Verizon picks up the assets of Disney-backed VR startup Jaunt

After raising $100 million, virtual reality content startup Jaunt has been in a precarious position for a few years now. It seems like the saga has finally come to a close as Verizon has bought the company’s technology.

The studio rode the wave of VR hype following Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, but after years of trying to find a business in immersive entertainment, spanning software and camera hardware, the company has spent its past year trying to sell off its VR assets while pursuing a business focused on augmented reality and what it calls the “distribution of volumetric video of humans.”

A deal with Spinview Global to purchase the company’s VR tech that was reported last year never ended up happening, a spokesperson tells TechCrunch. Verizon is walking away with Jaunt’s technology assets here which is inclusive of their VR tech and their newer AR efforts. It doesn’t sound like any employees are coming onboard as part of the transition, but there will be some Jaunt folks helping with bringing the tech onboard.

The company’s spokesperson opted not to comment when asked whether the startup was winding down following the deal.

Why does Verizon want these assets? Verizon Media (of which TechCrunch is apart of) already has some assets in the VR space including the virtual reality content studio RYOT which has been playing around with 360 content and general AR/VR content. The company’s Envrnmnt arm is basically focusing on making AR and VR apps run more efficiently on mobile, which is something Jaunt has had to be mindful of as they’ve tried to focus on broadcasters that need to deal with bandwidth strains.

We don’t have a price tag on the deal, but the startup raised $100 million from investors including GV and Disney. In October of last year, the company laid off a “significant portion of its employees” and by the end of the year they were auctioning off office furniture.

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Google brings its Jacquard wearables tech to Levi’s Trucker Jacket

Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.

These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.

The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.

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What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.

“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”

What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.

jacquard dongle

Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).

He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.

“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.

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Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”

I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.

Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.

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Stranger Things 4 takes Netflix’s hit retro sci-fi show beyond Hawkins

Stranger Things 4 got its first teaser today, courtesy of the official Stranger Things Twitter account. The Netflix series, which is in its fourth season (although the creators, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, maintain that each instalment isn’t really a ‘season’ in the traditional TV sense, but rather more like a movie broken up across multiple episodes), is being renewed alongside an overall film and TV deal with a 9-figure value for the Duffers at Netflix.

Stranger Things manages a unique blend of sci-fi, horror, 1980s-era nostalgia and coming-of-age teen buddy comedy. It’s among the most successful of Netflix’s original content creations, by most accounts, and also one of the most critically-acclaimed. Details about this fourth series are scarce for now, but based on the teaser we can expect the action to move out of Hawkins, the sleepy town which has provided the backdrop for all of the action thus far (minus a very strange outing for main character Elle back in season two).

Judging strictly from this preview, we can also probably safely assume that a lot of the action will take place in the ‘Upside Down,’ the fictional dark mirror dimension where the series villain monsters are from. It’ll be interesting to see if Stranger Things 4 can spend a whole season in this realm, which seems to mostly be filled with moss, slime, dust and spores of some kind.

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Hyundai is getting into the flying car business

Hyundai Motor Group has launched a new air mobility division aimed at developing technology for the commercialization of flying cars, the latest company to dive into the emerging industry.

The division will be led by Dr. Jaiwon Shin, an aeronautics engineer who most recently led the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA. While at NASA, Shin oversaw a $725 million program into aeronautics research initiatives, such as supersonic X-plane, electrification of aircraft, UAS traffic management, and urban air mobility.

The South Korean automaker said the business unit led by Shin will “develop core technologies and innovative solutions for safe and efficient airborne travel.” Shin’s expertise centers on airframe, engine, aviation safety, and air traffic management — technologies that Hyundai says will allow it to take a lead in the urban air mobility sector.

That urban air sector is expected to grow into a market worth $1.5 trillion within the next 20 years,” according to Shin.

Of course, there are many others pursuing various kinds of air taxis, including Uber, Kitty Hawk Corp., Terrafugia and Volocopter, to name just a few.

All of these companies, including Hyundai see the flying cars as a way to solve the traffic problems on the ground. Flying cars could merely move that congestion to the skies, which is why technologies around airspace traffic management — which Shin has experience in — is just as important as developing the aircraft.

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Instagram launches a ‘creators’ account to encourage more… creation

Instagram deployed a new tool today that should help it continue to build a more viable alternative to YouTube for individual creators looking to try a different platform. It’s a dedicated account called @creators, which will deliver tips and tricks for people hoping to become more active on the platform.

