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July 18, 2018
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Reali raises $20M for its flat fee real estate platform

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Reali, a real estate platform that replaces traditional real estate transaction fees with a flat fee model, today announced that it has raised a $20 million Series B funding round led by Zeev Ventures, with participation from Signia Venture Partners and other investors. This round brings Reali’s total funding to $30 million.

The basic idea behind Reali is to do away with the current agent-centric commission model and replace it was a technology platform and agents that are paid a flat fee per transaction. To do this more efficiently in the future, Reali is looking to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

We are fusing AI with human intelligence and optimized workflows around buyer and seller journeys — all towards a superior customer experience for real estate transactions that also result in significant savings for buyers and sellers,” Reali CEO and founder Amit Haller told me.

It’s no suprise then that much of the new funding will go toward expanding the company’s expertise in this area. In addition, the service is also looking at expanding its service geographically. Currently, it’s only available in the Bay Area and Sacramento. Reali now wants to add Southern California to this list. “We are in the process of recruiting and training a team of Reali Experts and on-the-ground Brand Ambassadors, and we expect to begin servicing buyers and sellers later this summer,” said Haller. “We will be covering all of California this year, followed by out-of-state markets.”

So far, Reali says, the platform has processed “hundreds of millions of dollars in homes bought and sold.” The company boasts that its agents are far more efficient than other brokers on a per-transaction basis and that they have a Net Promotor Score of 85.2. The company’s app has only been downloaded 30,000 times since January 2017, though that number doesn’t mean much given that the service is only available in a very limited area.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Apple is rebuilding Maps from the ground up

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I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the launch of Apple Maps went poorly. After a rough first impression, an apology from the CEO, several years of patching holes with data partnerships and some glimmers of light with long-awaited transit directions and improvements in business, parking and place data, Apple Maps is still not where it needs to be to be considered a world class service.

Maps needs fixing.

Apple, it turns out, is aware of this, so It’s re-building the maps part of Maps.

It’s doing this by using first-party data gathered by iPhones with a privacy-first methodology and its own fleet of cars packed with sensors and cameras. The new product will launch in San Francisco and the Bay Area with the next iOS 12 Beta and will cover Northern California by fall.

Every version of iOS will get the updated maps eventually and they will be more responsive to changes in roadways and construction, more visually rich depending on the specific context they’re viewed in and feature more detailed ground cover, foliage, pools, pedestrian pathways and more.

This is nothing less than a full re-set of Maps and it’s been 4 years in the making, which is when Apple began to develop its new data gathering systems. Eventually, Apple will no longer rely on third-party data to provide the basis for its maps, which has been one of its major pitfalls from the beginning.

“Since we introduced this six years ago — we won’t rehash all the issues we’ve had when we introduced it — we’ve done a huge investment in getting the map up to par,” says Apple SVP Eddy Cue, who now owns Maps in an interview last week.  “When we launched, a lot of it was all about directions and getting to a certain place. Finding the place and getting directions to that place. We’ve done a huge investment of making millions of changes, adding millions of locations, updating the map and changing the map more frequently. All of those things over the past six years.”

But, Cue says, Apple has room to improve on the quality of Maps, something that most users would agree on, even with recent advancements.

“We wanted to take this to the next level,” says Cue. “We have been working on trying to create what we hope is going to be the best map app in the world, taking it to the next step. That is building all of our own map data from the ground up.”

In addition to Cue, I spoke to Apple VP Patrice Gautier and over a dozen Apple Maps team members at its mapping headquarters in California this week about its efforts to re-build Maps, and to do it in a way that aligned with Apple’s very public stance on user privacy.

If, like me, you’re wondering whether Apple thought of building its own maps from scratch before it launched Maps, the answer is yes. At the time, there was a choice to be made about whether or not it wanted to be in the business of Maps at all. Given that the future of mobile devices was becoming very clear, it knew that mapping would be at the core of nearly every aspect of its devices from photos to directions to location services provided to apps. Decision made, Apple plowed ahead, building a product that relied on a patchwork of data from partners like TomTom, OpenStreetMap and other geo data brokers. The result was underwhelming.

Almost immediately after Apple launched Maps, it realized that it was going to need help and it signed on a bunch of additional data providers to fill the gaps in location, base map, point-of-interest and business data.

It wasn’t enough.

“We decided to do this just over four years ago. We said, “Where do we want to take Maps? What are the things that we want to do in Maps? We realized that, given what we wanted to do and where we wanted to take it, we needed to do this ourselves,” says Cue.

