Los Angeles

Internet of Elephants launches Wildeverse, an AR game about endangered animals and conservation

Posted by | aida, Android, animals, arkansas, donald trump, elephant, Kim Kardashian, Los Angeles, messi, player, St. Louis, TC, United States | No Comments

On Friday, the Kenyan augmented reality game developer Internet of Elephants launched its latest game in partnership with the conservation science experts from the Borneo Nature Foundation, Goualougo Triangle Ape Foundation, Zoo Atlanta and Chester Zoo.

The new game, called “Wildeverse”, uses AR to create a virtual forest that players can explore to find certain animals — or clues to an animal’s whereabouts.

Though the game was intended to be played outdoors, the COVID-19 crisis forced the team to pivot, creating an option that lets people move about virtually using in-game controls, or walk around in more confined spaces.

The game starts with a chat-based segment introducing players to the gameplay and setting up some context around the virtual environment players will be exploring. Its graphics aren’t focused on recreating a completely immersive jungle environment, but create an abstracted forest and canopy of trees which players explore. A timer keeps track of how long a player takes to complete a mission, which involve identifying certain animals or looking for traces of their presence in the AR-created forest.

Once a mission is complete, the player runs through a scripted interaction with an actual conservationist who helped the Internet of Elephants game developers come up with the concept for the game and provided research assistance and support for the actual animals represented in the gameplay.

Image courtesy of Internet of Elephants

The game can be played on any iOS or Android device that support ARKit or ARCore.

Challenges range from searching for the animals themselves or their footprints, food leftovers or poop to looking for illegal human activity and threats to the habitat of four real orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons.

To make the game, Internet of Elephants developers led by company founder Gautam Shah, actually went to the jungles of Borneo and Congo to speak with conservationists about their work and scout for wildlife to use in te game, the company said in a statement. The game developers tracked several families of monkeys 

 

“Ape populations are being decimated across the world. Wildlife protection will only become a global priority if enough people take an interest. Conservationists on the ground are fighting an uphill battle with the support of only a handful of people,” said Shah in a statement. “We are on a mission to turn the 2 billion people playing games today, into wildlife lovers and supporters of conservation efforts.”

For Shah, the newest launch for Internet of Elephants continues the company’s mission, which began in 2015 when the American-born Shah forsook a career in consulting to launch his AR-based gaming company. Other members of the Internet of Elephants team have equally interesting stories, including product lead, Jake Manion, who had spent six years as the creative director for Aardman Animations, the Academy-award winning studio behind Wallace & Gromit and Shaun the Sheep.

Shah sees three primary conservation elements to the Wildeverse game. First, he says, it creates a link between players and the conservation societies that the company works with, giving people a better sense of what conservation organizations actually do. The game also forces players to confront issues like forest fires, illegal logging, poaching, and the challenges surrounding conservation work that are exacerbated by development and human consumption changing the composition of the jungles these animals call home. Finally there’s an educational element to the game.

“You really really do learn a lot of juicy stuff and we don’t shy away from getting technical,” says Shah. “All that collectively is about creating a connection between you sitting in St. Louis and someone in Borneo trying to study orangutans,”

Originally, the game was meant to be played outdoors, with a thirty-meter radius of space to get the full sense of the gameplay, but it can work in a small studio apartment in Los Angeles equally well, given the modifications the team made before the game’s launch.

The text component of the game is informative and gives players a chance to learn about the foods orangutans eat, their habitat and their lives in the jungle. The script is slightly clunky, but not tiresome, and is based on conversations with the actual conservationists working in these different forests.

Ultimately Shah hopes to expand the number of habitats and the breadth of the game so players can explore different geographies and learn about endangered species on every continent.

There’s no monetization in the game yet and it will remain free-to-play, but Shah hopes to add some revenue-generating elements as development continues along with multi-player features, he said.

Ultimately, the game is about connecting and educating a new generation to the wonders of nature conservancy through the newest tech tools and gameplay.

“We want to make wildlife a positive, exciting topic of daily conversation for millions of people currently unconnected to conservation. We want to make Fio, Buka, Chilli and Aida celebrities, just like Kim Kardashian, Messi, and Donald Trump,” says Shah. “People’s attention matters so much more than they think.”

