In mixed reality technology, which includes virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), there are some companies that you cannot avoid watching. They include most of the world’s biggest, richest and most innovative personal tech companies. This group includes Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, Sony, Nintendo, Huawei and others. I think the most important company to watch is Apple, who will begin to announce a myriad of devices all connecting to its new iPhone. This will trigger a rapid escalation of AR and VR adoption.
That said, I see all sorts of categories that are ripe for the private sector and early-phase companies to enjoy rapid and significant growth. In many of these niches, there is more than one promising player.
I asked experts Robert Scoble and Shel Israel of the Transformation Group, LLC, a consulting firm dedicated to helping big brands develop and implement mixed reality (MR) strategies, to help me examine the hundreds of mixed reality organizations to uncover the best positioned and the wherewithal to scale quickly.
1. Social VR
Mark Zuckerberg has called VR the most social platform he has ever seen, and we agree. It is different and far more experiential than social media. It allows people located all over the world to share experiences in a single virtual space. This can range from playing games, to touring historic points of interest, to new forms of distance learning, to corporate training experiences.
There are five companies that we believe show promise in this area:
- Project Sansar from Linden Labs the granddaddy of VR platforms. Not only do we like the technology, but Linden Labs has previously shown acumen at bringing in sponsorship dollars without annoying users.
- AltspaceVR has the advantage of being first to market and we believe has the most users by far. Its niche is producing events. It is currently focused on content and community, so we have no sense of how it will monetize -- but then there was a time when people couldn’t see it for Google or Facebook.
- This is a huge space and room for many players for a long time to come, in our view. We also like VReal for its appeal to gamers,PlutoVR for the way it allows direct peer communications andVRChat for its collaborative approach to virtual worlds.
Every aspect of entertainment is embracing mixed reality: players, fans and sponsors. Some niches, such as playing games, have been obvious to most observers. Others are not so obvious.
Music. In mixed reality, people think mostly about 3D visual experiences. But, there is also stereoscopic music, which enables listeners to be immersed in the middle of the band or orchestra pit.MicrodoseVR provides one of the wildest experiences we know. As the company name implies it is like being on a small dose of LSD, as the music hits you from all sides, vivid 3D imagery shapeshifts in time to the music all around you, and you undulate to the beat with others who may be in their living rooms thousands of miles away.
Sports. Mixed reality is being used to enhance fan experiences of just about every sport including the NBA, NFL and the PGA. The companies to watch are the startups that are gaining traction at delivering mixed reality experiences to fans on a global level. The one that so far impresses us the most is NextVR, which partners with Fox, the NBA, CNN and others to provide AR fan experiences in major sports. For example, fans can watch an NBA VR Game of the Week.
Search remains the most popular application in the current 2D, but as the people behind Google and Bing search are aware search changes dramatically when it moves into immersive technologies. Internal mapping is allowing people to find all the blue jeans available in a mall, perhaps while shoppers are escorted by the virtual celebrity of their choice.
In fact, it is far bigger than that. Every square centimeter of the planet is being 3D mapped. It is the core of the great transformation that moves us from smartphones to smart glasses. It also makes search more visual. We will search for things by image so that barriers of language disappear. A company we are watching is Sketchfab, an NYC-based startup that allows people to search for and share more than a million 3D objects through use of a VR headset. Each object can be rotated to allow the searcher to look at an object from all possible perspectives.
4. 360° Cameras
While they are a small step short of being VR or AR, 360° cameras have shrunk from over $10,000 to under $100 in just a few short years. These cameras can now be clipped onto your smartphone, where an app allows you to become the center of a photo that surrounds you in all six directions.
These cameras are constantly improving in quality and affordability. They have not yet become a commodity, but they are well on their way. The four we like the best: Insta360, which has cameras ranging from $3500 down to $129; Giroptic, which is praised for ease of use;JauntVR for the cinematically inclined; and our favorite, 8i, which is leading in volumetric human capture, a technology that makes virtual humans increasingly lifelike.
The headsets of tomorrow are the equivalent of the smartphone of today. Like phones, the componentry is vital to the product, particularly important is the quality of optics, and Lumus seems to be making the best. They could become the “Intel Inside” of the next generation of hardware.
Of course, the big players will dominate in the headset area. As we stated, we expect Apple to be a big winner in his area. But, it will not be the only winner, and some of the players may not be brands you know today.
There are two headset companies, you may not have heard of that we would definitely watch.
ODG is the first commercially successful AR headset company. Founded before the turn of the century, the San Francisco-based, privately held company is working on its eighth generation headset and is the product of choice for many enterprises and government organizations, particularly the military. We would not be surprised for it to cut a deal for a consumer-level headset in the next two to three years.
We are also optimistic about the future of Meta. The Israeli-born company, now located in Silicon Valley, has raised nearly $200 million, most notably from Lenovo. We recently saw a preview of the not-yet-announced Meta3 and were impressed on several levels. This is another company focused now on enterprise customers that just might find its way onto the retail shelf -- perhaps via Lenovo.
We also see a bright future for Daqri, a more recently started headset company that serves hardhat applications ranging from construction to oil rigs to jet fighter pilots and perhaps someday into football or motorcycle racing. The AR helmets are tough and relatively lightweight.
6. Brains, eyes and gestures
As we move from handsets to headsets, we will interact with devices in new ways, leaving the hands mostly free to do other things. There will be voice as AI devices that we call Digital Genies come to market.
But, now we have LeapMotion, a company to watch because it is the leading provider of headset technology that lets people do what they wish by natural gestures, operated by natural gestures.
We would have also included Eyefluence as a company to watch, but Google bought the company, which has moved into Google facilities and is tight-lipped about its next moves.
Gestures and eye interaction are technologies for the near-term future. There are also companies that are helping people interact with technology directly through brainwaves and mixed reality. Mindmazeis the furthest along. With over a billion dollars in investment backing, the Swiss company uses customized headsets to treat or eventually cure such traumatic issues as schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, stroke and the pain caused by traumatic loss of limbs.