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May 26, 2019
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Virtual Reality

Backed by LG, AmazeVR is hoping to resurrect virtual reality’s consumer dreams

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For over 100 years entrepreneurs have come to Hollywood to try their luck in the dream factory and build an empire in the business of storytelling.

Propelled by new technologies, new businessmen have been landing in Los Angeles since the invention of the nickelodeon to create a studio that would dominate popular entertainment. Over the past five years, virtual reality was the latest new thing to make or break fortunes, and the founding team behind the Korean company AmazeVR are the latest would-be dream-makers to take their turn spinning the wheel for Hollywood fortunes.

Despite billions of dollars in investment, and a sustained marketing push from some of the biggest names in the technology industry, virtual reality still doesn’t register with most regular consumers.

But technology companies keep pushing it, driven in part by a belief that maybe this time the next advancement in hardware and services will convince consumers to strap a headset onto their face and stay for a while in a virtual world.

There are significant economic reasons for companies to persist. Sales of headsets in the fourth quarter of 2018 topped 1 million for the first time and new, low cost all-in-one models may further move the needle on adoption. Hardware makers have invested billions to improve the technology, and they’d like that money to not go to waste. At the same time, networking companies are spending billions to roll out new, high speed data networks and they need new data-hungry features (like virtual reality) to make a compelling case for consumers to upgrade to the newer, more expensive networking plans.

Sitting at the intersection of these two market forces are companies like AmazeVR, which is hoping to beat the odds.

Founded by a team of ace Korean technologists who won fame and fortune as early executives of the multi-billion dollar messaging service Kakao (it’s the Korean equivalent of WhatsApp or WeChat), AmazeVR is hoping it can succeed in a marketplace littered with production studios like Baobab Studios, Here Be Dragons, The Virtual Reality Company, and others.

The company was formed and financed with $6.3 million from its founding team of Kakao co-founder and co-chief executive, JB Lee, who serves as Amaze’s chief product officer; its head of strategy, Steve Lee, AmazeVR’s chief executive; Jeremy Nam, the chief technology officer at AmazeVR and the former senior software engineer of Kakao; and finally, Steve Koo, who led KakaoTalk’s messaging team and is now head of engineering at AmazeVR.

“What we saw as the problem is the content creation itself,” says Lee.

Encouraged by the potential uptake of the Oculus Go and spurred on by $7 million in funding led by Mirae Asset Group with participation from strategic investors including LG Technology Ventures, Timewise Investment, and Smilegate Investment, AmazeVR is looking to plant a flag in Hollywood to encourage producers and content creators to use its platform and get a significant library of content up and running. 

For LG, it’s strategically important to get some applications up on its newly launched 5G subscription network back in Korea, and AmazeVR is already rolling up new content for its VR platform.

In fact, AmazeVR has already partnered with LG U+, the telecommunications network arm of LG to produce virtual reality content. LG U+ will host AmazeVR content on its service use the company’s proprietary content generation tools to make VR production easier as it looks to roll out 1500 new pieces of virtual reality “experiences”.

AmazeVR sells its content as a $7 per-month subscription, with 3 month bundles for $18 and 6 month bundles for $24. So far, they’ve got more than 1,000 subscribers and expect to add more as consumers start opening their wallets to pick up more devices. The company already has 20 different interactive virtual reality experiences available and is in Los Angeles to connect with top talent for additional productions, the company said.

“We believe cloud-based VR is the future, and AmazeVR has developed elegant technology that enables users to create and share interactive content very easily,” said Dong-Su Kim, CEO of LG Technology Ventures, in a statement. “We are incredibly excited about how the AmazeVR platform will enable innovative, quality content to be generated at unprecedented scale and speed.”

AmazeVR uses a proprietary backend to stitch 360-degree video and provide editing and production tools for content creators in addition to building its own cameras for video capture, the company said.

As it builds out its library, AmazeVR is giving video creators a cut of the sales from the company’s subscriptions and individual downloads of their virtual reality experiences.

