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WeChat is quietly ranking user behavior to play catch-up with Alibaba

Over one billion people leave behind trails of information on WeChat every day as they use the messenger to chat, read, shop, hail rides, rent umbrellas and run many other errands. And the Tencent app has quietly started using this type of signal to determine whether a user is worthy of perks such as deposit-free renting services.
The rating system, which the company calls the “WeChat Payments Score” in Chinese, soft-launched last November across eight cities and has been piloting on a small number of apps. Among them is the Tencent-backed power bank rental service Xiaodian, which waives deposits for users if their points hit a certain benchmark. It’s easy to imagine how the rewards mechanism can help nudge customers to try out WeChat’s panoply of in-house and third-party offerings down the road.

WeChat reaches 1M mini programs, half the size of Apple’s App Store

Exactly how WeChat calculates these points is unclear, but a test done by TechCrunch shows it factors in one’s shopping and contract-fulfilling records. We’ve reached out to Tencent for more details and will update the article when more information becomes available.
Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial — WeChat’s biggest contender in online payments — has been running a similar assessment engine called the “Sesame Credit” since 2015. Like WeChat’s, it measures several dimensions of user data including purchase behavior and capability to fulfil contracts. People with higher scores enjoy perks like deposit waivers when staying at a hotel, incentives that could keep customers in the house. Sesame points are available through Ant’s Alipay digital wallet that recently claimed to have crossed one billion users worldwide.
The WeChat payments score is reminiscent of Tencent’s short-lived credit-rating scheme. Indeed, digital footprints can also help China’s fledgeling financial system predict creditworthiness among millions of people without financial records. That’s why Beijing enlisted tech companies including Tencent and Ant in 2015 to come up with their own “social credit” scores under state-approved pilot projects.
Over time, regulators became wary of the mounting personal information used by online lending companies and moved to assert greater control over the whole credit-rating matter. In early 2018, it changed tack to crack down on private efforts — including a Tencent-run trial. Beijing subsequently set up Baihang Credit, the only market-based personal credit agency approved by China’s central bank. The government holds a 36 percent stake in Baihang. Ant, Tencnet and several other private firms also got to be part of the initiative, though they play complementary roles and hold 8 percent shares each.
While most countries use credit rating mainly as a financial credibility indicator, China has taken things a few steps further. By 2020, China aims to enrol everyone in a national database that incorporates not only financial but also social and moral history, a program that has raised concerns about privacy and surveillance.

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Hulu unexpectedly releases “Fyre Fraud” days before Netflix’s competing documentary

Not since the literary biopic showdown between “Capote” and “Infamous” has there been such an intense battle for the attention of viewers. This time, the fight is between Hulu and Netflix’s competing documentaries about the disastrous Fyre Festival, a 2017 music festival whose failure led to eight lawsuits and a six-year prison sentence for co-founder Billy McFarland. Hulu unexpectedly released its film, “Fyre Fraud” today, just four days before Netflix’s “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” was scheduled to premiere. Both films are helmed by award-winning filmmakers.
Entertainment Today reports that Hulu hopes its documentary, directed by Emmy-nominated, Peabody-winning filmmaking team Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason “will provide enlightening context ahead of [co-executive producer Elliot] Tebele’s Netflix documentary.”
“Fyre Fraud” contains exclusive interviews with McFarland, who co-founded Fyre with rapper Ja Rule, and people who used to work for Tebele’s marketing agency FuckJerry, one of the festival’s promoters. Some of Tebele’s former employees claim in “Fyre Fraud” that Tebele asked them to cover up early warning signs about the festival.
McFarland was later sentenced six years to jail in for defrauding investors, while Ja Rule is fighting to be removed as a defendant from a $100 million class action lawsuit. Attendees paid thousands of dollars for tickets, expecting a luxury music festival in the Bahamas, but instead found themselves staying in tents, no Internet service, no water, and food like processed cheese sandwiches. Delayed flights made the experience even more nightmarish, as guests were forced to wait hours in the heat for their charter flights back to Miami.
In response, the makers of Netflix’s “Frye,” directed by Chris Smith (whose “American Movie” won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999), told Entertainment Weekly that even though they worked with Tebele and Jerry Media (a FuckJerry brand), “at no time did they, or any others we worked with, request favorable coverage in our film, which would be against our ethics. We stand behind our film, believe it is an unbiased and illuminating look at what happened, and look forward to sharing it with audiences around the world.”
Smith told Entertainment Weekly earlier this week that McFarland wasn’t included in the documentary because he “wanted to get paid” for appearing and “we didn’t feel comfortable with him benefitting after so many people were hurt as a consequence of his actions.”
TechCrunch has contacted Netflix and Hulu for comment.

