Otoy aims to enable developers to create cool VR imagery

Jules Urbach, CEO of Otoy, wearing Osterhaut's augmented reality glasses.
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Jules Urbach likes pretty pictures. The chief executive of cloud graphics startup Otoy likes them so much that he has dedicated his career to getting better and better 3D animated images in front of consumers. And right now, that means better virtual reality imagery.

Otoy’s Octane VR tool, available for free download for developers, can be used to create cool “light field rendering” images that are realistic and make you feel like you are part of a 3D scene. With VR, it can be used to create 18K bubble-like virtual environments that look clear. Otoy makes the software tools that enable developers to create cool imagery for a variety of platforms, including VR.

I caught up with Urbach at the Nvidia GPUTech conference in San Jose, Calif. He showed me some demos of light field virtual reality technology, including a demo of the 3D animated Bat Cave. He also showed some still images built with the Unreal Engine 4 tech from Epic Games. Those images look hyper-realistic, and you can move around inside them as if  you were really there. Over time, Otoy expects the tech to be able to show you moving images too. Right now, the picture gets a little fuzzy when you move around. But that’s a problem that better processing power can solve.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jules Urbach, CEO of Otoy

Above: Jules Urbach, CEO of Otoy

Image Credit: Otoy

GamesBeat: Tell us what you’re showing here.

Jules Urbach: This is the image John Carmack [chief  technology officer at Facebook’s Oculus VR division] was talking about in his keynote at the Game Developers Conference. It’s the first test we ever did in this format. This is what he was talking about when he said it’s the highest resolution he’s ever seen in a VR device. It gives you stereo in every direction you look. This comes right out of our Octane tool.

It’s such a big difference. Until we got to this point, I think everyone was thinking that VR might work just with game engines. No. If you render it right — I grant you that Carmack is a genius and he can just come up with ideas to make this work. But I think this is what is going to make the Samsung Gear VR (mobile virtual reality goggles) super successful. The quality is there. For a casual user, you can just look at these scenes and be in them for a while. It’s almost like looking at a living photograph or painting.

Otoy enables a streamed hockey game in 360-degree virtual reality.

Above: Otoy enables a streamed hockey game in 360-degree virtual reality.

Image Credit: Otoy

GamesBeat: Did you mention that Carmack worked on this or told your guys what to do?

Urbach: No. This is Oculus’s app. It was more like a collaborative project over a long time. He gave us a development kit early on. I said, “We’re doing all this crazy stuff to get light field rendering.” He said, “Maybe there’s something simpler. If you guys can render in this panoramic format, maybe we can do something really cool with Oculus 360 photos. It’s something we can do right away.” So we did it and sent it to him. He said, “Oh my God, this is the best thing we’ve ever seen. This is something compelling.” He tweeted about it and talked about it.

Right now imagery is done. Octane VR will just spit that out. Anyone can make these things.

GamesBeat: What do you call it? A 360 photo?

Urbach: Carmack calls it a stereo cube map, but it’s not exactly that. It’s basically just a miniaturized bubble that you—You don’t really move through the scene. The bubble effect just gives it a bit of depth, no matter where you look. It looks really good.

Carmack gave us the specification. He said, “Render it at this size, about an 18K image, and I guarantee your pixels will line up in the Gear VR.” He was right. He didn’t even see it before we did, but it turned out perfectly. We have this resolution in Octane now — “render this image for Gear VR” — and it spits out exactly the right format.

What’s cool is, since that’s happened, we’re seeing a lot of people get super excited about this kind of pipeline. The Keloid stuff I showed yesterday — my buddy in Barcelona has been working on this short. It’s an insane piece of work. It’s really realistic. But we’re taking shots from this and rendering a shot in VR right now. The guy who created all this — and I think this is going to be true of any computer-generated imagery artist — said, “I’ve been working on this thing for 18 months. I realize now that I’ve been filming in black and white when I should have been making color TV.” You see details you could never see in a movie.

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Facebook’s Messenger Platform Must Go Beyond Apps And Embrace The Web

facebook apps Facebook’s move to turn Messenger into a platform for third-parties has been one of the company’s most important decisions to date. Mobile messaging is a pivotal trend that will shape the way billions of people consume the internet. It has the potential to overhaul the dynamics of digital distribution, but Facebook’s own embryonic platform must to develop in a more open… Read More

How Facebook aims to keep game developers on its platforms (interview)

Dan Morris, head of game partnerships at Facebook.
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Facebook unleashed a lot of news at its F8 conference at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. From cool virtual reality demos to a new analytics platform, the company showed that it cares about the hundreds of millions of gamers on its mobile and desktop social platforms.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, showed off a demo of Facebook Teleportation, which uses virtual reality goggles to display 360-degree views of another place, livestreamed to you in video form. Facebook also said it would release new analytics tools that are infused with anonymized demographic data, which will help game companies identify their core audiences.

