A large and international meeting on the ethics of human-genome editing is poised to begin — and researchers are curious about how perceived differences in attitudes will play out.
“We’re hoping to sort of take the temperature of the world,” says David Baltimore, the virologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who is chairing the International Summit on Human Gene Editing. It runs 1–3 December in Washington DC.
Jointly organized by the US National Academy of Sciences, the US National Academy of Medicine, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society, the meeting is expected to draw representatives from more than 20 countries, including India, Sweden and Nigeria.
The popularity of the genome-editing tool CRISPR–Cas9, which uses bacterial enzymes to cut genomes in precise spots to disrupt or repair troublesome genes, has sparked an ethical debate — and many believe that the time is ripe for an international discussion.
In January, Baltimore and a small group of scientists gathered in Napa, California, to discuss issues surrounding genome editing, including rumours that researchers had already edited human embryos. Some consider the editing of any reproductive cell as contentious because the changes could be passed to future generations. Concerns escalated in April, when researchers in China announced that they had edited human embryos — although they had deliberately used non-viable embryos that could not result in a live birth1.
Baltimore and his colleagues then approached Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, with the idea of holding an international summit. “Everyone knew that whatever anybody did had to be inherently international,” Cicerone says. “There are really strong efforts in so many countries that could employ this new technology.”
Zhihong Xu, a plant biologist at Peking University who will represent the Chinese Academy of Sciences at the meeting, is curious about whether perceived differences in attitude — in particular between the United States and China — are real. “I believe that this is an issue for all of us to consider seriously together,” he says.
Cicerone hopes that the meeting will illuminate any scientific, ethical and cultural differences in how countries think about genome editing — and perhaps even lead to beginnings of an international consensus on outstanding scientific questions, research priorities and ethical guidelines.
But such a consensus would only be the start of a broader discussion, Cicerone cautions. Eventually the health industry, disease lobby groups, members of the public and governments of the many nations involved, will need to feed into decisions. “As much work as we’ve put into this meeting,” Cicerone says, “it really is only a first big step.”
Doctors might get even better at detecting tumors in breast cancer patients early, thanks to pressure-sensitive rubber gloves that supercharge their sense of touch. But the sensors that power those gloves could be useful in all kinds of non-medical scenarios, too.
Getting a regular exam from your doctor is still one of the most effective ways of catching the signs of breast cancer early, but it’s easy to miss the telltale hardness of a tumor when a rubber surgical glove is involved. That’s why a team of researchers led by Dr. Sungwon Lee and Professor Takao Someya of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Engineering has developed a new type of pressure sensor which is thin and resilient enough to fit into a glove.
Pressure sensors flexible enough to mold themselves to the contours of a human hand have been available for awhile now, but they can’t handle bending, twisting, or wrinkling while still giving accurate measurements. Using organic transistors made of carbon nanontubes, graphene, carbon, and oxygen, the University of Tokyo team was able to address this problem, creating a transparent sensor just 8 micrometers thick—one-fifth the thickness of a human hair—that can measure pressure in 144 places at once. In conjunction with the right software, these sensors could be used in standard surgical gloves to help doctors detect tumors by touch alone.
But according to the team, this same technology has just as much potential for implantable and wearable devices. Sadly, they didn’t go as far as to name them, but it’s easy to imagine the possibilities. Just a few uses that come to mind include a smart tattoo that could also function as a touchpad, touch sensitive clothing that can go through the wash, or pressure-sensing VR gloves as thin as the ones you use to do the dishes that can detect how you’re moving your fingers. Saving lives might be just the start for this technology.
Since the 1950s, virtual reality (VR) has been hovering on the periphery of technology without achieving accepted mainstream application or commercial adoption. Since 2012, VR startups have raised more than $1.46 billion in venture capital, including more than $100 million in funding during the last four consecutive quarters.
According to Citi analyst Kota Ezawa, 2016 is the year that VR will take off in earnest, with the VR market expected to grow to a $15.9 billion industry by 2019. Citi also anticipates the market for hardware, networks, software and content will reach $200 billion by 2020.
