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Monthly Archives: November 2017

Apple acquired augmented reality headset startup Vrvana for $30M

As Apple reportedly ramps up work to ship an augmented reality headset in 2020, it has acquired a startup from Montreal, Canada that could help it get there. TechCrunch has learned that Apple has acquired Vrvana, maker of the Totem headset — which had rave reviews but never shipped. The deal was for around $30 million, two sources tell TechCrunch.

We contacted Apple, and the company declined to comment, but also did not deny the story. Vrvana did not reply to our request for comment. Sources close to the deal have confirmed the acquisition to us.

The deal is significant because while we have seen reports and rumors about Apple’s interest in AR hardware, the company has been very tight-lipped and generally is very secretive about completely new, future products. This acquisition is perhaps the clearest indicator yet of what the company is hoping to develop.

A number of the startup’s employees have joined Apple in California. The Vrvana site is currently still up, but it stopped updating social accounts and news in August of this year.

It’s not clear what of Vrvana’s existing products, product roadmap or current business — it worked with Valve, Tesla, Audi and others under NDA — will be making its way to Apple.

The only product that Vrvana shows off on its site is the unreleased Totem headset, an “extended reality” device utilizing key technologies from both AR and virtual reality to allow for both experiences on a single headset.

A screen grab from one of Vrvana’s promotional videos for the Totem.

The tethered device had a form factor similar to many of today’s VR headsets, but uniquely relied on several forward-facing pass-through cameras to replicate the outside world on its OLED displays inside the headset. The system of cameras enabled 6DoF tracking, a technology which allows the device to track its position in 3D space, while also using infrared cameras to track a user’s hands.

Vrvana’s camera-based AR approach differs from competitors like Microsoft, which is utilizing transparent, projection-based displays for its HoloLens headset. The Totem holds a number of advantages over these systems, most notably in that it is able to overlay fully opaque, true-color animations on top of the real world rather than the ghost-like projections of other headsets which critically cannot display the color black. This allows the headset to do what it calls “seamless blend” transitions between VR and AR environments.

A key disadvantage in these types of systems, aside from bulky aesthetics, is that there is often noticeable lag between the cameras capturing the outside world and how quickly it is displayed in-headset. Vrvana CEO Bertrand Nepveu detailed this problem in a talk this summer where he shared that the startup had working prototypes that brought this latency down to 3 milliseconds.

An animation showcasing how the Totem smoothly transitions between AR and VR modes.

There are consumer applications for this kind of “extended reality” technology — for example, in games and other entertainment — but one key focus for Vrvana was enterprise usage.

“Totem’s hand tracking and inside-out positional tracking empowers your workforce to manipulate virtual objects with their hands wherever they please,” the company said in promotional materials on the headset.

This is notable considering Apple’s focus — both on its own and in partnership with other IT providers like IBM, Cisco and SAP — to court different enterprise verticals. In August, CEO Tim Cook singled out enterprise as one key focus for its AR ambitions, and in its last earnings the company reported double-digit growth in the area. The company last broke out its enterprise sales back in 2015, when Cook described it as a $25 billion business.

But scaling remains one of the hardest things for startups — especially hardware startups — to do, and this is even more the case for startups working in emerging technologies that have yet to break into the mainstream.

Founded back in 2005, Vrvana had not disclosed much of its funding. A source tells TechCrunch the company raised less than $2 million, a modest figure in the world of hardware. Investors according to PitchBook included Real Ventures (whose partner Jean-Sebastian Cournoyer is also involved with, an ambitious AI startup and incubator in Montreal), the Canadian Technology Accelerator, and angel Richard Adler, who is also active in other VR startups.

Up to now, Apple has been fairly critical of the state of VR and AR hardware in the market today, and it has downplayed its own hand in the game.

“Today I can tell you the technology itself doesn’t exist to do that in a quality way. The display technology required, as well as putting enough stuff around your face – there’s huge challenges with that,” Cook told The Independent in answer to a question about whether it was building a headset. “The field of view, the quality of the display itself, it’s not there yet…We don’t give a rat’s about being first, we want to be the best, and give people a great experience. But now anything you would see on the market any time soon would not be something any of us would be satisfied with. Nor do I think the vast majority of people would be satisfied.”

That’s not to say that Apple has not been enthusiastic about the augmented reality space. But to date, this interest has largely manifested itself through software — specifically the company’s iOS-based ARKit SDK — and the increasingly sophisticated camera arrays on the iPhone rather than through a dedicated device, although there have been plenty of Apple patents that also potentially point to one.

Apple also has made other acquisitions that underscore its interest in developing the technology that powers the hardware. In June, Apple acquired SMI, an eye-tracking firm that was working on solutions for VR and AR headsets. Other AR and VR-related acquisitions have included Flyby MediametaioEmotient, and Faceshift.

