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Apple finally launches a Screen Time API for app developers

By Sarah Perez

Just after the release of iOS 12 in 2018, Apple introduced its own built-in screen time tracking tools and controls. In then began cracking down on third-party apps that had implemented their own screen time systems, saying they had done so through via technologies that risked user privacy. What wasn’t available at the time? A Screen Time API that would have allowed developers to tap into Apple’s own Screen Time system and build their own experiences that augmented its capabilities. That’s now changed.

At Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, it introduced a new Screen Time API that offers developer access to frameworks that will allow parental control experience that also maintains user privacy.

Oh there’s a Screen Time API, nice #WWDC21 pic.twitter.com/Et6lfs6g7X

— Guilherme Rambo (@_inside) June 7, 2021

The company added three new Swift frameworks to the iOS SDK that will allow developers to create apps that help parents manage what a child can do across their devices and ensure those restrictions stay in place.

The apps that use this API will be able to set restrictions like locking accounts in place, preventing password changes, filtering web traffic, and limiting access to applications. These sorts of changes are already available through Apple’s Screen Time system, but developers can now build their own experiences where these features are offered under their own branding and where they can then expand on the functionality provided by Apple’s system.

ScreenTime API looks great, I sincerely hope someone provides me a way to bulk change stuff for my kids. If I had known I would have to tweak each kids ScreenTime individually like I do today, I might have had less children. #WWDC21

— Stan Lemon (@stanlemon) June 7, 2021

 

Developers’ apps that take advantage of the API can also be locked in place so it can only be removed from the device with a parent’s approval.

The apps can authenticate the parents and ensure the device they’re managing belongs to a child in the family. Plus, Apple said the way the system will work lets parents choose the apps and websites they want to limit, without compromising user privacy. (The system returns only opaque tokens instead of identifiers for the apps and website URLs, Apple told developers, so the third-parties aren’t gaining access to private user data like app usage and web browsing details. This would prevent a shady company from building a Screen Time app only to collect troves of user data about app usage, for instance.)

The third-party apps can also create unique time windows for different apps or types of activities, and warn the child when time is nearly up. When it registers the time’s up, the app lock down access to websites and apps and perhaps remind the child it’s time to their homework — or whatever other experience the developer has in mind.

And on the flip side, the apps could create incentives for the child to gain screen time access after they complete some other task, like doing homework, reading or chores, or anything else.

Developers could use these features to design new experiences that Apple’s own Screen Time system doesn’t allow for today, by layering their own ideas on top of Apple’s basic set of controls. Parents would likely fork over their cash to make using Screen Time controls easier and more customized to their needs.

Other apps could tie into Screen Time too, outside of the “family” context — like those aimed at mental health and wellbeing, for example.

Oooh – an API for Screen Time! Definitely want to build support for this into Streaks, if possible.https://t.co/keuaJ6WFvo#wwdc21

— Quentin Zervaas (@qzervaas) June 7, 2021

Of course, developers have been asking for a Screen Time API since the launch of Screen Time itself, but Apple didn’t seem to prioritize its development until the matter of Apple’s removal of rival screen time apps was brought up in an antitrust hearing last year. At the time, Apple CEO Tim Cook defended the company’s decision by explaining that apps had been using MDM (mobile device management) technology, which was designed for managing employee devices in the enterprise, not home use. This, he said, was a privacy risk.

Apple has a session during WWDC that will detail how the new API works, so we expect we’ll learn more soon as the developer info becomes more public.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Apple to introduce A/B testing and in-app events to the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Apple today announced a number of coming changes and improvements to the App Store that will help developers better target their apps to users, get their apps discovered by more people and even highlight what sort of events are taking place inside their apps to entice new users to download the app and encourage existing users to return.

The company said its App Store today sees 600 million weekly users across 175 countries, and has paid out more than $230 billion to developers since the App Store launched, highlighting the business opportunity for app developers.

However, as the App Store has grown, it’s become harder for app developers to market their apps to new users or get their apps found. The new features aim to address that.

Image Credits: Apple

One change involves the app’s product page. Starting this year, app developers will be able to create multiple custom product pages to showcase different features of their app for different users. For instance, they’ll be able to try out things like different screenshots, videos, and even different app icons to A/B test what users like the most.

They’ll also be able to advertise the dynamic things that are taking place inside their apps on an ongoing basis. Apple explained that apps and games are constantly rolling out new content and limited time events like film premieres on streaming services, events like Pokémon GO fests, or Nike fitness challenges. But these events were often only discoverable by those who already had the app installed and then opted in to push notifications.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple will now allow developers to better advertise these events, with the launch of in-app events “front and center on the App Store.” The events can be showcased on the app’s product page. Users can learn more about the events, sign up to be notified or quickly join the event, if it’s happening now. They can also discover events with personalized recommendations and through App Store search.

App Store editors will curate the best events and the new App Store widget will feature upcoming events right on users’ home screens, too.

Apple says the feature will be open to all developers, including those who already run events and those who are just getting started.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Apple Maps upgrade brings more detailed maps, transit features, AR view and more

By Sarah Perez

Among many updates coming to iOS 15, Apple Maps will receive a number of upgrades that will bring more detailed maps, improvements for transit riders, AR experiences and other changes to the platform. The improvements build on the new map Apple began rolling out two years ago, which had focused on offering richer details, and — in response to user feedback and complaints — more accurate navigation.

Since then, Apple Maps has steadily improved.

The new map experience has since launched in the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Canada and will now make its way to Spain and Portugal, starting today. It will then arrive in Italy and Australia later this year, Apple announced during its keynote address during its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday.

maps driving

Image Credits: Apple

In addition, Apple said iOS 15 Maps will include new details for commercial districts, marinas, buildings and more. Plus, Apple has added things like elevation, new road colors and labels, as well as hundreds of custom designed landmarks — for example, for places like the Golden Gate Bridge.

Apple also built a new nighttime mode for Maps with a “moonlit glow,” it said.

For drivers, Apple added new road details to the map, so it can help drivers as they move throughout a city to better see and understand important things like turn lanes, medians, bus and taxi lanes and other things. The changes are competitive with some of the updates Google has been making to its own Google Maps platform, which brought street-level details in select cities. These allowed people — including those navigating on foot, in a wheelchair, on a bike or on a scooter, for example — to better see things like sidewalks and intersections.

Apple is now catching up, saying it, too, will show features like crosswalks and bike lanes.

It will also render things like overlapping complex interchanges in 3D space, making it easier to see upcoming traffic conditions or what lane to take. These features will come to CarPlay later in the year.

Image Credits: Apple

For transit riders, meanwhile, Maps has made improvements to help users find nearby stations.

Users can now pin their favorite lines to the top, and even keep track on their Apple Watch so they don’t have to pull out their phone. The updated Maps app will automatically follow your transit route and notify you when it’s time to disembark, making the app more competitive to third-party apps often favored by transit takers, like Citymapper, for instance.

maps train stop

Image Credits: Apple

When you exit your station, you can also now hold up your iPhone to scan the buildings in the area and Maps will generate an accurate position, offering direction in augmented reality. This is similar to the Live View AR directions Google announced last year.

This feature is launching in select cities in 2021 with more to come in the year ahead, Apple said.

Image Credits: Apple

 

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

Skiff, an end-to-end encrypted alternative to Google Docs, raises $3.7M seed

By Zack Whittaker

Imagine if Google Docs was end-to-end encrypted so that not even Google could access your documents. That’s Skiff, in a nutshell.

Skiff is a document editor with a similar look and feel to Google Docs, allowing you to write, edit and collaborate in real-time with colleagues with privacy baked in. Because the document editor is built on a foundation of end-to-end encryption, Skiff doesn’t have access to anyone’s documents — only users, and those who are invited to collaborate, do.

It’s an idea that has already attracted the attention of investors. Skiff’s co-founders Andrew Milich (CEO) and Jason Ginsberg (CTO) announced today that the startup has raised $3.7 million in seed funding from venture firm Sequoia Capital, just over a year since Skiff was founded in March 2020. Alphabet chairman John Hennessy, former Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang, and Eventbrite co-founders Julia and Kevin Hartz also participated in the round.

Milich and Ginsberg told TechCrunch that the company will use the seed funding to grow the team and build out the platform.

