Entertainment

And now, here’s a ‘Trumpy Cat’ augmented reality app from George Takei

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, George Takei, House of Cats, Mobile, TC | No Comments

Anyone who follows George Takei on Twitter can tell you that Star Trek‘s original Sulu is not a fan of President Donald Trump. But he’s found a new way to express that criticism — not just in tweets, interviews and op-eds, but also in an augmented reality app called House of Cats.

The app was built in partnership with Montreal-based development company BMAD, and it allows users to interact with animated animal characters like Trumpy Cat, Meowlania, Vladdy Putin and Lil’ Rocket Pug. They can add their own voice recordings, superimpose the animals on real environments and take photos with them — Takei suggested including Trumpy Cat in photos of real-world protests.

When I asked where the idea came from, Takei had a simple explanation: “The Internet loves the combination of politics and cats.”

While the app looks pretty silly, Takei made the by-now-commonplace observation that satire is having a hard time keeping up with the daily news.

We spoke shortly after Trump had his press conference with Vladimir Putin — setting off this week’s cycle of criticism, denial and missing double negatives — and Takei told me, “No augmented reality could have created the true reality of what we saw this morning: Donald Trump standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Vladimir Putin … his denial of the attack on the core activity of our democratic system.”

Takei added that humor is a key ingredient in getting a serious message out into the world. He’s pointed to his embrace of memes (particularly Grumpy Cat) as one of the main drivers of his popularity on social media, which in turn gives him a bigger platform for his political views.

“I’m a political activist — I have been since I was a teenager, largely because of my childhood incarceration behind American barbed wire fences,” Takei said. He said his social media presence is meant to be an extension of that activism, but, “I notice that if I’m documenting the truth, people are nodding off. [So] I try to kind of inject a little humor into it.”

The app costs 99 cents, and there are plans for subscription content as well. It might seem strange to pay money for a satirical cat app, but keep in mind that some of the profits will go to Refugees International.

“Making a mockery of this particular person is going to be a very effective tool,” Takei said. “We’ll have fun while we also accomplish our mission to make this a better America.”

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Overwatch League strikes a milestone deal with Disney and ESPN

Posted by | abc, Activision Blizzard, disney xd, Entertainment, espn, esports, Gaming, Sports, TC | No Comments

If you’re sick of hearing about esports, you need to get over it. The space continues to grow, inching its way into the traditional media landscape. Today, in fact, Activision Blizzard announced that the Overwatch League playoffs will be aired on ESPN and Disney XD.

The Overwatch League in itself is a huge step for esports, as it’s the first true city-based league for a competitive video game. While most esports leagues consist of privately owned teams with little or nothing to do with geography, Overwatch League is a pro league made up of city-based teams such as the Dallas Fuel or the San Francisco Shock. Many of these teams are owned by big names in the traditional sports world, such as Robert Kraft (CEO and owner of New England Patriots, who owns the Boston Uprising) and Jeff Wilpon (COO of the New York Mets, who owns the New York Excelsior).

The agreement, which also includes a recap/highlights package from 2018 Grand Finals coverage on ABC on July 29, marks the first time that live competitive gaming has aired on ESPN in prime time, and will be the first broadcast of an esports championship on ABC. Activision Blizzard said in the announcement that this is just the start of a multi-year agreement.

That said, EA’s Madden NFL 18 did broadcast an esports tournament on ESPN2 and Disney XD earlier this year.

Overwatch League playoffs begin tonight at 8pm ET, and will culminate in the Grand Finals, taking place in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, on July 27 and July 28.

Here’s what Justin Connolly, EVP of Affiliate Sales and Marketing at Disney and ESPN, had to say in a prepared statement:

The Overwatch League Grand Finals is by far our most comprehensive television distribution for an esports event over a single weekend: 10 total hours over four networks and three days. This overall collaboration with Disney/ABC, ESPN and Blizzard represents our continued commitment to esports, and we look forward to providing marquee Overwatch League coverage across our television platforms for fans.

The rise of Twitch stars, like Ninja, and the growth of the competitive gaming scene have paved the way not only for a new type of sports media, but for a growing new economy. While challenges remain around monetizing the content, the pieces of the puzzle are slowing coming together to create an audience large enough to incentivize advertisers to spend big money.

