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Voice chat is coming to Roblox

By Taylor Hatmaker

As one of the frontrunners in the race to build the metaverse, Roblox is thinking ahead to what virtual worlds really need. And while the platform has had no shortage of growth on its current path — as of July, it boasted 47 million daily active users — it’s looking to chart a course toward deeper, richer virtual experiences that will keep people coming back for years to come.

To that end, Roblox is taking careful but decisive steps toward weaving voice chat into the platform’s core experience. The first move: inviting a group of trusted developers to explore how they can integrate proximity-based audio into the wildly popular experiences that beat at the heart of the platform — from chill, vaporwavey vibe games to pulling off kickflips in a Vans-sponsored skate park.

With spatial audio, users will be able to speak with other people nearby through live voice chat. Roblox sees its new voice product as a natural extension of the way that text chat works now, but instead of text bubbles that pop up over an avatar’s head, visible to anybody around them, players will be able to talk naturally to the other people they bump into.

Say you’re hanging out in a virtual skatepark in Roblox with spatial audio enabled: skaters in the half pipe with you would sound loud and clear, just like they would in real life. But you wouldn’t be able to hear someone walking around on the sidewalk across the street, since they’re too far away. To have a private conversation with a nearby friend, you might peel off and walk toward a store down the block.

“As we think about the future of communication in the metaverse, we think that it needs to be very natural and feel very similar to the way we communicate in the real world,” Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein told TechCrunch in an interview. “But it also can transcend, some of the limitations that physics and space create in the real world.”

Bronstein joined the company in March, leaving Google to help realize Roblox’s particular vision for the metaverse. Prior to hopping over to Roblox, Bronstein worked on product teams at Zynga, Xbox and YouTube — three very different companies that are probably equal parts relevant to his current work.

“If you think about the metaverse as the next incarnation of where you know I could go shopping or I could go to a concert, I could go to school, I think that you need to be relevant to everybody in society and you need to both build the content, the rules, the features that support all of those behaviors,” Bronstein said. “And part of bringing voice to the platform is to ensure that our older audiences have a natural way to communicate.”

Voice chat is very much on the way to Roblox, but that doesn’t mean it will appear overnight — and that’s by design. The company is inviting an initial group of 5,000 developers, all 13 and older, to try out the new spatial voice chat capabilities in a custom-built Roblox community space.

“We’ve put a bunch of neat features in there and places for them to chat and hang out and they’re going to be able to learn from the code that we wrote for that community space… So a few weeks later or a month later they can put that into their experiences and turn it on,” Bronstein said.

Bronstein emphasizes that Roblox will take this process slowly, building new moderation and safety tools in parallel as it goes. The voice rollout will go slowly, starting with the chosen circle of developers and gradually expanding out from there as the company feels confident that it can create a safe enough environment with its moderation tools.

“I think we want to take it slowly and we want to learn as we go through it,” Bronstein said. “We may start, as I mentioned, with the developers. It is likely that right after that, we may go to an audience that is 13+ and park there for a while until we understand exactly if all the pieces are falling into place before deciding if we ever open it to a younger audience.”

To moderate its sprawl of virtual worlds, Roblox uses a blend of automated scanning and a 3,000-person safety team of human reviewers. Like in any social network, players can report, block and mute other players to make their own experiences feel more comfortable. And because half of its player base is under 13, Roblox gives parents options on what kinds of age-appropriate experiences to allow and toggles for things like text chat. If voice chat ever makes its way to younger age groups, parents would be able to disable it altogether.

Roblox’s under-13 crowd comprises a massive chunk of its user base, but a surprising number of older kids and young adults hang out there too. According to the company, 50% of its users are over the age of 13 and it’s seeing the most explosive user growth among 17- to 24-year-olds. Roblox is attracting new users, but its core users are also growing up and the company knows it needs to grow alongside them.

Whether voice chat ever rolls out for younger users or not, Roblox seems well aware that keeping a virtual environment with voice chat feeling safe and friendly is a steep challenge. The company plans to rely on user-initiated reporting as voice rolls out and it’s exploring other tools that could bolster those efforts. The company is looking at a few different tools, including automatically recording a snippet of conversation just prior to a user being reported as a way to capture bad behavior for reviewers. It’s also interested in expanding reputation systems that automatically restrict users who have a certain number of strikes against them.

Much like any social platform, Roblox will likely lean heavily on user reporting, which disproportionately shifts the burden to users on the receiving end of hate and harassment — an unfortunate outcome that no social company has properly dedicated the human resources to solving.

Next on the voice roadmap

Bronstein describes spatial audio as “one component” of Roblox’s vision for natural communication. The next step is integrating a voice chat experience that’s persistent across experiences, letting users who know each other hang out even when they aren’t doing the same thing. For anyone who paid attention to the company’s quiet acquisition of a company called Guilded last month, that won’t come as a surprise. Though Roblox’s work on voice pre-dates the acquisition, Guilded will lay the groundwork for Roblox’s future voice plans.

A Discord competitor, Guilded similarly built out a chat platform for gamers, doubling down on the competitive gaming scene where Discord expanded its horizons beyond gaming. Beyond group voice chat, Guilded gives gamers built-in scheduling and community management tools that ease the hassle of organizing complex online social events, like wrangling 20-some-odd gamers to run raids in World of Warcraft.

“In the near term, Guilded has an amazing road map, we want to just continue with that road map and grow it without any hardcore integration at this point,” Bronstein said.

