I had a recent, painful experience app developers know well: developing an app for both iOS and Android. Porting from one platform to the other can be time-consuming and frustrating. In addition, older Apple iPhones (older than 5), incompatible with iOS 11, can’t do AR, and at the moment neither can most Andriod phones. As a result, publishers reach only a fraction of the 3+ billion addressable smartphones in the world. 8th Wall, a recently funded startup led by Google and Facebook veteran Erik Murphy-Chutorian, is going to change that, and might well become a unicorn in the process.
8th Wall, as yet tiny with an early version of the platform being tested by developers right now, is a third mobile development platform that will instantly make the iOS and Android AR development platforms afterthoughts, if not completely obsolete. Hello, Apple? It’s me. Disruption calling. 8th Wall announced this week that it received $8M in funding, bringing its total raised to date to $10.4M. Norwest Venture Partners led the Series A round with participation from The Venture Reality Fund (The VR Fund), Shasta Ventures and Sparkland Capital. One has to think the investors were thinking of Unity, the 3D game engine that has grown explosively with the expanding AR/VR ecosystem and has a $2.5 B valuation when they wrote their checks. 8th Wall can be that big, if not acquired sooner by one of the two leading game engines, Unity and Unreal, or Google, Apple, Snap, or any other company focused on AR development which means, well. Everyone.
“Tech is limiting developers,” Murphy-Chutorian told me in an interview Tuesday, “it hasn’t kept up with what’s possible. As it was with the web pages made for desktop computing when the iPhone came out everything had to be redesigned for smartphones, now everything needs to be redesigned for AR. No one knows what best practices are yet and how to apply them to the form factors. It’s the wild west. There is so much to build, and the tools are just not there yet.”
8th Wall made an early release version available to developers on December 15, and early users are impressed. Nathan Kong, whose mobile AR company Beyond One is building one of AR’s first MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing GAME), has been using the 8th Wall development platform for the past six weeks and is a true believer. “We love 8th Wall because it enables us to reach millions of people we couldn’t address before. That is a big big deal to AR developers. I also think some of their basic tools are better. They have faster initialization time which makes the user experience more seamless and intuitive”.
The company is making an early release available which includes highly-optimized computer vision algorithms for 6DoF tracking, lighting estimation, and surface detection, paired with easy-to-use APIs for transparent shadows, camera overlays and deformable surface meshes. 8th Wall says it will continue to expand on this offering with new products and services that address the biggest hurdles facing AR developers. The company’s software and services are free now, and Murphy-Chutorian expects to keep it that way for the foreseeable future. “We’re much more focused on changing the way AR is made than instant revenue right now,” said Murphy-Chutorian. “As the platform develops we may charge some users fees for premium features, but right now we want to be of service to creative people making incredible things using 8th Wall, and teaching us so much.” Indeed, Unity is free to all makers, though commercial enterprises are charged according to the size of their audience.
Murphy-Chutorian acknowledged that SaaS and Cloud Computing is a direction the company might naturally follow, integrating cloud-based services for persistent multi-user interactions and the development of new computer vision algorithms for instantaneous environment sensing, something industry insiders often refer to as “The AR Cloud”. This is essential to expand AR’s capabilities.
Jacob Mullins, of Shasta Ventures, which participated in this round of financing, said in a Medium post Wednesday morning that “the team’s focus is two-fold, one, enabling great AR experiences on any iOS or Android device (not only those with the latest ARKit & ARCore functionality) by tapping into the mobile device’s camera and inertial sensors directly, and two, providing APIs for important aspects of an AR experience including lighting, surface detection, texturing, 3D tracking, and more to come. Erik and the team’s prior computer vision expertise at Google and Facebook is key to their ability to distill much of the complexity into one easy-to-use developer platform.” Murphy-Chutorian has his Ph.D. in Computer Vision from U.C. San Diego, and was Facebook’s engineering lead for messaging engagement, including media sharing in Messenger. At Google, he worked on image search and Google photos.
Never one to re-write a press release or take a passionate founder’s word for it, I called some developers and asked them about 8th Wall. Here’s what Chip Senini, developer of Trixie Studios’ multiplayer “Phantogeist” now in the app store, had to say when I described 8th Wall: “I’ll try anything that unlocks the lower end phones which dominate the market. Also, it’s a pain to port Android to iOS and vice-versa. We’d like to see that eliminated as well. These are important roadblocks to clear, which is why I’m going to check out 8th Wall right now. Thanks for the tip!” You’re welcome.
Vitillo wrote “After having reviewed the SDK, now I understand why people are pouring money into this company: because it offers a service that is very hand for us AR developers. The ability to develop a markerless AR application once and then distribute it being sure that every user with whatever phone will be able to run it is very powerful. The only thing that they need to ensure is that the experience is a good one on every kind of device and to do this they have to improve their tracking technology. I’m skeptical that they’ll be able to reach the standards set by huge companies like Apple and Google even on older phones, but I think that it is possible that they’ll be able to guarantee something usable on every phone. If they manage to get there, they’ve won.” [Bold emphasis is Vitillo’s.]
“Their only risk is if an engine like Unity starts offering the same abstraction internally: in this case, either they get acquired by Unity or they are condemned to shut down. You may say that they have still the advantage of offering 6DOF tracking on every phone… but the more we’ll go on, the more these models of non-AR-enabled phones will become rare: all the future iPhones will support ARKit and I think that more and more Android phones will support ARCore. If 8th Wall wants to become successful in the future, it has to establish its dominant position in the market now that a lot of AR developers like me need it.
“They have a good idea and potential, for sure. I wish them luck.”
This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on February 08, 2018