instagram

Instagram tests tapping instead of scrolling through posts, first in Explore

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

The effortless way you fast forward through Stories could be coming to more of Instagram . A screenshot from user Suprateek Bose shows Instagram “Introducing a new way to move through posts — Tap through posts, just like you tap through stories.”

Now Instagram confirms to TechCrunch that it’s testing tap to advance within Explore, and a spokesperson provided this statement: “We’re always testing ways to improve the experience on Instagram and bring you closer to the people and things you love.” As for whether this could come to the main feed, an Instagram spokesperson tells me that not something it’s actively thinking about right now.

Instagram already uses an auto-advance feature in its Videos You Might Like section of Explore, jumping down to the next video when the last one finishes. It previously offered themed video collections around Halloween and top creators too. But for photos where it’s not clear when you’re done viewing, a quick tap is the closest thing to Instagram propelling you through posts automatically.

Next: turn your mind off completely. Succumb to the feed.

Open instagram, and it does the browsing of the feed for you.

Like by smiling.

Comment by grunting one of 5 known emotions at your phone. https://t.co/EzrJWccjbh

— PaSKULL D’Silva 💀 (@pasql) October 11, 2018

Tap to advance, pioneered by Snapchat, eliminates the need for big thumbstrokes on your touch screen that can get tiring after awhile. It also means users always see media full-screen rather than having to fiddle with scrolling the perfect amount to see an entire post. Together, these create a more relaxing browsing experience that can devour hours of a user’s time. Instagram doesn’t show ads in Explore, but tap-to-advance could save your thumb stamina for more feed and Stories viewing where it does earn money. While Snapchat remains the teen favorite, Instagram could cater to seniors with arthritis with this new method of navigation (no, seriously, swiping can be tough on the joints for some people).

The fact that tap-to-advance is now testing but Instagram still hasn’t actually rolled out the Your Activity screentime digital well-being dashboard it says was launching two months ago begs the question of whether it really wants us to be more purposeful with our social media usage.

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Instagram launches scannable Nametags, tests school networks for teen growth

Posted by | adam mosseri, Apps, instagram, Instagram Nametags, Mobile, Snapcode, Social, TC | No Comments

When your feed and Stories trays go stale, or your follower count stops rising, you drift away from Instagram . That’s why the app is rolling out two big new features designed to connect you to new people and diversify your graph so there’s always something surprising to look at and like.

Today Instagram launches its QR Snapcode-style Nametags globally on iOS and Android, after TechCrunch broke the news on the feature back in March and April. Though not technically QR codes, they’re scanned like them to let you follow people you meet offline. Here’s a look at how they work:

Now you can quickly add friends on Instagram by scanning their nametags. You can also customize your own nametag with emojis, colors and selfies. pic.twitter.com/fq4HFNiDMy

— Instagram (@instagram) October 4, 2018

The customizable codes are accessible from the three-line hamburger menu on your profile. They can be scanned when other users tap and hold on your code through the Instagram Stories camera or Scan Nametag button on your own Nametag to instantly follow you. You can add colors, emojis or AR-embellished selfies to your Instagram Nametag, show it off on your phone to help people follow you in person, put it on your website or social media or message it to friends through SMS, WhatsApp, Messenger and more.

It’s actually surprising it took this long for Instagram to copy Snapchat’s Snapcodes that debuted for profiles in 2015 and were later expanded to open websites and unlock AR filters. Facebook Messenger launched its own QR codes in April 2017, though it never quite caught on. But they make a ton of sense on Instagram because it’s tougher to share links on the app, people often treat it as their primary presence on the web that they want to promote and because businesses are increasingly relying on the app for commerce. It’s easy to imagine brands putting their Instagram Nametags on billboards and posters, or buying ads to promote them around the web.

Facebook Messenger and Snapchat’s QR codes

Secondly, Instagram is starting to test school communities in a variety of universities across the U.S. They allow you to join your university’s network to add a line to your profile listing your school, class year and your major, sports team or fraternity/sorority. You’ll show up in a directory listing everyone from your school that you can use to follow or message people, though those DMs may go to their pending inbox.

The school communities feature harkens back to Facebook’s origins, when users could actually set their privacy to show all their content to everyone in their school. Here you won’t be able to instantly expose your private Instagram to everyone from your school. You could imagine a freshman in college going through their network to discover new potential friends to follow, or an alumni seeking others from their alma mater in search of business or romance.

Instagram relies on info users have publicly shared about their school and the people they followed to verify if they were in fact a student or recent alumni of a university. Rather than actively signing up, users will get a notification prompting them to join the network. That’s a lot less reliable than using university email addresses for verification like Facebook used to, but also a lot simpler for users.

The company does provide a tool for alerting it to misuse of the school communities feature in case any sketchy older users are employing it as a stalking tool. Next to each user’s name is an overflow menu of three dots where people can report accounts they don’t think belong in a certain community.

The invite method is reminiscent of the growth hacks that teen Q&A app TBH that Facebook acquired was using. In what an internal memo called a “psychological trick,” TBH scraped Instagram user profiles for school names, looking at school location pages to find student accounts to invite them to join TBH. The teen sensation was eventually shut down due to low usage; the memo called the tactic too “scrappy” for a big public company, but now it’s found a home inside of Instagram.

Today’s launch is the first under Instagram’s new leader Adam Mosseri following the resignation of the company’s founders. Critics are watching to see if Mosseri, the former Facebook VP of News Feed and member of Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle, will push harder to drive growth and monetization for Instagram. Given Instagram’s priority here is expanding its social graphs and keeping users engaged, it seems willing to trade occasionally allowing or disallowing the wrong people to reduce friction and juice growth.

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Meet Adam Mosseri, the new head of Instagram

Posted by | adam mosseri, Apps, Facebook, instagram, Kevin Systrom, mike krieger, Mobile, Personnel, Social, TC | No Comments

Former Facebook VP of News Feed and recently appointed Instagram VP of Product Adam Mosseri has been named the new head of Instagram following the resignation of Instagram’s founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger last week. “We are thrilled to hand over the reins to a product leader with a strong design background and a focus on craft and simplicity — as well as a deep understanding of the importance of community,” the founders wrote. “These are the values and principles that have been essential to us at Instagram since the day we started, and we’re excited for Adam to carry them forward.”

Systrom will recruit a new executive team, including heads of product, operations and engineering, to replace himself, Instagram COO Marne Levine, who went back to lead Facebook partnerships last month, and engineering leader James Everingham, who moved to Facebook’s blockchain team in May before finishing at Instagram in July. Instagram’s product director Robby Stein is a strong candidate for the product head position, as he’s been overseeing Stories, feed, Live, direct messaging, camera and profile.

Instagram’s founders announced last week they were leaving the Facebook corporation after sources told TechCrunch the pair had dealt with dwindling autonomy from Facebook and rising tensions with its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The smiling photo above seems meant to show peace has been restored to Instaland, and counter the increasing perception that Facebook breaks its promises to acquired founders. TechCrunch previously reported Mosseri was first in line for the role according to sources, and The Information later wrote that some inside the company saw him as a lock.

