Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus, the virtual reality equipment-maker, could have a direct impact on the fortunes of Israeli companies in a number of industries — gaming, wearable technology, vision technology, and others.
“Until now, virtual reality was a gimmick,” said Nir Kouris, an Israeli expert on virtual reality and wearable technology. “Facebook’s faith in this technology means that it sees in it a future that will be relevant to the daily lives of everyone, not just gamers.”
California-based Oculus makes the Oculus Rift headset that puts users “in” a game – providing an approximately 100° field of view, stretching the virtual world beyond peripheral vision, providing an immersive experience. Right now, the device is available to developers only, with a consumer version expected next year. But as a prime developer of games for Facebook, the Oculus deal could mean big things for Herzliya-based Plarium, if it decides to develop VR games too, said Kouris.
Plarium is a leading gaming platform company on Facebook, and publishes and runs some of Facebook’s most popular games – including Sparta: War of Empires, Total Domination, Soldiers Inc., and many others.
Last week, Plarium released it’s fifth social hardcore game, Sparta: War of Empires. Set in Greece in the 5th century BC, the game puts players in the role of a lord returned from an ongoing war against Xerxes and the Persian Empire, where politics and diplomacy prove as sharp as the blades of combat. “We have enhanced the quality of this launch with incredibly detailed graphics and special attention to historical references. The 3D graphics alone are awe-inspiring, although we have gone further and enhanced the audio quality as well,” said Avi Shalel, Plarium’s Chief Executive Officer.
Games like Sparta: War of Empires have the elements needed for a successful VR experience. But a VR game requires more, said Kouris; it requires sophisticated software that can “deliver the right information at the right time, presenting the scenario in a way that will make the player feel they are really interacting with the virtual world.” That’s the job of software, and Plarium, as well as other Israeli game tech companies, will have more opportunity to develop applications using this technology as Facebook gears up to market Rift headsets.
But Facebook doesn’t intend to stop at games, Kouris said. “Recently Facebook held a major wearable technology hackathon in California, in which developers came up with all sorts of devices that utilize Facebook apps for health, messaging, and other purposes. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he sees wearable technology as an important industry in the coming years.” Of course, said Kouris, Oculus VR technology will be deployed in games – but it will also be deployed in devices that will allow the company to expand its reach.
One example of such a device, said Kouris, would be a special pair of glasses that would let doctors envision procedures before they are actually performed. Such glasses could allow doctors to get step-by-step visual guidance on how to perform a procedure, allowing them to virtually “operate” on a patient before they do any actual cutting.
Israel is an “early adopter” of wearable tech, with the Israeli R&D facilities of a number of multi-nationals – including Intel and Microsoft – said to be working on wearable tech solutions. But the first multi-national to go public with its Israeli wearable tech solution is Spain-based Telefónica, which serves over 300 million users in Europe and South America. During MWC, Telefónica announced that it will work with LG, Samsung and Sony Mobile to integrate its services in the wearables being developed by those companies. That integration, said Gil Cohen, CEO of Telefónica Digital Labs Israel, will be based on Telefónica’s Tu Go technology, developed in Israel.
Tu Go allows users to receive or make phone calls on any device using wifi or a GSM cell connection. A Telefónica Tu Go user can choose to answer a call dialed into their regular cellphone number on their smartphone, or on any other smart device. It’s similar to the kind of service users can get with apps like Skype, which can make calls to any device, but only using wifi, and only via an app. Tu Go integrates any-device-app capabilities into its cell network, allowing users to take advantage of all of Telefónica’s services, and enabling users to answer calls anywhere, regardless of network quality, the company said.
From there, it’s just a small jump to integrating the tech into the smart watches, rings, hats, bracelets, jewelry, and other devices being developed by manufacturers, which will include cell, Bluetooth, and wifi connections. “The Tu Go technology we developed and are continuing to work on here will be a significant part of the wearables that manufacturers are working on,” said Cohen. “With our Tu Go technology, anyone will be able to take their personal phone number with them anywhere, connection them to the world via a wearable device.”
Such devices and applications will be among those that will be on display at a Israel’s first-ever WearableTech event, coming up in May. On the agenda will be discussions, hacks, and demos of the latest wearable tech devices, with appearances by tech guru Robert Scoble, flash drive inventor Dov Moran, crowdfunding pioneer Jon Medved, and the heads of wearable tech and vision tech companies like uMoove, Misfit Wearables, and Avegant.
Kouris, who is organizing the event, said it was inevitable that Facebook would make a move into wearable tech. “Google is ready to begin marketing Google Glasses, and Intel recently acquired Basis Science, which makes wearable health-tracking devices.” Facebook is going to go Google and Intel one better by giving developers the option of developing virtual reality applications. “Facebook has moved from the computer to mobile, but now they want to be everywhere, and this acquisition will help them with that,” said Kouris. “And it will also help the Israeli companies that are contributing to the growth of virtual reality technology and wearable tech.”