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Yesterday — January 18th 2021Your RSS feeds

Startups at CES showed how tech can help elderly people and their caregivers

By Catherine Shu

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a harsh spotlight on the challenges many elderly people face. Older adults are among the highest-risk groups for developing cases that need hospitalization and nursing homes were especially vulnerable to outbreaks. While dealing with COVID-19, the elderly have also faced many other problems, including the difficulty of accessing medical care for chronic conditions during lockdowns and isolation.

Many of these issues won’t go away after the pandemic. According to the United Nations, the global population of people 65 and over is growing faster than any other age group. At the same time, there is a critical shortage of caregivers, especially for elderly people who want to continue living at home instead of moving into nursing homes.

Tech can help in many ways: by helping caregivers (and reducing burnout), allowing seniors to perform health monitoring at home and creating tools to combat isolation. During CES, there were several “age-tech” presentations. One of the most notable was AARP Innovation Lab, the non-profit’s startup accelerator program. It presented nine companies at the virtual show.

Zibrio's smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

Zibrio’s smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

One common theme among AARP’s group was tech that helps elderly people “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities instead of moving into a nursing home. For example, Wheel Pad designs accessible home and work spaces that can be installed into existing structures and sites. Mighty Health is an app that pairs users with health coaches, certified trainers and personalized nutrition plans, while Zibrio, a scale that assesses users’ balance to predict if they are at risk for a fall, can also be incorporated into at-home routines.

Other startups from AARP Innovation Lab focus on helping caregivers, too. For example, FallCall Solutions’ creates Apple Watch apps that send alerts if a fall is detected and help family members check on users. Another app, called Ianacare, helps family members coordinate caregiving tasks and ask for support. End-of-life planning is one of the most emotionally difficult processes for families, and Cake, an “end-of-life platform” helps by providing tools for estate and health care planning, as well as resources to help relatives cope with caregiving issues and grief.

Other startups center on medical care. For people with chronic conditions, Folia Health helps monitor the progress of treatments. On the clinical side, Embleema’s software allows clinical investigators to share data and design studies, making pharmaceutical research more efficient.

Other noteworthy age-tech startups at CES included Nobi, a smart lamp that automatically turns on when users stand up and sends alerts to family members if they fall. Nobi can also be used in residences and nursing homes.

Caregiver Smart Solution's app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solution’s app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solutions is a multi-faceted platform that makes it easier for seniors to stay at home with a machine learning-based app for early detection of potential health issues, fall sensors, monitors and emergency buttons. For people with incontinence, DFree, a wearable device, can reduce stress by monitoring how full their bladder is with an ultrasound sensor and keeping track of their average time between bathroom visits. It’s available for both consumers and health care facilities.

A diagram of companion robot Cutii's features

A diagram of companion robot Cutii’s features

For elderly people living in nursing homes, Rendever is a virtual reality platform that wants to help reduce isolation. It can be used with reminiscence therapy, which guides individuals with dementia through experiences that remind them of their pasts, and to allow virtual travel to landmarks. Cutii, a companion robot, also seeks to reduce loneliness. While companion robots have been a mainstay of CES for years, Cutii sets itself apart with entertainment like music, games and live events. It also has video call and night patrol features.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Home services platform Porch acquires four companies

By Frederic Lardinois

Only a few weeks after its SPAC IPO, Porch today announced that it has made four acquisitions, worth a total of $122 million. The most important here is probably the acquisition of Homeowners of America for $100 million, which gets Porch deeper into the home insurance space. In addition, Porch is also acquiring mover marketing and data platform V12 for $22 million, as well as home inspection service Palm-Tech and iRoofing, a SaaS application for roofing contractors. Porch did not disclose the acquisition prices for the latter two companies.

You may still think of Porch as a marketplace for home improvement and repair services — and that’s what it started out as when it launched about seven years ago. Yet while it still offers those services, a couple of years after its 2013 launch, the company pivoted to building what it now calls a “vertical software platform for the home.” Through a number of acquisitions, the Porch Group now includes Porch.com, as well as services like HireAHelper, Inspection Support Network for home inspectors, Kandela for providing services around moving and an insurance broker in the form of the Elite Insurance Group. In some form or another, Porch’s tools are now used — either directly or indirectly — by two-thirds of U.S. homebuyers every month.

Porch founder and CEO Matt Ehrlichman. Image Credits: Porch

As Porch founder and CEO Matt Ehrlichman told me, he had originally planned to take his company public through a traditional IPO. He noted that going the increasingly popular SPAC route, though, allowed him to push his timeline up by a year, which in turn now enables the company to make the acquisitions it announced today.

“In total, we had a $323 million fundraise that allows us now to not only be a public company with public currency, but to be very well capitalized. And picking up that year allows us to be able to go and pursue acquisitions that we think make really good fits for Porch,” Ehrlichman told me. While Porch’s guidance for its 2021 revenue was previously $120 million, it’s now updating that guidance to $170 million based on these acquisitions. That would mean Porch would grow its revenue by about 134% year-over-year between 2020 and 2021.

As the company had previously laid out in its public documents, the plan for 2021 was always to get deeper into insurance. Indeed, as Ehrlichman noted, Porch these days tends to think of itself as a vertical software company that layers insurtech on top of its services in order to be able to create a recurring revenue stream. And because Porch offers such a wide range of services already, its customer acquisition costs are essentially zero for these services.

Image Credits: Homeowners of America

Porch was already a licensed insurance brokerage. With Homeowners of America, it is acquiring a company that is both an insurance carrier as well as a managing general agent..

“We’re able to capture all of the economic value from the consumer as we help them get insurance set up with their new home and we can really control that experience to delight them. As we wrap all the technology we’ve invested in around that experience we can make it super simple and instant to be able to get the right insurance at the right price for your new home. And because we have all of this data about the home that nobody else has — from the inspection we know if the roof is old, we know if the hot water system is gonna break soon and all the appliances — we know all of this data and so it just gives us a really big advantage in insurance.”

Data, indeed, is what a lot of these acquisitions are about. Because Porch knows so much about so many customers, it is able to provide the companies it acquires with access to relevant data, which in turn helps them offer additional services and make smarter decisions.

Homeowners of America is currently operating in six states (Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia) and licensed in 31. It has a network of more than 800 agencies so far and Porch expects to expand the company’s network and geographic reach in the coming months. “Because we have [customer acquisition cost]-free demand all across the country, one of the opportunities for us is simply just to expand that across the nation,” Ehrlichman explained.