Mosseri’s experience dealing with the unintended consequences of the News Feed, such as fake news in the wake of the 2016 election, could help him predict how Instagram’s growth will affect culture, politics and user well-being. Over the years of interviewing him, Mosseri has always come across as sharp, serious and empathetic. He comes across as a true believer that Facebook and its family of apps can make a positive impact in the world, but cognizant of the hard work and complex choices required to keep them from being misused.

Born and raised in New York, Mosseri started his own design consultancy while attending NYU’s Gallatin School of Interdisciplinary Study to learn about media and information design. Mosseri joined Facebook in 2008 after briefly working at a startup called TokBox. Tasked with helping Facebook embrace mobile as design director, he’s since become part of Zuckerberg’s inner circle of friends and lieutenants. Mosseri later moved into product management and oversaw Facebook’s News Feed, turn it into the world’s most popular social technology and the driver of billions in profit from advertising. However, amidst his successes, Mosseri also oversaw Facebook Home, the flopped mobile operating system, and was the officer on duty when fake news and Russian election attackers proliferated.

After going on parental leave this year, Mosseri returned to take over the role of Instagram VP of Product from Kevin Weil as he moved to Facebook’s blockchain team. A source tells TechCrunch he was well-received and productive since joining Instagram, and has gotten along well with Systrom. Mosseri now lives in San Francisco, close enough to work from both Instagram’s city office and South Bay headquarters. He’ll report to Facebook’s chief product officer Chris Cox as he did at Facebook. Cox wrote, “Kevin and Mike, we will never fill your shoes. But we will work hard to uphold the craft, simplicity, elegance, and the incredible community of Instagram: both the team and the product you’ve built.”

“The impact of their work over the past eight years has been incredible. They built a product people love that brings joy and connection to so many lives,” Mosseri wrote about Instagram’s founders in an Instagram post. “I’m humbled and excited about the opportunity to now lead the Instagram team. I want to thank them for trusting me to carry forward the values that they have established. I will do my best to make them, the team, and the Instagram community proud.”

Mosseri will be tasked with balancing the needs of Instagram, such as headcount, engineering resources and growth, with the priorities of its parent company Facebook, such as cross-promotion to Instagram’s younger audience and revenue to contribute to the corporation’s earnings reports. Some see Mosseri as more sympathetic to Facebook’s desire than Instagram’s founders, given his long-stint at the parent company and his close relationship with Zuckerberg. Interestingly, Zuckerberg wasn’t mentioned or pictured in the transition announcement and hasn’t posted anything congratulating Mosseri as is common in Facebook’s employee culture. Zuckerberg may be seeking to reduce the appearance that he’s playing puppet master and instead does actually let Instagram run independently.

The question now is whether users will end up seeing more notifications and shortcuts linking back to Facebook, or more ads in the Stories and feed. Instagram hasn’t highlighted the ability to syndicate your Stories to Facebook, which could be a boon for that parallel product. Instagram Stories now has 400 million daily users compared to Facebook Stories and Messenger Stories’ combined 150 million users. Tying them more closely could see more content flow into Facebook, but it might also make users second guess whether what they’re sharing is appropriate for all of their Facebook friends, which might include family or professional colleagues.

Mosseri’s most pressing responsibility will be reassuring users that the culture of Instagram and its app won’t be assimilated into Facebook now that he’s running things instead of the founders. He’ll also need to snap into action to protect Instagram from being used as a pawn for election interference in the run-up to the 2018 U.S. mid-terms. While he’ll never have the same mandate and faith from employees that the founders did, Mosseri is the experienced leader Instagram needs to grapple with its scaled-up influence.

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Instagram denies it’s building Regramming. Here’s why it’d be a disaster

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, instagram, Instagram algorithm, Mobile, Opinion, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram tells me Regramming, or the ability to instantly repost someone else’s feed post to your followers like a retweet, is “not happening”, not being built, and not being tested. And that’s good news for all Instagrammers. The denial comes after it initially issued a “no comment” to The Verge’s Casey Newton, who published that he’d seen screenshots of a native Instagram resharing sent to him by a source.

Regramming would be a fundamental shift in how Instagram works, not necessarily in terms of functionality, but in terms of the accepted norms of what and how to post. You could always screenshot, cite the original creator, and post. But Instagram has always been about sharing your window to the world — what you’ve lived and seen. Regramming would legitimize suddenly assuming someone else’s eyes.

The result would be that users couldn’t trust that when they follow someone, that’s whose vision would appear in their feed. Instagram would feel a lot more random and unpredictable. And it’d become more like its big brother Facebook whose News Feed has waned in popularity – susceptible to viral clickbait bullshit, vulnerable to foreign misinformation campaigns, and worst of all, impersonal.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newton’s report suggested Instagram reposts would appear under the profile picture of the original sharer, and regrams could be regrammed once more in turn, showing a stack of both profile thumbnails of who previously shared it. That would at least prevent massive chains of reposts turning posts into all-consuming feed bombs.

Regramming could certainly widen what appears in your feed, which some might consider more interesting. It could spur growth by creating a much easier way for users to share in feed, especially if they don’t live a glamorous life themself. I can see a case for this being a feature for businesses only, which are already impersonal and act as curators. And Instagram’s algorithm could hide the least engaging regrams.

These benefits are why Instagram has internally considered building regramming for years. CEO Kevin Systrom told Wired last year “We debate the re-share thing a lot . . . But really that decision is about keeping your feed focused on the people you know rather than the people you know finding other stuff for you to see. And I think that is more of a testament of our focus on authenticity.”

See, right now, Instagram profiles are cohesive. You can easily get a feel for what someone posts and make an educated decision about whether to follow them from a quick glance at their grid. What they share reflects on them, so they’re cautious and deliberate. Everyone is putting on a show for Likes, so maybe it’s not quite ‘authentic’, but at least the content is personal. Regramming would make it impossible to tell what someone would post next, and put your feed at the mercy of their impulses without the requisite accountability. If they regram something lame, ugly, or annoying, it’s the original author who’d be blamed.

Instagram already offers a demand release valve in the form of re-sharing posts to your Story as stickers

Instagram already has a release valve for demand for regramming in the form of the ability to turn people’s public feed posts into Stickers you can paste into your Story. Launched in May, you can add your commentary, complimenting on dunking on the author. There, regrams are ephemeral, and your followers have to pull them out of their Stories tray rather than having them force fed via the feed. Effectively, you can reshare others’ content, but not make it a central facet of Instagram or emblem of your identity. And if you want to just make sure a few friends see something awesome you’ve discovered, you can send them people’s feed posts as Direct messages.

Making it much easier to repost to your feed instead of sharing something original could turn Instagram into an echo chamber. It’d turn Instagram even more into a popularity contest, with users jockeying for viral distribution and a chance to plug their SoundCloud mixtapes like on Twitter. Personal self-expression would be overshadowed even further by people playing to the peanut gallery. Businesses might get lazy rather than finding their own styles. If you want to discover something new and unexpected, there’s a whole Explore page full of it.

Newton is a great reporter, and I suspect the screenshots he saw were real, but I think Instagram should have given him the firm denial right away. My guess is that it wanted to give its standard no comment because if it always outright denies inaccurate rumors and speculation, that means journalists can assume they’re right when it does “no comment.”

