Virtual sxsw awakens the longing for the real world, microsoft launches mesh, some notable facts & figures and apple lets us look into its cards?
The mass adoption of extended reality or (XR)–the collective term for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR)–is a long ways off, but there’s a battle raging between the giants of big tech to become “the next big computing platform.” The corona crisis has only fueled the fire which is why I am writing a monthly overview of the most noteworthy events and changes in the XR landscape.
Virtual SXSW awakens longing for a real world
Every year in March, there is the annual “party” in Austin, the Texas capital. What started as a music festival 34 years ago, has grown into South by Southwest where an average of 1500 bands and artists play to be discovered by producers, managers and the general public. In the meantime, SXSW has become an important film festival, as well as an "interactive media & technology" event (both tracks added in 1994), which grew into some 280,000 visitors of the bohemian innovation and arts festival with a unique atmosphere. The slogan "Keep Austin Weird" was not pulled from thin air.
I have gone twice; each time, it was a fantastic experience. In my opinion–and I’m also probably speaking for our sector–it’s the best conference to make new connections. It has a casual atmosphere which removes barriers when it comes to interacting with high-level profiles. SXSW itself is very progressive and future-oriented, which they proved again by organizing a "real" virtual event this year.
This year, in lieu of a physical presence, panels and keynotes were streamed online via Swapcard (included in the ticket price), but many districts of downtown Austin were also recreated in virtual reality on the VR Chat platform to give more complete representation. Well-known streets such as Congress and Red River were reimagined to fit in the SXSW 2021 edition’s original look and feel. Many recognizable venues such as The Contemporary and the Paramount Theater could be “visited” for streamed keynotes and panels. VR/360° video programming could be viewed and you could catch a virtual beer or concert at the Mohawk Bar.
The whole Austin experience foretold the future of hybrid events, albeit in their infancy. Though my avatar and I roamed the Austin streets with a bit of melancholy, it was fun meeting and catching up with VR colleagues and acquaintances. The loss of the “real” event, however, only got bigger the longer I stayed in virtual Austin. The truth is that the virtual experience will never be able to replace the real one, but at the same time, the real experience will also likely become more exclusive (and desirable) in the future. If the annual tradition becomes a biennial or triennial event, then a virtual version is a perfect stand-in. Even though I was transformed into an alien, it felt pretty natural and certainly more "human" than regular non-immersive events. SXSW deserves a medal for its bold steps into the future.
Microsoft launches platform for collaborationist XR experiences
The Microsoft Ignite conference took place at the beginning of this month. One of the novelties announced was "Microsoft Mesh," a new cloud-based service that Microsoft said will streamline XR application creation. Mesh, which will soon be offered under Microsoft's Azure cloud computing arm, and is the foundation for building multiple-user XR applications. The conference took place in Altspace, the Silicon Valley giant’s proprietary social VR / event platform.
The tool provides developers with a framework to connect users to "shared instances" that provides spatial speech communications and "cloud-based asset management" and supports a common avatar system. The latter means, for example, that if you were to adjust your avatar in Altspace, it will also be automatically updated in Mesh.
Ultimately, the service is focusses on immersive experiences, but is platform neutral. Developers can now use their applications to distribute via Hololens, the Oculus library or even Steam. In addition, Mesh will also be accessible via screens, such as web browsers or smartphones.
Microsoft says it plans to build Mesh-enabled immersive capabilities into Microsoft Teams and Dynamics 365 services, as well. Currently there are preview possibilities for developers, but for when and at what price it will be brought to the market, has not yet been communicated. But Microsoft is confirming with this announcement–and its integrations– that they also see XR as "the next big computing platform."
Notable Facts and Figures
Rec Room was valued at $1.25 billion in a recent $100 million round of funding. It is the first VR content company to achieve such a rating. The free social VR platform has more than 1 million active monthly users, 15 million accounts, and continues to generate revenue from in-game sales. This is partly because of the pandemic, but also because of the increasing interest in the platform.
Hardware news from China. The headset manufacturer Pico has raised $37 million in a Series B round and immediately announced the NEO 3 standalone VR Glasses. The money will be used for the acquisition of core technology to improve the product, but also to build VR awareness and stimulate market demand in Asia. Pico can be seen as a competitor to Facebook’s Oculus, but offers developers more freedom because it runs on an open-Android operating system.
Bank of America brings VR training to its 4,000 branches. The company announced that, following a successful pilot, it will continue to invest in providing more of its workplaces with virtual banking and empathy training. This means that more than 50,000 employees will be taught a range of skills through virtual reality. Corporate America is slowly seeing the use cases of VR. 👊
In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this week, Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, said Quest 2 has surpassed the sales of all its Oculus headsets combined, a significant milestone for a headset that has only been available for 5½ months. According to Bosworth, virtual reality is evolving from early adopters towards the mainstream.
Finally, Apple seriously excited the XR world again by announcing their WWDC event with an ambiguous image. The annual developer conference will take place (completely virtually) on June 7th, but the image may give a glimpse behind the curtain. In the glasses we see a reflection of an image in the laptop screen—or is it an important VR / AR announcement? You can also interpret it as the apps being visualized in the glasses themselves. If you look closely you will also see a hammer in the App Store icon. This might be a reference to Apple's legendary "1984" commercial, which announced the revolutionary Macintosh and featured a hammer being dramatically hurled. Is Apple ready for a new revolution? To be continued!