An augmented reality headset startup founded by former Valve employees and funded by Android co-creator Andy Rubin’s Playground Global is shutting down after it failed to receive further investment, Polygon reports.
CastAR was building a headset device that projected holographic images into the field-of-view of a user, similar to products being built by companies like Microsoft and Magic Leap.
Following layoffs of “less than 70” employees, a core group is attempting to sell off the company’s tech according to the report.
CastAR was founded in 2013 by Jeri Ellsworth and Rick Johnson, who left Valve with a host of AR research (and the company’s blessing) to create AR hardware. The team went on to get just over $1 million from a Kickstarter campaign, before later returning the money to backers after raising $15M from Playground Global and subsequently pushing back timelines for delivery of the devices.
Even as phone-based augmented reality technologies take off thanks to interest from companies like Apple and Google, the challenges in creating compelling headset hardware is proving difficult to the companies embracing the challenge. CastAR was striving to build a solution with significantly less funding than other startups like Magic Leap, which has raised a mind-boggling $1.4 billion in funding and is still reportedly facing a number of production issues.
CastAR was aiming to show off its headset this year and had created a content studio called Eat Play Sleep, which was made up of several former Disney Infinity employees. The studio has reportedly been shut down as part of the layoffs.
TechCrunch has reached out to CastAR and Playground Global for comment.
New York-based startup Stayawhile announced today that it’s scored $1.5 million in seed funding to provide travelers with what founder Janine Yorio refers to as “medium-term housing.” It’s a midway point between your standard hotel/Airbnb stay and a year-plus apartment lease, aimed at vacations and business travelers who’d like to spread out their stay in a new city a bit longer than more traditional offerings afford.
The funding series, led by New Enterprise Associates, along with Founders Fund and Global Founders Capital, will go towards staffing (its current headcount is six) and rental furnishing for the startup, which has been in stealth mode up to this point. Today also marks the company’s soft launch, though it’s already been getting its ducks in a row, creating four prototype spaces in New York City. Next month, the company will begin accepting reservations for locations in NYC and Boston, with Washington D.C. and San Francisco following in the fall, and London, Paris and L.A. happening next year.
Stayawhile’s target demographic seems fairly niche to start. The company envisions its audience as “upscale nomads, bicoastal living and those living a hypermobile life.” The current pricing model reflects the buzzwordy category. At around $1,000 a week (give or take, depending on location), it’s definitely cheaper than a per-night rate at many hotels, but it’s higher than even the average Manhattan rent price, which lists for around $3,350. Yorio says the company may be open to striking deals for longer stays, but it already considers this offering a bargain. On top of that is a $200 application fee and, potentially, a membership fee, though the company’s not committed to charging that yet.
Yorio, who recently worked as the head of acquisitions for Standard Hotels, compares the business plan to Uber’s, launching with a luxury version of the service and then offering more affordable alternatives once it’s more established in the market. The startup is also banking on its consistency of product to draw people in. Former WeWork head of design, Shana Sigmond, now holds that title at Stayawhile, helping to craft a sort of unified style across the startup’s different properties.
“We spend a lot of time and effort making sure this doesn’t feel like a corporate furnished rental or an Airbnb,” says Yorio. “It’s meant to be very personal and specific. It’s a mix of mid-century vintage and modern furniture, all put together in a way that’s meant to evoke a cross between the Ace Hotel and the Standard Hotel.”
Stayawhile has also struck deals with Crate & Barrel, Leesa Mattress and Parachute Bedding, among others, which will bring their services to the rentals, getting them in front of the startup’s wealthy potential demographic. Yorio also sees those brand partnerships as a potential secondary revenue stream for the young company.
If you were given a penny for every minute people spent commuting in an average year, you’d have a stack that was 1,433,400 miles high. That’s enough to stretch to the moon and back three times.
In terms of air-travel, US-based businesses spend more on it than any other employee expense. This works out at over $21 billion a year for Fortune 500 companies alone.
As for the average American household, they spend $9,004 on transportation per year. In some locales, this is enough cash for a down payment on a three-bedroom house that will rent for twice your mortgage payment. To all the New Yorkers and San Franciscans reading, this is where you can take a moment to stop hyperventilating.
