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Friday, January 3, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

What to Expect from CES 2020

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 03:21 PM PST

It's the second most wonderful time of the year. As the rest of the world returns to work, nursing a week-long New Year’s hangover, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tech journalists will descend upon Sin City to discover the biggest news the tech world has to offer.

CES is about more than just product announcements, however. Granted, it's MOSTLY about product announcements, but next week in Vegas will also set the tenor of the year's largest tech trends. From mobile to automotive to robotics to sex tech, CES is the first and, in many cases, the best opportunity for companies to set the stage for the year to come.

As ever, TechCrunch will have a full staff on the ground, covering news as it happens — but here's a taste of some of the trends we expect out of hardware's biggest week.

Smart home

An Amazon Echo Show smart speaker and screen sits on display at the Inc. Spheres headquarters during an unveiling event in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. Inc. unveiled its vision for smart homes powered by the Alexa voice assistant, with a dizzying array of new gadgets and features for almost every room in the house — from a microwave oven to a security camera and wall clock. Photographer: Andrew Burton/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Connected home technology has dominated the show for several years now, and I don't expect that to change. Big names like Amazon and Google will likely have a large presence at the show (Amazon made most of its hardware announcements late last year, but Google will no doubt have some on-tap). Expect connected home everything, from locks to ovens to fridges and washing machines to even more bizarre niche products.

Smart displays will no doubt take center stage, as well. We already wrote up one from Lenovo focused on offices — certainly a trend to watch, going forward.

5G and foldables

Samsung Galaxy Fold

CES is always a little hit or miss when it comes to mobile. A lot of this can be chalked up to the fact that Mobile World Congress, the biggest smartphone show, is a little over a month later. Add to that the fact that many manufacturers (see: Samsung, Apple, et al.) have opted to hold their own announcements on their own terms.

There will likely be a smattering of foldables on-site, including the already released Samsung Galaxy Fold and the already announced Huawei Mate X — though Huawei's presence at the U.S.-based show will be…interesting to say the least. I expect most companies will wait until Barcelona for any new announcements on this front.

That said, 2020 is going to be about all things 5G, as carriers finally begin to saturate the market with coverage. Expect a wide range of devices beyond just handsets to sport the next-gen wireless technology.

8K, smart and weird TV form factors

CES has always been a big show for home entertainment. All of the big players will be present, with new ways to get you to spend your hard-earned cash. 8K will be a big theme, even as companies struggle to actually get 8K content to consumers. Last year's show had some unique form factors, including LG's rollable display. More of that, this year, though be mindful of the use of words like "concept."

TVs are another place where assistants like Google and Alexa will be virtual inescapable, along with other factors designed to better integrate them into the smart home.

Sleep tech

The Oura Ring monitors a wearer’s sleep quality

Last year I wrote that "mental well-being took center stage at CES." More of that this year, as companies look to combat things like screen time with even more technology. Expect that to extend to sleep tech in a major way. From wearables to smart beds, startups are now vying to control your sleep patterns.


Porsche mission e concept car 2015 porsche ag

The interior of the Mission E concept, which was first shown in September 2015

Two biggies to be on the lookout for here. First is ADAS — that's Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. In other words, automotive makers taking learnings from autonomous driving to better assistant human drivers. Fully autonomous systems have hit some…roadblocks in recent years, but driver assistant presents both a good opportunity for automakers and a baby step toward self-driving vehicles. And yeah, voice is going to be big here, too. Expect natural voice interaction to play a large role in entertainment systems, as well as other aspects of the driving experience.


North’s first-generation Focals smart glasses

Wearables will move beyond the exercise band, both into serious health through things like ECG and also to other parts of the body, including heads-up displays. AR (and to a less extent VR) will be a big piece of that puzzle. With Apple and Google making big plays in the category, smaller hardware makers are going to be attempting to stake their claim in the category.

Also be on the lookout for some creative takes on the laptop/tablet hybrid space. Cannabis and sex tech should be super hot-button topics, after CES has attempted to put the kibosh on them in past years. The streaming wars should be playing out on the floor big time, as well.

Oh, and Ivanka Trump will be there for some reason, too. I dunno. It’s CES. Anything can happen. 

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Adobe CTO says AI will ‘democratize’ creative tools

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 02:13 PM PST

Adobe CTO Abhay Parasnis sees a shift happening.

A shift in how people share content and who wants to use creative tools. A shift in how users expect these tools to work — especially how much time they take to learn and how quickly they get things done.

I spoke with Parasnis in December to learn more about where Adobe’s products are going and how they’ll get there — even if it means rethinking how it all works today.

“What could we build that makes today’s Photoshop, or today’s Premiere, or today’s Illustrator look irrelevant five years from now?” he asked.

In many cases, that means a lot more artificial intelligence; AI to flatten the learning curve, allowing the user to command apps like Photoshop not only by digging through menus, but by literally telling Photoshop what they want done (as in, with their voice). AI to better understand what the user is doing, helping to eliminate mundane or repetitive tasks. AI to, as Parasnis puts it, “democratize” Adobe’s products.

We’ve seen some hints of this already. Back in November, Adobe announced Photoshop Camera, a free iOS/Android app that repurposes the Photoshop engine into a lightweight but AI-heavy interface that allows for fancy filters and complex effects with minimal effort or learning required of the user. I see it as Adobe’s way of acknowledging (flexing on?) the Snapchats and Instas of the world, saying “oh, don’t worry, we can do that too.”

But the efforts to let AI do more and more of the heavy lifting won’t stop with free apps.

“We think AI has the potential to dramatically reduce the learning curve and make people productive — not at the edges, but 10x, 100x improvement in productivity,” said Parasnis.

“The last decade or two decades of creativity were limited to professionals, people who really were high-end animators, high-end designers… why isn’t it for every student or every consumer that has a story to tell? They shouldn’t be locked out of these powerful tools only because they’re either costly, or they are more complex to learn. We can democratize that by simplifying the workflow.”

Pachama launches to support global reforestation through carbon markets

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 01:20 PM PST

The world’s forests are ablaze, under threat from illegal logging and disappearing due to the less dramatic environmental degradation wrought by drought and other signs of climate change.

It’s part of the negative feedback loop that seems to be accelerating climate change as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, but one startup company is trying to facilitate reforestation by supporting carbon offsets that specifically target the world’s flora.

Pachama has raised $4.1 million to create a marketplace where companies can support carbon offset projects. The company is backed by some big names in tech investment, like former Uber executive Ryan Graves, through his private investment firm, Saltwater, and Chris Sacca, a prominent early investor in Uber, through his Lowercase Capital firm.

Founded by Diego Saez-Gil, a serial entrepreneur whose last company was a startup selling a “smart-suitcase,” Pachama is aiming to bring reforestation projects to the carbon markets whose impacts can be independently verified by the company’s monitoring software to ensure their ability to offset emissions.

