Some interesting M&A is afoot in the world of hardware and software that’s aiming to improve the quality of audio and video communications over digital networks. — the Danish company that broke new ground in mobile when it inked deals first with and then to stream audio from their phones directly to smart, connected hearing aids — is expanding from audio to video, and from Europe to Silicon Valley. Today, the company announced that it would acquire Altia Systems, a startup out of Cupertino that makes a “surround” videoconferencing device and software called the PanaCast (we reviewed it ) designed to replicate the panoramic, immersive experience of vision that we have as humans. GN is paying $125 million for the startup. For some context, this price represents a decent return: according to , Altia was last valued at around $78 million with investors including Intel Capital and others. Intel’s investment was one of several strategic partnerships that Altia had inked over the years. (Another was with Zoom to provide a .) The Intel partnership, for one, will continue post-acquisition. “Intel invested in Altia Systems to bring an industry leading immersive, Panoramic-4K camera experience to business video collaboration,” said Dave Flanagan, Vice President of Intel Corporation and Senior Managing Director of Intel Capital, in a statement. “Over the past few years, Altia Systems has collaborated with Intel to use AI and to deliver more intelligent conference rooms and business meetings. This helps customers make better decisions, automate workflows and improve business efficiency. We are excited to work with GN to further scale this technology on a global basis.” We have seen a lot of applications of AI in just about every area of technology, but one of the less talked about, but very interesting, areas has been in how it’s being used to enhance audio in digital network. , as one example, is creating and tracking “audio fingerprints” for security applications, specifically fraud prevention (to authenticate users and to help weed out imposters based not just on the actual voice but on all the other aural cues we may not pick up as humans but can help build a picture of a caller’s location and so on). GN, meanwhile, has been building AI-based algorithms to help those who cannot hear as well, or who simply needs to hear better, be able to listen to calls on digital networks and make out what’s being said. This not only requires technology to optimise the audio quality, but also algorithms that can help tailor that quality to the specific person’s own unique hearing needs. One of the more obvious applications of services like these are for those who are hard of hearing and use hearing aids (which can be awful or impossible to use with mobile phones), another is in call centers, and this appears to be the area where GN is hoping to address with the Altia acquisition. GN already offers two products for call centre workers, Jabra and BlueParrot — headsets and speakerphones with their own proprietary software that it claims makes workers more efficient and productive just by making it easier to understand what callers are saying. Altia will be integrated into that solution to expand it to include videoconferencing around unified communications solutions, creating more natural experiences for those who are not actually in physical rooms together. “Combining GN Audio’s sound expertise, partner eco-system and global channel access with the video technology from Altia Systems, we will take the experience of conference calls to a completely new level,” said René Svendsen-Tune, President and CEO of GN Audio, in a statement. What’s notable is that GN is a vertically-integrated company, building not just hardware but software to run on it. The AI engine underpinning some of its software development will be getting a vast new trove of data fed into it now by way of the PanaCast solution: not jut in terms of video, but the large amount of audio that will naturally come along with it. “Combining PanaCast’s immersive, intelligent video with GN Audio’s intelligent audio solutions will enable us to deliver a whole new class of collaboration products for our customers,” said Aurangzeb Khan, President and CEO of Altia Systems, in a statement. “PanaCast’s solutions enable companies to improve meeting participants’ experience, automate workflows, and enhance business efficiency and real estate utilization with data lakes of valid information.” Given GN’s work with Android and iOS devices, it will be interesting to see how and if these video solutions make their way to those platforms as well, either by way of solutions that work on their phones or perhaps more native integrations down the line. Regardless of how that develops, what’s clear is that there remains a market not just for basic tools to get work done, but technology to improve the quality of those tools, and that’s where GN hopes it will resonate with this deal.
