The all-you-can watch movie theatre subscription service MoviePass, now with 3 million paying users, continues to burn through cash, and today its majority owner announced one more way it might continue to finance operations and its growth as some investors and observers raise questions about its financial future. Helios and Matheson Analytics Inc. (HMNY), which owns 92 percent of the shares of MoviePass, has filed an S-3 universal shelf registration statement to sell up to $1.2 billion in equity and debt securities over three years from the statement’s approval by the SEC.
This comes on the heels of the company issuing $164 million in convertible notes last month through the issuance of 20,000 extra shares.
To be clear, this is not a $1.2 billion raise. A shelf registration does not tie HMNY to any specific offerings, but it gives the group another flexible way of raising cash to finance operations and to invest in growth.
In addition to its majority ownership of MoviePass, HMNY has a movie investment subsidiary called MoviePass Ventures, an original content production operation called MoviePass Films, and Moviefone, which it acquired from TechCrunch’s parent Oath for up to $23 million (making Oath a shareholder in the company).
“HMNY will have the flexibility to publicly offer and sell from time to time common stock, preferred stock, debt securities, warrants, subscription rights, units or any combination of such securities,” the company notes in a statement.
“HMNY may periodically offer one or more of these securities in amounts, at prices and on terms announced, if and when the securities are ever offered. The specific terms of any potential future offerings, along with the intended use of proceeds of any such securities offered by HMNY, will be described in a prospectus supplement at the time of any such offering.”
It notes that it will still need to get stockholder approval for increasing its authorized common stock, or combining any outstanding common stock.
MoviePass and its owner have been through a rollercoaster in the last many months, with HMNY stock dropping precipitously on the back of negative prognostications about its finances. From a 52-week high of $38.86/share, it’s currently at $0.31 — a 99.2 percent drop.
Notwithstanding the economics of the all-you-can-eat business model — which providers users with movie passes to some 91 percent of all US cinemas in exchange for a flat fee, a model that has proven challenging for margins in many industries — the company’s flagship business, MoviePass, has also been through the ringer for how it handles user privacy.
Still, at a time when many consumers are opting to watch movies at home through services like Netflix and others, MoviePass represents a potential route for driving more people back into cinemas. The company says that it’s on track to pass 5 million users by the end of this year, and that it currently accounts for five percent of all U.S. box office receipts on average, with peaks of eight percent in some weeks, and 30 percent for specific movies when they are advertised on the company’s app.
Siri Fiske is founder and head of MYSA School in Bethesda, Md. and Washington, D.C.
The Silicon Valley engineers who design our tech gadgets won’t let their kids anywhere near those devices, according to a shocking New York Times profile. These workers are convinced too much time in front of smartphones and iPads is rotting kids’ brains. Technology “is wreaking havoc on our children,” warned one former Facebook employee.
These parents need to relax. It’s true that allowing kids to browse social media until the wee hours of the morning isn’t a good idea. But it’s also true that smart phones, iPads and other gadgets are powerful educational tools, both at home and in the classroom.
Rather than demonize and ban all devices, parents should regulate screen time and ensure their children use technology in beneficial ways.
Despite the parental panic in Silicon Valley and well-educated communities nationwide, research suggests that screen time can be a net positive for children. Kids whose parents drastically limit screen time ultimately perform worse in college, according to a Swiss study of American universities.
And thanks to their immediate feedback and multimedia features, iPads are great reading tools. Compared to kids who only use books, kids who learn to read on iPads are more engaged, cooperative and willing to speak up, according to a researcher from the Institute of Education in London. Kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds who read on both books and iPads at home are more likely to perform at or above grade level in school.
It’s not the screen itself that’s good or bad — but what’s on it.
These studies show that it’s not the screen itself that’s good or bad — but what’s on it. Watching two hours of Cartoon Network is much different than watching a National Geographic documentary. Parents simply need to create straightforward rules for their kids. Regulating non-educational screen time or having a social media curfew are both good options.
At school, educators can use tech gadgets and apps to speed up the learning process while tailoring their lessons to support each student.
