Unveiling Europe’s unsung heroes and heroines shaping the Metaverse future

In this op-ed by Leen Segers, she highlights each significant technological innovation in the Metaverse and shines the spotlight on its unsung heroes and heroines.
Unveiling Europe’s unsung heroes and heroines shaping the Metaverse future

On Monday, June 5th 2023, Apple entered the Metaverse or Spatial computing world by launching the Apple Vision Pro. Two days later, it was confirmed that Apple had acquired Mira, an AR startup based in Los Angeles, which specialises in creating lightweight hardware for Augmented Reality. According to Forbes, this acquisition indicates Apple’s interest in the highly profitable military market.

This acquisition made me think about the importance of acquiring startups to speed up the development and commercialisation of revolutionary headsets like the Vision Pro, Magic Leap, the Meta Quest Series, or Snap Inc’s AR products. Many acquisitions in the Metaverse/Web3 space took place across Europe.

Although their brands continue to exist after being acquired, these pioneering products and teams deserve some extra visibility. With a lot of little help from my friends at Dealroom, here’s my overview of the most important acquisitions in Europe, introducing the companies:

and their star teams. These teams, often unrecognised, are the unsung heroes 🦸🏻‍♂️ and heroines 🦸🏼‍♀️ in the Metaverse journey. By building products and intellectual property from scratch, and enduring the uncertainties of the startup life cycle, they brought their unique visions to life.

Their successful exits not only signify personal triumphs but also demonstrate the enduring value they infused into next-generation immersive hardware devices. In the sections below, I’ll spotlight the remarkable products they crafted and I attempt to trace their journeys. Despite their substantial contributions, their rightful recognition often remains elusive.

Let’s celebrate these European visionaries 🥁:

Based on my research, 42 founders based in Europe stand out for their pioneering contributions to cutting-edge metaverse technology. Notably, among them are (only) three remarkable women, and I want to specifically acknowledge and celebrate these trailblazers: ✨ Julia Benndorf ✨(SMI acquired by Apple), ✨ Esther Bisschop ✨(th3rd acquired by Snap Inc.) and ✨ Shehar Bano ✨ (Chainspace acquired by Meta).

Reader’s note: In the following analysis, I will delve into each significant technological innovation in the Metaverse and subsequently provide a chronological account of key acquisitions that have played a pivotal role in shaping these advancements. With each acquisition, I will spotlight the visionary founders — unsung heroes, heroines, pathfinders, and masterminds — who have contributed to the evolution of the Metaverse. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get input from the founders directly due to post-acquisition NDAs. In certain cases, I’ve avoided directly connecting them to specific features to stay clear of assumptions. Hope you enjoy the read!

High-level summary of Metaverse acquisitions in 🇪🇺

1️⃣ Upon analysing the Metaverse-related acquisitions made by technology giants in Europe, it is evident that Meta has been the most active in the region. The company has primarily focused on eye and motion tracking (The Eye Tribe, Fayteq, Scape Technologies), immersive audio (Accusonus, Audio Analytic), decentralisation (Chainspace), gaming content (Beat Games), haptics (Lofelt) and 3D printing of wearables through the acquisition of Luxecel.

2️⃣ In second place comes Snap Inc. The company’s acquisitions in Europe have mostly been concentrated on 3D scanning and modelling (Playcanvas, Ariel AI, th3RD), AR displays (Waveoptics), and neural interfaces through the acquisition of NextMind.

2️⃣ In a shared second place, Apple has made acquisitions in capturing facial movements (Faceshift), animation and motion (Ikinema), and eye movements (SMI) as well as in AR application-building tools through the acquisition of Metaio and Spektral.

3️⃣ Lastly, Magic Leap has made fewer acquisitions in Europe and internationally. They have invested in 3D scanning technology (Dacuda) and live volumetric video capture-based conferencing (Mimesys) in Europe.

Apple — Animoji, Memoji, ARKit, and Apple Vision Pro

Apple delved into AR/VR over a decade ago, culminating in groundbreaking releases like Animoji (2017), ARKit (2017), Memoji (2018), and the Apple Vision Pro (2023). The introduction of Animoji/Memoji showcased the power of the TrueDepth camera system for precise facial tracking, exemplifying Apple’s commitment to digital representation, expression, and AR, integral in shaping the metaverse. Another significant stride was the unveiling of ARKit, a robust augmented reality platform tailored for iOS mobile devices.

To date, ARKit has found its way into an impressive array of 14,000 apps, amassing over 13 million downloads. Apple’s 2023 launch of the Apple Vision Pro, a groundbreaking Mixed Reality (MR) head-mounted display, marks a defining moment in immersive tech. As an early supporter of Apple’s spatial computing venture since 2015, my patience has surely been put to the test, but even more excited today about the device's transformative potential.