“We see no reason that VR content shouldn’t be compelling enough to support a Netflix model. To get there, we must devise mechanisms to inspire, assist, and reward content creators,” said Steve Lee, CEO of AmazeVR. “Our approach, commitment to quality, industry-leading technology, and strategic investors provide a path forward to make VR/AR the next great frontier for entertainment and personal displays.”

Oculus Quest and Rift S now shipping

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Facebook -owned Oculus is shipping its latest VR headgear from today. Preorders for the PC-free Oculus Quest and the higher end Oculus Rift S opened up three weeks ago.

In a launch blog Oculus touts the new hardware’s “all-in-one, fully immersive 6DOF VR” — writing: “We’re bringing the magic of presence to more people than ever before — and we’re doing it with the freedom of fully untethered movement”.

For a less varnished view on what it’s like to stick a face-computer on your head you can check out our reviews by clicking on the links below…

Oculus Quest

TC: “The headset may not be the most powerful, but it is doubtlessly the new flagship VR product from Facebook”

Oculus Rift S

TC: “It still doesn’t feel like a proper upgrade to a flagship headset that’s already three years old, but it is a more fine-tuned system that feels more evolved and dependable”

The Oculus blog contain no detail on pre-order sales for the headsets — beyond a few fine-sounding words.

Meanwhile Facebook has, for months, been running native ads for Oculus via its eponymous and omnipresent social network — although there’s no explicit mention of the Oculus brand unless you click through to “learn more”.

Instead it’s pushing the generic notion of “all-in-one VR”, shrinking the Oculus brand stamp on the headset to an indecipherable micro-scribble.

Here’s one of Facebook’s ads that targeted me in Europe, back in March, for e.g.:

For those wanting to partake of Facebook flavored face gaming (and/or immersive movie watching), the Oculus Quest and Rift S are available to buy via oculus.com and retail partners including Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, Walmart, and GameStop in the US; Currys PC World, FNAC, MediaMarkt, and more in the EU and UK; and Amazon in Japan.

Just remember to keep your mouth shut.

Under the hood on Zoom’s IPO, with founder and CEO Eric Yuan

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Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Kate Clark sat down with Eric Yuan, the founder and CEO of video communications startup Zoom, to go behind the curtain on the company’s recent IPO process and its path to the public markets.

Since hitting the trading desks just a few weeks ago, Zoom stock is up over 30%. But the Zoom’s path to becoming a Silicon Valley and Wall Street darling was anything but easy. Eric tells Kate how the company’s early focus on profitability, which is now helping drive the stock’s strong performance out of the gate, actually made it difficult to get VC money early on, and the company’s consistent focus on user experience led to organic growth across different customer bases.

Eric: I experienced the year 2000 dot com crash and the 2008 financial crisis, and it almost wiped out the company. I only got seed money from my friends, and also one or two VCs like AME Cloud Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures.

nd all other institutional VCs had no interest to invest in us. I was very paranoid and always thought “wow, we are not going to survive next week because we cannot raise the capital. And on the way, I thought we have to look into our own destiny. We wanted to be cash flow positive. We wanted to be profitable.

nd so by doing that, people thought I wasn’t as wise, because we’d probably be sacrificing growth, right? And a lot of other companies, they did very well and were not profitable because they focused on growth. And in the future they could be very, very profitable.

Eric and Kate also dive deeper into Zoom’s founding and Eric’s initial decision to leave WebEx to work on a better video communication solution. Eric also offers his take on what the future of video conferencing may look like in the next five to 10 years and gives advice to founders looking to build the next great company.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

Kate Clark: Well thanks for joining us Eric.

Eric Yuan: No problem, no problem.

Kate: Super excited to chat about Zoom’s historic IPO. Before we jump into questions, I’m just going to review some of the key events leading up to the IPO, just to give some context to any of the listeners on the call.

