augmented reality

Banuba raises $7M to supercharge any app or device with the ability to really see you

Posted by | artificial intelligence, augmented reality, Banuba, belarus, Europe, Mobile, neural network, Startups, TC | No Comments

Walking into the office of Viktor Prokopenya — which overlooks a central London park — you would perhaps be forgiven for missing the significance of this unassuming location, just south of Victoria Station in London. While giant firms battle globally to make augmented reality a “real industry,” this jovial businessman from Belarus is poised to launch a revolutionary new technology for just this space. This is the kind of technology some of the biggest companies in the world are snapping up right now, and yet, scuttling off to make me a coffee in the kitchen is someone who could be sitting on just such a company.

Regardless of whether its immediate future is obvious or not, AR has a future if the amount of investment pouring into the space is anything to go by.

In 2016 AR and VR attracted $2.3 billion worth of investments (a 300 percent jump from 2015) and is expected to reach $108 billion by 2021 — 25 percent of which will be aimed at the AR sector. But, according to numerous forecasts, AR will overtake VR in 5-10 years.

Apple is clearly making headway in its AR developments, having recently acquired AR lens company Akonia Holographics and in releasing iOS 12 this month, it enables developers to fully utilize ARKit 2, no doubt prompting the release of a new wave of camera-centric apps. This year Sequoia Capital China, SoftBank invested $50 million in AR camera app Snow. Samsung recently introduced its version of the AR cloud and a partnership with Wacom that turns Samsung’s S-Pen into an augmented reality magic wand.

The IBM/Unity partnership allows developers to integrate into their Unity applications Watson cloud services such as visual recognition, speech to text and more.

So there is no question that AR is becoming increasingly important, given the sheer amount of funding and M&A activity.

Joining the field is Prokopenya’s “Banuba” project. For although you can download a Snapchat-like app called “Banuba” from the App Store right now, underlying this is a suite of tools of which Prokopenya is the founding investor, and who is working closely to realize a very big vision with the founding team of AI/AR experts behind it.

The key to Banuba’s pitch is the idea that its technology could equip not only apps but even hardware devices with “vision.” This is a perfect marriage of both AI and AR. What if, for instance, Amazon’s Alexa couldn’t just hear you? What if it could see you and interpret your facial expressions or perhaps even your mood? That’s the tantalizing strategy at the heart of this growing company.

Better known for its consumer apps, which have been effectively testing their concepts in the consumer field for the last year, Banuba is about to move heavily into the world of developer tools with the release of its new Banuba 3.0 mobile SDK. (Available to download now in the App Store for iOS devices and Google Play Store for Android.) It’s also now secured a further $7 million in funding from Larnabel Ventures, the fund of Russian entrepreneur Said Gutseriev, and Prokopenya’s VP Capital.

This move will take its total funding to $12 million. In the world of AR, this is like a Romulan warbird de-cloaking in a scene from Star Trek.

Banuba hopes that its SDK will enable brands and apps to utilise 3D Face AR inside their own apps, meaning users can benefit from cutting-edge face motion tracking, facial analysis, skin smoothing and tone adjustment. Banuba’s SDK also enables app developers to utilise background subtraction, which is similar to “green screen” technology regularly used in movies and TV shows, enabling end-users to create a range of AR scenarios. Thus, like magic, you can remove that unsightly office surrounding and place yourself on a beach in the Bahamas…

Because Banuba’s technology equips devices with “vision,” meaning they can “see” human faces in 3D and extract meaningful subject analysis based on neural networks, including age and gender, it can do things that other apps just cannot do. It can even monitor your heart rate via spectral analysis of the time-varying color tones in your face.

It has already been incorporated into an app called Facemetrix, which can track a child’s eyes to ascertain whether they are reading something on a phone or tablet or not. Thanks to this technology, it is possible to not just “track” a person’s gaze, but also to control a smartphone’s function with a gaze. To that end, the SDK can detect micro-movements of the eye with subpixel accuracy in real time, and also detects certain points of the eye. The idea behind this is to “Gamify education,” rewarding a child with games and entertainment apps if the Facemetrix app has duly checked that they really did read the e-book they told their parents they’d read.

If that makes you think of a parallel with a certain Black Mirror episode where a young girl is prevented from seeing certain things via a brain implant, then you wouldn’t be a million miles away. At least this is a more benign version…

Banuba’s SDK also includes “Avatar AR,” empowering developers to get creative with digital communication by giving users the ability to interact with — and create personalized — avatars using any iOS or Android device.Prokopenya says: “We are in the midst of a critical transformation between our existing smartphones and future of AR devices, such as advanced glasses and lenses. Camera-centric apps have never been more important because of this.” He says that while developers using ARKit and ARCore are able to build experiences primarily for top-of-the-range smartphones, Banuba’s SDK can work on even low-range smartphones.