Consider DreamBox, a platform that allows elementary and middle schoolers to play different math games on their iPads. The tech tool mines more than 48,000 data points per student every hour to personalize lessons for individual users. Algebra Nation, a similar program, studies click-patterns to figure out when students are struggling and offer personalized advice.
Such “adaptive learning” platforms are already yielding impressive results in higher education. An adaptive learning tool at the Colorado Technical University increased a course’s pass rate by 27 percent and its final grade average by 10 percent.
Classroom tech also gives teachers a superhuman capacity to pinpoint and predict problems. For example, a school in Spokane, Wash. gives its students online surveys to track how focused they feel, how inclusive their social environment is and how often they feel like giving up, among other things. Educators then study this data via dashboards to understand where kids might need help, both inside and outside the classroom.
A decade ago, it would have been unrealistic to expect school faculty to track the day-to-day thoughts, feelings and engagement of each and every student — despite this being invaluable information for educators. With classroom tech, such practices can and should become standard.
No reasonable person thinks it’s good for kids to be glued to their screens 24/7 or to replace human interaction with an app. But the notion that screen time is intrinsically harmful for children is equally silly. It’s time for teachers and parents to stop the fear mongering and harness the latest technology to offer kids a world-class education.
News broke this morning that Bumble would be taking Tinder parent company, Match Group, to court. Its lawsuit alleges that Match Group fraudulently obtained trade secrets, publicly disparaged Bumble, and impacted Bumble’s other investment and acquisition offers at a time when Match Group itself was trying to acquire Bumble’s business. Now, Match Group has responded to the news in a statement that dismisses Bumble’s suit as having “no substance.”
Reached for comment, a Match Group spokesperson said the following:
Our statement on this lawsuit is the same today as it was six months ago: we obviously think this has no substance. To our knowledge, Bumble still has not served us. However, we understand their desire to distract from ongoing, actual litigation, regarding their misappropriation of trade secrets and infringing on our intellectual property. Bumble is required to file a response to our original claims next week and we look forward to proving these in court.
Bumble claims it has, in fact, served Match Group (despite Match Group’s comment here), through the Texas Secretary of State’s office.
Match Group’s statement is referencing the lawsuit it has against Bumble, regarding patents, announced in March 2018.
That filing is embedded below.
View this document on Scribd
More to come….
The three-axis tourbillon is one of the most complex watch complications in the world. Originally based on a design by watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, this type of tourbillon – literally “whirlwind” – rotates the balance wheel of a watch in order to ensure that gravity doesn’t adversely affect any part of the watch. It’s a clever, complex, and essentially useless complication in an era of atomic clocks and nano materials but darn if it isn’t cool-looking.
Based on this original, simpler model, this new three-axis tourbillon is available for download here. It consists of 70 potentially fiddly parts and runs using a basic motor.
As you can see, the main component is the balance wheel which flips back and forth to drive the watch. The balance wheel is contained inside a sort of spike-shaped cage that rotates on multiple axes. The balance wheel controls the speed of the spin and often these devices are used as second hands on more complex – and more expensive – tourbillon watches. Tourbillons were originally intended to increase watch accuracy when they were riding in a vest pocket, the thinking being that gravity would pull down a watch’s balance wheel differently when it was vertical as compared to being horizontal. In this case, the wheel takes into account all possible positions leading to a delightful bit of horological overkill.
Facebook might be doing its best to stay out of political scandals in the latter half of 2018, but the company had a presence, front and center, at one of the most contentious Senate hearings in modern history.
Facebook’s vice president of Global Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, was spotted sitting prominently near his wife, Laura Cox Kaplan, in the section for Brett Kavanaugh’s supporters. He is pictured on the left side of the header image, second row, in a blue tie.
For reference, below is an image of Kaplan to the immediate right of Mark Zuckerberg during a Senate Judiciary joint hearing in April of this year.
WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 10: Facebook co-founder, chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg concludes his testimony before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Kaplan has not made any public commentary on Twitter or Facebook about his support for the Supreme Court nominee, though, through retweets, Kaplan’s wife appears to be of the mind that the hearing is part of a “smear campaign” against the family friend.
Kaplan is also featured in this viral image, making the rounds on Twitter.