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Turns out the science saying screen time is bad isn’t science

A new study is making waves in the worlds of tech and psychology by questioning the basis of thousands of papers and analyses with conflicting conclusions on the effect of screen time on well-being. The researchers claim is that the science doesn’t agree because it’s bad science. So is screen time good or bad? It’s not that simple.
The conclusions only make the mildest of claims about screen time, essentially that as defined it has about as much effect on well-being as potato consumption. Instinctively we may feel that not to be true; technology surely has a greater effect than that — but if it does, we haven’t found a way to judge it accurately.
The paper, by Oxford scientists Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski, amounts to a sort of king-sized meta-analysis of studies that come to some conclusion about the relationship between technology and well-being among young people.
Their concern was that the large data sets and statistical methods employed by researchers looking into the question — for example, thousands and thousands of survey responses interacting with weeks of tracking data for each respondent — allowed for anomalies or false positives to be claimed as significant conclusions. It’s not that people are doing this on purpose necessarily, only that it’s a natural result of the approach many are taking.
“Unfortunately,” write the researchers in the paper, “the large number of participants in these designs means that small effects are easily publishable and, if positive, garner outsized press and policy attention.” (We’re a part of that equation, of course, but speaking for myself at least I try to include a grain of salt with such studies, indeed with this one as well.)
In order to show this, the researchers essentially redid the statistical analysis for several of these large data sets (Orben explains the process here), but instead of only choosing one result to present, they collected all the plausible ones they could find.
For example, imagine a study where the app use of a group of kids was tracked, and they were surveyed regularly on a variety of measures. The resulting (fictitious, I hasten to add) paper might say it found kids who use Instagram for more than two hours a day are three times as likely to suffer depressive episodes or suicidal ideations. What the paper doesn’t say, and which this new analysis could show, is that the bottom quartile is far more likely to suffer from ADHD, or the top five percent reported feeling they had a strong support network.
In the new study, any and all statistically significant results like those I just made up are detected and compared with one another. Maybe a study came out six months later that found the exact opposite in terms of ADHD but also didn’t state it as a conclusion.
This figure from the paper shows a few example behaviors that have more or less of an effect on well-being.
Ultimately what the Oxford study found was that there is no consistent good or bad effect, and although a very slight negative effect was noted, it was small enough that factors like having a single parent or needing to wear glasses were far more important.
Yet, and this is important to understand, the study does not conclude that technology has no negative or positive effect; such a broad conclusion would be untenable on its face. The data it rounds up are (as some experts point out with no ill will toward the paper) simply inadequate to the task and technology use is too variable to reduce to a single factor. Its conclusion is that studies so far have in fact been inconclusive and we need to go back to the drawing board.
“The nuanced picture provided by these results is in line with previous psychological and epidemiological research suggesting that the associations between digital screen-time and child outcomes are not as simple as many might think,” the researchers write.
Could, for example, social media use affect self-worth, either positively or negatively? Could be! But the ways that scientists have gone about trying to find out have, it seems, been inadequate.
In the future, the authors suggest, researchers should not only design their experiments more carefully, but be more transparent about their analysis. By committing to document all significant links in the data set they create, whether they fit the narrative or hypothesis or go against it, researchers show that they have not rigged the study from the start. Designing and iterating with this responsibility in mind will produce better studies and perhaps even some real conclusions.
What should parents, teachers, siblings and others take away from this? Not anything about screen time or whether tech is good or bad, certainly. Rather let it be another instance of the frequently learned lesson that science is a work in progress and must be considered very critically before application.
Your kid is an individual, and things like social media and technology affect them differently from other kids; it may very well be that your informed opinion of their character and habits, tempered with that of a teacher or psychologist, is far more accurate than the “latest study.”
Orben and Przybylski’s study, “The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use,” appears in today’s issue of the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

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NBCUniversal announces streaming service that will be free to paid TV subscribers

