Dating app S’More adds blurred video calling and launches in LA

Posted by | Mobile, smore, Social, Startups | No Comments

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down dating app S’More — at least according to CEO Adam Cohen-Aslatei, who said that the app’s daily active user count doubled in March and hasn’t gone down since.

“When people are working form home, they have much more time to dedicate to their relationships,” Cohen-Aslatei told me.

The app (whose name is short for “something more”) launched last fall and has supposedly attracted nearly 50,000 users. The goal is to move beyond the superficiality of most dating apps, where you first learn about another user and then unlock visual elements (like a profile photo) as you interact.

Cohen-Aslatei said the team has also spent more on marketing to attract a diverse audience, both in terms of racial diversity (something S’more reinforces by not allowing users to filter by race) and sexual orientation, with 15% of users identifying as LGBTQ.

Of course, dating someone new can be challenging when meeting up in-person poses real health risks, but Cohen-Aslatei said S’More users have gotten creative, like remote dinners where they order each other takeout from their favorite restaurants. And now that things are reopening (though some of those reopenings are getting pulled back), users are asking, “How do we transition these virtual relationships into IRL?”

S'More video calling

Image Credits: S’More

To give users more ways to interact, the S’More team recently launched a video calling feature. But Cohen-Aslatei noted, “We had to to create it in a way that was really fitting for our app … Women actually don’t want to see a guy right away, when you don’t know if they’re a creep.”

So in S’more’s video calling, the video is blurred for the first two minutes, which means you’ve got to actually start an interesting conversation before you can see who you’re talking to, and before they see you (a concept that may be familiar to viewers of Netflix’s dating show “Love is Blind”).

S’More has also expanded geographically, launching last week in Los Angeles (it was already available in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago). And it recently started its a video series of its own on Instagram’s IGTV — the S’More Live Happy Hour, where celebrities offer dating advice.

“There’s this negative history of dating apps perpetuating negative online behaviors, fake images, catfishers,” Cohen-Aslatei said. “But now we’re going into a new era of authenticity, where we’re going from super vain to super authentic. S’more is one of those apps that’s going to lead you in that direction.”

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Festo’s latest biomimetic robots are a flying feathered bird and ball-bottomed helper arm

Posted by | biomimetic, festo, Gadgets, hardware, robotics, robots, science | No Comments

You could be excused for thinking that German robotics company Festo does nothing but put together fabulous prototype robots built to resemble kangaroos, jellyfish, and other living things. They do in fact actually make real industrial robots, but it’s hard not to marvel at their biomimetic experiments; Case in point, the feathered BionicSwift and absurd BionicMobileAssistant motile arm.

Festo already has a flying bird robot — I wrote about it almost 10 years ago. They even made a flying bat as a follow-up. But the BionicSwift is more impressive than both because, in an effort to more closely resemble its avian inspiration, it flies using artificial feathers.

Image Credits: Festo

“The individual lamellae [i.e. feathers] are made of an ultralight, flexible but very robust foam and lie on top of each other like shingles. Connected to a carbon quill, they are attached to the actual hand and arm wings as in the natural model,” Festo writes in its description of the robot.

The articulating lamellae allow the wing to work like a bird’s, forming a powerful scoop on the downstroke to push against the air, but separating on the upstroke to produce less resistance. Everything is controlled on-board, including the indoor positioning system that the bird was ostensibly built to demonstrate. Flocks of BionicSwifts can fly in close quarters and avoid each other using an ultra wideband setup.

Festo’s BionicMobileAssistant seems like it would be more practical, and in a way it is, but not by much. The robot is basically an arm emerging from a wheeled base — or rather a balled one. The spherical bottom is driven by three “omniwheels,” letting it move easily in any direction while minimizing its footprint.

The hand is a showcase of modern robotic gripper design, with all kinds of state of the art tech packed in there — but the result is less than the sum of its parts. What makes a robotic hand good these days is less that it has a hundred sensors in the palm and fingers and huge motility for its thumb, but rather intelligence about what it is gripping. An unadorned pincer may be a better “hand” than one that looks like the real thing because of the software that backs it up.

Not to mention the spherical movement strategy makes for something of an unstable base. It’s telling that the robot is transporting scarves and not plates of food or parts.

Of course, it’s silly to criticize such a machine, which is aspirational rather than practical. But it’s important to understand that these fascinating creations from Festo are hints at a possible future more than anything.