“We were making a smart connected suitcase which got banned,” says Saez-Gil. “After that I decided to take some time off and I was quite burnt out. I wanted to do some soul searching and tried to decide what I wanted to put my efforts [into].” 

He traveled to South America and did a trip through the Amazon rain forest in Peru. It was there that Saez-Gil saw the effects of deforestation in an area that represents a huge carbon dioxide offset for the planet.

“There are about 1 billion hectares on the planet that could be reforested,” says Saez-Gil.

That opportunity — to contribute to the perpetuation of independently validated carbon markets around the world — is what convinced investors like Paul Graham, Justin Kan, Daniel Kan, Gustaf Alströmer, Peter Reinhardt, Jason Jacobs and Chris Sacca from Lowercase Capital, as well as funds such as Social+Capital, Global Founders Capital and Atomico, to contribute to the company’s $4.1 million funding.

It’s a pretty big consortium to finance what amounts to a small capital commitment (given the size of the funds under management that these investors have at their disposal), but investors are right to be a little wary.

Carbon markets are driven by policy, and policymakers have been reluctant to draft legislation that would put a high enough price on carbon emissions to make those markets viable.

"Pachama's carbon credit marketplace is launching at a pivotal moment when awareness of the climate crisis is reaching an all-time high, and businesses are increasingly looking to become carbon neutral,” said Ryan Graves, Pachama’s lead investor and new director said in a statement. “What attracted me to Pachama was the company's use of technology to bring trust to an industry that desperately needs it, and gives the verifiable results to the purchasers of carbon credits."

Awareness doesn’t equal political action, however, and Pachama needs the political will of both governments and consumers to move the needle on creating viable carbon trading markets.

Pachama’s business becomes profitable only when the price of carbon moves beyond $15 per ton of carbon dioxide (or similar emissions) offset. Currently, there are only two markets in the world where that threshold has been reached — the California market and Europe, according to Saez-Gil.

For Pachama’s founder, forest preservation and reforestation projects can have outsized benefits. “There are only 500 forest projects that are certified today… we need tens of thousands,” says Saez-Gil. “There are one billion hectares on the planet available for reforestation without competing with agriculture.”

The restoration of native forests can contribute to replenishing global biodiversity, and captures more carbon than cultivating forests for industrial use, but both are better than destruction to grow row crops or support animal husbandry, Saez-Gil says.  

Pachama sources projects that are approved by existing certification bodies, but offers its customers monitoring and management services through access to satellite imagery and sensors that provide information on emissions and carbon capture on reforested land.

It’s a potential solution to the problem of deforestation that’s plaguing countries like Brazil. “The government in Brazil, they want to generate income for the country,” says Saez-Gil. If carbon markets paid as much as ranching, it would reduce the need for animal husbandry and plantation farming in Brazil, Indonesia or places like Peru. 

Today, most investments in reforestation projects are done through middlemen, which increases opacity and the chance that projects are being double-counted or sold, according to Saez-Gil. Pachama has a person who is contacting forest project developers so that they can list the projects independently. Then the company verifies the offsets with satellite imaging systems.

The company currently has 23 forest projects — three in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil and Peru and projects in the U.S. in California, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maine .

Saez-Gil has high hopes for the future of carbon markets based on demand coming, in part, from new regulations like those imposed on the airline industry.

“Airlines will have to offset part of their emissions as part of CORSIA,”  says Saez-gil. That’s an offset of 160 million tons of emission per year. “There is all this demand coming for different offsets for different  markets that will make the price go up.”

Oceans of opportunity: surveying 2020’s seafaring startup potential

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 01:05 PM PST

Space attracts a lot of attention as an area of frontier tech investment and entrepreneurship, but there’s another vast expanse that could actually be more addressable by the innovation economy — Earth’s oceans.

Seafaring startups aren’t attracting quite as much attention as their spacefaring cousins, but 2019 still saw a flurry of activity in this sector and 2020 could be an even big year for everything aquatic.

Sounding the depths of data collection

One big similarity between space tech and seafaring opportunities is that data collection represents a significant percent of the potential market. Data collection in and around Earth’s oceans has increased dramatically in recent years thanks to the availability, efficacy and cost of sensor technologies — in 2017, it was estimated that as much ocean data had been gathered in the past two years as in all of human history. But relatively speaking, that barely scratches the surface.

Ocean observation has largely been driven by scientific and research goals, which means there’s bound to be a pretty hard cap on available funding. But ocean data has value in all kinds of private’s sector pursuits, including the potential for autonomous commercial cargo transportation (more on that later), as well as predicting weather and climate conditions that impact shipping routes, agriculture and more.

Various methods exist for collecting data about Earth’s oceans, including space-based satellite observation. Startups like Terradepth, Saildrone and Promare have all proposed various autonomous seafaring data collection vehicle designs that could leverage robotics to bring ocean observation at scale closer to home. These firms are using technology that’s been made affordable for startup budgets through miniaturization and efficiency gains evolved through the progress of the smartphone and other computing industries.

This past year, Xprize awarded millions in prize money to teams that competed in the Ocean Discovery competition for autonomous ocean floor mapping, which is resulting in spin-out ventures that have a head start on success.

As in space, data collection and observation can take many forms, so we can expect to see many industry-specific approaches emerge to capitalize on what are surprisingly large market opportunities, even for seemingly narrow types of data. Continued efforts to refine and improve robotics technologies like sensing and vision should drive even more growth in autonomous ocean observation in 2020.

Autonomous logistics

Oceanfaring drones aren’t just about data collection, however; a huge portion of the global logistics market still relies on giant cargo vessels. The drive to automate container ships is nothing new, but it’s reaching a point where we’re actually starting to see autonomous cargo vehicles embark, including this Chinese cargo ship that set out from Guangdong at the end of this year and a ship called the Yara Birkeland has begun trials out of Rotterdam and expects to be operating fully autonomously by 2022.

Browsers are interesting again

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 12:18 PM PST

A few years ago, covering browsers got boring.

Chrome had clearly won the desktop, the great JavaScript speed wars were over and Mozilla seemed more interested in building a mobile operating system than its browser. Microsoft tried its best to rescue Internet Explorer/Edge from being the punchline of nerdy jokes, but its efforts essentially failed.

Meanwhile, Opera had shuttered the development of its own rendering engine and redesigned its browser with less functionality, alienating many of its biggest fans. On mobile, plenty of niche players tried to break the Chrome/Safari duopoly, but while they did have some innovative ideas, nothing ever stuck.

But over the course of the last year or so, things changed. The main catalyst for this, I would argue, is that the major browser vendors — and we can argue about Google’s role here — realized that their products were at the forefront of a new online privacy movement. It’s the browser, after all, that allows marketers to set cookies and fingerprint your machine to track you across the web.

