February 22, 2019
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Virtual Reality

This is the best VR headset I’ve ever demoed

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Before Oculus kickstarted a lot of the fervor around consumer headsets, the VR headsets that were being built for enterprise rigs were multi-thousands-dollar rigs that still sucked. As Oculus and HTC expanded their platforms, a lot of these enterprise-focused VR companies shriveled up or were forced to significantly retool how they approached fat-wallet customers.

Things are even more complicated now; Oculus has priced pretty much every other manufacturer out of the consumer market, and now a good deal of those consumer VR companies are chasing enterprise customers. Microsoft has been doing this with its Mixed Reality platform as well, but the customer base really doesn’t seem to be large enough to necessitate 14 hardware competitors.

Varjo has a unique strategy to stand out from competitors — it’s called actual product differentiation.

The Finland-based VR startup’s new VR-1 headset is a bulky solution that runs on SteamVR tracking but the high-resolution sweet spot that delivers a Retina-type display’s worth of pixel-density transforms this into an entirely different type of product. I don’t want to give this team more credit than they deserve, because the technical solution is novel but not mind-bogglingly complex from a hardware point-of-view; nevertheless, this headset delivers a pretty transformative experience.

The headset works by pairing a more conventionally resolutioned VR display with miniature ultra-high-res displays that lens and mirrors reflect to fall in the center of the user’s vision. The company says this sweet spot (which is about the size of the current-gen HoloLens field-of-view) offers about 20x the resolution of other consumer VR headsets out now. There are a few optical quirks with the current setup and it’s a much different setup than the prototype I demoed in 2017.

HTC Vive Pro versus Varjo VR-1 (courtesy of Varjo)

The company is called Varjo, but the company’s first commercial product notably ditches the varifocal lens approach that was one of the hallmarks of early prototypes. Varifocal lenses allow users to focus on different areas of an environment, including things within a few inches of their face, which is impossible on current headsets. Other perks include not having to wear glasses because the lenses can adjust for your prescription. The systems are mechanically operated, which surely has more potential as a failure point than fixed-lens setups. Ultimately by ditching the varifocal approach, Varjo was able to expand the field-of-view of the high-resolution sweet spot with a fixed lens. Given the trade-offs, they seemed to make a wise choice.

The substantial pixel bump also makes it feel like a completely different type of device. It’s insane. Pixels just aren’t visible, so most of the limitations are what’s being rendered. It’s a decidedly premium experience; the VR-1 retails for just under $6,000 or 17 times the price of the Oculus Rift.

The solution Varjo built out stands on its own for now, but the limitations are quickly apparent in terms of where other headsets can surpass the experience. Future hardware will need some type of varifocal approach and will assuredly rely on tech like foveated rendering to determine where full resolution is rendered rather than a fixed high-res reflection. To VR hardware aficionados looking at pushing scalable solutions, I’m sure the VR-1 feels a bit like cheating, but cheating feels good sometimes.

The VR-1 is, again, $5,995, and that price doesn’t even include the controllers or SteamVR tracking sensors. It exists and it’s on sale now for business customers.

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Facebook mulled multi-billion-dollar acquisition of gaming giant Unity, book claims

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Less than a year after making a $3 billion investment into the future of virtual reality with the purchase of Oculus VR, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was considering another multi-billion-dollar bet to ensure that his company dominated the VR platform, buying Unity, the popular game engine that’s used to build half of all gaming titles.

This claim is made in a new book coming out next week, “The History of the Future,” by Blake Harris, which digs deep into the founding story of Oculus and the drama surrounding the Facebook acquisition, subsequent lawsuits, and personal politics of founder Palmer Luckey.

In the early days while he was writing the book, Harris worked closely with the Facebook PR team and was granted regular interviews with key execs before, as he puts it, his “access came to an end.” Harris claims that through reporting out the book, he had gained access to more than 25,000 documents from sources, including a nearly 2,500-word email sent by Mark Zuckerberg to then-Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, Sheryl Sandberg and a half-dozen other Facebook leaders detailing his interest in buying Unity. TechCrunch has not independently verified the contents of the email.

