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The Knight Foundation launches $750,000 initiative for immersive technology for the arts

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is looking for pitches on how to enhance and augment traditional creative arts through immersive technologies.

Through a partnership with Microsoft the foundation is offering a share of a $750,00 pool of cash and the option of technical support from Microsoft, including mentoring in mixed-reality technologies and access to the company’s suite of mixed reality technologies.

“We’ve seen how immersive technologies can reach new audiences and engage existing audiences in new ways,” said Chris Barr, director for arts and technology innovation at Knight Foundation, in a statement. “But arts institutions need more knowledge to move beyond just experimenting with these technologies to becoming proficient in leveraging their full potential.”

Specifically, the foundation is looking for projects that will help engage new audiences; build new service models; expand access beyond the walls of arts institutions; and provide means to distribute immersive experiences to multiple locations, the foundation said in a statement.

“When done right, life-changing experiences can happen at the intersection of arts and technology,” said Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for arts. “Our goal through this call is to help cultural institutions develop informed and refined practices for using new technologies, equipping them to better navigate and thrive in the digital age.”

Launched at the Gray Area Festival in San Francisco, the new initiative is part of the Foundation’s art and technology focus, which the organization said is designed to help arts institutions better meet changing audience expectations. Last year, the foundation invested $600,000 in twelve projects focused on using technology to help people engage with the arts.

“We’re incredibly excited to support this open call for ways in which technology can help art institutions engage new audiences,” says Mira Lane, Partner Director Ethics & Society at Microsoft. “We strongly believe that immersive technology can enhance the ability for richer experiences, deeper storytelling, and broader engagement.”

Here are the winners from the first $600,000 pool:

  • ArtsESP – Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

Project lead: Nicole Keating | Miami | @ArshtCenter

Developing forecasting software that enables cultural institutions to make data-centered decisions in planning their seasons and events.

  • Exploring the Gallery Through Voice – Alley Interactive

Project lead: Tim Schwartz | New York | @alleyco@cooperhewitt@SinaBahram

Exploring how conversational interfaces, like Amazon Alexa, can provide remote audiences with access to an exhibition experience at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

  • The Bass in VR – The Bass

Project lead: T.J. Black | Miami Beach | @TheBassMoA

Using 360-degree photography technology to capture and share the exhibit experience in an engaging, virtual way for remote audiences.

  • AR Enhanced Audio Tour – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Project lead: Shane Richey | Bentonville, Arkansas | @crystalbridges

Developing mobile software to deliver immersive audio-only stories that museum visitors would experience when walking up to art for a closer look.

  • Smart Label Initiative – Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University

Project lead: Brian Kirschensteiner | East Lansing, Michigan | @msubroad

Creating a system of smart labels that combine ultra-thin touch displays and microcomputers to deliver interactive informational content about artwork to audiences.

  • Improving Arts Accessibility through Augmented Reality Technology – Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, in collaboration with People’s Light

Project lead: Lisa Sonnenborn | Philadelphia | @TempleUniv,@IODTempleU@peopleslight 

Making theater and performance art more accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and non-English speaking communities by integrating augmented reality smart glasses with an open access smart captioning system to accompany live works.

  • ConcertCue – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology

Project lead: Eran Egozy | Cambridge, Massachusetts | @EEgozy,@MIT,@ArtsatMIT@MIT_SHASS

Developing a mobile app for classical music audiences that receives real-time program notes at precisely-timed moments of a live musical performance.

  • Civic Portal – Monument Lab

Project lead: Paul Farber and Ken Lum | Philadelphia | @monument_lab@PennDesign@SachsArtsPhilly@paul_farber

Encouraging public input on new forms of historical monuments through a digital tool that allows users to identify locations, topics and create designs for potential public art and monuments in our cities.

  • Who’s Coming? – The Museum of Art and History at the McPherson Center

Project lead: Nina Simon | Santa Cruz, California | @santacruzmah@OFBYFOR_ALL

Prototyping a tool in the form of a smartphone/tablet app for cultural institutions to capture visitor demographic data, increasing knowledge on who is and who is not participating in programs.

  • Feedback Loop – Newport Art Museum, in collaboration with Work-Shop Design Studio

Project lead: Norah Diedrich | Newport, Rhode Island | @NewportArtMuse

Enabling audiences to share immediate feedback and reflections on art by designing hardware and software to test recording and sharing of audience thoughts.

  • The Traveling Stanzas Listening Wall – Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University Foundation

Project lead: David Hassler | Kent, Ohio | @DavidWickPoetry,@WickPoetry,@KentState@travelingstanza

Producing touchscreen installations in public locations that allow users to create and share poetry by reflecting on and responding to historical documents, oral histories, and multimedia stories about current events and community issues.

  • Wiki Art Depiction Explorer – Wikimedia District of Columbia, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution

Project lead: Andrew Lih | Washington, District of Columbia | @wikimedia@fuzheado

Using crowdsourcing methods to improve Wikipedia descriptions of artworks in major collections so people can better access and understand art virtually.