But once Newton published his report, backlash quickly mounted about how regramming could ruin Instagram. Rather than leaving users worried, confused, and constantly asking when the feature would launch and how it would work, the company decided to issue firm denials after the fact. It became worth diverging from its PR playbook. Maybe it had already chosen to scrap its regramming prototype, maybe the screenshots were just of an early mock-up never meant to be seriously considered, or maybe it hadn’t actually finalized that decision to abort until the public weighed in against the feature yesterday.

In any case, introducing regramming would risk an unforced error. The elemental switch from chronological to the algorithmic feed, while criticized, was critical to Instagram being able to show the best of the massive influx of content. Instagram would eventually break without it. There’s no corresponding urgency to fix what ain’t broke when it comes to not allowing regramming.

Instagram is already growing like crazy. It just hit a billion monthly users. Stories now has 400 million daily users, and that feature is growing six times faster than Snapchat as a whole. The app is utterly dominant in the photo and short video sharing world. Regramming would be an unnecessary gamble.

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Instagram may divide hashtags from captions to end overhashing

Posted by | Apps, instagram, Instagram Stickers, Instagram Stories, instagram video, Mobile, Social, TC | No Comments

Geofenced sharing, Quiz stickers, Stories Highlight stickers and a separate interface for adding hashtags to posts are amongst a slew of new features Instagram has prototyped or is now testing. The last one could finally #cure #the #hashtag #madness that’s infected many of Instagram’s 1 billion users, causing them desperately to fill up their captions with tagged words that make the feed tough to read in hopes of scoring a few extra views or followers. [Update: Instagram has also confirmed the launch of GIFs in Direct messaging. Details below.]

The pace of iteration at Instagram is staggering, and helping it to leave Snapchat in the dust. With Facebook’s deep pockets funding its product, design and engineering teams, Instagram is able to keep its app full of fresh toys to play with. Here’s a look at three prototypes, one test and one confirmed roll out from Instagram.

Hashtag selector

The feature isn’t released or even necessarily testing yet, and Instagram refused to comment on it. But frequent TechCrunch tipster and mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong was able to dig the designated hashtag selector prototype out of the Instagram Android app’s code. It shows a dedicated “Add Hashtags” option underneath the caption composer and people tagger. Similar past discoveries by Wong have led to TechCrunch scoops about the eventual release of Instagram video calling, name tags, music stickers and more, though there’s always a chance Instagram scraps this feature before it ever launches.

Disambiguating hashtags from captions could make adding them to posts less invasive and distracting, and thereby get more users doing it. That could in turn help Instagram tune its feed algorithm to show you more posts with hashtags you seem to care about, get more users following hashtags and allow it to better sort the Explore page with its new topic channels like Sports, Beauty and Shopping. But perhaps most importantly, it could just make Instagram less annoying. Everyone has that friend that slaps on so many hashtags that their captions become an incoherent mess.

Geofenced posts

Wong also dug out a powerful new feature that could help social media managers, businesses and pro creators reach the right audience. Instagram has prototyped a “Choose Locations” option for posts that lets you select from a list of countries where you want your post to be visible. Instagram declined to comment.

The geofencing feature might enable Instagrammers to design different content and captions for different countries and languages. Facebook has offered geofencing for posts for many years, and Instagram already offers ad targeting down to the ZIP code or mile radius. But if this location chooser launches for everyone’s posts, it could let people and professional accounts express their prismatic identity differently across the globe.

Stories Highlight stickers

Instagram gave me a confirmation that this final find by Wong is officially in testing. It allows users to turn someone else’s Stories Highlight from their profile into a sticker to overlay on their own Story. It’s an extension of the Quote-tweet style feature Instagram started testing in March that lets you turn people’s public feed posts into Stories stickers so you can add your commentary — or dunk on someone dumb. Stories Highlight stickers could create a new path to virality for star creators who could convince their followers to re-share their Highlights and turn their friends into fellow fans.

Quiz stickers

This prototype discovered by WABetaInfo‘s Twitter account allows users to ask a question in their Story and designate a correct answer. The Quiz sticker functions similarly to Instagram’s recently added Poll and Question stickers, but instead of tallying the results or letting you re-post someone’s answer, they’ll immediately see whether they guessed the right answer to your test. This ties into Instagram’s strategy to crush Snapchat by making its own Stories more interactive and turning the connection between fans and followers into a two-way street.

Video tagging

Instagram did confirm the launch of one new feature, tagging people in videos. TechCrunch spotted this last week and Instagram said it was testing, but upon our inquiry told us that it’s now fully rolled out. Video tagging could generate extra visits for Instagram as few people have the willpower to ignore a notification that they were named in a new piece of content. The feature could also help Instagram figure out who to show the videos to by allowing it to place them high in the feed of the best friends of people tagged.

GIFs in Direct

Today Instagram also confirmed that GIFs are rolling out to Direct messaging on iOS and Android, allowing you to search through a GIPHY-powered archive of animated images, or swipe through a trending GIFs section. You can also tap the “random” button after entering some keywords to get a surprise GIF added to your conversation. And after previously obscuring who actually made those GIFs, users can now tap and hold on to them to see the creator and other GIFs they’ve made. Instagram first offered GIFs as Stories stickers in January, and Wong had previously spotted them in Direct in Instagram’s code back in July. Clearly the racist GIF fiasco that led Instagram to temporarily shut down the GIF stickers hasn’t deterred it from expanding its partnership with GIPHY.

Combined, this flurry of new and potential features proves Instagram isn’t allowing its dominance to diminish its shipping schedule. It also demonstrates that Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil’s move to Facebook’s blockchain team and his replacement by former News Feed VP Adam Mosseri hasn’t disrupted the app’s brisk pace of innovation.

The jury is still out about whether Instagram’s biggest new initiatives will take off. IGTV is off to a slow start, but will need time to build a long-form video archive to rival YouTube. And we’ll have to wait and see if users grow addicted to Instagram Explore’s new Shopping channel. But constantly updating the app takes pressure off of any one feature to carry the weight of a billion people’s eyes. Who wants to build a direct competitor to something evolving this fast?

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Instagram Shopping gets personalized Explore channel, Stories tags

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, eCommerce, instagram, Instagram Explore, Instagram Shopping, Instagram Stories, Mobile, Pinterest, Social | No Comments

Instagram is embracing its true identity as a mail-order catalog. The question will be how much power merchants will give Instagram after seeing what its parent Facebook did to news outlets that relied on it. In a move that could pit it against Pinterest and Wish, Instagram is launching Shopping features across its app to let people discover and consider possible purchases before clicking through to check out on the merchant’s website.

Today, Instagram Explore is getting a personalized Shopping channel of items it thinks you’ll want most. And it’s expanding its Shopping tags for Instagram Stories to all viewers worldwide after a limited test in June, and it’s allowing brands in 46 countries to add the shopping bag icon to Stories that users can click through to buy what they saw.

