Virtual reality

Improbable brings its massive multiplayer platform to Unity game engine

Posted by | Gaming, improbable, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

As battle royale games like Fortnite pit more players against each other, studios are starting to realize the potential of bringing a massive online audience together at one time. This ambition has always existed, but Improbable, a well-funded startup aiming to enable these vast online worlds, is looking to bring these experiences to more game developers.

Improbable has announced that it is bringing a game development kit for its SpatialOS multiplayer platform to Unity, a popular game development platform used to create about half of new video games.

Improbable has some pretty grand ambitions for multi-player gaming and they’ve raised some grand venture capital to make that happen. The London startup has raised just over $600 million for their vision to enable digital worlds with vast expanses of concurrent users. The company’s SpatialOS platform allows single instances of an online game to run across multiple servers, essentially stitching a world together with each server keeping an eye on the other, allowing for hundreds of users to see each other and their in-game actions translated in a persistent way on systems across the globe.

The company’s tech opens the door for a lot of game developers to become more ambitious. There are several developers who have released titles on the platform.

Today’s news is a major step for the company, leveraging the popularity of Unity with a lot of younger studios to enable easier MMO development on an engine that is very popular with a wide range of developers. SpatialOS was previously available in a more limited, experimental scope on Unity. It also supports some development on Unreal Engine and CryEngine.

With today’s release, developers building with SpatialOS can craft games that allow for up to 200 players. The game development kit gives developers multiplayer networking and some other related features to expand the playing field, or at least further populate it. Improbable’s involvement goes far beyond just facilitating a download; a game built for SpatialOS will be hosted on Improbable’s servers, where it can be maintained via its host of web tools.

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Facebook rolls out 3D photos that use AI to simulate depth

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, Facebook, Mobile, Oculus, Portrait mode, Social, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

What if you could peek behind what’s in your photos, like you’re moving your head to see what’s inside a window? That’s the futuristic promise of Facebook 3D photos. After announcing the feature at F8 in May, Facebook is now rolling out 3D photos to add make-believe depth to your iPhone portrait mode shots. Shoot one, tap the new 3D photos option in the status update composer, select a portrait mode photo and users on the desktop or mobile News Feed as well as in VR through Oculus Go’s browser or Firefox on Oculus Rift can tap/click and drag or move their head to see the photo’s depth. Everyone can now view 3D photos and the ability to create them will open to everyone in the coming weeks.

Facebook is constantly in search of ways to keep the News Feed interesting. What started with text and photos eventually expanded into videos and live broadcasts, and now to 360 photos and 3D photos. Facebook hopes if it’s the exclusive social media home for these new kinds of content, you’ll come back to explore and rack up some ad views in the meantime. Sometimes that means embracing mind-bending new formats like VR memories that recreate a scene in digital pointillism based on a photo.

So how exactly do 3D photos work? Our writer Devin Coldewey did a deep-dive earlier this year into how Facebook uses AI to stitch together real layers of the photo with what it infers should be there if you tilted your perspective. Since portrait mode fires off both of a phone’s cameras simultaneously, parallax differences can be used to recreate what’s behind the subject.

To create the best 3D photos with your iPhone 7+, 8+, X or XS (more phones will work with the feature in the future), Facebook recommends you keep your subject three to four feet away, and have things in the foreground and background. Distinct colors will make the layers separate better, and transparent or shiny objects like glass or plastic can throw off the AI.

Originally, the idea was to democratize the creation of VR content. But with headset penetration still relatively low, it’s the ability to display depth in the News Feed that will have the greatest impact for Facebook. In an era where Facebook’s cool is waning, hosting next-generation art forms could make it a must-visit property even as more of our socializing moves to Instagram.

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Fast-growing game engine startup Unity loses its CFO

Posted by | augmented reality, Gaming, Personnel, Virtual reality | No Comments

Unity Technologies, the highly valued startup behind one of the most popular game development tools, lost its CFO Mike Foley last week, Business Insider (paywalled) reported.

