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Facebook Places $2 Billion Bet on Augmented Reality Going Mainstream



Facebook (FB) put a bright spotlight on Augmented Reality, or “AR” as it’s shortened, when the social media company said Tuesday evening that it is spending $2 billion in cash and shares to acquire Oculus VR, Inc. Oculus will be paid another $300 million if it hits certain milestones as well. 

Facebook’s acquisition was not a move for today; it is a move to position the company for the future so to not be left behind like it was when mobile device usage exploded and caught Facebook flat-footed as a web-centric platform. That sentiment was summed up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg saying, “Mobile is the platform of today, and now we're also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,” in a statement on Tuesday.

AR has been around for decades, but has only really started hitting its stride in the last couple years. The goggles and glasses that are getting the press – as a topic of controversy for some – represent the next generation of AR. In the simplest sense, AR is the supplementing the real world with computer-generated data. The yellow lines and images superimposed onto football fields are an example of AR. It’s also already built into many mobile applications, such as the “monocle” feature in Yelp, Inc.’s (YELP) app and the interactive capacities of Blippar and Layar apps. Google’s (GOOG) Glass project, although not truly AR, is a “disruptive” technology that gives a glimpse of the mainstream potential that can one day be realized.

In the public domain, there are only a handful of companies entrenched in augmented reality. Notably, Sony Corp. (SNE) , Canon, Inc. (CAJ) , Vuzix, Inc. ($VUZI), and Infinity Augmented Reality, Inc. (ALSO) are a few making headway in the industry.

Sony is looking to establish itself as a clear design leader in AR with its Project Morpheus. The slick-looking headware prototype was unveiled this month at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Sony is letting the world know that the virtual gaming world has made massive strides since Nintendo’s primitive Virtual Boy gaming system 20 years ago. The new headgear will work with PlayStation 4 and features a 1080p display, head-movement-tracking gyroscopes and accelerometers and is slated to utilize 3D sound for a fully immersive experience.

“This new technology will deliver a sense of presence, where you as the player actually feel like you're inside the game and your emotions feel that much more real,” said Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment in a PlayStation blog post.

Sony’s ambitions for Morpheus are not just exclusively for gaming, though. Sony’s Magic Labs has forged a partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab to develop software that can have PS players feel like they exploring space, proving that the potential for AR really knows no bounds.

Shares of SNE are trading ahead by 2.49% at $18.73 Friday.

Canon’s Mixed Reality, or “MREAL,” System is a combination of the virtual and real worlds that has been dubbed as the “Google Glass for Businesses.” At $125,000 each, MREAL is obviously not targeting general consumers, but the technology underscoring the headset could grow to be very appealing to designers and manufacturers. Aside from the lofty price tag, MREAL is different from other AR products in that it doesn’t superimpose images; it simulates objects in space. 

MREAL takes product design to the next level, using programs to virtually create a product before actually making it. Designers are no longer limited to 3-dimensional graphics. They can now walk around, interact with, look at and collaborate over the minutest detail of the product from every angle as if it were actually there. The target sales demographic may be small for Canon with MREAL, but for some industries it’s likely to become a “must have.”

Shares of CAJ closed trading up 0.7% at $31.02 Friday morning.

With nearly two decades of experience and 48 patents or pending patents under its belt, Vuzix isn’t new to the eyewear and AR business. The Rochester, New York company designs and manufactures a full line of video eyewear and smart glasses, selling them for an array of applications, including personal, enterprise and military use.  Lending credence to their ingenuity, Vuzix has won at least one Consumer Electronics Show Innovation award in each of the last 10 years.

Vuzix has recently launched the M100 Smart Glasses, with distribution partner Six-15 Technologies offering the product to the Defense, Homeland Security and First Responder markets. Bearing a similar look to the $1,500 Google Glass, the $1,000 M100 is an Android-based wearable computer that features augmented reality, wireless connectivity and hands-free access to data, phone, camera, recording, apps, etc. Further, the unit has an integrated head tracking and GPS system, all part of cutting-edge technology known to create “situational awareness.” A feature unique to M100 is the ability to connect to the Cloud or run on a local network, which provides various benefits, including keeping data private when necessary.

Elsewhere in the AR space, Vuzix just received the remaining $75,000 in funding as part of a $680,000 Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research award from the Office of Naval Research to develop a see-through optics and display engine fitted into a pair of goggles to superimpose data into the user’s real-world view.

Shares of VUZI are trading down 3.8% at $3.30 on Friday.

Infinity Augmented Reality, a start-up that has attracted Mobli founder Moshe Hogeg as a director and investor, is a software company that provides the only universal platform that brings the AR experience to reality, connecting digital eyewear, smartphones, tablets, smart TVs and connected cars. As best described by the company’s website, “consider augmented reality as the bridge between the digital and real worlds, and Infinity AR as the builder of that bridge.”

The company is “building bridges” for some big names, including William Hill Company, the United Kingdom’s gaming industry stalwart. William Hill Co., which has about 2,400 betting shops in England to control more than one quarter of the country’s online gaming market, contracted Infinity AR to develop a real world online gaming environment. AR has a great many uses, but the rapidly growing $30 billion online gaming business is a natural fit and likely to be one of the first industries to market with the technology on a large scale.

Although Infinity has provided many details on what they are constructing for William Hill, AR could make it possible for a player to “enter” and be fully immersed in the casino environment right from the comfort of their own home. Want to play in Monaco? Vegas? AR will allow users to take their pick. Poker buddies could meet virtually at any global establishment and play together or against the best in the world.

AR also brings a litany of possibilities to the sports betting business. Google Glass has recently entered sports arenas, with teams like the Indiana Pacers partnering with startup CrowdOptic to enhance the experience for viewers. Footage is being pulled from people wearing Glass, including those courtside and on the court during breaks or up in the catwalk, and being broadcast to give spectators a whole new perspective of the event. It’s certainly fathomable that 360-degree cameras will one day supplant conventional film technology and that footage will be transmitted and utilized for AR programs that can remotely bring people to the game.

Used in combination, a user could virtually enter a betting house and then attend the game, without ever leaving the couch. Infinity AR builds the software, while the other aforementioned companies have gears turning for additional software and hardware that could make it all happen.

Shares of ALSO are trading up 7.41% at 29 cents on Friday.

While pundits argue over the pros and cons of augmented reality, it seems that trying to hold back technology is often futile. What shape it will exactly take is something that only time will tell, but AR is coming and looks to be building steam after years of somewhat stagnating. Facebook just placed a $2.3 billion bet on it. Now, let’s see how other tech behemoths, such as Microsoft (MSFT) , Apple (AAPL) , and Amazon (AMZN) respond or who comes out of the woodwork to try and establish a leadership position, which will provide the next shot in the arm for the burgeoning industry.