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All the tech that went into turning Columbus, Ohio into a ‘Smart City’

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The U.S. Department of Transportation launched a Smart City Challenge in 2015, which asked mid-sized cities across the country to come up with ideas for novel smart transportation systems that would use data and tech to improve mobility. Out of 78 applicants, Columbus, Ohio emerged as the winner.

In 2016, the city of just under a million residents was then awarded a $50 million grant to turn its proposal into a reality. $40 million came from the DOT, and $10 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. 

In mid-June, the program ended, but Columbus said the city would continue to work as a “collaborative innovation lab,” using city funds to integrate technology to address societal problems. But what does that mean in reality? 

Columbus’s ‘Smart City’ looks nothing like the rapidly developing prototype Toyota is developing, Woven City, at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, but it’s not supposed to. 

“We really focus on not just demonstrating technology for technology’s sake, but to look at the challenges we are facing in our city around mobility and transportation and use our award to focus on some of those challenges,” Mandy Bishop, Smart Columbus program manager, told TechCrunch. 

Those challenges involve lack of accessibility to mobility options, areas underserved by public transit, parking challenges, and terrible drivers with high collision rates. As you might expect, a lot of startups are involved in solving those challenges; Here’s who’s involved and what they bring to the table. 

The Pivot app, built by Etch

Etch is a Columbus-based geospatial solutions startup. Founded in 2018, the company cut its teeth with Smart Columbus, creating a multi-modal transport app that helps users plan trips throughout central Ohio using buses, ride hailing, carpool, micromobility or personal vehicle. 

“The mobility problem in Columbus is access to mobility and people not understanding or knowing what options are available to them,” Darlene Magold, CEO and co-founder of Etch, told TechCrunch. “Part of our mission was to show the community what was available and give them options to sort those options based on cost or other information.”

The app is based on open source tools like OpenStreetMap and OpenTripPlanner. Etch uses the former to get up-to-date crowdsourced information from the community about what’s happening in a given area, similar to Waze. The latter is used to find itineraries for different forms of mobility.

“Because we are open source, the integration with Uber, Lyft and other mobility providers really gives users a lot of options so they can actually see what mobility options are available, other than their own vehicle if they have one. It takes away that anxiety of traveling and using that mixed mode of travel, knowing in real time where the bus is or where to find a scooter, and  like using Uber or renting a bike or scooter.”

$1.25 million of the total federal funds went to the Pivot app, which has 3,849 downloads to date, and the city will continue to fund the development and use of Pivot.

Smart Columbus Operating System, made by Pillar Technology

Columbus hired local smart embedded software company Pillar Technology, which was acquired by Accenture in 2018, to further develop the existing Smart Columbus operating system. The $15.9 million open source platform that hosts the city’s mobility data, including over 2,000 datasets and 209 visualizations, launched in April 2019. 

“The program will continue through at least January 2022 as Columbus works to develop mobility and transportation use cases and further define the value and use of the operating system,” said Bishop.

The Smart Columbus OS invites others to add their data to the set while also calling for crowdsourced solutions to problems like how to bring down crash rates or how to optimize city parking. 

Park Columbus, made with ParkMobile

ParkMobile is an Atlanta-based provider of smart parking solutions. For Smart Columbus, the startup created Park Columbus, an event parking management app, to help free up traffic and pollution from cars circling around looking for parking. Users can find, reserve and pay for parking all on the app. 

Smart Columbus’s event parking management program built enhancements within ParkMobile’s existing offering, according to a spokesperson for the city. The $1.3 million project had over 30,000 downloads from October 2020 to March 2021. The city will continue to fund the app which will also display on-street parking via predictive analytic technology. 

Smart Mobility Hubs, built by Orange Barrel Media

The Smart Mobility Hubs are interactive digital kiosks designed by Orange Barrel Media, a company that builds media displays to integrate into urban landscapes. The hubs bring the city’s transportation options together at a single location, like a physical manifestation of the Pivot app, which can actually also be accessed via the kiosks. The kiosks, which took another $1.3 million chunk out of the total federal grant pool, also have free WiFI and listings of restaurants, shops and activities. 

Orange Barrel’s media displays can vary from something community oriented like its kiosks to advertising to art. According to Smart Columbus, the kiosks, placed at six key locations, had over 65,000 interactions from July 2020 to March 2021, but the city hopes that number will drastically increase in the post-pandemic era. The hubs also include the city’s bike share program, CoGo, which offers both pedal and e-bikes, bike racks, designated dockless scooter share and bike share parking, rideshare pickup and drop off zones, car sharing parking and EV charging stations.

Connected vehicle environment, in partnership with Siemens

Ohio has some of the worst drivers in the nation. This year, the state highway patrol released details about distracted driving in the state, and found 70,000 crashes attributed to distracted driving since 2016, with more than 2,000 involving serious injuries or fatalities. In 2019, an insurance agency rated Columbus the fourth worst driving in the country.

This might explain why the city wanted to experiment with connected vehicles. From October 2020 to March 2021, Columbus partnered with Siemens who provided both onboard and roadside units in creating a Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (V2I) and Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) environment. Connected vehicles would “talk” to each other and to 85 intersections, seven of which have the highest crash rates in central Ohio. The project cost about $11.3 million. 

“We were looking at 11 different applications including red light signal warning, school zone notifications, intersection collision warning, freight signal priority and transit signal priority, using the connected vehicle technology,” said Bishop. 

“We deployed about 1,100 vehicles in a region that has about a million residents, so we did not anticipate seeing a decreased crash rate, but we did see drivers using the signals coming from the connected vehicle environment to not run traffic signals, so we’re really seeing improvements in driver behavior, which ultimately we would anticipate long term to effectively improve safety.”