Alibaba acquires Israeli VR startup Infinity Augmented Reality

Infinity Augmented Reality, an Israeli virtual reality startup, has been acquired by Alibaba, the companies announced this weekend. The deal’s terms were not disclosed. Alibaba and InfinityAR have had a strategic partnership since 2016, when Alibaba Group led InfinityAR’s Series C. Since then, the two have collaborated on augmented reality, computer vision and artificial intelligence projects.

Founded in 2013, the startup’s augmented glasses platform enables developers in a wide range of industries (retail, gaming, medical, etc.) to integrate AR into their apps. InfinityAR’s products include software for ODMs and OEMs and a SDK plug-in for 3D engines.

Alibaba’s foray into virtual reality started three years ago, when it invested in Magic Leap and then announced a new research lab in China to develop ways of incorporating virtual reality into its e-commerce platform.

InfinityAR’s research and development team will begin working out of Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory, part of Alibaba DAMO Academy, the R&D initiative it is pouring $15 billion into with the goal of eventually serving two billion customers and creating 100 million jobs by 2036. DAMO Academy collaborates with universities around the world and Alibaba’s Israel Machine Laboratory has a partnership with Tel Aviv University focused on video analysis and machine learning.

In a press statement, the laboratory’s head, Lihi Zelnik-Manor, said “Alibaba is delighted to be working with InfinityAR as one team after three years of partnership. The talented team brings unique knowhow in sensor fusion, computer vision and navigation technologies. We look forward to exploring these leading technologies and offering additional benefits to customers, partners and developers.”

Nintendo’s Labo: VR Kit is not Virtual Boy 2.0

Even the most successful tech company is going to have a stumble from time to time. Nintendo’s 45 years in the video game industry is spotted with a few doozies, but none are more infamous than the Virtual Boy. The 1994 portable console was marketed as an early home entry into virtual reality, but in actual reality ended up being little more than a blood-red headache.

Nintendo knew the comparisons to the doomed console would come fast and furiously when it launched its next VR venture, so the company took the time to get it just right. In a sense, Labo VR is a cautious push into the virtual realm. It’s nowhere near the all-in approach of Oculus, Vive or even PlayStation VR, for that matter — but it’s uniquely Nintendo.

Like the first Labo kits, it’s a friendly reminder that Nintendo’s chief job is to surprise and delight, and it happily delivers on both fronts. But just as the Labo piano shouldn’t be mistaken for a real musical instrument, Labo VR ought not be viewed as a real virtual reality.

It’s not just the pop-out cardboard form factor, either. Google made that a perfectly acceptable beginner’s approach to VR. It’s more that Nintendo has taken a very casual approach to all of this. The kit’s virtual reality experience is an extension of Labo itself. It’s no more important than the process of building the headset and various accessories step by step on the app. Or, for that matter, sharing all of the above experiences with others.

During a demo of the new kits in New York this week, Nintendo was quick to point out that the headsets are built without a strap. It claims this was a conscious decision so that the experience can be passed around and shared. I’m sure there are some practical reasons behind this decision as well, but it’s certainly a nice thought.

Virtual reality is, by nature of its form factor, a solitary experience. Labo VR doesn’t have any sort of video-out feature to share the experience on a big screen (for now, at least), so the idea of offering it up in a more social play-and-pass scenario is appealing. This goes double for the fact that, like the original Labo kits, all of the games included fall under the casual banner. The experiences share a common lineage with Nintendo analog titles like Mario Party or Mario Paint.

Your mileage with each title will vary. Certainly some (Bird and Blaster spring to mind) will stay with you longer than others and demand more repeat play. On the whole, each buildable peripheral launches with one (maybe two) compatible games. The good news, however, is that, like Labo, the company packs a lot of controllers (and therefore experiences) into a single kit.

The standard Labo: VR Kit ships with six Toy-Con projects (VR Goggles, Toy-Con Blaster, Toy-Con Camera, Toy-Con Bird, Toy-Con Wind Pedal and Toy-Con Elephant), while the cheaper Starter Set comes with two (Goggles and Blaster). If you go for the latter to dip your toes in the water or just to save on cash, there are a pair of “expansion sets” to get the full experience.

Unlike the last time Nintendo came to town with a Labo press tour, we didn’t actually get any time to build. That said, if previous kits are any indication, that’s half of the fun and value proposition here. Also, the amount of time you’ll spend building varies greatly from project to project — take it from me, someone who spent most of a work morning building that damn piano.

Once built, the VR experience is about on-par with what you’d expect from a Google VR. Again, it’s a set of lenses attached to a hunk of cardboard. This is no Rift or Vive and the immersiveness of your own experience will vary. The graphics are cartoony and oftentimes just large polygons. But a well-crafted casual gaming experience can be enough to pull you out of your own head for a bit. Bird is the best example of this.