In fact, sponsorship revenue and ad spending revenue are expected to hit $655 million and $224 million, respectively, by 2020, according to Newzoo. That doesn’t sound like much when you think about the NFL, which raked in $1.3 billion in revenue in 2017 alone. But, like this deal proves, the esports space is growing and working its way into the mainstream, hoping to get the attention of young men between 18 and 34 who have become increasingly difficult to reach via traditional advertising.

Alongside the live TV broadcast of the Overwatch League playoffs on ESPN and Disney XD, the playoffs will also be live-streamed via Twitch, MLG.com and on the ESPN app and DisneyNOW.

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Apple could bundle TV, music and news in a single subscription

Posted by | Apple, apple music, apple news, apple tv, Apps, Entertainment, Mobile | No Comments

According to a report from The Information, Apple could choose to bundle all its media offerings into a single subscription. While Apple’s main media subscription product is currently Apple Music, it’s no secret that the company is investing in other areas.

In particular, Apple has bought the distribution rights of many TV shows. But nobody knows how Apple plans to sell those TV shows. For instance, you could imagine paying a monthly fee to access Apple’s content in the TV app on your iPhone, iPad and Apple TV.

In addition to that, Apple acquired Texture back in March. Texture lets you download and read dozens of magazines with a single subscription. The company has partnered with Condé Nast, Hearst, Meredith, News Corp., Rogers Communications and Time Inc. to access their catalog of magazines.

Texture is still available, but it’s clear that Apple has bigger plans. In addition to reformatting and redistributing web content in the Apple News app, the company could add paid content from magazines.

Instead of creating three different subscriptions (with potential discounts if you subscribe to multiple services), The Information believes that Apple is going to create a unified subscription. It’s going to work a bit like Amazon Prime, but without the package deliveries.

For a single monthly or annual fee, you’ll be able to access Apple Music, Apple TV’s premium content and Apple News’ premium content.

Even if you don’t consume everything in the subscription, users could see it as a good value, which could reduce attrition.

With good retention rates and such a wide appeal, it could help Apple’s bottom line now that iPhone unit sales are only growing by 0.5 percent year over year. It’s still unclear when Apple plans to launch its TV and news offerings.

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The Sonos Beam is the soundbar evolved

Posted by | Amazon, Android, apple music, Assistant, consumer electronics, Entertainment, film, Gadgets, Google, HDMI, home audio, loudspeaker, Pandora, Reviews, Sonos, sound systems, Speaker, Spotify, Surround Sound, tablet computer, TC, technology | No Comments

Sonos has always gone its own way. The speaker manufacturer dedicated itself to network-connected speakers before there were home networks and they sold a tablet-like remote control before there were tablets. Their surround sound systems install quickly and run seamlessly. You can buy a few speakers, tap a few buttons and have 5.1 sound in less time than it takes to pull a traditional home audio system out of its shipping box.

This latest model is an addition to the Sonos line and is sold alongside the Playbase — a lumpen soundbar designed to sit directly underneath TVs not attached to the wall — and the Playbar, a traditionally styled soundbar that preceded the Beam. Both products had all of the Sonos highlights — great sound, amazing interfaces and easy setup — but the Base had too much surface area for more elegant installations and the Bar was too long while still sporting an aesthetic that harkened back to 2008 Crutchfield catalogs.

The $399 Beam is Sonos’ answer to that, and it is more than just a pretty box. The speaker includes Alexa — and promises Google Assistant support — and it improves your TV sound immensely. Designed as an add-on to your current TV, it can stand alone or connect with the Sonos subwoofer and a few satellite surround speakers for a true surround sound experience. It truly shines alone, however, thanks to its small size and more than acceptable audio range.

To use the Beam you bring up an iOS or Android app to display your Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and Pandora accounts (this is a small sampling; Sonos supports more). You select a song or playlist and start listening. Then, when you want to watch TV, the speaker automatically flips to TV mode — including speech enhancement features that actually work — when the TV is turned on. An included tuning system turns your phone into a scanner that improves the room audio automatically.

The range is limited by the Beam’s size and shape and there is very little natural bass coming out of this thing. However, in terms of range, the Beam is just fine. It can play an action movie with a bit of thump and then go on to play some light jazz or pop. I’ve had some surprisingly revelatory sessions with the Beam when listening to classic rock and more modern fare and it’s very usable as a home audio center.