As for V12, Porch’s focus is on that company’s mover marketing and data platform. The acquisition should help it reach its medium-term goal of building a $200 million revenue stream in this area. V12 offers services across multiple verticals, though, including in the automotive space, and will continue to do so. The platform’s overall focus is to help brands identify the right time to reach out to a given consumer — maybe before they decide to buy a new car or move. With Porch’s existing data layered on top of V12’s existing capabilities, the company expects that it will be able to expand these features and it will also allow Porch to not offer mover marketing but what Ehrlichman called “pro-mover” services, as well.

“V12 anchors what we call our marketing software division. A key focus of that is mover marketing. That’s where it’s going to have, long term, tremendous differentiation. But there are a number of other things that they’re working on that are going to have really nice growth vectors, and they’ll continue to push those,” said Ehrlichman.

As for the two smaller acquisitions of iRoofing and Palm-Tech, these are more akin to some of the previous acquisitions the company made in the contractor and inspection verticals. Like with those previous acquisitions, the plan is to help them grow faster, in part through integrating them into the overall Porch group’s family of products.

“Our business is and continues to be highly recurring or reoccurring in nature,” said Porch CFO Marty Heimbigner. “Nearly all of our revenues, including that of these new acquisitions, is consistent and predictable. This repeat revenue is also high margin with less than 20% cost of revenue and is expected to grow more than 30% per year on our platform. So, we believe these deals are highly accretive for our shareholders.”

Vuzix’s new microLED-powered smart glasses will arrive this summer

By Brian Heater

Less than a full day into CES 2021, and it seems that smart glasses are very much shaping up as a trend. I wrote about a pair of AR glasses from Lenovo aimed at business applications yesterday, and a few other companies have popped up in the meantime, with various levels of “smartness” included.

Vuzix’s latest models are still several months away, but they seem to be one of the more promising we’ve seen at the show thus far. The company is best known for its business-focused solutions — that, after all, is where all the money is — at least until someone offers a really profound breakthrough in the consumer category.

These probably aren’t that (if I had to guess, I’d look more closely at offerings from bigger consumer electronics companies), but they do seem like a step in the right direction, in terms of an offering that bakes augmented reality into a presentable form factor. It seems like AR glasses that look like regular eyeglasses is the right hook here. There are clearly differentiating factors here, but the next-gen glasses look a lot closer to standard eyewear than what we’ve seen in the past.

That’s due in no small part to a partnership with Jade Bird Display, which will help commercialize the Chinese company’s microLED tech. Jade Bird describes it thusly:

JBD offers active matrix inorganic microLED display chips and panels with wavelength ranging from UV to visible to IR. The pixel pitch ranges from 400 dpi to 10,000 dpi with a varity of resolutions. With high brightness, high EQE, high reliability, these panels are ideal for AR, VR, HUD, projector, weapon sights, 3D printing, microscope, etc.

The module, which projects a monochrome stereoscopic image, is roughly the size of a pencil eraser, according to Vuzix’s description. The company says the glasses will be available in a number of configurations, including Wi-Fi and optional LTE. All will feature stereo speakers and noise-canceling mics.

No word on price, but Vuzix says they should hit the market this summer.

Scraped Parler data is a metadata gold mine

By Zack Whittaker

Embattled social media platform Parler is offline after Apple, Google and Amazon pulled the plug on the site after the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol last week that left five people dead.

But while the site is gone (for now), millions of posts published to the site since the riot are not.

A lone hacker scraped millions of posts, videos and photos published to the site after the riot but before the site went offline on Monday, preserving a huge trove of potential evidence for law enforcement investigating the attempted insurrection by many who allegedly used the platform to plan and coordinate the breach of the Capitol.

The hacker and internet archivist, who goes by the online handle @donk_enby, scraped the social network and uploaded copies to the Internet Archive, which hosts old and historical versions of web pages.

In a tweet, @donk_enby said she scraped data from Parler that included deleted and private posts, and the videos contained “all associated metadata.”

metadata such as https://t.co/f5y6AzZ3km pic.twitter.com/95cXeCbZo6

— crash override (@donk_enby) January 10, 2021

Metadata is information about a file — such as when it was made and on what device. This information is usually embedded in the file itself. The scraped videos from Parler appear to also include the precise location data of where the videos were taken. That metadata could be a gold mine of evidence for authorities investigating the Capitol riot, which may tie some rioters to their Parler accounts or help police unmask rioters based on their location data.

Most web services remove metadata when you upload your photos and videos, but Parler apparently didn’t.

Parler quickly became the social network of choice after President Trump was deplatformed from Twitter and Facebook for inciting the riot on January 6. But the tech giants said Parler violated their rules by not having a content moderation policy — which is what drew many users to the site.

Many of the posts made calls to “burn down [Washington] D.C.,” while others called for violence and the execution of Vice President Mike Pence.

Already several rioters have been arrested and charged with breaking into the Capitol building. Many of the rioters weren’t wearing masks (the pandemic notwithstanding), making it easier for them to be identified. But thanks to Parler’s own security blunder, many more could soon face an unwelcome knock at the door.

Lenovo launches AR glasses for enterprise

By Brian Heater

Lenovo seems to have gotten the memo that the real money in the augmented reality space is going to be made in enterprise. Ahead of tomorrow’s CES kick off, the hardware company announced the impending arrival of the ThinkReality A3, a pair of enterprise AR glasses that look to follow the lead set by companies like Epson and Microsoft.

The glasses are set to arrive at some point in the middle of the year. No word from Lenovo on pricing — which isn’t entirely surprising for an enterprise-only device. The headset sports a 1080p resolution, powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR1 chip. A pair of fish-eye cameras provide motion tracking, while an eight-megapixel RGB camera grabs video for remote use.

Image Credits: Lenovo

The device is designed to tether to a PC or a handful of Motorola (owned by Lenovo) phones via USB-C. The glasses follow the announcement of the ThinkReality A6 head-mounted display, which offers a more traditional form factor (insofar as there is a traditional form factor for AR, I suppose).

“For use in scenarios from factory floors and laboratories to busy retail and hospitality spaces, certified turnkey applications on the Think Reality platform powers remote assistance, guided workflows, and 3D visualization,” the company writes. “Now, industrial workers have a light, flexible, and scalable set of smart glasses to increase productivity and safety while decreasing error rates in daily tasks.”

Clearly Lenovo thinks the immediate future for AR is in the enterprise space. The company has dabbled with it a bit in the consumer space with products like the Star Wars Jedi Challenges headset, but for now at least, that feels like something of a one-off.

Parler jumps to No. 1 on App Store after Facebook and Twitter ban Trump

By Jonathan Shieber

Users are surging on small, conservative, social media platforms after President Donald Trump’s ban from the world’s largest social networks, even as those platforms are seeing access throttled by the app marketplaces of tech’s biggest players.