Dan Morris was on hand to explain the significance of those announcements, as well as talk about the potential of the new app platform for Facebook’s Messenger mobile communication tool.

We caught up with Morris at last week’s F8. He’ll also be speaking at our invitation-only GamesBeat Summit on May 5-6 at the Cavallo Point resort in Sausalito, Calif.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at F8, March 2015.

Above: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at F8, March 2015.

Image Credit: Facebook livestream

GamesBeat: Can you give us an idea of what game developers will be interested in here at the show?

Dan Morris: Messenger opening up the platform, obviously, and Talking Tom being included in that. It’s the very first toe in the water of what games on top of the platform should be. It’s the only game in the first 40.

GamesBeat: What can you do with that?

Morris: It’s a user-generated content (UGC) share on Messenger. One great thing about Talking Tom, part of what has to do with its big success, is that it has a delightful user customization element. You make Tom say things. What you do is share a Talking Tom UGC moment in Messenger. You take some time to make a creative expression there, and then you share it. It’s a really cool thing to receive.

It runs the gamut in games, as you know, this user-shared content. There’s high-quality stuff and not-so-high-quality stuff. Talking Tom has generally been pretty fun. It’s a cool experience. Our hope is that every other developer can look at that integration and start to think about where the logical fit is for them. There probably won’t be one for everybody, but for most I think there will be a chance to find a creative, fun, user to user to group sharing experience on top of the platform.

GamesBeat: So it’s user to user and then user to group on Messenger?

Morris: Correct. It can go one to many as well.

GamesBeat: Is it more like video, or does somebody have the app and it plays within the app?

Morris: In the case of Talking Tom it’s not a video per se. But both people don’t have to have the app. The video or screenshot or whatever is being shared, you get a notification — you got something from Dan Morris in Talking Tom — and if it’s a video you’ll see the video, or if it’s a screen grab you’ll see a screen grab. There will be an attribution to the app, that it was sent from Talking Tom, and you’ll be able to go to the app store on your phone and pull it down if you want to. But you don’t need Talking Tom. This is actually a way to discover Talking Tom, in your case.

Talking Tom from Outfit7

Above: Talking Tom from Outfit7

Image Credit: Outfit7

GamesBeat: The parallel everyone draws to what you can do with Messenger in games is the comparison to what the Asians do with WeChat and Kakao and Line. They have very viral platforms for spreading games there. In Korea all the top games are Kakao games. In Japan it’s all Line games. For you guys, I wonder how you can get there, but also be mindful of the issue of spam. Facebook has been more careful about that than other platforms.

Morris: We’ll continue to be careful. The thing we’re not looking at right now is a brute-force game distribution channel. We’re not interested in that. We’re not sure that Messenger users are interested in that. That’s a road we’re not going down. What we want is for any individual person who’s having a great experience inside a game to be able to share that through Messenger.

Insofar as awareness and distribution and re-engagement are earned rewards for a developer doing a great integration, well, great. We want that distribution to happen. What we’re not going to do is take some game and force-feed it to 600 million people.

GamesBeat: I’ve heard of some games in Asia where you can’t progress any more unless you share it with 100 people or something.

Morris: I obviously don’t want to speak for Kakao or Line or WeChat, but that’s been the great criticism of that distribution channel. It’s certainly effective. You look at the charts and you can see that it works. How terrific is it? That’s hotly debated. We just are not interested in that debate. It’s more about encouraging a great content share. As that gets rewarded by people reacting to it, developers could do themselves a lot of good. We have a great alignment with game developers. They’re getting rewarded for something that’s real and good.

GamesBeat: It sounds like UGC games are a good fit here.

Morris: For now, yes. I’d say in the early going, UGC and that kind of creative expression is what we want to optimize around. Over time it comes down to the quality of the share. What do I share with you that you’re going to enjoy? If it’s from an app, you’ll say, “Hey, I want to check that out now.”

That has obvious implications for game developers looking for distribution. That’s a boon if they can figure out how to make it delightful. But it will have to be really delightful or it won’t happen.

Facebook's F8 developers conference kicks off its second day in San Francisco today.

