sensors, monitors and emergency buttons. For people with incontinence, DFree, a wearable device, can reduce stress by monitoring how full their bladder is with an ultrasound sensor and keeping track of their average time between bathroom visits. It’s available for both consumers and health care facilities.

A diagram of companion robot Cutii's features

A diagram of companion robot Cutii’s features

For elderly people living in nursing homes, Rendever is a virtual reality platform that wants to help reduce isolation. It can be used with reminiscence therapy, which guides individuals with dementia through experiences that remind them of their pasts, and to allow virtual travel to landmarks. Cutii, a companion robot, also seeks to reduce loneliness. While companion robots have been a mainstay of CES for years, Cutii sets itself apart with entertainment like music, games and live events. It also has video call and night patrol features.

#age-tech, #aging, #ces, #ces-2021, #health, #seniors, #startups, #tc, #virtual-reality

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How artificial intelligence will be used in 2021

Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang doesn’t need a crystal ball to see where artificial intelligence will be used in the future. He just looks at his customer list.

The four-year-old startup, which recently hit a valuation of more than $3.5 billion, got its start supplying autonomous vehicle companies with the labeled data needed to train machine learning models to develop and eventually commercialize robotaxis, self-driving trucks and automated bots used in warehouses and on-demand delivery.

The wider adoption of AI across industries has been a bit of a slow burn over the past several years as company founders and executives begin to understand what the technology could do for their businesses.

In 2020, that changed as e-commerce, enterprise automation, government, insurance, real estate and robotics companies turned to Scale’s visual data labeling platform to develop and apply artificial intelligence to their respective businesses. Now, the company is preparing for the customer list to grow and become more varied.

How 2020 shaped up for AI

Scale AI’s customer list has included an array of autonomous vehicle companies including Alphabet, Voyage, nuTonomy, Embark, Nuro and Zoox. While it began to diversify with additions like Airbnb, DoorDash and Pinterest, there were still sectors that had yet to jump on board. That changed in 2020, Wang said.

Scale began to see incredible use cases of AI within the government as well as enterprise automation, according to Wang. Scale AI began working more closely with government agencies this year and added enterprise automation customers like States Title, a residential real estate company.

Wang also saw an increase in uses around conversational AI, in both consumer and enterprise applications as well as growth in e-commerce as companies sought out ways to use AI to provide personalized recommendations for its customers that were on par with Amazon.

Robotics continued to expand as well in 2020, although it spread to use cases beyond robotaxis, autonomous delivery and self-driving trucks, Wang said.

“A lot of the innovations that have happened within the self-driving industry, we’re starting to see trickle out throughout a lot of other robotics problems,” Wang said. “And so it’s been super exciting to see the breadth of AI continue to broaden and serve our ability to support all these use cases.”

The wider adoption of AI across industries has been a bit of a slow burn over the past several years as company founders and executives begin to understand what the technology could do for their businesses, Wang said, adding that advancements in natural language processing of text, improved offerings from cloud companies like AWS, Azure and Google Cloud and greater access to datasets helped sustain this trend.

“We’re finally getting to the point where we can help with computational AI, which has been this thing that’s been pitched for forever,” he said.

That slow burn heated up with the COVID-19 pandemic, said Wang, noting that interest has been particularly strong within government and enterprise automation as these entities looked for ways to operate more efficiently.

“There was this big reckoning,” Wang said of 2020 and the effect that COVID-19 had on traditional business enterprises.

If the future is mostly remote with consumers buying online instead of in-person, companies started to ask, “How do we start building for that?,” according to Wang.

The push for operational efficiency coupled with the capabilities of the technology is only going to accelerate the use of AI for automating processes like mortgage applications or customer loans at banks, Wang said, who noted that outside of the tech world there are industries that still rely on a lot of paper and manual processes.