Apple’s Vision Pro headset on display at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, U.S. June 5, 2023
Apple’s Vision Pro headset on display at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, U.S. June 5, 2023

Let’s now look into Apple’s acquisitions in Europe that led to these Metaverse products:

  • 🇩🇪 In May 2015, Munich-based company Metaio was integrated into Apple’s ecosystem. Known for its AR software and development tools, Metaio laid the groundwork for Apple’s ARKit framework on iOS.
  • 🇨🇭 In November 2015, Zurich-based company Faceshift brought crucial innovations to Apple. Looking into patents from this acquisition, one of the key Faceshift patents that Apple acquired, which stems back to 2013, was only published in Jan 2023 by the U.S. Patent Office. The invention relates to a real-time facial animation method and a real-time facial animation processing device, linked to the Animoji/Memoji products and made available to third-party developers through ARKit. These innovations are the basis for the near-photorealistic personas introduced with the Vision Pro.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: one of the original Faceshift engineers Sofien Bouaziz, left Apple in 2018 and then worked for Google. In April 2021 he moved to Meta Reality Labs as the Director, XR People. CEO and co-founder Thibaut Weise left Apple in 2020 to join Epic Games Germany. Last but not least, CTO and Co-founder Brian Amberg, is still with Apple, leading the Zurich Vision Lab, a site dedicated to Computer Vision and Machine Learning.
  • 🇩🇪 In June 2017, the acquisition of the Teltow-based company SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI). SMI, founded in 1991, developed a range of eye-tracking hardware and software for several fields of use, including VR and AR, in-car systems, clinical research, cognitive training, linguistics, neuroscience, physical training and biomechanics, and psychology. Only in July this year, Apple won a key patent stemming from this acquisition and the basis of the Vision Pro eye tracking feature.
  • 🇩🇰 Also in 2017, Apple acquired Spektral, a Danish computer vision startup for augmented reality technology for over $30 million. Spektral’s technology allowed for the real-time removal of backgrounds in videos, enabling users to easily superimpose people or objects onto different backgrounds during live video recordings. This technology aligned with Apple’s interest in advancing imaging and AR capabilities across its product line including ARKit. Back then, the goal of the acquisition was believed to be “an AR headset, codenamed T288, which runs its own operating system dubbed “rOS.”; with 8K displays and a separate processor, but isn’t expected to ship until 2020 or later”.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Following the exit, co-founder Jansen became a manager of Computational Imaging at Apple, working out of the San Francisco Bay Area and he is still working there today.
  • 🇬🇧 In October 2019, Farnham-based 3D animation company IKinema became part of Apple. The company developed motion capture technology that could morph video footage of people into animated characters. Key features for the further development of Animoji/Memoji products, ARKit, and eventually Apple Vision Pro.

Magic Leap — Magic Leap One, Magic Leap Two

In 2010, Magic Leap was set up to recreate the human eye to develop the most advanced AR technology. The company released its first head-mounted augmented reality display, called Magic Leap One in 2018.

By that time the company had raised $461 million in Series D funding. Wired reported that in 2020 just over 100,000 devices were shipped. In September 2022, Magic Leap Two was released “industry’s smallest and lightest device” for business uses. No sales numbers have been made public since then.

On September 30 2022, Magic Leap made the Magic Leap Two commercially available in the US and selected other countries. Image credit: Magic Leap
On September 30, 2022, Magic Leap made the Magic Leap Two commercially available in the US and selected other countries. Image credit: Magic Leap

Magic Leap made two acquisitions to date in Europe accelerating the innovation driving these HMDs:

  • 🇨🇭 In February 2017, Magic Leap’s foray into Europe began with the $4.5 billion acquisition of Zurich-based company Dacuda. Dacuda specialised in developing algorithms for consumer-grade cameras, enabling real-time 2D and 3D imaging — a breakthrough that simplified the creation of 3D content. This strategic move significantly enhanced Magic Leap’s room-scale, six-degrees-of-freedom tracking, and advanced its image-capturing sensors in 3D environments.
  • 🇧🇪 In May 2019, Magic Leap expanded its European footprint with the acquisition of Belgian seed startup Mimesys. Renowned for its expertise in live volumetric video capture-based conferencing, Mimesys brought the capability for Magic Leap users to partake in real-time telepresence conference calls, utilising volumetrically captured avatars representing their actual bodies.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Founder and CTO Davy Loots (the only fellow Belgian on the list!) worked with Magic Leap for two years. This year, he joined Or & Sable, a Belgian startup dedicated to reinventing military training with drones, a spin-off of Lugus Studios. Co-founder and CEO Rémi Rousseau joined Magic Leap initially but soon after acted as a business angel and advisor with 9 startups to eventually co-found AniML in 2022, a company focused on reimaging the entirely 3D creation process via machine learning.

