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Friday, February 28, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


GDC 2020 has been canceled

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 04:25 PM PST

Well, after what I’m sure was a hectic few days for the folks planning the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the team announced today that they have officially decided to cancel the event happening this March, saying in a blog post that they hoped they would be able to reschedule an event for “later in the summer.”

In recent days, nearly all of the event’s top corporate sponsors announced that they would not be sending employees to the event due to concerns surrounding coronavirus. Microsoft, Unity, Epic, Amazon, Facebook and Sony had all bowed out of the event. GDC’s statement did not reference the virus.

The company behind GDC detailed that they will be refunding conference and expo attendees in full, though a blog post details that the group hopes to host a GDC event later in the summer, noting, “We will be working with our partners to finalize the details and will share more information about our plans in the coming weeks.”

GDC is just the latest tech conference to be shuttered in the wake of worldwide concern surrounding the outbreak of coronavirus. Yesterday, Facebook announced it would be canceling the in-person component of its F8 conference and we have already seen the cancellation of GSMA‘s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Lyft ramps up self-driving program

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 04:12 PM PST

A year ago, Lyft submitted a report to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that summed up its 2018 autonomous vehicle testing activity in a single, short paragraph.

“Lyft Inc. did not operate any vehicles in autonomous mode on California public roads during the reporting period,” the letter read. “As such, Lyft Inc. has no autonomous mode disengagements to report.”

The 2019 data tells a different story. Lyft had 19 autonomous vehicles testing on public roads in California in 2019, according to data released earlier this week by the CA DMV. Those 19 vehicles, which operated during the reporting period of December 2018 to November 2019, drove nearly 43,000 miles in autonomous mode.

The report is the latest sign that Lyft is trying to ramp up its self-driving vehicle program known as Level 5. 

The CA DMV, the agency that regulates autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in the state, requires companies to submit an annual report that includes data such as total AV miles driven and number of vehicles. It also requires companies to report "disengagements," a term that describes each time a self-driving vehicle disengages out of autonomous mode either because its technology failed or a human safety driver took manual control for safety reasons.

That’s still far below established AV developers such as Cruise and Waymo, which accumulated 831,000 and 1.45 million autonomous miles, respectively. And it makes up just a tiny sliver of the total autonomous miles racked up by the 36 companies that tested on public roads in 2019.

The total number of autonomous miles driven in 2019 rose 40%, to more than 2.87 million, thanks largely to a notable uptick in public on-road testing by Baidu, Cruise, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox. While the number of companies with testing permits grew to 60 in 2019, the percentage of companies actually testing on public roads fell to about 58%. In 2018, about 62% of the 48 companies that held permits tested on public roads.

Other companies scaled back public testing in California. Some moved public testing outside of California, others retracted due to the high cost. Others said they were opting to place greater emphasis on simulation.

Still, the report shows Lyft is doing more than partnering with autonomous vehicle companies like Aptiv . Lyft and Aptiv launched a robotaxi pilot in January 2018 in Las Vegas. The program, which puts Aptiv vehicles on Lyft’s ride-hailing network, surpassed 100,000 rides this month. Human safety drivers are always behind the wheel and the vehicles do not drive autonomously in parking lots and hotel lobby areas.

Lyft’s Level 5 program — a nod to the SAE automated driving level that means the vehicle handles all driving in all conditions — was launched in July 2017. Today, Level 5 employs more than 400 people in the U.S., Munich and London.

Testing on public roads in California began in November 2018 with a pilot program in Palo Alto that provided rides to Lyft employees in Palo Alto. The pilot provided on-demand rides set on fixed routes, such as traveling between the Lyft office and Caltrain.

Since then, the company has expanded the scope and geography of the pilot. By late 2019, Lyft was driving four times more autonomous miles per quarter than it was six months prior.

Lyft is also testing on a dedicated closed-course track in East Palo Alto that it opened in November 2019. The company told TechCrunch it uses this facility, which can be changed to include intersections, traffic lights and merges, to test software prior to putting its vehicles on public roads.

Notivize makes it easier for non-technical teams to optimize app notifications

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 03:04 PM PST

A new startup called Notivize aims to give product teams direct access to one of their most important tools for increasing user engagement — notifications.

The company has been testing the product with select customers since last year and says it has already sent hundreds of thousands of notifications. And this week, it announced that it has raised $500,000 in seed funding led by Heroic Ventures .

Notivize co-founder Matt Bornski has worked at a number of startups, including AppLovin and Wink, and he said he has “so many stories I can tell you about the time it takes to change a notification that's deeply embedded in your stack.”

To be clear, Bornski isn’t talking about a simple marketing message that’s part of a scheduled campaign. Instead, he said that the “most valuable” notifications (e.g. the ones that users actually respond to) are usually driven by activity in an app.

For example, it might sound obvious to send an SMS message to a customer once the product they’ve purchased has shipped, but Bornski said that actually creating a notification like that would normally require an engineer to write new code.

“There's the traditional way that these things are built: The product team specs out that we need to send this email when this happens, or send this SMS or notification when this happens, then the engineering team will go in and find the part of the code where they detect that such a thing has happened,” he said. “What we really want to do is give [the product team] the toolkit, and I think we have.”

Notivize rule

So with Notivize, non-coding members of the product and marketing team can write “if-then” rules that will trigger a notification. And this, Bornski said, also makes it easier to “A/B test and optimize your copy and your send times and your channels” to ensure that your notifications are as effective as possible.

He added that companies usually don’t build this for themselves, because when they’re first building an app, it’s “not a rational thing to invest your time and effort in when you're just testing the market or you're struggling for product market fit.” Later on, however, it can be challenging to “go in and rip out all the old stuff” — so instead, you can just take advantage of what Notivize has already built.

Bornski also emphasized that the company isn’t trying to replace services that provide the “plumbing” for notifications. Indeed, Notivize actually integrates with SendGrid and Twilio to send the notifications.

