Monthly Archives: November 2017

November 24, 2017

Williams-Sonoma buys AR startup in hundred-million-dollar deal

Laura Alber

San Jose based Augmented Reality startup Outward is being bought up by furniture and kitchenware retailer Williams-Sonoma (WSI). The cash-only deal – worth $112 million – will give WSI access to Outward’s imaging and rendering technology for the home furnishing industry.

Outward’s 3D image capture, measurement and rendering technology offers a perfect fit with Williams-Sonoma, owner of the Pottery Barn and West Elm brands, as well as stores in its own name. A statement from the company making the acquisition says that Outward’s imaging technology will enable them to “enhance and extend its high-touch customer service platform.”

Founded in 2012, Outward raised $11.5 million from Merus Capital in two funding rounds. Their technology is used for capturing furniture and related products in 3D, allowing customers to see the products from all angles and to make selection based on color or pattern. They have pioneered the use of augmented reality and virtual reality in this field.

Williams-Sonoma CEO Laura Alber stated:

Outward brings proprietary and transformative technology at the forefront of our industry, and we welcome them to WSI. We are excited to own and collaborate in the further development of Outward’s technology that enables applications in product visualization, digital room design, and augmented and virtual reality.

Never one to mince her words, Alber is bullish about the future of bricks-and-mortar retail. At the Recode Commerce Event, two months ago, she stated:

Clarence ShuiI certainly don’t think we’re in the midst of a retail apocalypse. I do not believe that and I do not believe that Amazon is killing retailers. I believe retailers’ bad service is killing retailers.

When the acquisition is finalized, by the end of the year, Outward will operate as a wholly-owned subsidiary of WSI. It will continue to be run by its co-founder and CEO Clarence Chui.


November 24, 2017

Young entrepreneur lands deal with Apple for AR robots over Christmas

Merkomon - front image - white

Reach Robotics, a Bristol-based engineering company founded by a young British-Nigerian entrepreneur that recently secured a $7.5 million series A investment round, led by  Korea Investment Partners (KiP) and IGlobe, has now secured a deal with Apple to showcase and sell its robots in under Apple’s roof.

Under the Apple deal, Reach’s MekaMon robot will be sold in Apple stores and via the Apple website in the intensive Christmas shopping rush.

The robots can be upgraded and customized. They have detachable legs, shields and weapons. They are upgradable and customizable with detachable legs, shields, and weapons.This gives the option of varying the robot’s fighting style – making it more aggressive or defensive according to the player’s style.

The technology that goes into these robots is quite clever. They can measure distance and position – as well as tracking their opponents – by using four IR sensors. In combat, they are surprisingly agile, with the ability to attack the enemy, but also to flip onto their back and stabilize.

The robots weigh approximately one kilogram, with horizontal dimensions of just under one foot square and a height about half that. They connect to a smartphone app (iOS or Android) through Bluetooth, and can also communicate with other robots via infrared signals. They are powered by a removable battery, but unfortunately, currently the battery life is little more than one hour.

Gamers have the option of playing in either the real world or augmented reality. In the real world, the robots can use real physical objects like tables and chairs, to block the opposing robot or simply to hide behind.

The robots – and the company – are the brain-child of young British-Nigerian engineer and entrepreneur Silas Adekunle, CEO of Reach Robotics. A graduate of the University of the West of England, he has a BSc (1st Class Hons) in Robotics, having taken modules in Robotics, C programming. AI, symbolic AI, and robot vision to name but a few. In May 2013, he co-founded Reach Robotics with Chris Beck (CTO) and John Rees (COO).

He is was also the university Karate society and a member of the kickboxing club.

Now with a $7.5 million war chest to manufacturer his fighting robots (excuse the pun) and a perfectly-timed Christmas retail deal with Apple Computers, this young engineer and entrepreneur is set to scale the heights of success

November 17, 2017

The HTC Vive standalone arrives… sort of…

Vive Focus

We covered the impending release of the HTV Vive Focus a couple of weeks ago. But now it has been displayed at the Vive Developers Conference in Beijing and we have a bit more detail.