The content share of this market is of particular interest, as this segment of the tech industry has historically been dedicated to gaming — but the world is changing. We are shifting from the now relatively benign universe in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Ernest Cline’s VR paradigm as described in Ready Player One. Like Huxley, Cline has written of a dystopian environment wherein technology has overtaken humanity.
For our purpose, let’s consider VR as a useful tool, and perhaps even a productive enhancement to human interaction, bringing together people from around the world to engage and interact — regardless of social, economic or geographic disparities. In the abstract as well as the applied, modern education is poised to take advantage of this latest tech innovation.
Over the last several years, VR has moved from being the purview of the military and aviation to the mainstream of professional development, as managers, instructors, coaches and therapists have claimed increasing benefit from immersive experiences.
While statistics on VR use in K–12 schools and colleges have yet to be gathered, the steady growth of the market is reflected in the surge of companies (including zSpace, Alchemy VR and Immersive VR Education) solely dedicated to providing schools with packaged educational curriculum and content, teacher training and technological tools to support VR–based instruction in the classroom. Myriad articles, studies and conference presentations attest to the great success of 3D immersion and VR technology in hundreds of classrooms in educationally progressive schools and learning labs in the U.S. and Europe.
Perhaps the most utopian application of this technology will be seen in terms of bridging cultures and fostering understanding among young students.
Much of this early foray into VR–based learning has centered on the hard sciences — biology, anatomy, geology and astronomy — as the curricular focus and learning opportunities are notably enriched through interaction with dimensional objects, animals and environments. The World of Comenius project, a biology lesson at a school in the Czech Republic that employed a Leap Motion controller and specially -adapted Oculus Rift DK2 headsets, stands as an exemplary model of innovative scientific learning.
In other areas of education, many classes have used VR tools to collaboratively construct architectural models, recreations of historic or natural sites and other spatial renderings. Instructors also have used VR technology to engage students in topics related to literature, history and economics by offering a deeply immersive sense of place and time, whether historic or evolving.
In what may turn out to be an immersive education game changer, Google launched its Pioneer Expeditions in September 2015. Under this program, thousands of schools around the world are getting — for one day — a kit containing everything a teacher needs to take their class on a virtual trip: Asus smartphones, a tablet for the teacher to direct the tour, a router that allows Expeditions to run without an Internet connection, a library of 100+ virtual trips (from the Great Wall of China to Mars) and Google Cardboard viewers or Mattel View-Masters that turn smartphones into VR headsets.
This global distribution of VR content and access will undoubtedly influence a pedagogical shift as these new technologies allow a literature teacher in Chicago to “take” her students to Verona to look at the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or a teacher in the Bronx to “bring” her Ancient Civilizations class to the ancient Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza.
And with VR platforms like AltspaceVR and LectureVR (an initiative of Immersive VR Education), entirely new possibilities are available for teachers of all kinds, as the technology of making avatars and supporting “multi-player” sessions allows for an exponentially- scaled level of socialization and outreach.
Potentially, a collaboration between these innovative VR platform offerings could result in a curator or artist guiding a group of thousands around a museum exhibition or cultural site, or an actor or professor leading a virtual master class in real time with students from all over the world.
Perhaps the most utopian application of this technology will be seen in terms of bridging cultures and fostering understanding among young students, as it will soon be possible for a third-grade class in the U.S. to participate in a virtual trip with a third-grade class in India or Mexico.
Access to some type of mobile VR device is affordable for many more individual users and, in turn, many more schools.
Despite the fact that VR is still developing, real progress has been seen in the economic scaling of the technology. The cost to the consumer of VR hardware (headsets, in particular) has steadily declined, as noted in the head–mounted displays (HMDs) commercially available today: Google Cardboard for $20 and Samsung Gear VR for $99 (at this writing, Oculus Rift, a desktop VR device, is available for pre–order for $599).
The fact that The New York Times recently supplied more than one million subscribers with Google Cardboard headsets to access its newly launched VR experiences has further advanced accessibility and mainstreaming of the device, as well as this innovative means of media consumption.
Overall, access to some type of mobile VR device is affordable for many more individual users and, in turn, many more schools. Some forward-thinking instructors are even using 3D printers to print their own customized HMDs with their technology students, a solution that dovetails with the popular maker–trend philosophy.
