Digging into the Roblox growth strategy

Posted by | Apps, EC-1, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, Media, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, Video, Virtual reality | No Comments

Could Roblox create a new entertainment and communication category, something it calls “human co-experience”?

When it was a small startup, few observers would have believed in that future. But after 15 years — as told in the origin story of our Roblox EC-1 — the company has accumulated 90 million users and a new $150 million venture funding war chest. It has captured the imagination of America’s youth, and become a startup darling in the entertainment space.

But what, exactly, is human co-experience? Well, it can’t be described precisely — because it’s still an emerging category. “It’s almost like that fable where the nine blind men are touching and describing an elephant.

Everyone has a slightly different view,” says co-founder and CEO Dave Baszucki. In Roblox’s view, co-experience means immersive environments where users play, explore, talk, hang out, and create an identity that’s as thoroughly fleshed out (if not as fleshy) as their offline, real life.

But the next decade at Roblox will also be its most challenging time yet, as it seeks to expand from 90 million users to, potentially, a billion or more. To do so, it needs to pull off two coups.

First, it needs to expand the age range of its players beyond its current tween and teen audience. Second, it must win the international market. Accomplishing both of these will be a puzzle with many moving parts.

What Roblox is today

Lineup All 1

One thing Roblox has done very well is appeal to kids within a certain age range. The company says that a majority of all 9-to-12-year-old children in the United States are on its platform.

Within that youthful segment, Roblox has arguably already created the human co-experience category. Many games are more cooperative than competitive, or have goals that are unclear or don’t seem to matter much. One of Roblox’s most popular games, for instance, is MeepCity, where players can run around and chat in virtual environments like a high school without necessarily interacting with the game mechanics at all.

What else separates these environments from what you can see today on, say, the App Store or Steam? A few characteristics seem common.

For one, the environments look rough. One Robloxian put the company’s relaxed attitude toward looks as “not over-indexing on visual fidelity.”

Roblox games also ignore the design principles now espoused by nearly every game company. Tutorials are infrequent, user interfaces are unpolished, and one gets the sense that KPIs like retention and engagement are not being carefully measured.

That’s similar to how games on platforms like Facebook and the App Store started out, so it seems reasonable to say Roblox is just in a similarly early stage. It is — but it’s also competing directly with mobile games that are more rigorously designed. Over half of its players are on smartphones, where they could have chosen a free game that looks more polished, like Fortnite or Clash of Clans.

The more accurate explanation of why Roblox draws big player numbers is that there’s a gap in the kids entertainment market. So far, only Roblox fills that gap, despite its various shortcomings.

“The amount of unstructured, undirected play has been declining for decades. [Kids] have much more homework, and structured activities like theater after school.

One of the big unmet needs we solve is to give kids a place to have imagination,” explains Craig Donato, Roblox’s chief business officer. “If you play the experiences on our platform, you’re not playing to win. You go into these worlds with people you know and share an experience.”

Games like The Sims tried to do the same, but eventually faded in the children’s demo. Roblox’s trick has been continued growth: it provides kids with an endless array of games that unlock their imagination. But just like we don’t expect adults to have fun with Barbie dolls, it’s unlikely most adults would enjoy Roblox games.

Of course, it would be easy to point at Roblox and laugh off its ambitions to win over people of all ages. That laughter would also be short-sighted.

As David Sze, the Greylock Partners investor who led Roblox’s most recent round, pointed out: “When we invested in Facebook there was a huge amount of pushback that nobody would use it outside college.” Companies that have won over one demographic have a good chance of winning others.

Roblox has also proven its ability to evolve. At one time, the platform’s players were 90 percent male. Now, that’s down to about 60 percent. Roblox now has far more girls playing than the typical game platform.

Evolving to new demographics

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Facebook answers how Libra taxes & anti-fraud will work

Posted by | Apps, blockchain, Calibra, cryptocurrency, donald trump, eCommerce, Facebook, Finance, Government, Libra, Libra Association, Mobile, payments, Policy, TC | No Comments

Facebook provided TechCrunch with new information on how its cryptocurrency will stay legal amidst allegations from President Trump that Libra could facilitate “unlawful behavior.” Facebook and Libra Association executives tell me they expect Libra will incur sales tax and capital gains taxes. They confirmed that Facebook is also in talks with local convenience stores and money exchanges to ensure anti-laundering checks are applied when people cash-in or cash-out Libra for traditional currency, and to let you use a QR code to buy or sell Libra in person.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company wouldn’t respond directly to Trump’s tweets, but noted that the Libra association won’t interact with consumers or operate as a bank, and that Libra is meant to be a complement to the existing financial system.

Trump had tweeted that “Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity. Similarly, Facebook Libra’s ‘virtual currency’ will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National and International.”

