PicsArt hits 130 million MAUs as Chinese flock to its photo editing app

If you’re like me, who isn’t big on social media, you’d think that the image filters that come inside most apps will do the job. But for many others, especially the younger crowd, making their photos stand out is a huge deal.

The demand is big enough that PicsArt, a rival to filtering companies VSCO and Snapseed, recently hit 130 million monthly active users worldwide, roughly a year after it amassed 100 million MAUs. Like VSCO, PicsArt now offers video overlays though images are still its focus.

Nearly 80 percent of PicsArt’s users are under the age of 35 and those under 18 are driving most of its growth. The “Gen Z” (the generation after millennials) users aren’t obsessed with the next big, big thing. Rather, they pride themselves on having niche interests, be it K-pop, celebrities, anime, sci-fi or space science, topics that come in the form of filters, effects, stickers and GIFs in PicsArt’s content library.

“PicsArt is helping to drive a trend I call visual storytelling. There’s a generation of young people who communicate through memes, short-form videos, images and stickers, and they rarely use words,” Tammy Nam, who joined PicsArt as its chief operating officer in July, told TechCrunch in an interview.

PicsArt has so far raised $45 million, according to data collected by Crunchbase. It picked up $20 million from a Series B round in 2016 to grow its Asia focus and told TechCrunch that it’s “actively considering fundraising to fuel [its] rapid growth even more.”

picsart

PicsArt wants to help users stand out on social media, for instance, by virtually applying this rainbow makeup look on them. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

The app doubles as a social platform, although the use case is much smaller compared to the size of Instagram, Facebook and other mainstream social media products. About 40 percent of PicsArt’s users post on the app, putting it in a unique position where it competes with the social media juggernauts on one hand, and serving as a platform-agnostic app to facilitate content creation for its rivals on the other.

What separates PicsArt from the giants, according to Nam, is that people who do share there tend to be content creators rather than passive consumers.

“On TikTok and Instagram, the majority of the people there are consumers. Almost 100 percent of the people on PicsArt are creating or editing something. For many users, coming on PicsArt is a built-in habit. They come in every week, and find the editing process Zen-like and peaceful.”

Trending in China

Most of PicsArt’s users live in the United States, but the app owes much of its recent success to China, its fastest growing market with more than 15 million users. The regional growth, which has been 10-30 percent month-over-month recently, appears more remarkable when factoring in PicsArt’s zero user acquisition expense in a crowded market where pay-to-play is a norm for emerging startups.

“Many larger companies [in China] are spending a lot of money on advertising to gain market share. PicsArt has done zero paid marketing in China,” noted Nam.

Screenshot: TikTok-related stickers from PicsArt’s library

When people catch sight of an impressive image filtering effect online, many will inquire about the toolset behind it. Chinese users find out about the Armenian startup from photos and videos hashtagged #PicsArt, not different from how VSCO gets discovered from #vscocam on Instagram. It’s through such word of mouth that PicsArt broke into China, where users flocked to its Avengers-inspired disappearing superhero effect last May when the film was screening. China is now the company’s second largest market by revenue after the U.S.

Screenshot: PicsArts lets users easily apply the Avengers dispersion effect to their own photos

A hurdle that all media apps see in China is the country’s opaque guidelines on digital content. Companies in the business of disseminating information, from WeChat to TikTok, hire armies of content moderators to root out what the government deems inappropriate or illegal. PicsArt says it uses artificial intelligence to sterilize content and keeps a global moderator team that also keeps an eye on its China content.

Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, PicsArt has placed its research and development center in Armenia, home to founder Hovhannes Avoyan. This gives the startup access to much cheaper engineering talents in the country and neighboring Russia compared to what it can hire in the U.S. To date, 70 percent of the company’s 360 employees are working in engineering and product development (50 percent of whom are female), an investment it believes helps keep its creative tools up to date.

Most of PicsArt’s features are free to use, but the firm has also looked into getting paid. It rolled out a premium program last March that gives users more sophisticated functions and exclusive content. This segment has already leapfrogged advertising to be PicsArt’s largest revenue source, although in China, its budding market, paid subscriptions have been slow to come.

picsart 1

PicsArt lets users do all sorts of creative work, including virtually posing with their idol. / Image: PicsArt via Weibo

“In China, people don’t want to pay because they don’t believe in the products. But if they understand your value, they are willing to pay, for example, they pay a lot for mobile games,” said Jennifer Liu, PicsArt China’s country manager.

