Twitter Looks to Move Into Virtual Reality Development: Report

The social media company is creating an internal team to look at VR and augmented reality and has hired an ex-Apple designer for the task.

Twitter, Magic Pony Technology, VR, virtual reality, augmented reality, AR, Apple, machine learning

Twitter is busy getting into the virtual reality and augmented reality marketplaces by building a team of developers who will focus on VR and AR and through the recent acquisition of a machine learning company that can help with such development.

The creation of the VR and AR team was revealed in a June 28 story by UploadVR, which also reported that Twitter has hired former Apple designer Alessandro Sabatelli as director of VR and AR inside the company. Sabatelli worked for Apple from June of 2009 until January 2015, performing work that included being a user interface designer for Apple's iOS, OS X and watchOS operating systems and related software, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was also involved in projects such as Apple's YouTube app for the iPad and Siri for iOS, and was the animation lead for iOS 7 including the Compass and Weather apps.

Sabatelli has been involved in several patent applications, Apple patents involving contextually based user interfaces and a location-based notification system, which could apply to VR and AR uses, UploadVR reported.

Twitter did not respond immediately on June 29 to an email inquiry from eWEEK seeking comment about its recent VR and AR activities.

The company did announce on June 20 that it acquired Magic Pony Technology, a London-based startup that has developed machine learning techniques used in visual processing, which is a core technology for VR and AR. The Magic Pony team will join the Twitter Cortex unit, which is a team of engineers, data scientists and machine learning researchers who are working on ways in which people can find, share and participate in new experiences, according to the company.

"Magic Pony's technology—based on research by the team to create algorithms that can understand the features of imagery—will be used to enhance our strength in live and video and opens up a whole lot of exciting creative possibilities for Twitter," the company said in a June 20 post on The Twitter Blog. "The team includes 11 PhDs with expertise across computer vision, machine learning, high-performance computing, and computational neuroscience, who are alumni of some of the top labs in the world."

The Magic Pony acquisition cost Twitter about $150 million, according to a June 20 story by The (London) Telegraph.

VR is gathering steam with consumers as more companies release VR products, games and content.

A new report issued by research firm TrendForce concludes that Sony's upcoming PlayStation VR headset, which won't even be released until October, is already priming the global virtual-reality marketplace, according to a recent eWEEK story. Big preorder numbers for the PlayStation VR point to the device making up some 67 percent of the expected 9 million VR devices that will be sold in 2016, the research concluded. Sales of the PlayStation VR headset are expected to "overwhelm its competitors this year, taking 67 percent of the global VR device market with about 6 million units shipped," while competitor Oculus will ship about 2.3 million units of Rift and HTC will ship only about 700,000 units of its Vive headsets, according to the report. The report also projects sales of some 50 million VR devices globally by 2020, for a compound annual growth rate of 53.5 percent.

TrendForce also estimates that total sales in the VR market globally will be more than $70 billion in 2020, with software making up about 60 percent of that total.

In March, Oculus began shipping preordered units of its $599 Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets to customers, but then came under fire from angry preorder buyers in May when the company started selling a limited number of the devices in Best Buy stores, according to an earlier eWEEK story.

Last fall, the $99 Samsung Gear VR headset went on sale, giving users the chance to view video games, movies and more in immersive, new ways. The Samsung Gear VR is a consumer version of virtual-reality headsets made by Oculus.

An April report by research firm Strategy Analytics estimated that the global virtual-reality headset market would bring in about $895 million in revenue in 2016, with about 77 percent of that revenue coming from the premium-priced Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and the coming Sony PlayStation VR. Interestingly, the report concluded that the actual per-device sales totals would be dominated by lower-priced headsets from myriad vendors, as those higher-priced devices will only make up about 13 percent of the 12.8 million VR headsets that Strategy Analytics predicts will be sold in 2016.