For a primer on how Libra works, watch our explainer video below or read our deep dive into everything you need to know:

In a wide-reaching series of interviews this week, the Libra Association’s head of policy Dante Disparte, Facebook’s head economist for blockchain Christian Catalini and Facebook’s blockchain project subsidiary Calibra’s VP of product Kevin Weil answered questions about regulation of Libra. Here’s what we’ve learned (their answers were trimmed for clarity but not edited):

Would Facebook’s Calibra Wallet launch elsewhere even if it’s banned in the USA by regulators?

Calibra’s Kevin Weil: We believe that creating a financial ecosystem that has significantly broader access where all it takes is a phone and lower transaction fees across the board is good for people. And we want to bring it to as many people around the world as we can. But as a custodial wallet we are regulated and will be compliant and we will only operate in markets where we’re allowed.

We want that to be as many markets as possible. That’s why we announced well in advance of actually launching a product — because we’ve been engaging with regulators. We’re continuing to engage with regulators and we can help them understand the effort that we’re taking to make sure that people are safe and also the value that accrues to the people in their countries when there’s broader access to financial services with lower transaction fees across the board.

Facebook Calibra Libra Wallet

TechCrunch: But what if you’re banned in the U.S.?

Weil: I’m hesitant to give a blanket answer. But in general, we believe that Libra is positive for people and we want to launch as broadly as possible. The world where the U.S. does that I think would probably cause other regulatory regimes to also be concerned about it. I think that’s very much a bridge that we’ll cross when we get there. But so far we’re having frank, open and honest discussions with regulators. Obviously, that continues next week with David’s testimony. And I hope it doesn’t come to that, because I think that Libra can do a lot of good for a lot of people.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: The U.S. House subcommittee has already submitted a letter to Facebook requesting that it cease development of Libra and Calibra until regulators can better examine it and take action. It sounds like Facebook believes a U.S. ban on Libra/Calibra would cause a domino effect in other top markets, and therefore make it tough to rationalize still launching. That puts even more pressure on the outcome of July 16th and 17th’s congressional hearings on Libra with the head of Facebook’s head of Calibra, David Marcus.

How will users cash-in and cash-out of Libra in person?

We already know that Facebook’s own Libra wallet called Calibra will be baked into Messenger and WhatsApp plus have its own standalone app. There, those with connected bank accounts and government ID that go through a Know Your Customer (KYC) anti-fraud/laundering check will be able to buy and sell Libra. But a big goal of Libra is to bring the unbanked into the modern financial system. How does that work?

Weil: Because Libra is an open ecosystem, any money exchange business or entrepreneur can begin supporting cash-in/cash-out without needing any permission from anyone associated with the Libra Association or member of the Libra Association. They can just do it. Today in a lot of emerging markets [there’s a service for matching you with someone to exchange cryptocurrency for cash or vice-versa called] LocalBitcoins.com and I think you’ll see that with Libra too.

Second, we can augment that by by working with local exchanges, convenience stores and other cash-in/cash-out providers to make it easy from within Calibra. You could imagine an experience in the Calibra app or within Messenger or WhatsApp, where if you want to cash in or cash out, you’ll pop up a map that highlights physical locations around that allow you to do it. You select one that’s nearby, you select an amount, and you get a QR code that you can take to them and complete the transaction.

I’d imagine that most of these businesses that we work with will support Libra more broadly, so even if we get these deals started it will benefit the whole ecosystem and every Libra wallet, not just Calibra.

Facebook Calibra

TechCrunch: Have you struck relationships with any convenience store operators or money exchangers like Western Union or MoneyGram, or Walgreens, CVS or 7-Eleven? Are you in talks with them yet?

Weil: I probably shouldn’t comment on any specific deals but we’re in conversation with a lot of the folks you might think, because ultimately being able to move between Libra and your local currency is critical to driving adoption and utility in the early days . . . If you’re banked there are easier ways to do that. If you’re not banked and you’re in cash — those are the people we really want to serve with Libra — we’re working very hard to make that process easy for people.

TechCrunch’s analysis: This approach will let Calibra largely avoid the complicated and potentially error-prone process of KYCing people in person or handing out cash by offloading the responsibility and liability to other parties.

How will Libra stop fraud or laundering while offering access to unbanked users without ID?

Weil: There are very important populations that don’t have an ID. People in a refugee camp may not, as an example, and we want Libra to serve them. So this is one example of many of why it’s important that Calibra isn’t the only option for people who want to participate in the Libra ecosystem  . . . Others of these will be run by local providers and they have programs to meet customers face-to-face and other ways to serve people and even KYC them that we may not . . .  We’re not going be the only wallet, we don’t want to be the only wallet.

This is one of the reasons NGOs have been members of the Libra association from the start, because we want to encourage the monetization of identity processes both through working with governments issuing credentials for more people and also making use of new types of information for identity and authentication. We hope this process will hep the last mile problem.