Add to that Microsoft’s move to the Chromium engine, which is finally giving Microsoft a seat at the browser table again, plus the success of upstarts like Brave and Vivaldi, and you’ve got the right mix of competitive pressure and customer interest for innovation to come back into what was a stagnant field only a few years ago.

Let’s talk about privacy first. With browsers being the first line of defense, it’s maybe surprising that we didn’t see Mozilla and others push for more built-in tracking protections before.

In 2019, the Chrome team introduced handling cookies in the browser and a few months ago, it launched a broader initiative to completely rethink cookies and online privacy for its users — and by extension, Google’s advertising ecosystem. This move centers around differential privacy and a ‘privacy budget’ that would allow advertisers to get enough information about you to group you into a larger cohort without providing so much information that you would love your anonymity.

At the time, Google said this was a multi-year effort that was meant to help publishers retain their advertising revenue (vs their users completely blocking cookies).

Finding the right reporter to cover your startup

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 11:13 AM PST

Pitch the wrong reporter or publication, and your story won’t see the light of day.

Before you start seeking press, you’ll need to look for reporters who have reach, respect and expertise when you choose who to talk to. You’ll also need to be prepared to accept the truth about your business, even if it hurts. It’s critical that you find a writer who’s a good fit for the business you’re building and the audience you’re seeking.

If you don’t use a strategic approach when reaching out to journalists, you’ll get few responses, fewer meetings, and articles that either misrepresent you, shortchange you, or blow up in your face. The goal isn’t just to secure positive coverage, because no one will believe it; startups are tough. There are challenges and setbacks and scary looming questions. But an honest article from a respected voice with a big enough audience can legitimize a business as it tries to turn vision into impact.

Here we’ll discuss how to find the publication and reporter who understands you and can tell the story that aligns with your objectives. In part one of this series, we detailed why you should (or shouldn’t) want press coverage and how to know what’s newsworthy enough to pitch.

In future ExtraCrunch posts, I’ll explore how to hire PR help, formulate a pitch, deliver it to reporters, prepare for interviews and conduct an announcement. If you have more questions or ideas for ExtraCrunch posts, feel free to reach out to me via Twitter or elsewhere.

Why should you believe me? I'm editor-at-large for TechCrunch, where I've written 4,000 articles about early-stage startups and tech giants. For 10 years, I've reviewed startup pitches via email and Twitter, at demo days for accelerators like Y Combinator and on stage as a judge of startup competitions. From warm introductions to cold calls, I've seen what gets reporters' attention and why stories become enduring narratives supporting companies as they grow.

Deciding which publications to target

Which publications do you currently read and respect?

Starting here ensures that you’re approaching PR from a place of knowledge with personal context rather than going by what someone else tells you. But you also have to consider which publications appeal in that way to your target demographic. For example, if you’re aiming to reach teens, parents, or Chief Information Officers, you’ll have very different target publications.

If you appeal to a niche audience aligned with a specific publication, you can definitely score some leads and installs, priming the pump so when users hear about you again, they already have a positive association for your brand. You can score SEO to help your get discovered when people search for keywords related to your business, but if you’re looking for user growth or SEO, be sure to work with a publication that links to the websites and apps they write about, as many don’t. But if you’re hoping for ‘the servers are on fire we’ve got so much traffic’ attention, you need to first build network effects and viral loops directly into your product.

Once you identify a realistic objective for gaining press coverage, you can figure out which reporters and outlets will best help you achieve your goals.

Typically, you’ll aim to work with more prestigious publications and writers first, as they can inspire other outlets to write up follow-on coverage. It rarely works the other way around, since top publishers want to be seen as first to a story and forging trends rather than following them with late coverage. These outlets often have greater reach in terms of home page traffic, social following, SEO and shareability.

The exception to this strategy: if there’s a specific writer at a less-prestigious publisher who’s renowned as the expert in your space whose word has more weight, or if that publication better aligns with your overall goals. For example, you might want to work with a transportation expert like Kirsten Korosec if you’re an electric car company, or a publication focused on startups like TechCrunch if you’re trying to stoke fundraising. If you’re a more general mainstream consumer business or are seeking maximum growth, you might instead choose a popular national newspaper with a big circulation.

Who should tell your story?

After you’ve set goals and have an idea regarding the kind of publication or journalist you want to work with, it’s time to build a ranked list of specific reporters. Here, expertise is key.

Former HBO exec Richard Plepler signs exclusive production deal with Apple TV+

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 10:53 AM PST

Nearly a year after stepping down as chief executive of HBO, Richard Plepler and his production company Eden Productions have signed a five-year deal with Apple TV+.

Plepler started at HBO back in 1993 and became CEO in 2013. During his time in that role, HBO had continued success with shows new (“True Detective” and “Big Little Lies”) and old (“Game of Thrones”). It also launched its direct-to-consumer subscription streaming service, HBO Now, which in some ways was the precursor to HBO Max — an upcoming service from AT&T and WarnerMedia that will incorporate HBO as part of a larger offering.

Plepler left HBO in the aftermath of AT&T’s acquisition of its corporate parent Time Warner. Reports suggested that AT&T executives wanted HBO to ramp up its content production in the hopes of growing the subscriber base and time spent watching the service.

According to The New York Times, Plepler’s deal will see Eden Productions creating TV shows, documentaries and feature films exclusively for Apple TV+.

In explaining his move, Plepler told The Times that he didn’t want to try to “duplicate” his time at HBO — instead, it made sense to “do my own thing.” He also said that his only serious talks were with Apple: “I thought that Apple was the right idea very quickly, just because it was embryonic enough that I thought maybe, you know, I could make a little contribution there.”


A smaller, cheaper version of Qoobo, the robotic cat pillow, is on the way

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 10:44 AM PST

Every time I've seen Qoobo's creator, Shunsuke Aoki, in person, he's always had it nearby, usually in a tote bag. The robotic cat pillow is one of the all-time great conversation starters. It doesn't make much sense at first glance: a round, fur-covered pillow that wags as you pet it. But in a country with an aging population like Japan, it's a kind of warm, quiet comfort for those who can't afford the time or expense that comes with a real pet.

For those who can't afford the expense of Qoobo (currently listed as $149 plus $50 shipping on Amazon), Yukai Engineering will be debuting Petit Qoobo next week at CES. The basics are the same, but Qoobo's younger sibling is roughly half the size, and will likely be a little over half the price (though that's still TBD).

The smaller version of the cat pillow is still a prototype, with a crowdfunding campaign set for Japan in March. Shipping will follow at some point in the fall through Amazon and Yukai's site.

In addition to a petting-powered tail wag, the final version will sport a microphone to detect sound, as well as some haptic feedback for the occasional purr, to let you know the little cat is still kicking.

