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Photo: DigiLens

The future of mass-market AR could be made of plastic

DigiLens v1 developer device

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: AR display startup DigiLens wants to use plastics for future consumer devices and video startup Genvid has raised $113 million for interactive TV shows.

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The Big Story

Why plastics could be key to making mass-market AR glasses

Consumer AR glasses need to be lightweight, cheap and easily producible at mass-market scale — and Bay Area-based waveguide display maker DigiLens is betting on plastics to tick all those boxes. The company has teamed up with Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation to develop plastic waveguide displays that can be used by AR device makers to build their products, DigiLens CEO Chris Pickett exclusively told Protocol during a recent interview. "If you wanted an ideal partner, Mitsubishi is that partner for plastics," Pickett said.

DigiLens has been developing waveguide displays for nearly two decades. During that time, the company has perfected the use of photopolymer waveguide technology, which essentially sandwiches an inkjet-printed waveguide between two layers of glass. That approach leads to better-performing displays while also causing less breakage than imprinting the waveguide directly onto the glass, Pickett explained.

Breaking glass has been a major issue for AR makers. There have been persistent rumors that some of the major companies in the market right now have struggled with too much breakage during display manufacturing — and that's even before these devices have reached the consumer market. Who knows what will happen once we all get our clumsy hands on AR glasses. Plastics could help not only make the production process more foolproof, but also lead to less damage during everyday use. And there are other issues with using glass:

  • Plastic displays will be lighter than glass. The difference may only be a few grams, but those grams count when wearing a face computer all day long.
  • Plastic is cheaper, too. "Glass is the largest component of cost in the waveguide," Pickett told me. For low-volume manufacturing, the price tag is almost the same, but Pickett estimated that plastics could lead to cost savings of 25% to 40% once productions scale up to mass-market volumes.

Plastics also come with some challenges. Notably: Finding a material that mirrors the optical qualities of glass isn't easy.

  • "You need a very flat piece of plastic," Pickett said.
  • Luckily, Mitsubishi had a big catalog of materials to evaluate, which allowed DigiLens to bring the surface flatness to the level of glass, he said.

DigiLens isn't looking to become a mass-market manufacturer. Instead, the company is licensing its display technology to others, much in the same way ARM licenses CPU designs to chip manufacturers. The company's investors include Continental, Samsung, Niantic, Foxconn, Sony and Mitsubishi, and it has already struck licensing partnerships with a few manufacturers in South Korea and China, as well as with Continental for automotive heads-up displays.

No DigiLens-powered products are available for sale just yet, with the exception of a developer device announced in May. However, Pickett told me that we may see that change soon, including the launch of devices using plastic waveguide lenses. "We will be able to ship a full waveguide by the end of the year," he said.

Overheard

"Quibi was just a bad idea. I mean, it's that simple." —Barry Diller, proving that people will never stop dunking on Quibi.

"If you think you can't do or achieve that one thing, please note that Quibi earned 8 Emmy nominations this year." —Media writer Chris Feil, adding insult to postmortem glory.

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Watch Out

Genvid gets massive cash infusion for interactive live events

The company behind the interactive Facebook show "Rival Peak" is getting ready to produce a lot more such events: New York-based Genvid has raised $113 million in a series C round from investors including Valor Equity Partners and Atreides Management, and is adding former Netflix Originals exec Cindy Holland as an adviser.

  • Genvid has built technology for "massively interactive live events." These are live shows that offer interactivity to the audience to influence plot lines and more. "We've been spending the first five years as a technology company," Genvid CEO Jacob Navok told me during a recent conversation.
  • Genvid's biggest success story thus far has been "Rival Peak." The show played out on Facebook earlier this year, amassing more than 100 million minutes watched over 12 weeks. It gave viewers the option to vote on plot lines and solve puzzles to help the main characters, resulting in more than 200 million engagements, according to the company.
  • "Rival Peak" was built with Facebook's Instant Games SDK, which makes it possible to add interactive features not available in regular livestreams. However, Navok stressed that Genvid shows aren't choose-your-own-adventure stories like the ones Netflix has been experimenting with. "This is not 'Bandersnatch,'" he said.
  • The biggest difference: There's just one plot line. Genvid allows viewers to team up in different factions and solve puzzles together that help certain protagonists and collectively affect the story, but it remains the same story for everyone tuning in. And despite all the gamification, the emphasis remains on the plot. "It's not a video game," Navok said. "It's interactive television."

Navok told me that producing "Rival Peak" was a bit of a wake-up call for the company, as it realized that handling IP required a different set of skills than building the tech itself. "We simply weren't organized as a company to do production work," he said.

  • The Epic v. Apple lawsuit provided another epiphany as it showed how little money Epic was actually making with its Unreal Engine, compared to the revenue games like Fortnite generate. "Those are not good venture capital returns," Navok said, which prompted him to expand the business and play a more active role in content creation.

Next up for Genvid: major Hollywood IP. With the new cash infusion, Genvid now wants to get ready to produce interactive shows based on well-known characters.

  • "We have no production organization, we are building that from scratch right now," Navok told me.
  • But Genvid is not giving up on building tech. The company wants to build out an account system for its viewers, and also SaaS tools for indie developers looking to build their own shows.
Navok didn't want to spill the beans on major IP collaborations, but the company is currently working on a new title based on well-known IP that may launch as early as this fall. It also developed a demo of sorts called "Project Raven" that may or may not eventually turn into a full-blown series. Check out this video for a first look.

Fast Forward

Auf Wiedersehen

I have to admit that it's been a while since a VR story has really gotten to me. However, this week, I finally watched "Paper Birds," and it definitely is one of those experiences that I will keep going back to in order to explore every nook and cranny. The story is dark but captivating, and the animation is top-notch. However, what really got me was the way "Paper Birds" uses motion and transitions, sending viewers through a world that constantly expands and contracts as the main character tries to save his sister, and uncovers some of his family's secrets along the way. Go try it out for yourself!

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Chris Pickett's name. This story was updated on July 15, 2021.

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