Linden LEAP, made by Easy Mile

Smart Columbus’s autonomous shuttle service, the Linden LEAP, cost about $2.3 million and ran from February 2020 until March 2021, with some breaks in between. Initially, two shuttles hitting four stops operated in the Linden neighborhood to provide transportation to underserved communities. That only lasted about two weeks before a passenger was somehow thrust from their seat when the vehicle, going no more than 25 miles per hour, stopped short. Then the pandemic happened, and it was a human shuttle service no longer. From July until the end of the program, the Linden LEAP pivoted to deliver 3,598 food pantry boxes or almost 130,000 meals. 

The city will not continue to pay for the autonomous shuttle service now that federal funding has ended. 

“The city is not historically a transit operator, so we’re really staying close to how CoTa looks to incorporate connected and autonomous and electric technology into their fleets moving forward,” said Bishop. “Our anticipation is that the next demonstrations would be private sector led or ultimately led by our transit authority.”

French startup Easy Mile ran the Level 3 autonomous technology behind the shuttle, according to a spokesperson for the company. The Society of Automobile Engineers describes Level 3 as still requiring a human operator in the driver’s seat. 

Columbus’s dalliance with autonomy initially began in late 2018 when Smart Columbus partnered with DriveOhio and May Mobility to launch the Smart Circuit, the city’s OG self-driving shuttle. The shuttle ran a 1.5 mile route circling the Scioto Mile downtown, giving out over 16,000 free rides to certain cultural landmarks until September 2019. 

Smart Circuit only cost about $500,000, but the city spent another $400,000 on general development for the entire autonomous shuttle program.

Prenatal Trip Assistance, built by Kaizen Health

Kaizen Health, a woman-owned technology firm, built its initial application after being dissatisfied with transportation options available to people undergoing health treatments. The Chicago-based company applied its model of streamlining the experience of ordering non-emergency, multimodal medical transportation for pregnant women and families.  

The program got $1.3 million in Smart Columbus funds from June 2019 to January 2021, but only had about 143 participants due to the pandemic, but that includes over 800 medical care trips and over 300 pharmacy, grocery or other service-related trips. In a state that averaged 6.9 deaths for every 1,000 babies the year this program began, it’s a good thing the participating Medicaid managed care organizations are now modernizing how they deliver non-emergency transportation services, including access to such a mobile application.

Mobility assistance for people with cognitive disabilities, in partnership with Wayfinder

The tech partner for the final project was Wayfinder, a navigation app that was acquired by Vodafone in 2019. The Mobility Assistance for People with Cognitive Disabilities (MAPCD) study worked with Wayfinder to create a highly detailed, turn-by-turn navigation app specifically built for those who have cognitive disabilities, making it safer for those people to be more independent. 

The pilot cost nearly $500,000 and lasted from April 2019 to April 2020. Thirty-one participants used the app to get more comfortable using public transport. According to a spokesperson for the city, Columbus is working with potential partners to find a way to sustain the program. 

Looking towards the future

One of the focuses of Smart Columbus was also electric vehicle adoption and charging infrastructure. The money from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and AEP Ohio, the state’s utility provider, helped incentivize and encourage multi-unit dwellings, workplaces and public sites to install charging stations. Smart Columbus exceeded its goal of 900 EV charging stations, as well as its goal for 1.8% of new car sales to be electric, reaching 2.34% in November, 2019.

“In the future I think something that’s here to stay is really ensuring that we’re solving resident challenges in a way that makes sense for our community,” said Bishop.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/28/all-the-tech-that-went-into-turning-columbus-ohio-into-a-smart-city/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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Psychedelic VR meditation startup Tripp raises $11 million Series A

As an increasing number of startups sell investors on mobile apps that help consumers prioritize well-being and mindfulness, other startups are looking for a more immersive take that allow users to fully disconnect from the world around them.

Tripp has been building immersive relaxation exercises that seek to blend some of the experiences users may find in guided meditation apps with more free-form experiences that allow users to unplug from their day and explore their thoughts inside a virtual reality headset while watching fractal shapes, glowing trees and planets whir past them. As the name implies, there have been some efforts by the startup to create visuals and audio experiences that mimic the feelings people may have during a psychedelic trip — though doing so sans hallucinogens.

“Many people that will never feel comfortable taking a psychedelic, this is a low friction alternative that can deliver some of that experience in a more benign way,” CEO Nanea Reeves tells TechCrunch. “The idea is to take mindfulness structures and video game mechanics together to see if we can actually hack the way that you feel.”

The startup tells TechCrunch they’ve closed a $11 Million in funding led by Vine Ventures and Mayfield with participation from Integrated, among others. Tripp has raised some $15 million in total funding to date.

Image via Tripp

VR startups have largely struggled to earn investor fervor in recent years as major tech platforms have sunsetted their virtual reality efforts one-by-one leaving Facebook and Sony as the sole benefactors of a space that they are still struggling to monetize at times. While plenty of VR startups are continuing to see engagement, many investors which backed companies in the space five years ago have turned their attention to gaming and computer vision startups with more broad applications.

Reeves says that the pandemic has helped consumers dial into the importance of mindfulness and mental health awareness, something that has also pushed investors to get bolder in what projects in the space that they’re backing.

Tripp has apps on both the Oculus and PlayStation VR stores and subscription experiences that can be accessed for a $4.99 per month subscription.

The company provides a variety of guided experiences, but users can also use the company’s “Tripp composer” to build their own visual flows. Beyond customization, one of Tripp’s major sells is giving consumers deeper, quicker meditative experiences, claiming that users can get alleviate stress with sessions as short as 8 minutes inside their headset. Tripp is currently in the midst of clinical trials to study the software platform’s effectiveness as a therapeutic device.

The company says that users have gone through over 2 million sessions inside the app so far.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/24/psychedelic-vr-meditation-startup-tripp-raises-11-million-series-a/
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Facebook and Instagram will now allow users to hide ‘Like’ counts on posts

Facebook this week will begin to publicly roll out the option to hide Likes on posts across both Facebook and Instagram, following earlier tests beginning in 2019. The project, which puts the decision about Likes in the hands of the company’s global user base, had been in development for years, but was deprioritized due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the response work required on Facebook’s part, the company says.