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Sprint 5G is no more, as T-Mobile focuses on its own network

Posted by | 5g, Mobile, sprint, T-Mobile | No Comments

A day after formally completing the sale of Boost, Virgin and other Sprint prepaid networks to Dish, T-Mobile is pulling the plug on Sprint 5G. The move is one in a long list of issues that need sorting out in the wake of April’s $26.5 billion merger. And like a number of other moves, it’s set to leave some customers in the lurch.

The end of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz 5G comes as T-Mobile opts to focus on its own network. T-Mobile already started the process in New York City, a few weeks after the merger and has since completed it in a handful of other cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Washington, D.C.

As CNET notes, while most of the Sprint 5G handsets won’t be able to make the transition, Samsung Galaxy S20 5G users are in the clear here. For everyone else, T-Mobile is offering up credits on leases for new 5G handsets.

T-Mobile told TechCrunch in a statement, “We are working to quickly re-deploy, optimize and test the 2.5GHz spectrum before lighting it up on the T-Mobile network.”

Along with the sale of Boost, 5G was a big selling point for T-Mobile’s Sprint acquisition. The carriers argued that the deal was necessary to keep them competitive with first and second place carriers AT&T and Verizon when it came to the next-generation wireless technology.

At the time FCC chairman Ajit Pai agreed stating, “This transaction will provide New T-Mobile with the scale and spectrum resources necessary to deploy a robust 5G network across the United States.”

Earlier this week, OpenSignal awarded T-Mobile the top spot in availability, noting, “In the U.S., T-Mobile won the 5G Availability award by a large margin with Sprint and AT&T trailing with scores of 14.1% and 10.3%, respectively.”

Update: The language of the post has been updated to reflect the impact on specific unsupported devices, rather than user base figures.

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‘Westworld’ creators are developing a ‘Fallout’ TV series for Amazon

Posted by | amazon studios, bethesda softworks, Entertainment, fallout, Gaming, Media, TC | No Comments

“Fallout,” the post-apocalyptic video game franchise published by Bethesda Softworks, is being turned into a TV series by Kilter Films, the production company of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

The series, which began in 1997, takes place in an alternate future with a retro tone, after a nuclear war has turned most of the world into a wasteland. The games have continued in the two decades since, most recently with the release of “Fallout 76.”

The show — currently in development, with a series commitment from Amazon Studios — is part of Nolan and Joy’s overall deal with streaming service, which they signed last year for a reported $150 million.

The husband-and-wife team is best known for creating HBO’s new version of “Westworld” (based on a Michael Crichton film from the 1970s). They’re also working on an adaptation of William Gibson’s novel “The Peripheral.”

“Fallout is one of the greatest game series of all time,” Nolan and Joy said in a statement. “Each chapter of this insanely imaginative story has cost us countless hours we could have spent with family and friends. So we’re incredibly excited to partner with Todd Howard and the rest of the brilliant lunatics at Bethesda to bring this massive, subversive, and darkly funny universe to life with Amazon Studios.”

 

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Police roll up crime networks in Europe after infiltrating popular encrypted chat app

Posted by | encrochat, encryption, Government, Mobile, Security | No Comments

Hundreds of alleged drug dealers and other criminals are in custody today after police in Europe infiltrated an encrypted chat system reportedly used by thousands to discuss illegal operations. The total failure of this ostensibly secure method of communication will likely have a chilling effect on the shadowy industry of crime-focused tech.

“Operation Venetic” was reported by various police agencies, major local news outlets, and by Motherboard in especially vibrant form, quoting extensively people apparently from within the groups affected.

The operation involved hundreds of officers working across numerous agencies in France, the Netherlands, the U.K., and other countries. It began in 2017, and culminated two months ago when a service called EncroChat was hacked and the messages of tens of thousands of users exposed to police scrutiny.

EncroChat is a step up in some ways from encrypted chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp. Rather like Blackberry once did, EncroChat provided customized hardware, a dedicated OS, and its own servers to users, providing an expensive service costing thousands per year rather than a one-time purchase or download.

Messages on the service were supposedly very secure and had deniability built in by letting conversations be edited later — so theoretically a user could claim after the fact they never said something. Motherboard’s Joseph Cox has been following the company for some time and has far more details on its claims and operations.

Image Credits: EncroChat /

Needless to say those claims were not entirely true, as at some point in early 2020 police managed to introduce malware into the EncroChat system that completely exposed the conversations and images of its users. Because of the trusted nature of the app, people would openly discuss drug deals, murders, and other crimes, making them sitting ducks for law enforcement.

