XPRIZE names two grand prize winners in $15 million Global Learning Challenge

XPRIZE, the non-profit organization developing and managing competitions to find solutions to social challenges, has named two grand prize winners in the Elon Musk-backed Global Learning XPRIZE .

The companies, KitKit School out of South Korea and the U.S., and onebillion, operating in Kenya and the U.K., were announced at an awards ceremony hosted at the Google Spruce Goose Hangar in Playa Vista, Calif.

XPRIZE set each of the competing teams the task of developing scalable services that could enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills within 15 months.

Musk himself was on hand to award $5 million checks to each of the winning teams.

Five finalists including: New York-based CCI, which developed lesson plans and a development language so non-coders could create lessons; Chimple, a Bangalore-based, learning platform enabling children to learn reading, writing and math on a tablet; RobotTutor, a Pittsburgh-based company which used Carnegie Mellon research to develop an app for Android tablets that would teach lessons in reading and writing with speech recognition, machine learning, and human computer interactions, and the two grand prize winners all received $1 million to continue developing their projects.

The tests required each product to be field tested in Swahili, reaching nearly 3,000 children in 170 villages across Tanzania.

All of the final solutions from each of the five teams that made it to the final round of competition have been open-sourced so anyone can improve on and develop local solutions using the toolkits developed by each team in competition.

Kitkit School, with a team from Berkeley, Calif. and Seoul, developed a program with a game-based core and flexible learning architecture to help kids learn independently, while onebillion, merged numeracy content with literacy material to provide directed learning and activities alongside monitoring to personalize responses to children’s needs.

Both teams are going home with $5 million to continue their work.

The problem of access to basic education affects more than 250 million children around the world, who can’t read or write and one-in-five children around the world aren’t in school, according to data from UNESCO.

The problem of access is compounded by a shortage of teachers at the primary ad secondary school level. Some research, cited by XPRIZE, indicates that the world needs to recruit another 68.8 million teachers to provide every child with a primary and secondary education by 2040.

Before the Global Learning XPRIZE field test, 74% of the children who participated were reported as never having attended school; 80% were never read to at home; and 90% couldn’t read a single word of Swahili.

After the 15 month program working on donated Google Pixel C tablets and pre-loaded with software, the number was cut in half.

“Education is a fundamental human right, and we are so proud of all the teams and their dedication and hard work to ensure every single child has the opportunity to take learning into their own hands,” said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE, in a statement. “Learning how to read, write and demonstrate basic math are essential building blocks for those who want to live free from poverty and its limitations, and we believe that this competition clearly demonstrated the accelerated learning made possible through the educational applications developed by our teams, and ultimately hope that this movement spurs a revolution in education, worldwide.”

After the grand prize announcement, XPRIZE said it will work to secure and load the software onto tablets; localize the software; and deliver preloaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so all finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world.

Payment service Toss becomes Korea’s newest unicorn after raising $80M

South Korea has got its third unicorn startup after Viva Republica, the company beyond popular payment app Toss, announced it has raised an $80 million round at a valuation of $1.2 billion.

This new round is led by U.S. firms Kleiner Perkins and Ribbit Capital, both of which cut their first checks for Korea with this deal. Others participating include existing investors Altos Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Goodwater Capital, KTB Network, Novel, PayPal and Qualcomm Ventures. The deal comes just six months after Viva Republica raised $40 million to accelerate growth, and it takes the company to nearly $200 million raised from investors to date.

Toss was started in 2013 by former dentist SG Lee who grew frustrated by the cumbersome way online payments worked in Korea. Despite the fact that the country has one of the highest smartphone penetrations rates in the world and is a top user of credit cards, the process required more than a dozen steps and came with limits.

“Before Toss, users required five passwords and around 37 clicks to transfer $10. With Toss users need just one password and three steps to transfer up to KRW 500,000 ($430),” Lee said in a past statement.