I won't convince you that you need Qoobo in your life, but I will say that every time I've seen the cat pillow in person, at least one person has been ready to buy the thing. A smaller, significantly cheaper version should sell like hotcakes among the allergic and non-allergic alike.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Online mortgage broker Trussle loses founding CEO

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 09:33 AM PST

Trussle, the online mortgage broker backed by the likes of Goldman Sachs, LocalGlobe, Finch Capital and Seedcamp, has lost its founding CEO.

Ishaan Malhi, who co-founded the fintech startup five years ago, has resigned with “immediate effect,” according to a rather brief press release issued by Trussle this morning.

The company is now searching for Malhi’s replacement and in the interim says it will be led by Chairman Simon Williams and others in the senior leadership team. “Williams will be supported by co-founder Jonathan Galore who helped establish Trussle in 2015 and remains closely involved in the business,” reads the press release.

Williams joined Trussle’s board in April 2019, and has had a long stint in financial services. He spent nine years at Citigroup, heading up its International Retail Bank, and more recently served as head of HSBC's Wealth Management group until 2014.

Meanwhile, the departure of Malhi seems rather abrupt, not least as he doesn’t appear to be involved in the recruitment of his successor. As well as resigning from the role of CEO, the Trussle co-founder has resigned from the startup’s board.

Trussle itself declined to provide further detail, with a spokesperson for the company advising that any questions with regards to why Malhi has resigned should be put to him. I pinged Malhi for comment but he declined to take my call having committed to spending the day with family.

However, he did give a statement to The Telegraph newspaper, telling reporter James Cook: “it was my decision to step down.”

More broadly, the story appears to be being spun as a young first-time founder growing a business to a size where more experienced leadership is needed to take it to the next stage. And it’s certainly true that the company has been staffing up in recent months, growing to 120 staff members (as of late November 2019) and bolstering the leadership team.

Along with Williams, Trussle announced in November that it had recruited ex-Wallaby Financial co-founder Todd Zino as CTO, and ex-head of Zoopla content strategy Sebastian Anthony as head of Organic Growth and Product Manager.

At the time of the announcement, Malhi said in a statement that “culture remains to be our competitive advantage” — a culture that has since seen its founding CEO depart abruptly before a replacement has been found.

Although, as one person with inside knowledge of Malhi’s departure framed it, Trussle has been attempting to diversify the startup’s leadership team for a while now and make the company “less of a one-man show.”

What’s also clear is that the online mortgage broker space is a tough one and pretty capital-intensive due to high customer acquisition costs compared to traditional brokers where cross-selling is the norm but cost of operations is greater and less scalable. The promise of the online broker model is that once scale is achieved, lower operational costs will start to offset those higher and fiercely competitive acquisition costs.

In other words, a classic venture/digitisation bet, but one that is yet to pan out definitively.

As another reference point, one source tells me that Trussle is projected to make a £10 million loss in 2019 based on £2 million in revenue. I also understand from sources that the startup recently closed an internal funding round from existing investors — separate from its £13.6 million Series B in May 2018, and that its backers remain bullish. As always, watch this space.

Snapchat quietly acquired AI Factory, the company behind its new Cameos feature, for $166M

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 09:07 AM PST

After acquiring Ukraine startup Looksery in 2015 to supercharge animated selfie lenses in Snapchat — arguably changing the filters game for all social video and photo apps — Snap has made another acquisition with roots in the country, co-founded by one of Looksery’s founders, to give a big boost to its video capabilities.

The company has acquired AI Factory, a computer vision startup that Snap had worked with to create Snapchat’s new Cameos animated selfie-based video feature, for a price believed to be in the region of $166 million.

The news was first reported by a Ukrainian publication, AIN, and while I’m still waiting for a direct reply from Snap about the acquisition, I’ve had the news confirmed by another source close to the deal, and Snap has now also confirmed the news to TechCrunch with no further comment on the financial terms or any other details.

Victor Shaburov, the founder of Looksery who then went on to become Snap’s director of engineering — leaving in May 2018 to found and lead AI Factory — declined to provide a comment for this story. (The other founders of AI Factory are Greg Tkachenko and Eugene Krokhalev.)

Cameos, launched last month, lets you take a selfie, which is then automatically “animated” and inserted into a short video. The selection of videos, currently around 150, is created by Snap, with the whole concept not unlike the one underpinning “deepfakes” — AI-based videos that look “real” but are actually things that never really happened.

Deepfake videos have been around for a while. But if your experience of that word has strong dystopian undertones, we now appear to be in a moment where consumer apps are tapping into the technology in a race for new — fun, lighthearted — features to attract and keep users. Just today, Josh reported that TikTok has secretly built a deepfake tool, too. I expect we’ll be hearing about Facebook’s newest deepfake tool in 3, 2, 1…

From what I understand, while AI Factory has offices in San Francisco, the majority of the team of around 70 is based out of Ukraine. Part of the team will relocate with the deal, and part will stay there.

Snap had also been an investor in AI Factory. Part of its early interest would have been because of the track record of the talent associated with the startup: lenses have been a huge success for Snap — 70% of its daily active users play with them, and they not only bring in new users, but increase retention and bring in revenues by way of sponsorships or users buying them — so creating new features to give users more ways to play around with their selfies is a good bet.

It’s not clear whether AI Factory will be developing a way to insert selfies into any video, or if the feature will be tied just to specific videos offered by Snap itself, or whether the videos will extend beyond the timing of a GIF. It’s also not clear what else AI Factory was working on: the company’s site is offline and there is very little information about the company beyond its mission to bring more AI-based imaging tools into mainstream apps and usage.

The company’s LinkedIn profile says that AI Factory “provide[s] multiple AI business solutions based on image and video recognition, analysis and processing,” so while the company will come under Snap’s wing, there may be scope for the team to build some of its technology into more innovative ways for businesses to use the Snap platform in the future, too.

We’ll update this post as we learn more.

Updated with Snap’s confirmation of the acquisition.

As Indian startups raise record capital, losses are widening

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 09:03 AM PST

Indian tech startups secured nearly $14 billion in 2019, more than they have raised in any other year. This is a major rebound since 2016, when startups in the nation had bagged just $4.3 billion.

But even as more VC funds — many with bigger checks — arrive in India, the financial performance of startups remains a cause for concern.

Whether it's mobile payments or education learning apps, each startup today faces dozens of competitors in their category. Many of these sectors, such as social commerce and digital bookkeeping, are just beginning to see traction in India, which has resulted in investors backing a large number of similar players.

This has meant more marketing spends; to create awareness among consumers (or merchants) and stand out in a crowd, many firms are heavily marketing their services and offering lofty cashbacks to win users.

What is especially troublesome for startups is that there is no clear path for how they would ever generate big profits. Silicon Valley companies, for instance, have entered and expanded into India in recent years, investing billions of dollars in local operations, but yet, India has yet to make any substantial contribution to their bottom lines.