“The actual sending is not the core value [of what we do],” he said. “We’re improving the quality of what you're paying for, of what you send.”

Notivize allows customers to send up to 100 messages per month for free. After that, pricing starts at $14.99 per month.

"The steady march of low-code and no-code solutions into the product management and marketing stack continues to unlock market velocity and product innovation," said Heroic Ventures founder Michael Fertik in a statement. “Having been an early investor in several developer platforms, it is clear that Notivize has cracked the code on how to empower non-technical teams to manage critical yet complex product workflows.”

Pioneer founder Daniel Gross on bringing remote teams together

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 02:45 PM PST

There are plenty of accelerators aiming to sway young startups to join their ranks rather than apply to Y Combinator, but Pioneer‘s sell is a bit different.

First off, they are fully remote; founders selected to participate in the program chat with advisors via video chat. Second, Pioneer is largely looking at companies that aren’t companies yet, framing themselves as more of a “startup generator” than an accelerator that aims to help entrepreneurs outside Silicon Valley zero in on exactly what kind of startup they want to build.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the accelerator, which is helmed by former YC partner Daniel Gross .

My interview with Gross had some interesting longer bouts I didn’t have space to include, so I’m including the salient bits here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


TechCrunch: Remote work seems to have its challenges; how have you overcome some of the humps of being a remote accelerator?

Daniel Gross: My overall view is that remote can replace the majority of real-world interaction. But there’s less inertia, if that makes sense, and so I think you can build real rapport and real relationships through a group video chat on the internet, but it will require much more thinking and effort around it than if you were just meeting up in the real world.

SpaceX wins the $117 million launch contract to explore Psyche’s heavy metal asteroid

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 01:57 PM PST

SpaceX has won the launch contract for NASA’s 2022 mission to explore the mineral-rich asteroid known as Psyche, the space agency announced today, including launch services and other mission-related costs valued at $117 million — remarkably low for a mission of this scale.

The Psyche mission will use a Falcon Heavy rocket, which will launch from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Located between Mars and Jupiter, the Psyche asteroid is made of the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet and represents a fragment of one of the earliest building blocks of our solar system.

NASA is hoping that the exploration of Psyche will yield clues about the history of the evolution of terrestrial planets through the examination of Psyche’s own proto-planetary material.

The space agency’s Psyche mission includes two secondary payloads: The Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, which will study the atmosphere on Mars, and the Janus mission, which will study binary asteroids.

NASA said its Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida will manage the SpaceX launch service and that the mission is led by Arizona State University .

"With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us," said principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, in a statement when NASA announced that it was approving the mission.

Pasadena, Calif.’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be the overall manager for the mission, including system engineering, integration, testing and mission operations. The spacecraft’s propulsion chassis is a high-power solar electric rig provided by Maxar Space Solutions.

This announcement clears the way for Phases D, E, and F of the Psyche mission — the final official phases before launch.

As we wrote last year:

Phase D will begin in early 2021, and includes the final manufacturing and testing of the spacecraft along with the planned launch in early 2022.

Phase E will happen as soon as Psyche's exploratory craft hits the vacuum of space, NASA said. It'll cover the deep space operations of the mission and the collection of data for science. NASA expects Psyche will arrive at its eponymous asteroid on January 31, 2026 after buzzing Mars in 2023 (two years before Elon Musk  predicted the first human astronauts would arrive).

Instruments on the Psyche craft will include a magnetometer designed to detect and measure the remnant magnetic field of the asteroid. A multi-spectral imager will be on board to provide high-resolution images to determine the composition of the asteroid (how much is metal versus how much is a silicate). The craft will also include a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to detect, measure and map the asteroid's elemental composition, and a new laser technology that's designed for deep space communications.

Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra on waitlists, freemium pricing and future products

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 01:25 PM PST

The “Sent via Superhuman iOS” email signature has become one of the strangest flexes in the tech industry, but its influence is enduring, as the $30 per month invite-only email app continues to shape how a wave of personal productivity startups are building their business and product strategies.

I had a chance to chat with Superhuman CEO and founder Rahul Vohra earlier this month during an oddly busy time for him. He had just announced a dedicated $7 million angel fund with his friend Todd Goldberg (which I wrote up here) and we also noted that LinkedIn is killing off Sales Navigator, a feature driven by Rapportive, which Vohra founded and later sold in 2012. All the while, his buzzy email company is plugging along, amassing more interested users. Vohra tells me there are now more than 275,000 people on the waitlist for Superhuman.

Below is a chunk of my conversation with Vohra, which has been edited for length and clarity.


TechCrunch: When you go out to raise funding and a chunk of your theoretical user base is sitting on a waitlist, is it a little tougher to determine the total market for your product?

Rahul Vohra: That’s a good question. When we were doing our Series B, it was very easily answered because we’re one of a cohort of companies, that includes Notion and Airtable and Figma, where the addressable market — assuming you can build a product that’s good enough — is utterly enormous.

With my last company, Rapportive, there was a lot of conversation around, “oh, what’s the business model? What’s the market? How many people need this?” This almost never came up in any fundraising conversation. People were more like, “well, if this thing works, obviously the market is basically all of prosumer productivity and that is, no matter how you define it, absolutely huge.”

FCC proposes $208M in fines for wireless carriers that sold your location for years

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 12:16 PM PST

The FCC has officially and finally determined that the major wireless carriers in the U.S. broke the law by secretly selling subscribers’ location data for years with almost no constraints or disclosure. But its Commissioners decry the $208 million penalty proposed to be paid by these enormously rich corporations, calling it “not properly proportioned to the consumer harms suffered.”

Under the proposed fines, T-Mobile would pay $91M; AT&T, $57M; Verizon, $48M; and Sprint, $12M. (Disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media. This does not affect our coverage in the slightest.)