Working with traditional finance

Today, Viva Republica claims to have 10 million registered users for Toss — that’s 20 percent of Korea’s 50 million population — while it says that it is “on track” to reach a $18 billion run-rate for transactions in 2018.

The app began as Venmo -style payments, but in recent years it has added more advanced features focused around financial products. Toss users can now access and manage credit, loans, insurance, investment and more from 25 financial service providers, including banks.

Fintech startups are ‘rip it out and start again’ in the West –such as Europe’s challenger banks — but, in Asia, the approach is more collaborative and assistive. A numbe of startups have found a sweet spot in between banks and consumers, helping to match the two selectively and intelligently. In Toss’s case, essentially it acts as a funnel to help traditional banks find and vet customers for services. Thus, Toss is graduating from a peer-to-peer payment service into a banking gateway.

“Korea is a top 10 global economy, but no there’s no Mint or Credit Karma to help people save and spend money smartly,” Lee told TechCrunch in an interview. “We saw the same deep problems we need to solve [as the U.S.] so we’re just digging in.”

“We want to help financial institutions to build on top of Toss… we’re kind of building an Amazon for the financial services industry,” he added. “We try to aggregate all those activities, covering saving accounts, loan products, insurance etc.”

Former dentist SG Lee started Toss in 2013.

Lee said the plan for the new money is to go deeper in Korea by advancing the tech beyond Toss, adding more users and — on the supply side — partnering with more companies to offer financial products.

There’s plenty of competition. Startups like PeopleFund focus squarely on financial products, while Kakao, Korea’s largest messaging platform, has a dedicated fintech division — KakaoPay — which rivals Toss on both payment and financial services. It also counts the mighty Alibaba in its corner courtesy of a $200 million investment from its Ant Financial affiliate.

Alibaba and Tencent tend to move in pairs as opposites, with one naturally gravitating to the rivals of the other’s investees as recently happened in the Philippines. It’s tricky in Korea, though. Tencent is caught in limbo since it is a long-standing Kakao backer. But might the Ant Financial deal spur Tencent into working with Toss?

Lee said his company has a “good relationship” with Tencent, including the occasional home/away visits, but there’s nothing more to it right now. That’s intriguing.

Overseas expansion plans

Also of interest is future plans for the business now that it is taking on significantly more capital from investors who, even with the most patient money out there, eventually need a return on their investment.

Lee is adamant that he won’t sell, despite Viva Republica increasingly looking like an ideal entry point for a payment or finance company that has missed the Korean market and wants in now.

He said that there are plans to do an IPO “at some point,” but a more immediate focus is the opportunity to expand overseas.

When Toss raised a PayPal-led $48 million Series C 18 months ago, Lee told TechCrunch that he was beginning to cast his eyes on opportunities in Southeast Asia, the region of over 650 million consumers, and that’s likely to see definitive action next year. The Viva Republica CEO said that Vietnam could be a first overseas launchpad for Toss.

“We’re thinking seriously about going beyond Korea because sooner or later we will hire saturation point,” Lee said. “We think Vietnam is quite promising. We’ve talked to potential partners and are currently articulating ideas and strategy materialized next year.

“We already have a very successful playbook, we know how to scale among users,” Lee added.

While the plan is still being put together, Lee suggested that Viva Republica would take its time expanding across Southeast Asia, where six distinct countries account for the majority of the region’s population. So, rather than rapidly expanding Toss across those markets, he indicated that a more deliberate, country-by-country launch could be the strategy with Vietnam kicking things off in 2019.

The Toss team at HQ in Seoul, Korea

Korea rising

Toss’s entry into the unicorn club — a vaunted collection of private tech companies valued at $1 billion or more — comes weeks after Coupang, Korea’s top e-commerce company, raised $2 billion at a valuation of $9 billion.

While that Coupang round came from the SoftBank Vision Fund — a source of capital that is threatening to become tainted given its links to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — it does represent the first time that a Korea-based company has joined the $100 billion mega-fund’s portfolio.

