Entertainment

These sneakers vibrate

Posted by | droplabs, Entertainment, Gadgets, Startups, susan paley, TC | No Comments

Sometimes it seems like you can hear a song all the way in your toes. With these new sneakers, you actually can.

Meet the new EP 01 sneakers out of DropLabs. Yes, you read that right. We’re talking about sneakers.

Invented by a man named Brock Seiler, and led by former Beats by Dre CEO Susan Paley, DropLabs aims to take audio to a whole new level by syncing music, movies and other audio to shoes that vibrate the soles of your feet.

It started when Seiler, who works in the music industry, was standing in a side room at a recording studio while a band was recording. He could feel every beat and low note in the song in his feet while standing over this particular patch of floor, and wanted to experience all music like that, as though he could feel the energy of the stage itself.

Eventually, Paley signed on as CEO of DropLabs and the EP 01 was born.

The EP 01 is a slightly chunky sneaker that’s equipped with Bluetooth, a speaker-grade transducer and a power source to sync with almost any audio. As a movie or music or video game plays, the sneaker picks up the audio and sends it as a perfectly synced vibration right to the soles of your feet. For big, thunderous steps of a T-Rex in Jurassic World, the vibrations are heavy and full. For the pitter-patter of the townspeoples’ footsteps in Red Dead: Redemption II, the vibrations are light and muted.

What’s more, the vibrations are slightly directional. Noise that’s coming from the right vibrates on the right, and vice versa, which can be particularly impactful while playing video games.

Indeed, Paley sees gaming as a huge opportunity to enter the market. Audio, and particularly good directional audio, is incredibly important for gamers who compete at a high level. The growth of esports has allowed a number of brands to emerge as the “X for gamers,” not least of which being energy drinks.

DropLabs has an opportunity to market to gamers, offering a more immersive experience across their games and potentially even a competitive advantage.

Paley explained to TechCrunch that the brain actually functions at a higher level when three or more of the senses are engaged. Feeling something, alongside hearing and seeing it, flips a switch when it comes to processing information.

For this reason, Paley sees a huge potential to target gamers as an early demographic, particularly big-name streamers and gaming influencers.

In fact, DropLabs has given the shoes to various researchers and universities around the country to learn more about how these shoes might be used. After meeting with them, Paley believes there are applications that extend well beyond entertainment and into the health space.

I got a chance to try on the shoes and play around with them for a little while last week, and while I’d like to reserve my complete thoughts for a proper review, it goes without saying that wearing the shoes surely leaves an impression.

But the EP 01 have challenges ahead.

For one, the shoes cost upwards of $500. It’s a mighty high price point for a gadget that most folks will need to try before they feel committed to buying.

“Whenever you create a new category and a new product, you have the challenge of asking consumers to change their behavior,” said Paley. “And this, in particular, is so visceral. How do you communicate viscerally what is an emotional experience? You can talk about it, but it’s very different to put someone in the shoe.”

The EP 01 must also find their place in a category that’s defined by fashion and personal style. Our shoes say something about us, and for now, the EP 01 comes in one style and one color (black). It’s as universal a shoe as it can be, considering all the electronics packed in there, but it doesn’t leave customers many options to change up their own look.

Of course, DropLabs is deep in the learning phase, soaking up as much information about its first-gen sneaker as possible as it looks to iterate for v2.

The EP 01 is available for pre-order now, and DropLabs has plans to launch pop-up shops and other IRL experiences for folks interested in the shoes.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Brock Seiler as Ross Seiler. It has been corrected for accuracy.

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Twitch publicly launches its free broadcasting software, Twitch Studio

Posted by | Entertainment, Gaming, streaming, TC, Twitch, Twitch Studio | No Comments

Twitch today publicly launched Twitch Studio, its new software designed to help new streamers get started broadcasting. The idea behind the app is to make it simple for someone new to the space to get started, by offering a quick setup process and other tools to make the stream both look and sound more professional — even if the streamer doesn’t have broadcasting experience.

The software, which was only available in closed beta until today, will detect the user’s mic, webcam, monitor resolution, bitrate and more through a guided setup process. Streamers can then choose from a variety of starter layouts and overlays that will help them personalize their stream’s look-and-feel.

Once live on Twitch, the software will also help streamers interact with the online community and viewers, including by way of built-in alerts, an activity feed and integrated Twitch chat.

As the company previously explained, many people have thought about streaming but gave up on doing so because the process was too difficult. The new software aims to get them over that hurdle of setting up a stream for the first time.