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News-reading app Flipboard expands local coverage, including coronavirus updates, to 12 more US metros

Posted by | Android, apple news, Apps, Atlanta, austin, baltimore, boston, charlotte, chicago, Cleveland, coronavirus, COVID-19, Dallas, denver, detroit, Facebook Paper, flipboard, journalism, Las Vegas, local news, Los Angeles, Media, miami, minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, new york city, News, news aggregation, news aggregator, news aggregators, news app, operating systems, Orlando, Philadelphia, pittsburgh, Portland, ProPublica, raleigh, real estate, sacramento, Salt Lake City, san diego, Seattle, St. Louis, tampa bay, toronto, United States, vancouver, washington, Washington D.C. | No Comments

Earlier this year, personalized news aggregation app Flipboard expanded into local news. The feature brought local news, sports, real estate, weather, transportation news and more to 23 cities across the U.S. Today, Flipboard is bringing local news to 12 more U.S. metros and is adding critical coronavirus local coverage to all of the 35 supported locales.

The 12 new metros include the following:  Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, St. Louis and Tampa Bay.

They join the 23 cities that were already supported: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, D.C.

To offer local news in its app, Flipboard works with area partners, big and small, like The Plain Dealer’s Cleveland.com, the Detroit Free Press and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It has now added to the list of partners local news service Patch and ProPublica, including its Local Reporting Network partners and its collaborative journalism project Electionland.

Patch alone is putting out more than 200 local coronavirus stories per day. Meanwhile, the ProPublica Local Reporting Network funds and jointly publishes year-long investigative projects with 23 local news organizations across the U.S. The Electionland initiative reports on problems that disenfranchise eligible voters, like misinformation, changing voting laws and rules, voter harassment, equipment failures and long lines at the polls.

To determine if a user should be shown local news, based on a user’s IP address — not a precise location — the app may recommend stories relevant to local audiences. It will also offer the Local sections inside the Explore tab in the Flipboard app. Once added, users can then browse their local news alongside other content they’re interested in, across a variety of topics.

At present, there are two main areas of interest to news readers — the COVID-19 outbreak and the 2020 Election, both of which are now offered in the local sections. In addition to understanding the current state of the pandemic on a global and national level, Flipboard readers in the supported areas will be able to track how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting where they live. This could include coverage of things like local ordinances, school closings, shelter-in-place laws, number of cases and deaths, testing resources and more.

“Understanding the decisions state and local governments make and their impact on the community is not only important, but gives people a greater connection to their local leaders and the media,” said Marci McCue, VP of Content and Communications at Flipboard. “For instance, as a local resident you may want coverage from national newspapers about the coronavirus outbreak, but even more importantly is a local source that tells you where you can get tested and measures local leaders are taking that impact your daily life,” she noted.

The addition of coronavirus special coverage at a local level, aggregated from across publishers, means readers will be able to track stories without having to hop around different sites or apps from area newspapers or broadcasters.

For Flipboard’s business, adding local news allows advertisers to target against user interests, which may now include a city’s metro region as one of those interests.

Flipboard’s mobile app today reaches 145 million users per month. Local news is available in the supported metros across both iOS and Android .

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Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Posted by | Android, automotive, cars, China, coronavirus, COVID-19, electric vehicles, Europe, Ford, Geely, GM, Google Assistant, Google Play Store, Google-Maps, linux, Los Angeles, Lucid Motors, north america, operating system, Oslo, Polestar, Rivian, shanghai, smartphones, TC, Tesla, volkswagen, Volvo Cars | No Comments

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety of its workers. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive for COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including in Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop-up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced; Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe, followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34-kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and has a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

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Pragma is a back-end toolkit for gaming companies, so game developers can focus on games

Posted by | Advancit Capital, Developer, Facebook, game engine, Gaming, Los Angeles, online multiplayer games, partner, Plaid, player, Pragma, Riot Games, social media platforms, TC, upfront ventures, William Hockey | No Comments

These days, most of the games developed need to be social, multi-platform and extensible, but there are only a few developers with the expertise to bring those toolsets to the profusion of new games that crop up every year.

