LiveLike raises $9.6M to get more broadcasters streaming in VR

LiveLike, a startup that powers VR streaming experiences for broadcasters like FOX Sports and Sky, has raised a $9.6M Series B round led by Greycroft Partners and Lepe Partners. This brings total funding raised to just over $23M.

As a refresher, LiveLike’s VR experience let you select different camera angles, sit in and look around a virtual “suite”, view pre-produced content and more. We’ve looked at the experience before, and think it’s much more interactive than VR solutions that just provide viewers with a floating screen to watch the game.

LiveLike is primarily known for this white-labeled app that it provides broadcasters. These heavily customized apps let rights holders choose how they want to make VR content available to users. Some decide to make live content available (like FOX Sports with the MLS Cup), and some choose to have achieved VR  footage of past sporting events. Either way, LiveLike will power the VR distribution (and often the production) for the desired events.

In 2017 LiveLike produced 76 games in five countries, and streamed over 300 hours of original VR sports content.

The VR startup has also started working with leagues and federations – like the French Tennis Federation, in a role that has them producing an entire sporting event and making that VR stream available to any broadcasting partner that wants it. Miheer Walavalkar, Co-founder and Chief Business Officer of LiveLike explained that this is a great way for the startup to acquire a lot of customers (i.e broadcasters) at once. Instead of approaching networks individually, league-level deals let LiveLike show off its tech to a bunch of broadcasters at once, which can end up with them liking LiveLike enough to hire them for future, unrelated sporting events.

LiveLIke plans on using the funding to support general growth, especially building up the architecture needed to support live streaming on such a large scale. The startup is also known to experiment with different technologies within VR – for example last year the launched a feature that integrates their streaming app with Facebook so you can invite friends into your virtual “suite” and hangout and talk while watching the game. They’re also actively looking at AR and MR as ways to create new viewing experiences for broadcasters (and ultimately viewers).

HTC’s smartphone chief and ex-CFO, Chialin Chang, resigns

HTC’s smartphone and connected devices president and former CFO, Chialin Chang, has resigned. The move, spotted earlier by Engadget, was announced today and is effective immediately.

Chang joined the company in 2012 as CFO. He also previously ran HTC’s global sales business — before eventually becoming president of smartphones and connected devices in 2016.

HTC’s investor note specifies Chang is leaving for “personal career plan” reasons, and local press in Taiwan is reporting that Chang intends to set up his own AI startup.

HTC does not list a replacement for the position and did not respond when we asked about its plans for rehiring a smartphone chief. A company spokesperson provided the following statement on the news: “We can confirm Chialin Chang has resigned from his position as President of the Smartphone and Connected Devices Business at HTC.  We thank him for his dedication to the Company for the last six years and wish him well in his future endeavours.”

Chang’s departure follows HTC transferring more than 2,000 of its best engineers to Google at the end of last month on the completion of a $1.1BN cooperation agreement between the pair, which was announced last fall — with Mountain View taking charge of many of the HTC engineers who worked on its Pixel devices.

In exchange HTC has a chunk of cash but the size of its engineering team has shrunk by about a fifth — and it’s now down a smartphone president to boot.

How it can go about reviving a smartphone business which has for years suffered lackluster earnings — on account of being outmanoeuvred and outgunned by faster and better resourced rivals — remains an open-ended question at this point. A glance at this statista graph amply illustrates the challenge.

In recent years HTC has been increasingly focused on its emerging VR business — under the Vive brand and in partnership with games publisher Valve. Though, in September, it said it remained committed to both VR and smartphones, including its U series of premium smartphones.

And it also said its collaboration with Google means it can continue to work with the engineers that now work for the Pixel maker.

Chairwoman and CEO Cher Wang is giving a keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow later this month. But there will be no flashy HTC press conference — as was the norm in its smartphone heyday.

Indeed, it does not appear to have any flagship hardware launches in the pipe for MWC 2018. Though, once again, it will be demoing its Vive VR technology to delegates at the world’s biggest mobile show.

Featured Image: Joan Cros Garcia/Corbis/Getty Images

Apple joins LG and Valve investing up to $10M in OLED display maker eMagin

Quietly, Apple has been bringing together a number of moving parts in its strategy around virtual and augmented reality hardware; and now one more element of that has come to light. eMagin, a maker of OLED miniature displays, says that Apple, along with LG, Valve, VR entertainment maker Immerex (which now appears to be operating publicly as Luci), and Stillwater Holdings, are collectively investing up to $10.3 million in the company.

eMagin has only said that it plans to use the proceeds for “working capital and general corporate purposes”. The company has been increasingly doing more in displays targeting the consumer market (such as its Blaze night-vision goggles and smartphone case, goggles pictured above) in addition to the military and industrial/enterprise (including medical) sectors where eMagin’s technology is already used.

“We believe that a key growth area for us is the consumer electronic OEM market for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) hardware,” eMagin notes in its prospectus. “Our potential channels to this market include licensing of our direct patterning technology and partnering for the mass production of microdisplays.”