The email, dated June 22, 2015, lays out an argument for further prioritizing AR/VR and buying the game engine company. The proposed deal,  codenamed “One” according to the book, would have brought one of the world’s most recognizable game developer tool startups into the fold of the internet giant bent on bringing consumers onboard its upcoming VR platform as it looked to ward off competition from other tech giants.

Unity CEO John Riccitiello

The potential deal obviously did not end up going through, and since 2015, Unity has raised nearly $600 million on a valuation north of $3 billion. A report from Cheddar earlier this week noted the company was setting its sights on a 2020 IPO.

Nevertheless, the email seems to offer rare perspectives into Zuckerberg’s thoughts on virtual reality and Facebook’s competitive footing. Though only parts are referenced in the book, Harris has sent TechCrunch the full email embedded below:

2015 06 22 MARK’S VISION by on Scribd

“We are vulnerable on mobile to Google and Apple because they make major mobile platforms,” the email reads. “From a timing perspective, we are better off the sooner the next platform becomes ubiquitous and the shorter the time we exist in a primarily mobile world dominated by Google and Apple. The shorter this time, the less our community is vulnerable to the actions of others. Therefore, our goal is not only to win in VR / AR, but also to accelerate its arrival. This is part of my rationale for acquiring companies and increasing investment in them sooner rather than waiting until later to derisk them further.”

Beyond staking a claim on the VR platform, Zuckerberg also frames an argument for owning Unity as a means of pushing competitors to support Facebook’s other platform services.

“If we own Unity, then Android, Windows and iOS will all need us to support them on [sic] larger portions of their ecosystems won’t work. While we wouldn’t reject them outright, we will have options for how deeply we support them,” Zuckerberg continues. “On the flip side, if someone else buys Unity or the leader in any core technology component of this new ecosystem, we risk being taken out of the market completely if that acquirer is hostile and decides not to support us.”

Though, again, a Unity deal never came to fruition, Zuckerberg seems to be strongly in favor of the deal going through — though he notes there are clear challenges that could leave their efforts bungled.

“Going back to the question of whether it is worth investing billions of dollars into Unity and other core technology over the next decade, the most difficult aspect to evaluate is that we cannot definitively say that if we do X, we will succeed. There are many major pieces of this ecosystem to assemble and many different ways we could be hobbled. All we know is that this improves our chances to build something great.

“Given the overall opportunity of strengthening our position in the next major wave of computing, I think it’s a clear call to do everything we can to increase our chances. A few billion dollars is expensive, but we can afford it.”

Facebook did not comment on the email to TechCrunch. A spokesperson, however, did send along a statement about the book: “The book doesn’t get everything right, but what we hope people remember is the future of VR will not be defined by one company, one team, or even one person. This industry was built by a community of pioneers who believed in VR against all odds and that’s the history we celebrate.”

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Bill Gates-backed Vicarious Surgical adds a virtual reality twist to robots in the operating room

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In an operating room in rural Idaho, doctors prep a patient for surgery. They make a tiny, thumb-sized incision into the patient and insert a small robot while across the country a surgeon puts on a virtual reality headset, grabs their controllers and prepares to operate.

While this scene may seem like science fiction now, a Charlestown, Mass.-based startup called Vicarious Surgical is developing the technology to make that vision a reality.

The company’s co-founders, Adam Sachs and Sammy Khalifa, have been developing and refining the technology almost since they met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as undergraduates.

The 27-year-old Sachs said that he and Khalifa formally launched the company roughly five years ago when they graduated from MIT, and have been working on it ever since.

“We’ve been working on ways to miniaturize robotics and put all of the motion of surgery into the abdominal cavity,” says Sachs. “If you put all of the motion inside the abdominal cavity you are not confined to motion around the incision sites.”

What really set the founders’ brains buzzing was the potential for combining their miniature robots with the ability to see inside the body using virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift.