The case has stretched on for more than a year and a half after initial reports that private companies were accessing and selling real-time subscriber location data to anyone willing to pay. Such a blatant abuse of consumers’ privacy caused an immediate outcry, and carriers responded with apparent chagrin — but often failed to terminate or even evaluate these programs in a timely fashion. It turns out they were run with almost no oversight at all, with responsibility delegated to the third party companies to ensure compliance.

Meanwhile the FCC was called on to investigate the nature of these offenses, and spent more than a year doing so in near-total silence, with even its own Commissioners calling out the agency’s lack of communication on such a serious issue.

Finally, in January, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — who, it really must be noted here, formerly worked for one of the main companies implicated, Securus — announced that the investigation had found the carriers had indeed violated federal law and would soon be punished.

Today brings the official documentation of the fines, as well as commentary from the Commission. In the documents, the carriers are described as not only doing something bad, but doing it poorly — and especially in T-Mobile’s case, continuing to do it well after they said they’d stop:

We find that T-Mobile apparently disclosed its customers' location information, without their consent, to third parties who were not authorized to receive it. In addition, even after highly publicized incidents put the Company on notice that its safeguards for protecting customer location information were inadequate, T-Mobile apparently continued to sell access to its customers' location information for the better part of a year without putting in place reasonable safeguards—leaving its customers' data at unreasonable risk of unauthorized disclosure

The general feeling seems to be that while it’s commendable to recognize this violation and propose what could be considered  substantial fines, the whole thing is, as Commissioner Rosenworcel put it, “a day late and a dollar short.”

The scale of the fines, they say, has little to do with the scale of the offenses — and that’s because the investigation did not adequately investigate or attempt to investigate the scale of those offenses. As Commissioner Starks writes in a lengthy statement:

After all these months of investigation, the Commission still has no idea how many consumers' data was mishandled by each of the carriers.

We had the power—and, given the length of this investigation, the time—to compel disclosures that would help us understand the true scope of the harm done to consumers. Instead, the Notices calculate the forfeiture based on the number of contracts between the carriers and location aggregators, as well as the number of contracts between those aggregators and third-party location-based service providers. That is a poor and unnecessary proxy for the privacy harm caused by each carrier, each of which has tens of millions of customers that likely had their personal data abused.

Essentially, the FCC didn’t even look at the number or nature of actual harm — it just asked the carriers to provide the number of contracts entered into. As Starks points out, one such contract can and did sometimes represent thousands of individual privacy invasions.

We know there are many—perhaps millions—of additional victims, each with their own harms. Unfortunately, based on the investigation the FCC conducted, we don't even know how many there were, and the penalties we propose today do not reflect that impact.

And why not go after the individual companies? Securus, Starks says, “behaved outrageously.” But they’re not being fined at all. Even if the FCC lacked the authority to do so, it could have handed off the case to Justice or local authorities that could determine whether these companies violated other laws.

As Rosenworcel notes in her own statement, the fines are also extraordinarily generous even beyond this minimal method of calculating harm:

The agency proposes a $40,000 fine for the violation of our rules—but only on the first day. For every day after that, it reduces to $2,500 per violation. The FCC heavily discounts the fines the carriers potentially owe under the law and disregards the scope of the problem. On top of that, the agency gives each carrier a thirty-day pass from this calculation. This thirty day "get-out-of-jail-free" card is plucked from thin air.

Given that this investigation took place over such a long period, it’s strange that it did not seek to hear from the public or subpoena further details from the companies facilitating the violations. Meanwhile the carriers sought to declare a huge proportion of their responses to the FCC’s questions confidential, including publicly available information, and the agency didn’t question these assertions until Starks and Rosenworcel intervened.

$200M sounds like a lot, but divided among several billion-dollar communications organizations it’s peanuts, especially when you consider that these location-selling agreements may have netted far more than that in the years they were active. Only the carriers know exactly how many times their subscribers’ privacy was violated, and how much money they made from that abuse. And because the investigation has ended without the authority over these matters asking about it, we likely never will know.

The proposed fines, called a Notice of Apparent Liability, are only a tentative finding, and the carriers have 30 days to respond or ask for an extension — the latter of which is the more likely. Once they respond (perhaps challenging the amount or something else) the FCC can take as long as it wants to come up with a final fine amount. And once that is issued, there is no requirement that the fine actually be collected — and the FCC has in fact declined to collect before once the heat died down, though not with a penalty of this scale.

“While I am glad the FCC is finally proposing fines for this egregious behavior, it represents little more than the cost of doing business for these carriers,” Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said in a statement. “Further, the Commission is still a long way from collecting these fines and holding the companies fully accountable.”

The only thing that led to this case being investigated at all was public attention, and apparently public attention is necessary to ensure the federal government follows through on its duties.

(This article has been substantially updated with new information, plus comments from Commissioner Starks and Rep. Pallone.)

Apple has blocked Clearview AI’s iPhone app for violating its rules

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 12:11 PM PST

An iPhone app built by controversial facial recognition startup Clearview AI has been blocked by Apple, effectively banning the app from use.

Apple confirmed to TechCrunch that the startup “violated” the terms of its enterprise developer program.

The app allows its users — which the company claims it serves only law enforcement officers — to use their phone camera or upload a photo to search its database of 3 billion photos. But BuzzFeed News revealed that the company — which claims to only cater to law enforcement users — also includes many private-sector users, including Macy’s, Walmart and Wells Fargo.

Clearview AI has been at the middle of a media — and legal — storm since its public debut in The New York Times last month. The company scrapes public photos from social media sites, drawing ire from the big tech giants that claim Clearview AI misused their services. But it’s also gained attention from hackers. On Wednesday, Clearview AI confirmed a data breach in which its client list was stolen.

The public Amazon S3 page containing the iPhone app (Image: TechCrunch)

TechCrunch found Clearview AI’s iPhone app on an public Amazon S3 storage bucket on Thursday, despite a warning on the page that the app is “not to be shared with the public.”

The page asks users to “open this page on your iPhone” to install and approve the company’s enterprise certificate, allowing the app to run.