And Nam is positive that Chinese users will come to appreciate the app’s value. “In order for this new generation to create really differentiated content, become influencers, or be more relevant on social media, they have to do edit their content. It’s just a natural way for them to do that.”

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Amify, which promises more profits to third party sellers on Amazon, just raised its first outside venture round

Small businesses have a complicated relationship with Amazon . While they fear the company because they have no control over it, Amazon’s platform is also a great way to reach shoppers, particularly small businesses that rise to the top of its results pages.

Amify, a nine-year-old, Alexandria, Va.-based company, says it can get them there, and investors are buying its pitch. As founder and CEO Ethan McAfee tells us, the 60-person company just raised $5.8 million in Series A funding — its first outside round — led by Mercury Fund, with participation from Dundee Venture Capital, CincyTech, SaaS Venture Capital and Capital One cofounder Nigel Morris.

It all started, McAfee says, with a shoestring operation run out of his suburban townhouse.

As a T. Rowe Price analyst straight out of college, McAfee went on to spend 11 years “doing the investment thing” before deciding that instead of investing in companies, he wanted to start his own. It was 2010 at the time, and Amazon was just beginning its evolution from a place to buy books and CDs into the everything store that it has become. At first, McAfee started selling pickleball paddles at the site from his home, before eventually adding various other items. When he’d established that “we’d gotten really good at it,” it occurred to him that he should sell what he’d learned about how to connect with shoppers on the platform, which was growing more crowded by the day.

Fast forward to today, and McAfee says Amify now works with a long line of customers, from brands you might not recognize to household names like Fender guitars and Brooks, the century-old maker of running shoes, all of which pay Amify a percentage of their revenue in exchange for its services.

What these include, says McAfee, is help with product pages (“10 great pictures versus one can increase sales”), advice on what not to sell (“drones are the worst”), management of sponsored ad campaigns, and a big assist with inventory. To wit, customers of Amify send their goods to the startup when they arrive by container ship from China, for example. Amify — which uses warehouses in Las Vegas and Cincinnati —  then sends the the goods on to one of Amazon’s warehouses so that if there is a return, Amazon sends the item back to Amify to deal with it and not the customer. (McAfee says most returns are donated or destroyed.)

It would seemingly get expensive for the companies, which already pay Amazon a 15 percent commission on their sales and up to 30 percent when orders are shipped through its Fulfilled by Amazon program. McAfee says the increase in sales that Amify is able to generate more than helps defray the cost.

Certainly, it’s an interesting proposition, which explains why Amify is hardly alone in chasing it. In addition to many small players trying to insert themselves into the big business of working with third party sellers – –  more than one million of which now make up more than 50 percent of Amazon’s total sales  — Amify’s more established competitors include Netrush and etailz.

McAfee doesn’t mind the other players, though. “It’s a $500 billion market,” he offers. In short, there’s enough to go around.

At least, there’s enough to go around for now. Asked if he worries about Amazon banishing companies like his or else competing more directly with it, McAfee say he doesn’t. Though he admits to having “had problems with Amazon” owing in part to its “many moving pieces,” he notes the company’s overarching objective is to make customers happy, an objective the two companies share and that Amify proves every day, he insists. Consider, he says, “With Amazon, you have to speak their lingo. You can spend hours on the phone with them to correct mistakes. But we can do it better than someone trying to figure it out for the first time,” which can presumably save both Amazon, and Amify’s customers, time and money.

Amify can also provide something to its stable of clients that Amazon does not, which is customer data and insights. Though Amify doesn’t offer the service today, McAfee says there may well come a time when it helps customers understand in a granular way what’s selling, what’s not, and why.

The new funding should help. On Amify’s own shopping list, says McAfee: a CTO.