In the case of a non-custodial wallet, the user isn’t trusting anyone. The way the regulations have worked and this is evolving as we speak. The on-ramps and off-ramps to the crypto world are regulated and they have direct customer relationships and it’s their responsibility to KYC people. In our case we’ll be a custodial wallet and we’ll KYC people. There are a number of wallets in the Bitcoin or Ethereum ecosystem — non-custodial wallets that don’t have a direct relationships with the users. . . They have to get that Bitcoin somehow. Usually they’re going through an exchange where usually as part of the process they’re KYC’d.

In a lot of emerging markets you have LocalBitcoins.com where you can find a representative or agent who will meet you in person and exchange cash for bitcoin in whatever market you have to be in. And I believe that they just started making sure that they KYC everyone, but they’re doing it in person. And they have more flexibility in how they do it than you might otherwise. I think there are lots of ways that this will happen and the fact that Libra is an open ecosystem will enable people to be entrepreneurial about it.

There are lots an lots of people who are underserved by today’s financial ecosystem who have government ID. So even with requiring everyone go through a KYC process, we’ll be able to serve many, many people who are not well-served by today’s financial ecosystem. We want to find ways to support people who can’t KYC and the important part is that Calibra will fully interoperate with any other wallet, including ones that people in local markets are using because it’s a better fit for their needs.

TechCrunch: Through that interoperability, if someone with a non-custodial wallet receives Libra and then sends it a Calibra wallet user, does that mean you Libra coming into Calibra from users who weren’t KYC’d and could be laundering money?

Weil: So it’s part of the regulatory situation that’s evolving as we speak. There’s something called the Travel Rule . . . If there’s a transfer above a certain value you have to make sure that you understand both who the sender is, which you do if they’re using a custodial wallet, and who the receiver is. These are evolving regulations, but it’s something that obviously we’re going to make sure that we implement as regulations solidify.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Calibra appears to be inviting regulation that it can strictly abide by rather than trying to guess at what the best approach is. But given it’s unclear when concrete rules will be established for transfers between non-custodial wallets and custodial wallets, or for in-person cashing, Facebook and Calibra may need to establish their own strong protocols. Otherwise they could be guilty of permitting the “unlawful behavior” Trump describes.

Libra Mission Statement

How will Libra be taxed?

Dante Disparte of Libra: Taxing of digital assets is something that’s being designed at the local level and at the jurisdiction level. Our view of the world is that like with any form of money or any form of payment or banking, the onus in terms of compliance with tax is with the individual user and consumer, and the same would hold true broadly here.

We expect that the many, many wallets and financial services providers building solutions on the Libra blockchain would begin to provide tools that make it much easier than it is today [to calculate and file taxes] for digital assets and cryptocurrencies more generally . . .  There’s plenty of time between now and Libra hitting the market to begin defining this more strictly at the jurisdictional level among providers.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Again, here Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association are hoping to avoid shouldering all the responsibility for taxes. Their position is that just as you have to take the initiative of paying your taxes whether or not you use a Visa card or your bank’s checks to transact, it’s on you to pay your Libra taxes.

TechCrunch: Do you think in the United States that it’s reasonable for the government to ask that Libra transactions be taxed?

Disparte: Tax treatments of digital assets broadly hasn’t been entirely clarified in most places around the world. And we hope that this is something that this project and the ecosystem around it helps to clarify.

Tax authorities will see a benefit from Libra at the consumption level and at the household level, while some cryptocurrencies have avoided taxes until the point they tried to cash out. But the nature of it and the lack of speculation and its design we think should give it a light tax treatment the way you would find with traditional currencies.

Calibra Transactions 2

Christian Catalini of Facebook: Cryptocurrencies are taxed right now every time you have a sale on the differences in gains and losses. Because Libra is designed to be a medium of exchange, those gains and losses are likely to be very tiny relative to your local currency . . . Sales tax would likely be implemented the exact same way on Libra as it is today when you pay with a credit card.

At launch giving current regulations, the Calibra wallet will have to track every purchase and sale of Libra for a U.S. user and those differences will have to be reported on tax day. You can think of the losses, albeit they may be very small gains and losses relative to USD, as similar to the what people do today when they have a Coinbase account with Bitcoin.

The sales tax I think could be implemented in the exact same way as it today with any other sort of digital payment, it would be no different. If you’re buying goods or services with Libra you’ll be paying sales tax the same way as if you used a different form of payment. Like today when you see a percentage, that is the sales tax on your total.

Disparte: Maybe the best way to frame how taxes work all over the world is that it’s not up to Libra, Calibra, Facebook or any company to make that determination. It’s up to regulators and authorities.

TechCrunch: Does Calibra already have plans in place for how to handle sales tax?

Weil: That’s also a pretty rapidly evolving part of the regulatory ecosystem right now. It’s really an ongoing discussion. We will do whatever the regulation says we need to do.

TechCrunch’s Analysis: Here we have the firmest answers of our interviews. Facebook, Calibra and the Libra Association believe the proper approach to taxes is that Libra transactions carry a country’s traditional sales tax, and that Libra you hold in your wallet will have to pay taxes based on the Libra stablecoin’s value (that’s pegged to a basket of international currencies) relative to the U.S. dollar.