Skiff isn’t that much different from WhatsApp or Signal, which are also end-to-end encrypted, underneath its document editor. “Instead of using it to send messages to a bunch of people, we’re using it to send little pieces of documents and then piecing those together into a collaborative workspace,” said Milich.

But the co-founders acknowledged that putting your sensitive documents in the cloud requires users to put a lot of trust into the startup, particularly one that hasn’t been around for long. That’s why Skiff published a whitepaper with technical details of how its technology works, and has begun to open source parts of its code, allowing anyone to see how the platform works. Milich said Skiff has also gone through at least one comprehensive security audit, and the company counts advisors from the Signal Foundation to Trail of Bits.

It seems to be working. In the months since Skiff soft-launched through an invite-only program, thousands of users — including journalists, research scientists and human rights lawyers — use Skiff every day, with another 8,000 users on a waitlist.

“The group of users that we’re most excited about are just regular people that care about privacy,” said Ginsberg. “There are just so many privacy communities and people that are advocates for these types of products that really care about how they’re built and have sort of lost trust in big companies.”

“They’re using us because they’re really excited about the vision and the future of end-to-end encryption,” he said.

Google updates Firebase with new personalization features, security tools and more

By Frederic Lardinois

At its I/O developer conference, Google today announced a slew of updates to its Firebase developer platform, which, as the company also announced, now powers over 3 million apps.

There’s a number of major updates here, most of which center around improving existing tools like Firebase Remote Config and Firebase’s monitoring capabilities, but there are also a number of completely new features here as well, including the ability to create Android App Bundles and a new security tool called App Check.

“Helping developers be successful is what makes Firebase successful,” Firebase product manager Kristen Richards told me ahead of today’s announcements. “So we put helpfulness and helping developers at the center of everything that we do.” She noted that during the pandemic, Google saw a lot of people who started to focus on app development — both as learners and as professional developers. But the team also saw a lot of enterprises move to its platform as those companies looked to quickly bring new apps online.

Maybe the marquee Firebase announcement at I/O is the updated Remote Config. That’s always been a very powerful feature that allows developers to make changes to live production apps on the go without having to release a new version of their app. Developers can use this for anything from A/B testing to providing tailored in-app experience to specific user groups.

With this update, Google is introducing updates to the Remote Config console, to make it easier for developers to see how they are using this tool, as well as an updated publish flow and redesigned test results pages for A/B tests.

Image Credits: Google

What’s most important, though, is that Google is taking Remote Config a step further now by launching a new Personalization feature that helps developers automatically optimize the user experience for individual users. “It’s a new feature of [Remote Config] that uses Google’s machine learning to create unique individual app experiences,” Richards explained. “It’s super simple to set up and it automatically creates these personalized experiences that’s tailored to each individual user. Maybe you have something that you would like, which would be something different for me. In that way, we’re able to get a tailored experience, which is really what customers expect nowadays. I think we’re all expecting things to be more personalized than they have in the past.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also improving a number of Firebase’s analytics and monitoring capabilities, including its Crashlytics service for figuring out app crashes. For game developers, that means improved support for games written with the help of the Unity platform, for example, but for all developers, the fact that Firebase’s Performance Monitoring service now processes data in real time is a major update to having performance data (especially on launch day) arrive with a delay of almost half a day.

Firebase is also now finally adding support for Android App Bundles, Google’s relatively new format for packaging up all of an app’s code and resources, with Google Play optimizing the actual APK with the right resources for the kind of device the app gets installed on. This typically leads to smaller downloads and faster installs.

On the security side, the Firebase team is launching App Check, now available in beta. App Check helps developers guard their apps against outside threats and is meant to automatically block any traffic to online resources like Cloud Storage, Realtime Database and Cloud Functions for Firebase (with others coming soon) that doesn’t provide valid credentials.

Image Credits: Google

The other update worth mentioning here is to Firebase Extensions, which launched a while ago, but which is getting support for a few more extensions today. These are new extensions from Algolia, Mailchimp and MessageBird, that helps bring new features like Algolia’s search capabilities or MessageBird’s communications features directly to the platform. Google itself is also launching a new extension that helps developers detect comments that could be considered “rude, disrespectful, or unreasonable in a way that will make people leave a conversation.”

Google updates its cross-platform Flutter UI toolkit

By Frederic Lardinois

Flutter, Google’s cross-platform UI toolkit for building mobile and desktop apps, is getting a small but important update at the company’s I/O conference today. Google also announced that Flutter now powers 200,000 apps in the Play Store alone, including popular apps from companies like WeChat, ByteDance, BMW, Grab and DiDi. Indeed, Google notes that 1 in 8 new apps in the Play Store are now Flutter apps.

The launch of Flutter 2.2 follows Google’s rollout of Flutter 2, which first added support for desktop and web apps in March, so it’s no surprise that this is a relatively minor release. In many ways, the update builds on top of the features the company introduced in version 2 and reliability and performance improvements.

Version 2.2 makes null safety the default for new projects, for example, to add protections against null reference exceptions. As for performance, web apps can now use background caching using service workers, for example, while Android apps can use deferred components and iOS apps get support for precompiled shaders to make first runs smoother.

Google also worked on streamlining the overall process of bringing Flutter apps to desktop platforms (Windows, macOS and Linux).

But as Google notes, a lot of the work right now is happening in the ecosystem. Google itself is introducing a new payment plugin for Flutter built in partnership with the Google Pay team and Google’s ads SDK for Flutter is getting support for adaptive banner formats. Meanwhile, Samsung is now porting Flutter to Tizen and Sony is leading an effort to bring it to embedded Linux. Adobe recently announced its XD to Flutter plugin for its design tool and Microsoft today launched the alpha of Flutter support for Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for Windows 10 in alpha.

Google launches the first beta of Android Studio Arctic Fox

By Frederic Lardinois

At its I/O developer conference, Google today announced the first beta of the next version of its Android Studio IDE, Arctic Fox. For the most part, the idea here is to bring more of the tooling around building Android apps directly into the IDE.

While there is a lot that’s new in Arctic Fox, maybe the marquee feature of this update is the integration of Jetpack Compose, Google’s toolkit for building modern user interfaces for Android. In Android Studio, developers can now use Compose Preview to create previews of different configurations (think themes and devices) or deploy a preview directly to a device, all while the layout inspector makes it easier for developers to understand how (and why) a layout is rendered the way it is. With Live Updates enabled any change is then also directly streamed to the device.

The team also integrated the Android Accessibility Test Framework directly into Android Studio to help developers find accessibility issues like missing content descriptions or a low contrast in their designs.

Image Credits: Google

Just like with some of the updates to Android itself, the team is also looking at making it easier to develop for a wider range of form factors. To build Wear OS apps, developers previously had to physically connect the watch to their development machine or go through a lot of steps to pair the watch. Now, users can simply pair a watch and phone emulator (or physical phone) with the new Wear OS Pairing feature. All this takes now is a few clicks.

Also new on the Wear OS side is a new heart rate sensor for the Wear OS Emulators in Android Studio, while the Android Automotive emulator gains the ability to replay car sensor data to help those developers with their development and testing workflow.

Android Studio users who work on a Mac will be happy to hear that Google is also launching a first preview of Android Studio for the Apple Silicon (arm64) architecture.

Image Credits: Google

Chrome now uses Duplex to fix your stolen passwords

By Frederic Lardinois

Google announced a new feature for its Chrome browser today that alerts you when one of your passwords has been compromised and then helps you automatically change your password with the help of… wait for it… Google’s Duplex technology.

This new feature will start to roll out slowly to Chrome users on Android in the U.S. soon (with other countries following later), assuming they use Chrome’s password-syncing feature.

It’s worth noting that this won’t work for every site just yet. As a Google spokesperson told us, “the feature will initially work on a small number of apps and websites, including Twitter, but will expand to additional sites in the future.”

Now you may remember Duplex as the somewhat controversial service that can call businesses for you to make hairdresser appointments or check opening times. Google introduced Duplex at its 2018 I/O developer conference and launched it to a wider audience in 2019. Since then, the team has chipped away at bringing Duplex to more tasks and brought it the web, too. Now it’s coming to Chrome to change your compromised passwords for you.