Technology is continuously reshaping our relationship with travel, and that change is accelerating to another inflection point. Advances in transportation technology reshape our lives and cities, and how and where we all settle. And American history guides us on what’s to come.
The introduction of the railroad in the United States was one of the most important phenomena in the country’s short history. With their construction came new industry, towns, and cities in areas that were previously wild, barren and uninhabited.
Commercial flight innovation was the next step forward, quickening travel and further lessening the geographical divides of the country. And, in the 1950s, the Interstate Highway System allowed the quick and cheap transportation of goods between suburban and rural areas, benefiting farmers and consumers.
Rapid international travel gave rise to globalization which made the world small enough that a grocery store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania could be selling Mexican-grown produce.
Each of these surges in transport technology created millions of new jobs, injected the equivalent of trillions of dollars into the economy, and changed the way people view time and space.
We are on the verge of a new leap forward.
In 2012, Elon Musk announced that he was working on a “fifth mode of transport” – a new form of terrestrial travel using pod-like vehicles traveling over 700 mph in near-vacuum tubes. Musk named this new mode of transport, “Hyperloop.”
Shervin Pishevar, co-founder of Hyperloop One, saw the opportunity and assembled a team which is poised to have the first at-scale system in place before 2020. The concept of Hyperloop was dreamed up by futurists over 100 years ago, but thanks to Musk’s creativity and Pishevar’s execution, the idea has gone from a quasi-sci-fi imagining to a near-reality.
Hyperloop isn’t the only disruptive innovation set to change the way we view travel forever.
Autonomous car technology is another idea that’s existed in the collective imagination since the early 20th century. It has also recently taken huge strides forward and is predicted to be a major form of transport within five years.
Toyota, Ford, Mercedes, BMW, Tesla, Nvidia and Google are among a myriad of companies pursuing the concept of driverless car technology; to date, five states allow the testing of fully autonomous cars on public roads; and in August of this year, Singapore launched the world’s first self-driving taxi service. A future of autonomous cars is has from a possibility to an inevitability.
Like the transportation leaps before them, Hyperloop and autonomous cars will change the lives of millions and eventually billions. They will create wealth, jobs, industry and much more. Perhaps the most exciting opportunities that will come with these new modes of transport will be those that we can’t even envision yet. However, as with all disruptive innovations, there are large pockets of dissent. But to what extent are these objections based on fact rather than fear? And can they outweigh the opportunities that these new technologies will bring?
The biggest question mark outside of government regulation currently hanging over autonomous cars concerns safety and reliability. There is a worry that they’re unable to follow traffic laws, unreliable in bad weather and generally unpredictable. And the recent string of accidents involving driverless cars has only exacerbated these concerns.
Let’s be clear that driverless cars have a far better driving record than we do – Tesla autonomous cars alone have driven over 222 million miles with just one fatality. Compare this to the fact that human-driven vehicles result in one fatality per 94 million miles, and it’s easy to see why so many experts are suggesting that the advent of driverless cars will bring with it safer roads and fewer accidents.
According to a survey by the US Department of Transportation, 94 percent of road accidents are caused by human error, and in tests the safety of autonomous vehicles has met and surpassed all standards. The Virginia Tech Transport Institute has released a study with statistics that suggest driverless cars are safer than their human-operated counterparts.As of 2016, Google’s driverless car, Waymo, traveled 2M miles; at an average speed (estimated by CNET) of 30mph, this equals: 66,667 hours or 7.6 years With all that road behind it, there hasn’t been one major accident.
With regards to the recent accidents, it has been shown that these were caused by other human drivers on the roads, rather than the machines themselves.
Of course, with major change often comes suspicion. But the bulk of evidence points to a future where the dangers of driving are void if we embrace the coming of autonomous transport.
Similar concerns over safety were prevalent with the introduction of the railroads. It seems strange now, but the advent of the new form of high-speed travel in the 19th century was considered unnatural and at odds with the status-quo.
The railroads also brought dissent from the existing transport industries. Coachmen worried that their jobs would be displaced by the new, more efficient, cost-effective mode of travel. This is a fear that’s been raised regarding the prospects of both Hyperloop and autonomous cars. It’s estimated that 10% of all jobs in America are driver-related. So, to what extent will these new modes of transport encroach upon the careers of millions?