Because Maps are so core to so many functions, success wasn’t tied to just one function. Maps needed to be great at transit, driving and walking — but also as a utility used by apps for location services and other functions.

Cue says that Apple needed to own all of the data that goes into making a map, and to control it from a quality as well as a privacy perspective.

There’s also the matter of corrections, updates and changes entering a long loop of submission to validation to update when you’re dealing with external partners. The Maps team would have to be able to correct roads, pathways and other updating features in days or less, not months. Not to mention the potential competitive advantages it could gain from building and updating traffic data from hundreds of millions of iPhones, rather than relying on partner data.

Cue points to the proliferation of devices running iOS, now numbering in the millions, as a deciding factor to shift its process.

“We felt like because the shift to devices had happened — building a map today in the way that we were traditionally doing it, the way that it was being done — we could improve things significantly, and improve them in different ways,” he says. “One is more accuracy. Two is being able to update the map faster based on the data and the things that we’re seeing, as opposed to driving again or getting the information where the customer’s proactively telling us. What if we could actually see it before all of those things?”

I query him on the rapidity of Maps updates, and whether this new map philosophy means faster changes for users.

“The truth is that Maps needs to be [updated more], and even are today,” says Cue. “We’ll be doing this even more with our new maps, [with] the ability to change the map real-time and often. We do that every day today. This is expanding us to allow us to do it across everything in the map. Today, there’s certain things that take longer to change.

“For example, a road network is something that takes a much longer time to change currently. In the new map infrastructure, we can change that relatively quickly. If a new road opens up, immediately we can see that and make that change very, very quickly around it. It’s much, much more rapid to do changes in the new map environment.”

So a new effort was created to begin generating its own base maps, the very lowest building block of any really good mapping system. After that, Apple would begin layering on living location data, high resolution satellite imagery and brand new intensely high resolution image data gathered from its ground cars until it had what it felt was a ‘best in class’ mapping product.

There is only really one big company on earth who owns an entire map stack from the ground up: Google .

Apple knew it needed to be the other one. Enter the vans.

Apple vans spotted

Though the overall project started earlier, the first glimpse most folks had of Apple’s renewed efforts to build the best Maps product was the vans that started appearing on the roads in 2015 with ‘Apple Maps’ signs on the side. Capped with sensors and cameras, these vans popped up in various cities and sparked rampant discussion and speculation.

The new Apple Maps will be the first time the data collected by these vans is actually used to construct and inform its maps. This is their coming out party.

Some people have commented that Apple’s rigs look more robust than the simple GPS + Camera arrangements on other mapping vehicles — going so far as to say they look more along the lines of something that could be used in autonomous vehicle training.

Apple isn’t commenting on autonomous vehicles, but there’s a reason the arrays look more advanced: they are.

Earlier this week I took a ride in one of the vans as it ran a sample route to gather the kind of data that would go into building the new maps. Here’s what’s inside.

In addition to a beefed up GPS rig on the roof, four LiDAR arrays mounted at the corners and 8 cameras shooting overlapping high-resolution images – there’s also the standard physical measuring tool attached to a rear wheel that allows for precise tracking of distance and image capture. In the rear there is a surprising lack of bulky equipment. Instead, it’s a straightforward Mac Pro bolted to the floor, attached to an array of solid state drives for storage. A single USB cable routes up to the dashboard where the actual mapping capture software runs on an iPad.

While mapping, a driver…drives, while an operator takes care of the route, ensuring that a coverage area that has been assigned is fully driven and monitoring image capture. Each drive captures thousands of images as well as a full point cloud (a 3D map of space defined by dots that represent surfaces) and GPS data. I later got to view the raw data presented in 3D and it absolutely looks like the quality of data you would need to begin training autonomous vehicles.

More on why Apple needs this level of data detail later.

When the images and data are captured, they are then encrypted on the fly immediately and recorded on to the SSDs. Once full, the SSDs are pulled out, replaced and packed into a case which is delivered to Apple’s data center where a suite of software eliminates private information like faces, license plates and other info from the images. From the moment of capture to the moment they’re sanitized, they are encrypted with one key in the van and the other key in the data center. Technicians and software that are part of its mapping efforts down the pipeline from there never see unsanitized data.

This is just one element of Apple’s focus on the privacy of the data it is utilizing in New Maps.