Into the metaverse

Moderation challenges aside, there’s basically nothing in Roblox’s way. The company went public in March and today it’s worth $49 billion, making it easily one of the most valuable companies in gaming. Investors, content creators and tech giants alike are going all-in on the metaverse, and really, it looks like a pretty safe bet.

Metaverse is a buzzy term right now, but it’s more shorthand than empty hype. When people talk about the metaverse, they generally want to evoke a futuristic vision of interconnected virtual worlds — online spaces that we can move through, socialize and shop within (for better or worse, that last part is key). Whether this will all be in virtual reality or not and when is a point of some debate, but really the interconnected part is the bigger challenge. In the app age, software was siloed by design. But to realize the promise of the metaverse, our virtual selves and our virtual stuff will need to be able to move through online worlds fluidly.

A few companies are ahead of the curve on this, and it’s no coincidence that two of the big ones, Roblox and Fortnite-maker Epic — best known for their virtual worlds stocked with custom avatars, in-game economies and a seamless social layer — are elevating user-created content. Those experiences, and the ability to easily hang out with friends while doing stuff in them and elsewhere in virtual space, may wind up being what the metaverse is all about.

Most adults can hardly grasp the appeal of the blocky, suburban worlds that their kids love hanging out in, but Roblox understands something fundamental about where online life is going. Or rather where we’ll all going — into online worlds like Roblox.

 

Box, Zoom chief product officers discuss how the changing workplace drove their latest collaboration

By Christine Hall

If the past 18 months is any indication, the nature of the workplace is changing. And while Box and Zoom already have integrations together, it makes sense for them to continue to work more closely.

Their newest collaboration is the Box app for Zoom, a new type of in-product integration that allows users to bring apps into a Zoom meeting to provide the full Box experience.

While in Zoom, users can securely and directly access Box to browse, preview and share files from Zoom — even if they are not taking part in an active meeting. This new feature follows a Zoom integration Box launched last year with its “Recommended Apps” section that enables access to Zoom from Box so that workflows aren’t disrupted.

The companies’ chief product officers, Diego Dugatkin with Box and Oded Gal with Zoom, discussed with TechCrunch why seamless partnerships like these are a solution for the changing workplace.

With digitization happening everywhere, an integration of “best-in-breed” products for collaboration is essential, Dugatkin said. Not only that, people don’t want to be moving from app to app, instead wanting to stay in one environment.

“It’s access to content while never having to leave the Zoom platform,” he added.

It’s also access to content and contacts in different situations. When everyone was in an office, meeting at a moment’s notice internally was not a challenge. Now, more people are understanding the value of flexibility, and both Gal and Dugatkin expect that spending some time at home and some time in the office will not change anytime soon.

As a result, across the spectrum of a company, there is an increasing need for allowing and even empowering people to work from anywhere, Dugatkin said. That then leads to a conversation about sharing documents in a secure way for companies, which this collaboration enables.

The new Box and Zoom integration enables meeting in a hybrid workplace: chat, video, audio, computers or mobile devices, and also being able to access content from all of those methods, Gal said.

“Companies need to be dynamic as people make the decision of how they want to work,” he added. “The digital world is providing that flexibility.”

This long-term partnership is just scratching the surface of the continuous improvement the companies have planned, Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin and Gal expect to continue offering seamless integration before, during and after meetings: utilizing Box’s cloud storage, while also offering the ability for offline communication between people so that they can keep the workflow going.

“As Diego said about digitization, we are seeing continuous collaboration enhanced with the communication aspect of meetings day in and day out,” Gal added. “Being able to connect between asynchronous and synchronous with Zoom is addressing the future of work and how it is shaping where we go in the future.”

How a Vungle-owned mobile marketer sent Fontmaker to the top of the App Store

By Sarah Perez

Does this sound familiar? An app goes viral on social media, often including TikTok, then immediately climbs to the top of the App Store where it gains even more new installs thanks to the heightened exposure. That’s what happened with the recent No. 1 on the U.S. App Store, Fontmaker, a subscription-based fonts app which appeared to benefit from word-of-mouth growth thanks to TikTok videos and other social posts. But what we’re actually seeing here is a new form of App Store marketing — and one which now involves one of the oldest players in the space: Vungle.

Fontmaker, at first glance, seems to be just another indie app that hit it big.

The app, published by an entity called Mango Labs, promises users a way to create fonts using their own handwriting which they can then access from a custom keyboard for a fairly steep price of $4.99 per week. The app first launched on July 26. Nearly a month later, it was the No. 2 app on the U.S. App Store, according to Sensor Tower data. By August 26, it climbed up one more position to reach No. 1. before slowly dropping down in the top overall free app rankings in the days that followed.

By Aug. 27, it was No. 15, before briefly surging again to No. 4 the following day, then declining once more. Today, the app is No. 54 overall and No. 4 in the competitive Photo & Video category — still, a solid position for a brand-new and somewhat niche product targeting mainly younger users. To date, it’s generated $68,000 in revenue, Sensor Tower reports.

But Fontmaker may not be a true organic success story, despite its Top Charts success driven by a boost in downloads coming from real users, not bots. Instead, it’s an example of how mobile marketers have figured out how to tap into the influencer community to drive app installs. It’s also an example of how it’s hard to differentiate between apps driven by influencer marketing and those that hit the top of the App Store because of true demand — like walkie-talkie app Zello, whose recent trip to No. 1 can be attributed to Hurricane Ida

As it turns out, Fontmaker is not your typical “indie app.” In fact, it’s unclear who’s really behind it. Its publisher, Mango Labs, LLC, is actually an iTunes developer account owned by the mobile growth company JetFuel, which was recently acquired by the mobile ad and monetization firm Vungle — a longtime and sometimes controversial player in this space, itself acquired by Blackstone in 2019.