Based on the pinned FAQ story that Instagram has posted to the account, and a brief explainer with some testimonials from actual creators using the platform. Some of the questions that Instagram answers include how to get Verified, which must be asked so incredibly frequently by this particular set of folks.

The grid posts of @creators include some helpful tips like pointing out that 60% of people listen to stories on the platform with the sound on. Clearly, the account is geared towards pushing video creation tips and tools, which makes sense given that’s an area of growth for the company, and a way for it to win over disaffected YouTubers and younger creators who are looking for their new home on the web.

This could be a huge potential opportunity for Instagram, in fact, and this account, while a small part of an overall approach to wooing creators, is a good one.

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SmartNews’ head of product on how the news discovery app wants to free readers from filter bubbles

Since launching in the United States five years ago, SmartNews, the news aggregation app that recently hit unicorn status, has quietly built a reputation for presenting reliable information from a wide range of publishers. The company straddles two very different markets: the U.S. and its home country of Japan, where it is one of the leading news apps.

SmartNews wants readers to see it as a way to break out of their filter bubbles, says Jeannie Yang, its senior vice president of product, especially as the American presidential election heats up. For example, it recently launched a feature, called “News From All Sides,” that lets people see how media outlets from across the political spectrum are covering a specific topic.

The app is driven by machine-learning algorithms, but it also has an editorial team led by Rich Jaroslovsky, the first managing editor of and founder of the Online News Association. One of SmartNews’ goal is to surface news that its users might not seek out on their own, but it must balance that with audience retention in a market that is crowded with many ways to consume content online, including competing news aggregation apps, Facebook and Google Search.

In a wide-ranging interview with Extra Crunch, Yang talked about SmartNews’ place in the media ecosystem, creating recommendation algorithms that don’t reinforce biases, the difference between its Japanese and American users and the challenges of presenting political news in a highly polarized environment.

Catherine Shu: One of the reasons why SmartNews is interesting is because there are a lot of news aggregation apps in America, but there hasn’t been one huge breakout app like SmartNews is in Japan or Toutiao in China. But at the same time, there are obviously a lot of issues in the publishing and news industry in the United States that a good dominant news app might be able to help, ranging from monetization to fake news.

Jeannie Yang: I think that’s definitely a challenge for everybody in the U.S. With SmartNews, we really want to see how we can help create a healthier media ecosystem and actually have publishers thrive as well. SmartNews has such respect for the publishers and the industry and we want to be good partners, but also really understand the challenges of the business model, as well as the challenges for users and thinking of how we can create a healthier ecosystem.

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Widespread adoption of embedded and IoT technologies is increasing software product development risks

These days, everything is connected. From smart houses filled with smart appliances to connected cars packed with hundreds of sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT) has moved beyond disruption to become a mainstay of daily life. With this massive opportunity, device makers are attempting to rush all kinds of connected products to market.

Getting there, though, is a challenge. The data-intensive IoT brings increased development risk, especially for companies that are creating particularly innovative products — things that haven’t been built before. And despite advances in the tools, languages and hardware available to developers, IoT and embedded software projects still run into trouble. They miss deadlines, hit intractable technical obstacles and run over budget. 

RELATED CONTENT: IoT is the next digital transformation

The potential for project failure is so profound that companies actually expect a poor outcome. According to one industry study [Geneca], 75 percent of business and IT executives suggested their software projects were “doomed” from the outset. 

I understand this pessimism. I’ve seen promising products stumble because the decision-making is far more complex for these types of devices than the “dumb” or stand-alone devices of years past. From where I sit as CEO of a software firm that has helped companies build more than 500 high-impact connected and embedded devices and applications, these are the three most common reasons — unrelated to budget, as that’s a topic for a different article — that software development projects fail.

1. Unclear objectives

Without knowing precisely your aim, meaning you have objectives that aren’t well articulated, it is too easy to build something your customers don’t want or need. 

2. Overly optimistic expectations 

Overly optimistic expectations get you when a project turns out to be harder than you anticipated. Which is always. If you’re not prepared, what happens when the project’s goals prove too ambitious for the allotted schedule? One tiny speedbump and you’re way off track. 