But this, according to Apple’s policies, is prohibited if the app’s users are outside of Clearview AI’s organization.

Clearview AI’s use of an enterprise certificate on an iPhone (Image: TechCrunch)

Enterprise certificates are issued by Apple to allow companies to build and approve iPhone and iPad apps designed for internal company use only. It’s common for these certificates to be used to test apps internally before they are pushed out to the App Store. Apple maintains a strict set of rules on use of enterprise certificates, and says they cannot be used by consumers. But there have been cases of abuse.

Last year, TechCrunch exclusively reported that both Facebook and Google were using their enterprise certificates for consumer-facing apps in an effort to bypass Apple’s App Store. Apple revoked the tech giants’ enterprise certificates, disabling the infracting app but also any other app that relied on the certificate, including their catering and lunch menu apps.

The app was labeled as “beta” — typically a pre-release or a test version of the app. Besides this claim, there is no evidence to suggest this app was not used by Clearview AI customers.

Clearview AI chief executive Hoan Ton-That told TechCrunch: “We are in contact with Apple and working on complying with their terms and conditions.”

A brief analysis of the app through network traffic tools and disassembly tools shows it works largely in the same way as Clearview AI’s Android app, which was discovered by Gizmodo on Thursday.

Like the Android app, a user needs a Clearview AI-approved username and password to use the app.

Facebook Messenger ditches Discover, demotes chat bots

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 11:26 AM PST

Chat bots were central to Facebook Messenger’s strategy three years ago. Now they’re being hidden from view in the app along with games and businesses. Facebook Messenger is now removing the Discover tab as it focuses on speed and simplicity instead of broad utility like China’s WeChat.

The changes are part of a larger Messenger redesign that reorients the People tab around Stories as Facebook continues to try to dominate the ephemeral social media format it copied from Snapchat. The People tab now defaults to a full-screen sub-tab of friends’ Stories, and requires a tap over to the Active sub tab to see which friends are online now.

The changes could push users to spend more time visually communicating with friends and consuming content than exploring chat bots for shopping, connecting with businesses and playing games. That in turn could help Facebook earn more money from Messenger as it’s now showing Stories ads.

TechCrunch was tipped off to the redesign by social media director Jeff Higgins, who provided us with extensive screenshots of the update. These show the absence of Discover tab, the switch to just Chat and People tabs and the People sub-tabs for Stories and Active. We poked around some more and noticed the Instant Games and Transportation options missing from the chat composer’s utility tray. That formerly offered quick Uber and Lyft hailing. Messenger’s M Suggestions also no longer recommend the Transportation feature.

When we asked Messenger about the changes, a spokesperson confirmed that this redesign will soon start rolling out, removing Discover and splitting the People tab. Some users already have the update, and more will likely get it this week. They noted that Facebook had announced last August that it planned to eventually axe Discover, and that the added emphasis on Stories was motivated by users’ affinity for the ephemeral social media format. They also told us that Transportation was removed in late 2017, and Instant Games’ removal from the composer is part of the migration to Facebook Gaming announced last July.

A look at the old Messenger Discover tab that’s being removed

Chat bots, businesses and games are being hidden, but not completely banished from Messenger. They’ll still be accessible if users purposefully seek them through the Messenger search bar, Pages and ads on Facebook, buttons to start conversations on businesses’ websites, and m.me URL that create QR codes which open to business accounts in Messenger. The spokesperson diplomatically claimed that businesses are still an important part of Messenger.

But without promotion via Discover, businesses will have to rely on their owned or paid marketing channels to gain traction for their chat bots. That could discourage them from building on the Messenger platform.

The rise and fall of Facebook chat bots

The update feels like the end of a four-year era for Facebook. Back in 2016, it saw artificially intelligent chat bots as a way for businesses to scalably communicate with people, deliver customer service and push e-commerce. But when it launched the chat bot platform at its F8 conference that year, it arrived half-baked.

The typing-based semantic user interfaces were confusing, the AI necessary to make chat bots seem human (or at least reliably understand their human conversation partners hadn’t evolved yet) and several of the launch partner bots like Poncho The Weather Cat were laughably useless. The public soured on the idea of chat bots, and attempts to improve them felt insufficient.

Messenger launched Discover in 2017 in hopes that free promotion and visibility might convince developers to invest in building better chatbots. Yet by early 2018, even Facebook was backpedaling, shelving its plan to build out a full-service AI personal assistant called M that you could ask to do anything. Instead, it’d merely make AI suggestions of different Messenger features to use, like Stickers or reminders based on what you typed. Then it announced last year that it would move Instant Games out of Messenger and into Facebook’s dedicated Gaming tab.

There is still an opportunity to use chat bots for gathering initial info from people with sales or customer service inquiries. Everyone hates dealing with this stuff over the phone, waiting on hold and wading through touch-tone menus. Using asynchronous messaging makes communicating with businesses much more convenient. I’d bet Facebook will still be pushing this as an enterprise use case for Messenger. But this still usually requires a human in the loop at some point, and these are better structured as reactive utilities users search for than as experience proactively promoted by a Discover tab.

A laughably bad interaction with old Messenger chat bot Poncho The Weather Cat

Now with Discover disappearing, Messenger seems to be surrendering the fight to become a WeChat-style monolithic utility. In China, WeCat serves not just as a messaging app but as a way to make payments, hail a taxi, book flights, top up your mobile data, get a loan, find housing or shop at businesses via mini programs.

But while that centralized all-in-one style fit Chinese culture, Western markets have experienced more of an unbundling with different apps emerging to handle each of these use cases. Facebook’s constant privacy scandals and increasing anti-trust scrutiny also inhibited this approach with Messenger. Users and the U.S. government weren’t ready to trust Facebook to handle so much of our daily lives. Facebook Messenger also has to jockey with competition like iMessage and Snapchat that could undercut it if it gets too bloated.

