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Original author: 
Eric Johnson

Oculus VR's Palmer Luckey, left, and Nate Mitchell, right. At center, AllThingsD's Lauren Goode tries out the Oculus Rift at CES 2013.

Oculus VR’s Palmer Luckey, left, and Nate Mitchell, right. At center, AllThingsD’s Lauren Goode tries out the Oculus Rift at CES 2013.

This is the second part of our two-part Q&A with Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell, the co-founders of virtual-reality gaming company Oculus VR. In Part One, Luckey and Mitchell discussed controlling expectations, what they want from developers, and the challenges of trying to make games do something radically different.

AllThingsD: What do you guys think about Google Glass? They’ve got their dev kits out right now, too, and –

Palmer Luckey: — What’s Google Glass? [laughs]

No, seriously, they’re doing something sort of similar with getting this wearable computing device to developers. Does the early buzz about Glass worry you?

Luckey: No. They’re not a gaming device, and they’re not a VR device, and they’re not an immersive device, and they’re five times more expensive than us.

Nate Mitchell: It’s just a completely different product. Wearable computing is super-interesting, and we’d love to see more wearable computing projects in the market. At Oculus, especially, we’re excited about the possibilities of Google Glass. We’ve seen it, we’ve checked it out, it’s very cool. But if you bring them together –

Luckey: Our image size is like 15 times larger than theirs. It’s like the difference between looking at a watch screen and a 60-inch monitor. It’s just an enormous difference.

snlglass

Mitchell: With the Rift, you’re in there. You’re totally immersed in the world. I think one of the things people keep bringing up (with Glass) is the awkward, the social aspect. For the Rift, you strap into this thing, and you’re gone.

Luckey: It’s about being inside the virtual world, not caring about the real one.

Mitchell: You could put your Glass on in the virtual space.

Luckey: We could do that! We could simulate Glass. … It’s not that hard. You just have a tiny heads-up display floating there. A really tiny one.

Mitchell: I like it.

“Okay, Rift, take a picture. Okay, Rift, record a video …”

Luckey: There’s actually Second Life mods like that. People sell heads-up displays that you can buy.

Mitchell: Really?

Luckey: And they put information in there like distance to waypoints and stuff.

Mitchell: Oh, that’s cool!

Luckey: Yeah, they overlay it on the screen when your character’s wearing it.

I never really “got” Second Life. Minecraft, I can wrap my head around quickly. But Second Life …

Luckey: It’s very difficult to get into. There’s a steep learning curve. The last time I went into Second Life was to buy bitcoins from a crazy guy who was selling them below market value, but you had to go into Second Life to meet with him.

Mitchell: The underbelly of the Internet.

Luckey: They’re actually working on Oculus Rift support, though. The kind of people who make games like Second Life definitely see the potential for virtual reality — being able to step into your virtual life.

And if you’re completely immersed in the game, I guess that wherever you’re playing, you need to trust whoever’s around you.

Mitchell: Absolutely. There’s already some sneaking up on people happening in the office. Someone’s developing, they’re testing the latest integration, and then Palmer comes up and puts his hands on their shoulders: “Heyyyy, Andrew! What’s going on?” There’s a trust factor.

Luckey: Have you seen the Guillotine Simulator? (video below) Some people are showing that without even telling the person what it is: “Here, check this out!” “Whoa, what’s going on?” And then — [guillotine sound effect]

Mitchell: One thing that that does lead into is, we’re exploring ways to just improve the usability of the device. When you put on the Rift, especially with the dev kit, you’re shut off from the outside world. What we’re looking at doing is how can we make it easy to pull it off. Right now, you have to slip it over your head like ski goggles. The dev kit was designed to be this functional tool, not the perfect play-for-10-hours device. With the consumer version, we’re going for that polished user experience.

What about motion sickness? Is it possible to overcome the current need for people to only play for a short period of time on their first go?

Luckey: The better we make the hardware, the easier it’ll be for people to just pick up and play. Right now, the hardware isn’t perfect. That’s one of the innate problems of VR: You’re trying to make something that tricks your brain into thinking it’s real. Your brain is very sensitive at telling you things are wrong. The better you can make it, the more realistic you can make it, the more easily your brain’s gonna accept the illusion and not be throwing warning bells.

You mentioned in one of your recent speeches that the Scout in Team Fortress 2 –

Luckey: — he’s running at like 40 miles per hour. But it’s not just, “Oh, I’m running fast.” It’s the physics of the whole thing. In real life, if you are driving at 40mph, you can’t instantly start moving backward. You can’t instantly start strafing sideways. You have inertia. And that’s something that, right now, games are not designed to have. You’re reacting in these impossible ways.

