Apple buys a VR company that put real faces on virtual avatars

Spaces offered free-roam VR games, until the pandemic hit.

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Apple has acquired Spaces, a VR company that offered both VR experiences and, after the pandemic hit, a way of bringing your virtual avatar into Zoom meetings. Protocol quotes an unnamed Apple spokesperson offering the usual boilerplate confirmation, saying that it had nothing else to add. 

Spaces is, or was, a company that started out offering free-roam VR experiences, similar to what The Void offered in those heady pre-pandemic times. It was spun out of DreamWorks, and its first project was a Terminator-themed VR game for up to four players. But the most interesting thing about it was the facial tracking it used to try and make its VR games more immersive than the competition.

Before you began playing one of Spaces’ experiences, your face would be scanned by a wall-mounted camera. This data was then overlaid onto your in-game avatar, so your fellow players were playing with you inside the virtual world. It may not have been particularly accurate, but it added another level of fidelity on top of the sometimes-artificial VR experience.

When COVID-19 struck, Spaces had to shut down its real-world business and pivot to stay alive, admittedly unsuccessfully. But it took that face-scanning technology and built a platform onto which you could scan your own face and place it onto a virtual avatar. You could then connect your VR setup to Zoom (or another video conferencing product) and present as a cartoon version of yourself.

Given Apple’s interest in facial scanning and cartoonish avatars -- memoji -- it seems like there’s plenty of reason for Apple to buy Spaces. Perhaps it’ll use the Spaces team to bolster its existing efforts in the VR/AR space, or harness the technology to improve FaceTime with virtual characters.

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