The controller clips on the headset, with a Toy-Con popping out the other end like a beak. As a player, you hook your hands on either side of the display and flap along as you play a bird, flying around trees and completing different missions to feed an army of hatchlings. It’s a relaxing reprieve from some of the faster-paced games, as you glide around the skies. Add in the foot-controlled Wind Pedal, and the system delivers a puff of air to your face as you boost your bird, adding to the effect.

Blaster, a big, fun novelty gun, is the most engaging of the bunch. When I ended my demos with some extra time to spare, the Nintendo rep asked me if I wanted to give any of the games another go. The answer was simple. A simple first-person shooter, Blaster pits you against an army of alien blobs. You load the gun by cocking it like a shot-gun, and pull the trigger to an explosive effect.

Honorable mention goes to Doodle, which uses the bizarre elephant-shaped controller. The experience is unique from the rest in that it’s not actually a game, but rather a 3D drawing tool. It’s one of the more clever additions to the pack, though actually drawing on a 3D plane with a cardboard controller shaped like an elephant’s trunk is easier said than done. The implementation is a bit lacking, but it offers interesting insight into where Labo VR might go in the future.

Honestly, I just scratched the surface during my briefing. But there’s little question that Labo VR is a fun and singular experience. There’s also a special screen holder, so users who have rough time with VR can experience a 2D version of the games and accessories. Also, as with the standard Labo kit, Nintendo has bundled in Toy-Con Garage, so users can start building their own games when they tire of the pre-packaged experiences.

If there’s one disappointment in all of this, it’s that it will likely be a while before we see a full standalone VR experience from Nintendo. The idea of playing as Mario, Link and the like in virtual reality is no doubt something of a lifelong dream for plenty of gamers who grew up on the characters. But while Virtual Boy is a quarter-century in the past, the memory still lingers.

Until then, Labo VR is a fully engaging take on VR, and a uniquely Nintendo one, to boot.

Virtual reality gaming and the pursuit of “flow state”

Maggie Lane
Contributor

Maggie Lane is a writer and producer of virtual reality experiences and covers the industry for various publications.

You need to stop procrastinating. Maybe it’s time for some…

Bulletproof Coffee, Modafinil, nootropics, microdoses of acid, caffeine from coffee, caffeine from bracelets, aromatherapy, noise-canceling headphones, meditation, custom co-working spaces, or productivity apps?

Whatever your choice, workers today (especially in the tech industry) will do just about anything to be more productive.

What we seek is that elusive, perfect focus or flow state. According to researchers, someone in flow will experience a lack of sense of self, a decline in fear, and time distortion. It is peak performance coupled with a euphoric high. All your happy neurotransmitters fire, and your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex performs differently –you do not second guess yourself, you quite simply just flow into the next stages of the activity at hand. And you happen to be performing at the highest level possible. Sounds amazing, right?

But how do we invite this state in? A detailed piece in Fast Company outlines how extreme sports (professional surfing, steep incline skiing, skydiving etc.) are the quickest way we’ve found to tap into human flow. Yet, these hobbies are just that — extreme. They require a large amount of skill and can be dangerous. For example, Steven Kotler, a pioneer in flow state research, broke almost 100 bones as a journalist researching the topic.

It all leads back to our collective (and very American) obsession with input versus output –are we achieving the most possible with the energy we put in? For all the bells and whistles at our disposal, we as a society are steadily declining in productivity as time goes on.

In 2014, a Gallup Poll found that the average American worker only spends a depressing 5% of their day in flow. A 2016 Atlantic article hypothesized that the main reason that we’re decreasing in productivity as a workforce is that we’re not introducing new technologies quickly enough. Tech like robotics and smartphones could add a productivity push, but aren’t being integrated into the workplace. Business models are for the large part not that different from 10 years ago. In essence, we’re bored — we’re not being challenged in an engaging way, so we’re working harder than ever but achieving less.

But what if getting into flow state could be as easy as playing a video game?

Gameplay in RaveRunner

I first met Job Stauffer, Co-Founder and CCO at Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment when I was, in fact, procrastinating from work. I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a clip of Job playing RaveRunner. As I love rhythm games, I immediately requested a build. Yet, I’d soon learn that this wasn’t just a simple VR experience.

RaveRunner was built for Vive, but easily ran on my Rift. When I first stepped into the game, I felt a bit overwhelmed — there was a lot of dark empty space; almost like something out of TRON. It was a little scary, which is actually very helpful for entering flow state. However, my fear soon dissipated as before me was a transparent yellow lady (Job calls her “Goldie”) dancing with the beat — providing a moving demo for gameplay. Unlike the hacking nature of Beat Saber where you smash blocks with lightsabers, in WaveRunner you touch blue and orange glowing circles with your controllers, and move your whole body to the rhythm of the music.