Mitchell: In that same vein, just as Palmer’s saying the hardware’s not perfect yet, a huge part of it is the content.

Luckey: You could make perfect hardware. Pretend we have the Matrix. Now you take someone and put them in a fighter jet and have them spinning in circles. That’s going to make someone sick no matter how good it is, because that actually does make people sick. If you make perfect hardware, and then you do things that make people sick in real life, you’re gonna make them sick in VR, too. Right now, there’s lots of things going on in games that don’t make people sick only because they’re looking at them on a screen. Or, in so many games, they’ll have cutscenes where they take control of the camera and shake it around. You don’t want to do that in VR because you’re not actually shaking around in real life.

You’re changing the experience that you have previously established within VR.

Mitchell: It breaks the immersion.

Luckey: And that’s why it’s so hard to instantly transfer. In the original version of Half Life 2, when you’d go into a new space for the first time, the whole game would just freeze for a second while it loads. It’s just a short freeze, but players were running along or driving along and all of a sudden, jjt! Now it looks like the whole world’s dragging along with you, and a lot of people feel very queasy when that happens.

Mitchell: It comes back to content. My talk at GDC was very specifically about how developing for VR is different from a 2-D monitor. All those things like cutscenes, storytelling, scale of the world — if the player is at four feet on the 2-D monitor and you put them in there, they immediately notice. They look down and they have the stereo cues: “I’m a midget!” So you make them taller, and now they don’t fit through doors. We really do believe that, at first, you’re going to see these ports of existing games, but the best “killer app” experiences are going to come from those made-for-VR games.

Luckey: And that’s not even to say it has to be new franchises. It doesn’t have to be a new type of game. But you want the content to be designed specifically for the hardware.

Mitchell: It’s just like the iPhone. The best games come from developers pairing hardware and software.

 Dive Into Media.

Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe testing out the Rift at D: Dive Into Media.

And that’s the 10,000-foot view: Does VR change game design in a fundamental way?

Mitchell: Yes. Fundamentally. Absolutely. I think, right now, there’s this great renaissance in the indie community. Indie developers are doing awesome things. If you look at games like The Walking Dead, you’ve got the mainstream genres here. You’re going to have a lot of these indie games start to feel more natural in virtual reality, because that’s almost, like, the intended experience.

Luckey: And not to invent a whole new genre on the fly, but you don’t see many first-person card games or something. There’s a lot of card game videogames, but there’s not many that are first-person because it wouldn’t make any sense to do.

Like a poker game where you could look around the table and read people’s reactions?

Mitchell: Exactly.

Luckey: And you could have all kinds of things integrated into it. I guess that would fit into the first-person-shooter genre, but not really, because you’re not moving and you’re not shooting. You’re just playing cards.

Mitchell: And if you look at the research that’s been done on virtual characters, it’s the type of thing where, if you smile at me in VR, even if you’re an NPC (non-playable character), I’m much more likely to smile back. Your brain is tricked into believing you’re there.

Luckey: There’s also fascinating research on confidence levels in VR, even tiny things. There was a study where a bunch of people performed tasks in real life, in a control group, and then performed them in VR. And the only difference is that one group in VR was about six inches taller than the other group. So, one was shorter than the NPC they were interacting with, one was taller. Universally, all of the “taller” people exhibited better negotiation with the NPCs. Then, they took them out (of the VR simulation) and they redid the (real-world) study, putting everyone back in another trial with a physical person. The people who’d been tall in VR and negotiated as a taller person did better when they went back into the real negotiation as well. It’s ridiculous.

Mitchell: That’s the sort of thing we’re super-excited about. That’s the dream.

And do you have a timeline for when –

Mitchell: When the dream comes to fruition?

Luckey: It’s a dream, man! Come on! [laughs]

Not when it comes to fruition. Are there milestones for specific accomplishments along the way?

Luckey: Sure, we have them, internally. [laughs]

Mitchell: We have a road map, but like we keep saying, a huge part of this is content. Without the content, it’s just a pair of ski goggles.

Luckey: And we don’t even know, necessarily, what a road map needs to look like. We’re getting this feedback, and if a lot of people need a certain feature — well, that means it’s going to take a little longer.

Mitchell: But we have a rough road map planned, and a lot of exciting stuff planned that I think you’ll see over the course of the next year.

And is there a timeline for when the first consumer version comes out?

