Pieter Van Leugenhagen
Sep 7th, 2021
Pieter Van Leugenhagen
When we talk about big tech across the world, we usually talk about Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Snapchat. But actually you can’t leave out TikTok. The company’s course in recent years is impressive to say the least.
Parent company ByteDance launched the app in the Chinese market in 2016 under the name Douyin and it grew to 100 million users within the year. Thanks to its success, the app was also released outside of China, but under the name TikTok. In 2017, the app, also Chinese, bought Musical.ly for $1 billion and decided to integrate it into TikTok. The name Douyin is still used in China–and both apps run on the same software–but the networks are separate due to restrictions posed by the Chinese government.
ByteDance knew all too well that XR would be the next big thing. If they want to compete with Facebook, Snapchat and Apple, et al, they also have to evolve within this domain—and this month they did.
TikTok could not afford to lag behind when both Facebook and Snap provide tools that allow developers to build augmented reality (AR) filters that are then distributed through their own platforms. These AR effects are immensely popular with users and advertisers as well. So the Chinese company launched a new creative toolset this month called Tiktok Effect Studio, similar to Facebook/Instagram’s Spark AR and Snapchat’s Lens Studio. The new initiative is still in Beta for the time being, but interested developers can already register to get early access.
During the last weeks of August, the rumors grew louder that ByteDance would have plans for VR hardware. Those rumors were also confirmed with an acquisition of Pico, the world’s third-largest virtual reality headset maker, in the first quarter of 2021, growing 44.7% year-over-year, according to global research firm IDC. Only Facebook’s Oculus and the Chinese DPVR do better. The price was not confirmed, but it is expected to hover around USD 772 million.
This acquisition makes clear ByteDance’s long-term plans for VR competitive with Sony, Facebook and Apple. The Pico Neo 3 (which focuses on a consumer market and is similar to Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2) is currently available exclusively in Asia. Hopefully that will change with this acquisition. The Neo 3 Pro and Neo Pro Eye will be available in North America and Europe later this year.
It is not the first time that Facebook has embarked on a social VR adventure and probably not the last. Zuckerberg has made it clear that they will move from social media to a metaverse business over the next five years. He describes the metaverse as a virtual environment in which you share experiences with other people/avatars. It is an embodiment of the Internet and the Mobile Internet’s successor. Instead of looking at a screen, you’re right inside of one. According to analysts, Facebook will invest about 5 billion a year in the coming years.
In 2017, Facebook came up with a trailer for Spaces, an application that would combine 360° video, avatars and the social networking site. We haven’t seen much further than a beta of this. A Facebook Horizons trailer was released last year, but the actual launch was still pending. Until they finally launched Horizon Workrooms at the end of August: a platform that makes it possible to meet with other avatars in a three-dimensional space, share screens, write on whiteboards and above all have the feeling of being together. The spatial sound contributes enormously, and it works.
Workrooms are by no means unique and whether this move was part of Facebook’s long-term vision, or rather a COVID-inspired opportunity, is unclear. This is in any case a harbinger and the first launch that fits within the larger whole of Facebook Horizon. Because that’s what their metaverse will be called. With Workrooms they naturally aim at a professional audience and given all their privacy scandals it is very questionable whether they will be able to reach that target group.
Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is a multi-part VR documentary from Canada’s Felix & Paul Studios and TIME that shows you what life is like aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The first two episodes, already available via the Oculus platform, take you to the thin air of the ISS interior.
But the studios have announced that they have started filming episodes three and four outside the ISS so you can virtually experience the edge of space through 3D, 360 video. The episodes will be released in the fall of this year and the winter of 2022 respectively.
If you want to impress your future special someone with a ballad on the piano, but can’t even tell two music notes apart, the Magic Keys app can be part of your next charm offensive. Using VR glasses and the passthrough API (via the cameras in your headset you create AR effects) the notes appear in sequential order above the keys, so you can play in real time without any prior knowledge of piano. You’ll have to leave your bag of tricks in the closet until the fall, but you may already have something to unpack for Valentine’s Day.