November 19, 2020
Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up, a weekly newsletter about the future of technology and entertainment. This week, Next Up is all about immersion. In light of The Void's troubles, we take a look at the challenging post-COVID world of location-based VR. Plus, get ready for VR headsets that can read your mind.
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This was not a fun story to write: Location-based virtual reality pioneer The Void defaulted on a loan, leading to the lender taking over its assets, as I reported Monday. "We plan to operate or sell them," The Void's new owner, Jim Bennett, told me, not exactly instilling confidence in the company's future.
I visited The Void's headquarters in Utah in 2017, had a chance to play a handful of The Void's experiences over the years, and have always loved it. From the rumble vest that would provide tactile feedback to doors, levers, and shaking floors, the level of immersion was unrivaled by anything your typical home VR setup could offer. And for a second, it looked like The Void and its out-of-home VR competitors might just get people hooked on VR before headsets became mainstream.
Then came COVID-19. The pandemic forced The Void and other location-based VR startups to close locations around the globe, instantly putting their financial future at risk. "We went from a relatively healthy business to zero revenue," Sandbox VR CEO Steve Zhao told me in June. Two months later, Sandbox filed for bankruptcy. Spaces, which had built a "Terminator" VR experience, got acquired by Apple in August.
But it wasn't all COVID's fault. A Void retail employee told me that the company laid off a number of staffers in late 2018, suggesting liquidity issues. When The Void ordered $6.1 million worth of server racks, tracking cameras and other equipment from a vendor in early 2019, it wasn't able to pay the bill, resulting in a lawsuit. And despite raising money from James Murdoch and others that year, the company also had to take a loan in 2019 that it ultimately defaulted on. It probably didn't help, either, that The Void went through four CEOs in five years.
So where does location-based VR go from here? Is the demise of The Void a bad omen, or should we expect the industry to resurface after the pandemic subsides? I asked a couple of VR executives for their insights:
"I tried when I was chairing DirecTV to acquire Netflix because I knew it was going to be a home run." —Liberty Media Chairman John Malone during a fireside chat at the Paley International Council Summit.
"If I had a quarter for every time Hollywood has made my job harder with their shitty AR/VR interface designs I would be a rich person." —Niantic UX designer Alexandria Heston, dunking on the kinds of interfaces featured in movies like "Minority Report," "Iron Man" and "Black Panther."
What is confidential computing? There are ways to encrypt your data at rest and while in transit, but confidential computing protects the integrity of your data while it is in use. Data threats never rest, nor should the protection of your sensitive information.
When Conor Russomanno was in grad school, he hacked a Star Wars Force Trainer toy to display EEG brain waves on his computer. "That was a love-at-first-sight experience," he told me this week. Fast forward a few years, and that early passion project has turned into an ambitious attempt to supercharge augmented and virtual reality hardware with neuroscience.
OpenBCI, a neurotechnology company founded by Russomanno in 2014, introduced a new platform called Galea on Thursday that aims to give developers an easy way to combine their AR and VR hardware and experiences with a wide range of biofeedback. Starting early next year, OpenBCI plans to ship a hundred Galea units to developers and researchers as part of its early-access program.
OpenBCI is not the first company looking to add biofeedback to AR and VR. HP's new Reverb G2 headset already tracks a user's eye movements, facial muscles and heart rate. And last year, Facebook acquired a startup that built a mind-reading wristband, which could eventually allow it to add virtual keyboards and more to VR.
Russomanno told me that he fully expects VR headsets to use EEG and similar neuro inputs within the next five years. "I want to beat Facebook to it," he said. Thus far, OpenBCI has not taken any outside funding, but he said that this may change in 2021.
HomePod Mini reviews are in. Reviewers seem to like Apple's smaller smart speaker, but some think that similarly priced devices from Amazon and Google sound better.
COVID-19 canceled YouTube Rewind. Well, actually YouTube did, saying: "2020 has been different. And it doesn't feel right to carry on as if it weren't."
On Protocol: Disney+ reaches 73.7 million subscribers a year after launch. International expansion is becoming a big driver for Disney's streaming service, with 25% of all subscribers now coming from India.
More Protocol: Pluto TV CPO Shampa Banerjee explains why free video is booming. Pluto ended Q3 with 36 million MAUs — so what is its secret sauce?
Even more Protocol: Inside YouTube's plan to win the music-streaming wars. YouTube Music has 30 million subscribers. Here is how it plans to grow further.
Much more Protocol: Sonos CEO Patrick Spence says there's money in ad sales for the company. Sonos just had a pretty strong quarter. Now, it is looking to build out an in-house ad sales team.
Vewd wants to bring streaming TV to cars. The company formerly known as Opera TV introduced a cloud-based streaming platform for car entertainment systems this week.
YouTube launches audio ads. Just in time for the demise of Google Play Music, YouTube is introducing an audio-only ad format.
There is now a Tinder for movies. Yes, you get to swipe right on movies you want to watch. No, it doesn't help you with your dating life.
Music copyright has long been a hot topic for online video platforms. Hardly a week goes by without legal threats, lawsuits and take-downs that are, depending on who you listen to, either meant to sabotage the online media business or an overdue last stand for music rights holders. And every now and then, things even get funny. Consider the case of Twitch streamer Mofoe, who recently decided to make himself a snack during one of his live broadcasts. "I made a smoothie and my blender was flagged as a Skrillex song," he reported on Twitter this week, adding: "I guess cooking streams aren't allowed on Twitch anymore."
The good news for dubstep and smoothie fans alike: YouTube is welcoming them with open arms, including this guy, who managed to remix a Skrillex song with his kitchen blender all the way back in 2013.
Thanks for reading — see you next week!