3.  Excessive complexity

It’s often difficult to identify, understand and effectively manage risk if a project is overly complicated. And even projects that seem simple can quickly turn complex. Take the example of what appears to be a very basic development task — building a coffee maker. Your plan is to develop a commercial coffee brewer with a touch interface, to be used in a trendy new restaurant chain. So, no old-school blister buttons, just a sleek, modern touchscreen UI. Easy enough. All the device needs to do is brew and dispense a perfect cup of Joe. Your developers can code this in their sleep. 

But once you dive into the project, complexity quickly escalates — for instance, because your product development team decides to add new features that weren’t part of the original spec. Like accommodating different size coffee cups. Or offering customization options like sugar, or a sugar substitute.. And how about some milk in your coffee? What kind? Whole? Skim? Perhaps half caff grande cappuccino with Stevia and almond milk? So many choices!

Development is more complicated now, but still relatively straightforward. But then come myriad other decisions. Does the coffee maker need internationalization, say, a UI that works in six languages for use in 28 countries? Maybe it needs a companion iPhone app. What about Bluetooth connectivity? Alexa integration so it can re-order its own supplies? A high-end and a low-end model based on the same code? Can the discount board you originally spec’d even handle this? 

Point is, what starts out simple typically doesn’t end that way and each add-on brings more risk, more possibility for something to go wrong. As devices get smarter and even more complicated, something is bound to go wrong.

Sure, developers will have new tools like AI platforms and deep-learning search engines for coding yet their jobs won’t get any easier. Different certainly, but not easier. As data science and programming converge there will simply be higher expectations.

Succeeding with IoT initiatives
There are many measures organizations can take, for instance, identifying risk early while they still have the ability to influence it. And starting software development projects with a surge staffing robustly with senior engineers who can quickly uncover unknowns to add buffer time before scaling back with less-expensive resources who can manage the project once it’s headed in the right direction.

But in my opinion, the one element that can have the most positive impact on a project is to lead with UX or the user experience  meaning, do the most difficult thinking up front and keep humans front and center. While this has always been important, in the age of the IoT when algorithms parse data from the network’s edge to the cloud, it is absolutely essential for business success.

Human-centric UX design involves creating solutions that are both functional and engaging. Not only does UX design provide a structured way to identify problems before engineering encounters them, it allows you to break a project into manageable pieces, and it serves as a proxy for a more detailed spec.  

Most important, thoughtful UX design ensures that you’re not only building well but building right as in building the right thing, something your customers actually want. 

Stakes are high for today’s businesses as they search for new ways to please customers by creating innovative new digital products and by adding connectivity to legacy products that were not originally developed with this functionality in mind. Certainly, technological innovation from AI, machine learning and robotics to VR/AR, gesture technology and intelligent apps will bring more intriguing and hopefully more usable connected products. Yet, many of the fundamental reasons future software development projects will fail are the same as today. 

What’s the takeaway? While addressing risk and staffing will continue to be as important as ever, by also developing a clearer understanding of and more meaningful focus on users and their experience with your product, you’ll dramatically improve your potential for success.

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Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop service is now generally available

Microsoft today announced that Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), its Azure-based system for virtualizing the Windows and Office user experience it announced last September, is now generally available. Using WVD, enterprises can give their employees access to virtualized applications and remote desktops, including the ability to provide multi-session Windows 10 experiences, something that sets Microsoft’s own apart from that of other vendors who offer virtualized Windows desktops and applications.

In addition to making the service generally available, Microsoft is also rolling it out globally, whereas the preview was U.S.-only and the original plan was to slowly roll it out globally. As Scott Manchester, the principal engineering lead for WVD, also told me that over 20,000 companies signed up for the preview. He also noted that Microsoft Teams is getting enhanced support in WVD with a significantly improved video conferencing experience.

Shortly after announcing the preview of WVD, Microsoft acquired a company called FSLogix, which specialized in provisioning the same kind of virtualized Windows environments that Microsoft offers through WVD. As Microsoft’s corporate VP for Microsoft 365 told me ahead of today’s announcement, the company took a lot of the know-how from FSLogix to ensure that the user experience on WVD is as smooth as possible.

Andreson noted that just as enterprises are getting more comfortable with moving some of their infrastructure to the cloud (and have others worry about managing it), there is now also growing demand from organizations that want this same experience for their desktop experiences. “They look at the cloud as a way of saying, ‘listen, let the experts manage the infrastructure. They can optimize it; they can fine-tune it; they can make sure that it’s all done right.’ And then I’ll just have a first-party service — in this case Microsoft — that I can leverage to simplify my life and enable me to spin up and down capacity on demand,” Anderson said. He also noted, though, that making sure that these services are always available is maybe even more critical than for other workloads that have moved to the cloud. If your desktop stops working, you can’t get much done, after all.

