Video

Instagram founders join $30M raise for Loom work video messenger

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, funding, Fundings & Exits, Kevin Systrom, loom, Microsoft Teams, mike krieger, Mobile, Recent Funding, Sequoia, slack, Social, Startups, TC, Video, video messaging | No Comments

Why are we all trapped in enterprise chat apps if we talk 6X faster than we type, and our brain processes visual info 60,000X faster than text? Thanks to Instagram, we’re not as camera-shy anymore. And everyone’s trying to remain in flow instead of being distracted by multi-tasking.

That’s why now is the time for Loom. It’s an enterprise collaboration video messaging service that lets you send quick clips of yourself so you can get your point across and get back to work. Talk through a problem, explain your solution, or narrate a screenshare. Some engineering hocus pocus sees videos start uploading before you finish recording so you can share instantly viewable links as soon as you’re done.

Loom video messaging on mobile

“What we felt was that more visual communication could be translated into the workplace and deliver disproportionate value” co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas tells me. He actually conducted our whole interview over Loom, responding to emailed questions with video clips.

Launched in 2016, Loom is finally hitting its growth spurt. It’s up from 1.1 million users and 18,000 companies in February to 1.8 million people at 50,000 businesses sharing 15 million minutes of Loom videos per month. Remote workers are especially keen on Loom since it gives them face-to-face time with colleagues without the annoyance of scheduling synchronous video calls. “80% of our professional power users had primarily said that they were communicating with people that they didn’t share office space with” Thomas notes.

A smart product, swift traction, and a shot at riding the consumerization of enterprise trend has secured Loom a $30 million Series B. The round that’s being announced later today was led by prestigious SAAS investor Sequoia and joined by Kleiner Perkins, Figma CEO Dylan Field, Front CEO Mathilde Collin, and Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

“At Instagram, one of the biggest things we did was focus on extreme performance and extreme ease of use and that meant optimizing every screen, doing really creative things about when we started uploading, optimizing everything from video codec to networking” Krieger says. “Since then I feel like some products have managed to try to capture some of that but few as much as Loom did. When I first used Loom I turned to Kevin who was my Instagram co-founder and said, ‘oh my god, how did they do that? This feels impossibly fast.’”

Systrom concurs about the similarities, saying “I’m most excited because I see how they’re tackling the problem of visual communication in the same way that we tried to tackle that at Instagram.” Loom is looking to double-down there, potentially adding the ability to Like and follow videos from your favorite productivity gurus or sharpest co-workers.

Loom is also prepping some of its most requested features. The startup is launching an iOS app next month with Android coming the first half of 2020, improving its video editor with blurring for hiding your bad hair day and stitching to connect multiple takes. New branding options will help external sales pitches and presentations look right. What I’m most excited for is transcription, which is also slated for the first half of next year through a partnership with another provider, so you can skim or search a Loom. Sometimes even watching at 2X speed is too slow.

But the point of raising a massive $30 million Series B just a year after Loom’s $11 million Kleiner-led Series A is to nail the enterprise product and sales process. To date, Loom has focused on a bottom-up distribution strategy similar to Dropbox. It tries to get so many individual employees to use Loom that it becomes a team’s default collaboration software. Now it needs to grow up so it can offer the security and permissions features IT managers demand. Loom for teams is rolling out in beta access this year before officially launching in early 2020.

Loom’s bid to become essential to the enterprise, though, is its team video library. This will let employees organize their Looms into folders of a knowledge base so they can explain something once on camera, and everyone else can watch whenever they need to learn that skill. No more redundant one-off messages begging for a team’s best employees to stop and re-teach something. The Loom dashboard offers analytics on who’s actually watching your videos. And integration directly into popular enterprise software suites will let recipients watch without stopping what they’re doing.

To build out these features Loom has already grown to a headcount of 45, though co-founder Shahed Khan is stepping back from company. For new leadership, it’s hired away former head of web growth at Dropbox Nicole Obst, head of design for Slack Joshua Goldenberg, and VP of commercial product strategy for Intercom Matt Hodges.

