Softbank leads Improbable $502 Million round – Boost for Virtual reality in Fintech?


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When Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 Billion in 2014, it almost sparked the VR trend. While google did move first with Google cardboard offering VR, it was more of a proof of concept. Last year, about $2 Billion was invested in VR making it one of the hot trends along side AI and Blockchain. Earlier this week, Improbable announced an investment round of $502 Million, led by Softbank, in which Andreessen Horowitz and Horizons ventures (existing investors) also followed up. This puts Improbable’s valuation at $2 Billion. Improbable specializes in using cloud-based distributed computing for VR that can be used not just for gaming but other real-world simulations, and of course fintech.

The first major commercial moment for VR happened when Oculus Rift launched in 2016. This was quickly followed by HTC Vive. However nascent the VR industry is, the initial feedback from hardcore VR fans is that HTC Vive beats the competition (Oculus, Samsung’s Gear VR, Sony’s playstation VR and of course Google’s cardboard) hands down. However, sales of most of these headsets have been really poor compared to analysts’ estimates almost feeding the argument that VR could be a fad.


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Most of the time I hear VR, I hear about headsets but the software and developer community almost take a back seat. But one can’t grow without the other. Improbable are focusing on building an ecosystem of applications for VR, through their Operating system – SpatialOS. While most of their apps are currently focused on Gaming, Softbank would steer build out of use cases for real life problems.

“Improbable’s technology will help us explore disease, improve cities, understand economies and solve complex problems on a previously unimaginable scale. Along with machine learning and the internet of things (IoT), Improbable’s distributed computation technology represents a critical next frontier in computing.” – Deep Nishar, SoftBank

Earlier this year, SwissQuote launched their trading platform on VR, where users make trades with a glance. The virtual dealing platform feeds real-time Swiss Market Index data, currency pairs and the main indices to users. Eye-tracking technology enables users to bring up more information about a specific stock and execute trades to a pre-configured value by focusing their eyes on the symbol.


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So, can VR provide main stream financial services? Some of the challenges I see are the following,

Cost of VR: HTC Vive, that apparently provides the best VR experience costs about £750. While Gear VR that focuses on Mobile based VR instead of Desktop VR is affordable, the experience is not quite there, and it also depends on how good your mobile is. For example, a seamless retail banking experience on VR might be hard to achieve in a mobile VR environment.

Clunky Hardware: The current designs of VR headsets make it hard for consumer adoption. This is a key problem to solve if VR has to go main stream. Also, for most good VR experiences, motion sensors and base stations are needed. This adds to the inertia when one wants to use VR for anything other than entertainment.

Non-Standard Software: VR hardware providers have taken different approaches to their ecosystem. HTC has taken an open approach, where as Oculus ecosystem is closed for competition. A standard operating system with rich applications, open to all VR devices would be Nirvana. Improbable are headed that way.

Use Case Evolution: Gear VR is the most successful VR headset so far because, it has tied itself to mobile rather than desktop. But application of VR also needs to change direction. At the moment VR apps are very entertainment focused, and in order for VR to go main stream, I believe, they have to be communication focused. IPhone may not have taken off so well, without the Phone functionality.

Many of the above challenges may not all apply if one used VR as an employee of a bank that has the infrastructure to provide financial services in a B2B context. However, in the consumer banking space, the uptake would be slower.

If I had a sleek, not too expensive VR device to talk to family back in India, and can receive rich day to day VR experiences from a standardized VR app store, there is no reason why I wouldn’t use VR to talk to my banker. Improbable could be the software platform of choice for all VR devices, however someone still needs to solve the hardware barriers. Because at the moment, atleast on my head, VR is just a more sophisticated Nintendo Wii. There are some ambitious projections for VR headsets from 15 Million in 2016 to 39 Million in 2018, but many VR projections in the past have not been met.

How nice would it be if I could VR my banker to discuss a mortgage as soon as I have viewed a property in Spain without leaving my lounge in London?

How nice would it be if I could VR my insurance provider when I need to make a claim on a car accident?

How nice would it be if VR went mainstream for Financial Services? Let’s dream on!!

Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Fintech thought-leader and an investor. 

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Banking on a virtual and augmented future

This week I attended a talk by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, the authors of The Fourth Transformation. Their latest book charts the rise of virtual and augmented reality (VR & AR), haptic technology, and the devices that will transform our experience of the world we know, not to mention those worlds we are yet to discover…

Of course, it’s hard not to put your banking and fintech hat on (or should we say techfin now, thanks to Jack Ma) and consider what viable applications of the technology would be in this space. Especially use cases that move beyond pure gimmick and add real value to everyday people like you and me.

Investment banks are dipping their toes into VR and AR as we speak. Fidelity Labs have developed StockCity, possibly the first investment app for Oculus Rift.  The app allows investors to visualise their investment portfolio as a collection of buildings. Red or green roofs indicate if stocks are down or up for the day’s trade. This video is a handy demo.

In other news, The Wall Street Journal has released a VR app on Google Daydream that allows users to visualise live market trends. While First Gulf Bank in the UAE has launched what it is claiming to be the first virtual bank branch in the world.

But where could we really go with VR and AR applications if you were trying to help consumers and business owners make better financial decisions?

Make wealth tangible for savers

One of the things that makes saving difficult is how intangible a number on a statement is. Wouldn’t it be great if you could walk into your own personal money vault and see your investments in the coin or paper denomination of your choice? With haptic technology, you could even touch and feel them!

Help people visualise the effects of wealth (or lack thereof)

While some of us have vivid and rich imaginations, for many it’s hard to understand what a future state looks and feels like. This can leave people trapped in the hamster wheel of today’s financial behaviour. Immersive experiences that help an individual experience what life would be like in various future financial positions could help someone to take action now rather than later. In the spirit of Christmas, I’m naming this the ‘Scrooge Effect’.

Getting more personal

Chatbots are great, but what about a personal banker who can visit you in your living room? Someone who remembers the last conversation you had and is on hand for a chat whenever you need it?

Benchmarking your financial health

Today it’s hard to know how you stand compared to your peers when it comes to wealth. Tangible assets like owning a house tend to be the easiest but possibly most misleading physical sign of wealth. Visualising how you stack up against your peers could help you either feel more comfortable about your progress, or could give you the insights you need to see how you are falling behind.

Banking is prime ground for VR and AR. Why? Because it’s complex, intangible, messy and difficult to navigate. So the more tools we have like these, the sooner we’ll be able to help everyday people make sense of it all. So my question is this – will the bank of the future lure new customers away from the incumbents with Oculus Rift headsets? Very possibly, and it may not be a bad acquisition strategy at all. Follow the conversation here on the Fintech Genome.

Daily Fintech Advisers provides strategic consulting to organizations with business and investment interests in Fintech. Jessica Ellerm is a thought leader specializing in Small Business.