The Beam is two feet long and three inches tall. It comes in black or white and is very unobtrusive in any home theater setup. Interestingly, the product supports HDMI-ARC aka HDMI Audio Return Channel. This standard, introduced in TVs made in the past five years, allows the TV to automatically output audio and manage volume controls via a single HDMI cable. What this means, however, is you’re going to have a bad time if you don’t have HDMI-ARC.

Sonos includes an adapter that can also accept optical audio output, but setup requires you to turn off your TV speakers and route all the sound to the optical out. This is a bit of a mess, and if you don’t have either of those outputs — HDMI-ARC or optical — then you’re probably in need of a new TV. That said, HDMI-ARC is a bit jarring for first timers, but Sonos is sure that enough TVs support it that they can use it instead of optical-only.

The Beam doesn’t compete directly with other “smart” speakers like the HomePod. It is very specifically a consumer electronics device, even though it supports AirPlay 2 and Alexa. Sonos makes speakers, and good ones at that, and that goal has always been front and center. While other speakers may offer a more fully featured sound in a much smaller package, the Beam offers both great TV audio and great music playback for less than any other higher end soundbar. Whole room audio does get expensive — about $1,200 for a Sub and two satellites — but you can simply add on pieces as you go. One thing, however, is clear: Sonos has always been the best wireless speaker for the money and the Beam is another win for the scrappy and innovative speaker company.

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Instagram launches IGTV app for creators, 1-hour video uploads

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, instagram, Instagram IGTV, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram is ready to compete head-on with YouTube. Today at a flashy event in San Francisco, the company announced it will begin allowing users to upload videos up to one hour in length, up from the previous one-minute limit. And to house the new longer-form videos from content creators and the general public, Instagram is launching IGTV. Accessible from a button inside the Instagram homescreen, as well as a standalone app, IGTV will spotlight popular videos from Instagram celebrities.

The launch confirms TechCrunch’s scoops over the past month outlining the features and potential of IGTV that we said would arrive today, following the WSJ’s report that Instagram would offer videos up to an hour in length.

“It’s time for video to move forward, and evolve,” said Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom onstage at the event. “IGTV is for watching long-from videos from your favorite creators.” Just before he took the stage, Instagram’s business blog outed details of IGTV.

Kevin Systrom onstage at the IGTV launch

How IGTV Works

IGTV will let anyone be a creator, not just big-name celebrities. People will be able to upload vertical videos through Instagram’s app or the web. Everyone except smaller and new accounts will be able to upload hour-long videos immediately, with that option expanding to everyone eventually.

The IGTV app will be available globally on iOS and Android sometime today, as well as in the Instagram app through a TV shaped button above Stories. “We made it a dedicated app so you can tap on it and enjoy video without all the distraction,” Systrom explained.

In IGTV’s dedicated app or its in-Instagram experience, viewers will be able to swipe through a variety of longer-form videos, or swipe up to visit a Browse tab of personally recommended videos, popular videos, creators they’re following and the option to continue watching previously started videos. Users will also get callouts from the IGTV button alerting them to new content.

IGTV will also let creators develop Instagram Channels full of their different videos that people can subscribe to. Creators will be able to put links in the description of their videos to drive traffic elsewhere.

No Commercials In IGTV…Yet

“There’s no ads in IGTV today,” says Systrom, but he says it’s “obviously a very reasonable place [for ads] to end up.” He explained that since creators are investing a lot of time into IGTV videos, he wants to make that sustainable by offering them a way to monetize in the future. Instagram isn’t paying any creators directly for IGTV videos either, like Facebook did to jump-start its flopped Facebook Watch video hub.With 1 billion users on Instagram, IGTV could be popular with creators not only trying to earn money but grow their audience. Instagram is expected to build out a monetization option for IGTV creators, potentially including ad revenue shares. The big user base could also attract advertisers. eMarketer already expects Instagram to earn $5.48 billion in U.S. ad revenue in 2018. Facebook shareholders loved the sound of more premium ad inventory that businesses crave as they shift spend away from television. Facebook’s share price is up over 2.2 percent today to nearly $202.

Instagram has evolved far beyond the initial simplicity of just filtering and sharing photos. When it launched, mobile networks, screens and cameras weren’t ready for longer-form video, and neither were users. As more families cut the cord or teens ignore television altogether, though, Instagram has an opportunity to become the TV of mobile. YouTube may always have a wider breadth of content, but through curation of creators and publishers’ video content, Instagram could become the reliable place to watch something great on the small screen.