Reality Check: The marvel of computer vision technology in today’s camera-based AR systems

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British science fiction writer, Sir Arther C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Augmented reality has the potential to instill awe and wonder in us just as magic would. For the very first time in the history of computing, we now have the ability to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual world. AR promises to bring forth the dawn of a new creative economy, where digital media can be brought to life and given the ability to interact with the real world.

AR experiences can seem magical but what exactly is happening behind the curtain? To answer this, we must look at the three basic foundations of a camera-based AR system like our smartphone.

  1. How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization + Mapping)
  2. How do computers understand what the world looks like? (Geometry)
  3. How do computers understand the world as we do? (Semantics)

Part 1: How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization)

Mars Rover Curiosity taking a selfie on Mars. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/msl/pia19808/looking-up-at-mars-rover-curiosity-in-buckskin-selfie/

When NASA scientists put the rover onto Mars, they needed a way for the robot to navigate itself on a different planet without the use of a global positioning system (GPS). They came up with a technique called Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) to track the rover’s movement over time without GPS. This is the same technique that our smartphones use to track their spatial position and orientation.

A VIO system is made out of two parts.

How Beat Saber beat the odds

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Virtual reality is the ultimate money pit. Tech giants are selling low-margin hardware on which users play software that was funded by those same companies. This strategy seems to continue year after year without a hockey stick chart in sight.

While VR may still be waiting for its breakout hardware hit, there has already been a clear software standout. Beat Games released Beat Saber one year ago. The popular game is part Guitar Hero, part Fruit Ninja, and it utilizes the benefits of VR to let players slice their way through an EDM soundtrack, which the company’s music-mixing CEO produced.

While a few VR studios have surpassed lifetime revenue in the low millions, Beat Games sold more than 1 million copies of the $20 game after just nine months on the market. The title’s addicting gameplay has left it endlessly showcased across the web by game streamers, enabling a mainstream success that the VR market really hasn’t seen yet.

Beat Games CEO Jaroslav Beck says the title’s success is “dope,” but he’s more concerned with ensuring he doesn’t leave anything on the table, whether that’s expansion into esports or arcades or the fitness market. I chatted with Beck about what it means to actually finish a game in the era of freemium, why he doesn’t want to become a manager and how Beat Games has never raised VC funding.

‘Unlocked my head’

Beck didn’t come up with the idea for Beat Saber. Like a lot of people who have bought the game, his first experience with it was watching an early demo on the web built by a couple of tinkering Czech programmers.

Ján Ilavský and Vladimír Hrinčár had been building games together since high school. The pair had published a few games; their biggest success was Chameleon Run, a mobile game that won an Apple Design Award in 2016. Following that success, the duo set its sights on building something for virtual reality.

Beat Games co-founders (left to right) Hrinčár, Beck and Ilavský

They were already a year into development when Beck saw a demo on Facebook. At the time, Beck had been living in L.A. building out customers for his own studio, Epic Music Productions, where he had already done some work for clients like EA, Blizzard and Disney. Despite thinking the VR market might be a passing fad, the Beat Saber demo piqued his interest and led him to more online investigating.

“I was so skeptical, but then I saw the teaser that these two had put out and it was like something had unlocked my head,” Beck told TechCrunch.

After discovering the pair shared his Czech background, he contacted them and flew out to Prague to convince them to let him build the soundtrack for their new game. He also planted the idea of starting a new company around the title if it achieved the success that he thought it would.

Convincing the “strict programmers” to build a venture around their demo was more challenging than expected, he admits, but Beck eventually got them on board to finish the game. The team of perfectionists had a tougher time hitting their deadlines than expected, and even after releasing an “early access version” of the title a year ago, Beck still talks about finishing the game as though it’s a far-flung dream. This, despite the fact that Beat Saber is one of the most-downloaded games in VR’s early history.