First of all, it appears that HTC delivered a number of pre-production units to developers at the time of our earlier report. That was apparently to prepare the demos.

Secondly, the company presented the Vive Focus with the announcement that it would go on sale in China in 2018. There was no indication at the time when it would be launched in Europe or North America. However, since then, one of the developer partners (Pillow’s Willow VR Studios) - whose videogame Spark of Light was displayed at the event - confirmed in a press release that the Focus would indeed launch in China first but that would be followed by a global release “later in the year.”

HTC have also announced that they would not be introducing a Google Daydream device. As Patrick Seybold, Vice President, Communications & Social Media at Vive, stated:

“Our effort has been on bringing some other devices, including the one we announced to markets like China. We still have a great relationship with Google, but will not be bringing a standalone device to western markets on Daydream. We’re looking closely at our hardware roadmap, and will share when there is more to come for Western users next year.”

This may be due to the fact that the real profits are in the software and by delivering hardware for Google’s platform they would merely be enriching others rather than themselves.

So what do we know about the Vive Focus?

  • It is a truly standalone device and does not require a PC, either tethered or wireless.
  • It does not require lighthouses or lasers to track its position.
  • It has six degrees of freedom (3 position, 3 orientation).
  • It does not require an inserted smartphone. Instead it has a high-resolution AMOLED display.
  • It is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor.
  • It comes with a bluetooth controller that has three degrees of freedom.
  • It is lighter than the HTC Vive
  • It has a rotational headstrap and new cushion
  • It has dual cameras in front.
  • It has built-in, stereo speakers.
  • In case you prefer your own headphones, it has a headphone jack
  • Also at the bottom are buttons to set the volume and a dial for varying the interpupillary distance
  • At the top it has a micro-USB socket for charging the internal battery
  • The tracking is probably based on a combination of gyrometer, magnetometer and accelerometer.

The bluetooth controller has:

  • a thumb trackpad (clickable)
  • an app-specific button
  • a home button (which re-centers the view if held down for three seconds
  • a volume rocker control on the right side
  • a trigger underneath, at the tip

The tracking works extremely well on both low-end and high-end apps, both as to latency and positional accuracy. The controller’s 3-DoF tracking also works well, although if it is brought too close to the headset, it does not function correctly.

One problem that early testing has implied is the possibility of overheating. There is an air vent in the front, but it seems that this is not enough to prevent such overheating. When that does occur, a warning flashes up in the display. A warning is a good feature. But making sure that it doesn’t happen too often would be better.

We will keep you informed when we have more information - and hopefully a worldwide release date.

November 14, 2017

Virtual reality shows carers neglect and abuse through a child’s eyes


We at are always on the lookout for new, innovative uses of virtual reality, especially those that are beneficial to mankind. Not every such use is without its sinister side. For example, a few months ago, we reported on the use of VR images of children combined with a plethysmograph to identify paedophiles and thus potential sex offenders. While the people conducting the research seemed quite enthusiastic about, neither we nor our readers shared the enthusiasm for such an error-prone approach to a complex subject.

However, a more positive use of VR has now come along in the form of a virtual reality video to help develop empathy in foster carers and those who wish to adopt children. The VR video is shown from the point of view of a baby in the womb and then a toddler, showing the viewer the effect of neglect and abuse on children. The video is the work of the Cornerstone Partnership, a social enterprise dedicated to helping children in care, recruiting foster carers and adopters, and training them for the challenges that await them.

By placing carers and adopters in a situation where they can see abuse and neglect through the baby’s or toddler’s eyes, it is thought that long-term empathy and understanding will be promoted. Users will also see the effect of such treatment on the brain and its long-term impact.