The SDK will also feature Avatar AR, which allows users to interact with fun avatars or create personalised ones for all iOS and Android devices. Why should users of Apple’s iPhone X be the only people to enjoy Animoji?

Banuba is also likely to take advantage of the news that Facebook recently announced it was testing AR ads in its newsfeed, following trials for businesses to show off products within Messenger.

Banuba’s technology won’t simply be for fun apps, however. Inside two years, the company has filed 25 patent applications with the U.S. patent office, and of six of those were processed in record time compared with the average. Its R&D center, staffed by 50 people and based in Minsk, is focused on developing a portfolio of technologies.

Interestingly, Belarus has become famous for AI and facial recognition technologies.

For instance, cast your mind back to early 2016, when Facebook bought Masquerade, a Minsk-based developer of a video filter app, MSQRD, which at one point was one of the most popular apps in the App Store. And in 2017, another Belarusian company, AIMatter, was acquired by Google, only months after raising $2 million. It too took an SDK approach, releasing a platform for real-time photo and video editing on mobile, dubbed Fabby. This was built upon a neural network-based AI platform. But Prokopenya has much bolder plans for Banuba.

In early 2017, he and Banuba launched a “technology-for-equity” program to enroll app developers and publishers across the world. This signed up Inventain, another startup from Belarus, to develop AR-based mobile games.

Prokopenya says the technologies associated with AR will be “leveraged by virtually every kind of app. Any app can recognize its user through the camera: male or female, age, ethnicity, level of stress, etc.” He says the app could then respond to the user in any number of ways. Literally, your apps could be watching you.

So, for instance, a fitness app could see how much weight you’d lost just by using the Banuba SDK to look at your face. Games apps could personalize the game based on what it knows about your face, such as reading your facial cues.

Back in his London office, overlooking a small park, Prokopenya waxes lyrical about the “incredible concentration of diversity, energy and opportunity” of London. “Living in London is fantastic,” he says. “The only thing I am upset about, however, is the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and what it might mean for business in the U.K. in the future.”

London may be great (and will always be), but sitting on his desk is a laptop with direct links back to Minsk, a place where the facial recognition technologies of the future are only now just emerging.

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Genies brings lifelike avatars to other apps with $10M from celebrities

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Avatars, Bitmoji, Facebook Avatars, gboard, Genies, Mobile, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC | No Comments

Genies is emerging as the top competitor to Snapchat’s wildly popular Bitmoji as Facebook, Apple and Google have been slow to get serious about personalized avatars. More than one million people have customized dozens of traits to build a realistic digital lookalike of themselves from over a million possible permutations.

When Genies launched a year ago after raising $15 million in stealth, it misstepped by trying to show people’s Genies interpreting a few weekly news stories and seasonal moments. Now the startup has figured out users want more control, so it’s shifting its iOS and Android apps to let you chat through your avatar, which acts out keywords and sentiments in reaction to what you type, which you can then share elsewhere. And Genies is launching a software developer kit that charges other apps to let you create avatars and use them for chat, stickers, games, animations and augmented reality.

Genies’ SDK puts its avatars in other apps

To power these new strategies and usher in what CEO Akash Nigam calls “the next wave of communication through avatars where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” Genies has raised $10 million more. The party round comes from a wide range of investors, from institutional firms like NEA and Tull Co. to angels like Tinder’s Sean Rad, Raya’s Jared Morgenstern and speaker Tony Robbins; athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and Richard Sherman; and musicians, including A$AP Rocky, Offset from Migos, The Chainsmokers and 50 Cent. Some like Offset have even used their Genie to stand in for them for brand sponsorships, so their avatar poses for photos instead of them.

“We’ve transitioned from being an app to an avatar services company,” Nigam tells me. The son of WebMD’s co-founder, Nigam build a string of failed apps while at University of Michigan and worked with Genies co-founders Evan Rosenbaum and Matt Geiger on a startup called Blend that raised some money. Watching Snapchat-owned Bitmoji stay glued atop the app download charts inspired them to see more opportunity in the avatar space. Genies has had some talent issues, though. Nigam says it fired co-founder and president Matt Geiger, and a source tells me there were company culture issues that led to issues with the content writers it hired to create scenes for Genies to act out. Now it’s getting out of that scripted content creation business to focus on algorithmic suggestions of animations.

