Google today announced that it is planning to expand Google Fiber to 34 new cities in nine metro areas, including Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Phoenix, Portland, Raleigh-Durham, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, and San Jose. The company says it has invited these cities to work with Google to “explore what it would take to bring them Google Fiber.”
Don’t get too excited yet, though. Google will provide updates by the end of the year about which cities will actually be getting Fiber. The company says it will work closely with city leaders on a joint planning process to map out the Fiber network in details and to “assess what unique local challenges” it might face. ”While we do want to bring Fiber to every one of these cities, it might not work out for everyone,” Google writes in the announcement.
So far, Fiber, which offers both a fast Internet connection and an IP-based cable TV service, is only available in Kansas City and Provo, Utah. Google had also previously announced its plans to bring Austin, Texas, online in the near future and already started construction there.
In its current form, Google Fiber offers users a choice between a cable and Internet bundle ($120/month), unbundled gigabit internet service ($70/month) and a free Internet service at basic speed. In the first few cities Google brought online, users who signed up for the paid plans did not have to pay any construction fees, while those who signed up for the free plans had to pay the $300 (in monthly installments) to get their Internet access. Users in Kansas City also received a Nexus 7 with their cable boxes, as well as a terabyte of storage on Google Drive.
So far, Google has stuck with this model, but it’s not clear if it will switch this up as it expands into different markets.
Ever since Fiber launched in Kansas City, users have been wondering if Google planned to just keep this as an experiment, or if it was planning to roll this service out to a wider audience. Given its investments into Provo and Austin, a wider roll-out always seemed inevitable, though, and today’s announcement makes it clear that Google has big plans for Fiber.
Technology has a way of making things that have historically been accessible to the wealthy and connected a bit more within reach to the rest of us. Uber’s done it with limos, Fancy Hands with personal assistant services, Everlane with luxury-caliber t-shirts.
Trumaker is another startup in this realm, with the aim of bringing made-to-measure men’s clothing to the mainstream. And the company just closed on $6.5 million to scale out its service nationwide.
The raise, which was led by Javelin Venture Partners with participation from RRE Ventures and others, serves as Trumaker’s Series A. This brings the total investment in the San Francisco-based Trumaker to $8.4 million.
As I wrote back in June 2013 when the company closed its seed round, Trumaker is focusing on made-to-measure in the casual space, starting with the kinds of button-down shirts men wear with jeans. The company has no brick and mortar stores: Instead, it employs contractors called “Outfitters” who come to clients wherever they are and take their measurements to ensure a proper fit. The Outfitter then programs those measurements into Trumaker’s mobile app, along with the customer’s custom order. His measurements are stored in his personal profile so he can order more shirts online by himself.
Right now, Trumaker has Outfitters in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Orange County, Boulder, and Milwaukee. In an interview this week, Trumaker CEO Mark Lovas said that the new funding will be used to expand into other metropolitan markets nationwide. The funding will also be used to build out Trumaker’s full-time staff, which is currently at around 15 employees, and further hone its technology platform.
Eventually, Lovas says the company plans to add more products such as sweaters and belts, but for the near-term Trumaker’s focus is staying on shirting.
Trumaker is not the only company looking to lead the next generation of made-to-measure men’s apparel. J. Hilburn, which was founded in 2007 and has raised some $26 million from backers including Battery Ventures, is one of the most prominent existing players in the space. Lovas says that Trumaker is set apart from J. Hilburn and others in that it has had an e-commerce focus from the start. He also says that the style of the Trumaker brand is unique, in that it’s more casual than other made-to-measure offerings.
Overall, though, Lovas says that there is more than enough space for many brands to succeed. In the same way that brick-and-mortar has had room for J. Crew and Banana Republic and Land’s End and Club Monaco and so many others, the e-commerce apparel landscape should be able to accommodate a variety of brands. It may sound like an almost naive kumbaya kind of sentiment to hear from a CEO, but it also makes a lot of sense.
Lovas swung by TechCrunch headquarters to talk about the fund raise and Trumaker’s plans for the future. Watch our conversation in the video embedded below:
Ukraine is in the midst of what can only be described as violent social upheaval, as protesters occupying a central Kiev square have been killed in violent clashes with police last night.