In short, the answer is, not much. Of course, the industry will change. New routes will be created and the role of the driver is likely to change. But out of that a surge, new industries and careers will be born.
It’s fair to say that many transport routes currently used by truckers can be replaced by Hyperloop. Like the railroads that came before, Hyperloop will offer the cheaper and quicker transportation of goods over long distances. This will transform supply chain economics and shrink lead times across the manufacturing eco-system. However, this doesn’t paint the whole picture.
Cargo will still need to be transported from the Hyperloop station to its final destination. This is called the “Last Mile” problem. And this role will still be performed on the road by human drivers and, in for small items, via flying and driving drones.
In fact, if we accept that Hyperloop routes will replace freight carried by air, then this will mean more cargo carried terrestrially, and therefore an influx of opportunity for the trucking industry.
[The] market will prefer the more comfortable offerings that will be created and include an operator.
The fear that driverless trucks will take away jobs is also unfounded. Human operators will still be required to manage cargo, maintain security and, for local deliveries, they may increase efficiency by executing assembly on-the-go.
As for the arrival of autonomous cars, the concern is that Uber, Lyft and cab drivers will be left by the wayside in favor of machine-driven vehicles. Again, this aspersion doesn’t exactly stand up to the reality of how the transition would likely happen.
As with the future of the trucking, the passenger-service industry is likely to be disrupted, but it’s unlikely to immediately threaten jobs, if ever at all. Like driverless trucks, autonomous cabs will, for various reasons including insurance, still require a human operator, meaning that the jobs currently held by drivers will simply change rather than be removed entirely.
That’s not to say there won’t be some low-cost point-to-point autonomous transport. I’m saying the market will prefer the more comfortable offerings that will be created and include an operator.
And this change will not only maintain existing jobs and strengthen the passenger-service industry, but it will create an entirely new economy altogether.
According to Karl Iagnemma, the CEO of nuTonomy (which is exhibiting self-driving cabs
in Singapore and Boston), the role of drivers in autonomous cars will become more customer-centric. This means focusing on customer care and satisfaction, which in turn means an incredible expansion for the entire industry.
With fewer people traveling in their own vehicles and an influx of passenger travel, there will be fresh opportunities for businesses to reimagine the mobile service industry entirely. Train companies and airlines have been profiting from this for years, selling goods and premium experiences to passengers to boost sales and improve the customer experience.
Autonomous vehicles will take this industry to the next level, and open it up to a myriad of new entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Coffee shops, movie theatres, massages, medical care, legal services, food, and your neighborhood pub may all be summonable to you and your friends.
This service could go much further than simply offering snacks and refreshments.
For a start, the increased size and space that will come with autonomous vehicles will allow for multiple-levels of luxury, and many service-based businesses could adapt to accommodate both the new modes of transport and the growing number of people who will be traveling longer distances by terrestrial means.
Consider the transformation of our cities small businesses to a mobile context. Coffee shops, movie theatres, massages, medical care, legal services, food, and your neighborhood pub may all be summonable to you and your friends.
For those who recall the “app explosion” of the late 2000s, we should see another transport service proliferation in the coming years.
Clearly, it’s not just the likes of Tesla and Google who would profit from a rise in these forms of travel. It would provide businesses with the opportunity to adapt their products and services to an entirely new, lower fixed-cost context.
Beyond the direct wealth that will come with Hyperloop and autonomous car technology, there are other resources that will become more plentiful with the rise of these new forms of travel. In 2014, Americans alone spent 29.6 billion hours commuting.
That works out to be 106 hours per year for the average commuter. Currently, this is time most spend at the wheel of a car or crammed into an overfilled train. With the advent of this new travel, not only would commuting time be cut, but it would generally be more luxurious with the passengers free to spend the time as they wish.
This freed-up time could be spent however the passenger liked: working, in meetings or simply for leisure or connecting with loved ones. In terms of economy, this time would be worth a fortune. According to an independent economic analysis of the effects the autonomous car could have in Europe, 0.16 cents will be added to the continent’s annual growth rate, equating to nearly $18 trillion by 2050.
However, let’s not just consider the financial benefits that this new commute would have. There have been many studies done into the impact that commuting has on a person’s well-being, health and happiness. Those who commute on a regular basis have been shown to exhibit higher levels of stress and anxiety, and those with the longest commutes have the lowest overall satisfaction with life.