The social network, Parler, a network that mimics Twitter, is now the number one app in Apple’s app store and Gab, another conservative-backed service, claimed that it was seeing an explosion in the number of signups to its web-based platform as well.

Parler’s ballooning user base comes at a potentially perilous time for the company. It has already been removed from Google’s Play store and Apple is considering suspending the social media app as well if it does not add some content moderation features.

Both Parler and Gab have billed themselves as havens for free speech, with what’s perhaps the most lax content moderation online. In the past the two companies have left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, and allow users to traffic in conspiracy theories that other social media platforms have shut down.

The expectation with these services is that users on the platforms are in charge of muting and blocking trolls or offensive content, but, by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Their user counts might be surging, but would-be adopters may soon have a hard time finding the services.

On Friday night, Google said that it would be removing Parler from their Play Store immediately — suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

Parler is backed by the conservative billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, according to a November report in The Wall Street Journal. Founded in 2018, the service has experienced spikes in user adoption with every clash between more social media companies and the outgoing President Trump. In November, Parler boasted some 10 million users, according to the Journal.

Users like Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and the conservative talk show host Dan Bongino, a wildly popular figure on Facebook who is also an investor in Parler, have joined the platform. In the Journal article Bongino called the company “a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants.”

It’s worth noting that Parler and Gab aren’t the only companies to see users numbers soar after the Trump bans. MeWe Network, OANN, Newsmax and Rumble have also seen adoption soar, according to data from the analytics company Apptopia.

The company noted that Parler was the #1 app on the iOS app store for two days surging from 18th on Thursday and 592 on Wednesday. Overall, the app was the 10th most downloaded social media app in 2020 with 8.1 million new installs.

“It is an event driven app though,” a company analyst noted. “After events like the election, BLM protests, Twitter first applying labels to Trump’s Tweets, we see bursts of downloads and usage but it will then drop off.”

Sarah Perez and Lucas Matney contributed additional reporting to this article. 

 

Holographic startup Envisics partners with Panasonic to fast-track in-car AR tech

By Kirsten Korosec

Envisics founder and CEO Dr. Jamieson Christmas launched the startup three years ago to “revolutionize” the in-car experience with its holographic technology. Now, it has a partner that could help it achieve that mission.

The U.K.-based holographic technology startup said Friday it reached an agreement with Panasonic Automotive Systems to jointly develop and commercialize a new generation of head-up displays for cars, trucks and SUVs. Panasonic Automotive Systems is a Tier 1 automotive supplier and a division of Panasonic Corporation of North America. The head-up displays are units integrated in the dash of a vehicle that project images onto the windshield to aid drivers with navigation and provide other alerts. The Panasonic HUDs, as they’re often called, will use Envisics holographic technology.

The deal, announced ahead of the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show, follows Envisics’ $50 million Series B funding round and news that its tech will be integrated in the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq electric vehicle. The funding round, which brought Envisics a valuation of more than $250 million, included investments from Hyundai Mobis, GM Ventures, SAIC Ventures and Van Tuyl Companies.

Envisics’ technology, the foundation of which came out of Christmas’ PhD studies at Cambridge University more than 15 years ago, electronically manipulates the speed of light. This process enables images to appear three-dimensional, Christmas explained in a recent interview. The company has secured more than 250 patents and has another 160 pending certification.

The company is solely focused upon the automotive application of holography, Christmas said, adding that its first generation is already integrated in more than 150,000 Jaguar Land Rover vehicles.

Christmas said this new agreement aims to combine Panasonic’s expertise in optical design and its global reach as a Tier 1 supplier with Envisics’ technology to bring holography into the mainstream. Mass production of vehicles using its technology is slated for 2023, according to the companies.

“This is very much about part of our business plan, you know the Series B funding round we undertook was about scaling the business and enabling us to move forward as we enter the market,” Christmas said. “Part of that was a commitment to engage in partnerships with Tier ones that we can then work with to deliver these products to market.

“This is the first of those agreements,” he added, suggesting that Envisics has a much larger aim.

What that means, Christmas said, will be head-up displays with high resolution, wide color gamut and large images that can be overlaid upon reality. The technology can also project information at multiple distances simultaneously.

“That really unlocks very interesting applications,” he said. “In the short term, it will be kind of relatively simple augmented reality applications like navigation, highlighting the lane you’re supposed to be in and some safety applications. But as you look forward into things like autonomous driving it unlocks a whole realm of other opportunities like entertainment and video conferencing.”

He added that it could even be used for night vision applications such as overlaying enhanced information upon a dark road to make it clear where the road is going and what obstacles might be out there.

Epic acquires Rad Game Tools, veteran of many gaming generations

By Devin Coldewey

Epic today announced the acquisition of Rad Game Tools, maker of game development tools for many years. They’ve stayed largely behind the scenes, but many gamers will recognize the colorful Bink Video logo, which has appeared in the openings of many a title over the years.

“Our work with Epic goes back decades, and joining forces is a natural next step given our alignment on products, mission, and culture,” said Rad Game Tools founder and CEO Jeff Roberts said in the announcement. And it has seemingly only intensified recently.

Close integration with engines and platforms makes for good standards, and good standards get embraced by developers. That’s why Epic has been cozying up to Sony as well as snapping up components to fit into its Unreal engine, positioning it as an all-encompassing development platform for next-generation games.

Image Credits: RAD Game Tools

Rad (styled RAD) has been in games for a long time, as its decidedly old-school website attests. Bink is a video codec for games that focuses on high compression and speedy rendering, both important in the gaming world. Oodle, Telemetry, Granny 3D, and Miles Sound System are all development tools beyond what the lay person would understand, but no doubt have many fans.

Epic may be known now as the creator of money printing machine Fortnite, but the company has been around for decades and probably knows the Rad team well. That may help explain the friendly terms under which the acquisition will take place.

“RAD will continue supporting their game industry, film, and television partners, with their sales and business development team maintaining and selling licenses for their products to companies across industries – including those that do not utilize Unreal Engine,” Epic said in its announcement.

So while Bink and the rest will continue to be available for anyone to use outside Epic’s domain, they will almost certainly be better integrated with the Unreal ecosystem. As game development cost and complexity rises, means of simplification are often taken advantage of. Epic is working hard to make Unreal not just the most graphically powerful engine for development, but also the most unified.

A request for comment and further details on the deal sent to Rad Game Tools was intercepted by Epic and declined.

TikTok rolls out its first lidar-powered AR effect

By Sarah Perez

Snapchat was among the first apps to leverage the iPhone 12 Pro’s LiDAR Scanner for AR, but now TikTok has followed suit. The social video app confirmed today it has launched its first-ever LiDAR-powered effect to help its users ring in the new year. The effect features an AR ball, similar to the one that drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. After a countdown, the ball drops and explodes to fill the room with confetti, as well as a floating “2021” in the air.