The video also includes a conversation between a toddler and a foster carer to illustrate ways that challenging behaviour can be approached. This is important, because foster carers sometimes volunteer for the role, in the first instance, thinking that it is all going to be plain sailing, only to be surprised later on by the challenges they face.

“We have a chance to recreate the empathy people felt when they first came forward to foster.” said Helen Costa, chief executive of the Cornerstone Partnership, who herself adopted two children.

“I know how difficult it is to understand why children behave the way they do and to connect it to what happened in their early life. That connection took so much longer for me to make by reading and going on training courses. If I knew what I know now, I would have have avoided some of the things I got wrong.”

Woman wearing VR headset

The second video is more of a promotional nature, encouraging people to consider becoming foster carers and to guide them through the process, showing children in several scenarios of harm and neglect, and the difference adoption or fostering can make.

Both videos were created in consultation with social workers and child therapists. Advice was also supplied by the Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP) Network.

This new approach is aimed at filling an important function, because of an impending shortage of foster care workers. According to the Fostering Network, more than 7,000 foster families are needed in the UK over the next year.

The recruitment video has been tested in Bracknell (Berkshire), where it met an encouraging response, according to Helen Costa.

“Normally when you run events, people don’t come over to talk to you. But when people have experienced the film, people queue up to talk to us and we get into a really good conversation about what it takes to be a carer.”


At the moment, the videos are passive VR, in the sense that they show the events through the headset, creating visual realism. But there is no interactive element, the user cannot control the outcome or change the direction of events. The videos are entirely linear in their presentation. Cornerstone plans to make future versions interactive, so that users can steer the course events according to their actions.

Costa believes that this use of VR in social care is only the beginning, arguing that these videos “just scratch the surface.” Currently, Cornerstone are working with Dr. Matt Woolgar, consultant clinical psychologist at the South London and Maudsley NHS trust to use VR for therapy.

“My clinic can be a bit daunting for a young person. So, the idea of using these new media approaches is to make the therapeutic context more accessible and to build it around their interests.”

The idea is seconded by Helen Costa, who said: “We’d like to use the fact that you can build whatever world you’d like and give that control to the child,” she said. “If they want to talk to a therapist who is a teddy bear, they can do that.”

November 7, 2017

HTC teaming up with Logitech to create a virtual keyboard

HTC-Logitech Bridge

For some time, we at have been leading the call for the development of a virtual office. But the problem is that when you’re locked inside the immersive world of a virtual office, it’s very hard to enter data via a real keyboard.  Now we can bring you the news that HTC is teaming up with Logitech to introduce the BRIDGE developers kit, an SDK to help developers create a virtual keyboard.

The BRIDGE kit consists of a Logitech G gaming keyboard, an accessory that positions the Vive Tracker, and the associated software to link the two. And the great news for developers, is that to kick things off, they are giving away 50 of these kits to selected developers FREE – and if there is sufficient interest, they may bring out more kits.

HTC-Logitech Bridge-03

As Guy Godin of Virtual desktop has said:

Whether you’re doing work or surfing the web you sometimes need the ability to enter text, and Logitech has made it easier to use your keyboard in VR. With Bridge, you can see your physical keyboard, your hands and type without having to take your headset off.

The VR community is finally waking up to the fact that – as we at have been saying all along – virtual reality needs a way of inputting data with an efficiency comparable to typing it in on a keyboard. Whilst speech recognition and even mind-machine interface are the holy grails of the computing industry, they are still a long way off. Despite much-touted advances in speech recognition, the keyboard is still the main method of entering data into a computer.

London Panorama

However, as long as the emphasis in VR was on games, it was assumed that body tracking, and controllers serving as stand-ins for guns were a sufficient combination to make the user experience a pleasing one.

But for some people – like us at – games were always a sideshow to the main event under the big top. From the beginning, we saw the future of VR in work rather than play. And work calls for an efficient means of entering data. Even browsing, requires the ability to enter words as well as click on hot links.