As the streamer becomes more knowledgable and capable, they may outgrow their need for Twitch Studio — and that would be fine. The goal is to get them involved with Twitch streaming in the first place, not necessarily keep them on the platform longer-term.

Twitch Studio is currently available only on Windows PCs, not Mac, iOS or Android “at this time,” Twitch says — a hint that cross-platform support could come further down the road. However, in the near-term, Twitch is working to better integrate the software with other Twitch functionality, as well as roll out tools that make it easier to chat and engage viewers.

The launch timing is notable as Twitch has recently lost its biggest streamer, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, to Microsoft’s Mixer. The loss was then followed by the exit of Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, also to Mixer. Meanwhile, Google’s Stadia, which is about to launch on November 19, will make it easy to stream directly to YouTube. 

Twitch says the new Twitch Studio software is available today, in beta, for anyone on Windows 7 or newer.

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Caffeine signs streaming deal with rapper Offset

Posted by | caffeine, Entertainment, Gaming, Media, offset, streaming services | No Comments

Caffeine, the live streaming service founded by former Apple designers Ben Keighran and Sam Roberts, has signed an exclusive streaming deal with Offset.

The startup has been relatively quiet since raising nearly $150 million in funding last year, but Keighran (who previously co-founded Chomp and then served as product design lead for Apple TV) told me that’s going to start changing as the company prepares to leave beta testing.

Keighran also pointed to the Offset deal as exemplifying several aspects of his vision for how Caffeine can become “the future of live TV.”

As part of the deal, Offset will host two exclusive shows on his Caffeine channel — a weekly stream at 6pm Pacific on Sundays where he’ll play his favorite games and try out new games suggested by fans, plus a second show called “Bet with Set,” where he’ll compete with celebrity guests on a variety of a challenges.

“With Caffeine, I can create my content in an organic way that lets me make real connections with my community,” Offset said in a statement. “They have created new technology that takes the lag out of online interactions and it makes me reachable in a way that other platforms simply can’t. Caffeine allows me to be myself so I’m trying to reach these kids to show them that everybody is a part of a team and we’re all one.”

Other Caffeine streamers include basketball player LaMelo Ball, rapper The Game and rapper Lil Xan, as well as game streamers Cartoonz, Ohmwrecker and Cranier. The streams are then monetized by allowing fans to purchase and send virtual gifts.

Keighran said that game streaming will be a key part of Caffeine’s appeal, but he suggested that compared to the currently dominant Twitch (owned by Amazon), Caffeine will have an easier time expanding beyond gaming.

He added that not only is Caffeine designed for a wide range of live-streaming content, but it also has the advantage of backing from 21st Century Fox and its new owner Disney, which was presumably a big part of how it acquired the streaming rights to sports content from Fox Sports and Disney-owned ESPN.

“We’re getting content rights from Fox and Disney that Google and Amazon would love to have,” Keighran said. “That’s part of the secret sauce that attracts athletes and hip hop artists — they can stream sports content and video games with a better community filter, chat, new monetization with no ads. I think Offset is the perfect example.”

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VR/AR startup valuations reach $45 billion (on paper)

Posted by | ar/vr, augmented reality, Entertainment, Facebook, Gadgets, Goldman Sachs, Magic Leap, Microsoft, niantic, Oculus, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

Despite early-stage virtual reality market and augmented reality market valuations softening in a transitional period, total global AR/VR startup valuations are now at $45 billion globally — include non-pure play AR/VR startups discussed below, and that amount exceeds $67 billion. More than $8 billion has been returned to investors through M&A already, with the remaining augmented and virtual reality startups carrying more than $36 billion valuations on paper. Only time will tell how much of this value gets realized for investors.

(Note: this analysis is of AR/VR startup valuations only, excluding internal investment by large corporates like Facebook . Again, this analysis is of valuation, not revenue.)

Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform

Selected AR/VR companies that have raised funding or generated significant revenue, plus selected corporates as of September 2019.

There is significant value concentration, with just 18 AR/VR pure plays accounting for half of the $45 billion global figure. Some of the large valuations are for Magic Leap (well over $6 billion), Niantic (nearly $4 billion), Oculus ($3 billion from exit to Facebook), Beijing Moviebook Technology ($1 billion+) and Lightricks ($1 billion). While there are unicorns, the market hasn’t seen an AR/VR decacorn yet.

Across all industries — not just AR/VR — around 60% of VC-backed startups fail, not 90% as often quoted. That doesn’t mean this many startups crash and burn, but that 60% of startups deliver less than 1x return on investment (ROI) to investors (i.e. investors get less back than they put in). To better understand what’s happening in AR/VR, let’s analyze the thousands of startup valuations in Digi-Capital’s AR/VR Analytics Platform to see where the smart money is by sector, stage and country.