Image Credits: Google

“Powered by Duplex on the Web, Assistant takes over the tedious parts of web browsing: scrolling, clicking and filling forms, and allows you to focus on what’s important to you. And now we’re expanding these capabilities even further by letting you quickly create a strong password for certain sites and apps when Chrome determines your credentials have been leaked online,” Patrick Nepper, senior product manager for Chrome, explains in today’s announcement.

In practice, once Chrome detects a compromised password, all you have to do is tap the “change password” button and Duplex will walk through the process of changing your password for you. Google says this won’t work for every site just yet, but “even if a site isn’t supported yet, Chrome’s password manager can always help you create strong and unique passwords for your various accounts.”

It’ll be interesting to see how well this works in the real world. Every site manages passwords a little bit differently, so it would be hard to write a set of basic rules that the browser could use to go through this process. And that’s likely why Google is using Duplex here. Since every site is a little bit different, it takes a system that can understand a bit more about the context of a password change page to successfully navigate it.

In addition to adding this feature, Google is also updating its password manager with a new tool for important passwords from third-party password managers, deeper integration between Chrome and Android and automatic password alerts when a password is compromised in a breach.

Pinterest introduces Idea Pins, a video-first feature aimed at creators

By Sarah Perez

Pinterest is expanding further into the creator community with today’s launch of a video-first feature called “Idea Pins,” aimed at creators who want to tell their stories using video, music, creative editing tools and more. The feature feels a lot like Pinterest’s own take on TikTok, mixed with Stories, as the new Pins allow creators to record and edit creative videos with up to 20 pages of content, using tools like voiceover recording, background music, transitions and other interactive elements.

The company says Idea Pins evolved out of its tests with Story Pins, launched into beta in September 2020, after various stages of development beginning the year prior. At the time, Pinterest explained that Story Pins were different from the Stories you’d find on other social networks, like Snapchat or Instagram, because they focused on what people were doing — like trying new ideas or new products, not giving you snapshots of a creator’s personal life.

Another notable differentiator was that Story Pins weren’t ephemeral. That is, they didn’t disappear after a certain amount of time, but rather could be surfaced through search and other discovery mechanisms.

Over the past eight months since their debut, Pinterest has worked with Story Pin creators on the experience. That’s led to the new concept of the Idea Pin — essentially a rebranded Story Pin, which now offers a broader suite of editing tools than what was previously available.

Video is a key element in Idea Pins, as the Pins target the increased consumer demand for short-form video content of a creative nature — like what’s being delivered through TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and elsewhere. The videos in the Pins can be up to 60 seconds on iOS, Android and web for each page, with up to 20 total pages per Pin.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Creators can edit their videos by adding their own voiceover or using a “ghost mode” transition tool to better showcase their before-and-afters by overlaying one part of a video on another. And they can save drafts of their work in progress.

But Idea Pins still include a number of features common to Stories, like adding stickers or tagging other creators with an @username, for instance. Pinterest says it will start with over 100 stickers featuring hand-drawn illustrations focused on top categories and behaviors it expects to see, like food-themed illustrations, stickers for before-and-afters, seasonal moments, and more.

Pinterest is also working with the royalty-free music database Epidemic Sound to offer a catalog of free tracks for use in Idea Pins.

And because many creators will use Idea Pins to inspire people to try a recipe or project of some sort, they can include “detail pages” where viewers can find the ingredient list or instructions, which is handy.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pins are shared to Pinterest, where the company says they help the creator build an audience by being distributed in several places across its platform, including in some markets, by locating Pins for creators you follow right at the top of the home page.

Creators can also apply topic tags when publishing to ensure they’re surfaced when people are seeking that sort of content. Each Idea Pin can have up to 10 topic tags, which help to distribute the content in a targeted way to users via the home feed and search, the company says.

While Pins can help creators build an audience on Pinterest, they can use Idea Pins to grow their audience on other platforms, too. The company says it will offer export options that let people share their Pins across the web and social media. To do so, they download their Pin as a video which includes a Pinterest watermark and profile name — a trick learned from TikTok. This can then be reshared elsewhere.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pinterest users, meanwhile, can save Idea Pins like any other Pin on the platform.

“We believe the best inspiration comes from people who are fueled by their passions and want to bring positivity and creativity into the world,” said Pinterest co-founder and Chief Design and Creative Officer Evan Sharp, in a statement about the launch. “On Pinterest, anyone can inspire. From creators to hobbyists to publishers, Pinterest is a place where anyone can publish great ideas and discover inspiring content. We have creators with extraordinary ideas on Pinterest, and with Idea Pins, creators are empowered to share their passions and inspire their audiences,” he added.

The new Idea Pin format is rolling out today to all creators (users with a business account) in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Image Credits: Pinterest

Pinterest says, during tests, it found that Idea Pins were more engaging than standard Pins, with 9x the average comment rate. The number of Idea Pins (previously known as Story Pins) has also grown by 4x since January, as more creators adopted the format.

To help creators track how well Pins are performing, Pinterest is expanding its Analytics feature to include a new Followers and Profile Visits-driven metric to show creators how their Idea Pins have driven deeper engagement with their account.

The company says the next step is to make Idea Pins more shoppable, which it’s doing now with tests of product tagging underway.

Pinterest has been increasing its investment in the creator community in recent months, with the launch of its first-ever Creator Fund last month, and this month’s test of livestreamed events with 21 creators. It’s also now testing creator and brand collaborations with a select number of creators, including Domonique PantonPeter Som and GrossyPelosi, it says.

Image Credits: Pinterest

While Idea Pins seem like a natural pivot from Pinterest’s founding as an inspiration and idea board, it will face serious competition when it comes to wooing the professional creator community to its platform. Other big tech companies are outspending Pinterest, whose new Creator Fund of $500K falls short of the $1 million per day Snap paid creators or the $100 million fund for YouTube Shorts creators, TikTok’s $200 million fund or the deals Instagram has been making to lure Reels creators. These platforms, as well as a host of startups, are also giving creators a way to directly monetize their efforts through features like tips, donations, subscriptions and more.

What Pinterest may have in its favor, though, is its reach. The company claims 475 million users, which makes it a destination some creators may not want to overlook in their bid for growth, and later, e-commerce.

Google Analytics prepares for life after cookies

By Frederic Lardinois

As consumer behavior and expectations around privacy have shifted — and operating systems and browsers have adapted to this — the age of cookies as a means of tracking user behavior is coming to an end. Few people will bemoan this, but advertisers and marketers rely on having insights into how their efforts translate into sales (and publishers like to know how their content performs, as well). Google is obviously aware of this, and it is now looking to machine learning to ready its tools like Google Analytics for this post-cookie future.

headshot of Vidhya Srinivasan, VP/GM, Advertising at Google

Vidhya Srinivasan, VP/GM, Advertising at Google. Image Credits: Google

Last year, the company brought several machine learning tools to Google Analytics. At the time, the focus was on alerting users to significant changes in their campaign performance, for example. Now, it is taking this a step further by using its machine learning systems to model user behavior when cookies are not available.

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this shift, but according to Vidhya Srinivasan, Google’s VP and GM for Ads Buying, Analytics and Measurement who joined the company after a long stint at Amazon two years ago (and IBM before that), it’s also the only way to go.

“The principles we outlined to drive our measurement roadmap are based on shifting consumer expectations and ecosystem paradigms. Bottom line: The future is consented. It’s modeled. It’s first-party. So that’s what we’re using as our guide for the next gen of our products and solutions,” she said in her first media interview after joining Google.

It’s still early days and a lot of users may yet consent and opt in to tracking and sharing their data in some form or another. But the early indications are that this will be a minority of users. Unsurprisingly, first-party data and the data Google can gather from users who consent becomes increasingly valuable in this context.

Because of this, Google is now also making it easier to work with this so-called “consented data” and create better first-party data through improved integrations with tools like the Google Tag Manager.

Last year, Google launched Consent Mode, which helps advertisers manage cookie behavior based on local data-protection laws and user preferences. For advertisers in the EU and in the U.K., Consent Mode allows them to adjust their Google tags based on a user’s choices and soon, Google will launch a direct integration with Tag Manager to make it easier to modify and customize these tags.

How Consent Mode works today. Image Credits: Google

What’s maybe more important, though, is that Consent Mode will now use conversion modeling for users who don’t consent to cookies. Google says this can recover about 70% of ad-click-to-conversion journeys that would otherwise be lost to advertisers.