What a photo… pic.twitter.com/OIW5700U8C
— Sam Altman (@sama) September 27, 2018
His appearance during the hearing is a show of personal support, though it still turns heads for such a prominent Facebook employee to make a visible statement during such a politically divisive event. Kaplan is not representing Facebook in a formal capacity.
Kaplan served as a policy adviser on George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign and went on to serve as a policy assistant to the president and as the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and a deputy chief of staff. Kavanaugh worked for the Bush administration during the same period, joining the former president’s legal team and going on to work on the nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts to the Supreme Court.
Kaplan joined Facebook in 2011 as its VP of U.S. public policy. Kaplan continues to serve in a heavily influential political role with the company today, leading its Washington D.C. office, which serves as the company’s lobbying arm.
Startups in Latin America, your time is running out. You have just one week to apply for the inaugural TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Latin America on November 8, 2018, in São Paulo, Brazil. The application page can be found here, and the deadline to fill out an application is Monday, August 6 at 5 p.m. PST.
Just last week we were in Buenos Aires and Santiago to speak with startups, VCs and accelerators about Startup Battlefield. Startup Battlefield is TechCrunch’s premier startup competition, which over the past 12 years has placed 750 companies on stage to pitch top VCs and TechCrunch editors. Those founders have gone on to raise more than $8 billion and produce more than 100 exits. Startup Battlefield Latin America aims to add 15 great founders from Latin America to those elite ranks.
Here’s how Startup Battlefield Latin America works. TechCrunch editors with years of pitch-off experience review all eligible applications (more on eligibility in a moment) and select 15 finalists.
Finalists receive free pitch coaching and will be prepped and raring to go for the main event, which takes place in front of a live audience at São Paulo’s Tomie Ohtake Institute. During three preliminary rounds, five startups per round will each have six minutes to pitch and present their demo before a panel of top VC judges. The judges have six minutes following each pitch for a rigorous Q&A.
Five of the 15 startups will move on to the finals and pitch again to a new set of judges and, out of that final cohort of five, the judges will pick one startup to be the first TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Latin America champion.
The winning founders receive a $25,000 non-equity cash prize and a trip for two to the next TechCrunch Disrupt, where they can exhibit free of charge in the Startup Alley. While there, they might even qualify to participate in the Startup Battlefield.
And then there’s the media coverage — and it’s not just for the winning team. All Battlefield participants benefit from the broad exposure that comes with competing in Startup Battlefield. In addition to the potential interest of the media outlets and investors sitting in the audience, we video all the Startup Battlefield sessions and post them on TechCrunch.com. That’s pretty awesome exposure.
Now, let’s get down to eligibility. All founders must meet these basic requirements:
Have an early-stage company in “launch” stage
Be headquartered in one of these countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, Venezuela, (Central America) Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama, (Caribbean — including dependencies and constituent entities), Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico
Have a fully working product/beta reasonably close to, or in, production
Have received limited press or publicity to date
Have no known intellectual property conflicts
Apply by August 6, 2018, at 5 p.m. PST
Now that you know the drill, what’s stopping you from taking your shot? Startup Battlefield Latin America goes down on November 8, 2018, in São Paulo, Brazil, but you must apply by August 6, 2018, at 5 p.m. PST. We want to see you there, so apply right now!
Tech companies have always branded themselves as the good guys. But 2018 was the year that the long-held belief that Silicon Valley is on the right side of progress and all things good was called into question by a critical mass.
As startups grow bigger and richer, amassing more power and influence outside of the Valley, a reckoning has played out in government and business. Mission statements like “connecting the world” and “don’t be evil” no longer hold water.
A look at a few of this year’s most impactful news themes underscore why; we’ve racked up too many examples to the contrary.
Android co-creator Andy Rubin’s $90 million payout and sexual misconduct revealed
Since the #MeToo movement opened the floodgates on the importance of fighting for gender equality and fair treatment of women and underrepresented minorities at a large scale, the tech industry was rightfully singled out as a microcosm for rampant misconduct.
In October, a New York Times investigation detailed how Android co-creator Andy Rubin was paid out a $90 million exit package when he left Google in 2014. At the time, Google concealed that the executive had multiple relationships with Google staffers and that credible accounts of sexual misconduct had been filed against him during his time at the company. It was an all-too-familiar story recounting how women in tech aren’t safe at work and misbehaved executives are immune from penalty. Google employees didn’t stand for it.