Still, the elephants in the room remain Slack and Microsoft Teams. Right now, they’re mainly focused on text messaging with some additional screensharing and video chat integrations. They’re not building Loom-style asynchronous video messaging…yet. “We want to be clear about the fact that we don’t think we’re in competition with Slack or Microsoft Teams at all. We are a complementary tool to chat” Thomas insists. But given the similar productivity and communication ethos, those incumbents could certainly opt to compete. Slack already has 12 million daily users it could provide with video tools.

Loom co-founder and CEO Joe Thomas

Hodges, Loom’s head of marketing, tells me “I agree Slack and Microsoft could choose to get into this territory, but what’s the opportunity cost for them in doing so? It’s the classic build vs. buy vs. integrate argument.” Slack bought screensharing tool Screenhero, but partners with Zoom and Google for video chat. Loom will focus on being easily integratable so it can plug into would-be competitors. And Hodges notes that “Delivering asynchronous video recording and sharing at scale is non-trivial. Loom holds a patent on its streaming, transcoding, and storage technology, which has proven to provide a competitive advantage to this day.”

The tea leaves point to video invading more and more of our communication, so I expect rival startups and features to Loom will crop up. Vidyard and Wistia’s Soapbox are already pushing into the space. As long as it has the head start, Loom needs to move as fast as it can. “It’s really hard to maintain focus to deliver on the core product experience that we set out to deliver versus spreading ourselves too thin. And this is absolutely critical” Thomas tells me.

One thing that could set Loom apart? A commitment to financial fundamentals. “When you grow really fast, you can sometimes lose sight of what is the core reason for a business entity to exist, which is to become profitable. . . Even in a really bold market where cash can be cheap, we’re trying to keep profitability at the top of our minds.”

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Tinder’s interactive video series ‘Swipe Night’ is going international next year

Posted by | Apps, dating apps, Earnings, Interactive video, Match, Media, Mobile, Social, streaming video, swipe night, Tinder, Video | No Comments

Tinder’s big experiment with interactive content — the recently launched in-app series called “Swipe Night” — was a success. According to Tinder parent company Match during its Q3 earnings this week, “millions” of Tinder users tuned in to watch the show’s episodes during its run in October, and this drove double-digit increases in both matches and messages. As a result, Match confirmed its plans to launch Tinder’s new show outside the U.S. in early 2020. 

Swipe Night’s launch was something of a departure for the dating app, whose primary focus has been on connecting users for dating and other more casual affairs.

The new series presented users with something else to do in the Tinder app beyond just swiping on potential matches. Instead, you swiped on a story.

Presented in a “choose-your-own-adventure”- style format that’s been popularized by Netflix, YouTube and others, Swipe Night asked users to make decisions to advance a narrative that followed a group of friends in an “apocalyptic adventure.”

Swipe Night ChoiceThe moral and practical choices you made during Swipe Night would then be shown on your profile as a conversation starter, or as just another signal as to whether or not a match was right for you. After all, they say that the best relationships come from those who share common values, not necessarily common interests. And Swipe Night helped to uncover aspects to someone’s personality that a profile would not — like whether you’d cover for a friend who cheated, or tell your other friend who was the one being cheated on?

The five-minute episodes ran every Sunday night in October from 6 PM to midnight.

Though early reports on Tinder’s plans had somewhat dramatically described Swipe Night as Tinder’s launch into streaming video, it’s more accurate to call Swipe Night an engagement booster for an app from which many people often find themselves needing a break. Specifically, it could help Tinder address issues around declines in open rates or sessions per user — metrics that often hide behind what otherwise looks like steady growth. (Tinder, for example, added another 437,000 subscribers in the quarter, leading to 5.7 million average subscribers in Q3).

Ahead of earnings, there were already signs that Swipe Night was succeeding in its efforts to boost engagement.

Tinder said in late October that matches on its app jumped 26% compared to a typical Sunday night, and messages increased 12%.

On Tinder’s earnings call with investors, Match presented some updated metrics. The company said Swipe Night led to a 20% to 25% increase in “likes” and a 30% increase in matches. And the elevated conversation levels that resulted from user participation continued for days after each episode aired. Also importantly, the series helped boost female engagement in the app.

“This really extended our appeal and resonated with Gen Z users,” said Match CEO Mandy Ginsberg. “This effort demonstrates the kind of creativity and team we have at Tinder and the kind of effort that we’re willing to make.”Swipe Night

The company says it will make Season 1 of Swipe Night (a hint there’s more to come) available soon as an on-demand experience, and will roll out the product to international markets early next year.