In addition, Google is also making it easier for bring in first-party data (in a privacy-forward way) to Google Analytics to improve measurements and its models.

“Revamping a popular product with a long history is something people are going to have opinions about — we know that. But we felt strongly that we needed Google Analytics to be relevant to changing consumer behavior and ready for a cookie-less world — so that’s what we’re building,” Srinivasan said. “The machine learning that Google has invested in for years — that experience is what we’re putting in action to drive the modeling underlying this tech. We take having credible insights and reporting in the market seriously. We know that doing the work on measurement is critical to market trust. We don’t take the progress we’ve made for granted and we’re looking to continue iterating to ensure scale, but above all we’re prioritizing user trust.”

 

 

Gatheround raises millions from Homebrew, Bloomberg and Stripe’s COO to help remote workers connect

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Remote work is no longer a new topic, as much of the world has now been doing it for a year or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies — big and small — have had to react in myriad ways. Many of the initial challenges have focused on workflow, productivity and the like. But one aspect of the whole remote work shift that is not getting as much attention is the culture angle.

A 100% remote startup that was tackling the issue way before COVID-19 was even around is now seeing a big surge in demand for its offering that aims to help companies address the “people” challenge of remote work. It started its life with the name Icebreaker to reflect the aim of “breaking the ice” with people with whom you work.

“We designed the initial version of our product as a way to connect people who’d never met, kind of virtual speed dating,” says co-founder and CEO Perry Rosenstein. “But we realized that people were using it for far more than that.” 

So over time, its offering has evolved to include a bigger goal of helping people get together beyond an initial encounter –– hence its new name: Gatheround.

“For remote companies, a big challenge or problem that is now bordering on a crisis is how to build connection, trust and empathy between people that aren’t sharing a physical space,” says co-founder and COO Lisa Conn. “There’s no five-minute conversations after meetings, no shared meals, no cafeterias — this is where connection organically builds.”

Organizations should be concerned, Gatheround maintains, that as we move more remote, that work will become more transactional and people will become more isolated. They can’t ignore that humans are largely social creatures, Conn said.

The startup aims to bring people together online through real-time events such as a range of chats, videos and one-on-one and group conversations. The startup also provides templates to facilitate cultural rituals and learning & development (L&D) activities, such as all-hands meetings and workshops on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Gatheround’s video conversations aim to be a refreshing complement to Slack conversations, which despite serving the function of communication, still don’t bring users face-to-face.

Image Credits: Gatheround

Since its inception, Gatheround has quietly built up an impressive customer base, including 28 Fortune 500s, 11 of the 15 biggest U.S. tech companies, 26 of the top 30 universities and more than 700 educational institutions. Specifically, those users include Asana, Coinbase, Fiverr, Westfield and DigitalOcean. Universities, academic centers and nonprofits, including Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are also customers. To date, Gatheround has had about 260,000 users hold 570,000 conversations on its SaaS-based, video platform.

All its growth so far has been organic, mostly referrals and word of mouth. Now, armed with $3.5 million in seed funding that builds upon a previous $500,000 raised, Gatheround is ready to aggressively go to market and build upon the momentum it’s seeing.

Venture firms Homebrew and Bloomberg Beta co-led the company’s latest raise, which included participation from angel investors such as Stripe COO Claire Hughes Johnson, Meetup co-founder Scott Heiferman, Li Jin and Lenny Rachitsky. 

Co-founders Rosenstein, Conn and Alexander McCormmach describe themselves as “experienced community builders,” having previously worked on President Obama’s campaigns as well as at companies like Facebook, Change.org and Hustle. 

The trio emphasize that Gatheround is also very different from Zoom and video conferencing apps in that its platform gives people prompts and organized ways to get to know and learn about each other as well as the flexibility to customize events.

“We’re fundamentally a connection platform, here to help organizations connect their people via real-time events that are not just really fun, but meaningful,” Conn said.

Homebrew Partner Hunter Walk says his firm was attracted to the company’s founder-market fit.

“They’re a really interesting combination of founders with all this experience community building on the political activism side, combined with really great product, design and operational skills,” he told TechCrunch. “It was kind of unique that they didn’t come out of an enterprise product background or pure social background.”

He was also drawn to the personalized nature of Gatheround’s platform, considering that it has become clear over the past year that the software powering the future of work “needs emotional intelligence.”

“Many companies in 2020 have focused on making remote work more productive. But what people desire more than ever is a way to deeply and meaningfully connect with their colleagues,” Walk said. “Gatheround does that better than any platform out there. I’ve never seen people come together virtually like they do on Gatheround, asking questions, sharing stories and learning as a group.” 

James Cham, partner at Bloomberg Beta, agrees with Walk that the founding team’s knowledge of behavioral psychology, group dynamics and community building gives them an edge.

“More than anything, though, they care about helping the world unite and feel connected, and have spent their entire careers building organizations to make that happen,” he said in a written statement. “So it was a no-brainer to back Gatheround, and I can’t wait to see the impact they have on society.”

The 14-person team will likely expand with the new capital, which will also go toward helping adding more functionality and details to the Gatheround product.

“Even before the pandemic, remote work was accelerating faster than other forms of work,” Conn said. “Now that’s intensified even more.”

Gatheround is not the only company attempting to tackle this space. Ireland-based Workvivo last year raised $16 million and earlier this year, Microsoft  launched Viva, its new “employee experience platform.”

What3Words sends legal threat to a security researcher for sharing an open-source alternative

By Zack Whittaker

A U.K. company behind digital addressing system What3Words has sent a legal threat to a security researcher for offering to share an open-source software project with other researchers, which What3Words claims violate its copyright.

Aaron Toponce, a systems administrator at XMission, received a letter on Thursday from a law firm representing What3Words, requesting that he delete tweets related to the open source alternative, WhatFreeWords. The letter also demands that he disclose to the law firm the identity of the person or people with whom he had shared a copy of the software, agree that he would not make any further copies of the software, and to delete any copies of the software he had in his possession.

The letter gave him until May 7 to agree, after which What3Words would “waive any entitlement it may have to pursue related claims against you,” a thinly-veiled threat of legal action.

“This is not a battle worth fighting,” he said in a tweet. Toponce told TechCrunch that he has complied with the demands, fearing legal repercussions if he didn’t. He has also asked the law firm twice for links to the tweets they want deleting but has not heard back. “Depending on the tweet, I may or may not comply. Depends on its content,” he said.

The legal threat sent to Aaron Toponce. (Image: supplied)

U.K.-based What3Words divides the entire world into three-meter squares and labels each with a unique three-word phrase. The idea is that sharing three words is easier to share on the phone in an emergency than having to find and read out their precise geographic coordinates.

But security researcher Andrew Tierney recently discovered that What3Words would sometimes have two similarly-named squares less than a mile apart, potentially causing confusion about a person’s true whereabouts. In a later write-up, Tierney said What3Words was not adequate for use in safety-critical cases.

It’s not the only downside. Critics have long argued that What3Words’ proprietary geocoding technology, which it bills as “life-saving,” makes it harder to examine it for problems or security vulnerabilities.

Concerns about its lack of openness in part led to the creation of the WhatFreeWords. A copy of the project’s website, which does not contain the code itself, said the open-source alternative was developed by reverse-engineering What3Words. “Once we found out how it worked, we coded implementations for it for JavaScript and Go,” the website said. “To ensure that we did not violate the What3Words company’s copyright, we did not include any of their code, and we only included the bare minimum data required for interoperability.”

But the project’s website was nevertheless subjected to a copyright takedown request filed by What3Words’ counsel. Even tweets that pointed to cached or backup copies of the code were removed by Twitter at the lawyers’ requests.

Toponce — a security researcher on the side — contributed to Tierney’s research, who was tweeting out his findings as he went. Toponce said that he offered to share a copy of the WhatFreeWord code with other researchers to help Tierney with his ongoing research into What3Words. Toponce told TechCrunch that receiving the legal threat may have been a combination of offering to share the code and also finding problems with What3Words.

In its letter to Toponce, What3Words argues that WhatFreeWords contains its intellectual property and that the company “cannot permit the dissemination” of the software.

