Apps

Adobe brings its Premiere Rush video editing app to Android

Posted by | Adobe, Adobe Creative Cloud, Android, Apps, mobile phones, OnePlus, PIXEL, samsung galaxy, samsung galaxy s9, smartphones, TC | No Comments

Adobe launched Premiere Rush, its newest all-in-one video editing tool that is essentially a pared-down version of its flagship Premiere Pro and Audition tools for professional video editors, in late 2018. At the time, it was only available on iOS, macOS and Windows. Now, however, it is also finally bringing it to Android.

There is a caveat here, though: it’ll only run on relatively new phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S10 series, Google’s Pixel 2 and 3 phones and the OnePlus 6T.

The idea behind Premiere Rush is to give enthusiasts — and the occasional YouTuber who needs to quickly get a video out — all of the necessary tools to create a video without having to know the ins and outs of a complex tool like Premiere Pro. It’s based on the same technologies as its professional counterpart, but it’s significantly easier to use. What you lose in flexibility, you gain in efficiency.

Premiere Rush is available for free for those who want to give it a try, though this “Starter Plan” only lets you export up to three projects. For full access, you either need to subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud or buy a $9.99/month plan to access Rush, with team and enterprise plans costing $19.99/month and $29.99/month respectively.

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ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, plans to launch a free music streaming app

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Asia, bytedance, China, india, Media, Mobile, musical.ly, Snap, Spotify, tiktok | No Comments

Does the overcrowded and cut-throat music streaming business have room for an additional player? The world’s most valuable startup certainly thinks so.

Chinese conglomerate ByteDance, valued at more than $75 billion, is working on a music streaming service, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The company, which operates popular app TikTok, has held discussions with music labels in recent months to launch the app as soon as the end of this quarter, one of the sources said.

The app will offer both a premium and an ad-supported free tier, one of the sources said. Bloomberg, which first wrote about the premium app, reported that ByteDance is targeting emerging markets with its new music app. A ByteDance spokesperson declined to comment.

For ByteDance, interest in a music app does not come as a surprise. Snippets of pop songs from movies and albums intertwined with videos shot by its humongous user base is part of the service’s charm. The company already works with music labels worldwide to licence usage of their tracks on its platform. In China, where ByteDance claims to have tie-ups with more than 800 labels, it has been aggressively expanding efforts to find music talents and urge them to make their own tracks.

Besides, ByteDance has been expanding its app portfolio in recent months. Earlier this year, the company released Duoshan, a video chat app that appears to be a mix of TikTok and Snap. This week, it launched Feiliao, another chat app that is largely focused on text-driven conversations. At some point, the company may have realized the need for a standalone music consumption app.

When asked about TikTok’s partnership with music labels last month, Todd Schefflin, TikTok’s head of global music business development, told WSJ that music is part of the app’s “creative DNA” but it is “ultimately for short video creation and viewing, not a product for music consumption.”

The private Chinese company is likely eyeing India as a key market for its music app. The company has been in discussion with local music labels T Series and Times Music for rights. Moreover, its apps are estimated to have more than 300 million monthly active users in the nation, though there could be significant overlaps among them.

India may have also inspired ByteDance to consider a free, ad-supported version of its music app. Even as more than 150 million users in India listen to music online, only a tiny portion of this user base is willing to pay for it.

This has made India a unique battleground for local and international music giants, most of which offer an ad-supported, free version of their apps in the market. Even premium offerings from Apple and Spotify cost less than $1.2 a month. India is the only market where Spotify offers a free version of its app that has access to the entire catalog on demand.

The launch of the app could put the spotlight again on ByteDance in India, where its TikTok app recently landed in hot water. An Indian court banned the app for roughly a week after expressing concerns over questionable content on the platform. Ever since the nation lifted the ban on TikTok, the company has become visibly cautious about its movement.

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Instagram’s IGTV copies TikTok’s AI, Snapchat’s design

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram IGTV, instagram video, Mobile, Snapchat, Snapchat Discover, Social, Startups, TC, tiktok | No Comments

Instagram conquered Stories, but it’s losing the battle for the next video formats. TikTok is blowing up with an algorithmically suggested vertical one-at-a-time feed featuring videos of users remixing each other’s clips. Snapchat Discover’s 2 x infinity grid has grown into a canvas for multi-media magazines, themed video collections and premium mobile TV shows.