NBCUniversal is joining the long list of media giants looking to compete with Netflix.
The company today announced plans to launch its own streaming service in early 2020. The still-unnamed service will include advertising and will be available at no additional cost to pay TV subscribers. If you aren’t a pay TV subscriber, or if you want to watch without ads, you’ll also be able to buy a standalone subscription.
Many of the specifics have yet to be announced, but CNBC reports that it will include NBC TV shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks & Recreation,” with a subscription costing around $12 per month.
“NBCUniversal has some of the world’s most valuable intellectual property and top talent, both in front of and behind the camera,” said CEO Steve Burke in a statement. “Many of the most-watched shows on today’s popular streaming platforms come from NBCUniversal. Our new service will be different than those presently in the market and it will be built on the company’s strengths, with NBCUniversal’s great content and the technology expertise, broad scale and the wide distribution of Comcast Cable and Sky.”
Does this mean your NBC shows will disappear from Netflix and other services? Maybe not — at least not entirely.
In the announcement, the company says it will continue selling content to other studios and other platforms, which Burke also emphasized in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter: “We as a matter of policy plan to sell to everyone. It will be attractive for us to have another buyer in the form of our own direct-to-consumer service, but we’re going to constantly be looking at all the alternatives and put shows where they belong and where they maximize value.”
Still, with NBCUniversal, Disney and WarnerMedia all planning to launch streaming services in the next year or so, it seems that Netflix, Amazon and others will be losing out on popular shows, and will be paying more for the shows they do hold on to.
For example, Burke noted that the American version of “The Office” is “often the No. 1 show on a monthly basis on Netflix.” Apparently Netflix has the streaming rights until 2021, at which point “we’ll look at our existing direct-to-consumer service and what kind of volume it has and how much we could expect to make if we moved it over, and we’ll have a discussion with Netflix and we’ll decide what’s right for the show.”
As part of the news, NBCUniversal also announced some leadership changes and restructuring. Bonnie Hammer, who previously led the company’s cable division, has been promoted to chairman of direct-to-consumer and digital enterprises, where she’ll be in charge of the new service. NBCUniversal’s existing digital enterprises group will become part of Hammer’s team.

AT&T details its streaming service plans as it weighs a sale of its Hulu stake

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For AR/VR 2.0 to live, AR/VR 1.0 must die

Tim Merel
Contributor

Tim Merel is managing director of Digi-Capital.

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Chinese investment into computer vision technology and AR surges as U.S. funding dries up
The Reality Ecosystem: What AR/VR/XR needs to go big