Support for lidar, or Light Detection and Ranging, was introduced on the new flagship 5G iPhone models, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, in the fall. The technology helps the iPhone better understand the world around you, by measuring how long it takes for light to reach an object in the space and reflect back.

Along with improvements to the iPhone’s machine learning capabilities and dev frameworks, this allows for more immersive Augmented Reality (AR) experiences.

Snapchat, an early adopter of the technology, had first used the new LiDAR Scanner to create a Lens in its app where flowers and grasses would grow in the room around you. The Lens included virtual vegetation that even climbed up the walls and around the cabinets in the room, for example.

To ring in 2021 we released our first AR effect on the new iPhone 12 Pro, using LiDAR technology which allows us to create effects that interact with your environment – visually bridging the digital and physical worlds. We're excited to develop more innovative effects in 2021! pic.twitter.com/6yFD2FfHta

— TikTok_Comms (@tiktok_comms) January 6, 2021

Similarly, TikTok’s effect aims to use LiDAR’s understanding of the room to land the confetti more realistically after the ball explodes.

In the example video the company published on Twitter, it showed the confetti covering the floor, sofa and throw pillows, much as it would in real life. This effect wasn’t perfect by any means — it was still very clear this was an AR experience and not real confetti — but it was an improvement over AR effects that lack the same spatial awareness.

TikTok described the effect as being able to visually bridge the digital and physical worlds, thanks to how the AR effects interact with the user’s environment.

Of course, fun AR effects are only one of many use cases for something like LiDAR. The technology is also being adopted by apps that let you scan to create 3D models, like 3D Scanner App, or those that help with interior design, like RoomScan LiDAR, or even games, like the Apple Arcade title, Hot Lava.

TikTok says it plans to roll out “more innovative effects” over the course of 2021.

8 investors discuss social gaming’s biggest opportunities

By Lucas Matney

The gaming industry has had plenty of watershed moments in 2020 as consumer entertainment habits have shifted in response to the pandemic. One trend has been the crystallization of MMOs as social entertainment hubs that serve more needs for users than ever before.

Following my survey of gaming-focused investors on trends in the AR/VR world several months ago, I pinged a handful of investors to tap their thoughts on the shifting trends and opportunities in social gaming.

One thing that most investors expressed excitement around was the widening entertainment ambitions of social platforms, as concerts and movie screenings find homes on gaming platforms like Fortnite.

While evolving free-to-play mechanics continue to elevate the experience of single-player titles into something more living and breathing, platforms like Roblox have found areas for growth that seem more unique, developing into destinations for users to communicate and share.

“It’s where culture is created,” Madrona’s Daniel Li told TechCrunch.

Not all of the respondents shared the belief that a gaming platform like Fortnite would grow to become the next Facebook. General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos pointed to adjacent platforms like Discord or Twitch as the constants that would remain as consumers cycled through different platform ecosystems. Other pointed to the the still-disjointed experience switching between mobile and desktop experiences as a yet-to-be-solved stumbling block.

Building the metaverse and building a popular casual mobile game are two different things. Most investors I talked with emphasized how much the pace of scaling has accelerated across categories though with breakout hits rising faster than ever while disasters seem to grow evident just as quickly.

“I think that you look at Among Us, and Cyberpunk on the other side, anything can happen much faster and more extreme than it used to be just because of distribution,” Rogue VC’s Alice Lloyd George told TechCrunch.

Read below for the full answers; some responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Hope Cochran and Daniel Li, Madrona Venture Group

The idea that the next big social network will be an MMO seems to be a trendy take in the VC world, what are the roadblocks to this actually happening?

Daniel Li: Hope and I were trading some notes and part of our thesis is that gaming is the future of social and for Gen Z, gaming is replacing not just old games, but it’s replacing TV and Netflix. So instead of going to watch music videos on YouTube, you’re going to a concert in Roblox and that’s a social experience with your friend … instead of going to the mall, now you’re in Roblox. It’s where kids are hanging out and it’s where culture is created.

Hope Cochran: And in COVID, it’s the only place where they can hang out and I think the gaming industry has done a really fabulous job creating another social engagement that we need right now. I don’t want to focus too much on kids, but parents are becoming more accepting of their kids in the games because there is this social engagement and, for instance, I can see that my child is upstairs connecting with his four best friends. They log in together and they play. They normally might be out on a soccer field but they can’t right now so I think parents are becoming a little more comfortable saying, “Oh, he’s playing with his friends.”

Gaming has seemingly become a more “mainstream” area for investment, as someone who has been in the space a bit, what’s different about investing in the gaming sector?

HC: It’s very hard to find that balance between creative or understanding what might become a hit and a real business mind. So my experience has been that when you look into a gaming company as an investor, it’s actually more driven by math, stats and analytics, and then you have a core team who has the creative juices, so I try to look for that kind of dynamic.

So, who is developing what the users will love and who is analyzing it and how are they responding to what the users are loving. I do think there’s a point where a team develops a game and it’s mostly a creative process but then you have to kind of toggle to the analytics. It’s where the mathematicians meet the magicians and there needs to be a combination of that within every game.

What’s different about how popular games and MMOs are scaling these days? Have you seen any interesting growth hacks or strategies that seem promising?

DL: I think there are more and more of these cultural memes that just seem to come out of nowhere, like Among Us kind of just sat there for two years and streamers started picking it up and now it’s super popular. I’d say for nearly all of those, they’re going to be a social category of games, you don’t see a game like Cyberpunk come out of nowhere without any marketing dollars behind it.

So I do think one of those new channels is getting influencers to talk about your games, and typically I think for those it’s not actually the big influencers picking it up, it’s a whole bunch of small influencers all starting to play a game and have it start to build up steam that way. It’s more likely the Call of Duty’s that can hire the big streamers and pay them millions of bucks to play a new game, but I don’t think there’s a new to go-to-market for smaller studios around that.

How can MMOs, which feel like fundamentally active experiences, provide a better passive experience for users that may be more interested in the community than playing a first-person shooter or battle royale? How do games become more approachable to a wider audience?

DL: A lot of people are saying these single-player games aren’t really fun games anymore, they’re just like cinematic experiences. Like playing Cyberpunk for 60 hours versus binge-watching three TV series, it’s definitely a different experience. The thing that’s actually more interesting here is the virtual events that are happening inside these games. Thinking about what the next Twitch looks like, it’s probably some kind of experience where you’re inside the game doing something more passive.

Niko Bonatsos, General Catalyst

Niantic buys competitive gaming platform Mayhem

By Lucas Matney

Pokémon GO creator Niantic has acquired a small SF gaming startup building a league and tournament organization platform to help gamers create their own communities around popular titles.