Genies in-app chat

The revamped Genies app lets you chat with up to six friends through your avatar. As you type, Genies detects actions, places, things and emotions, and offers you corresponding animations your avatar acts out with a tap. Given people already have plenty of place to chat, it might be tough to get people to move real conversations inside Genies for more than a quick hit of novelty. But that functionality is also coming to Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and iMessage’s keyboards, where the expressive animations could naturally augment your threads.

Gucci paid to let Genies users add its luxury clothes to their avatars

With the Genies SDK, the startup is ready to challenge Snapchat’s new Snap Kit that lets apps build Bitmoji into their keyboards. But for $100,000 to $1 million in licensing fees, Genies allows apps to develop much deeper avatar features. Beyond creating keyboard stickers, games can plaster your Genies’ face over your character’s head, and utilities apps can have your Genie act out the weather or celebrate transactions. And since Genies is still taking off, partners can create experiences that feel fresh rather than just a repurposing of Bitmoji’s already-established cartoony avatars. Users spent an average of 19 minutes creating their Genie, so the SDK could add significant engagement to these apps. Genies has also launched its first official brand deal, where Gucci has created a wheel in the Genies creator so you can deck out your mini-you with luxury clothing.

The Avatar Wars (from left): Facebook Avatars, Google Gboard Mini Stickers, Apple Memoji

Despite Bitmoji’s years of success, it’s yet to have a scaled competitor. TechCrunch broke the news that Facebook is working on a “Facebook Avatars” feature, but seven months later it’s still not publicly testing and the prototype looks childish. Google’s Gboard just added the ability to create avatars based on a selfie, but they’re bland, low on detail and far from fun looking. And Apple’s latest mobile operating system lets you create a Memoji, though they too look generic like actual emoji rather than something instantly identifiable as you. By designing avatars that not only look like you but like a cooler version of you, Genies could capture the hearts and faces of millions of teens and the influencers they follow.

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Sneaker marketplace GOAT announces an AR-centric Black Friday giveaway

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apple, Apps, augmented reality, eCommerce, flight club, GOAT, Mobile, Startups | No Comments

Black Friday giveaways have become a tradition for online sneaker marketplace GOAT. Today it’s announcing the details of this year’s campaign, which will be its first to incorporate augmented reality.

Director of Communications Liz Goodno described this as “the largest digital sneaker event of the year.” The company says it will be offering more than 1,000 prizes, including sneakers like the Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG Shattered Backboard, KAWSx Air Jordan 4 Retro Black, Pharrell x BBC x NMD Human Race Trail Heart/Mind, plus curated sneaker packs and up to $10,000 in GOAT credit.

You can enter the drawing anytime between now and 11:59pm Pacific on Thursday, November 22, with the winners notified at noon on Black Friday.

All participants will receive 100 tickets, but you can earn bonus tickets by visiting locations on an interactive GOAT map, which will highlight spots around the world that are tied to all-time great athletes and to sneaker history. Those locations really are global, and they include “Sneaker Street” in Hong Kong, San Francisco’s Moscone Center (where the iPhone debuted) and the location of Muhammad Ali’s historic victory over George Foreman in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Also on the list are the New York and Los Angeles locations of Flight Club, the famous sneaker retailer that GOAT merged with earlier this year. And you can earn even more tickets by sharing augmented reality graphics that superimpose a “Greatest of All Time” message, or a newspaper highlighting sneaker history, on real-world imagery.

GOAT

IT Manager Clint Arndt, CEO Eddy Lu

GOAT showed off the AR capabilities at an event with Apple last week at Flight Club New York. The AR elements were built using Apple’s ARKit, and it sounds like the startup plans to do more with the technology in the future.

“We’ve always wanted to incorporate augmented reality technology,” Goodno said, but the challenge, until ARKit, was integrating the technology into the GOAT app. “As a sneaker marketplace there are so many use cases for AR.” (Nike has also been using AR to connect with sneakerheads through its SNKRS app.)

At the event, co-founder and CEO Eddy Lu also talked about the company’s plans beyond AR, saying that “next year, international is a huge thing for us” — which means it’ll be doing more to localize its apps. In addition, it’s getting ready to open its next Flight Club store, this time in Miami.