Above: Facebook’s F8 developers conference kicks off its second day in San Francisco today.

Image Credit: Daniel Terdiman/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: App Links was something another developer said has been really cool for them. It looked like there was a speech here where, if you share any part of a game, you can direct people back to something nice in a store that has a special deal, or some kind of gift. You can more closely target things in an app or a game.

Morris: We haven’t gone over app events in any great detail with you. The highlight there is, we offer very simple API calls that we call app events. Developers can place them anywhere they want inside a game. For instance, when a tutorial is complete, when a certain enemy is defeated or not defeated, that can send a call back to return the player to that point in time through some kind of re-engagement ad.

It’s a great way to go back to an individual player who has either achieved something in a game that you want to reward, or they’ve failed to achieve something in the game and you want to encourage them to come back in, you can go back and retarget them. It’s a great system that we’re just starting to figure out.

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Facebook’s 5 trends for an exciting, profitable, mobile-first future

Gaming execs: Join 180 select leaders from King, Glu, Rovio, Unity, Facebook, and more to plan your path to global domination in 2015. GamesBeat Summit is invite-only -- apply here. Ticket prices increase on March 6 Pacific!

Facebook thinks that mobile phones are changing the world, and sees a future where everything starts with our mobile-connected lives. What follows from that, if done right, can be happy users and profitable businesses.

This week, thousands of mobile company executives and others are gathered in Barcelona, Spain for Mobile World Congress. Yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg keynoted there, explaining that Internet.org, the company’s non-profit effort to bring connectivity to new users in developing countries, is helping carriers win new customers.

Today, Facebook is sharing its thoughts on the trends in a mobile-first future. In a blog post, Jane Schactel, the company’s global head of technology and mobile strategy, explained her vision for that future.

Facebook global head of technology and mobile strategy jane Schachtel.

Above: Facebook global head of technology and mobile strategy jane Schachtel.

Image Credit: Facebook

“Mobile phones have existed in one form or another for more than 30 years now, and every day they’re becoming more entwined in people’s lives,” Facebook wrote in its post. “But we are only in the early days of living in a mobile world. Today, a person’s mobile experience depends largely on where they live.”

In the developed world, countless people are using high-end Android phones and iPhones, and connecting via fast mobile networks, while in developing nations, networks are slower, and more people use basic phones. “For many people in these countries mobile phones are also a first point of entry to the Internet.”

With that in mind, here’s Schactel’s look at the five trends she sees for the future.

  • More affordable smart phones. Schachtel noted that she foresees significant innovation in the proliferation of low-cost smart phones “that offer better performance and better features for less money.” The benefits, she said, are that more people will get connected, and manufacturers will find new customers by targeting their devices at specific demographics, like Millennials, “hoping they’ll become future long-term customers.”
  • New focus on mobile commerce. As more and more people are conducting transactions via their mobile devices. But there’s still huge untapped opportunity there, Schachtel noted. “More technology and telecom businesses need to adapt their business models to mobile, and I expect to see new solutions from operators that make it easier for people to buy and sell things through their phones.”
  • Differentiation. In many developed countries, Schachtel said, it’s hard for device makers to stand out as almost everyone already has a phone, many of which look the same and offer more or less the same features. Without standing out, manufacturers struggle to build brand loyalty, and in the process deal with increased customer churn. But by finding ways to make their devices more personal to users — “focusing, for instance, on the emotional role they play in our lives rather than the latest technical specs — manufacturers could reverse that trend. That would be aided by getting users to buy more products from the device makers, Schachtel said. “Device manufacturers are now introducing gadgets like watches and selfie-cams to pair with phones and tablets,” a dynamic known as “device families.”
  • Better network capabilities. In the first world, users are consuming huge amounts of video content, Schachtel said, and that trend will only increase. As a result, carriers have little choice but to boost their networks’ capabilities and reliability. “I expect to see lots about 5G networks, as well as ways of delivering video to more people on slower networks….It’s become essential to understand creative best practices for mobile experiences, and the changing ways in which people consume video.”
  • Making the Internet of Things important. Schachtel said she expects the near future to be filled with talk about the Internet of Things — connected devices like the Nest smart thermostat or the August smart lock — and what she called “machine to machine” connections. Too, she said, Apple’s watch will likely spawn large numbers of second-gen smart watches. “With the Internet of Things, the big challenge remains showing people how connected devices can be meaningful additions to their lives, rather than just being cool pieces of tech.”