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Man makes app to erase your makeup in photos but insists it isn’t sexist

Artificial intelligence-based photo editing tools, in their brief existence in the history of humanity, are off to an immensely painful start.

Selfie-editing tool FaceApp clumsily took the torch earlier this year, setting fire to the product’s intriguing face-altering premise by whitening users’ photos under an ill-intentioned “hot” filter. The same app continued to offend with filters that allowed users to present themselves as male or female or “transform” into different ethnicities (white, Black, Indian, or Asian). As a mere blip in technological advances, the AI-based app appeared to normalize Blackface and whitewashing of people of color and perpetuated the gender binary and misunderstandings of being a transgender.

However, now a new selfie-altering app, MakeApp, appears to be taking the brunt of recent AI-based photo-editing critiques. The app allows you to add or remove makeup to up to five photos, and it charges $0.99 for unlimited use.

MakeApp is relatively simple to use: simply snap a photo or video or select one from your camera roll; select your desired makeup filter from options including the makeup-less “Remove” and makeup filters “Bourges,” and “La Rochelle;” and share or save the final image to your phone. You can also choose the “intensity” of the filter by scrubbing your finger left (toward zero percent filtered) and right (toward 100 percent filtered) on top of the photo after choosing a filter.

According to Business Insider, the app comes from a team headed up by Ashot Gabrelyanov—a Russian entrepreneur living in Brooklyn who was the CEO of LifeNews, a pro-Russia, Putin-loyalist news organization, until 2013. Gabrelyanov denied accusations of being a “propagandist” to the publication, and he said there was “no proof” he once shared “a doctored image on Twitter showing a poster of Adolf Hitler in Kiev, Ukraine.”

MakeApp’d photos are intriguing, to say the least. They make a brazen attempt to remove the mascara and liner from eyes, to redden and de-contour cheekbones and chins, and to desaturate the pigment from lips and eyelids. I’ll be honest—a few photos of myself and celebrities that I ran through the app appeared to give the photos that puffy, blotchy, “Are you tired? Or sick? You look sick,” sheen only captured by stalker paparazzi for tabloids. Below are photos pulled from celebrity Instagram accounts side-by-side with their MakeApp-filtered counterparts (including a photo of yours truly).

Screengrab via Samantha Grasso/MakeApp

Screengrab via Samantha Grasso/MakeApp

Screengrab via Samantha Grasso/MakeApp

The app itself seems to share similar problems with its AI-app predecessor, FaceApp—renderings of Beyoncé and SZA lightened parts of their faces, though the app didn’t do the same to Leslie Jones or Serena Williams. Photos of Idris Elba and Kevin Hart run through the app didn’t appear to exhibit the same skin-lightening issues, though the photos were slightly discolored to shades of yellow. In an email to the Daily Dot, Gabrelyanov said MakeApp’s neural network training dataset is based on pictures of people of different skin colors and nationalities, but he admitted the app is still “sensitive to lighting.”

“Our resources are limited and, again, MakeApp is not our core product but a simple experiment we put out that happened to catch on. Importantly, any shortcomings of the technology are not purposefully racist, misogynistic, etc. the way some journalists seem to be alluding that it is. It is just a limitation to the tech we’re hoping to fix,” Gabrelyanov wrote.

However, the real outrage from Business Insider, New York Magazine‘s Select All, Teen Vogue, and other publications has been directed at MakeApp’s premise. Select All’s headline put the sentiment nicely: “Man Develops App to Reveal What Women Look Like Without Makeup.” A.V. Club shared a similar sentiment: “Introducing the makeup-removing app for the ‘nice guy’ on the go.” Basically, another male-led tech team has created a product to dictate what women should (or shouldn’t) look like, and that, in itself, is a creepy premise, if not outright sexist.

Makeup has long been politicized as a tool that promotes unrealistic beauty standards—that young girls should make themselves look older and that older women should stay forever vivacious and youthful. Makeup is a literal “disguise” of flaws, “tricking” unsuspecting prey into investing, time, energy, and other forms of labor in relationships with women who are pretending to be more attractive than they actually are. According to Racked, this exhausted track of thought dates back to 1770 when, in England, it was legal for a man to divorce his wife for tricking him into marriage with this kind of deception.

This is where MakeApp appears to strike an unsettling chord for the app’s critics. In the context of Red Pill’d men who resent women who wear makeup, women who skate by on their deceptively-good looks, and pass over “nice guys” to settle for better-looking, mentally-inferior “Chads,” it feels as if this app’s makeup-removing feature is just another misogynistic piece of technology. In allowing the user to remove someone’s makeup, the app seems to insist that women are dolls to be dressed down as God intended for Eve herself or that women are liars, if not sinister, blood-thirsty sirens who seek to trap men and their fortunes for wearing makeup at all.

But for so many (if not all) women and men who use makeup, lipsticks and highlighters aren’t used to mislead potential romantic partners. Instead, they’re tools of self-expression and empowerment. The argument that people wear makeup to impress or deceive others instead of to feel good about themselves is laughable to makeup users. The point of “women tricking men with makeup” has become a feminist punchline.