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Instagram’s “IGTV” video hub for creators launches tomorrow

Posted by | Apps, Creators, Entertainment, instagram, Instagram IGTV, instagram video, Mobile, Snapchat Clone, Snapchat Discover, Social, TC, Video, YouTube | No Comments

TechCrunch has learned that the Instagram longer-form video hub that’s launching tomorrow is called IGTV and it will be part of the Explore tab, according to multiple sources. Instagram has spent the week meeting with online content creators to encourage them to prepare videos closer to 10-minute YouTube vlogs than the 1-minute maximum videos the app allows today.

Instagram is focusing its efforts around web celebrities that made their name on mobile rather than more traditional, old-school publishers and TV studios that might come off too polished and processed. The idea is to let these creators, who have a knack for this style of content and who already have sizeable Instagram audiences, set the norms for what IGTV is about.

Instagram declined to comment on the name IGTV and the video hub’s home in app’s Explore tab. We’ll get more information at the feature’s launch event in San Francisco tomorrow at 9am Pacific.

Following the WSJ’s initial report that Instagram was working on allowing longer videos, TechCrunch learned much more from sources about the company’s plan to build an aggregated destination for watching this content akin to Snapchat Discover. The videos will be full-screen, vertically oriented, and can have a resolution up to 4K. Users will be greeted with collection of Popular recent videos, and the option to Continue Watching clips they didn’t finish.

The videos aren’t meant to compete with Netflix Originals or HBO-quality content. Instead, they’ll be the kind of things you might see on YouTube rather than the short, off-the-cuff social media clips Instagram has hosted to date. Videos will offer a link-out option so creators can drive traffic to their other social presences, websites, or ecommerce stores. Instagram is planning to offer direct monetization, potentially including advertising revenue shares, but hasn’t finalized how that will work.

We reported that the tentative launch date for the feature was June 20th. A week later, Instagram sent out press invites for an event on June 20th our sources confirm is for IGTV.

Based on its historic growth trajectory that has seen Instagram adding 100 million users every four months, and its announcement of 800 million in September 2017, it’s quite possible that Instagram will announce it’s hit 1 billion monthly users tomorrow. That could legitimize IGTV as a place creators want to be for exposure, not just monetization.

IGTV could create a new behavior pattern for users who are bored of their friends’ content, or looking for something to watch in between Direct messages. If successful, Instagram might even consider breaking out IGTV into its own mobile app, or building it an app for smart TVs

The launch is important for Facebook because it lacks a popular video destination since its Facebook Watch hub was somewhat of a flop. Facebook today said it would expand Watch to more creators, while also offering new interactive video tools to let them make their own HQ trivia-style game shows. Facebook also launched its Brand Collabs Manager that helps businesses find creators to sponsor. That could help IGTV stars earn money through product placement or sponsored content.

Until now, video consumption in the Facebook family of apps has been largely serendipitous, with users stumbling across clips in their News Feed. IGTV will let it more directly compete with YouTube, where people purposefully come to watch specific videos from their favorite creators. But YouTube was still built in the web era with a focus on horizontal video that’s awkward to watch on iPhones or Androids.

With traditional television viewership slipping, Facebook’s size and advertiser connections could let it muscle into the lucrative space. But rather than try to port old-school TV shows to phones, IGTV could let creators invent a new vision for television on mobile.

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Facebook launches Brand Collabs search engine for sponsoring creators

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Crowdfunding, eCommerce, Entertainment, Facebook, Facebook ads, Facebook Creator, Facebook Subscriptions, Mobile, Patreon, patronage, payments, Social, TC, Twitch, YouTube | No Comments

Facebook wants to help connect brands to creators so they can work out sponsored content and product placement deals, even if it won’t be taking a cut. Confirming our scoop from May, Facebook today launched its Brand Collabs Manager. It’s a search engine that brands can use to browse different web celebrities based on the demographics of their audience and portfolios of their past sponsored content.

Creators hoping to score sponsorship deals will be able to compile a portfolio connected to their Facebook Page that shows off how they can seamlessly work brands into their content. Brands will also be able to find them based on the top countries where they’re popular, and audience characteristics like interests, gender, education, relationship status, life events or home ownership.