In the end, Schachtel concluded, mobile means great opportunities and exciting times for users and businesses. “As more people come online and new technologies become more widely available,” she wrote, “we’ll continue to see more sophisticated solutions for connecting the world. And that’s good for people, and good for businesses.”



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Google X exec Mary Lou Jepsen leaves to pursue new ‘moonshots’ with Oculus

mary lou jepsen
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Mary Lou Jepsen, who has been head of Google X’s display division since 2012, has left to join the maker of another high-tech set of eyewear: Oculus VR.

Jepsen’s career has revolved around taking what she calls “moonshots.” During her tenure at Google X, she worked on two such efforts, including Google Glass. While at the company, she reported directly to cofounder Sergey Brin.

Although an Oculus spokesperson would not elaborate on what Jepsen will be doing at the Facebook-owned virtual-reality technology developer, it’s a safe bet it’s something high-level and strategic. In her past, which included a stint as one of the very first group of students at the MIT Media Lab, and later a professorship there, she was the cofounder and CTO of the One Laptop Per Child project. That project aimed to make laptops available to children for about $100 each.

Her work also led her to be named one of the “Time 100” in 2008, essentially ranking her among the hundred most influential people on the planet, as well as being listed as one of the 50 greatest female computer scientists of all time by the Anita Borg Institute.

According to Time, she was the co-creator of the world’s first holographic video system, in 1989.

Her penchant for taking moonshots may be a coincidence, but Jepsen was also a NASA fellow from 1992 to 1994, during which time she designed a new anti-glare illumination system for the space shuttle, according to her resume.

Over her last couple of years at Google, Jepsen was involved in building the company’s follow-up to Google Glass. However, it’s not yet known what that is.

Jepsen’s joining Oculus makes a lot of sense, given her long history with display technology. In addition to work at the MIT Media Lab, Google X, and now Oculus, she also was founder, CTO, CEO, and then board member of Pixel Qi, a company whose “mission is to catalyze the massive LCD manufacturing industry to faster innovation via the first truly fab­less effort in the industry.”

Her hiring was first reported by GigaOm.

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Shakeup at Google! Bradley Horowitz reportedly now running Google+

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 5.26.38 PM
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Bradley Horowitz, the vice president of product for Google+ since 2008, has reportedly been named the head of Google’s social network.

Bradley Horowitz updated his LinkedIn profile.

According to TechCrunch, Horowitz has replaced David Besbris, who has been in charge of Google+ for less than a year.

It’s not clear what Google’s plans are — the company did not immediately respond to a VentureBeat request for comment — but if recent signals are correct, it could be that Google+ will be losing some of its features.

In an interview with Forbes, Google product czar Sundar Pichai suggested that Google+ could be broken up over time. Many people think the search giant has all but lost the social networking battle to Facebook.







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Facebook’s ‘active’ users aren’t so active anymore, says survey data

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Although headline writers like nothing more than proclaiming Facebook’s demise, the simple truth is that it remains at the very core of social networking – having more members and active users than any of its rivals.

But while Facebook’s global dominance is beyond doubt, some key questions remain. Is Facebook still growing, for example? And how many people are really using it? Facebook continues to announce quarter-on-quarter increases in “active user” numbers, but we know that the social media landscape is more competitive than ever and that Facebook no longer has the type of all-encompassing appeal it once commanded. Why aren’t these factors impacting the company’s self-published figures? Is it a question of definitions?

My company, GlobalWebIndex, tracks active usage across all of the world’s major social platforms, surveying 200,000 Internet users annually about their networking behaviors, and our data tells a very different story. If we look at the top 10 social networks and compare our Q4 2013 results against those from Q4 2014, Facebook is the only one that saw a decline in active user numbers (dropping 6 points). Meanwhile, Twitter and Google+ held steady, and all of the rest saw increases – with Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Badoo posting particularly healthy rises.

So, what’s going on here? First, Facebook’s definition of an active user is now so broad that you can do very little on the site and still be counted within its figures. Secondly, and just as importantly, GlobalWebIndex’s data shows that, while Facebook’s active user numbers are undergoing consistent declines, its member and visitor numbers are either holding steady or increasing. Clearly, we have a large group of Facebookers who are checking the site but not actually contributing to it – to such an extent that they don’t even consider themselves to be “active users.” It’s not that the site is losing active users per se, then, it’s that users are evolving into passive users – individuals who still visit Facebook but who use alternative networks or apps for activities such as photo-sharing and direct messaging.