So now Messenger is going in the opposite direction. It’s becoming more WhatsApp-like — simple, speedy and centered around peer-to-peer communication. Visual communication through Stories, with replies to them delivered as messages, feels like a natural extension of this focus while conveniently offering a path to monetization. If Messenger can be the best-in-class place to chat, unencumbered by promotion of chat bots and businesses, users might stay locked into the Facebook ecosystem.

Facebook brings its 3D photos feature to users with single-camera phones

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 11:04 AM PST

Facebook first showed off its 3D photos back in 2018, and shared the technical details behind it a month later. But unless you had one of a handful of phones with dual cameras back then (when they weren’t so common), you couldn’t make your own. Today an update brings 3D photos to those of us still rocking a single camera.

In case you don’t remember or haven’t seen one lately, the 3D photos work by analyzing a 2D picture and slicing it into a ton of layers that move separately when you tilt the phone or scroll. I’m not a big fan of 3D anything, and I don’t even use Facebook, but the simple fact is this feature is pretty cool.

The problem is it used the dual-camera feature to help the system determine distance, which informed how the picture should be sliced. That meant I, with my beautiful iPhone SE, was out of the running — along with about a billion other people who hadn’t bought into the dual-camera thing yet.

But over the last few years the computer vision team over at Facebook has been working on making it possible to do this without dual-camera input. At last they succeeded, and this blog post explains, in terms technical enough that I’m not even going to attempt to summarize them here, just how they did it.

The advances mean that many — though not all — relatively modern single-camera phones should be able to use the feature. Google’s Pixel series is now supported, and single-camera iPhones from the 7 forward. The huge diversity of Android devices makes it hard to say which will and won’t be supported — it depends on a few things not usually listed on the spec sheet — but you’ll be able to tell once your Facebook app updates and you take a picture.

Maybe y’all should have gone public in Q4

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 09:59 AM PST

Daily Crunch: Facebook cancels F8 over coronavirus concerns

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 09:57 AM PST

Coronavirus fears prompt even more event cancellations, controversial facial recognition software is being used widely and DocuSign acquires Seal Software. Here’s your Daily Crunch for February 28, 2020.

1. Facebook cancels F8 conference, citing coronavirus concerns

Facebook has confirmed that it has canceled its annual F8 developers conference over growing concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. More specifically, the company says it's canceling the "in-person component” — there may still be video presentations, along with live-streamed and local events, under the F8 umbrella.

At the same time, companies, including Microsoft, are pulling out of the Game Developers Conference over similar concerns. And the Geneva Motor Show was just canceled.

2. Clearview said its facial recognition app was only for law enforcement as it courted private companies

After claiming that it would only sell its controversial facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies, a new report in BuzzFeed News suggests that Clearview AI is less than discerning about its client base, and has in fact shopped its technology far and wide.

3. DocuSign acquires Seal Software for $188M to enhance its AI chops

Seal Software was founded in 2010, and, while it may not be a mainstream brand, its customers include the likes of PayPal, Dell, Nokia and DocuSign itself. (DocuSign previously invested in the company, too.) These businesses use Seal for its contract management tools, but also for its analytics, discovery and data extraction services.

4. Senate passes 'rip and replace' bill to remove old Huawei and ZTE equipment from networks

Written as a response to recent concerns around Chinese hardware manufacturers, the bill would ban purchase of telecom equipment from embattled Chinese manufactures like Huawei and ZTE. It also includes $1 billion in funding to help smaller rural telecoms "rip and replace" existing equipment from specific manufacturers.

5. The world Bob Iger made

The Disney executive has been openly thinking about retirement and searching for a successor — a search that culminated in this week's announcement that he'd be stepping down from the CEO role immediately. But Iger's succession planning hasn't stopped him from solidifying Disney's dominance of the entertainment business, a position designed to last long after his departure. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. 'Robot' was coined 100 years ago, in a play predicting human extinction by android hands

Published 100 years ago, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Czech writer Karel Čapek is best remembered for bringing the word "robot" to sci-fi — and English, generally.

7. Catching up with Startup Battlefield

We’re trying out something new: As you (hopefully) know, TechCrunch hosts a number of Startup Battlefield events, and afterwards, those startups often go on to do interesting and newsworthy things. But there are so many Battlefield alumni at this point that we can’t cover every announcement. So occasionally, I’ll be rounding them up here.

This week, we’ve got news from Berlin 2019 competitor Nodle.io, which is crowdsourcing the connectivity of smart sensors by offloading the task to smartphones. And Nodle announced this week that it has acquired Internet-of-Things security company Brickchain.com.

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.

Amazon is the latest to ditch GDC this year

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 09:44 AM PST

GDC’s top sponsors continue to pull out of attending the San Francisco gaming conference. Today, Amazon announced it would no longer be sending employees to the event.

In an update, the team shared that they would instead be hosting a “global online event” to share news that they had been planning to detail at the conference.

Amazon Game Tech is a “diamond partner” at the Game Developers Conference this year, a designation that signifies sponsors “who play an integral role in the success of GDC,” the conference says on its website. At this point, the only diamond partners who have not officially withdrawn are Intel, Nvidia and Google.

Facebook, Sony, Microsoft, Unity and Epic Games have all pulled out of the conference over concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, Amazon joins them.

TechCrunch has reached out to the other remaining sponsors at the event.

Microsoft’s Cortana drops consumer skills as it refocuses on business users

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 09:44 AM PST

With the next version of Windows 10, coming this spring, Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant will lose a number of consumer skills around music and connected homes, as well as some third-party skills. That’s very much in line with Microsoft’s new focus for Cortana, but it may still come as a surprise to the dozens of loyal Cortana fans.

Microsoft is also turning off Cortana support in its Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April and on older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service date, which usually comes about 36 months after the original release.

cortana

As the company explained last year, it now mostly thinks of Cortana as a service for business users. The new Cortana is all about productivity, with deep integrations into Microsoft’s suite of Office tools, for example. In this context, consumer services are only a distraction, and Microsoft is leaving that market to the likes of Amazon and Google .