Originally, the idea to hide Like counts on Facebook’s social networks was focused on depressurizing the experience for users. Often, users faced anxiety and embarrassment around their posts if they didn’t receive enough Likes to be considered “popular.” This problem was particularly difficult for younger users who highly value what peers think of them — so much so that they would take down posts that didn’t receive enough Likes.

Like-chasing on Instagram, especially, also helped create an environment where people posted to gain clout and notoriety, which can be a less authentic experience. On Facebook, gaining Likes or other forms of engagement could also be associated with posting polarizing content that required a reaction.

As a result of this pressure to perform, some users grew hungry for a “Like-free” safer space, where they could engage with friends or the wider public without trying to earn these popularity points. That, in turn, gave rise to a new crop of social networking and photo-sharing apps such as MinutiaeVeroDayflashOggl and, now, newcomers like Dispo and newly viral Poparazzi.

Though Facebook and Instagram could have chosen to remove Likes entirely and take its social networks in a new direction, the company soon found that the metric was too deeply integrated into the product experience to be fully removed. One key issue was how the influencer community today trades on Likes as a form of currency that allows them to exchange their online popularity for brand deals and job opportunities. Removing Likes, then, is not necessarily an option for these users.

Instagram realized that if it made a decision for its users, it would anger one side or the other — even if the move in either direction didn’t really impact other core metrics, like app usage.

Image Credits: Instagram

“How many likes [users] got, or other people got — it turned out that it didn’t actually change nearly as much about the experience, in terms of how people felt or how much they use experience, as we thought it would. But it did end up being pretty polarizing,” admitted Instagram head, Adam Mosseri. “Some people really liked it and some people really didn’t.”

“For those who liked it, it was mostly what we had hoped — which is that it depressurized the experience. And, for those who didn’t, they used Likes to get a sense for what was trending or was relevant on Instagram and on Facebook. And they were just super annoyed that we took it away,” he added. This latter group sometimes included smaller creators still working on establishing a presence across social media, though larger influencers were sometimes in favor of Like removals. (Mosseri name-checked Katy Perry as being pro Like removals, in fact.)

Ultimately, the company decided to split the difference. Instead of making a hard choice about the future of its online communities, it’s rolling out the “no Likes” option as a user-controlled setting on both platforms.

On Instagram, both content consumers and content producers can turn on or off Like and View counts on posts — which means you can choose to not see these metrics when scrolling your own Feed and you can choose whether to allow Likes to be viewed by others when you’re posting. These are configured as two different settings, which provides for more flexibility and control.

Image Credits: Instagram

On Facebook, meanwhile, users access the new setting from the “Settings & Privacy” area under News Feed Settings (or News Feed Preferences on desktop). From here, you’ll find an option to “Hide number of reactions” to turn this setting off for both your own posts and for posts from others in News Feed, groups and Pages.

The feature will be made available to both public and private profiles, Facebook tells us, and will include posts you’ve published previously.

Image Credits: Facebook

Instagram last month restarted its tests on this feature in order to work out any final bugs before making the new settings live for global users, and said a Facebook test would come soon. But it’s now forging ahead with making the feature available publicly. When asked why such a short test, Instagram told TechCrunch it had been testing various iterations on this experience since 2019, so it felt it had enough data to proceed with a global launch.

Mosseri also pushed back at the idea that a decision on Likes would have majorly impacted the network. While removal of Likes on Instagram had some impact on user behavior, he said, it was not enough to be concerning. In some groups, users posted more — signaling that they felt less pressure to perform, perhaps. But others engaged less, Mosseri said.

Image Credits: Facebook

“Often people say, ‘oh, this has a bunch of Likes. I’m gonna go check it out,’ ” the exec explained. “Then they read the comments, or go deeper, or swipe to the carousel. There’s been some small effects — some positive, some negative — but they’ve all been small,” he noted. Instagram also believes users may toggle on and off the feature at various times, based on how they’re feeling.

In addition, Mosseri pointed out, “there’s no rigorous research that suggests Likes are bad for people’s well-being” — a statement that pushes back over the growing concerns that a gamified social media space is bad for users’ mental health. Instead, he argued that Instagram is still a small part of people’s day, so how Likes function doesn’t affect people’s overall well-being.

“As big as we are, we have to be careful not to overestimate our influence,” Mosseri said.

He also dismissed some of the current research pointing to negative impacts of social media use as being overly reliant on methodologies that ask users to self-report their use, rather than measure it directly.

In other words, this is not a company that feels motivated to remove Likes entirely due to the negative mental health outcomes attributed to its popularity metrics.

It’s worth mentioning that another factor that could have come into play here is Instagram’s plan to make a version of its app available to children under the age of 13, as competitor TikTok did following its FTC settlement. In that case, hiding Likes by default — or perhaps adding a parental control option — would necessitate such a setting. Instagram tells TechCrunch that, while it’s too soon to know what it would do with a kids app, it will “definitely explore” a no Likes by default option.

Facebook and Instagram both told TechCrunch the feature will roll out starting on Wednesday but will reach global users over time. On Instagram, that may take a matter of days.

Facebook, meanwhile, says a small percentage of users will have the feature Wednesday — notified through an alert on News Feed — but it will reach Facebook’s global audience “over the next few weeks.”

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/26/facebook-and-instagram-will-now-allow-users-to-hide-like-counts-on-posts/
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Taking Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 for a spin

These days, the path of least resistance in laptop design is straight-up knocking off the MacBook. We’ve certainly seen our share of egregious cases over the years. Microsoft, however, has defiantly forged its own path with industrial design across the board. Its products are largely interesting and innovative — something not every hardware manufacturer can say these days.