Vungle was primarily interested in JetFuel’s main product, an app called The Plug, aimed at influencers.

Through The Plug, mobile app developers and advertisers can connect to JetFuel’s network of over 15,000 verified influencers who have a combined 4 billion Instagram followers, 1.5 billion TikTok followers, and 100 million daily Snapchat views.

While marketers could use the built-in advertising tools on each of these networks to try to reach their target audience, JetFuel’s technology allows marketers to quickly scale their campaigns to reach high-value users in the Gen Z demographic, the company claims. This system can be less labor-intensive than traditional influencer marketing, in some cases. Advertisers pay on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis for app installs. Meanwhile, all influencers have to do is scroll through The Plug to find an app to promote, then post it to their social accounts to start making money.

Image Credits: The Plug’s website, showing influencers how the platform works

So while yes, a lot of influencers may have made TikTok videos about Fontmaker, which prompted consumers to download the app, the influencers were paid to do so. (And often, from what we saw browsing the Fontmaker hashtag, without disclosing that financial relationship in any way — an increasingly common problem on TikTok, and area of concern for the FTC.)

Where things get tricky is in trying to sort out Mango Labs’ relationship with JetFuel/Vungle. As a consumer browsing the App Store, it looks like Mango Labs makes a lot of fun consumer apps of which Fontmaker is simply the latest.

JetFuel’s website helps to promote this image, too.

It had showcased its influencer marketing system using a case study from an “indie developer” called Mango Labs and one of its earlier apps, Caption Pro. Caption Pro launched in Jan. 2018. (App Annie data indicates it was removed from the App Store on Aug. 31, 2021…yes, yesterday).

Image Credits: App Annie

Vungle, however, told TechCrunch “The Caption Pro app no longer exists and has not been live on the App Store or Google Play for a long time.” (We can’t find an App Annie record of the app on Google Play).

They also told us that “Caption Pro was developed by Mango Labs before the entity became JetFuel,” and that the case study was used to highlight JetFuel’s advertising capabilities. (But without clearly disclosing their connection.)

“Prior to JetFuel becoming the influencer marketing platform that it is today, the company developed apps for the App Store. After the company pivoted to become a marketing platform, in February 2018, it stopped creating apps but continued to use the Mango Labs account on occasion to publish apps that it had third-party monetization partnerships with,” the Vungle spokesperson explained.

In other words, the claim being made here is that while Mango Labs, originally, were the same folks who have long since pivoted to become JetFuel, and the makers of Caption Pro, all the newer apps published under “Mango Labs, LLC” were not created by JetFuel’s team itself.

“Any apps that appear under the Mango Labs LLC name on the App Store or Google Play were in fact developed by other companies, and Mango Labs has only acted as a publisher,” the spokesperson said.

Image Credits: JetFuel’s website describing Mango Labs as an “indie developer”

There are reasons why this statement doesn’t quite sit right — and not only because JetFuel’s partners seem happy to hide themselves behind Mango Labs’ name, nor because Mango Labs was a project from the JetFuel team in the past. It’s also odd that Mango Labs and another entity, Takeoff Labs, claim the same set of apps. And like Mango Labs, Takeoff Labs is associated with JetFuel too.

Breaking this down, as of the time of writing, Mango Labs has published several consumer apps on both the App Store and Google Play.

On iOS, this includes the recent No. 1 app Fontmaker, as well as FontKey, Color Meme, Litstick, Vibe, Celebs, FITme Fitness, CopyPaste, and Part 2. On Google Play, it has two more: Stickered and Mango.

Image Credits: Mango Labs

Most of Mango Labs’ App Store listings point to JetFuel’s website as the app’s “developer website,” which would be in line with what Vungle says about JetFuel acting as the apps’ publisher.

What’s odd, however, is that the Mango Labs’ app Part2, links to Takeoff Labs’ website from its App Store listing.

The Vungle spokesperson initially told us that Takeoff Labs is “an independent app developer.”

And yet, the Takeoff Labs’ website shows a team which consists of JetFuel’s leadership, including JetFuel co-founder and CEO Tim Lenardo and JetFuel co-founder and CRO JJ Maxwell. Takeoff Labs’ LLC application was also signed by Lenardo.

Meanwhile, Takeoff Labs’ co-founder and CEO Rhai Goburdhun, per his LinkedIn and the Takeoff Labs website, still works there. Asked about this connection, Vungle told us they did not realize the website had not been updated, and neither JetFuel nor Vungle have an ownership stake in Takeoff Labs with this acquisition.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website showing its team, including JetFuel’s co-founders.

Takeoff Labs’ website also shows off its “portfolio” of apps, which includes Celeb, Litstick, and FontKey — three apps that are published by Mango Labs on the App Store.

On Google Play, Takeoff Labs is the developer credited with Celebs, as well as two other apps, Vibe and Teal, a neobank. But on the App Store, Vibe is published by Mango Labs.

Image Credits: Takeoff Labs’ website, showing its app portfolio.

(Not to complicate things further, but there’s also an entity called RealLabs which hosts JetFuel, The Plug and other consumer apps, including Mango — the app published by Mango Labs on Google Play. Someone sure likes naming things “Labs!”)

Vungle claims the confusion here has to do with how it now uses the Mango Labs iTunes account to publish apps for its partners, which is a “common practice” on the App Store. It says it intends to transfer the apps published under Mango Labs to the developers’ accounts, because it agrees this is confusing.