Mitchell: It’s TBD. But what we can say is, Microsoft and Sony release their dev kits years in advance before they get up onstage and say, “The Xbox One is coming.” We went for the same strategy, just open and publicly.

Luckey: And we don’t want to wait many years before doing it.

Mitchell: Right. So, right now, we’re giving developers the chance to build content, but they’re also co-developing the consumer version of the Rift with us. Once everyone’s really happy with it, that’s when you’ll see us come to market.

Luckey: And not sooner. We don’t want to announce something and then push for that date, even though we know we can make it better.

IMG_4929

And what about the company, Oculus VR? Is this dream you’re talking about something you have to realize on your own? Do you want to someday get acquired?

Luckey: Our No. 1 goal is doing it on our own. We’re not looking to get acquired, we’re not looking to flip the company or anything. I mean, partnering with someone? Sure, we’re totally open to discussions. We’re not, like, we want to do this with no help.

But you wouldn’t want to be absorbed into a bigger company that’s doing more than just VR.

Mitchell: The goal has been to build great consumer VR, specifically for gaming. We all believe VR is going to be one of the most important technologies of –

Luckey: — ever!

Mitchell: Basically.

Not to be too hyperbolic or anything.

Luckey: It’s hard not to be. It’s like every other technological advance could practically be moot if you could do all of it in the virtual world. Why would you even need to advance those things in the real world?

Mitchell: Sooo …

Luckey: [laughs]

Mitchell: With that in mind, we have to figure out how we get there. But right now, we’re doing it on our own.

Luckey: And we think we can deliver a good consumer VR experience without having to partner with anyone. We’re open to partnering, but we don’t think we have to. We’re not banking on it.

And how does being based in southern California compare to being closer to a more conventional tech hub like Silicon Valley?

Mitchell: Recruiting is a little harder for us. But overall, we’ve been able to attract incredible talent.

Luckey: And if you’re in Silicon Valley, it’s probably one of the easiest places to start a company in terms of hiring people. But VR is such a tiny field, it’s not like all of a sudden we’re going to go to Silicon Valley and there’s, like, thousands of VR experts. Now, if I’m a Web company or a mobile company –

Mitchell: — that’s where I’d want to be.

Luckey: But in this case, these people aren’t necessarily all up in Silicon Valley. We’ve hired a bunch of people from Texas and Virginia and all these other places. It’s a niche industry. We actually have the biggest concentration of people working in consumer VR right now. And a lot of the top talent we get, they don’t care where we are, as long as it’s not, like, Alaska. They just really want to work on virtual reality, and there’s no one else doing it like we are.

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Original author: 
Eric Johnson

Oculus VR's Palmer Luckey, left, and Nate Mitchell, right. At center, AllThingsD's Lauren Goode tries out the Oculus Rift at CES 2013.

Oculus VR’s Palmer Luckey, left, and Nate Mitchell, right. At center, AllThingsD’s Lauren Goode tries out the Oculus Rift at CES 2013.

There were plenty of great onstage interviews at D11 last week, but — as attendees doubtless know — the conversations that happen offstage are often just as engaging. Such was the case on the last day of the conference, when Oculus VR co-founders Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell drove up from their office in Irvine, Calif., for lunch and an hour-long chat.

Oculus is a 30-person startup focused on just one thing: Virtual-reality videogames, by way of a wearable headset that plugs into gamers’ PCs. Its much-anticipated VR headset, the Oculus Rift, was funded on Kickstarter last year to the tune of $2.4 million, and an early version is now in the hands of thousands of game developers. A consumer version is on the way — though the company has yet to announce a release date.

At conferences like this year’s GDC, Luckey has publicly acknowledged that the first versions of the headset won’t be perfect, because developers are still learning what game mechanics work (or don’t) in VR. In this wide-ranging Q&A, Luckey and Mitchell told AllThingsD about that learning process, the Rift’s limitations, its ballpark price point, what they want from developers, messing with coworkers wearing the Rift, and how it stacks up to other next-gen technology like the Xbox Kinect and Google Glass.

For easier reading, we’ve split the chat into two parts. Part One is below. And here’s Part Two.

(Before we begin, a sad note: This interview took place last Thursday, one day before Oculus VR’s lead engineer and fellow co-founder Andrew Reisse was struck and killed as a bystander during a high-speed car chase. The company memorialized Reisse as a “brilliant computer graphics engineer” on its blog on Saturday).

AT1T7403-X2Asa Mathat / D: All Things Digital

AllThingsD: How do you control people’s high expectations for the Rift? At GDC, Palmer called virtual reality the “holy grail of gaming,” but was quick to clarify that the first version you release won’t completely fulfill that promise.