Instagram’s IGTV…feels like a flop in comparison. Launched a year ago, it’s full of crudely cropped and imported viral trash from around the web. The long-form video hub that lives inside both a homescreen button in Instagram as well as a standalone app has failed to host lengthier must-see original vertical content. Sensor Tower estimates that the IGTV app has just 4.2 million installs worldwide, with just 7,700 new ones per day — implying less than half a percent of Instagram’s billion-plus users have downloaded it. IGTV doesn’t rank on the overall charts and hangs low at No. 191 on the US – Photo & Video app charts, according to App Annie.

Now Instagram has quietly overhauled the design of IGTV’s space inside its main app to crib what’s working from its two top competitors. The new design showed up in last week’s announcements for Instagram Explore’s new Shopping and IGTV discovery experiences. At the time, Instagram’s product lead on Explore Will Ruben told us that with the redesign, “the idea is this is more immersive and helps you to see the breadth of videos in IGTV rather than the horizontal scrolling interface that used to exist,” but the company declined to answer follow-up questions about it.

IGTV has ditched its category-based navigation system’s tabs like “For You”, “Following”, “Popular”, and “Continue Watching” for just one central feed of algorithmically suggested videos — much like TikTok. This affords a more lean-back, ‘just show me something fun’ experience that relies on Instagram’s AI to analyze your behavior and recommend content instead of putting the burden of choice on the viewer.

IGTV has also ditched its awkward horizontal scrolling design that always kept a clip playing in the top half of the screen. Now you’ll scroll vertically through a 2 x infinity grid of recommended clips in what looks just like a Snapchat Discover feed. Once you get past a first video that auto-plays up top, you’ll find a full-screen grid of things to watch. You’ll only see the horizontal scroller in the standalone IGTV app, or if you tap into an IGTV video, and then tap the Browse button for finding a next clip while the last one plays up top.

Instagram seems to be trying to straddle the designs of its two competitors. The problem is that TikTok’s one-at-a-time feed works great for punchy, short videos that get right to the point. If you’re bored after five seconds you swipe to the next. IGTV’s focus on long-form means its videos might start too slowly to grab your attention if they were auto-played full-screen in the feed rather than being chosen by a viewer. But Snapchat makes the most of the two previews per row design IGTV has adopted because professional publishers take the time to make compelling cover thumbnail images promoting their content. IGTV’s focus on independent creators means fewer have labored to make great cover images, so viewers have to rely on a screenshot and caption.

Instagram is prototyping a number of other features to boost engagement across its app, as discovered by reverse-engineering specialist and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Those include options to blast a direct message to all your Close Friends at once but in individual message threads, see a divider between notifications and likes you have or haven’t seen, or post a Chat sticker to Stories that lets friends join a group message thread about that content. And to better compete with TikTok, it may let you add lyrics stickers to Stories that appear word-by-word in sync with Instagram’s licensed music soundtrack feature, and share Music Stories to Facebook. What we haven’t seen is any cropping tool for IGTV that would help users reformat landscape videos. The vertical-only restriction keeps lots of great content stuck outside IGTV, or letterboxed with black, color-matched backgrounds, or meme-style captions with the video as just a tiny slice in the middle.

When I spoke with Instagram co-founder and ex-CEO Kevin Systrom last year a few months after IGTV’s launch, he told me, “It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time . . . Everything that is great starts small.”

But to grow large, IGTV needs to demonstrate how long-form portrait mode video can give us a deeper look at the nuances of the influencers and topics we care about. The company has rightfully prioritized other drives like safety and well-being with features that hide bullies and deter overuse. But my advice from August still stands despite all the ground Instagram has lost in the meantime. “Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video.” Until the content is right, it won’t matter how IGTV surfaces it.

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Google says its app store will continue to work for existing Huawei smartphone owners

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, China, Developer, Gadgets, Google, Google Play, Google Play Store, huawei, Security | No Comments

Google said today that existing users of Huawei Android devices can continue to use Google Play app store, offering some relief to tens of millions of users worldwide even as it remains unclear if the Chinese tech giant will be able to use the fully-functioning version of Android in its future phones.

Existing Huawei phone users will also be able to enjoy security protections delivered through Google Play Protect, the company said in a statement to TechCrunch. Google Play Protect is a built-in malware detector that uses machine learning to detect and weed out rogue apps. Google did not specify whether Huawei devices will receive future Android updates.