If the Libra Association recommends all wallets and transactions follow these rules and Calibra builds in protocols to handle these taxes simply, at least the government can’t argue Libra is a method of dodging taxes and everyone paying their fair share.

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Sage Plus for Experts gives travel experts a central place to share their content

Posted by | Mobile, Sage Digital, samir arora, Startups, TC | No Comments

Sage is giving reviewers, chefs and other experts and publishers a central place to share all their content.

To do this, the startup has created a new product called Sage Plus for Experts, which isn’t open to the public yet, but is accepting signups from those aforementioned travel experts — the kinds of experts who can share content around things to do, food, drinks, experiences and shopping.

Founder and CEO Samir Arora (who previously led Mode Media/Glam Media) suggested that a Sage profile can serve as the center of a creator or publisher’s online presence. And eventually, it could become the foundation for them to build their own personal direct-to-consumer brand.

In the announcement, Arora said the product was designed to answer a simple question: “Why does the internet not offer a simple way to show recommendations by real experts or the authentic experiences and products by the brands we trust and love?”

Sage Plus for Experts

Back in 2017, when he first told me about his vision for Sage, Arora said his goal was to create a reliable source for location data. In an interview earlier this month, he said the plan to focus on verified sources eventually led him to this new product.

“We started to say that the only way to have verified information is to go backwards, to verify the sources of information — the journalists,” he said.

To do that, Sage starting curating a list of trusted experts, and it started working with those experts, who Arora said were asking for something like this. He showed me how someone could come onto the Sage service and quickly connect their social media accounts and author pages —after that, the profile updates automatically.

So there’s no technical expertise required, and after the initial setup, no additional work — though if they want to, experts can also post reviews and lists made specifically for Sage. They can even publish their Sage profile as a separate mobile app, and start monetizing through things like bookings and merchandise sales.

Sage Plus for Experts

In some cases, the profile will already exist, and the expert simply needs to claim it.

“We’ve been manually curating sources while training an AI to reliably go out into the world to find people who are professionally in this business,” Arora said.

He added that Sage’s list has already grown to 5 million experts, with 200,000 active profiles. The active experts include food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto (whom you may know from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”).

Ultimately, all expert content goes back into the broader Sage platform, and it will allow the startup to recommend trustworthy publishers and provide travel recommendations on what to do and where to go.

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Amazon reportedly ramps development on Alexa-powered home robot on wheels

Posted by | Amazon, Gadgets, hardware, Mayfield Robotics, robot, TC | No Comments

Bloomberg reported last April that Amazon was working on a home robot codenamed “Vesta” (after the Roman goddess of the hearth and home), and now the publication says that development on the project continues. Plus, the report includes new details about the specifics of the robot, including that it will indeed support Alexa and have wheels to help it move around. My terrible artist’s rendering of what that could look like is above.

The plan for Vesta was apparently to release it this year, but it’s not yet quite ready for mass production, according to Bloomberg’s sources. And while it could end up mothballed and never see the light of day, as with any project being developed ahead of launch, the company is said to be putting more engineering and development resources into the team working on its release.

Current prototypes of the robot are said to be about waist-high, per the report, and make their way through the world aided by sensor-fed computer vision. It’ll come when you call thanks to the Alexa integration, per an internal demo described by Bloomberg, and should ostensibly offer all the same kind of functionality you’d get with an Echo device, including calling, timers and music playback.

For other clues as to what Vesta could look like, if and when it ever launches, a good model might be Kuri, the robot developed by Bosch internal startup Mayfield Robotics which was shuttered a year ago and never made it to market. Kuri could also record video and take photos, play games and generally interact with the household.

Meanwhile, Amazon is also apparently readying a Sonos-competing high-quality Echo speaker to debut next year.

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Amazon said to be launching new Echo speaker with premium sound next year

Posted by | Amazon, apple inc, Companies, computing, Gadgets, hardware, HomePod, ikea, industries, Invoke, smart speakers, Sonos, Speaker, TC, tweeter | No Comments

Amazon is reportedly looking to offer an Echo that more directly competes with high-end speakers like the Sonos line of devices or Apple’s HomePod, according to a new report from Bloomberg. The speaker should be released sometime next year, according to the sources cited in the report, and will be somewhat wider than the existing Echo models (perhaps more akin to the Echo Sub, pictured above), packing in four separate tweeters to help boost the sound quality.

It will, of course, also offer access to the company’s Alexa voice assistant, which is what has propelled Echo to its current level of success. Bloomberg notes that it’s also likely to work better for the high-fidelity audio version of Amazon’s music streaming service that has previously been reported to be in the works.