Swipe Night isn’t the only video product Match Group has in the works. In other Match-owned dating apps, Plenty of Fish and Twoo, the company is starting to test live streaming broadcasts. But these are created by the app’s users, not as a polished, professional product from the company itself.

Match had reported better-than-expected earnings for the third quarter, with earnings of 51 cents per share — above analysts’ expectations for earnings of 42 cents per share. Match’s revenue was $541 million, in line with Wall Street’s expectations.

But its fourth-quarter guidance came in lower than expectations ($545 million-$555 million, below the projected $559.3 million), sending the stock dropping. Match said it would have to take on about $10 million in expenses related to it being spun out from parent company IAC.

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TikTok expands its influence to third-party apps with new developer program & SDK

Posted by | Adobe, Apps, developers, Media, Mobile, sdk, Social, tiktok, Video, Video Editing | No Comments

TikTok is looking to expand its influence by integrating with popular third-party video creation and editing apps. The company today announced a new TikTok for Developers program which will introduce tools for third-party app developers, including those that allow them to access TikTok’s creative offerings as well as push content from their apps to TikTok directly. The first of these tools is the new Share to TikTok SDK, which will let users edit videos in other apps then publish them from that app to TikTok.

One of the key launch partners for the new SDK is Adobe Premiere Rush, Adobe’s mobile app for video editing. With the new TikTok integration, Premiere Rush users can access video editing features like aspect ratio switching, transitions, color filters, time lapse and slo-mo, audio control and more, then share instantly to TikTok and other video destinations.

In addition to Adobe, the apps supporting the Share to TikTok SDK at launch also include looping video creator Plotaverse, AR app Fuse.it, gaming highlights recorder Medal, Momento GIF Maker, PicsArt and Enlight Videoleop.

For some of the smaller, single-purpose apps, being able to become a useful tool for the creator community can have an outsized impact on their growth and revenues. For example, Facetune’s maker Lightricks has built a profitable business across its suite of photo and video editing apps, including Enlight Videoleap, and has now raised a total of $205 million.

In addition to built-in sharing features, apps that integrate with the new TikTok SDK will also gain access to a wider selection of creative tools, says TikTok.

But the apps will benefit in another way, too — when creators share their videos, they’ll include the specified partner hashtag along with the content. This will help to give the app the ability to gain exposure among even more TikTok users.

“This new Share to TikTok feature enriches the content available on TikTok, diversifies the types of videos users can discover, and offers more editing choices for users to explore in addition to TikTok’s built-in creative tools,” explained TikTok, in an announcement. “Most importantly, it gives users multiple avenues to create new original, high-quality content using platforms with exciting creative tools,” the company said.

The TikTok for Developers program also includes tools to embed videos on the web, and offers developer documentation, demos and more. The program’s terms of service restricts developers from collecting users’ personal data or other nefarious activity, and threatens developers’ access could be removed if terms are violated.

The news follows reports that the U.S. government has opened a national security review of TikTok owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, specifically with regard to its $1 billion acquisition of U.S. app Musical.ly.

TikTok didn’t say what other plans its has in store for the developers program, only that it will continue to expand access to its own creative tools further across the wider app ecosystem.

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Amazon’s Prime Video app disappears from the App Store [Updated]

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Prime, Apple, apple tv apps, Apps, iOS apps, Media, Mobile, prime video, Video, video streaming | No Comments

In what we understand was a “technical issue”, the Amazon Prime Video app disappeared from the Apple App Store, making it unavailable for new downloads or updates to users both on iOS and Apple TV. Twitter users began to tweet to Amazon for help about the problem on Friday morning, to which Amazon’s support channels have yet to reply.

[Update: we’ve learned the issue is technical in nature, but we have no further information as to the details of the problem. The app should be back shortly.]

[Update 2: Amazon has now offered a comment on the disappearance.

“Earlier today, there was a technical glitch that impacted the Prime Video app on iOS and tvOS devices,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “The issue has been resolved, and the Prime Video app is now once again available in the App Store.”

Earlier post continues below:

The app’s disappearance was earlier reported by AppleInsider, iMore and others.

The most likely reason for the app’s removal is a technical one — an issue with the update could have caused it to be temporarily pulled, perhaps.