Probe data and Privacy

Throughout every conversation I have with any member of the team throughout the day, privacy is brought up, emphasized. This is obviously by design as it wants to impress upon me as a journalist that it’s taking this very seriously indeed, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s evidently built in from the ground up and I could not find a false note in any of the technical claims or the conversations I had.

Indeed, from the data security folks to the people whose job it is to actually make the maps work well, the constant refrain is that Apple does not feel that it is being held back in any way by not hoovering every piece of customer-rich data it can, storing and parsing it.

The consistent message is that the team feels it can deliver a high quality navigation, location and mapping product without the directly personal data used by other platforms.

“We specifically don’t collect data, even from point A to point B,” notes Cue. “We collect data — when we do it —in an anonymous fashion, in subsections of the whole, so we couldn’t even say that there is a person that went from point A to point B. We’re collecting the segments of it. As you can imagine, that’s always been a key part of doing this. Honestly, we don’t think it buys us anything [to collect more]. We’re not losing any features or capabilities by doing this.”

The segments that he is referring to are sliced out of any given person’s navigation session. Neither the beginning or the end of any trip is ever transmitted to Apple. Rotating identifiers, not personal information, are assigned to any data or requests sent to Apple and it augments the ‘ground truth’ data provided by its own mapping vehicles with this ‘probe data’ sent back from iPhones.

Because only random segments of any person’s drive is ever sent and that data is completely anonymized, there is never a way to tell if any trip was ever a single individual. The local system signs the IDs and only it knows who that ID refers to. Apple is working very hard here to not know anything about its users. This kind of privacy can’t be added on at the end, it has to be woven in at the ground level.

Because Apple’s business model does not rely on it serving, say, an ad for a Chevron on your route to you, it doesn’t need to even tie advertising identifiers to users.

Any personalization or Siri requests are all handled on-board by the iOS device’s processor. So if you get a drive notification that tells you it’s time to leave for your commute, that’s learned, remembered and delivered locally, not from Apple’s servers.

That’s not new, but it’s important to note given the new thing to take away here: Apple is flipping on the power of having millions of iPhones passively and actively improving their mapping data in real time.

In short: traffic, real-time road conditions, road systems, new construction and changes in pedestrian walkways are about to get a lot better in Apple Maps.

The secret sauce here is what Apple calls probe data. Essentially little slices of vector data that represent direction and speed transmitted back to Apple completely anonymized with no way to tie it to a specific user or even any given trip. It’s reaching in and sipping a tiny amount of data from millions of users instead, giving it a holistic, real-time picture without compromising user privacy.

If you’re driving, walking or cycling, your iPhone can already tell this. Now if it knows you’re driving it can also send relevant traffic and routing data in these anonymous slivers to improve the entire service. This only happens if your maps app has been active, say you check the map, look for directions etc. If you’re actively using your GPS for walking or driving, then the updates are more precise and can help with walking improvements like charting new pedestrian paths through parks — building out the map’s overall quality.

All of this, of course, is governed by whether you opted into location services and can be toggled off using the maps location toggle in the Privacy section of settings.

Apple says that this will have a near zero effect on battery life or data usage, because you’re already using the ‘maps’ features when any probe data is shared and it’s a fraction of what power is being drawn by those activities.

From the point cloud on up

But maps cannot live on ground truth and mobile data alone. Apple is also gathering new high resolution satellite data to combine with its ground truth data for a solid base map. It’s then layering satellite imagery on top of that to better determine foliage, pathways, sports facilities, building shapes and pathways.

After the downstream data has been cleaned up of license plates and faces, it gets run through a bunch of computer vision programming to pull out addresses, street signs and other points of interest. These are cross referenced to publicly available data like addresses held by the city and new construction of neighborhoods or roadways that comes from city planning departments.

But one of the special sauce bits that Apple is adding to the mix of mapping tools is a full on point cloud that maps the world around the mapping van in 3D. This allows them all kinds of opportunities to better understand what items are street signs (retro-reflective rectangular object about 15 feet off the ground? Probably a street sign) or stop signs or speed limit signs.

It seems like it could also enable positioning of navigation arrows in 3D space for AR navigation, but Apple declined to comment on ‘any future plans’ for such things.

Apple also uses semantic segmentation and Deep Lambertian Networks to analyze the point cloud coupled with the image data captured by the car and from high-resolution satellites in sync. This allows 3D identification of objects, signs, lanes of traffic and buildings and separation into categories that can be highlighted for easy discovery.