There’s a softer, feminine touch to WaveRunner, and it wasn’t just Goldie. Behind the design of this game is a woman, Ashley Cooper, who is the developer responsible for the gameplay mechanics that can help a player attain flow. “Being in the flow state is incredibly rewarding and we strive to help people reach it by creating experiences like RaveRunner,” says Cooper. RaveRunner is a game you can get lost in, and by stimulating so many senses it allows you to let your higher level thoughts slip away — you become purely reactionary and non-judgemental.

In essence — flow.

After playing in this world for an hour, I called Job and learned more about his company. Apart from RaveRunner, Orpheus has also rolled out two other experiences — MicrodoseVR and SoundSelf. I got my first hands-on demo of all three products in one sitting at a cannabis technology event in Los Angeles, Grassfed LA. Grassfed is specifically geared towards higher brow, hip tech enthusiasts; and the Orpheus suite of products fit right in.

As I lay in a dome with meditative lighting; a subwoofer purring below me; SoundSelf gave me one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in VR. I chanted into a microphone and my voice directly influenced the visuals before me. It felt like my spirit, the God particle, whatever you want to call it, was being stimulated from all these sensations. It was such a beautiful experience, but also was pure flow. I felt 2 minutes pass in the experience. I would have bet a hundred dollars on this. But I was inside for 10. Time didn’t make sense — a key indicator of flow state.

Next up was Microdose VR. I first tried Microdose VR in 2016 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Esalen is the birthplace of the human potential movement, and so it was fitting that it was there, where I initially grasped the potential of VR for transformational experiences. Every other experience I had tried up to that point had been First Person Shooters or 360-video marketing pieces. And not to slight those experiences, but I felt that VR must be able to do MORE. Android Jones’ Microdose blew my mind. Like with SoundSelf, I completely lost track of time. I was directly impacting visuals with my body movements, and sound was a big factor as well. It was the first time I could easily imagine staying in VR for hours. Most of all, it was an experience that was only possible within VR. The game was the biggest euphoric rush I’ve felt in VR, and that feeling occurred again at this event.

We have the power as consumers to play games that tie in intrinsically with self care but often don’t have options available. Job was propelled down this path when he asked himself “if I invest one hour of my time per day into playing a video game, what will I personally gain from that time invested, and will I even have time left over to do genuinely good things for myself?”

Orpheus is pioneering the fusion of game design with traditional self-care practices like meditation, dance/exercise, listening to music and creating art: “In short, we simply want players to feel amazing and have zero regrets about their time spent playing our games, allowing them to walk away knowing they have leveled up themselves, instead of their in-game avatars alone.”

One thing that will make it easier for people to try these experiences are portable headsets such as the ViveFocus and the Oculus Quest. Being untethered will allow people to travel with VR wherever they may go. Job sees this fundamental shift right ahead of us, as “video games and self-care are about to become one in the same. A paradigm shift. This is why all immersive Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment projects will be engineered for this critically important wave of VR.”

Orpheus is not a VR-only company, although their first three experiences are indeed for VR. As they expand, they hope to open up to a variety of types of immersive experiences, and are continually looking for projects that align with their holistic mission.

At the end of the day, I love that Orpheus is attempting to tap into a part of the market that so desperately needs their attention. If we don’t make self-care a major part of VR today, then we’ll continue to use VR as a distraction from, as opposed as a tool to enhance, our daily lives.

As for me, along with the peppermint tea, grapefruit candle, and music that make my focus possible, I’ll now be adding some Orpheus games into my flow repertoire.

Swiping right on virtual relationships

There’s an episode in the latest season of the Hulu original series Casual, where the main character, Alex, tries his hand at dating in virtual reality. He quickly meets a woman and develops a big, adrenaline-inducing crush only to realize she’s a scammer out for his credit card information.

The season takes place around 2021 or 2022, when technological advances have made dating in VR both possible and socially acceptable. We’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be there as soon as the writers of the show think, but it’s time to imagine and plan for a future when entire relationships exist in and as a result of virtual reality.

Sextech entrepreneur and advocate Bryony Cole has built a career around the assumption that a full pivot to VR will happen in our lifetimes.

She’s the chief executive officer of Future of Sex, a podcast-turned-media company and sextech accelerator. Future of Sex has just released its inaugural report on virtual intimacy and plans to produce content on other topics at the intersection of technology and sex. 

Today, most people are more interested in Magic Leap’s new Angry Birds VR game than the ways in which VR can aid struggling relationships, but the report is full of interesting nuggets on how tech, like teledildonics (Internet-connected sex toys), is transforming intimacy.

There’s a whole class of startups named in the report embracing the notion that human experiences can be improved when powered by apps and devices. No, they aren’t advocating for you to bring your smartphone to the bedroom, but rather claiming that customizable tech can heighten the senses or create new avenues for exploration.

Kissenger, for example, has a mobile app that lets you exchange a kiss over the Internet. Fleshlight and Lovense sell Bluetooth-connected vibrators. And CamasutraVR streams virtual versions of real-life porn stars.