Instagram clearly wants to graduate from where people get ideas for things to purchase to being a measurable gateway to their spending. 90 million people already tap its Shopping tags each month, it announced today. The new features could soak up more user attention and lead them to see more ads. But perhaps more importantly, demonstrating that Instagram can boost retail business’ sales for free through Stories and Explore could whet their appetite to buy Instagram ads to amplify their reach and juice the conversion channel. With 25 million businesses on Instagram but only 2 million advertisers, the app has room to massively increase its revenue.

For now Instagram is maintaining its “no comment” regarding whether it’s working on a standalone Instagram Shopping app as per a report from The Verge last month.  Instagram first launched its Shopping tags for feeds in 2016. It still points users out to merchant sites for the final payment step, though, in part because retailers want to control their relationships with customers. But long-term, allowing businesses to opt in to offering in-Instagram checkout could shorten the funnel and get more users actually buying.

Shopping joins the For You, Art, Beauty, Sports, Fashion and other topic channels that launched in Explore in June. The Explore algorithm will show you shopping-tagged posts from businesses you follow and ones you might like based on who you follow and what shopping content engages you. This marks the first time you can view a dedicated shopping space inside of Instagram, and it could become a bottomless well of browsing for those in need of some retail therapy.

With Shopping Stickers, brands can choose to add one per story and customize the color to match their photo or video. A tap opens the product details page, and another sends them to the merchant’s site. Businesses will be able to see the number of taps on their Shopping sticker, and how many people tapped through to their website. Partnerships with Shopify (500,000+ merchants) and BigCommerce (60,000+ merchants) will make it easy for retailers of all sizes to use Instagram’s Shopping Stickers. 

What about bringing Shopping to IGTV? A company spokesperson tells me, “IGTV and live video present interesting opportunities for brands to connect more closely with their customers, but we have no plans to bring shopping tools to those surfaces right now.”

For now, the new shopping features feel like a gift to merchants hoping to boost sales. But so did the surge of referral traffic Facebook sent to news publishers a few years ago. Those outlets soon grew dependent on Facebook, changed their news room staffing and content strategies to chase this traffic, and now find themselves in dire straights after Facebook cut off the traffic fire hose as it refocuses on friends and family content.

Retail merchants shouldn’t take the same bait. Instagram Shopping might be a nice bonus, but just how much it prioritizes the feature and spotlights the Explore channel are entirely under its control. Merchants should still work to develop an unmediated relationship directly with their customers, encouraging them to bookmark their sites or sign up for newsletters. Instagram’s favor could disappear with a change to its algorithm, and retailers must always be ready to stand on their own two feet.

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The Pansar Augmented watch hides it smarts behind an analog face

Posted by | computing, CRM, Gadgets, instagram, smartwatch, TC, ubiquitous computing, watch, wearable devices | No Comments

The Pansar Augmented is a Swedish smart watch that looks like a standard three-handed wristwatch. However, with the tap of a button, you can view multiple data points including weather, notifications, and even sales data from your CRM.

Pansar is a Swedish watch company that uses Swiss movements and hand assembled components to add a dash of luxury to your standard workhorse watch.

The watch is fully funded on Kickstarter. It costs $645 for early birds.

The watch mostly displays the time but when the data system is activated the hands move to show any data you’d like.

The world is full of interesting data: be it the quest for information on the perfect wave, keeping track on your stock value, or the number of followers you’ve acquired since yesterday. Pansar Augmented collects the data that matters to you and streams it conveniently to the hands of your watch. This is made possible because of the unique dual directional Swiss movement combined with the Pansar Augmented app.

The watch comes in three models: the Ocean Edition that shows “relevant data on weather, wind, and swell amongst others,” the Accelerator Edition that shows website visits or Instagram views, and the Quantifier Edition for the “analytical mind” that wants to track sales numbers.

It’s definitely a clever twist on the traditional smart watch vision and, thanks to some nice styling, these could be some nice pieces for folks who don’t want the distractions of a normal Apple Watch or Android Wear device.

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For IGTV, Instagram needs slow to mean steady

Posted by | Apps, Casey Neistat, Facebook, IGTV, instagram, Josh Elman, Kevin Systrom, Media, Michael Sayman, Mobile, Opinion, shots, Social, TC, Tiffany Zhong, YouTube | No Comments

Instagram has never truly failed at anything, but judging by modest initial view counts, IGTV could get stuck with a reputation as an abandoned theater if the company isn’t careful. It’s no flop, but the long-form video hub certainly isn’t an instant hit like Instagram Stories. Two months after that launched in 2016, Instagram was happy to trumpet how its Snapchat clone had hit 100 million users. Yet two months after IGTV’s launch, the Facebook subsidiary has been silent on its traction.

“It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time,” Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom told me. “Think of it this way: we just invested in a startup called IGTV, but it’s small, and it’s like Instagram was ‘early days.’”

It’s indeed too early for a scientific analysis, and Instagram’s feed has been around since 2010, so it’s obviously not a fair comparison, but we took a look at the IGTV view counts of some of the feature’s launch partner creators. Across six of those creators, their recent feed videos are getting roughly 6.8X as many views as their IGTV posts. If IGTV’s launch partners that benefited from early access and guidance aren’t doing so hot, it means there’s likely no free view count bonanza in store from other creators or regular users.

They, and IGTV, will have to work for their audience. That’s already proving difficult for the standalone IGTV app. Though it peaked at the #25 overall US iPhone app and has seen 2.5 million downloads across iOS and Android according to Sensor Tower, it’s since dropped to #1497 and seen a 94 percent decrease in weekly installs to just 70,000 last week.

Instagram will have to be in it for the long haul if it wants to win at long-form video. Entering the market 13 years after YouTube with a vertical format no one’s quite sure what to do with, IGTV must play the tortoise. If it can avoid getting scrapped or buried, and offer the right incentives and flexibility to creators, IGTV could deliver the spontaneous video viewing experience Instagram lacks. Otherwise, IGTV risks becoming the next Google Plus — a ghost town inside an otherwise thriving product ecosystem.

A glitzy, glitchy start

Instagram gave IGTV a red carpet premiere June 20th in hopes of making it look like the new digital hotspot. The San Francisco launch event offered attendees several types of avocado toast, spa water and ‘Gram-worthy portrait backdrops reminiscent of the Color Factory or Museum of Ice Cream. Instagram hadn’t held a flashy press event since the 2013 launch of video sharing, so it pulled out all the stops. Balloon sculptures lined the entrance to a massive warehouse packed with social media stars and ad execs shouting to each other over the din of the DJ.

But things were rocky from the start. Leaks led TechCrunch to report on the IGTV name and details in the preceding weeks. Technical difficulties with Systrom’s presentation pushed back the start, but not the rollout of IGTV’s code. Tipster Jane Manchun Wong sent TechCrunch screenshots of the new app and features a half hour before it was announced, and Instagram’s own Business Blog jumped the gun by posting details of the launch. The web already knew how IGTV would let people upload vertical videos up to an hour long and browse them through categories like “Popular” and “For You” by the time Systrom took the stage.

IGTV’s launch event featured Instagram-themed donuts and elaborate portrait backdrops. Images via Vicki’s Donuts and Mai Lanpham

“What I’m most proud of is that Instagram took a stand and tried a brand new thing that is frankly hard to pull off. Full-screen vertical video that’s mobile only. That doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Systrom tells me. It was indeed ambitious. Creators were already comfortable making short-form vertical Snapchat Stories by the time Instagram launched its own version. IGTV would have to start from scratch.

