Oculus VR, a virtual reality technology company acquired by Facebook (FB) earlier this year, announced recently that they are acquiring two small start-up companies to fill gaps in their virtual reality capabilities. One of them, Nimble VR, enables virtual reality glasses to track a person's hands, while the second, 13th Lab, has developed technology for building 3D models of an environment as a camera (or virtual reality glasses) moves around a scene.
Oculus VR is the maker of Rift, virtual reality goggles that can create a fully immersive experience for a user. People wearing virtual reality goggles like Rift are made to feel that they are in a different place, with everything they see and hear supporting that feeling. Early applications focus on gaming, but Oculus sees a day, as forecast by the epic book Snowcrash, in which people use virtual reality goggles to interact with each other in life-like three dimensional settings while each sitting in their own living rooms.
Facebook acquired Oculus in order to bring virtual reality not only to social networking but to a wide variety of other online experiences. These can include everything from experiencing a sports game from a court-side seat to taking a class by sitting in a virtual classroom full of other students.
Oculus's acquisition of 13th Lab fits this agenda perfectly. 13th Lab's technology can take a video stream from a camera moving through a site, and construct a 3D model of the site. As Oculus said in their press release, "The ability to acquire accurate 3D models of the real-world can enable all sorts of new applications and experiences, like visiting a one-to-one 3D model of the pyramids in Egypt or the Roman Coliseum in virtual reality."
A closer look at 13th Lab technology, however, opens up a much more revolutionary possibility. The company's technology analyzes video streams from a camera moving through a site. In addition to building a 3D model of the environment based on video streams, their technology can track the camera's location in real-time as it moves around the site, based only on information gleaned from the video. This technology is called SLAM, standing for "simultaneous localization and mapping," referring to any system that learns a map or model of the environment while simultaneously tracking the location of the camera as it moves around the environment. SLAM is a hot topic these days in the mobile indoor location technology arena, as a means of tracking location when GPS is not available.
As speculation, imagine if Oculus, or Facebook, brought the Oculus goggles to market not only for immersive virtual reality, but also for wearing around during every-day life, as Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is doing with Google Glass? In such a model, the goggles would deliver augmented reality rather than virtual reality, with the computer-generated imagery augmenting the view of the real world rather than replacing it. Obviously the glasses would need to be less like virtual reality goggles and more like fashionable eyeglasses.
Were Oculus to move in this direction, the 13th Lab technology takes on all new meaning. Instead of their technology being one component in the preparation of virtual reality images, it will be a key enabler of eyeglasses that can track their locations precisely as they move around, while simultaneously building a model of exactly what the user is seeing.
Such technology could enable smart eyeglasses to be a lot more powerful. To date, smart eyeglasses from Google and others have primarily focused on displaying messages and social network updates in a way that users can read without using their hands. They have also focused on using the built-in camera to record images and videos of what the user is seeing. But the market is still waiting for the game-changing uses that smart eyeglasses can deliver. Besides Google, smart eyeglasses are being worked on by Sony (SNE), Samsung (OTCPK:SSNLF), and others.
Might SLAM technology, with accurate location tracking that works indoors and outdoors, and with building a model of what the user is seeing while moving around a site, enable smart glasses to be truly game-changing?
Google themselves are also exploring SLAM technology, but not for Google Glass. Their Project Tango is researching how next-generation tablets and smartphones, with added cameras and stronger image processing capabilities, can operate in new and more powerful ways. One of the technologies that they are looking at is SLAM.
In addition to their own research, Google's Project Tango is collaborating with FlyBy Media, a SLAM technology vendor that is just now releasing a service for indoor location services based on SLAM. FlyByMedia is one of seven start-up companies developing SLAM technology, several using camera-based visual approaches like 13th Lab and FlyBy Media, and several using radio-based approaches to achieve similar results.
In addition to SLAM-equipped eyeglasses being able to track their locations, they can build models of the things around them that the user is seeing, which third-party apps can then use to deliver a richer set of applications.
Most significantly, Oculus VR was acquired by Facebook earlier this year, and the rivalry between Facebook and Google is well known. If Oculus does in fact move in the direction of smart eyeglasses, it could be Facebook's move to beat Google at the Google Glass game.
Even if this is not part of Facebook's plan, Oculus's incorporation of SLAM technology from 13th Lab is a big step in SLAM technology bringing self-learning location tracking to market in wearable computing devices like smart eyeglasses. If smart eyeglasses can track locations precisely and understand the things that the user is seeing, will they deliver enough value to be adopted by the mass market?
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