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PopSockets, Sonos, and Tile Ask Congress to Rein in Big Tech

January 18, 2020 No Comments

At a congressional hearing Friday, smaller companies including PopSockets, Tile, Sonos, and Basecamp criticized Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon for having power over them.
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Apple buys edge-based AI startup Xnor.ai for a reported $200M

January 16, 2020 No Comments

Xnor.ai, spun off in 2017 from the nonprofit Allen Institute for AI (AI2), has been acquired by Apple for about $ 200 million. A source close to the company corroborated a report this morning from GeekWire to that effect.

Apple confirmed the reports with its standard statement for this sort of quiet acquisition: “Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans.” (I’ve asked for clarification just in case.)

Xnor.ai began as a process for making machine learning algorithms highly efficient — so efficient that they could run on even the lowest tier of hardware out there, things like embedded electronics in security cameras that use only a modicum of power. Yet using Xnor’s algorithms they could accomplish tasks like object recognition, which in other circumstances might require a powerful processor or connection to the cloud.

CEO Ali Farhadi and his founding team put the company together at AI2 and spun it out just before the organization formally launched its incubator program. It raised $ 2.7M in early 2017 and $ 12M in 2018, both rounds led by Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group, and has steadily grown its local operations and areas of business.

The $ 200M acquisition price is only approximate, the source indicated, but even if the final number were less by half that would be a big return for Madrona and other investors.

The company will likely move to Apple’s Seattle offices; GeekWire, visiting the Xnor.ai offices (in inclement weather, no less), reported that a move was clearly underway. AI2 confirmed that Farhadi is no longer working there, but he will retain his faculty position at the University of Washington.

An acquisition by Apple makes perfect sense when one thinks of how that company has been directing its efforts towards edge computing. With a chip dedicated to executing machine learning workflows in a variety of situations, Apple clearly intends for its devices to operate independent of the cloud for such tasks as facial recognition, natural language processing, and augmented reality. It’s as much for performance as privacy purposes.

Its camera software especially makes extensive use of machine learning algorithms for both capturing and processing images, a compute-heavy task that could potentially be made much lighter with the inclusion of Xnor’s economizing techniques. The future of photography is code, after all — so the more of it you can execute, and the less time and power it takes to do so, the better.

 

It could also indicate new forays in the smart home, toward which with HomePod Apple has made some tentative steps. But Xnor’s technology is highly adaptable and as such rather difficult to predict as far as what it enables for such a vast company as Apple.

Gadgets – TechCrunch


Browsers Are Fixing the Internet’s Most Annoying Problem 

January 14, 2020 No Comments

After years of invasive pop-ups asking for notification permission, Chrome and Firefox have finally taken action. 
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Funeral Tech Startups Expand Your Posthumous Possibilities

January 12, 2020 No Comments

You can’t choose when your time runs out, but you *can* opt to transmute your ashes into diamonds or be buried in fungus. 
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Instagram adds Boomerang effects as TikTok looms

January 11, 2020 No Comments

TikTok has spawned countless memes formats from its creative effects, challenging Instagram for the filtered video crown. Now nearly five years after launching Boomerang, Instagram’s back-and-forth video loop maker is finally getting a big update to its own editing options. Users around the globe can now add SlowMo, “Echo” blurring, and “Duo” rapid rewind special effects to their Boomerangs, as well as trim their length. This is the biggest upgrade yet for one of mobile’s most popular video creation tools.

The effects could help keep Instagram interesting. After so many years of Boomerangs, many viewers simply skip past them in Stories after the first loop since they’re so consistent. The extra visual flare of the new effects could keep people’s attention for a few more seconds and unlock new forms of comedy. That’s critical as Instagram tries to compete with TikTok, which has tons of special effects that have spawned their own meme formats.

Starting today, people on Instagram will be able to share new SloMo, Echo and Duo Boomerang modes on Instagram” a Facebook company spokesperson tells TechCrunch. “Your Instagram camera gives you ways to express yourself and easily share what you’re doing, thinking or feeling with your friends. Boomerang is one of the most beloved camera formats and we’re excited to expand the creative ways that you can use Boomerang to turn everyday moments into something fun and unexpected.”

The new Boomerang tools can be found by swiping right on Instagram to open the Stories composer, and then swiping left at the bottom of the screen’s shutter selector. After shooting a Boomerang, an infinity symbol button atop the screen reveals the alternate effects and video trimmer. Mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram prototyping new Boomerang filters and the trimmer last year.