#artificial-intelligence, #automation, #covid-19, #emerging-technologies, #enterprise, #machine-learning, #natural-language-processing, #scale-ai, #virtual-reality

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NextMind’s Dev Kit for mind controlled-computing offers a rare ‘wow’ factor in tech

NextMind debuted its Dev Kit hardware at CES last year, but the hardware is now actually shipping out, and the startup shared with me the production version to take a test drive. The NextMind controller is a sensor that reads electrical signals from your brain’s visual cortex, and translates those into input signals for a connected PC. A lot of companies have developed novel input solutions that use either eye-tracking or electrical impulse input from the body, but NextMind’s is the first I’ve tried that worked instantly and wonderfully, providing a truly amazing experience of a kind that’s hard to find in the current world of relatively mature computing paradigms.

The basics

NextMind’s developer kit is just that – a product aimed at developers that’s meant to give them everything they need to get building software that works with NextMind’s hardware and APIs. It includes the NextMind sensor which works with a range of headgear including simple straps, Oculus VR headsets, and even baseball hats, along with the software and SDK required to make it work on your PC.

Image Credits: NextMind

The package that NextMind provided me included the sensor, a fabric headband, a Surface PC with the engine pre-installed, and a USB gamepad for use with one of the company’s pre-build software demos.

The sensor itself is lightweight, and can operate for up to eight hours continuously on a single charge. It can charge via USB-C, and its software is compatible with both Mac and PC, along with Oculus, HTC Vive and also Microsoft’s HoloLens.

Design and features

The NextMind sensor itself is surprisingly small and light – it fits in the palm of your hand, with two arms that extend slightly beyond that. It features an integrated clip mount that can be used to attach it to just about anything to secure it to your head. In terms of fit, you just need to ensure that the 9 sets of two-pronged electrode sensors make contact with your skin, which NextMind provides instructions on doing by essentially making sure it straps snugly to your head, and then ‘combing’ the device slightly (moving it up and down to get your hair out of the way).

It wears comfortably, though you will notice the electrodes pressing into your skin, especially over longer use periods. The ability to use a standard baseball cap with the clip makes it super convenient to install and wear, and it worked with the Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest headstraps easily and instantly, too.

Image Credits: NextMind

Setup was a breeze. I was guided by NextMind’s co-creators, but the app provides clear instructions as well. There’s a calibration process during which you look at an animation being displayed on the host PC, which helps the sensor identify the specific signals that your occipital lobe is emitting when performing the target behaviour that you’ll later use to actually interact with NextMind-optimized software.

Here’s where it’s worth pausing to explain how NextMind is actually ‘reading your thoughts’: The sensor basically learns what it looks like when your brain is engaged in what the company calls “active, visual focus.” It does this using a common signal that it overlays on controllable elements of a software’s graphical user interface. That way, when you focus on a specific item, it can translate that into a ‘press’ action, or a ‘hold and move,’ or any other number of potential output results.

NextMind’s system is elegantly simple in conception, which is probably why it feels so powerful and rich in use. After the calibration process, I immediately jumped into the demos and was performing a range of actions effectively with my brain. First was media playback and window management on a desktop, and from there I moved on to composing music, entering a pin on a number pad, and playing multiple games, including a platformer where my mind control was supplementing my physical input on a USB gamepad to create a whole new level of fun and complex gameplay that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

This is a Dev Kit, so the included software is just a small sampling of what could be possible with NextMind eventually, now that developers are able to build their own. What’s amazing is that the included samples are breathtaking on their own, providing an overall experience that is mind-bending in all the best possible ways. Imagining a future where NextMind hardware is even smaller and a seamless part of an overall computing experience that also includes traditional input is tantalizing, indeed.

Bottom line

NextMind’s Dev Kit is definitely just that – a Dev Kit. It’s intended for developers who are going to use it to write their own software that will take advantage of this unique, safe and convenient form of brain-computer interface (BCI). The kit retails for 399.00 € (around $487 USD), and is now shipping. NextMind has plans to eventually consumerise the product, and to work with other OEMs as well on implementations, but for now, even in this state, it’s an awe-inspiring glimpse into what could well be the next major shift in our daily computing paradigm.