At a rally in San Francisco, Google staffers read off their list of demands, which included an end to forced arbitration in cases of harassment and discrimination, a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity and a clear, inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously, reported Kate Clark.
Rubin has since taken leave from his smartphone company, Essential.
The first self-driving car fatality occurred when an Uber SUV struck and killed a woman in Arizona
Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive officer of Uber, arrives for a morning session at the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, U.S., on Wednesday, July 10. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
In March, the first self-driving car fatality occurred in Tempe, Arizona when 49-year-old pedestrian Elaine Herzberg was struck by an Uber autonomous test SUV. The car was in self-driving mode, and there was a safety driver behind the wheel who failed to intervene.
Investigators determined the driver had looked down at a phone 204 times during a 43-minute test drive, and that the driver was streaming “The Voice” on Hulu, according to a police report released by the Tempe Police Department. Law enforcement determined her eyes were off the road for 3.67 miles of the 11.8 total miles driven, or about 31 percent of the time.
Uber paused all of its AV testing operations in Pittsburgh, Toronto, San Francisco and Phoenix as a result, and released a safety report detailing how it will add precautions to its testing of self-driving cars. Two employees will be required to sit in the front seat at all times, and an automatic braking system will be enabled.
The incident immediately raised questions about insurance and liability, along with the investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board. As mobility companies charge full speed ahead in developing solutions that will shape the future of urban transportation, tragedies like this remind us that while AVs and humans share the roads, these programs are rife with risk. Has Uber learned a lesson? We’ll find out soon, as the company received permission by the state of Pennsylvania to resume autonomous vehicle testing.
Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by Saudi agents, prompting Silicon Valley to think about how it got so rich
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Silicon Valley companies are used to getting away with a lot. Larger orgs like Uber, Tesla and Facebook rotate in and out of the hot seat as security breaches wreak havoc and sexual harassment scandals are exposed, only to be washed out of the news cycle by a viral image of Elon Musk sampling marijuana the next day.
But one story shocked the public for weeks, after agents of the Saudi government assassinated Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul as he was trying to obtain marriage license papers.
The tech industry was collectively upset by its proximity to a government and funding source that blatantly misused its power. Silicon Valley gets most of its money through SoftBank’s Vision Fund and by proxy the Saudi kingdom. About half of SoftBank’s massive $93 billion tech-focused fund is powered by a $45 billion commitment from the Saudi kingdom. This means the total invested by the kingdom alone into U.S. startups is far greater than the total raised by any single VC fund. Did we see a single example of a startup that refused to work with SoftBank in the aftermath? No. Will we? Probably not. Because Silicon Valley players are mostly only political and activist when it’s convenient for them.
Silicon Valley companies that have accepted money from this source have a vested interest in keeping the peace with Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the leader known for getting friendly with tech CEOs in the past. But where does this leave us now as Saudi Arabian money continues to distort American venture? SoftBank has sustained countless startups with round after round of funding as it plunges into debt.
With SoftBank money inflating round sizes and therefore valuations, tech founders and CEOs are faced with the age-old question of whether or not it’s okay to use dirty money to do “good things.” SoftBank’s 2018 culminated in a record IPO that saw a 15 percent drop in value on its debut. Regardless, the aftermath of the Khashoggi assassination could signify the end of an era in American venture if founders begin to think critically about the source of their funding — and act on it.
UNITED STATES – APRIL 11: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Energy and Commerce Committee in Rayburn Building on the protection of user data on April 11, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Facebook’s 2018 kicked off with Zuckerberg’s wishful, vague post about his personal challenge to “fix Facebook.” The social network bowed out of 2017 with critics saying Zuckerberg hadn’t done enough to combat the proliferation of fake news on Facebook or block Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Online abuse had never been so bad. All of this was happening just as people started to realize that mindlessly browsing the newsfeed — Facebook’s core product — is a total waste of time.
What better timing for not one, but two massive security scandals?