Palmer Luckey: The developer kit, especially, but yeah, even the first consumer Rift has a long way to go. People who research it tend to have good expectations, but there’s two other sets: You have people who think that VR tech is already super-advanced, that it’s like “The Matrix” already, and that we just happen to be cheaper. And then you have people who think that it’s completely broken and hopeless. The best way is to get them to look inside of a Rift, and usually they’re like, “Oh, I get it. It’s not the Matrix, but it’s also not terribly broken.”

Who’s the audience for the Rift? Who’s going to really appreciate it?

EQ7G8237-X2Luckey: I don’t think it’s just hardcore gamers. At GDC, Valve talked about how players who were very skilled at Team Fortress 2 felt like the Rift lowered their skill level. I play a ton of TF2: You’re jumping off things and spinning around and then instantly snapping back, constantly whipping back and forth as you walk along. But what they found with people who didn’t play games as much, who weren’t TF2 players — they reported that it increased their perceived skills. I think the Rift can open up the possibility, for a lot of games that have been “hardcore games,” for normal people to play them. They have the right muscle memory built up. Every day, they look around and they move their head to look around. It’s not a huge leap to do that inside of a video game when you have the proper tools.

Nate Mitchell: It also totally depends upon the content. We’ve already seen some people do Minecraft mods (unofficial modifications to the original game to support the Oculus Rift). We have the families in the office, they bring in their kids, and you’ve got 10 kids playing Minecraft in our conference room on the Rift, on the same server. That shows you that there is this huge audience of all sorts of people.

Luckey: In fact, we’ve done that some in the office, too. [laughs] It’s not just for the kids.

Mitchell: Right now, the audience is game developers, and the content is super-key to the whole user experience. Having content that appeals to those types of people, that’s what we want.

Do you need a killer app?

Mitchell: Definitely. We could use a couple killer apps. Ideally, we’d have a game for the niche market. You’d have Call of Duty 9 over here, and something like Minecraft over here, and a wide swath of games in between.

But what about a killer app that’s exclusively for the Rift? A lot of Wii owners only played Wii Sports. Do you need something like that to distinguish the game play?

Mitchell: I won’t say that we need it, but I will say that we want it. That’s something we are trying to figure out. Is it something someone else is going to develop? We’ve discussed — does it make sense to do something ourselves internally? We’re not sure yet. Right now, the focus has been, “Let’s build the tools, and help the developers get there.”

Luckey: It doesn’t make sense for our first focus to be to hire a bunch of game developers to sit and try and figure out what works best in VR, when there’s literally thousands of other people that are willing to figure it out for themselves. They want the privilege of being the first to work in this space.

OculusRift

How does the Rift fit in with other new gaming hardware coming out, like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4?

Luckey: Right now, it’s just for PC games, because that’s the open platform. Mobile support’s also possible, but that’s just more of a technical problem — phones are not powerful enough to provide a good VR experience right now. There’s no technical reason that the Rift can’t work on consoles. It has standard input/outputs, it wouldn’t be a lot of work. It’s just a matter of console manufacturers deciding to license it as a peripheral. They’re the gatekeepers.

Have you talked to them about that?

Luckey: We can’t say.

Mitchell: I think when you look at this upcoming console generation, we are this black sheep, doing something completely different, but we like that. We’re aiming for what we consider to be next-generation gaming. Xbox and PlayStation, they’re doing awesome stuff. And we’re big fans. That said, the Rift is going to be something entirely different.

Luckey: And we’re focusing specifically on gaming. We’re not trying to make a multi-platform home media hub for the family.

How much is the consumer version of the Rift going to cost?

Luckey: The current developer kits are $300. We don’t know what the consumer version’s going to cost — it could be more, could be less. But we’re looking to stay in that same ballpark. We’re not going to be charging $800 or something. We have to be affordable. If you’re not affordable, you may as well not exist for a huge segment of the market.

I guess you would know, since you have the world’s largest private collection of VR headsets.

Mitchell: [laughs]

Luckey: I’m one of the few people where it’s different. I would spend whatever it was. Gamers are not known to be the most affluent population of people. If something’s even $600, it doesn’t matter how good it is, how great of an experience it is — if they just can’t afford it, then it really might as well not exist. We’re going for the mainstream, but time will tell what the market is.

Mitchell: A big part of it’s going to be the content. If it’s only Call of Duty 9, it’s only going to be the niche hardcore gamers. If we can get other stuff on there, which I think we’re already making exciting progress on, I think it’s going to be a lot broader. The three tenets for us are immersion, wearability and affordability. If we can nail those three things, that’s the killer combination that makes it a consumer VR device.

