Magic Leap Raises Big New Round of Funding (Oct 12, 2017)
Magic Leap, the stealth AR startup based in Florida, has just raised yet more funding, according to a regulatory filing, though the exact amount isn’t yet public. It has an authorization to raise up to $1 billion at a roughly 17% premium to its last round, and Singapore’s Temasek is expected to be one of the investors. That Magic Leap is raising even more money ahead of what’s been widely expected to be a launch late this year is both a sign that its investors are still excited by what they see, and also likely a sign that it isn’t quite ready to launch and therefore start generating revenue yet. Both Magic Leap and a small group of people who’ve seen its product continue to be very bullish about its technology, but it remains tight-lipped about exactly what it’s building, what form its product will take, how it will be priced, or when it might launch. Hopefully that will change soon, because for now gaming-centric headset VR and smartphone-based AR are really the sum total of the combined AR and VR markets, and Magic Leap has the potential to add an interesting new segment to the market.
SensorTower, an app analytics firm with a misleading name, reports that over 3 million apps which require support for the ARKit augmented reality toolset have been downloaded from Apple’s iOS App Store since the launch of iOS 11, and that over half of those downloads were of games. Importantly, this excludes apps which have ARKit-based features as optional extras and only focuses on those apps which require ARKit compatibility to run at all, which is obviously a narrower set of apps. Around a third of the apps available in this category are games, so they’re being downloaded disproportionately more than apps in other categories. Overall, I have to say that I’ve been surprised by how few really compelling or big ARKit-based apps there have been so far – even some of the apps demoed by Apple at WWDC and the iPhone launch seem to be missing in action so far, including an updated Pokemon Go game. That’s a little disappointing given how much noise Apple made about ARKit ahead of its launch and the high expectations many of us had for the platform. I still think more games and apps will come in time, but things are definitely taking off more slowly than I would have expected.
Microsoft today held what it called in its unique terminology a mixed reality event, at which it made a number of announcements. Perhaps the biggest announcement was that Samsung is making a Windows VR headset, which will cost $499 and therefore land towards the higher end of the spectrum of Windows VR headsets, and well into the territory covered by the premium VR rigs from companies like HTC, Oculus, and Sony, a problem that I outlined a while back in this column. It and other headsets will be available in the next couple of weeks from a variety of vendors and at a variety of prices, though none of them at the $300 price point Microsoft originally touted for the space. That’s reflective of the fact that no-one wants to be the Google Cardboard of PC-based VR, as they all want to provide something of a premium experience. Also announced today was the quiet acquisition of most of a company called AltspaceVR, which was backed by Comcast and was effectively shuttered over the summer, and provided a social angle on VR, something Microsoft itself hasn’t had but which Facebook has made an obvious focus with Oculus and Facebook Spaces. Lastly Microsoft announced the number of apps available on the Microsoft Store for VR – 20,000 – and the fact that a basic Halo game will be coming to the platform this month too.
Overall, it feels like Microsoft is finally getting to the point where its VR push is bearing fruit after a lot of talking about it over the past year or so, and that’s a good thing given how marginal its AR push still is outside of very limited commercial and educational deployments. Its mixed reality terminology isn’t going to do it or its partners any favors from a marketing perspective, and it remains to be seen how many PC owners really want VR experiences enough to spend hundreds of dollars on new hardware rather than going the mobile VR route and buying a $100 add-on for their smartphones. Samsung’s entry into the market certainly creates an interesting opportunity for it to take its so far mobile-only strategy further up-market, and based on the response to its headset, it seems it may be one of the best on offer right now for Windows VR.
Bloomberg reports that Magic Leap is trying to raise additional funding, which might include an investment from Singapore’s Temasek fund (which was one of two sources of the money that recently bailed out SoundCloud), and would value it at $6 billion. It also says the company hopes to launch its product within six months, that it will cost $1500-2000, and that it will sit somewhere between glasses and today’s VR headsets in format and require the user to also carry a puck to provide processing. Though the funding is certainly interesting, it’s the other details that are far more interesting to me – those suggest a device which will be out of reach for all but a few consumers if it launches at that price, and which may sit awkwardly between other products in the market, not quite glasses-like enough to be wearable all the time. By all accounts, the technology is pretty amazing, though whether Magic Leap can really squeeze it into a production device with these parameters remains to be seen. But it’s another indication that truly wearable AR is many years away and we’re in for another few years of attempts that fall short in various ways.