Regardless, several websites still retain copies of the code and are easily searchable through Google, and TechCrunch has seen several tweets linking to the WhatFreeWords code since Toponce went public with the legal threat. Tierney, who did not use WhatFreeWords as part of his research, said in a tweet that What3Words’ reaction was “totally unreasonable given the ease with which you can find versions online.”

We asked What3Words if the company could point to a case where a judicial court has asserted that WhatFreeWords has violated its copyright. What3Words spokesperson Miriam Frank did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The health data transparency movement is birthing a new generation of startups

By Annie Siebert
Ariel Katz Contributor
Ariel Katz is the founder and CEO of H1, a global healthcare platform that helps life sciences companies, hospitals, academic medical centers and health systems connect with providers, find clinical research, locate industry experts and benchmark their organization.

In the early 2000s, Jeff Bezos gave a seminal TED Talk titled “The Electricity Metaphor for the Web’s Future.” In it, he argued that the internet will enable innovation on the same scale that electricity did.

We are at a similar inflection point in healthcare, with the recent movement toward data transparency birthing a new generation of innovation and startups.

Those who follow the space closely may have noticed that there are twin struggles taking place: a push for more transparency on provider and payer data, including anonymous patient data, and another for strict privacy protection for personal patient data. What’s the main difference?

This sector is still somewhat nascent — we are in the first wave of innovation, with much more to come.

Anonymized data is much more freely available, while personal data is being locked even tighter (as it should be) due to regulations like GDPR, CCPA and their equivalents around the world.

The former trend is enabling a host of new vendors and services that will ultimately make healthcare better and more transparent for all of us.

These new companies could not have existed five years ago. The Affordable Care Act was the first step toward making anonymized data more available. It required healthcare institutions (such as hospitals and healthcare systems) to publish data on costs and outcomes. This included the release of detailed data on providers.

Later legislation required biotech and pharma companies to disclose monies paid to research partners. And every physician in the U.S. is now required to be in the National Practitioner Identifier (NPI), a comprehensive public database of providers.

All of this allowed the creation of new types of companies that give both patients and providers more control over their data. Here are some key examples of how.

Allowing patients to access all their own health data in one place

This is a key capability of patients’ newly found access to health data. Think of how often, as a patient, providers aren’t aware of treatment or a test you’ve had elsewhere. Often you end up repeating a test because a provider doesn’t have a record of a test conducted elsewhere.

Eclipse Ventures has $500 million more to digitize old-line industries and bring them up to speed

By Connie Loizos

Two years ago, we talked with Lior Susan, the founder of now six-year-old Eclipse Ventures in Palo Alto, Ca. At the time, the outfit believed that the next big thing wasn’t another social network but instead the remaking of old-line industries through full tech stacks — including hardware, software and data — capable of bring them into the 21st century.

Fast forward, and nothing has changed, not inside of Eclipse anyway. While the world has gone through a dramatic transformation owing to the coronavirus pandemic — never has the U.S.’s crumbling infrastructure been so apparent to so many – Eclipse is backing exactly the same kinds of companies that it always has and with the same size fund. Indeed, after closing its second and third funds with $500 million, the firm quietly closed its fourth vehicle earlier this month with $500 million in capital commitments from predominately endowments.

This morning, we talked with Susan about Eclipse’s focus on revitalizing old industries that remain largely untouched by tech, and why the pitch of Lior and the rest of Eclipse’s team has never been more powerful. Excerpts from that conversation follow, edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Because of where Eclipse focuses, you were long aware of the coming supply chain crises that the pandemic brought to the fore. Have your priorities changed at all as an investor? Did you have a to-do list going into 2020 and has that changed?

LS: Not really. We’ve been saying from inception that the infrastructure that we are living in is 50 to 60 years old across the board. We’ve been all of this time in those social software and fintech, new ideas and consumer trends. But we don’t live in the internet, we actually live in the physical world. And the physical world is not [receiving investment] at all. But much of that innovation can be applied to the world in which we are living, and what we want to do is bring that $65 trillion backstage economy into the digital age.

TC: In this go-go market, not a lot of funds are raising the same amounts as they have previously. Why did you choose to do so?

LS: We have a very specific strategy. We only lead early-stage investments in around 22 companies per fund, we [want] 20% to 25% with our initial check, and we double down on companies that we think are breaking out and try to lead two or three rounds in a row. And we know how to run the spreadsheets and we know how to make an assumption [about] what is the enterprise value we need to create in order to deliver alpha returns, and [that math leads us to] $500 million.

TC:  The last time we’d talked, Eclipse had also helped created and funded a company, Bright Machines, which primarily develops software for robotic systems inside of manufacturing companies. Have you launched any other companies in the last couple of years? I remember you don’t like the word ‘incubate.’

LS: We call it venture equity internally, but basically, we are very thesis oriented, so a lot of our investments start with us [circling around] an investment thesis and an area that we believe is getting really interesting. I’m right now working on a thesis around insurance in the manufacturing space [that will cover] working comp, facilities, assets . . . It [always] will start with a one-page thesis and we’ll talk inside the firm about it, and we’ll go hunt. But we don’t find what we like in a lot of cases. This is where we’re like, ‘Okay, we come from operating backgrounds. Why not roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can go and build these companies?’

You’re right that we did Bright Machines. We’ve also done Bright Insight (an IoT platform for biopharma and medtech that just raised $101 million in Series C funding led by General Catalyst), Chord (a commerce-as-a-service software for direct-to-consumer brands that just raised $18 million in Series A funding), and Metrolink (a new company that helps organizations design and manage their data flows). We’ve done [this model] a [few] times where we didn’t just invest in the company but we’re part of the founding team or we’re carving out assets. We’re trying to keep it very flexible.

TC: Interesting that you couldn’t find an insurance company focused on the manufacturing industry that you like.

LS: We have a lot of theses like that. We see a lot of horizontal business models and tech that [could work well] in the verticals where we’re playing and that we know need solutions. So, can you do a Slack for construction, or can you find the right people to build a Lemonade for manufacturing, or can you find the Shopify for industrial assets or spare parts?

TC: What size checks are you writing?

LS: I’d say $3 million to $4 million initial checks and up to $20 million or $25 million in a Series B, but you will find a lot of our companies where we invested $150 million plus over the lifetime of the company.

TC: Which company has attracted the most from Eclipse?

LS: I’d guess Cerebras [Systems, which reportedly makes the world’s largest computer chip].

TC: What do you make of what we’re hearing from the new administration in the U.S. on the infrastructure front. Do you think it’s talking about pouring money into the right verticals?

LS:  I was on a call with the manufacturing task force on Monday, and I will tell you — without getting into politics at all, because that’s above my pay grade — that the current administration is going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions of dollars, into upgrading the infrastructure of this country. And it’s going to be semiconductors, batteries, manufacturing, industrial infrastructure as a whole . . .

[I think last year’s ventilator shortage made clear] that we’d lost 100% of the manufacturing capabilities of this country and Western countries as a whole. And I think everyone now understands that you’re going to see a massive swing of investment in infrastructure and the only way to do it is through technology, because we actually don’t have a million people here that want to [work on an assembly line].  We actually need automation lines and software and computer vision and machine learning and everything that Silicon Valley is really good at.

TC: You have insight into what’s happening on the semiconductor front through Cerebras and other bets. There’s obviously a huge chip shortage that’s impacting everyone, including the auto industry. How long will it take for supply to catch up to demand?

LS: I think we’re going to see some big changes, but it’s  going to take many, many, many years. This is not software, we cannot bring everything up [to speed overnight] as you actually need fabs and cleaning rooms and assets. It’s pretty complicated.

It’s going to get worse in the next couple of quarters. It’s good for some of our companies that are working on the problem, but overall, as an economy, it’s pretty bad news.

EU-based digital assets platform Finoa inks $22M Series A funding led by Balderton Capital

By Mike Butcher

Institutions need to keep their crypto assets somewhere. And they aren’t going to keep it on some random, or consumer-grade crypto operation. This requires more sophisticated technology. Furthermore, being in the EU is going to be a key barrier to entry for many US or Asia-based operations.

Thus it is that Berlin-based digital asset custody and financial services platform
Finoa, has closed a $22 million Series A funding round, to do just that.

The round was led by Balderton Capital, alongside existing investors Coparion, Venture Stars and Signature Ventures, as well as an undisclosed investor.

