Entertainment

Facebook launches Portal TV, a $149 video chat set-top box

Posted by | Andrew Bosworth, Apps, Entertainment, Facebook, Facebook hardware, Facebook Portal, Facebook Portal Mini, Facebook Portal TV, Facebook Watch Party, Gadgets, Reviews, set-top boxes, Social, TC, Video | No Comments

Facebook wants to take over your television with a clip-on camera for video calling, AR gaming and content co-watching. If you can get past the creepiness, the new Portal TV lets you hang out with friends on your home’s biggest screen. It’s a fresh product category that could give the social network a unique foothold in the living room, where, unlike on phones where it’s beholden to Apple and Google, Facebook owns the hardware and operating system.

Today Facebook unveiled a new line of Portal devices that bring to smaller smart screen form factors its auto-zooming AI camera, in-house voice assistant speaker, Alexa, apps like Spotify and newly added Amazon Prime Video, Messenger video chat and now end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp video calls.

The $149 Portal TV is the star of the show, turning most televisions with an HDMI connection into a video chat device. And if you video call between two Portal TVs, you can use the new Watch Together feature to co-view Facebook Watch videos simultaneously while chilling together over picture-in-picture. The Portal TV is a genius way for Facebook to make its hardware both cheaper yet more immersive by co-opting a screen you already own and have given a space in your life, thereby leapfrogging smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There’s also the new pint-size 8-inch Portal Mini for just $129, which makes counter-top video chat exceedingly cheap. The 10-inch Portal that launched a year ago now has a sleeker, minimal bezel look with a price drop (from $199 to $179). Both look more like digital picture frames, which they are, and can be stood on their side or end for optimal full-screen chatting. Lastly, the giant 15.6-inch Portal+ swivel screen falls to $279 instead of $349, and you still get $50 off if you buy any two Portal devices.

Facebook Portal Lineup

“The TV has been a staple of living rooms around the world, but to date it’s been primarily about people who are physically interacting with the device,” Facebook’s VP of consumer hardware Andrew “Boz” Bosworth tells me at a press event inside a San Francisco Victorian house. “We see the opportunity for people to use their TVs not just to do that but also to interact with other people.”

The new Portals go on pre-sale today from Portal.facebook.com, Amazon and Best Buy in the U.S. and Canada, plus new markets like the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Italy and France (though the “Hey Portal” assistant only works in English). Portal and Portal Mini ship October 15th and Portal TV ships November 5th.

Portal Mini Black

The whole Portal gang lack essential video apps like Netflix and HBO, and Boz claims he’s not trying to compete directly with Roku, Fire TV, etc. Instead, Facebook is trying to win where it’s strongest, on communication and video chat where rivals lack a scaled social network.

“You’re kind of more hanging out. It isn’t as transactional. It’s not as urgent as when you sacrifice your left arm to the cause,” explains Boz. Like how Fortnite created a way for people to just chill together while gaming remotely, Portal TV could do the same for watching television together, apart.

Battling the creepiness

The original Portal launched a year ago to favorable reviews, except for one sticking point: journalists all thought it was too sketchy to bring Facebook surveillance tech inside their homes. Whether the mainstream consumer feels the same way is still a mystery, as the company has refused to share sales numbers. Though Boz told me, “The engagement, the retention numbers are all really positive,” we haven’t seen developers like Netflix rush to bring their apps to the Portal platform.

To that end, privacy on Portal no longer feels clipped on like the old plastic removable camera covers. “We have to always do more work to grow the number of people who have that level of comfort, and bring that technology into their home,” says Boz. “We’ve done what we can in this latest generation of products, now with integrated camera covers that are hardware, indicator lights when the microphone is off and form factors that are less obtrusive and blend more into the background of the home.”

Portal TV Closeup

One major change stems from a scandal that spread across the tech sector, with Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook all being criticized for quietly sending voice clips to human reviewers to improve speech recognition in what felt like a privacy violation. “Part of the Portal out-of-box experience is going to be a splash screen on data storage and it will literally walk through how . . . when we hear ‘Hey Portal’ a voice recording and transcription is sent, it may be reviewed by humans, and people have the ability to opt out.”

But if Portal is battling the perception of creepiness, why make human reviews the default? Boz defended the move from the perspective of accessibility. “We say, ‘oh they’re good enough,’ but for a lot of people that might have a mild speech impediment, a subtle accent, who might use different words because they’re from a different region, these assistants aren’t inclusive.” He claims more voice data reviewed by humans means better products for everyone, though I bet better sales for Facebook wouldn’t hurt.

Portal Privacy Set Up Notice Screen

Instead, Facebook is leaning on the evolution of the smart screen market in general to help its camera blend in. “The more value we can create, not just any one player but as an entire industry, that allows consumers to feel — ‘yeah, I both am comfortable with how the data is being used and why.’ ”

One reason Facebook is forging forward despite all the criticism about launching a “surveillance” device amidst its scandals: This is its shot to control its destiny, unlike on phones. Facebook has always been vulnerable to Apple and Google because its app lives in their app stores on their devices. “You don’t have a huge amount of influence over what the phone itself is or what the operating system provides. You’re kind of at the mercy of what those manufacturers or developers provide you,” Boz notes. With Portal, Facebook can ensure communication tech like cameras stay part of the smart home, even if they’re creepy now.