If that wasn't challenging enough, many Indian startups compete directly with Silicon Valley giants, which while impressive, is an expensive endeavor.

How expensive? Here's an exhaustive look at the financial performance of several notable startups and major firms in India as disclosed by them to local regulators in recent weeks. These are Financial Year 2019 figures, which ended on March 31, 2019. Some of the filings were provided to TechCrunch by business intelligence platform Tofler.


Flipkart, which sold a majority stake to Walmart for $16 billion last year, posted a consolidated revenue of $6.11 billion for the financial year that ended in March. Its revenue is up 42% since last year, and its loss, at $2.4 billion, represents a 64% improvement during the same period. The ecommerce giant this year has expanded into many new categories, including food retail.


BigBasket delivers groceries and perishables across India and became a unicorn this year after it raised a $150M Series F led by Mirae Asset-Naver Asia Growth Fund, the U.K.'s CDC Group and Alibaba. The startup posted revenue of $386 million, up from $221 million last year. Its loss, however, more than doubled to $80 million from $38 million during the same period.


BigBasket rival Grofers, which raised $200 million in a financing round led by SoftBank Vision Fund, reported $62.6 million on revenue of $169 million. The company's chief executive and co-founder, Albinder Dhindsa, has said that the startup is on track to sell goods worth $699 million by the end of FY 2020.


Milkbasket, a micro-delivery startup that allows users to order daily supplies, reported revenue of $11.8 million, up from $4 million last year. During this period, its loss widened to $1.3 million, from $130,000 last year.


Lenskart is an omni-channel retailer for eyewear products. Earlier this month, it raised $275 million this month from SoftBank Vision Fund. It posted a revenue of $68 million — and its loss shrank from $16.5 million to $3.8 million in one year.


Rivigo, a five-year-old startup that is attempting to build a more reliable and safer logistics network, raised $65 million in July this year. Its revenue increased 42% to $143.8 million while its loss also increased to $83 million.


SoftBank-backed logistics firm Delhivery, which raised $413 million earlier this year from SoftBank and others, said its revenue has grown 58% to $237 million since FY18, while its loss has almost tripled to $249 million.

TikTok’s revenue said to skyrocket over 300% in Q4

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 09:03 AM PST

According to newly released third-party data, TikTok has reason to dance.

The famous short-video application saw its in-app purchase revenue rise 310% on a year-over-year basis, according to Apptopia, a startup that tracks mobile app revenue and usage. (The Boston-based startup has raised $8.2 million to date and competes with AppAnnie.)

TikTok’s revenue gains are impressive in more than percentage terms. The popular social application’s in-app revenue is now at a material scale — topping $50 million according to a chart published by Apptopia’s Adam Blacker. And while the company’s year-over-year growth is rapid, its sequential gain from a Q3 in-app top-line figure of around $20 million may be even more eye-popping.

At $50 million a quarter, TikTok could generate hundreds of millions in yearly revenue — enough to go public on its own. And likely enough to provide material assistance to its parent company, ByteDance.

Update: SensorTower, another player in the mobile app intelligence business, told TechCrunch that its data shows “gross TikTok in-app spending at approximately $87 million for the fourth quarter ($62 million net) in all markets across the App Store and Google Play” excluding China. Even more, SensorTower’s Randy Nelson said in an email that his firm calculates TikTok’s “year-over-year growth [landing] closer to 521%.” Damn.

ByteDance, a China-based technology company worth well north of $70 billion, is known for its Toutiao social media service, as well as TikTok. TikTok was formed out of the fusion of, which ByteDance bought in late 2017, and and its own application Douyin. The app is an unquestionable breakout success around the world.

TikTok is so successful in the American market that various parts of the U.S. government banned its use due to concerns regarding its corporate parent’s possible links to the Chinese government.

Tensions between the United States and China have risen in recent years, partially driven by the Trump administration’s stance regarding trade, and have spilled over into the technology industry — where the two countries had been inextricably linked.

Huawei and ByteDance are not the only Chinese companies caught — fairly or not — in the crossfire, but they are the among the best-known entities currently constrained by cross-Atlantic rancor.

ByteDance is an incredibly valuable company, at least according to its investors. The company is valued at nearly $80 billion as TechCrunch reported in 2018. It is considered an IPO candidate for 2020. Perhaps TikTok’s explosive growth in in-app revenue will help it file with the SEC.

Lenovo is bringing smart displays to the office with a Microsoft Teams device

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 09:00 AM PST

Lenovo sells pricey ThinkSmart Hub conferencing devices. It also sells far less expensive smart displays. Next week at CES it will announce that it will be crossing the streams on the two distinct product lines with the arrival of the ThinkSmart View. The device looks to essentially be a Google Assistant-style smart display, repurposed for the office setting.

Instead of centering around Google's home AI, however, the system is essentially powered by Microsoft Teams. Basically, it's a way for offices to offer up a devoted Teams audio/video conferencing device at the fraction of the cost of its other enterprise solutions. The View starts at $349 (or $449 with an included pair of Bluetooth headphones for open offices). Compare that to the $1,800 asking rate for last year's ThinkSmart Hub 500.

The device probably makes the most sense for smaller conference rooms and SMBs on higher budgets. It could, too, work at individual desks or for remote workers, though it's going to take heavy use to justify the purchase of one of these, versus just installing Teams on your PCs. Still, it's an interesting push for the smart display category, as manufacturers look for life beyond the kitchen and bedroom.

Benefits include quick access to Teams meetings and a physical shutter for privacy. No reason why Lenovo couldn't also do one of these for Google office Hangouts, as well. They certainly beat paying exorbitant prices for one of those Microsoft or Google smart whiteboards.

The View launches this month.

Clearcover and Lemonade tout improving margins as they scale fundraising, ARR

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 08:28 AM PST

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

Today we’re taking a quick glance at the venture-backed insurance space. On the heels of ARR milestones set by the well-capitalized Lemonade, another startup in the space, Clearcover, announced a new funding round this week. TechCrunch corresponded with each company, giving us an interesting window into how their economics improve with scale and how they think about their revenue.

The venture-backed insurance market also includes MetroMile and Root Insurance, players in the automobile insurance market. Why do we care about these four firms and their progress as later-stage, private companies? Because a mountain of cash has been pumped into their coffers. TechCrunch calculates that these four firms have raised $1.4 billion in aggregate to date.

The better we understand the space, the better we’ll understand the future IPO and exit markets.

We’ll start with Clearcover’s latest round, and then dig into our two interviews.

Clearcover raises $50 million

Clearcover, a Chicago-based, technology-powered insurance startup, announced today that it has raised a $50 million Series C. The round comes a little under a year since Clearcover raised a $43 million Series B. The company has raised around $104 million to-date.

