VR Digest: Apple Acquires SMI;
SteamVR Knuckles Dev Kits

The week's top VR news brought to you
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VR Digest: A VR newsletter brought to you by Studio Transcendent
written by John Dewar (@jstarrdewar) Issue 126 – June 29, 2017

VR Digest: A Virtual Reality newsletter brought to you by Studio Transcendent

Apple Acquires SMI

"Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans." So goes the oft-repeated boilerplate response out of Cupertino, CA as the tech giant assimilates smaller technology firms. Their latest acquisition has major implications for our industry however.

Apple has purchased SensoMotoric Instruments, better known as SMI, which has been working on ultrafast eye-tracking technology. Macrumors broke the news with a detailed breakdown of the evidence (Apple tries to shield its acquisitions from public view by using shell companies).

High performance eye tracking is crucial to making extremely high resolution head mounted displays a reality. Your eyes paint a 200-degree field of view picture of the world by flicking about rapidly in saccades. At any given moment they can only make out a high resolution image in a 2-degree field of vision called the fovea centralis. Therefore, in theory a sufficiently sophisticated system would allow the computer to render only a tiny percentage of the scene on each frame. This is known as foveated rendering.

SMI announced back in March that it was working with Valve to integrate eye tracking into Valve’s OpenVR API. In January 2016 it demonstrated a working foveated rendering demo with sensors built into a modified DK2. It has also been providing hardware to other companies interested in using eye tracking in Gear VR or DK2 devices for special purposes. One such purpose was covered by The Voices of VR podcast this week. SyncThink is an application that uses a Gear VR to automatically diagnose a concussion within 60 seconds.

Those initiatives will likely be eliminated as Apple moves to integrate SMI’s technology into their own VR/AR initiative. It is the strongest evidence yet that Apple is working on a head-mounted display and not just “windowed AR” like that which is launching on ARKit-compatible devices this fall.

SteamVR Knuckles Now in the Hands of Developers

Valve has started providing developers with prototypes of its new “knuckles” controller design, which is strapped to the hand so that it does not need to be gripped. It also features capacitive sensors for hand presence, similar to Oculus Touch, but with even more sensors so that all five fingers are tracked. Here is a video capture of the accompanying tech demo.

Cloudhead Games is one of the recipients and posted a screenshot of how the controllers appear in SteamVR and a video of the knuckles working in Climbey.


CastAR is shutting down and selling off its technology after failing to secure enough capital to continue bringing its retroreflective projector-based HMD to market. The company spun out of early AR/VR research at Valve and ran a successful Kickstarter, raising $1 million back in 2013. Later it raised $15 million in venture capital, and facing a much longer roadmap than originally anticipated, took the unusual step of refunding the Kickstarter money.

UploadVR posted hands-ons of several VR games seen at E3: Space Junkies, Gran Turismo, Doom VFR and The Inpatient. Tested posted a video report with hands-on impressions of Skyrim VR, Fallout 4 VR, Doom VFR, and Gunheart.

Hololens developer Abhishek Singh achieved viral video fame by creating a life-size Super Mario level, dressing as Mario, and playing it in a park. “The final level was more than 110m long!” Singh told UploadVR.

A new site called Made With ARKit is collecting ARKit demos. This week’s highlights include a Falcon 9 rocket landing on a barge in a swimming pool, and a Minecraft implementation. Two demos went viral: one a measuring-tape app showing rather accurate measurements are possible by comparing its output to a real measuring tape; the other a sculptural dancer in a room.

Apple snuck an ARKit feature into its Maps platform, allowing users to walk around the 3D photogrammetry map in a manner similar to Google Earth VR.

YouTube now has native support for 3D/180 videos, rather than just 360 videos. This will be a boon to content creators producing 180 content who up till now have had to resign half the resolution of their video to a static background color. Google is also working with partners to offer 3D/180 video cameras that will provide an extremely easy way to gather footage. The news was met with some odd reactions, with people complaining that Google was retreating from 360. It’s not of course, but Google’s data shows that a lot of people are trying to watch 360 content in a fixed seating position. We here at VR Digest certainly can relate to that, feeling somewhat put upon when a couch-initiated VR video session suddenly demands we stand or switch to a swivel chair. If 360 isn’t necessary, 180 can offer major advantages in resolution, bandwidth or frame rate. Just ask John Carmack.

Speaking of 3D/180 video, the format is especially popular in one niche of the VR space in particular: pornography. This week saw the release of a completely self-contained VR headset (no phone or PC required), complete with its own content ecosystem, and the whole thing is focused entirely on VR video porn. The VRotica HMD was developed by UK-based Hologram and costs $220. It is not a high-spec device by any means, but with pornographic content banned from all the major VR platforms, it solves a major distribution issue. It will also massively streamline the user experience. So the low end tech may be an acceptable trade off for many people.

VR Digest™ is a Virtual Reality Newsletter brought to you by Studio Transcendent, a producer of premium Virtual Reality experiences. We publish weekly on Wednesdays.

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