Crucially, the Berlin-based startup works with Dapper Lab’s FLOW protocol, NEAR, and Mina, which are fast becoming standards for crypto assets. They are going up against large players such as Anchorage, Coinbase Custody, Bitgo, exchanges like Binance and Kraken, and self-custody solutions like Ledger.

Finoa says it now has over 250 customers, including T-Systems, DeFi-natives like CoinList and financial institutions like Bankhaus Scheich.

The company says its plan is to become a regulated platform for institutional investors and corporations to manage their digital assets and it has received a preliminary crypto custody license and is supervised by the German Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin).

The company was founded in 2018 by Christopher May and Henrik Ebbing, but both had previously worked together at McKinsey and started working in blockchain in 2017.

May commented: “We are proud to have established Finoa as Europe’s leading gateway for institutional participation and incredibly excited to accelerate our growth even further. We look forward to supporting new exciting protocols and projects, empowering innovative corporate use cases, and adding additional (decentralized) financial products and services to our platform.”

Colin Hanna, Principal at Balderton Capital, who leads most of Balderton’s Crypto investments, said: “Chris, Henrik, and the entire Finoa team have built a deeply impressive business which bridges the highest levels of professionalism with radical innovation. As custodians of digital asset private keys, Finoa needs to be trusted both with the secure management of those keys and with the products and services that allow their clients to fully leverage the power of native digital assets. The team they have assembled is uniquely positioned to do just that.” 

May added: “We identified a lack of sophisticated custody and asset servicing solutions for safeguarding and managing blockchain-based digital assets that successfully cover the needs of institutional investors. Finoa is bridging this gap by providing seamless, safe, and regulated access to the world of digital assets.”

“Being in the European Union requires a fundamentally different organizational setup, and poses a very high entry to new incumbents and other players overseas. There are few that have managed to do what Finoa has done in a European context and hence why we now see ourselves in a leading position.”

Disney Imagineering’s Project Kiwi is a free-walking robot that will make you believe in Groot

By Matthew Panzarino

The black curtain pulls aside and a character straight out of the movies waves hello. This is not an uncommon occurrence when I’m around Imagineers, but this time is special. The character isn’t a costume, it’s a robot. And, unlike the m​any animatronic figures you’ve seen in the parks, it’s not stuck in one place. No, this character is walking towards me, attached only by a thin cable used for programming. 

The gait is smooth, the arms swing in a lifelike manner and the feet plant realistically. The body sways exactly as you’d expect it to. There’s no other way to say it, it’s ambling. This is Project Kiwi, a small-scale, free-roaming robotic actor — the first of its kind for Disney and a real robotics milestone.

The holy grail of themed entertainment has been established for decades now: a fully mobile, bipedal character that matches the appearance, personality and scale of the original. Various non-mobile levels of this vision have been achieved at parks around the world, including the incredibly lifelike Na’Vi Shaman, The A1000 figure that powers characters like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’s Hondo Ohnaka and the smoothly expressive Belle from Beauty and the Beast at Tokyo Disneyland. There have also been some cool mobile experiments like the self-piloting droid “Jake”. 

The pint sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films. And its eyes are expressive as it looks at me and waves. This is the moment, the one that Disney Imagineers and park goers alike have been waiting decades to realize. This is a real, walk around character that is at the proper scale, kid scale. 

A couple of weeks ago at Walt Disney Imagineering in Southern California, I saw just how close they finally are to making that dream come true. A bipedal platform, developed completely in house over the past 3 years by WDI researchers and roboticists — dressed up to look like a roughly two and a half foot tall Groot.

Even though the version of Kiwi that I’m looking at is Groot-flavored, it’s important to stress that this is a platform first and foremost, which means that it could take this form when it gets to the parks, or another form entirely. It’s important while developing a character to have a target character that can tell you whether or not you’re hitting an established mark of believability. 

Kiwi is also is still very much a work in progress. I wouldn’t expect to see this in the wild soon, there is still a lot of work to be done on the way that Kiwi works and interacts with people and WDI does not have immediate plans to put it in the parks. 

But even at this stage it’s an incredible feat of engineering that genuinely radiates that elusive characteristic that Disney always searches for with its figures: presence.

How did we get here?

I was able to speak to the lead on Project Kiwi, R&D Imagineer Principal Scott LaValley as well as Advanced Development Studio Executive SVP Jon Snoddy about how the platform came together over the past few years. 

“Project KIWI started about three years ago to figure out how we can bring our smaller characters to life at their actual scale in authentic ways,” LaValley says. “It’s an exciting time for bipedal robotics and with an incredible team and our combination of technology, artistry, and magic, we are bringing characters to life that could not have happened anywhere but Disney.”

I’ve talked a bit about the unique Imagineering process in my previous pieces on how Disney builds reactive robotics, autonomous stuntbots and even entire lands. Imagineering works a lot like a startup in the way that it comes up with a problem to solve and then goes about pulling in other departments to help it get a solution. There is a remarkably ego-free nature to much of the way that WDI actually finds those solutions, too. They are as likely to find a key component off the shelf as they are to design, develop and patent it in house. 

The interconnected nature of Imagineering departments like ride design, show systems, special effects, animatronics department, Tech Studio R&D and Disney Research means that they share solutions across the stack as well.

The guiding thread to all of it, of course, is storytelling. This guiding force exists at all levels of the process, keeping the project moving in the right direction — towards a better way to tell stories and transport guests. 

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

With Kiwi, the end goal was clear, a character that could walk on its own and interact with park guests. Unfortunately, due to the scale and complexity of the figure and the requirements for interaction and walking, no ‘off the shelf’ platforms would do. The fact is that there are actually only a handful of truly viable bipedal robotics platforms anywhere in the world and the vast majority of them are being created for industrial applications, with a handful of ‘human-scale’ solutions that are designed as marketing set pieces rather than truly autonomous systems. 

So to hit that goal, Imagineering turned to R&D and LaValley’s team. LaValley had come to Disney from Boston Dynamics, where he worked on the first version of its biped robot Atlas. 

The project scope was that they needed a biped robot that was battery powered and could be programmed to handle autonomous interactions with park guests and striped gestures and emotes. The team would take the next 3 years to build what they needed — much of which was custom for reasons we’ll get into shortly. 

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

It’s clear at a glance that Kiwi has no operator inside. The human brain is pretty good at instinctually understanding whether a space is just too small to have a person in it. In order to achieve the small size, the team had to first build a custom skeleton that had room for every motor and actuator Kiwi would need to achieve 50 degrees of freedom, all while keeping it humanoid in shape so that it could be ‘dressed up’ as any number of characters. 

First came the frame. Prototypes were built from custom printed polymer and then eventually custom metal parts using industrial printers. The armatures and segments that they needed to house the critical components were just too complex to mill or cast. The cleverly printed metal skeleton is hollow throughout, allowing a ‘marrow conduit’ for air which rushes through the body cooling the motors and actuators. In the current Kiwi prototype the air comes in through the collar area of the suit, flows throughout the body, propelled by fans embedded in the skeleton and exhausts near the bottom of the unit. Eventually it will use the clothing as a shroud to help air flow out near the feet.

Though there is some audible noise, even in this early state it is very low, allowing audio playing out of a speaker to enable conversation. 

As you can see in the exclusive progress video embedded above, the lower sections were built first. Early testing around the office shows the legs and torso sneaking, bouncing, shuffling and strutting through Imagineering. This is probably the only workplace in the world where the bottom half of a torso can tiptoe past your office while you’re eating lunch and it doesn’t even merit a pause between bites. 

An enormous amount of completely custom robotics work went into the Kiwi platform. In the demonstration I saw, young Groot had a safety tether and control cable for live programming but nothing on the rig itself needed support, it was free roaming with on board battery power that LaValley says hits around the 45 minute mark currently with more longevity hoped for in the final version. In fact, a next-generation skeleton is already under development that is lighter and more efficient.

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc. / Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

The legs use a system that offers a kinetic counter-balance, allowing the force of having to move and plant a foot to be off-set, making motions more power efficient and quicker. Think of a spring loaded heavy gate that makes it easier for you to swing open — but no springs, and a robotic limb instead of a gate.