The wider political battle — which has seen cities across Ukraine demonstrate in favor of closer ties with the European Union and against closer ties with Russia — has also been widely backed by the technology community there.
IT_Namet (in English: the ‘Tent of Informational Technologies’), the organization set up in Maiden Square, has been there since the start, providing Internet access and acting as a focal point for tech people joining the protest. But last night IT_Namet was attacked by security forces and burned overnight.
I’ve been in contact with the people running IT_Namet, but while it appears no one from the tech community was actually killed during the attack, tech professional Alexei Lymarenko was, according to colleagues, “beaten nearly to death” and has serious facial trauma. Unfortunately he was with Ukrainian journalist Veremei Vyacheslav who was, tragically, killed in the clashes with police.
The group issued the following statement calling on the tech community internationally to support them:
“From the very beginning #IT_Namet was built with the aim of a peaceful protest. Members of the IT-community never had weapons, except for tablets and smartphones connected to the Internet. So, the real purpose of security forces actions was not anti-terrorism, as it was claimed, but the destruction of unarmed people. We regret that tonight IT professional Lymarenko Alexei suffered. He was together with Ukrainian journalist Vyacheslav Veremei. Vyacheslav was killed, and Alex, who was beaten nearly to death, has serious traumas of his face. Although # IT_Namet was destroyed tonight, our beliefs and our support for peaceful protest remained unchanged. The “IT spіlnota” (IT community), which united people representing the IT industry, is expanding its activity beyond # IT_Namet. “IT spіlnota” will set out to spot the violence of authorities, to save people’s lives. Now every member of the IT-community can itself make his/her choice on the tools to protect their rights and the rights of people who yesterday were violated by their summary execution. We highly appreciate any actual support of IT-community abroad.”
It looks like 3-D virtual try-on technology will soon make an appearance on eBay. The marketplace giant is announcing the acquisition of PhiSix, a company that develops 3-D visualization and simulation technologies for clothing.
The computer graphics company creates 3D models of clothing from photos, pattern files and other sources and simulates the behavior of the garments. PhiSix’s technology allows consumers to see how clothes fit, and look and move in different environments without actually having to try them on. The company could power a virtual fitting room so that shoppers can determine fit with physically accurate simulations of the garments. PhiSix is also able to recommend a size for the user’s body based on basic measurement inputs.
PhiSix was founded in 2012 by Jonathan Su, a former Intel research scientist who received his PhD in computer science from Stanford University. Su’s background is in special effects, and he has helped develop simulation technologies being used today by major Hollywood companies like ILM and DreamWorks to create scenes with life-like behavior and movement. Su and his team of three engineers will all be joining eBay’s Innovation and New Ventures team.
The in-store experience is equally compelling, explained Steve Yankovich, vice president of Innovation and New Ventures of eBay, in a call this morning. The startup’s 3D models would allow shoppers to use a virtual fitting room to view the clothes in various scenarios — such as walking down the street or hitting a golf club — rather than just using a dressing room. Customers could also use the technology to recommend other outfits in their size, and purchase the clothing directly from an app.
Yankovich also said that eBay is planning to integrate the technology across many of its properties, including the marketplace, mobile apps, and even third-party retailers that use eBay Enterprise (formerly Magento). Specifically on the marketplace, Yankovich explains that virtual try-on features could help reduce the friction that some purchasers face when contemplating whether they should purchase an item without seeing it or trying it on.
Of course, it’s important to note that virtual try-on technologies have been around for some time. But they haven’t really picked up much traction as a de facto replacement for physically trying on clothing. Yankovich acknowledges this but believes that if the company integrates the technology in the right way and keeps iterating, this will be the future.
eBay’s taking more steps to make its marketplace and other assets more of a shopping destination. Offering technologies like virtual try-on could help make the product experience better, as Yankovich says. The company is also reportedly debuting a new vertical this spring called The Plaza on eBay that will focus on direct-to-consumer sales.
iversity, a Berlin-based MOOCs platform that’s hoping to become the Coursera of Europe, has managed to pull in nearly 500,000 course sign-ups in the four months since its first massively open online courses went live.
iversity launched its first batch of 24 course in mid-October – noting at the time that it had clocked up initial student sign-ups of more than 100,000. Four months on, it’s bolstered that figure to half a million. Not bad going for a newbie on the MOOCs scene.