The statement comes after Reuters reported on Sunday that Google is suspending some businesses with Huawei, the world’s second largest smartphone maker that shipped over 200 million handsets last year. The report claimed, a point not addressed by Google, that future Android devices from Huawei will not run Google Mobile Services, a host of services offered by Google including Google Play Store, and email client Gmail. A Huawei spokesperson said the company is looking into the situation but has nothing to share beyond this.

For Huawei users’ questions regarding our steps to comply w/ the recent US government actions: We assure you while we are complying with all US gov’t requirements, services like Google Play & security from Google Play Protect will keep functioning on your existing Huawei device.

— Android (@Android) May 20, 2019

 

It’s a major setback for Huawei, which unless resolved in the next few weeks, could significantly disrupt its phone business outside of China. The top Android phone vendor, which is already grappling with controversy over security concerns, will have to rethink its software strategy for future phones if there is no resolution. Dearth — or delay in delivery — of future Android updates would also hurt the company’s reputation among its customers around the globe.

“We are complying with the order and reviewing the implications,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

The two tech companies find themselves in this awkward situation as a result of the latest development in the ongoing U.S-China trade war. Huawei and 70 of its affiliates have been put on an “entity list” by the U.S. Commerce Department over national security concerns, requiring local giants such as Google and Intel to take approval from the government before conducting business with the Chinese firm.

Huawei may have already foreseen this. A company executive revealed recently that Huawei had built its own Android-based operating system in case a future event prevented it from using existing systems. Per Reuters, Huawei can also continue to use AOSP, the open source Android operating system that ships stripped off Google Mobile Services. And on paper, it can also probably have an app store of its own. But convincing enough stakeholders to make their apps available on Huawei’s store and continually push updates could prove incredibly challenging.

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Google reportedly suspends select business with Huawei over U.S. ban

Posted by | Android, Apps, Google, huawei, Mobile | No Comments

The Trump administration Huawei ban is sure to have wide-ranging and long lasting effects for all parties. In the meantime, it seems, a number of those involved in the periphery are treading lightly in hope of not burning bridges on either side. Google has taken accidental center stage, in its role providing Android and a variety of apps for the embattled handset maker.

According to a new report from Reuters, the U.S. software giant has taken some steps toward disentangling itself. Word comes from unnamed sources, who say the company has suspended all businesses with Huawei, aside from those covered by open-source licenses. The list appears to include updates to Android and popular apps like Gmail.

From the sound of it, Google is still attempting to wrap its head around how to proceed with the matter. Huawei, too, is assessing its options. Given the complexity of smartphone hardware and software, handsets routinely utilize components source from a variety of different locations. This fact has complicated things as trade tensions have begun to rise, hitting ZTE particularly hard over accusations that the company had violated U.S.-Iran sanctions.

Huawei has called the ban bad for all parties, but has continued to be defiant, noting its plans to become “self-reliant.” The company has no doubt been preparing for the seeming inevitability of heightened trade tensions, but its determination has some industry observers unconvinced that it can carry on with without any input from Google or U.S. chipmakers like Qualcomm.

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Minecraft Earth makes the whole real world your very own blocky realm

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Gadgets, Gaming, Microsoft, Minecraft, Mobile, niantic, TC | No Comments

When your game tops 100 million players, your thoughts naturally turn to doubling that number. That’s the case with the creators, or rather stewards, of Minecraft at Microsoft, where the game has become a product category unto itself. And now it is making its biggest leap yet — to a real-world augmented reality game in the vein of Pokémon GO, called Minecraft Earth.

Announced today but not playable until summer (on iOS and Android) or later, MCE (as I’ll call it) is full-on Minecraft, reimagined to be mobile and AR-first. So what is it? As executive producer Jesse Merriam put it succinctly: “Everywhere you go, you see Minecraft. And everywhere you go, you can play Minecraft.”

Yes, yes — but what is it? Less succinctly put, MCE is like other real-world-based AR games in that it lets you travel around a virtual version of your area, collecting items and participating in mini-games. Where it’s unlike other such games is that it’s built on top of Minecraft: Bedrock Edition, meaning it’s not some offshoot or mobile cash-in; this is straight-up Minecraft, with all the blocks, monsters and redstone switches you desire, but in AR format. You collect stuff so you can build with it and share your tiny, blocky worlds with friends.