“It wasn’t a ‘Eureka!’ moment, but more like two-or-three weeks as the vision came together,” says Sachs. “We can make robotics more human-like and virtual reality would give you that presence in the body.”

The two founders initially bootstrapped their startup and then raised a small seed round, then began steadily closing larger tranches of a rolling round from luminaries like Bill Gates through his Gates Frontier fund, Khosla Ventures, Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, AME Cloud Ventures (investment firm from Yahoo founder Jerry Yang), Singularity Holdings investor Neil Devani and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff.

In all, the company has raised some $31.8 million to support the development of its technology.

For Sachs and Khalifa, even though the technology was broadly applicable in areas that would yield faster results than healthcare, tackling the health market first was important, Sachs says.

A lot of people pointed out that our technology has a lot of applications. [But] healthcare for all of the reasons that people talk about really is meaningful to us,” says Sachs. “I have the luxury of being able to work on a project that’s fascinating from a technology standpoint and meaningful from a social good aspect.”

Vicarious Surgical chief medical officer Dr. Barry Greene (left), chief executive, Adam Sachs (middle), and chief technology officer, Sammy Khalifa (right)

Science and entrepreneurship runs in the Sachs family. Adam’s father, Eli Sachs, is a professor at MIT and one of the co-founders of the revolutionary 3D-printing company, Desktop Metal .

According to Sachs, a number of innovations in robotics has led the company to develop what Sachs calls tiny humanoid robots. 

Picture a very robotic version of two human arms and a human head,” says Sachs. “Two robotic arms that have the same degrees of freedom and proportions of a human arms and a camera that is placed above the shoulders of the robot… it’s a few inches across.”

Using the motorized robot a surgeon can remotely control the robot’s movements to operate on a patient. “They can be in another room or they can be hundreds of miles away (with an excellent internet connection,” says Sachs. 

For surgeons using Vicarious’ technology, the primary feedback is virtual, Sachs says. They look through the “eyes” of the robot and can look down and see the robot’s arms. “We track the surgeon’s arm motion and mimics their arms and hands. The primary feedback is to create the impression of presence of the surgeon as if they’d been shrunk down.”

The mission of Vicarious Surgical’s founders and its investors is to drive down both the cost of higher impact surgeries and access to the best surgeons through remote technologies.

The market for medical robots is highly lucrative. Earlier today, Johnson & Johnson announced the $3.4 billion acquisition of Auris Health — a maker of robotic diagnostics and surgical tools. In all, estimates put the robotic surgery market at somewhere around $90 billion, according to a report from Allied Market Research.

“We like to invest in things that if they work they truly change the industry. Minimally invasive surgeries and surgical robotics is definitely the future and it’s just getting started,” says Dror Berman, a managing director with Innovation Endeavors.

There were 900,000 surgeries done using surgical robotics out of a total of 313 million surgical procedures. It’s a low percentage and it’s very expensive to buy those… In general that’s not offered to the vast majority of patients. Vicarious is about democratizing that access… if it works it will open a huge market for people who can use much better procedures for much better surgeries,” Berman says. 

“One of the problems with that is that smaller hospitals can’t afford these $2 million robots,” says Sachs. “By making the devices tiny and fitting the motion inside a patient we can expand access long-term and in smaller hospitals where a surgeon might be able to start a procedure.”

Later, as Vicarious is able to build up taxonomies of different surgical practices and methods, the hospitals could begin to automate more aspects of the procedures to the point where many of these surgeries may just be handled by the robot.

The company is currently testing its miniature robots in laboratories and would not comment on whether it was using animal subjects. Vicarious is also modeling the human abdomen and conducting as many virtual tests as possible.

The new funding, Sachs says, will take the company through its applications for the Food and Drug Administration.

“A lot of our long-term vision is about growing and scaling our technology to the point where it’s accessible not just to big cities and major hospitals in the U.S. and also the small cities and towns in the rural U.S. and around the world as well,” says Sachs. “Long-term it’s about the democratization of surgery that can come from surgical robotics.”