Hands-on with the new Portals

If you can get past Facebook’s toxic brand, the new Portals are quite pleasing. They’re remarkably polished products for a company just a year into selling consumer hardware. They all feel sturdy and elegant enough to place in your kitchen or living room.

Portal Mini Portal TV

The Portal and Portal Mini work just like last year’s models, but without the big speaker bezel they can be flipped on their side and look much more like picture frames while running Portal’s Smart Frame showing your Facebook, Instagram or camera roll photos.Portal Specs

Portal TV’s flexible form factor is a clever innovation, first spotted as “Codename: Ripley” by Jane Manchun Wong and reported by Alex Heath for Cheddar a year ago. It has an integrated stand for placing the gadget on your TV console, but that stand also squeezes onto a front wing to let it clip onto both wide and extremely thin new flatscreen televisions. With just an HDMI connection it brings a 12.5 megapixel, 120-degree camera and 8-mic array to any tube. It also ships with a stubby remote control for basic browsing without having to shout across the room.

Portal TV includes an integrated smart speaker that can be used even when the TV is off or on a different input, and offers HDMI CEC for control through other remotes. The built-in camera cover gives users peace of mind and a switch conjures a red light to signal that all sensors are disabled. Overall, control responsiveness felt a tad sluggish, but passable.

Portal TV and Remote

Portal’s software is largely the same as before, with a few key improvements, the addition of WhatsApp and one big bonus feature for Portal TVs. The AI Smart Camera is the best part, automatically tracking multiple people to keep everyone in frame and zoomed-in as possible. Improved adaptive background modeling and human pose estimation lets it keep faces in view without facial recognition, and all video processing is done locally on the device. A sharper Spotlight feature lets you select one person, like a child running around the room, so you don’t miss the gymnastics routines.

The Portal app platform that features Spotify and Pandora is gaining Amazon’s suite of apps, starting with Prime Video while Ring doorbell and smart home controls are on the way. Beyond Messenger calls and AR Storytime, where you don characters’ AR masks as you read aloud a children’s book, there are new AR games like Cats Catching Donuts With Their Mouths. Designed for kids and casual players, the games had some trouble with motion tracking and felt too thin for more than a few seconds of play. But if Facebook gave Portal TV a real controller or bought a better AR games studio, it could dive deeper into gaming as a selling point.

Portal Mini Alexa

WhatsApp is the top new feature for all the Portals. Though you can’t use the voice assistant to call people, you can now WhatsApp video chat friends with end-to-end encryption rather than just Messenger’s encryption in transit. The two messaging apps combined give Portal a big advantage over Google and Amazon’s devices since their parents have screwed up or ignored chat over the years. Still, there’s no way to send text messages, which would be exceedingly helpful.

Reserved for Portal TV-to-Portal TV Messenger chats is the new Watch Together feature we broke the news of a year ago after Ananay Arora spotted it in Messenger’s code. This lets you do a picture-in-picture video chat with friends while you simultaneously view a Facebook Watch video. It even smartly ducks down the video’s audio while friends are talking so you can share reactions. While it doesn’t work with other content apps like Prime Video, Watch Together shows the potential of Portal: passive hang out time.

PortalTV CoWatching

“Have you ever thought about how weird bowling is, Josh? Bowling is a weird thing to go do. I enjoy bowling. I don’t enjoy bowling by myself that much. I enjoy going with other people,” Boz tells me. “It’s just a pretext, it’s some reason for us to get together and have some beers and to have time and have conversation. Whether it’s video calling or the AR games . . . those are a pretext, to have an excuse to go be together.”

This is Portal’s true purpose. Facebook has always been about time spent, getting deeper into your life and learning more about you. While other companies’ products might feel less creepy or be more entertaining, none have the ubiquitous social connection of Facebook and Portal. When your friends are on screen too, a mediocre game or silly video is elevated into a memorable experience. You can burn hours simply co-chilling. With Portal TV, Facebook finally has something unique enough to possibly offset its brand tax and earn it a place in your home.

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Loot boxes in games are gambling and should be banned for kids, say UK MPs

Posted by | Damian Collins, Electronic Arts, Entertainment, entertainment software association, epic games, Europe, fifa, game design, Gaming, gaming disorder, instagram, Jagex, loot box, nancy pelosi, online games, online platforms, Snapchat, social media platforms, UK government, United Kingdom, world health organization | No Comments

UK MPs have called for the government to regulate the games industry’s use of loot boxes under current gambling legislation — urging a blanket ban on the sale of loot boxes to players who are children.

Kids should instead be able to earn in-game credits to unlock look boxes, MPs have suggested in a recommendation that won’t be music to the games industry’s ears.