Well, now those development studios can turn to Pragma, which is building the back-end toolkit for gaming companies so their developers can focus on what they do best — making games.

It’s basically taking a page from the application development playbook where off-the-shelf toolkits can reduce by months the time it takes to get an app into the market, according to Pragma chief executive Eden Chen. In the game industry, a game can stay in beta for years as developers work out the kinks.

In the game world, because of the necessity to build multiplayer, the length to launch a game has gotten way, way, way, way longer. Games are taking five to 10 years to launch out of beta,” Chen said. 

Founded by Chen and former Riot Games engineering lead Chris Cobb, Pragma is offering a “backend as a service,” according to the company, selling a toolkit that includes accounts, player data, lobbies, matchmaking, social systems, telemetry and store fulfillment.

In a way it’s a complement to the front-end game engines from companies like Epic, the creator of Fortnite.

Indeed, Epic had announced plans to create a back-end system for game developers of its own, but Chen sees the benefits of having an independent operator doing the work — not a potential competitor.

Pragma’s investors agreed. The company raised $4.2 million in funding from a clutch of high-quality firms and individual investors, led by the Los Angeles-based Upfront Ventures with participation from Advancit Capital and angel investors Jarl Mohn, president emeritus at NPR and former Riot Games board member; Dan Dinh, founder of TSM; and William Hockey, founder of Plaid. 

“In a world where gaming studios have long used third-party engines to power their front-end development, it makes no sense for the same studios to spend millions of dollars to build their own custom back-end,” said Kevin Zhang, partner at Upfront Ventures and board member at Pragma, in a statement. “This broken system has lasted for so long because creating a reusable, platform-agnostic backend is not just extremely complex but rarely prioritized compared to the game.” 

The gaming industry is a $139 billion behemoth that in some ways lags behind its technologically-savvy peers in creating off-the-shelf tools to speed production. They’re combinations of social media platforms like Facebook and Snap, and big, high-budget movie productions, but lack any tools to simplify the process of development or ensure that persistence, scale and feature complexity don’t lead to downtimes. And downtimes could mean millions in expenses and lost revenues, Pragma said.

“Creating online multiplayer games is increasingly complex and expensive. Studios are hindered by the need to not just create compelling games, but also to build custom server technology to operate their game,” Chris Cobb, the company’s chief technology officer, said in a statement.  

The company currently has one customer on its platform and will launch to an exclusive set of beta users in late 2020.

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LA-based gaming studio Scopely raises $200M at a $1.7B valuation

Posted by | Accel, Digit Game Studios, Electronic Arts, Gaming, Los Angeles, Louisiana, Mobile, mobile game, NewView Capital, Recent Funding, scopely, Startups, TC, Walter Driver | No Comments

The Los Angeles-based mobile game development studio Scopely has become America’s newest unicorn thanks to a $200 million financing, which values the company at a whopping $1.7 billion.

Scopely said it would use the capital to continue its strategy of developing and acquiring new games as it looks to continue its run of six consecutive mobile games that will gross $100 million or more in lifetime revenue.

The new investment follows Scopely’s milestone of achieving more than $1 billion in lifetime revenue. Games in the company’s portfolio include: Looney Tunes World of Mayhem and Star Trek Fleet Command, created with the recently acquired DIGIT Game Studios.

Indeed, part of the reason for the financing is to accelerate the pace of its acquisitions and investments into new game development studios, according to chief executive Walter Driver .

“The barrier to entry from independent studios is to find product-market fit,” says Driver. “Increasingly, it’s helpful for them to have publishing capabilities that are more global in nature and more scaled.”

The unicorn gaming company has amassed increasingly larger rounds over the past three years on a nearly annual basis. The company raised a $55 million round of financing in 2016, $60 million in 2017 and $100 million in 2018.

For investors, what makes the company compelling (beyond its string of successful games) is the technology platform that undergirds its popular mobile gaming titles. “What the company allows you to do is look at engagement and alter a game midstream to tailor the experience,” says Ravi Viswanathan, the founder and managing partner of NewView Capital .