Meta — Oculus Rift, Go, Meta Quest series (1, 2, Pro, 3), Horizon World/Workrooms, Rayban Stories, and ‘neural interface’ wristband

At Connect 2021, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Meta, a new brand name signalling the company’s strategic initiative to build a metaverse — a virtual realm where people increasingly engage in various aspects of their lives, driven by advancements in AI and VR/MR technology. Before his announcement, the company had already launched 3 HMDs: the Quest 1 in May 2019 and the Quest 2 in October 2020.

The Quest 1, a VR headset featuring 6 degrees-of-freedom tracking, represented the culmination of Facebook’s years-long endeavours in VR, drawing on valuable insights from earlier headsets like the Oculus Rift (2013) and Go (2017).

The Quest 2 introduced enhanced processing capabilities, a higher-resolution display, and an even more comfortable design. Meta has confirmed it has sold 20 million headsets to date.

The Quest 3 was announced earlier this year, the device introduces pass-through features (from VR to MR), is 40 percent sleeker and thinner than its predecessor, and is twice as powerful. Most recently, Zdnet confirmed that the Quest 3 outsold Airpods during the Black Friday weekend.

The Meta Quest 3 was launched on September 27th at Meta Connect and is set to release on October 10th 2023.
The Meta Quest 3 was launched on September 27th at Meta Connect and is set to release on October 10th 2023.

In terms of software, Meta focuses on social interactions and collaboration via the launch of Horizon World and Horizon Workrooms. 

As for AR, Meta introduced Rayban Stories, its first-generation smart glasses in September 2021 in partnership with EssilorLuxottica, a French-Italian leader in the design, manufacture, and distribution of ophthalmic lenses, frames, and sunglasses.

On September 27th 2023, Meta introduced the second generation of New Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses In partnership with EssilorLuxottica
On September 27th, 2023, Meta introduced the second generation of New Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses In partnership with EssilorLuxottica

A second generation was announced in September 2023: the new glasses feature improved audio and cameras, over 150 different custom frame and lens combinations, and they’re lighter and more comfortable.

Meta also has been researching and developing wristband technology to create a device that can interface with the brain, allowing for more direct and intuitive interaction with digital systems. The plan is to launch the neural wristband together with the third generation of their Rayban Stories in 2025.

Meta has made many acquisitions in Europe driving these product announcements:

  • 🇩🇰 In December 2016, Oculus acquired the Copenhagen-based startup The Eye Tribe. The company’s unique eye-tracking software based on infrared technology was developed out of research by the founders at IT University Of Copenhagen back in 2009. The company developed software that enables eye control on mobile devices and computers, allowing hands-free control, eye-activated log-in, and enhanced gaming experiences.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Following the acquisition Co-founder Henrik Skovsgaard joined Meta and today is still working with the Facebook Reality Labs team in Switzerland. Co-founder and CEO Sune Alstrup, joined Meta briefly to continue as an Angel investor/Advisor/Board Member of +20 startups and as an LP with multiple funds such as The Nordic Web Ventures, LDV Capital, and Nordic Secondary Fund. He also served as a hands-on team member at NextMind (see Snap Inc. section below) transforming research on brain-computer interfaces into a non-invasive brain sensor.
  • 🇩🇪 In August 2017, the acquisition of the Erfurt-based video modification and motion tracking technology startup Fayteq. According to a interview with Siegfried Vater, business angel and partner of Fayteq, the startup offered “innovative technologies in the area of off-line and real-time video manipulation, removing the border between reality and fiction.” Some speculations were made that the acquisition fueled Meta’s AR platform for developers.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: CTO and Co-founder Jan Herling still works with Meta, based in Seattle and CEO Wolfgang Broll, became a Professor Of Virtual Worlds and Digital Games Group at the Technical University of Ilmenau.
  • 🇬🇮 In February 2019, Meta acquired the first blockchain startup, based in Gibraltar, Chainspace, a smart contracts platform. Chainspace helps people build high-performance blockchain applications using popular languages and technologies on commodity cloud platforms. This acquisition is key to Meta’s ambitions to introduce virtual tokens and cryptocurrencies to use them for rewarding creators, lending, and other financial services.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️ and 🦸🏼‍♀️ : After the exit, Co-founder Ramsey Khoury focused on Vega Protocol, a new protocol enabling an open, blockchain-backed public network for fully automated end-to-end trading. Co-founder Shehar Bano has continued to work with Meta as a Research Scientist. Third co-founder Alberto Sonnino continued to work with Meta before joining Mysten Labs in 2022.
  • 🇨🇿 In November 2019, Meta acquired Prague-based Beat Games, the developer behind the most popular VR headset game to date, Beat Saber. Doom Creator and ex-CTO of Oculus, John Carmack has called the Beat Saber gameplay “a perfect storm” as it excels by leveraging the immersive power of music, fitness-like movements, relatively low-powered hardware, and a satisfying gameplay loop that takes little time to complete. The game has undeniably been key to the success of the Meta Quest series.