Because the new Cortana experience is all about Microsoft 365, the subscription service that includes access to the Office tools, email, online storage and more, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the assistant’s new feature will give you access to data from these tools, including your calendar, Microsoft To Do notes and more.

And while some consumer features are going away, Microsoft stresses that Cortana will still be able to tell you a joke, set alarms and timers, and give you answers from Bing.

For now, all of this only applies to English-speaking users in the U.S. Outside of the U.S., most of the productivity features will launch in the future.

Wondering about getting a job at SpaceX? Elon Musk says innovation is the main criterion

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 09:37 AM PST

In a wide-ranging discussion at the Air Warfare Symposium held by the U.S. Air Force, Elon Musk touched on some old and new themes, but one highlight of the discussion was the small window into hiring and firing practices at SpaceX — arguably one of the world’s most demanding engineering companies. 

The company prides itself on innovation, and, for its chief executive officer, that apparently extends to the interview process itself.

“[When we] interview people we ask for some evidence of exceptional ability that includes innovation,” says Musk. “At the interview point we select for new people who want to create new technology.”

The mercurial chief executive didn’t elaborate more fully on what proof of innovation looks like in the interview process or in an applicant’s previous work, but it’s an interesting bullet point on the company’s practices.

And the emphasis on innovation extends to the company’s incentive structure, advancement decisions and ultimately how long someone will remain at the company, Musk said.

“Incentive structure is set up that innovation is rewarded and making mistakes along the way but failure to try to innovate comes with a big penalty,” Musk said. “You will be fired.”

It’s not just a failure to innovate, according to Musk. If the employee’s “innovations aspirations are not very good, they will no longer be at the company.”

This emphasis on innovation is critical for companies and nations to remain ahead of their competition. Musk said he doesn’t necessarily worry about intellectual property theft at either Tesla or SpaceX because hopefully the companies are developing technologies that are at least three years ahead of the competition.

“The way you achieve intellectual property protection is by innovating fast enough,” says Musk. “Speed of innovation is what matters. I do say this to my teams quite a lot. Innovation per-year is what matters.”

Although a company like IBM, with a massive patent portfolio and thousands of innovations locked in its laboratory might take issue with the sentiment, Musk says his point extends not just to companies, but to competing nation-states too.

Specifically, Musk mentioned the need for innovation if the U.S. is going to compete effectively against China, a country that could have an economy twice to three-times the size of the United States in the coming years.

“The foundation of war is economics,” Musk said. “If you have half the resources of the counterparty then you better be real innovative because [otherwise] we're going to lose… The U.S. will be, militarily, second.”

End Game, the startup behind Zombs Royale, raises $3M

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 09:24 AM PST

End Game Interactive CEO Yang C. Liu has a refreshingly straightforward description of what he and his co-founder Luke Zbihlyj are up to: “We're just building games. And to be honest, we don’t know what we're doing.”

Despite this self-proclaimed ignorance, End Game has just raised $3 million in seed funding from an impressive group of investors: The round was led by the game-focused firm Makers Fund, with participation from Clash of Clans developer Supercell, Unity CEO David Helgason, Twitch COO Kevin Lin, Twitch VP Hubert Thieblot, Danny Epstien and Alexandre Cohen of Main Street Advisors and music executive Scooter Braun.

Liu told me that he and Zbihlyj got their start by building websites tied to existing games, such as PokéVision, a site for finding Pokémon in Pokémon GO. However, they were inspired by the success of simple, browser-based multiplayer games like Slither.io to create games of their own — first Zombs.io, then Spinz.io, then Zombs Royale.

Altogether, End Game says its titles have attracted more than 160 million players, with 1 million people playing in a single day. Zombs Royale, in particular, seems to have been a hit — the battle royale game (where a single map can pit up to 100 players against each other) was one of 2018’s most Googled games in the United States.

Liu said the team’s success convinced them to focus their efforts on game development: “Do we want to make products that people simply use, or games that people think about out when they’re going to school, or going to work, or dream about?”

End Game founders

Zombs Royale was supposedly built in less than four weeks, but Liu said that after its launch in early 2018, the team spent most of the year maintaining and scaling the game. Then 2019 was all about building a team and creating the next game, Fate Arena, a title in the new Auto Chess genre that’s supposed to launch on PC, mobile and other platforms soon.

Liu noted that unlike End Game’s previous work, which featured simple 2D art (“On Zombs Royale and Spinz, I did the art, and it’s terrible”), Fate Arena will feature a “3D, high-fidelity art style.”

But even as the company’s games start looking a little less primitive, the goal is still to develop and iterate quickly. Liu said he hopes to fund “many tries” at building other cross-platform, multiplayer games with this seed round.

“We pride ourselves on rapid experimentation,” he said, adding that the key is “not biting off more than we can chew. We design [our games] to scale from the beginning. We don't necessarily need to be World of Warcraft, where you need to make 100 quests as the baseline. We're focused on games with a small starting point that can scale into something much bigger.”

Supercell Developer Relations Lead Jaakko Harlas made a similar point in a statement included in the funding announcement:

Many companies are quick to point out how fast-moving they are. Then you come across a team like this and realize what being lean and moving fast really means. Yang, Luke and the team have already shown that they can ship accessible games that showcase a real flair for fun, and we look forward to supporting them in their quest for the next big hit game.

 

Google, Toyota invest in WhereIsMyTransport to map transport in emerging cities

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 07:32 AM PST

In emerging markets, up to 80% of the population may have to rely on informally-run public transport to get around. Literally, privately-run buses and cars. But journey-planning apps that work well for commuters in developed markets like New York or London do not work well in emerging markets, which is why you can’t just flip open an app like Citymapper in Lagos, Nigeria. Furthermore, mobility is a fundamental driver of social, political, and economic growth. If you cannot get around, you can't grow as a country, so it's pretty important for these emerging economies.