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Netflix’s hackathon produces a way to navigate its iOS app with ARKit and Face ID

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, face id, hackathon, Mobile, Netflix | No Comments

Netflix’s internal hackathons have consistently produced fun and often silly hacks, from that “Netflixtendo” hack a few years ago that let you run Netflix on the original NES to the more recent “audiobook mode” that turned Netflix series into old-school radio shows by way of Audio Descriptions. This year’s hackathon doesn’t disappoint either, with new hacks that are both as goofy and interesting as in years past, including an AR and Face ID-powered hack that lets you navigate Netflix with just your eyes, another designed for “Sharknado” fans and more.

“Jump to Shark” lets viewers skip right to the good parts of the so-bad-it’s-good “Sharknado,” so they can watch the bloody action sequences with sharks, instead of having to sit through the movie’s actual plot. It’s pretty great, as the video shows.

The AR hack, Eye Nav, is fairly impressive, too.

The hack uses Apple’s ARKit and the technology that enables Face ID for tracking eye position and facial expressions. It tracks your eye position to move a pointer around the screen, then measures the time spent on the same area to trigger a “tap.”

If you want to dismiss a screen, you can just stick your tongue out.

While the resulting hack is definitely fun, there are also implications for accessibility use cases in the future.

The hack was produced in 24 hours, so it may not be stable enough for real-world use, but it’s definitely an interesting idea.

A third hack doesn’t involve Netflix, but rather the productivity software Slack, used by Netflix employees.

“LunchBot” connects co-workers who are too busy to go to lunch, by inviting them to eat lunch together — virtually, while in a Slack chat. The app also checks everyone’s calendars to make sure they’re free.

Other hacks this year included those for product improvements, enhancements to its internal tools and some that were just for fun. A few of these were showcased in its Hackday 2018 video, such as a map for locating studio production resources, an “easy login” system and a version of Animoji using Netflix characters.

But the larger goal of Netflix’s hackathon, as you can probably tell, isn’t necessarily about creating features that will later be productized (although, c’mon…Jump to Shark!), but they sometimes serve as inspiration for features further down the road, the company says.

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Facebook reorganizes Oculus for AR/VR’s long-haul

Posted by | augmented reality, Facebook, hardware, Mobile, Oculus, Personnel, Social, Talent, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

Facebook is again looking to whip Oculus into shape for its 10-year journey towards making virtual reality mainstream. According to two sources, Facebook reorganized its AR and VR team this week from a divisional structure focused around products to a functional structure focused around technology areas of expertise. While no one was laid off, the change could eliminate redundancies by uniting specialists so they can iterate towards long-term progress rather than being separated into groups dedicated to particular gadgets.

Facebook confirmed the reorg to TechCrunch, with a spokesperson providing this statement: “We made some changes to the AR/VR organization earlier this week. These were internal changes and won’t impact consumers or our partners in the developer community.” Oculus CTO John Carmack and Oculus co-founder/newly-promoted Head of PC VR Nate Mitchell will remain in their leadership positions within VP of AR/VR Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth’s hardware wing of the company.

The shift obviously communicates that Facebook believes Oculus could be running more effectively. Organizing the company around areas of expertise rather than broader divisions is probably more appropriate for a moonshot effort that can’t afford redundancies, on the other hand, keeping expertise siloed could isolate new approaches and advancements from reaching other teams. As the company builds out its first full lineup of headsets, there seems to be significant overlap in the tech problems and products bring tackled by those working on mobile and PC products.

TechCrunch reported earlier this week that the company is planning to release a new Rift headset as early as 2019, possibly called the Rift S, which will featured upgraded displays and an inside-out tracking system. The company’s “Rift 2” project, codenamed Caspar, was left behind in the reorganization, a source tells us. We can’t confirm whether any other products or concepts have been shelved.

While an immersive virtual world that users can hang out and communicate in certainly seems to fit Facebook’s broader mission, the company has spent the better part of the past few years deciding how a costly, ambitious venture like Oculus fits into its corporate structure.

First, things went smoothly. The company and its empowered co-founders were building out a developer network and prepping for the launch of their Rift headset after creating a successful partnership with Samsung for the Gear VR. Then, the company’s good fortune turned as the Rift headset was racked by expensive delays and Oculus failed to ship the company’s Touch motion controllers at launch losing some initial ground to HTC. 

By the end of 2016, it was announced that co-founder Brendan Iribe was out as CEO and that the company would be reorganizing around divisions focused on things like PC VR, mobile and content with Xiaomi exec Hugo Barra coming aboard as VP of VR to lead the new effort working directly beneath CEO Mark Zuckerberg. An additional layer of oversight has been built in since then, with Bosworth was put in charge of the company’s consumer hardware ambitions with Oculus as a central pillar. His title is now VP of AR/VR.