More than anything though, less time spent commuting, or time spent commuting in more agreeable surroundings, would give people more options. And with this would come more possibility for everyone.
Benefits that would come from the new mobile economy and the shift in how we commute would likely lead to a major increase in terrestrial travel. This would move passengers away from short-distance domestic flights towards autonomous vehicle alternatives.
According to travel expert, Jim Loomis, “a large number of flights in and out of most of the major hub cities are to and from cities less than 400 miles away.” This includes 30-40 percent of arriving flights from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Judging by the comparative speeds of short-haul air travel and Hyperloop, many of the passengers of these flights would be drawn to terrestrial travel alternatives.
The convenience of driverless cars would be far superior to that of airlines. Neither mode of transport would be as sensitive to extreme weather conditions, resulting in fewer cancellations and delays, and the flexible schedules would allow passengers to travel at their own leisure. Driverless cars would be summoned directly and transport passengers door-to-door, drastically improving passenger flexibility.
The convenience of driverless cars would be far superior to that of airlines. Neither mode of transport would be as sensitive to extreme weather conditions, resulting in fewer cancellations and delays, and the flexible schedules would allow passengers to travel at their own leisure.
The new possibilities of luxury would also play a part in luring passengers away from airline travel. As we discussed when looking at the new mobile service economy, driverless cars would bring new levels of passenger comfort, greatly surpassing those of airlines. As we all know, the Wifi and Internet of airlines is notoriously poor and expensive; this is something that certainly won’t be a problem for the new modes of terrestrial travel, particularly seeing as autonomous cars are likely to use onboard wifi technology.
But also, the increase in onboard space compared to that of airplanes would be another game-changer. Audi’s senior strategist, Sven Schuwirth, has already proposed shape-shifting interiors for driverless cars, meaning that their function could change depending on the type of journey and the passengers’ needs. This would allow groups of friends or business colleagues to travel together, spending leisure time or continuing their work on the road.
All of this is bad news for airlines, particularly those that specialize in short-distance flights. However, as we’re about to see, the environmental effects of this passenger shift will have a hugely positive impact on all of us.
Not only would an influx in terrestrial travel be more environmentally-friendly than airplane travel, both driverless cars and Hyperloop will provide sustainable, green energy across the board.
Let’s first consider autonomous cars. They will be a greener alternative than our current manual vehicles. For a start, it’s likely that many driverless cars will be electric or will at least be hybrids. GM, Tesla and Google are among many companies making this push.
But also, autonomous vehicles will mean more carpooling and therefore less congestion and traffic on the roads. The machine-driven vehicles will also result in more efficient driving as they will use energy-optimizing controls to reduce emissions. Moreover, in as recently as 2013, a UK study showed that drivers spent upwards of 6 minutes and 45 seconds to find a parking space. Reducing or removing that time circling neighborhoods looking for spots will remove a major cause of traffic for city roads.
Hyperloop, too, will be a major tool in the fight against climate change. Musk believes it’s possible to mount the tubes with solar panels meaning that, in terms of energy, the transportation system will be almost entirely green and sustainable.
The new transportation mediums also have the potential to positively disrupt our very notion of urban living, affecting the use of city space and satellite towns.
Currently, parking in the US alone uses 1,713 square miles – that’s nearly six times the size of New York City. In LA, parking space takes up 14% of incorporated land. The transportation transformation would drive this figure down.. Fewer people would own private vehicles, and driverless cars would be more efficiently stored in company lots on the outskirts or below cities.
In a time when city space is more valuable than ever, it’s not hard to imagine the benefits that would come from freeing up this space. This land could be repurposed as green space, parks, housing or new commercial centers. All this infrastructure work would create jobs.
The new modes of transport won’t just be beneficial for larger cities and their inhabitants. The new commuting paradigm created by Hyperloop and driverless cars will enrich rural areas and even create new urban centers in the same way that the Interstate Highway System did before. For example, it may be possible to work in San Francisco and live in a suburb of Reno, Nevada.
Over the past decade, the Washington DC Metro has been extending further into Mclean and Tyson’s Virginia. As it moves outwards, like veins from the heart, the metro line feeds new regions wealth as people move to the more affordable, less densely populated, stops down the line.