Mayhem was in Y Combinator’s winter 2018 batch and went onto raise $5.7 million in funding according to Crunchbase. Other backers include Accel, which led the startup’s Series A in 2018, Afore Capital and NextGen Venture Partners.

The startup’s focus has shifted quite a bit since its initial YC debut, when it announced a service called Visor that would analyze video of esports gameplay and coach users on how they could improve their performance. The company has seemed to shift its focus wholly to community tools to help gamers find matches and organize tournaments for games like Overwatch on its platform.

Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed by Niantic .

The “majority” of Mayhem’s team will be joining Niantic with the startup’s CEO Ivan Zhou landing in the company’s Social Platform Product team while the rest of the team joins Platform Engineering.

In a statement, Niantic asserts that the acquisition “reinforces our commitment to real-world social as the centerpiece of our mission.”

Read a deep dive of Niantic on Extra Crunch

Most of Niantic’s acquisitions of late have focused on augmented reality backend technologies so it’s interesting to see them buying tech that focuses on community organization.

Pokémon GO continues to be Niantic’s cash cow though the company hasn’t seen the same levels of viral success with subsequent releases where organic growth hasn’t been quite as easy to come by. Buying a startup building community tools suggests the company is ready to bring in some outside tech to push their own efforts forward as they strive to create a broader platform for their AR ambitions and more standalone hits of their own.

The built environment will be one of tech’s next big platforms

By Jonathan Shieber

From the beginning, the plan for Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet and — by extension — a relative of Google) to develop a $1.3 billion tech-enabled real estate project on the Toronto waterfront was controversial.

Privacy advocates had justified concerns about the Google-adjacent company’s ability to capture a near-total amount of data from the residents of the development or any city-dweller that wandered into its high-tech panopticon.

But Alphabet, Sidewalk Labs’ leadership and even Canada’s popular prime minister, Justin Trudeau, had high hopes for the project.

Startups working in real estate technology managed to nab a record $3.7 billion from investors in the first quarter of the year.

“Successful cities around the world are wrestling with the same challenges of growth, from rising costs of living that price out the middle class, to congestion and ever-longer commutes, to the challenges of climate change. Sidewalk Labs scoured the globe for the perfect place to create a district focused on solutions to these pressing challenges, and we found it on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront — along with the perfect public-sector partner, Waterfront Toronto,” said Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of New York, in a statement announcing the launch in 2017. “This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world.”

From Sidewalk Labs’ perspective, the Toronto project would be an ideal laboratory that the company and the city of Toronto could use to explore the utility and efficacy of the latest and greatest new technologies meant to enhance city living and make it more environmentally sustainable.

The company’s stated goal, back in 2017 was “to create a place that encourages innovation around energy, waste and other environmental challenges to protect the planet; a place that provides a range of transportation options that are more affordable, safe and convenient than the private car; a place that embraces adaptable buildings and new construction methods to reduce the cost of housing and retail space; a place where public spaces welcome families to enjoy the outdoors day and night, and in all seasons; a place that is enhanced by digital technology and data without giving up the privacy and security that everyone deserves.”

From a purely engineering perspective, integrating these new technologies into a single site to be a test case made some sense. From a community development perspective, it was a nightmare. Toronto residents began to see the development as little more than a showroom for a slew of privacy-invading innovations that Sidewalk could then spin up into companies — or a space where startup companies could test their tech on a potentially unwitting population.

So when the economic implications of the global COVID-19 pandemic started to become clear back in March of this year, it seemed as good a time as any for Sidewalk Labs to shutter the project.

“[As] unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community,” Doctoroff said in a statement. “And so, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project.”

The New York Times launches an AR-enabled crossword on Instagram

By Sarah Perez

The New York Times is bringing its signature crosswords game into augmented reality. The media company announced this morning it’s launching a new AR-enabled game, “Shattered Crosswords,” on Instagram, where players will be able to solve clues by finding spinning broken crossword pieces in AR. When the right vantage point is achieved, players will find the words hidden among the shards above the puzzle.

The concept is similar to those found in other 3D puzzlers, like Polysphere, for example, where you swipe to rotate broken pieces to see a complete picture. But in this case, The NYT has made the whole gaming experience appear in augmented reality, as well.

The new game was built using technology from Facebook’s Spark AR platform, the company says, and it’s the first time The NYT has created an AR gaming experience.

However, it’s not the first time The NYT has worked with AR technology.

This fall, The NYT announced a multi-year collaboration with Facebook focused on publishing a series of AR-driven reporting on Instagram. The reports would use AR technology to tell stories in a more visual and interactive way. To support its new efforts, The NYT also launched its own AR Lab with a staff of more than a dozen employees who would work alongside a dedicated newsroom team to develop the AR journalism content.

To date, the Lab has helped produce visual stories tied to the centennial of women’s suffrage, the science behind the effectiveness of face masks and coverage of the California wildfires.

The NYT had begun to experiment with AR in previous years, too, though not in partnership with Facebook. In 2018, for example, it announced it would begin using augmented reality to tell stories within its own native app for iOS and Android.

Before today, The NYT did feature “live solves” of its crossword on social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, as a way to engage players on social media. But these were not standalone games or built with AR — they were viewing experiences.

That said, the new game itself may have limited appeal, beyond being an interesting demo of AR from The NYT. The puzzle is too small and simple to appeal to any serious crossword fans, and the process of finding clues in the shards requires gestures and movement, which can get frustrating after some time. It doesn’t move as smoothly as something like Polysphere, either, we found.

It’s not clear who would return to this sort of puzzle on a regular basis, compared with traditional mobile games or even the standard crossword puzzle.

The “Shattered Crosswords” game is available on the @NYTimes Instagram profile page under the “Effects” tab, alongside the company’s other AR reports. It works on both iOS and Android platforms.

Indiegogo founder launches alternative investments discovery platform Vincent

By Lucas Matney

As more and more alternative investment marketplaces pop up around specific verticals like art or collectibles, Indiegogo founder Slava Rubin is launching a Kayak-like platform called Vincent which helps curious investors get a handle on what the entire asset class has to offer.

Rubin and co-founders Evan Cohen, Eric Cantor and Ross Cohen have raised $2 million for the venture with backing from investors including Uncommon Denominator, ERA Ventures, The Fund and Rubin’s own firm Humbition. Vincent launched in beta this July but the firm is now ready to take the platform wide with a public launch. Rubin says the team has assembled the “most comprehensive database of alternate investments.”

Rubin has been a driving force behind alternative investments since his Indiegogo days and has helped guide some of the existing legislation that has made investments in alternative assets more tenable.