Systrom sees the steep learning curve as a differentiator, though. “One of the things I like most about the new format is that it’s actually fairly difficult to just take videos that exist online and simply repost them. That’s not true in feed. That basically forces everyone to create new stuff,” Systrom tells me. “It’s not to say that there isn’t other stuff on there but in general it incentivizes people to produce new things from scratch. And that’s really what we’re looking for. Even if the volume of that stuff at the beginning is smaller than what you might see on the popular page [of Instagram Explore].”

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom unveils IGTV at the glitzy June 20th launch event

Instagram forced creators to adopt this proprietary format. But it forget to train Stories stars how to entertain us for five or 15 minutes, not 15 seconds, or convince landscape YouTube moguls to purposefully shoot or crop their clips for the way we normally hold our phones.

IGTV’s Popular page features plenty of random viral pap, foreign language content, and poor cropping

That should have been the real purpose of the launch party — demonstrating a variety of ways to turn these format constraints or lack thereof into unique content. Vertical video frames people better than places, and the length allows sustained eye-to-lens contacts that can engender an emotional connection. But a shallow array of initial content and too much confidence that creators would figure it out on their own deprived IGTV of emergent norms that other videographers could emulate to wet their feet.

Now IGTV feels haphazard, with trashy viral videos and miscropped ports amongst its Popular section alongside a few creators trying to produce made-for-IGTV talk shows and cooking tutorials. It’s yet to have its breakout “Chewbacca Mom” or “Rubberbanded Watermelon” blockbuster like Facebook Live. Even an interview with mega celeb Kylie Jenner only had 11,000 views.

Instagram wants to put the focus on the author, not the individual works of art. “Because we don’t have full text search and you can’t just search any random thing, it’s about the creators” Systrom explains. “I think that at its base level that it’s personality driven and creator driven means that you’re going to get really unique content that you won’t find anywhere else and that’s the goal.”

Yet being unique requires extra effort that creators might not invest if they’re unsure of the payoff in either reach or revenue. Michael Sayman, formerly Facebook’s youngest employee who was hired at age 17 to build apps for teens and who now works for Google, summed it up saying: “Many times in my own career, I’ve tried to make something with a unique spin or a special twist because I felt that’s the only way I could make my product stand out from the crowd, only to realize that it was those very twists and spins that made my products feel out of place and confusing to users. Sometimes, the best product is one that doesn’t create any new twists, but rather perfects and builds on top of what has been proven to already be extremely successful.”

A fraction of feed views

The one big surprise of the launch event was where IGTV would exist. Instagram announced it’d live in a standalone IGTV app, but also as a feature in the main app accessible from an orange button atop the home screen that would occasionally call out that new content was inside. It could have had its own carousel like Stories or been integrated into Explore until it was ready for primetime.

Instead, it was ignorable. IGTV didn’t get the benefit of the home screen spotlight like Instagram Stories. Blow past that one orange button and avoid downloading the separate app, and users could go right on tapping and scrolling through Instagram without coming across IGTV’s longer videos.

View counts of the launch partners reflect that. We looked at six launch partner creators, comparing their last six feed and IGTV videos older than a week and less than six months old, or fewer videos if that’s all they’d posted.

Only one of the six, BabyAriel, saw an obvious growth trend in her IGTV videos. Her candid IGTV monologues are performing the best of the six compared to feed. She’s earning an average of 243,000 views per IGTV video, about a third as many as she gets on her feed videos. “I’m really happy with my view counts because IGTV is just starting” BabyAriel tells me. She thinks the format will be good for behind-the-scenes clips that complement her longer YouTube videos and shorter Stories. “When I record anything, It’s vertical. When I turn my phone horizontal I think of an hour-long movie.”

Lele Pons, a Latin American comedy and music star who’s one of the most popular Instagram celebrities, gets about 5.7X more feed views than on her IGTV cooking show that averages 1.9 million hits. Instagram posted some IGTV highlights from the first month, but the most popular of now has 4.3 million views — less than half of what Pons gets on her average feed video.

Fitness guides from Katie Austin averaged just 3,600 views on IGTV while she gets 7.5X more in the feed. Lauren Godwin’s colorful comedy fared 5.2X better in the feed. Bryce Xavier saw the biggest differential, earning 15.9X more views for his dance and culture videos. And in the most direct comparison, K-Pop dancer Susie Shu sometimes posts cuts from the same performance to the two destinations, like one that got 273,000 views in feed but just 27,000 on IGTV, with similar clips fairing an average of 7.8X better.

Again, this isn’t to say IGTV is a lame horse. It just isn’t roaring out of the gates. Systrom remains optimistic about inventing a new format. “The question is can we pull that off and the early signs are really good,” he tells me. “We’ve been pretty blown away by the reception and the usage upfront,” though he declined to share any specific statistics. Instagram promised to provide more insight into traction in the future.

YouTube star Casey Neistat is less bullish. He doesn’t think IGTV is working and that engagement has been weak. If IGTV views were surpassing those of YouTube, creators would flock to it, but so far view counts are uninspiring and not worth diverting creative attention, Neistat says. “YouTube offers the best sit-back consumption, and Stories offers active consumption. Where does IGTV fit in? I’m not sure” he tells me. “Why create all of this unique content if it gets lower views, it’s not monetizable, and the viewers aren’t there?”

Susie Shu averages 7.8X more video views in the Instagram feed than on IGTV

For now, the combination of an unfamiliar format, the absence of direction for how to use it and the relatively buried placement has likely tempered IGTV’s traction. Two months in, Instagram Stories was proving itself an existential threat to Snapchat — which it’s in fact become. IGTV doesn’t pose the same danger to YouTube yet, and it will need a strategy to support a more slow-burn trajectory.

The chicken and the IG problem

The first step to becoming a real YouTube challenger is to build up some tent-pole content that gives people a reason to open IGTV. Until there’s something that captures attention, any cross-promotion traffic Instagram sends it will be like pouring water into a bucket with a giant hole in the bottom. Yet until there’s enough viewers, it’s tough to persuade creators to shoot for IGTV since it won’t do a ton to boost their fan base.

Fortnite champion Ninja shares a photo of IGTV launch partners gathered backstage at the press event

Meanwhile, Instagram hasn’t committed to a monetization or revenue-sharing strategy for IGTV. Systrom said at the launch that “There’s no ads in IGTV today,” but noted it’s “obviously a very reasonable place [for ads] to end up.” Without enough views, though, ads won’t earn enough for a revenue split to incentivize creators. Perhaps Instagram will heavily integrate its in-app shopping features and sponsored content partnerships, but even those rely on having more traffic. Vine withered at Twitter in part from creators bailing due to its omission of native monetization options.

So how does IGTV solve the chicken-and-egg problem? It may need to swallow its pride and pay early adopters directly for content until it racks up enough views to offer sustainable revenue sharing. Instagram has never publicly copped to paying for content before, unlike its parent Facebook, which offered stipends ranging into the millions of dollars for publishers to shoot Live broadcasts and long-form Watch shows. Neither have led to a booming viewership, but perhaps that’s because Facebook has lost its edge with the teens who love video.

