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AR/VR surveys an industry in transition – TechCrunch

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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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Apple reaches quiet truce over iPhone privacy changes

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Enlarge / A privacy notice appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system. Developers of an application have to ask for the user’s permission to allow cross-app tracking.

Picture Alliance | Getty Images

Apple has allowed app developers to collect data from its 1 billion iPhone users for targeted advertising, in an unacknowledged shift that lets companies follow a much looser interpretation of its controversial privacy policy.

In May Apple communicated its privacy changes to the wider public, launching an advert that featured a harassed man whose daily activities were closely monitored by an ever-growing group of strangers. When his iPhone prompted him to “Ask App Not to Track,” he clicked it and they vanished. Apple’s message to potential customers was clear—if you choose an iPhone, you are choosing privacy.

But seven months later, companies including Snap and Facebook have been allowed to keep sharing user-level signals from iPhones, as long as that data is anonymised and aggregated rather than tied to specific user profiles.

For instance Snap has told investors that it plans to share data from its 306 million users—including those who ask Snap “not to track”—so advertisers can gain “a more complete, real-time view” on how ad campaigns are working. Any personally identifiable data will first be obfuscated and aggregated.

Similarly, Facebook operations chief Sheryl Sandberg said the social media group was engaged in a “multiyear effort” to rebuild ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data”.

These companies point out that Apple has told developers they “may not derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it.” This means they can observe “signals” from an iPhone at a group level, enabling ads that can still be tailored to “cohorts” aligning with certain behavior but not associated with unique IDs.

This type of tracking is becoming the norm. Oren Kaniel, the chief executive of AppsFlyer, a mobile attribution platform that works with app developers, said that when his company introduced such a “privacy-centric” tool based on aggregated measurement in July 2020, “the level of pushback that we received from the entire ecosystem was huge.”

But now such aggregated solutions are the default for 95 percent of his clients. “The market changed their minds in a radical way,” he said.

It is not clear whether Apple has actually blessed these solutions. Apple declined to answer specific questions for this article but described privacy as its North Star, implying it was setting a general destination rather than defining a narrow pathway for developers.

Cory Munchbach, chief operating officer at customer data platform BlueConic, said Apple had to stand back from a strict reading of its rules because the disruption to the mobile ads ecosystem would be too great.

“Apple can’t put themselves in a situation where they are basically gutting their top-performing apps from a user-consumption perspective,” she said. “That would ultimately hurt iOS.”

For anyone interpreting Apple’s rules strictly, these solutions break the privacy rules set out to iOS users.

Lockdown Privacy, an app that blocks ad trackers, has called Apple’s policy “functionally useless in stopping third-party tracking.” It performed a variety of tests on top apps and observed that personal data and device information is still “being sent to trackers in almost all cases.”

But the companies aggregating user-level data said the reason apps continue to “leak” information such as a user’s IP address and location was simply because some require such information to function. Advertisers must know certain things such as the user’s language or the device screen size, otherwise the app experience would be awful.

The risk is that by allowing user-level data to be used by opaque third parties so long as they promise not to abuse it, Apple is in effect trusting the very same groups that chief executive Tim Cook has lambasted as “hucksters just looking to make a quick buck.”

Companies will pledge that they only look at user-level data once it has been anonymized, but without access to the data or algorithms working behind the scenes, users won’t really know if their data privacy has been preserved, said Munchbach.

“If historical precedent in adtech holds, those black boxes hide a lot of sins,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to assume it leaves a lot to be desired.”

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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Roku vs. Google drama winds down as companies forge multi-year YouTube deal

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Enlarge / Roku’s 4K Streaming Stick.

Roku

Roku and Google have arrived at a multi-year deal that will keep the YouTube and YouTube TV apps available on Roku’s devices, Roku announced on Twitter this morning. The agreement comes months after the YouTube TV app was pulled from the Roku Channel Store and just one day before the regular YouTube app would have been removed from the store.

Specific terms of the deal haven’t been announced, including how many years “multi-year” means and whether Roku will begin adding decoding support for the AV1 video codec to its hardware. We also don’t know whether the $65-per-month YouTube TV service will return to the Roku store as its own dedicated app or if it will continue to be rolled into the main YouTube app, as it has been since Google added it there to sidestep Roku’s restrictions in May.