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Dyson launches a vacuum with better battery, a desk lamp and a personal air purifier

Dyson’s got a very specific way of doing things. The British company makes super-high-quality products for a world where price isn’t an option. Using their devices is a bit like driving a sports car for the first time. You’ve got no idea why someone would pay that much money for something until you actually try them out.

Fittingly, it offered a few handfuls of reporters a chance to try out a trio of new products at a closed-door event this week. As the company noted, it doesn’t do much traditional advertising, so it relies on word of mouth and reviews to get the word out. As such, it was really intent on walking us through the thinking and development process behind each.

The new releases include two new product lines and an update to one of the company’s better-known products. The Cyclone V11 is an upgrade to last year’s V10 cordless vacuum. I tried the V10 out for a bit and was suitably impressed with its power (hence the sports car analogies) — impressed enough to want to keep using, mind, but not enough to recommend paying $400/$500.

Last year’s model does a good job cleaning up on various surfaces — even pet hair, which can be a real pain in the ass. It cleans quickly, and even has a satisfying kickback to it when you pull the trigger. The battery, on the other hand, is downright abysmal, which is something the V11 claims to fix.

The new model features a trio of different modes, including a battery-saving Econo and an auto feature that adjusts power as you switch surfaces. The battery itself is also larger and more robust, so you should be able to get ~40 minutes of use on a charge if you play your cards right. There’s also a new built-in display on the tank that tells you how much life is left and helps fix common problems with the stick vac.

The Cool Me personal air purifier basically adapts the company’s purification system into a smaller form factor (one that looks a bit humanoid). It looks to be a solid option for small rooms or places where you just want the thing pointed straight at you, like a desk or bed side. It’s quiet, but makes enough of a white noise whirr to lull you to sleep.

The direction of the airflow is adjusted manually — which seems like an odd choice. You’ll probably want to make sure you wash your hands before fiddling with a thing designed to blow directly into your face.

The Lightcycle, meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from a Dyson desk lamp. It’s big. Like, too big to sit on my home desktop. But it’s fancy as hell, with a fully adjustable arm and white balance that adjusts based on time of day and other settings. Here’s more from Dyson:

Local daylight tracking offers several benefits, but if a light loses its brightness or color temperature over time, its ability to track daylight would be diminished. Dyson engineers addressed LED overheating Heat Pipe technology. A vacuum-sealed copper tube draws heat away. Inside, a drop of water evaporates, dissipating heat along the pipe as it condenses, before returning to the LEDs by capillary action. It provides a non-stop, energy-free cooling cycle. This means that brightness and light quality is maintained for 60 years. 

As for the pricing on all of this? It’s pretty steep, as you’d expect. The vacuum starts at $600, the air purifier runs $350 and the light goes for between $600 and $900.

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Ford will invest $850 million to add more production capacity for EVs

Ford plans to invest more than $850 million to add more production capacity at a second U.S. factory for its next-generation battery electric vehicle program.

The investment, which will be made through 2023, will focus on expanding Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant in southeast Michigan. The plant investment also includes funding to build the next-generation Mustang and is part of a $900 million investment in Ford’s operations in southeastern Michigan.

The announcement is tied to Ford’s larger and previously announced plan to invest $11.1 billion in developing electric vehicles.

Ford’s all-electric performance SUV that’s coming in 2020, will be produced at its its Cuautitlan, Mexico plant. The next-generation of EVs, which will share a flexible architecture, will be produced at Flat Rock.

“We’ve taken a fresh look at the growth rates of electrified vehicles and know we need to protect additional production capacity given our accelerated plans for fully electric vehicles,” Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of global operations said in a statement. “This is good news for the future of southeast Michigan, delivering more good-paying manufacturing jobs.”

Ford also announced Wednesday it is building its next-generation North American Transit Connect small commercial and passenger van in Mexico, starting in 2021.

Ford’s $11 billion investment will be used to add 16 all-electric vehicles within its global portfolio of 40 electrified vehicles through 2022. At the heart of the company’s electrification effort is its Corktown project, a massive 1.2 million-square-foot space dedicated to its electric and autonomous vehicles businesses.

The goal of Corktown is to create a “mobility corridor” — Ford’s version of its own Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley — that ties hubs of research, testing and development in the academic hub of Ann Arbor to Ford’s Dearborn headquarters, and finally to Detroit.