Anderson also stressed that if a customer wants a multi-session Windows 10 environment in the cloud, WVD is the only way to go because that is the only way to get a license to do so. “We’ve built the operating system, we built the public cloud, so that combination is going to be unique and this gives us the ability to make sure that that Windows 10 experience is the absolute best on top of that public cloud,” he noted.

He also stressed that the FSLogix acquisition enabled his team to work with the Office team to optimize the user experience there. Thanks to this, when you spin up a new virtualized version of Outlook, for example, it’ll just take a second or two to load instead of almost a minute.

A number of companies are also still looking to upgrade their old Windows 7 deployments. Microsoft will stop providing free security patches for them very soon, but on WVD, these users will still be able to get access to virtualized Windows 7 desktops with free extended security updates until January 2023.  Anderson does not believe that this will be a major driver for WVD adoption, but he does see “pockets of customers who are working on their transition.”

Enterprises can access Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 7 Enterprise on WVD at no additional licensing cost (though, of course, the Azure resources they consume will cost them) if they have an eligible Windows 10 Enterprise or Microsoft 365 license.


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PayPal to enter China through GoPay acquisition

The People’s Bank of China has approved PayPal’s acquisition of a 70% equity state in GoPay (Guofubao Information Technology Co. (GoPay), Ltd.), which will make PayPal the first foreign payment platform to provide online payment services in China. GoPay has licenses for online and mobile transactions, and mainly provides payment products for industries including e-commerce, cross-border commerce, aviation tourism, and others.

According to a statement from Guofubao, PayPal acquired the 70% stake through the Shanghai-based subsidiary, Yinbaobao Information Technology (Shanghai) Co., Ltd.

The companies did not disclose deal terms.

The news of PayPal’s entry into China comes at a time when there’s increased tensions between the U.S. and China, with The White House reportedly now considering curbing some U.S. investments in China amid the trade dispute between the countries.

Though China’s payments market today is led by local players, including eWallet providers like AliPay and WeChat Pay on the mobile side, there’s still plenty of room for it to grow — which would benefit PayPal.

On the mobile payments side alone, the market is expected to grow 21.8% from 2017 to $96.73 trillion in 2023, driven partly by increasing demand for e-commerce, a report from Frost & Sullivan found. The market has also seen an increase in cross-border transactions, particularly in sectors like e-commerce, travel and overseas education. These reached $6.66 trillion in 2016.

The report additionally said the total number of active mobile payment customers is expected to reach 956 million by 2023, up from 562 million in 2017.

PayPal said the transaction is expected to close in Q4 2019 and is subject to customary closing conditions.

The company’s full statement on the acquisition is below:

The People’s Bank of China has approved PayPal Information Technologies Co., Ltd.’s acquisition of a 70% equity interest in Guofubao Information Technology Co. (GoPay), Ltd., a holder of a payment business license in China. We are honored to become the first foreign payment platform to be licensed to provide online payment services in China. We look forward to partnering with China’s financial institutions and technology platforms, providing a more comprehensive set of payment solutions to businesses and consumers, both in China and globally. The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2019 and is subject to customary closing conditions.

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WeWork withdraws its S-1 filing, will delay its IPO

WeWork’s parent organization The We Company just announced that it’s withdrawing the S-1 filing for its IPO.

The coworking company has had a turbulent month since the filing went public, around both the general state of its finances and the behavior of co-founder/CEO Adam Neumann.

As a result, Neumann stepped down down as CEO last week (he will continue to serve as non-executive chairman). In addition, the company is looking to focus on its core co-working business, which means it’s planning major layoffs and even reportedly looking to sell some of the companies it acquired over the last couple years — namely Managed by Q, Conductor and Meetup.

So it was widely expected that The We Company would delay its IPO. Today, it made things official with the release of a statement from new co-CEOs Artie Minson and Sebastian Gunningham:

We have decided to postpone our IPO to focus on our core business, the fundamentals of which remain strong. We are as committed as ever to serving our members, enterprise customers, landlord partners, employees and shareholders. We have every intention to operate WeWork as a public company and look forward to revisiting the public equity markets in the future.

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