The coupling of high resolution image data from car and satellite, plus a 3D point cloud results in Apple now being able to produce full orthogonal reconstructions of city streets with textures in place. This is massively higher resolution and easier to see, visually. And it’s synchronized with the ‘panoramic’ images from the car, the satellite view and the raw data. These techniques are used in self driving applications because they provide a really holistic view of what’s going on around the car. But the ortho view can do even more for human viewers of the data by allowing them to ‘see’ through brush or tree cover that would normally obscure roads, buildings and addresses.

This is hugely important when it comes to the next step in Apple’s battle for supremely accurate and useful Maps: human editors.

Apple has had a team of tool builders working specifically on a toolkit that can be used by human editors to vet and parse data, street by street. The editor’s suite includes tools that allow human editors to assign specific geometries to flyover buildings (think Salesforce tower’s unique ridged dome) that allow them to be instantly recognizable. It lets editors look at real images of street signs shot by the car right next to 3D reconstructions of the scene and computer vision detection of the same signs, instantly recognizing them as accurate or not.

Another tool corrects addresses, letting an editor quickly move an address to the center of a building, determine whether they’re misplaced and shift them around. It also allows for access points to be set, making Apple Maps smarter about the ‘last 50 feet’ of your journey. You’ve made it to the building, but what street is the entrance actually on? And how do you get into the driveway? With a couple of clicks, an editor can make that permanently visible.

“When we take you to a business and that business exists, we think the precision of where we’re taking you to, from being in the right building,” says Cue. “When you look at places like San Francisco or big cities from that standpoint, you have addresses where the address name is a certain street, but really, the entrance in the building is on another street. They’ve done that because they want the better street name. Those are the kinds of things that our new Maps really is going to shine on. We’re going to make sure that we’re taking you to exactly the right place, not a place that might be really close by.”

Water, swimming pools (new to Maps entirely), sporting areas and vegetation are now more prominent and fleshed out thanks to new computer vision and satellite imagery applications. So Apple had to build editing tools for those as well.

Many hundreds of editors will be using these tools, in addition to the thousands of employees Apple already has working on maps, but the tools had to be built first, now that Apple is no longer relying on third parties to vet and correct issues.

And the team also had to build computer vision and machine learning tools that allow it to determine whether there are issues to be found at all.

Anonymous probe data from iPhones, visualized, looks like thousands of dots, ebbing and flowing across a web of streets and walkways, like a luminescent web of color. At first, chaos. Then, patterns emerge. A street opens for business, and nearby vessels pump orange blood into the new artery. A flag is triggered and an editor looks to see if a new road needs a name assigned.

A new intersection is added to the web and an editor is flagged to make sure that the left turn lanes connect correctly across the overlapping layers of directional traffic. This has the added benefit of massively improved lane guidance in the new Apple Maps.

Apple is counting on this combination of human and AI flagging to allow editors to first craft base maps and then also maintain them as the ever changing biomass wreaks havoc on roadways, addresses and the occasional park.

Here there be Helvetica

Apple’s new Maps, like many other digital maps, display vastly differently depending on scale. If you’re zoomed out, you get less detail. If you zoom in, you get more. But Apple has a team of cartographers on staff that work on more cultural, regional and artistic levels to ensure that its Maps are readable, recognizable and useful.

These teams have goals that are at once concrete and a bit out there — in the best traditions of Apple pursuits that intersect the technical with the artistic.

The maps need to be usable, but they also need to fulfill cognitive goals on cultural levels that go beyond what any given user might know they need. For instance, in the US, it is very common to have maps that have a relatively low level of detail even at a medium zoom. In Japan, however, the maps are absolutely packed with details at the same zoom, because that increased information density is what is expected by users.

This is the department of details. They’ve reconstructed replicas of hundreds of actual road signs to make sure that the shield on your navigation screen matches the one you’re seeing on the highway road sign. When it comes to public transport, Apple licensed all of the type faces that you see on your favorite subway systems, like Helvetica for NYC. And the line numbers are in the exact same order that you’re going to see them on the platform signs.

It’s all about reducing the cognitive load that it takes to translate the physical world you have to navigate through into the digital world represented by Maps.

Bottom line

The new version of Apple Maps will be in preview next week with just the Bay Area of California going live. It will be stitched seamlessly into the ‘current’ version of Maps, but the difference in quality level should be immediately visible based on what I’ve seen so far.