One of those EVs — and perhaps the most anticipated — will be Mustang-inspired electric crossover that it plans to bring to market in 2020. Ford shared a teaser image last year, depicting a sketch of the vehicle’s backside, which shows a leaning toward the Mustang profile.

The company has also announced plans to offer electrified options in its popular F-Series pickup line.

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Microsoft warns Windows 7 users of looming end to security updates

Microsoft has rolled out a patch that will warn Windows 7 users that security updates will soon come to an end.

The patch rolled out Wednesday warning users of the impending deadline, January 14, 2020, when the software giant will no longer roll out fixes for security flaws and vulnerabilities. The deadline comes some ten years after Windows 7 first debuted in 2009, more than half a decade before Microsoft’s most recent operating system Windows 10 was introduced.

Microsoft’s move to stop issuing security updates is part of the company’s ongoing effort to push users to its latest software, which stands on a greater security foundation and improvements to mitigate attacks.

Starting April 18, users on Windows 7 will begin receiving warnings about the approaching cut-off.

Windows 7 still commands some 40 percent of the desktop market, according to Net Applications. With exactly 300 days before the deadline, the clock is ticking on rolling over larger enterprises to Windows 10. For years, Microsoft allowed Windows 7 users to upgrade to Windows 10 for free to try to encourage growth and upgrades. With those incentives gone, companies only have the lack of security updates to look ahead to, which will put business data and systems at risk of cyberattack.

It’s almost unheard of for Microsoft to patch end-of-life software. In 2017, Microsoft released rare security patches Windows XP — retired three years earlier — to prevent the spread of WannaCry, a ransomware strain that piggybacked off leaked hacking tools, developed by the National Security Agency.

The ransomware outbreak knocked schools, businesses and hospitals offline.

Windows 7’s successor, Windows 8, will continue to receive updates until January 10, 2023.

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Original Content podcast: ‘Shrill’ stays positive, despite bad boyfriends and terrible bosses

Many of the themes and stories found in Hulu’s “Shrill” will be familiar to fans of writer Lindy West — after all, it’s based on her book “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” and she’s a writer on the series.

But “Shrill” has mined the autobiographical material in West’s book to tell a fictionalized story about a young journalist played by Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live” (she also co-wrote the first two episodes).

When we meet Annie, she’s ignored or belittled by everyone — a random yoga instructor, her dismissive boss, her lunkheaded kinda-sorta boyfriend and even her mother — for being fat. Over the course of the six-episode season, Annie begins to understand her own worth, and to stand up for herself.

On this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Devin Coldewey to review the show.

“Shrill” pushes boundaries and deals with some pretty serious topics, but it has a light touch — Annie’s empathetic, optimistic outlook seems to be reflected in the broader story. While at least one of us had some reservations about the writing (which can feel a little too on-message), we all agreed that Bryant’s performance is terrific, making the character’s empowerment feel real, specific and earned.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

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Despite short-term questions, games software/hardware to top $200 billion by 2023

There has been some negative sentiment surrounding the games industry recently, with stock prices of public games companies in question in both the U.S. and China. While being contrarian to market sentiment is always risky, it’s also possible that folks might be taking a long-term solution to a short-term problem. Games industry software/hardware combined revenue could drive well over $200 billion of revenue by 2023, and there was a record $5.7 billion investment in games companies in 2018. So what’s going on?

The games industry isn’t one monolithic sector. Depending on how you slice it, the market is made up of 15 sectors, eight platform types (e.g. mobile, PC, console) and even more proprietary hardware/software platforms (e.g. iOS, Android, Xbox One, Sony PS4, Nintendo Switch).

Games software/hardware sector revenue share versus growth (2018-2023)

(Note: See selected data below. Free charts do not include all the numbers, axes and data from Digi-Capital’s Games Report, with underlying data sourced directly from companies and reliable secondary sources.)

Mobile games rule

We first forecast mobile’s dominance of the games market way back in 2011. At that time, many traditional games companies didn’t believe mobile/online games could become the driving force for games. Some of those companies no longer exist, so what’s happening today is nothing new.