Marco DeMiroz, co-founder and general partner of The Venture Reality Fund (US) and also an early investor in Beat Games, confirmed the following:

“My partner Tipatat Chennavasin had heard about the company and its novel game mechanics in 2017. He fell in love after seeing the early version and we started engaging with the founders to help with the gameplay, strategic partnerships and later on during the acquisition.
The swiftness of their 2019 acquisition by Meta not only affirmed their pioneering approach but also broadcasted a wider recognition of VR’s game-changing potential within the gaming industry.” — Marco Demiroz, co-founder and general partner at the Venture Reality Fund

  • 🇬🇧 In February 2020, Meta acquired Scape Technologies, a London-based computer vision startup (reportedly for $40 million). Founded in 2016, Scape built a localisation engine designed for city-scale AR. Using a cloud-based “Visual Engine,” the technology can build and reference 3D maps in the cloud, allowing devices to tap into a unified perception of the world around them. The acquisition accelerated the MR feature development of the Meta Quest Pro (as it combines VR and AR capabilities) and AR glasses.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Scape’s Co-founder and CEO Edward Miller is a research project manager with the Reality Lab Research team and the co-site lead of the Meta London office.
  • 🇬🇷 in February 2022, the acquisition of the Patras-based Accusonus (at a $100 million valuation), a developer of patented Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence technology for sound processing workflows. This acquisition marks the first acquisition of Meta in Europe with a focus on (immersive) audio. Audio is an integral part of creating immersive experiences as it enhances presence, emotions, authenticity, and storytelling.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Co-founder and CEO Alex Tsilfidis still works with Meta and leads their Greek engineering site.
  • 🇩🇪 In September 2022, the acquisition of the Berlin-based haptic-technology startup Lofelt. The company was founded in 2014 and raised €10 million to develop haptic software and hardware, building natural bridges between people and technology. The purchase enables Meta to leverage technology that simulates user touch and feel feedback from a controller, glove, or wristband. This innovation becomes available to all new hardware including Meta Quest 3 and third-generation RayBan Meta Smart Glasses.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Since the acquisition, Daniel Büttner, Lofelt’s Co-founder and CEO has joined the Meta team in Berlin as Lead Product Manager Haptics.
  • 🇬🇧 In November 2022, Meta acquired a second company in the audio space in Europe with Cambridge-based Audio Analytic. Audio Analytic joined Meta aiming to make virtual sounds and speech more realistic.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Co-founder and CEO Dr Chris Mitchell is currently the Director of audio research for Reality Labs Research, based in Cambridge.
  • 🇳🇱 In January 2023, Meta acquired Eindhoven-based Luxecel, a company that 3D prints lenses for prescription eyewear and the next generation of smart wearables. This acquisition assists Meta’s Reality Labs in producing Smart Glasses for everyday use.

Snap Inc — Spectacles, Lens Studio, ARES, and AR Mirrors

Snap Inc.’s early innovations in AR, its focus on the camera as a primary interface, and its efforts to empower developers and creators contribute to the broader vision of the metaverse as a space where digital and physical worlds converge, enabling immersive, interactive, and social experiences.

The company has launched several products enabling this vision: Spectacles (2016), smart glasses that allow users to capture photos and videos from their perspective and instantly share them on Snapchat.

Since launch, another 2 generations of Spectacles have been released, with the latest announced in 2019. Lens Studio (2017) is a free desktop application that allows users to create augmented reality (AR) lenses for use on Snapchat. ARES (AR Enterprise Services, 2023) is a new SaaS offering, which promises to bring its AR and AI technology suite to customers’ owned-and-operated apps and websites.

On 27 September 2023 unfortunately, Snap confirmed to close down ARES after less than 6 months after it was launched. AR Mirrors (2023) allows shoppers in stores to instantly see how clothes look on them without physically trying them on. The mirrors are part of Snap’s new effort to move beyond the AR lenses in its app and start offering AR products in the physical world.