The Hyperloop will have a similar pattern of impact at a greater scale.
It can extend the reach of a city hundreds of miles. Hyperloop should accelerate the transport of goods. It will connect warehouses to major cities for same day delivery. You could imagine them feeding the cities like an artery. As a byproduct, everywhere they connect they’ll allow people to live at drastically lower cost while still being able to commute to the city center quickly.
More and more people will have the option of living in satellite towns and traveling to major conurbations for work. The Hyperloop stations that will allow for this new commute will bring with them wealth and industry, which as we’re about to see could do far more than just create jobs for millions of people.
The growing divide between urban and rural areas has been well-publicized in recent months, not just in America but across the globe. The surprising result of Trump’s recent election and the British referendum on Europe are thought to be caused by this fragmentation of society.
It has seen an increasing disconnect between left and right political factions. While bigger cities have continued to thrive in recent years, smaller rural areas have struggled due to a lack of new industry and wealth.
That begs the question, is it possible that new transport could be the answer to our split societies? It’s not a panacea but it will surely extend the coastal wealth’s reach inland. Their arrival could create the same effect that has been felt with each historical surge in transportation. Globally, new towns and cities were created thanks to the success of the railroad, airports and highways, and existing areas began to flourish.
We only have to look in America to see the amount of wealth and opportunity that came with the Transcontinental railroad; huge numbers of businesses were created and thrived; information and knowledge spread with greater ease; a new country recovering from civil war was brought together. By pushing forward with the new modes of transport, we are likely to see a similar progression in society in the years to come.
Perhaps the most exciting prospect of Hyperloop and autonomous cars is the many open doors that we’ll get to explore.
Here, we’ve discussed how these innovations will bring wealth, create new industries, allow more time to innovate, connect with the people they love, decrease carbon emissions and free up thousands of square miles of space; but we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. Other benefits include easier mobility for those who can’t drive, less congestion, and the jobs that these burgeoning modes of transport have already created.
More than anything though, by embracing the coming innovations in transportation, we open ourselves up to new worlds of opportunity. By introducing this technology to billions of people worldwide, we invite new applications and innovations previously thought unimaginable.
We’ve seen a major change in how we move every half century since the Industrial Revolution. Every shift was preceded by fear and resulted in a brave new world of possibility.
We can’t know what’s to come but I choose to be hopeful. I choose to believe it’s possible to see a light around the next corner shining a future where we are more connected and comfortable.
Featured Image: Bryce Durbin
In the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and the resignation of Binary Capital co-founder Justin Caldbeck, the firm has delayed closing its second fund, Axios reports.
Caldbeck issued a statement saying he would take an indefinite leave of absence after multiple women in the tech industry alleged they faced unwanted and inappropriate advances from him. The Information first reported the stories, with Caldbeck putting out the statement late Friday.
It’s not clear how much information LPs in Binary Capital’s upcoming fund had before the stories went out yesterday. But either way, it seems like the firm had been actively searching capital and the controversy may have altered the calculus of how the final deal is going to end.
Given the gravity of the situation, as well as the sexist behavior happening at Uber that led to CEO Travis Kalanick resignation, LPs may end up rethinking the way they are deploying their capital. Axios notes that it’s not clear how much capital was committed to its upcoming fund. Binary capital closed its most-recent fund — which amounted to $175 million — in August last year.
A representative from Binary Capital declined to comment.
Featured Image: YouTube
Uber has seen a sharp drop in retention rates for new drivers in the U.S., according to analysis of the Uber driver app provided to TechCrunch by app analytics firm Apptopia.
In an analysis of app downloads and usage, Apptopia estimates that 30-day user retention for the Uber driver app in the U.S. has dropped 47 percent from January through May.
This measure looks at the proportion of users opening the app each day after the initial day of download — continuing until the 30th day… the idea being to measure engagement meaningfully versus looking at app deletions (as lots of people just stop using an app versus actively deleting it).
Apptopia’s analysis also indicates a 20 percent bump in downloads of the driver app over the same period.
So — if the data crunching is correct — it appears that while Uber is successfully managing to drive initial interest from new drivers, it’s having serious trouble sustaining this interest.
From April, retention rates appear to fall especially dramatically.