A company spokesperson confirmed the CFO’s departure, saying it was a “friendly and mutual decision between both parties,” while also noting that the company was searching for a replacement and had some candidates and hoped to announce more details soon.

In a statement, Foley told TechCrunch, “I look forward to seeing Unity’s continued success under its strong leadership team.”

Unity has raised north of $600 million at a valuation over $3 billion, CEO John Riccitiello confirmed to us earlier this week. In an interview at our Disrupt SF 2018 conference, Riccitiello told TechCrunch that the company’s game engine platform now powers about half of all new games.

In April, Riccitiello told the publication Cheddar that the company was on the “general path” toward an IPO. “We’re not putting out dates but I do believe the company is strong enough financially to go public now.”

The company is not the only third-party game engine tool available for developers, but Unity has become a favorite for indie developers due in large part to the breadth of integrations for various game platforms and the ease of deploying to them. The game engine company was started 14 years ago scraped from the remains of a failed video game title, but has begun to grow rapidly in the past couple years particularly due to investor bullishness around AR/VR and the potential for a real-time rendering engine to shape everything from manufacturing design to autonomous systems training.

Update: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Foley left his position in June, rather than last week.

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StarVR’s One headset flaunts eye-tracking and a double-wide field of view

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, starvr, TC, Virtual reality, VR Headset | No Comments

While the field of VR headsets used to be more or less limited to Oculus and Vive, numerous competitors have sprung up as the technology has matured — and some are out to beat the market leaders at their own game. StarVR’s latest headset brings eye-tracking and a seriously expanded field of view to the game, and the latter especially is a treat to experience.

The company announced the new hardware at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, where I got to go hands-on and eyes-in with the headset. Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind this set is meant for commercial applications — car showrooms, aircraft simulators and so on. What that means is it’s going to be expensive and not as polished a user experience as consumer-focused sets.

That said, the improvements present in the StarVR One are significant and immediately obvious. Most important is probably the expanded FOV — 210 degrees horizontal and 130 vertical. That’s nearly twice as wide as the 110 degrees wide that the most popular headsets have, and believe me, it makes a difference. (I haven’t tried the Pimax 8K, which has a similarly wide FOV.)

On Vive and Oculus sets I always had the feeling that I was looking through a hole into the VR world — a large hole, to be sure, but having your peripheral vision be essentially blank made it a bit claustrophobic.

In the StarVR headset, I felt like the virtual environment was actually around me, not just in front of me. I moved my eyes around much more rather than turning my head, with no worries about accidentally gazing at the fuzzy edge of the display. A 90 Hz refresh rate meant things were nice and smooth.

To throw shade at competitors, the demo I played (I was a giant cyber-ape defending a tower) could switch between the full FOV and a simulation of the 110-degree one found in other headsets. I suspect it was slightly exaggerated, but the difference really is clear.

It’s reasonably light and comfortable — no VR headset is really either. But it doesn’t feel as chunky as it looks.

The resolution of the custom AMOLED display is supposedly 5K. But the company declined to specify the actual resolution when I asked. They did, however, proudly proclaim full RGB pixels and 16 million sub-pixels.

Let’s do the math: 16 million divided by 3 makes around 5.3 million full pixels. 5K isn’t a real standard, just shorthand for having around 5,000 horizontal pixels between the two displays. Divide 5.3 million by that and you get 1060. Rounding those off to semi-known numbers gives us 2560 pixels (per eye) for the horizontal and 1080 for the vertical resolution.

That doesn’t fit the approximately 16:10 ratio of the field of view, but who knows? Let’s not get too bogged down in unknowns. Resolution isn’t everything — but generally, the more pixels the better.

The other major new inclusion is an eye-tracking system provided by Tobii. We knew eye-tracking in VR was coming; it was demonstrated at CES, and the Fove Kickstarter showed it was at least conceivable to integrate into a headset now-ish.