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How Unity built the world’s most popular game engine

Posted by | Apps, Entertainment, Europe, game engine, Gaming, mobile game, unity, video gaming | No Comments

What do BMW, Tencent, Pokémon Go creator Niantic, movie director Jon Favreau and construction giant Skanska have in common? They’re all using the same platform to create their products.

Founded in a small Copenhagen apartment in 2004, Unity Technologies’ makes a game engine — a software platform for building video games. But the company, which was recently valued around $6 billion and could be headed toward an IPO, is becoming much more than that.

“Unity wants to be the 3D operating system of the world,” says Sylvio Drouin, VP of the Unity Labs R&D team.

Customers can design, buy, or import digital assets like forests, sound effects, and aliens and create the logic guiding how all these elements interact with players. Nearly half of the world’s games are built with Unity, which is particularly popular among mobile game developers. 

And in the fourteen years since Unity’s engine launched, the size of the global gaming market has exploded from $27 billion to $135 billion, driven by the rise of mobile gaming, which now comprises the majority of the market.

Unity is increasingly used for 3D design and simulations across other industries like film, automotive, and architecture and is now used to create 60% of all augmented and virtual reality experiences. That positions Unity — as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg argued in a 2015 memo in favor of acquiring it — as a key platform for the next wave of consumer technology after mobile.

Unity’s growth is a case study of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. While other game engines targeted the big AAA game makers at the top of the console and PC markets, Unity went after independent developers with a less robust product that was better suited to their needs and budget. 

As it gained popularity, the company captured growth in frontier market segments and also expanded upmarket to meet the needs of higher-performance game makers. Today, it’s making a push to become the top engine for building anything in interactive 3D.

This article is part of my ongoing research into the future of interactive media experiences. This research has included interviews with dozens of developers, executives, and investors in gaming and other industries, including interviews with over 20 Unity executives.

Founding

Unity was founded in Copenhagen by Nicholas Francis, Joachim Ante, and David Helgason. Its story began on an OpenGL forum in May 2002, where Francis posted a call for collaborators on an open source shader-compiler (graphics tool) for the niche population of Mac-based game developers like himself. It was Ante, then a high school student in Berlin, who responded. 

Ante complemented Francis’ focus on graphics and gameplay with an intuitive sense for back-end architecture. Because the game he was working on with another team wasn’t going anywhere, they collaborated on the shader part-time while each pursued their own game engine projects, but decided to combine forces upon meeting in-person. In a sprint to merge the codebases of their engines, they camped out in Helgason’s apartment for several days while he was out of town. The plan was to start a game studio grounded in robust tech infrastructure that could be licensed as well.

Helgason and Francis had worked together since high school, working on various web development ventures and even short-lived attempts at film production. Helgason dropped in and out of the University of Copenhagen while working as a freelance web developer. He provided help where he could and joined full-time after several months, selling his small stake in a web development firm to his partners. 

According to Ante, Helgason was “good with people” and more business-oriented, so he took the CEO title after the trio failed to find a more experienced person for the role. (It would be two years before Ante and Francis extended the co-founder title and a corresponding amount of equity to Helgason.)

They recruited a rotating cast to help them for free while prototyping a wide range of ideas. The diversity of ideas they pursued resulted in an engine that could handle a broad range of use cases. Commercializing the engine became a focus, as was coming up with a hit game that would show the engine off to its best advantage; for indie developers, having to reconstruct an engine with every new game idea was a pain point that, if solved, would enable more creative output. 

Supported by their savings, a €25,000 investment from Ante’s father, and Helgason’s part-time job at a café, they pressed on for three years, incorporating in the second year (2004) with the name Over The Edge Entertainment.

The game they ultimately committed to launching in spring 2005, GooBall, was “way too hard to play,” says Ante and didn’t gain much traction. Recognizing that they were better at building development tools and prototypes than commercially-viable games, they bet their company on the goal of releasing a game engine for the small Mac-based developer community. Linking the connotations of collaboration and cross-compatibility, they named the engine Unity.

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Fortnite returns with the launch of a new map for Chapter 2

Posted by | Entertainment, epic games, fortnite, Gaming, TC | No Comments

After approximately 48 hours offline, Fortnite has returned from its black hole hiatus with a brand new map for the launch of Chapter 2.

The new map features 13 points of interest, and also includes a web of rivers that allow for new water gameplay, such as swimming, fishing and armed motorboats that seem awfully similar to the dinghies in Call of Duty: Blackout.

