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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


7-month-old Simsim secures $16M for its social commerce in India

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 03:58 PM PST

Simsim, a social commerce startup in India, said on Friday it has raised $16 million in seven months of its existence as it attempts to replicate the offline retail experience in the digital world with help from influencers.

The Gurgaon-based startup said it raised $16 million across seed, Series A and Series B financing rounds from Accel Partners, Shunwei Capital and Good Capital. (The most recent round, Series B, was of $8 million in size.)

"Despite e-commerce players bandying out major discounts, most of the sales in India are still happening in brick-and-mortar stores. There is a simple reason for that: Trust," explained Amit Bagaria, co-founder of Simsim, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The vast majority of Indians are still not comfortable with reading descriptions — and that too in English, he said.

Simsim is taking a different approach to tackle this opportunity. On its app, users watch short-videos produced in local languages by influencers who apply beauty products or try out dresses and explain the ins-and-outs of the products. Below the video, the items appear as they are being discussed and users can tap on them to proceed with the purchase.

“Videos help in educating users about the category. So many of them may not have used face masks, for instance. But it becomes easier when the community influencer is able to show them how to apply it,” said Rohan Malhotra, managing partner at Good Capital, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Influencers typically sell a range of items and users can follow them to browse through the past catalog and stay on top of future sales, said Bagaria, who previously worked at the e-commerce venture of financial services firm Paytm .

“This interactiveness is enabling Simsim to mimic the offline stores experience,” said Malhotra, who is one of the earliest investors in Meesho, also a social commerce startup that last year received backing from Facebook and Prosus Ventures.

“The beauty to me of social commerce is that you’re not changing consumer behavior. People are used to consuming on WhatsApp — and it’s working for Meesho. Over here, you are getting the touch and feel experience and are able to mentally picture the items much clearer,” he said.

Simsim handles the inventories, which it sources from manufacturers and brands, and it works with a number of logistics players to deliver the products.

“Several Indian cities and towns are some of the biggest production hubs of various high-quality items. But these people have not been able to efficiently sell online or grow their network in the offline world. On Simsim, they are able to work with influencers and market their products,” said Bagaria.

The platform today works with more than 1,200 influencers, who get a commission for each item they sell, said Bagaria, who plans to grow this figure to 100,000 in the coming years.

Even as Simsim, which has been open to users for six months, is still in its nascent stage, it is beginning to show some growth. It has amassed over a million users, most of whom live in small cities and towns, and it is selling thousands of items each day, said Bagaria.

He said the platform, which currently supports Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and English, will add more than a dozen additional languages by the end of the year. In about a month, Simsim also plans to start showing live videos, where influencers will be able to answer queries from users.

A handful of startups have emerged in India in recent years that are attempting to rethink the e-commerce market in the nation. Amazon and Walmart, both of which have poured billions of dollars in India, have taken a notice too. Both of them have added support for Hindi in the last two years and have made several more tweaks to their platforms to expand their reach.

Maniv Mobility General Partner Olaf Sakkers is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 03:49 PM PST

In case you haven’t heard, TC Sessions: Mobility is back for second year. This one-day event, which will be held May 14 in San Jose, promises to feature some of best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.

Attendees of TC Sessions: Mobility can expect interviews with founders, investors and inventors, demos of the latest tech, breakout sessions, dozens of startup exhibits and opportunities to network and recruit.

We have announced several speakers for the event, including Klaus Zellmer, the president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America, Waymo's  href="https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/08/tc-sessions-mobility-2020-boris-sofman-of-waymo-and-nancy-sun-of-ike/">Boris Sofman, Ike Robotics co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun, Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan and Shin-pei Tsay, director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber.

And now we have another star to add to our TC Sessions: Mobility list. TechCrunch is excited to announce that Olaf Sakkers, general partner at Maniv Mobility will be joining us on stage this year. Sakkers is a founding partner at Maniv Mobility, a global fund investing in mobility.

Maniv started out with a focus on transportation and mobility-related startups in Israel, with a few in investments in the U.S. It expanded its mission to the global stage, a move buoyed by a $100 million fund that it closed last July with backing from 12 corporations, including the venture arms of Aptiv, BMW, Hyundai, Lear Corp., LG Electronics, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, Shell and Valeo.

Maniv’s portfolio includes vehicle security company Owlcam, peer-to-peer car-sharing company Turo, teleoperations startup Phantom Auto, autonomous vehicle-focused chipmaker Hailo, shared electric moped company Revel, Spain-based car subscription startup Bipi and in-vehicle software management firm Aurora Labs.

Stay tuned to see who we'll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

If you’re an early-stage, mobility startup, make sure you grab an exhibitor package to get your startup in front of today’s leading mobility leaders. Packages come with 4 tickets each and are just $2000. Book yours here.

Getting tech right in Iowa and elsewhere requires insight into data, human behavior

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 02:58 PM PST

What happened in Iowa’s Democratic caucus last week is a textbook example of how applying technological approaches to public sector work can go badly wrong just when we need it to go right.

While it’s possible to conclude that Iowa teaches us that we shouldn't let tech anywhere near a governmental process, this is the wrong conclusion to reach, and mixes the complexity of what happened and didn't happen. Technology won't fix a broken policy and the key is understanding what it is good for.

What does it look like to get technology right in solving public problems? There are three core principles that can help more effectively build public-interest technology: solve an actual problem, design with and for users and their lives in mind and start small (test, improve, test).

Before developing an app or throwing a new technology into the mix in a political process it is worth asking: what is the goal of this app, and what will an app do that will improve on the existing process?

Getting it right starts with understanding the humans who will use what you build to solve an actual problem. What do they actually need? In the case of Iowa, this would have meant asking seasoned local organizers about what would help them during the vote count. It also means talking directly to precinct captains and caucus goers and observing the unique process in which neighbors convince neighbors to move to a different corner of a school gymnasium when their candidate hasn't been successful. In addition to asking about the idea of a web application, it is critical to test the application with real users under real conditions to see how it works and make improvements.

In building such a critical game-day app, you need to test it under more real-world conditions, which means adoption and ease of use matters. While Shadow (the company charged with this build) did a lightweight test with some users, there wasn't the runway to adapt or learn from those for whom the app was designed. The app may have worked fine, but that doesn't matter if people didn't use it or couldn't download it.

One model of how this works can be found in the Nurse Family Partnership, a high-impact nonprofit that helps first-time, low-income moms.

This nonprofit has adapted to have feedback loops from its moms and nurses via email and text messages. It even has a full-time role "responsible for supporting the organization's vision to scale plan by listening and learning from primary, secondary and internal customers to assess what can be done to offer an exceptional Nurse-Family Partnership experience."