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Digital influencers and the dollars that follow them

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Animated characters are as old as human storytelling itself, dating back thousands of years to cave drawings that depict animals in motion. It was really in the last century, however—a period bookended by the first animated short film in 1908 and Pixar’s success with computer animation with Toy Story from 1995 onwards—that animation leapt forward. Fundamentally, this period of great innovation sought to make it easier to create an animated story for an audience to passively consume in a curated medium, such as a feature-length film.

Our current century could be set for even greater advances in the art and science of bringing characters to life. Digital influencers—virtual or animated humans that live natively on social media—will be central to that undertaking. Digital influencers don’t merely represent the penetration of cartoon characters into yet another medium, much as they sprang from newspaper strips to TV and the multiplex. Rather, digital humans on social media represent the first instance in which fictional entities act in the same plane of communication as you and I—regular people—do. Imagine if stories about Mickey Mouse were told over a telephone or in personalized letters to fans. That’s the kind of jump we’re talking about.

Social media is a new storytelling medium, much as film was a century ago. As with film then, we have yet to transmit virtual characters to this new medium in a sticky way.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t digital characters living their lives on social channels right now. The pioneers have arrived: Lil’ Miquela, Astro, Bermuda, and Shudu are prominent examples. But they have are still only notable for their novelty, not yet their ubiquity. They represent the output of old animation techniques applied to a new medium. This Techcrunch article did a great job describing the current digital influencer landscape.

So why haven’t animated characters taken off on social media platforms?  It’s largely an issue of scale—it’s expensive and time-consuming to create animated characters and to depict their adventures.  One 2017 estimate stated that a 60-90 second animation took about 6 weeks.  An episode of animated TV takes between 13 months to produce, typically with large teams in South Korea doing much of the animation legwork. That pace simply doesn’t work in a medium that calls for new original content multiple times a day.

Yet the technical piece of the puzzle is falling into place, which is primarily what I want to talk about today. Traditionally, virtual characters were created by a team of experts—not scalable—in the following way:

  • Create a 3D model
  • Texture the model and add additional materials
  • Rig the 3D model skeleton
  • Animate the 3D model
  • Introduce character into desired scene


Today, there are generally three different types of virtual avatar:  realistic high-resolution CGI avatars, stylized CGI avatars, and manipulated video avatars. Each has its strengths and pitfalls, and the fast-approaching world of scaled digital influencers will likely incorporate aspects of all three.

The digital influencers mentioned above are all high-resolution CGI avatars. It’s unsurprising that this tech has breathed life into the most prominent digital influencers so far—this type of avatar offers the most creative latitude and photorealism. You can create an original character and have her carry out varied activities.

The process for their creation borrows most from the old-school CGI pipeline described above, though accelerated through the use of tools like Daz3D for animation, Moka Studio for rigging, and Rokoko for motion capture. It’s old wine in new bottles. Naturally, it shares the same bottlenecks as the old-school CGI pipeline: creating characters in this way consumes a lot of time and expertise.

Though researchers like Ari Shapiro at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies are currently working on ways to automate the creation of high-resolution CGI avatars, that bottleneck remains for obstacle for digital influencers entering the mainstream.

Stylized CGI avatars, on the other hand, have entered the mainstream. If you have an iPhone or use Snapchat, chances are you have one. Apple, Samsung, Pinscreen,, Embody Digital, Genies, and are just some of the companies playing in this space. These avatars, while likely to spread ubiquitously a la Bitmoji before them, are limited in scope.

While they extend the ability to create an animated character to anyone who uses an associated app, that creation and personalization is circumscribed: the avatar’s range is limited for the purposes of what we’re discussing in this article. It’s not so much a technology for creating new digital humans as it is a tool for injecting a visual shorthand for someone into the digital world. You’ll use it to embellish your Snapchat game, but storytellers will be unlikely to use these avatars to create a spiritual successor to Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear (though they will be a big advertising / brand partnership opportunity nonetheless).