The company doesn’t always get it right. It swung for the fences with the Surface Duo, for example. While certainly innovative, the product came up short in enough categories that made it extremely hard to recommend. The Surface Laptop, on the other hand, while not the most groundbreaking product in the line, has pretty consistently been one of the best, marrying a Windows-ready touchscreen with a more standardized notebook design.

The last few models have been solid, and this year’s — perhaps predictably — doesn’t present a big change. The big upgrades after about a year and a half are new chips (your choice of AMD Ryzen or an Intel Core i5 or i7) and enhanced battery life that offers a beefy additional 8.5 hours. Essentially, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect — or hope for — from a regular system refresh.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The design language remains largely unchanged. The Surface Laptop is nothing if not unique on that front, with its tapered sides and felt-covered palm rests. The material has a nice feel to it — one that bests just straight-up metal on a cold day, though I’ve already noticed a bit of wear after some light use.

The keyboard remains on the soft side, with a surprising amount of give to it. Not the best keyboard I’ve seen on a laptop, but certainly not the worst (who can forget that rough run for Apple?), and like anything else, it takes a bit of getting used to.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now. Maybe it’s the fact that Microsoft’s Surface Laptops keep coming out when the weather is nice that I always feel inclined to take them outside. But jeez is that display reflective. Almost distractingly so. Plenty of laptop screens are glossy, of course, but Microsoft’s really leaned in here, to the point I wouldn’t recommend using it in any sort of sunshine — even at full brightness, the screen can’t counteract that reflection.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

When you can see it, the display looks great. Microsoft sent along the smaller of the two. At 13.5-inches, the screen clocks in at 2256 x 1504 at 201 ppi (you get the same pixel density on the 15-inch version, as well). Ours was the new Ice Blue color. It’s subtle, though. Honestly, I read it more as a silver/gray. The speakers sound great, and the webcam is just fine, but it’s safe to say it’s probably time to upgrade to 1080p across the board as teleconferencing remains front of mind.

The 13.5-inch system starts at $1,000, which gets you 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, along with the AMD Ryzen 5 4680U process. As configured, our system runs $1,700, which doubles the RAM and storage and swaps the AMD in for an Intel Core i7. Another $600 will double the RAM and storage yet again (same processor). Geekbench scored the processor at a solid 1378 on single-core and 4876 on multi-core. Performance was solid throughout — though after spending a fair amount of time using Apple’s M1, it’s clear that Intel has its work cut out for it.

Microsoft is still hanging onto its magnetic proprietary charging port here. I know it still has its diehard fans, but I’d much prefer to see the company go with something more universal, like adding another USB-C port — though that impacts the system’s compatibility with a slew of different Surface accessories. Around the other side you get USB-A, USB-C and a headphone jack. It’s a nice mix, but more ports would certainly be a step up.

I was fairly disappointed with the various corners the company cut on the Surface Laptop Go last year. Of course, the entry-level 13.5-inch Laptop is $300 more than the 12-inch Laptop Go. But if you’re looking to do more than just the basics, this is probably is a wise investment.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/23/taking-microsofts-surface-laptop-4-for-a-spin/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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TikTok rolls out tools to bulk delete and report comments, block users

TikTok today is introducing a feature that will allow creators to deal with online abuse in an easier way. The company is launching new tools that will allow creators to bulk delete comments and block users, instead of having to moderate comments one-by-one. The update may be somewhat controversial, as it allows creators to curate a persona where the content they’ve posted is seemingly well-received, when in reality, it had a lot of pushback or correction from the broader TikTok community.

Twitter had faced this same issue in the past, and ultimately split the difference between giving the original poster control over the conversation or ceding that control to the Twitter user base at large. With Twitter’s “Hidden Replies” feature, it allow users to tuck all the unhelpful and rude comments behind an extra click — that way, the replies themselves were not removed entirely, but they weren’t allowed to derail a conversation.

TikTok, on the other hand, is putting full control in the hands of the creator. That’s a more Facebook-like approach, where users can delete anything they want from appearing on their own user profile — including comments on their posts that they don’t like.

Image Credits: TikTok; image shows the bulk delete tool (why is the user deleting nice comments, though?)

This may be the right choice for TikTok, since its social network is mainly designed to have conversations through videos. Video formats like duets and stitches allow TikTok users to react and reply to other content on the site, while also creating new content that raises a creator’s own profile. Some creators use this to their advantage. They single out others who’ve posted something they disagree with — often content that toes the line between being a “bad opinion” and one that violates rules around misinformation. They then duet or stitch (or green screen duet) that content to share their own thoughts on the subject.

However, this process can send a brigade of angry fans over to the other video, where they proceed to troll and harass the original poster. (To what extent that’s a warranted reaction may depend on your own stance on the post and the politics in question.)

TikTok says such abuse can be “discouraging.” It certainly has been for some of TikTok’s early stars, like Charli D’Amelio, a teenage girl who somehow rocketed to TikTok stardom, where she now has nearly 116 million followers. D’Amelio has begun to speak more publicly about the downsides of her online fame, saying she now finds it difficult to find enjoyment on TikTok due the mounting criticism she receives there. This includes the abusive remarks she received, the body shaming, and dealing with the competitive, dishonest nature of the influencer set, among other things.

The new bulk delete feature doesn’t solve these problems, but it may allow creators to clean up their comment section and block trolls quickly enough that they can re-establish some semblance of control over their profile.

To use the new feature, users can long-press on a comment or tap the pencil icon in the upper-left corner to open a window of options. From here, they can select up to 100 comments or accounts instead of going one-by-one, making it easier to delete or report multiple comments or block users in bulk.

TikTok says the new feature is rolling out first to Great Britain, South Korea, Spain, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Thailand, and will continue to expand to other markets globally in the weeks to come, including the U.S.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/20/tiktok-rolls-out-tools-to-bulk-delete-and-report-comments-block-users/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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Fisker and Foxconn sign deal to build electric vehicles

Fisker_Project_PEAR.jpeg?w=711

Electric car startup Fisker signed an agreement with Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that assembles iPhones, to co-develop and manufacture a new electric vehicle. Production on the car, which will be sold under the Fisker brand name in North America, Europe, China and India, will begin in the U.S. by the end of 2023.