Luckey: The other thing is, it’s possible to make better hardware if you sell it at that lower price point. When you can sell thousands of something, or tens or hundreds or millions of something, you can afford to put better components into it than if you were only making a hundred of these things for $10,000 each. There are people who’ve said, “You should sell a version with better specs for $1,000,” but it’d be better to sell it for $200 and sell more of them.

What are the limitations of the Rift right now, beyond needing to be wired into a PC?

Mitchell: We don’t have positional tracking right now.

Luckey: [That means] you can’t track movement through space, you can only track rotation.

Mitchell: That’s a big one, something we’d love to solve for the consumer version. The only other “limitation,” I’d say right now — well, there’s things we want to improve, like weight. The more comfortable it is, the more immersive it is. So, there’s that. There’s resolution. We want to bring the resolution up for the consumer version.

IMG_4587And, for the foreseeable future, will players still need to use a handheld console-like controller?

Luckey: We don’t know yet.

Mitchell: Human-computer interaction and user input, especially for VR, is something that we’re constantly researching and evaluating.

Luckey: The reason we’re using gamepads (now) is that everyone knows how to use it, so we don’t need to teach a new [control] device while we’re demoing. But we do know that a keyboard, mouse or gamepad isn’t the best possible VR gaming interface.

Mitchell: It’s another abstraction. We’d love to — well, we’re exploring the possibilities.

Luckey: [waving hand] Use your imagination. [he and Mitchell both laugh]

Mitchell: Microsoft, with the new Kinect, is doing some really interesting stuff. Leap Motion is doing incredible stuff. This tech is out there. It’s a matter of packaging it just right for virtual reality, so that we’re putting players totally inside the game. We always joke, you want to look down in the game and go, ‘Yes, I’m Batman!’ And then you pull out your lightsaber or whatever it is — I know, I’m destroying canon here –

Luckey: — I, I’ll just leave that.

Mitchell: [laughs]

Luckey: One of the things I talked about at GDC is that other game consoles, it’s very abstract. You’re controlling something on a screen, using a controller that’s nothing like how you interact in real life. If you hand a person who doesn’t game a 360 controller, it’s like, “Here’s a 16-button, dual analog controller. Use it!” It’s very difficult for someone to pick it up.

And that was the brilliance of the Wiimote, right? If you want to bowl, here’s the controller, just move it like you’re bowling.

Luckey: Even then, it was an abstraction. But it’s clear you want a control interface so that people feel they’re inside the game. It’s clear that you want to take it to the level where they’re not just looking around in the game, but they’re interacting in the same way that they would interact with real life. On Kinect, no matter how great the tracking is, you’re still controlling something on a screen. You don’t feel like you’re inside of the game if you’re looking at a screen in your living room. It’s never going to feel good until you can feel like you’re actually that person.

In Part Two of this Q&A, Luckey and Mitchell discuss Google Glass, motion sickness, messing with coworkers, and their long-term plans for the company.

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Ina Fried

Although Google is offering a limited set of developer tools for Glass — and more are on the way — the company doesn’t want to stop hackers from tinkering even further.

google_glass_penguin

Indeed, during a developer conference session on Thursday, Google showed a variety of ways to gain deeper access to Glass. Some, such as running basic Android apps and even connecting a Bluetooth keyboard, can be done.

Google showed other hacks, such as running a version of Ubuntu Linux. Those actions, though, require deeper “root” access to the device. Google showed how developers can get such access, but cautions that doing so voids the warranty and could be irreversible.

That said, Google plans to make its factory image available so in most cases rooted Glass devices should be able to be returned to their original settings.

The session ended with a video showing a pair of the pricey specs being blended to a powdery mess, to heartfelt groans from the packed audience, many of whom forked over $1,500 to be among the first to buy the developer edition of Glass.

Showing a different level of interest in Glass, several members of Congress sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page on Thursday asking questions about privacy issues raised by the high-tech specs.

Update: At a follow-up Fireside Chat session with developers, Google reiterated that a software development kit for Glass is coming, but Google’s Charles Mendis said not to expect it soon.

Isabelle Olsson, the lead designer for Glass, showed off one of the bulky early prototype designs for Glass as well as a current prototype that combines Glass with prescription glasses.

Prescription Google Glass prototype

Prescription Google Glass prototype

Olsson, who quips that she has been working on Glass since it was a phone attached to a scuba mask, said that the development of Glass was “so ambitious and very messy.”

Getting the device light enough has been a key, Olsson said.