VR is the future of couples therapy

VR, Cole says, is a the forefront of the sextech industry’s transformation and if used correctly, can bolster relationships.

“It’s a new way for couples or thruples, or whatever relationship you’re in, to bond,” Cole told TechCrunch. “The ability to empathize with another person is enriched in this context, which is great, especially for understanding a lover.”

VR can facilitate more meaningful interactions for couples in long-distance relationships. If used right, it can fill the “intimacy gap,” or the space between a couple’s shared happiness and an individual’s personal happiness that, when too big, leads to many couple’s demise. 

As a safe space for experimentation, two people can explore fantasies, engage with educational content and even visit a couple’s therapist in VR. 

The release of the report is hot off the heels of Future of Sex’s fourth sextech hackathon. In New York, the company asked participants to create tech-enabled solutions to reinvent sex education for teenage boys, among other prompts. 

Women in sextech

Future of Sex partnered with porn site YouPorn to co-host the event and asked hackers to come up with ways to leverage YouPorn’s content, which includes VR porn, to improve the sex lives of viewers. VR porn is not a new phenomenon and while it can allow for more personal sexual experiences, researchers have warned that blurring the line between the real and the virtual could lead to ethical issues. How, for example, do you give consent in VR?

Women, who are often exploited for the purposes of sexual entertainment, need to be at the table while this content and other sextech are in development. Fortunately, Cole says, women are entering the sextech community in droves.

“[It’s] exploding at the moment and more and more women entrepreneurs are having a go at building a company,” she said. “It’s Important to highlight why women are getting involved in sextech especially in the current climate of #MeToo.”

On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Unbound, which makes fashion-forward vibrators and other sex toys for women, took home the second-place prize.

“Our dream at Unbound is for female sexual health to be viewed through the same lens as male sexuality — as a part of our overall health that deserves a conversation, platform, and shopping experience that doesn’t feel like a flaming pile of garbage,” Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez told TechCrunch’s John Biggs.

Rodriguez is a close friend of Cole’s — the community is still small — and she’s appeared on the Future of Sex podcast.

The podcast, hackathons and the 12-week accelerator program for sextech startups are part of Cole’s effort to expand the dialogue around VR & sextech, invite new voices into the movement and remove the stigma around having open and honest conversations about sex and intimacy.

“There has to be a way to invite more people into this conversation,” she said. “If we can normalize the conversation, we can raise the standards around talking about sex.”

Oculus Research is now the ‘Facebook Reality Lab’

Oculus Research is getting a new name. As the AR/VR-focused research group grows more instrumental to the future of Facebook at large, the group will now be called Facebook Reality Lab. The announcement was made by Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash in a post on his personal Facebook page.

It’s just a name change, but the announcement marks a further entrenching of AR/VR initiatives once confined to Oculus inside the Facebook org.

Oculus Research doesn’t just work on new types of VR hardware, a lot of the group’s research also touches on foundational AR/VR software and environment tracking tech. With Facebook’s AR Camera Effects tech now integrated across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, perhaps this name change signifies that the technologies being developed are no longer just falling into Oculus’s purview and Facebook wants to make that more clear.

In addition to the Camera team, it’s clear from announcements at F8 that Facebook is also tapping a lot of new research to strengthen its work on avatars inside its Spaces virtual reality app.

Oculus has been growing closer to Facebook organizationally since a leadership shakeup in late 2016 saw then-CEO Brendan Iribe step down to lead a PC-focused VR division with Hugo Barra later being hired as VP of VR at Facebook inside Zuckerberg’s inner circle. Ads exec Andrew Bosworth became the VP of AR/VR in August and is now leading the company’s consumer hardware efforts being worked at inside the Building 8 group.

“This new name (Facebook Reality Labs) is reflective of the new role our research and development group plays not only at Oculus, but also across Facebook’s AR/VR organization, which includes Building 8, Camera, and Social VR,” an Oculus spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The makers of the virtual influencer, Lil Miquela, snag real money from Silicon Valley

Brud, the actual company behind one of Instagram’s most popular virtual influencers (it’s a thing), has raised millions of dollars from Silicon Valley investors because this is 2018 and everything is awful.

Last week, the Los Angeles-based startup led by Trevor McFedries, outed itself as the collective consciousness behind the virtual celebrity Lil Miquela and her less well known contemporaries Blawko22 and BermudaisBae in a choreographed melodrama worthy of Los Angeles’ best reality television.

i am deeply invested in the drama surrounding lil miquela and now you all have to be too. sorry!!! https://t.co/ta1T4rDFGz

— maya kosoff (@mekosoff) April 19, 2018

The subject of numerous glowing profiles in online and print fashion and lifestyle magazines (including, most recently, in High Snobiety), Lil Miquela’s stardom (and her fellow avatars) fascinated because the characters’ creators coyly toed the line around “her” self-awareness and their own. In the process, they created a sensation that’s become well-known worldwide.