Some milestones can be dismissed as frivolous, but these two coming so close together are a signal of increased awareness of the potential of Korea as a startup destination by investors outside of the country.

While Lee admitted that the unicorn valuation “doesn’t change a lot” in daily terms for his business, he did admit that he has seen the landscape shift for Korea’s startup ecosystem — which has only two other privately-held unicorns: Coupang and Yello Mobile.

“More and more global VCs are aware that South Korea is a really good opportunity to do a startup. It is getting easier for our fellow entrepreneurs to pitch and get access to global funds,” he said, adding that Korea’s top 25 cities have a cumulative population (25 million) that matches America’s top 25.

Despite that potential, Korea has tended to focus on its ‘chaebol’ giants like Samsung — which accounts for a double-digital percentage of the national economy — LG, Hyundai and SK. That means a lot of potential startup talent, both founders and employees, is locked up in secure corporate jobs. Throw in the conservative tradition of family expectations, which can make it hard for children to justify leaving the safety of a big company, and it is perhaps no wonder that Korea has relatively fewer startups compared to other economies of comparable size.

But that is changing.

Coupang has been one of the highest profile examples to follow, alongside the (now public) Kakao business. But with Viva Republica, Toss and a charismatic dentist-turned-founder, another startup story is being written and that could just inspire a future generation of entrepreneurs to rise up and be counted in South Korea.

Korean e-commerce firm Coupang raises $2 billion from SoftBank’s Vision Fund

Just days after a CIA report concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, SoftBank’s Vision Fund — the gargantuan investment vehicle anchored by a $45 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s PIF sovereign fund — is back in check-writing action.

Coupang, Korea’s largest e-commerce firm, revealed today that it has raised $2 billion from the Vision Fund. The investment comes weeks after SoftBank’s stake in Coupang was transferred over the Vision Fund, as the firm has done with a number of its investment.

No valuation was announced, but a source close to the deal told TechCrunch that it values Coupang at $9 billion post-money. This deal, which we understand is entirely new stock with no secondary sales, takes Coupang to $3.4 billion raised to date. Its last round was a $1 billion investment from SoftBank in 2015.

The deal is a massive validation for Coupang, which becomes the first Korean company to form a part of the Vision Fund, which SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son has championed as a network of global winners, but the link to the Khashoggi threatens to sour the achievement.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman is widely accused of ordering the killing of Washington Post reporter Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime. A Saudi-led investigation exonerated the prince’s role, however the CIA report released over the last week places the blame fairly squarely on his shoulders — while others in the Saudi royal family are reportedly plotting to replace the price as the next in line to the throne.

Son himself condemned the killing as an “act against humanity” but, in a recent analyst presentation, he added that SoftBank has a “responsibility” to Saudi Arabia to deploy the capital and continue the Vision Fund.

The PIF’s role in Vision Fund — it is the largest single investor — has threatened to taint its efforts, with voices in Silicon Valley suggesting that many founders would prefer to take money from less-tainted sources. However, SoftBank has announced a number of deals in recent weeks — including a $375 million investment in robotic food-prep startup Zume and $1.1 billion deal with glass maker View — which contradicts that. Son himself said he hadn’t heard of any cases of startups refusing an investment from the Vision Fund, but he did admit that there “may be some impact” in the future.

Those investments haven’t stopped Coupang from taking an investment from the Vision Fund, and announcing it publicly, too.

“The Vision Fund is a visionary fund [and] we’re proud to be selected to work in partnership with it,” Coupang CEO Bom Kim told TechCrunch in an interview.

Kim said he doesn’t expect a backlash from the investment, claiming that the tension around Khashoggi’s death “doesn’t represent us and doesn’t represent these companies.”