Snapchat’s Spectacles 3 were announced on August 13th, 2019
Snapchat’s Spectacles 3 were announced on August 13th, 2019

Let’s delve into the 🇪🇺 acquisitions that have contributed to the development of these products for the Metaverse:

  • 🇬🇧 In June 2017, Snap Inc. acquired London-based PlayCanvas, a company that offers a web-based game development platform. While not explicitly tied to VR/AR or metaverse technology, PlayCanvas contributed to Snap’s development efforts in interactive web experiences and is relevant to the broader Web3 space. Playcanvas became part of Snapchat’s ‘Lens Studio’, where developers build AR Lens effects.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: CEO and Co-founder Will Eastcott is working with Snap Inc.
  • 🇬🇧 In January 2019, Snap Inc. acquired London-based Ariel AI, “Powering the next generation of consumer experiences on mobile devices through pixel-accurate, real-time 3D Human Perception and Reconstruction, on the edge”. Hence, with the acquisition, Snap can now build 3D mesh on mobile in the fastest and most efficient way, fortifying their AR offering.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Co-founder and Chief R&D R. Alp Guler and CEO and Co-founder Iasonas Kokkinos both joined Snap Inc.’s Computer Vision team in London.
  • 🇬🇧 In May 2021, Snap Inc. agreed to acquire Oxford-based WaveOptics, the supplier of the AR displays that powered its Spectacles glasses (even before the acquisition), for $500 million. The deal has been Snap’s largest acquisition to date. WaveOptics primarily made waveguides, a display technology that allows for the overlaying of virtual objects onto the real world through a transparent surface like glass, and accompanying light projectors. WaveOptics became part of Snapchat’s AR display manufacturing team.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Co-founder David Grey, CEO and Co-founder Sumanta Talukdar. Post-acquisition the latter co-founded Gardin, a new operating system for food production based on remote sense technology, machine vision, and analytics.
  • 🇫🇷 In March 2022, Snap Inc. acquired Paris-based Nextmind, a neurotechnology startup developing a groundbreaking, noninvasive, AI-based brain-computer interface for the mass market. This technology monitors neural activity to understand your intent when interacting with a computing interface, allowing you to push a virtual button simply by focusing on it. The goal of the acquisition is for future AR spectacles to be controlled by your thoughts.
    • Unsung 🦸🏻‍♂️: Sune Altstrup (featured above in the Meta section) worked closely with the founder Sid Kouider to fund and commercialise the Nextmind tech until they successfully exited to Snap Inc. in March 2022.

"Following the acquisition of The Eye Tribe by Oculus/Facebook many people asked me what’s next after eye-control. I believe the holy grail of Human-Computer Interaction lies in neural interfaces, with the potential to enable completely seamless control of our everyday devices. I met the founder of Nextmind in 2017 through my network, and their prototype convinced me. Even the early versions made you feel superhuman." — Sune Alstrup, early angel investor with NextMind: 

  • 🇳🇱 In March 2023, Snap Inc. acquired Amsterdam-based Th3rd, offering 3D scanning as a service to fashion brands and retailers. With the acquisition, Th3rd’s tech became part of Snap Inc’s ARES which was shut down 6 months later.

What’s next?

AI 😎! The featured Metaverse hardware companies are actively eyeing AI acquisitions in Europe, signalling a strategic move to fast-track innovation, commercialisation, and local talent acquisition.

Apple’s acquisition of Finnish company Curious AI 🇫🇮 exemplifies this trend. Specialising in autonomous AI development, Curious AI envisions AI with a rich inner life, capable of intuitive decision-making through trial and error, akin to human behaviour. The unsung heroes are Harri ValpolaMathias BerglundTimo HaanpääTapani RaikoAntti Rasmus.

This move, despite contrary claims, showcases that AI-centric acquisitions are propelling the broader metaverse industry forward. As AI progresses, it promises to unlock untapped potential, elevating AR/VR/MR experiences to unprecedented levels of engagement and immersion.

In conclusion

As we celebrate the success of Metaverse giants, let’s not forget the unsung heroes who laid the foundation for the immersive experiences we enjoy. Their stories deserve recognition, for they are the true architects of the virtual frontier.

I want to express gratitude to my cohort members at Included VC for their constructive feedback during the research and writing process (special shout out to Sijue Zhao and Ivo Schmidt). A big thanks to Included VC’s Nikita Thakrar and Anu Panesar for initiating and sustaining this unique fellowship.

Leen Segers is Managing Director ForsVC; Co-founder NGO Women in Immersive Technologies Europe; Inspiring Fifty winner; and Included VC - Cohort Member (Class ‘23).

Lead image: vecstock

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