Total global mobile app store revenues (gross across games and non-games apps, including app store revenue sharetopped $100 billion for the first time in 2018. Mobile games delivered around three quarters of that number, as they have consistently for years. So where mobile games drove more than $70 billion gross revenue globally last year, they could top $100 billion revenue (again gross, including app store revenue share) in their own right in the next five years. But like all games sectors, mobile games are hit-driven. And this could be the source of some of the mismatch between the market’s understanding of short-term trends and long-term potential.

For example, Supercell’s Clash of Clans and Clash Royale have delivered over $10 billion revenue to date. However, Supercell also saw revenues and profits decline in 2018 for the second year in a row as its franchises matured. Yet Supercell’s newest franchise, Brawl Stars, delivered $100 million revenue within its first two months. Swings and roundabouts.

Epic Games had the biggest breakout mobile games hit of 2018, with Fortnite contributing significantly to a reported $3 billion profit in 2018. It also anchored part of the interest behind a record $1.25 billion fundraising round last year. Yet the company removed once-dominant mobile franchise Infinity Blade from the App Store, and redirected internal development resources to focus on Fortnite by closing Paragon and stopping further development on Unreal Tournament. We will come back to Fortnite in the context of mobile games becoming platforms in their own right.

Perhaps the biggest concern for mobile games after last year is China, in which the regulator ceased approving new games for most of 2018. This weighed particularly heavily on market heavyweights Tencent and NetEase, although the regulator returned to approving their games this year. However, the regulator again stopped accepting games in February, only to approve more games in March. This regulatory risk has resulted in our downgrading Chinese games revenue growth rates until a clearer long-term pattern emerges.

Niantic’s mobile AR smash Pokémon GO took just over 1 percent of mobile games revenue globally last year, and has been reported to drive some astonishingly big numbers: 800 million downloads, more than $2.5 billion lifetime revenue, 147 million MAU, 5 million DAU, 78 percent of users aged 18 to 34, 144 billion steps taken by users, 500 million visits to sponsored locations and Niantic’s valuation of nearly $4 billion (Note: Not all of these figures have been confirmed by Niantic.) Off the back of this, Niantic is exploring Pokémon GO’s potential to become a platform, with GO Snapshot challenging Snapchat, and the Niantic Real World Platform as a serious AR Cloud player. We’ll come back to these.

PC games hardware/software is big, too

PC games hardware/software is made up of four individual sectors, including PC games hardware (gaming computers, upgrades and peripherals), PC games, online (DLC, IAP and subscriptions), PC games (digital sales) and PC games (physical sales). While each subsector has different characteristics, scales and growth rates, together they make up the only part of the market close to mobile games long-term. Google’s new Stadia cloud gaming platform and competitors could also fundamentally impact high-end gaming across all platforms (not just PC). Mobile games software and PC games hardware/software combined could deliver three quarters of total games industry revenues by 2023.

Selected multiplayer PC games (ex-China)

While PC games hardware is massive, users are buying that hardware mainly to play MMO/MOBA games. This part of the market is consolidated around franchises from major public games publishers such as Tencent and Activision Blizzard, as well as independents like Wargaming and Bluehole.

The console abides

Console games were the market leader for games hardware/software for decades, and remain huge despite no longer being an engine of growth. The highest growth here could come from console games (digital sales) and console games (online), with console games hardware and console games (physical sales) both ex-growth long-term. Despite flattish platform growth for console games hardware/software, they could still deliver multiple tens of billions of dollars revenue by 2023.

High-growth from a low base

Of the remaining market sectors, a handful are small today but have high-growth potential long-term. These include VR games, VR hardware, AR games and esports. Yet taken individually, each sector is likely to deliver in the 1 percent to 2 percent range of total games market revenue in five years’ time. So great for indie developers, but more challenging commercially for the big guns in terms of scale.

United nations of games

Geographical games market discussions tend to focus on China and the U.S., but there are more than 50 country markets driving growth at a global level. Scales and growth rates vary dramatically from giant, stable growth countries such as China (even with its current uncertainty), the U.S. and Japan to higher growth markets like India and Russia. In aggregate, Asia could take around half of global games market revenue by 2023 (despite short-term concerns about China). Europe might deliver around a quarter of global revenue, followed by North America at around one fifth in the same time frame. Countries in MEA and Latin America make up the balance at a much lower level.