#animation, #biotech, #computing, #controller, #htc, #oculus, #oculus-vr, #science, #startups, #tc, #usb, #virtual-reality, #wearable-devices

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Roblox buys digital avatar startup Loom.ai

Roblox announced today that it’s buying a digital avatar startup called Loom.ai. Purchasing a company that has focused singularly on creating more realistic human avatars is an interesting play for a gaming platform that has made such an impact by building experiences that tend to cast realism to the wayside.

We covered the company’s $1.35 million seed round back in 2016. The company brought in additional seed funding since then, scoring $5.9 million in total capital raised. The startup’s investors include Y Combinator, Samsung Ventures, Anorak Capital and Zach Coelius.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

The startup was one in a long list of avatar companies to launch during the mid 2010’s that capitalized on computer vision advancements and aimed to build out a cross-game/cross-platform network of users that relied on their tech to create in-app avatars. This field of companies aimed to capitalize on opportunities in 3D that expanded beyond what companies like Snapchat had identified following its Bitmoji acquisition.

Image via Loom.ai

Over the years, Loom.ai shifted its effort from photorealism to creating more Memoji-like representations that allowed users to upload a 2D photo and automatically create a realistic 3D avatar. In recent years, Loom.ai focused heavily on enterprise opportunities. The company’s products also included a suite of integrations to build out personalized avatar stickers that could be used on messaging platforms like Slack or WhatsApp as well as live avatars that could be used during video calls.

Though Roblox has some of the more simplistic avatars on the market, this acquisition may suggest that the company is open to building out a system that places more of a premium on realism and more life-like facial animations. In a press release announcing the deal, Roblox shared that this acquisition “will accelerate the development of next-generation avatars.”

#avatar, #bitmoji, #bitstrips, #computing, #films, #mobile-applications, #online-games, #roblox, #samsung-ventures, #snap-inc, #snapchat, #tc, #virtual-reality, #y-combinator, #zach-coelius

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Cosmos Video – a ‘Club Penguin for adults’ to socialise and work – raises $2.6M from LocalGlobe

All over the world startups are piling into the space marked “virtual interaction and collaboration”. What if a startup created a sort of ‘Club Penguin for adults’?

Step forward Cosmos Video, which has a virtual venues platform that allows people to work, hang out and socialize together. It has now raised $2.6m in seed funding LocalGlobe with participation from Entrepreneur First, Andy Chung and Phillip Moehring (AngelList), and Omid Ashtari (former President of Citymapper).

Founders Rahul Goyal and Karan Baweja previously led product teams at Citymapper and TransferWise respectively.

Cosmos allows users to create virtual venues by combining game mechanics with video chat. The idea is to bring back the kinds of serendipitous interactions we used to have in the real world. You choose an avatar, then meet up with their colleagues or friends inside a browser-based game. As you move your avatars closer to one another person you can video chat with them, as you might in real life.

The competition is the incumbent video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but calls on these platforms have a set agenda, and are timeboxed – they’re rigid and repetitive. On Cosmos you sit on the screen and consume one video call after another as you move around the space, so it is mimicking serendipity, after a fashion.

As well as having a social application, office colleagues can work collaboratively on tools such as whiteboards, Google documents and Figma; play virtual board games or gather around a table to chat.

Cosmos is currently being used in private beta by a select group of companies to host their offices and for social events such as Christmas parties. Others are using it to host events, meetup groups and family gatherings.

Co-founder Rahul Goyal said in a statement: “Once the pandemic hit, we both saw productivity surge in our respective teams but at the same time, people were missing the in-office culture. Video conferencing platforms provide a great service when it comes to meetings, but they lack spontaneity. Cosmos is a way to bring back that human connection we lack when we spend all day online, by providing a virtual world where you can play a game of trivia or pong after work with colleagues or gather round a table to celebrate a friend’s birthday.”

George Henry, partner, LocalGlobe: “We were really impressed with the vision and potential of Cosmos. Scaling live experiences online is one of the big internet frontiers where there are still so many opportunities. Now that the video infrastructure is in place, we believe products like Cosmos will enable new forms of live online experiences.”