The documentation for the new offering was filed January 23 of this year (first discovered, it looks like, by Road to VR, which also tipped us off on it). Further to that, eMagin said that it expected the offering to close around January 29, meaning the investment has likely been completed already.

We have reached out to eMagin to confirm this, as well as the final amount raised, and if the company can tell us more about the intention for the investment.

eMagin’s technology is notable in that it has created a new kind of display that can be used in VR headsets, which provides a sharper image by using a denser layout of lines (versus the pixels commonly used in existing products). This helps reduces the so-called “screen door” effect on the display and makes what you see up close through the headset much sharper. (Notably, those investing in eMagin aren’t putting all their eggs into one basket on this front, it seems: LG has also patented another way of coping with the issue.)

“We believe that our direct patterning technology is a key differentiator for enabling next generation AR/VR hardware for the consumer and enterprise segments because of the brightness and the pixel density afforded by the technology,” the company notes.

Although eMagin is arguably working at what might become the forefront of how VR experiences are delivered, the company has been fairly under the radar and modest in size — underscoring perhaps how we have yet to see a real breakthrough of the technology in terms of market penetration. Even Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has downplayed the state of technology today and how so far we’re seeing little evidence of mass-consumer appetite for it.

eMagin is traded on the NYSE American exchange and currently has a market cap of around $50.7 million and expects to report revenues of around $22 million for 2017. Its share price has shot up by nearly 14 percent in pre-market trading over the weekend (likely because of this news).

This investment is interesting because it shows, in fact, that if VR may still have a ways to go before we see a breakout device, big tech companies are very much putting some money down to stake VR claims for the future.

In the prospectus for the investment, eMagin notes that it is working with a number of unnamed “Tier One” companies to help get better economies of scale when manufacturing its new technology.

“On the commercial front, we entered into strategic agreements with multiple Tier One consumer product companies for the design and development of microdisplays for consumer head mounted devices and, together with these companies, negotiated with mass production manufacturers for higher volume production capabilities,” it writes.

Interestingly, while Valve and LG’s involvement in VR is well documented — Valve on the software side, making games and its SteamVR platform; LG as a maker of headsets, including one reportedly built on SteamVR — Apple’s involvement has been harder to parse because the company generally keeps quiet on its future plans.

Case in point: when we uncovered in November that Apple had acquired VR headset maker Vrvana for around $30 million, it refused to confirm the deal to us, although it did not deny it. Other acquisitions that Apple has made in the general area of mixed reality include SMI, an eye-tracking firm that was working on solutions for VR and AR headsets; Flyby MediametaioEmotient, and Faceshift.

We are contacting Apple, Valve and LG to see if any of them provide any further comment about their stake and interest in eMagin, and we’ll update this if and when the company responds.

This is not the first time that Apple has invested in companies that it works with closely for its hardware.

The company had a long product and investment relationship with UK-based graphics chipset vendor Imagination Technologies, and nearly considered acquiring it, before the two entered into a dispute, and Imagination was ultimately broken up and sold to others.

In December, Apple also announced an investment of $390 million into Finisar, an optical component maker, part of a bigger plan to build a facility together in Texas.

YC-backed Sketchbox is a tool for designing AR/VR environments without code

Designing VR and AR products is a challenge that’s not particularly well-suited for this reality.

Unity and Epic Games have made great strides in adapting their workflows to allow users to edit virtual reality content in a very precise way, but at the same time, they’re both still very technical programs tailored towards people who are technically skilled.

Today, Sketchbox is launching out of Y Combinator’s latest class of startups to help designers create virtual and augmented reality experiences inside VR without typing a line of code.

The goal with Sketchbox is to give designers a sophisticated tool to craft and refine VR environments without requiring them to have an engineering background and a deep understanding of desktop 3D modeling tools. The app seems especially skewed toward designers interested in rapid AR/VR prototyping.

“Right now we’re really focused on designers that don’t have the 3D expertise in desktop design tools,” Sketchbox co-founder Joe Connoly told TechCrunch. “Because for a lot of companies, it’s difficult to find an engineer that’s also a designer.”

The software isn’t just for rough-and-tumble sketches, you can import 3D models, drop in custom graphics and get as detailed as you need to. VR allows users to stick their head right up into the most granular details while they can also shrink the designed environment to the size of a pea.

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As a result, designers have to think about the big and small pictures in a way that’s different than other mediums, and it’s a lot easier to do all of this from inside VR to begin with.

For a lot of different companies and studios, there’s a fascination with VR, but also a knowledge that it’s expensive to create and the audience for it is small. Even creating a proof of concept requires a good amount of resources, but a designer showing a team a dozen pages of scribbled-out sketches or a diorama still really doesn’t give a great idea of what’s going on in their head.