“If it is not light you are not going to want to wear it for more than 10 minutes,” Olsson said. “We care about every gram.”

Asked what kind of apps the Glass team would like to see, Olsson said she wanted a karaoke app, while Mendis said he would like to see some fitness apps.

Google Glass product director Steve Lee said Glass is designed around brief glances or “micro-interactions,” rather than watching a movie or reading an entire book.

“That would be painful,” Lee said. “We don’t want to create zombies staring into the screen for long periods of time.

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Liz Gannes

Sosh, a service that gives people interesting and personalized local recommendations, has been live in San Francisco for a little more than a year. The company combines a heap of analysis of online postings with a sliver of hands-on curation to figure out good stuff to do.

SoshIn San Francisco, the site and app have signed up one in eight people between the ages of 21 and 40 (and these are real people; Sosh requires Facebook Connect). In certain circles — and not just the techies — you hear about Sosh all the time.

Now Sosh is trying its first remote launch, in New York City. So New Yorkers, if you’re looking for secret menu items and special shows and quirky events, you can try it, too.

By the way, Sosh doesn’t monetize yet, and you won’t find discount deals on the service — this is a venture-funded company that thinks it can build a marketplace for the interest graph — eventually.

Next up for Sosh: Chicago, Boston, L.A. and Seattle.

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GuideThere are times when it’s inconvenient to read — for instance while cooking or working out at the gym — so you might find yourself tuning into a TV newscast. But perhaps instead of facile local news or the jabbering heads of cable news, it could be a personalized newscast.

That’s the goal of a Miami-based startup called Guide, backed by investors including the Knight Foundation, which is making an app where users can choose from a variety of avatars to present stories from their favorite news sites.

It is totally wacky. An alpha version of the product had me fixating on the “uncanny valley” of a near-human lady with shiny lipgloss reading me a story in a halting voice with her mouth barely moving. (See below.)

But the more smooth part of the demo was when the robot newscaster transitioned to a video segment included in the news report, and then back to the text.

Guide founder and CEO Freddie Laker said in an interview that he feels this interpretation of multimedia content will be key — separating out videos and photos and pull quotes, and turning them into an engaging presentation. A long, text-heavy story won’t be ideal for Guide.

The company is working on a plugin for WordPress that would help bloggers record their posts so they can be automatically converted into Guide segments, with avatars lip-syncing them.

Guide’s first app will be for iOS, with a focus on tablets, Laker said. It’s supposed to be released to the public next month. Later this year, the company wants to build for the television and browsers. The Guide avatar treatment will work for any site with an RSS feed, Laker said.

Laker, who is a former SapientNitro VP, said he expects Guide’s business model to be charging for celebrity avatars and voices. To that end, actor Omar Epps is an adviser to the company.

Because stories are presented within a clickable app where viewers can interact with the original content and ads as they would in a browser, Laker said he believes that publishers will be fine with Guide reinterpreting their content. Laker said he licensed the avatar technology from Sony.

Other startups doing similar things include Qwiki (which started out hyped, but now is very quiet) and an upcoming app called Winston, from a startup called Reactor Labs, that reads social news updates in a British accent.

Guide has raised $1 million from Knight Foundation, Sapient Corporation, MTV founder Bob Pittman, early Google employee Steve Schimmel and others.

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Moves launches today as a free iPhone app available worldwide to help people track their physical activity and keep a daily journal of it.

Moves app

The main Moves interface is a neat-looking personal daily timeline, with proportional representation of time spent walking, running, biking, and in transit, in a vertical display that links together all the locations visited within 24 hours.

The app uses adaptive techniques to minimize battery drain by drawing cell-tower data most of the time, and then activating GPS when the accelerometer moves in a recognized way.

It’s made by a Helsinki-based company called ProtoGeo that is led by designer Sampo Karjalainen, a founder of kids’ virtual world Habbo Hotel.

Karjalainen thinks Moves can be a viable alternative to the Fitbit, Nike FuelBand and Jawbone Up, because it doesn’t require people to buy an additional device and keep it charged.

And besides, wristband-based sensors are not terribly sophisticated, anyway — many people find that they only approximate a measure of their physical activity, and they do a terrible job of tracking cycling, since it’s a stiff-wristed sport.

I was particularly interested in the app because I think it’s an example of passively harvesting personal data for the user’s benefit.

So the two big questions are 1) Is Moves accurate? And 2) Will it kill my phone battery?

This isn’t a product review, but I’d say that in two weeks of using the app my answers would be 1) It’s pretty accurate, but not as accurate as constant GPS tracking. And 2) It will have an impact on your battery, but not as bad as constant GPS tracking.