Apptopia does not get any usage data direct from Uber but pulls data from a network of 250,000 apps to which it has developer account access. It then uses an algorithmic framework to generate estimates for individual apps, including by using public signals such as App Store reviews — and says its methods result in “strong trend data for major apps.”
For the two percentages it’s pulling here, it says it’s averaging its data from the Google Play Store and iOS App Store together — for, as it puts it, a “more holistic view” on interactions with the Uber driver app.
We asked Uber if it had any comment on the data, but at the time of writing it had not responded.
The company currently has no CEO in its own driving seat, after co-founder Travis Kalanick resigned following investor pressure applied in the wake of a report into its internal culture — triggered after a female former employee blogged about experiencing sexual harassment and sexism during her year at Uber.
It’s unclear whether new Uber drivers are sensitive to Uber’s internal turmoil. Perhaps more likely is general dissatisfaction with lower rates of pay from Uber pool rides and Uber’s lack of an in-app tipping feature (versus Lyft having in-app tipping) — tellingly, this week Uber finally said it will start allowing riders to tip drivers via the app.
Asked for his view on Apptopia’s data, Harry Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy told us: “Uber drivers for the most part have been very happy this week because of the tipping option and TK’s [Travis Kalanick’s] departure. We’ve known for a while that Uber has problems with high turnover and low satisfaction rates amongst drivers and a lot of drivers felt that TK was the root of many of their problems.”
Apptopia also looked at rider monthly usage for us, and on this said — perhaps surprisingly — that Uber hasn’t taken a hit due to #deleteuber — i.e. the social media campaign that sprung up aiming to convince Uber users to ditch the app as a result of the various ethical scandals being attached to it.
“It drove uninstalls but new downloads remained consistent so usage didn’t dip much,” said Apptopia of the #deleteuber movement. “Since February, monthly usage in the US (for riders) has actually increased around 60%.
“Engagement [aka the frequency of app opening per individual on average within a month] is down in the US, but really not by much.”
Featured Image: Richard Boll/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images
Tech leaders gathered today at the White House for a series of focused sessions on hot topics in tech. Thursday’s event, titled “American Leadership in Emerging Technology,” is the second big piece of the White House’s Technology Week, continuing on from Tuesday’s discussion about modernizing government technology.
“We’re on the verge of new technological revolutions that could improve, virtually, every aspect of our lives, create vast new wealth for American workers and families, and open up bold, new frontiers in science, medicine, and communication,” President Trump said in his opening remarks.
Drone regulation was among the day’s biggest breakout topics. The attendee list was stacked with executives from the unmanned aircraft space, including PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen, Airspace CEO Jaz Banga, Measure CEO Brandon Declet, Trumbull Unmanned CEO Dyan Gibbens and Kespry CEO George Mathew.
Airspace’s Banga shared his highlights from the event with TechCrunch. According to Banga, the conversation focused on regulatory challenges at the level of state and local governments, including how to speed up the regulation process so that innovation in the sector wouldn’t be stifled. The group discussed how to expedite the process of building out registries that would identify and track drones and drone pilots as well as how to monitor drone traffic.
Banga noted the “speed and openness” of the conversation, which concentrated on ways to prevent the government from hindering American innovation in the sector. The administration cited the example of the Wright brothers as a model — “they want the same for drones while maintaining safety for all.”
Thursday’s sessions also tackled the future of 5G wireless networks, repeating a similar vision of deregulation that would allow tech companies to move quickly in the space. Executives from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile were in attendance.
“We shouldn’t apply burdensome rules designed for 100-foot towers to small cells the size of a pizza box,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a Tech Week op-ed. “If America is to lead the world in 5G, we need to modernize our regulations so that infrastructure can be deployed promptly and at scale.”
As Axios reports, a handful of VCs were also present, including New Enterprise Associates, Revolution LLC, Cayuga Venture Fund, 500 Startups, Lightspeed, Epic Ventures, Mohr Davidow Ventures and Arboretum Ventures.
Featured Image: Bryce Durbin
Snapchat’s newest feature Snap Map is based on its latest acquisition, social mapping startup Zenly. TechCrunch has learned that Snapchat has bought Zenly for between $250 million and $350 million in mostly cash and some stock in a deal that closed in late May. Snapchat will keep Zenly running independently similar to how Facebook lets Instagram run independently.