Instagram could do better if it paid the right creators to weather IGTV’s initial slim pickings. Settling on ad strategy creators can count on earning money from in the future might also get them to hang tight. Those deals could mimic the 55 percent split of mid-roll ad breaks Facebook gives creators on some videos. But again, the views must come first.

Alternatively, or additionally, it could double down on the launch strategy of luring creators with the potential to become the big fish in IGTV’s small-for-now pond. Backroom deals to trade being highlighted in its IGTV algorithm in exchange for high-quality content could win the hearts of these stars and their managers. Instagram would be wise to pair these incentives with vertical long-form video content creation workshops. It could bring its community, product and analytics leaders together with partnered stars to suss out what works best in the format and help them shoot it.

The cross-promo spigot

Once there’s something worth watching on IGTV, the company could open the cross-promo traffic spigot. At first, Instagram would send notifications about top content or IGTV posts from people you follow, and call them out with a little orange text banner atop its main app. Now it seems to understand it will need to be more coercive.

Last month, TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram showing promos for individual IGTV shows in the middle of the feed, hoping to redirect eyeballs there. And today, TechCrunch researcher Matt Navarra found Instagram getting more aggressive by putting a bigger call out featuring a relevant IGTV clip with preview image above your Stories tray on the home screen. It may need to boost the frequency of these cross-promotions and stick them in-between Stories and Explore sections as well to give IGTV the limelight. These could expose users to creators they don’t follow already but might enjoy.

It’s still early but I do think there’s a lot of potential when they figure out two things since the feature is so new,” says John Shahidi, who runs the Justin Bieber-backed Shots Studios, which produces and distributes content for Lele Pons, Rudy Mancuso and other Insta celebs. “1. Product. IGTV is not in your face so Instagram users aren’t changing behavior to consume. Timeline and Instagram Stories are in your face so those two are the most used features. 2. Discoverability. I want to see videos from people I don’t follow. Interesting stuff like cooking, product review, interesting content from brands but without following the accounts.” In the meantime, Shots Studios is launching a vertical-only channel on YouTube that Shahidi believes is the first of its kind.

Instagram will have to balance its strategic imperative to grow the long-form video hub and avoid spamming users until they hate the brand as a whole. Some think it’s already gone too far. “I think it’s super intrusive right now,” says Tiffany Zhong, once known as the world’s youngest venture capitalist who now runs Generation Z consulting firm Zebra Intelligence. “I personally find all the IGTV videos super boring and click out within seconds (and the only time I watch them are if I accidentally tapped on the icon when I tried to go to my DMs instead).” Desperately funneling traffic to the feature before there’s enough great content to power relevant recommendations for everyone could prematurely sour users on IGTV. 

Systrom remains optimistic he can iterate his way to success. “What I want to see over the next six to 12 months is a consistent drumbeat of new features that both consumers and creators are asking for, and to look at the retention curve and say ‘are people continuing to watch? Are people continuing to upload?,’” says Systrom. “So far we are seeing that all of those are healthy. But again trying to judge a very new kind of audacious format that’s never really been done before in the first months is going to be really hard.”

Differentiator or deterrent?

The biggest question remains whether IGTV will remain devout to the orthodoxy of vertical-only. Loosening up to accept landscape videos too might nullify a differentiator, but also pipe in a flood of content it could then algorithmically curate to bootstrap IGTV’s library. Reducing the friction by allowing people to easily port content to or from elsewhere might make it feel like less of a gamble for creators deciding where to put their production resources. Instagram itself expanded from square-only to portrait and landscape photos in the feed in 2015.

My advice would be to make the videos horizontal. We’ve all come to understand vertical as ‘short form’ and horizontal as ‘long form,’” says Sayman. “It’s in the act of rotating your phone to landscape that you indicate to yourself and to your mobile device that you will not be context switching for the next few minutes, but rather intend to focus on one piece of content for an extended period of time.” This would at least give users more to watch, even if they ended up viewing landscape videos with their phones in portrait orientation.

This might be best as a last-ditch effort if it can’t get enough content flowing in through other means. But at least Instagram should offer a cropping tool that lets users manually select what vertical slice of a landscape video they want to show as they watch, rather than just grabbing the center or picking one area on the side for the whole clip. This could let creators repurpose landscape videos without things getting awkwardly half cut out of frame.

Former Facebook employee and social investor Josh Elman, who now works at Robinhood, told me he’s confident the company will experiment as much as necessary. “I think Facebook is relentless. They know that a ton of consumers watch video online. And most discover videos through influencers or their friends. (Or Netflix). Even though Watch and IGTV haven’t taken the world by storm yet, I bet Facebook won’t stop until they find the right mix.”

There’s a goldmine waiting if it does. Unlike on Facebook, there’s no Regram feature, you can’t post links, and outside of Explore you just see who you already follow on Instagram. That’s made it great at delivering friendly video and clips from your favorite stars, but leaves a gaping hole where serendipitous viewing could be. IGTV fills that gap. The hours people spend on Facebook watching random videos and their accompanying commercials have lifted the company to over $13 billion in revenue per quarter. Giving a younger audience a bottomless pit of full-screen video could produce the same behavior and profits on Instagram without polluting the feed, which can remain the purest manifestation of visual feed culture. But that’s only if IGTV can get enough content uploaded.

Puffed up by the success of besting its foe Snapchat, Instagram assumed it could take the long-form video world by storm. But the grand entrance at its debutante ball didn’t draw enough attention. Now it needs to take a different tack. Tone down the cross-promo for the moment. Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video. Only then should it redirect traffic there from the feed, Stories, and Explore.

YouTube’s library wasn’t built overnight, and neither will IGTV’s. Facebook’s deep pockets and the success of Instagram’s other features give it the runway necessary to let IGTV take off. With 1 billion monthly users, and 400 million daily Stories users gathered in just two years, there are plenty of eyeballs waiting to be seduced. Systrom concludes, “Everything that is great starts small.” IGTV’s destiny will depend on Instagram’s patience.

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The top 10 startups from Y Combinator’s Demo Day S18 Day 2

Posted by | 500 startups, accelerator, Android, Ant Financial, Facebook, General Catalyst, george church, instagram, Lyft, Novartis, qvc, Snap, Startups, TC, Uber, Y Combinator | No Comments

Fifty-nine startups took the stage at Y Combinator’s Demo Day 2, and among the highlights were a company that helps developers manage in-app subscriptions; a service that lets you create animojis from real photos; and a surplus medical equipment-reselling platform. Oh… and there was also a company that’s developed an entirely new kind of life form using e coli bacteria. So yeah, that’s happening.

Based on some investor buzz and what caught TechCrunch’s eye, these are our top picks from the second day of Y Combinator’s presentations.

You can find the full list of companies that presented on Day 1 here, and our top picks from Day 1 here. 