Taking a vast amount of money from a fund whose mainer backer is a country that (reportedly) murdered a journalist who dared criticize the regime isn’t a good look. But ultimately, it remains to be seen how that will shake out. As the world’s waits on a fuller investigation from the CIA and responses from the Saudi royal family and SoftBank’s Son, the incident certainly does have the potential to weigh on Coupang’s positive news.

Coupang CEO Bom Kim started the company in 2010, now it is valued at $10 billion. [Image via Coupang]

Operating relatively under the global radar, Coupang has become Korea’s largest e-commerce player and it is actively looking to expand into other areas.

Founded in 2010, Kim claimed the company is “approaching” $5 billion in revenue for 2018 with 70 percent annual growth. One in every two adults in Korea have the Coupang app on their phone, the company claims. The company operates only in Korea, but it does have engineering outposts in Beijing, LA, Seattle, Shanghai, Silicon Valley and Seoul.

That impressive revenue number has increased 14x since 2014 which Kim accounts to a moment of clarity which saw the company’s focused redirected.

“We had plans to go public and had gotten pretty far along in the process but we realized that wouldn’t fulfill of our vision,” Kim explained. “Instead, we saw an opportunity to make a long-term series of investments that would mean multi-year investment in tech platforms and infrastructure.”

That meant developing its own network of trucks and drivers, integrating technology at every level and making other changes to build the infrastructure and capacity to deliver items quickly to customers across Korea.

That’s helped Coupang roll out services like same-day delivery, overnight delivery and more. Coupang also has its own RocketPay payment service.

Kim explained that, for example, if a parent realized the night before school that their child needed a new rain jacket, they could receive it via Coupang before 7 am the next day if they ordered it before midnight. The overnight delivery service also includes fresh produce and “millions” of other items, he said. For that to happen, Coupang developed a cold chain logistics network in just one month.

Coupang said “millions” of customers use its service at least 50 times a year, i.e. on a weekly basis. Yes, it is a vague number and we don’t know what proportion of the overall customer base that represents, but it is an impressive snapshot nonetheless.

Kim revealed Coupang has “a lot of different plans” to spend this capital, although he declined to go into specific detail.

He didn’t rule out adjacent services like media — Amazon is, of course, a major name in video and music streaming — and he revealed that Coupang “intends to have a broad reach in more markets than just Korea” although, again, there’s no information on what countries and when.

The plan to go public is also likely to be revived, with the U.S. a more likely destination than a domestic IPO, although Kim said that there is “no specific timetable” for when that might happen.

Korean AI startup Skelter Labs raises $10M to expand to Southeast Asia

Korean AI startup Skelter Labs is expanding to Southeast Asia after it pulled in $10 million in new funding led by Singapore-based VC firm Golden Gate Ventures.

Skelter Labs was founded in 2015 by founded by Ted Cho, the former engineering site director at Google Korea. It started out developing apps and services that made use of AI but then it pivoted to focus fully on AI tech, which it licenses out to companies and corporations that it works with. This new money is aimed at enabling it to move into Japan and parts of Southeast Asia, with Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia specifically mentioned

The startup raised a $9 million seed round earlier this year, and those investors have returned to join Golden Gate this time around. They include KakaoBrain — the AI unit of Korean messaging giant Kakao — Kakao’s K-Cute venture arm, Stonebridge Ventures and Lotte Homeshopping, the TV and internet shopping business owned by multi-billion dollar retail giant Lotte.

More specifically, Seoul-based Skelter Labs works on AI in the context of vision and speech, conversation, and context recognition, while it goes after customers in areas that include manufacturing, customer operations, device interaction, and consumer marketing.

The startup doesn’t disclose specific customers, but it previously told TechCrunch that its vision is to bring its machine learning technology to daily life and schedules. Possible examples of that might be could include “intelligent virtual assistant technology that can be widely applied to various areas including smart speakers, smartphones, home appliances, automobiles and wearable devices.”

Golden Gate is one of Southeast Asia’s longest running tech VC firms. This deal is part of its recently announced third fund, which is $100 million in size.