Loot boxes refer to virtual items in games that can be bought with real-world money and do not reveal their contents in advance. The MPs argue the mechanic should be considered games of chance played for money’s worth and regulated by the UK Gambling Act.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) parliamentary committee makes the recommendations in a report published today following an enquiry into immersive and addictive technologies that saw it take evidence from a number of tech companies including Fortnite maker Epic Games; Facebook-owned Instagram; and Snapchap.

The committee said it found representatives from the games industry to be “wilfully obtuse” in answering questions about typical patterns of play — data the report emphasizes is necessary for proper understanding of how players are engaging with games — as well as calling out some games and social media company representatives for demonstrating “a lack of honesty and transparency”, leading it to question what the companies have to hide.

“The potential harms outlined in this report can be considered the direct result of the way in which the ‘attention economy’ is driven by the objective of maximising user engagement,” the committee writes in a summary of the report which it says explores “how data-rich immersive technologies are driven by business models that combine people’s data with design practices to have powerful psychological effects”.

As well as trying to pry information about of games companies, MPs also took evidence from gamers during the course of the enquiry.

In one instance the committee heard that a gamer spent up to £1,000 per year on loot box mechanics in Electronic Arts’s Fifa series.

A member of the public also reported that their adult son had built up debts of more than £50,000 through spending on microtransactions in online game RuneScape. The maker of that game, Jagex, told the committee that players “can potentially spend up to £1,000 a week or £5,000 a month”.

In addition to calling for gambling law to be applied to the industry’s lucrative loot box mechanic, the report calls on games makers to face up to responsibilities to protect players from potential harms, saying research into possible negative psychosocial harms has been hampered by the industry’s unwillingness to share play data.

“Data on how long people play games for is essential to understand what normal and healthy — and, conversely, abnormal and potentially unhealthy — engagement with gaming looks like. Games companies collect this information for their own marketing and design purposes; however, in evidence to us, representatives from the games industry were wilfully obtuse in answering our questions about typical patterns of play,” it writes.

“Although the vast majority of people who play games find it a positive experience, the minority who struggle to maintain control over how much they are playing experience serious consequences for them and their loved ones. At present, the games industry has not sufficiently accepted responsibility for either understanding or preventing this harm. Moreover, both policy-making and potential industry interventions are being hindered by a lack of robust evidence, which in part stems from companies’ unwillingness to share data about patterns of play.”

The report recommends the government require games makers share aggregated player data with researchers, with the committee calling for a new regulator to oversee a levy on the industry to fund independent academic research — including into ‘Gaming disorder‘, an addictive condition formally designated by the World Health Organization — and to ensure that “the relevant data is made available from the industry to enable it to be effective”.

“Social media platforms and online games makers are locked in a relentless battle to capture ever more of people’s attention, time and money. Their business models are built on this, but it’s time for them to be more responsible in dealing with the harms these technologies can cause for some users,” said DCMS committee chair, Damian Collins, in a statement.

“Loot boxes are particularly lucrative for games companies but come at a high cost, particularly for problem gamblers, while exposing children to potential harm. Buying a loot box is playing a game of chance and it is high time the gambling laws caught up. We challenge the Government to explain why loot boxes should be exempt from the Gambling Act.

“Gaming contributes to a global industry that generates billions in revenue. It is unacceptable that some companies with millions of users and children among them should be so ill-equipped to talk to us about the potential harm of their products. Gaming disorder based on excessive and addictive game play has been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It’s time for games companies to use the huge quantities of data they gather about their players, to do more to proactively identify vulnerable gamers.”

The committee wants independent research to inform the development of a behavioural design code of practice for online services. “This should be developed within an adequate timeframe to inform the future online harms regulator’s work around ‘designed addiction’ and ‘excessive screen time’,” it writes, citing the government’s plan for a new Internet regulator for online harms.

MPs are also concerned about the lack of robust age verification to keep children off age-restricted platforms and games.

The report identifies inconsistencies in the games industry’s ‘age-ratings’ stemming from self-regulation around the distribution of games (such as online games not being subject to a legally enforceable age-rating system, meaning voluntary ratings are used instead).

“Games companies should not assume that the responsibility to enforce age-ratings applies exclusively to the main delivery platforms: All companies and platforms that are making games available online should uphold the highest standards of enforcing age-ratings,” the committee writes on that.

“Both games companies and the social media platforms need to establish effective age verification tools. They currently do not exist on any of the major platforms which rely on self-certification from children and adults,” Collins adds.

During the enquiry it emerged that the UK government is working with tech companies including Snap to try to devise a centralized system for age verification for online platforms.

A section of the report on Effective Age Verification cites testimony from deputy information commissioner Steve Wood raising concerns about any move towards “wide-spread age verification [by] collecting hard identifiers from people, like scans of passports”.

Wood instead pointed the committee towards technological alternatives, such as age estimation, which he said uses “algorithms running behind the scenes using different types of data linked to the self-declaration of the age to work out whether this person is the age they say they are when they are on the platform”.

Snapchat’s Will Scougal also told the committee that its platform is able to monitor user signals to ensure users are the appropriate age — by tracking behavior and activity; location; and connections between users to flag a user as potentially underage. 