Building on its program of in-person assistance, the Nurse Family Partnership co-designed an app (with Hopelab, a social innovation lab in collaboration with behavioral-science based software company Ayogo). The Goal Mama app builds upon the relationship between nurses and moms. It was developed with these clients in mind after research showed the majority of moms in the program were using their smartphones extensively, so this would help meet moms where they were. Through this approach of using technology and data to address the needs of their workforce and clients, they have served 309,787 moms across 633 counties and 41 states.

Another example is the work of Built for Zero, a national effort focused on the ambitious goal of ending homelessness across 80 cities and counties. Community organizers start with the personal challenges of the unhoused — they know that without understanding the person and their needs, they won't be able to build successful interventions that get them housed. Their work combines a methodology of human-centered organizing with smart data science to deliver constant assessment and improvements in their work, and they have a collaboration with the Tableau foundation to build and train communities to collect data with new standards and monitor progress toward a goal of zero homelessness.

Good tech always starts small, tests, learns and improves with real users. Parties, governments and nonprofits should expand on the learning methods that are common to tech startups and espoused by Eric Reis in The Lean Startup. By starting with small tests and learning quickly, public-interest technology acknowledges the high stakes of building technology to improve democracy: real people's lives are at stake. With questions about equity, justice, legitimacy and integrity on the line, starting small helps ensure enough runway to make important changes and work out the kinks.

Take for example the work of Alia. Launched by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), it’s the first benefits portal for house cleaners. Domestic workers do not typically receive employee benefits, making things like taking a sick day or visiting a doctor impossible without losing pay.

Its easy-to-use interface enables people who hire house cleaners to contribute directly to their benefits, allowing workers to receive paid time off, accident insurance and life insurance. Alia’s engineers benefited from deep user insights gained by connecting to a network of house cleaners. In the increasing gig economy, the Alia model may be instructive for a range of employees across local, state and federal levels. Obama organizers in 2008 dramatically increased volunteerism (up to 18%) just by A/B testing the words and colors used for the call-to-action on their website.

There are many instructive public interest technologies that focus on designing not just for the user. This includes work in civil society such as Center for Civic Design, ensuring people can have easy and seamless interactions with government, and The Principles for Digital Development, the first of which is "design with the user." There is also work being done inside governments, from the Government Digital Service in the U.K. to the work of the United States Digital Service, which was launched in the Obama administration.

Finally, it also helps to deeply understand the conditions in which technology will be used. What are the lived experiences of the people who will be using the tool? Did the designers dig in and attend a caucus to see how paper has captured the moving of bodies and changing of minds in gyms, cafes and VFW halls?

In the case of Iowa, it requires understanding the caucuses norms, rules and culture. A political caucus is a unique situation.

Not to mention, this year the Iowa Caucus deployed several process changes to increase transparency but also complexify the process, which needed to also be taken into account when deploying a tech solution. Understanding the conditions in which technology is deployed requires a nuanced understanding of policies and behavior and how policy changes can impact design choices.

Building a technical solution without doing the user-research to see what people really need runs the risk of reducing credibility and further eroding trust. Building the technology itself is often the simple part. The complex part is relational. It requires investing in capacity to engage, train, test and iterate.

We are accustomed to same-day delivery and instantaneous streaming in our private and social lives, which raises our expectations for what we want from the public sector. The push to modernize and streamline is what leads to believing an app is the solution. But building the next killer app for our democracy requires more than just prototyping a splashy tool.

Public-interest technology means working toward the broader, difficult challenge of rebuilding trust in our democracy. Every time we deploy tech for the means of modernizing a process, we need to remember this end goal and make sure we're getting it right.

Facebook’s latest experiment is Hobbi, an app to document your personal projects

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 02:19 PM PST

Facebook is adding another app to its group of experimental projects from the NPE Team, an initiative it announced last year focused on rapidly trying out new ideas in social to see how users react. This week, the team released its fourth app experiment with the launch of Hobbi, a photo and video sharing app designed for documenting your personal projects and hobbies.

Though Hobbi takes obvious cues from Pinterest, it’s not just a pinboard of inspirational ideas. Instead, the app is designed to help hobbyists organize photos of their own projects into themed collections — like gardening, cooking, arts & crafts, décor and more. The idea is to track the progress you’re making over time.

There’s not a social networking component to the app beyond being able to create video highlight reels you could share externally with friends after your projects are complete.

In that sense, Hobbi is more like an editor and organizer than any sort of new social network.

It’s also a very simple app with limited controls or editing options, compared with something like Instagram’s more robust Stories editor, for instance.

It’s interesting, however, that Hobbi’s launch follows shortly after that of Tangi, an app from Google’s Area 120 incubator also focused on creativity, hobbies, and DIY content. Arguably Tangi is a different type of app, as it’s designed around short-form video — similar to a curated TikTok for DIY. But for both companies to launch experiments in the DIY space signals that’s an area where there’s potential to still carve out a niche, despite Pinterest’s domination as a home for hobbies, projects, and interests.

Facebook so far has launched just a handful of NPE Team-branded apps. In November, it launched a chat app for making friends called Bump and a social music app Aux. Its first experiment, a meme editor called Whale, has already shut down, however.

Facebook so far has declined to comment on its plans for any individual NPE Team app, pointing back to its original announcement that said availability would depend on the app. The company had also said the experiments in many cases would be short-lived, as the NPE Team will shut down apps that people don’t find useful and then move on to create others.

The Information also today published news of Hobbi’s launch, noting that Pinterest shares fell on the news.

Hobbi became available as of yesterday on iOS only. We were able to download it in the U.S. but it’s also available in Columbia, Belgium, Spain, and Ukraine.

Nvidia’s Q4 financials look to brighter skies with strong quarterly revenue growth

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 02:18 PM PST

Major artificial intelligence and graphics chipmaker Nvidia reported its 2020Q4 financials today (the company's fiscal quarter ends on January 26th, 2020). The company announced revenues of $3.11 billion for the quarter, a jump of 41% from the year ago quarter and a small bump from the third quarter.

Even more importantly, the company's gross margin improved remarkably year-over-year, moving from 54.7% to 64.9%. The company reported a net income of $950 million for the quarter. After-hours traders jumped into the stock, with Yahoo Finance reporting a roughly 6.32% increase in the company's share price immediately following the earnings.

That positive news though didn't overcome the full-year fiscal numbers though, which painted a more complicated picture for the company. Revenue was down slightly for the 2020 fiscal year compared to 2019, and operating expenses, operating income, net income, and diluted earnings all headed the wrong way, in some cases by more than 30%.

