All posts in “Mixed Reality”

HoloLens 2 will reportedly address the biggest criticism of the first model

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Back in 2016 Microsoft entered the augmented-reality game with HoloLens, a headset that delivered a true mixed reality, combining the real world with virtual images on a transparent display.

Developers and early adopters quickly realized that, while HoloLens was promising, it was being held back by its small field of view. However, this will reportedly change with the second generation of the hardware.

The Verge reports Microsoft is planning to unveil HoloLens 2 by the end of the year. Codenamed Sydney (a name first revealed by Thurrott), the new model will apparently address the biggest criticism of the current HoloLens: its limited field of view. HoloLens 2 will improve things, the report says, but it’s unclear by how much. 

HoloLens 2 should have the latest Kinect sensor onboard as well as a proprietary artificial intelligence chip. Both of these should improve the visuals and latency, creating a more immersive mixed-reality experience.

While details are still scarce, the second-generation headset will be built around an ARM-based processor (the current model uses a discontinued Intel chip), which could bring better battery life, allowing users to be in the mixed reality for a longer period of time. 

There will likely be a larger focus on consumers with the new model. So far HoloLens has mostly been a developer and enterprise play, and it carries a high price tag ($3,000 for the developer edition, $5,000 for the commercial “suite”). Hopefully the second generation will be more affordable, bringing the tech to a new class of customers.

Microsoft is expected to unveil HoloLens 2 by the end of the year, but don’t expect to your hands on one until 2019.

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LiveMap shows off latest prototype of augmented reality motorcycle helmet


LiveMap launched in TechCrunch’s Hardware Battlefield CES 2014 and is getting closer to producing its augmented reality helmet. Since launching, the product has evolved to a working prototype. I tried it on at CES and it seemed to work fine.

The current version of helmet features a small transparent screen mounted on the visor. A small projector is mounted in the chin of the helmet. The software projects directions, maps and notifications onto the screen, but in the final version it will be directly onto the visor, the company said.

Andrew Artishchev the founder of LiveMap told TechCrunch at CES 2018 his company has enough runway to certify the helmet for use in America and enter production. He insists that his company has the proper design and management to get LiveMap certified and on the market. LiveMap is targeting a US launch.

“We are pleased to be still in business due to perseverant testing, development, retesting,” Artishchev said, adding, ” and a thorough understanding experience of all the problems and challenges involved in designing and constructing a complex, innovative product capable of operating in such variable and potentially hostile environments.”

LiveMap is not the only company trying to produce an augmented reality helmet. Others like Skully and BMW have examples but have yet to have one hit the market.

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Pokémon Go creator raises $200 million ahead of Harry Potter game launch


Pokémon Go creator Niantic has raised a new $200 million in funding, reports The Wall Street Journal. The Series B raise was led by Spark Capital, and includes participation from Founders Fund, Meritech, Javelin Venture Capital, You & Mr. Jones and NetEase, Inc. Spark partner Megan Quinn is also joining Niantic’s board as part of the new financing deal.

Niantic is known for its augmented reality games, which began with the multiplayer sci-fi spy game Ingress, created during the company’s time as an internal startup founded within Google. In 2015, Niantic spun out as its own entity, and it launched Pokémon Go in July, 2016. The Pokémon AR game managed to attract massive interest at launch, resulting in huge real-world gatherings of players thanks to its mechanic of incentivizing players to move around in the real world to achieve in-game success.

In its Series A round, Niantic raised $30 million in funding from an investor group including Alsop Loui Partners, Google, Nintendo, The Pokémon Company, Cyan and Scott Banister and others. Earlier this year, Niantic announced its first acquisition, of mobile social network developer Evertoon, and it also recently made official its intent to build a mobile AR game based on Harry Potter.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is due out sometime next year, and will be developed in partnership with Warner Bros. Interactive.

Apple acquired augmented reality headset startup Vrvana for $30M


As Apple reportedly ramps up work to ship an augmented reality headset in 2020, it has acquired a startup from Montreal, Canada that could help it get there. TechCrunch has learned that Apple has acquired Vrvana, maker of the Totem headset — which had rave reviews but never shipped. The deal was for around $30 million, two sources tell TechCrunch.

We contacted Apple, and the company declined to comment, but also did not deny the story. Vrvana did not reply to our request for comment. Sources close to the deal have confirmed the acquisition to us.

The deal is significant because while we have seen reports and rumors about Apple’s interest in AR hardware, the company has been very tight-lipped and generally is very secretive about completely new, future products. This acquisition is perhaps the clearest indicator yet of what the company is hoping to develop.

A number of the startup’s employees have joined Apple in California. The Vrvana site is currently still up, but it stopped updating social accounts and news in August of this year.

It’s not clear what of Vrvana’s existing products, product roadmap or current business — it worked with Valve, Tesla, Audi and others under NDA — will be making its way to Apple.

The only product that Vrvana shows off on its site is the unreleased Totem headset, an “extended reality” device utilizing key technologies from both AR and virtual reality to allow for both experiences on a single headset.

A screen grab from one of Vrvana’s promotional videos for the Totem.

The tethered device had a form factor similar to many of today’s VR headsets, but uniquely relied on several forward-facing pass-through cameras to replicate the outside world on its OLED displays inside the headset. The system of cameras enabled 6DoF tracking, a technology which allows the device to track its position in 3D space, while also using infrared cameras to track a user’s hands.

Vrvana’s camera-based AR approach differs from competitors like Microsoft, which is utilizing transparent, projection-based displays for its HoloLens headset. The Totem holds a number of advantages over these systems, most notably in that it is able to overlay fully opaque, true-color animations on top of the real world rather than the ghost-like projections of other headsets which critically cannot display the color black. This allows the headset to do what it calls “seamless blend” transitions between VR and AR environments.