Numerous details, including the name of the car and the location of future manufacturing plants, have not been disclosed by the two companies. As for form factor, Fisker describes it as a “breakthrough new segment vehicle,” so neither a sedan nor an SUV, that’s capable of carrying five people, a Fisker spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Fisker is calling the joint program Project PEAR, which stands for Personal Electric Automotive Revolution. Fisker chairman and CEO Henrik Fisker has bragged that the PEAR vehicle will be the “next big thing in car design,” a car that’s both “emotionally desirable” and “eco-friendly,” meaning a car that doesn’t shout “Look at me, I’m electric!” and rather appeals to the driver moving over from gasoline vehicles, according to a spokesperson from Fisker

The two companies had signed a memorandum of understanding agreement in February, setting the expectation that a formal agreement would be reached by this time. Included in the agreement signed on Thursday is a goal to produce 250,000 units annually across multiple sites. In January, Foxconn partnered with Chinese automaker Zhejiang Geely Holding Group to form a joint venture that would provide car manufacturers with production and consulting services, so the deal with Fisker is one of the company’s first forays into the automotive industry.

“In order to deliver on our promise of product breakthroughs from Project PEAR, we needed to rethink every aspect of product development, sourcing and manufacturing,” said Fisker chairman and CEO Henrik Fisker in a statement. “Our partnership with Foxconn enables us to deliver those industry firsts at a price point that truly opens up electric mobility to the mass market.”

The new vehicle will be priced under $30,000, according to Fisker, who touted the uniqueness and innovation of his car’s designs. Fisker will also begin production on its first model, Ocean, an electric SUV, in Europe by the end of next year. The company also intends to release a prototype of Ocean at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this year.

“We have world-class supply chains in place to support Project PEAR – in particular, securing the reliable delivery of chipsets and semiconductors,” said Young-way Liu, chairman of Foxconn, in a statement.

Liu noted how Foxconn would be able to connect Project PEAR with suppliers around the world through its software and hardware open platform for EVs, MIH, which aligns with the company’s “3+3” vision which symbolizes the infinite technological and industry advancements available through the platform.

Foxconn and Fisker are still shopping for potential U.S. manufacturing sites, so they’ve set up an office between the U.S. and Taiwan to coordinate design, engineering, purchasing and manufacturing operations.

This article has been updated to reflect new information from Fisker. 

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/13/fisker-and-foxconn-sign-deal-to-build-electric-vehicles/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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Clubhouse finally launches its Android app

Clubhouse finally has an Android app that you can download from the Play Store — provided you live in the U.S.

The voice-based social network launched its beta Android app on Play Store for users in the U.S. on Sunday, and said it will gradually make the new app available in other English-speaking countries and then the rest of the world.

The social network, valued at about $4 billion in its most recent fundraise, launched as an iPhone-only app last year. The app quickly gained popularity last year, attracting several high-profile celebrities, politicians, investors, and entrepreneurs.

Clubhouse began developing the Android app early this year and started to test the beta version externally this month. In a town hall earlier Sunday, the startup said availability on Android has been the most requested product feature.

“Our plan over the next few weeks is to collect feedback from the community, fix any issues we see and work to add a few final features like payments and club creation before rolling it out more broadly,” the team wrote.

Clubhouse download figures across some of its popular markets, according to estimates by mobile insight firm AppMagic. (Though Clubhouse’s precise download figures from other mobile insight firms vary, they all agree that Clubhouse app’s popularity has dropped in recent months.)

As Clubhouse struggles to maintain its growth — data from mobile insight firms including AppMagic suggests that Clubhouse installs have drastically dropped in recent months — the Android app could prove pivotal in boosting the startup’s reach across the globe.

Clubhouse could potentially — on paper — also supercharge its growth by allowing any user to join the service without an invitation. But the startup said retaining the waitlist and invite system is part of its effort to “keep the growth measured.” (Clubhouse has faced several moderation challenges in recent months.)

Clubhouse’s launch on Android comes at a time when scores of technology giants including Facebook, Twitter, Discord, Spotify, Reddit, and Microsoft’s LinkedIn, have either launched their similar offerings — or announced plans to do so.

Twitter’s clone of Clubhouse, called Spaces, has emerged as one of the biggest competitors to the A16z and Tiger Global-backed-startup. An unplanned Twitter Spaces, available on Android as well, hosted by a high-profile Indian startup founder on earlier Sunday attracted hundreds of listeners within a few minutes, for instance.

“As we head into the summer and continue to scale out the backend, we plan to begin opening up even further, welcoming millions more people in from the iOS waitlist, expanding language support, and adding more accessibility features, so that people worldwide can experience Clubhouse in a way that feels native to them,” Clubhouse team wrote.

Clubhouse’s beta Android app currently lacks a number of features such as the ability to follow a topic, in-app translations, localization, ability to create or manage a club, link Twitter and Instagram profiles, payments, as well as the ability to change the profile name or user name.

“With Android, we believe that Clubhouse will feel more complete,” read the blog post.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/09/clubhouse-android-app-launch/
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Live video platform Bright lets you Zoom with your favorite creators

What if you could Zoom with your favorite creator and ask them questions? That’s the promise of Bright, the new live video platform launching today from co-founders Guy Oseary and early YouTube product manager Michael Powers. The service, built on top of Zoom, allows fans to engage in live, face-to-face video sessions with creators, ask questions and even join creators on a virtual stage for a more personal and direct learning experience.