Concentration versus growth

The law of big numbers caught up with the games industry years ago, with the 10 largest publicly listed games companies taking three quarters of public games company revenues globally (Note: This ratio does not include private games company revenues, which are substantial). When you already produce billions to tens of billions of dollars in revenue, high growth rates aren’t easy to come by as new hits counterbalance maturing franchises.

Public games company revenue share

(Note: Heat map displays relative revenue scale of publicly listed games companies. Private games company revenues not shown on this chart.)

Top grossing mobile games of recent years (outside China) often came from independents. Standouts include Supercell, King, Epic Games, Niantic, Machine Zone and others. Perhaps in response to this dynamic, there was more than $75 billion of games M&A over the last five years. Major games companies have been buying both growth and cash flow.

Mobile games as platforms?

The beauty of what Steve Jobs created with the App Store is that it democratized distribution of apps at scale beyond the early social games market. It also enabled indie games developers to build some of the rocket ships we’ve seen over the last decade. Yet despite massive growth, even the biggest mobile games couldn’t really be described as platforms in the traditional sense. Not yet.

Where Tencent’s WeChat messaging platform looks like a domestic app store rival with its “mini-programs,” some mobile games pureplays are taking very different routes to becoming platforms in their own right.

For Epic Games, the recent Marshmello concert in Fortnite held out the tantalizing prospect of the beginnings of the “Metaverse” on ubiquitous, affordable mobile devices. With 10.7 million concurrent attendees, this represents a significant milestone in the evolution of games as platforms. Given Fortnite’s previous records for streaming on Twitch and concurrent esports tournament viewers, the savvy Tim Sweeney is beginning to leverage all that scale in a totally new way. Together with building its own app store and the quality of its Unreal Engine, the lessons learned from Fortnite and partial owner Tencent are leading to new horizons.

Where Epic Games is building a metaverse that is a little like Ready Player One without the headsets, Niantic has taken a different approach. Leveraging the real-world, big data stream coming from Pokémon GO, Niantic is building the core of an AR cloud ecosystem to challenge Google, Apple and Facebook. It could also move the company far beyond its entertainment origins for real-world navigation, social, e-commerce, advertising and more.

Epic Games and Niantic could become two of the most valuable platform companies in the world, with long-term potential even they might not fully understand yet.

To infinity and beyond

All this potential doesn’t mean that short-term concerns aren’t valid, or that some games companies (even those currently at scale) might not fall from grace. Some of the volatility of recent times could turn out to be right on the money. When we talked to Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney about all of this, he said “I think that we’re just in the final days of a long transition away from the old retail-centric game release model. Good times ahead.”

With the long-term prospects for games still looking positive, the brave, bold and lucky could have a bright future.

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Morphin instantly Deepfakes your face into GIFs

Want to star in your favorite memes and movie scenes? Upload a selfie to Morphin, choose your favorite GIF, and your face is grafted in to create a personalized copy you can share anywhere. Become Tony Stark as he suits up like Iron Man. Drop the mic like Obama, dance like Drake, or slap your mug on Fortnite characters.

Now after three years in a stealth developing image mapping technology, Morphin is ready to launch its put-you-in-a-GIF maker. While it might look like just a toy, investors see real business potential. Morphin raised $1 million last summer from Betaworks, the incubator that spawned Giphy, plus Founders Fund, Precursor, Shrug Capital, and Boost.vc’s accelerator.

Elon Musk as Iron Man

“We believe in the future you’ll be able to be the main character in your own film. Imagine a super hero movie where you’re a the main protagonist?” co-founder Loic Ledoux asks. “That sounded like science fiction a few years ago and now with AI and computer vision we definitely see our tech going there.”

Ledoux also wants to reclaim faceswaps as something fun rather than a weapon for misinformation. “Deepfakes brought something pretty negative to computer vision. But it’s not all bad. It’s about how you use the tech to give people a new tool for self expressions and storytelling.” And since Morphin re-generates the whole clip from scratch with CGI animation, they look right at a glance but clearly aren’t manipulated copies of the original video designed to fool anyone.

