Recapping the top stories covered on the VRScout Report, a weekly live video show and podcast discussing the best in VR, hosted by Malia Probst. You can enjoy the full audio recording below:
In this week’s VRScout Report, we discuss how Jon Favreau brought us Goblins & Gnomes, Bjork continuing to push the boundaries of art and tech with VR, two new standalone headsets to watch for from Qualcomm and Alcatel, how Alibaba wants you to spend real money in VR, some fresh investment and funding within the VR industry, and much more…
1. THE MAN WHO BROUGHT US ELF BRINGS US GOBLINS (AND GNOMES!)
Jon Favreau got his first bit part in Rudy in 1993, which is where he met his future Swingers co-star Vince Vaughn, and over the last 23 years has had an incredible run of acting, writing, producing, and directing in Hollywood (raise your hand if you love Iron Man and Elf). Now, he turns his eye towards virtual reality with Gnomes & Goblins, an original production from Wevr in partnership with Reality One.
Favreau’s vision lands us in a fantasy land, specifically an enchanted forest in which we explore tiny goblin homes in trees and meet a goblin– potentially building a relationship with the cute little creature. However, the goblin reacts differently to everyone: powered by artificial intelligence, the digital character’s behavior is in direct response to your actions. Are you the sort of person who, at the beginning of the experience, would be destructive and throw acorns around (I am), or would you be respectful and quietly explore the magical scene? The immersive story is different for everyone, and was built with Wevr’s VR character AI framework. This release (available 9/8 for HTC Vive) is really just a taste of the larger project to come: Favreau’s ultimate goal is a sprawling open world that you explore and build relationships with the gnome and goblin inhabitants… we can only hope that funny elves will somehow be involved.
2. THE FAMOUS ICELANDIC ECCENTRIC EMBRACES VR
That fabulously weird genius known as Björk continues her lifetime exploration of technology, art, and music with Björk Digital. A traveling showcase of digital and video works, Björk Digital started in Australia and it just debuted at London’s Somerset house. To announce this European premiere, Björk held a press conference and beamed herself in (from Iceland) via a psychedelic motion-captured avatar churning with colors (because why not?). The exhibit is rooted in her 2015 album Vulnicura – a dizzying dive into the depths of post-breakup despair. The spacy and emotional album explores the dissolution of Björk’s relationship with artist Matthew Barney, and Vulnicura’s intensity was so great that it caused Björk to prematurely end its live musical tour in the summer of 2015. Despite this, Björk returns to the album via virtual reality collaborations with well-regarded developers and visual artists traveling the globe as Björk Digital. In addition to her 360 video for Stonemilker, exhibit-goers can check out Black Lake, Mouth Mantra (get inside Björk’s mouth!), and Notget – the last of which utilizes videogrammatry so that you can dance around streams of light particles. Björk has a grand vision, saying that: “virtual reality is helping making a new stage free of politics where sound and vision is swirling free in 360 fully liberated.”
3. EVERYONE WANTS IT STANDALONE
Wires are a VR buzzkill, but the untethered VR headsets are powered by smartphones – which are graphics-processing lightweights compared to the robust PCs behind the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. All hardware manufacturers are chasing that time when the tech shrinks enough to be able to wear PCs on our faces. A few more companies are entering that headset space between the PC (high-quality but tethered) and the smartphone (lower quality but wireless): the American chipmaker Qualcomm and the Chinese mobile handset maker Alcatel. The Qualcomm design is essentially a reference design and promotes Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processor as a solution for other companies to make their own wireless HMD, and the specifications will be released in Q4 of 2016. Alcatel is releasing their product first in China at the end of this year and the U.S. in beginning of 2017, and the standalone VR HMD is a focused new business unit for the company – and they’re working with partners for in-headset payment systems.
4. WITH 500M USERS, ALIBABA’S ALIPAY GOES VIRTUAL
Chinese Internet monster Alibaba has your credit card in VR and it’s called BUY+. Alibaba already owns extremely popular Internet shopping platforms Tmall and Taobao, and its Alipay service has more than 70% of China’s mobile payments market. Back in March, Alibaba (which considers itself first and foremost a “data company”) announced the curiously-named GnomeMagic Lab – devoted to current sellers build their 3D product inventories and set up VR storefronts. We can’t help but wish they called it GnomeMoney… (Jon Favreau would no doubt approve).
5. INVESTMENTS AND VR FUNDING ROUNDUP
Steel Wool Studios, based in Oakland, CA and founded by former Lucasfilm, Telltale Games, and Pixar creatives, received $5M in Series A funding entirely from HTC. The VR studio will use the capital to further development of several projects which will be all around the spectrum of game and narrative-based concepts. After the April announcement of its $100M Vive X VR Accelerator program, the funding of Steel Wool further illustrates that HTC is investing heavily in the virtual reality ecosystem.
Seattle-based Polyarc received an Epic Games Unreal Developer grant for an unannounced project, code name: Moss. The founding team comes with a notable founding team, who come from Bungie and helped create the enormously popular Destiny and Halo titles. The company is outspoken about its commitment to intuitive gameplay, and the $3.5M seed round was led by Chinese UCCVR along with Colopl VR Fund and Vulcan Capital. We’ll have to wait until the end of 2017 to experience its first game, which is expected to be released on multiple platforms.
Bitmovin, founded in 2013, is based in Palo Alto, CA, and Klagenfurt, Austria, and provides video infrastructure for the web. Its co-founders know a bit about high-quality streaming: they created the video streaming standard that drives services like YouTube and Netflix – and makes up about 50% of peak U.S. Internet traffic. Bitmovin’s technology is called adaptive streaming; it gauges the user’s device and internet connection and intelligently adjusts the video quality in response. Bitmovin announced a $10.3M Series A round led by Atomico, along with Speedinvest, Y Combinator (of which the company is an alumnus), Dawn Capital, and notable individuals such as the founder of Unity and the former VP of engineering at Netflix and YouTube.