Unfortunately, the demos of eye-tracking were pretty limited (think a heat map of where you looked on a car) so, being hungry, I skipped them. The promise is good enough for now — eye tracking allows for all kinds of things, including a “foveated rendering” that focuses display power where you’re looking. This too was not being shown, however, and it strikes me that it is likely phenomenally difficult to pull off well — so it may be a while before we see a good demo of it.

One small but welcome improvement that eye-tracking also enables is automatic detection of intrapupillary distance, or IPD — it’s different for everyone and can be important to rendering the image correctly. One less thing to worry about.

The StarVR One is compatible with SteamVR tracking, or you can get the XT version and build your own optical tracking rig — that’s for the commercial providers for whom it’s an option.

Although this headset will be going to high-end commercial types, you can bet that the wide FOV and eye tracking in it will be standard in the next generation of consumer devices. Having tried most of the other headsets, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t want to go back to some of them after having experienced this one. VR is still a long way off from convincing me it’s worthwhile, but major improvements like these definitely help.

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Magic Leap One AR headset for devs costs more than 2x the iPhone X

Posted by | alibaba group, Andreessen Horowitz, AR, augmented reality, Gadgets, Google, Magic Leap, Magic Leap One, mixed reality, United States, Virtual reality, wearable devices, Wearables | No Comments

It’s been a long and trip-filled wait but mixed reality headgear maker Magic Leap will finally, finally be shipping its first piece of hardware this summer.

We were still waiting on the price-tag — but it’s just been officially revealed: The developer-focused Magic Leap One ‘creator edition’ headset will set you back at least $2,295.

So a considerable chunk of change — albeit this bit of kit is not intended as a mass market consumer device (although Magic Leap’s founder frothed about it being “at the border of practical for everybody” in an interview with the Verge) but rather an AR headset for developers to create content that could excite future consumers.

Here we go. Magic Leap One Creator Edition is now available to purchase. So if you’re a #developer, creator or explorer, join us as we venture deeper into the world of #spatialcomputing. Take the leap at https://t.co/8HbsM1yNQo #FreeYourMind pic.twitter.com/mpEqNFltlo

— Magic Leap (@magicleap) August 8, 2018

A ‘Pro’ version of the kit — with an extra hub cable and some kind of rapid replacement service if the kit breaks — costs an additional $495, according to CNET. While certain (possibly necessary) extras such as prescription lenses also cost more. So it’s pushing towards 3x iPhone Xes at that point.

The augmented reality startup, which has raised at least $2.3 billion, according to Crunchbase, attracting a string of high profile investors including Google, Alibaba, Andreessen Horowitz and others, is only offering its first piece of reality bending eyewear to “creators in cities across the contiguous U.S.”.

Potential buyers are asked to input their zip code via its website to check if it will agree to take their money but it adds that “the list is growing daily”.

We tried the TC SF office zip and — unsurprisingly — got an affirmative of delivery there. But any folks in, for example, Hawaii wanting to spend big to space out are out of luck for now…

CNET reports that the headset is only available in six U.S. cities at this stage: Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco (Bay Area), and Seattle — with Magic Leap saying that “many” more will be added in fall.

The company specifies it will “hand deliver” the package to buyers — and “personally get you set up”. So evidently it wants to try to make sure its first flush of expensive hardware doesn’t get sucked down the toilet of dashed developer expectations.

It describes the computing paradigm it’s seeking to shift, i.e. with the help of enthused developers and content creators, as “spatial computing” — but it really needs a whole crowd of technically and creatively minded people to step with it if it’s going to successfully deliver that.

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Can Electronauts help make VR more social?

Posted by | Gaming, survios, Virtual reality | No Comments

Virtual reality is an isolating experience. You power it up, strap the headset on and just sort of drift off into your own world. But maybe that doesn’t have to be the case. Maybe there’s a way to slip into a virtual world and still interact with your surroundings.