Typically, Boomerang captures one second of silent video which is then played forward and then in reverse three times to create a six second loop that can be shared or downloaded as a video. Here are the new effects you can add plus how Instagram described them to me in a statement:

  • SlowMo – Reduces Boomerangs to half-speed so they play for two seconds in each direction instead of one second. “Slows down your Boomerang to capture each detail”
  • Echo – Adds a motion blur effect so a translucent trail appears behind anything moving, almost like you’re drunk or tripping. “Creates a double vision effect.”
  • Duo – Rapidly rewinds the clip to the beginning with a glitchy, digitized look. “Both speeds up and slows down your Boomerang, adding a texturized effect.”
  • Trimming – Shorten your Boomerang with similar controls to iPhone’s camera roll or the Instagram feed video composer. “Edit the length of your Boomerang, and when it starts or ends.”

The effects aren’t entirely original. Snapchat has offered slow-motion and fast-foward video effects since just days after the original launch of Boomerang back in 2015. TikTok meanwhile provides several motion blur filters and pixelated transitions. But since these are all available with traditional video, unlike on Instagram where they’re confined to Boomerangs, there’s more creative flexibility to use the effects to hide cuts between takes or play with people’s voices.

That’s won TikTok a plethora of ingenius memes that rely on these tools. Users high-five themselves using an Echo-esque feature, highlight action-packed moments or loud sounds with Duo-style glitch cuts, and conjure an army of doppelgangers behind them with infinity clones effect. Instagram Stories has instead focused on augmented reality face filters and classier tools like layout.

TikTok Screenshots

Hopefully we’ll see Instagram’s new editing features brought over to its main Stories and video composers. Video trimming would be especially helpful since a boring start to a Story can quickly lead viewers to skip it.

Instagram has had years of domination in the social video space. But with Snapchat finally growing again and TikTok becoming a global phenomenon, Instagram must once again fight to maintain its superiority. Now approaching 10 years old, it’s at risk of becoming stale if it can’t keep giving people ways to make hastily shot phone content compelling.

Mobile – TechCrunch


Twitter is bringing twttr’s experiments in threaded conversations to its main app

January 9, 2020 No Comments

At last year’s CES, Twitter introduced its first public prototype app, twttr — dubbed “little T” internally at Twitter. The app allows Twitter to develop and experiment with new features in the public, to see what works and what does not. The app’s main focus, to date, has been on making threaded conversations easier to read. Now, the company is ready to graduate the best of twttr to the main Twitter app.

“We’re taking all the different branches — all the different parts of the conversation — and we’re making it so it’s all in one global view,” explained Suzanne Xie, Twitter’s head of Conversations, speaking to reporters at CES 2020. “This means you can easily understand, and get a pulse of what’s happening in the conversation,” she added.

When the changes roll out, you’ll be able to see when the original tweet’s author is replying within a conversation thread. Twitter will also highlight people you’re following and people who are verified.

This way, Xie continues, “you can understand who is talking to who in a conversation.”

In addition, Twitter will release other features that build on top of threaded conversations to the public, including how the user interface reacts when you tap on a reply.

On twttr, when you tap into a reply within a conversation, you get more information about the tweet in question. You can also reply in-line to the tweet. And the reply itself is shaded to differentiate it from the surrounding tweets, when selected.

Threaded conversations also hide some of the replies to keep the conversation more readable — but you can click a link to load more of the replies as you scroll down. Twitter says it personalizes which replies are shown and hidden based on things like who you follow, who you interact with and people you’ve interacted with in the past.

“These are pieces of making this global conversation easier to use — so you don’t have to tab to new screens and go back and forth,” Xie explained.

Despite the initial excitement around Twitter’s new app, twttr, some felt the company didn’t take full advantage of having a public experimental playground. Few other new features beyond threaded conversations were tried out on the testing platform.

To some extent, Twitter’s plans could have been impacted by changes in twttr’s leadership. Twitter in August acquired Xie’s startup Lightwell. Meanwhile, Sara Haider, who had been leading the charge on rethinking the design of conversations on Twitter, which included the release of twttr, announced that she would be moving on to a new project at the company after a short break.