So maybe we are ready for the futuristic world of Cline’s Ready Player One. But perhaps the utopian rather than dystopian construct is not only more appealing, but also more relevant in this global community.
Educators and students alike are seeking an ever-expanding immersive landscape, where students engage with teachers and each other in transformative experiences through a wide spectrum of interactive resources. In this educational reality, VR has a definitive place of value.
With all of the declarations of augmented reality and virtual reality’s inevitable ascents to the heights of technological cruciality, Apple has managed to stay noticeably quiet on the topic. This has led to any VR/AR movement on their end being quite notable.
According to a report from the Financial Times, Apple just hired a top AR/VR specialist to join their team. Doug Bowman, a man who quite literally wrote the book on 3D interfaces (he was the lead author of 3D User Interfaces: Theory and Practice), will be joining the Cupertino-based tech giant following a sabbatical from his position as a professor of Computer Science and the Director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech. He also served as the general chair of the IEEE Virtual Reality Conference in 2007-2008 according to his Virginia Tech bio.
Bowman, who has been employed by Virginia Tech since 1999, has published and collaborated on numerous articles relating to augmented reality and virtual reality including, “Virtual Reality: How Much Immersion Is Enough?,” “3D User Interfaces: New Directions and Perspectives,” and “The Effects of Visual Realism on Search Tasks in Mixed Reality Simulation.”
A particularly interesting tidbit from the FT’s report involves his being the recipient of one of the first $100,000 HoloLens research grants from Microsoft for a study on “collaborative analysis of large-scale mixed reality data.”
A quick scour of his CV indicates a laundry list of impressive accomplishments in the field of AR/VR research that will undoubtedly prove useful to Apple which has, in the very least, indicated interest in the AR/VR space. He also details that his research interests include three-dimensional user interfaces, virtual environments, virtual reality, augmented reality and human-computer interaction.
Unlike its competitors, including Google, Facebook (Oculus), Samsung and HTC, Apple has yet to formally announce any serious hardware or software efforts in the virtual/augmented reality field, though patent applications and their 360-degree videos certainly show that they’ve been experimenting with it. Positing what AR/VR pursuits could be next for Apple would just be simple speculation, but it will certainly be interesting to see what comes of hires like this in the future.
The virtual fire continues to heat up beneath the AR/VR industry with investments continuing to build and soar. According to a report from Digi-Capital, AR and VR investments are taking off pretty rapidly with nearly $700 million being invested into the space in 2015.
The overall trends show investment steadily rising. The report notes that there “have now been 6 straight quarters of AR/VR investment growth, with a quarter of a billion dollars invested in Q4 2015 alone at nearly 6x the rate of mid-2014.”
The report also detailed that 2015 saw just $311 million of AR/VR M&A exits, which it noted wasn’t all that surprising given how relatively early it is in the industry’s life cycle. The report stressed that there would likely be significant movement soon in the industry as “major players try to leapfrog the competition”
Another item that’s clear from the report is the fact that secretive powerhouse Magic Leap is an impressively hulking force in the industry. Their $542M Series B led by Google in October of 2014 presents a pretty clear kink in the generally nice upward trend of yearly investments.
The report also obviously doesn’t include Magic Leap’s (still unconfirmed) 2015 raise, which Forbes reported clocked in at a staggering and industry-dwarfing $827 million.
The report has a pretty bullish outlook on the future growth of VR/AR, suggesting that the “next platform shift to AR/VR looks like it could drive growth to $120 billion by 2020.” That is a hell of a lot of dough.
Virtual reality is becoming a major focus for struggling smartphone maker HTC, but not so major that it will spin out its VR business into a standalone company.
The firm today issued a statement denying a report from local media in its home country of Taiwan which claimed Chairwoman Cher Wang is in the process of creating a new VR entity that is wholly owned by her and HTC. The report suggested that the idea of a spin-out was first raised last year, around the time that then-CEO Peter Chou stepped down to lead product development, but was abandoned for some reason and is now being revived.