Part of the buzz around alternative investments in 2020 is the result of evolving guidance from stateside regulatory bodies, while added attention comes from the boom around investment platforms that bring users more approachable tools to access financial institutions. Specific verticals may be hoping to build up a Robinhood -like brand and following around their particular niche, but Vincent is aiming to benefit from rising tides and users eyeing diversification.

“[Our partners] are really heads down often on a lot of curation around a specific deal and trying to become experts in that space,” Rubin tells TechCrunch . “What we’ve learned is that the investor is thinking more about trying to get exposure to alternative investments and not only do they want exposure to one alternative investment, they want exposure to the entire asset class.”

The company currently has partnerships with about 50 platforms, Rubin tells me, including platforms like WeFunder, SharesPost, Rally Rd. and Otis. The deals which span real estate, venture, collectibles, and art, among others, bring Vincent users access to $2 billion worth of investments, the company says. Users visiting Vincent are asked whether or not they are accredited which routes them to the list of deals they have access to.

Similar to Kayak, people are using Vincent to source the deals, but once they find an asset that tickles their fancy, they’ve being redirected to the partner platform’s site or app in order to actually carry out the deal. Once a user carries out an investment on said platform, Vincent receives a standard fee from the partner platform.

Vincent’s main challenge is building up a brand that resonates with users without actually managing the actual investments themselves. Most of these partner platforms, as Rubin notes, are built around curating and developing an expertise around a specific niche, whether that works in a broader scenario is the big question.

“The whole goal of an aggregator is to really simplify an experience where the market is massively fragmented,” Rubin says.

Vincent is also aiming to be more than an aggregator, serving up editorial content with a blog and newsletter that the team hopes can make the platform more of a one-stop-shop for investors looking to educate themselves on alternative assets. For his part, Rubin hopes that the gold rush of startups building alternative investment platforms is the perfect time for a player to come in that focuses on streamlining everything.

 

Snap announces $3.5M fund directed toward AR Lens creation

By Sarah Perez

Snap today announced a new 2021 fund of $3.5 million that will be directed toward supporting Snapchat Lens creators and developers who are using the company’s Lens Studio tool to explore the use of AR technologies. The news kicked off Snap’s multi-day virtual event, Lens Fest, where it also announced an upgraded version of its Lens Studio software and revealed that Lenses made by the Snapchat community have now been viewed over 1 trillion times.

Snapchat’s Lenses have become a huge part of the app’s overall experience, especially now that development has been opened up to the wider Snapchat community. Today, Snap says there are tens of thousands of Lens Creators worldwide who have now made over 1.5 million Lenses to date.

Meanwhile, over 180 million people now interact with a Snapchat Lens every day — that’s up from just 70 million daily active users of Lenses when the Lens Explorer section first launched in the app.

The company wants to further invest in these community-made Lenses because they’re now driving the majority of the growth in Lens views among Snapchat users, where the top Lenses can climb to billions of views.

The new fund will build from Snapchat’s existing Creator Residency Program, announced at the Snap Partner Summit, which had allowed developers, creators and artists to apply for funding to make their Lenses. That program was focused on using technologies like SnapML, while two additional residency programs invested in areas like games, education and storytelling.

Snap says it will offer more details about how creators can tap into the new AR-focused $3.5 million fund sometime early next year.

Image Credits: Snap

In addition to the fund news, Snap revealed the update to Lens Studio (ver. 3.3), which adds new creator tools and workflows.

This includes a feature called My Lenses 2.0 for helping creators search and manage their own Lenses with a new tool. This lets them manage their Lenses in web browsers outside of the Lens Studio app, toggle between personal and sponsored Lens accounts, view their Lens status, set Lens visibility, as well as add tags, Scan Triggers, and Preview Videos.

The tool also introduces visual scripting which lets creators build complex logic for custom interactivity in their Lenses without coding. Other changes include improvements to compressing textures inside Lens Studio to help Lenses load faster and use less RAM; an updated Logger that will now group, filter and search messages; and a new Building Blocks feature that offers downloadable assets and helper scripts that help creators prototype, refine and add features to their Lens experiences.

Image Credits: Snap

Plus, the new Lens Studio adds several new templates, including a face morph templates that turn faces into 3D characters; a configuration template that uses UI widgets to create adjustable Lenses for shopping and try-on experiences; and a Tween template for building games and interactive experiences.

The Lens Fest virtual event will continue over the next three days, with sessions that focus on various technologies, like AR, Machine Learning, and LiDAR, as well as those about making Lenses successful, and other tips and tricks.

China watches and learns from the US in AR/VR competition

By Rita Liao

When Chi Xu left Magic Leap and returned to China, he had big ambitions. He believed China would have its own augmented and virtual reality giants, just as how the domestic smartphone industry birthed global leaders like Huawei, Oppo and Xiaomi that rival Apple today.

Xu, now chief executive of Nreal, one of China’s highest-funded AR startups, is among a group of entrepreneurs uniquely positioned to build world-class hardware. The young generation is well-versed in both worlds, with work experience in Silicon Valley and often an Ivy League degree. They are also well-connected to capital and supply chains in China, which would support them through cycles of iteration to deliver powerful yet affordable products.

Although China has been calling for more indigenous innovation, most of the advanced technologies found in AR and VR are still in the hands of foreign tech behemoths.

They might be proud of China’s technological progress, but they recognize supremacy doesn’t come overnight. More importantly, their firms often have intricate ties to the U.S., whether it’s for sourcing core parts or testing an early market.

Despite Beijing’s push for technological “self-reliance,” Chinese AR and VR companies still depend on imported chips like their smartphone counterparts. Because the industry is so young and no one really has a proven model for monetization, few investors and startups in China are willing to splurge on basic research.

But China has one important strength, said the founder of a Chinese AR startup who declined to be named: “In cutting-edge sectors, China has always lacked the talent to take things from ‘zero to one.’ However, China has the mass production and supply chain capabilities necessary for taking things from ‘one to n.'”

That was the case with smartphones. Once Apple demonstrated the technological and financial possibilities of handsets and gave rise to a production ecosystem around iPhones — in other words, catapulted the industry from zero to one — Chinese counterparts took cues from the American giant, made use of homegrown manufacturing resources and began delivering cheaper and even more powerful alternatives.

“I can’t imagine any Chinese corporations willing to invest in AR and VR as heavily as Microsoft, Apple or Facebook today,” said the founder, whose company sells headsets both in and outside China.

“On the contrary, China is good at playing catch-up by spending money on a race with a clear finish line. For example, chips. If there are already contestants in the area, so long as [Chinese firms] ramp up investment and follow the direction, they can deliver results.”