has just bought up the talent it needs to make talking toys a part of Siri, HomePod, and its voice strategy. Apple has reportedly acquired PullString, also known as , according to . The company , artificial intelligence to power those experiences, and toys like and Thomas The Tank Engine toys in partnership with Mattel. Founded in 2011 by former Pixar executives, PullString went on to raise . Apple’s Siri is seen as lagging far behind Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, not only in voice recognition and utility, but also in terms of developer ecosystem. Google and Amazon has built platforms to distribute Skills from tons of voice app makers, including storytelling, quizzes, and other games for kids. If Apple wants to take a real shot at becoming the center of your connected living room with Siri and HomePod, it will need to play nice with the children who spend their time there. Buying could jumpstart Apple’s in-house catalog of speech-activated toys for kids as well as beef up its tools for voice developers. PullString did catch some flack for being a “child surveillance device” back in 2015, but by detailing the security built intoHello Barbie product and saying it’d never been hacked to steal childrens’ voice recordings or other sensitive info. Privacy norms have changed since with so many people readily buying always-listening Echos and Google Homes. In 2016 it rebranded as PullString with a focus on developers tools that allow for visually mapping out conversations and publishing finished products to the Google and Amazon platforms. Given SiriKit’s complexity and lack of features, PullString’s Converse platform could pave the way for a lot more developers to jump into building voice products for Apple’s devices. We’ve reached out to Apple and PullString for more details about whether PullString and ToyTalk’s products will remain available. The startup raised its cash including Khosla Ventures, CRV, Greylock, First Round, and True Ventures, with a Series D in 2016 as its last raise that PitchBook says valued the startup at $160 million. While the voicetech space has since exploded, it can still be difficult for voice experience developers to earn money without accompanying physical products, and many enterprises still aren’t sure what to build with tools like those offered by PullString. That might have led the startup to see a brighter future with Apple, strengthening one of the most ubiquitous though also most detested voice assistants.
Official art for Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire. (Obsidian press kit) This weekend marked Microsoft’s, the fourth-annual showcase for the Xbox family of products, held in Mexico City. A lot was announced, including an upcoming expansion for Forza Horizon 4, but the biggest story of the show was that . Both studios are legendary within the video game industry for making big, immersive, and popular role-playing games like Wasteland 2, The Bard’s Tale, Fallout: New Vegas, and Pillars of Eternity. On Microsoft’s side, this puts two veteran studios in the company’s portfolio, which offers the prospect that the next couple of big computer role-playing games (CRPGs) will be exclusive to Microsoft platforms. This is especially useful as talk has recently begun to spin up concerning the next , with rumors of a new Xbox coming in 2020. If both Obsidian and InXile make new Microsoft-exclusive CRPGs, it would be a big feather in the company’s cap going forward, particularly in the enthusiast market and press. For Obsidian and InXile, both studios have recently been reliant on in order to make their games, and crowdfunding tends to be driven by the nostalgia market. Access to Microsoft’s funding would allow both companies to explore new intellectual properties, take their time with new projects, and work with more flexible budgets. (You could draw a parallel between Obsidian/InXile and the Seattle-based Harebrained Studios, which was in a similar boat until .) was founded in 2003 in Irvine, California by veterans of the then-recently-shuttered Black Isle Entertainment, a division of Interplay. While working at Black Isle, the Obsidian team was responsible for some of the most popular CRPGs of the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Neverwinter Nights. As an independent developer, Obsidian’s first big project was 2004’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. Since then, the company has done work-for-hire in several major franchises, such as South Park, Sonic The Hedgehog, and Fallout, before becoming one of the first big crowdfunding successes in gaming with its throwback series Pillars of Eternity. was founded in 2002 by Brian Fargo, one of Interplay’s co-founders, after his departure from the company; InXile’s name is taken from about being Interplay’s “leader in exile.” The new company’s first title was 2004’s The Bard’s Tale, an action-RPG that gently mocked the conventions of the genre and starred Cary Elwes as the voice of its main character. After making Hunted: The Demon’s Forge for Bethesda, InXile got back on the industry’s radar by revisiting the old post-apocalyptic Wasteland franchise, using money from a successful Kickstarter to make 2014’s Wasteland 2, which was recently ported to the Nintendo Switch. InXile currently maintains studios in Newport Beach, Calif. and New Orleans, La., and is currently working on Wasteland III. Other big announcements that came out of X018 include: “Fortune Island,” the new expansion for the Microsoft-exclusive racing game , which brings players to the stormy northern British Isles on December 13th; All Microsoft Game Pass holders receiving a copy of the smash hit PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on November 12th; New content packs coming for State of Decay 2 and Sea of Thieves; and, The official debut of Void Bastards (no, really, that’s the actual title), a bizarre strategy-based first-person shooter from one of the co-founders of the late Irrational Games, makers of the BioShock series.