#angellist, #christmas, #citymapper, #club-penguin, #co-founder, #computing, #entrepreneur, #europe, #google, #groupware, #internet-culture, #microsoft, #president, #tc, #telecommunications, #teleconferencing, #video, #video-conferencing, #virtual-reality, #virtual-world

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Facebook hit with antitrust probe for tying Oculus use to Facebook accounts

Facebook’s bad week just got worse: It’s being investigated in Germany for linking usage of its VR product, Oculus, to having a Facebook account.

The tech giant raised the hackles of the VR community this summer when it announced it would be merging users of the latest Oculus kit onto a single Facebook account — and would end support for existing Oculus account users by 2023.

New users were immediately required to have a Facebook account in order to log in and access content for the virtual reality kit.

In August Facebook also announced that it was changing the name of the VR business it acquired back in 2014 for around $2BN — and had allowed to operate separately — to “Facebook Reality Labs“, signalling the assimilation of Oculus into its wider social empire.

(Related: The last of Oculus’ original co-founders left the company last year.)

In recent years Facebook has been pushing to add a ‘social layer’ to the VR platform — but the heavy-handed requirement for Oculus users to have a Facebook account has not proved popular with gamers.

Now antitrust authorities are taking an interest in the move.

Germany’s Federal Cartel Office (aka, the Bundeskartellamt) said today that it’s instigated abuse proceedings against Facebook to examine the linkage between Oculus VR products and its eponymous social network.

In a statement, its president, Andreas Mundt, said:

In the future, the use of the new Oculus glasses requires the user to also have a Facebook account. Linking virtual reality products and the group’s social network in this way could constitute a prohibited abuse of dominance by Facebook. With its social network Facebook holds a dominant position in Germany and is also already an important player in the emerging but growing VR (virtual reality) market. We intend to examine whether and to what extent this tying arrangement will affect competition in both areas of activity.

The FCO has another ‘abuse of dominance proceeding’ ongoing against Facebook — related to how it combines user data for ad profiling in a privacy-hostile way which the authority contends is an abuse of Facebook’s market dominance.

That case is seen as highly innovative in how it combines privacy and antitrust concerns so is being closely watched.

The latest FCO proceeding against Facebook comes at an awkward time for the tech giant, which has been hit with a massive antitrust lawsuit from 46 U.S. States — accusing it of suppressing competition through monopolistic business practices.

As antitrust regulators have stepped up their scrutiny of Zuckerberg’s empire in recent years, Facebook has responded aggressively: Announcing a plan to consolidate its messaging products onto a single technical backend, as well as adding Facebook branding to its acquisitions — in an apparent bid to make it harder for competition regulators to order a break up.

Facebook’s PR has also sought to cloak the ‘single backend’ move by claiming it will increase user privacy.

Yet the states’ antitrust case against the company includes filings that show a Facebook executive discussing using moments of perceived increased competition for its business as an opportunity to decrease user privacy.

So, uh, awkward….

Reached for comment on the FCO Oculus proceeding, a Facebook spokesperson sent us this statement: “While Oculus devices are not currently available for sale in Germany, we will cooperate fully with the Bundeskartellamt and are confident we can demonstrate that there is no basis to the investigation.”

The tech giant has used a series of legal tactics to block the FCO’s order against ‘superprofiling’ users.

Last year Facebook successfully applied to block the order banning it from combining user data. However Germany’s Federal Court of Justice reversed the decision of the Higher Regional Court — confirming the FCO’s decision. Although the hearing on the main proceeding is still pending at the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court — currently scheduled for March 26, 2021 (after being postponed from a date in November).

Facebook responded to the Federal Court of Justice ruling by filing another emergency appeal against the FCO’s order — succeeding for a second time in blocking the order against combining user data.

The FCO says it does not have a route to appeal this preliminary block on points of law — meaning it’s had to lodge a complaint with the Federal Court of Justice, which it did on December 2.

In a statement, Mundt criticized Facebook for resorting to “legal remedies” to block the order which he said is delaying relief for consumers and competitors against Facebook’s abusive practices.