Players can also swim now, instead of just hopping around in shallow water, and can eat fish for more health.

Epic Games has added a few new mechanics to the game, most notably the ability to actually pick up and carry knocked teammates to a safer location to resurrect them. Plus, the game now has something called the bandage bazooka, which helps players heal their teammates (kind of like the chug splashes in Season 10).

And for folks who are sick of running around with common weaponry, they can visit the Upgrade Bench and use resources to upgrade their weapons.

As with any new season launch, new map or not, there is a brand new Battlepass in Fortnite that players can work their way through to receive skins, emotes, etc.

Here’s the Chapter 2 trailer:

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Fortnite’s black hole stunt is the kind of alpha energy we’re here for

Posted by | Entertainment, epic games, fortnite, Gaming, TC | No Comments

As you are likely already aware, Epic Games is pulling a massive PR stunt that has shrunk the world’s most popular game down to a single black hole.

As part of Fortnite’s Season 10 live event, called “The End,” the entire Battle Royale Island was sucked into a black hole, with every Fortnite social media channel deleting all of its content save for a live stream of the aforementioned black hole.

It’s like the game never existed.

This has been going on for nearly 24 hours now. I’d say there’s less than 1% possibility that this is actually the end of the game.

For one thing, Fortnite is an insane revenue generator for Epic Games, a company that not only makes games but develops software for others to make games. In fact, Fortnite was actually built as a marketing vehicle for Epic’s Unreal Engine, to show off what’s possible with the technology.

No numbers have been released recently, but at one point last summer, The Verge reported that the game was making $300 million/month.

Fast-forward to today, more than two years after launch, and the game is far and away the most popular video game on the planet, with 250 million registered accounts. It’s also one of the biggest esports by prize pool, with Epic pledging $100 million in prize cash for 2019.

But beyond the money (and let’s not underplay the money here), there is also some evidence that the black hole event is slated to end on Tuesday morning. A data miner who goes by Lucas7yoshi on Twitter points to code on Fortnite.com that allegedly reveals the end of the event is on Tuesday at 6AM EST. Of course, this is far from confirmed and though we’ve reached out to Epic, we haven’t heard back.

BREAKING:

I have independtly confirmed the authenticity of a discovery that points to “The-End” lasting until Tuesday, 6AM EST

This is not stuck in stone, this info is from https://t.co/0TDeMk7Bda code. pic.twitter.com/ElnNFKppWn

— Lucas7yoshi – FNBR Leaks/News (@Lucas7yoshi) October 13, 2019

The point? Epic didn’t just delete Fortnite. (However, it’s been terribly fun to watch gamers’ temper tantrums play out on social media.)

Rather, the company is building as much hype as possible around its next chapter. With the entire map sucked into a black hole, all signs point to a brand new map.

This is important for two unequal reasons.

First and foremost, Fortnite has always taken place on the same map. Points of interest have been wiped away and replaced, and biodomes have been updated and tweaked along the way. Indeed, the “current” Fortnite map is markedly different from the map the game launched with.

fortnite season1 season10

But it has been a slow transition, with one small change here and there for more than two years. Whatever the reason behind this, one symptom has undoubtedly had an effect on the game. The longer you’ve played Fortnite, the more of an advantage you have.

This is particularly true with mechanics like building. Experience in other games, be it Battle Royale or third-person shooters, doesn’t carry over into Fortnite, where winning on both defense on offense rests in a player’s ability to build.

But the map plays its part, too. Long-time players of the game know this island inside and out. They know that you can slide down this part of the mountain without taking fall damage, or that it’s difficult to jump your way onto this plateau without building. They know every single loot spawn on the map.

This has meant that, after two years, Fortnite has favored the veterans, which has left newcomers in a particularly difficult position.

Epic has tried to counter the imbalance of its players in a number of ways. For one, the game added Playground mode to give players a chance to practice in a relatively low-stakes environment. But Fortnite also made changes in the game that have given an edge to brand new players. The easiest and most obvious example of this is the introduction of the mechs in the beginning of Season 10, which were essentially unbeatable at their debut and took little to no skill to operate. Veterans were not pleased.

Everybody keeps asking my thoughts on the new mechs pic.twitter.com/0AHsXYhlg5

— dk (@dakotaz) August 2, 2019

The piece that has been missing for the game is a good jumping-on point.

A brand new map may be the biggest opportunity yet for brand new players to join up alongside veterans of the game and have a fighting chance of being successful. For the first time, everyone will be lost. No one will know where all the loot is spawned in this or that building, or how to rotate from one point of interest to another with the greatest height advantage or the most cover.