Better road networks, more pedestrian information, sports areas like baseball diamonds and basketball courts, more land cover including grass and trees represented on the map as well as buildings, building shapes and sizes that are more accurate. A map that feels more like the real world you’re actually traveling through.

Search is also being revamped to make sure that you get more relevant results (on the correct continents) than ever before. Navigation, especially pedestrian guidance, also gets a big boost. Parking areas and building details to get you the last few feet to your destination are included as well.

What you won’t see, for now, is a full visual redesign.

“You’re not going to see huge design changes on the maps,” says Cue. “We don’t want to combine those two things at the same time because it would cause a lot of confusion.”

Apple Maps is getting the long awaited attention it really deserves. By taking ownership of the project fully, Apple is committing itself to actually creating the map that users expected of it from the beginning. It’s been a lingering shadow on iPhones, especially, where alternatives like Google Maps have offered more robust feature sets that are so easy to compare against the native app but impossible to access at the deep system level.

The argument has been made ad nauseam, but it’s worth saying again that if Apple thinks that mapping is important enough to own, it should own it. And that’s what it’s trying to do now.

“We don’t think there’s anybody doing this level of work that we’re doing,” adds Cue. “We haven’t announced this. We haven’t told anybody about this. It’s one of those things that we’ve been able to keep pretty much a secret. Nobody really knows about it. We’re excited to get it out there. Over the next year, we’ll be rolling it out, section by section in the US.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Beleaguered electric vehicle firm Faraday Future gets $2B investment boost

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There’s a rare moment of cheer for floundering electric car maker Faraday Future after it landed a new investor and a fresh commitment of capital.

Evergrande Health, a division of Hong Kong-listed Evergrande, has taken a 45 percent stake in Faraday Future in a deal worth a total of $2 billion. Evergrande Health has taken over an investment commitment agreed to last November by Season Smart Limited, an investor that swooped in to save Faraday Future when its cash was on the verge of running out.

Season Smart invested an initial tranche of $800 million, according to filings, but now Evergrande Health has taken that over for around $860 million, or HK$6.75 billion. Beyond that money, Evergrande Health has a commitment to complete the overall deal by investing $600 million by the end 2019, and a further $600 million by the end of 2020. 

Aside from Evergrande Health’s 45 percent share, existing investors own a combined 33 percent with the remaining 22 percent allocated to Faraday Future’s 1,000 employees as part of an incentive program. On the subject of staff, founder Yueting Jia (known as JT) will become Faraday Future’s global CEO with immediate effect.

It was widely reported that he was keen to keep majority ownership and remain in charge, but it looks like he’s had to settle for the latter only with this deal — but hey that beats being in the deadpool.

Faraday Future, which is technically a U.S. firm but is heavily backed by Chinese money, said the deal was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) after the initial agreement from investors in November.

“FF will continue to use the committed funds to accomplish our top priority — finalizing the development and delivering the first production vehicle, FF 91 to both US and China markets,” the company said in a statement.

“The investment will also support Faraday Future to expand its product pipeline, develop cutting-edge technologies and grow the business rapidly in the global marketplace, including our manufacturing facilities in Hanford, California and in Guangzhou Nansha, Guangdong Province, China,” it added.

The FF 91 shown off at CES 2017

The deal is a rare boost for Faraday Future which was founded in 2014 as a rival to Tesla but has struggled to deliver on its hype and promise.

The company unveiled its vision for electric cars — the FF 91 — at a glitzy launch event in CES last year, but 2017 was a year to forget.

Following on from reports of financial issues with parent company LeEco in late 2016, Faraday Future paused construction of its new factory and then scaled back its product line due to financial concerns. The company was sued by a visual effects team it didn’t pay and then, when the cash crunch really hit home, it canceled plans for an assembly plant in California and went back on a $1 billion project to develop a massive factory in the Nevada desert.

After abandoning plans for a tailor-made factory, it later inked a deal on a more general facility in Hanford, California.

The drama hasn’t ended for YT, who first founded LeEco, however . He’s been under pressure in his native China over debts that have piled up — to the sum of $890 million — for his Leshi Internet video streaming division. Tencent and JD.com, two large Chinese internet firms, invested in LeEco’s smart TV unit earlier this year, while the parent firm was previously bailed out by property company Sunac in early 2017.