With twttr’s threaded conversations feature making its way to Twitter.com, the plan now is to use twttr to experiment with other conversational features.

For example, twttr may be used to try out new features in the incentives space — meaning, how small tweaks to Twitter’s user interface can influence different types of user behavior.

“Going forward, we’re investing and making a concerted effort, as we try new features and as we change different mechanics, to [determine] what we’re incentivizing and what we’re disincentivizing,” said Xie.

For instance, changing the prompts that Twitter displays when a user goes to compose a tweet or a reply could influence how they choose to respond. This is only one example of the sorts of things Twitter aims to test with Little T, as it’s called.

Twitter says the new threaded conversations features will begin to roll out on Twitter for iOS first, followed by web then Android, sometime in Q1.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Mobile – TechCrunch


6 VCs explain why seed investors now favor enterprise startups

January 7, 2020 No Comments

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re digging into seed-stage companies, the vanguard of the venture market. In particular, we’re trying to understand why the ratio of seed deals now favor enterprise startups over their consumer-focused brethren. The fact that seed investors recently inverted their preferences, cutting more checks to enterprise (B2B) startups in 2019 than consumer-oriented companies (B2C) was news.

We wrote about the trend here, as regular readers will recall.

To better understand what’s going on, I spoke with a number of early-stage venture investors who recently dropped by Equity, came highly recommended by peers, and several I know personally. The goal was to get a handful of inputs from different firms to get under the skin of the trend.

What in the hell is going on in seed? Let’s find out.

Why are enterprise seed deals on top?

This morning we’ll hear from Jenny Lefcourt at Freestyle Capital, Jomayra Herrera of Cowboy Ventures, Hunter Walk from Homebrew, Iris Choi of Floodgate, Sarah Guo from Greylock and Ajay Agarwal of Bain Capital Ventures. As you can see, we picked a list of investors form firms of different sizes, theses and focus. However, each investing group either focuses on early-stage investments that include seed deals or dabbles in them.

Here’s what we want to know: why did the the majority of seed deals swap from consumer-focused startups to enterprise-focused deals? 

Our investing group detailed a number of explanations, a handful of which echoed each other. To best convey their thinking, we’ll quote each investor at moderate length. If you are in a hurry, the most common point made against consumer-focused seed deals is go-to-market difficulty in the current market.

Other reasons include price, secular changes to the technology landscape, and the changing experience profile of the investing class themselves. (Minor edits made to select responses for clarity.)

Freestyle’s Jenny Lefcourt said via email that consumers are an increasingly difficult cohort to sell to, because they “became fickle with the proliferation of VC-backed, consumer-focused startups over the past few years.” As a result, consumers became “harder and more expensive to acquire and even harder to retain,” meaning higher customer acquisition costs (CAC) and lower lifetime value (LTV).


Startups – TechCrunch


Samsung confirms February 11 event for its next flagship launch

January 6, 2020 No Comments

The Saturday night before CES seems like a less than ideal time to drop some big smartphone news — but it appears Samsung’s hand was forced on this one. Granted, the smartphone giant has never been great about keeping big news under wraps, but this morning’s early release of a promo video through its official Vimeo channel was no doubt all the motivation it needed.

The company has just made the February 11 date officially official for the launch of its upcoming flagship. As for what the flagship will be called, well, that (among other things) leaves some room for speculation. Rumors have pointed to both the more traditional S11, along with the more fascinating jump to the S20.

I’ve collated a bunch of the rumors into an earlier post. The TLDR is even larger screens across the board, coupled with a bunch of camera upgrades and a healthy battery increase. The invite art, which matches the earlier the video, appears to confirm the existence of two separate devices, with different dimensions. That could well point to the reported followup to the Galaxy Fold. In additional to better reinforced folding (a follow up to last year’s issues), the device reportedly adopts a clamshell form factor, more akin to the newly announced Motorola Razr.

More info (and rumors) to come. As ever, we’ll be there (San Francisco) as the news breaks.

Mobile – TechCrunch


How the US Prepares Its Embassies for Potential Attacks

January 4, 2020 No Comments

In addition to securing physical structures, the Diplomatic Security Service runs simulations of protests in a model city in Virginia.
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Whales Help Explain the Evolutionary Mystery of Menopause

January 2, 2020 No Comments

Like humans, female killer whales stop reproducing decades before the end of their lifespan. Grandmothers might show why. 
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