“The fact that Facebook has resorted to various legal remedies is not surprising in view of the significance which our proceedings have for the group’s business model. Nevertheless, the resulting delay in proceedings is of course regrettable for competition and consumers,” he said.

“This is the second time that the Higher Regional Court has preliminarily granted an emergency appeal filed by Facebook. The deadline imposed on Facebook for implementing our demands has again been suspended. As in our view the reasons for this are not sustainable, we have immediately filed a complaint with the Federal Court of Justice. We want the clock to be ticking again for Facebook.”

Facebook using courts to block attempts to hold its business model accountable for violating regional laws is par for the course in Europe.

The tech giant has recently succeeded in blocking a preliminary order from Ireland’s Data Protection Commission to suspend personal data transfers to the US by applying for a judicial review of the regulator’s process, for example.

It also sought to block Irish courts from referring the Schrems II case, which underpins that decision, to the CJEU in the first place — though it did not succeed.

In public remarks in September, Facebook VP Nick Clegg claimed it’s taking that legal action not to defend its own business model but to “try to send a signal that this is a really big issue for the whole European economy, for all small and large companies that rely on data transfers” — which he suggested would be “absolutely disastrous” for the EU as a whole.

#antitrust, #eu-competition-law, #europe, #facebook, #gaming, #germany, #oculus, #social, #virtual-reality

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China watches and learns from the US in AR/VR competition

When Chi Xu left Magic Leap and returned to China, he had big ambitions. He believed China would have its own augmented and virtual reality giants, just as how the domestic smartphone industry birthed global leaders like Huawei, Oppo and Xiaomi that rival Apple today.

Xu, now chief executive of Nreal, one of China’s highest-funded AR startups, is among a group of entrepreneurs uniquely positioned to build world-class hardware. The young generation is well-versed in both worlds, with work experience in Silicon Valley and often an Ivy League degree. They are also well-connected to capital and supply chains in China, which would support them through cycles of iteration to deliver powerful yet affordable products.

Although China has been calling for more indigenous innovation, most of the advanced technologies found in AR and VR are still in the hands of foreign tech behemoths.

They might be proud of China’s technological progress, but they recognize supremacy doesn’t come overnight. More importantly, their firms often have intricate ties to the U.S., whether it’s for sourcing core parts or testing an early market.

Despite Beijing’s push for technological “self-reliance,” Chinese AR and VR companies still depend on imported chips like their smartphone counterparts. Because the industry is so young and no one really has a proven model for monetization, few investors and startups in China are willing to splurge on basic research.

But China has one important strength, said the founder of a Chinese AR startup who declined to be named: “In cutting-edge sectors, China has always lacked the talent to take things from ‘zero to one.’ However, China has the mass production and supply chain capabilities necessary for taking things from ‘one to n.’”

That was the case with smartphones. Once Apple demonstrated the technological and financial possibilities of handsets and gave rise to a production ecosystem around iPhones — in other words, catapulted the industry from zero to one — Chinese counterparts took cues from the American giant, made use of homegrown manufacturing resources and began delivering cheaper and even more powerful alternatives.

“I can’t imagine any Chinese corporations willing to invest in AR and VR as heavily as Microsoft, Apple or Facebook today,” said the founder, whose company sells headsets both in and outside China.

“On the contrary, China is good at playing catch-up by spending money on a race with a clear finish line. For example, chips. If there are already contestants in the area, so long as [Chinese firms] ramp up investment and follow the direction, they can deliver results.”

Chinese innovation

Although China, for the last decade, has been calling for more indigenous innovation, most of the advanced technologies found in AR and VR are still in the hands of foreign tech behemoths, several industry experts told TechCrunch. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips are used almost exclusively by serious players, from Facebook’s Oculus Quest in the U.S. to Pico and Nreal in China. Advanced optical solutions, on the other hand, mainly come from Japanese and Taiwanese firms.