NewView, a growth-stage venture capital firm spun out of the multibillion-dollar investment firm NEA, led the most recent $200 million round for Scopely.

Scopely is the firm’s first major investment in a gaming company and was part of a portfolio of investments that NewView took over when it spun off from NEA.

For Scopely, the latest capital infusion is just more money in the bank to invest in or acquire budding game studios and give them access to the technology stack that has made Scopely so compelling, according to Driver.

“Our technology platform is about optimizing free digital experiences for the largest amount of players possible,” Driver says. “We’re primarily focused on finding the most passionate and talented game developers that want to specialize in making the kind of game design and might have the kind of specialized expertise that we admire.”

In the eight years since Scopely first launched, the gaming industry has been transformed by the opportunities that exist in the mobile market — and both Scopely and companies like Jam City have capitalized on the new platform.

“We see the future of gaming as free live services that give users choice and agency of how they want to play,” says Driver. “Being able to refine those live services over time and react to the data that you’re seeing and optimize those products,” has been at the core of Scopely’s technology stack.

The company is already raking in more than $400 million in annualized revenue and it was that growth that convinced NewView and investors like the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board to commit capital as part of this latest round.

Scopely has already made a few select minority investments in gaming studios, and with the new cash, Driver hopes to roll up more independent game developers.

*This story has been updated to indicate that Scopely’s valuation is $1.7 billion. Not $1.4 billion as originally reported.

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The Los Angeles Fire Department wants more drones

Posted by | drones, Gadgets, Los Angeles, Security, TC | No Comments

As it looks to modernize its operations, the Los Angeles Fire Department is turning to a number of new technologies, including expanding its fleet of drones for a slew of new deployments.

One of the largest fire departments in the U.S., next to New York and Chicago, the LAFD has a budget of roughly $691 million, employs more than 3,500 and responded to 492,717 calls in 2018.

The department already has a fleet of 11 drones to complement its fleet of 258 fire engines, ambulances and helicopters.

However, Battalion Chief Richard Fields, the head of the department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems program, would like to see that number increase significantly.

Los Angeles has become an early leader in the use of drones for its firefighting applications thanks in part to an agreement with the Chinese company DJI, which the department inked back in April.

At the time, the Chinese drone manufacturer and imaging technology developer announced an agreement to test and deploy DJI drones as an emergency response preparedness tool. The company called it one DJI’s largest partnerships with a fire-fighting agency in the U.S.

“We are excited to be strengthening our partnership with the LAFD, one of the nation’s preeminent public safety agencies, to help them take advantage of DJI’s drone technology that has been purpose-built for the public safety sector,” said Bill Chen, Enterprise Partnerships manager at DJI, in a statement at the time. “Through our two-way collaboration, DJI will receive valuable insight into the complexities of deploying drones for emergency situations in one of the most complex urban environments in the nation.”

Now, roughly five months later, the program seems to have been successful enough that Battalion Chief Fields is looking to double the fleet.

“Our next iteration is to start using our drones to assist our specialized resources,” said Fields. Those are firefighters and support crews that deal with hazardous materials, urban search and rescue, marine environments and swift water rescues, Fields said.

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The LAFD Swift Water Rescue Team. Photo courtesy of Flickr/ LAFD Mike Horst

The technologal demands of the fire department extend beyond the drone itself, Fields said. “There are a lot of technologies that allows us to make the drone more versatile… the most valuable tool isn’t the drone; it’s the sensor.”

So far, the most useful application has been using infrared technologies to balance what’s visible and combine it with the heat signatures the sensors pick up.

Training to become a drone pilot for the LAFD is particularly intense, Fields says. The typical pilot will get up to 80 hours of training. “Our training is nation-leading. There’s nothing out there in the commercial market that beats it,” according to Fields.

For now, the entire LAFD fleet is composed of DJI drones, something that has given military and civilian officials pause in the past few years.

Concerns have been growing over the reliance on Chinese technology in core American infrastructure, extending from networking technology companies like Huawei to drone technology developers like DJI.

Back in 2018, the Department of Defense issued a ban on the acquisition and use of commercial drones, citing cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The ban came a year after officials from the Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress called out DJI specifically for its potential to be used by the Chinese government to spy on the United States.

