Covering “Virtual Insanity” in virtual reality

A musician from Raleigh, North Carolina named Chase Holfelder, recorded a cover of Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” a stonerific acid jazz anthem that should be familiar to ’90s kids. This version, however, is recorded entirely inside a virtual reality rig with the help of the HTC Vive and VRScout.

Holfelder used the SoundScape VR project to play and sequence the music, allowing him to snap drums with virtual drumsticks and play the piano using the Vive paddles. In all it’s a pretty exciting of Vive’s interactive elements.

There is very little real commercial utility in VR… yet. However, when artists like Holfelder fire up their rigs and make artistic stuff like this they show us the possibilities of the medium and how we might be interacting with complex systems in the future. Sadly, he did not slide across a virtual floor or wear a furry hat in this video, an oversight that sets VR research back by at least a few years.

Zaius raises $30M to help marketers unify their customer data

Zaius, a customer data company working with consumer brands like Tea Forte and Burt’s Bees Baby, has raised $30 million in Series B funding.

CEO Mark Gally said that while business-to-business marketing revolves around the CRM, there’s a “hodgepodge” on the consumer marketing side. More specifically, he said consumer marketers have a “swivel chair problem” where they have might have a customer data platform that doesn’t actually allow marketers to do the necessary personalization across channels, or a marketing automation product that isn’t as “robust” when it comes to customer data.

“We’ve literally smashed these two systems together,” Gally said. (I might quibble with his use of “literally” if it wasn’t such a fun image.)

So for example, with Zaius (which is named after the Planet of the Apes character, who was the keeper of truth for the apes), a clothing brand would have access to key data about a customer, like the fact that they’re more interested in early access than discounts, across devices and communications channels. They could then tailor their messages accordingly.

Gally said that for some customers, Zaius can deliver a 33 percent improvement in revenue per message and, by allowing them to coordinate campaigns across channels, grow their reach by up to 50 percent.

Jurgen Nebelung, vice president of e-commerce and digital at Tea Forte, made a similar point in the funding announcement, saying that using other marketing software resulted in “siloed data and a disconnected customer experience”: “Zaius brought our data into one place, delivering a complete view of how shoppers are engaging with our brand whether it’s on web, mobile or email.”

Zaius has now raised $50.8 million in total funding. The new round was led by Insight Venture Partners, with participation from previous investors Matrix Partners, Underscore VC and Leaders Fund. Insight Managing Director Nikitas Koutoupes is joining the company’s board of directors.

“It’s no secret that B2C marketers are under increased pressure as their role in business continues to evolve, and they need tools of their own to help drive results,” said Insight principal Teddie Wardi in an emailed statement. “Through a single platform, Zaius provides B2C marketers a complete view of their customers as they move through the purchase process, paired with campaign execution tools to engage those customers with personalized communications across channels.”

Among other things, Gally said the new funding will allow the company expand its developer ecosystem and integrate with other marketing tools.

“What’s key is not forcing a rip-and-replace,” he said. “We’re upgrading their overall systems … Not only unifying the ecosystem, but now powering the ecosystem, is a huge opportunity where we will continue to put a focus.”

Luminar puts its lidar tech into production through acquisitions and smart engineering

When Luminar came out of stealth last year with its built-from-scratch lidar system, it seemed to beat established players like Velodyne at their own game — but at great expense and with no capability to build at scale. After the tech proved itself on the road, however, Luminar got to work making its device better, cheaper, and able to be assembled in minutes rather than hours.

“This year for us is all about scale. Last year it took a whole day to build each unit — they were being hand assembled by optics PhDs,” said Luminar’s wunderkind founder Austin Russell. “Now we’ve got a 136,000 square foot manufacturing center and we’re down to 8 minutes a unit.”

Lest you think the company has sacrificed quality for quantity, be it known that the production unit is about 30 percent lighter and more power efficient, can see a bit further (250 meters vs 200), and detect objects with lower reflectivity (think people wearing black clothes in the dark).

The secret — to just about the whole operation, really — is the sensor. Luminar’s lidar systems, like all others, fire out a beam of light and essentially time its return. That means you need a photosensitive surface that can discern just a handful of photons.

Most photosensors, like those found in digital cameras and in other lidar systems, use a silicon-based photodetector. Silicon is well-understood, cheap, and the fabrication processes are mature.

Luminar, however, decided to start from the ground up with its system, using an alloy called indium gallium arsenide, or InGaAs. An InGaAs-based photodetector works at a different frequency of light (1,550nm rather than ~900) and is far more efficient at capturing it. (Some physics here.)

The more light you’ve got, the better your sensor — that’s usually the rule. And so it is here; Luminar’s InGaAs sensor and a single laser emitter produced images tangibly superior to devices of a similar size and power draw, but with fewer moving parts.

The problem is that indium gallium arsenide is like the Dom Perignon of sensor substrates. It’s expensive as hell and designing for it is a highly specialized field. Luminar only got away with it by minimizing the amount of InGaAs used: only a tiny sliver of it is used where it’s needed, and they engineered around that rather than use the arrays of photodetectors found in many other lidar products. (This restriction goes hand in glove with the “fewer moving parts” and single laser method.)

Last year Luminar was working with a company called Black Forest Engineering to design these chips, and finding their paths inextricably linked (unless someone in the office wanted to volunteer to build InGaAs ASICs), Luminar bought them. The 30 employees at Black Forest, combined with the 200 hired since coming out of stealth, brings the company to 350 total.

By bringing the designers in house and building their own custom versions of not just the photodetector but also the various chips needed to parse and pass on the signals, they brought the cost of the receiver down from tens of thousands of dollars to… three dollars.

“We’ve been able to get rid of these expensive processing chips for timing and stuff,” said Russell. “We build our own ASIC. We only take like a speck of InGaAs and put it onto the chip. And we custom fab the chips.”

“This is something people have assumed there was no way you could ever scale it for production fleets,” he continued. “Well, it turns out it doesn’t actually have to be expensive!”

Sure — all it took was a bunch of geniuses, five years, and a seven-figure budget (and I’d be surprised if the $36M in seed funding was all they had to work with). But let’s not quibble.

Quality inspection time in the clean room.

It’s all being done with a view to the long road ahead, though. Last year the company demonstrated that its systems not only worked, but worked well, even if there were only a few dozen of them at first. And they could get away with it, since as Russell put it, “What everyone has been building out so far has been essentially an autonomous test fleet. But now everyone is looking into building an actual, solidified hardware platform that can scale to real world deployment.”

Some companies took a leap of faith, like Toyota and a couple other unnamed companies, even though it might have meant temporary setbacks.

“It’s a very high barrier to entry, but also a very high barrier to exit,” Russell pointed out. “Some of our partners, they’ve had to throw out tens of thousands of miles of data and redo a huge portion of their software stack to move over to our sensor. But they knew they had to do it eventually. It’s like ripping off the band-aid.”

We’ll soon see how the industry progresses — with steady improvement but also intense anxiety and scrutiny following the fatal crash of an Uber autonomous car, it’s difficult to speculate on the near future. But Luminar seems to be looking further down the road.