Sketchbox users can send project files or walk people through a presentation mode that showcases their thought process. From there, annotations can be made and the file can be exported and sent to Unity or uploaded to Sketchfab. Sketchbox aims to be a great space for designers to dump their brain into a 3D void then refine, organize and present what exactly they are planning for a product or project.

The software is available for use on the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, you can download a free trial here.

Facebook brings animation tools to its Quill VR painting app

After having declared last year that the app would receive no future updates, Facebook is delivering a big update to its VR painting tool Quill.

The update expands on Quill’s initial promise, expanding it from being a platform for designing static scenes to one that can handle dynamic animated ones. The new updates adds the ability for artists to craft and edit frame-by-frame animations inside VR as well as the ability to copy and repose models in a way that enables the beautiful creations of Quill to come to life.

“These tools open the door for a whole new kind of storytelling, with VR characters who move and perform in scenes and environments that are more alive than ever,” a Facebook blog post reads. “Inspired by the early hand-drawn animation of the 1920’s, but powered up with modern technology and native VR workflows, Quill animation brings a new level of freedom to artists in this rapidly emerging medium.”

The product was one built internally at Oculus Story Studios simply because they really needed something like it and it didn’t exist yet. When Story Studio shut down last year, the fate of the app was thrown into doubt with Oculus specifically stating that the app wouldn’t be receiving any more updates.

In addition to today’s update, Facebook has detailed that they are looking to drive further upgrades to the app’s functionality in the future as they look to explore how to get the animations in front of more people in VR through experiences like its Spaces social VR app.

Quill is available for download here.

Virtual reality live-streaming startup Vreal raises $11.7M

In the online gaming world, virtual reality has already been used by some of the top streamers to engage with their audiences, but there’s not much return for what the personalities have to give up. They have a bulky headset obscuring their faces and viewers aren’t getting anything more than the 2D representation of what the streamer is seeing.

Vreal is aiming to get more out of VR streams by giving viewers a world within the game just for them.

What makes Vreal unique is that it’s wholly committed to virtual reality gameplay rather than converting existing 2D content into a 3D environment. What does it mean to design for VR from the ground up? Well, it means finding a vantage point for every viewer to explore a shared world by fully re-rendering the game itself.

By dropping a viewer’s game avatar into a VR world that they can navigate, a level of agency and connection is possible that really adds a lot to the perceived relationship between streamers and their audiences. Someone using Vreal can stand beside a personality they enjoy or admire or get a bird’s eye view of what’s going on while chatting with other onlookers. As opposed to watching a static 2D screen, it’s clear there’s a lot of potential for interaction, but only if virtual reality devices continue to catch on.

Vreal is admittedly a product for a pretty tight niche: streamers with VR hardware broadcasting for viewers with VR hardware. “We think it’s going to be a whole new segment of the gaming industry,” VReal CEO Todd Hooper told TechCrunch. “It’s still pretty small today but it will have its blockbuster titles.”

Vreal announced today that it has raised $11.7 million in Series A funding led by Axioma Ventures. Intel Capital and the AET Fund also participated. The team has raised around $15 million to date according to Crunchbase. The team is adding Chet Faliszek and Chris M. Williams to its board of directors.

A lot of focus from the team is currently placed on making Vreal a pleasant experience for streamers who are putting in a lot of effort to adopt VR in the first place. For some, it’s a new niche to conquer, while others see it as the ultimate way to connect with viewers. The team is working on tools to make it easier to export these experiences to more traditional services so streamers aren’t left doing double the work.

The pre-alpha service is only available to users running a Vive or Rift at the moment but the team hopes to add mobile so that they can approach users on the more platforms as they look to launch more widely.

Get smart about smart glasses: here are 15 companies building futuristic AR eyewear

Today, Intel showed off a pretty awesome-looking pair of smart glasses that look better than pretty much anything we’ve seen to date.

It’s unclear what the development future will be for the glasses as the company is reportedly exploring a partial sale of the division and it has already shut down work on its “merged reality” headset program. While there are a lot of questions up-in-the-air, there are also a lot of other startups working on similar solutions that do things differently than the HoloLens or Meta or Magic Leap, focusing on smart glasses that do a few useful things. All of these startups are looking to get products out in the near-term, largely for the sake or pre-empting Apple’s rumored foray into the space.

It’s the earliest days for this technology so there’s still a fair amount of vaporware popping up, but it’s so early that it doesn’t really matter because it is altogether pretty unwise for you to pre-order any AR product, we’re just not there yet for 99 percent of the tech toting populace. Whether or not you get a smartwatch is a much saner early adopter decision you should be thinking about, there are still so so so many kinks to work out with AR interfaces, navigation, privacy concerns, and native development tools that far surpass the still very apparent problems with building hardware that is ready for the masses.

There are a lot of older companies and small startups looking to tackle the problems facing smart glasses and so many advances have already taken place, here are a few of the existing solutions out there that are available, soon to be available or promising availability, when in fact, who knows if they’ll ever actually ship.