In a statement, Skelter Labs CEO Cho paid tribute to the VC’s strong footprint in Southeast Asia that he said could open doors for the company. Startups in Golden Gate’s portfolio that might be of particular interest could include mobile listings startup Carousell, auto portal Carro, fashion commerce site Grana and online furnishings seller Hipvan.

Korean lending startup PeopleFund raises $11M led by chat app Kakao’s payment unit

South Korean peer-to-peer lending startup PeopleFund is in the money itself after it raised an $11 million Series B funding round that was led by Kakao Pay, the fintech division of Kakao, Korea’s top messaging firm. The deal comes as the country’s P2P marketplace continues to grow with a competitive field of players.

A newer arrival on the scene, PeopleFund was founded in 2015 as a marketplace that connects borrowers and investors to connect to enable lending. While that peer-to-peer model is often closely associated with loans to consumers, they are just one segment of the company’s target market, founder and CEO Joey Kim explained to TechCrunch. Consumer and personal loans represent around one-quarter, with 17 percent for SMEs and the remainder on mortgage and property, which include real estate construction developers.

However, PeopleFund is likely going after more adoption among consumers and you’d imagine that is a major reason why Kakao Pay led this investment.

The business — which is backed by Chinese internet giant Alibaba’s fintech division — handles Kakao’s payment business while it has also forayed into financial products such as loans. With 43 million users — or 85 percent of the population — Kakao is Korea’s dominant chat platform by some margin, which gives Kakao Pay a running startup into payments and fintech services.

PeopleFund CEO and founder Joey Kim is currently serving as president of the Korean Fintech Industry Association

Even with its colossal footprint, Kakao Pay needs all the help it can get since Korea’s digital loan system is exploding.

The P2P market is estimated to have paid out $4 billion over the past four years, with estimates cited by PeopleFund forecasting that figure could jump to $10 billion by the end of next year as annual loan volumes rise to $3 billion. As with most fast-growing industries, there have been scandals — the CEO of Roof Funding was arrested this year on suspicion of fraud — and the government has stepped in to regulate, although the future looks bright.

PeopleFund and rival Tera Funding have both reached $300 million in loans to date, ahead of other rivals including Lendit and 8percent and Toss — which counts PayPal and Sequoia China among its investors. Like Kakao Pay, Toss plans to add loans and investment products into its popular payment service, which is processing $1.4 billion in transactions per month as of June this year.

Tera raised over $9 million in a January investment round, but it has been operating longer than PeopleFund. That means that the latter is Korea’s fastest growing digital loan platform, and Kim shared that 2017 saw 823 percent annual growth while the company reached a record monthly high of around $31 million in September. In another record high, September saw 69 percent of loans provided by institutional investors, as opposed to individuals. That’s important because institutions are a strong validation of the business and the P2P industry and, with more funds available, they can help scale the loan book faster than individuals.

But Kim and his team aren’t sitting around and, beyond the potential to collaborate with Kakao Pay, the new round will be used for product developing and hiring. Kim said the company plans to raise its current headcount of 90 staff with a focus on R&D hires, whilst also further developing its credit rating model and risk pricing for loans and mortgages.

PeopleFund previously raised $5.7M in June 2017, and it counts 500 Startups, Wooshin Venture Investment Corp., D3 Jubilee, and DAYLI Financial Group among its investors.

Peak Theory lines up media partners and funding as Cubcoats becomes a phenomenon

With a planned cartoon series coming up, partnerships in place with Major League Baseball, NBCUniversal, and other media companies of heroic proportions, the founders creating the kids clothing phenomenon, Cubcoats, are on a roll.

Peak Theory, launched by longtime friends Zac Park (who’s 29) and the 35 year-old Spencer Markel, is the company behind Cubcoats, a hoodie that transforms into a puppet (or a puppet that transforms into a hoodie?). With their first product, the two founders have achieved the kind of viral success in its first year that most companies only dream of.

