By: Gigaom
June 29, 2012 at 06:18 AM EDT
13th Lab raises $700,000 to build its ‘UI for reality’
Swedish startup 13th Lab has just raised $700,000 from Nordic investors Creandum to help build its augmented reality browser and developer tools for iOS. But forget about tacky versions of AR: this team is trying to build a real interface between the digital and the physical.

Augmented reality has been through its ups and downs over the last few years — going from exciting and futuristic to gimmicky and lame and everywhere in between — but it could be back up again thanks to Google Glass, the company’s much-talked-about AR headgear. And that timing couldn’t be better for Swedish startup 13th Lab, which has just raised a seed round from Nordic investors Creandum to help expansion.

13th Lab, which I wrote about last year, is building an augmented reality service. But it’s not any old augmented reality: it’s an iOS-based service that uses technology part-developed by NASA to let your device see and understand the world around it. It’s complicated stuff — the same technologies used in the Mars Rover or autonomous aircraft — and it’s compressed into a version that can run on your mobile using just its sensors.

And, crucially, it’s all built into the company’s iOS browser, Pointcloud.

“We’re very different from other AR and computer vision companies,” says co-founder Petter Ivmark. “Everything is done on an open web model… that’s great for people, because there’s nothing new to learn, no new language: it’s just HTML and JavaScript.”

The product is really two-fold: 13th Lab provides a browser that lets users surf the web as normal on their iPhone or iPad, but can add virtual moments in whenever the device recognizes images and objects. It’s a sort of souped-up QR code that’s already being used by Swedish megapublisher Metro to add interactive elements to its newspapers, and very accessible:

But at a deeper level, it also offers an SDK to app developers to let them build AR into their own products — potentially enabling companies to develop complex services that take augmented reality somewhere new.

Here’s a video to guide you through.

You can easily imagine, say, a certain Swedish furniture store offering an app that let people check what the sofa they’re interested in would look like in their living room in 3D glory.

Ivmark says the company isn’t just going to be one of those horrific AR vehicles, but a platform for creating a “UI for reality.”

“We’re really pushing for utility, not just ad-based use cases or being gimmicky,” he told me. “It’s not just seeing a fire-breathing dragon on your desktop; we’re over that stage. Now there’s been a resurgence with image detection and recognition, but in most cases it’s used for advertising, marketing. We want to provide something that has real value.”

That bigger vision is what brought in a €550,000 ($700,000) round from Creandum, the northern European-focused venture firm that is an investor in the likes of Spotify, Videoplaza and iZettle. And the money will be used for modest growth, says Ivmark: The company has low costs despite the complex technology it uses.

“We’ve gotten as far as we have with no outside funding at all — we’ve been doing this for two and a half years, and we don’t burn a lot of cash: we’ve been self-funded for a long time,” he says. “At the moment it works really well in smaller spaces like a room, but we want to take it bigger scale to whole apartments, airports, even outdoors.”

So what about Google Glass? Is Google’s interest in computer vision a threat to startups like 13th Lab?

“From our perspective it’s a really interesting development, especially because it’s Google and they have almost unlimited resources. Right now it’s just a small screen that shows you information: there’s no computer vision in there, and we think there should be — and will be — in the future.”

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