Welcome to Freshly Minted, where we examine an overlooked deal or funding announcement in tech from the past week, and tell you what you need to know, and why it matters.
This week’s deal: Matterport, a real estate startup that uses 3D camera technology, closed a $16 million Series B.
Matterport makes an expensive $4,500 camera that spins on a tripod and makes a digital model that can be used to render a detailed virtual tour. In a matter of minutes, an entire loft can be converted through their app into a photorealistic digital replica.
3D cameras are coming to the mainstream faster than anyone expected — even Matterport CEO Bill Brown is willing to admit that. Giants like Google (GOOGL) and Intel are working on the same technology, and within a year, many tablets, laptops and even phones will be equipped with 3D cameras.
But Matterport’s competitors have bigger plans for 3D cameras than giving virtual tours of of townhouses. Sure, real estate is definitely an industry in desperate need for innovation. But once 3D cameras are nimble enough to be a consumer commodity, apps like that make 3D renderings will be dime a dozen.
If Matterport doesn’t start looking at the big picture for 3D cameras, tech giants with deep pockets are going to eat their lunch.
The Future is Now
Real estate is the first and most obvious way to make a business from 3D camera technology. After all, who would benefit more from a detailed 3D model of a room than the person trying to sell that room?
But 3D scanning has a number of bigger opportunities that are right around the corner. The technology is already capable of doing so much more than just making a rendering of a physical space:
3D Printing: The patterns used in 3D printers are usually made by skilled digital designers using special software. The models made using scanners like Matterport’s, however, can be made by anyone who has the right kind of tablet. Those models can then be sent right to 3D printers for making a quick replica. Hand-made designs will remain the standard for custom products, but for duplication and basic prototyping, 3D cameras are a fast way to make a pattern with no expertise.
Oculus Rift: Ever since the Oculus acquisition by Facebook, developers have rushed in to build new applications for virtual reality, from virtual meeting spaces to “interactive” porn. 3D cameras have the ability to quickly render a real space into a virtual model. Cameras clunkier than Matterport’s have already toyed with this idea, but down the line, it’s easy to see that 3D scanning and virtual vacations to faraway lands are a natural marriage.
Biometrics: Photographs are still a pretty inefficient way for an algorithm to identify someone compared to fingerprint scanners. 3D scanners, however, can quickly map someone’s face, pulling proportions to make a positive identification, and they don’t even need to be that close — a sophistical 3D camera could pull a positive identification from meters away. As cybersecurity startups pull more VC investments in the next few years, being in the biometric tech business is going to pay off.
Augmented Reality: Perhaps the most visionary application of 3D cameras, augmented reality is the concept of adding digital things into real spaces, so that when you look through the lens of a 3D camera, you see virtual, imaginary objects that you can interact with. Augmented reality is in its infancy with popular smartphone games like Ingress, but AR futurists believe that 3D cameras will change not just gaming, but education, travel and business.
Besides a passing thought for virtual reality, Matterport doesn’t seem interested in any of these applications, all of which are much bigger spaces than real estate.
The State of the Art (where the tech is now)
At a special press preview in NYC last month, Intel previewed its RealSense technology: 3D cameras that can currently do just about everything listed above and more. RealSense will be available on laptops and tablets within the year.
Google has also been working on a similar initiative called Project Tango, and it doesn’t take a prophet to see that renderings like Matterport’s are the next logical evolution of Google Street view.
Institutions of this size aren’t just taking a more holistic approach. They also have a pipeline: Intel and Google are in the consumer hardware business, and by simply integrating 3D cameras into devices they already sell, doing to Matterport’s hardware what the camera-phone did to cheap point-and-shoots.
Now, one of the things that’s set Matterport app apart so far in real estate is that they’re cheaper than Google’s similar service called Business View, but now Google is committed to closing that price gap. Otherwise, Matterport has cheaper hardware than most 3D cameras, but when 3D cameras are on the back of everyone’s smartphones, a $4,500 spinning tripod won’t be a viable product either.
Even if Matterport hasn’t expressed the clear need for a shift in direction, their investors seem keen to the direction 3D cameras are headed.
Jason Krikorian, the investor who led the Series B, told the Wall Street Journal that he’s most impressed by Matterport’s potential to “drop back, so to speak, and play more of a platform role” once the technology reaches consumer devices.
Then again, they could always just take an acquisition, and let someone with a grander vision carry their platform into the future.