Markel, a former mergers and acquisitions lawyer with DLA Piper, and Park, a product director at the design agency AKQA, first met in San Francisco through a mutual friend and almost immediately began planning their escape from the corporate world.

Peak Theory founders Zac Park and Spencer Markel

“We thought to ourselves, what can we create that would bring over a novel and sticky concept that could sell well to parents and create a lasting brand relationship with kids,” Park said, in a statement. “We wanted a product that a child would get attached too, grow up with, and want to gift to their future kids.”

The two self-described kids at heart hit upon the idea of Cubcoats through a mutual love of Transformers and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as children (and maybe as adults as well).

“We don’t have any kids, we were just big kids,” said Markel. 

They started the process of creating hundreds of prototypes in September 2016 and by November of 2017 had hit upon the final designs for eight different puppets that turned into zippered hoodies for children. Each animal-inspired puppet had different characteristics and personalities and each came with a story tied to it.

The two-in-one clothes went viral. In its first full year Cubcoats expects to pull in somewhere between $2 million and $5 million in revenue, according to the two founders. By July, 2018 the company had sewn up $5 million in financing from a who’s who of entrepreneurs and celebrity investors.

Institutional investors including strategic partner, Major League Baseball, and celebrity investor Will Smith’s Dreamers Fund, came on board. So did individual angel investors like FabFitFun co-founders Daniel and Michael Broukhim, the actress Hilary Duff, Schwarzenegger scion, Patrick Schwarzenegger, and Jen Rubio, the co-founder of Away.

The Harmon Brothers video production company, which is behind a number of direct-to-consumer marketing hits like the mattress company Purple and others is collaborating on a series of videos with the Peak Theory team and investing in the company as well.

The idea of the company is to create a brand that’s not just the two-in-one cubcoat,” said Markel.  “We’re trailblazing a new area of consumer products that we think will be pretty hot. There’s a burgeoning space in two-in-one products. We’re uniquely situated to design these two-in-one products and build our own IP in terms of content.”

Big media and entertainment companies are already clamoring to work with Peak Theory, the company said. Professional sports teams and leagues like Major League Baseball are only the first companies to publicly disclose their interest in the company.

“We’re two big kids at heart with very whimsical dreams,” said Markel. “We’ve tried very hard to be two people who are not necessarily from the industry to come in and create a novel industry and rethink some of the way we do consumer products… .it’s been really fun.”

The company plans to expand the Cubcoats line to Canada, Australia and across Asia in 2019 — meaning popular favorites like Kali the kitty and Tim the puppy will be popping up in cities from Sydney to Seoul in addition to Seattle.

Peak Theory has partnered with Nordstrom for the holiday season to sell its Cubcoats in roughly 100 of its locations and will have pop up shops of its own at The Grove mall in Los Angeles and the Americana mall in Glendale, Calif.

Location-based virtual reality is increasing its footprint in the U.S.

Earlier this year, in a small, grey-walled storefront inside a very large mall in Torrance, Calif. (just past the AMC Center) , the virtual reality game-maker Survios planted its first flag in the market for location-based gaming.

It’s one of several companies (many based in Los Angeles) that are turning the city into a hub for anyone looking to experience the thrill of immersive gaming.

While Survios’ offering is more akin to the virtual arcades cropping up in cities across the country and around the world (including Dubai, New York, Seoul, and Tokyo), other companies like the Los Angeles-based Two Bit Circus and Lindon, Utah’s The Void are creating site specific game experiences that promise a different kind of approach to virtual reality.

For Survios and other companies that have placed multi-million dollar bets on the viability of virtual reality, the move to location-based gaming isn’t a matter of choice. It’s a matter of survival thanks to the persistent lack of demand from consumers. 