Facebook also made a wide range of other creator monetization announcements today:

  • Facebook’s Creator app that launched on iOS in November rolled out globally on Android today (this link should be active soon once the app populates across Google Play). The Creator app lets content makers add intros and outros to Live broadcasts, cross-post content to Twitter and Instagram, see a unified inbox of their Facebook and Instagram comments plus Messenger chats, and more ways to connect with fans.

  • Ad Breaks, or mid-video commercials, are rolling out to more U.S. creators, starting with those that make longer and original content with loyal fans. Creators keep 55 percent of the ad revenue from the ads.
  • Patreon-Style Subscriptions are rolling out to more creators, letting them charge fans $4.99 per month for access to exclusive behind the scenes content plus a badge that highlights that they’re a patron. Facebook also offers microtransaction tipping of video creators through its new virtual currency called Stars.

  • Top Fan Badges that highlight a creator’s most engaged fans will now roll out more broadly after a strong initial reaction to tests in March.
  • Rights Manager, which lets content owners upload their videos so Facebook can fingerprint them and block others from uploading them, is now available for creators not just publishers.

Facebook also made a big announcement today about the launch of interactive video features and its first set of gameshows built with them. Creators can add quizzes, polls, gamification and more to their videos so users can play along instead of passively viewing. Facebook’s Watch hub for original content is also expanding to a wider range of show formats and creators.

Why Facebook wants sponsored content

Facebook needs the hottest new content from creators if it wants to prevent users’ attention from slipping to YouTube, Netflix, Twitch and elsewhere. But to keep creators loyal, it has to make sure they’re earning money off its platform. The problem is, injecting Ad Breaks that don’t scare off viewers can be difficult, especially on shorter videos.

But Vine proved that six seconds can be enough to convey a subtle marketing message. A startup called Niche rose to arrange deals between creators and brands who wanted a musician to make a song out of the windows and doors of their new Honda car, or a comedian to make a joke referencing Coca-Cola. Twitter eventually acquired Niche for a reported $50 million so it could earn money off Vine without having to insert traditional ads. [Disclosure: My cousin Darren Lachtman was a co-founder of Niche.]

Vine naturally attracted content makers in a way that Facebook has had some trouble with. YouTube’s sizable ad revenue shares, Patreon’s subscriptions and Twitch’s fan tipping are pulling creators away from Facebook.

So rather than immediately try to monetize this sponsored content, Facebook is launching the Brand Collabs Manager to prove to creators that it can get them paid indirectly. Facebook already offered a way for creators to tag their content with disclosure tags about brands they were working with. But now it’s going out of its way to facilitate the deals. Fan subscriptions and tipping come from the same motive: letting creators monetize through their audience rather than the platform itself.

Spinning up these initiatives to be more than third-rate knockoffs of Niche, YouTube, Patreon and Twitch will take some work. But hey, it’s cheaper for Facebook than paying these viral stars out of pocket.

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Facebook launches gameshows platform with interactive video

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, Facebook, Gaming, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Rather than build its own HQ trivia competitor, Facebook is launching a gameshow platform. Today the company announced a new set of interactive live and on-demand video features that let creators add quizzes, polls, challenges and gamification so players can be eliminated from a game for a wrong answer. The features could help Facebook achieve its new mission to push healthier active video consumption rather than passive zombie watching that hurts people’s well-being. Creators and publishers who want early access can sign up here.

Gameshow launch partners include Fresno’s What’s In The Box, where viewers guess what’s inside, and BuzzFeed News’ Outside Your Bubble, where contestants have to guess what their opponents are thinking. Plus, Facebook is testing the ability to award prize money with (Business) INSIDER’s Confetti, where viewers answer trivia questions and can see friends’ responses, with winners splitting the cash.

“Video is evolving away from just passive consumption to more interactive two-way formats,” Facebook’s VP of video product Fidji Simo tells TechCrunch. “We think creators will want to reward people. If this is something that works with Insider and Confetti, we may consider rolling out payments tools.”

When asked if Facebook was inspired by HQ, Simo repeatedly dodged the question and avoided mentioning the startup’s name, but relented in saying, “I think they’re part of a much broader trend that is making content interactive. We’ve seen that across much more than one player.”

Facebook won’t be taking a share of the prize money in this test. For now, it’s also forgoing its cut of its $4.99 per month subscriptions option that lets fans pay for exclusive content, which rolls out today to more creators. Facebook also just launched its Brand Collabs Manager that we scooped in May, which helps brands browse creators by demographic and portfolio so they can set up sponsored content and product placement deals.