But, instead of transitioning from the original map to a new one in a matter of hours, as is standard with every other update to a game, Epic has decided to draw this one out.

And let’s keep this in context. Most schools are off today for Columbus Day. All those kids who were excited to grind out Season 11 on their day off are now left staring into a Black Hole with nothing to do but simmer in rage or… ya know, do something else.

This is exactly the kind of alpha energy from a game maker that I am here for. The ego!

While other games worry about getting as many players on their servers as possible at any given second of any day, Fortnite is taking a few days off to let you really miss it. Distance makes the heart grow fonder. For both old and new players, a new map means a fresh start and a fresh reason to get excited about Fortnite.

Much less critically, a new map addresses competition.

EA’s Apex Legends remains one of the biggest threats to Fortnite. The Battle Royale game had an explosive (and reportedly expensive) launch and hit 50 million users faster than Fortnite did at launch. But interest in the game petered out until very recently, when EA introduced a brand new map for the first time.

The new map, called World’s Edge, reinvigorated the player base. It’s been out for about two weeks now.

With Epic’s black hole stunt, the publisher is having a true snap back moment.

“Go play your other game, if you must, or better yet just stare longingly into this cryptic black hole,” Fortnite is saying. “You’ll come running back the moment you hear I’ve returned.”

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Sony’s next console is… the PlayStation 5, arriving holidays 2020

Posted by | Entertainment, Gaming, hardware, playstation, PlayStation 5, Sony | No Comments

Part of me wishes Sony had gone for something a little flashier. The PlayStation Unicorn or PlayStation Trebuchet or something. But there’s something to be said for consistency. Simplicity. The next version of Sony’s perennial favorite gaming console will be, drum roll… the PlayStation 5.

The company notes that nothing is particularly revelatory in this morning’s reveal. That information, it seems, is still coming. And there’s still plenty of time and lots of gaming-centric shows in which the company can spill more about the system. “These updates may not be a huge surprise,” SIE President and CEO Jim Ryan writes, “but we wanted to confirm them for our PlayStation fans, as we start to reveal additional details about our vision for the next generation.”

There’s a smattering of additional details. Ryan highlights the upcoming system’s controllers, for one thing. There’s new haptic feedback on board, in place of the more traditional rumble technology that’s been around for some time. That should give a better approximation of the simulated experiences during game play.

Also new is “adaptive triggers,” which are being added to the L2 and R2 buttons. Ryan again:

Developers can program the resistance of the triggers so that you feel the tactile sensation of drawing a bow and arrow or accelerating an off-road vehicle through rocky terrain. In combination with the haptics, this can produce a powerful experience that better simulates various actions. Game creators have started to receive early versions of the new controller, and we can’t wait to see where their imagination goes with these new features at their disposal.

The PlayStation 5 will be available in time for the 2020 holiday season. More information soon, one assumes. 

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Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok

Posted by | Apps, bytedance, Entertainment, Facebook, instagram, Mobile, Opinion, Snapchat, Social, Startups, TC, tiktok, Video | No Comments

“It’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in leaked audio of him describing TikTok during an all-hands meeting. But it’s not. TikTok represents a new form of social entertainment that’s vastly different from the lifelogging of Instagram where you can just take a selfie, show something pretty, or pan around what you’re up to. TikToks are premeditated, storyboarded, and vastly different than the haphazard Stories on Insta.

That’s why Zuckerberg’s comments cast a dark shadow over the future of the Facebook family of apps. How can it beat what it doesn’t understand? He certainly can’t ignore it. Facebook’s copycat Lasso has been installed just 425,000 times since it launched in November, while TikTok has 640 million installs in the same period outside of China. Oh, and TikTok has 1.4 billion total installs beyond China to date.

TikTok Screenshots

TikTok

Casey Newton of The Verge today published two hours of audio and transcripts from two internal-only all-hands Q&As held by Zuckerberg at Facebook in July. His comments touch on the company’s plan to fight being broken up by regulators, especially if Elizabeth Warren becomes President. He thinks Facebook would win, but on resorting to suing the government, he says “does that still suck for us? Yeah.” Zuckerberg also describes how Facebook is working to launch a payments product in Mexico and elsewhere by year’s end as Libra deals with regulatory scrutiny.

But beyond his comments on regulation, it’s his pigeonholing of TikTok that’s most alarming. It foreshadows Facebook failing to win one of the core social feeds that its business depends on. Perhaps his perspective on the competitor is evolving, but the leak portrays him as thinking TikTok is just the next Snapchat Stories to destroy.