Vungle also claims that JetFuel “does not make nor own any consumer apps that are currently live on the app stores. Any of the apps made by the entity when it was known as Mango Labs have long since been taken down from the app stores.”

JetFuel’s system is messy and confusing, but so far successful in its goals. Fontmaker did make it to No. 1, essentially growth hacked to the top by influencer marketing.

Congrats to @Rhai_Gb & the @Takeoff_Labs team- it's great to be back at #1 overall 🙌

Also a huge accomplishment for @jetfuel_it as the only user acquisition source. The first time we've single-handedly moved an app to #1 Top Free! https://t.co/Cl8ahj8Owo

— Tim L (@telenardo) August 25, 2021

But as a consumer, what this all means is that you’ll never know who actually built the app you’re downloading or whether you were “influenced” to try it through what were, essentially, undisclosed ads.

Fontmaker isn’t the first to growth hack its way to the top through influencer promotions. Summertime hit Poparrazzi also hyped itself to the top of the App Store in a similar way, as have many others. But Poparazzi has since sunk to No. 89 in Photo & Video, which shows influence can only take you so far.

As for Fontmaker, paid influence got it to No. 1, but its Top Chart moment was brief.

LinkedIn is scrapping its Stories feature to work on short-form video

By Amanda Silberling

What do LinkedIn and Twitter have in common? They both introduced ephemeral story features that were pretty fleeting. LinkedIn announced today that it will suspend its Stories feature on September 30 and begin working on a different way to add short-form videos to the platform.

LinkedIn announced the upcoming change to warn advertisers who might have already purchased ads that would run in between Stories. Those will instead be shared on the LinkedIn feed, but users who promoted or sponsored Stores directly from their page will need to remake them.

This sucks. I met my wife on LinkedIn Stories https://t.co/rMeA6gpYWI

— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) August 31, 2021

LinkedIn introduced Stories in September, around the same time that Twitter rolled out Fleets to all users before doing away with the feature. This was part of a larger web and mobile redesign, which also added integrations with Zoom, BlueJeans and Teams to help professionals stay connected while working from home. But according to LinkedIn, these temporary posts didn’t quite work on the platform.

“In developing Stories, we assumed people wouldn’t want informal videos attached to their profile, and that ephemerality would reduce barriers that people feel about posting,” wrote LinkedIn’s Senior Director of Product Liz Li in a blog post today. “Turns out, you want to create lasting videos that tell your professional story in a more personal way and that showcase both your personality and expertise.”

Li also noted that users want “more creative tools to make engaging videos.” While Stories included stickers and prompts, users wanted more creative functionality.

If LinkedIn is successful in its plans to create a short-form video feature, it would join platforms like Snapchat and Instagram that have built their own TikTok-like feeds. Sure, most users probably don’t post the same content on LinkedIn and their personal social media accounts, but there actually are some prominent TikTokers sharing career advice, interview tips and resume guidance, so LinkedIn’s pivot to video might not be as weird as it seems.

Mass Effect  Is Kind of a Utopia for the Chronically Ill

By Eirik Gumeny
It’s a universe where disabilities don’t slow people down or dominate their lives.

Gillmor Gang: Half a Loaf

By Steve Gillmor

When Salesforce announced its streaming platform Salesforce+, the CRM Playaz’ Paul Greenberg and Brent Leary interviewed Colin Fleming, SVP of Global Brand Experiences at the CRM company (disclosure: I work at Salesforce). Later, I asked Brent about his show on this episode of the Gang.

Brent: With all the things going on with data privacy and cookies going away, companies are going to have to figure out a way to get first—and that third party, but first party data in a clean way.
Me: Can you describe the difference?
Well, a third party, you go to a website and this website has partners that you have nothing to do with, and all of a sudden you land on a website and the next thing you know, you might be getting hit up with an ad or an email from a company you didn’t even expect, you don’t have a relationship with. But that company has a relationship with the website owner. So all of this stuff, all of these interactions or nuisance breakup of your day because of ads and notifications you’re getting, you’re getting it not because you had a direct relationship, but you landed on a site that has potentially thousands of relationships with other companies that want to get at you.
And that’s the third party cookies way of doing things. Well, that’s going away. And one of the things that [Fleming] pointed out is that what Salesforce wants to do is create great content in order to be able to build a direct relationship and not have to depend on the traditional third party backroom deals. And I thought that was really great. I was really excited to hear that part of it, because I think it’s another way of forcing people to actually get away from this third party stuff and and be more direct about what their intentions are and what they’re trying to do.

I asked Keith Teare how quickly third party data is going to go away.

Keith: Well, it’s already starting to go away because of Apple’s implementation on iOS blocking things. Microsoft’s browser [market share] is quite small these days, but it also blocks things. So you’re moving from these common pools, lakes of data, to what you could think more of as a walled garden data, meaning first person data. Companies can’t rely on targeting through the network anymore unless they themselves know the users and then they can.
So that leads to this big question, which is: what is the right balance between content marketing (which is what I really think Salesforce is doing) where you’ve got a direct audience, versus advertising, where you pay somebody to show an ad? The targeting on ads is going to deteriorate and content marketing, which is what you could think of as earned media—that is to say, you work to get the attention—is going to grow. So this is really a fairly major shot in the arm of what some people call the creator economy and spreading it out into the enterprise. Every enterprise is going to have to become a creator in this world.