The report also makes a recommendation on deepfake content, with the committee saying that malicious creation and distribution of deepfake videos should be regarded as harmful content.

“The release of content like this could try to influence the outcome of elections and undermine people’s public reputation,” it warns. “Social media platforms should have clear policies in place for the removal of deepfakes. In the UK, the Government should include action against deepfakes as part of the duty of care social media companies should exercise in the interests of their users, as set out in the Online Harms White Paper.”

“Social media firms need to take action against known deepfake films, particularly when they have been designed to distort the appearance of people in an attempt to maliciously damage their public reputation, as was seen with the recent film of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi,” adds Collins.

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Drivetime nabs $11M from Makers Fund, Amazon and Google to build voice-based games for drivers

Posted by | Amazon, Apps, artificial intelligence, drivetime, Entertainment, funding, Gaming, Google, makers fund, Recent Funding, Startups, trivia, Voice interface, voice services | No Comments

Fully autonomous cars may (or may not) be just around the corner, but in the meantime, a startup that’s building in-car apps to help human drivers pass the time when behind the wheel has raised a round of funding.

Drivetime — which makes voice-based trivia quizzes, games and interactive stories that people can play while driving — has raised $11 million in funding led by Makers Fund (a prolific investor in gaming startups), with participation from Amazon (via the Alexa Fund) and Google (via its Assistant investment program).

The startup today has eight “channels” on its platform consisting of games and stories that you can access either within a limited free-to-play tier or via a paid subscription ($9.99 a month or $99.99 a year). The plan is to use the funding to continue expanding that catalog, as well as investing in deeper integrations with its new big-name strategic investors, who themselves have longstanding and deep interests in bringing more voice services and content to the in-car experience.

Co-founder and CEO Niko Vuori told TechCrunch that his ultimate ambition is for Drivetime to become “the Sirius XM of interactive content” for cars, with hundreds of different channels of content.

In keeping with those plans, along with the funding, Drivetime is today announcing a key content deal.

It has teamed up with the long-running, popular game show Jeopardy to build a trivia channel for the platform, which lets drivers test their own skills and also play against other drivers and people they know. The Jeopardy channel will source content from the TV show’s trove of IP and come with another familiar detail: it will be narrated by Alex Trebek, with a new quiz getting published every weekday for premium users.

That social element of the Jeopardy game is not a coincidence. The San Francisco-based startup is founded by Zynga alums, with Vuori and his co-founders Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson also working together at another startup called Rocket Games since leaving the social games giant and exiting that to gaming giant Penn National for up to $170 million. That track record goes some way to explaining the strong list of investors in the new startup.

“Social and interactive formats are the next frontier in audio entertainment,” said Makers Fund founding partner Jay Chi, in a statement. “Niko, Justin Cooper and Cory Johnson, with a decade-long history of working together and a proven track record in building new platforms, is the best team to bring this idea to life.”

“Gaming and entertainment are among customers’ favorite use cases for Alexa, and we think those categories will only grow in popularity as Alexa is integrated into more vehicles,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon, in a separate statement. “Drivetime stands out for its focus on voice-first games in the car, and we’re excited to work with them to broaden the Alexa Auto experience and help customers make the most of their time behind the wheel.”

In addition to the three investors in this latest round, prior to this Drivetime had raised about $4 million from backers that include Felicis Ventures, Fuel Capital, Webb Investment Network (Maynard Webb’s fund) and Access Ventures.

Vuori declined to say how many installs or active users the app has today — although from the looks of it on AppAnnie, it’s seeing decent if not blockbuster success on iOS and Android so far.

Instead, the company prefers to focus on another stat, its addressable market, which it says is 110 million drivers in North America alone.

Meanwhile, adding a Jeopardy channel is building on what has worked best so far. The most popular category at the moment is trivia, with Tunetime (a “name that tune” game) coming in second and storytelling a third.

Drivetime’s premise is an interesting one. Drivers are a captive audience, but one that has up to now had a relatively limited amount of entertainment created for it, focusing mainly on music and spoken word.

However, the rise of voice-based interfaces and interactivity using natural language — spurred by the rise of personal assistant apps and in-home hubs like Amazon’s Echo — have opened a new opportunity, developing interactive, voice-based content for drivers to engage with more proactively.

You might think that this sounds like a recipe for a car accident. Won’t a driver get too distracted trying to remember the fourth president of the United States, or who was known as the father of the Constitution? (Hint: It’s the same guy.)

Vuori claims it’s actually the reverse: Having an interactive game that requires the driver to speak out loud can focus him or her and keep the driver more alert.

“We are double-dipping in safety,” he said. “On the one hand, we embody the safety aspects of Alertness Maintaining Tasks (AMTs). But we also act as a preventative, meaning that while players engage with Drivetime, they are not engaging with anything else.”

While the content today may serve as a way of keeping drivers from doing things they shouldn’t be doing while in a car, there is another obvious opportunity that might come as drivers become less necessary and will need other things to occupy themselves.