Though the startup has some similarities to voice chat apps like Clubhouse, as it also democratizes access to big-name talent at times, the co-founders explain that Bright’s focus will be very different. Besides being a video-on experience, Bright is solely focused on educational content — that is, learning from people who are sharing their expertise with the community. In addition, the sessions hosted on Bright are ticketed events, where the creator decides how many tickets they want to sell and how much they’re charging.

Image Credits: Bright

“Twenty percent of the content on YouTube was learning. It was the second-biggest area next to music. And that was true the first year of YouTube and it’s true now at scale,” explains Bright CEO Michael Powers, as to why Bright has chosen to focus on learning. Powers knows the creator industry firsthand, having launched the YouTube Channels feature while at YouTube, and later managed YouTube’s first revenue-generating opportunities for creators. More recently, he served as SVP and GM at CBS Interactive.

Powers says he saw how powerful educational and learning content could be, but also how difficult it was for creators earning a rev share off an ad network, like YouTube’s, to become self-sustainable.

“I watched that over the past five years, especially, as the different platforms have scaled up,” Powers says, and became inspired to launch a better way for creators to monetize their expertise. “We’ve got to empower [creators] so they can go beyond just being a personal brand or social brand, and be an actual business,” he adds.

Oseary, meanwhile, was tooling around with a similar concept, having also had direct experience with creators in the music industry and through his investments. The founder of Maverick music management company, Oseary continues to manage Madonna and U2, but these days has his hands in numerous startups as the co-founder of Sound Ventures and A-Grade Investments with actor Ashton Kutcher.

Though Oseary and Powers have yet to meet in person, they connected over the web — much like Bright’s creators will now do — to get the new startup off the ground during a pandemic.

With today’s launch, Bright is promising a lineup of more than 200 prominent creators, many from the arts, including Madonna, Ashton Kutcher, Naomi Campbell, Shawn Mendes, Amy Schumer, D-Nice, the D’Amelio Sisters, Laura Dern, Judd Apatow, Deepak Chopra, Diplo, Kenny Smith, Kane Brown, Drew and Jonathan Scott (Property Brothers), Lindsey Vonn, Rachel Zoe, Diego Boneta, Tal Fishman, Ryan Prunty, Demi Skipper, Charlotte McKinney, Jason Bolden, Yris Palmer, Cat & Nat, Ronnie2K, Chef Ludo Lefebvre and Jonathan Mannion, among others.

And it has another 1,500 creators on a waitlist, ready to begin hosting their own sessions when Bright opens up further.

Image Credits: Bright session example

Although Bright’s lineup implies it’s aiming at a high-profile creator crowd, Oseary insists Bright will be for anyone with an audience of their own — not just famous names.

“This is not elitist…If you’ve got an audience and you have something to offer your audience, we would like you on the platform,” he says.

Today, creators can go to other social networks, like Facebook Live or Instagram Live, if they want to just chat with fans more casually. But people will come to Bright to be educated, Oseary notes. And short of getting a creator to FaceTime you directly, he believes this will be the next best way to reach them — and one people are familiar with using, thanks to the Zoom adoption that grew out of the pandemic’s impact to business culture and remote work.

“The best way to connect is to use a platform that we’ve all learned how to use this last year,” Oseary says, referring to Bright’s Zoom connection. “We all already have the app. We already know how to navigate through it. We’ve added a bunch of features to make it more interesting,” he adds.

Image Credits: Bright

At launch, fans will be able to visit Bright’s website, view the array of upcoming events and purchase tickets. Some of the first sessions include Laura Dern leading a “Tell Your Story” session about personal growth; Kenny Smith will interview favorite athletes and discuss their mindsets at turning points in their careers; Property Brothers Jonathan & Drew Scott will host “Room by Room,” focused on home improvement; recording artist Kane Brown will host “Record This: Nashville Edition” about the country music industry; and Ronnie2K will host a series about building a career in gaming.

Bright’s model will see it taking a 20% commission on creator revenue, which is lower than the traditional marketplace split of 30/70 (platform/creator), but higher than the commission-free payments on Clubhouse (at least for the time being!). Further down the road, Bright envisions building out more tools to help creators with other aspects of their business — like the sale of physical or digital goods, for example.

Though there are numerous creator platforms to choose from these days, Bright aims to give creators direct access to their own analytics about their biggest fans, their content and fans’ contact information, like names and emails. This allows them to continue their relationship with their community beyond Bright into other areas of their business — whether that’s email newsletters or Shopify stores.

To make all this work, LA-based Bright has recruited a team with deep expertise in both the creator economy and tech.

This includes Bright’s VP of Talent & Partnership, Kaitlyn Powell, former head of Talent at Caffeine; Bright’s lead Creator & Product Strategy, Sadia Harper, formerly a UX Strategist at Instagram; Bright’s director of Creative Programming, Jeben Berg, previously of YouTube & Maker Studios; Design lead Heather Grates, previously of Pinterest; and Bright’s finance lead Jarad Backlund, previously in roles at Apple and Facebook.

The startup has raised an undisclosed amount funding from Oseary’s own Sound Ventures, as well as RIT Capital, Norwest, Globo and other investors.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/04/live-video-platform-bright-lets-you-zoom-with-your-favorite-creators/
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The Article Was Written/Published By: Sarah Perez

Duolingo can’t teach you how to speak a language, but now it wants to try

Duolingo has been wildly successful. It has pulled in 500 million total registered learners, 40 million active users, 1.5 million premium subscribers and $190 million in booked revenues in 2020. It has a popular and meme-ified mascot in the form of the owl Duo, a creative and engaging product, and ambitious plans for expansion.There’s just one key question in the midst of all those milestones: Does anyone actually learn a language using Duolingo?

“Language is first and foremost a social, relational phenomenon,” said Sébastien Dubreil, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It is something that allows people to make meaning and talk to each other and conduct the business of living — and when you do this, you use a tone of different kinds of resources that are not packaged in the vocabulary and grammar.”

Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn estimates that Duolingo’s upcoming product developments will get users from zero to a knowledge job in a different language within the next two to three years. But for now, he is honest about the limits of the platform today.