Zuckeberg’s Thoughts On TikTok

Here’s what Zuckerberg said about TikTok during the internal Q&A sessions, (emphasis mine):

So yeah. I mean, TikTok is doing well. One of the things that’s especially notable about TikTok is, for a while, the internet landscape was kind of a bunch of internet companies that were primarily American companies. And then there was this parallel universe of Chinese companies that pretty much only were offering their services in China. And we had Tencent who was trying to spread some of their services into Southeast Asia. Alibaba has spread a bunch of their payment services to Southeast Asia. Broadly, in terms of global expansion, that had been pretty limited, and TikTok, which is built by this company Beijing ByteDance, is really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world. It’s starting to do well in the US, especially with young folks. It’s growing really quickly in India. I think it’s past Instagram now in India in terms of scale. So yeah, it’s a very interesting phenomenon.

And the way that we kind of think about it is: it’s married short-form, immersive video with browse. So it’s almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram, which is today primarily about feed posts and highlighting different feed posts. I kind of think about TikTok as if it were Explore for stories, and that were the whole app. And then you had creators who were specifically working on making that stuff. So we have a number of approaches that we’re going to take towards this, and we have a product called Lasso that’s a standalone app that we’re working on, trying to get product-market fit in countries like Mexico, is I think one of the first initial ones. We’re trying to first see if we can get it to work in countries where TikTok is not already big before we go and compete with TikTok in countries where they are big.

We’re taking a number of approaches with Instagram, including making it so that Explore is more focused on stories, which is increasingly becoming the primary way that people consume content on Instagram, as well as a couple of other things there. But yeah, I think that it’s not only one of the more interesting new phenomena and products that are growing. But in terms of the geopolitical implications of what they’re doing, I think it is quite interesting. I think we have time to learn and understand and get ahead of the trend. It is growing, but they’re spending a huge amount of money promoting it. What we’ve found is that their retention is actually not that strong after they stop advertising. So the space is still fairly nascent, and there’s time for us to kind of figure out what we want to do here. But I think this is a real thing. It’s good.

To Zuckerberg’s credit, he’s not dismissing the threat. He knows TikTok is popular. He knows it’s growing in key international markets Facebook and Instagram depend on to keep user counts rising. And he knows his company needs to respond via its standalone clone Lasso and more.

Facebook Lasso Screenshots

Lasso

But while TikToks might look like Stories because they’re vertical videos, and TikTok might algorithmically recommend them to people like Instagram Explore, it’s a whole ‘nother beast of a product and one that may be harder than it seems to copy.

To crystallize why, let’s rewind to Snapchat. With the launch of Stories, it started to blow up with US teens. Facebook’s attempts to clone it in standalone apps like Poke and Slingshot never gained traction. In fact, none of Facebook’s standalone apps have succeeded unless they splintered off an already-popular piece of Facebook like chat and users were forced to download them like Messenger. It wasn’t until Zuckerberg stuck his clone of Stories front-and-center atop Instagram and Facebook that Snapchat’s user count went from growing 18% per quarter to shrinking. There, Facebook used the same strategy laid out in Zuckerberg’s comments — push its good-enough clone in countries where the original isn’t popular yet.

But Facebook was fortunate because Stories really wasn’t that dissimilar to the content users were already sharing on Instagram — tiny biographical snippets of their lives. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel had originally invented Stories as a vision of Facebook’s News Feed through the lens of an ephemeral camera. All users had to know was “I take the same videos, but shorter and sillier, posted more often, and then they disappear”. The concept of Instagram and Facebook didn’t have to change. They were still about telling friends what you were up to. Choking off TikTok’s growth will be much more complicated.

Why TikTok Is Tough To Clone

TikTok isn’t about you or what you’re doing. It’s about entertaining your audience. It’s not spontaneous chronicling of your real life. It’s about inventing characters, dressing up as someone else, and acting out jokes. It’s not about privacy and friends, but strutting on the world stage. And it’s not about originality — the heart of Instagram. TikTok is about remixing culture — taking the audio from someone else’s clip and reimagining the gag in a new context by layering it atop a video you record.

TikTok Remixes

That makes TikTok distinct enough that it will be very difficult to shoehorn into Instagram or Facebook, even if they add the remixing functionality. Most videos on those apps aren’t designed to be templates for memes like TikToks are. Insta and Facebook’s social graphs are rooted in friendship and augmented by the beautiful and famous, but don’t encompass the new wave of amateur performers TikTok elevates. And since each post to the app becomes fodder for someone else’s creativity, a competitor starting from scratch doesn’t offer much to remix.