Attendees stand in line to try out the new Oculus Quest Virtual Reality (VR) gaming system at the Facebook F8 Conference at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, on April 30, 2019. Image Credits: AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

That’s not to say Chinese companies don’t innovate. Prominent venture capitalist and AI expert Kai-Fu Lee famously argued in his book “AI Superpowers” that while the U.S. has an edge in fundamental research, China is stronger on implementation and commercial application.

“It’s true that the more experimental efforts are happening in the U.S., though I’m not sure if any of those are mature already,” Tony Zhao, founder and chief executive of real-time video API provider Agora and a veteran from WebEx, told TechCrunch. “For Chinese companies, there are more opportunities in [user experience].”

As AR and VR come of age, Zhao’s company is devising a toolkit to let developers and organizations stream and record AR content from devices. Use cases by China’s educators have particularly impressed Zhao. One client, for example, built a tool allowing a teacher to interact with a student through a virtual store, where the two speak English while they respectively act as the cashier and the customer.

“I think it’s very revolutionary because a lot of kids are going to be very excited to learn from those kinds of tools. It’s more like a real experience and would be more natural for students to learn to use a language instead of just know the grammar,” said Zhao.

“These solutions are already creative, but also very practical.”

The Chinese market offers other aspects that can keep investors excited. As Gavin Newton-Tanzer, president of Sunrise International, Asia producer of the “mixed reality” (XR) conference AWE, pointed out to TechCrunch:

“Many like to say that in the U.S., Magic Leap sucked all the air out of the room. They raised tons of money and as a result, few wanted to fund [other smart glass startups]. It’d be like funding a competitor to Didi in China or funding a competitor to Uber in the U.S. … Few felt like anyone else could meaningfully compete.”

#ar, #asia, #augmented-reality, #broadband, #china, #magic-leap, #mixed-reality, #nreal, #oculus, #snapdragon, #virtual-reality, #vr

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Google shutting down Poly 3D content platform

Google is almost running out of AR/VR projects to kill off.

The company announced today in an email to Poly users that they will be shutting 3D-object creation and library platform “forever” next year. The service will shut down on June 30, 2021 and users won’t be able to upload 3D models to the site on April 30, 2021.

Poly was introduced as a 3D creation tool optimized for virtual reality. Users could easily create low-poly objects with in-VR tools. The software was designed to serve as a lightweight way to create and view 3D assets that could in turn end up in games and experiences, compared to more art and sculpting-focused VR tools like Google’s Tilt Brush and Facebook’s (now Adobe’s) Medium software.

Google has already discontinued most of the company’s AR/VR plays, including most notably their Daydream mobile VR platform.

The AR/VR industry’s initial rise prompted plenty of 3D-centric startups to bet big on creating or hosting a library of digital objects. As investor enthusiasm has largely faded and tech platforms hosting AR/VR content have shuttered those products, it’s less clear where the market is for this 3D content for the time being.

Users that have uploaded objects to Poly will be able to download their data and models ahead of the shutdown.

#3d-modeling, #computing, #digital-media, #facebook, #google, #new-media, #poly, #tc, #unity, #virtual-reality, #visual-effects

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Lost “Sega VR” game unearthed, made playable on modern VR headsets

Sega VR was manufactured, advertised, and pushed as Sega's next big thing, up until its unceremonious cancellation in 1994. Twenty-six years later, we finally get to see how it worked.

Enlarge / Sega VR was manufactured, advertised, and pushed as Sega’s next big thing, up until its unceremonious cancellation in 1994. Twenty-six years later, we finally get to see how it worked. (credit: Sega)

One of Sega’s most mysterious products ever, the canceled Sega VR headset, finally emerged in a “playable” form on Friday thanks to a team of game history preservationists. It’s a tale of a discovered ROM, a search for its source code, and efforts to not only rebuild the game but also adapt existing Genesis and Mega Drive emulators to translate virtual reality calls from today’s PC headsets.

The story, as posted at the Video Game History Foundation’s site, begins with a ROM discovery by Dylan Mansfield at Gaming Alexandria. The game in question, Nuclear Rush, was one of four games announced for Sega VR, a headset system designed to plug into standard Genesis and Mega Drive consoles.