Throughout the spring criminal operations were being cracked open with alarming (to them) regularity, but it wasn’t until May that users and EncroChat managed to put the pieces together. The company attempted to warn its users and issue an update, but the cat was out of the bag. Seeing that its operation was now exposed, the Operation Venetic teams struck.

Arrests across the several countries involved (there were numerous sub-operations but France and the Netherlands were the primary investigators) total near a thousand, but exact numbers are not clear. Dozens of guns, tons (metric, naturally) of drugs and the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in cash were seized. More importantly, the chat logs seem to have provided access to people higher up the food chain than ordinary busts would have.

That the reportedly most popular of encrypted chat companies focused on illegal activities could be so completely subverted by international authorities will likely put a damper on its competition. But like other, more domestic challenges to encryption, such as the perennial complaints by the FBI, this event is more likely to strengthen the tools in the long run.

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Daily Crunch: Apple and Google block banned apps in India

Posted by | Apple, Daily Crunch, Google, Mobile, Policy | No Comments

Banned Chinese apps are beginning to disappear from India’s app stores, Palantir is raising more funding and Venmo starts testing Business Profiles.

Here’s your Daily Crunch for July 2, 2020.

1. Apple and Google block dozens of Chinese apps in India

Two days after India blocked 59 apps developed by Chinese firms, Google and Apple have started to comply with the government’s order and are preventing users in the world’s second-largest internet market from accessing those apps.

UC Browser, Shareit, Club Factory and other apps are no longer listed on Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store. In a statement, a Google spokesperson said that the company had “temporarily blocked access to the apps”on Google Play Store as it reviews the order.

2. SEC filing indicates big data provider Palantir is raising $961M, $550M of it already secured

Palantir, the controversial and secretive big data and analytics provider, has reportedly been eyeing up a public listing this autumn. But in the meantime it’s also continuing to push ahead in the private markets.

3. Venmo begins piloting ‘Business Profiles’ for small sellers

Business Profiles offer small sellers and other sole proprietors the opportunity to have a more professional profile page on its platform. Sellers can share key business details like address, phone number, email, website and more.

4. Tesla delivered 90,650 vehicles in second quarter, a smaller than expected decline

Tesla said Thursday that it delivered 90,650 vehicles in the second quarter, a 4.8% decline from the same period last year, prompted by challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — like suspending production for weeks at its main U.S. factory. But the company still managed to beat expectations despite the headwinds.

5. Top LA investors discuss the city’s post-COVID-19 prospects

From larger fund investors like Mark Suster and Kara Nortman at Upfront Ventures to Dana Settle at Greycroft Partners; to early-stage investors like Will Hsu at Mucker Capital; TX Zhuo at Fika Ventures, the responses were generally upbeat about the future opportunities for Los Angeles startups. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Dish closes Boost Mobile purchase, following T-Mobile/Sprint merger

T-Mobile today announced that it has closed a deal that divests Sprint’s pre-paid businesses, including Boost and Virgin Mobile. The whole thing was a key part of T-Mobile’s bid to merge with Sprint.

7. AR 1.0 is dead: Here’s what it got wrong

Many AR startups made huge promises and raised huge amounts of capital before flaring out in a similarly dramatic fashion. Lucas Matney argues that a key error was thinking that an AR glasses company should be hardware-first, when the reality is that the missing value is almost entirely centered on first-party software experiences. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Dish closes Boost Mobile purchase, following T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Posted by | Boost Mobile, Dish, FCC, Mobile, sprint, T-Mobile | No Comments

T-Mobile today announced that it has closed a deal that divests Sprint’s pre-paid businesses, including Boost and Virgin Mobile. The news finds Dish entering the wireless carrier game in earnest, courtesy of the $1.4 billion deal.

The whole thing was, of course, a key part of T-Mobile’s bid to merge with Sprint. It was a relatively small concession to those worried that such a deal would decrease competition in the market, as the number of major U.S. carriers shrunk from four down to three. The $26 billion T-Mobile/Sprint deal was finally completed in April of this year, and has already resulted in hundreds of lost jobs, as reported last month by TechCrunch.

The deal gives Dish a nice head start in the pre-paid phone game, with north of 9 million customers and access to T-Mobile’s wireless network for the next seven years. It also finds current Dish’s COO John Swieringa stepping in to lead the new subsidiary. Oh, and there’s a new Boost logo, too:

Dish

See? It’s basically the old Boost Mobile logo, but with the little Dish wireless symbols in the middle, to really show you who’s boss.