News Source = techcrunch.com

California legislators stealthily ‘eviscerate’ state’s net neutrality bill

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A group of legislators in California have sneakily but comprehensively “eviscerated” the state’s imminent net neutrality bill, removing a huge amount of protections in a set of last-minute amendments. State Senator Scott Wiener called the hostile rework of the bill “outrageous.”

California’s net neutrality bill has been cited as an excellent example of what states can do to protect their citizens now that the 2015 rules have been officially rolled back and weaker ones substituted. And in some ways it actually went further than the FCC’s popular rules, which were a bit more conservative on, for example, the practice of zero rating.

While the FCC found that zero rating practices could basically be pursued up to a certain point, the California bill would essentially render the ones that exist today illegal.

The California rules would allow zero rating to happen, but prohibit the part where an ISP could prioritize certain apps or businesses over others. So they could allow all music, or medical data, or indeed video advertising traffic to be free to consumers — but not just Spotify, or just this insurance provider, etc. Consumers get the benefits and are protected from most of the quiet but substantial ill effects.

But late last night the chair of the committee through which the bill must pass, Miguel Santiago, proposed some “suggested amendments” that completely removed the zero rating rules and several other important protections.

Now, disagreements on proposed laws are perfectly ordinary and that’s what committees like this are for, to balance different viewpoints and ostensibly produce a better law. And Sen. Wiener has indicated that he and the others behind the bill are willing to negotiate.

“We attempted to work with the committee and made clear we were willing to make amendments, but we also made clear what our bottom lines were, and what we couldn’t remove from the bill,” he told me. “The way the committee went about doing this is pretty outrageous.”

Normally the amendments would be proposed and the author of the bill would work with them on how to integrate them — if they can’t reach an agreement, the bill doesn’t pass the committee. But in this case the committee literally proposed the changes late last night and forcibly injected them first thing this morning.

“It’s not common to force hostile amendments into the bill, and it’s particularly uncommon to force amendments before the hearing even starts,” Wiener said.

To be clear, the amendments aren’t minor changes: pages of rules and definitions are entirely removed or reduced to far simpler versions.

“These amendments eviscerate the bill,” Wiener said. “They remove critical protections on interconnection, paid access fees, anti-consumer zero rating.”

Naturally these are issues that broadband and mobile providers are very concerned about. Since many already zero-rate lots of services, they would have to bring their offerings into line with the law, the process of which would probably remove any competitive benefit they derive from them.

Why couldn’t these decisions wait until the bill is formally heard and public opinion formally sought? The bill as it was written had received plenty of support, but substantive changes could still be made in the months before it is voted on.

Wiener was frustrated but not defeatist. “We’re all professionals,” he said. “These are my colleagues. I’m sure we’ll have lots of discussions over the next few weeks, or even the next few months.”

That said, it’s clear from this ambush on the bill that there are powerful forces at work opposing it. What happens next is anybody’s guess, but we’ll know more in the coming weeks as more hearings and committees consider the now deeply compromised law.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Location-based virtual reality is increasing its footprint in the U.S.

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Earlier this year, in a small, grey-walled storefront inside a very large mall in Torrance, Calif. (just past the AMC Center) , the virtual reality game-maker Survios planted its first flag in the market for location-based gaming.

It’s one of several companies (many based in Los Angeles) that are turning the city into a hub for anyone looking to experience the thrill of immersive gaming.

While Survios’ offering is more akin to the virtual arcades cropping up in cities across the country and around the world (including Dubai, New York, Seoul, and Tokyo), other companies like the Los Angeles-based Two Bit Circus and Lindon, Utah’s The Void are creating site specific game experiences that promise a different kind of approach to virtual reality.

For Survios and other companies that have placed multi-million dollar bets on the viability of virtual reality, the move to location-based gaming isn’t a matter of choice. It’s a matter of survival thanks to the persistent lack of demand from consumers. 

Sales of head-mounted displays began to climb out of their doldrums late last year, and are expected to surpass 1.5 million head mounted displays sold in 2018, according to data from Canalys. But that’s still a far smaller market than the 10 million game consoles that were sold in the U.S. alone in 2017 (not to mention the roughly 32 million consoles sold at the market’s peak in 2008), according data on the Statista website

The benefits of location-based experiences are clear. The cost of premium headsets and gaming systems prohibit most U.S. households from getting the gear in their hands and until those costs come down, out-of-home experiences provide the best way to get consumers comfortable with the technology.

That’s been the tactic ever since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney launched Computer Space in 1971 with the first coin-operated computer game for arcades.

