WHAT UNITY’S (SUPPOSED) UPCOMING IPO MEANS FOR XR

BY BENJAMIN SAVAGE

So it’s very likely that Unity Technologies (or Unity, affectionately) will be going public in 2020, probably in the fall. How, if at all, will this affect XR development? To get a clear picture and a panoramic view of the situation, let’s start by realizing that over 60% of all XR content is created using Unity’s famous game engine. It’s the goose that lays the golden XR eggs. And becoming an XR-enabler was a very shrewd business move for them; they knew very well that many devs coming from a gaming background would latch on to these technologies. To top it off, Unity put a tasty icing on the cake by making the transition from game development to XR development nearly seamless. It’s even safe to say that if developers are already familiar with the Unity engine, they have very little to learn besides maneuvering around manageable APIs and how to integrate a few plugins.

So what will this mean financially for XR and what will it mean for XR development in general?

While many assume a “sky is falling” attitude on sites such as Reddit and Twitter (“RIP Unity”, “Time to switch to Godot”), it’s doubtful that any cataclysmic financial change will come about. We’ve seen familiar giants like Facebook and Twitter go public (though not without vocal portents of doom and gloom) with no bigger consequences in the end than a larger influx of cash. Hiccups, yes, but ruination, no. By definition, “going public” is really nothing more than making the switch from private investment and venture capital to public ownership via the stock market. In other words, Unity is basically being sold to the masses in shares. And if the masses think that Unity is doing a good job and will continue to do a good job, more people will buy Unity stock. And if Unity suddenly announces it plans to switch to the soft drinks market, people will ensure it dies a quick death by selling the stock. You get the picture. Could the whole thing flop and drive Unity to ruin? Possible, sure. But not likely.

However, the negative reactions on social media to Unity’s IPO don’t spout from the fear that the company’s financial health could be in trouble, but rather are founded more on the feeling that Unity will somehow become “more corporate” and “forget about the little guy”. On the contrary, Unity going public is much more democratic and pro “little guy”: although other people who have nothing to do with gaming or Spatial Computing will also be throwing their money at the company, we, the “little guy”, can also take part in the success of the company by buying stock and owning a piece of the company ourselves. The bottom line is that we need more publicly traded companies that work in XR because it’s a win-win: it’s very hard to deny the fact that more money floating around in the industry is a positive thing for all of us.

If you were to scour the panorama of publicly traded XR companies today, you’d find exactly what you’d expect: Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Alphabet, Tencent, Sony, etc. However, these titans are mostly focused on the hardware end of things and certainly don’t provide you with independent tools to make rich, game-like experiences (with the possible exception of Facebook’s tiny Spark AR Studio). In fact, most of the software solutions that come out of these companies are often designed to be compatible with Unity’s game engine. As clever as you may be, you won’t be making the next Pokemon GO or Beat Saber (both made in Unity) with just ARKit. This sheds light on exactly how powerful the position Unity holds really is.

In fact, the only real competitor for Unity in the XR space is Epic, the creator of Unreal Engine. Unreal Engine is a bigger, more graphically powerful game engine, but with a slightly larger barrier to entry for some developers due to its enormity. This incredible “game engine with plate mail” doesn’t quite have the pull in XR that Unity does, but anything can happen in the years to come and we could one day see the tide turning to favor Unreal. To go out on a limb and wager a prediction (based on an article based on a prediction nonetheless!), after Unity makes their (supposed) announcement, I predict Epic will follow suit and announce an IPO a year or two later.

So will the increased influx of cash help Unity make better products? We developers sure hope so! I love developing my products in Unity and it has held a special place in my heart for years. I’ve been to the Unity offices in San Francisco a number times, have witnessed their massive presence at GDC over the years and have seen firsthand how obvious it is that the inspiration for their new features stems from direct developer feedback. This is an excellent thing and I wish more software companies listened to their customers as closely and as often. The Unity team is also very approachable and helpful – something which developers certainly appreciate.

So here’s hoping that Unity’s (supposed) IPO goes well, that they continue to listen to and keep a tight connection with their developers and that XR remains a central focus in the years to come. With the technological direction the world is taking recently, it seems highly unlikely that they will stray from this path.

REVIEW: THE INFINITE RETINA

Review: The Infinite Retina

by Irena Cronin and Robert Scoble

BY Benjamin Savage

It’s not every day that you have the pleasure of reading a good book that makes you say “wow”. And although there are many different flavors of “wow” books out there (my last “wow” book was Contagious by Jonah Berger), there are rarely those which let you peel back the onion and take a glimpse straight into the future. The wonderful Infinite Retina by Irena Cronin and Robert Scoble is that type of book.