The future of AR/VR could be bright, but only if it moves beyond where it is today. 2018 was the first of what look like two transitional years, with a potential shakeout in 2019 before an inflection point in late 2020. Let’s look at where we are today, where we’re heading tomorrow and some of the changes needed to get us there. (Note: There were earlier generations of AR/VR, but this discussion focuses on the post-2014 market.)
AR/VR installed base (including mobile AR)
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
AR/VR 1.0 — where are we now?
AR/VR 1.0 kicked off in earnest when Facebook bought Oculus back in 2014. This inspired a generation of entrepreneurs, corporates and VCs to build early-stage AR/VR. Despite significant technical progress, even industry insiders admit this hasn’t produced a mass market yet.
Mobile AR delivered 2 percent higher revenue than we forecast for 2018 at over $3 billion globally, driven by app store revenues (primarily Pokémon GO), ad spend (e.g. from mobile AR features in messaging apps) and e-commerce sales (e.g. Houzz delivering 11x sales uplift). Mobile AR installed base (i.e. configured devices) grew more slowly than anticipated, to more than 850 million globally (note: this isn’t active users, which is a much lower number). As anticipated, there weren’t any standalone breakout mobile AR apps last year. Developers are still figuring out what does and doesn’t work for mobile AR.
Smartglasses had a mixed 2018, with Microsoft HoloLens winning a $480 million U.S. military contract, Magic Leap launching more of a dev kit than a consumer product and other early smartglasses pioneers reported to be selling assets or furloughing staff. Smartglasses revenue (mainly hardware and enterprise solutions/services) was in the hundreds of millions of dollars, which together with mobile AR delivered total AR market revenue 3 percent lower than anticipated. So as in the last three years, AR revenue was broadly in line with Digi-Capital forecasts.
For VR, at the start of last year we didn’t anticipate phone makers largely abandoning mobile phone pre-order headset bundles (negatively impacting mobile VR sales/installed base significantly), and got timing wrong for Oculus Quest launching in holiday 2018 (announced late last year as Spring 2019). The mid-year launch of Oculus Go and our accurate forecast of Sony PSVR sales helped, but together with attrition rates, the VR market was down year-on-year for 2018 in terms of unit sales, installed bases and revenue at less than $3 billion (rather than the modest growth we forecast).
AR/VR 2.0 — where are we going?
AR (mobile AR, smartglasses) could top two and a half billion installed base and $70 billion to $75 billion revenue by 2023. VR (mobile, standalone, console, PC) might deliver more than 30 million installed base and $10 billion to $15 billion revenue in the same time frame. That’s a pretty big difference, so let’s dig into the data to understand why.
AR/VR platform revenue
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
Mobile AR
While mobile AR revenue outperformed slightly last year, underlying data at the platform level has guided us to downgrade mobile AR’s installed base long term. Where Apple and Facebook control their platforms (ARKit, Spark AR), Google doesn’t — it had to rely on Android phone maker partnerships to grow ARCore configured devices from 100 million to 250 million last year.
That’s still a big number, but the growth curve it implies now means that our AR/VR Analytics Platform forecasts ARCore’s installed base trailing Apple/Facebook until 2021. So while ARKit and Spark AR growth paths remain on track with previous forecasts, a slower growth path for ARCore means there could be a total mobile AR market installed base just over two and a half billion globally by 2023. Again, still a big number, just not as big as originally anticipated.
Mobile AR business model revenue
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
E-commerce across 10 major categories (from cars to clothing to toys) looks set to be mobile AR’s largest revenue stream, which together with ad spend across 11 major advertiser categories (from retail to CPG to travel) could deliver three quarters of mobile AR revenue long term.
AR e-commerce sales
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
Mobile AR app store revenues (in-app-purchase/premium) remain dominated by games (primarily Pokémon GO) today, but mobile AR’s installed base and increasing adoption as a feature in mainstream apps could see non-games categories take more than half the mobile AR app store revenues by 2023. As with the overall mobile market, it could remain difficult for standalone mobile AR apps to rise to the top of app stores. Mobile AR growth could have more to do with mobile AR features in ubiquitous apps than new standalone apps.
Mobile AR app store categories revenue
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
Smartglasses
Smartglasses have to deliver on five major challenges before they can become mass market consumer devices: (1) hero device (i.e. an Apple quality device, whether made by Apple or someone else), (2) all-day battery life, (3) mobile connectivity, (4) app ecosystem and (5) price. Together, these are non-trivial problems, and could see smartglasses remain mainly enterprise focused through the middle of 2020. Smartglasses device sales could stay in the hundreds of thousands of units globally this year.
Smartglasses business model revenue
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
If Apple launches iPhone-tethered smartglasses in late 2020 (as we’ve forecast since 2016), the AR/VR market could finally see its inflection point. Nonetheless, long-term smartglasses revenues could remain dominated by hardware and enterprise (ex-hardware) revenues through 2023. The mass market for consumer smartglasses still looks a long way off, even with Apple’s entry.
Smartglasses enterprise revenue
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
Smartglasses enterprise pilot projects and full-scale rollouts have been symptomatic of an early-stage tech platform, but real-world productivity results are now being delivered with companies like Lockheed Martin reducing satellite building activities by more than 50 percent using HoloLens/Scope AR. When smartphone-tethered smartglasses reduce system costs and expand the range of applications, “bring your own device” could see smartglasses enterprise revenues kickstart an inflection point in 2021 across manufacturing/resources, TMT, government (including military), retail, construction/real estate, healthcare, education, transportation, financial services and utilities industries.
VR
VR could return to modest growth this year, and remain dominated by hardware and games revenues. The second generation of premium standalone VR headsets (not those launching this year) could become a catalyst in the 2020/2021 time frame. For this to happen, they will need to deliver greater performance and better content at lower prices. Hopefully by that time we could also see VR platform holders simplify their product ranges from their current platform fragmentation (taking a page out of Steve Jobs’ 1997 playbook).
VR business model revenue
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
VR revenue comes primarily from entertainment, and is driven by premium/standalone VR more than mobile/standalone VR due to installed bases and unit economics. Games software revenue could dominate long term, followed by hardware, enterprise (ex-hardware), video and location-based entertainment revenue streams. Due to VR platform holders’ gamer focus, they face the same challenges as Sony and Microsoft when they tried to diversify games console revenue streams beyond games (with mixed results).
AR/VR countries revenue
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
Asia is set to dominate AR/VR for the next five years, driving more revenue than North America and Europe combined by 2023. China’s commitment to the market is a standout, and it could remain the largest single market for AR/VR long term.
So what’s needed to go from AR/VR 1.0 to 2.0?
A lot of things might need to change to take us from AR/VR 1.0 to 2.0:
High friction to low friction: A large part of AR/VR 1.0 remains high friction in terms of installation, UX and UI. In many ways the market today looks like the MP3 player market before Steve Jobs launched the iPod (keep that analogy in mind). AR/VR 2.0’s lower friction is in the works, but what’s needed here are Apple smartglasses (whether they call them iGlasses or something else), the second generation of premium standalone VR (that comes after Oculus Quest and HTC Vive Focus) and mobile AR developers innovating beyond the lessons learned from Niantic, Houzz and others.
Experiences to use cases: There have been many “experiences” during AR/VR 1.0, with visually stunning apps not delivering meaningful UX. An AR/VR dragon or portal is impressive the first time you see it, but gets old pretty quickly. The next stage of AR/VR must deliver against critical use cases, with features in critical apps that we use all day, every day.
Standalone to features: The industry has largely focused on standalone apps to date, but major features in apps we use every day could see higher usage and prove more commercially successful. Navigation (Google Maps), e-commerce (Amazon, Walmart, Alibaba) and messaging (Facebook Spark AR, Snapchat Lens Studio) are beginning to show how this might happen.
Expensive to good value: Early AR/VR has ranged from $3,000 HoloLens to $200 Oculus Go to free mobile AR. But competing platforms often deliver more for less outside of specific use cases, particularly where we already own them, as with mobile. AR/VR 2.0 needs to become a great value because of what it delivers to users regardless of price point.
Point solutions to ecosystem: Many early AR/VR apps have been entertainment (games, video) or standalone point solutions to specific problems. As we’ve discussed before, AR/VR needs its own reality ecosystem to scale.
Low ROI to high ROI: For consumers, this means apps that give back more than just a “wow,” and for enterprises, applications that deliver real return on investment. This is beginning to happen in enterprise with companies like Lockheed Martin and Bell.
Pilots to production: Enterprise AR/VR 1.0 has seen many pilot projects, but relatively few full production rollouts. This is beginning to change, with companies like Walmart (with STRIVR) beginning to move into full production.
Inside baseball to brands: TheAR/VR industry is still debating the merits of using AR, VR, MR, XR or spatial computing to describe itself, as well as spending a lot of time focused on internal plumbing across the stack. But consumers and enterprises outside of early adopters don’t care. They buy brands that deliver against critical use cases rather than just tech, which requires a clearer focus on users and how to market to them to succeed.
Fragmentation to dominance: AR/VR 1.0 remains fragmented across both hardware and software, despite its early stage and relatively small user bases. The industry now appears to have made up its mind on which platforms matter, so natural selection could thin the herd to a few dominant players in each part of the market.
Blue Sky to data driven: Many AR/VR 1.0 companies have been coy about their numbers, with independent data sources hard to come by in the early market. Developments like Digi-Capital’s AR/VR Analytics Platform have made it difficult to hide, with hard data/analytics now available to answer granular questions about roadmaps, country rollouts, investments, valuations and more.
VC-funded to cockroach/money making: Well-funded pioneers began to exit the market last year, with 2019 potentially seeing a major shakeout of companies that aren’t at least breaking even. The U.S. AR/VR investment market began to reverse its decline in Q4 2018 (even as Chinese investment accelerated), but making money and “cockroaching” burn rate could be more important than VC money in AR/VR 2.0.
Everyone else to Apple: If Apple launches smartphone-tethered smartglasses in late 2020, AR/VR 2.0 could have its “iPod moment,” where a major new form factor introduces the starting point for a long-term mass consumer market. It’s worth noting that this might not be the industry’s “iPhone moment,” as even with this catalyst we aren’t looking at a mass consumer market in the next five years.
Denial to acceptance: 2019 isn’t the “Year of AR/VR,” and Mark Zuckerberg’s “1 billion people in VR” might never happen. Mark’s come to terms with it, so hopefully a sense of cautious optimism could prevail during the next stage of the market.