However, the rule isn’t set in stone, and many branches of the military continue to use DJI drones, according to a September Voice of America News report.

In Los Angeles, Fields says he takes those concerns seriously. The department has worked closely with regulators and advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to craft a strict policy around what gets done with the data the LAFD collects.

“The way that we establish our program is that the drone provides us with our real-time situational awareness,” said Fields. “That helps the incident commander get a visual perspective of the problem and he can make better decisions.”

The only data that is recorded and kept, says Fields, is data collected around brush fires so the LAFD can do a damage assessment, which can later be turned into map layers to keep records of hotspots.

As for data that could be sent back to China, Fields says that any mapping of critical infrastructure is done without connecting to the internet. “It’s being collected on the drone and 90% of that information is how the drone is operating. There is some information of where the drone is and how it is and the [latitude] and [longitude] of the drone itself… That’s the data that’s being collected,” Fields says. 

From Fields’ perspective, if the government is so concerned about the use of drones made by a foreign manufacturer, there’s an easy solution. Just regulate it.

“Let’s come up with a standard. If you use them in a federal airspace these are the check marks that you have to pass,” he says. “Saying that DJI drones are bad because they come from China [and] let’s throw them all out… that’s not an answer either.”

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MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

Posted by | Apps, california, Facebook, Instant Messaging, Kik, Kik Messenger, lightspeed venture partners, Los Angeles, Media, michael heyward, Mobile, operating systems, programmatic advertising, secret, Sequoia, shasta ventures, social media, social network, social networks, Software, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, whisper, Yik Yak | No Comments

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article. 

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Canoo takes the covers off of its debut electric vehicle

Posted by | Android, automotive industry, Canoo, chief technology officer, China, driver, east coast, electric vehicle, Los Angeles, michigan, Netflix, operating systems, Rivian, TC, transport, United States, vw, west coast | No Comments

The Los Angeles-based startup Canoo has finally unveiled its first model, the eponymously named canoo.

The Canoo designers have departed pretty radically from the traditional designs that other electric vehicle manufacturers have favored going with something that looks more like a VW Microbus than the sport utility vehicle that Byton is aiming for, or Tesla and Fisker’s sportscars and sedans or Rivian’s electric trucks.

Remarkably, Canoo has completed the design and engineering of its first model in just 19 months and is preparing its vehicles for production through a contract manufacturer. The first cars are slated to appear on the road by 2021, according to the company’s current leader, Ulrich Kranz.

Kranz, who initially came on board as the company’s chief technology officer, took over the day-to-day operations of Canoo after Stefan Krause, Canoo’s co-founder and chief executive, stepped away from the company in August for personal reasons, as The Verge previously reported. 

The two key features that Canoo was designing for were space and value, according to a statement from Kranz, and the first car from the company has plenty of both.

Canoo has beta cars on site at its Los Angeles headquarters where prospective partners and customers can test out the vehicles, which were made by an undisclosed contract manufacturer based in Michigan. “We will crank out a couple of cars which will be used to verify and confirm the simulations we have done so far,” says Kranz.

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Canoo has spent the past year discussing the development of its prototype vehicle with the manufacturer so the company could provide advice on how to design and develop the car.

Canoo will launch its first vehicles in the Los Angeles market and expects to not only provide its “skateboard” platform for its own vehicles, but potentially work with other customers that would put their own cabin on top of the Canoo platform, Kranz says.

The company intends to go to market with an entirely new business model by providing customers with its cars for a monthly subscription fee. That service will likely include perks like automatic vehicle registration, maintenance, insurance management and charging through a single app on a customer’s phone. The idea, the company says, is to bring convenience and afforability of a Netflix movie service to the auto industry.

The first vehicle will have enough room for seven people, with the interior space of a large sport utility vehicle in a car with the footprint of a small compact car, the company says. In the back, seats are positioned in a semicircular formation against the sides and rear of the vehicle, while the front cabin is arranged like a sofa, according to Kranz.