It’s a journey through four paradigms, six technologies and seven visions of industry transformation which leads us all the way from the dawn of the personal computer to the advent of AR-assisted surgery and drone deliveries. We learn with fascination about the possibility of throwing on a pair of Augmented Reality glasses and experiencing a multifaceted and constantly changing augmented world of holograms which we can manipulate with our own hands. Likewise, we recoil in fear at the horrors of a dystopian society with omnipresent facial recognition and artificial intelligence capable of knowing more about you than you do. The book is a delicious 400-ish page buffet: although it’s perfectly enjoyable to read in a linear fashion, many of the chapters are independent which makes it easy to skip around and go to back to the parts which you found most interesting.

And who better to guide us on this journey? The title of the book, in fact, is derived from the authors’ Spatial Computing consulting company of the same name (Infinite Retina). They’ve spent decades peering into the crystal ball of tech trends and, quite frankly, given the information they’re privy to, and the key figures they’re in touch with, if they don’t have a good idea of where things are headed, I have no idea who would. For a mind-broadening experience I highly recommend giving them both a follow on Twitter (Cronin, Scoble).

The book starts off with a definition for Spatial Computing, which, for those of you not in the know, is an umbrella term encompassing all the technologies which enable humans or robots to move through real or virtual worlds. Spatial Computing not only includes the Augmented Reality (AR) / Virtual Reality (VR) / Mixed Reality (MR) trilogy (or the AR / VR duology if you prefer), but also Artificial Intelligence, Automated Vehicles, Sensor Technology and Computer Vision. Each of these elements factor into what the authors call the “fourth paradigm”, which represents the next logical step in the evolution of humankind’s interaction with technology. This paradigm is a direct result of the three previous phases: “The Arrival of the PC”, “GUI and Thinking” and “Mobile”.

But what are the core technologies which will pave the way for spatial computing? Cronin and Scoble delineate six different elements which will drive the Spatial Computing revolution: Optics and Displays, Wireless and Communications, Control Mechanisms (Voice, Eyes and Hands), Sensors and Mapping, Computing Architectures and Artificial Intelligence (Decision Systems). The remainder of part I is spent providing specific examples of how each technology (or combination of technologies) is poised to make an impact in the years to come.

Part II of the book focuses on the role that Spatial Computing has and will have in various industries as the six previously-mentioned technologies come into play more and more. We’re introduced to autonomous vehicles and how companies like Zoox, Waymo and Aurora are gearing up to shape the industry. We’re led through the emergence of virtual worlds and take an exciting tour of all the hardware used to produce them up until now (Hololens, Oculus Quest, Magic Leap, Varjo, etc.). A major nod is also given to the not-yet-officially-announced headset(s) from Apple, which the authors clearly see as a game-changer. The section on virtual worlds ends with a discussion of AR Clouds as well as an analysis of how the entertainment industry is beginning to be impacted by the new technology at our doorstep.

The book then switches gears to a discussion of the ways in which manufacturing will change in the years to come. A very salient and fascinating part of the manufacturing chapter is the concept of “digital twins” which are fundamentally digital copies of a factory which can be visited and interacted with without requiring human presence. Imagine working at an office in, say, Philadelphia, putting on a headset and having the ability to learn about or even monitor or interact with a car factory on the other side of the world! Incredible stuff.

The next section “Robot Consumers”, deals with how Spatial Computing will affect delivery systems (think robot-delivered pizza) and how the entire phenomenon of shopping will be turned on its head as new genres of shops like the checkout-free Amazon Go begin to pop up. Following this is a fascinating glimpse at the future of healthcare and virtual trading / banking.

To close off part II, there is a detailed explanation of how education will be affected by the Spatial Computing revolution. Interestingly enough, as the book was being finalized, the Covid 19 pandemic struck and many families were suddenly introduced to the phenomenon of virtual learning, though, of course, at a level much more primitive than that which the authors expect we’ll eventually reach. Cronin and Scoble give us a peek at the classrooms of the future and introduce the role that Spatial Computing will play in simulation and workplace training.

The final part of the book, Part III, begins with a look at the concept of “predictability” and how it relates to Spatial Computing. It’s followed by a survey of seven interesting case studies about pioneers in various relevant fields. Finally, to keep things grounded and to give a Tylenol to the head-in-the-clouds utopian fever that may arise in the reader, the end of Part III dives into a discussion about the downsides expected to arise as a result of these tectonic shifts.

The Infinite Retina is not a nerd-exclusive handbook, nor is it a college textbook full of daunting technobabble. Most, I think, would say it’s an easy read. The visuals are ample and the descriptions of concepts are broken down efficiently for the non-technical. I’ve even ordered a copy for my mother (not a techie) to help her understand what it is exactly that I do.

The Infinite Retina is the ideal book for tech-enthusiasts, gadget-collectors, the future-inquisitive, and dreamers. But whatever the reader’s background or spheres of interest happen to be, there’s something in it for them as well since, deep down, The Infinite Retina is really a story about our society. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

The Infinite Retina is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

You can pick up a copy right here:

The Infinite Retina