That means a TikTok clone would have to be somewhat buried in Instagram or Facebook, rebuild a new social graph, and retrain users’ understanding of these apps’ purpose…at the risk of distracting from their core use cases. This leaves Facebook hoping to grow its standalone TikTok clone Lasso which TechCrunch scooped a year ago before it launched last November. But as we’ve seen, Facebook struggles growing brand new apps, and that effort is further hindered by its increasingly toxic brand and sheen of uncoolness. Nor does it help that Facebook must divert development resources to comply with all the new privacy and transparency obligations as part of its $5 billion FTC fine and settlement.

The Next Feed

Facebook’s best bet is to assess the future value of the ads it could run on a successful TikTok clone and apply some greater fraction of that grand sum to competing directly. It’s already made some smart additions to Lasso like tutorials for how to remix and the option to add GIFs as sections of your video. But it’s still failing to gain serious traction in the US. While typical videos on the TikTok homepage where I’m spending a few hours a week have hundreds of thousands of Likes, the top ones I saw in my Lasso feed today received 70 or fewer.

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TikTok trounces Facebook’s Lasso in the US iOS App Store charts

I had Sensor Tower run some analysis comparing TikTok with Lasso since its launch last November, and found that Lasso gets 6 downloads for every 1000 for TikTok in the US. Some more stats:

  • US Total Downloads Since November: Lasso – 250,000 // TikTok – 41.3 million
  • US Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 760 // TikTok – 126,000
  • Average US Google Play Social App Chart Ranking: Lasso – #155 // TikTok – #2

Beyond the US, Lasso has only launched in one other market, Mexico in April, where it’s been faring better but could hardly even be considered a competitor to TikTok. Facebook needs to lean harder into Lasso:

  • Mexico Total Downloads Since April: Lasso – 175,000 // TikTok – 3.3 million
  • Mexico Downloads Per Day Since November: Lasso – 1,000 // TikTok – 19,000

Facebook Lasso Logo

Zuckerberg may need to find a coherent place for TikTok style features inside Instagram and potentially Facebook. That could be another horizontal row of previews like with Stories and/or a header on the Explore page dedicated to premeditated content. Certainly something more prominent than a single button like IGTV that still no one is asking for. One opportunity to best TikTok would be building a dedicated remix source browser into the Stories camera to help users find content to put their own spin on.

Facebook will also need to buy out top TikTok creators to make videos for it instead, and even quasi-hire some of the most prolific video meme or challenge inventors to give users trends to jump on rather than just one-off clips to watch. Its failure to offer IGTV stars monetization has led many to ignore that platform, and it can’t afford that again.

If Zuckerberg approaches TikTok as merely an algorithmic video recommender like Explore, Facebook will miss out on owning the social entertainment feed. If he doesn’t decisively move to challenge TikTok soon, its catalog of content to remix will grow insurmountable and it will own the whole concept of short form performative video. Snapchat’s insistence on ephemerality makes it incompatible with remixing, and YouTube isn’t nimble enough to reinvent itself.

If no American company can step up, we could see our interest data, faces, and attention forfeited to an app that while delightful to use, heralds Chinese political values at odds with our own. If only Twitter hadn’t killed Vine.

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Knowable launches its ‘not a podcast’ $100 audio classes

Posted by | Andreessen Horowitz, Apps, Connie Chan, eCommerce, Education, Entertainment, funding, Fundings & Exits, Media, Mobile, Podcasts, Recent Funding, Snackable Media, Startups, TC | No Comments

Books on tape were the lifeblood of self-help. But e-learning startups like Khan Academy and Coursera demanded our eyes, not just our ears. Then came podcasts that make knowledge accessible, yet rarely focus on you retaining and applying what they teach.

Today, a new startup called Knowable is launching to provide gaze-free audio education at $100 per eight-hour course on topics like how to launch a startup or how to sleep better. The idea is that by layering chapter summaries and eventually interactive activities atop premium, long-form, ad-free lessons, it can become the trusted name in learning anywhere. With always-in Bluetooth earbuds and smart speakers becoming ubiquitous, we can imbibe content in smaller chunks in new environments. Knowable wants to fill that time with self-improvement.

The big question is whether Knowable can differentiate its content from free alternatives and build a moat against copycats through savvy voice-responsive learning exercises so you don’t forget everything.

