Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.
Photo: HP

When your VR headset knows if you’re paying attention

 HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition VR headset

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week: How a bunch of extra sensors can improve VR, and why Apple and Roku have very different strategies for original content.

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The Big Story

Embracing sensor overload in VR

During the past few days, I've been training to be an electrician, and it's not been going so well. Let's just say poking at those live wires with my screwdriver was not a good idea. Thankfully, the training happened in VR, so I live to tell the tale.

The VR vocational training software I used is being made by Mimbus, and it ran on the HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition, a VR headset with a bunch of sensors that track muscle movement, gaze, pupil size and pulse.

The Omnicept is not a consumer headset. HP sells the device for $1,249, and it also requires a gaming PC to power VR experiences. In addition, HP charges developers a 2% revenue share fee for any apps they build and market using the Omnicept's sensor SDK. Enterprise customers are charged additional fees to access the SDK.

  • Mimbus is one of the first companies to take advantage of the headset and its sensors. The vocational training specialist has been developing a number of simulators for VR headsets, but jumped on the opportunity to get access to additional sensor data.
  • "It's the first step of something that will be the future of education," said Mimbus CEO Laurent Da Dalto during a recent press call.

Key to this is the headset's ability to measure cognitive load, which is the amount of brain power people exert going through the company's training courses. For that, HP developed machine-learning models that combine a bunch of the sensory data to provide insights into your level of attention and whether you are as overwhelmed — like when I was trying to repair that circuit breaker. "We know when the cognitive load is very high that you are too stressed, so we have to give you a simpler exercise," Da Dalto said. "And if the cognitive load is too low, that means that you are not concentrated at all."

Some of the headset's lower-level sensor data can be useful, too. Another company making use of the headset is Ovation, which has developed a VR app to help people hone their public speaking skills.

  • Ovation's app makes it possible to address virtual audiences in VR, and provides guidance on speech cadence, filler words and eye contact in real time.
  • The Omnicept's eye tracking helps to give much more accurate feedback to speakers than the directional tracking offered by other headsets, according to Ovation CEO Jeff Marshall. "Eye tracking has become essential to our software," he said.

I don't usually cover enterprise VR for Next Up, but I wanted to give the HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition a spin because I was interested in finding out what this type of sensor data could mean for entertainment VR. After trying the headset for a few days, I walked away with three conclusions:

  • These types of sensors could offer a lot of benefits for developers. Measuring someone's cognitive load seems like a great way to optimize your game or app, and being able to create heat maps based on eye movements should also help developers create better experiences. I'd imagine that a bunch of companies would like to use these kinds of tools for focus groups during the development phase of their VR games and experiences.
  • It may take some time before this tech makes it into consumer headsets, and that's totally fine. Most people don't really need to know their cognitive load when in VR, and developers have much simpler feedback mechanisms to make games and other experiences entertaining.
  • External sensors aren't an easy answer, either. Of course, it would be great if your VR workout app could track your heart rate. However, tapping into fitness sensors isn't quite as simple as it seems, according to HP Senior Product Manager Scott Rawlings. One obstacle: Fitness sensors aren't licensed as medical devices, which is why they're not able to expose raw data to third parties. That being said, there may be ways to make use of the more limited data exposed by Apple Watch, Fitbit and the like. "We are looking into that," Rawlings told me.

Oh, and one more thing: The next time there's a major electrical problem at your house, do yourself a favor and call an expert. They know what to do with those live wires.

Overheard

"Let's say you're a little lonely. You go into the room, and you say to the first person you see: Do you like Mozart? [...] These people don't exist, okay. That's the metaverse." —CNBC's Jim Cramer, explaining the metaverse in the weirdest way possible.

"If [the] metaverse jumps the shark in 2021, we certainly have Jim Cramer to thank for doing his part." —VERSES Creative Director Mark Christiansen.

A MESSAGE FROM THOUSANDEYES

Outages aren't a matter of if, but when. According to data from ThousandEyes, global disruptions in March 2020 — when we saw remote work roll out at scale — were 63% higher than they were in January 2020.