What about AR/VR 3.0?
Even though we’re looking at a potential $80 billion to $90 billion AR/VR market by 2023, AR/VR 2.0 won’t be the finished article. That could take a lightweight pair of standalone smartglasses, capable of replacing your iPhone at the same price. There are formidable technical and content challenges to reach that vision of AR/VR 3.0, and there’s AR/VR 2.0 to navigate first.
It’s going to be an exciting time, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Blindfolded Bird Box Challenger crashes car

Remember, way back on January 2 when Netflix issued a warning to its customers over the viral Bird Box challenge meme to “PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE?”
That warning wasn’t heard or followed by at least one 17-year-old in Utah who decided to give the challenge — which involves a blindfold — a whirl while driving. The result was what one might expect. There was a crash (hat tip CNN, which spotted the tweet from Layton Police).

Bird Box Challenge while driving…predictable result. This happened on Monday as a result of the driver covering her eyes while driving on Layton Parkway. Luckily no injuries. pic.twitter.com/4DvYzrmDA2
— Layton Police (@laytonpolice) January 11, 2019

Netflix released a horror concept movie in December called Bird Box starring Sandra Bullock. In Bird Box, Bullock and her children, Boy and Girl, are forced to wear blindfolds and navigate a river and spooky forest to protect themselves against the evil monster that, if seen, causes people to kill themselves.
The horror flick not only broke viewership records, it inspired a bevy of #BirdBoxChallenge memes, including ones in which folks record themselves blindfolded and attempting to do complete tasks, many of which are depicted in the movie.
In this case, there were no injuries. Although the vehicles didn’t appear to escape the Bird Box challenge. And there will likely be more of these blindfolded while driving attempts. Here’s some advice: Just like eating Tide Pods, this isn’t a healthy activity.