And one that VRWorld brought (with much fanfare) to virtual reality in the U.S. with the debut of its three-floor gaming hub near the Empire State Building in the heart of New York.

That experience, a more extravagant investment than Survios’ humble multi-bay storefront, was one of the first in the U.S. to commit to the sensory overload that is virtual reality. By 2018, New York was home to at least seven virtual reality spaces where users could experience the technology, according to The New York Times.

And while it’s hard to recreate a truly immersive, mobile game experience in the home, the ability to access cinematic quality production values, a physical space purpose-built for immersive game play, and the intellectual property of some of Hollywood’s most enduring brands (like The Void’s Star Wars experience) can make for a compelling pitch to consumers.

That’s the hope of people like Nancy Bennett, an entertainment industry veteran who was brought on as the Chief Creative Officer at Two Bit Circus.

“What’s cool about VR and a differentiator of the medium is that it gives you embodiment,” Bennett says. “There’s no other medium that does that.”

Bennett knows a thing or two about entertainment. A producer with MTV Networks, the founder of the collaborative game development platform Squarepushers Inc. and a celebrated creator of virtual reality projects for the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Bennett won the Lumiere award for best music VR experience for her work on the “One At a Time” video for Alex Aiono. 

From haptic platforms and motion floors that simulate the ability to walk around a space, the location based experience will offer a more fully immersive platform that can lend itself to more interesting narratives, says Bennett.

For Bennett, the vision of a place like Two Bit Circus, or the experiences on offer from other location based platforms are about the combination of narrative and technology in a way that can provide verisimilitude to someone strapped into a headset.

She, and others in the location-based community, look to immersive theater like Sleep No More as a model for how to proceed. “Immersive theater is absolutely the platform that will help drag us along,” Bennett says. 

At Two Bit Circus, which raised $15 million from investors last January, virtual reality will be about 20% of the experiences on offer. The company’s inaugural space in Los Angeles will also avail itself of projection mapping, augmented reality and other ways to immerse and entertain, Bennett promises.

But immersion will be at the heart of it all, she said. “Those kinds of mixed immersive experiences are going to be de rigueur,” according to Bennett. “And locations are going to be the only places where you can pull that off.”

Bennett sees the industry offering different tiers of immersive entertainment. With virtual reality arcades like Survios’ in Torrance operating on one level and more highly immersive experiences like The Void and Baobab Studios operating on another.

It’s one reason why companies like Cinemark have announced that they’re working with The Void and other immersive, location-based virtual reality companies to create experiences in their theaters.

“Really it’s about what serves the creative goal,” says Bennett. “What I think is really cool is the opportunity to mash up the fast prototyping of the community into one space to get people to play. It isn’t just VR. There’s also new forms of play and arcades that are possible and interactive audience participation for content creation.”

Even with the wow-factor of the experience, it may not be enough to buck industry trends. IMAX was one of the first companies to carve out immersive virtual reality spaces in its theaters, but given its woeful performance in the first quarter of 2018, those efforts are now on hold, according to it chief executive Richard Gelfond.

“At this time, we do not anticipate opening additional VR centers, or making a meaningful future investments in the initiative,” he told analysts during the company’s first quarter earnings call.

It’s a dramatic change for a company that was touting its entrance into the location based market just a year earlier.

IMAX’s stumble belies the international success of location-based gaming. In this, Asia leads the way with virtual reality outposts like the Viveland theme park in China. An existing infrastructure of internet cafes meant that Asian gaming hubs could just throw virtual reality hardware into their mix of offerings and continue to attract an audience.

Meanwhile, companies in the U.S. need to depend on purpose built spaces for virtual reality gaming thanks to the dominance of in-home gaming consoles (which overtook arcade gaming at least a decade ago). The lack of similar out-of-home spaces led to IMAX deciding to set up their own experiences — and other movie theaters and amusement parks following suit.

And there’s still the chance that in-home virtual reality will be able to pick up the pace and boost adoption more quickly than the market expects.

Analysts for the industry tracker Canalys forecast that the industry will sell nearly 10 million units in 2021, on par with the (shrinking) console market. Standalone virtual reality headsets are expected to push the market to 7.6 million units sold by the end of 2018, according to Canalys.

Still, for the immediate future, for those looking to get the full benefit of a virtual reality experience, their best bet is to find the nearest Void experience and battle some storm troopers, check out an arcade, or wait for the unveiling of Two Bit Circus’ first facility later this year.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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