The absorption of Oculus deeper into Facebook’s corporate structure was a trend that soon replicated itself as the company looked to rein in the independent teams under a more cohesive vision. The culmination of this was a major executive reshuffle earlier this year that changed the landscape for how divisions within the company were managed.

Now, they’re changing things up even more.

Oculus Go

The new structure sounds like it could coordinate efforts around more general lines like hardware and software allowing insights to flow more intuitively across Facebook’s planned devices.

Given the slow adoption of VR and engineering challenges of AR headsets, which at TechCrunch’s LA conference last month Facebook’s head of AR Ficus Kirkpatrick confirmed it was building, this structure could help Oculus iterate its way to long-term success rather than just getting the next product out the door.

If Facebook is going to beat companies solely focused on AR like Magic Leap, and potential incumbent invaders like Apple if it so chooses, it needs to maximize efficiency. And if it’s going to get both developers and users excited about these next-generation computing platforms, it will have to produce products that make cutting-edge technologies feel unified and accessible. That’s a lot easier when everyone’s not stepping on each other’s virtual shoes.

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Walmart adds an AR scanner to its iOS app for product comparisons

Posted by | Apps, AR, augmented reality, Mobile, retail, shopping, Walmart | No Comments

Walmart is giving augmented reality a shot. The retailer today announced the launch of a new AR scanning tool in its iPhone application which will help customers with product comparisons. However, unlike a typical barcode scanner meant only to compare prices on one item at a time, Walmart’s AR scanner can be panned about across store shelves, offering details on pricing and customer ratings beneath the products it sees.

The technology was first developed by a team at an internal Walmart hackathon using Apple’s ARKit technology. At the time, their idea was to create a scanning experience that worked faster and felt faster when used by customers. They also wanted to build a scanner that offered more than just price comparisons.

“Walmart store shoppers love using our mobile app barcode scanner as a price checker. Our team sees the potential of this product as so much more, though,” explains Tim Sears, senior engineering manager at Walmart Labs, in a post announcing the feature’s launch. “When a customer launches the scanner, they get a direct connection between the digital and the physical world that their screen and camera lens creates for them,” he says.

The team won the hackathon, then went on to further redesign the experience to become the one that’s live today in Walmart’s application.

To use the scanner, you launch the feature in the Walmart app, then point it at the products on the shelf you want to compare. As you move the phone between one item and the other, the product tile at the bottom of the screen will update with information, including the product name, price and star rating across however many reviews it has received on Walmart.com. A link to related products is also available.

The AR scanner was designed to anchor dots to what you’ve scanned, but uses smaller dots instead of anchoring the entire content to the product itself to overcome the problems that could occur when multiple items are scanned together in a close space.

Despite the supposed advantages of AR scanning over a simpler barcode scan, it still remains to be seen to what extent consumers will adopt the feature now that it’s live.

Walmart isn’t the only retailer to give AR a go. Others have used it in various ways, including Amazon, Target, Wayfair and many more. But in several cases, AR’s adoption by retailers have been focused on visualizing products in your home, or — in the case of Target’s AR “studio” — makeup on your face.

Walmart’s AR scanner goes after a more practical use.

The AR Scanner is in the latest version of the Walmart iOS app (18.20 and higher), and works on iPhones that run at least iOS 11.3. This latter requirement is due to its use of ARKit 1.5, but will limit the audience largely to those with newer iPhones.

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Facebook confirms it’s building augmented reality glasses

Posted by | augmented reality, augmented reality glasses, Facebook, Gadgets, hardware, Oculus, Social, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

“Yeah! Well of course we’re working on it,” Facebook’s head of augmented reality Ficus Kirkpatrick told me when I asked him at TechCrunch’s AR/VR event in LA if Facebook was building AR glasses. “We are building hardware products. We’re going forward on this . . . We want to see those glasses come into reality, and I think we want to play our part in helping to bring them there.”

This is the clearest confirmation we’ve received yet from Facebook about its plans for AR glasses. The product could be Facebook’s opportunity to own a mainstream computing device on which its software could run after a decade of being beholden to smartphones built, controlled and taxed by Apple and Google.

Fresh off the heels of its first hardware launch, Facebook’s Fiscus Kirkpatrick says the company is also working on an AR headset https://t.co/AS8IMIO56b #TCARVR pic.twitter.com/eWW6JX22yc

— TechCrunch (@TechCrunch) October 24, 2018

This month, Facebook launched its first self-branded gadget out of its Building 8 lab, the Portal smart display, and now it’s revving up hardware efforts. For AR, Kirkpatrick told me, “We have no product to announce right now. But we have a lot of very talented people doing really, really compelling cutting-edge research that we hope plays a part in the future of headsets.”