You may still want to use an additional app like Endomondo or RunKeeper to track workouts. I found that Moves was particularly bad at counting my mileage on the treadmill at the gym.

Karjalainen told me that Moves users can hold their phones normally — in their pocket or bag is fine — and the service has learned patterns of movement that correspond to various activities.

His goal is for Moves to be an everyday, mainstream tool to make people more conscious of their physical activity. It’s all about low-effort record-keeping. For instance, a future feature that Karjalainen mentioned would be interspersing photos from the day throughout the timeline.

But there is nothing if not competition in this space. Passive tracking seems likely to be a future feature of Google’s Google Now Android personal assistant app, which quietly launched a monthly activity summary of walking and biking.

I’d previously experimented with using Alohar Mobile’s Placeme app to passively track all the locations I visited on a daily basis, but Moves’ timeline interface seems more interesting and informative than a map of everywhere I’ve been (plus, Moves has a map view, too).

ProtoGeo has raised $1.6 million in seed funding from Lifeline Ventures and PROfounders.

 

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Green Dot today launches the smartphone-based GoBank, which will have no overdraft or penalty fees, no minimum balance and a “pay what you feel is right” monthly membership fee.

iphone_payLet’s take a step back to set this up. Lots of startup types go about their lives in search of something they can fix. “Banking!” they think. “Banking sucks! I hate all the fees and unfriendliness.”

But then they realize that banking is really hard. To do it right, you have to actually officially be a bank, which takes years, even if you can find an existing bank to buy. So startups like WePay and BankSimple (now Simple, if that tells you anything) have historically partnered with banks and offered user interfaces layered on top.

GoBank promises that it can fully bridge the two worlds. That’s because prepaid card provider Green Dot actually bought an FDIC-insured bank in Utah back in 2011, after two years of regulatory hurdles.

Then, in March, Green Dot bought Loopt, an early mobile location app maker that never had a ton of usage. But Loopt had a team of mobile developers and a strong leader in Sam Altman, one of the earliest participants in Y Combinator and a significant influence on the famous startup program as a part-time partner.

Altman said in an interview yesterday that he’s seen many a startup apply to YC over the years, trying to be a bank. But none of them were equipped to do it. “This is a product I’ve always wanted to build,” he said, “and it was just starting up when we were talking to Green Dot.”

Altman said it should take approximately four minutes to set up a GoBank account, and it can be done from a mobile phone. Starting today, GoBank plans to let 10,000 U.S. users in for a beta test, and expand from there.

GoBank charges for just four things: Putting a personal photo on your debit card ($9), going to an out-of-network ATM ($2.50), spending money in another country (3 percent), and paying your membership fee (whatever you want, a la Radiohead or Humble Bundle).

SamAltmanGoBankBut it promises that it has a huge network of fee-free ATMs — 40,000, more than twice as many as Chase and Bank of America.

The iPhone and Android apps also include budget tools (including a silly “fortune teller” feature that makes judgment calls on new purchases), an option to see your balance without logging in, bill payments and ways to send money to people outside the network through PayPal. Savings accounts and mobile alerts are also included.

The idea of allowing people to pay whatever they want for banking is an odd one. It might make sense in the context of thinking about the human appreciation you have for an artist like Radiohead, but this is a bank we’re talking about. Users can pay anywhere from $0 to $9 per month.

Altman said he likes the challenge. “We’re accountable to deliver a service that users think is worth something.”

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Lumo BodyTech, which makes a wearable waistband that tracks posture and movement and vibrates when the wearer slouches, has raised $5 million in Series A funding led by Madrona Venture Group.

LumobackThe Palo Alto, Calif.-based start-up doubled its goal in a Kickstarter campaign this summer, taking in $200,000 and more than 1,000 effective preorders for the Lumoback.

The Kickstarter backers now have their devices in hand, and Lumobacks will start shipping to the general public in January.

Lumo CEO Monisha Perkash described the Kickstarter campaign as a “de-risking” strategy, saying that it provided market validation and feedback that helped pave the way for the venture round.

Perkash said that Lumo eventually expects to move beyond posture into other devices that “give your body a voice.” Versus other wearable sensors, Lumo is particularly focused on real-time, accurate feedback — currently, in the form of a gentle buzz that gets wearers to stand up straight, or to walk around after an extended period of sitting.

 

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If you’ve ever had to dial in to a videoconference for work, you know what a painful experience it can be. Staring at the backs of people’s heads and struggling to see presentation materials doesn’t make for a fun time. But one company is hoping to change that by thinking outside the box — literally.