“I won’t say that with Duolingo, you can start from zero and make your English as good as mine,” he said. “That’s not true. But that’s also not true with learning a language in a university, that’s not true with buying books, that’s not true with any other app.”

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder of Duolingo, visiting President Obama in 2015. Image Credits: Duolingo

While Dubreil doesn’t think Duolingo can teach someone to speak a language, he does think it has taught consistency — a hard nut to crack in edtech. “What Duolingo does is to potentially entice students to do things you cannot pay them enough time to actually do, which is to spend time in that textbook and reinforce vocabulary and the grammar,” he said.

That’s been the key focus for the company since the beginning. “I said this when we started Duolingo and I still really strongly believe it: The hardest thing about learning a language is staying motivated,” von Ahn said, comparing it to how people approach exercise: it’s hard to stay motivated, but a little motion a day goes a long way.

With an enviable lead in its category, Duolingo wants to bring the quality and effectiveness of its curriculum on par with the quality of its product and branding. With growth and monetization secured, Duolingo is no longer in survival mode. Instead, it’s in study mode.

In this final part, we will explore how Duolingo is using a variety of strategies, from rewriting its courses to what it dubs Operation Birdbrain, to become a more effective learning tool, all while balancing the need to keep the growth and monetization engines stoked while en route to an IPO.

Duolingo’s office decor. Image Credits: Duolingo

“Just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Duolingo’s competitors see the app’s massive gamification and solitary experience as inherently contradictory with high-quality language education. Busuu and Babbel, two subscription-based competitors in the market, both focus on users talking in real time to native speakers.

Bernhard Niesner, the co-founder and CEO of Busuu, which was founded in 2008, sees Duolingo as an entry-level tool that can help users migrate to its human-interactive service. “If you want to be fluent, Duolingo needs innovation,” Niesner said. “And that’s where we come in: We all believe that you should not be learning a language just by yourself, but [ … ] together, which is our vision.” Busuu has more than 90 million users worldwide.

Duolingo has been the subject of a number of efficacy studies over the years. One of its most positive reports, from September 2020, showed that its Spanish and French courses teach the equivalent of four U.S. university semesters in half the time.

Babbel, which has sold over 10 million subscriptions to its language-learning service, cast doubt on the power of these findings. Christian Hillemeyer, who heads PR for the startup, pointed out that Duolingo only tested for reading and writing efficacy — not for speaking proficiency, even though that is a key part of language learning. He described Duolingo as “just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Putting the ed back into edtech

One of the ironic legacies of Duolingo’s evolution is that for years it outsourced much of the creation of its education curriculum to volunteers. It’s a legacy the company is still trying to rectify.

The year after its founding, Duolingo launched its Language Incubator in 2013. Similar to its original translation service, the company wanted to leverage crowdsourcing to invent and refine new language courses. Volunteers — at least at first — were seen as a warm-but-scrappy way to bring new material to the growing Duolingo community and more than 1,000 volunteers have helped bring new language courses to the app.

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/05/03/duolingo-ec1-future/
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‘Returnal’ is a frantic, familiar pleasure — but spurns mainstream appeal to its peril

Returnal, released today for the PlayStation 5, is an action adventure that has you exploring an alien world that reconfigures itself whenever you die, bringing you back for another shot at escaping. It’s exciting, frustrating, and beautiful, though it isn’t particularly original. But while it is arguably the first game to be released that was designed and built for next generation consoles, it’s not the mainstream hit many gamers are waiting for.

First I should probably justify my “arguably.” The PS5 debuted with the impressive remake of Demon’s Souls, and while I enjoyed that greatly, it was only next-gen in its presentation; many dated aspects faithfully carried over from the original mean it can’t really be considered a fully next generation title. The pack-in Astro’s Playroom is a delight but doesn’t compare with full-scale games. Destruction All-Stars was something of a damp squib. And excellent games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla span the generations, playing best but by no means exclusively on PS5.

So Returnal really is, in a non-trivial way, the first really “next-gen” PS5 game — and it carries the “next-gen” PS5 price tag of $70, more in many regions. Can it justify this premium? In some ways yes, but like Demon’s Souls this is a difficult game that involves a potentially off-putting amount of repetition and failure for mainstream audiences.

The game starts with your character, a sci-fi space explorer working for a mysterious company called Astra (there are clear nods to Weyland-Yutani from Alien), crashing on a forbidden planet and finding herself — literally — stuck in a sort of time loop. (You’ll see what I mean by literally.)

The developers have obviously seen Prometheus.

Without getting into the specifics of the plot, which is slowly revealed through found recordings, exploration of ancient ruins, and decoding alien symbols, Selene is seemingly trapped on the planet until she can figure out what’s going on, and whenever she dies the world shifts around to provide new challenges and opportunities.

Each loop or “cycle” involves the player starting from the crash site and progressing through the world, different but familiar every time. You encounter enemies, collect power-ups like new weapons or artifacts that affect your abilities, and occasionally an item that will permanently augment your suit or open new paths to take.

To call any individual aspect of the game original would be inaccurate — it takes with a free hand from its august predecessors in both gameplay and presentation. Without spoiling too much I’d say its progression and design share the most with indie breakout hit Dead Cells, with a dose of Risk of Rain 2, and a setting lifted wholesale from elaborating on Alien and Prometheus. That said, the story and backstory owe more to Solaris. It wears its influences on its sleeve to be sure, but they come together as something cohesive, not a sloppy pastiche.

Run, gun, rinse, repeat

Returnal starts out almost frustratingly simple, but this is soon remedied as new abilities and layers of complexity are added to the mix; expect the “tutorial” to be meted out over a few hours as things are discovered organically.