Denis Pombriant added:

Denis: I read an interesting report this week. It was the seventh edition of the Salesforce Marketing Survey. The first half of it was very positive about using new technology to support work from anywhere and a variety of other things that free you from the office. But the second part of it had some very interesting data about where investments were going by corporations into new marketing. In about a dozen categories, no category had more than a 50 percent response. Basically saying, yeah, we’re investing enough or we’re actively pursuing this. So the conclusion I draw from is that everything we seem to be doing about being more tech savvy out on the Web and addressing customers and colleagues and cohorts or whatever it is, is somewhat lagging and will lag until organizations invest in the skills and the people to support some of the new things like content development, audio content development, video content development, AI, and quite a few other things as well.

I think that’s right. It’s not whether there’s a creator economy or not. The investments made by vendors, while significant and market-making, depend on the market expanding beyond its roots. Blogs and podcasts began as a kind of extension of the mainstream media, but foundered when readers and listeners moved to social authority as a measure of credibility. Newsletters and livecasting suffer when the value proposition of the ad hoc media looks too much like the mainstream media it hopes to replace. Instead, we turn the mute button on and eventually escape to fictionalized stories where good triumphs over evil or the reverse.

The creator economy has produced a kind of vaudeville, where talent bubbles up to feed a hungry niche. Where real success comes is when that consensus of what is right for the emotional center mitigates the extremes of the partisan groups and the controversy that drives the current mainstream model. The Rachel Maddow negotiations and the lumbering infrastructure deals suggest a progress of moderate success. Maddow is moving toward a weekly show with creator spinoffs yet to be defined, and Congress is developing a half a loaf plus a little legislative strategy to carve up an unachievable agenda into small successes loosely joined. Not too left, not too right, but enough to beat back the assault on voter rights while protecting the middle. Half a loaf is better than none.

the latest Gillmor Gang Newsletter

__________________

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, August 13, 2021.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

Subscribe to the new Gillmor Gang Newsletter and join the backchannel here on Telegram.

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook … and here’s our sister show G3 on Facebook.

Last Stop Is a Playable Love Letter to London

By Lewis Gordon
The title’s three codirectors discuss bringing their TV-show-meets-adventure-game project to life.

The Joy of Walking in Games

By Amy Briscoe
Here's what you need to know about walking simulators and the psychological benefits of how games can offer a much-needed escape.

Pokimane Has Done Enough—and Has So Much Left to Do

By Cecilia D'Anastasio
The 25-year-old Twitch star has built her life into the optimal internet content machine. Now she just wants to enjoy it.

Popcorn’s new app brings short-form video to the workplace

By Sarah Perez

A new startup called Popcorn wants to make work communication more fun and personal by offering a way for users to record short video messages, or “pops,” that can be used for any number of purposes in place of longer emails, texts, Slack messages or Zoom calls. While there are plenty of other places to record short-form video these days, most of these exist in the social media space, which isn’t appropriate for a work environment. Nor does it make sense to send a video you’ve recorded on your phone as an email attachment, when you really just want to check in with a colleague or say hello.

Popcorn, on the other hand, lets you create the short video and then send a URL to that video anywhere you would want to add a personal touch to your message.

For example, you could use Popcorn in a business networking scenario, where you’re trying to connect with someone in your industry for the first time — aka “cold outreach.” Instead of just blasting them a message on LinkedIn, you could also paste in the Popcorn URL to introduce yourself in a more natural, friendly fashion. You also could use Popcorn with your team at work for things like daily check-ins, sharing progress on an ongoing project or to greet new hires, among other things.

Image Credits: Popcorn

Videos themselves can be up to 60 seconds in length — a time limit designed to keep Popcorn users from rambling. Users also can opt to record audio only if they don’t want to appear on video. And you can increase the playback speed if you’re in a hurry. Users who want to receive “pops” could also advertise their “popcode” (e.g. try mine at U8696).

The idea to bring short-form video to the workplace comes from Popcorn co-founder and CEO Justin Spraggins, whose background is in building consumer apps. One of his first apps to gain traction back in 2014 was a Tinder-meets-Instagram experience called Looksee that allowed users to connect around shared photos. A couple years later, he co-founded a social calling app called Unmute, a Clubhouse precursor of sorts. He then went on to co-found 9 Count, a consumer app development shop which launched more social apps like BFF (previously Wink) and Juju.

9 Count’s lead engineer, Ben Hochberg, is now also a co-founder on Popcorn (or rather, Snack Break, Inc. as the legal entity is called). They began their work on Popcorn in 2020, just after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the rapid shift to remote work in the days that followed could now help Popcorn gain traction among distributed teams. Today’s remote workers may never again return to in-person meetings at the office, but they’re also growing tired of long days stuck in Zoom meetings.

With Popcorn, the goal is to make work communication fun, personal and bite-sized, Spraggins says. “[We want to] bring all the stuff we’re really passionate about in consumer social into work, which I think is really important for us now,” he explains.

“You work with these people, but how do you — without scheduling a Zoom — how do you bring the ‘human’ to it?,” Spraggins says. “I’m really excited about making work products feel more social, more like Snapchat than utility tools.”

There is a lot Popcorn would still need to figure out to truly make a business-oriented social app work, including adding enhanced security, limiting spam, offering some sort of reporting flow for bad actors, and more. It will also eventually need to land on a successful revenue model.

Currently, Popcorn is a free download on iPhone, iPad and Mac, and offers a Slack integration so you can send video messages to co-workers directly in the communication software you already use to catch up and stay in touch. The app today is fairly simple, but the company plans to enhance its short videos over time using AR frames that let users showcase their personalities.