Today, Altia Systems, a start-up based in Cupertino, Calif., introduced a new video camera called PanaCast. It takes videoconferencing beyond a stationary, rectangular screen by providing a real-time panoramic view of the room and giving users the ability to pan and zoom the scene from their computer or mobile device.

“We felt that if we could bring a new experience that is as simple as the normal human experience of talking in real time, it could be really powerful for users,” said Aurangzeb Khan, co-founder and CEO of Altia Sytems, in an interview with AllThingsD.

PanaCast uses a system of six cameras to capture HD video at 60 frames, and a custom-developed video processor that synchronizes and stitches all the images in real time to create a single, 200-degree panoramic view of the room. (PanaCast also runs the Linux operating system and features a dual-core ARM 11 processor.)

Altia’s server then uses a low-latency encoding process that allows you to stream the video over a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, unlike some videoconference systems that require dedicated bandwidth.

Remote participants can view video using the company’s Mac or Windows app or on their iPhone or Android devices. On mobile devices, you can use familiar touch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom and swiping left or right, to zoom in on notes written on a whiteboard or to pan over to a speaker on the other side of the room.

“The experience you get with PanaCast is much more natural than current videoconferencing systems,” said Khan. “You get to interact with it in real time, and it makes a difference because you’re not a passive viewer anymore. You’re engaged in the discussion and how you want to participate in the discussion.”

I got a hands-on demo of the device last week (the company was originally scheduled to show PanaCast at our D: Dive into Mobile conference, which was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy), and I was actually surprised at what a difference the panoramic view made. It made for a better visual experience, and it was also helpful to see who was saying what, instead of hearing a faceless voice from one corner of the room.

Occasionally, I noticed some lag in the video, but the panning and zooming motions were very smooth, and worked well. One thing to note is that PanaCast does not have a built-in microphone.

Conference organizers will still need to use either a speakerphone or Polycom system. The PanaCast apps will have integrated VoIP audio, so participants can listen and talk using the app.

Altia says another benefit to its PanaCast system is cost. The company did not reveal exact pricing, but did say that it would be less than $700. Altia is launching PanaCast on Kickstarter, and the first 25 pledges of $399 will get a camera, with an estimated ship date of January.

The apps are free, and there is no subscription fee for up to two simultaneous remote participants. The company has a fundraising goal of $15,000 by Jan. 1.

Altia Systems was co-founded by Khan, CMO Lars Herlitz and CTO Atif Sarwari. The company has received $3 million in series A funding from Lanza TechVentures and private investors Dado and Rey Banatao.

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Rick Smolan, creator of the epic “Day in the Life” photography books, is taking on a new challenge: Big data.

“Big data” has become a buzzphrase many people like to hate for its vagueness, but Smolan’s book format brings out all sorts of specificity and examples.

© Joe McNally 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

His new 7.5-pound book, “The Human Face of Big Data,” includes vignettes about wirelessly sensing disproportionate electricity and water consumption by individual home appliances, restoring human sight with a pair of computer eyeglasses that analyze light and other input in real-time, predicting repeat heart attacks by screening large samples of patients’ EKG data, and taking personal health tracking to the extreme. It will be released Nov. 20.

Smolan has been creating these massive photography projects for the last 30 years, but they’re usually about more naturally visual subjects, most recently President Obama and global water problems.

“This is the most difficult set of assignments I’ve ever worked on,” he told me. “How do you photograph data?”

Smolan also said he is well aware that the next step beyond “big data” is often thought to be “big brother.” He said the aim of the project is to get people to talk about the potential for big data, without ignoring the privacy implications.

While the book may be a static piece of work, Smolan is also trying to create a participatory experience that generates its own data, hopefully a big amount of it. Before the book comes out, he is releasing a Human Face of Big Data app for iOS and Android that asks people to measure themselves from Sept. 25 to Oct. 2.

The app will collect data about each user implicitly from smartphone sensors as well explicitly through quizzes, with everything promised to be anonymized (though I’m not clear on how exactly that will happen, given the depth of access a smartphone has to its owner’s activities).

For example, the app might count the number of contacts in people’s phone address books or track how far they travel in a single day. Then it will inform users about their “data doppelgangers” with similar attributes somewhere else in the world.

At the end of the week, all the data will be made available to scientists at Webcast “Big Data Lab” events in New York City, London and Singapore. And there’s a whole bunch of more ambitious (dare I say big) ideas beyond that, including a kids’ education day and a documentary film.

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