Longer term, the Jeopardy deal could usher in other channels based on popular game shows. Sony Pictures Television Games, which owns the rights to it, also owns Wheel of Fortune and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

“We are thrilled to work with Sony Pictures Television Games to bring Jeopardy, the greatest game show on the planet, to an underserved audience that desperately needs interactive entertainment the most – the 110 million commuters in North America driving to and from work by themselves every day,” said Vuori said in a statement.

Interestingly, despite the growth of “skills” for Alexa or apps for Google Home and other home hubs, and the overall popularity of these as a way of interacting with apps and sourcing information, Vuori says that he hasn’t seen any competition emerge yet from other app developers to build voice-based entertainment for drivers in the way that Drivetime has.

That gives the company ample opportunity to continue picking up new users — and more deals with publishers and content companies looking for more mileage (sorry) for their legacy IP and new business.

“Drivetime is one of the early pioneers in creating safe, stimulating entertainment for drivers in the car,” Ilya Gelfenbeyn, founding lead of the Google Assistant Investments Program, noted in a statement. “More and more people are using their voice to stay productive on the road, asking the Google Assistant on Android and iOS phones to help send text messages, make calls and access entertainment hands free. We share Drivetime’s vision, and look forward to working with their team to make the daily commute more enjoyable.”

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The Void’s Curtis Hickman on scaling, creative IP and the future of VR experiences

Posted by | augmented reality, Disney, Entertainment, films, Gaming, Google, immersive entertainment, Media, player, Sony, star wars, Startups, TC, The Void, unity, unity-technologies, Video, Virtual reality | No Comments

What can you do with virtual reality when you have complete control of the physical space around the player? How “real” can virtual reality become?

That’s the core concept behind The Void. They take over retail spaces in places like Downtown Disney and shopping malls around the country and turn them into virtual reality playgrounds, They’ve got VR experiences based on properties like Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and Wreck-It Ralph; while these big names tend to be the main attractions, they’re dabbling with creating their own original properties, too.

By building both the game environment and the real-world rooms in which players wander, The Void can make the physical and virtual align. If you see a bench in your VR headset, there’s a bench there in the real world for you to sit on; if you see a lever on the wall in front of you, you can reach out and physically pull it. Land on a lava planet and heat lamps warm your skin; screw up a puzzle, and you’ll feel a puff of mist letting you know to try something else.

At $30-$35 per person for what works out to be a roughly thirty-minute experience (about ten of which is watching a scene-setting video and getting your group into VR suits), it’s pretty pricey. But it’s also some of the most mind-bending VR I’ve ever seen.

The Void reportedly raised about $20 million earlier this year and is in the middle of a massive expansion. It’s more than doubling its number of locations, opening 25 new spots in a partnership with the Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield chain of malls.

I sat down to chat with The Void’s co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Curtis Hickman, to hear how they got started, how his background (in stage magic!) comes into play here, how they came to work with massive properties like Ghostbusters and Star Wars, and where he thinks VR is going from here.

Greg Kumparak: Tell me a bit about yourself. How’d you get your start? How’d you get into making VR experiences?

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India’s Reliance Jio inks deal with Microsoft to expand Office 365, Azure to more businesses; unveils broadband, blockchain and IoT platforms

Posted by | Apps, artificial intelligence, Asia, blockchain, broadband, Cloud, eCommerce, Enterprise, Entertainment, high speed internet, india, Microsoft, Mobile, Mumbai, Office 365, online stores, reliance, reliance jio, Satya Nadella, Social | No Comments

India’s Reliance Jio, which has disrupted the local telecom and features phone markets in less than three years of existence, is ready to foray into many more businesses.

In a series of announcements Monday, which included a long-term partnership with global giant Microsoft, Reliance Jio said it will commercially roll out its broadband service next month; an IoT platform with ambitions to power more than a billion devices on January 1 next year; and “one of the world’s biggest blockchain networks” in the next 12 months — all while also scaling its retail and commerce businesses.

The broadband service, called Jio Fiber, is aimed at individual customers, small and medium-sized businesses as well as enterprises, Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries and Asia’s richest man, said at a shareholders’ meeting today.

The service, which is being initially targeted at 20 million homes and 15 million businesses in 1,600 towns, will start rolling out commercially starting September 5. Ambani said more than half a million customers have already been testing the broadband service, which was first unveiled last year.

The broadband service will come bundled with access to hundreds of TV channels and free calls across India and at discounted rates to the U.S. and Canada, Ambani said. The service, the cheapest tier of which will offer internet speeds of 100Mbps, will be priced at Rs 700 (~$10) a month. The company said it will offer various plans to meet a variety of needs, including those of customers who want access to gigabit internet speeds.

Continuing its tradition to woo users with significant “free stuff,” Jio, which is a subsidiary of India’s largest industrial house (Reliance Industries) said customers who opt for the yearly plan of its fiber broadband will be provided with the set-top box and an HD or 4K TV at no extra charge. Specific details weren’t immediately available. A premium tier, which will be available starting next year, will allow customers to watch many movies on the day of their public release.