A key disadvantage in these types of systems, aside from bulky aesthetics, is that there is often noticeable lag between the cameras capturing the outside world and how quickly it is displayed in-headset. Vrvana CEO Bertrand Nepveu detailed this problem in a talk this summer where he shared that the startup had working prototypes that brought this latency down to 3 milliseconds.

An animation showcasing how the Totem smoothly transitions between AR and VR modes.

There are consumer applications for this kind of “extended reality” technology — for example, in games and other entertainment — but one key focus for Vrvana was enterprise usage.

“Totem’s hand tracking and inside-out positional tracking empowers your workforce to manipulate virtual objects with their hands wherever they please,” the company said in promotional materials on the headset.

This is notable considering Apple’s focus — both on its own and in partnership with other IT providers like IBM, Cisco and SAP — to court different enterprise verticals. In August, CEO Tim Cook singled out enterprise as one key focus for its AR ambitions, and in its last earnings the company reported double-digit growth in the area. The company last broke out its enterprise sales back in 2015, when Cook described it as a $25 billion business.

But scaling remains one of the hardest things for startups — especially hardware startups — to do, and this is even more the case for startups working in emerging technologies that have yet to break into the mainstream.

Founded back in 2005, Vrvana had not disclosed much of its funding. A source tells TechCrunch the company raised less than $2 million, a modest figure in the world of hardware. Investors according to PitchBook included Real Ventures (whose partner Jean-Sebastian Cournoyer is also involved with Element.ai, an ambitious AI startup and incubator in Montreal), the Canadian Technology Accelerator, and angel Richard Adler, who is also active in other VR startups.

Up to now, Apple has been fairly critical of the state of VR and AR hardware in the market today, and it has downplayed its own hand in the game.

“Today I can tell you the technology itself doesn’t exist to do that in a quality way. The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face – there’s huge challenges with that,” Cook told The Independent in answer to a question about whether it was building a headset. “The field of view, the quality of the display itself, it’s not there yet…We don’t give a rat’s about being first, we want to be the best, and give people a great experience. But now anything you would see on the market any time soon would not be something any of us would be satisfied with. Nor do I think the vast majority of people would be satisfied.”

That’s not to say that Apple has not been enthusiastic about the augmented reality space. But to date, this interest has largely manifested itself through software — specifically the company’s iOS-based ARKit SDK — and the increasingly sophisticated camera arrays on the iPhone rather than through a dedicated device, although there have been plenty of Apple patents that also potentially point to one.

Apple also has made other acquisitions that underscore its interest in developing the technology that powers the hardware. In June, Apple acquired SMI, an eye-tracking firm that was working on solutions for VR and AR headsets. Other AR and VR-related acquisitions have included Flyby MediametaioEmotient, and Faceshift.

Microsoft expands HoloLens headsets to 29 new markets, now up to 39


Nearly three years on from Microsoft unveiling its HoloLens augmented reality headsets, the company today announced a major expansion of its availability: 29 more markets in Europe, nearly tripling the total number of countries where you can buy the device up to 39.

The news shows that while we don’t have a firm number of how many units have been sold, we do know that Microsoft is banking on the device, a non-immersive experience that lets you interact with visual digital images while still being able to see a room as you would normally, as a core piece of its future hardware and software efforts in a bid to compete against the likes of Apple and Google.

“This is where we believe computing is going,” said Lorraine Bardeen, general manager of Microsoft HoloLens and Windows experiences, who announced he expansion today at Microsoft’s Future Decoded event in London. “We can bring all your apps and programs right into your world, but you can still see all the things in your world that matter to you.”

No details so far on when devices in the expanded list will ship, or what local prices will be (we are asking and will update as we learn more). Currently, Microsoft sells a “Development Edition” of the device for $3,000 and a “Commercial Suite” with added enterprise features for $5,000.

The new countries — Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey — come one year after Microsoft first took the HoloLens outside of the U.S., when it launched it in Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It has since then also expanded it to its first Asian country, Japan. A reported launch in China earlier this year seems not to have materialised yet.

There has been some debate about Microsoft’s strategy of being an early mover in AR — specifically whether banking it primarily around hardware rather than software for readily-available devices (as Apple and Google have done respectively with ARKit and ARCore) has been the wisest move for the company. For now, it seems that it’s the route that Microsoft will continue to take.

If the first wave of international rollouts helped Microsoft hit all Europe’s largest markets, today’s news underscores how Microsoft is now entering a wider, scaling phase for its mixed-reality hardware, and points to the company’s intention to keep it at the center of its future hardware plays, particularly as Microsoft continues to push into enterprise tools and services.

“At Microsoft we are on a mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more,” said Bardeen. “Mixed reality has the potential to help customers and businesses across the globe do things that, until now, have never been possible. Mixed reality experiences will help businesses and their employees complete crucial tasks faster, safer, more efficiently, and create new ways to connect to customers and partners.”

As of March 2017, Microsoft said that there were 150 apps built to work on HoloLens, and the expansion will potentially see that number growing. Microsoft has also been working on HoloLens hardware: a second generation of the device (which has yet to be released) is slated to feature its own AI chip, which will move some of the computing power off the cloud and localise it on the device.

The HoloLens is built to run with Windows 10, which natively supports holographic interfaces at the the API level. This lets developers program actions through gaze, gesture, voice and “environmental understanding” (that is, making sure that an object doesn’t pass through a wall, but bumps against it); and also more easily translate Windows 10 apps into apps that can work on the HoloLens.

While the majority of the world has yet to sign on to using and embracing augmented and virtual reality applications, these are important steps in making mixed-reality applications and devices less awkward and part of the more seamless continuum of consumer electronics and computing.