There’s a war brewing here. AR startups like Magic Leap and Thalmic Labs are starting to release their first headsets and glasses. Microsoft is considered a leader thanks to its early HoloLens product, while Google Glass is still being developed for the enterprise. And Apple has acquired AR hardware developers like Akonia Holographics and Vrvana to accelerate development of its own headsets.

Mark Zuckerberg said at F8 2017 that AR glasses were 5 to 7 years away

Technological progress and competition seems to have sped up Facebook’s timetable. Back in April 2017, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “We all know where we want this to get eventually, we want glasses,” but explained that “we do not have the science or technology today to build the AR glasses that we want. We may in five years, or seven years.” He explained that “We can’t build the AR product that we want today, so building VR is the path to getting to those AR glasses.” The company’s Oculus division had talked extensively about the potential of AR glasses, yet similarly characterized them as far off.

But a few months later, a Facebook patent application for AR glasses was spotted by Business Insider that detailed using “waveguide display with two-dimensional scanner” to project media onto the lenses. Cheddar’s Alex Heath reports that Facebook is working on Project Sequoia that uses projectors to display AR experiences on top of physical objects like a chess board on a table or a person’s likeness on something for teleconferencing. These indicate Facebook was moving past AR research.

Facebook AR glasses patent application

Last month, The Information spotted four Facebook job listings seeking engineers with experience building custom AR computer chips to join the Facebook Reality Lab (formerly known as Oculus research). And a week later, Oculus’ Chief Scientist Michael Abrash briefly mentioned amidst a half-hour technical keynote at the company’s VR conference that “No off the shelf display technology is good enough for AR, so we had no choice but to develop a new display system. And that system also has the potential to bring VR to a different level.”

But Kirkpatrick clarified that he sees Facebook’s AR efforts not just as a mixed reality feature of VR headsets. “I don’t think we converge to one single device . . . I don’t think we’re going to end up in a Ready Player One future where everyone is just hanging out in VR all the time,” he tells me. “I think we’re still going to have the lives that we have today where you stay at home and you have maybe an escapist, immersive experience or you use VR to transport yourself somewhere else. But I think those things like the people you connect with, the things you’re doing, the state of your apps and everything needs to be carried and portable on-the-go with you as well, and I think that’s going to look more like how we think about AR.”

Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash makes predictions about the future of AR and VR at the Oculus Connect 5 conference

Oculus virtual reality headsets and Facebook augmented reality glasses could share an underlying software layer, though, which might speed up engineering efforts while making the interface more familiar for users. “I think that all this stuff will converge in some way maybe at the software level,” Kirkpatrick said.

The problem for Facebook AR is that it may run into the same privacy concerns that people had about putting a Portal camera inside their homes. While VR headsets generate a fictional world, AR must collect data about your real-world surroundings. That could raise fears about Facebook surveilling not just our homes but everything we do, and using that data to power ad targeting and content recommendations. This brand tax haunts Facebook’s every move.

Startups with a cleaner slate like Magic Leap and giants with a better track record on privacy like Apple could have an easier time getting users to put a camera on their heads. Facebook would likely need a best-in-class gadget that does much that others can’t in order to convince people it deserves to augment their reality.

You can watch our full interview with Facebook’s director of camera and head of augmented reality engineering Ficus Kirkpatrick from our TechCrunch Sessions: AR/VR event in LA:

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TC Sessions: AR/VR surveys an industry in transition

Posted by | augmented reality, Developer, Entertainment, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Media, Startups, TC, tc sessions, TC Sessions: AR/VR 2018, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

Industry vets and students alike crammed into UCLA’s historic Royce Hall last week for TC Sessions: AR/VR, our one-day event on the fast-moving (and hype-plagued) industry and the people in it. Disney, Snap, Oculus and more stopped by to chat and show off their latest; if you didn’t happen to be in LA that day, read on and find out what we learned — and follow the links to watch the interviews and panels yourself.

To kick off the day we had Jon Snoddy from Walt Disney Imagineering. As you can imagine, this is a company deeply invested in “experiences.” But he warned that VR and AR storytelling isn’t ready for prime time: “I don’t feel like we’re there yet. We know it’s extraordinary, we know it’s really interesting, but it’s not yet speaking to us deeply the way it will.”