That introduces some fun opportunities and a few non-trivial limitations. Let’s run down what MCE looks like — verbally, at least, as Microsoft is being exceedingly stingy with real in-game assets.

There’s a map, of course

Because it’s Minecraft Earth, you’ll inhabit a special Minecraftified version of the real world, just as Pokémon GO and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite put a layer atop existing streets and landmarks.

The look is blocky to be sure, but not so far off the normal look that you won’t recognize it. It uses OpenStreetMaps data, including annotated and inferred information about districts, private property, safe and unsafe places and so on — which will be important later.

The fantasy map is filled with things to tap on, unsurprisingly called tappables. These can be a number of things: resources in the form of treasure chests, mobs and adventures.

Chests are filled with blocks, naturally, adding to your reserves of cobblestone, brick and so on, all the different varieties appearing with appropriate rarity.

A pig from Minecraft showing in the real world via augmented reality.Mobs are animals like those you might normally run across in the Minecraft wilderness: pigs, chickens, squid and so on. You snag them like items, and they too have rarities, and not just cosmetic ones. The team highlighted a favorite of theirs, the muddy pig, which when placed down will stop at nothing to get to mud and never wants to leave, or a cave chicken that lays mushrooms instead of eggs. Yes, you can breed them.

Last are adventures, which are tiny AR instances that let you collect a resource, fight some monsters and so on. For example you might find a crack in the ground that, when mined, vomits forth a volume of lava you’ll have to get away from, and then inside the resulting cave are some skeletons guarding a treasure chest. The team said they’re designing a huge number of these encounters.

Importantly, all these things — chests, mobs and encounters — are shared between friends. If I see a chest, you see a chest — and the chest will have the same items. And in an AR encounter, all nearby players are brought in, and can contribute and collect the reward in shared fashion.

And it’s in these AR experiences and the “build plates” you’re doing it all for that the game really shines.

The AR part

“If you want to play Minecraft Earth without AR, you have to turn it off,” said Torfi Olafsson, the game’s director. This is not AR-optional, as with Niantic’s games. This is AR-native, and for good and ill the only way you can really play is by using your phone as a window into another world. Fortunately it works really well.

First, though, let me explain the whole build plate thing. You may have been wondering how these collectibles and mini-games amount to Minecraft. They don’t — they’re just the raw materials for it.

Whenever you feel like it, you can bring out what the team calls a build plate, which is a special item, a flat square that you virtually put down somewhere in the real world — on a surface like the table or floor, for instance — and it transforms into a small, but totally functional, Minecraft world.

In this little world you can build whatever you want, or dig into the ground, build an inverted palace for your cave chickens or create a paradise for your mud-loving pigs — whatever you want. Like Minecraft itself, each build plate is completely open-ended. Well, perhaps that’s the wrong phrase — they’re actually quite closely bounded, as the world only exists out to the edge of the plate. But they’re certainly yours to play with however you want.

Notably all the usual Minecraft rules are present — this isn’t Minecraft Lite, just a small game world. Water and lava flow how they should, blocks have all the qualities they should and mobs all act as they normally would.

The magic part comes when you find that you can instantly convert your build plate from miniature to life-size. Now the castle you’ve been building on the table is three stories tall in the park. Your pigs regard you silently as you walk through the halls and admire the care and attention to detail with which you no doubt assembled them. It really is a trip.

It doesn’t really look like this but, you get the idea

In the demo, I played with a few other members of the press; we got to experience a couple of build plates and adventures at life-size (technically actually 3/4 life size — the 1 block to 1 meter scale turned out to be a little daunting in testing). It was absolute chaos, really, everyone placing blocks and destroying them and flooding the area and putting down chickens. But it totally worked.

The system uses Microsoft’s new Azure Spatial Anchor system, which quickly and continuously fixed our locations in virtual space. It updated remarkably quickly, with no lag, showing the location and orientation of the other players in real time. Meanwhile the game world itself was rock-solid in space, smooth to enter and explore, and rarely bugging out (and that only in understandable circumstances). That’s great news considering how heavily the game leans on the multiplayer experience.

The team said they’d tested up to 10 players at once in an AR instance, and while there’s technically no limit, there’s sort of a physical limit in how many people can fit in the small space allocated to an adventure or around a tabletop. Don’t expect any giant 64-player raids, but do expect to take down hordes of spiders with three or four friends.