This could make for an interesting working relationship with some of Amazon’s existing partners, including Sonos, as it sounds like this will be a direct competitor. Newer Sonos speakers, including the Sonos One and Sonos Beam, support Alexa voice commands out of the box. While both Echo devices and Sonos support multi-room streaming and speaker grouping, Sonos has always had far superior audio quality when compared to the Echo hardware – albeit at a premium price.

Sonos, meanwhile, is gearing up with Ikea to launch speakers powered by its technology, with the Symfonisk line that is set for release in August. Smart speakers are a busy space with a lot of money and interest from many companies big and small, but Amazon has a lot working in its favor if it can also produce something that wins on high-quality audio at a reasonable price.

If high-quality sound isn’t all that important to you, Amazon is also apparently working on a home robot equipped with Alexa on board.

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AI smokes 5 poker champs at a time in no-limit Hold’em with ‘relentless consistency’

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Gaming, poker, science, TC | No Comments

The machines have proven their superiority in one-on-one games like chess and go, and even poker — but in complex multiplayer versions of the card game humans have retained their edge… until now. An evolution of the last AI agent to flummox poker pros individually is now decisively beating them in championship-style 6-person game.

As documented in a paper published in the journal Science today, the CMU/Facebook collaboration they call Pluribus reliably beats five professional poker players in the same game, or one pro pitted against five independent copies of itself. It’s a major leap forward in capability for the machines, and amazingly is also far more efficient than previous agents as well.

One-on-one poker is a weird game, and not a simple one, but the zero-sum nature of it (whatever you lose, the other player gets) makes it susceptible to certain strategies in which computer able to calculate out far enough can put itself at an advantage. But add four more players into the mix and things get real complex, real fast.

With six players, the possibilities for hands, bets, and possible outcomes are so numerous that it is effectively impossible to account for all of them, especially in a minute or less. It’d be like trying to exhaustively document every grain of sand on a beach between waves.

Yet over 10,000 hands played with champions, Pluribus managed to win money at a steady rate, exposing no weaknesses or habits that its opponents could take advantage of. What’s the secret? Consistent randomness.

Even computers have regrets

Pluribus was trained, like many game-playing AI agents these days, not by studying how humans play but by playing against itself. At the beginning this is probably like watching kids, or for that matter me, play poker — constant mistakes, but at least the AI and the kids learn from them.

The training program used something called Monte Carlo counterfactual regret minimization. Sounds like when you have whiskey for breakfast after losing your shirt at the casino, and in a way it is — machine learning style.

Regret minimization just means that when the system would finish a hand (against itself, remember), it would then play that hand out again in different ways, exploring what might have happened had it checked here instead of raised, folded instead of called, and so on. (Since it didn’t really happen, it’s counterfactual.)

A Monte Carlo tree is a way of organizing and evaluating lots of possibilities, akin to climbing a tree of them branch by branch and noting the quality of each leaf you find, then picking the best one once you think you’ve climbed enough.

If you do it ahead of time (this is done in chess, for instance) you’re looking for the best move to choose from. But if you combine it with the regret function, you’re looking through a catalog of possible ways the game could have gone and observing which would have had the best outcome.

So Monte Carlo counterfactual regret minimization is just a way of systematically investigating what might have happened if the computer had acted differently, and adjusting its model of how to play accordingly.

traverserj

The game originall played out as you see on the left, with a loss. But the engine explores other avenues where it might have done better.

Of course the number of games is nigh-infinite if you want to consider what would happen if you had bet $101 rather than $100, or you would have won that big hand if you’d had an eight kicker instead of a seven. Therein also lies nigh-infinite regret, the kind that keeps you in bed in your hotel room until past lunch.

The truth is these minor changes matter so seldom that the possibility can basically be ignored entirely. It will never really matter that you bet an extra buck — so any bet within, say, 70 and 130 can be considered exactly the same by the computer. Same with cards — whether the jack is a heart or a spade doesn’t matter except in very specific (and usually obvious) situations, so 99.999 percent of the time the hands can be considered equivalent.

This “abstraction” of gameplay sequences and “bucketing” of possibilities greatly reduces the possibilities Pluribus has to consider. It also helps keep the calculation load low; Pluribus was trained on a relatively ordinary 64-core server rack over about a week, while other models might take processor-years in high-power clusters. It even runs on a (admittedly beefy) rig with two CPUs and 128 gigs of RAM.

Random like a fox

The training produces what the team calls a “blueprint” for how to play that’s fundamentally strong and would probably beat plenty of players. But a weakness of AI models is that they develop tendencies that can be detected and exploited.

In Facebook’s writeup of Pluribus, it provides the example of two computers playing rock-paper-scissors. One picks randomly while the other always picks rock. Theoretically they’d both win the same amount of games. But if the computer tried the all-rock strategy on a human, it would start losing with a quickness and never stop.

As a simple example in poker, maybe a particular series of bets always makes the computer go all in regardless of its hand. If a player can spot that series, they can take the computer to town any time they like. Finding and preventing ruts like these is important to creating a game-playing agent that can beat resourceful and observant humans.