It’s less well-known that the company is backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital investment — firms like Sequoia Capital. Our sources put the company’s funding somewhere around $6 million in its recent funding round.

There are other notable investors from Silicon Valley and New York rumored to be in the round — like New York’s BoxGroup and the Bay Area’s SV Angel. Sequoia declined to comment for this article and Box Group’s David Tisch did not respond to a request for comment.

All of the virtual drama with Miquela started late last week when news outlets (including TechCrunch) reported that Miquela’s Instagram account (or that of her handlers) was hacked by operators of a social media account belonging to another virtual personality known as “Bermudaisbae” (a more right wing social media persona with fewer followers).

McFedries, brud‘s founder and chief executive, confirmed that the Miquela account had been hacked in a text exchange with me, writing, “some redditor idiots hacked the page we think.”

That was a lie.

The account “hack” was architected by brud as part of an ongoing virtual reality drama playing out on Instagram and other social media platforms between avatars it had developed, all designed to attract media attention, according to people with knowledge of brud and its plans. It worked. 

McFedries has not responded to further requests for comment after confirming that the Miquela account was “good”.

One Los Angeles investor familiar with the company said brud was “using conflict to introduce new characters… same as the Kardashians always have.”

The investor added that two years into the development of the Miquela persona, brud‘s founders knew that the fad could lose some of its luster as the is-she-or-Isn’t-she-real tension dissipates under the weight of continuously thwarted expectations — like a post-modern twist on the will-or-won’t-they dramatic tension defining most sitcoms since Cheers.

“People aren’t going to buy that she’s human so they make it seem as if she’s had an existential crisis and now she is the first in a breed of conscious AR characters that they will build a world around,” this investor wrote. “[Manufacturing] social influence.”

Blawko22 and Lil Miquela imposed over a gas station exterior simulating a pit stop on the road to Coachella

For his part, the 33-yar-old McFedries had been manufacturing social influence in Los Angeles through his talents as a dj, producer and director before entering the startup world.

First under the name of DJ Skeet Skeet and then as DJ Skeeter, and, finally, Yung Skeeter, McFedries has worked or performed with a number of the world’s best selling recording artists including Chris Brown, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry (and — interestingly — more obscure acts like Bonde do Role).  

Working as an an “artist advocate” for Spotify, a DJ for a radio show on iHeartRadio, and as a spokesman for VitaminWater sustained McFedries along with managing the career of BANKS and executive producing her first album and a single on Azealia Banks’ 2014 record “Broke with Expensive Taste” — at least according to a Wikipedia page on Yung Skeeter. 

Around this time McFedries also began investing in companies, according to AngelList.

Roughly two years after the Banks record release, Lil Miquela made her first appearance on Instagram. And the rest is history as written in Internet archives and memes. Ephemeral, but infinite.

The project that brud seems to be pursuing — turning celebrity into a virtual commodity; commenting on the unreality of the “real” entertainment industry by literally creating an unreal celebrity — is fascinating.

There’s certainly a valid criticism to be made about the ways in which celebrity operates, the ways in which our “social” media has corroded society, and the unbridled power of these platforms to transform messengers and their messages into movements.

Perhaps brud wants to make these critiques through its very existence — or at least use its low-brow as high-brow (or is it vice versa?) intellectual appeal as a veneer over the more crass (but potentially honest) mission of selling more shit more effectively through the use of spokespeople whose views only change when their creators want them to (it worked for Hollywood’s star system). That at least gets sponsors and advertisers out of the potentially messy situations that can come from working with spokespeople whose actions can’t be controlled by software — or an ingenious marketing team.

In the High Snobiety profile-as-honors-senior-English-thesis on Lil Miquela published yesterday, the avatar’s own spokesperson was quoted as saying:

“The internet is endlessly powerful, and that power has been wielded in many ways. It feels like we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle, so we’ve got to learn how to leverage these tools in positive ways. I’ve used my platform to raise real money for important organizations throughout LA and I’ve seen lives changed as a result. I think the only chance we’ve got is to collectively teach our loved ones how to think critically and how to spot misinformation. I know that we can manifest the change we want to see, and the internet can be a part of that.”

It’s a lofty goal backed by a number of inarguably good works. However, lying to reporters may not be the best way to continue trying to achieve it.