Pick(ax)ing their battles

In choosing to make the game the way they’ve made it, the team naturally created certain limitations and risks. You Wouldn’t want, for example, an adventure icon to pop up in the middle of the highway.

For exactly that reason the team spent a lot of work making the map metadata extremely robust. Adventures won’t spawn in areas like private residences or yards, though of course simple collectibles might. But because you’re able to reach things up to 70 meters away, it’s unlikely you’ll have to knock on someone’s door and say there’s a cave chicken in their pool and you’d like to touch it, please.

Furthermore adventures will not spawn in areas like streets or difficult to reach areas. The team said they worked very hard making it possible for the engine to recognize places that are not only publicly accessible, but safe and easy to access. Think sidewalks and parks.

Another limitation is that, as an AR game, you move around the real world. But in Minecraft, verticality is an important part of the gameplay. Unfortunately, the simple truth is that in the real world you can’t climb virtual stairs or descend into a virtual cave. You as a player exist on a 2D plane, and can interact with but not visit places above and below that plane. (An exception of course is on a build plate, where in miniature you can fly around it freely by moving your phone.)

That’s a shame for people who can’t move around easily, though you can pick up and rotate the build plate to access different sides. Weapons and tools also have infinite range, eliminating a potential barrier to fun and accessibility.

What will keep people playing?

In Pokémon GO, there’s the drive to catch ’em all. In Wizards Unite, you’ll want to advance the story and your skills. What’s the draw with Minecraft Earth? Well, what’s the draw in Minecraft? You can build stuff. And now you can build stuff in AR on your phone.

The game isn’t narrative-driven, and although there is some (unspecified) character progression, for the most part the focus is on just having fun doing and making stuff in Minecraft. Like a set of LEGO blocks, a build plate and your persistent inventory simply make for a lively sandbox.

Admittedly that doesn’t sound like it carries the same addictive draw of Pokémon, but the truth is Minecraft kind of breaks the rules like that. Millions of people play this game all the time just to make stuff and show that stuff to other people. Although you’ll be limited in how you can share to start, there will surely be ways to explore popular builds in the future.

And how will it make money? The team basically punted on that question — they’re fortunately in a position where they don’t have to worry about that yet. Minecraft is one of the biggest games of all time and a big money-maker — it’s probably worth the cost just to keep people engaged with the world and community.

MCE seems to me like a delightful thing, but one that must be appreciated on its own merits. A lack of screenshots and gameplay video isn’t doing a lot to help you here, I admit. Trust me when I say it looks great, plays well and seems fundamentally like a good time for all ages.

A few other stray facts I picked up:

  • Regions will roll out gradually, but it will be available in all the same languages as Vanilla at launch
  • Yes, there will be skins (and they’ll carry over from your existing account)
  • There will be different sizes and types of build plates
  • There’s crafting, but no 3×3 crafting grid (?!)
  • You can report griefers and so on, but the way the game is structured it shouldn’t be an issue
  • The AR engine creates and uses a point cloud but doesn’t, like, take pictures of your bedroom
  • Content is added to the map dynamically, and there will be hot spots but emptier areas will fill up if you’re there
  • It leverages AR Core and AR Kit, naturally
  • The HoloLens version of Minecraft we saw a while back is a predecessor “more spiritually than technically”
  • Adventures that could be scary to kids have a special sign
  • “Friends” can steal blocks from your build plate if you’re playing together (or donate them)

Sound fun? Sign up for the beta here.

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Apple & Google celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day with featured apps, new shortcuts

Posted by | accessibility, Android, Apple, Apps, Google, iOS, Mobile | No Comments

With last fall’s release of iOS 12, Apple introduced Siri Shortcuts — a new app that allows iPhone users to create their own voice commands to take actions on their phone and in apps. Today, Apple is celebrating Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) by rolling out a practical, accessibility focused collection of new Siri Shortcuts, alongside accessibility focused App Store features and collections.

Google is doing something similar for Android users on Google Play.

For starters, Apple’s new Siri shortcuts are available today in a featured collection at the top of the Shortcuts app. The collection includes a variety of shortcuts aimed at helping users more quickly perform everyday tasks.

For example, there’s a new “Help Message” shortcut that will send your location to an emergency contact, a “Meeting Someone New” shortcut designed to speed up non-verbal introductions and communication, a mood journal for recording thoughts and feelings, a pain report that helps to communicate to others the location and intensity of your pain and several others.