Zenly’s app lets users see where their friends currently are on a map using constant GPS in the background. People can then message these friends in the app to make plans to hang out.
The Paris-based startup hit 2 million downloads last year, mostly from teens trying to keep up with their friends around town, at school, or at concerts and other events. Zenly had raised $35.1 million, including a $22.5M Series B in September 2016 led by prestigious Silicon Valley venture capital firm Benchmark.
This morning, Snapchat launched its Snap Map location sharing and location-based content discovery feature. It works slightly differently, only pulling your location when you open the app, but otherwise looks so similar to Zenly that we suspected Snapchat had copied it. Sources told us Snap had expressed acquisition interest but Zenly had initially rejected them.
Now after more digging, we’ve learned from sources close to the deal that Snapchat did in fact acquire Zenly. But rather than shutting it down and folding it into Snapchat, Snap Inc will allow Zenly to run somewhat autonomously. We asked Snap but it declined to comment, and Zenly hasn’t returned our inquiries. Instead, here’s TechCrunch’s interview with Zenly CEO Antoine Martin at Disrupt London last year.
With both Snap Map and Zenly, Snap Inc is hedging its bets in the social content space. Since its Snapchat Stories feature is being aggressively copied by Instagram and Facebook’s other apps, Snapchat is wise to expand into the social utility space of helping people meet up offline. Now Snap could own two different apps on people’s home screens.
Making plans with friends involves a high degree of intent — about what people want to eat or do — there are plenty of advertising and partnership opportunities down the line. You could imagine restaurants, movie studios, and more hoping to hit Zenly or Snap Map users with ads as they plan to go out with friends.
While $250 million to $350 million may seem like a lot to pay for Zenly, Snapchat has seen many of its other expensive acquisitions turn out well. It bought Looksery for $150 million in cash and bonuses, which went on to power its iconic augmented reality face filters. It bought Bitstrips for $64.2 million, which has flourished as Snapchat’s Bitmoji personalized avatar stickers. Story Search, QR Snapcodes, and its Spectacles glasses were all based off its acquisitions of Vurb, Scan.me, and Vergence Labs.
Zenly doesn’t seem to fit with Snap’s mission to be a camera company. But buying an app for meeting up with friends could let Snapchat own the path to doing the things worth capturing on camera.
I can’t tell you for sure if we have reached peak GAN, but there are far more people messing around with them than there were a year ago, and that’s a great thing. Two undergraduates at Williams College taught themselves introductory machine learning and read about 50 papers on the now almost mainstream Generative Adversarial Network (GAN) before embarking on a project with a professor to build one that could generate art — and within a year they had basically done it.
The two students, Kenny Jones and Derrick Bonafilia, were computer science students who stumbled across the Martin Arjovsky’s Wasserstein GAN (WGAN) earlier this year. WGAN, a more stable cousin of the basic GAN, turned out to be a great tool for both learning artistic style and generating new art.
GANs traditionally involve a generator and a discriminator interacting via an adversarial relationship. The generator is trying to create an image artificially that tricks the discriminator into thinking it is real. Simultaneously, the discriminator wants to reject as many fake images as possible.
Unfortunately, GANs are notoriously unstable — to the detriment of anything they’re applied to. Fortunately, the Wasserstein modifications made GANs stable enough to produce recognizable art. The team used the WikiArt database of 100,000 labeled paintings as training material.
To maximize the performance of the model, the team added an extra component to the traditional discriminator to predict the genre of paintings. And to keep the model from focusing too heavily on the “real” and “fake” nature of images being generated, the team pretrained and added global conditioning. This enabled the discriminator to maintain an understanding of the differences between styles of art.
“A crucial issue is measuring success,” said Jones. “There aren’t many universal metrics. It’s not just a problem with art but it’s especially poignant with art.”
Broadly speaking, the work was a success and both Jones and Bonafilia plan to start as software engineers at Facebook next fall. In the future, Bonafilia told me that the project could benefit from additional computational resources — like those they would have access to at Facebook.
Art has become a popular outlet for work in machine learning — Jones tells me that he thinks this is because it’s visual and relatable. Facebook drew attention last fall with its real-time style transfer models running on mobile devices. In contrast to the GANGogh work, Style Transfer modifies an existing stream rather than producing completely new and novel content.