64-x

With a founding team including some of the leading luminaries in the field of biologically inspired engineering (including George Church, Pamela Silver and Jeffrey Way from Harvard’s Wyss Institute), 64-x is engineering organisms to function in otherwise inaccessible environments. Chief executive Alexis Rovner, herself a post-doctoral fellow at the Wyss Institute, and chief operating officer Ryan Gallagher, a former BCG Consultant, are looking to commercialize research from the Institute around accelerating and expanding the ability to produce functionalized proteins and sequence-defined polymers with diverse chemistries. Basically they’ve engineered a new life form that they want to use for novel kinds of bio-manufacturing.

Why we liked it: These geniuses invented a new life form.

CB Therapeutics

Sher Butt, a former lab directory at Steep Hill, saw that cannabinoids were as close to a miracle cure for pain, epilepsy and other chronic conditions as medicine was going to get. But plant-based cannabinoids were costly and produced inconsistent results. Alongside Jacob Vogan, Butt realized that biosynthesizing cannabinoids would reduce production costs by a factor of 10 and boost production 24 times current yields. With a deep experience commercializing drugs for Novartis and as the founder of the cannabis testing company SB Labs, Butt and his technical co-founder are uniquely positioned to bring this new therapy to market.

Why we liked it: Using manufacturing processes to make industrial quantities of what looks like nature’s best painkiller at scale is not a bad idea.

RevenueCat

RevenueCat founders

RevenueCat helps developers manage their in-app subscriptions. It offers an API that developers can use to support in-app subscriptions on iOS and Android, which means they don’t have to worry about all the nuances, bugs and updates on each platform.

The API also allows developers to bring all the data about their subscription business together in one place. It might be on to something, though it isn’t clear how big that something is quite yet. The nine-month-old company says it’s currently seeing $350,000 in transaction volume every month; it’s making some undisclosed percentage of money off that amount.

Read more about RevenueCat here.

Why we liked it: Write code. Release app. Use RevenueCat. Get paid. That sounds like a good formula for a pretty compelling business.

Ajaib

Indonesia is a country in transition, with a growing class of individuals with assets to invest yet who, financially, don’t meet the bar set by many wealth managers. Enter Ajaib, a newly minted startup with the very bold ambition of becoming the “Ant Financial of wealth management for Indonesia.” Why the comparison? Because China was in the same boat not long ago — a  country whose middle class had little access to wealth management advice. With the founding of Ant Financial nearly four years ago, that changed. In fact, Ant now boasts more than 400 million users.

China is home to nearly 1.4 billion, compared with Indonesia, whose population of 261 million is tiny in comparison. Still, if its plans work out to charge 1.4 percent for every dollar managed, with an estimated $370 billion in savings in the country to chase after, it could be facing a meaningful opportunity in its backyard if it gains some momentum.

Why we liked it: If Ajaib’s wealth management plans (to charge 1.4 percent for every dollar it manages) work out — and with a total market of $370 billion in savings in Indonesia — the company could be facing a meaningful opportunity in its backyard.

Grin

The scooter craze is hitting Latin America and Grin is greasing the wheels. The Mexico City-based company was launched by co-founder Sergio Romo after he and his partner realized they weren’t going to be able to get a cut of the big “birds” on the scooter block in the U.S. (as Axios reported). Romo and his co-founder have already lined up a slew of investors for what may be the hottest new deal in Latin America. Backers include Sinai Ventures, Liquid2 Ventures, 500 Startups, Monashees and Base10 Partners.

Why we liked it: Scooters are so 2018. But there’s a lot of money to be made in mobility, and as the challenge from Bird and Lime to Uber and Lyft in hyperlocal transit has revealed, there’s no dominant player that’s taken over the market… yet.

Emojer

Creating animated emojis made from real photos, Emojer just might be the most fun you can have with a camera. The company’s software uses deep learning algorithms to detect body parts and guides users in creating their own avatars with just a simple photo take from a mobile phone. It’s replacing deep Photoshop expertise and animation skills with a super simple interface. The avatars look very similar to Elf Yourself, a popular site that let you paste your friends’ faces on dancing Christmas elves goes viral every year at Christmastime. Founders have PhDs in machine learning and computer vision.

Why we liked it: As the company’s chief executive said, Snap was for sexting, and Facebook was hot or not, so who says the next big consumer platform couldn’t be the Trojan horse of easily generated selfiemojis (akin to Elf Yourself)?

Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals

Osh’s Affordable Pharmaceuticals is a public benefit corporation connecting doctors and patients with sources of low-cost, compounded pharmaceuticals. The company is looking to decrease barriers to entry for drugs for rare diseases. Three weeks ago the company introduced a drug to treat Wilson’s Disease. There was no access to the drug that treats the disease before in Brazil, India or Canada. It slashes the cost of drugs from $30,000 a month to $120 per month. The company estimates it has a total addressable market of $17 billion. “Generic drug pricing is a crisis, people are dying because they can’t get access to the medicine they need,” says chief executive Alex Oshmyansky. Osh’s might have a solution.

Why we liked it: Selling lower-cost medications for rare diseases in countries that previously hadn’t had access to them is a good business that’s good for the world.

Medinas Health

Tackling a $75 billion problem of healthcare waste, Medinas Health is giving hospitals an easy way to resell their used supplies. The company has already raised $1 million for its marketplace to help healthcare organizations buy and sell equipment. With a seed round led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, and General Catalyst’s Rough Draft Ventures fund, the company is also working to lower costs for cash-strapped rural healthcare centers.

Why we liked it: Finding uses for hospital equipment that’s been lying fallow in corners is a big business. A $75 billion business if Medinas’ estimates are correct. Add helping cut costs for rural medical facilities and Medinas is a business we can get behind.

And Comfort

Plus-size women have limited clothing options even at the largest retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s. While a majority of American women fall into the plus-size clothing category, 100 million women are constrained to shopping for a very small percentage of options. And Comfort wants to solve the supply problem. To do this, the founders, two former Harvard classmates, are building a direct-to-consumer fashion brand with stylish, minimalist offerings for plus-size women, including tunic shirts and an apron dress. It’s very early days for the brand, but since launching in recent weeks, they’ve seen $25,000 in sales.

Why we liked it: This direct-to-consumer fashion brand is bringing higher quality, better-designed clothing options to a market that’s underserved and growing quickly. What’s not to like?

ShopWith

Influencers of the world are uniting on mobile app, ShopWith, which allows shoppers to browse virtual storefronts and aisles alongside their favorite fashion and beauty creators and YouTubers. Users can see exactly what products those influencers have featured and can buy them without ever leaving the app. It’s a free download and hours of commercially consumptive fun.

It’s like the QVC model, but for GenZ shoppers whose buying habits are influenced by social video content on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. The company revealed that one beauty influencer made $10,000 within five hours using the ShopWith platform. The founders are former product managers with experience building social commerce products at Facebook and Amazon.

Why we liked it: The QVC for GenZ not only has a nice ring to it, it’s a recipe for making cash registers hum. A mobile-first, influencer-based shopping company is something that we’d definitely not call an impulse purchase.

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Say ‘Aloha’: A closer look at Facebook’s voice ambitions

Posted by | Apps, Developer, Facebook, Facebook Aloha, facebook messenger, Facebook Patents, Facebook Portal, Facebook Smart Speaker, Facebook Voice, instagram, Instagram Voice Messaging, Mobile, Social, Speech Recognition, TC, voice assistant, voice transcription | No Comments

Facebook has been a bit slow to adopt the voice computing revolution. It has no voice assistant, its smart speaker is still in development, and some apps like Instagram aren’t fully equipped for audio communication. But much of that is set to change judging by experiments discovered in Facebook’s code, plus new patent filings.