To do this Pluribus does a couple things. First, it has modified versions of its blueprint to put into play should the game lean towards folding, calling, or raising. Different strategies for different games mean it’s less predictable, and it can switch in a minute should the bet patterns change and the hand go from a calling to a bluffing one.

It also engages in a short but comprehensive introspective search looking at how it would play if it had every other hand, from a big nothing up to a straight flush, and how it would bet. It then picks its bet in the context of all those, careful to do so in such a way that it doesn’t point to any one in particular. Given the same hand and same play again, Pluribus wouldn’t choose the same bet, but rather vary it to remain unpredictable.

These strategies contribute to the “consistent randomness” I alluded to earlier, and which were a part of the model’s ability to slowly but reliably put some of the best players in the world.

The human’s lament

There are too many hands to point to a particular one or ten that indicate the power Pluribus was bringing to bear on the game. Poker is a game of skill, luck, and determination, and one where winners emerge after only dozens or hundreds of hands.

And here it must be said that the experimental setup is not entirely reflective of an ordinary 6-person poker game. Unlike a real game, chip counts are not maintained as an ongoing total — for every hand, each player was given 10,000 chips to use as they pleased, and win or lose they were given 10,000 in the next hand as well.

interface

The interface used to play poker with Pluribus. Fancy!

Obviously this rather limits the long-term strategies possible, and indeed “the bot was not looking for weaknesses in its opponents that it could exploit,” said Facebook AI research scientist Noam Brown. Truly Pluribus was living in the moment the way few humans can.

But simply because it was not basing its play on long-term observations of opponents’ individual habits or styles does not mean that its strategy was shallow. On the contrary, it is arguably more impressive, and casts the game in a different light, that a winning strategy exists that does not rely on behavioral cues or exploitation of individual weaknesses.

The pros who had their lunch money taken by the implacable Pluribus were good sports, however. They praised the system’s high level play, its validation of existing techniques, and inventive use of new ones. Here’s a selection of laments from the fallen humans:

I was one of the earliest players to test the bot so I got to see its earlier versions. The bot went from being a beatable mediocre player to competing with the best players in the world in a few weeks. Its major strength is its ability to use mixed strategies. That’s the same thing that humans try to do. It’s a matter of execution for humans — to do this in a perfectly random way and to do so consistently. It was also satisfying to see that a lot of the strategies the bot employs are things that we do already in poker at the highest level. To have your strategies more or less confirmed as correct by a supercomputer is a good feeling. -Darren Elias

It was incredibly fascinating getting to play against the poker bot and seeing some of the strategies it chose. There were several plays that humans simply are not making at all, especially relating to its bet sizing. -Michael ‘Gags’ Gagliano

Whenever playing the bot, I feel like I pick up something new to incorporate into my game. As humans I think we tend to oversimplify the game for ourselves, making strategies easier to adopt and remember. The bot doesn’t take any of these short cuts and has an immensely complicated/balanced game tree for every decision. -Jimmy Chou

In a game that will, more often than not, reward you when you exhibit mental discipline, focus, and consistency, and certainly punish you when you lack any of the three, competing for hours on end against an AI bot that obviously doesn’t have to worry about these shortcomings is a grueling task. The technicalities and deep intricacies of the AI bot’s poker ability was remarkable, but what I underestimated was its most transparent strength – its relentless consistency. -Sean Ruane

Beating humans at poker is just the start. As good a player as it is, Pluribus is more importantly a demonstration that an AI agent can achieve superhuman performance at something as complicated as 6-player poker.

“Many real-world interactions, such as financial markets, auctions, and traffic navigation, can similarly be modeled as multi-agent interactions with limited communication and collusion among participants,” writes Facebook in its blog.

Yes, and war.

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There’s a tennis game hidden in Google right now; here’s how to find it

Posted by | Gaming, Google, TC, tennis | No Comments

Google loves a good Easter egg. From cutesie Douglas Adams references to the search results for “askew” being just a liiiiittle bit crooked, there’s all sorts of stuff hiding in the search engine if you know the right thing to type or the right buttons to push.

The latest addition — a fun little tennis game hidden within certain search results pages — is in honor of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. With Wimbledon wrapping up this weekend, though, this egg might not be around for long.

It’s not too hard to find, but it’s just tucked away enough that most people probably won’t stumble upon it accidentally.

Here’s how to find it:

tennis 1

  • See that purple box that pops up? See the nav bar that says “Men’s Singles,” “Women’s Singles,” etc.? Grab that and drag it all the way to the left to scroll to the end.

tennis 2

  • At the very end is a little tennis ball icon. Tap that, and the game should fire right up.

tennis 3b

Once you’ve got it up, it’s pretty much Pong minus the paddles. Move to serve, then try to get your player in front of the ball to rally it back and forth. I’m not sure if it’s possible to actually get the ball past the computer player — I haven’t seen it happen. But just successfully returning the ball will get you a point. Once you miss a return, it’s game over.