Next came Snap’s Eitan Pilipski. Snapchat wants to leave augmented reality creativity up to the creators rather than prescribing what they should build. AR headsets people want to wear in real life might take years to arrive, but nevertheless Snap confirmed that it’s prototyping new AI-powered face filters and VR experiences in the meantime.

I was onstage next with a collection of startups which, while very different from each other, collectively embody a willingness to pursue alternative display methods — holography and projection — as businesses. Ashley Crowder from VNTANA and Shawn Frayne from Looking Glass explained how they essentially built the technology they saw demand for: holographic display tech that makes 3D visualization simple and real. And Lightform’s Brett Jones talked about embracing and extending the real world and creating shared experiences rather than isolated ones.

Frayne’s holographic desktop display was there in the lobby, I should add, and very impressive it was. People were crowding three or four deep to try to understand how the giant block of acrylic could hold 3D characters and landscapes.

Maureen Fan from BaoBab Studios touched on the importance of conserving cash for entertainment-focused virtual reality companies. Previewing her new film, Crow, Fan noted that new modes of storytelling need to be explored for the medium, such as the creative merging of gaming and cinematic experiences.

Up next was a large panel of investors: Niko Bonatsos (General Catalyst), Jacob Mullins (Shasta Ventures), Catherine Ulrich (FirstMark Capital) and Stephanie Zhan (Sequoia). The consensus of this lively discussion was that (as Fan noted earlier) this is a time for startups to go lean. Competition has been thinned out by companies burning VC cash and a bootstrapped, efficient company stands out from the crowd.

Oculus is getting serious about non-gaming experiences in virtual reality. In our chat with Oculus Executive Producer Yelena Rachitsky, we heard more details about how the company is looking to new hardware to deepen the interactions users can have in VR and that new hardware like the Oculus Quest will allow users to go far beyond the capabilities of 360-degree VR video.

Of course if Oculus is around, its parent company can’t be far away. Facebook’s Ficus Kirkpatrick believes it must build exemplary “lighthouse” AR experiences to guide independent developers toward use cases they could enhance. Beyond creative expression, AR is progressing slowly because no one wants to hold a phone in the air for too long. But that’s also why Facebook is already investing in efforts to build its own AR headset.

Matt Miesnieks, from 6d.ai, announced the opening of his company’s augmented reality development platform to the public and made a case of the creation of an open mapping platform and toolkit for opening augmented reality to collaborative experiences and the masses.

Augmented reality headsets like Magic Leap and HoloLens tend to hog the spotlight, but phones are where most people will have their first taste. Parham Aarabi (ModiFace), Kirin Sinha (Illumix) and Allison Wood (Camera IQ) agreed that mainstreaming the tech is about three to five years away, with a successful standalone device like a headset somewhere beyond that. They also agreed that while there are countless tech demos and novelties, there’s still no killer app for AR.

Derek Belch (STRIVR), Clorama Dorvilias (DebiasVR) and Morgan Mercer (Vantage Point) took on the potential of VR in commercial and industrial applications. They concluded that making consumer technology enterprise-grade remains one of the most significant adoptions to virtual reality applications in business. (Companies like StarVR are specifically targeting businesses, but it remains to be seen whether that play will succeed.)

With Facebook running the VR show, how are small VR startups making a dent in social? The CEOs of TheWaveVR, Mindshow and SVRF all say that part of the key is finding the best ways for users to interact and making experiences that bring people together in different ways.

After a break, we were treated to a live demo of the VR versus boxing game Creed: Rise to Glory, by developer Survios co-founders Alex Silkin and James Iliff. They then joined me for a discussion of the difficulties and possibilities of social and multiplayer VR, both in how they can create intimate experiences and how developers can inoculate against isolation or abuse in the player base.

Early-stage investments are key to the success of any emerging industry, and the VR space is seeing a slowdown in that area. Peter Rojas of Betaworks and Greg Castle from Anorak offered more details on their investment strategies and how they see success in the AR space coming along as the tech industry’s biggest companies continue to pump money into the technologies.

UCLA contributed a moderator with Anderson’s Jay Tucker, who talked with Mariana Acuna (Opaque Studios) and Guy Primus (Virtual Reality Company) about how storytelling in VR may be in very early days, but that this period of exploration and experimentation is something to be encouraged and experienced. Movies didn’t begin with Netflix and Marvel — they started with picture palaces and one-reel silent shorts. VR is following the same path.