Chinese innovation

Although China, for the last decade, has been calling for more indigenous innovation, most of the advanced technologies found in AR and VR are still in the hands of foreign tech behemoths, several industry experts told TechCrunch. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips are used almost exclusively by serious players, from Facebook’s Oculus Quest in the U.S. to Pico and Nreal in China. Advanced optical solutions, on the other hand, mainly come from Japanese and Taiwanese firms.

Attendees stand in line to try out the new Oculus Quest Virtual Reality (VR) gaming system at the Facebook F8 Conference at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, on April 30, 2019. Image Credits: AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

That’s not to say Chinese companies don’t innovate. Prominent venture capitalist and AI expert Kai-Fu Lee famously argued in his book “AI Superpowers” that while the U.S. has an edge in fundamental research, China is stronger on implementation and commercial application.

“It’s true that the more experimental efforts are happening in the U.S., though I’m not sure if any of those are mature already,” Tony Zhao, founder and chief executive of real-time video API provider Agora and a veteran from WebEx, told TechCrunch. “For Chinese companies, there are more opportunities in [user experience].”

As AR and VR come of age, Zhao’s company is devising a toolkit to let developers and organizations stream and record AR content from devices. Use cases by China’s educators have particularly impressed Zhao. One client, for example, built a tool allowing a teacher to interact with a student through a virtual store, where the two speak English while they respectively act as the cashier and the customer.

“I think it’s very revolutionary because a lot of kids are going to be very excited to learn from those kinds of tools. It’s more like a real experience and would be more natural for students to learn to use a language instead of just know the grammar,” said Zhao.

“These solutions are already creative, but also very practical.”

The Chinese market offers other aspects that can keep investors excited. As Gavin Newton-Tanzer, president of Sunrise International, Asia producer of the “mixed reality” (XR) conference AWE, pointed out to TechCrunch:

“Many like to say that in the U.S., Magic Leap sucked all the air out of the room. They raised tons of money and as a result, few wanted to fund [other smart glass startups]. It’d be like funding a competitor to Didi in China or funding a competitor to Uber in the U.S. … Few felt like anyone else could meaningfully compete.”

Sundae snags $36M to build out its distressed property marketplace

By Ingrid Lunden

Opendoor has opened the door, so to speak, for startups to apply their technical expertise in search, marketplaces and audience segmentation to rethink the very antiquated and analogue world of property. Today, a startup that is doing this in the specific area of distressed property is announcing a round of growth funding to ramp up its team and expand its business.

Sundae — which has built a marketplace for homeowners to list and sell dated or damaged homes, or homes that they may need to shift faster for financial reasons; for property investors/developers seeking to buy, fix up and then sell or rent out those properties; and for itself potentially to buy in a property and do the same — is today announcing that it has raised a Series B of $36 million.

The funding is being led by QED Investors; Founders Fund, Susa Ventures, Navitas Capital, and Prudence Holdings also participated. All are previous investors from the startup’s last round, a $16.55 million Series A also led by QED.

In an interview, CEO and co-founder Josh Stech, who describes the business he is in as the “homes that need love segment”, declined to talk about the company’s valuation, and he also declined to give specifics on a number of other points: Sundae is not disclosing how many homeowners and developers have used its service (“thousands”); the average selling price for a property; the number of properties it’s shifted; and how many of those it’s bought it versus sold to a third party (the “vast majority”, more than 50% but less than 100%, are purchased by investors, not Sundae itself, he said).

He did note that in the four markets where the company has gone live since launching its business in January 2019 — San Diego, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, and Sacramento — has yielded an annualized revenue run rate of over $400 million in gross merchandise value (the total value of home sales transacted on its platform). That also speaks to the vast and interesting quantity of data that the startup is amassing on home sales, and how it can use that to power its platform in the future.

And as another measure of its momentum, that this latest round comes less than six months after its Series A.

With those two funding rounds all equity-based, to buy up property itself and provide $10,000 cash advances to all sellers, Sundae previously also raised a debt fund from high net worth individuals, and it has a “very large” debt facility from Goldman Sachs that it also non-dilutive, Stech said.

The opportunity that Sundae is tackling is one that has been a persistent cornerstone of the housing market, but one that might have become an even more keen factor in the last year.

In the US, there has long been a relentless push, both in newer cities with more room for geographical expansion and older cities where you have legacy buildings that get demolished, a drive for new-build homes. Interestingly, that demand has grown a lot during the pandemic, with demand for new homes as much as four times higher than demand for buying “existing” homes.

But at the same time, there has been a quickly dwindling supply of any housing stock, going down to as low as one month in terms of sales pace. As Stech puts it, that means that “In 30 days, if no homes get listed, there are no homes for sale.” That subsequently has put more of an emphasis on the sale of older homes to meet demand.

The issue with distressed property is that typically these days, people are not as interested in buying fixer-uppers as they may have been in the past. Those selling property want to present ready-to-inhabit homes for a quicker turnaround and to lower the barrier to sales. This means that usually distressed homes are rejected for sale, unless they have some work put into them first.

That’s presented an opportunity for developers (or as they are more commonly called in the US, property investors) who buy up those properties and put in the work on them to make them more sales-friendly. They work on the principle of many F’s: “find, finance, fix, fill or flip” as Stech puts it.

Sundae basically removes the friction both for the homeowners and the developers: those who want to sell their homes only have to deal with one entity, Sundae itself, which comes in to photograph (using Matterport) the property, provide some guidance on how to sell it and at what price, offer an advance on the sale in case the owner needs the money even faster, and ultimately bring in a number of interested prospects, including itself.

Those who are looking for investment properties can use the service to widen the funnel of homes that they can discover and work on.

Stech said he had a brainwave about the opportunity here when he finished graduate school at Stanford and moved to Las Vegas, which at the time was at the epicenter of the housing market crash of 2009. He bought a one-bedroom condo that sold for $267,000 in 2007 for $19,000 in cash and realized that the market was ripe for the taking.

There is admittedly something a little unsettling about any kind of business that focuses on distress: the implication is that those building services for people who are in difficult circumstances can take advantage of them and essentially operate in a predatory way.

Stech said that his intention is in fact to prevent that very situation, by creating a more transparent process where sellers are given the option of considering offers from multiple developers rather than just one that is not going to be operating with the seller’s interests in mind, but his own.

“It’s shameful what property developers have become,” Stech said. “The idea has become glamorized, and they make a ridiculous amount of money. Everyone forgets who lost in the process: the homeowner who is probably being forced to sell.”

That’s not to say that selling on a marketplace will remove that self-interest but it creates the option for more balanced dynamics where a seller might at least have more competition to consider. If especially tight markets like London’s are any example, in the best case scenarios sellers sitting in a property might even make an excellent turnaround on their homes, compared to the sums they initially paid to buy them, even if the home might still need a lot of “love” to become habitable by gentrified comparisons.

