VR and microscopy help scientists see 'inside' diseases

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Carnegie Mellon University

You can only learn so much about cells by studying 2D pictures, and 3D microscope technology can produce an abundance of data that might be hard to decipher. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Virginia Mason have an answer, though: let scientists walk ‘inside’ the cells. They’ve combined virtual reality with expansion microscopy (which grows samples by over 100 times) to explore cell data that would otherwise be too complex to handle. Once the cells have been imaged, labeled and compiled into data, a custom technique turns the 2D info into 3D environments.

The approach could be vital to medicine. Ultimately, the team hopes its tool (ExMicroVR) will provide a greater level of understanding about diseases that could lead to more effective treatments. As many as six people can experience data at the same time, ensuring that scientists can work together. And crucially, Carnegie Mellon wants this to be “affordable and easily accessible” to developing countries. You wouldn’t need costly microscopes or an abundance of studying time to further medical research.

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Against Gravity is building a VR world that won’t stop growing

The quest to create a social auditorium in virtual reality has eaten many VC dollars over the years. While plenty of contenders have emerged, it’s likely Against Gravity’s Rec Room has been the most creative in its approach to capturing a niche market while plotting how to build a sustainable business based on users in VR headsets talking to one another.

The Seattle startup has told TechCrunch exclusively that it has bagged $24 million over two rounds of funding. The studio’s Series A was led by Sequoia and their Series B, which just recently closed, was led by Index Ventures . Against Gravity has a bevy of top investors that also participated in the rounds, including First Round Capital, Maveron, Anorak Ventures, Acequia Capital, Betaworks and DAG Ventures.

The company didn’t break down the specific details of the rounds. Against Gravity was authorized to raise up to $15.4 in its Series B at up to a $126 million post-money valuation, according to Delaware stock authorization docs we got from PitchBook. The company didn’t comment on the valuation.

Rec Room is hardly a household name compared to some major console titles, but among virtual reality users, the title has been a standby known for the diversity of gameplay available inside its walls and its wide support for hardware. Users are able to create experiences or “rooms” that can be accessed by other users. They don’t need any coding knowledge to build these spaces, as creation all happens within the game and can be done by multiple users simultaneously.

Rec Room is also about to surpass one million rooms created by users on the platform. The company says these environments include “sports games, shooters, adventure quests, nightclubs, club houses, and escape rooms.”

While companies like Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life, have focused their VR efforts on realistic but unvarying user-created environments, Against Gravity has seemingly one-upped their strategy by focusing on dynamic gameplay modes where the emphasis is on user interactions as opposed to graphic fidelity.

The Seattle startup, which was founded in 2016, now has 35 employees building out and maintaining Rec Room. The company is playable on a variety of platforms, and is about to add iOS support to its roster, an expansion that could bring a lot more users onto the VR-centric platform.

Rec Room’s content isn’t monetized too aggressively at the moment. CEO Nick Fajt thinks some of the user-generated experiences are going to offer an interesting opportunity down the road, prompting users to spend in-game tokens on more than just upgrades to the platform’s Playmobil-like avatars.

“I think a direction that we’re actually excited about is that we want to let the users creating some of this content charge tokens to play them,” Fajt tells TechCrunch. “I think that’s one that we’re kind of on the cusp of doing and we’re hoping to get that out later this year.”

For Against Gravity, timing has always been a key consideration for expansion, especially inside the slow-growing VR market, which has only recently seemed to hit a stride. I chatted with Fajt back in 2017, and he told me that the key for VR startups surviving was staying lean and biding their time until standalone mobile headsets with positional tracking and motion controllers were released. Facebook’s Oculus Quest headset, which came out less than a month ago, is perhaps the first clear device to fit that vision.

One of Facebook’s head AR/VR executives shared earlier this week that more than $5 million in Quest content had been sold in the company’s store in the first two weeks after the device’s launch. That’s a major development for an industry that hasn’t seen many smash hits, but for free-to-play game makers like Against Gravity, which has now raised $29 million to date, there’s plenty of maturation in the VR market that still needs to happen.

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Oculus blocks SteamVR streaming on Quest

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Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

The developer of an Oculus Quest app called Virtual Desktop introduced an experimental feature that allowed users to stream SteamVR games to their Oculus headset. He’s now being forced by Oculus to remove the feature. Guy Godin took to Reddit yesterday to inform the Oculus Quest community that he will be dropping the ability to stream SteamVR games at Oculus’ behest.

“I’m sorry to announce this but Oculus doesn’t want the SteamVR streaming feature in their store,” he wrote on Reddit. Godin said that he’s been developing virtual reality tech for more than five years now and saw an opportunity with his app to give people more access to the games on their PC. According to Godin, he worked on the feature for several months before introducing it days ago. He said that Oculus believed his app was “hurting Quest” and asked for its removal.

When asked about the situation, a spokesperson for Oculus told Engadget, “While we don’t comment on the status of specific apps, our Oculus Store application submission system is designed to help ensure that our devices deliver a consistent, comfortable experience to customers. Apps are evaluated on a number of factors including performance, input, and safety with the goal of creating a quality, high-value experience for all VR consumers.”

The ability to stream SteamVR content may no longer be in the Virtual Desktop app, but it won’t be going away entirely. Godin said on Reddit that he plans to offer the functionality as part of a separate app that can be sideloaded onto Quest and bypass Oculus’ strict requirements for apps that appear in its store.

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Oculus sold $5 million worth of Quest content in first 2 weeks on sale

Facebook’s Oculus Quest standalone VR headset hasn’t been out long, but VP of AR/VR Andrew Bosworth says the company is already selling a substantial amount of content for the device.

At Vox Media’s Code conference, the exec detailed that in the first two weeks of sales there has been $5 million in content sales. We have not gotten any details on device sales, though Facebook has never shares sales data on their VR products.

The $399 headset does not require a PC or phone to operate and offers camera-based positional tracking like higher-end PC headsets have in the past. At launch the company’s store had just over 50 titles available to download, with a mixture of free titles and games costing as much as $30.

Companies in the VR space — even Facebook — have been reticent to discuss sales because there have been so few success stories. Facebook has gone all-in on the Quest’s launch, their marketing campaigns have been substantial so it makes sense that they’re willing to detail their successes here.

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China grants first 5G licenses amid Huawei global setback

It’s official. After much anticipation, China named the first companies to receive 5G licenses for commercial use on Thursday.

The announcement from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the country’s telecoms authority, came as Huawei, the Chinese company that captured nearly 30% of the world’s telecom gear revenues in 2018, faces mounting scrutiny in the west over potential security concerns.

The greenlight arrived months ahead of the long-expected due date for China’s 5G licenses, which was said to be late 2019. The acceleration clearly demonstrates Beijing’s ambition to race ahead in the global 5G industry where the United States and South Korea already had a head start in commercial deployment.

The MIIT approved three network operators — China Telecom, China Mobile, China Unicom — and cable network company China Broadcasting Network to run the next-gen cellular connectivity.

Other players in 5G, including network equipment makers, smartphone manufacturers, chip makers and apps creators, are also gearing up. Over the last few months, Samsung, Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei have each announced plans to bring 5G into their handsets.

In the meantime, internet giant Tencent has been quietly testing cloud-based games with Intel, and Netflix-like iQiyi has joined hands with China Unicom to make virtual reality products, representing just two of the many applications that rely on 5G-enabled low latency and higher bandwidth to work.

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