And what would an AR/VR conference be without the creators of the most popular AR game ever created? Niantic already has some big plans as it expands its success beyond Pokémon GO. The company, which is deep in development of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, is building out a developer platform based on their cutting-edge AR technologies. In our chat, AR research head Ross Finman talks about privacy in the upcoming AR age and just how much of a challenger Apple is to them in the space.

That wrapped the show; you can see more images (perhaps of yourself) at our Flickr page. Thanks to our sponsors, our generous hosts at UCLA, the motivated and interesting speakers and most of all the attendees. See you again soon!

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Pokémon GO update bringing ‘mon from the Sinnoh region is live

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gaming, Mobile, niantic, pokemon, Pokémon Go | No Comments

If you’ve been laying off the Pokémon GO for a while due to a lack of new monsters, prepare to be glued to your phone again. Niantic is now adding pokémon from the rugged Sinnoh region that first appeared in 2007’s Diamond, Pearl and Platinum games.

Of course, it’s not so simple as a dump of a hundred new ‘mon into your area. The new guys are arriving in waves, likely meaning the most common sorts will start appearing today, while cooler ones and sets of themed critters will arrive over the coming weeks.

These are part of the Generation 4 set, but it’s not clear yet which will be appearing first or indeed at all. It’s entirely up to Niantic and you can be sure they’re going to mete out these little guys over several months, interspersed with other events — anything to keep you catching.

Everyone will probably have a Chimchar on their shoulder soon, because that sucker is cute, but ultimately everyone is going to want a Dialga. I get the feeling they’re going to be a regular feature at gyms soon. I for one will be working to evolve a Glaceon.

There are also some new evolutions, so don’t trash your mid-tier pokémon just yet. Magmortar, Electivire, Tangrowth and Rhyperior mean you’ll have a use for all that extra candy.

Update your app and start draining that battery, Trainer! And don’t forget that we’ve got Niantic’s Ross Finman at our AR/VR Session in LA this Thursday. Drop by if you’re in the area.

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Magic Leap One’s first big game is another Angry Birds; here’s what it’s like

Posted by | augmented reality, Gaming, Magic Leap, TC | No Comments

Magic Leap promised us a world of dreams, we’re getting Angry Birds.

After about a month in the public spotlight, the Magic Leap One is starting to get its first titles. Rovio and Resolution Games announced publicly today that they will be releasing Angry Birds FPS: First Person Slingshot this fall for the Magic Leap One.

It’s an actual game, not just a little tech demo. I had a chance to play with the soon-to-be-released title and it’s actually pretty refreshing and fun making the futuristic hardware feel a little less alien.

It wasn’t my first bout with Magic Leap’s new hardware, but it was the first time that I truly appreciated what improvements it boasts over headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens.

You could probably beat the 20 levels of Angry Birds FPS in around an hour, but I started fumbling and having to seriously strategize after just a few of them, though like many others I can honestly say I haven’t played an Angry Birds title since I had an iPhone 3GS so it’s been a minute.

That said, the mechanics are pretty familiar in that you’re trying to knock over a little tower of blocks and the green pigs that inhabit their far reaches. What’s unique is that the tower is now stacked on your coffee table that you can approach from any angle and the Magic Leap controller is your slingshot that you can aim a lot more precisely as a result.

The Resolution Games team said that they had previously been experimenting with Microsoft’s headset but it was Magic Leap’s positionally tracked controller that really opened up the headset to develop something like a full gaming title.

It’s kind of interesting that Apple’s main ARKit 2 demo and Magic Leap’s first full title are slingshot games, but I guess you find what works and move from there.

The title isn’t ground-breaking by any means in terms of enabling some sort of futuristic AR use case, but perhaps the most unusual thing about it was how familiar it felt. Part of that is obviously the IP with Angry Birds but it’s also a game that doesn’t ask you to freestyle too much and doesn’t give you a world of options. It felt like a mobile game, if only one that allowed you to visualize the mobile content overlaid on the world in front of you.

You learn to deal with limitations like field-of-view and there does seem to be a lot developers can do to minimize that being the only thing you focus on. It’s kind of bizarre that Magic Leap didn’t actually ship the headset with more content like this because the short demos that came onboard the One Creator’s Edition really didn’t sell it too well. Fortunately, the device is definitely a developer’s edition and it seems that even by the company’s developer conference next month, more content seems to be on the way from partners like Resolution Games and Rovio who have been building this title since January as an early partner of Magic Leap.

Magic Leap One may not be the headset everyone wanted it to be — or what the company told us it would be — but judging by the first big title coming to it, it seems like it gets enough right that developers are going to have a fun time with it even if it is just a labor of love for them right now.

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