AR/VR

Tech’s Union Push Meets AR and Maps

San Francisco-based Mapbox offers tools and navigation data that can power just about any use of digital maps you can imagine, including augmented reality. While the company largely operates in Google’s shadow, Mapbox counts Facebook and Snap among its customers and is reportedly in talks for a SoftBank-backed SPAC deal at a $2 billion valuation.

But that isn’t all that’s going on at Mapbox. On Tuesday, the Mapbox Workers Union announced its formation. Bloomberg reports that close to two-thirds of Mapbox’s U.S. 222 employees have signed union cards with the Communications Workers of America. 

While at first blush the union drive might not appear to have much bearing on the world of augmented reality, a shift that gives employees more say in the company could influence how Mapbox’s AR products are designed and used. 

Mapping apps, which increasingly are taking advantage of AR, by nature take in a lot of information about users and their surroundings. So it wouldn’t surprise me to see employees seek changes in Mapbox’s standards for transparency, privacy and data collection.

“Maps are political, maps are powerful,” reads a statement from the Mapbox Workers Union regarding the group’s goals. “More and more often we build beautiful maps and tooling only to find out they are being used for politically dubious or nefarious purposes. We are seeking complete transparency into how customers use our services.” 

The union also seeks to secure the right for individual employees to refuse to work on projects that conflict with their personal ethics, as well the ability “to deny service to any customer completely” subject to a majority employee vote.

But an activist or organized workforce is no guarantee of change. Consider the similar employee activism and organization efforts at Google and Microsoft, the latter of which saw pushback against an Army contract for AR tech in 2019. Mapbox’s union may yet be successful in winning recognition, but objections to certain customers often seem to bring about little in the way of change in tech. Microsoft, after all, went on to expand its AR and cloud services deal with the Army earlier this year.

Where Spatial Audio and Virtual Events Go From Here

Spatial audio has come up in Reality Check before, and with Apple now doubling down on the technology in AirPods and FaceTime, it’s likely to keep popping up. Virtual events platform Breakroom is the latest app to add spatial audio, which allows sounds to fade in and out depending on where the user is located in the virtual room, just as they do in real life. 

Adam Frisby, chief product officer and co-founder of Breakroom makers Sine Wave, led me through a demo of Breakroom along with Philip Rosedale, who founded High Fidelity, a VR startup-turned-spatial audio provider partnering with Breakroom.

Rosedale, who also created the virtual world Second Life, goes way back with Frisby: Sine Wave started in the 2000s as a merchant in Second Life. With decades of virtual worlds experience between them, I asked the duo what they think will happen to online events as the pandemic fades and VR and spatial audio technology matures.

Rosedale, for his part, doesn’t regret pivoting from VR to spatial audio. “I think one of the deepest learnings of VR is that we are not all equally comfortable being blindfolded in a room with other people,” he said.

Frisby underscored the importance of supporting many platforms. Breakroom works on mobile, PC, VR and in browsers via the cloud. “Accessibility in VR is kind of crap right now,” Frisby said. “There are a lot of people who you are throwing out if you make a VR-exclusive or a VR-dominant product first.”

VR aside, Breakroom also finds itself in a very crowded space for virtual events companies, vying against platforms like Zoom and Hopin as well as immersive competitors like Spatial and Glue. Breakroom has prominent paying customers, including institutions like Stanford University and Deutsche Bank, but it hopes to keep growing both its audience and the number of users it can accommodate.

Breakroom’s largest event had around 2,000 concurrent users, with 300 to 500 being a “happy medium” in Frisby’s eyes. Frisby believes we will see events around that size embrace all-digital as the new normal.

As for the role spatial audio has to play, even Rosedale sees difficulties on the horizon. For all-digital events, Rosedale cited spatial audio’s potential to avoid so-called “Zoom fatigue,” but he isn’t sure how it will play out after the pandemic, where work meetings might be split between a staff that is half at home, half gathered in the office.

“You're going to have this incredibly, incredibly stressful situation for companies that are trying to make a hybrid meeting work,” Rosedale said. “I think spatial audio is a part of that solution, but going back to the virtual world stuff, I think what we've learned in Covid is that high-presence communication, where everybody feels equally empowered, is still tremendously hard.”

Other news:

  • Air Link—the ability to play PC VR wirelessly—will come to the original Quest soon. Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the news on his personal Facebook page.
  • According to Bloomberg, Sony aims to launch its next VR headset late in 2022. The device will reportedly use OLED display panels, which would set it apart from recent LCD-reliant headsets like the Quest 2, Reverb G2 and Valve Index.

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See you tomorrow,

Mathew


Mathew Olson is the writer for The Information’s Reality Check, a newsletter devoted to following trends, innovations and news in AR and VR. He is based in New York and can be reached by email at [email protected] or Signal at 646-694-0692.