The feet plant realistically for the very simple reason that they must actually support the figure. This gives it an additional layer of believability that just doesn’t happen with externally supported characters that “fake” a foot plant. LaValley demonstrated that the figure could easily stay afoot even if it was shoved gently or if a hand was rested on its shoulder. This kind of self-balancing is something that humans do unconsciously and continuously but it must be built and programmed in to an ambulatory robot. 

Many patentable inventions went into this creation. One of them is a clever system of gears that translates energy across joints, allowing them to share motors with one another even across a joint like a knee or wrist. This means fewer components and the ability to keep motor and actuator packages small and compact enough to fit underneath theming. 

In order to minimize the amount of wiring throughout Kiwi — since wires are always the biggest points of failure — the team created a set of origami-like circuit boards joined by integrated flex cabling. Think of your standard computer circuit board but sliced into segments and mounted to the exterior of the hollow ‘bones’. They wrap around the limbs and other body parts, binding the control systems and motors being controlled together into a local group that reduces the amount of harnessing that needs to be spread across joints and throughout the structure. 

No actuators — the components that decide how to move a limb — that exist had the capabilities that the team needed, so they built them from scratch. At one point, LaValley handed me a ring holding iteration after iteration of a dozen actuator elements. I was holding years worth of engineering, experimentation, failure and progress on a simple bit of wire twisted together at the end.

Up next for Project Kiwi is a new set of actuators that can dynamically apply torque plus added sensing capabilities for more stability and reaction to uneven ground or interactions. You can imagine that, as a free roaming character people will want to take pictures with it and I doubt kids would be able to resist running up for a hug. The skeleton must be able to sense and react quickly and smoothly to those sudden external inputs in order to stay upright and keep looking natural. 

Image Credits: Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc. / Walt Disney Imagineering R&D Inc.

Moving from a pure IK system to a fully torque sensing system will allow for the platform to make on the fly adjustments that compensate for terrain or interaction with other performers or guests.

All of the work the team put into custom gearing, motors and actuation has paid off in spades with the ridiculously smooth and natural looking movements of Kiwi’s arms and legs. Quick waves, shrugs, dance moves and even boxing jabs all look like a real — if slightly gentle — creature is performing them. 

The team also demonstrated the custom built performance software that they designed which allows Kiwi to have different kinds of gaits with personality layered on top. The bottom layer is an IK-style gait system that keeps Kiwi upright and walking, but then layering the personalities on top adds character to the walk while still maintaining stability. Bouncy, jaunty walks, limps, sad or downhearted walks, all with the other motions of arms and head contributing to a constantly shifting center of mass and momentum. The paddling ducks feet under the water is that gait system that takes the external inputs and integrates it into the walk naturally.

The current prototype software has a series of set behaviors, with a timeline that allows them to program new behaviors and actions by toggles or adjusting curves that control movement. With a series of tweaks in the software the changes become evident immediately, with Groot’s “mood” becoming immediately evident in his walk. 

One moment he is bouncing along swinging his arms jauntily, clearly happy to be there. Then the next moment his arms are slumped, his head is hung and he is slowly plodding — clearly sad to be leaving the fun behind. It’s a remarkable bit of performance software. 

And even though the expressive eyes are already impressive — the team is not done. Up next on the agenda is a sensory package that allows Kiwi to more fully understand the world around it and to identify people and their faces. This becomes important because eye contact is such an emotive and powerful tool to use in transporting a participant. 

Even without the sensing software I can tell you that the experience of this 2.5ft Groot locking eyes with me, smiling and waving was just incredibly transportive. Multiple times throughout my interaction I completely forgot that it was a robot at all. 

As I mentioned at the top, the Project Kiwi platform still has a lot of work left to do before it makes any appearances in the parks. But it’s already well on the road to being viable for things like stage performances, photo ops and eventually free roaming deployment in the parks.

That is really the vision, Snoddy says that the goal is to move the characters we love from across Disney’s pantheon into the spaces of the guests, elevating the entirety of the park to a live transportive experience, rather than a single ride or dark room. And to do it at the proper scale to make them genuine and capable of making guests believe. With these kinds of platforms, the possibilities are there to make the entire parks themselves a living breathing home for the characters, rather than the tightly controlled environments of the rides themselves.

The arc of history in this Imagineering journeys is drawn in robots. From Great Moments with Mr Lincoln, to incredibly expressive characters like the Na’Vi Shaman anchored inside a dark ride, to characters that hold up in bright, well lit spaces. Project Kiwi is the next frontier, allowing them to step off of the pedestal and right into the world of the guest.

One of the most fascinating fields in robotics currently is HRI or human-robot interaction. This multidisciplinary effort to help humans and robots communicate better is often focused on safety and awareness in industrial settings. But I’ve long had that the most incredibly interesting work in this space is being done in Imagineering R&D. Over 100 million people pass through Disney’s parks per year, and the number of opportunities that they have to react to and interact with robotic characters grows yearly. And with projects like Kiwi on the horizon, this field is going to explode with new kinds of data and learnings. 

And, of course, we’ll get to meet some of our favorite characters looking and acting as real as we’ve ever seen them in our world. 

Medtronic partners with cybersecurity startup Sternum to protect its pacemakers from hackers

By Marcella McCarthy

If you think cyberattacks are scary, what if those attacks were directed at your cardiac pacemaker? Medtronic, a medical device company, has been in hot water over the last couple of years because its pacemakers were getting hacked through their internet-based software updating systems. But in a new partnership with Sternum, an IoT cybersecurity startup based in Israel, Medtronic has focused on resolving the issue.

The problem was not with the medical devices themselves, but with the remote systems used to update the devices. Medtronic’s previous solution was to disconnect the devices from the internet, which in and of itself can cause other issues to arise.

“Medtronic was looking for a long-term solution that can help them with future developments,” said Natali Tshuva, Sternum’s founder and CEO. The company has already secured about 100,000 Medtronic devices.

Sternum’s solution allows medical devices to protect themselves in real-time. 

“There’s this endless race against vulnerability, so when a company discovers a vulnerability, they need to issue an update, but updating can be very difficult in the medical space, and until the update happens, the devices are vulnerable,” Tshuva told TechCrunch. “Therefore, we created an autonomous security that operates from within the device that can protect it without the need to update and patch vulnerabilities,” 

However, it is easier to protect new devices than to go back and protect legacy devices. Over the years hackers have gotten more and more sophisticated, so medical device companies have had to figure out how to protect the devices that are already out there.  

 “The market already has millions — perhaps billions — of medical devices connected, and that could be a security and management nightmare,” Tshuva added.

In addition to potentially doing harm to an individual, hackers have been taking advantage of device vulnerability as the gateway of choice into a hospital’s network, possibly causing a breach that can affect many more people. Tshuva explained that hospital networks are secured from the inside out, but devices that connect to the networks but are not protected can create a way in.

In fact, health systems have been known to experience the most data breaches out of any sector, accounting for 79% of all reported breaches in 2020. And in the first 10 months of last year, we saw a 45% increase in cyberattacks on health systems, according to data by Health IT Security.

In addition to Sternum’s partnership with Medtronic, the company also launched this week an IoT platform that allows, “devices to protect themselves, even when they are not connected to the internet,” Tshuva said.

Sternum, which raised about $10 million to date, also offers cybersecurity for IoT devices outside of healthcare, and according to Tshuva, the company focuses on areas that are “mission-critical.” Examples include railroad infrastructure sensors and management systems, and power grids.

Tshuva, who grew up in Israel, holds a master’s in computer science and worked for the Israeli Defense Force’s 8200 unit — similar to the U.S.’s National Security Alliance — said she always wanted to make an impact in the medical field. “I looked to combine the medical space with my life, and I realized I could have an impact on remote care devices,” she said.

A ‘more honest’ stock market

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

Last week, I talked about Clubhouse’s slowing user growth. Well, this week news broke that they had been in talks with Twitter for a $4 billion acquisition, so it looks like they’re still pretty desirable. This week, I’m talking about a story I published a couple days ago that highlights pretty much everything that’s wild about the alternative asset world right now.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

If you successfully avoided all mentions of NFTs until now, I congratulate you, because it certainly does seem like the broader NFT market is seeing some major pullback after a very frothy February and March. You’ll still be seeing plenty of late-to-the-game C-list celebrities debuting NFT art in the coming weeks, but a more sober pullback in prices will probably give some of the NFT platforms that are serious about longevity a better chance to focus on the future and find out how they truly matter.