What’s not likely is that Amazon Prime Video is gone for good.

The company just released an X-Ray upgrade to the app across platforms, including iOS, allowing users to get more information about what they’re streaming, including Amazon’s run of Thursday Night Football games.

Nor is it likely that Apple has for some reason booted out Prime Video, given the anti-competitive nature of such a move (Apple TV+ is soon to launch), at a time when the tech giants are under increased regulatory scrutiny.

Not just you – https://t.co/DTgGRZwsUc

— Jared DiPane (@jareddipane) October 4, 2019

Was ist da los? Amazon Prime Video wurde aus dem App Store entfernt? pic.twitter.com/w6urAq7X70

— Pino (@madphone) October 4, 2019

The amazon prime video app is gone from the App Store? 🤔@PrimeVideo pic.twitter.com/wtiyIBCI3u

— Adrian (@emoflipsan) October 4, 2019

@PrimeVideo is it just me or is the Amazon Prime Video app gone from the Apple App Store??

— Gary Schafer (@GaryLSchafer) October 4, 2019

Does the Amazon Prime Video app not exist on the App Store anymore?

— Swapnanil Dhol (@SwapnanilDhol) October 4, 2019

Whaaat!!! Amazon Prime Video App removed pic.twitter.com/ayxtrGAHuz

— Jesús Cruz (@jesusmisanador) October 4, 2019

Amazon video is no longer in App Store @amazon @PrimeVideo pic.twitter.com/JuY3s9Ygs0

— Ahmad Najim Noori (@Ah_najeem_noori) October 4, 2019

The issue isn’t only impacting users in the U.S., nor is it limited to iPhone, as Apple TV is also affected.

According to data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower, the app was removed today in all regions except Australia, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, India, Kenya, Kuwait, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar and Saudi Arabia.

Amazon has not responded publicly to users asking for help.

TechCrunch has also reached out to Amazon for comment and will update when we hear back.

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Zuckerberg misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok

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

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

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

TikTok Screenshots

TikTok

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

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

Zuckeberg’s Thoughts On TikTok

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Lasso Screenshots

Lasso

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

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

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

Why TikTok Is Tough To Clone

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

TikTok Remixes

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

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

The Next Feed

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

D246B3C4 0690 451E BD59 D66932C8FF7B

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Lasso Logo

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

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

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

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

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Not all is predictable on Facebook’s social Horizon

Posted by | Against Gravity, Andreessen Horowitz, augmented reality, bigscreen, Facebook, Facebook Horizon, facebook spaces, Gaming, Google, HTC, Index Ventures, Media, Oculus, Oculus Connect, Oculus Rooms, Oculus Venues, Rec Room, sequoia capital, Social, Startups, TC, True Ventures, Venture Capital, Video, Virtual reality | No Comments

Most of the people I spoke with at Facebook’s Oculus Connect see the proliferation of virtual reality as a foregone conclusion, one that’s just a matter of timing at this point. For Facebook, the conference’s “The Time is Now” catchphrase showcased that they feel their hardware is ready for everyone.

But despite the success they feel like they’ve tapped into when it comes to hardware iterations, the company’s bread and butter social networking prowess feels like it’s barely improved in-headset in the past several years of VR experimentations.

“On the social side, looking back, it’s kind of embarrassing all of the stages we’ve gone through at Oculus,” Oculus CTO and veteran programmer John Carmack conceded onstage during his signature rambling annual keynote, noting that his own social APK was followed by Oculus Rooms, Oculus Venues, Facebook Spaces and now the company’s latest shiny pearl Facebook Horizon.

Horizon’s debut this year included a flashy trailer for what quickly seemed to be the company’s biggest gamble and first potential social hit, a massive multi-player online world. In introducing the software, Zuckerberg talked about people-centric software as Facebook’s “bread-and-butter,” noting, “We build a lot of the best social experiences for phones and computers, and we want to do this for virtual reality as well.”

But Facebook does not actually appear to hold that much of an advantage over much smaller game studios in terms of understanding how to make social virtual reality experience take off.