“Cars always have been designed to convey a certain image and emotion; however, we chose to completely rethink car design and focus on what future users will actually need. Thus, we came up with this loft-inspired vehicle,” says Richard Kim, in Charge of Design at Canoo. “When you subscribe, you think differently about a car – now the value is defined by the user benefit. We implemented the Bauhaus philosophy, which is centered around minimalism and functionality, and started with the reduction to the absolute minimal need. Next, we applied that approach to the seamless connectivity with the personal devices customers care most about – their phones.”

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Entertainment systems are dependent on customers’ own devices and the canoo is compatible with both iOS and Android operating systems. Rather than having a central display, the company expects that drivers and passengers will want to use their own navigation and apps in the vehicle.

Kranz says it was also made with autonomy in mind, and while the current system is arrayed with seven cameras, five radars and 12 ultra sonic sensors to provide level two autonomy. Kranz is especially proud of a new feature which has a video camera focused on the driver to monitor their actions and avoid unnecessary alerts when they’re operating a vehicle safely.

We watch the face and the meaning of the driver with the camera” Kranz says. “When the camera recognizes that the driver pays attention… like looking to the right side and checking blind spots, we don’t warn them with an alert… Because people sometimes turn off  the warning systems.” 

The heart of the Canoo system though, is its “skateboard” architecture, which houses the batteries and the electric drivetrain in a chassis underneath the vehicle’s cabin. All of the companies vehicles will have the same base and different cabins to create all sorts of vehicles for different applications, the company says.

The first vehicle has a five-star safety rating and includes driver and passenger airbags throughout the canoo. The skateboard platform can also support dual, front, or rear motor configurations the company said.  

Finally, the company says it will have the first truly steer-by-wire vehicle on the market without a hardware connection between the steering wheel and the wheels.

Steering is conducted by electric signals only, with a fully redundant control system that the company says has some long-term benefits for future designs. Steer-by-wire offers both weight savings and gives Canoo flexibility on where to locate the steering wheel to accommodate different designs and . driver positions.

As for range, the company’s first car has a range of 250 miles and can reach an 80% charge in less than 30 minutes. Its battery pack is fastened directly to the skateboard structure and saves more space since there’s no separate structure. The battery also is able to provide torsional rigidity and support for the vehicle since its resting directly on the chassis.

Kranz wouldn’t say how much Canoo will charge for its subscription service, but said that the company can reduce its cost because it can depreciate the vehicle’s value over a seven-to-ten year timeframe. “These savings we will be able to give back to the customer,” he said. And even with the low price, Kranz expects to make a mint with his new company. “We want to be the first EV company that makes a profit with an EV,” he says.

The rental model will help as will the company’s conservative rollout plan. Kranz says that Canoo will start offering its subscription vehicles in one geography and scale slowly from there.

“We will roll out city-by-city,” he says. “Eight to ten cities represent more than 70% of all the electric vehicle population [so] there is no need to provide our EV nationwide.”

The plan for 2021 is to launch in Los Angeles and have another eight cities account for the company’s U.S. market. That means four on the West Coast and four on the East Coast, according to Kranz.

“After the launch in the  U.S. we are considering launching the vehicle in China… There are 18 cities that represent 75% of the EV population in China,” he said.

The controlled expansion plans and modest goals for geographical reach should be a big benefit for the company, according to Kranz.

“It gives us the big advantage that we can  easily control our fleet and we are ramping up in a more conservative way and we are not bragging that we can churn out hundred thousand of cars,” he says. “We know how difficult it is to manufacture a good quality car at a high pace.”

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Launching from beta, ProGuides is making money ensuring that gamers never play alone

Posted by | Advancit Capital, east coast, esports, game design, gamer, Gaming, league of legends, Los Angeles, ProGuides, Quest Venture Partners, Startups, TC, video gaming | No Comments

When ProGuides pulled the covers off of its service earlier this year, the young Los Angeles-based startup intended to give gamers a way to train with professional and semi-pro esports players from around the world.

But as users signed on to the service, it became clear that they weren’t looking for training necessarily… Instead, what players wanted was a ringer.

“After we launched the beta, we found some interesting user behavior,” says Sam Wang. “We found that gamers were experienced already and wanted experienced players who are better than [the matches] the game can provide… At the end of the day you do get to play with someone pretty awesome and is something that I think can make games better.