Writing to the Daily Dot, Gabrelyanov rejected the idea that this was his team’s intention in developing MakeApp and that the app is just “a bunch of ‘tech bros’ trying to hurt women, which is just so far from the truth.” It was not intended to be a misogynistic product, he wrote, and it even has one female neural networks specialist on the 10-person team.

“Journalists keep referring this as an app for ‘men to find out what women look like without makeup.’ This is NOT the case. This was actually originally designed for selfies as an alternative for the makeup addition tool. It was meant to be a fun, entertaining tool,” Gabrelyanov said. “To date, we’ve received no sexist-related criticism from our users. We’ve only seen this complaint from a small, small handful U.S.-based journalists—each recycling the original article’s content. Our app became viral in Asia and Europe and the journalists and users there welcomed our tech positively.”

In Gabrelyanov’s defense, the app development team, Magic Unicorn, has three apps hosted on iPhone’s App Store—the other two apps are also AI-based with one categorized in “Games” and the other in “Food and Drink.” MakeApp, the third of those apps, was originally released in May 2017 and was updated with the makeup removal function in July, according to the App Store’s version log for the app.

However, recent App Store reviews, submitted within the past two days, seem to already be grappling onto this sexism critique.

“My boyfriend broke up with me?…He sent me the before and after picture with the message ‘we’re through,’” one user commented.

“I love seeing angry feminists,” another wrote, though perhaps less sarcastically. “Perfect for Tinder. No more having to make your first date be at the pool, this app takes care of all that trouble for you,” another user echoed.

Gabrelyanov also defended the AI makeup removal technology for the practical purposes it could serve, particularly for anti-human trafficking organizations to better identify victims disguised with makeup. (The Daily Dot has reached out to anti-human trafficking organization Polaris Project for more context on this assertion).

“We truly mean no harm here,” Gabrelyanov wrote. “We are simply trying to advance the scope of AI/AR tech.”

At the core of Gabrelyanov’s responses to its controversy, however, we see another AI-based app falling to, and apologizing for, the limitations of its technology. Yes, the app might have been created harmlessly, and it might have potential real-world application. But MakeApp’s makeup removal feature has opened itself up to feminist critique because, even if the tool was created just for fun, the cultural context of “makeup deception” is difficult to ignore when it’s a belief that some men still brazenly hold onto in 2017.

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It doesn’t look like it, but it’s China’s latest AI smart speaker

Image: baidu

Google Home and the Amazon Echo have new competition.

Baidu, which runs China’s most popular search engine, has produced the Raven H, a voice-activated speaker that runs on an artificial intelligence platform.

The Raven H is the first product in Baidu’s upcoming AI plan, following its acquisition in earlier this year of Beijing-based smart home startup, Raven.

If anything, the new speaker’s design looks like none of the competition, and appears to be able to flip up to face the user, when activated.

The speaker’s clean, Scandinavian lines are probably thanks to Swedish consumer electronics firm Teenage Engineering. It also includes audio hardware made by Danish company Tymphany.

It’ll show a grid of animated lights.

Image: baidu

Sleek volume buttons

Image: baidu

It’ll speak Chinese better, and hail you a cab.

Baidu, one of the country’s biggest dotcoms, may face stiff competition in the West, but it’s launching to a hungry and willing home market that hasn’t been well penetrated at all by the competition.

In part, that’s been aided by Google being blocked in the country, but Baidu’s gadgets are primed to speak better Chinese than the others.

Additionally, Baidu’s Raven H can already tap the company’s vast online resources, to play you music, read the news, tell you if it’s going to rain, and so on. And home ground advantage means it can plug into other domestic services such as Didi Chuxing — China’s Uber — to hail you a cab by voice.

At launch, the Raven H is already getting some real world user testing, thanks to an agreement with the InterContinental Hotels Group, to place 100 of the speakers in guest rooms. At the very least, that interaction with guests will only go toward training the speakers to be smarter, benefiting the rest of the network.

Here’s Baidu CEO, Robin Li, showing voice commands on the Baidu app, on an iPhone:

Coming next: AI home robots

The upcoming Raven R

Image: baidu

Baidu is going to follow up the smart speaker’s launch soon with a robot that’s based on the same AI platform.

Called the Raven R, it’ll come with six moveable joints that allow it to “express emotions” and move to respond to users’ commands.

Here’s a teaser it provided:

And following this, Baidu is also working on a home robot that will be able to see you, in addition to hearing you.

That one, the Raven Q, is expected to be able to move around the home, and possibly perform some home surveillance functions, while interacting with natural voice.

It’s still in concept phase, but it’s a show of Chinese companies already poised to leapfrog existing products we have on the market. And getting us one step closer to the future as imagined by The Jetsons.

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