Initially Facebook is not taking a cut there either. For all three of these features, though, Simo says “that doesn’t mean we never will.” Creators can sign up for these monetization options here.

The new interactive video features will be available to all publishers and creators, alongside the global launch of the Android version of Facebook’s Creator app for web celebs. The tools range from offering basic in-video polls to creating a full trivia gameshow. Creators will be able to write out their trivia questions and designate correct answers, as well as “write down the logic of the game,” says Simo.

While polls will work for Live and on-demand videos, gamification that impacts the outcome of the broadcast is only for Live. Brent Rivera and That Chick Angel are two creators who will be testing the features in the coming weeks. Facebook already found that fans enjoyed polling on its Watch show Help Us Get Married, which let viewers influence the wedding planning decisions about themes and the venue.

Facebook’s last attempt at original video, its Watch hub, saw mediocre adoption as the content felt also-ran rather than something special or must-see. That’s why Facebook is expanding Watch to offer a broader range of shows for more creators, including potentially longer or non-episodic content. That includes bringing Facebook videos originally only hosted on Pages into the Watch destination.

Facebook’s family of apps will get another chance at an original video home run when Instagram launches its long-form video hub tomorrow, according to TechCrunch’s sources.

What we’re seeing here is positioning that diverges Facebook and Instagram’s video efforts. Facebook’s might be more interactive, about playing and watching with friends, and embrace more novel new formats like mobile gameshows. Instagram, with its history of polished photos, could house more traditional high-end entertainment content.

“We’re not trying to do one show or one trivia game. We’re trying to get every creator to create such gameplay. The beauty of the creators space is that they each have a unique audience,” Simo tells me. With 2.2 billion users, making an in-house one-size-fits-all game may have been impossible.

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Playmaji is looking to bring its modular retro-gaming console to market

Posted by | capcom, Co-founder, computing, e3 2018, Entertainment, entertainment software association, Gaming, Konami, Nintendo, nintendo entertainment system, playmaji, sega, TC, Twitch, YouTube | No Comments

Tucked away in a far corner of the West Pavilion of the Los Angeles Convention center among the independent game developers showcased by IndieCade during E3 is a small booth demonstrating the latest Polymega hardware, a device that’s billing itself as the NES Classic for every old-school game released on every old-school gaming platform.

The company that’s making the device first debuted last year as Retroblox, and while its name has changed (it’s now called Playmaji) and its hardware has gotten more refined, the vision remains very much the same.

Playmaji debuted the new system and its user interface last year at E3 and it’s back again this year to tout its new pricing and drum up support for a pre-order campaign — even as it tries to raise money to license games from publishers.

Last year, Playmaji eschewed going down the crowdfunding route and instead raised $500,000 from undisclosed angel investors, according to chief executive and co-founder Bryan Bernal. This year, Bernal said his company would look to launch a pre-order campaign within the next three months and begin shipping systems by the end of the year.

While there are plenty of consoles (like the Retroengine, or Hyperkin’s SNES clone, or Analogue’s SuperNT) that tout similar capabilities to play retro arcade and console games from gaming’s golden age, Playmaji’s grand designs to provide an all-in-one networked console for gaming that can stream to Twitch or YouTube may set it apart.

The company wants to ensure that it’s doing everything by the book and not tacitly encouraging piracy, according to Bernal.

Eventually Bernal does envision a move into licensing (aiming for 50 to 100 games when the company launches its first product in the fourth quarter of this year), but for now users are limited to the cartridges that they own — or that they can find somewhere.

Both Bernal and his co-founder Eric Christensen have a history in the games business, coming from Insomniac Games where Bernal worked on the Ratchet and Clank title.

The hardware console will sell for $249.99 initially, with module sets that allow for users to upload games from different consoles starting at another $59.99. Those modular sets also include controllers that resemble the classic designs from NES and Sega systems.

“We designed new classic controllers packaged with the element modules,” said Bernal. “You can have a retro controller ready to go. To allow the classic feel and emotion of the games to carry on into the future.”

So far, the company has only raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding, but Bernal is gearing up for a larger round of $2 million to $3 million for licensing additional games. He said preliminary talks were already underway with companies like Sega, Konami and Capcom.

“The closest corollary on the market is the Classic Mini,” says Bernal. While Sega supports classic cartridges through one of its game platforms, no other console that’s on the market presents a unified device for all of a user’s old games, he said.

