A man plays a Virtual Reality game at the VRLA (Virtual Reality Los Angeles) expo in Los Angeles, California on April 14, 2017. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Just a few weeks ago, I made my way to San Francisco for the first time to attend the 2017 Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) Expo as an invited speaker. Comprising of both conferences and exhibition floor space, the SVVR expo showcases not just established VR companies, but also those up and coming as well. While I was expecting to check out many from the U.S., what took me by surprise was the presence of almost a dozen startups from Asia. Here are a few to watch out for.
Embody Me (Japan)
With digital environments and virtual worlds becoming commonplace in VR, there are now applications that allow you, the user, to be represented as character avatars inside virtual environments. However, many have lamented how these digital people look nothing like us, especially with digital faces. Embody Me from Japan aims to resolve this. Founded by ex-Yahoo employees who created applications for smartphones before, the team behind Embody Me has developed an augmented reality (AR) technology called "Face Stealer" which captures actual facial expressions in real time and morphs them onto another face, creating more realistic looking avatars.
Face Stealer' technology in action (Embodyme)
EVR Studio (South Korea)
But what’s the point of lifelike digital characters in VR, without meaning, purpose or relationships? This was the focus of EVR Studio’s first interactive, VR story, "Project M" (working title). Hailing from Seoul, South Korea, the VR content startup is creating a cinematic narrative where users can establish relationships with digital characters that will in turn affect the path of each user’s story as it unfolds. According to CEO Jae Hwan Kim, "The most important goal of ‘Project M’ is to present users with realistic looking digital characters that users can emotionally connect with, supported by an intriguing storyline and artificial intelligence (AI) technology that remembers the user’s actions and dialogue to ultimately provide a sense of comfort to the user at the end of the day." Personally, I think this is remarkable and it could possibly attract more non-gamers to VR.
'Project M' Teaser Video Screenshot (EVR Studios)
Mintpot (South Korea)
But if you're ever concerned that you might not understand the storyline because it’s in Korean or any language other than your own, there’s Mintpot. It's a VR startup, also from Seoul, who developed proprietary technology to stream subtitles to VR content in real time. Currently offering English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese with more languages to be added in the near future, Mintpot could even subtitle up to 4K resolutions for VR content. What further impressed me was that the subtitles follow the direction of a user's gaze in the VR headset no matter where I turned, such that it’s not fixed to only one point within the 360 degree space in VR.
Visual coordinates to determine user's gaze (Mintpot)
With more and more content creators around the world joining the industry to produce for VR, Mintpot may truly represent the link across international VR content, enabling users to experience what’s out there in the global market.
Grew Creative Lab (South Korea)
And, if you ever feel fatigue from all the VR content, Grew Creative Lab will be able to provide some relief. Dedicated to overcoming some of the most technical problems in vision and nausea for VR, they have developed "Grew AutoFocus," a plugin for eye-fatigue reduction, and "Grew Moskit," a motion sickness analysis tool for VR games. Although these technologies might not seem important at first, for possible adoption by the masses they could possibly be the assistance needed to facilitate the growth of VR.
But despite all these innovative and cutting-edge technologies, the overall landscape for VR is not all that rosy. And the reason is quite obvious. Not only do VR headsets present a hardware acquisition challenge for mass consumers, there are also currently too many different brands of headsets in the market, with each offering very different propositions. While this may be good for the industry as a whole since multiple, different headsets will suit different market verticals such as real estate, education and more, it also means that the fragmentation of the headsets will prove too difficult for any VR technologies to be applicable to the entire VR industry and market as a whole.
In a recent conversation with Steve Lukas from Qualcomm Ventures, he said, “What we actually need right now is a way to unify the [VR] industry and technologies. It might not be apparent but with different brands developing and releasing their own hardware and software, the [VR] eco-system will become more and more fragmented. As such, it would be very challenging for various VR technologies by startups to be applicable across the current fragmentation.” I completely agree, and lead me to think about the real need for an operating system for VR.
A possible brand new startup, perhaps?