Some are designed to make communication more efficient — like one that puts a favorite contact on the user’s home screen, so they can quickly call, text or FaceTime the contact with just a tap.

Others are designed to be used with QR codes. For example, “QR Your Shortcuts” lets you create a QR code for any shortcut you regularly use, then print it out and place it where it’s needed for quick access — like the “Speak Brush Teeth Routine” shortcut that speaks step-by-step instructions for teeth brushing, which would be placed in the bathroom.

In addition to the launch of the new shortcuts, Apple added a collection of accessibility focused apps to the App Store which highlights a ton of accessibility focused apps, including Microsoft’s new talking camera for the blind called Seeing AI, plus other utilities like text-to-speech readers, audio games, sign language apps, AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) solutions, eye-controlled browsers, smart home apps, fine motor skill trainers and much more.

The App Store is also today featuring several interviews with developers, athletes, musicians and a comedian who talk about how they use accessible technology.

Apple is not the only company rolling out special GAAD-themed collections today. Google also unveiled its own editorial collection of accessible apps and games on Google Play. In addition to several utilities, the collection features Live Transcribe, Google’s brand-new accessibility service for the deaf and hard of hearing that debuted earlier this month at its annual Google I/O developer conference.

Though the app’s status is “Unreleased,” users can install the early version, which listens to conversations around you, then instantly transcribes them.

Other selections include home screen replacement Nova Launcher, blind assistant app Be My Eyes, head control for the device Open Sesame, communication aid Card Talk and more.

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ObjectiveEd is building a better digital curriculum for vision-impaired kids

Posted by | accessibility, Apps, Blindness, Education, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, objectiveed, TC, visual impairment, visually impaired | No Comments

Children with vision impairments struggle to get a solid K-12 education for a lot of reasons — so the more tools their teachers have to impart basic skills and concepts, the better. ObjectiveEd is a startup that aims to empower teachers and kids with a suite of learning games accessible to all vision levels, along with tools to track and promote progress.

Some of the reasons why vision-impaired kids don’t get the education they deserve are obvious, for example that reading and writing are slower and more difficult for them than for sighted kids. But other reasons are less obvious, for example that teachers have limited time and resources to dedicate to these special needs students when their overcrowded classrooms are already demanding more than they can provide.

Technology isn’t the solution, but it has to be part of the solution, because technology is so empowering and kids take to it naturally. There’s no reason a blind 8-year-old can’t also be a digital native like her peers, and that presents an opportunity for teachers and parents both.

This opportunity is being pursued by Marty Schultz, who has spent the last few years as head of a company that makes games targeted at the visually impaired audience, and in the process saw the potential for adapting that work for more directly educational purposes.

“Children don’t like studying and don’t like doing their homework,” he told me. “They just want to play video games.”

It’s hard to argue with that. True of many adults too, for that matter. But as Schultz points out, this is something educators have realized in recent years and turned to everyone’s benefit.

“Almost all regular education teachers use educational digital games in their classrooms and about 20% use it every day,” he explained. “Most teachers report an increase in student engagement when using educational video games. Gamification works because students own their learning. They have the freedom to fail, and try again, until they succeed. By doing this, students discover intrinsic motivation and learn without realizing it.”

Having learned to type, point and click, do geometry and identify countries via games, I’m a product of this same process, and many of you likely are as well. It’s a great way for kids to teach themselves. But how many of those games would be playable by a kid with vision impairment or blindness? Practically none.

Held back

It turns out that these kids, like others with disabilities, are frequently left behind as the rising technology tide lifts everyone else’s boats. The fact is it’s difficult and time-consuming to create accessible games that target things like Braille literacy and blind navigation of rooms and streets, so developers haven’t been able to do so profitably and teachers are left to themselves to figure out how to jury-rig existing resources or, more likely, fall back on tried and true methods like printed worksheets, in-person instruction and spoken testing.

And because teacher time is limited and instructors trained in vision-impaired learning are thin on the ground, these outdated methods are also difficult to cater to an individual student’s needs. For example a kid may be great at math but lack directionality skills. You need to draw up an “individual education plan” (IEP) explaining (among other things) this and what steps need to be taken to improve, then track those improvements. It’s time-consuming and hard! The idea behind ObjectiveEd is to create both games that teach these basic skills and a platform to track and document progress as well as adjust the lessons to the individual.