Influencers and influence

Via Beat Saber’s Facebook page

How the team reached this achievement requires dissecting the qualities of a viral game, which is no small task. Beck thinks the game was successful simply because Ján and Vladimír built the type of game they wanted to play without ever worrying about building a commercial hit.

But for a medium that’s been so difficult to showcase without putting on a headset, the Beat Saber team set out early on to ensure the game was highly visible. Because many of the songs were Beck’s, it was much simpler to ensure that YouTubers could freely post footage of the gameplay without concerns for takedowns or reduced monetization. It worked; it wasn’t long after the game’s release that top streamers like PewDiePie and Jacksepticeye were playing the game for their massive subscriber bases.

Beck says that videos showcasing the game on YouTube have now received more than 2 billion views. That popularity has gradually expanded offline, with plenty of gamers that I’ve chatted with saying the viral Beat Saber videos led them to get VR systems in the first place.

But Beat Saber isn’t just helping sell VR headsets, it’s changing how the systems are built.

Oculus has been using Beat Saber as a way to benchmark the quality of its new inside-out tracking system, ensuring that the new headsets can handle the game’s most advanced modes.

“Our tracking team continued to improve their technology until we could play Expert+ songs and achieve the sorts of scores we see on Rift,” Oculus director of ecosystem Chris Pruett told TechCrunch. “Beat Saber proved to be a very valuable bar against which we have been able to measure our overall tracking quality.”

Beck similarly says that one of Valve’s recent code updates for its SteamVR tracking system was made specifically to account for the tracking needs of Beat Saber’s fastest players.

‘Capturing the full potential’

After smashing through VR sales records, one of Beat Games’ biggest challenges might be ensuring that the platform’s limited reach doesn’t end up stifling its own growth.

The company is already working on some of its own hardware after partnering with South Korea’s SKonec to build custom VR arcade machines so that players in Asia can try out the title without having to fully buy-in to virtual reality.

Some in the VR industry see Beat Saber’s success as a sign that the VR industry’s days of lackluster growth are behind it.

“…The most interesting data point for me is that Beat Saber sold over one million copies in a year and is making over $20 million in revenue,” Tipatat Chennavasin, a co-founder of The VR Fund and an advisor to Beat Games, told TechCrunch in an email interview. “That makes it not just the biggest VR games success story but also the biggest indie games success story on any platform of the past year. Angry Bird’s success on iOS helped legitimize smartphones as a gaming platform when it made $6 million in one year.”

Finding the widest audience has led the Beat Games team to ensure that their code is lean and that the game “could run on a washing machine” if it needed to, Beck says. Even optimizing the game has been intensive work for the small team. Despite having such a hot title, Beck and his co-founders aren’t racing to turn their endeavor into an empire. In the past year, they’ve grown to just eight full-time employees.

“It’s complicated because we don’t really want to scale that much because then we’ll just become managers of a huge team,” he says. “We created the game and we want to be the ones to finish it.”

In an industry seemingly filled with investments that didn’t live up to the industry’s hype, Beat Games has never received outside funding.

“I’m really proud that we were able to build the company with this mindset of making decisions based on what is good for the game and not what is the most profitable thing,” he says. “I think the worst thing for a developer is that you get this awesome idea that you’re super excited about and then investors tell you, ‘Yeah that’s cool, but we’ll be broke.’ Then it’s like, what’s the point? You didn’t start making these games just to become crazy rich, right?”

“I’m not saying we will never raise funding, though,” he quickly adds.

Beck says that the team has some ideas for follow-on titles for Beat Games, but that completing their first effort is the studio’s central priority. Finishing Beat Saber seems like it should be well within the team’s reach, but Beck seems to see “finishing” the game as a nebulous task better defined by what’s left on the table rather than what they actually ship.

“Finishing the game isn’t about just bringing in all of these new features, but it’s about capturing the full potential of the game, whether that’s in esports, fitness or in just exploring music,” Beck says. “That’s a lot of work… the question is if we will survive until then (laughs), but I sure hope that we do.”

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