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April 15, 2021
Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: Facebook is embracing subscription billing for VR apps and services, and Google is stealthily hiring folks to build its own AR glasses.
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The Big Story
Oculus adds subscription billing for VR content
In a sign that Facebook is looking to take its Quest VR headset beyond gaming, the company added in-app subscription billing to the Oculus platform Thursday. Similar to mobile app stores, consumers can now subscribe to select services directly from their headsets, and developers are able to embrace business models that go beyond paid downloads.
- Launch partners include fitness and wellness services FitXR, TRIPP and VZfit, as well as DJ app TribeXR, productivity app vSpatial and the social VR hit Rec Room.
In-app subscriptions could be lucrative, if mobile is any indication. Subscriptions could become a significant driver of revenue for both publishers and Facebook, especially outside of the realm of hardcore gaming.
- Sensor Tower mobile insights strategist Stephanie Chan told me that the top 100 non-game apps with subscriptions created an estimated $13 billion of subscription revenue in 2020, up 34% from 2019.
- During both years, the top 100 subscription apps represented about 11.7% of all worldwide consumer app spending.
Early signs suggest publishers think it's a good idea: FitXR CEO Sam Cole told me that the new billing model is a welcome change for his company.
- While FitXR's service used to rely on in-app purchases to offer its users regularly-updated workouts, Cole said that the goal had always been to build a subscription business. However, billing users outside of the Oculus ecosystem seemed too complicated.
- The reliance on paid add-ons held back FitXR's content development plans. "We haven't released as much content as we could have," Cole said. Going forward, FitXR wants to release a new workout every day, including for a soon-to-launch vertical for high-intensity interval training workouts.
- FitXR will also get support for live multiplayer workouts, allowing up to seven users to compete against each other and work out together. 'We want to continue to invest into platform-level features," he said.
- Going forward, FitXR will charge subscribers $9.99 per month; existing users will get continued access to any purchased content, even if they decide against a monthly subscription plan. "We thought long and hard about the transition," Cole said.
And the emphasis on fitness seems like a good idea for VR in-app subscriptions, as consumers are already used to paying monthly fees for fitness studios as well as services like Peloton. What's more, fitness subscriptions could also help VR in general, argued Cole. "In order for the VR ecosystem to continue to scale, you need those habitual use cases," he said, adding: "On-platform subscription pricing is part of this coming-of-age story of VR."
"Building a company's first hardware product is hard. It's pretty dope that we made this happen!" —Spotify product designer Barton Smith shared some of the work that went into designing the company's Car Thing device in a Twitter thread this week.
"Mark my words, with the exception of brand integrations and perhaps promos for their other original content, NETFLIX WILL NEVER SHOW ADS ON THEIR OWN STREAMING SERVICE." —Streaming media consultant Kirby Grines, responding to the latest idle speculation about Netflix adding ads.
A MESSAGE FROM INTEL AND MICROSOFT AZURE
Open-source computing is going gangbusters — and that's good news for those seeking better and stronger security in the enterprise. With the growth of hardware platforms, ISVs and CSPs using trusted execution environments to protect data in use, open source-licensed projects are a natural way to encourage experimentation, learning and adoption.
Google is hiring waveguide developers for AR
Facebook and Apple may be getting some competition in the race to make AR glasses: Google has posted a number of open positions that suggest the company is looking to build its own AR devices, complete with custom-build waveguide display technology.
- The company recently began looking for a "waveguide design developer, augmented reality." Prospective candidates are being told that they will have to "deliver validated waveguide building blocks with the ultimate goal of moving blocks to mass production."
- Google is also looking to hire a "waveguide research & development manager, augmented reality" whose job will be to "build and lead an R&D team to deliver a waveguide."
- "Your role involves managing a team of engineers, delivering subcomponents for a consumer electronics product, and supporting research teams with new component designs for future products," the job listing further states.
- Altogether, Google is currently looking to fill eight waveguide research, design and engineering jobs for its hardware R&D group. Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Remember: Google acquired AR startup North last summer. And while some of these new jobs are located in Mountain View, most are in Waterloo, Ontario, where North is located.
- Focals, the consumer AR glasses developed by North, didn't actually use waveguide displays. Instead, they relied on laser projection, which led to a very small field of view.
- Focals could deliver notifications, but not the kind of 3D holograms you'd expect from full-fledged AR glasses that Google might be interested in making. (For a good overview on the different kinds of AR display technologies, check out this article.)
Google made some pretty sizable investments into VR hardware in the past, but has since all but abandoned VR. In the AR space, Google's efforts have thus far been primarily focused on mobile, but there have been signs beyond the North acquisition that the company is getting back to developing immersive hardware. Just last week, we broke the story that Google has acquired 3D audio startup Dysonics, which could lay the groundwork for immersive and 3D audio for future AR wearables.
- Apple is reportedly combining HomePod and Apple TV. A device currently in development is said to also include a camera to bring video chat to the TV screen.
- On Protocol: Plex raised $50 million. The media center app maker has seen usage of its ad-supported video services increase 5x over the past 12 months.
- Google and Sony may be partnering on 360-degree audio. Open-source code snippets suggest that Android may be getting more immersive audio.
- Roku launched a new remote with far-field voice input. Okay, Roku, this is neat: The company made the remote rechargeable to deal with voice-induced battery drain.
- VR Fitness is working out for Within. This is a great interview with Chris Milk in which he reveals that his VR startup Within now employs 70 people that all work on Supernatural.
- Oculus Quest got wireless PC VR support thanks to a new Air Link mode.
- How has Spotify changed the music business? Well, the company just turned 15 years old, and Variety is celebrating with a deep dive on the company's impact.
One of the many recurring jokes on Twitter is the "did an X write this" response. If a website publishes an article about the psychological benefits of cuddling with your dog, someone will inevitably respond: "Did a dog write this?" Usually, that's a rhetorical question. However, every now and then, it's actually true, as "Colbert Show" writer Michael Cruz Kayne found out this week. Kayne had gotten a few texts from his wife, telling him that their kids deserved some extra screen time because they had been going "through a tough stretch at school." Another text remarked that it was okay to let them play Roblox during school hours because "it's been a bumpy road this year." Turns out the kids had hacked his wife's computer to impersonate her. If it hadn't been for the slightly too enthusiastic "love yaaaaaa" closing, they may even have been able to get away with it.
Totally unrelated: I just read an article about the fact that newsletters get better the more often you forward them to your friends and colleagues. Love yaaaaaa!
Thanks for reading — see you next week!