WhereIsMyTransport specialises in mapping these formal and informal public transport networks in emerging markets. They have mapped 34 cities in Africa and are mapping cities in India, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Its integrated mobility API includes proprietary algorithms, features and capabilities designed for complex transit networks in these emerging markets.

It's now raised a $7.5 million Series A funding round led by Liil Ventures, that also includes returning investors Global Innovation Fund and Goodwell Investments, plus new strategic investment from Google, Nedbank, and Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC).

The platform now has more than 750,000 km of routes in 39 cities and the new strategic investment will drive further international expansion.

Devin de Vries, said: "We make the invisible visible, by collecting all kinds of data related to public transport and turning the data into information that can be shared with the people who need it most. In emerging markets, the mobility ecosystem is complex; informal public transport doesn't behave like formal public transport. Data and technology solutions that work well in London or San Francisco wouldn't make anything like the same impact, if any at all, in the cities where we work. Our solutions are designed specifically to overcome these contextual challenges."

Mr. Masato Yamanami, Automotive Division's CEO of Toyota Tsusho Corporation, also said that “our division's global network, that covers 146 countries, is primarily focused on new emerging countries where people rely on informal public transport. Through strategic collaboration with WhereIsMyTransport, we will establish better and more efficient mobility services that help to resolve social challenges and contribute to the overall economic development of nations, primarily emerging nations."

Finally, Alix Peterson Zwane, Chief Executive Officer of Global Innovation Fund, said: "Informal and often unreliable mass transit is a significant problem that disproportionately affects poor people. We are excited to continue to work with WhereIsMyTransport to make mass transportation in emerging cities more accessible and more efficient.”

Public markets fall yet again as venture deal counts appear to slip

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 07:27 AM PST

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

All around, this has been a tough week. The coronavirus is spreading and worry is running high as infections mount. In economic terms, global markets were repeated declines last night (domestic results here), and the U.S. indices are off again this morning.

There’s been plenty of bad news to read, even in our private market, startup-focused world. Yesterday the impact of COVID-19 on earnings became more apparent, bringing what has, for months, been an external concern to domestic technology companies. The problems are now. The past week’s market collapse into correction territory hasn’t helped,.

But the story so far has largely been public-market focused and with good reason: You can see the public markets contract in real-time. It’s far harder to see into the shifting dynamics of the private market. Today, however, we are going to try, all the same, by digging into some preliminary venture capital data.

I realize that the last few days have been awful. So, at the end of this piece, I’ve excerpted a quote from a recent interview I held with the CEO of Smartsheet, Mark Mader, about tech cycles, downturns, and getting through tough times. It’s perhaps useful today as the downward trend appears to continue.

Let’s start with a brief reminder of how elevated stock prices remain and what that means for tech multiples, and then look at early February VC results from the U.S., China and Europe. With that, in Sanskrit: अभिमुखी करोति.

Multiples, Markets

Before we dig into the venture capital data, a reminder that, even with recent declines, we’re still in warm waters as far as tech valuations go.

Teen hit Yolo raises $8M to let you Snapchat anonymously

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 07:25 AM PST

It wasn’t a fad. Yolo became the country’s No. 1 app just a week after launch by letting teens ask for anonymous replies to questions they posted on Snapchat. But nine months later, Yolo is still in the top 100 iOS apps and has 10 million active users. Now it’s safeguarding the app from predators while revealing a smart new feature for spinning up anonymous group chats, powered by $8 million in fresh funding.

“What we are trying to build is a new kind of network where there’s a fluidity to identity,” Yolo co-founder Greg Henrion tells me. “We weren’t sure if Yolo was here to stay, but we’re still ranking well and there seems to be a real opportunity in anonymity starting with Snapchat Q&A.”

Yolo is the first big win for Snapchat’s Snap Kit platform that lets developers piggyback on its login, Bitmoji avatars, stickers and Stories. This lets tiny development teams build apps that hundreds of millions of people, teens in particular, can instantly sign up for in just a few taps. Another Snap Kit app for meeting new people called Hoop recently spiked to No. 2 on the charts

We haven’t seen this kind of social platform success since Zynga’s empire rose atop Facebook. Spawning more blockbusters like Yolo could ensure that a Snapchat account is a must-have utility for the next generation.

Sleepless nights atop the charts

“For two weeks we basically didn’t sleep,” Henrion recalls about the chaos he and co-founder Clément Raffenoux endured after Yolo shot to No. 1 last May. “You’re trying to stay afloat. It was very, very wild.”

The basic premise of Yolo is that you write a question like, “Who’s my celebrity look alike?”, “What do people really think of me?” or “How could I be nicer?” You’re then switched over to Snapchat, where you can post the question in your Story or messages with a link back to Yolo. There, people can anonymously leave a response; you can post that and your reply with another post on Snapchat.

Yolo co-founder and CEO Greg Henrion, in real life and Bitmoji

The result is that friends and followers feel comfortable giving you real talk. They don’t have to sugarcoat their answers. And that makes people race to open Yolo each time they get a message. Yolo has seen 26 million downloads across iOS and Android globally, with nearly 70% in the U.S, according to Sensor Tower.

Other anonymous apps like tbh (acquired by Facebook) and Sarahah (kicked off the app stores) quickly faded, and others eventually imploded due to bullying, like Secret and YikYak. Although tbh hit No. 1 in September 2017, it was out of the top 500 by November. It seems a combination of inherent virality via Snapchat, easy user acquisition via Snap Kit and sharp product design has given Yolo some staying power. It still managed 2.2 million downloads last month versus a peak of 5.5 million in its first month back in May 2019.