Nvidia's struggles in 2019 weren't unique to the chipmaker, as last year was bruising for the chip industry overall. The industry's total sales declined the fastest in more than a decade from a number of factors, including less demand in some parts of the market, oversupply in other parts of the market (driving down prices and thus sales revenue), as well as on-going trade tensions between the U.S., China, South Korea, and Japan.

Nvidia itself has had a huge number of ups and down in recent years. Riding the crest of the crypto wave, the company's stock soared as crypto miners sought the company's GPUs, which were well-positioned to handle the hashing functions at the core of many proof-of-work crypto protocols. Yet, the crypto winter crushed the stock, which saw a precipitous decline of 50% at the tail end of 2018.

The past year though has seen Nvidia turn something of a corner. It started the year with a share price of around $150, and today closed at nearly $271, a gain of more than 80%. Part of that story — as it is with the rest of the chip industry — is the sense that a whole new set of workflows (and therefore markets) are moving to silicon, including in automotive, high-performance computing (where Nvidia acquired Mellanox for $6.9 billion early last year), Internet of Things, and even in 5G.

That excitement on the big corporate side has also shown up in the venture world as well. Startups like Cerebras, Nuvia, Graphcore and more are targeting these new workflows, putting pressure on Nvidia, Intel, and other incumbents to outperform these upstarts.

Soylent shakes up its executive team, naming Demir Vangelov as its new CEO

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 01:44 PM PST

Soylent, the once high-flying Los Angeles-based meal replacement startup that has raised $72.4 million in financing from investors including Google Ventures, Lerer Hippeau and Andreessen Horowitz, has shaken up its executive team.

This week, the company announced in a blog post that the company’s chief financial officer, Demir Vangelov, would be taking over the top spot at the company and current chief executive Bryan Crowley would be stepping down.

“We would like to thank Bryan Crowley for his immense contributions to the company,” wrote Soylent chairman and founder Rob Rhinehart, in a statement.

Vangelov, who’s taking over from Crowley, previously served as an executive at the milk alternative company Califia Foods and at Oberto Foods, so he knows consumer packaged brands.

Crowley came to the company with grand ambitions to revitalize the Soylent brand and product line. The company had introduced a line of snack bars to complement its line of powders and drinks, while updating its drink line with a nootropic beverage containing caffeine and supplements supposedly designed to boost cognitive performance in addition to providing a meal replacement.

Soylent also set up fancy digs in Los Angeles’ arts district and established a Food Innovation Lab, which only a year ago awarded $25,000 to a few food startups working there.

Now, only a year later, the Food Innovation Lab is shuttered and Soylent has moved to a smaller office space. The company declined to comment on the news or its new strategy.

In some ways, Soylent may suffer from being a progenitor of an investment thesis which has passed it by. When the company launched in 2013, it was a fairly novel idea to start a new food brand, as Rhinehart notes in the blog post announcing the executive change:

Soylent started as a movement. In 2013, there was scarcely any innovation or attention to one of the world’s most important product sectors: our food. Today, innovative food companies are performing record-breaking IPOs, new retailers are raising massive growth rounds, and food, agriculture, and ingredient technologies are some of the most disruptive startups in the ecosystem. But we still have a lot of work to do to fulfill Soylent's mission of nutrition for all.

Today we are making some changes at the company. We are renewing our commitment to being transparent, authentic and science-driven, all while putting the customer first. To do this we are going to re-focus on our core products. We will be improving our current product line as well as bringing some truly innovative ideas off the shelf and into the market, and we will be improving our prices by focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to distribution and marketing.

LinkedIn will sunset Sales Navigator for Gmail, formerly known as Rapportive, on March 18

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 01:20 PM PST

It’s par for the course that major tech platforms will launch a lot of services, then sunset those that are less popular. But this week comes one that especially smarts (for me and some of my TechCrunch coworkers at least). LinkedIn has announced that on March 18, it will shut down Sales Navigator for Gmail, an extension that provided further information about the person you were emailing in Gmail, which was formerly known as Rapportive (which it picked up by way of an acquisition of a startup of the same name).

LinkedIn told TechCrunch that the reason was low usage.

"We continuously work with our customers and partners to focus on building and supporting the features that best help them build and maintain relationships with their buyers,” said Lindsey Edwards, LinkedIn’s product lead for LinkedIn Sales Solutions. “As a result of low adoption, we have decided to sunset the Sales Navigator for Gmail feature on March 18, 2020."

The rise and fall of Sales Navigator for Gmail-née-Rapportive underscores a lot of what makes me sad, cynical and annoyed about how platforms ingest amazing startups, with all the prospects for growth that this entails, and then the service dies. In the case of this particular sunset, it also underscores how LinkedIn itself has changed.

A little history.

LinkedIn acquired Rapportive back in 2012 for a price reported to be in the region of $15 million — a song, really — part of a small acquisition spree aimed at improving how LinkedIn helped people manage their business contacts (others in the spree included Cardmunch and ConnectedHQ).

When it originally launched as a startup, Rapprtive provided a little bit of magic to Gmail users. When you had the extension activated, if you typed in an email address, a list of the person’s social accounts, information from their LinkedIn profiles and recent Tweets would come up in the margin. (Magic is the operative word here: the founder, Rahul Vohra, eventually left LinkedIn and many years later founded Superhuman, an email app with lots of extra features that aims to “make you feel like you have superpowers.”)

The idea was that you could use those bits of information to craft a richer email, for example if you were pitching something to the person in question, or trying to impress them for another reason.

Putting aside the fact that sometimes having access to too much information can be creepy, the idea was very clever in that way that simple things can be. In the backend, Rapportive was linking up and integrating all that information by way of the email address you’d just typed in, which meant that you could also use the extension for reverse engineering. If you were guessing at an email address, you could type it in and see if the person’s social profiles popped up.

If they did, you knew you were typing in an address that wouldn’t bounce. (This proved to be a huge thing for someone like me trying to quietly hunt down, for example, if someone had taken a job at a particular company, say if a startup she or he worked for had gotten stealthily acquired.)

After LinkedIn acquired Rapportive, it was business as usual for a while, with LinkedIn keeping the name and all its features intact.

But over time, that changed. LinkedIn itself went through a process of cutting off a lot of apps that tapped into its social graph, essentially building the walls around its garden a little higher to encourage more people to pay up for LinkedIn’s premium tiers, or at least visit an increasingly more limited version of the site as free users to bring it more traffic (and possibly get upsold to the premium tiers).

Eventually, LinkedIn also started to cut out Rapportive’s links to other social apps, focusing just on LinkedIn, and then, after Microsoft announced it would acquire LinkedIn for $26.2 billion, its interest in standalone brands seemed to wane. LinkedIn dropped the Rapportive name and standalone product altogether, rolling it up with Sales Navigator, one of its premium tiers.