Electronauts presents an interesting example. Survios sees the title as a party game — something akin to what Guitar Hero/Rock Band was at the height of their collective powers, when people would set them up in their living room and invite friends over to play.

The new title has one decided advantage over those older games, however: It’s impossible to hit a wrong note. That’s kind of the whole point, in fact. Unlike the gamification of Guitar Hero/Rock Band, Electronauts is more experiential, designed to create remixes of songs on the fly.

I played a near final version of the title at a private demo in New York the other week, and mostly enjoyed the experience — my own personal hang-ups about doing VR in front of a room full of strangers aside. The experience has a very Daft Punk/Tron vibe to it as you operate a spaceship control while hurtling through psychedelic space.

There are several ways to interact with the basic track in the process, using the Vive or Oculus controller. The more complex tasks take some figuring out — I was lucky and happened to have the game’s creators in the room with me at the time. I suppose not everyone has that luxury, but the good news here is that the title is designed so that, regardless of what you do, you can’t really mess it up.

I can see how that might be tiresome for some. Again, there’s no scoring built into the title, so while it can be collaborative, you don’t actually compete against anyone. The idea is just to, well, make music. Hooked up to a big screen and a home theater speaker system, it’s easy to see how it could add an extra dimension to a home gathering, assuming, of course, the music selection is your cup of tea.

Here’s the full rundown of songs [deep breath]

  • The Chainsmokers – Roses (ft. ROZES)

  • ODESZA – Say My Name (ft. Zyra)

  • Steve Aoki & Boehm – Back 2 You (ft. WALK THE MOON)

  • Tiesto & John Christian – I Like It Loud (ft. Marshall Masters & The Ultimate MC)

  • ZHU & Tame Impala – My Life

  • ZHU & NERO – Dreams

  • ZHU – Intoxicate

  • 12th Planet – Let Me Help You (ft. Taylr Renee)

  • Netsky – Nobody

  • Dada Life – B Side Boogie, Higher Than The Sun, We Want Your Soul

  • Keys N Krates – Dum Dee Dum [Dim Mak Records]

  • Krewella & Yellow Claw – New World (ft. Vava)

  • Krewella – Alibi

  • Amp Live & Del The Funky Homosapien – Get Some of Dis

  • DJ Shadow – Bergshrund (ft. Nils Frahm)

  • 3LAU – Touch (ft. Carly Paige)

  • Machinedrum – Angel Speak (ft. Melo-X), Do It 4 U (ft. Dawn Richard)

  • People Under The Stairs – Feels Good

  • Tipper – Lattice

  • TOKiMONSTA – Don’t Call Me (ft. Yuna), I Wish I Could (ft. Selah Sue)

  • Reid Speed & Frank Royal – Get Wet

  • AHEE – Liftoff

  • BIJOU – Gotta Shine (ft. Germ) [Dim Mak Records]

  • Anevo – Can’t Stop (ft. Heather Sommer) [Dim Mak Records]

  • KRANE & QUIX – Next World [Dim Mak Records]

  • B-Sides & SWAGE – On The Floor [Dim Mak Records]

  • Gerald Le Funk vs. Subshock & Evangelos – 2BAE [Dim Mak Records]

  • Max Styler – Heartache (Taiki Nulight Remix), All Your Love [Dim Mak Records]

  • Riot Ten & Sirenz – Scream! [Dim Mak Records]

  • Fawks – Say You Like It (ft. Medicienne) [Dim Mak Records]

  • Taiki Nulight – Savvy [Dim Mak Records]

  • Jovian – ERRBODY

  • Madnap – Heat

  • MIKNNA – Trinity Ave, Us

  • 5AM – Peel Back (ft. Wax Future)

  • Jamie Prado & Gregory Doveman – Young (Club Mix)

  • Coral Fusion – Klip [Survios original]

  • GOODHENRY – Wonder Wobble [Survios original]

  • Starbuck – Mist [Survios original]

Can’t say I go in for most of those, but I can pick out a handful I wouldn’t mind sticking in rotation — Del the Funky Homosapien, DJ Shadow and the People Under the Stars, for instance. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see additional music packs arriving, as the company secures more licensing deals.