Zuckerberg answered to Congress after Facebook was infiltrated by Cambridge Analytica, a data organization with ties to the Trump administration. In the beginning of 2014, the organization obtained data on 50 million Facebook users in a way that deceived both the users and Facebook itself.
If that weren’t enough, just months later Facebook revealed at least 30 million users’ data were confirmed to be at risk after attackers exploited a vulnerability allowing them access to users’ personal data. Zuckerberg said that the attackers were using Facebook developer APIs to obtain information, like “name, gender, and hometowns” linked to a user’s profile page. Queue #deletefacebook.
A Pew report detailed how Facebook users are becoming more cautious and critical, but they still can’t quit. News and social networking are like oil and water — they can’t blend into coexistence on the same news feed. In 2018, Facebook was caught in a perfect storm. Users started to understand Facebook for what it actually is: powered by algorithms that coalesce fact, opinion and malicious fake content on a platform designed to financially profit off the addictive tendencies of its users. The silver lining is that as people become more cautious and critical of Facebook, the market is readying itself for a new, better social network to be designed off the pioneering mistakes of its predecessors.
Apple hits a $1 trillion market cap and celebrates the anniversary of the iPhone with design changes
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCTOBER 22: Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple announcement. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
This was a hardware-heavy year for Apple. The MacBook Air got Retina Display. The Apple Watch got a big redesign. The iPad Pro said farewell to the home button. We met the new mac Mini and an updated Apple Pencil. In September, Apple held its annual hardware event in Cupertino to announce three new iPhone models, the XS (the normal one), XR (the cheap one) and the XS Max (the big one). We also learned that the company went back to the drawing board on the Mac Pro.
In August, Apple won the race to $1 trillion in market cap. It wasn’t the frayed cords or crappy keyboards that boosted the company past this milestone, but rather price hikes in its already high-margin iPhone sales. But while Apple remains wildly profitable, growth is slowing notably.
Tech stocks took a beating toward the end of the year, and although Apple seems to have weathered the storm better than most companies, it may have reached a threshold for how much it can innovate on its high-end hardware. It may be wise for the company to focus on other methods of bringing in revenue like Apple Music and iCloud if it wants to shoot for the $2 trillion market cap.
As the biggest, richest companies get bigger and richer, questions about antitrust and regulation rise to ensure they don’t hold too much economic power. Tim Cook has more authority than many political leaders. Let’s hope he uses it for good.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk sued by the SEC for securities fraud
CHICAGO, IL – JUNE 14: Engineer and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk of The Boring Company listens as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about constructing a high speed transit tunnel at Block 37 during a news conference on June 14, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Musk said he could create a 16-passenger vehicle to operate on a high-speed rail system that could get travelers to and from downtown Chicago and O’Hare International Airport under twenty minutes, at speeds of over 100 miles per hour. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
In August, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced in a tweet heard around the internet that he was considering taking Tesla private for $420 per share and that he’d secured funding to do so. The questioning started. Was it legit? Was it a marijuana joke? The tweet caused Tesla’s stock price to jump by more than 6 percent on August 7. Musk also complained that being a public company “subjects Tesla to constant defamatory attacks by the short-selling community, resulting in great harm to our valuable brand.”
Turns out, Musk had indeed met with representatives from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, and that the fund’s lead rep told Musk that they’d bought about 5 percent of Tesla’s stock at a stake worth $2 billion, were interested in taking the company private and confirmed that this rep had the power to make these kinds of investment decisions for the fund. However, nothing was written on paper, and Musk did not notify the Nasdaq — an important requirement.
At the end of September, the SEC filed a lawsuit against Musk for securities fraud in regards to his “false and misleading” tweets, seeking to remove him from Tesla. Musk settled with the SEC two days after being charged, resigning from his chairman position but remaining CEO. Musk and Tesla were also ordered to pay separate $20 million fines to “be distributed to harmed investors under a court-approved process,” according to the SEC.
Public companies are supposed to value the interests of their shareholders. Pulling the trigger on an impulsive tweet breaks that trust — and in Musk’s case, cost $40 million and a board seat. This is why we should never put too much fear or faith in our leaders. Musk is brilliant and his inventions are changing the world. But he is human and humans are flawed and the Tesla board should have done more to balance power at the top.