A free version of the product remained, but was regularly offline and generally quite buggy. At least one fan had hacked a way to keep using it in a less buggy way, but all in all, it’s really no surprise that a product that at one time did that magical thing you wish for in all of your tech — it “just worked” — which once reportedly had 65 million contact lookups per month (and probably, given more attention, would have grown with the growth of everything else on this internet of ours) eventually found itself with “low adoption.”

In each of the recent turns, I’ve tried to find useful replacements, and I hope I do find one eventually (I’m trying another one out today, ping me if you have suggestions too).

In the meantime, farewell to one of the most useful tools LinkedIn had under its belt.

MIT showcases soft robotic sensors made from flexible, off-the-shelf materials

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 12:42 PM PST

A team at MIT's CSAIL demonstrated a new kind of "skin" designed to bring a sense of touch and place to soft robotic arms. The findings, which debuted in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters this week, find the researchers covering a soft robotic "trunk" in flexible sensors made from material used for "electromagnetic interference shielding."

 

The usually rigid material was reconfigured into a "kirigami" configuration, laser cut and reassembled into chain-linked rows so it can be stretched and flexed to adhere to the shape of the robot and move with it. The components are essentially off-the-shelf for most labs and could serve as a low-cost way to add a sense of touch to the growing field of soft robots.

"Think of your own body: You can close your eyes and reconstruct the world based on feedback from your skin," CSAIL's Daniela Rus said in a release announcing the research. "We want to design those same capabilities for soft robots."

Researchers then built a neural network to process the results and distinguish the signal from the noise that the sensors were collecting, reinforced by a more traditional motion capture system. Moving forward, CSAIL will be exploring new configurations and working to improve the neural networks.

Tinder tests new social features, including prompts and a ‘Share to Matches’ option

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 12:39 PM PST

Tinder is testing a series of new social features designed to boost conversations between users on its service. One of the new features is a conversational prompt, first teased during parent company Match Group’s recent earnings. The prompt encourages users to respond to questions or finish a sentence in order to better showcase their personality with their answers. The other, a “Share to Matches” option, allows users to post photos, looping videos and other content that can only be seen by their existing matches.

With both new additions, the overall goal is to encourage Tinder users to start messaging with others in the app.

Breaking the ice to chat with an online stranger is often one of the more difficult aspects of online dating. That’s led to many a Tinder user resorting to cheesy one-liners, jokes or overly risque remarks as an attempt to get a reaction or make light of the awkwardness of being on a dating app to begin with. But now Tinder seems to be borrowing ideas from Match Group’s newest acquisition, Hinge, which relies on conversational prompts and captioned photos to get users to show off more of their personality on their profiles.

Meanwhile, Tinder’s new option to upload content that can only be seen by existing matches could be a useful way of nudging shy matches to initiate a conversation for the first time, as well as re-engage matches where the conversation had dropped off.

The features were discovered by app sleuth Jane Manchun Wong and confirmed by Tinder as tests. However, Match Group said earlier this month during earnings that Tinder would soon roll out new social engagement features, including prompts.

A Tinder spokesperson confirmed both features are tests.

“At Tinder, our goal is to make it easier to connect with new people. We're testing ways to make it easier for members to express themselves and share their personalities, while keeping the experience simple and fun,” they said. “These changes may or may not roll out to everyone over time.”

Because the features are tests, some users may see both, some may see neither, and some may see just one or the other.

They may also not appear exactly as showcased in the above tweets.

For example, below is an image of a conversational prompt being shown to a Tinder U user.

Tinder declined to say where or when the tests were running or when they may roll out more broadly to users. However, the Spring Break prompt offers a good hint in terms of when something like this may become more broadly available to test recipients.

The additions are only two of several tests Tinder will run in the months ahead. The now-massive dating app can afford to be more experimental, having already established itself as a market leader — in 2019, Tinder brought in $1.2 billion in revenue, leading it to be the top-grossing (non-game) app of the year.

Match Group said it has other plans in store for Tinder in the near future, too, including an expansion of in-app storytelling experience “Swipe Night,” filters, new in-app purchase options for power users and more.

As 5 more startups join the $100M club, are we just making a pre-IPO list?

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 12:26 PM PST

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

Today we’re adding five names to the $100 million annual recurring revenue (ARR) club and listing all preceding members in a single post. This series, which was a bit of an accident, if I’m being honest, has included more than a dozen companies that have reached $100 million ARR, along with a handful more that are close.

Today we’re adding Seismic, ThoughtSpot, Noom, Riskified and Moveable Ink to the list. As always, we have funding histories, growth metrics and interviews below on the new group. But at this juncture, as we head toward the two-dozen company mark, it’s a good time to ask, what is this list that we’re compiling?

At first, the goal of the jokingly-named “$100 million ARR club” was to highlight companies that were of real scale, an idea designed to gently push back against the “unicorn” moniker. As more and more unicorns were born and the private-capital world became adept at getting startups of all maturity levels over the requisite $1 billion valuation threshold, the term began to feel too diluted to have much signaling value.

While, in contrast, $100 million in ARR felt much more “hard” to the valuation metric’s comparable squishiness. But, since that first post, more and more companies have written in, sharing hard metrics and the series has continued. Perhaps we’re really just compiling an IPO watchlist, a grouping of firms that will probably go (or should go) public in the next 18 months.

Let’s dig into our new additions. Then, we’ll list all our prior entrants with links to our preceding coverage in case you are playing catch up. With that, here’s the entire $100 million ARR club a list of companies that we think could go public inside the next six quarters.

Los Angeles-based ‘deep tech’ investment firm Riot Ventures is raising a $75M fund

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 12:26 PM PST

Riot Ventures, the Los Angeles-based, early-stage and deep technology investment firm is going out to market to raise a $75 million second fund to finance the development of startups in LA and beyond, according to fundraising documents viewed by TechCrunch.

The firm has largely flown under the radar, but it has been investing in startups applying innovations in automation, artificial intelligence, computer vision, computational biology, material sciences and robotics to industrial products and processes for the past two years.

Its first fund was a modest $10 million vehicle that the firm’s co-founders, Stephen Marcus and Will Coffield, raised to test the thesis their fledgling fund was exploring. Chiefly, they thought that robotics and machine learning were going to transform everything from aerospace to industrial manufacturing and retail, and they saw Los Angeles as a unique location from which to deploy capital.

Since the initial fund launched in 2017, the companies in Riot’s portfolio — including a number of later-stage special purpose investments made in companies like the point-of-sale tablet manufacturer Toast; the metal 3D printing equipment manufacturer Desktop Metal; and Shield AI, a stealthy drone company that works in the defense industry — are now worth roughly $16 billion.