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How Peloton made sweat addictive enough to IPO

Posted by | Apps, Conspicuous self-actualization, Entertainment, Exercise, Exit, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, hardware, Health, IPO, Media, Opinion, Peloton, Reviews, Social, Startups, TC, Video | No Comments

It makes lazy people like me work out. That’s the genius of the Peloton bicycle. All you have to do is velcro on the shoes and you’re trapped. You’ve eliminated choice and you will exercise. Through a succession of savvy product design choice I’ll break down here, Peloton removes the friction to getting fit. It’s the leader in a movement I call “pushbutton health”. And this is why I think Peloton will be a big succes no matter what short-term investors do when it IPOs this week after raising $994 million in venture capital.

Peloton Bike Photo

The bike

Basically, Peloton is a $2300 stationary bike with an iPad stuck to the front. The $40 per month subscription unlocks thousands of live and on-demand video cycling classes where instructors positively yell at you. When you think you’re tired already, they look into your eyes, tell you “you got this”, the soundtrack crescendos, you crank up the resistance, and you pedal harder at home. The resulting endorphin rush is addictive, and you find yourself persuading friends they need a Peloton too.

That viral loop which adds to its 500,000 subscribers is how Peloton plans to raise ~$1.16 billion going public this week at an ~$8 billion valuation. Its revenue doubled this year as it began to dominate the connected exercise equipment market, though losses quadrupled as it burned cash to become a household name. But after riding 110 of 150 days I’ve been home since buying its bike, I’m confident in the company. Whatever it invests now to build its lead will likely be paid back handsomely by its increasingly handsome customers who can’t bear to clip out. Here’s why.

Peloton Class

Peloton classes are recorded in front of a live studio audience of riders

The Brilliance Of This Bike

The Shoes – Usually the activation energy to start a workout requires dragging yourself to the gym or suiting up to face the elements outside. That can be daunting enough that you rarely do. But once you slip into the Peloton bike shoes, you can hardly walk normally which means you can hardly procrastinate. You’re home so you don’t even need clothes. Just a few velcro straps and you’re over the hump and resigned to exercise.

The Clips – Home gym equipments reduces the barrier to entry but also the barrier to exit. You can tell yourself you’ll keep doing push-up sets or squats jumping rope, but you can stop any time. Yet after you’re clipped into the Peloton bike, you’re almost assured to keep pedaling until the instructor gives you that end-of-ride congratulations.

Peloton Shoes

Just put the shoes on and you’ll exercise

The Schedule – You can get a sweat in just 10 or 20 minutes going hard on a Peloton. Combined with zero commute, that means you’ll practically always be able fit in a ride regardless of how busy you are. No more “I don’t have time to make it to the gym so I’ll just skip out”. When my calendar gets crunched or I dawdle a little before deciding to ride, classes as short as 5 minutes ensure there’s no weaseling out.

The Instructors – I wish I had these coaches to motivate me through sorting email. Peloton’s 20+ instructors range from hippie-dippie gurus to no-nonsense trainers that fit your personality type. You find yourself craving your favorite’s special brand of relentless positivity. I burn far more calories in a shorter time than exercising solo because they inspire me to push a little harder or they slow their countdown to add a couple all-out seconds to the end of a sprint. They’re even becoming celebrities, with bankers lining up for selfies during Peloton’s IPO road show. Sick of them? You can always Scenic Ride through video of some of the world’s prettiest bike paths.

Peloton Instructors

Peloton instructors (from left): Alex Toussaint, Emma Lovewell, Ben Alldis, and Leane Hainsby

The Intimacy – You’re eye-to-eye with those instructors as they stare into the camera and out of the giant screen bolted to your handlebars. That generates intimacy despite them broadcasting to thousands. Even in person, a SoulCycle coach across the room can feel further away. You’re mostly guided by audio cues, but their gaze compels you to perform. Peloton almost feels like FaceTime, and that’s a sense of connection many long for more of these days.

The Pavlovian Response – Your brain quickly begins to associate the sounds of Peloton with the glowing feeling of finishing a workout. The rip of the velcro shoe straps, the click of clipping into the bike, but most of all the instructor catch-phrases. You get hooked on hear the bubbling British accent of “I’mmmm Leeaannne Haaaaainsby” as she introduces herself, Ben Alldis’ infectious “You got 5, you got 4…” countdowns, or Emma Lovewell reminding you to “Live, learn, love well”. That final ‘namaste’ followed by wiping down the bike and jumping in a cold shower forms a ritual you’re inclined to repeat.