OMERS Ventures led the round while previous investors, including its Series B lead Cox Enterprises, also took part in the funding event.1

The company intends to use the capital to add state-markets to its roster (it currently operates in five states, but wants to reach all fifty). But even with a constrained geographic footprint, Clearcover is growing nicely. The firm cited “tripled policy sales” in 2019 compared to 2018, leading to “quadrupling premium [revenue].”

Those are the sorts of growth rates that investors love. Especially as, for venture-backed insurance startups, margins improve with scale.

Improving margins

Both Clearcover (automotive insurance) and Lemonade (renter’s insurance) have shown improving loss ratios (an insurance term) as they’ve scaled.

Yesterday, while examining a new set of private companies that have reached the $100 million ARR milestone, TechCrunch included Lemonade, which reached the mark in Q4 2019. More exciting than its mere revenue growth, however, were its improving margins. Those improvements were predicated on a falling loss ratio. From paying “out $3.68 in claims” for “every dollar [it] earned” back in 2017, Lemonade has improved the figure to $0.78, it reported in November.

Clearcover is seeing similar improvements. TechCrunch asked how far its loss ratio has improved over the last 12 months, and while the company declined to provide a specific number, its answer is still useful:

We take a state-by-state, cohort-centric view of loss results, and those loss ratios have improved substantially over the last 12 months. In some states, this was due to our own risk management choice. In other states, this simply has to do with scale.

So margins can be improved with scale and better management. Each should improve with corporate maturity, which makes the sector an attractive bet; it gets better with growth, not worse with scale.

But can we really call insurance premium revenues annual recurring revenue (ARR)? Let’s explore the question.

Is that ARR?

Tesla surpasses 2019 goal and delivers 367,500 electric vehicles

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 07:27 AM PST

Tesla said Friday that it delivered 367,500 electric vehicles in 2019 — 50% more than the previous year — a record-breaking figure largely supported by sales of the cheaper Model 3.

More than one-third of those deliveries — about 112,000 vehicles — occurred in the fourth quarter.

The electric automaker reported production also grew 10% from the previous quarter, to 105,000 vehicles.

The results pushed shares up 3.8% in trading Friday morning.

The fourth quarter caps a year that started poorly for Tesla. The company delivered just 63,000 vehicles in the first quarter, nearly a one-third drop from the previous period. The low first-quarter delivery numbers signaled what was to come: wider-than-expected loss of $702 million driven by disappointing delivery numbers, costs and pricing adjustments to its vehicles.

However, the company then rebounded, delivering 95,200 vehicles in the second quarter and 97,000 electric vehicles in the third quarter.

The positive report comes as Tesla ramps up production of Model 3 vehicles at its new factory in China. Earlier this week, more than a dozen Tesla employees took delivery of the Model 3.

The first public deliveries of Model 3 sedans produced at its Shanghai factory will begin January 7, one year after Tesla began construction on its first factory outside the United States.

Tesla said that it has produced “just under 1,000 customer salable cars and have begun deliveries” in China. “We have also demonstrated production run-rate capability of greater than 3,000 units per week, excluding local battery pack production which began in late December,” the company added in its report.

Samsung announces ‘Lite’ versions of the Galaxy S10 and Note 10

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 06:39 AM PST

Seems Samsung couldn't wait a few more days for CES to arrive. The hardware giant this morning just announced the launch of "Lite" versions of its popular handsets, designed to bring key features from the Galaxy S10 and Note 10, without breaking the bank.

The devices are a clear response to a sea change in consumer demand over the last several years. While Samsung has long offered mid-range devices, the additions of the Galaxy S10 Lite and Note 10 Lite are an appeal to users looking for something in the flagship ballpark. While Samsung has yet to offer specifics on pricing, one imagines they’ll fall somewhere between its mid-range A series and the $1,000+ cost of the high-end products.

Notably, both devices appear to feature actually the same display, a 6.7-inch full HD+ at 394 PPI, with a hole-punch "Infinity-O" camera up top. The downgraded screen is one of the clear cost-cutting measures here. Aside from some fairly minor spec differences, the Note's S Pen and some camera differences appear to be the primary distinction between the products.

Both feature a three-camera array on a large, rectangular bump on the rear. Each version has their strengths. The S10 has a five-megapixel macro, 48-megapixel wide angel and 12-megapixel ultra wide (123-degree). The Note, meanwhile, has a 12-megapixel ultra wide, 12-megapixel wide-wide-angle and 12-megapixel telephoto.

Inside, both sport a hefty 4,500 mAh battery (with some differences from market to market), coupled with either 6 or 8GB of RAM and a default 128GB of storage. There's some differences in the processor, though both are 64-bit octo-core models. They’ll both ship with Android 10. 

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"The Galaxy S and Galaxy Note devices have met consumer wants and demands around the world. These devices represent our continuous effort to deliver industry leading innovations, from performance and power to intelligence and services," Mobile CEO DJ Koh said in a release tied to the news. "The Galaxy S10 Lite and Galaxy Note10 Lite will introduce those distinct key premium features that make up a Galaxy S and Galaxy Note experience."

That’s about all we know for now on either, though one imagines that Samsung will offer up more info, including pricing and availability, next week at CES. From the looks of it, both prices appear to still be fairly premium (more after some hands-on time next week), which likely means the pricing won’t vary too far from the premium models.

We’ve written plenty about slowing smartphone sales in the past couple of years. There are plenty of factors driving the trends, including slowed pace of innovation and longer shelf lives for older models, but the tendency of big companies to bump up premium prices above $1,000 is a pretty key factor. Google, for one, has found success with its Pixel A series, helping jumpstart slow sales. Samsung has previously taken a swing at the market with the Galaxy S10e, though the product was still positioned alongside its premium devices. The downgraded display puts the device in the company of products like Apple’s iPhone XR and 11.

Segway-Ninebot unveils a transportation pod and new kick scooter

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 06:00 AM PST

Segway has unveiled a self-balancing vehicle that can go up to 24 mph. Called the S-Pod, it’s designed for sitting while navigating enclosed campuses.

Details on how to actually use the vehicle are scarce, but Segway says the “S-Pod uses an adaptive center-of-gravity automatic control system to enable the passenger to easily adjust the speed by handling the knob to change the center of gravity in the pod.”

Segway-Ninebot also unveiled a kick scooter with a maximum speed of 12.4 mph with a $699 price tag.* I haven’t tried this scooter, but its light weight of 22 pounds is a plus, as is its alleged ability to handle 15% inclines without slowing down.

Though, the pricier and heavier Boosted electric scooter can handle hills with 25% inclines. In general, personal scooters can cost as low as $250 and up to $1,599.

Segway plans to unveil more details at the Consumer Electronics Show next week.

*Segway has since updated its pricing.