You make your way through what amounts to arena after arena, sometimes large and multi-layered, sometimes confined, and fight whatever appears. Combat is frantic and high risk — monsters don’t telegraph ponderous swipes at you but rather spew dozens or hundreds of bullets in your direction, making you rely on smart anticipatory movement and the cluttered landscape to stay alive. As you defeat them you accrue increasingly powerful boons that only last until you get hit, at which point they all disappear, adding a layer of urgency to every encounter: you could gain a crucial edge for the next miniboss — or lose what you’ve built up over minutes of careful play. You can’t take any enemy lightly — those that don’t kill you will make you weaker.

The player moves forward by exploring and eventually defeating an area boss, encounters that are more than a little taxing and generally take a few tries. Then it’s on to a new, different “biome” to do it all again with a different color scheme (and new enemies, hazards and so on).

The look and feel of Returnal is what you might call “early next-gen.” It’s detailed, interesting looking and realistic in a sci-fi way, and it uses lighting and color well to create both a sense of place and gameplay objectives. It’s better in some ways than what you’d expect from a PS4 or Xbox One game but ultimately the advances here seem to be more on the side of “fewer limitations” rather than “new capabilities.” Load times are practically non-existent — a second or two at most — and in places where sightlines are farther than a room or two, the scale of what’s being drawn is impressive. The framerate is a steady 60, making combat fluid no matter how crowded and chaotic it gets.

As for the claim of a “living world” that’s truly different every time, you can pretty much ignore that. You’ll encounter the same rooms and structures repeatedly, maybe with different enemies or items, but don’t expect a wildly different experience every loop. Just enough that the repetition isn’t too repetitious.

Image Credits: Sony/Housemarque

Sound is solid and I’d definitely recommend headphones. Your number one issue is going to be getting blasted in the back and positional audio will help a lot with that, as each enemy has characteristic noises for its actions.

The PS5 controller’s advanced haptics are put to good use with two-stage virtual triggers and a lot of contextual vibrations. I do wish there was a way to control these with a bit more granularity, as the constant patter of rain in the first area was numbing my hands, but the other haptic cues were useful and quickly became second nature.

Games in the “roguelite” (i.e. you start from scratch every life like a roguelike, but occasionally gain permanent upgrades) genre can fall flat if your progression, either within a loop or over many of them, involves little more than “+4% pistol damage” or a few more hit points. Fortunately Returnal is well aware of this and its weapons, artifacts, perks and so on often confer interesting bonuses or risk/reward mechanics. And you only have one weapon at a time, meaning the choice between, say, an assault rifle with special ability A and a shotgun with special ability B is a complex and risky one.

Eventually you’ll be able to skip past certain areas, but you may not want to, preferring to scour side paths for resources so you’re not going into the next boss room naked and afraid. In general the game manages to keep a lot of interesting tensions going on with the player that make every decision consequential, not to say agonizing.

Next-gen price tag

Is Returnal worth its premium $70 asking price? For some people, yes. But this isn’t the kind of mainstream blockbuster that would ordinarily justify the increased cost.

So far I’ve played about 20 hours, done 30-odd runs, and based on what I know I’m about halfway through the game. Most of my progress was made on what I think of “prestige” runs, the handful where everything goes right and I get much further than before, making them tense and exciting. (Many ended within five minutes due to poor momentum or rage quits.) The game promises replay value past the credits, though, so a guess of 40 hours of content is more of a floor than a ceiling.

One of several trips to your house, inexplicably replicated on the alien planet…

The difficulty may present a barrier to many players. A dialogue at the start of the game warns you that the game is meant to be challenging and that death is part of the journey. Great, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when you get ambushed by a dozen enemies, wiping out half an hour of of progress in an instant. While generally the game falls into the “tough but fair” category, there are spikes here and there that feel gratuitous, and loops where you feel unlucky or underpowered and have to fight the urge to reset.

I don’t mind personally — compared to the Dark Souls series it’s a cakewalk. I almost beat the first boss on my first encounter; good luck doing that with Ornstein and Smough or Father Gascoigne! But like those games it takes a certain type of player to want to power through the early hours and access the huge amount of value essentially locked behind repeated failure. Similar to how many Demon’s Souls players never progress past that game’s punishing first area, players not ready for the acrobatics and perseverance necessary to traverse the unforgiving bullet hell of Returnal may never escape its gloomy, restrictive first biome for the bright, open second one or glimpse its intriguing backstory. (I’ve included some tips below to help people get through the first hours.)

Compared with the steady progression and traditional storytelling of something like AC: Valhalla or Miles Morales this may put off less masochistic gamers or prompt more than a few controller-throwing, refund-requesting moments. After all, paying $70 for a game that slaps you in the face while you try to access the latter $50 worth of it can be justifiably frustrating.

With all that said, it is nice to see a AAA next-generation game that isn’t a sequel or franchise, and seeing the “roguelite” formula embraced seriously beyond the indie world. Returnal may not be for everyone, but for the subset of gamers who have embraced this genre for years, it’s an easy one to recommend.


Tips for playing:

If you do decide to dive in, here are a handful of non-spoilery “wish I’d known that” tips to get you on the right track.

  • There are lots of hidden rooms and items, so check your mini-map frequently for things you’ve missed in the chaos and peek in every nook and cranny.
  • When you’re undamaged, healing pickups contribute towards adding crucial max health — one more reason to not get hit.
  • New abilities create new opportunities in old areas — there’s a reason so much of the first biome is inaccessible at first.
  • You can get to those treasures behind bars. Look around carefully (and shoot everything).
  • “Malignant” treasure is usually more trouble than it’s worth and the debuffs can sink a run. Only do if desperate or you have a cure handy. (Parasites on the other hand can be very useful.)
  • There’s always a healing item for sale at the biome’s “shop,” so there’s no excuse for going into a boss room without one. (And self-healing artifacts will save your life five times over.)

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Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/29/returnal-review-a-familiar-frantic-pleasure-but-a-risky-next-gen-debut/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Techcrunch+%28TechCrunch%29
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