The great Amazon HQ2 swindle
Chief Executive Officer of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, tours the facility at the grand opening of the Amazon Spheres, in Seattle, Washington on January 29, 2018. Amazon opened its new Seattle office space which looks more like a rainforest. The company created the Spheres Complex to help spark employee creativity. (Photo: JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images)
Tech jobs bring new wealth to cities. Amazon set out on a roadshow across America in what the company described as a search for its second headquarters, or “HQ2.” The physical presence of Amazon’s massive retail and cloud businesses would undoubtedly bring wealth, innovation, jobs and investment into a region.
There was initial hope that the retail giant would choose a city in the American heartland, serving as a catalyst for job growth in a burgeoning tech hub like Columbus, Ohio, Detroit, Mich., or Birmingham, Ala. But in the end, Amazon split the decision between two locations: New York (Long Island City) and Arlington, Virginia, as the sites for its new offices. The response? Outrage.
Jon Shieber noted that cities opened their books to the company to prove their viability as a second home for the retailing giant. In return, Amazon reaped data on urban and exurban centers that it could use to develop the next wave of its white-collar office space, and more than $2 billion worth of tax breaks from the cities that it will eventually call home for its new offices.
Danny Crichton argued that Amazon did exactly what it should have with its HQ2 process. Crichton wrote that Amazon is its own entity and therefore has ownership of its decisions. It allowed cities to apply and provide information on why they might be the best location for its new headquarters. Maybe the company ignored all of the applications. Maybe it was a ploy to collect data. Maybe it wanted publicity. Regardless, it allowed input into a decision it has complete and exclusive control over.
Let’s hope that in 2019, Silicon Valley will hold on to some of its ethos as a venture-funded sandbox for brilliant entrepreneurs who want to upend antiquated industries with proprietary tech inventions. But let it be known that sleeping at the wheel while your company gets breached, turning a blind eye to the evil doings of your largest funding sources and executive immunity from sexual misconduct violations no longer have their place here.
HMD Global has been one of the mobile world’s biggest surprise hits in recent years. Founded by former Nokia execs, the Finnish company has made a name for itself reviving the dearly departed brand on Android smartphones to great effect. And it just managed to raise another $100 million, led by Ginko Ventures’ Alpha Ginko VC branch.
The new round puts the company’s valuation at more than $1 billion, according to HMD. It’s set to use this latest round to push even more “aggressively” into the mobile category with its branded devices, “doubl[ing] down on expanding channel reach in strategic markets while continuing to deliver innovation where it matters most to consumers.”
Not that the company’s been cautious in its push thus far, of course. HMD already has a lot of options out there for a business that’s essentially been in existence for a year-and-a-half. At MWC back in February, it announced five new phones sporting the legacy brand, including a reboot of the 8110. The company has also been positioning itself in developing markets, where the Nokia name still has a fair amount of cache, by wholeheartedly adopting Google’s Android One program.
It’s a tricky line to walk, between an embrace of retro appreciation and an attempt to offer innovation. Continuing its successful run is going to require more than just playing upon user nostalgia for a bygone brand.
The question moving forward is whether HMD will be able to reassert Nokia as a truly bleeding-edge brand as it continues to flood the market with branded devices. After all, the smartphone market is starting to plateau, and much of the competition has begun to scale back their releases.
Earlier this year, Amazon rolled out a new feature that allowed Alexa device owners to create their own custom skills using preconfigured templates. Today, Amazon is expanding Alexa Blueprints, as the service is called, to include a handful of new templates designed for families and roommates.
These include a chore chart template, a house rules template for roommates, and others.
The Chore Chart template allows families to schedule and track children’s weekly chores, and even lets multiple kids (or anyone, really) compete to see who has done the most. Parents first configure the skill with a list of weekly chores and who those chores are assigned to.
Throughout the week, the kids can log their completed chores by asking Alexa. (“Alexa, ask Chore Chart to log a chore.”). Anyone can then check the progress by asking for the “Chore Score.”
Another blueprint is a variation on the existing “houseguest” and “babysitter” templates, which let you fill in useful information about the home, like where to find the TV remote or what the Wi-Fi password is, for example. The new “Roommate” blueprint, available now, lets you program in other information about the house, like the “house rules.”