Away, #PelotonGate and predictions for 2020

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 06:00 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch's venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

Kate and Alex and the ever-intrepid man behind the dials, Chris, took the time this week to dig into the two biggest stories from the end of 2019 and look into the future. But as you’ll quickly hear, there was news on the show. Kate Clark is moving on from Equity and TechCrunch to The Information. We wish her nothing but the best, but it’s still a big blah to say goodbye all the same. (A big congrats to the folks at The Information, Kate’s tremendous.)

But we still had Kate this week, so here’s a short rundown of what we talked about as a team:

  • The Away fiasco: We’ve discussed Away on the show a number of times, but this time it wasn’t for something good. The company found itself in the midst of a media firestorm about how it treated its staff. The first story led to follow-on coverage, the earlier-than-internally-expected exit of the company’s CEO and more. Also in the conversation was the question of whether CEOs who are women are held to higher standards than men. After all, overbearing male CEOs in startupland is a tale as old as startups themselves.
  • #Pelotongate: We couldn’t help but chat a bit about everyone’s favorite Christmas-time brand meltdown. And as Peloton was a 2019 IPO, it still fits in our private company wheelhouse. Or at least closely enough. Expect more eyes than usual on the exercise company’s next earnings report.

We then turned to predictions, taking a turn apiece to detail what we thought was coming up in 2020. Traditionally, Equity is somewhat poor at making predictions that actually come true, so we roped our producer in to help talk about the future. He is, after all, the person in the world who has listened to more Equity than anyone else in the world.

What’s ahead for Equity in our post-Kate future? We have a huge 2020 planned. We have new formats, new hosts, new guests and more coming your way. So don’t worry, Alex and Chris are still around and the show will go on! (Check next Monday for more.)

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

ByteDance & TikTok have secretly built a deepfakes maker

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 05:41 AM PST

TikTok parent company ByteDance has built technology to let you insert your face into videos starring someone else. TechCrunch has learned that ByteDance has developed an unreleased feature using life-like deepfakes technology that the app’s code refers to as Face Swap. Code in both TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin asks users to take a multi-angle biometric scan of their face, then choose from a selection of videos they want to add their face to and share.

With ByteDance’s new Face Swap feature, users scan themselves, pick a video and have their face overlaid on the body of someone in the clip

The deepfakes feature, if launched in Douyin and TikTok, could create a more controlled environment where face swapping technology plus a limited selection of source videos can be used for fun instead of spreading misinformation. It might also raise awareness of the technology so more people are aware that they shouldn’t believe everything they see online. But it’s also likely to heighten fears about what ByteDance could do with such sensitive biometric data — similar to what’s used to set up Face ID on iPhones.

Several other tech companies have recently tried to consumerize watered-down versions of deepfakes. The app Morphin lets you overlay a computerized rendering of your face on actors in GIFs. Snapchat offered a FaceSwap option for years that would switch the visages of two people in frame, or replace one on camera with one from your camera roll, and there are standalone apps that do that too, like Face Swap Live. Then last month, TechCrunch spotted Snapchat’s new Cameos for inserting a real selfie into video clips it provides, though the results aren’t meant to look confusingly realistic.

Most problematic has been Chinese deepfakes app Zao, which uses artificial intelligence to blend one person’s face into another’s body as they move and synchronize their expressions. Zao went viral in September despite privacy and security concerns about how users’ facial scans might be abused. Zao was previously blocked by China’s WeChat for presenting “security risks.” [Correction: While “Zao” is mentioned in the discovered code, it refers to the general concept rather than a partnership between ByteDance and Zao.]

But ByteDance could bring convincingly life-like deepfakes to TikTok and Douyin, two of the world’s most popular apps with over 1.5 billion downloads.

Zao in the Chinese iOS App Store

Zao in the Chinese iOS App Store

Hidden inside TikTok and Douyin

TechCrunch received a tip about the news from Israeli in-app market research startup The company had discovered code for the deepfakes feature in the latest version of TikTok and Douyin’s Android apps. was able to activate the code in Douyin to generate screenshots of the feature, though it’s not currently available to the public.

First, users scan their face into TikTok. This also serves as an identity check to make sure you’re only submitting your own face so you can’t make unconsented deepfakes of anyone else using an existing photo or a single shot of their face. By asking you to blink, nod and open and close your mouth while in focus and proper lighting, Douyin can ensure you’re a live human and create a manipulable scan of your face that it can stretch and move to express different emotions or fill different scenes.

You’ll then be able to pick from videos ByteDance claims to have the rights to use, and it will replace with your own the face of whomever is in the clip. You can then share or download the deepfake video, though it will include an overlayed watermark the company claims will help distinguish the content as not being real. I received confidential access to videos made by Watchful using the feature, and the face swapping is quite seamless. The motion tracking, expressions and color blending all look very convincing.

Watchful also discovered unpublished updates to TikTok and Douyin’s terms of service that cover privacy and usage of the deepfakes feature. Inside the U.S. version of TikTok’s Android app, English text in the code explains the feature and some of its terms of use:

Your facial pattern will be used for this feature. Read the Drama Face Terms of Use and Privacy Policy for more details. Make sure you've read and agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy before continuing. 1. To make this feature secure for everyone, real identity verification is required to make sure users themselves are using this feature with their own faces. For this reason, uploaded photos can't be used; 2. Your facial pattern will only be used to generate face-change videos that are only visible to you before you post it. To better protect your personal information, identity verification is required if you use this feature later. 3. This feature complies with Internet Personal Information Protection Regulations for Minors. Underage users won't be able to access this feature. 4. All video elements related to this feature provided by Douyin have acquired copyright authorization.

ZHEJIANG, CHINA – OCTOBER 18 2019 Two U.S. senators have sent a letter to the U.S. national intelligence agency saying TikTok could pose a threat to U.S. national security and should be investigated. Visitors visit the booth of Douyin (Tiktok) at the 2019 Smart Expo in Hangzhou, east China’s Zhejiang province, Oct. 18, 2019.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

A longer terms of use and privacy policy was also found in Chinese within Douyin. Translated into English, some highlights from the text include:

  • “The ‘face-changing’ effect presented by this function is a fictional image generated by the superimposition of our photos based on your photos. In order to show that the original work has been modified and the video generated using this function is not a real video, we will mark the video generated using this function. Do not erase the mark in any way.”

  • “The information collected during the aforementioned detection process and using your photos to generate face-changing videos is only used for live detection and matching during face-changing. It will not be used for other purposes . . . And matches are deleted immediately and your facial features are not stored.”

  • “When you use this function, you can only use the materials provided by us, you cannot upload the materials yourself. The materials we provide have been authorized by the copyright owner”.

  • “According to the ‘Children’s Internet Personal Information Protection Regulations’ and the relevant provisions of laws and regulations, in order to protect the personal information of children / youths, this function restricts the use of minors”.