To find evidence for this, we need look no further than the U.S. and U.K. (which, as Facebook’s oldest two markets, are typically seen as bellwethers for wider trends). Of the 15,000 people we surveyed in these two countries, half of Facebook’s members said they were using it less than before (rising to two thirds among teens). The main reasons for this were pretty revealing: A fifth said they were just not as interested in the site as they used to be. A similar number said they were simply bored of the network. That’s hardly surprising for a site that’s been around for over a decade, but it’s an issue the service itself has been (understandably) reticent to acknowledge.

According to our data, over a quarter of Facebook members are now “logging in to see what’s happening without posting/commenting on anything.” Tellingly, these Facebook “browsers” are more likely to be using chat apps, more likely to be on smaller networks such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and more likely to be 16-24. All of these individuals will be counted as active by Facebook but, in reality, an active user in 2015 is quite different from an active user earlier in the decade.

To keep investors and commentators happy, it’s inevitable that Facebook will continue to announce quarter-on-quarter increases in active user numbers; it is simply too perilous to unveil any decline. But it’s now having to look to fast-growth markets – where Internet populations continue to expand rapidly each year – to add new members in any meaningful quantities. Examine year-on-year behaviors and like-for-like user numbers in mature markets like the US and UK, and it’s abundantly clear that active usage on Facebook is declining. Little wonder, then, that it’s experimenting with services like Facebook at Work as well as a dedicated Tor browser version; both are designed to increase engagement among existing audiences rather than win new users. In the face of so much competition, Facebook knows that it needs ways to energize, and re-energize, its easily distracted user base.

Of course, perspective is essential here; Facebook might have become the site that it’s no longer terribly cool to say you use or like, but it’s still the number one global service (and by quite some distance). What’s more, Facebook’s Atlas platform is underpinned by the proposition of reaching specific audiences; that means people don’t need to be actively engaging with Facebook for ads to be targeted accurately. They just need to be visiting the site or have the app installed. So, as long as membership and visitation rates remain strong – as they are – profits will follow.

Jason ManderJason Mander is Head of Trends at GlobalWebIndex.


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What color is #TheDress? Facebook is analyzing your answers to this question, too, of course

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 3.31.19 PM
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The question of the color of the now famous dress has been debated ad nauseam. But now data from Facebook suggests whether you were on Team Blue and Black or Team Gold and White depends on how old you are, and whether you were on a computer or a mobile device, and even whether you’re male or female.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you might need to hop on over to BuzzFeed and join the more than 31 million people that have viewed their now record-breaking post that looks at whether a striped dress that went viral on Tumblr is actually blue and black or gold and white.

The debate got so heated yesterday that it nearly took BuzzFeed down, not to mention swamping Thursday’s other huge meme, the escaped llamas. “Last night saw one of those beautiful moments made possible by the interconnected age we live in,” Facebook wrote. “Someone posted a picture of a dress, and the Internet lost its collective mind.”

Facebook, of course, is the kind of place where countless people were weighing in on the topic, so it is a natural place to investigate the demographics of who saw the dress one way and who saw it the other.

“The younger a person was, the more likely they were to believe the dress was black and blue,” the Facebook data science team wrote in a post analyzing yesterday’s dress madness. “All other things being equal, a whopping 10 percent more of 13-17 year old users were on team Black and Blue, compared to 55-64 year old users.”

Is that because of changes in people’s eyes as they age? Facebook’s data doesn’t address that, unfortunately, but that would be one obvious conclusion. Unless it has something to do with the kinds of color schemes that different age groups identify with.

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 3.43.11 PM

At the same time, there appeared to be differences in how people viewed the colors of the dress depending on whether they were looking at pictures of it on a computer or on a mobile device.

“We wondered if the interface used by the person might have something to do with the percentage,” Facebook wrote. “After all, the same image might visually look very different depending on the light signature of the device used to view it. Making the assumption that people posted to Facebook on the same device they used to view the image, this was indeed the case: relative to people posting from a computer, 6 percent more iPhone users said that the dress was white and gold, while this number was 7 percent for Android users!”

This, too might have to do with location, since as the post notes, those on mobile devices are more likely to be outside, where there would be glare on the screen that might affect how colors on a screen are interpreted.

There are other demographic factors, too, that might have affected what dress team you were on, according to Facebook. Men, for example, were found to be 6 percent more likely to be on Team Black and Blue than women, likely because more men than women are color blind.

But in the end, judging by Facebook’s data, it sure looks like the dress was gold and white. “In all, 42 percent of Facebook users choosing a side were on team Black and Blue, while 58 percent were on team White and Gold.”


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