To evolve beyond the podcast, Knowable has raised a $3.75 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s partner Connie Chan, and joined by Upfront, First Round and Initialized. “The market is ready for a company like Knowable. Their timing is right and their team possesses the rare combination of product expertise and creative media experience necessary to win. That’s why I’m not just hosting Knowable’s first course, Launch a Startup, we’re also one of the earliest investors in the company,” says Initialized’s Alexis Ohanian.

Knowable Courses

There’s certainly a market opportunity, as 32% of Americans listen to podcasts monthly, up from 26% in 2018, with 74% of those citing the desire to learn. Half of Americans have listened to an audio book. The e-learning market is $190 billion today, but projected to grow to $300 billion as bloated and expensive higher education succumbs to cheaper and more focused options.

But to score consistent revenue, Knowable must build up its library and execute on plans to offer a subscription service with access to updates on prior lessons. A major challenge will be bundling classes on the right topics that don’t exhaust users so they keep listening and paying.

Building a school from sound

“My first-generation immigrant parents came here without college degrees. Great teachers let me move up the socioeconomic ladder pretty quickly,” says Knowable co-founder Warren Shaeffer. “The genesis of the idea came from our shared interest in education and the value of great teachers.”

Knowable ChaptersShaeffer and his co-founder Alex Benzer have already been through the struggles of startup life together. After meeting at MuckerLab in LA and splitting from their respective co-founders, in 2007 they created SocialEngine, a community website builder that sold to Room 214. Next they built up a video platform for independent creators called Vidme that raised $9 million but never became sustainable before selling to Giphy in 2018.

The pair had glimpsed how great content could rope in an audience, but felt like the true potential of the podcast hadn’t been explored. Why did they have to be produced on the cheap, distributed on generic platforms and supported by ads? Knowable emerged as a way to create luxury audio, delivered through a purpose-built app and paid for with direct sales or subscriptions. Instead of recording unscripted discussions as episodes, they mapped out course curriculum and filled them with structured advice from experts.

I’m a few hours into the Ohanian-hosted Launch a Startup. It’s certainly a lot more efficient than trying to learn the basics just through storytelling from podcasts like Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale or NPR’s How I Built This. One chapter breaks down the top ways startups die and the traits you’ll need to persevere. From optimism and resilience operating in unstructured environments to a refusal to make excuses why you can’t succeed, Ohanian cooly recaps the learnings at the end of the chapter. Open the app and you’ll get a written summary plus suggested blog posts and books for diving deeper. An accompanying 95-page PDF workbook collects all the key learnings for rapid review later.

The topic is huge, though, and Knowable is at its best when it’s distilling knowledge into neatly packaged lists and frameworks. The course’s weakest moments are when it feels most like a podcast, with somewhat meandering conversations with random founders discussing how they dealt with problems. Meanwhile, it currently lacks some basic tools like in-app notetaking and sharing, or as wide a range of playback speeds and rewind options as you’ll get on Audible. “We don’t think of ourselves as a podcast company,” Shaeffer says, but that’s still who he’s competing against.

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— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) May 28, 2019

What’s also missing is any true interactivity. The downside of audio learning is that if you’re not paying full attention, it’s easy to zone out. Knowable needs to develop voice and touch-controlled exercises to help users apply and retain the lessons. There are plans to launch learning communities where students can confer about the classes, akin to Y Combinator’s “Bookface” forum.

However, Shaeffer says that “we’re on a mission to make education more accessible and quizzes might be an impediment to that,” which leaves questions about what the learning activities will look like, even though they’re crucial to users coughing up $100 per class. It’s easy to imagine Spotify/Anchor, Gimlet Media or other major podcast players developing their own interactive features and classes if Knowable doesn’t get there first.

Snackable audio education

The startup’s bid for virality is the ability to give a friend a code to take the class with you. Knowable is also hoping big-name experts and quality driven by a team cobbled together from NPR, The Washington Post, William Morris Endeavor, Masterclass and Vice will set it apart. They’ve got a lot of work ahead to grow beyond the six courses currently available on topics like climate change activism and real estate, especially because there’s a 100% money-back guarantee if classes fall short.

For the moment, Knowable feels a bit late with its homework. It has the potential and demand to reinvent audio learning but currently sounds too similar to what’s already everywhere. I was hoping for a Bandersnatch for education that made a broadcast experience feel more like a game.

But the opportunity will only continue to grow as we spend more of our lives in earshot of AirPods and Echoes. With a broad enough library and clever editing, one day you might tell Knowable “teach me something about venture capital in eight minutes” as you walk to the coffee shop. That’s going to have a much better impact on your life than just scrolling through another feed.

 

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