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Self-driving car startup Zoox gets a new CEO

Self-driving car startup Zoox has selected its new CEO following the unexpected firing of co-founder and former CEO Tim Kentley-Klay in August. According to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson, he and the board of directors believed “that to take the company through the next stage and to scale the company, we thought finding someone with executive and operational experience would be helpful to the company,” he told TechCrunch.
That’s where, Aicha Evans (pictured above) comes in. Evans is Intel’s now-former chief strategy officer, and will join Zoox as CEO and member of the board of directors on February 26.
“I’m thrilled to join Zoox and challenge the status quo with an autonomous mobility system built from the ground up,” Evans said in a press release. “Mobility is approaching a major inflection point, and Zoox has set itself apart from entrenched players as the only company creating a solution purpose-built to meet the needs of a fully autonomous future. I look forward to helping the company’s exceptionally talented team continue to grow as we unlock more technical and commercial milestones.”
Evans spent 12 years at Intel, where she was responsible for leading the company’s transition from a PC-centric business to a data-centric one. She also served as a general manager in the communication and devices group.
Finding someone with creativity and leadership to guide Zoox through its next stage, Levinson said, was a challenging and complex task. That’s why the company was excited when they found Evans, who has experience running a 7,000-person engineering team.

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission granted Zoox a permit to participate in the state’s Autonomous Vehicle Passenger Service pilot. During the testing period, Zoox must have a safety driver behind the wheel and will not be allowed to charge passengers for rides. And, as part of the program, Zoox must provide data and reports to the CPUC regarding any incidents, number of passenger miles traveled and passenger safety protocols.
“We haven’t publicly announced a passenger service yet, but it does allow us in the development phase to give rides to non-Zoox employees,” Levinson said. “We’ve been wanting to do that for some time now, so I’m really proud of our regulatory team for working with the CPUC.”
Zoox’s long-term plan is to publicly deploy autonomous vehicles by 2020 in the form of its own ride-hailing service. The cars themselves will be all-electric and fully autonomous.
While Zoox currently has clearance to operate Level 3 vehicles with passengers, it will need additional approval from the CPUC to operate its Level 5 vehicles without a safety driver on board.
To date, Zoox has raised more than $750 million in venture funding.

Zoox CEO and co-founder Tim Kentley-Klay is out

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New FAA proposal would let drones fly over people and at night without a waiver

Companies impatient to make drone deliveries a viable reality should have a win to celebrate soon. On Monday, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced in a “sneak preview” that her department would move forward with plans to remove waiver requirements for two key drone operation circumstances: flying after dark and flying over populated areas.
“First, at long last, the Department is ready to issue for comment a proposed new rule that would allow drones to fly overnight and over people without waivers, if certain conditions are met,” Chao said.
Those conditions include the stipulation that the drone operator has received special night flying testing and training and that the drone be outfitted with lighting designed to prevent collisions visible for “at least 3 statute miles.”
According to the FAA report that accompanied the remarks (embedded below), requests to operate at night are “by far” the FAA’s most common waiver request. The agency notes that “to date, the FAA has not received any reports of small UAS accidents operating under a night waiver.”
The second major change would allow drones to fly over people without a waiver if certain conditions are met. Those conditions are designed to minimize risk to anyone on the ground, including restrictions limiting device weight to .55 pounds. Drones over .55 pounds would be similarly allowed to operate over people if they meet a set of requirements to prevent serious injury, including the absence of “exposed rotating parts that could lacerate human skin.” This requirement is mostly open to interpretation — rather than stipulating specific build necessities, the FAA would allow drone makers to get creative so that a collision would be less severe than a particular injury threshold.
“The possibilities for designing an unmanned aircraft to meet this standard are too vast to create an exhaustive list,” the FAA report states. “By providing flexibility through performance-based requirements, the FAA enables the ingenuity of the industry to come up with ideas not yet even considered.”
The proposal will soon be published in the federal register, where it will enter a 60-day open comment period. The full draft document is embedded below.

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Tesla is entering the Model 3 into Pwn2Own, one of the world’s toughest hacking contests