In all, Riot has invested around $60 million through its direct investments and special purpose vehicles. But it’s not the capital that sets the firm apart, according to the pitch deck viewed by TechCrunch.

Marcus has a long background in angel investing and company creation. He’s a six-time serial entrepreneur whose sold telecom companies to acquirers like American Tower, Sprint and National Grid. Meanwhile, Coffield has spent the past several years building out a network in Los Angeles and eight years in the venture capital industry.

However, the firm places its emphasis on its newest partner, Jenna Bryant, a recruiter who spent the past years building out teams for some of the biggest names in the Los Angeles technology and entertainment industries, including Walt Disney Co., Oculus, Snap, Tinder and others.

“We actively recruit for our portfolio companies which enables us to meet a large swath of highly technical people,” the firm writes in its pitch deck. “We use this pool to win deals, make our companies more valuable, and find future hard tech founders. This is a core asset and function for our firm led by our Partner Jenna Bryant.”

Just as important as its recruitment practice is its position in Los Angeles, which is emerging as a hotbed for talent in robotics, rocketry, drones and defense. That’s borne out by investments in companies like Shield AI and Elementary Robotics — two companies in the Riot portfolio based in Southern California.

Surprise! Audit finds automated license plate reader programs are a privacy nightmare

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 11:55 AM PST

Automated license plate readers, ALPRs, would be controversial even if they were responsibly employed by the governments that run them. Unfortunately, and to no one’s surprise, the way they actually operate is “deeply disturbing and confirm[s] our worst fears about the misuse of this data,” according to an audit of the programs instigated by a Californian legislator.

What we've learned today is that many law enforcement agencies are violating state law, are retaining personal data for lengthy periods of time, and are disseminating this personal data broadly. This state of affairs is totally unacceptable,” said California State Senator Scott Weiner (D-SF), who called for the audit of these programs. The four agencies audited were the LAPD, Fresno PD and the Marin and Sacramento County Sheriffs Departments.

The inquiry revealed that the programs can barely justify their existence and do not seem to have, let alone follow, best practices for security and privacy:

  • Los Angeles alone stores 320 million license plate images, 99.9% of which were not being sought by law enforcement at the time of collection.
  • Those images were shared with “hundreds” of other agencies but there was no record of how this was justified legally or accomplished properly.
  • None of the agencies has a privacy policy in line with requirements established in 2016. Three could not adequately explain access and oversight permissions, or how and when data would or could be destroyed, “and the remaining agency has not developed a policy at all.”
  • There were almost no policies or protections regarding account creation and use and have never audited their own systems.
  • Three of the agencies store their images and data with a cloud vendor, the contract for which had inadequate if any protections for that data.

In other words, “there is significant cause for alarm,” the press release stated. As the programs appear to violate state law they may be prosecuted, and as existing law appears to be inadequate to the task of regulating them, new ones must be proposed, Wiener said, and he is working on it.

The full report can be read here.

Portfolio bloat: What’s happening to thousands of startups going nowhere fast

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 11:54 AM PST

Earlier this week, much was made of the e-commerce business Brandless deciding to shutter its doors. Industry observers found its fate particularly interesting, given that Brandless was only a few years old and had raised substantial funding, including $100 million from the SoftBank Vision Fund alone.

Still, Brandless is far from alone in having tried — and failed — to break away from its many rivals and become the kind of juggernaut that makes venture investors money. There are thousands of companies that have raised funding over the last decade that once looked like bigger opportunities or whose growth has slowed and for which follow-on dollars are harder to find.

Ravi Viswanathan of the venture firm NewView Capital sums up what’s happening out there this way: “Firms and funds are generally coming back to market faster with bigger funds, and they’e investing a lot more, so you’re seeing portfolio bloat across the industry. But [limited partners, the outfits and people supplying money to venture funds] are investing for you to make money, and that means spending time on the needle movers.”

So what’s a startup with dwindling attention from its investors to do? There are numerous options, some of which are newer than others, and some of which are more desirable than others.

Naturally some — maybe most — of these companies will eventually decide, like Brandless, to close down the works. This is the least favorable scenario for everyone involved, as it means lost jobs, lost dollars and often an uncertain future for the founders who’ve poured their heart and soul into the company.

Venture capitalists don’t love closing down companies, either, as it means writing down the holdings in their financial statements to their own investors, something they’d rather put off as long as possible — though external events can also impact the timing.

As Jeff Clavier of the venture firm Uncork Capital explains it, “We maintain a company’s valuation on our books until we decide to impair it.” But if a venture firm has a “big gain [because another company sold or went public], we might as well take advantage and sell the shares for $1 or forego them altogether,” minimizing the firm’s overall tax bill in the process.

Other companies that have grown more self-sufficient might look to buy back their shares from investors at a discount. Joel Gascoigne, the founder of a now six-year-old social media management company called Buffer, publicly outlined his own process for saving up enough money to buy out the company’s main venture investors a couple of years ago.

It’s not easy to pull off. Gascoigne says it took more than a year to persuade the VCs to take the deal he was offering them, and their relationship suffered as result.

The reason, offers Clavier, is that in a buyback scenario, an “investor has to admit complete defeat, and that’s kind of the last stop on the road.” Unsurprisingly, what Clavier deems a far better approach if possible is to “get out sooner, when there’s more time for a proper exit.”

Says Clavier, “The best thing you can do is find a nice home” for the founders, including so they can “move one, get a new gig, join something, rather than toiling away for the next three to five years” on a company that might eventually fail anyway.

At least, in some cases where the investors have essentially written the deal down to zero, they’ll let the founders retain their intellectual property.

“It’s worth something to him or her or them,” says Hunter Walk, co-founder of the venture firm Homebrew, “and it’s really not worth anything to the investors and maybe the founder wants to re-start it as a non-venture-backed company.”

Either way, Walk notes, this “usually occurs when they haven’t raised too much money.”

It’s a different story for those who’ve raised bigger rounds, as VCs need to wring what they can from accompany to fulfill their own fiduciary obligations. That means selling off assets, from office chairs to IP.

Thankfully, for startups going nowhere fast, there’s also a third option that’s picking up traction: private equity firms that have grown increasingly focused on tech. Their terms might not always be ideal, but the founder gets to claim an “exit” while the private equity firm gets to roll up sub-scale properties or bolt a startup onto one of its core assets and re-sell the package to another buyer.

These deals can sometimes be a “bitter pill to swallow” for investors, notes Viswanathan, but the “sooner you do it, the faster you free up resources and show your LPs that you can manage your portfolio.”