How this might work can be seen in a game like Barnyard, which like all of ObjectiveEd’s games has been designed to be playable by blind, low-vision or fully sighted kids. The game has the student finding an animal in a big pen, then dragging it in a specified direction. The easiest levels might be left and right, then move on to cardinal directions, then up to clock directions or even degrees.

“If the IEP objective is ‘Child will understand left versus right and succeed at performing this task 90% of the time,’ the teacher will first introduce these concepts and work with the child during their weekly session,” Schultz said. That’s the kind of hands-on instruction they already get. “The child plays Barnyard in school and at home, swiping left and right, winning points and getting encouragement, all week long. The dashboard shows how much time each child is playing, how often, and their level of success.”

That’s great for documentation for the mandated IEP paperwork, and difficulty can be changed on the fly as well:

“The teacher can set the game to get harder or faster automatically, or move onto the next level of complexity automatically (such as never repeating the prompt when the child hesitates). Or the teacher can maintain the child at the current level and advance the child when she thinks it’s appropriate.”

This isn’t meant to be a full-on K-12 education in a tablet app. But it helps close the gap between kids who can play Mavis Beacon or whatever on school computers and vision-impaired kids who can’t.

Practical measures

Importantly, the platform is not being developed without expert help — or, as is actually very important, without a business plan.

“We’ve developed relationships with several schools for the blind as well as leaders in the community to build educational games that tackle important skills,” Schultz said. “We work with both university researchers and experienced Teachers of Visually Impaired students, and Certified Orientation and Mobility specialists. We were surprised at how many different skills and curriculum subjects that teachers really need.”

Based on their suggestions, for instance, the company has built two games to teach iPhone gestures and the accessibility VoiceOver rotor. This may be a proprietary technology from Apple, but it’s something these kids need to know how to use, just like they need to know how to run a Google search, use a mouse without being able to see the screen, and other common computing tasks. Why not learn it in a game like the other stuff?

Making technological advances is all well and good, but doing so while building a sustainable business is another thing many education startups have failed to address. Fortunately, public school systems actually have significant money set aside specifically for students with special needs, and products that improve education outcomes are actively sought and paid for. These state and federal funds can’t be siphoned off to use on the rest of the class, so if there’s nothing to spend them on, they go unused.

ObjectiveEd has the benefit of being easily deployed without much specialty hardware or software. It runs on iPads, which are fairly common in schools and homes, and the dashboard is a simple web one. Although it may eventually interface with specialty hardware like Braille readers, it’s not necessary for many of the games and lessons, so that lowers the deployment bar as well.

The plan for now is to finalize and test the interface and build out the games library — ObjectiveEd isn’t quite ready to launch, but it’s important to build it with constant feedback from students, teachers and experts. With luck, in a year or two the visually-impaired youngsters at a school near you might have a fun new platform to learn and play with.

“ObjectiveEd exists to help teachers, parents and schools adapt to this new era of gamified learning for students with disabilities, starting with blind and visually impaired students,” Schultz said. “We firmly believe that well-designed software combined with ‘off-the-shelf’ technology makes all this possible. The low cost of technology has truly revolutionized the possibilities for improving education.”

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Facebook changes algorithm to promote worthwhile & close friend content

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook News Feed, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook is updating the News Feed ranking algorithm to incorporate data from surveys about who you say are your closest friends and which links you find most worthwhile. Today Facebook announced it’s trained new classifiers based on patterns linking these surveys with usage data so it can better predict what to show in the News Feed. The change could hurt Pages that share clickbait and preference those sharing content that makes people feel satisfied afterwards.

For close friends, Facebook surveyed users about which people they were closest too. It then detected how this matches up with who you are tagged in photos with, constantly interact with, like the same post and check in to the same places as, and more. That way if it recognizes those signals about other people’s friendships, it can be confident those are someone’s closest friends they’ll want to see the most of. You won’t see more friend content in total, but more from your best pals instead of distant acquaintances.

A Facebook News Feed survey from 2016, shared by Varsha Sharma

For worthwhile content, Facebook conducted surveys via News Feed to find out which links people said were good uses of their time. Facebook then detected which types of link posts, which publishers and how much engagement the posts got and matched that to survey results. This then lets it determine that if a post has a similar style and engagement level, it’s likely to be worthwhile and should be ranked higher in the feed.