Dish used the opportunity to announce a new plan for Boost users with 15GB of data for $45, and has already begun switching consumers with compatible devices over to the new T-Mobile-backed network.

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AR 1.0 is dead: Here’s what it got wrong

Posted by | app-store, Apple, apple inc, augmented reality, consumer products, Developer, Emerging-Technologies, Extra Crunch, Facebook, Gaming, Google, hardware, Magic Leap, Market Analysis, mixed reality, Mobile, operating systems, smartglasses, Startups, TC, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

The first wave of AR startups offering smart glasses is now over, with a few exceptions.

Google acquired North this week for an undisclosed sum. The Canadian company had raised nearly $200 million, but the release of its Focals 2.0 smart glasses has been cancelled, a bittersweet end for its soft landing.

Many AR startups before North made huge promises and raised huge amounts of capital before flaring out in a similarly dramatic fashion.

The technology was almost there in a lot of cases, but the real issue was that the stakes to beat the major players to market were so high that many entrants pushed out boring, general consumer products. In a race to be everything for everybody, the industry relied on nascent developer platforms to do the dirty work of building their early use cases, which contributed heavily to nonexistent user adoption.

A key error of this batch was thinking that an AR glasses company was hardware-first, when the reality is that the missing value is almost entirely centered on missing first-party software experiences. To succeed, the next generation of consumer AR glasses will have to nail this.

Image Credits: ODG

App ecosystems alone don’t create product-market fit

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Twitch breaks records again in Q2, topping 5B total hours watched

Posted by | facebook gaming, Gaming, Media, mixer, Stream Hatchet, streamlabs, Twitch, youtube gaming | No Comments

Twitch had already broken viewership records in the first quarter of 2020 amid coronavirus lockdowns, surpassing 3 billion total hours watched in a single quarter for the first time. In the second quarter, it appears that Twitch has broken that record and several others once again.

According to a new report from Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet, Twitch saw a massive 62.7% increase in hours watched from Q1 2020 reach 5 billion hours watched in the second quarter.

This figure was also up by 83.1% year-over-year and helps to cement Twitch’s place as the leader among game-streaming services, with a 67.6% market share.

Twitch also broke records for hours streamed, unique channels and average concurrent viewership in Q2, the report found.

In terms of streaming, Twitch jumped 58.7% from 121.4 million hours in Q1 to 192.7 million in Q2. Unique channels increased from 63.9% quarter-over-quarter from 6.1 million in Q1 to nearly 10 million in Q2. And average concurrent viewership, meaning the number of viewers watching Twitch at the same time, grew 63.4% over last quarter to reach 2.4 million in Q2.

Image Credits: Streamlabs & Stream Hatchet

Of course, the headline news this quarter was Microsoft’s announcement about its plans to shut down its game-streaming service Mixer.

The service will wind down on July 22, and Microsoft has teamed up with Facebook to give users a new home. But that doesn’t guarantee Mixer users will make the switch — and Mixer’s exit may instead help propel Twitch to acquire even more market share than it does today.

Image Credits: Streamlabs & Stream Hatchet

Though Mixer is soon exiting, it had one of its best quarters to date in Q2, reaching 106 million hours watched, up 30.6% from Q1. It also grew its lineup to over 5 million channels. But in context of the broader market, Mixer wasn’t making a dent — it only managed to secure 1.4% market share by Q2, a figure that had actually fallen by over half a percentage point from the prior quarter.

Meanwhile, YouTube Gaming Live increased its hours watched 39.6% from Q1 to Q2 to reach 1.5 billion. To some extent, the growth stems from recent acquisitions of top talent, including Jack “CouRage” Dunlop and Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter, as well as the continued success of CouRage, noted the report.

Image Credits: Streamlabs & Stream Hatchet

YouTube Gaming Live also saw a 19.1% increase in hours streamed in the quarter to reach 16.9 million and unique channels grew 22.7% in the quarter to 1.1 million.

It’s still too early to know if Facebook Gaming will end up benefiting from Mixer’s exit, as planned. But hours watched on the service grew 48.5% quarter-over-quarter to reach 822 million; hours streamed hit 6.1 million; and unique channels reached 203,554. However, Facebook still only has an 11% share of the market and that hasn’t changed since Q1, the report found.