Meantime, Electronauts will be available on Steam for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, priced at $20. The PlayStation version will run $18. For those who want an even more public experience, it will be arriving in Survios’ 38 VR Arcade Network location.

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Google is quietly formulating a new strategy for China

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, Beijing, China, computing, Getty-Images, Google, Google Play, Google Play Store, google search, HTC, huawei, mobvoi, photographer, premier, Search, shenzhen, smartphone, smartphones, TC, Tencent, United States, Virtual reality, xi jinping, Xiaomi | No Comments

Google is slowing piecing together a strategy for China to ensure that it doesn’t miss out on the growth of technology in the world’s largest country. It’s been months in the making through a series of gradual plays, but further evidence of those plans comes today via a product launch.

Files Go — a file manager for Android devices released last yearhas made its way to China today. Not a huge launch, for sure, but the mechanisms behind it provide insight into how Google may be thinking about the country, where it has been absent since 2010 after redirecting its Chinese search service to Hong Kong in the face of government pressure.

For Files Go, Google is taking a partner-led approach to distribution because the Google Play Store does not operate in China. The company is working with Tencent, Huawei, Xiaomi and Baidu, each of which will stock the app in their independent app stores, which are among the country’s most prominent third-party stores.

Let that sink in a little: the creator of Android is using third-party Android app stores to distribute one of its products.

On the outside that’s quite the scenario, but in China it makes perfect of sense.

There’s been regular media speculation in recent about Google’s desire to return to China which, during its absence, has become the largest single market for smartphone users, and the country with the most app downloads and highest app revenue per year. Mostly the rumors have centered around audacious strategies such as the return of the Google Play Store or the restoration of Google’s Chinese search business, both of which would mean complying with demands from the Chinese government.

Then there’s the politics. The U.S. and China are currently in an ongoing trade standoff that has spilled into tech, impacting deals, while Chinese premier Xi Jinping has taken a protectionist approach to promoting local business and industries, in particular AI. XI’s more controversial policies, including the banning of VPNs, have put heat on Apple, which stands accused of colluding with authorities and preventing free speech in China.

Political tension between the U.S. and China is affecting tech companies. [Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Even when you remove the political issues, a full return is a tough challenge. Google would be starting businesses almost from scratch in a highly competitive market where it has little brand recognition.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that it hasn’t made big moves… yet at least.

Instead, it appears that the company is exploring more nimble approaches. There have been opportunistic product launches using established platforms, and generally Google seems intent at building relationships and growing a local presence that allows its global business to tap into the talent and technology that China offers.

Files Go is the latest example, but already we’ve seen Google relaunch its Translate app in 2017 and more recently it brought its ARCore technology for augmented and virtual reality to China using partners, which include Xiaomi and Huawei.

Bouquets of flowers lie on the Google logo outside the company’s China head office in Beijing on March 23, 2010 after the US web giant said it would no longer filter results and was redirecting mainland Chinese users to an uncensored site in Hong Kong — effectively closing down the mainland site. Google’s decision to effectively shut down its Chinese-language search engine is likely to stunt the development of the Internet in China and isolate local web users, analysts say. (Photo credit: xin/AFP/Getty Images)

Beyond products, Google is cultivating relationships, too.

It inked a wide-ranging patent deal with Tencent, China’s $500 billion tech giant which operates WeChat and more, and has made strategic investments to back AI startup XtalPi (alongside Tencent), live-streaming platform Chushou, and AI and hardware company Mobvoi. There have been events, too, including AlphaGo’s three-game battle with Chinese grandmaster Ke Jie in Wuzhen, developer events in China and the forthcoming first Google Asia Demo Day, which takes places in Shanghai in September.