Not so, HTC said:
Recent media reports in Taiwan, such as by United Evening News, stating that Cher Wang is planning to spin off HTC’s VR operations into an independent entity that will be wholly owned by Wang is incorrect. HTC will continue to develop our VR business to further maximize value for shareholders.
Speaking of shareholders. HTC’s stock price jumped at the initial reports, rising by over five percent to NT$76.60. If you’ve been following HTC — which was trading below its cash on hand last year, effectively making the company worthless — then you’ll know that moving its needle in a positive direction is no easy thing.
HTC is pinned its comeback on a combination of cost-cutting (15 percent layoffs) and more marketable devices, but the company said that the Internet of things, wearables and VR are also areas where it believes it can rebuild its popularity with consumers.
The company forged important links last year as Chou took a role as executive director role with Hong Kong-based Digital Domain, in addition to his work with HTC and HTC invested $10 million in VR platform company WEVR.
The initial fruit of the company’s VR labor is the HTC Vive which, following much delay, will finally be available in April. The device impressed us last year, but how will it fare among the general public? We’ll see soon.
Every car manufacturer now has an autonomous driving program, but the rules and regulations around actually driving autonomous cars on public roads remain scattershot.
Now, the U.S. government is starting to work on a national policy for autonomous cars, and it’s promising to invest $4 billion over the course of the next 10 years “to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects.”
To navigate snowy roads, Ford autonomous vehicles are equipped with high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road and what’s above it, including road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography.
The $4 billion is part of President Obama’s 2017 budget proposal, so it could still get shot down in the process. The idea here is to work with the technology industry and auto manufacturers to test connected and autonomous cars “in designated corridors throughout the country.”
Over time, these designated corridors will have to give way to a broader policy. To get to this point, the DOT today said it wants to develop a model state policy on automated driving within the next six months. In the long run, this state policy could then lead to a consistent national policy.
The DOT is also asking car manufacturers to submit rule interpretation requests to see if their autonomous driving features (including self-parking systems, for example) meet its standards. Manufacturers can also ask for exemptions.
“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today.
“Today’s actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials, and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.”
One thing our friends at Google will likely be happy to hear is that the DOT and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are also looking at rules for cars that were “designed without a human driver in mind.” For now, the states that have policies around self-driving vehicles still require a human driver behind a steering wheel who can take over control if necessary.
Ten years is obviously a long time, but even though the incumbents in the car industry are starting to move faster, it still takes about two to three years to develop a new vehicle in Detroit. While there are also still plenty of technological and regulatory hurdles to overcome before self-driving cars will be able to drive down any street, newcomers like Google and Tesla (and, who knows, Faraday Future?) will work faster than established car companies. For them, 10 years is an eternity.
As Facebook and Microsoft have plowed ahead with virtual reality, Google has looked like it’s behind. But, in 2016, it may be serious about catching up.
The search giant is forming its own dedicated division for virtual reality computing, with CEO Sundar Pichai moving over a key deputy to run it, according to multiple sources. Simultaneously, the move signals Google’s emerging intent to build a viable enterprise business. Because with the executive shift, Google’s massive consumer Web applications now fall under incoming SVP Diane Greene.
A Google spokesperson confirmed the changes, but declined to comment further.
Clay Bavor, VP for product management, has run Google’s apps — like Gmail, Drive and Docs. He has also overseen Google Cardboard, its thrifty virtual reality device, since its launch in 2014. Now Bavor is dropping apps to focus squarely on virtual reality products. And the apps division is shifting to Greene, the revered software vet who joined Google in November to run its newly aligned enterprise operations.
Cardboard, which was designed to be a mainstream introduction to VR, has seen some success in getting out into the wild. It began distribution programs with schools this year and saw a nice bump from a buzzy deal with the New York Times. The Cardboard team also introduced an integration with GoPro that brings virtual reality video to YouTube, a feature that Bavor introduced at Google I/O in May.
Yet many people in the industry have questioned Google’s dedication to the platform, noting that the company has moved cautiously after its fumble with Google Glass. Facebook, conversely, has been open and assertive about its ambitions in VR, running Oculus as its own separate division.