We reached out to TikTok and Douyin for comment regarding the deepfakes feature, when it might launch, how the privacy of biometric scans are protected and the age limit. However, TikTok declined to answer those questions. Instead, a spokesperson insisted that “after checking with the teams I can confirm this is definitely not a function in TikTok, nor do we have any intention of introducing it. I think what you may be looking at is something slated for Douyin – your email includes screenshots that would be from Douyin, and a privacy policy that mentions Douyin. That said, we don’t work on Douyin here at TikTok.” They later told TechCrunch that “The inactive code fragments are being removed to eliminate any confusion,” which implicitly confirms that Face Swap code was found in TikTok.

A Douyin spokesperson tells TechCrunch “Douyin follows the laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which it operates, which is China.” They denied that the Face Swap terms of service appear in TikTok despite TechCrunch reviewing code from the app showing those terms of service and the feature’s functionality.

This is suspicious, and doesn’t explain why code for the deepfakes feature and special terms of service in English for the feature appear in TikTok, and not just Douyin, where the app can already be activated and a longer terms of service was spotted. TikTok’s U.S. entity has previously denied complying with censorship requests from the Chinese government in contradiction to sources who told The Washington Post that TikTok did censor some political and sexual content at China’s behest.

Consumerizing deepfakes

It’s possible that the deepfakes Face Swap feature never officially launches in China or the U.S. But it’s fully functional, even if unreleased, and demonstrates ByteDance’s willingness to embrace the controversial technology despite its reputation for misinformation and non-consensual pornography. At least it’s restricting the use of the feature by minors, only letting you face-swap yourself, and preventing users from uploading their own source videos. That avoids it being used to create dangerous misinformational videos like the slowed down one making House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem drunk, or clips of people saying things as if they were President Trump.

“It's very rare to see a major social networking app restrict a new, advanced feature to their users 18 and over only,” co-founder and CEO Itay Kahana tells TechCrunch. “These deepfake apps might seem like fun on the surface, but they should not be allowed to become trojan horses, compromising IP rights and personal data, especially personal data from minors who are overwhelmingly the heaviest users of TikTok to date."

TikTok has already been banned by the U.S. Navy and ByteDance’s acquisition and merger of into TikTok is under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in The United States. Deepfake fears could further heighten scrutiny.

With the proper safeguards, though, face-changing technology could usher in a new era of user-generated content where the creator is always at the center of the action. It’s all part of a new trend of personalized media that could be big in 2020. Social media has evolved from selfies to Bitmoji to Animoji to Cameos, and now consumerized deepfakes. When there are infinite apps and videos and notifications to distract us, making us the star could be the best way to hold our attention.

This new wireless charger from Zens nearly fulfills the promise of Apple’s AirPower

Posted: 03 Jan 2020 05:37 AM PST

Apple’s cancellation of its AirPower wireless charging mat was one of the company’s few big public flubs, but the concept behind the cancelled product remains attractive: A wireless charging pad that supports multiple devices, and that isn’t picky about how you set down your device in order to make a connection. Wireless charging accessory maker Zens has actually created such a device with the Liberty Wireless Charger, and while it doesn’t offer everything that AirPower claimed to be able to do, it’s a big step up from current wireless chargers, and a great companion for iPhone, AirPods and Apple Watch.

Coils, coils coils

The Zens Liberty is special because of how it uses the wireless charging coils that are responsible for the charging ability of any wireless chargers — wound circular loops of copper cable that provide the induction power received by devices like the latest iPhones and AirPods charging case. Zens has stacked 16 such coils in an overlapping array — which, conveniently, you can see in pretty much full detail in the transparent glass edition charger that’s available today alongside the fabric-covered version.

These overlapping coils are the key to the unique abilities of the Zens Liberty: Specifically, their arrangement means you can place your devices down in basically any orientation and they’ll begin charging right away. Most charging pads, by comparison, have one, two or sometimes three coils placed in specific locations, meaning you have to make sure your device is properly situated above one to actually get it to start charging. If you’ve been using wireless chargers for any length of time, you’ve probably had the unfortunate opportunity to get this orientation match-up wrong, resulting in a phone that didn’t charge at all when you wake up the next morning.

Zens’ Liberty does indeed solve this annoyance, and I found I was able to put devices down basically however I wanted and have them charge up.

Flexible seating for two

Up to two Qi-compatible devices can be charged at once, and they’ll each work with up to 15w of power, which is at the top end of what any current devices support. I tested it out with Android phones, iPhones and AirPods (plus AirPods Pro) and found that all worked without issue and basically however I wanted to lay them across the surface. The caveats here are that you should think of the areas around the edges of the charger as basically non-active, so stay around an inch in from the outer surface and you should be fine.

This flexibility may not seem like much (why not just pay attention when you’re putting your devices on a more traditional charger?), but it actually is a very nice convenience. Just that small assurance that you can easily put your device down on the Liberty’s generous surface and not worry too much about checking whether a connection was actually made is a big relief when you charge a device as much as you do your iPhone or your AirPods.

Apple Watch, too

The Zens Liberty can’t charge the Apple Watch on the pad, the way that Apple had advertised the cancelled AirPower would’ve been able to. But with an accessory, the pad can become a truly all-in-one charging station for your mobile Apple kit, Watch included. An officially supported Apple Watch charger with a USB-A connector on one end is an add-on option that Zens offers, and it conveniently slots right into a USB port present on the Zens Liberty (and protected/hidden by a rubber flap when not in use).

This port actually supports any kind of USB-powered device, so you can also use it with a cable to charge another gadget, like an iPad for instance. But it’s perfectly designed for the new Zens Apple Watch charger accessory, which comes with a little plastic shelf that snaps in to support your Watch when it’s charging. It provides just the right angle for Apple Watch’s Nightstand mode, and is a necessary addition for anyone looking for an all-in-one solution.

Bottom line

The Zens Liberty is the best all-around charging option available currently, based on my testing so far. It’s also powered by an included 60w USB-C charger, which comes with two international plug adapters that makes it a great travel brick for other devices, too. That means you can also use standard USB-C power bricks with it, too, rather than requiring some kind of proprietary power adapter.

There are some downsides to keep in mind, however: You should realize that this is a big charger, for instance. That’s good in that it supports multiple devices easily, but it’s also going to take up more space than your average wireless charger. It’s also thick, which allows for the stacked coils and cooling system (this is the only wireless charger I’ve used that has clear and obvious vents, for instance).

That said, the Zens Liberty makes good on the true promise of wireless charging, which is convenience and flexibility. And it’s well-designed and aesthetically attractive, in both the fabric-covered and striking transparent glass designs. Zens is now accepting pre-orders for these, with shipping starting sometime this month; the standard fabric version retails for 139.99 ($155 USD), while the glass edition is €179.99 ($199 USD) and the Apple Watch USB stick sells for €39.99 ($44.50 USD).

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