The startup raised a $400,000 pre-seed round from General Catalyst (Nico Bonatsos) and Dream Machine (Alexia Bonatsos, previously editor-in-chief at TechCrunch.) Spraggins says the company will be looking to raise a seed round in the fall to help with hires, including in the AR space.

Bright raises $15M for its live video platform that lets you learn from top creators

By Sarah Perez

Bright, a live video platform that lets fans engage in live conversations with their favorite creators and celebs, has raised $15 million in new funding, the company announced today. The round was co-led by co-founder and talent manager Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, the fund he founded with Ashton Kutcher. RIT Capital and Regah Ventures also co-led.

Other investors in the new round include Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Globo Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, Shawn Mendes & Manager Andrew Gertler’s AG Ventures, as well as Jeff Lawson, CEO and co-founder of Twilio.

In addition, a number of artists, performers, actors and other celebrities also invested, Bright says, including Rachel Zoe, Drew and Jonathan Scott, Judd Apatow, Ashton Kutcher, Amy Schumer, Bethenny Frankel and Ryan Tedder. Meanwhile, Jessica Alba, Kane Brown and Maria Sharapova are joining the company as advisors.

Bright, which first debuted in May, was co-founded by Madonna and U2 talent manager Guy Oseary along with early YouTube product manager Michael Powers, who had previously launched the YouTube Channels feature while at Google. The startup’s premise is to tap into the growing creator economy in a way that allows creators to better monetize their success outside of ad-supported networks, like YouTube, so they can grow their own business.

The platform itself is built on top of Zoom — a choice that not only saves Bright from starting from scratch for its real-time video technology, but also one that leverages the broad adoption Zoom has since seen due to the pandemic.

At launch, Bright announced a lineup that included over 200 prominent creators who were set to host ticketed online events where they share their stories or expertise, engage in interviews, offer advice and more. Today, Bright says now over 320 notable names have joined the service to engage with fans and continue to build their brand. The list includes Madonna, Naomi Campbell, D-Nice, the D’Amelio Sisters, Laura Dern, Deepak Chopra, Lindsey Vonn, Diego Boneta, Jason Bolden, Yris Palmer, Cat & Nat, Ronnie2K and Chef Ludo Lefebvre. Even more are on board to host future sessions, with Bright now on track to double the number of creators on board by year-end.

Unlike social media creator tools, Bright is focused on knowledge-sharing rather than just gaining likes or follows. For example, one the first sessions featured actor Laura Dern speaking about personal growth, while another featured streamer and online creator Ronnie2K hosting a series about building a career in gaming. In other words, Bright doesn’t only showcase Hollywood entertainment or top artists — it’s open to anyone whose fan base would be willing to pay to hear them talk.

Today, there are sessions across a variety of interests and topics, organized into areas like craft, home, money, culture, body and mind.

Image Credits: Bright session example

Bright itself generates revenue by taking a 20% commission on creator revenue, which is somewhat lower than the traditional marketplace split of 30/70 (platform/creator) but higher than some of the newer platforms available today, like Clubhouse and its commission-free direct payments.

The startup says the funding is being used to help roll out Creator Studio, a new suite of creator tools for managing learning sessions, audience communication and revenue performance. These sorts of analytics and tools are aimed at serving creators who are working to build a business through live sessions, in addition to growing their fan base.

Initially, creators in September will gain access to a sessions list tool for managing announcements of upcoming sessions, and placing sessions for sale with tickets and pricing. Later in the year, it will be expanded to include analytics, connections for messaging participants directly, and a wallet feature for tracking revenue, Bright says.

The funds will also help Bright to add new interactive features, like instant polls and the ability to share learning materials with attendees, as well as to onboard the influx of new talent.

These features could potentially help Bright stand out from a growing number of competitors looking to serve online creators, which today includes major tech companies like YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter. However, Oseary’s ability to leverage his personal network to pull in big names is, for now, the more notable differentiator.

“As a believer in lifelong learning, I’m proud to be investing in a platform like Bright, offering audiences the unique opportunity to learn directly from the artists and experts they admire the most,” said new investor, director and producer, Judd Apatow, in a statement. “Through Bright, I can directly connect and share my knowledge with fellow writers, aspiring directors and lovers of comedy,” he added.

Bright declined to share details as to its revenue, but did tell TechCrunch that its seeing ticket prices range from $25 to $150 per 1 to 2 hour sessions.

“It’s inspiring to have the support of incredible investors as well as these notable artists and entrepreneurs. All our partners share Bright’s vision that people want to level up their lives by learning directly from those they admire,” Bright CEO Michael Powers said, in an announcement. “Through Bright, talent can better engage authentically with audiences by sharing their own knowledge and bringing their many interests and passions to the foreground. We are excited to roll out our new features to continue elevating our platform and mission” he said.

Digital locker app Movies Anywhere adds AI-powered lists to organize your library

By Sarah Perez

Movies Anywhere, an app that allows you to centralize your digital movie collection from across services, is rolling out a new feature that will help you make better sense of your growing library. The company today introduced an AI-powered feature called “My Lists,” which automatically groups movies together based on any number of factors — like genre, actors, franchise, theme and more.

For digital movie collectors with larger libraries, the feature could make browsing through the available options feel more like scrolling through the recommendations you’d find on a modern-day streaming service, like Netflix. That is, instead of scrolling down through endless pages showing you all your purchased movies in order of purchase or alphabetically, as before, you can now quickly scan rows where the content is organized in ways that make it easier to discover what’s actually in your library.