It’ll work on both mobile or desktop, but I’ve found it’s a helluva lot easier to play on the latter.

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How Roblox avoided the gaming graveyard and grew into a $2.5B company

Posted by | Activision, Apple, Apps, Atlassian, Club-Penguin, Computer games, dave baszucki, David Sze, EC-1, engineering, Facebook, Friendster, funding, Fundings & Exits, fundraising tactics, Gaming, Google, Greylock Partners, Growth, growth tactics, Habbo-Hotel, IMVU, king.com, Kongregate, Mark Zuckerberg, Media, Metaplace, Mojang, MySpace, Roblox, Second-Life, Startups, TC, video games, Virtual reality, Windows | No Comments

There are successful companies that grow fast and garner tons of press. Then there’s Roblox, a company which took at least a decade to hit its stride and has, relative to its current level of success, barely gotten any recognition or attention.

Why has Roblox’s story gone mostly untold? One reason is that it emerged from a whole generation of gaming portals and platforms. Some, like King.com, got lucky or pivoted their business. Others by and large failed.

Once companies like Facebook, Apple and Google got to the gaming scene, it just looked like a bad idea to try to build your own platform — and thus not worth talking about. Added to that, founder and CEO Dave Baszucki seems uninterested in press.

But overall, the problem has been that Roblox just seemed like an insignificant story for many, many years. The company had millions of users, sure. So did any number of popular games. In its early days, Roblox even looked like Minecraft, a game that was released long after Roblox went live, but that grew much, much faster.

Yet here we are today: Roblox now claims that half of all American children aged 9-12 are on its platform. It has jumped to 90 million monthly unique users and is poised to go international, potentially multiplying that number. And it’s unique. Essentially all other distribution services offering games through a portal have eventually fizzled, aside from some distant cousins like Steam.

This is the story of how Roblox not only survived, but built a thriving platform.

Seeds of an idea

GettyImages 1027412388

(Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Before Roblox, there was Knowledge Revolution, a company that made teaching software. While designed to allow students to simulate physics experiments, perhaps predictably, they also treated it like a game.

“The fun seemed to be in building your own experiment,” says Baszucki. “When people were playing it and we went into schools and labs, they were all making car crashes and buildings fall down, making really funny stuff.” Provided with a sandbox, kids didn’t just make dry experiments about mass or velocity — they made games, or experiences they could show off to friends for a laugh.

Knowledge Revolution was founded in 1989, by Dave Baszucki and his brother Greg (who didn’t later co-found Roblox, but is now on its board). Nearly a decade later, it was acquired for $20 million by MSC Software, which made professional simulation tools. Dave continued there for another four years before leaving to become an angel investor.

Baszucki put money into Friendster, a company that pre-dated Facebook and MySpace in the social networking category. That investment seeded another piece of the idea for Roblox. Taken together, the legacy of Knowledge Revolution and Friendster were the two key components undergirding Roblox: a physics sandbox with strong creation tools, and a social graph.

Baszucki himself is a third piece of the puzzle. Part of an older set of entrepreneurs, which might be called the Steve Jobs generation, Baszucki’s archetype seems closer to Mr. Rogers than Jobs himself: unfailingly polite and enthusiastic, never claiming superior insight, and preferring to pass credit for his accomplishments on to others. In conversation, he shows interests both central and tangential to Roblox, like virtual environments, games, education, digital identity and the future of tech. Somewhere in this heady mix, the idea of Roblox came about.

The first release

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Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

Posted by | artificial intelligence, automotive, autonomous vehicles, funding, Gadgets, hardware, Lidar, Luminar, robotics, self-driving cars, Transportation | No Comments

Luminar is one of the major players in the new crop of lidar companies that have sprung up all over the world, and it’s moving fast to outpace its peers. Today the company announced a new $100 million funding round, bringing its total raised to more than $250 million — as well as a perception platform and a new, compact lidar unit aimed at inclusion in actual cars. Big day!

The new hardware, called Iris, looks to be about a third of the size of the test unit Luminar has been sticking on vehicles thus far. That one was about the size of a couple hardbacks stacked up, and Iris is more like a really thick sandwich.

Size is very important, of course, as few cars just have caverns of unused space hidden away in prime surfaces like the corners and windshield area. Other lidar makers have lowered the profiles of their hardware in various ways; Luminar seems to have compactified in a fairly straightforward fashion, getting everything into a package smaller in every dimension.

Luminar IRIS AND TEST FLEET LiDARS

Test model, left, Iris on the right.

Photos of Iris put it in various positions: below the headlights on one car, attached to the rear-view mirror in another and high up atop the cabin on a semi truck. It’s small enough that it won’t have to displace other components too much, although of course competitors are aiming to make theirs even more easy to integrate. That won’t matter, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell told me recently, if they can’t get it out of the lab.