Kanye performs magic

Morphin started three years ago with the intention to build personalized avatars for games and VR so you could be a FIFA soccer player or Skyrim knight. Ledoux had started a 3D printing company to explore opportunities in scanning and modeling when he saw a chance to connect your real and virtual faces. He teamed up with his co-founder Nicholas Heriveaux who’d spent 13 years working on 3D tech while modding games like Grand Theft Auto to insert his avatar and assets.

What they quickly recognized was that “People were just reacting to themselves on the screen”, ignoring the gameplay, Ledoux recalls. “Being able to see yourself as a hero was the underlying sentiment, so we focused on video completely.” Recognizable GIFs became its preferred medium, as they combine familiarity and the ability to convey complex emotions with a template that’s easy to personalize so they stand out.

Morphin’s tech no longer requires 3D scanning hardware and it works with just a regular selfie. You just snap a headshot, select a GIF from its iOS or Android app’s library, and a few seconds later you have a CGI version of yourself in the scene with no watermark that you can export and post. “We wanted it to be super straight forward because we wanted people to relate to the content” Ledoux notes. Over 1 million scenes have been created by 50,000 beta users, and each time a celebrity shares one of the GIFs Morphin has been sending them for marketing, scores of their followers demand to know what app they were using.

Morphin’s 9-person French team will have to keep innovating to stay ahead of avatar-making competitors like the ubiquitous Snapchat Bitmoji, Genies, Moji Edit, and Mirror AI. Facebook, Microsoft, and Google all have launched or are building their own avatar creators. But these typically live as 2D stickers or 3D AR animations you overlay on the real world. By using GIFs as a canvas, Morphin takes the pressure off your visage looking perfect and instead emphasizes the message you’re trying to get across.

The challenge will be for Morphin to become a consistent part of people’s communication stack. It’s easy to imagine playing with it and posting a few GIFs. But iconic new GIFs don’t emerge each day and without a social network to stay for, Morphin is at risk of becoming a merely a forgotten tool. The app might need TikTok-style challenges like submitting the best personalized GIF to match a prompt or a GIF browsing feed to keep people coming back.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

Morphin isn’t racing to monetize yet, but sees a chance to sell longer premium video scenes a la carte or as an unlimited subscription. Ledoux eventually hopes to unlock new forms of storytelling beyond existing GIFs. There’s also a chance for Morphin to highlight sponsored clips from upcoming movies or TV shows. “In the long-term we’re more interested in the analogy of Lil Miquela and how people are interacting with digital characters” Ledoux explains, citing a virtual pop star who’s developer Brud recently raised at a $125 million valuation.

One of the most exciting things about Morphin is that it will allow people to take the spotlight no matter how they look. Often times certain races, genders, and looks are unfairly excluded from starring in today’s most popular media. But Morphin could let the underrepresented take their rightful place as stars of the screen.

Your faithful author Josh Constine dropping the mic like Obama

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Starbucks will anchor the new $400 million food-focused Valor Siren Ventures fund

Starbucks is serving up a steaming hot $100 million cash commitment to anchor a new food-focused fund in partnership with the consumer and tech-focused focused private equity firm Valor Equity Partners.

The behemoth of burnt-coffee said that its commitment to the Valor Siren Ventures fund is an attempt to focus on “new ideas and technologies that are relevant to customers, inspiring to partners (employees), and meaningful to Starbucks business.”

The Starbucks announcement was short on details, except for a general statement that it would focus on investments in companies developing technologies, products and solutions related to food or retail.

As a company, Starbucks has been incredibly innovative — rolling out new tech-enabled services to customers. The company has one of the most popular mobile payment services, is dabbling with cryptocurrency payments, and has a robust on-demand delivery service through UberEats.

Meanwhile, Valor has a long history of investing in both technology and consumer food businesses. Thee firm as investments in companies that run the gamut from SpaceX, Tesla, and Addepar to food services companies and restaurant chains like WowBao, Fooda, and Eatsa.

With its commitment Starbucks joins a growing number of food and beverage companies that are embracing venture capital. Kelloggs, Tyson Foods, General Mills all have affiliated venture funds and even Chipotle is starting an accelerator program.