Other times, he notes, investors hang on with the expectation that the PE firm will fuel a better outcome for everyone.

Just last month, for example, Insight Partners, the New York-based private equity and venture firm, paid cash for Armis Security, a five-year-old company whose tech helps businesses secure their connected devices. Though terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, a number of Armis investors rolled their stakes into the new, Insight-controlled company.

A similar situation played out when the 13-year-old web content management company Acquia sold to Vista Equity Partners last fall.

What if such a deal never materializes? Well, there are other alternatives still for startups that are chugging along — just not as quickly as once expected.

One is to try debt lenders. Debt is always a gamble, but one that sometimes pays off.

Another is to use convertible notes if one’s investors (or even outsiders) are open to the idea. These notes are structured as debt that convert into equity upon a specific event like a certain date or the closing of a priced investment round.

There’s always the hope, too, that a venture investor will let a bet ride. Jason Lemkin, a former entrepreneur who now runs the venture firm SaaStr fund, says he’s open to doing this when he can.  “My view as a founder and investor has evolved over time, but if I think it’s a good team and the company is achieving a few million in revenue and doesn’t need to raise money and has high retention and recurring revenue but is no longer on a venture trajectory, I’ll wait,” says Lemkin. “I’ll wait because things can change.”

It’s true of SaaS startups in particular, he says, “because competitors get acquired, they quit, they take too much money and stumble.” Meanwhile “if you’re the last man or woman standing, if you’re still out there fighting, you can win.”

Judge temporarily halts work on JEDI contract until court can hear AWS protest

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 11:34 AM PST

A sealed order from a judge today has halted the $10 billion, decade-long JEDI project in its tracks until AWS’s protest of the contract award to Microsoft can be heard by the court.

The order signed by Judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith of the U.S. Court Federal Claims stated:

The United States, by and through the Department of Defense, its officers, agents, and employees, is hereby PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from proceeding with contract activities under Contract No. HQ0034-20-D-0001, which was awarded under Solicitation No. HQ0034-18-R-0077, until further order of the court.

The judge was not taking this lightly, adding that Amazon would have to put up $42 million bond to cover costs should it prove that the motion was filed wrongfully. Given Amazon’s value as of today is $1.08 trillion, they can probably afford to put up the money, but they must provide it by February 20th, and the court gets to hold the funds until a final determination has been made.

At the end of last month, Amazon filed a motion to stop work on the project until the court could rule on its protest. It is worth noting that in protests of this sort, it is not unusual to stop work until a final decision on the award can be made.

This is all part of an ongoing drama that has gone on for a couple of years since the DoD put this out to bid. After much wrangling, the DoD awarded the contract to Microsoft at the end of October. Amazon filed suit in November, claiming that the president had unduly influenced the process.

As we reported in December, at a press conference at AWS re:Invent, the cloud arm’s annual customer conference, AWS CEO Andy Jassy made clear the company thought the president had unfairly influenced the procurement process:

"I would say is that it's fairly obvious that we feel pretty strongly that it was not adjudicated fairly," he said. He added, "I think that we ended up with a situation where there was political interference. When you have a sitting president, who has shared openly his disdain for a company, and the leader of that company, it makes it really difficult for government agencies, including the DoD, to make objective decisions without fear of reprisal."

Earlier this week, the company filed paperwork to depose the president and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

The entire statement from the court today halting the JEDI project:

**SEALED**OPINION AND ORDER granting [130] Motion for Preliminary Injunction, filed by plaintiff. The United States, by and through the Department of Defense, its officers, agents, and employees, is hereby PRELIMINARILY ENJOINED from proceeding with contract activities under Contract No. HQ0034-20-D-0001, which was awarded under Solicitation No. HQ0034-18-R-0077, until further order of the court.

Pursuant to RCFC 65(c), plaintiff is directed to PROVIDE security in the amount of $42 million for the payment of such costs and damages as may be incurred or suffered in the event that future proceedings prove that this injunction was issued wrongfully.

As such, on or before 2/20/2020, plaintiff is directed to FILE a notice of filing on the docket in this matter indicating the form of security obtained, and plaintiff shall PROVIDE the original certification of security to the clerk of court. The clerk shall HOLD the security until this case is closed.

On or before 2/27/2020, the parties are directed to CONFER and FILE a notice of filing attaching a proposed redacted version of this opinion, with any competition-sensitive or otherwise protectable information blacked out. Signed by Judge Patricia E. Campbell-Smith.

Phone manufacturers eye their next move as 5G goes mainstream

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 11:30 AM PST

For two years running, Samsung played the same trick and front-loaded its annual event by announcing a new foldable.

Last year's announcement of the Fold was a huge one — the first viable (relatively speaking, of course) foldable handset from a major manufacturer. Of course, some stuff has happened in the intervening months, taking a bit of the shine off the device and the category at large.

This week at Unpacked 2020, Samsung came out of the gate swinging once again, announcing the Galaxy Z Flip at the top of the event. As with last year, the move had the effect of taking some of the wind out of its flagship announcement, a sign of a company convinced that standing out from the pack and reversing flagging smartphone sales trends will require some bold decision-making.

That's not to say the company's not pushing the envelope on its flagships. Between 100x zoom on the Ultra and 8K video on all of the devices, Samsung is still duking it out on imaging. But it appears not to have any illusions about what really gets users excited in an era of smartphone ubiquity.

Trump administration aims to protect GPS with new exec order

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 11:29 AM PST

GPS increasingly runs the entire planet. Supply chains, oceanic shipping, port docking and even our daily movements in cars, on bikes and walking around cities is dependent on a constellation of satellites hovering above us to make all this activity work in synchronicity.

Increasingly though, GPS is under attack. GPS spoofing, where the signals from GPS satellites are spoofed to send false data, can prevent devices from getting an accurate location, or any location at all. One of our TechCrunch contributors, Mark Harris, wrote a great piece in the MIT Technology Review about a recent spate of spoofing incidents in Shanghai, where shipping vessels would suddenly jump around the harbor as different signals got picked up.

In addition to more direct attacks on GPS, the monopoly of the U.S. GPS system is also under increasing strain. China has launched its own satellite system known as Beidou, and other countries like Russia, Japan and India, as well as the European Union, are increasingly attempting to augment America's system with their own technology.

GPS is one technology of a field known as Positioning, Navigation and Timing services (PNT). GPS is perhaps best known for its ability to pinpoint a device on a map, but it is also crucial in synchronizing clocks, particularly in extremely sensitive operations where milliseconds are crucial.

The increasing economic importance of the technology, along with the increasing risk it faces from bad actors, has forced the Trump administration to act. In a new executive order signed yesterday, the administration created a framework for the Department of Commerce to take the lead in identifying threats to America's existing PNT system, and also ensures that procurement processes across the government take those threats into account.