Tesla is handing over its new Model 3 sedan to Pwn2Own this year, the first time a car has been included in the annual high-profile hacking contest.
The prize for the winning security researcher: a Model 3.
Pwn2Own, which is in its 12th year and run by Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, is known as one of the industry’s toughest hacking contests. ZDI has awarded more than $4 million over the lifetime of the program.
Pwn2Own’s spring vulnerability research competition, Pwn2Own Vancouver, will be held March 20 to 22 and will feature five categories, including web browsers, virtualization software, enterprise applications, server-side software and the new automotive category. The targets, chosen by ZDI, include software products from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, Oracle and VMware. And, of course, Tesla . Pwn2Own is run in conjunction with the CanSec West conference.
Tesla has had a public relationship with the hacker community since 2014 when the company launched its first bug bounty program. And it’s grown and evolved ever since.
Last year, the company increased the maximum reward payment from $10,000 to $15,000 and added its energy products as well. Today, Tesla’s vehicles and all directly hosted servers, services and applications are now in scope in its bounty program.
The company also made an important overhaul last year to its bug bounty program to support “safe harbor” by allowing car owners to hack their own cars as long as they stick to the rules. Tesla’s product security policy now says that if, through “good-faith security research,” you brick your car, the company will reflash the software over-the-air or at a service center. The company says it won’t void the warranty on their car if they hack its software either.
There’s a reason why Tesla (and now other automakers) have launched bug bounty programs. Tesla vehicles are software-centric and in many ways changed the industry by enabling over the air software updates that can fix glitches and security problems as well as improve performance and add other new features. It’s what has allowed Tesla to win over consumers with the idea that their vehicle will get better over time.
But with that comes possible security issues. Since 2014, the program has led Tesla to release a number of security improvements, including cryptographic validation of its software, more robust cryptography for its key fobs and the launch of PIN-to-Drive, which aims to prevent against relay attacks on key-fob cloning.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that hackers at Pwn2Own Vancouver will find any vulnerabilities. TechCrunch was told by a Trend Micro spokesperson that the percentage of successful attempts varies, but it’s usually around 50 percent of available targets.
It’s also unclear if researchers will enter the automotive category since it’s new this year, the spokesperson said, adding that she hopes people enter “as we would love to see what the state of the art in automotive research really is.”

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Sling TV rolls out free content to non-subscribers, initially on Roku

Last year, Dish-owned streaming service Sling TV launched a free tier to its service designed to attract those with lapsed subscriptions to come back and watch. On Roku devices, former customers were able to tune into more than 100 hours of TV shows and movies without a subscription by launching the Sling TV app. Today, the service is extending a similar offer to newcomers. On Roku devices, those who have never signed up for the streaming TV service will have the chance to browse and watch free shows, without the need for a subscription.
In other words, this is not a “free trial,” it’s a free — if limited — selection of content.
To access the free tier, newcomers can click “Browse as Guest” in order to then browse and watch from content in the “My TV” section of the app. This section includes TV shows like “Shameless,” “The Big Interview with Dan Rather,” “Heartland” and others. Users can also browse more than 5,000 movies that can be watched if they choose to subscribe.

Sling TV is targeting Roku because it’s one of the most well-adopted media player platforms in the U.S., which makes it a prime target for a user acquisition strategy like this.
Having a functioning app instead of a static landing page may prompt users to subscribe to the base subscription, and it may also prompt sign-ups for Sling TV’s newer à la carte channels.
At the same time last year when the company announced its free tier for lapsed subscribers, it also launched à la carte programming as a way to differentiate itself from other live TV services. Unlike Hulu with Live TV or YouTube TV, this feature allows Sling TV users to buy access to standalone paid channels, without needing to subscribe to a TV package — like how Amazon Prime Video Channels works.
As a result, Sling TV can today serve as a place to watch paid channels like Showtime, CuriosityStream, NBA League Pass, Docurama, Stingray Karaoke and others.
Newcomers on this free tier can also rent PPV events without a subscription, the company says.
Free programming today is being used as a lure to attract customers to various platforms in the streaming video market and beyond. Amazon offers to Prime subscribers a ton of free video, including originals, and just last week launched a new ad-supported streaming service from IMDb. Roku offers free content on The Roku Channel, and Plex recently said it will venture into this area in 2019, as well.

Alongside the launch of the free programming, Sling TV is rolling out an improved search experience, which now shows “popular searches,” and a new binge-watching feature.
The latter will prompt users to watch the next episode in an on-demand or recorded series after they’ve completed the current episode, and will auto-play it if no action is taken in 10 seconds.

The new free tier is initially rolling out to Roku users, starting today, but will come to other devices in the future.
The updated Search option is live now on Android TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku devices. And the binge-watching feature is first coming to Roku devices in the weeks ahead, with support for others also arriving in the future.

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Democratic texting platform Hustle lays off a big chunk of its staff