Image Credits:

Though Twitch — and to a lesser extent, other game-streaming services — have clearly gained in usage as more consumers look for ways to be entertained at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Amazon-owned game-streaming site this year.

In recent days, Twitch streamers were hit with a deluge of new RIAA takedown notices that required creators to painstakingly dig through hundreds of hours of past footage to find the infringing content, as Twitch didn’t offer robust search tools or bulk deletion capabilities.

But more concerning is that Twitch has come under fire for its failures to properly protect its community members from abuse and harassment, predatory behavior from adult streamers toward children, and other issues. In June, over 70 people in the gaming industry came forward with allegations of gender-based discrimination, harassment and sexual assault. Twitch vowed to do better, but its failure to set the proper tone for its community in the early days may work against it.

To date, these problems haven’t dampened Twitch’s growth from a viewership or market share perspective, but they could handicap its potential as a revenue-generating business. Already, Twitch has been struggling to generate ad revenue, and its failures to detoxify its community could only make things worse.

Marketers today are growing increasingly concerned about having their messages positioned next to hate speech and other divisive and toxic content. Currently, an ongoing Facebook ad boycott has grown to now officially include over 400 advertisers and has pushed giants like Unilever, Coca-Cola and Pfizer to pause their ad spend on Facebook’s social network. These same advertisers won’t likely jump at the chance to market their products and services on a game-streaming site that can’t control sexual abuse, either.

The full Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet report is here.

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Oculus co-founder and games industry vets form Mountaintop Studios

Posted by | Developer, doublefine, Gaming, mountaintop studios, nate mitchell, Oculus, Startups | No Comments

Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell is heading up a new game development house called Mountaintop Studios, joined by colleagues from around the gaming industry. The company aims to leave the crunch and toxic culture pervasive in game studios behind and make one that’s “collaborative, anti-crunch, diverse and inclusive.”

The founding team includes Mitchell’s former colleague Mark Terrano, who was creative director at Oculus, Matt Hansen, former COO of Double Fine, and artist Rich Lyons, who worked at Naughty Dog and Vigil.

According to its webpage, Mountaintop will be creating “multiplayer games for players who crave a challenge,” though when I chatted with Mitchell and Hansen, they cited mostly single-player titles. The theme they came back to was growth and a journey: mystery, but also mastery.

As the company’s initial blog post puts it:

It isn’t just the thrill of victory. It’s looking back and seeing how far you’ve come. How you were forced to grow, adapt and improve. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you’re better than you were before. And sometimes, it’s sharing the joy of the climb with your friends.

While it’s too early for the team to reveal details on their first game, “We think we’re onto something,” Mitchell said. Considering the time and effort it takes to create a AAA game these days, and the fact that Mountaintop is currently only five full-timers, we can probably expect the first details no earlier than next year.

But the founders were clear that the company is also about getting away from the culture problems in game development.

“What we really want to do is have a studio that is people first,” Mitchell said. “There are so many folks across the industry who have just been burnt out by endless crunch. And the expectations around hours don’t allow for any sort of work-life balance. We want Mountaintop to be a place where people can come and still have that.”

But it isn’t just labor issues of crunch and overtime plaguing gaming. Racism and sexism that are endemic and evident in both the final products and companies themselves. And it must be said that the founders themselves follow one of the most common and unfortunate trends in the industry: All four are white men.

Mitchell and Hansen declined to make any specific commitments as far as diversity and inclusion go, despite those values being central to the new studio. They did, at least, acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of this pursuit.

“There’s no silver bullet for inclusivity, a lot of it is long-term work,” Mitchell said. “Because it’s a fresh studio, a fresh culture, we can start from scratch with the right foundation. We never thought when we kicked off the studio that we’d be launching in the middle of not just a pandemic, but a global conversation about institutionalized racism, police violence and injustice. So talking about that stuff internally, where we stand as individuals and as a company, that informs how we act as a company.”

“One of the earliest conversations we had was around getting the culture right. Our founders are all aligned in this,” added Hansen.

“There’s a bunch of micro things we can do every day,” continued Mitchell. “Setting our cultural values, making sure people understand those, driving toward inclusivity and diversity training, excellent hiring practices, working with community groups and integrating and supporting them, maybe recruiting from there.”

It’s a lot of promises and few concrete commitments, a common theme in tech and gaming these days. Having one’s heart in the right place is nice, but what the industries need is action. Hopefully the promises are preludes to lasting decisions, but only time (plus real and sustained effort on Mountaintop’s part) will tell.

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