This process comes in the form of "PNT profiles," which the executive order described:

The PNT profiles will enable the public and private sectors to identify systems, networks, and assets dependent on PNT services; identify appropriate PNT services; detect the disruption and manipulation of PNT services; and manage the associated risks to the systems, networks, and assets dependent on PNT services. Once made available, the PNT profiles shall be reviewed every 2 years and, as necessary, updated.

In other words, these profiles are designed to ensure that systems work in concert with each other and are authenticated, so that systems don't have (obvious) security holes in their design.

That's a good first step, but unlikely to move the needle in protecting this infrastructure. Booz Allen Hamilton Vice President Kevin Coggins, who runs the firm's GPS resilience practice, explained to me last year that "In a system where you just blindly integrate these things and you don't have an architecture that takes security into account … then you are just increasing your threat surface." PNT profiles could cut down on that surface area for threats.

In a new statement regarding Trump's executive order, Coggins said that:

As a next step, the federal government should consider cross-industry standards that call for system diversity, spectral diversity, and zero-trust architectures.

System diversity addresses the dependence on a single system, such as GPS – some PNT alternatives have a dependence on GPS, therefore will fail should GPS become disrupted.

Spectral diversity involves using additional frequencies to carry PNT information – such as in systems using eLORAN or multi-GNSS – rather than just having a single frequency that is easy to target.

Finally, zero-trust architectures would enable PNT receivers to validate navigation and timing signals prior to using them – rather than blindly trusting what they are told.

This area of security has also gotten more venture and startup attention. Expect more action from all parties as these emerging threats to the economy are fully taken into account.

Walmart shuts down its experimental personal shopping service, Jet black

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 11:22 AM PST

Walmart is shutting down its personal shopping service, Jet black, on February 21, after struggling to find adoption or additional investment. The service had allowed New York-area customers to text message orders for home delivery. According to its website, Jet black will now no longer accept new orders and will refund its customers their most recent $50 monthly membership fee.

The retailer is trying to spin the shutdown as a learning experience, noting that part of the initiative was to test and build technology that could eventually be applied to other parts of Walmart’s business. In Jet black’s case, Walmart learned about conversational commerce and how customers could use text messages to shop.

But according to an earlier report from The Wall Street Journal, Walmart had discussed investment with several potential partners, including Microsoft and VC firm NEA. Those talks didn’t pan out. Jet black, the report said, had gained fewer than 1,000 customers and remained a money-losing business.

To be fair, a high-end shopping service was largely an experimental concept for Walmart to dabble in, and it’s not surprising that it didn’t take off. After all, the Walmart brand today is aligned with cost savings and mainstream America, not necessarily the well-to-do, time-strapped urban parents to whom Jet black aimed to cater. It also overlapped with Walmart’s own home delivery options, including its successful Walmart Grocery service, which could deliver the fresh food Jet black could not.

Jet black received more attention than it likely warranted, given its concept and limited reach, for a few reasons. The service, which arrived in May 2018, was the first project to debut from Walmart’s tech incubator, Store No. 8, which drew interest. In addition, Jet black’s co-founder and CEO Jenny Fleiss previously co-founded Rent the Runway, a popular clothing rental startup catering to a similar upwardly mobile demographic.

Jet black also arrived at a time when a few startups had been trying text-based shopping, including Hello Alfred, Magic, GoButler, Operator, Fetch, Scratch and others. (Most have since failed or pivoted.) Walmart’s entry into this market, at the time, was then considered notable.

Walmart claimed last July Jet black’s customers were spending $1,500 per month, on average. But there weren’t enough customers — or efficiency in the business model — to make Jet black profitable.

In addition, Fleiss left the business last year, signaling Jet black’s struggles. She was replaced by Nate Faust, Walmart senior vice president of e-commerce logistics. The Journal reported Jet black was losing as much as $15,000 per year per member, as of last summer. Today it says 293 Jet black employees will be laid off as a result of the shutdown.

A Walmart spokesperson confirmed this figure to TechCrunch, as well, noting that 58 other employees are being retained to help apply Jet black’s learning to other areas, including Walmart Grocery.

“We've learned a lot through Jet black, including how customers respond to the ability of ordering by text as well as the type of items they purchase through texting,” said Scott Eckert, SVP, Next Generation Retail and Principal, Store No 8, in an announcement. “We're eager to apply these learnings from Jet black and leverage its core capabilities within Walmart,” he added.

The US is charging Huawei with racketeering

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 10:31 AM PST

Ratcheting up its pressure campaign against Huawei and its affiliates, the Department of Justice and the FBI announced today that it has brought 16 charges against Huawei in a sprawling case with major geopolitical implications (you can read the full 56-page indictment here).

Huawei is being charged with conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) statute. The DoJ alleges that Huawei and a number of its affiliates used confidential agreements with American companies over the past two decades to access the trade secrets of those companies, only to then misappropriate that intellectual property and use it to fund Huawei's business.

An example of this activity is provided in the indictment. Described as "Company 1," Huawei is alleged to have stolen source code for Company 1's routers, which it then used in its own products. Given the context, it is highly likely that Company 1 is Cisco, which in the indictment is summarized as "a U.S. technology company headquartered in the Northern District of California."

Huawei is also alleged to have engaged in more simple forms of industrial espionage. While at a trade show in Chicago, a Huawei-affiliated engineer "… was discovered in the middle of the night after the show had closed for the day in the booth of a technology company … removing the cover from a networking device and taking photographs of the circuitry inside. Individual-3 wore a badge listing his employer as ‘Weihua,’ HUAWEI spelled with its syllables reversed." Huawei said that the individual in question did so in a personal capacity.

In one case, a technology company looking for a partnership with Huawei sent over a presentation deck with confidential information about its business in order to generate commercial interest with Huawei. From the indictment:

Immediately upon receipt of the slide deck, each page of which was marked 'Proprietary and Confidential' by Company 6, HUAWEI distributed the slide deck to HUAWEI engineers, including engineers in the subsidiary that was working on technology that directly competed with Company 6's products and services. These engineers discussed developments by Company 6 that would have application to HUAWEI's own prototypes then under design.

Together, the indictment lists multiple examples of Huawei's alleged conspiracy to pilfer U.S. intellectual property.

According to the statement published by the Department of Justice, "As part of the scheme, Huawei allegedly launched a policy instituting a bonus program to reward employees who obtained confidential information from competitors. The policy made clear that employees who provided valuable information were to be financially rewarded." Per the indictment:

A ‘competition management group’ was tasked with reviewing the submissions and awarding monthly bonuses to the employees who provided the most valuable stolen information.