Do VC woes extend to portfolio companies? For Rothenberg, probably not

 As VC brands go, Rothenberg Ventures has seen better days. The firm built up a reputation as an up-and-coming early-stage investor. But Silicon Valley soured on Rothenberg Ventures last year; lawsuits ensued. So it hasn’t been a good year for Mike Rothenberg. But what about the Rothenberg Ventures portfolio? Read More

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HTC drops price of Vive by $200 as it looks to compete with Facebook’s aggressive VR pricing

 Just as reality appears to be getting worse by the day, VR companies are doing the lord’s work and making the price of escaping it a bit more accessible. HTC is dropping the price of its Vive virtual reality system from $799 to $599 as the Taiwanese tech giant seeks to compete with aggressive price cuts coming from Facebook-owned Oculus and their Rift headset. At the beginning of the… Read More

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Crunch Report | Benchmark vs Kalanick Goes Sour

Reddit is rolling out its own video platform, VR adtech company Immersv raises $10.5 million and Benchmark versus Kalanick goes sour. All this on Crunch Report Read More

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Apple ARKit user puts a color changing Tesla Model 3 in his driveway before the car's release

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Elon Musk is working hard to make Tesla vehicles everyone can afford, but the only available versions of the tech-centric electric vehicle are still too pricey for some of us — but not in augmented reality! 

That’s what one Norway-based 3D designer decided when he used Apple’s new ARKit to create his own augmented reality version of the upcoming Tesla Model 3. 

Posting a video of the ARKit-created app on Twitter on Saturday, creator Jelmer Verhoog show off how it allows you to choose the color of your Model 3 while seeing how it looks in your own driveway.  Read more…

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Improbable grabs $502M led by Softbank at a $1B+ valuation for its virtual world Spatial OS

 Improbable, the London startup that has developed a platform for third parties to build vast virtual and simulated worlds, has landed a stratospheric round of funding to double down on its product and expanding its ecosystem of developers. The company, which also has offices in San Francisco, has raised $502 million in funding led by SoftBank, with previous investors Andreessen Horowitz and… Read More

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Lytro’s light field vision finally shows its worth

 While many of the virtual reality experiences being shown off at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival are pushing boundaries in VR story-telling techniques, “Hallelujah” is perhaps most noteworthy because of the cutting edge tech used to shoot the experience and the story behind it. Lytro has been around for eleven years; raised over $210 million from Silicon Valley’s… Read More

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Facebook opens up 360-degree live streaming to all

 Facebook just made live streaming 360-degree video relatively easy, provided you have the equipment to capture the content. Users of devices like the new 2017 model Gear 360 just announced at the S8 smartphone launch, or the Insta360 Nano (for iPhone) and Air (for Android), or a host of higher-end models designed for pros, you can go live and broadcast an immersive feed for your audience.… Read More

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Yes, mobile VR is possible without strapping a smartphone to your face

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No, I don’t like strapping a smartphone to my face to enjoy virtual reality. And I don’t blame you if you don’t want to either.  

But if you look at the reported sales numbers for mobile headsets like the Samsung Gear VR over the past year, you might think people prefer them.

Um, I don’t think so. 

Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, in my own experience, the most dedicated VR users in the growing community tend to use high-end headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. 

That’s why it’s frustrating to see so many VR developers and content companies focusing on mobile VR over stationary, high-end VR systems. But I digress …  Read more…

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OceanGate plans an expedition to 3D scan the Titanic

 Seattle-based OceanGate Inc. this week announced plans for a manned expedition to study the R.M.S. Titanic, the world’s most famous shipwreck. Fewer than 200 people have ever visited the Titanic since it sank in April 1912 according to historians’ estimates. To put that in perspective, more people have scaled the summit of Mt. Everest, or flown in space. The new expedition,… Read More

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Mixed reality arcades are the next big market opportunity — but not for VCs

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 15:  Attendees participate in VR virtual reality during E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo 2016 at Los Angeles Convention Center on June 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/WireImage) Mixed reality arcades can be a huge boon for VR adoption, and I’m confident there will be profitable ventures created in these immersive arcade experiences. But the path to profitability will be a long one. Because VCs typically shy away from capex-intensive industries, I don’t see VCs as the right backers to see these exciting experiences to market. Read More

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Sony surpasses expectations, selling 915,000 PlayStation VR headsets in first four months

5-psvr Turns out there might actually be money in VR hardware. Since going on sale just four months ago, Sony details to the NYT that the company has sold 915 thousand of its virtual reality headset, the PS VR. The article also details that Sony had originally set internal goals to sell one million headsets in the first six months of sales, a number that the company seems well-positioned to meet… Read More

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Sony surpasses expectations, selling 915,000 PlayStation VR headsets in first four months

5-psvr Turns out there might actually be money in VR hardware. Since going on sale just four months ago, Sony details to the NYT that the company has sold 915 thousand of its virtual reality headset, the PS VR. The article also details that Sony had originally set internal goals to sell one million headsets in the first six months of sales, a number that the company seems well-positioned to meet… Read More

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Magic Leap CEO defends his AR company on Twitter after photo leak

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Shortly after a photo of company hardware was leaked, the CEO of the augmented and mixed reality company Magic Leap has gone online to correct the record.

On Saturday, Business Insider published an image of what it said was “a working prototype” of the Google-backed startup’s portable augmented reality device given to it by a source. On Twitter, Rony Abovitz claimed Saturday the photo showed only a “R&D test rig.”