It’s likely that Google’s long-term bet on the computing platform is its investment in stealthy augmented reality firm Magic Leap. (One person familiar with Google dubbed that investment “FOMO” — or “fear of missing Oculus.”) But that product is several years, if not a decade, from a consumer reality.
Over the past year, Bavor, a precocious and well-liked exec inside Google, was spending more time with Cardboard despite his broader responsibilities, several Google people have said. (Though there’s no indication that products like Gmail suffered as a consequence.) His move to VR full-time shows that Google is taking the threat from Facebook and others in the space as a credible one.
Four hundred people at Facebook currently work on Oculus, a Oculus spokesperson said. A Google rep would not say how many people work on Cardboard or any other unannounced VR products.
Just as critical in Pichai’s managerial shift are the new duties for Greene. The former VMware CEO came to Google (for a steep price) after an extensive search. Greene is responsible for turning two of Google’s biggest untapped assets — its cloud sales division, which is well behind Amazon, and its enterprise applications sales, which have yet to take off despite several attempts — into a business that can rival search.
In 2015, the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) industry was widely heralded as the next tectonic shift in computing. But it’s also an industry that investors are cautious to enter while everyone’s cards are still face down. It may take years before mass consumer adoption, but in 2016 we still have a huge opportunity to help shape this industry.
The thesis of VR/AR is that, as a new interface, it will take over many parts of existing interfaces, including real life, such as shopping, education and some forms of live entertainment — and, of course, the Internet. But the true magic and innovation is what we’ve only been able to imagine as part of science fiction: traveling back in time, teleporting to a different location and being with people who are no longer with us.
Virtual reality makes all that possible, just not in the way we thought. You can now teleport to Mars or the top of Mt. Everest and be back in time for breakfast, travel back to the Roman Colosseum for a gladiator fight and capture your baby’s first steps for her family to revisit for generations to come. These completely new experiences, which VR and AR unlock (in addition to disrupting and enhancing existing ones), are what truly excite me, and many investors and VR industry folks with whom I’ve spoken.
Are VR and AR real?
The most common question we heard from investors in 2015: Are VR and AR real? If you’ve tried virtual or augmented reality, then most likely your answer is yes. The true market size and opportunity is hard to articulate — you really have to see it for yourself.
Time travel, teleportation and immortality will soon be within our reach.
Explaining the vision for VR without experiencing it is like trying to convey the potential of the Internet in the early 1990s. This is one of the particular nuances of VR/AR. In a heavily interconnected world, the newest technology has only been seen by a few, and has to be delivered on a 1:1 basis.
VR investment areas in 2016
“I have a new VR/AR fund; what should I invest in?” asked a leading technology VC.
I recently referenced an analogy of VR/AR to the Gold Rush. The “gold” (true value) in VR/AR is content: the compelling experiences that are so good consumers are willing to pay for them, along with expensive hardware. With that in mind, there are basically three core areas of investment in 2016 with promising growth potential:
Hardware. What became clear in 2015 is the volume and variety of VR headsets in production, ranging from the basic Google Cardboard (which could number in the tens of millions within 18 months), to Gear VR (which could eventually be giveaways with every mobile phone) and many Chinese competitors, to the high-end Oculus, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. And on the AR side, of course, there’s Magic Leap, DAQRI and HoloLens, among others.
Given the number of players in the space, it’s likely this will not be a “winner takes all” monopoly. And while the headset market is crowded and largely built out, supporting technologies — like eye-tracking and haptic feedback — remain hot.
Content. There’s a huge upside for content that people are willing to purchase, most obviously in the area of gaming. And with eSports, or in this case vSports, there’s a whole social side to gaming that is yet to be built out.
But in 2015, we also saw headset companies make strategic investments in niche VR content producers in order to drive mainstream consumer adoption beyond gaming. With media companies and Hollywood studios enthusiastically jumping into VR content, niche VR producers are getting slammed with too much demand and, in some cases, forced to outsource content creation to visual effects studios like ILM and Weta Digital.
The best investors look for the opportunity that is truly transformative.