That June, Yolo quietly raised a $2 million seed round thanks to its sudden success. The team had been grinding since 2017 on a video reactions app called Popshow funded by a small pre-seed round from SV Angel, Shrug Capital and Product Hunt's Ryan Hoover. They’d previously built music video-making app Mindie that eventually sold to influencer collective Shots Studios. Popshow never caught on, so the team began experimenting on Snap Kit, building a more official Q&A feature for Snapchat than predecessors like Sarahah and Polly. Then, boom. Days after launch, Yolo’s usage exploded.

But to keep users interested, Yolo needed to evolve. That would require more funding for the eight-person team split between Snapchat’s home of Los Angeles and Henrion’s home of Paris.

An honest way to chat

The concept of a social app where users could shift between full anonymity and representation via avatar attracted its $8 million Series A to invest in product and engineering. The round was led by Thrive Capital, Ron Conway’s A.Capital, former TechCrunch editor Alexia Tsotsis’ Dream Machine (also in the seed round), Shrug, Day One, Goodwater, Knight VC, ex-Facebooker Bobby Goodlatte, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and SV Angel’s Brian Pokorny.

That cash fueled the release of Yolo’s new group chat feature. You can set up a chat room, give it a name and generate an invite URL or sticker you can post on Snapchat, just like its previous question feature. Friends or friends of friends that are already in can join the group chat, represented by their Bitmoji instead of their name. Yolo suggests people join the more open “party mode” chats where their friends are active.

What makes this special is that once an hour, users can tap the Yolo Superpowers button to send  a totally anonymous message to the group. More Superpowers are coming, but there’s also an anonymous “Someone has a crush on [name]” message so you can secretly profess your affection to anyone or someone else in the chat.

“The limits of Q&A is that it doesn’t generate real conversation. It’s an ice breaker, but we also want conversations to happen,” Henrion stresses. “‘What do you think about this dress?’ The group chat is more about ‘let’s talk about the dress.'” The chats could be focused on people you actually know offline, or those you share interests with. The option to restrict group chats to either just your contacts or friends of friends “limits the amount of meeting strangers,” Henrion explains. “This is very different from the public communities like Reddit or the dating apps.”

Can “anonymous” be synonymous with “safe”?

Still, anonymous apps have consistently proven to be havens for cyberbullying and unsafe behavior. Without the accountability of having your name attached, people are free to say awful things. That can be even worse amongst teenagers who might get in trouble for being mean at school but not on an app.

Yolo first focused on messages blocking 10% of overall messages that contained offensive content. That meant blatant hate speech and trolling couldn’t spread through the app. “We’re strict on moderation. When looking at the reviews about bullying, it’s like nothing compared to any other anonymous app. I think we solved 90% of the problem.”

Now it’s working with Snapchat to safeguard the group chats feature. The goal is to ensure Yolo doesn’t actively recommend chat amongst adults to minors and vice-versa. Henrion says this update should roll out soon.

“It’s 2020 and we need to be very responsible” Henrion tells me. “Moderation and growth are the most difficult things to balance. It’s moderation first for sure. We don’t care about growth if it’s not healthy or sustainable.” The new funding also gives Yolo the luxury of pushing back monetization while it focuses on safely adding more users.

By making anonymity more private, Yolo has a chance to sidestep some of the worst elements of human behavior. Making fun of someone has less appeal if there’s no wider audience like trolls exploited in the feeds and comment reels of Secret and YikYak.

That could let the brighter side of anonymity shine through: vulnerability, honesty and deep connections that are enhanced by the absence of embarrassment. With all the change, uncertainty and anxiety that’s part of growing up, teens deserve a place where they can be open with each other and speak their minds. After all, you only live once.

Relativity Space expands its rocket-printing operations into an enormous new Long Beach HQ

Posted: 28 Feb 2020 07:02 AM PST

Building a rocket is a big operation, even when you’re printing them from the ground up, like Relativity Space . The launch startup is graduating from its initial office, which is a bit cramped for assembling rockets, to a huge space in Long Beach, where the company will go from prototype to first flight.

We recently visited Relativity at their old headquarters, which had the scrappy (literally — there were metal scraps everywhere) industrial feel you’d expect from a large-scale hardware startup. But except for the parking lot, there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put together… you know, a rocket.

So it was no surprise when co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis said that the company was just starting the process of moving to a gigantic new open-plan warehouse-style building in Long Beach.

Relativity CEO Tim Ellis is obviously excited about the new HQ.

“It’s a big step,” Ellis told TechCrunch. “It’ll actually be the first factory we fully build out with 3D printers. This new space is actually big enough that we'll be printing the first and second stages, and the fairing at the same time. The new ceiling height is approximately 40 feet, which will allow us to build taller — about twice the height of our current facility. We're on track to start shipping parts to Stennis for testing later this year.”

In addition to the three “Stargate” printers that can print parts up to 15 feet high, they’ll have three more that can go up to 20 feet and two that can go up to 30. It’s a bit hard to imagine a single printed rocket part 30 feet tall until you’ve seen some of the pieces Relativity has already made.

Not only do the rockets take up a lot of space, but the company itself is growing.

“From two years ago to now we’ve over 20X-ed our entire footprint as a company,” Ellis pointed out. In other words, it was starting to feel a bit overpopulated in their old spot near LAX.

This the space as it is now; the image up top is a render of how it will look once active.

Assembly of the launch vehicle, called Terran 1, its Aeon engines and R&D will all take place in the new HQ. It’s nearly 120,000 square feet, and will be built as a very high-tech manufacturing operation indeed. There will be no fixed tooling, meaning the factory can be rapidly reconfigured, and will be highly automated. The company’s 3D printers aren’t like the simple ones used for rough prototyping, but enormous, carefully monitored robot arms that perform real-time analysis of the metal they are laying down.

“It’s really the first autonomous factory, and it’s not just for rockets,” Ellis said. “Once we prove out the factory with this first launch vehicle, we’re convinced this works towards our long-term plan of launching factories to Mars and building a wide range of products that you’re going to need there. It’s on the path for the long-term vision but also a way for us to be a pioneer in this new value chain for aerospace.”

“It’s going to be cool,” he added.

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