Style transfer has found application in cinema — actress Kristen Stewart co-authored a paper back in January on the applications of machine learning to her short film Come Swim. It’s probably too early to expect sections in our modern art museums to be reserved for novel artwork generated by machines, but anything is possible in the future — you heard it here first.
Since November, the Trump campaign’s possibly brilliant, maybe-just-lucky data strategy launched a thousand thinkpieces. Now, we’ve got a more intimate look at that data than we were ever meant to have.
As discovered by Chris Vickery, a cyber risk analyst at UpGuard, and reported by Gizmodo, an analytics firm hired by the Republican National Committee left the data of 198 million U.S. voters sitting out in the open on a public server. The more than a terabyte of data, owned by Deep Root Analytics, included personal identifying information like birth dates, home addresses and phone numbers as well as demographic info like ethnicity and religion.
UpGuard’s blog explains how the firm came across the unprotected data:
“In the early evening of June 12th, UpGuard Cyber Risk Analyst Chris Vickery discovered an open cloud repository while searching for misconfigured data sources on behalf of the Cyber Risk Team, a research unit of UpGuard devoted to finding, securing, and raising public awareness of such exposures. The data repository, an Amazon Web Services S3 bucket, lacked any protection against access. As such, anyone with an internet connection could have accessed the Republican data operation used to power Donald Trump’s presidential victory, simply by navigating to a six-character Amazon subdomain: “dra-dw”.”
In 2016, Deep Root earned more than $900,000 from the RNC for campaign year data and analysis on potential voters. The unprotected Deep Root database also contained data from other firms with RNC contracts, including Americans for Prosperity and the Data Trust, both well-funded conservative groups with massive data troves.
It is not fully clear if anyone made off with the exposed data during the 12 days it sat out in the open, but Deep Root doesn’t seem to think so. In a security statement, the company admitted to its big data self-own:
“Deep Root Analytics has become aware that a number of files within our online storage system were accessed without our knowledge…
We are conducting an internal review and have retained cyber security firm Stroz Friedberg to conduct a thorough investigation. Through this process, which is currently underway, we have learned that access was gained through a recent change in access settings since June 1. We accept full responsibility, will continue with our investigation, and based on the information we have gathered thus far, we do not believe that our systems have been hacked.”
Deep Root’s open data stash notably included raw text scraped from Reddit, including the now-banned subreddit r/fatpeoplehate, a popular forum with Trump’s r/The_Donald Reddit base, some Spanish-speaking subreddits and at least one about mountain biking. Where that data fit into the GOP’s strategy remains unclear, but it shows that social sites well beyond real identity-obsessed Facebook have evolved into rich sources for political campaigns seeking to understand and predict voter behavior.
As valuable as this kind of dataset might be, Deep Root’s carelessness shows that when the race has come and gone, keeping all of that aggregate data safe must not be quite as lucrative as scooping it all up in the first place.
Featured Image: Joe Raedle / Staff/Getty Images
Elon Musk says that he’s had “promising conversations” with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, regarding the potential of a network of tunnels underneath the city that would allow for a high-speed transit network unburdened by surface traffic. That’s the vision Musk’s recently founded Boring Company hopes to make a reality, as illustrated by a concept video debuted by Musk at this year’s TED conference in Vancouver.
Garcetti name-checked Musk during an interview on ABC 7, the network’s L.A. affiliate. The Mayor suggested that tunnel digging tech improvements included those being developed by Musk might make it possible to create an express line to LAX airport from L.A.’s Union Station central ground transit hub.
Musk noted in his tweet that the permits required from cities and regulatory bodies are likely the most difficult part of making a network of interconnected underground tunnels a reality. The technology, he said, would likely be easier to achieve than permits, hence why discussions with regulators even at this very early stage are so important.
In May, Musk posted a short clip to Instagram of the first section of the inaugural tunnel being dug by The Boring Company, which is designed to span LAX to Culver City, Santa Monica, Westwood and Sherman Oaks. Eventually, he hopes to create a network with tunnels that cover all of LA. These will be used by surface vehicles, including individual passenger cars, which will be transported below and moved around the tunnel network at high-speed using sleds on rails, provided the final version resembles the concept video created by The Boring Co. to illustrate its designs.