Sales of head-mounted displays began to climb out of their doldrums late last year, and are expected to surpass 1.5 million head mounted displays sold in 2018, according to data from Canalys. But that’s still a far smaller market than the 10 million game consoles that were sold in the U.S. alone in 2017 (not to mention the roughly 32 million consoles sold at the market’s peak in 2008), according data on the Statista website

The benefits of location-based experiences are clear. The cost of premium headsets and gaming systems prohibit most U.S. households from getting the gear in their hands and until those costs come down, out-of-home experiences provide the best way to get consumers comfortable with the technology.

That’s been the tactic ever since Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney launched Computer Space in 1971 with the first coin-operated computer game for arcades.

And one that VRWorld brought (with much fanfare) to virtual reality in the U.S. with the debut of its three-floor gaming hub near the Empire State Building in the heart of New York.

That experience, a more extravagant investment than Survios’ humble multi-bay storefront, was one of the first in the U.S. to commit to the sensory overload that is virtual reality. By 2018, New York was home to at least seven virtual reality spaces where users could experience the technology, according to The New York Times.

And while it’s hard to recreate a truly immersive, mobile game experience in the home, the ability to access cinematic quality production values, a physical space purpose-built for immersive game play, and the intellectual property of some of Hollywood’s most enduring brands (like The Void’s Star Wars experience) can make for a compelling pitch to consumers.

That’s the hope of people like Nancy Bennett, an entertainment industry veteran who was brought on as the Chief Creative Officer at Two Bit Circus.

“What’s cool about VR and a differentiator of the medium is that it gives you embodiment,” Bennett says. “There’s no other medium that does that.”

Bennett knows a thing or two about entertainment. A producer with MTV Networks, the founder of the collaborative game development platform Squarepushers Inc. and a celebrated creator of virtual reality projects for the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Bennett won the Lumiere award for best music VR experience for her work on the “One At a Time” video for Alex Aiono. 

From haptic platforms and motion floors that simulate the ability to walk around a space, the location based experience will offer a more fully immersive platform that can lend itself to more interesting narratives, says Bennett.

For Bennett, the vision of a place like Two Bit Circus, or the experiences on offer from other location based platforms are about the combination of narrative and technology in a way that can provide verisimilitude to someone strapped into a headset.

She, and others in the location-based community, look to immersive theater like Sleep No More as a model for how to proceed. “Immersive theater is absolutely the platform that will help drag us along,” Bennett says. 

At Two Bit Circus, which raised $15 million from investors last January, virtual reality will be about 20% of the experiences on offer. The company’s inaugural space in Los Angeles will also avail itself of projection mapping, augmented reality and other ways to immerse and entertain, Bennett promises.

But immersion will be at the heart of it all, she said. “Those kinds of mixed immersive experiences are going to be de rigueur,” according to Bennett. “And locations are going to be the only places where you can pull that off.”

Bennett sees the industry offering different tiers of immersive entertainment. With virtual reality arcades like Survios’ in Torrance operating on one level and more highly immersive experiences like The Void and Baobab Studios operating on another.

It’s one reason why companies like Cinemark have announced that they’re working with The Void and other immersive, location-based virtual reality companies to create experiences in their theaters.

“Really it’s about what serves the creative goal,” says Bennett. “What I think is really cool is the opportunity to mash up the fast prototyping of the community into one space to get people to play. It isn’t just VR. There’s also new forms of play and arcades that are possible and interactive audience participation for content creation.”

Even with the wow-factor of the experience, it may not be enough to buck industry trends. IMAX was one of the first companies to carve out immersive virtual reality spaces in its theaters, but given its woeful performance in the first quarter of 2018, those efforts are now on hold, according to it chief executive Richard Gelfond.

“At this time, we do not anticipate opening additional VR centers, or making a meaningful future investments in the initiative,” he told analysts during the company’s first quarter earnings call.

It’s a dramatic change for a company that was touting its entrance into the location based market just a year earlier.