You can have Alexa nag users to turn off the lights or run the dishwasher when they ask for the “house rules” for a given room. This passive aggressive roommate shaming system may not be the most useful – unless maybe used to poke fun – however, the template also lets you program in other important contacts, like the landlord or building manager.
The two other new blueprints are more lighthearted in nature.
One, “Whose Turn,” will have Alexa either randomly pick whose turn it is to take on a particular task – like walking the dog – or she can pick from the next name in the list, depending on how it’s configured.
Similarly, the “What To Do” skill will let Alexa make the decision when you’re stumped about what activity to do next. Alexa can pick what movie or TV show to watch from a list you configure, and can even suggest what’s for dinner, if you program in a list of favorite meals. This is also clearly intended more for parents with kids, who like to incorporate Alexa into family discussions and activities, as a third-party arbitrator of disputes, so to speak.
Many of the existing blueprints are already family-friends, like the family jokes, trivia, and stories. Amazon said in June that Alexa Skill Blueprints’ adoption has been higher than expected, when it introduced a way for people to share their custom blueprints with others.
The new blueprints are live now, bringing the total number of customizable skills to 41.
Amazon has signed a new deal with Apple that will allow the retailer to increase the selection of Apple products on its site, according to a report from CNET, which Amazon also confirmed. The deal will give Apple-authorized resellers the ability to sell a wide range of devices on Amazon — including Apple’s recently launched iPad Pro, iPhone XS and XR, and Apple Watch Series 4, in addition to Beats headphones.
Previously, these products were only available through Amazon’s third-party marketplace sellers at various price points, or not available at all, CNET noted.
Amazon confirmed the deal to TechCrunch in a statement.
“Amazon is constantly working to enhance the customer experience, and one of the ways we do this is by increasing selection of the products we know customers want,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “We look forward to expanding our assortment of Apple and Beats products globally.”
Apple, so far, has not responded to a request for comment.
CNET said the deal will impact the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan and India.
The deal will also see Amazon removing the listings of Apple products from independent sellers, the report said.
The expansion is not surprising. Apple already allows Amazon to sell some of its devices, including MacBook laptops and Beats headphones.
The companies had been fierce rivals for years, but have been working together more amicably in recent months.
Before, the two had a number of issues between them. Notably, Amazon had stopped allowing the sale of Apple TV on its site, in order to promote its competing product, Fire TV. But Apple CEO Tim Cook announced at WWDC 2017 that Apple and Amazon had come to an agreement, which would also allow Amazon’s Prime Video app to arrive on Apple TV.
The Apple TV also later returned to Amazon. This year, Amazon launched a version of its FreeTime Unlimited service for Apple’s iOS devices, as well.
However, there is one notable exception to the new agreement: Amazon won’t sell Apple’s HomePod.
The HomePod competes with Amazon’s Echo smart speakers, which is a growing opportunity in terms of Amazon’s entry into voice computing and virtual assistants. The retailer also doesn’t sell Google Home speakers at this time.
The promises of VR are heavily focused on the idea that users can grow more enveloped in the digital environments they explore, but also central to the experience is that they become more connected with their virtual representations.
BinaryVR’s central focus has been on a system of computer vision face-tracking particularly focused on the mouth that can translate a user’s facial input to a virtual reality avatar.
The startup has just closed a $4.5 million Series A with investment from Atinum Investment, KT Investment, Pearl Abyss and Kakao Ventures. BinaryVR has now raised about $5.8 million to date.
The goal is all around making avatars less creepy and more representative of their user. Some existing social VR titles use microphone input to kind of move the mouth open and closed, which is better than not trying at all, but there’s not much immersion. Another approach lies in inferring emotions based on muscle movement measured in a VR headset’s face pad, an approach that both Samsung and MindMaze have experimented with, but the technology only measures certain emotions and is far from a live feed of a user’s facial expressions.
BinaryVR’s vision is going to rely heavily on the rest of the virtual reality market maturing a bit; their work kind of assumes that headset manufacturers are going to start integrating eye-tracking controls sooner rather than later.