The image depicts a man with a kit on his back that looks as if it’s in the early stages of development, but Abovitz’s tweet suggested it was not intended as consumer technology. “The photo you are all excited about is NOT what you think it is,” he wrote. “The photo shows an @magicleap R&D test rig where we collect room/space data for our machine vision/machine learning work. Read more…

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Facebook just hired a big shot to run its virtual reality division

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Mark Zuckerberg isn’t kidding around about virtual reality.

The CEO of Facebook announced late Wednesday Hugo Barra is joining as the vice president of virtual reality (VPVR, in case you were curious). 

The role covers Oculus and all other VR-related products at the company, according to Zuckerberg’s Facebook post announcing the news. 

The post included an image of Zuckerberg and Barra in Facebook’s own VR social network, virtually celebrating the hire.

From Google to Xiaomi to Facebook

So who exactly is Barra? He last served as vice president of international at Chinese smartphone company Xiaomi, known as the “Apple of China,” where he was the face behind the products.  Read more…

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Hugo Barra joins Facebook to lead its VR efforts, including Oculus

16265529_10103456684228891_2797602321406032996_n Hugo Barra, who previously held a positions as a key VP for Android at Google, and led Xiaomi’s international efforts in a VP role at the Chinese company, is now joining Facebook. Barra announced his departure from Xiaomi on January 22, after a three-and-a-half year stint at the company. Barra will lead all of Facebook’s VR efforts, including Oculus, according to Facebook CEO… Read More

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For dramatic VR to succeed, music must become the director

Photo: Rainer Mook / EyeEm / Getty Images The use of music — not as a background mood enhancer, but actually as a director of sorts — will be critical as VR and AR content creators struggle with how to direct the viewer’s gaze in 360 environments. Figuring out music’s role will be key to the mainstream adoption of VR dramatic content. But so far, music is still being relegated to a background mood feature.… Read More

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For dramatic VR to succeed, music must become the director

Photo: Rainer Mook / EyeEm / Getty Images The use of music — not as a background mood enhancer, but actually as a director of sorts — will be critical as VR and AR content creators struggle with how to direct the viewer’s gaze in 360 environments. Figuring out music’s role will be key to the mainstream adoption of VR dramatic content. But so far, music is still being relegated to a background mood feature.… Read More

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For dramatic VR to succeed, music must become the director

Photo: Rainer Mook / EyeEm / Getty Images The use of music — not as a background mood enhancer, but actually as a director of sorts — will be critical as VR and AR content creators struggle with how to direct the viewer’s gaze in 360 environments. Figuring out music’s role will be key to the mainstream adoption of VR dramatic content. But so far, music is still being relegated to a background mood feature.… Read More

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For dramatic VR to succeed, music must become the director

Photo: Rainer Mook / EyeEm / Getty Images The use of music — not as a background mood enhancer, but actually as a director of sorts — will be critical as VR and AR content creators struggle with how to direct the viewer’s gaze in 360 environments. Figuring out music’s role will be key to the mainstream adoption of VR dramatic content. But so far, music is still being relegated to a background mood feature.… Read More

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Sundance merges VR with real life through props, AR, and vibrating suits

sundance-new-frontier-synesthesia-suit You can’t try this at home, even if you wanted to. Today’s premiere of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier exhibit proved there are vivid opportunities for a third kind of virtual reality beyond tethered and mobile: VR installations. Outside the headset, custom art and physical effects set the scene before you enter, deepen the immersion while you’re enveloped… Read More

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Yes, this detailed 3D-printed model was sculpted in VR, and it's just the start

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Getting people to believe that high-end virtual reality is truly immersive can be difficult if they haven’t tried devices like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive first-hand. 

That gap of disbelief gets even wider when you try to convince the uninitiated that incredibly detailed, near retail-ready 3D-printed models are being born in VR, but this week we got our best example of exactly what’s possible. 

On Tuesday, Oculus character artist Giovanni Nakpil posted an amazingly detailed, 3D-printed model of an ogre modeled in Oculus Medium, the VR sculpting app, and then output via 3D printer.   Read more…

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Father-to-be uses VR to ‘meet’ his daughter before she’s born

animated_vrbaby Of all the potential use-cases for VR, Samuli Cantell has arguably come up with the most unusual after persuading his pregnant girlfriend to undergo 4D ultrasound scanning of their unborn child in order to generate a 3D model that could then be placed in a Unity environment and viewed in VR. Read More

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VirZOOM mashes up VR, Fitbit and exercise bikes to bring vSports to the masses

file-jan-04-14-43-59 Strapping a VR headset to my face and taking a seat on an exercise bike isn’t my idea of fun, but fun was exactly what was served up when I tried out VirZOOM’s platform. A cycling game was obvious, given the input mechanism, but a flying pegasus and a tank game were not. The games were both eye-openers in terms of taking exercise and VR, making it more than the sum of its parts. Read More

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