The broadband service will bundle games from many popular studios, including Microsoft Game Studios, Riot Games, Tencent Games and Gameloft, Jio said.

Partnership with Microsoft

The company also announced a 10-year partnership with Microsoft to launch new cloud data centers in India to ensure “more of Jio’s customers can access the tools and platforms they need to build their own digital capability,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a video appearance Monday.

ambani nadella

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talks about the company’s partnership with Reliance Jio

“At Microsoft, our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Core to this mission is deep partnerships, like the one we are announcing today with Reliance Jio. Our ambition is to help millions of organizations across India thrive and grow in the era of rapid technological change.”

“Together, we will offer a comprehensive technology solution, from compute to storage, to connectivity and productivity for small and medium-sized businesses everywhere in the country,” he added.

As part of the partnership, Nadella said, Jio and Microsoft will jointly offer Azure, Microsoft 365 and Microsoft AI platforms to more organizations in India, and also bring Azure Cognitive Services to more devices and in 13 Indian languages to businesses in the country. The solutions will be “accessible” to reach as many people and organizations in India as possible, he added. The cloud services will be offered to businesses for as little as Rs 1,500 ($21) per month.

The first two data centers will be set up in Gujarat and Maharashtra by next year. Jio will migrate all of its non-networking apps to the Microsoft Azure platform and promote its adoption among its ecosystem of startups, the two said in a joint statement.

The foray into broadband business and push to court small enterprises come as Reliance Industries, which dominates the telecom and retail spaces in India, attempts to diversify from its marquee oil and gas business. Reliance Jio, the nation’s top telecom operator, has amassed more than 340 million subscribers in less than three years of its commercial operations.

At the meeting, Ambani also unveiled that Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil producer Aramco was buying a 20% stake in $75 billion worth Reliance Industries’ oil-to-chemicals business.

Like other Silicon Valley companies, Microsoft sees massive potential in India, where tens of millions of users and businesses have come online for the first time in recent years. Cloud services in India are estimated to generate a revenue of $2.4 billion this year, up about 25% from last year, according to research firm Gartner. Microsoft has won several major clients in India in recent years, including insurance giant ICICI Lombard.

Today’s partnership could significantly boost Microsoft’s footprint in India, posing a bigger headache for Amazon and Google.

Ambani also said Reliance Retail, the nation’s largest retailer, is working on a “digital stack” to create a new commerce partnership platform in India to reach tens of millions of merchants, consumers and producers. Ambani said Reliance Industries plans to list both Reliance Retail and Jio publicly in the next years.

“We have received strong interests from strategic and financial investors in our consumer businesses — Jio and Reliance Retail. We will induct leading global partners in these businesses in the next few quarters and move towards listing of both these companies within the next five years,” he said.

The announcement comes weeks after Reliance Industries acquired for $42.3 million a majority stake in Fynd, a Mumbai-based startup that connects brick and mortar retailers with online stores and consumers. Reliance Industries has previously stated plans to launch a new e-commerce firm in the country.

Without revealing specific details, Ambani also said that Jio is building an IoT platform to control at least one billion of the two billion IoT devices in India by next year. He said he sees IoT as a $2.8 billion revenue opportunity for Jio. Similarly, the company also plans to expand its blockchain network across India, he said.

“Using blockchain, we can deliver unprecedented security, trust, automation and efficiency to almost any type of transaction. And using blockchain, we also have an opportunity to invent a brand-new model for data privacy where Indian data, especially customer data is owned and controlled through technology by the Indian people an d not by corporate, especially global corporations,” he added.

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Statespace picks up $2.5M to help gamers train

Posted by | Entertainment, FirstMark Capital, Gaming, lux capital, Recent Funding, Startups, statespace, TC | No Comments

Gaming continues to grow in popularity, with esports revenue growing 23% from last year to top $1 billion in 2019.

But the metrics by which talent is evaluated in gaming, and the methods by which gamers can train to better hone their craft, are varied and at times non-existent. That’s where Statespace, and specifically the company’s gaming arm Klutch, come into play.

In 2017, Statespace launched out of stealth with their first product, Aim Lab. Aim Lab is meant to mimic the physical rules of a game to give gamers a practice space where they can improve their skills. Moreover, Aim Lab identifies weaknesses in a player’s gameplay — one person might struggle with their visual acuity in the top-left quadrant of the screen, while another might have trouble spotting or aiming at targets on the bottom-right side of the screen — and allows gamers to focus in on their weaknesses to get better.

Today, the company has announced a $2.5 million seed funding round led by FirstMark Capital, with participation from Expa, Lux Capital and WndrCo. This brings the company’s total funding to $4 million.

Alongside growing Aim Lab, which is on track to soon reach 1 million users, one of the company’s main goals is to create a standardized metric by which gamers’ skills can be measured. In football, college athletes and NFL coaches have the Scouting Combine to make decisions around recruiting. This doesn’t necessarily take into account stats like yardage or touchdowns, but rather the raw skills of a player, such as 40-yard sprint speed.

