Ubiquity6 (U6), a recently out of stealth startup founded by Anjney Midha (CEO) and Ankit Kumar (CTO) conducted a large-scale test with over 150 people at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) last Thursday, August 9th, demonstrating its unique “AR Cloud” technology that enables massive cross-platform sharing of 3D, interactive content placed in the real world. Today the company announced it has closed a $27 million Series B round of financing led by Benchmark and Index Ventures, making U6’s total raise $37.5 million. Their current investors include Google’s Gradient Ventures and Kleiner Perkins.
Over 150 people shared a Magritte themed AR illusion created by Ubiquity6 at SFMOM on Thursday, August 9th.
Midha and Kumar started building what they thought would be a game platform a year ago. To start, the partners made a persistent, multi-player basketball game using a combination of geolocation and computer vision. Midha told me in a wide-ranging interview last week “we were originally making an arcade with multiplayer experiences like AR basketball, Farmville, and pets in the real world.” This led them to an epiphany. The inherently sharable persistent AR they had created could be applied to the world itself, not just games and pets placed within it. Maps, created in real time, are persistent and shareable. “It’s as simple as dropping a picture or a message in the real world. Cameras are single-player today. We will change that by being a massively multiplayer camera on the world.”
Ubiquity6’s visual browser, showing a Magritte themed portal at SFMOM August 9th.
The objects placed in the real world can be a 2D picture, or 3D object, a portal, or a complex multiplayer game. To illustrate how it works, the company invited more than 150 people to stroll around SFMOMA’s massive lobbies, filling them with shared viewable data themed around the museum’s current Magritte exhibit. The event was organized with PlaySFMOMA, a museum initiative to encourage the development of avant-garde and experimental games as an art form. The Magritte themed items in the museum’s massive lobby included a portal that allowed visitors to literally walk into the world of the paintings. Upstairs, participants were able to use the app to place colored blocks and even blocks with pictures on them, on the ceiling at the same time as everyone else.
To do this, U6 had to invent several layers of the “technology stack”, notably a Universal Visual Browser (a term I coined last year, which U6 calls a “spatial browser”). The UVB sits atop the smart phone’s camera and can connect to other apps and their respective clouds. U6’s interface relies on a filtration system so users only see what they want, when they want, where they want and are not overwhelmed, as I was at SFMOMA, by massive amounts of irrelevant content. Too many people were playing and interacting in the museum, creating a kind of zero-latency visual traffic jam. A user only wants to see the graffiti from friends. The incorporation of such filters is one of the most compelling things in this early version of U6 visual browser. Mike Pell of the Microsoft Garage and I have been working on a graphic illustration of the UVB for a new chapter in my next book, Painted With Data. We can stop now. Ubiquity 6 just wrote that chapter.
Ubiquity6’s Universal Visual Browser reveals a layer of invisible, geolocated content via the smartphone camera.
Another remarkable thing is that U6’s computer vision can speak to any other app using its own AR Cloud to detect and geolocated content for discovery. “We want to make it as easy to build an experience in AR as it is to build a website today. That means allowing developers to use the web stack that they’re familiar with, and hiding all the AR technology behind clean, easy to use abstractions. The Reality Editor platform does that,” said Ubiquity6 CTO Ankit Kumar. The company is inviting people to sign up for their Reality Editor authoring tool free of charge, at Ubiquity6.com.
U6’s business plan, virtual currency, doesn’t kick in until they are at scale, but if people come as they think they will, monetization should be the easy part. Remember, Instagram was sold in 2012 for a billion dollars before it made one cent of revenue. “Our business is an MMO business model applied to the real world — like Roblox or Minecraft — a single virtual currency and economy, but tied to real-world interactions enabled by the spatial browser.” Indeed, this works quite well for Second Life, which has a booming virtual economy which generates tens of millions in profits. In spite of the dependence on anticipated scale, or perhaps because of it, U6 has some of the largest, most important and exacting Venture Capitalists supporting them. Midha and Kumar say they needed the investment to support the costly process of pre-mapping the world and making spatial websites to show people how to use this new medium.
Midha’s got a megawatt smile, infectious energy, passion and a pedigree from Silicon Valley’s version of central casting. At Stanford, he and Kumar were roommates. They promised one another they’d build the next Google together. Midha took a little detour first. It started as an internship his junior year at the largest and perhaps most important VC firm in the Valley, Kleiner Perkins. Midha earned the mentorship of the legendary Bing Gordon (a core member of Electronic Arts’ founding team) which led Kleiner to carve out a separate fund for Midha to manage. One of the first investments he advocated for was in Magic Leap. Midha has been on the front lines of spatial computing for years before he decided to start U6 with Kumar. He is a rock star in Silicon Valley. For his part, Kumar has spent his years since Stanford as a researcher working on Deep Learning, both for Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision. It’s hard to understate the value of this in Silicon Valley.
Co-founders of Ubiquity6, Anjney Midha and Ankit Kumar.
“Augmented reality could be one of the greatest inventions of our time, but there is no clear path to mass adoption. We believe that leveraging the millions of smartphones already in consumers’ hands to create a meaningful shared experience is how we will unlock AR’s full potential,” said Midha. He told me the company’s core value proposition is “(1) a single, spatial, visual browser, (2) light, fast lightweight authoring tools and (3) shared spaces. We care about the browser, the filters, and the authoring tools. We can place any digital content within centimeters using Reality Editor.”
The company believes the best way to achieve ubiquity is through partnerships with shared spaces people love. Think about what could be done by ubiquitous, shared, real-time data from the performer, or sports team at a concert, sporting event. Midha thinks we’ll all soon have the expectation that public parks, monuments, airports, bus and train stations, and amusement parks all have an invisible layer of data, images, messages, and games. By getting baked into others’ apps, U6’s visual browser can serve any app through the camera. This “hitchhiker” strategy, as I call it, requires extreme patience and the participation of some of the biggest brands in the world. Midha says that’s happening.
Filters based on groups is at the heart of Ubiquity6’s full stack solution.
The key to making a UVB work is filters. U6’s complex filtration system allows users to form and follow groups with which we have an affinity. U6 believes those filters will be social, based largely on existing social graphs. “Groups as filters for the world are one of the primary beliefs of Ubiquity6,” Midha says. “The filter interface will be a ‘familiar surprise’ to users.” Maps allow users to see where there is geolocated content from a group they are following. Privacy and moderation issues abound. Midha says the company has anticipated this by arming their moderators with tools to mitigate bad actors similar to those used by Reddit.
Like PokemonGo, users of Ubiquity6 find geolocated content from their group on a map.
In addition to the new $27M Series B funding, Benchmark General Partner Mitch Lasky, who has a long history in entertainment previously leading teams at Disney and Activision, will be joining the Ubiquity6 board. “I’ve been following the developments in virtual and augmented realities for years, and Ubiquity6 clearly stands apart from the rest of the field,” said Lasky in a statement. “Not only has the team tackled complex technology hurdles, they’ve identified a business opportunity to create shared AR experiences from your phone, lowering the barrier to entry for millions of people who otherwise might not participate.”