Video manipulation—you probably know it as deepfakes—is another piece of tech that is speeding virtual or fictional characters into the mainstream. As the name implies, however, it’s more about warping reality to create something new. Anyone who has seen Nicolas Cage’s striking features dropped onto Amy Adams’ body in a Superman film will understand what I’m talking about.

Open source packages like this one allow almost anyone to create a deepfake (with some technical knowhow—your grandma probably hasn’t replaced her time-honored Bingo sessions with some casual deepfaking). It’s principally used by hobbyists, though recently we’ve seen startups like Synthesia crop up with business use cases. You can use deepfake tech for mimicry, but we haven’t yet seen it used for creating original characters. It shares some of the democratizing aspects of stylized CGI avatars, and there are likely many creative applications for the tech that simply haven’t been realized yet.

While none of these technology stacks on their own currently enable digital humans at scale, when combined they may make up the wardrobe that takes us into Narnia. Video manipulation, for example, could be used to scale realistic high-res characters like Lil’ Miquela through accelerating the creation of new stories and tableaux for her to inhabit. Nearly all of the most famous animated characters have been stylized, and I wouldn’t bet against social media’s Snow White being stylized too. What is clear is that the technology to create digital influencers at scale is nearing a tipping point. When we hit that tipping point, these creations will transform entertainment and storytelling.

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5 years after its Oculus investment, A16Z leads a new VR startup’s $68M Series A

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Sandbox’s magic happens in a largely empty room. The gear mounted onto the walls (VR headsets, PC backpacks, and tracked toy assault rifles) gives more than a little indication that there’s more afoot, but nothing really clicks until your team is strapped in and the headsets shove you into a fast-paced wave shooter.

The startup, which has seven locations in Asia and North America, has brought plenty of people through the sweat-inducing experience including quite a few high-profile investors who are ready to buy into Sandbox’s vision for VR.

Sandbox VR just closed a $68 million Series A round led by Andreessen Horowitz with further participation from Floodgate, Stanford University, TriplePoint Capital, CRCM and Alibaba, as reported by Business Insider.

Andreessen Horowitz’s investment in Sandbox VR comes more that 5 years after the firm made a big bet on Oculus VR. At the time, Oculus helped stroke enthusiasm behind the idea that regular consumers would soon be strapping into their own VR gear. While the company has seen some major progress towards that vision beneath Facebook, it still hasn’t entirely kept pace with the white hot expectations that some investors had set towards that vision.

In 2019, Andreessen Horowitz’s Andrew Chen still sees plenty of opportunity in the home, but is excited about what can be enabled when VR can break free of some of its constraints.

“I think we’ve run the experiment that in-home needs to actually have a kind of different form factor, you want the hardware to be more like $200 or the same as a console,” Chen tells TechCrunch. “I think we’re going to see location-based VR split off and be its own form factor with larger spaces that are intrinsically multi-social with real people there and premium hardware like motion capture and haptic vests.”

The Hong Kong-founded company is hardly the first VR startup to bet on premium experiences in retail locations; startups like The Void have also raised significant capital with high-profile partners like Disney thrusting them into highly-trafficked locations, but Sandbox’s investors see the company’s strengths in its scalability.

“We tried everything, what we really liked about [Sandbox] was that really though about archetyping this as modest-sized rooms that you could really put anywhere,” Chen said. “So it’s this really scalable thing that you could imagine putting inside of a mall or a boutique retail location. You could scale a single location to having 10 or 20 rooms the way a movie theater might have 12 screens.”

Sandbox’s $68 million round comes in the midst of a general market cool down around VR, but as more and more investors look to adjacent technologies like augmented reality, the startup’s backers see its strengths in terms of the bond with users. For Mike Maples, a partner at Floodgate, the investment represents his first in the virtual reality space.

“A lot of AR startups are getting more attention because people say, AR can be on all the phones and it has broader distribution,” Maples said. “When I experienced this product I felt like people are going to say, ‘This product rocks my world.’” 

You can read more about how Sandbox VR linked up with its investors in this Medium post from the company’s chief product officer (hint: the story involves In-N-Out).

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