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How to succeed in mixed reality

Step one: dance!

Welcome to Lowpass, a newsletter about the future of entertainment and the next big hardware platforms, including smart TVs, ambient computing and AR / VR. This week: The developer of the mixed reality game Laser Dance shares lessons learned, and smart speaker maker Syng is has lost two senior execs.

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The secrets to building compelling mixed reality apps

Mixed reality is having a moment: Earlier this month, Meta announced that it will release the Quest 3 with color pass-through this fall. A few days later, Apple unveiled its Vision Pro headset, which is all about combining a live video view of your surroundings with virtual objects.

I’ve been fascinated with pass-through mixed reality ever since I first got a washed-out grayscale view of my home after bumping up against the safety boundaries of the original Quest 1. But I’ve also been underwhelmed by some early mixed reality apps, including those that Meta demoed when it introduced the Quest Pro last year.

Apps like TribeXR and Wooorld incorporate mixed reality by simply turning off what developers call the skybox – the VR scenery that lurks in the background of the actual game or experience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, and one could argue that a DJ for instance can only benefit from seeing their real-world audience. However, it’s also not really mixing your realities as much as layering them, and swapping out one background for another.

Then, last month, I saw some videos for an upcoming mixed reality app that seemed really different and unique: Laser Dance turns real-life spaces into ”Ocean’s 13”-like vaults, complete with security lasers that only most agile players can avoid. Laser Dance is currently being developed by Thomas Van Bouwel, who previously released the VR puzzle game Cubism. I got in touch with Van Bouwel the other day to pick his brain about the emerging art and science of building compelling mixed reality apps.

Make mixed reality essential. Van Bouwel told me that he built Laser Dance out of a fascination with mixed reality, and the desire to build a game that felt native to the new medium.

  • “For any VR game, you can ask the question: does this need to be in VR,” he said. “I think you can ask the same question about mixed reality. It can add a lot to a VR game, but sometimes, it doesn't need to be there.”

  • Van Bouwel actually added a mixed reality mode to Cubism as well, which he freely admits is “a nice-to-have,” but not essential to the gameplay.

  • However, even those nice-to-have features can be the start of something more. With Cubism, Van Bouwel is now looking to turn the mixed reality mode into a kind of tabletop game, complete with menu buttons that provide haptic sensations by being locked to the surface of the table.

  • Plus, some people do find it more immersive, or less disconnected, to be centered in their own space and still have some sense of their surroundings.

Pay attention to people’s spaces. Laser Dance places two virtual buttons on opposing walls of a room, and then tasks players with getting from one button to another while avoiding increasingly difficult laser patterns.

  • To do this, the game relies on people scanning their spaces, including any furniture and other obstacles they may have.

  • The game then generates later patterns based on those spaces, which can look very different depending on people’s real-world environments. “You need to try to make your game adaptive to different spaces,” Van Bouwel told me.

  • Van Bouwel has been scanning every hotel room he’s been staying in, just to get more data for testing. He then uses that data to recreate those spaces in a custom tool he built to design Laser Dance.

  • “Development tools to emulate different spaces become very important,” he told me.

  • But it’s not just spaces that are unique. The same goes for people, too. Van Bouwel noticed that players with broad shoulders were often hesitant to enter tight laser tunnels.

  • He’s now incorporating these lessons as he is trying to make Laser Dance more accessible for players with different body shapes and abilities. “Not everybody can crawl on the floor,” he said.

Mixed reality is an ever-changing playground. It’s still very early days for mixed reality. Most headsets in people’s homes barely support the technology, if at all, and things are going to evolve quickly over the next few months.

  • The best way to deal with this is to be nimble, suggested Van Bouwel. “Start learning and start building, but expect things to change.”

  • He’s been testing a few different concepts himself, including swapping out aspects of people’s real-world spaces with virtual elements – something that Meta first demonstrated with its World Beyond demo.