Developing voice functionality could give people more ways to use Facebook in their home or on the go. Its forthcoming Portal smart speaker is reportedly designed for easy video chatting with distant family, including seniors and kids that might have trouble with phones. Improved transcription and speech-to-text-to-speech features could connect Messenger users across input mediums and keep them on the chat app rather than straying back to SMS.

But Facebook’s voice could be drowned out by the din of the crowd if it doesn’t get moving soon. All the major mobile hardware and operating system makers now have their own voice assistants like Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant and Samsung Bixby, as well as their own smart speakers. In Q2 2018, Canalys estimates that Google shipped 5.4 million Homes, and Amazon shipped 4.1 million Echoes. Apple’s HomePod is off to a slow start with less than 6 percent of the market, behind Alibaba’s smart speaker, according to Strategy Analytics. Facebook’s spotty record around privacy might deflect potential customers to its competitors.

Given Facebook is late to the game, it will need to arrive with powerful utility that solves real problems. Here’s a look at Facebook’s newest developments in the voice space, and how its past experiments lay the groundwork for its next big push.

Aloha voice

Facebook is developing its own speech recognition feature under the name Aloha for both the Facebook and Messenger apps, as well as external hardware — likely the video chat smart speaker it’s developing. Code inside the Facebook and Messenger Android apps dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster and mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong gives the first look at a prototype for the Aloha user interface.

Labeled “Aloha Voice Testing,” as a user speaks while in a message thread, a horizontal blue bar expands and contracts to visualize the volume of speech while recognizing and transcribing into text. The code describes the feature as having connections with external Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices. It’s possible that the software will run on both Facebook’s hardware and software, similar to Google Assistant that runs both on phones and Google Home speakers. [Update: As seen below, the Aloha feature contains a “Your mobile device is now connected Portal” screen, confirming that name for the Facebook video chat smart speaker device.]

Facebook declined to comment on the video, with its spokesperson Ha Thai telling me, “We test stuff all the time — nothing to share today but my team will be in touch in a few weeks about hardware news coming from the AR/VR org.” It unclear if that hardware news will focus on voice and Aloha or Portal, or if it’s merely related to Facebook’s Oculus Connect 5 conference on September 25th.

A source previously told me that years ago, Facebook was interested in developing its own speech recognition software designed specifically to accurately transcribe how friends talk to each other. These speech patterns are often more casual, colloquial, rapid and full of slang than the way we formally address computerized assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Home.

Wong also found the Aloha logo buried in Facebook’s code, which features volcano imagery. I can confirm that I’ve seen a Facebook Aloha Setup chatbot with a similar logo on the phones of Facebook employees.

If Facebook can figure this out, it could offer its own transcription features in Messenger and elsewhere on the site so users could communicate across mediums. It could potentially let you dictate comments or messages to friends while you have your hands full or can’t look at your screen. The recipient could then read the text instead of having to listen to it like a voice message. The feature also could be used to power voice navigation of Facebook’s apps for better hands-free usage.

Speaker and camera patents

Facebook awarded patent for speaker

Facebook’s video chat smart speaker was reportedly codenamed Aloha originally but later renamed Portal, Alex Heath of Business Insider and now Cheddar first reported in August 2017. The $499 competitor to the Amazon Echo Show was initially set to launch at Facebook’s F8 in May, but Bloomberg reported it was pushed back amid concerns that it would exacerbate the privacy scandal ignited by Cambridge Analytica.

A new patent filing reveals Facebook was considering building a smart speaker as early as December 26th, 2016 when it filed a patent for a cube-shaped device. The patent diagrams an “ornamental design for a speaker device” invented by Baback Elmieh, Alexandre Jais and John Proksch-Whaley. Facebook had acquired Elmieh’s startup Nascent Objects in September of that year and he’s now a technical project lead at Facebook’s secretive Building 8 hardware lab.

The startup had been building modular hardware, and earlier this year he was awarded patents for work at Facebook on several modular cameras. The speaker and camera technology Facebook has been developing could potentially evolve into what’s in its video chat speaker.

The fact that Facebook has been exploring speaker technology for so long and that the lead on these patents is still running a secret project in Building 8 strengthens the case that Facebook has big plans for the voice space.

Patents awarded to Facebook show designs for a camera (left) and video camera (right)

Instagram voice messaging

And finally, Instagram is getting deeper into the voice game, too. A screenshot generated from the code of Instagram’s Android app by Wong reveals the development of a voice clip messaging feature heading to Instagram Direct. This would allow you to speak into Instagram and send the audio clips similar to a walkie-talkie, or the voice messaging feature Facebook Messenger added back in 2013.

You can see the voice button in the message composer at the bottom of the screen, and the code explains that to “Voice message, press and hold to record.” The prototype follows the recent launch of video chat in Instagram Direct, another feature on which TechCrunch broke the news thanks to Wong’s research. An Instagram spokesperson declined to comment, as is typical when features are spotted in its code but aren’t publicly testing yet, saying, “Unfortunately nothing more to share on this right now.”

The long road to Voicebook

Facebook has long tinkered in the voice space. In 2015, it acquired natural language processing startup Wit.ai that ran a developer platform for building speech interfaces, though it later rolled Wit.ai into Messenger’s platform team to focus on chatbots. Facebook also began testing automatically transcribing Messenger voice clips into text in 2015 in what was likely the groundwork for the Aloha feature seen above. The company also revealed its M personal assistant that could accomplish tasks for users, but it was only rolled out to a very limited user base and later turned off.

The next year, Facebook’s head of Messenger David Marcus claimed at TechCrunch Disrupt that voice “is not something we’re actively working on right now,” but added that “at some point it’s pretty obvious that as we develop more and more capabilities and interactions inside of Messenger, we’ll start working on voice exchanges and interfaces.” However, a source had told me Facebook’s secretive Language Technology Group was already exploring voice opportunities. Facebook also began testing its Live Audio feature for users who want to just broadcast sound and not video.

By 2017, Facebook was offering automatic captioning for Pages’ videos, and was developing a voice search feature. And this year, Facebook began trying voice clips as status updates and Stories for users around the world who might have trouble typing in their native tongue. But executives haven’t spoken much about the voice initiatives.

The most detailed comments we have come from Facebook’s head of design Luke Woods at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017 where he described voice search saying it was, “very promising. There are lots of exciting things happening…. I love to be able to talk to the car to navigate to a particular place. That’s one of many potential use cases.” It’s also one that voice transcription could aid.

It’s still unclear exactly what Facebook’s Aloha will become. It could be a de facto operating system or voice interface and transcription feature for Facebook’s smart speaker and apps. It could become a more full-fledged voice assistant like M, but with audio. Or perhaps it could become Facebook’s bridge to other voice ecosystems, serving as Facebook’s Alexa Skill or Google Assistant Action.

When I asked Woods “How would Facebook on Alexa work?,” he said with a smile “That’s a very interesting question! No comment.”

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