The change aligns with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent comments declaring that Facebook’s goal isn’t total time spent, but time well spent with meaningful content you feel good about. Most recently, that push has been about demoting unsafe content. Last month Facebook changed the algorithm to minimize clickbait and links to crappy ad-filled sites that receive a disproportionately high amount of their traffic from Facebook. It cracked down on unoriginality by hiding videos ripped off from other creators, and began levying harsher demotions to repeat violators of its policies. And it began to decrease the distribution of “borderline content” on Facebook and Instagram that comes close to but doesn’t technically break its rules.

While many assume Facebook just juices News Feed to be as addictive in the short-term as possible to keep us glued to the screen and viewing ads, that would actually be ruinous for its long-term business. If users leave the feed feeling exhausted, confused and unfulfilled, they won’t come back. Facebook’s already had trouble with users ditching its text-heavy News Feed for more visual apps like Instagram (which it luckily bought) and Snapchat (which it tried to). While demoting clickbait and viral content might decrease total usage time today, it could preserve Facebook’s money-making ability for the future while also helping to rot our brains a little less.

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Instagram adds Stories to Explore tab. Here’s how to get on it

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram algorithm, Instagram Explore, Instagram Stories, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram’s pivot to Stories continues with an overhaul of Explore designed to let users dig deeper into their niche interests. Stories are now eligible to show up in the Explore tab for the first time, giving creators a way to get discovered through their intimate, silly, behind-the-scenes content instead of just their manicured feed posts. Since Stories themselves don’t get Likes, Instagram will personalize which Stories you see on Explore by showing accounts similar to ones you do Like and Follow. We’ve got more tips on how the Explore Stories algorithm works below.

Additionally, Instagram Explore is getting a redesigned navigation bar up to with shortcuts to Shopping and IGTV first, followed by channels for topics like Travel, Food, and Design. In a nod to how central Instagram sees Shopping and IGTV to its future, those categories will also get big square portals inset within the Explore grid. Tapping these squares or shortcuts for Shopping reveals category filters for specific proucts like Clothing, Beauty, and Home Decor. For IGTV, they pull up an new vertical scrolling IGTV discovery grid to contrast with its old horizontal scrolling carousel.

The goal is that “Explore shows you the full breath of content on Instagram that are relevant to your interests” says Instagram product lead for discovery Will Ruben. The more creators you discover through Explore, the more you have to look at on Instagram, and the more ads you end of seeiing. “These changes also signal the future direction we’ll be taking with Explore. We’re really investing in making IGTV and Shopping a big part of Explore experience. A home for Instagram’s big bets like Shopping and IGTV. We want to provide a more immersive experience so people can actively engage with content and be more specific about what they want to discover.” That should quiet questions about whether Instagram will abandon IGTV after a lackluster first year in the market.

How To Get On The Instagram Explore Tab

You’ll now start to see auto-playing Stories clips on the Explore grid. Tapping one will let you watch that Story, and then swipe through more topically similar Stories. For example, if you tap into a Story about dogs on Explore, you’ll likely see more dog Stories queued up. This seamless way to sift through content means there’s a ton of opportunity for influencers and artists to gain followers through Explore.

Instagram tells me that its algorithm is looking for several things when determining what to show on Explore. This is not an exhaustive list of signals that determine what shows up on Explore, which would also include recency and other factors. Explore is also personalized for every user, so showing up to one person doesn’t mean others will see a piece of content there too But here’s what Instagram  told us were some of inputs for deciding what Stories appear in Explore:

  1. The strongest input is what the viewer already follows and Likes in the feed. Instagram will try to show similar Stories in Explore, so if someone Likes and follows a lot of accounts you, it will show Stories from other people they Like and follow but you don’t yet
  2. Videos have the potential to be ranked higher than photos since videos auto-play in Explore and tend to get more attention, but great photos will still rank above mediocre videos
  3. Highly-visual Stories that don’t include too much text will get preference
  4. Stories with content more similar to and representative of a creator’s typical feed posts are more likely to show up on Explore
  5. Certain content types like reposts of other people’s feed posts are demoted by the algorithm
  6. Computer vision that detects what the actual content of a Story is helps Instagram show you ones similar to the content you interact with most, though this is a weaker signal than those above.

So if you’re followed and Liked by people similar to someone, and post visually-compelling video Stories without too much text that are indicative of the topics you typically post, you could earn a spot on the Explore tab.

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