In fact, Statespace has partnered with the Pro Football Hall of Fame for “The Cognitive Combine,” becoming the official integrative medicine program cognitive assessment partner of the organization. Statespace wants to create a similar “combine” for gaming.

The hope is that the company can offer this metric to publishers, colleges and esports orgs, giving them the ability to not only evaluate talent, but to better serve casual users through improved matchmaking and cheat detection.

“We want to go a level beyond your kill:death ratio,” said co-founder and CEO Dr. Wayne Mackey. Those metrics greatly depend on factors like who you’re playing with. You won’t always be matched against players who are on an even keel with you. So we want to look at fundamental skills like hand-eye coordination, visual acuity, spatial processing skills and working memory capacity.”

Klutch has partnered with the National Championship Series as the official FPS training partner for 2019. NCS has majors for both CS:Go and Overwatch, two of the biggest competitive FPS games in the world. The company is also partnering with top Twitch streamers and Masterclass to create The Academy.

Academy users will be able to get advanced tutorials from streamers like KingGeorge (Rainbox Six Siege), SypherPK (Fortnite), Valkia (Overwatch), Drift0r (CoD) and Launders (CS:GO).

Obviously, gaming is a major part of Statespace’s business model. But the skeleton of the technology has a number of different applications, particularly in medicine. Statespace is currently in the research phase of rolling out an Aim Lab product that is specifically focused on helping people who have had strokes recover and rehabilitate.

Statespace wants to use the funding to build out the team and expand the Klutch Aim Lab platform beyond Steam to mobile and eventually console, with Xbox prioritized over PlayStation, as well as launching the Academy.

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India’s Flipkart bets on free video streaming service and Hindi support to win next 200 million internet users

Posted by | Amazon India, Apps, Asia, Disney, eCommerce, Entertainment, Flipkart, Media, Mobile, TC, Walmart | No Comments

India’s e-commerce giant Flipkart said on Tuesday that it is revamping its shopping app to add support for Hindi language, a video streaming service and an audio-visual assistant, the latest in a series of recent efforts to expand its reach in the country.

The e-commerce firm, which sold a majority stake to Walmart for $16 billion last year and leads the local market, told TechCrunch that it has started to roll out the features on its shopping app and will push it to all its existing users within the next 20 days.

Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. Flipkart said it has been working to customize its entire platform for several months to add support for Hindi. More than 500 million people in India speak Hindi.

As part of the revamp, the company is also introducing an “audio visual guided navigation” feature, also built in Hindi, that is aimed at first-time internet users — and existing online users not comfortable with making transactions online — to make it easier for them to navigate the service and place orders.

Its rival Amazon India added support for Hindi last year, though the feature is limited to basic text translation.

As part of the accessibility push, Flipkart is also introducing an in-app video streaming feature dubbed “Flipkart Videos” that will syndicate movies, shows and other long-form and short-form content from a number of production houses and movie studios, the company said.

The inclusion of the video streaming feature comes as Indians’ appetite for consuming media content on the internet has ballooned in the recent years. Hotstar, a Disney-owned video streaming service, has amassed more than 300 million monthly active users in the country.

Flipkart said the video streaming feature will enable it to invite a new segment of users to its platform who are online but don’t currently shop on the internet. Even as more than 500 million users are connected to the web in India, only tens of millions of them currently shop there.

The streaming feature will be accessible to all users at no charge without any loyalty program, a company spokesperson said, refuting a recent media report that claimed otherwise.

“In the past 10 years our vision and ethos have been to solve for ‘Real India,’ create India specific tech solutions, here in India. What we are rolling out when it comes to addressing the needs of the next 200 million users in our country, is taking forward those founding principles of access and affordability,” said Kalyan Krishnamurthy, Group CEO of Flipkart, in a statement.

“We strongly believe that the next phase of our growth is rooted in loyalty, democratizing e-commerce and the country will continue seeing more innovations that stem from our deep understanding of Indian consumers, especially middle India.”

Flipkart said it is also attempting to make it easier for users to discover items on its app. So it is introducing a feed called “Flipkart Ideas” that will populate short-form videos, animated images, polls and quizzes.

For instance, a user may see a short-form video that shows a sportsperson wearing a pair of sneakers, a t-shirt, a pair of jeans and a cap. If they tap on the video, they will see the exact items the person in the video is wearing and other similar items. One more tap, and the user would be able to purchase any of those items.

The company said it is working with more than 400 influencers and 30 brands to create content that will appear on the feed.

All of these features, as well as a gaming section that Flipkart introduced last year, will now appear at the bottom of the screen for easier navigation, the company said. More than half a million users in India play mini-games on Flipkart everyday. The company said it will introduce more games to boost engagement levels and offer loyalty points as incentive to customers.

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Ninja is leaving Twitch for Microsoft’s Mixer

Posted by | beam, Entertainment, game streaming, Gaming, Microsoft, mixer, Ninja, Startups, Talent, TC, Twitch, tyler blevins | No Comments

Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, the biggest streamer ever, has today announced his intention to leave the Twitch platform in favor of Microsoft’s Mixer.