For example, if you had purchased all the movies from a particular franchise, they would now be on their own row together. This is an improvement over how you had to locate these movies in your collection before — where they’d be sandwiched between the other titles you bought in between the franchise purchases.

You may also discover that you own a lot of movies within a particular category, like “Action Thrillers,” or those with a central theme, like “strong female friendships,” which could help you narrow down your movie night selection.

These algorithmically created lists can also be edited, allowing you to add or remove titles — or even delete the list altogether.

Image Credits: Movies Anywhere

Plus, you can now make lists of your own, too. So you could make a list of favorites, movies you want to watch with your family, or however else you want to further organize your collection. You could even use the feature to make a “to watch” list of movies you’ve purchased, but hadn’t yet made time for.

The Movie Anywhere app has been around for years, but is now jointly operated by Disney, Universal, WB, Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox, after migrating to a new platform back in 2017. Its biggest selling point for digital movie collectors is that you can in one place get to all the movies you bought from various services. That includes digital downloads offered by iTunes, Vudu, Prime Video, YouTube, Xfinity and others. Before, you would have to switch from app to app to figure out if you had ever purchased a given title.

My Lists is one of many features the company has added over time to keep its app feeling current. Last year, for instance, it introduced a digital movie lending feature called Screen Pass, and it earlier had launched a co-watching feature called Watch Together, which let users watch with up to nine friends.

The new My Lists is available today in the Movies Anywhere mobile app, desktop and on streaming devices from the navigation bar.

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OnlyFans’ explicit content ban should spark a conversation about a creators’ bill of rights

By Ram Iyer
Bremner Morris Contributor
Bremner Morris is CMO/CRO of Rally, a crypto platform that allows creators and artists to launch their own digital currency and build sustainable, independent economies with their fan communities. Previously, he was head of global go-to-market and revenue at Patreon.

OnlyFans’ decision to ban sexually explicit content is reigniting an important and overlooked conversation around tech companies, content guidelines and sex work. However, the implications of this discussion go beyond just one platform and one marginalized group.

It’s indicative of a broken ecosystem for content creators where platforms have outsized control over the ways in which creators are allowed to share content and engage with their followers and fans. In response, creators are decentralizing, broadening their reach to multiple platforms and taking their audiences with them.

In doing so, creators also have the opportunity to define what rights they want to be built into these platforms.

History repeats itself

Creators being shut out of the individual platforms is nothing new. Many are comparing OnlyFans’ policy change to Tumblr’s move to ban adult content in 2018. This has been an ongoing issue for YouTube as well — several communities, including a group of LGBTQ YouTubers, have accused the platform of targeting them with their demonetization algorithm.

Many of these platforms, including OnlyFans, point to their payment partners’ policies as a barrier to allowing certain forms of content. One of the earliest major controversies we saw in this arena was when PayPal banned WikiLeaks in 2010.

While each of these events have drawn the ire of creators and their followers, it’s indicative of an ecosystemwide problem, not necessarily an indictment of the platforms themselves.

After all, these platforms have provided the opportunity for creators to build an audience and engage with their fans. But these platforms have also had to put policies in place to shield themselves from regulatory and reputational risk.

The core of the issue is that creators are beholden to individual platforms, always vulnerable to changing policies and forced to navigate the painful migration of their audiences and monetization from platform to platform.

That doesn’t mean that that all guidelines and policies are bad — they play a role to foster and govern a positive and safe community with thoughtful guidelines — but it should not come at the cost of harming and de-platforming the creators who fuel these platforms with content and engagement. The core of the issue is that creators are beholden to individual platforms, always vulnerable to changing policies and forced to navigate the painful migration of their audiences and monetization from platform to platform.

And, at the end of the day, it takes away from their ability to create meaningful content, engage with their communities and earn a reliable living.

As creators have lost more and more control to platforms over time, some have begun exploring alternative options that allow independent and direct monetization from their audience in a distributed way.

Decentralizing, monetizing

The direct-to-fan monetization model is already displacing the traditional ad-based, platform-dictated model that creators relied on for years. During my time at Patreon, I saw how putting control and ownership in the hands of creators builds a more sustainable, fair and vibrant creator economy. Substack has given writers a similarly powerful financial tool, and over the past few years, there has been an ever-growing number of companies that serve creators.

The challenge is that many of these companies rely on the existing systems that hamstrung the platforms of the past, and have business models that require take rates and revenue shares. In many ways, the creator economy needs new infrastructure and business models to build the next phase of creator and fan interaction.

With the right application, crypto can help rewrite the playbook of how creators monetize, engage with their fans and partner with platforms. Its peer-to-peer structure reflects the direct-to-fan relationship and allows creators to own the financial relationship with their audience instead of relying on tech giants or payment partners as middlemen. Beyond that, crypto allows creators to maintain ownership and control over their brands and intellectual property.

Additionally, many crypto projects allow participants to have a voice in the value proposition, strategic direction, operational functions and economic structures of the project via DAOs or governance tokens. In this way, creators can join projects and set the direction in a way that aligns with how they want to engage with their communities.

Creators are especially positioned to benefit from community-governed projects given their ability to motivate and engage their own communities. We are in the early phases of crypto adoption, and creators have a huge opportunity to shape the future of this paradigm shift. With social tokens, creators can mint their own cryptocurrencies that allow for a shared economy that creators and fans can grow together and use to transact directly across different platforms.