Google today announced ARCore, an equivalent to Apple’s ARKit tools for developers to create AR experiences on Android phones. Importantly, it’s not tied to the latest version of the Android operating system but rather is being implemented on a device-by-device basis, with Google’s own Pixel and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 the first devices to support it, with the latter running Nougat rather than Oreo. There are two ways to look at this announcement, given the timing: on the one hand, it looks like a response to ARKit and the massive positive buzz that’s received since it was announced in June; on the other, it’s a natural outgrowth of the work Google’s done with its much higher end Tango AR framework in the last few years, and that’s certainly how Google’s pitching it. I think the reality given the speed with which this has been released is that this was something Google was working on pre-ARKit but has accelerated in light of the ARKit launch.
Its blog post headline is “Augmented reality at Android scale” and you can read that one of two ways: on the one hand, as a counterpoint to ARKit, which runs at the somewhat smaller iOS scale, but on the other as an acknowledgement that – interesting though Tango is as a platform – it was never going to achieve true Android scale. The rollout plans here are a little vague – Google hopes its “preview” of ARCore will hit 100 million devices sometime this winter, which is likely a fraction of the iOS devices that will support ARKit by that time, but there’s potential for broad rollout of this platform to most recent premium Android devices over the next couple of years. That’s likely short of true Android scale (2 billion plus phones) but would likely hit the devices where it’s most relevant, which are those that compete more directly with the iPhone, though Apple will enjoy a year or two of significantly greater adoption before Android starts to catch up.
At this point, it’s hard to see Tango as anything other than a time-consuming and expensive failure in its own right, but it’s clearly allowed Google to learn a lot which can now be applied to ARCore and therefore be much more useful and widely available. Between Apple and Google’s launches, it’s clearer than ever that smartphone AR will be by far the largest chunk of the overall AR/VR spectrum, and we should see some really interesting implementations over the next few months.
Android Police has a review of the Asus ZenFone AR, the second phone to carry Google’s Tango augmented reality technology. It sounds like it’s a big improvement over the clunky first phone from Lenovo, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it’ll be a big seller, while Tango itself doesn’t sound like it’s moved on much either. The review is worth noting because Google has been in AR for far longer than Apple, and yet Tango seems to have stalled at the experimental phase, with lots of effort from Google and yet very little to show for it. Two phones, neither of which will end up selling in large numbers, very few apps and essentially no meaningful position in AR just at a time when the space is about to take off thanks to Apple’s entry through ARKit in iOS. That’s something of an indictment of Google’s failure in this area, with its Daydream VR effort faring a little better but also not yet finding a sizable market niche to call its own. One other thing to note from the review here: it sounds like Tango absolutely hammers battery life on this device, and that’s something that will be well worth watching when ARKit-based apps launch on the iPhone in September. Pokemon Go has already taught us that apps featuring AR (and location-based elements) can be hard on batteries and still be popular, but it will detract from AR’s popularity on the iPhone if ARKit apps show a comparable tradeoff in battery life.
via Android Police
Facebook Acquires Tech to Add or Remove Objects in Videos (Aug 11, 2017)
Microsoft Working on AI Chip for Next Version of HoloLens (Jul 24, 2017)
Google Glass Relaunched as Enterprise and Industrial Product (Jul 18, 2017)
IDC Forecasts Strong Growth for AR and VR Headsets, with VR and Commercial AR Biggest (Jun 19, 2017)
Apple today upgraded its iPad Pro lineup and announced a new version of iOS with big changes for the iPad as well as support for AR. The major theme in both the hardware and software aspects of the iPad announcements was productivity, where Apple continues to push the iPad Pro as a potential laptop replacement. The hardware changes improve performance across the board while specifically tweaking the ratio between screen and device size for the smaller iPad Pro in a change that likely foreshadows what Apple will do in a more dramatic way in the Fall with the iPhone. Just as the Mac lineup became more powerful with today’s announcements, so the iPad is becoming more powerful as a potential computer replacement, and the iOS changes specific to the iPad further that message, with support for a much wider range of multitasking scenarios and other more sophisticated features. For the first time, the iPad version of iOS feels like it’s gaining a truly distinct identity that’s really optimized for heavy-duty productivity tasks, and it will be interesting to see how the OS feels on the iPads not designed for pro use, because a number of user interface elements and conventions will change as a result. However, the other big change in today’s iOS announcements is support for AR through ARKit for developers, which is Apple’s first foray into AR. Notably, whereas the VR support in the Mac is primarily aimed for today at creation of VR content, Apple’s AR push is much more end-user centric, and will enable developers to quickly and easily create a range of AR apps and games for the iPhone and iPad. Whereas smartphone-centric AR today is very photo- and video-centric and dominated by companies like Snapchat and more recently Facebook, Apple’s platform approach could dramatically expand the use of AR in smartphone apps and move smartphone-based AR forward significantly in terms of mainstream adoption.