Not quite 72Hz…

Gamers from that era likely heard about Sega VR, as the game publisher’s PR push included plenty of mentions in gaming magazines, a public reveal at 1993’s Summer CES, and even a segment on ABC’s Nightline. But the ambitious device, slated to launch at a mere $199, was quietly canceled, and former Sega President Tom Kalinske eventually confirmed why: researchers found the device made a huge percentage of testers sick with headaches and dizziness.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#gaming-culture, #genesis, #mega-drive, #sega-genesis, #sega-mega-drive, #sega-vr, #virtual-reality

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Transfr raises $12M Series A to bring virtual reality to manufacturing-plant floors

The coronavirus has displaced millions of workers across the country. In order to recover, companies must focus on re-skilling their workforces in a measured and sustainable way. However, training and recruitment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for companies, a heavy investment that is hard to explain during volatile times.

To Bharani Rajakumar, the founder of Transfr, the dilemma of displaced workers is the perfect use case for virtual reality technology. Transfr leverages virtual reality to create simulations of manufacturing-plant shop floors or warehouses for training purposes. The platform’s entry-level gives workers a way to safely and effectively learn a trade, and companies a solution on mass up-skilling needs.

At its core, Transfr is building a “classroom to career pipeline,” Rajakumar says. Companies have influence over the training they need, and students can turn into entry-level employees within vocational schools, on-site or within training facilities. Below is a presentation from the company highlighting the trainee experience.

Transfr’s core technology is its software. Hardware-wise, the business uses Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset with Oculus for Business, not the generic customer hardware available in stores.

Transfr makes money by charging a software-as-a-service licensing fee to companies, which can go for up to $10,000 depending on the size of the workforce.

Transfr started as a mentor-based VR training programming play. The business sold courses on everything from bartending to surgery skills, as shown below:

The shift to displaced worker training, Rajakumar says, came from realizing who had the purchasing power in the relationship of entry-level employees. Hint: It was the companies that had the most to gain from a higher-skilled worker.

Virtual reality has gotten an overall bump and better reputation from the coronavirus pandemic, but is yet to massively be adopted among edtech founders. Rajakumar thinks that it could be revolutionary for the sector. He first saw virtual reality when he attended a gaming conference in San Francisco in 2017.

“I can’t believe that gaming and pornography are the two big industries for this technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands what this is gonna be for teaching and learning.”

Labster, which offers schools VR simulations of science class, had product usage grow 15 times since March. The company raised money in August to expand to Asia.

Labster CEO and co-founder Michael Jensen says that Transfr’s gamification and simply UX is good for adoption, but noted that production costs could be the biggest barrier toward making the company scale.

“It’s simply too expensive to build a stable, well-polished VR application still today, and all players, us included, need to think about reusability, testability and scalability to be able to truly succeed.”

Transfr is trying to lower costs by creating a catalog of work simulations, a Transfr virtual reality training facility of sorts, that it can then repurpose for each different customer. Each month, it adds to the training facility with new jobs that are in demand, helping it scale without needing to start from scratch with each new customer. Since March, Transfr’s customers have quadrupled.

Most notably, though, is Transfr’s recent work in Alabama. The company is behind a statewide initiative in Alabama where its software is being used in the community college system and industrial workforce commission for re-skilling purposes. It’s through these large contracts that Transfr will truly be able to scale in its mission to train workforces. Rajakumar hopes to sign 10 to 15 similar contracts in the next year.

It’s an ambitious goal, and one worth raising financing to achieve. Transfr today announced that it has raised $12 million in a round led by Firework Ventures . The money will primarily be used to grow Transfr’s catalog of virtual reality simulations. While the company is not yet profitable, Rajakumar says that Transfr “could be” if they wanted to move at a slower growth rate.

“Before COVID, people would say we’re such good Samaritans for working on workforce development,” he said. “In a post-COVID world, people say that we’re essential.”

#coronavirus, #covid-19, #education, #firework-ventures, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #re-skilling, #recent-funding, #startups, #tc, #transfr, #virtual-reality, #vr

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