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Image: FitXR

The fight to get you fit in AR

The fight to get you fit in AR

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week, we're getting in shape with a look at VR and AR fitness, and revealing the first details about Syng's upcoming Cell Alpha speaker.

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The Big Story

How FitXR is gearing up for our AR fitness future

FitXR CEO Sam Cole used to go to a typical muscle gym in his native London, where he'd be one of the many guys with headphones, trying as best as he could to block out the outside world. "It was a pretty dull and uninspiring place," Cole recalled during a recent conversation with Protocol.

The sad state of fitness was one of Cole's inspirations for turning to augmented and virtual reality some four years ago, which ultimately led to the launch of BoxVR in early 2019. BoxVR features a gamified training routine for boxing that has people duck obstacles and hit glowing orbs instead of human opponents. The game also features music as well as actual instructors giving you advice on your stance and cheering you on as you bounce between jabs.

  • BoxVR expanded to PlayStation VR and PC VR a few months after debuting on Oculus Quest.
  • Boxing was always just meant to be a first step. "We had limited resources," admitted Cole. In a sign of things to come, the service rebranded as FitXR, and Cole's company raised $7.5 million in Series A funding over the summer.
  • FitXR added its first non-boxing workout to its Oculus Quest app last month: The FitXR dance studio now lets users break a sweat to various dance routines. It wants to bring dance to PlayStation VR and PC VR in the coming months as well, and Cole told me the company is looking to launch at least one additional workout category in 2021.
  • FitXR has seen a major lift from the Quest 2, with Cole telling me that sales increased by 4x following the release of the new headset in mid-October.

FitXR isn't the only company focused on VR workouts. Immersive media startup Within launched Supernatural as a kind of Peloton subscription service for VR fitness earlier this year, and Facebook recently added a rudimentary fitness tracker called Oculus Move to the Quest to let people know how many calories they burned in apps like FitXR and Beat Saber. Cole believes that there are plenty of consumers out there who wouldn't necessarily buy a VR headset for gaming, but could give it another look for fitness. "We're only just scratching the surface of that," he said.

All the while, FitXR is also getting ready for the next big thing. Facebook has publicly said that it plans to release a first pair of AR-enhanced glasses next year, and Apple is rumored to be not far behind. Cole told me he's excited about the prospect of using AR for fitness, from gyms to at-home workouts. For instance, AR glasses could eventually allow runners to compete against AR representations of previous runs, something he likened to chasing a ghost version of yourself.

  • FitXR plans to have some content for the first crop of consumer AR glasses ready as early as next year, but Cole said that the company was still trying to figure out what that would look like.
  • Eventually, the company expects its service to be available on a variety of headsets and glasses ranging from AR to VR, and anything in between. "We see these two technologies ultimately converging," Cole said.

Overheard

"Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed [...] thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service." —"Tenet" director Christopher Nolan, commenting on the Warner Bros. decision to release its entire 2021 movie slate on HBO Max the same day the films debut in theaters.

"Any time you're going to change a model, I know it creates a degree of noise." —AT&T CEO John Stankey, responding to Nolan's criticism.

"Quibi, imagined as a kind of Uber for television, turned out to be the Juicero of show business." —New York Times film critic A.O. Scott with the final word on Quibi. Time to move on, folks.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON FIRE TV

Amazon

The lockdowns this year have transformed our homes into offices, schools, concert halls, movie theaters and gyms. Our homes are working harder for us, but so is our technology. The device that is working the hardest is perhaps the TV—becoming our lifeline to a far more virtual world.

Learn more.

Watch Out

Syng's $1,500 Cell Alpha speaker revealed

Los Angeles-based audio hardware startup Syng is getting ready to take orders for its first product: The company has quietly started a presale campaign for Cell Alpha, a spatial audio speaker slated to ship in the first quarter of 2021. Syng is selling each Cell Alpha for $1,500, according to a presale page discovered by Protocol. The company is advising prospective customers that they will be able to get the most immersive sound with three or more Cell speakers. (Buyers of multiple speakers are set to receive a small discount.)

Syng didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Syng was co-founded by longtime Apple designer Christopher Stringer as well as key HomePod engineer Afrooz Family and DC Shoes co-founder Damon Way. Its staff includes more than a dozen former Apple engineers and designers, and Nest co-founder Matthew Rogers sits on the company's board. The company's existence was first revealed in May 2020, and Protocol first reported key details about Syng's technology last week.