“The development stage is a huge undertaking — to actually move it towards real-world adoption and into true series production vehicles,” he said (among many other things). The company that gets there first will lead the industry, and naturally he plans to make Luminar that company.

Part of that is of course the production process, which has been vastly improved over the last couple of years. These units can be made quickly enough that they can be supplied by the thousands rather than dozens, and the cost has dropped precipitously — by design.

Iris will cost less than $1,000 per unit for production vehicles seeking serious autonomy, and for $500 you can get a more limited version for more limited purposes like driver assistance, or ADAS. Luminar says Iris is “slated to launch commercially on production vehicles beginning in 2022,” but that doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re shipping to customers right now. The company is negotiating more than a billion dollars in contracts at present, a representative told me, and 2022 would be the earliest that vehicles with Iris could be made available.

LUMINAR IRIS TRAFFIC JAM PILOT

The Iris units are about a foot below the center of the headlight units here. Note that this is not a production vehicle, just a test one.

Another part of integration is software. The signal from the sensor has to go somewhere, and while some lidar companies have indicated they plan to let the carmaker or whoever deal with it their own way, others have opted to build up the tech stack and create “perception” software on top of the lidar. Perception software can be a range of things: something as simple as drawing boxes around objects identified as people would count, as would a much richer process that flags intentions, gaze directions, characterizes motions and suspected next actions and so on.

Luminar has opted to build into perception, or rather has revealed that it has been working on it for some time. It now has 60 people on the task split between Palo Alto and Orlando, and hired a new VP of Software, former robo-taxi head at Daimler, Christoph Schroder.

What exactly will be the nature and limitations of Luminar’s perception stack? There are dangers waiting if you decide to take it too far, because at some point you begin to compete with your customers, carmakers that have their own perception and control stacks that may or may not overlap with yours. The company gave very few details as to what specifically would be covered by its platform, but no doubt that will become clearer as the product itself matures.

Last and certainly not least is the matter of the $100 million in additional funding. This brings Luminar to a total of over a quarter of a billion dollars in the last few years, matching its competitor Innoviz, which has made similar decisions regarding commercialization and development.

The list of investors has gotten quite long, so I’ll just quote Luminar here:

G2VP, Moore Strategic Ventures, LLC, Nick Woodman, The Westly Group, 1517 Fund / Peter Thiel, Canvas Ventures, along with strategic investors Corning Inc, Cornes, and Volvo Cars Tech Fund.

The board has also grown, with former Broadcom exec Scott McGregor and G2VP’s Ben Kortlang joining the table.

We may have already passed “peak lidar” as far as sheer number of deals and startups in the space, but that doesn’t mean things are going to cool down. If anything, the opposite, as established companies battle over lucrative partnerships and begin eating one another to stay competitive. Seems like Luminar has no plans on becoming a meal.

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‘World’s first Bluetooth hair straighteners’ can be easily hacked

Posted by | Apps, Bluetooth, Gadgets, hardware, pen test partners, Security, technology, telecommunications, United Kingdom, wireless | No Comments

Here’s a thing that should have never been a thing: Bluetooth-connected hair straighteners.

Glamoriser, a U.K. firm that bills itself as the maker of the “world’s first Bluetooth hair straighteners,” allows users to link the device to an app, which lets the owner set certain heat and style settings. The app can also be used to remotely switch off the straighteners within Bluetooth range.

Big problem, though. These straighteners can be hacked.

Security researchers at Pen Test Partners bought a pair and tested them out. They found that it was easy to send malicious Bluetooth commands within range to remotely control an owner’s straighteners.

The researchers demonstrated that they could send one of several commands over Bluetooth, such as the upper and lower temperature limit of the device — 122°F and 455°F respectively — as well as the shut-down time. Because the straighteners have no authentication, an attacker can remotely alter and override the temperature of the straighteners and how long they stay on — up to a limit of 20 minutes.

“As there is no pairing or bonding established over [Bluetooth] when connecting a phone, anyone in range with the app can take control of the straighteners,” said Stuart Kennedy in his blog post, shared first with TechCrunch.

There is a caveat, said Kennedy. The straighteners only allow one concurrent connection. If the owner hasn’t connected their phone or they go out of range, only then can an attacker target the device.

Here at TechCrunch we’re all for setting things on fire “for journalism,” but in this case the numbers speak for themselves. If, per the researchers’ findings, the straighteners could be overridden to the maximum temperature of 455°F at the timeout of 20 minutes, that’s setting up a prime condition for a fire — or at very least burn damage.

It’s estimated that as many as 650,000 house fires in the U.K. are caused by hair straighteners and curling irons left on. In some cases it can take more than a half-hour for these heated devices to cool down to safe levels. U.K. fire and rescue services have called on owners to physically pull the plug on their devices to prevent fires and damage.

Glamoriser did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication. The app hasn’t been updated since June 2018, suggesting a fix has yet to be put in place.

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