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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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A sleepover to die for: siblings spend night in Dracula’s Transylvania castle

Canadian brother and sister spend Halloween night in the castle that inspired legend, with coffins for beds, after winning an Airbnb competition.

A Canadian brother and sister are passing Halloween night curled up in red velvet coffins in the Transylvanian castle that inspired the Dracula legend, marking the first time in 70 years anyone has spent the night in the gothic fortress.

The siblings from Ottawa bested 88,000 people who entered a competition hosted by Airbnb to get the chance to dine and sleep at the castle in Romania.

Events manager Tami Varma and her brother Robin, a PhD student, are the grandchildren of Devendra Varma, a scholar of English gothic tales and an expert in vampire lore who visited the castle in 1971.

They were asked in the competition: What would you say to Dracula if you met him? Tami Varma answered that their late grandfather was the worlds leading expert in Gothic Literature, and was considered to be an expert in Dracula We would do just about anything to stay as a guest with the original vampire who inspired him.

Adding to the eerie atmosphere on Monday, light snow fell on the 14th-century castle where Vlad the Impaler, the prince who inspired Bram Stokers Dracula novel, is believed to have stayed.

The pair arrived in a stagecoach drawn by two black horses as a buzzing drone filmed the event. The nerves are kicking in. Its becoming real, really fast, Tami, 31, exclaimed, climbing down from the stagecoach in a slinky red dress and boots.

She told castle manager Alex Priscu she was overwhelmed. This may be the best day of our lives. Her brother spoke little and at times seemed embarrassed.

They were greeted inside the castle by Dacre Stoker, the great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker and guardian of the Dracula legend who repeated the words used by Count Dracula: Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!

They were to dine later on chicken paprikash, the meal described in the 1897 horror novel. A candlelit table was set, laden with Transylvanian smoked cheeses, fruit and bottles of plum and blackcurrant brandy.

The pair recalled their grandfathers trip to the castle 45 years ago. He left before the sun had set, in the daytime, and he heard footsteps, somebody following him, Tami said. So in a bizarre and interesting way we are honoring him tonight, and we know hes with us in the castle.

Whether Count Dracula would make an appearance during the night remained a mystery that nobody in Bran Castle would reveal on Halloween.


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‘Ball in Europe’s court’ to rescue Ceta deal, says Canada trade minister

Chrystia Freeland says Canada ready to sign and hopes to return with Justin Trudeau if EU can persuade Wallonia to lift block.

Canada’s trade minister has said it is up to the European Union to rescue a landmark trade deal that is being blocked after the Walloon regional parliament refused to allow Belgium to sign the treaty.

Chrystia Freeland said on Saturday that Canada was ready to sign the pact and that negotiations on its fine points were over. “We have done our job. We have finished negotiating a very good agreement. Now the ball is in Europe’s court,” she said after meeting Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, before her flight home.

“I hope that I can return in the next days with my prime minister to sign the treaty as planned.”

The EU’s 28 member states, including Belgium, support the comprehensive economic and trade agreement with Canada, but the region of Wallonia is vetoing the deal.

Schulz, who is not directly involved in the talks but has good working ties with Freeland, held an emergency meeting with the Walloon premier Paul Magnette in a bid to revive the deal.

“The door for every step forward is open but it’s quite clear that the problems on the table are European problems,” Schulz said. “In my eyes, there are no problems that cannot be resolved.”

Freeland quit talks on Friday with chief Canadian and EU trade negotiators and Magnette, declaring reaching a deal with the EU was impossible.

Magnette said on Saturday that his discussions with Canada were concluded and the remaining issues to be worked out were for the EU executive to address. We have still some little difficulties among Europeans, he said, without giving details. We wont hide that so we still have to work and discuss for a certain amount of time.

Freeland made clear that the ball was in the EUs court, saying: We have done our job, it is time for the European Union to finish its [work].

Schulz described Saturdays talks as constructive and perhaps decisive, adding: I remain optimistic. We cannot allow stop at the last kilometre.

But the European parliament president has not played a big role in negotiations so far and it remained unclear what kind of compromise he could broker.

Freeland was on the verge of tears on Friday as she announced the end and the failure of talks with the Walloon government.

Leaving the lysette, the home of the Walloon government in Namur, she said: It seems obvious that the EU is now not capable of having an international agreement, even with a country that shares European values such as Canada, even with a country that is so kind and patient.

Canada is disappointed. I am personally very disappointed. I have worked very, very hard. We have decided to go home. I am truly very, very sad.

The trade agreement, which would eliminate tariffs on most goods between the EU and Canada, has been seven years in the making. But it has stumbled near the finish line as Wallonia, with a population of 3.5 million, blocked Belgiums government from signing the deal. The EU, a single market of 510 million people, requires unanimity on trade deals.

Paul Magnette. Photograph: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

Canadas prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was due to fly to Brussels on 27 October to sign the agreement. And Cecilia Malmstrm, the EU trade commissioner, insisted it was not the end of the road for Ceta. Good progress has been made in most areas of concerns for Wallonia in talks on Ceta. I sincerely believe this is not the end of the process, she wrote on Twitter. The commission had engaged wholeheartedly with Wallonia over the last days and it was truly sad talks have been halted, she added.

Wallonia continues to have concerns about the threat of surging pork and beef imports from Canada and an independent court system to settle disputes between states and foreign investors, which critics say may be used by multinationals to dictate public policy.

Many EU leaders also suspect the local government in Namur of using its devolved powers to play domestic politics.

The collapse of talks will be a heavy blow to EU leaders, who have warned that Europes credibility is on the line. Some also see the disintegrating Ceta deal as a bad omen for the UK, which wants to negotiate a post-Brexit free trade agreement with the EU.

If we cant make it with Canada, I dont think we can make it with the UK, Malmstrm quipped this week.

British officials have played down similarities, arguing that putting up trade barriers will be a very different exercise to taking them down.

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