Syng's first speaker, Cell Alpha, is quite literally a big bet on spatial audio:

  • The Cell Alpha is a bit bigger than a basketball, measuring 11.8 inches in diameter, and close to 12 inches in height including a stand connector. It weighs nearly 13 pounds, and ships with a stand that brings the total height to 17 inches.
  • Each Cell Alpha packs two woofers, facing upward and downward, respectively. There are also three pairs of tweeters and mid-frequency drivers, arranged in a ring for 360-degree audio and three microphones to measure the acoustics of the room and facilitate spatial sound. At least initially, it doesn't seem like the Cell Alpha is going to offer voice assistance.
  • Multiple Cell Alphas in a room can be synced up for spatial audio, which can be used to emulate virtual speakers, making a set of three Cells sound like a 7.1 setup — something the company calls "triphonic" sound. The speakers are also supposed to allow consumers to rearrange audio objects in a 3D space, according to a patent application filed by the company. In addition, Cell speakers offer more conventional multiroom audio functionality.
  • Syng is developing a dedicated "Syng Space" app for Cell Alpha speakers, but the speakers will also support AirPlay 2 and Spotify Connect.

Syng's spatial audio technology has been described as "revolutionary" and capable of producing sound that's "indistinguishable from reality." But the $1,500 price tag will all but guarantee that these kinds of audio innovations are only available to a select few, and caught even well-meaning industry insiders by surprise. Former Sonos CEO John MacFarlane, who had previously praised Syng for its willingness to innovate, turned skeptical about its chances when he heard of the high price, tweeting:

  • "I think Apple HomePod does as well as you can do with a single unit (there are just innate challenges to doing this from a single footprint). Sonos set the bar on multiple units for great sound. So, it's going to need to be a game changer at that price and I just don't see it."

Still, Cell Alpha may not be the company's only product for long. The Financial Times reported earlier this year that Syng was looking to license its technology to other companies, and Syng's patent application mentioned a number of other form factors, including a possible integration into lightbulb sockets.

A version of this story previously appeared on Protocol.

Fast Forward

  • AT&T is reportedly looking to buy You.i TV. The acquisition has already been announced internally, according to LightReading. You.i has been building TV apps across platforms, thanks to its adaptation of Facebook's React Native framework.
  • Amazon's Fire TV News app now streams local news updates. Amazon has struck partnerships with newscasters in 12 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.
  • On Protocol: Walmart shut down its VR shopping subsidiary Insperience. "We've decided it's not the right time to continue to invest in Insperience," a Walmart spokesperson told me.
  • Netflix's Streamfest appears to have been a major success. No official word from Netflix yet, but the company's decision to give people across India free access to its catalog for a weekend boosted global app installs by 200%, according to SensorTower estimates.
  • ViacomCBS is betting big on AWS. The media company is migrating its entire broadcast footprint, including tech for 425 linear TV channels, to the cloud.
  • Pluto TV went live in Brazil. The Viacom-owned free TV service starts out with 27 channels. Pluto CPO Shampa Banerjee recently told me that international expansion is a major focus for the company over the coming months.
  • Netflix launched family profiles and parent tools, proving once again how important families are to the company. Yes, you can track your kids' viewing habits.
  • Snap announced a $3.5 million fund for AR Lens creators. The company plans to share additional details about the fund early next year.
  • Google's Nest speakers now work with Apple Music. Apparently we can all get along, after all. Next up: an official Apple TV+ app for Android TV?

Auf Wiedersehen

Call me a traditionalist, but I still believe in Santa … having a sweet tooth for cookies. So when one of my co-workers found a video for "Santa Eggs" on Twitter this week, I was taken aback. Hard-boiled egg whites combined with peppermint ice cream, whip cream, sprinkles and candy canes? Who wrote this recipe, Buddy the Elf?

Which got me thinking: What if someone actually put together recipes for the diabetes-inducing concoctions dished up by Will Ferrel's character in the famous Christmas movie? The internet did not disappoint. There are numerous sites with step-by-step instructions for Buddy the Elf's Breakfast Spaghetti. Oddly enough, none of these recipes seem to have gotten reviewed by a single reader. However, the chef putting together the Myrecipes.com version was brave enough to try it on camera, leading to the verdict: "I can't even believe it, I thought I was gonna throw up." That's the holiday spirit right there! But I'm still gonna stick with cookies.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON FIRE TV

Amazon

The lockdowns this year have transformed our homes into offices, schools, concert halls, movie theaters and gyms. Our homes are working harder for us, but so is our technology. The device that is working the hardest is perhaps the TV—becoming our lifeline to a far more virtual world.

Learn more.

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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