I spent the last couple weeks, chatting with a bunch of people in one particular community — one of the oldest active NFT communities on the web called CryptoPunks. It’s a platform with 10,000 unique 24×24 pixel portraits and they trade at truly wild prices.

I wrote about the history and legacy of CryptoPunks, a vibrant $200 million NFT marketplace built around trading pixelated characters. There are only 10,000 of them and owning the cheapest one will cost you about $30k. https://t.co/X4iTSl6FjC

— Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) April 8, 2021

This picture sold for a $1.05 million.

I talked to a dozen or so people (including the guy who sold that one ^^) that had spent between tens of thousands and millions of dollars on these pixelated portraits, my goal being to tap into the psyche of what the hell is happening here. The takeaway is that these folks don’t see these assets as any more non-sensical than what’s going on in more traditional “old world” markets like public stock exchanges.

A telling quote from my reporting:

“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”

Shortly after I published my piece, Christie’s announced that they were auctioning off nine of the CryptoPunks in an auction likely to fetch at least $10 million at current prices. The market surged in the aftermath and many millions worth of volume quickly moved through the marketplace minting more NFT millionaires.

Is this all just absolutely nuts? Sure.

Is it also a poignant picture of where alternative asset investing is at in 2021? You bet.

Read the full thing.


an illustration of a cardboard ballot box with an Amazon smile on the front

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

Amazon workers vote down union organization attempt
Amazon is breathing a sigh of relief after workers at their Bessemer, Alabama warehouse opted out of joining a union, lending a crushing defeat to labor activists who hoped that the high-profile moment would lead more Amazon workers to organize. The vote has been challenged, but the margin of victory seems fairly decisive.

Supreme court sides with Google in Oracle case
If any singular event impacted the web the most this week, it was the Supreme Court siding with Google in a very controversial lawsuit by Oracle that could’ve fundamentally shifted the future of software development.

Coinbase is making waves
The Coinbase direct listing is just around the corner and they’re showing off some of their financials. Turns out crypto has been kind of hot lately and they’re raking in the dough, with revenue of $1.8 billion this past quarter.

Apple share more about the future of user tracking
Apple is about to upend the ad-tracking market and they published some more details on what exactly their App Tracking Transparency feature is going to look like. Hint: more user control.

Consumers are spending lots of time in apps
A new report from mobile analytics firm App Annie suggests that we’re dumping more of our time into smartphone apps, with the average users spending 4.2 hours a day doing so, a 30 percent increase over two years.

Sonos perfects the bluetooth speaker
I’m a bit of an audio lover, which made my colleague Darrell’s review of the new Sonos Roam bluetooth speaker a must-read for me. He’s pretty psyched about it, even though it comes in at the higher-end of pricing for these devices, still I’m looking forward to hearing one with my own ears.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The StockX EC-1
“StockX is a unique company at the nexus of two radical transitions that isn’t just redefining markets, but our culture as well. E-commerce upended markets, diminishing the physical experience by intermediating and aggregating buyers and sellers through digital platforms. At the same time, the internet created rapid new communication channels, allowing euphoria and desire to ricochet across society in a matter of seconds. In a world of plenty, some things are rare, and the hype around that rarity has never been greater. Together, these two trends demanded a stock market of hype, an opportunity that StockX has aggressively pursued.”

Building the right team for a billion-dollar startup
“I would really encourage you to take some time to think about what kind of company you want to make first before you go out and start interviewing people. So that really is going to be about understanding and defining your culture. And then the second thing I’d be thinking about when you’re scaling from, you know, five people up to, you know, 50 and beyond is that managers really are the key to your success as a company. It’s hard to overstate how important managers, great managers, are to the success of your company.

So you want to raise a Series A
“More companies will raise seed rounds than Series A rounds, simply due to the fact that many startups fail, and venture only makes sense for a small fraction of businesses out there. Every check is a new cycle of convincing and proving that you, as a startup, will have venture-scale returns. Moore explained that startups looking to move to their next round need to explain to investors why now is their moment.”

Until next week,
Lucas M.

And again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.

Twitter said to have held acquisition talks with Clubhouse on potential $4B deal

By Darrell Etherington

Twitter held talks with Clubhouse around a potential acquisition of the live drop-in audio networking platform, with a deal value somewhere around $4 billion, according to a report from Bloomberg. TechCrunch has also confirmed the discussions took place from a source familiar with the conversations.

While the talks occurred over the past several months, they’re no longer taking place, though the reason they ended isn’t known according to the report. It’s also worth noting that just a few days ago, Bloomberg reported that Clubhouse was seeking to raise a new round of funding at a valuation of around $4 billion, but the report detailing the potential acquisition talks indicate that the discussions with Twitter collapsed first, leading to a change in strategy to pursue securing additional capital in exchange for equity investment.

Twitter has its own product very similar to Clubhouse — Spaces, a drop-in audio chatroom feature that it has been rolling out gradually to its user base over the past few months. Clubhouse, meanwhile, just launched the first of its monetization efforts, Clubhouse Payments, which lets users send direct payments to other creators on the platform, provided that person has enabled receipt of said payments.

Interestingly, the monetization effort from Clubhouse actually doesn’t provide them with any money; instead, it’s monetization for recipient users who get 100% of the funds directed their way, minus a small cut for processing that goes directly to Stripe, the payment provider Clubhouse is using to enable the virtual tips.

While we aren’t privy to the specifics of these talks between Twitter and Clubhouse, it does seem like an awfully high price tag for the social network to pay for the audio app, especially given its own progress with Spaces. Clubhouse’s early traction has been undeniable, but there are a lot of questions still remaining about its longevity, and it’s also being cloned left and right by other platforms, begging the age-old startup question of whether it’s a feature or a product on its own.

Whatever went down, the timing of this revelation seems likely to prime the pump for Clubhouse’s conversation with potential investors at its target valuation for the round it’s looking to raise. Regardless, it’s exciting to have this kind of activity, buzz and attention paid to a consumer software play after many years of what one could argue has been a relatively lacklustre period for the category.

Authentic Artists is building virtual, AI-powered musicians

By Anthony Ha

Chris McGarry, who previously led music integration at Facebook’s Oculus, is taking a new approach to bringing music into the virtual world with his startup Authentic Artists.

McGarry pointed to virtual celebrities like Lil Miquela and virtual concerts like Travis Scott’s giant event in Fortnite as setting the stage for Authentic Artists. In a sense, the startup represents a combination of those ideas, creating virtual musicians who perform their own concerts — initially in Twitch — and can respond to audience requests.

“We are very intentionally not trying to create a digital facsimile of what already exists,” he said. “We want to use new tools to create new art, new experiences, new culture. The appeal is that these artists can really be vehicles for collaboration with the audience, so that [audience members] can selectively shape the live show.”

In fact, Authentic Artists has already held some test concerts on Twitch, and McGarry said the team was “frankly, sort of blown away by the response,” with average watch time of 35 minutes.

It will be unveiling its next generation of virtual artists in Twitch concerts starting on April 14, co-hosted by (human) Twitch streamers, who will introduce the concept to audiences — though McGarry said there’s potential for more collaboration between virtual and human stars in the future.

There are a number of different pieces to the Authentic Artists platform, working together to animate a virtual musician, generate their music and allow them to respond to audience feedback, whether that’s increasing the intensity of a song, decreasing the tempo or fast forwarding to the next song.

“Music is the lifeblood of our vision, and accordingly, we’ve invested significantly in the core audio engine,” McGarry said. He emphasized that the platform is not simply recombining music loops composed by humans, but rather generating music on its own: “We want [our virtual artists] to have autonomy, we want them to be real.”

It sounds like the team is still putting the final touches on the new artists, so I didn’t get to see a full concert experience. Instead, McGarry and his team presented renderings of these artists (including a half-human cyborg and a giant iguana) and their virtual venues, and they demonstrated the music engine, creating new compositions on-the-fly while adjusting different parameters. As McGarry put it, “These are all original compositions, generated and produced as we sit here, with no manual intervention.”

Authentic Artists is backed by investors including OVO Fund, James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems, Mixi Group and Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. McGarry said he’s currently more focused on finding product-market fit than on the business model, but he sees opportunities to make money through avenues such as branded music and decentralized finance/NFTs in the future.

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