Twitch is far and away the biggest video game streaming platform on the internet, claiming 72% of all hours watched, according to StreamElements. Mixer, by comparison, owns 3%, which is approximately 112 million viewership hours this most recent quarter.

Mixer is owned by Microsoft following an acquisition in 2016, back when Mixer was called Beam. Interestingly enough, Beam won the Disrupt NY Battlefield competition in 2016.

Twitch offered this statement to the Verge:

We’ve loved watching Ninja on Twitch over the years and are proud of all that he’s accomplished for himself and his family, and the gaming community. We wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.

Surprisingly quickly, Twitch took away Ninja’s “Partnered” check mark, the Twitch equivalent of a verified blue tick.

Damn they snagged this mans checkmark QUICK pic.twitter.com/Br62NB8uX5

— 100T Mako 🗣💯 (@Mako) August 1, 2019

Ninja announced the news via video:

The announcement is very light on reasons why Ninja might have moved from his longtime home at Twitch over to Microsoft. It’s possible (and likely?) that Mixer offered the streaming star an enormous amount of money to make the move, which could signal the beginning of a new wave of payouts for mega streaming stars — not unlike the current NBA free agency bonanza, which has seen the migration of superstars to marquee franchises in order to form basketball equivalents of supergroups.

It’s also worth wondering who reigns supreme in this equation: players or platforms? Luckily, we’ll find out quickly as the video game streaming space sees its biggest talent shakeup since the industry’s inception.

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Nintendo Switch might soon go on sale in China via Tencent

Posted by | Asia, Beijing, China, Entertainment, Gaming, Mario, Nintendo, Nintendo Switch, shanghai, Sony, Tencent | No Comments

After months of anticipation, Nintendo Switch is ready to shed more light on its China launch. The Japanese console giant and Tencent are “working diligently” to bring the Switch to the world’s largest market for video games, the partners announced on Weibo (the Twitter equivalent in China) today.

The pair did not specify a date when the portable gaming system will officially launch, as the government approval process can take months. But there are signs that things are moving forward. For example, Tencent has been given the green light to run a trial version of the New Super Mario Mario Bros. U Deluxe and a few other blockbuster titles in China.

On August 2, the partners will jointly host a press conference for Switch — no product launch yet — in Shanghai, Tencent confirmed to TechCrunch. It appears to be a strategic move that coincides with the country’s largest gaming expo China Joy beginning on the same day in the city.

Tencent and Nintendo are hosting a media event on August 2nd 2019 in Shanghai for Nintendo Switch.

Steven Ma, Senior Vice President of Tencent and Satoru Shibata, executive at Nintendo, will attend.

Should be more details of Switch launch in China. pic.twitter.com/MULC7jMSqg

— Daniel Ahmad (@ZhugeEX) July 24, 2019

Sales of Nintendo Switch in China, made possible through a distribution deal with Tencent, will likely add fuel to Nintendo’s slowing growth. It can also potentially diversify Tencent’s gaming revenues, which took a hit last year as Beijing tightened controls over online entertainment.

Switch faces an uphill battle as consoles, including Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox, have for years struggled to catch on in China. The reasons are multifaceted. China had banned consoles until 2014 to protect minors from harmful content. The devices are also much less affordable than mobile games, making it difficult as a form of social interaction in the mobile-first nation.

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LG says smart TVs will gain AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support next week

Posted by | AirPlay, Entertainment, Gadgets, HomeKit, LG | No Comments

In addition to Samsung and Vizio, LG announced earlier this year that it would be adding support for Apple’s ecosystem to its TV operating system. According to a tweet from LG’s Australian account, the webOS update that adds support for HomeKit and AirPlay 2 will be released next week.

Homekit is releasing in 1 week. Users require iOS 12.4 update to do Airplay2.
LGA

— LG Australia (@LG_Australia) July 23, 2019

If you have an iPhone, iPad or Mac, you’ll be able to send video content to your TV using the AirPlay icon in your favorite video app. Unfortunately, some apps restrict AirPlay usage. So you’ll be able to beam YouTube or Amazon Prime Video content, but not Netflix shows, for instance.

AirPlay is also useful if you want to show some photos on the big screen. And you can mirror your screen to a TV in case you want to use an LG TV for your PowerPoint presentation in your office.

LG TVs should also support AirPlay audio, which means that you can send audio to multiple AirPlay 2 devices at once (including your LG TV) and manage your multi-speaker setup from your iOS device.

When it comes to HomeKit support, you’ll be able to add your TV to the Home app and turn it on and off from there. Of course, it means that you can create automation in order to turn off the TV when you leave your home, or turn on the TV when you open the Hulu app on your iPad.

Thanks to HomeKit support, you also can create custom actions. For instance, you could say “Hey Siri, turn on the TV” and have Siri turn on the TV and dim your Philips Hue lights. You also can control the HDMI input from your Apple devices.

Unfortunately, LG said that AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support would only be added to 2019 smart TVs. Let’s see if that limit still stands when the company rolls out its software update.

Screen Shot 2019 07 23 at 3.38.42 PM

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