Though Google spent much of its I/O keynote talking about apps and features like Photos and the Assistant, it did devote a few minutes to the topic of AR and VR, which will have a second deeper-dive keynote of their own tomorrow. On the VR side, the key announcement is that Google is extending the Daydream platform beyond mobile VR to standalone headsets, which in the first instance will be built by partners Lenovo and HTC and supported with chips from Qualcomm. Daydream so far has been limited by the fact that the biggest Android smartphone vendor has its own competing platform, so the news that Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones will support Daydream through a software update in the summer is a big deal. My guess is that Samsung will still favor its own Gear VR system with its usual bundling and discounting deals, but the fact that Daydream View and other compatible headsets will now work with Samsung devices should increase its appeal. Daydream’s system is better than Samsung’s in a number of ways, though the recent Gear VR update closes the gap a bit, so the playing field should be a leveled a little going forward. Also worth noting are a couple of AR announcements, including a new “Tango phone” to support Google’s indoor mapping technology, and VPS, an indoor equivalent of GPS which will enable precise directions within large stores and the like. Neither of those feels remotely mass market yet, which means Google’s AR efforts are far more marginal than the phone-based efforts from Facebook and Snapchat (and likely soon Apple too). Interestingly, VR head Clay Bavor outlined his vision for the space in a blog post today too, and it’s remarkably similar to Microsoft’s in that it envisions a continuum or spectrum that includes both VR and AR, though Bavor’s favored term is immersive computing rather than mixed reality and he’s less pejorative about the VR and AR terms everyone is already using.
Snapchat Debuts Sponsored Filters For the Rear-Facing Camera (May 15, 2017)
When Facebook announced its AR strategy at F8 a few weeks back, a key component was filters for the rear-facing camera. At least in demos, those filters looked more impressive than what Snapchat had until then offered for the back camera on a phone, interacting in sophisticated ways with real-world elements in much the way Snapchat’s selfie filters do with faces. But the other big difference between Facebook and Snapchat’s approaches to filters is that for now at least Facebook treats them as an open developer platform, while at Snapchat they’re first-party only other than for advertisers. And today Snapchat announced that it will be debuting its first sponsored rear-facing filters, starting with a promotion for a teen romance movie. That’s clearly a new place for Snapchat to put ads within its interface, which will be handy as its user growth continues to be slow. But it also means that Snapchat’s rear-facing filters will continue to be a very narrow, curated experience with the occasional ad, while Facebook’s equivalent may in time offer a much richer, broader set of filters for the rear-facing camera. I would guess that Facebook will in time offer monetization options for developers too (and therefore take a cut) but for now the business models remain quite different, which means that even though from a feature perspective the two will compete, Facebook won’t be offering brands equivalent ad products to the ones Snapchat offers.
Weekly Narrative Video – AR vs VR (May 12, 2017)
This week’s Narrative Video covers the “AR vs VR” narrative, and is available now to subscribers on the AR vs VR narrative page. In this video, I discuss the debate about terminology between AR, VR, and Microsoft’s preferred “Mixed Reality”. But I also talk about the current state of both VR and AR and how I see both playing out over the rest of the year. The narrative has been in the news this week, with Microsoft making announcements about mixed reality at Build, and Magic Leap both reaching out to developers and creatives and allegedly readying another round of funding. If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up for a free 30-day trial to see this and other Weekly Narrative Videos, all this week’s posts and the narrative essays, which are exclusive to subscribers.