IMAX’s stumble belies the international success of location-based gaming. In this, Asia leads the way with virtual reality outposts like the Viveland theme park in China. An existing infrastructure of internet cafes meant that Asian gaming hubs could just throw virtual reality hardware into their mix of offerings and continue to attract an audience.

Meanwhile, companies in the U.S. need to depend on purpose built spaces for virtual reality gaming thanks to the dominance of in-home gaming consoles (which overtook arcade gaming at least a decade ago). The lack of similar out-of-home spaces led to IMAX deciding to set up their own experiences — and other movie theaters and amusement parks following suit.

And there’s still the chance that in-home virtual reality will be able to pick up the pace and boost adoption more quickly than the market expects.

Analysts for the industry tracker Canalys forecast that the industry will sell nearly 10 million units in 2021, on par with the (shrinking) console market. Standalone virtual reality headsets are expected to push the market to 7.6 million units sold by the end of 2018, according to Canalys.

Still, for the immediate future, for those looking to get the full benefit of a virtual reality experience, their best bet is to find the nearest Void experience and battle some storm troopers, check out an arcade, or wait for the unveiling of Two Bit Circus’ first facility later this year.

South Korean capital Seoul mulls “S-Coin” tokens and blockchain-based government

South Korea has been at the forefront of the blockchain movement, with some of the highest density of cryptocurrency traders anywhere in the world. Now, as the frenzy around cryptocurrency prices recedes (Bitcoin is around $7350 right now, down from a high of almost $20,000 last December), the country is starting to consider the more utilitarian aspects of blockchain that might not immediately lead to riches.

Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, discussed the city’s plans to launch what is currently being dubbed the S-coin in an interview with CoinDesk. In his vision of the program, the coin could be used for subway fares, as well as “a payment method for city-funded welfare programs for public employees, young job seekers and citizens helping the environment by saving electricity, water and gas.”

That’s a remarkable statement coming from an office that is widely considered to be the second most important in the country. It’s also a far cry from the strong opposition that national leaders and regulators voiced toward blockchain — and cryptocurrencies in particular — during the run up in Bitcoin and Ethereum prices last year, particularly in the wake of a series of Bitcoin heists by North Korea.

Back then, the Korean financial authorities and the Justice Ministry said that they were considering outright banning cryptocurrencies. Now, over the past few weeks, national authorities have quietly floated new proposals around Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), potentially creating a procedure that would allow ICOs in well-regulated circumstances. Mayor Park also said in his interview with CoinDesk that further regulation would be necessary around blockchains before any of Seoul’s proposals could be brought into effect.

The invention of blockchain, and Bitcoin in particular, was seen by many in the community as a way to “disrupt” politics as usual, by moving power away from central authorities to decentralized players. However, the technology increasingly looks like it will be subsumed by the state to improve existing institutions.

South Korean cities, like counterparts elsewhere around the world, are investigating whether blockchain technology could provide mechanisms like algorithmic zoning. City governments often hold many records of interest to blockchain specialists, including property records, ID records, zoning codes, business and health licenses, as well as construction permits. Creating a transparent and efficient clearinghouse for such information could generate significant gains for the quality of urban governance.

In this context, it is important to clearly delineate blockchain as database and cryptocurrencies as money. The proposals from Seoul and elsewhere have been designed around the former. Even when such tokens might provide a financial benefit, such as a discount on subway fares or housing, these tokens are not designed to be fungible currencies in the same way that cryptocurrencies are, but instead convenience tools to provide digital access to amenities.

That’s in contrast to initiatives like the one from Venezuela to create an oil-backed cryptocurrency called Petro, which many analysts saw as a convenient means to avoid U.S.-led sanctions on the Maduro regime. The Trump administration blocked the purchase of Petro last month.

Seoul is expected to announce a roadmap for blockchain in the coming weeks, and other cities are coming close to launching their own initiatives. The value bubble in cryptocurrencies may be receding, but their practical uses may well drive the next wave of innovation.