Until tools become available to help democratize content creation, content will remain in the hands of niche players and won’t be able to scale to meet demand. But over time, as tools become readily accessible, we’ll see media companies and studios bring VR content creation capabilities in-house. In the meantime, we’re seeing VR producers maximize their perceived long-term value by turning themselves into distribution companies and developing their own IP.
Software/Infrastructure/Tools. Just as it did in the PC and mobile eras, software is what will enable tools and apps for content creation and discovery — the picks and shovels for mining content gold. Over the next year or two as headsets come to market, it’s VR/AR software and infrastructure that will likely create the most untapped value.
Finding the right opportunities.
In November, an investor at a top Sand Hill Road VC firm told me he was shocked to learn how few investors in the Valley have yet to try true VR or AR. While the majority of tech investors haven’t made their first VR/AR bet, those who have are going in big.
Mark Zuckerberg got ahead of the curve when he snatched up Oculus in 2014. He attributed much of his early conviction in VR to a missed opportunity with mobile — as he “wistfully” shared in Fast Company, “One of my big regrets is that Facebook hasn’t had a major chance to shape the mobile operating system ecosystem.”
The investors and believers have become modern-day Cassandras (able to literally see the future with their own eyes, but nobody understanding it). In this current “cloaked” state of the VR/AR industry — before commercial launch of headsets essentially call the hand — the best approach to finding the right opportunities boils down to three logical things we’ve seen from great investors:
They are curious and proactive in seeking out innovative teams and trying out the latest tech.
They do their due diligence in educating themselves to avoid mistaking that “wow” VR feeling for “good investment.”
They maintain a high bar when it comes to finding the right teams and tech, even if opportunities were missed in the past.
Traditionally, the best investors look for the opportunity that is truly transformative and won’t be displaced by something that comes along that’s only incrementally better. To find the right opportunities in VR/AR, it’s important to understand the ecosystem and where it’s moving, and to identify the technologies and teams that could truly advance the VR industry.
Time travel, teleportation and immortality will soon be within our reach thanks to VR and AR, as will many other things we had only imagined in science fiction… and some we haven’t imagined yet. That’s even more exciting!
So while there’s a lot of work to be done, resources needed and risk involved, I for one am very excited about what 2016 holds for VR/AR and the incredible opportunity we have to help pioneer the next computing era.
It’s been a long wait but the price-tag for the consumer version of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset has finally been confirmed now that pre-orders are open — and it costs $599 (plus shipping).
We know because TC editor Matthew Panzarino just managed to order one…
U.K. pricing for the headset is ￡499. Oculus said today it will initially ship to 20 countries, and will also be available in “limited locations at select retailers” starting in April.
Remember you’ll also need to own a PC capable of powering Rift to enter its VR playground — so if not you’ll need to factor in that additional cost. Oculus said today that it will be so-called ‘Oculus Ready’ PC plus Rift bundles available for pre-order in February, starting at $1499.
Also confirmed: the month the consumer Rift is slated to ship — which is March. Previously Oculus has said to expect the headset to arrive in Q1 2016. So it remains on track there.
As previously confirmed, the Touch controller for the headset, which will let wearers interact with the stuff they’re seeing in VR by enabling them to do stuff like pick up virtual objects and so on, is not shipping at the same time as the Rift but there is an option to get “in line” for it during pre-order checkout process, which then leads to an Oculus account sign up page.
The company has previously said the Touch controller will be coming in the second half of the year. In the meanwhile Rift buyers will have to make do with the Xbox One controller that the headset ships with.
Despite the Oculus pre-order site running off a Facebook CDN the website has apparently been struggling with the spike of early adopters all clicking simultaneously to try to secure a Rift. After months of teaser hype, and an instruction that pre-orders would kick of at 8am PT sharp, a spike was inevitable but it’s a little odd the expensive backend infrastructure has apparently not been able to cope.
So is $600 too much to be an early adopter of VR? Time will tell. It’s certainly considerably more expensive than the dev kit version of Oculus, which was priced at $350.
What else can you buy for $600?
One high end smartphone
At least six cheerfully cheap Android phones
Six Samsung Gear VRs
Almost, but not-quite, two Apple Watches