NFTs are another category that have exploded in popularity this year, but the industry is just scratching the surface of the utility that they will have. Creators and crypto projects are figuring out ways to make NFTs go beyond collectibles; NFTs provide an engaging and functional digital tool for creators to give their fans their time (through video calls or AMAs) or access to other exclusive benefits.

Creators are just beginning to discover the power that crypto provides. As the user experience of crypto-based platforms continues to become more intuitive, crypto will become ubiquitous. Before that point, creators should think about what rights they need (and can demand) from the decentralized services they use.

A creators’ bill of rights

Be it within crypto or not, creators finally have the leverage to determine their rights. While I believe that creators should be the ones leading this conversation, here are a few jumping off points:

  • Ability to move freely across platforms: Reliance on individual platforms is at the heart of many of the issues that creators face. By allowing creators to take their fans with them wherever they go, many of the problems we’ve seen even with direct-to-fan monetization can be solved.
  • Direct financial relationships between creators and fans: At the heart of the OnlyFans matter is creators’ inability to own their financial relationships with fans. Even if direct financial relationships aren’t feasible on every platform, creators should have options to own those relationships and dictate their own terms.
  • Creator-led decision-making: Historically, platforms have given creators minimal control over platformwide decisions and policies. Creators should have direct input and even be able to vote on various platformwide measures.
  • Quality over quantity: Platforms and their algorithms are structured to reward quantity and force creators down a path of burnout and hyperspeed content creation. Both creators and fans are looking for a more deep and engaging interaction and incentivizing this behavior will ensure a more vibrant and sustainable creator ecosystem.
  • Low (or zero) take rates: Big tech platforms take nearly 100% of revenue from creators. Creators (and their fans) should be earning the majority of platform revenue.
  • Equity access or revenue sharing: Big tech platforms have built empires on the labor of creators. Instead of dictating ad revenue payout to creators, decentralized platforms should allow creators to have true “skin in the game” by being able to own a piece of the pie outright or benefit from the overall growth of the ecosystem. This alignment of interests will be a major shift from the capital-labor split we see today.
  • Transparency and consultation: Creators should have full view into what they can or can’t do and a seat at the table as policies are being created and adapted. Platforms’ content moderation decisions and the algorithms behind demonetization are often opaque, broadly applied and decided without consulting the creators they will impact. They should also have visibility into the size of the overall revenue pie and their share.
  • Ability for reform and rehabilitation: We are all human, and there might be moments that a creator knowingly or unknowingly goes outside of the guidelines set by a platform. Creating a space for creators to rehabilitate their content will create a more trusting and collaborative relationship between creators and platforms.

We’ll leave it to creators to dictate their terms — they’ve been cut out of this conversation for far too long. That said, I’m confident that Rally and many other key participants in the Web 3.0 ecosystem would be open to supporting this effort to create an environment that works for creators and their fans.

TikTok is building its own AR development platform, TikTok Effect Studio

By Sarah Perez

Both Facebook and Snap offer tools that allow developers to build out augmented reality (AR) experiences and features for their own respective family of apps. Now, TikTok is looking to do the same. The company recently launched a new creative toolset called TikTok Effect Studio, currently in private beta testing, which will allow its own developer community to build AR effects for TikTok’s short-form video app.

On a new website titled “Effect House,” TikTok asks interested developers to sign up for early access to Effect Studio.

On the form provided, developers fill out their name, email, TikTok account info, company, and level of experience with building for AR, as well as examples of their work. The website also asks if they’re using a Mac or PC (presumably to gauge which desktop platform to prioritize), and whether they would test Effect House for work or for personal use.

The project was first spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra, via a tip from Sam Schmir.

TikTok is launching an Effects Studio in beta

h/t @Sam_Schmir pic.twitter.com/K3LS5S2Yoq

— Matt Navarra (@MattNavarra) August 14, 2021

TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch the website launched earlier in August, but the project itself is still in the early stages of testing in only a few select markets, one of which is the U.S.

The company couldn’t offer a timeframe as to when these tools would become more broadly available. Instead, TikTok characterized Effect Studio as an early “experiment,” adding that some of its experiments don’t always make it to launch. Plus, other experiments may undergo significant changes between their early beta phases and what later becomes a public product.

That said, the launch of an AR toolset would make TikTok more competitive with industry rivals, who today rely on creative communities to expand their apps’ features sets with new features and experiences. Snap, for example, launched a $3.5 million fund last year directed toward Snapchat AR Lens creation. Meanwhile, at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in June, the company announced it had grown its Spark AR platform to over 600,000 creators across 190 countries, making it the largest mobile AR platform worldwide.

Image Credits: screenshot of TikTok website

TikTok, too, has been increasing its investment in developer tools over the past couple of years. However, its focus as of late has been on toolkits aimed at third-party developers who want to integrate more closely with TikTok in their own apps. Today, TikTok’s developer website provides access to tools that allow app makers to add TikTok features to their apps like user authentication flows, sound sharing, and others that allow users to publish videos from a third-party editing app out to TikTok.

The new TikTok Effect Studio isn’t meant to be used with third-party apps, however.

Instead, it’s about building AR experiences (and possibly, other creative effects), that would be provided to TikTok users directly in the consumer-facing video app.

Though willing to confirm its broader goals for TikTok Effect Studio, the company declined to share specific details about the exact tools may be included, citing the project’s early days.

“We’re always thinking about new ways to bring value to our community and enrich the TikTok experience,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Currently, we’re experimenting with ways to give creators additional tools to bring their creative ideas to life for the TikTok community,” they added.

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