  • “I made this test where your room was an underwater station,” he told me. “All the walls were replaced with these big windows, and you (could) see an ocean around it, and see fish swimming by. It was super basic, but very compelling.”

Get ready to test a lot. Van Bouwel’s final advice to anyone looking to explore mixed reality: Test, test, and then test some more. “The only way to learn about what is working (and) what's not working in your game, especially (in) mixed reality, is to play-test a lot.”

Speaking of which: Van Bouwel told me that he will begin to invite beta testers to try Laser Dance soon. Anyone interested in the game should follow its Twitter account.

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Speaker maker Syng loses two C-suite execs

Two senior executives have left smart speaker maker Syng this spring: Rio Caraeff, who previously was the founding CEO of Vevo, stepped down from his role as Chief Commercial Officer in April. He has since transitioned into an advisory role, according to his LinkedIn profile. Syng co-founder and Chief Business Officer Damon Way left the company in March, according to his LinkedIn profile.

I’m also hearing that Syng furloughed, and subsequently laid off, some of its employees last fall, but wasn’t able to learn how many staffers have been affected by the cuts. The number of Syng employees with LinkedIn profiles declined by 32% over the past two years.

  • Granted, layoffs themselves aren’t necessarily a warning sign these days, as many startups are looking to extend their runways in the face of uncertain economic times.

  • However, one has to wonder whether Syng’s first product – a $2500 speaker dubbed the Cell Alpha that sounds best when you buy three of them – attracted enough of an audience to sustain the company.

  • Syng has been very quiet ever since introducing its alpha-branded product in 2021. The company did raise a $48.75M Series A round of funding that same year, and told Techcrunch at the time that it had plans for “future products (...) in different price points and sizes.”

  • Not only have those not launched yet, a Syng Android app that reportedly was supposed to launch in 2021 is also still missing in action.

Syng did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What else

Getting real about VR. I’ve spent a good chunk of my time over the past few weeks writing a 20-page report about the state of VR in 2023 for Variety’s VIP+ subscription service, and I have to say I’m really happy with how it turned out. Tons of data and insights on the emerging headset wars, growing consumer spending on VR games and apps, mixed reality and more. The full report is available to paying VIP+ subscribers; you can check out a few sample pages here.

Spotify sells Soundtrap back to its founders. Spotify had acquired the cloud-based music production tool in 2017.

Meta may be getting ready to launch a VR subscription service. The Quest+ service could offer access to two titles for $7.99 a month. Sounds a bit like Viveport Infinity, but for the Quest, doesn’t it?

Ad-supported streaming companies form new industry group. Members of the Independent Streaming Alliance include Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment, Cineverse, Vevo, Scripps and others.

Netflix plans to stream live golf tournament. Live sports is another of those things Netflix execs once said they would never do …

A new VR experience uses AI to teach about the Holocaust. The project, which was developed by StoryFile, lets VR users talk to a Holocaust survivor.

Sonos is laying off 7 percent of its staff. The company may also close or downsize some of its offices; its fiscal Q2 results came in below expectations.

Blockbuster is back … and it’s making collectibles now?

That’s it

“Hey Steve, how are you?” Hardly a day goes by without me getting text or Whatsapp messages seemingly intended for someone else. Once I respond with a curt “wrong number,” the woman on the other end (it’s always a woman, supposedly) profusely apologizes, only to then introduce herself, as if interested in continuing our very one-sided conversation.

Those are all scams, of course, ultimately designed to get me interested in crypto, or whatever the latest money-making scam may be. I used to suspect that these messages were penned by some poor soul working for pennies an hour, but I’m starting to believe that some are actually being authored by AI.

Really bad AI, that is. Case in point: This week, someone messaged me with the following: “Steve, good morning, lots of work at work today? Have a great day and good luck at work.” Clearly, this algorithm has a bit more work at work to do before it passes the Turing test …

Thanks for reading, have a great weekend during your weekend this weekend!

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