Learn more

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Join Protocol's Biz Carson for a conversation with Atomic's Swathy Prithivi, Accel's Rich Wong and Asana's Oliver Jay during our upcoming event: Going Global: How Tech Companies Expand Internationally August 10 at 9 a.m. PT / 12 p.m. ET Learn More

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Watch Out

Two very different original content success stories

Streaming services need compelling content to stand out among literally hundreds of competitors. Preferably with shows you can't watch anywhere else. But what makes a successful streaming original? That's actually quite hard to answer, as two recent success stories show.

  • "Ted Lasso" has been a big hit for Apple TV+, according to new data from streaming aggregator Reelgood. When the show debuted on the service a year ago, it was able to capture a 1.9% share of weekend streaming. After it came back for a second season last month, its weekend share grew to 4.6%.
  • Episode 2 even grew that share to 5.3% last weekend, making it the most popular show on Reelgood, ahead of Disney's "Loki," Netflix's "Heist" and HBO Max's "The White Lotus."
  • That's good news for Apple, which relies on "Ted Lasso" to convert some of its early free Apple TV+ memberships to paying subscriptions. It's also well-deserved, and maybe not a huge surprise: "Ted Lasso" is a great show, and the kind of upbeat feel-good TV we all long for during this never-ending pandemic.

Lesson learned: Great TV works, even when it's streamed. End of story? Well, not so fast. Roku has seen some notable success with its own originals, which weren't even made for TV to begin with.

  • Roku acquired Quibi's content catalog earlier this year, and debuted a first slate of those shows on its service in May. In the two weeks following that launch, the top 10 programs on the company's ad-supported Roku channel were all Roku originals.
  • That's despite the fact that Quibi content was made for mobile, with each episode lasting just 10 minutes. "The format worked pretty well," Roku SVP Scott Rosenberg told me during an interview this week.
  • Roku probably would have made longer episodes if it had started from scratch, Rosenberg told me, but the company was able to make it a seamless experience by streaming one episode after another and running the ad breaks in-between. "It felt pretty organic and longform in nature," he said. "Broadly, we are very pleased."
  • The company has already renewed one of the former Quibi shows, "Die Harter" with Kevin Hart, and executives suggested this week that we may see additional renewals soon. "It's informing what we choose to greenlight," Rosenberg said.

One reason that we will continue to see a wide variety of originals is the different business models of the streamers producing them. Apple's video service is subscription-based and wants to compete with Netflix, which requires massive investments into premium cable-like content. Roku, on the other hand, makes its money with advertising, and CEO Anthony Wood assured investors on the company's earnings call Wednesday that the company won't be making any crazy expensive bets when it comes to originals. "The goal is to maintain a business model that works for us," he said.

Fast Forward

  • Real Madrid is embracing ad-supported streaming. The soccer club will soon launch a free ad-supported channel that will carry two to three matches a week.
  • NBCUniversal's Peacock now has 20 million active accounts, according to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. No word on how many people pay for Peacock's premium tier.
  • YouTube is testing a premium lite subscription tier. It's for people who don't want to watch ads, but also don't need access to YouTube Music.
  • Also testing a cheaper tier: Spotify. For 99 cents, people will be able to skip songs, but it won't get rid of commercials.
  • DirecTV is an independent company again. AT&T has completed the spin-off of the satellite TV provider, which will also run all of AT&T's former TV services going forward.
  • Crunchyroll surpasses 5 million subscribers and 120 million registered users. Why did WarnerMedia decide to sell Crunchyroll again?
  • People are buying Quest headsets to unlock their Facebook accounts. Turns out returning them unused is a weird hack to get attention from customer service reps.

Auf Wiedersehen


VR can feel pretty exclusive to anyone in the room not wearing the headset, which is why Facebook has been experimenting with something the company calls "reverse passthrough." In a blog post, the company described reverse passthrough as "an experimental VR research demo that allows the eyes of someone wearing a headset to be seen by the outside world." Apparently, no one told Facebook's VR researchers that a former U.S. president solved this problem long ago. Thanks, Obama!

Thanks for reading — see you next week!

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