All of this is especially interesting in light of the bigger forces at play, which have brought us all closer to staying put in one place more than being nomadic, heightening the bigger urge to buy property rather than rent if we can manage it financially.

“The concept of homeownership is fundamentally changing. This is particularly true given COVID-19 which has caused more uncertainty and forced people to rethink their real estate decisions. Homeowners are looking for solutions that make the selling process more efficient, transparent, and reliable, particularly for the distressed property segment,” said Frank Rotman, founding partner at QED Investors, in a statement. “Sundae’s rapid growth is a testament to their differentiated offering and the trusted brand they’ve created through a customer-centric approach to the market.”

This is a good time to start a proptech company

By Walter Thompson
Colton Pace Contributor
Colton Pace is an investor at Fika Ventures. He previously held roles investing at Vulcan Capital and Madrona Venture Labs.
More posts by this contributor

Like many things in life, building great businesses is all about timing. We’ve seen multibillion dollar failures from the dot-com era such as Pets.com and Webvan be reincarnated a decade later as Chewy and Instacart — this time as runaway successes.

The same could be said about real estate technology companies, but startups in this category have not gotten the same opportunity and attention as their peers in other sectors.

For decades, proptech has received the short end of the stick. Real estate is the world’s largest asset class worth $277 trillion, three times the total value of all publicly traded companies. Still, fintech companies have received seven times more VC funding than real estate companies.

These lower levels of investment were previously attributed to the slow rate of technology adoption and digitalization within the real estate industry, but this is no longer the case. Companies in real estate are adopting innovation faster than ever. Now, 81% of real estate organizations plan to use new digital technologies in traditional business processes and spending on tech and software is growing at over 11% per year. Technological adoption has even accelerated throughout the pandemic as enterprises were forced to quickly adapt.

Historically, the strength or weakness of the broader economy and the real estate industry have been tightly coupled and correlated. While some may point to COVID-19’s negative impact on certain parts of real estate as evidence that proptech can only thrive in boom times, I believe building a successful proptech company is less about anticipating economic upswings and markets and more about timing and taking advantage of the right technological trends. In short, this is as good of a time as any to start a proptech company if you know where to look.

History is littered with examples of companies that have done just this. Let’s take a look at three:

Procore

  • Founded: 2002.
  • Early traction: Used by celebrity housing projects in California.
  • Inflection point: 2012 (people start using iPads and smartphones on job sites).
  • Today: $5 billion valuation as of May 2020.

Procore was founded in 2002 in the aftermath of the dot-com bust, well before widespread WiFi and five years before the iPhone. The company saw the capability for software and technology to transform the construction industry long before practitioners did. Its team faithfully and stubbornly kept at it through the financial crisis, but only had $5 million in revenue by 2012. Here’s where the timing kicks in: At this time, iPads and smartphones had become more common on worksites, enabling widespread adoption.

Realizing this change in-market and adapting to it, Procore strategically priced its product as a subscription, rather than based on headcount, as was typical in the industry. In this way, early customers like Wieland and Mortenson got their subcontractors and temp employees to use the product, which then created a flywheel effect that spread Procore to other projects and clients. Fast forward to today, Procore now has more than $290 million in ARR and is valued over $5 billion.

Procore’s persistence and agility ultimately enabled it to capitalize on the right technological trends and shifts, despite what initially seemed like a poorly timed decision to start a software company in a recession. Procore is now on a venture exit path as it continues to acquire new-age proptech companies like Avata Technologies, Honest Buildings and BIMAnywhere.

Zillow

  • Founded: 2006.
  • Early traction: Launched with 1 million website visits.
  • Inflection point: 2009 (financial crisis mindset).
  • Today: Public — $27 billion market capitalization.

Zillow was founded by the co-founders of Hotwire and Expedia. While that might not seem relevant, the vision to bring transparency to consumers is the connecting line, the mission being to provide access to siloed data and knowledge to previously convoluted industries. Before Zillow, homeowners did not know how much their house was worth. With Zillow’s Zestimate, consumers can put a price tag on every roof across North America.

Google shutting down Poly 3D content platform

By Lucas Matney

Google is almost running out of AR/VR projects to kill off.

The company announced today in an email to Poly users that they will be shutting down the 3D-object creation and library platform “forever” next year. The service will shut down on June 30, 2021 and users won’t be able to upload 3D models to the site starting April 30, 2021.

Poly was introduced as a 3D creation tool optimized for virtual reality. Users could easily create low-poly objects with in-VR tools. The software was designed to serve as a lightweight way to create and view 3D assets that could in turn end up in games and experiences, compared to more art and sculpting-focused VR tools like Google’s Tilt Brush and Facebook’s (now Adobe’s) Medium software.

Google has already discontinued most of the company’s AR/VR plays, including most notably their Daydream mobile VR platform.

The AR/VR industry’s initial rise prompted plenty of 3D-centric startups to bet big on creating or hosting a library of digital objects. As investor enthusiasm has largely faded and tech platforms hosting AR/VR content have shuttered those products, it’s less clear where the market is for this 3D content for the time being.

Users that have uploaded objects to Poly will be able to download their data and models ahead of the shutdown.

Loon’s stratospheric balloons are now teaching themselves to fly better thanks to Google AI

By Darrell Etherington

Alphabet’s Loon has been using algorithmic processes to optimize the flight of its stratospheric balloons for years now – and setting records for time spent aloft as a result. But the company is now deploying a new navigation system that has the potential to be much better, and it’s using true reinforcement learning AI to teach itself to optimize navigation better than humans ever could.

Loon developed the new reinforcement learning system, which it says is the first to be used in an actual product aerospace context, with its Alphabet colleagues at Google AI in Montreal over the past couple of years. Unlike its past algorithmic navigation software, this one is devised entirely by machine – a machine that’s able to calculate the optimal navigation path for the balloons much more quickly than the human-made system could, and with much more efficiency, meaning the balloons use much less power to travel the same or greater distances than before.

How does Loon know it’s better? They actually pitted the new AI navigation against their human algorithm-based prior system directly, with a 39 day test that flew over the Pacific Ocean. The reinforcement learning model kept the Loon balloon aloft over target areas for longer continuous periods, using less energy than the older system, and it even came up with some new navigational moves that the team has never seen or conceived of before.

After this and other tests proved such dramatic successes, Loon actually then went ahead and deployed across its entire production fleet, which is currently deployed across parts of Africa to serve commercial customers in Kenya.

This is one of few real-world examples of an AI system that employs reinforcement learning to actively teach itself to perform better being used in a real-life setting, to control the performance of real hardware operating in a production capacity and serving paying customers. It’s a remarkable achievement, and definitely one that will be watched closely by others in aerospace and beyond.

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