Being a VR peripheral company in 2018 is no small task. VR platform makers like Facebook, Google and HTC are more focused on making their systems easy to use rather than integrating far-flung novice-centric add-ons. HTC has made some efforts to build integrations with startup’s producing their own hardware, but for the most part these add-ons have only proven how difficult it is to market a specialized product that sits beyond the estuary of mainstream VR content.
The company released its $349 developer kit in early 2017.
BinaryVR has seen some early success with partners looking further down the road. High Fidelity, an SF-based social VR startup, which has raised $72 million, has been working with BinaryVR to let its users go as deep down the VR rabbit hole as they would like. Everything is still a bit odd-looking because today’s GPUs can only deliver so much at VR’s scale, but these are all technologies that will probably find integrations into headsets at some point — it’s a question of scaling today’s market when the benefits aren’t as apparent that is the company’s big challenge.
Fortunately, there are obviously more approachable verticals for the company to tackle in the meantime. BinaryVR has been working to bring facial-tracking to smartphones with built-in sensors. Their “HyprFace” tracking tech seems to be pretty capable and the Animoji-like demos they’ve shown off are impressive. There are certainly plenty of players in the consumer mobile space; BinaryVR is also exploring what integrations would be possible inside vehicles, though the logical use cases perhaps aren’t as readily apparent there.
The Bay Area-based startup certainly has some interesting challenges as it navigates a space filled with tech giants shifting their weight and creating waves of potential as a result, but as users aim to drag themselves further into the digital worlds that VR game studios are creating, it’s becoming clear that new sensors are necessary to make this a reality.
Fake social media profiles are useful for more than just sowing political discord among foreign adversaries, as it turns out. A group linked to the North Korean government has been able to duck existing sanctions on the country by concealing its true identity and developing software for clients abroad.
This week, the US Treasury issued sanctions against two tech companies accused of running cash-generating front operations for North Korea: Yanbian Silverstar Network Technology or “China Silver Star,” based near Shenyang, China, and a Russian sister company called Volasys Silver Star. The Treasury also sanctioned China Silver Star’s North Korean CEO Jong Song Hwa.
“These actions are intended to stop the flow of illicit revenue to North Korea from overseas information technology workers disguising their true identities and hiding behind front companies, aliases, and third-party nationals,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said of the sanctions.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in a follow-up story, North Korean operatives advertised with Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, solicited business with Freelance.com and Upwork, crafted software using Github, communicated over Slack and accepted compensation with Paypal. The country appears to be encountering little resistance putting tech platforms built by US companies to work building software including “mobile games, apps, [and] bots” for unwitting clients abroad.
US Treasury sanctions North Korea over Sony hack and WannaCry attack
The US Treasury issued its first warnings of secret North Korean software development scheme in July, though did not provide many details at the time. The Wall Street Journal was able to identify “tens of thousands” of dollars stemming from the Chinese front company, though that’s only a representative sample. The company worked as a middleman, contracting its work out to software developers around the globe and then denying payment for their services.
Facebook suspended many suspicious accounts linked to the scheme after they were identified by the Wall Street Journal, including one for “Everyday-Dude.com”:
“A Facebook page for Everyday-Dude.com, showing packages with hundreds of programs, was taken down minutes later as a reporter was viewing it. Pages of some of the account’s more than 1,000 Facebook friends also subsequently disappeared…
“[Facebook] suspended numerous North Korea-linked accounts identified by the Journal, including one that Facebook said appeared not to belong to a real person. After it closed that account, another profile, with identical friends and photos, soon popped up.”
Linkedin and Upwork similarly removed accounts linked to the North Korean operations.
Beyond the consequences for international relations, software surreptitiously sold by the North Korean government poses considerable security risks. According to the Treasury, the North Korean government makes money off of a “range of IT services and products abroad” including “website and app development, security software, and biometric identification software that have military and law enforcement applications.” For companies unwittingly buying North Korea-made software, the potential for malware that could give the isolated nation eyes and ears beyond its borders is high, particularly given that the country has already demonstrated its offensive cyber capabilities.
Between that and sanctions against doing business with the country, Mnuchin urges the information technology industry and other businesses to exercise awareness of the ongoing scheme to avoid accidentally contracting with North Korea on tech-related projects.