HTC Denies Reports It Will Spin Its VR Business Into A Standalone Company


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.


US Government Plans To Invest $4B In Autonomous Driving Research Over The Next 10 Years


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.


Google Now Has an Official Virtual Reality Boss to Take On Facebook’s Oculus


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.

She now has many more people under her to do so.


The Value In Virtual And Augmented Reality


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.


Oculus Rift Headset Priced At $599 For Consumers, Ships In March


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

Ten Fitbit Zip activity trackers


Samsung’s ‘Rink’ Motion Controllers For Gear VR Look Pretty Great


A few days ago, Samsung shared a few items that they’d be showing on the floor at CES in Las Vegas. One of them, which barely caused a blip on the radar was the “rink.” It’s Samsung’s motion controllers for the Gear VR, something that is sorely needed for their mobile virtual reality experience.

If you remember, Oculus just shared that their own motion controllers, the Touch, will be delayed until the second half of 2016. HTC and Playstation also have their own flavor of controllers.

Samsung C lab development challenges ‘rink’ is Samsung VR and interlocking gears, hand-operated controllers. Hand operation via a sensor worn on the hand may move the virtual reality contents , you can click or drag. CES 2016 showcase scene of demonstrations scheduled in the arena rink, Meet video!

I’m looking forward to being able to pore through menus using the controller, which looks a bit like interacting with screens in the movie Minority Report. Photos of the rink, which are basically all that we have other than the video, show what it might be like to type on a virtual keyboard. Basically, it’ll do way more than a Wii controller will, even though Samsung looks like be positioning it as something similar (see the Tennis pose.)

So Samsung has gotten Oculus content to consumers faster with their Gear VR partnership, and now is preparing to get people used to using their hands in VR…perhaps before Oculus can, again. No other information, including price or ship date has been shared, but let’s keep our fingers crossed it’s sometime before the summer. We’ll know more next week.