Peloton Class

Eye-contact with the instructors creates an intimate bond

The Soundtrack – Popular songs are more than just a pump-up accompaniment to Peloton classes. Your pedaling pace is often pegged to the tempo, with sprints starting when the beat drops. As your legs tire, you feel obliged to maintain your speed so you don’t fall behind the drums. You can even search classes by music genre and preview each’s playlist. Peloton has paid out $50 million in royalties for its music, and faces $300 million-plus in lawsuits for copyright infringement. But having the best tunes to bike to might end up worth the penalty since it helped Peloton race ahead in a lucrative market.

The Bike As Decor – Most home exercise equipment ends up in a closet or as a clothing rack. By designing its bicycles for beauty, Peloton coerces you to place them conspicuously in your home. You might have seen the hysterical Twitter thread parodying this practice, but it’s funny because it’s true. You’re a lot more likely to ride it if it’s central to your home (ours is between our bed and the doors to the veranda), and you’ll be embarassed if visitors ask about it and you haven’t hopped on recently.

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“A good place for your Peloton bike is between your kitchen and your living room facing the cactus garden so you always remember virtual spin class” –ClueHeywood on Twitter

The Network Effect – Many of these smart product design moves could be copied by competitors. But by amassing a community of 1.4 million members to date, Peloton benefits from social features and economies of scale. You can ride together with pals over video chat, send each other digital high fives, or race and compare achievements. Each friend that joins Peloton is one more reason not to sign up for a competitor. The whole concept virtual personal training is being legitimized. And the cost of producing more classes gets spread wider as membership grows.

The Shared Accounts – Peloton has even built in a way to feel noble about your sanctimonious prosyletizing about how it “jumpstarted your metabolism”. Each $39 on-bike subscription allows unlimited accounts on up to three devices, so you can hook up some friends if you convince them to buy the big-budget gadget.

Peloton High Five

High-five fellow riders as you virtuall pass them

The Growth Hacks – Peloton streaks are for adults what Snapchat streaks are to kids: a clever way to reward consistent usage. But beyond the achievement badges displayed on your profile, you’ll get in-ride leaderboards full of people to proudly pass, progress bars to fill by pedaling, and kilojoule output high scores to beat. Peloton makes exercise a game you want to win.

The Shoutouts – Yet Peloton’s most explicit levering of our psychology comes from the in-class name-drop shoutouts instructors give. Whether mentioning the screen names of a few participants at the start of a session or congratulating users hitting their 50th, 200th, or 500th ride, the recognition pushes people to join the dozen live-streamed classes each day that add urgency to the on-demand catalog. Proof it works? People strategize to ensure their 100th ride is a long live class to maximize the chance of a shout-out.

Peloton Century Club Free Shirt

A free cult shirt after your 100th ride

The ‘Transcendence’ – Peloton minimizes the isolation from working out at home. In fact, its whole product enables people to feel ‘glamorous’ and ‘manifested’ yet nonchalant in ways going to a sweaty gym or using a personal trainer can’t. It’s like being able to buy a little piece of the smug satisfaction and in-group affiliation of going to Burning Man. That’s why the company even sends you a free “Century Club” t-shirt when you hit your 100th ride. You’re meant to feel cool sharing that you “Peloton”, using the startup’s name as a verb.

Peloton Conspicuous Self Actualization 2

Conspicuous Self-Actualization

Still, Peloton has plenty left to optimize. There’s room to expand use of its camera to offer premium one-on-one coaching, head-to-head racing, group video chat with friends, and augmented reality filters to make people feel comfortable on screen and take shareable selfies. A wider range of intense but short classes could appeal to overworked professionals who picked Peloton precisely because they don’t have an hour for the gym.

Novelty could come from celebrity guest instructors, or themed classes for pre-gaming for a night out, fans of a particular artist, or songs about a certain topic. And it should definitely have some iconic sounds like an om or singing bowl chime that play before each class to center you and after to release you.

Most excitingly, the Peloton screen has the potential to be a platform for exercise-controlled gaming and apps. Whether pedaling to escape zombies chasing you or piece together a puzzle, maintaining an output level to keep your cross-hairs locked on an enemy plane as you dogfight, or making a garden bloom by growing each flower during a different interval, Peloton could evolve riding to be much more interactive. Apps could offer training simulators for different sports focused on sprints for basketball or marathons for soccer. Or just put Netflix on it! By opening up to outside developers, Peloton could build a moat of extra experiences competitors can’t match.