Support for the AV1 codec has been one of the major sticking points between the two companies. The YouTube and YouTube TV apps use AV1 (which is backed by Google, among other companies) to deliver compressed 4K and 8K video streams. But because streaming devices tend to use slower, cheaper processors, they rely on dedicated video decoding hardware to be able to actually decompress and display those video files, and while most of these devices support the commonly used H.265/HEVC codec for high-resolution video streams, fewer support the royalty-free AV1 codec.

Roku has said that adding AV1 support to its devices would “increase consumer costs,” and requiring it for YouTube and YouTube TV support would effectively allow Google to dictate which chips Roku uses in its own products. Google has also accused Roku of using its position in the streaming-device market to secure more favorable terms (Roku’s devices account for a plurality of all streaming in North America, though its market share is lower in other regions). The YouTube and YouTube TV apps may not be able to stream high-resolution video on devices without AV1 support, though having those apps available in Roku’s store in any capacity is probably better for both companies than allowing them to be pulled entirely.

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Razer’s RGB smartphone cooler attaches to iPhones with MagSafe

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Enlarge / Razer Phone Cooler Chroma.

PC gamers know about heat. When you’re in the middle of an intense in-game battle, the last thing you want is for your computer to start acting up because your CPU or GPU got too hot. That’s why gamers and other extreme users rely on products like CPU coolers and liquid cooling systems. You probably haven’t been as concerned about your smartphone’s thermals while playing Candy Crush on your iPhone. Nevertheless, Razer released a new product, the Phone Cooler Chroma, on Tuesday to ensure your smartphone doesn’t overheat the next time you use it for gaming.

Of course, mobile gaming has grown beyond the likes of Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Razer (and some other vendors) have been trying to make mobile gaming a serious thing for a while. The company’s efforts are mostly focused on controllers, like the Razer Kishi, that attach to your smartphone. There’s also Razer’s finger sleeve for mobile gaming.

The Phone Cooler Chroma released Tuesday has a different purpose. Compatible with both iPhone and Android phones (it supports “most smartphones,” Razer’s product page claims), the product is meant to help keep your phone cool while it’s pushing those frames.

Interestingly, the fan takes advantage of Apple’s MagSafe, allowing you to attach the cooler magnetically. That’s convenient, but it also means the cooler won’t sit directly above the phone’s SoC.

If you don’t have a MagSafe-compatible phone, you can opt for the version with a universal clamp.

Clamp option.

We don’t know how adjustable the cooler is, but Razer says it works with phones that are 2.64-3.46 inches (67-88 mm) wide.

Staying cool?

1. RGB, 2. cover, 3. fan, 4. heatsink, 5. Peltier cooling tile, 6. cooling plate.
Enlarge / 1. RGB, 2. cover, 3. fan, 4. heatsink, 5. Peltier cooling tile, 6. cooling plate.

A cooling plate sits on the back cover and is topped by an electronic tile that uses Peltier cooling, also known as thermoelectric cooling, to transfer heat. The next layer is a heatsink under a seven-bladed fan spinning at up to 6,400 revolutions per minute, adjustable via Bluetooth. Razer says the cooler can stay at 30 dB.

On top of the fan lies a cover with air vents, and—of course—RGB lighting. Does the lighting help your phone stay cool? Absolutely not. But it almost wouldn’t be a Razer product without it. The gaming brand even put RGB on its N95 mask, so Chroma lighting here is no surprise.

RGB feels like a Razer requirement.
Enlarge / RGB feels like a Razer requirement.

There are 12 RGB LEDs in the cover, and each can be set to its own color and effect.

You’ll need a USB-C cable to power the Phone Cooler Chroma. The cooler comes with a 4.9-foot (1.5 m) USB-C to USB-C cable, but this seems like it could be burdensome when gaming on the go, as a mobile gamer is inclined to do.

Power over USB-C required.
Enlarge / Power over USB-C required.

Razer didn’t make any claims about how much cooler the product will keep your phone’s components. Unlike a CPU cooler, this cooler doesn’t come into direct contact with the processor, and it doesn’t have any exhaust vents to work with as some laptop fan coolers do. So the heat transfer from the actual SoC may be limited. Hardcore mobile gamers can find out for themselves for $60.

Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

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