In addition to conspiracy, Huawei and the defendants are charged with lying to federal investigators and obstructing the investigation into the company's activity. Per the indictment:

For example, an official HUAWEI manual labeled ‘Top Secret’ instructed certain individuals working for HUAWEI to conceal their employment with HUAWEI during encounters with foreign law enforcement officials.

Furthermore, Huawei has been charged in connection with its activities in countries like Iran and North Korea. The DoJ's statement alleges that Huawei used code words and carefully selected local partners to conceal its activities in these states in order to avoid international sanctions that are placed on the two countries. It also alleges that the company and its representatives lied to congressional investigators when asked about the company's financial activities in the two countries.

Among the defendants is Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei who has been under house arrest in Canada while facing charges of fraud.

The top two senators on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a joint statement that “The indictment paints a damning portrait of an illegitimate organization that lacks any regard for the law.”

Huawei, in response to the indictment, said in a corporate statement that “This new indictment is part of the Justice Department's attempt to irrevocably damage Huawei's reputation and its business for reasons related to competition rather than law enforcement.  The ‘racketeering enterprise’ that the government charged today is nothing more than a contrived repackaging of a handful of civil allegations that are almost 20 years old and that have never been the basis of any significant monetary judgment against Huawei.  The government will not prevail on these charges which we will prove to be both unfounded and unfair.

The Trump administration has made targeting Huawei a major priority, attempting to block its access to Western markets. The administration's efforts have mostly been fruitless thus far, with both the United Kingdom and Germany in recent weeks allowing the company's technology products into their telecommunications networks. We have more coverage on these initiatives in an article TechCrunch published this morning:

The full list of defendants include Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd.; Huawei Device Co., Ltd.; Huawei Device Usa Inc.; Futurewei Technologies, Inc.; Skycom Tech Co., Ltd.; and Wanzhou Meng.

Huawei representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Updated 1:45pm EST to include additional details from the indictment.
Updated 4:45pm EST to include comments from Huawei

Apple expands ‘Quick Look’ to let retailers sell things directly in augmented reality

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 10:09 AM PST

That couch you’re thinking about sure would look good in your living room… or would it?

To drag up a decade-old (!) catchphrase: There’s an app for that. There are a ton of apps for that, really. Seeing what furniture might look like in a room is one of the go-to examples of what augmented reality is good for, and there’s no shortage of retailers doing it in their apps.

But when you’ve already got someone interested in making a purchase and poking around the item in, say, Safari, getting them to stop and download an app is kind of a big ask.

With cases like that in mind, Apple introduced a feature in 2018 that baked the “See this thing, but in your room!” concept right into iOS/iPad OS.

Called “Quick Look,” it allows for instant/one-tap AR experiences right within the apps the user already has, like Safari, Messages, Mail, etc. The retailer provides the 3D model (as a USDZ, a file format built in collaboration with Pixar), and Apple taps ARKit to render it as it would appear in the real world, handling everything from scaling to lighting and shadows.

At first, though, Quick Look was really just for that — looking. You could look at an item in AR, but that was about it.

Apple is expanding upon the concept a bit, allowing developers to bring a customizable button into the mix. It could be a purchase button, triggering an Apple Pay prompt on the spot. Or it can be wired up to do just about any other single action a retailer might want. It could initiate a customer support chat to let a customer ask about color options — or it could point them to local retailers who have it in stock so they can see it in person.

Apple is also quietly rolling support for spatial audio into Quick Look in the latest developer builds of iOS and iPad OS, allowing these 3D models to emanate sound — like, say, the bleeps and bloops of a toy, or music from a speaker — from wherever they’ve been virtually placed in the room. Move around the room, and the sound should shift accordingly.

Bringing more of the user experience directly into the built-in AR tool may seem like a small move, but it’s an interesting one. In 2018, Houzz CEO Adi Tatarko said that users of their AR tools were 11x more likely to make a purchase. Build.com found that people who checked out an item in AR were 22% less likely to return it. There are clearly benefits to AR in the mobile purchasing process — but the whole thing only works if it’s easy to use, quick and feels native. The more friction there is in the mix, the more people will drop out along the way.

Apple previewed the feature at WWDC last year; this week, a handful of big retailers — Home Depot, Wayfair, Bang & Olufsen and 1-800-Flowers — are rolling out their implementations. If improved sales/return numbers like the aforementioned hold true here, I’d expect it to become fairly commonplace across major retailers… and just like that, AR takes one big step closer to the mainstream.

Daily Crunch: Mobile World Congress is canceled

Posted: 13 Feb 2020 09:30 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. GSMA cancels Mobile World Congress due to coronavirus concerns

“The GSMA has cancelled MWC Barcelona 2020 because the global concern regarding the coronavirus outbreak, travel concern and other circumstances, make it impossible for the GSMA to hold the event,” CEO John Hoffman said in a statement.

Over the past few days, dozens of big name exhibitors announced they would skip this year's show. MWC usually attracts more than 100,000 attendees from 200 countries to Barcelona.

2. Andy Rubin's Essential shuts down

Essential was supposed to disrupt the smartphone industry, but it struggled with bad timing, broader industry issues and a founder embroiled in troubling allegations of sexual misconduct, ultimately failing to make it far beyond the launch of its first handset.

3. Astranis raises $90 million for its next-gen satellite broadband internet service

The funding will be used to help the company launch its first commercial satellites, which will be the bedrock of its future internet service offering, aimed at connecting the massive market of underserved populations around the world. The company’s focus on geostationary satellites — rather than satellites that hand off their connection through a kind of relay system — makes it different from many of the other entrants in the satellite internet race.

4. A new senate bill would create a US data protection agency

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has published a bill which, if passed, would create a U.S. federal data protection agency designed to protect the privacy of Americans, with the authority to enforce data practices across the country.

5. Will Apple, Facebook or Microsoft be the future of augmented reality?

While there are more AR platforms than the big three mentioned in the headline, Digi-Capital’s Tim Merel argues that they represent the top of the pyramid for three different types of AR roadmap. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Facebook Dating launch blocked in Europe after it fails to show privacy workings

Facebook has been left red-faced after being forced to call off the launch date of its dating service in Europe because it failed to give its lead EU data regulator enough advanced warning, and it failed to demonstrate it had performed a legally required assessment of privacy risks.

7. Intuition Robotics raises $36M for its empathetic digital companion

The company, best known for its ElliQ home robot for the elderly, also disclosed that it’s working with the Toyota Research Institute to bring its technology to the automaker's LQ concept. Intuition’s goal is to build digital assistants that can create emotional bonds between humans and machines.

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