That’s right, ProGuides is pitching a marketplace for experienced gamers so that its customers aren’t randomly matched with some noob if they can’t game with their usual partners.

“Our tagline is ‘Play with pros’ now,” says Wang. “We already have over 5,000 sessions that were played in the last two months.”

The professional gamers who list their services on the site charge an average of $10 per session and ProGuides takes about a 25% cut. The company lowers its rates for popular gamers or gamers who are willing to spend more time on the platform either selling their services or actually coaching esports players.

Wang says that pros on the platform are making anywhere from $750 to $2,500 per month and that there are currently 250 coaches on the platform.

A typical session on ProGuides lasts around 45 minutes and players are available for Fortnite, League of Legends, Super Smash Brothers, CS:GO and Hearthstone.

ProGuides raised $1.9 million in pre-seed funding last June. The company is backed by Amplify, an LA-based early-stage investor and company accelerator, Quest Venture Partners, Greycroft Tracker fund and the GFR Fund.

The LA-based company also has some venture-backed competition on the East Coast. Gamer Sensei, which has raised roughly $6 million (according to Crunchbase) has a similar proposition. It’s backed by Accomplice and Advancit Capital.

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Through crowdsourcing, Cerberus Interactive wants to take location-based gaming to the masses

Posted by | Age of Empires, augmented reality, austin, bangladesh, Cerberus Interactive, games, Gaming, Los Angeles, New Orleans, niantic, Pokémon Go, Prince, Reddit, Salman Khan, simulation, Software, steve huffman, TC, Toshiba, video gaming | No Comments

Sami Khan began his work in the startup world by marketing mobile-based investment services like Acorns.

Now the marketer who helped grow that business to a nearly $1 billion valuation is turning his attention to location-based gaming in the hopes that he can take on leading contender Niantic with a faster, more flexible and fan-driven approach to game development with his new startup, Cerberus Interactive.

Khan’s pitch is that he’s taking the skills he honed building up services like Acorns or the browser extension for bargain hunters, Honey, to game development to make games more viral from their inception.

The biggest thing is how do you de-risk what is perceived as a hit-driven industry?,” Khan asks. “Games are closer to digital apps than back in the days of the console and companies should ship it like an e-commerce concept… If adoption of the game is going to be the decision factor of whether a game fails or succeeds… why isn’t the adoption of the game tested before the title is built or while the game is being conceived?”

So for his first foray into gaming, Khan is combining a crowdsourced approach to the development of the game and applying it to what many people think is gaming’s next big frontier — the location-based game phenomenon that hit its stride with Niantic’s Pokémon GO.

Right now in location-based games you have the behemoth which is Niantic,” says Khan. “Right now the gaming industry looks at location-based games as its own sub genre. But when we look at location-based games, we believe that location-based games have an aspect that it is a game mechanic within other games.” 

The first game that Cerberus is developing is a base-building simulator akin to a title like “Age of Empires,” but based on real-world locations. “Simulation games or casual games with location built in will have a bonus or an advantage over the stationary games that we play today,” says Khan.

The “Atlas Empires” title that Cerberus is currently developing is being made in concert with the gamers who might want to play it. So far, an undisclosed number of customers are already paying to have a say in certain aspects of the game’s development — kind of like a premier tier within a crowdfunding campaign.

Khan, a New Orleans native who splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin, has enlisted some marquee investors in his bid to challenge both the traditional ways in which games have been developed and the current industry leader.

Strategic investor MobilityWare has signed on to back the company along with individual investors like Steve Huffman, the co-founder and chief executive of Reddit, and Blake Chandler, the chief business officer of the runaway social network hit, TikTok.

Khan traces his love of games to his time visiting his cousins in Bangladesh and playing “Prince of Persia” on an early Toshiba laptop. “I remember sitting around the computer, watching my oldest cousin play because my dad didn’t want any of the kids touching the laptop,” Khan says.

So far the beta version of “Atlas Empires” has had 50,000 downloads and has about 1,000 daily players, Khan says. The commercial version of the game is expected to go live in the first quarter of 2020, says Khan.

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