“We believe that innovative ideas are fuel for the future, and we continue to build on this heritage inside our company across beverage, experiential retail, and our digital flywheel,” said Kevin Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Starbucks, in a statement. “At the same time, and with an eye toward accelerating our innovation agenda, we are inspired by, and want to support the creative, entrepreneurial businesses of tomorrow with whom we may explore commercial relationships down the road. This new partnership with Valor presents exciting opportunities, not only for these startups, but also for Starbucks, as we build an enduring company for decades to come.”

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Hands-on with the Oculus Rift S: the ‘S’ stands for Subpar

The Oculus Rift S is a bit of an odd one. Three years after the Rift’s initial launch, Oculus has released a product that feels like a lateral move rather than a leap forward. It’s better in a few ways and worse in a few ways. After spending some time playing with it and spending a lot more time thinking about it, it’s not super clear to me why Oculus made it.

The best reason I can think of is that Facebook sees standalone VR as the area where it should be completely ignoring profits to achieve a mass audience and PC VR users should essentially be subsidizing the broader market with hardware they actually make money off of. Oculus seems to be wanting it both ways though, because they could have released a headset that pushed the limits and charged more for it, but they opted to launch a product that moved laterally and made sacrifices, but they still are charging more for it.

We reported that former Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe left his position as head of PC VR at Facebook partially over the frustration of this project being settled on, something he saw as representative of the company’s “race to the bottom,” a source told us in October.

I will say that the Rift S looks better in real life than it does on paper, but compared to the Oculus Quest and Oculus Go headsets, it still feels like Oculus is launching something below their own standards with the Rift S and that their co-designer Lenovo ultimately made them a headset on-the-cheap that got the job done while lowering the build-of-materials costs.

Well, what is there to like about the new headset?

The new Insight tracking is great, and while this headset basically feels like a minor upgrade to Lenovo’s Mixed Reality headset, the tracking is undoubtedly better than what is available on Microsoft’s two-camera reference layout. By comparison, the Quest has 5 cameras which seem to capture a much greater tracking volume which really encapsulates all of those edge cases where the controllers are far out of sight.

This is a great system and while outside-in tracking is probably always going to be more accurate in certain situations, moving away from the old method was worth it in terms of making the setup process easier. On that note, the new passthrough mode which you can use to set up your boundaries in the Guardian system seems quite a bit easier to use.

On the note of displays, Oculus made some sacrifices here moving from OLED to LCD… and from 90hz to 80hz… and from dual adjustable-panels to a single-panel, but I was largely pleased with the clarity of the new, higher-res single display. This is an area that I’ll really need to dig more into with a full review, but there weren’t any apparent huge issues.

Otherwise, not a ton jumps out as a clear improvement.

The new “halo” ring strap system isn’t for me comfort-wise, but I can imagine others will prefer the fit. Even so, it gives the headset a much more rickety build quality, which has taken an overall downgrade from the original Rift in my opinion. Lenovo’s headsets have typically been bulkier and harder feeling than the softer-edged products from Google, Oculus and HTC; Lenovo’s VR design ethos is on full display here.

The removal of built-in headphones seems like the most outright poor decision with this release and while the integrated speakers are serviceable, it’s clear you’ll want to add some wired headphones if you’re looking for a serious experience, which most PC VR users definitely are.

The new Touch controllers are fine, they’re the same as what will ship with the Oculus Quest. They have a different design that feels pretty familiar but they feel smaller and a bit cheaper. The tracking ring has moved from around your knuckles to the top of the controller.

When it comes to gameplay — when the headset is on and you’re buried in an experience — most of these issues aren’t as apparent as when you consider them individually. The issue is that while the Quest and Go are miles better than any other products in their individual categories, this latest effort is just very mehh. It’s actually odd how much more high-quality the Oculus Quest feels than the Rift S when trying one after the other, it seems like it should be the other way around.

I’ll have to spend more time with the headset for a full review, of course, but on first approach the Rift S seems to be a misstep in Facebook’s otherwise stellar VR product line even if the new Insight tracking system is a push forward in the hardware’s overall usability.

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