In addition to making friends in the right places, Google is also increasing its own presence on Chinese soil. The company opened an AI lab in Beijing to help access China-based talent, while it also unveiled a more modest presence in Shenzhen, China’s hardware capital, where it has a serviced office for staff. That hardware move ties into Google’s acquisition of a chunk of HTC’s smartphone division for $1.1 billion.

The strategy is no doubt in its early days, so now is a good time to keep a keen eye on Google’s moves in this part of the world.

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Facebook animates photo-realistic avatars to mimic VR users’ faces

Posted by | Apps, Avatars, Developer, F8 2018, Facebook, Gaming, Mobile, Oculus, Social, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

Facebook wants you to look and move like you in VR, even if you’ve got a headset strapped to your face in the real world. That’s why it’s building a new technology that uses a photo to map someone’s face into VR, and sensors to detect facial expressions and movements to animate that avatar so it looks like you without an Oculus on your head.

CTO Mike Schroepfer previewed the technology during his day 2 keynote at Facebook’s F8 conference. Eventually, this technology could let you bring your real-world identity into VR so you’re recognizable by friends. That’s critical to VR’s potential to let us eradicate the barriers of distance and spend time in the same “room” with someone on the other side of the world. These social VR experiences will fall flat without emotion that’s obscured by headsets or left out of static avatars. But if Facebook can port your facial expressions alongside your mug, VR could elicit similar emotions to being with someone in person.

Facebook has been making steady progress on the avatar front over the years. What began as a generic blue face eventually got personalized features, skin tones and life-like features, and became a polished and evocative digital representation of a real person. Still, they’re not quite photo-realistic.

Facebook is inching closer, though, by using hand-labeled characteristics on portraits of people’s faces to train its artificial intelligence how to turn a photo into an accurate avatar.

Meanwhile, Facebook has tried to come up with new ways to translate emotion into avatars. Back in late 2016, Facebook showed off its “VR emoji gestures,” which let users shake their fists to turn their avatar’s face mad, or shrug their shoulders to adopt a confused expression.

Still, the biggest problem with Facebook’s avatars is that they’re trapped in its worlds of Oculus and social VR. In October, I called on Facebook to build a competitor to Snapchat’s wildly popular Bitmoji avatars, and we’re still waiting.

VR headsets haven’t seen the explosive user adoption some expected, in large part because they lack enough compelling experiences inside. There are zombie shooters and puzzle rooms and shipwrecks to explore, but most tire of them quickly. Games and media lose their novelty in a way social networking doesn’t. Imagine what you were playing or watching 14 years ago, yet we’re still using Facebook.

That’s why the company needs to nail emotion within VR. It’s the key to making the medium impactful and addictive.

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James Murray from the Impractical Jokers talks about the future of VR

Posted by | augmented reality, fiction, film, Gadgets, impractical jokers, IT, series, Startups, TC, technotopia, Virtual reality | No Comments

James Murray is a funny man. A producer, actor, and writer, Murray is best known as Murr on the show Impractical Jokers. I spoke to him for a Technotopia interview about the future of TV, VR, and media and he has a lot to say.

His dream? To offer immersive experiences to his audiences using VR, a dream that he thinks is still far off. Until the VR experience is out-of-the-box easy, he said, there isn’t much hope for the medium. He’s a funny guy and this is one of my favorite interviews.

Technotopia is a podcast by John Biggs about a better future. You can subscribe in Stitcher, RSS, or iTunes and listen the MP3 here.

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Facebook’s plan to unite AR, VR and News Feed with 3D posts

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Facebook, Facebook 3D posts, facebook spaces, Mobile, Social, TC, Virtual reality | No Comments

 What if you could digitally sculpt a 3D object and share it on Facebook, play with it in virtual reality or insert it into your world with augmented reality? Facebook is polishing up stages one and two today after debuting posts of interactive 3D models in News Feed in October that you can move and spin around. Read More

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