With the strengths and opportunities of its core product, Peloton is poised to absorb more of your fitness time and money. It’s already branching out with yoga, meditation, lifting, bootcamp, and jazzercise classes you can do standing next to your bike or without one on its $19 per month app. Its second gadget is a $4300 treadmill.

From there it could break into more of the “pushbutton health” business. I categorize these as wellness products and services that rely on convenience instead of your will power. Think delivery health food instead calorie-counting apps that are a chore. My pushbutton regimen includes Peloton, six salads per week dropped off in batches by Thistle, monthly packages of Nomiku vacuum-sealed meals that RFID scan into its sous vide machine, and a Future remote personal trainer who nags me by text message.

Peloton Coaching

It’s easy to get hooked on the positivity

Peloton could easily dive into selling meal kits, personal training, or a wider range of workout clothes to compete with Lulu Lemon. If it’s the center of your fitness routine, the company could become a gateway to new health products it owns or partners with.

I’m bullish on Peloton because I’m betting people are going to stay busy, lazy, and competitive. It offers the effectiveness of a spin class but with scheduling flexibility. It removes every excuse for staying on the couch. And in an age of visual communication where many seek to share both the journey to and the destination of an Instagrammable body and the discipline to ge there, Peloton provides conspicuous self-actualization through consumerism. Plus, finishing a ride feels damn good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook Portal Lineup

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

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

Portal Mini Black

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

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

Battling the creepiness

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

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

Portal TV Closeup

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

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

Portal Privacy Set Up Notice Screen

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

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

Hands-on with the new Portals

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

Portal Mini Portal TV

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

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

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

Portal TV and Remote

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

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

Portal Mini Alexa

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

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

PortalTV CoWatching

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

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

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Instagram may allow creators to syndicate IGTV videos to Facebook

Posted by | Apps, Creators, Facebook, IGTV, instagram, Media, Mobile, Social, Video, videos | No Comments

Following the departure of Instagram’s founders, Facebook is working to more closely integrate the photo-sharing app with its flagship social network. It’s already added its brand name next to Instagram’s, and is working to make both platforms’ messaging products interoperable. Now, Facebook is prototyping a means of syndicating Instagram’s IGTV video to Facebook’s video site, Facebook Watch.

In another find from noted reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, Instagram was found to have under development a feature that would allow Instagram users to post their IGTV content to both Instagram as a preview, as well as to Facebook and Watch — the latter by toggling an additional switch labeled “make visible on Facebook.”

Instagram is working on IGTV Series pic.twitter.com/SLOWCnicLJ

— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) August 28, 2019

Wong says the feature is still in the prototype stage, as the buttons themselves aren’t functional.

This move, should it come to pass, could prompt more video creators to use IGTV, given that it would boost their videos’ distribution by also including Facebook as a destination for their content. The videos could also be part of an ongoing, episodic series, Wong found.

This, in turn, could help IGTV — an app which hasn’t quite taken off as a standalone video platform. Today, IGTV takes inspiration from TikTok and Snapchat’s vertical video. It’s meant to engage Instagram users with longer-form, portrait mode video content both within Instagram and in a separate IGTV app. But IGTV has often been filled with poorly cropped and imported web video, rather than content designed specifically for the platform.

Meanwhile, the IGTV app has struggled to rise to the top of the App Store’s charts the way its parent, Instagram, has. Today, it’s ranked No. 159 in the Photo & Video category on the App Store, and unranked in the Overall top charts.

To address some of the issues that creators have complained about, Instagram this week rolled out a few changes to the upload experience. This included the new ability to select the 1:1 crop of an IGTV thumbnail for the creator’s Profile Cover as well as the ability to edit which 5:4 section of the IGTV video shows in the Feed.

IGTV will also now auto-populate Instagram handles and tags on IGTV titles and descriptions, and will now support the ability to upload longer video from mobile. With the latter change, IGTV has increased the minimum threshold to upload on mobile to one minute, and is allowing mobile uploads up to 15 minutes.

Instagram declined to comment on the possible syndication of IGTV content to Facebook and Facebook Watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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