“This is supposed to serve as the home base in your living room,” said Bernal.

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Speech recognition triggers fun AR stickers in Panda’s video app

Posted by | Apps, augmented reality, Entertainment, funding, instagram, Mobile, panda, snap inc, Snapchat, Social, Speech Recognition, Startups, TC, video chat | No Comments

Panda has built the next silly social feature Snapchat and Instagram will want to steal. Today the startup launches its video messaging app that fills the screen with augmented reality effects based on the words you speak. Say “Want to get pizza?” and a 3D pizza slice hovers by your mouth. Say “I wear my sunglasses at night” and suddenly you’re wearing AR shades with a moon hung above your head. Instead of being distracted by having to pick effects out of a menu, they appear in real-time as you chat.

Panda is surprising and delightful. It’s also a bit janky, created by a five person team with under $1 million in funding. Building a video chat app user base from scratch amidst all the competition will be a struggle. But even if Panda isn’t the app to popularize the idea, it’s invented a smart way to enhance visual communication that blends into our natural behavior.

It all started with a trippy vision. Panda’s 18-year-old founder Daniel Singer had built a few failed apps and was working as a product manager at peer-to-peer therapy startup Sensay in LA. When Alaska Airlines bought Virgin, Singer scored a free flight and came to see his buddy Arjun Sethi, an investor at Social Capital in SF. That’s when suddenly “I’m hallucinating that as I’m talking the things I’m saying should appear” he tells me. Sethi dug the idea and agreed to fund a project to build it.

Panda founder Daniel Singer

Meanwhile, Singer had spent the last 6 years FaceTiming almost every day. He loved telling stories with his closest friends, yet Apple’s video chat protocol had fallen behind Snapchat and Instagram when it came to creative tools. So a year ago he raised $850,000 from Social Capital and Shrug Capital plus angels like Cyan (Banister) and Secret’s David Byttow. Singer set out to build Panda to combine FaceTime’s live chat with Snapchat’s visual flare triggered by voice.

But it turns out, “video chat is hard” he admits. So his small team settled for letting users send 10-second-max asynchronous video messages. Panda’s iOS app launched today with about 200 different voice activated stickers from footballs to sleepy Zzzzzs to a “&’%!#” censorship bar that covers your mouth when you swear. Tap them and they disappear, and soon you’ll be able to reposition them. As you trigger the effects for the first time, they go into a trophy case that gamifies voice experimentation.

Panda is fun to play around with yourself even if you aren’t actively messaging friends, which is reminiscent of how teens play with Snapchat face filters without always posting the results. The speech recognition effects will make a lot more sense if Panda can eventually succeed at solving the live video chat tech challenge. One day Singer imagines Panda making money by selling cosmetic effects that make you more attractive or fashionable, or offering sponsored effects so when you say “gym”, the headband that appears on you is Nike branded.

Unfortunately, the app can be a bit buggy and effects don’t always trigger, fooling you that you aren’t saying the right words. And it could be tough convincing buddies to download another messaging app, let alone turn it into a regular habit. Apple is also adding a slew of Memoji personalized avatars and other effects to FaceTime in its upcoming iOS 12.

Panda does advance one of technology’s fundamental pursuits: taking the fuzzy ideas in your head and translating them into meaning for others in clearer ways than just words can offer. It’s the next wave of visual communication that doesn’t require you to break from the conversation.

When I ask why other apps couldn’t just copy the speech stickers, Singer insisted “This has to be voice native.” I firmly disagree, and can easily imagine his whole app becoming just a single filter in Snapchat and Instagram Stories. He eventually acquiesced that “It’s a new reality that bits and pieces of consumer technology get traded around. I wouldn’t be surprised if others think it’s a good idea.”

It’s an uphill battle trying to disrupt today’s social giants, who are quick to seize on any idea that gives them an edge. Facebook rationalizes stealing other apps’ features by prioritizing whatever will engage its billions of users over the pride of its designers. Startups like Panda are effectively becoming outsourced R&D departments.

Still, Panda pledges to forge on (though it might be wise to take a buyout offer). Singer gets that his app won’t cure cancer or “make the world a better place” as HBO’s Silicon Valley has lampooned. “We’re going to make really fun stuff and make them laugh and smile and experience human emotion” he concludes. “At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with building entertainment and delight.”

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