But finger and hand tracking are also not quite there yet, and people like the haptic feedback of actually feeling a real keyboard. However, when one is immersed in a virtual world, the real keyboard isn’t visible, and even if one can touch type, one does occasionally need to see the real keyboard to re-orient oneself.

So how did the solve the problem? By creating the means whereby the real keyboard, that actually takes the input, can be synchronized positionally with a virtual keyboard that is shown to the user through the headset.

View 2 of Tel Aviv

What they have created is a piece of software that presents the user with an overlaid representation of their keyboard on any VR application, even to the point of showing when a key is pressed.

With the software running, the overlay appears automatically as soon as the associated Vive Tracker is turned on. It also allows the opportunity to skin the keyboard in a variety of ways. Best of all, they have even created a way for the Vive’s existing tracking to see your hands as virtual hands, mapped out against the keyboard.

HTC-Logitech Bridge-02

HTC and Logitech are now looking to the developer community, to take this interface to the next level. We believe that the next level will be the virtual office and the use of virtual reality in the workplace. Imagine turning a dull and dreary office into an executive suite with a panoramic view of a great metropolis? Instead of looking at a wall or a back yard, you can now imagine that you are Gordon Gecko looking down over Wall Street!

Luxury office in New York

Or you can turn up the central heating, put on the headset and abracadabra! You are now sitting on a sun-drenched, sandy beach looking out at the Caribbean, Pacific Ocean or Mediterranean Sea as you work. Yes it’s true, you still have to work… but in a much more pleasant environment.

At least, that’s the way we a see things panning out.

Anyway, they are are now taking applications from developers for the first 50 of these developer kits. If you are interested in applying, click on this link. The application window ends on the 16th of November. The SDK is a BETA version and is intended for proof of concept rather than market ready products. HTC acknowledges that the system has bugs and you should be prepared to encounter them.


November 1, 2017

HTC to release a standalone VR headset

Credit HTC

News from the rumor mill has reached us about HTC planning to release a new standalone VR headset on 14 November.

HTC has been struggling lately, particularly in the smartphone business. This has resulted in HTC having to sell off its Pixel development team to Alphabet (Google’s parent company) for $1.1 billion.

Credit Shutterstock

Credit: Shutterstock

However, HTC’s Virtual Reality headset, the Vive, held the status of king of the VR jungle, commanding a hefty price in return for its hefty, processing power, positional accuracy and other  features. But the problem with all VR headsets is that the developers could never pack enough power into the headset itself. Consequently, these headsets have to be plugged into high spec computers to give players the full monty of user experience

But that in turn meant that the headset was physically tethered, depriving the user of one of the key benefits of a realistic VR gaming experience: freedom of movement. No matter how good your external sensors or internal gyro motion detector, and no matter how good your cable-management system, if you’re tethered to a computer by an electronic ponytail (like that Chinese sage in days of yore), you will notice the feeling of restriction.

Credit shutterstock

Credit shutterstock

For this reason, the holy grail of VR headsets has been the standalone headset. To some extent this has been realized with the Samsung GearVR and the Google Daydream View. But strapping a phone into a headset is like attaching a motor to a horse drawn cart and calling it a car. To the engineer it may be a solution. But to a designer it’s a kludge.

Now HTC appears to be about to take the next step with its impending launch of a proper standalone headset in two weeks time.

Trade Mark Filing

HTC recently filed a trademark registration for “Vive Focus” in the EU and USA as well as another trademark – “Vive M” – in China. Our intelligence does not confirm that either of these trademarks are for the forthcoming device, but this is the focus of our current speculation.

The device is likely to be built around Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 835 chip, developed for just such devices. The tracking system for the standalone headset will combine the powerful trinity of gyrometer, accelerometer and magnetometer to provide independent tracking. Thus the new headset is expected to be not only cable-free, but also independent of any external sensors.

Vive headset

Vive headset

The reason that the launch date is expected to be the 14th of November is because that is when the Vive Developer Conference is being held in Beijing.