The company behind a texting platform that powered more than 1,300 Democratic campaigns has slashed its staff in the lull following the 2018 midterms. Hustle co-founder and CEO Roddy Lindsay, a former Facebook engineer, disclosed the layoffs in a recent Medium post, apologizing for the choices that led up to the decision to “right-size” Hustle’s team.
“… While we have an exciting set of initial commercial customers using Hustle successfully, it was premature to aggressively expand our team — we need the time to do the research with our customers and build the right product to support industries beyond politics and non-profits,” Lindsay wrote in the layoff announcement. “I made the rookie misstep of not watching our growth closely enough, and we ended up overbuilding our team beyond our means.”
Bloomberg reports that Hustle’s aggressive layoffs reduced its team by 35 percent. TechCrunch has reached out to Hustle to confirm those numbers.
It sounds like Hustle scaled up considerably in the lead-up to midterms, undertaking “an enormous operational challenge” that ultimately could not be sustained after the political cycle died down. The company’s booming success and its post-race contraction serve as a cautionary tale for startups that hitch their wagon to the inherently boom and bust nature of political campaigning. To correct course, Hustle has brought in “strong finance leadership” and plans to chart a fiscally realistic path forward.
Hustle’s platform allows clients to mobilize and optimize texting campaigns that eschew mass texting templates. Within Hustle’s system, designated point people can manage and personalize texting campaigns, tracking progress in the platform as they go. A number of Democratic and progressive campaigns have leveraged Hustle for their causes, most notably the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016. Notably, Hustle exclusively opens its platform to causes on the political left.
Last May, Hustle raised a $30 million Series B, led by Insight Venture Partners. Less than a year prior, the company picked up $8 million for its Series A. A small team of 17 people in early 2017, Hustle had swelled to more than 100 by May of 2018.
Lindsay asserts that the decision should make Hustle more financially sustainable and poised for “long-term impact.” In the blog post, he notes that Hustle will zero in on its nonprofit client core moving forward.
“There aren’t many companies who have been able to pair business success and positive political and civic impact in the world,” Lindsay wrote. “In 2018, we discovered why: it’s really, really difficult.”

Hustle rallies $30M for grassroots texting tool Republicans can’t use

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Nissan’s IMs ‘elevated sports sedan’ concept shows what its electric future might look like

Nissan unveiled Monday its latest vision for electric vehicles at the North American International Auto Show — the third consecutive year the automaker has teased what its EV future might look like.
This time it’s a sleek EV concept called the Nissan IMs, which the automaker describes as an “elevated sports sedan.” If the IMs name sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The name ties in with Nissan Intelligent Mobility (IM, get it), the branding that it uses for its automated technology and electric vehicles.
“Fully embracing the three pillars of Nissan Intelligent Mobility — Intelligent Driving, Intelligent Power and Intelligent Integration — the IMs concept moves toward the creation of a sustainable mobile society in the form of EVs, autonomous drive and connectivity technologies,” said Denis Le Vot, senior vice president, chairman of Management Committee, Nissan North America.
To be clear, the IMs is a concept. It is not a production vehicle. Nor is the Xmotion that the company showed off last year or the Vmotion in 2017. Instead, these concepts are meant to show what might be on the horizon and gives the industry a sense of where it’s headed.
But Nissan says more EV production cars — not just concepts — are coming. Eight to be exact. Le Vot said Monday in Detroit that the automaker will launch an additional seven electric vehicles (following the introduction this month of the Nissan Leaf e+) by 2022.

In Nissan’s view, an “elevated sports sedan” is sort of a sedan and sort of a crossover. Call it a hybrid sedan. Or a sedanover; a crossan?
The concept vehicle has unusual proportions and sits higher than a classic sedan. The battery is located under the body, which elevates the cabin height.
The IMs also has a stretched interior space, thanks to the vehicle’s extended wheelbase, and features pivoting front seats and a rear seat that either offers three-across seating, or, once the slim rear outboard seats are folded, an indulgent “premier seat” in the rear center. Oh, and there are reverse-opening rear doors.
Nissan designers are describing this vehicle as “timeless Japanese futurism. And there are hints of this tech-forward approach throughout the vehicle, including the shapes of the instrument panel and door trim, which are meant to reflect “a spaceship to the moon.”

The IMs concept is all-wheel drive and powered by dual electric motors located at the front and rear of the vehicle.The vehicle’s electric powertrain generates 483 horsepower and 590 lb-ft of torque, and a 115-kWh battery provides an estimated range of 380 miles on a single charge.
It’s also equipped with an advanced air suspension that adapts to different driving situations.
Because it’s the future and a concept, the IMs can be switched to full autonomous mode. When this happens, the concept’s headlights and rear combination light turn blue and the lighting travels continuously from front-to-rear to notify pedestrians and other drivers of its autonomous status.
A fully autonomous Nissan IMs isn’t here for customers, nor will it be anytime soon, if ever. But it does intimate the automaker is interested in a vehicle that can be driven by humans and then switched to full automation.
Perhaps nearer term is Nissan’s plan to bring virtual reality into the vehicle. Nissan has developed a platform it calls I2V, or Invisible-to-Visible, which is also in the IMs concept.
I2V, which is made possible with Omni-Sensing technology that Nissan announced last week at CES, could allow drivers to see around corners and visualize precise information about traffic jams. Drivers may even enjoy the company of a “passenger” from the virtual world in the form of a three-dimensional augmented-reality avatar inside the car, according to Nissan.

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