The number of MOOCs iversity offers has only increased incrementally, however — with its curriculum now numbering 28 courses. But, also today, it said it has secured its first framework agreement with a “top European University” to produce exclusive course content for its platform.
The agreement is with Italy’s Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi sociali Guido Carli in Rome, which will invest a six-figure sum into the production of four online courses that will only be available on iversity’s platform. Topics covered by these courses will include international relations and innovation management, with the first of them starting in September or October this year.
The Berlin-based startup pivoted from online collaboration tools for learning management to MOOCs back in March last year, seeing potential to help spread the free online education phenomenon to Europe which has generally lagged behind the U.S., where the likes of Coursera, Udacity and edX are already well established MOOCs platforms. (Access to higher education being generally cheaper in Europe vs the U.S. may well be one factor explaining that lag.)
Of course, signing up remote students to free online courses is one thing but getting them to complete those courses when they have nothing invested beyond their intention is quite another. Completion rates for MOOCs therefore tend to be very low — and iversity’s early rate isn’t bucking this trend.
Of the circa 135,000 students who signed up for its first five courses, which recently came to an end, just 5,000 students completed the courses — giving a completion rate of less than 4%. iversity described this rate as ”comparable” with Coursera and other MOOC providers.
Convincing students to take paid exams to gain official accreditation for their study is one potential MOOCs business model — and the one revenue stream iversity is currently pursuing — hence the need for MOOCs platforms to attract a lot of students, to get round the issue of low completion rates.
iversity’s nascent European MOOCs platform has started taking in some revenue — albeit not enough to disclose, with a trial of paid exams only offered for two small German-language courses thus far, and with only a few dozen participants in total.
Despite it being early days, iversity nonetheless said it’s happy with its early monetizing experiment, adding: “Our expectations have been exceeded and more users participated in the exam than we initially expected. Particularly taking into account that this was an initial test-run and the possibility to take an exam was in no way promoted on the site.”
For those of you who were looking for an extra few days, the deadline for submitting applications to be a part of the Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2014 has been extended to February 27 at 5 p.m. PST.
Previous TechCrunch Battlefield contestants are now part of a growing “mafia” that’s already raised around $2.4 billion. And within the 12 months after competing in Battlefield competitions, these companies raised $520 million, or about $5.2 million per company on average.
Moreover, many of them land on the acquisition radar of companies, such as Google, Salesforce, Yahoo and, yes, even our parent company, AOL. Just three days ago, Google acquired SlickLogin, which launched as part of the Battlefield at Disrupt SF last year.
I have been talking to many startups and entrepreneurs in Asia over the past two months across countries such as India, Australia and Singapore, and have noticed their excitement over showcasing their ideas in the Battlefield. It’s also encouraging to see the progress of two of the Disrupt Beijing finalists — Moglue and Orderwithme — have been making. Other notable startups from Asia who have been part of the Battlefield more recently include Health2Sync, Modbot and Fin.
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Put simply, Google Ventures will invest in technology companies that are early or mid stage. Tech companies that are looking to accelerate growth after proving product-market fit could call Google Capital instead for a larger check.
That firm is led by three partners: David Lawee, Gene Frantz, and Scott Tierney, and right now doesn’t have a stated cap limit. (Update: According to Bloomberg, Google Capital has $300 million in capital to spend.)
Google Capital, along with Google Ventures, is an outgrowth of the incredible cash wealth of established technology companies, and the simple fact that what comes next has been the consistent bane of leaders in the tech market. Provided capable stewardship, the venture funds will give their parent company a window into what’s coming up in technology, and early looks into buying what could disrupt its core cash flows.
Microsoft also operates its own venture fund, Microsoft Ventures, but that effort is on a far smaller scale than Google’s efforts. Microsoft could afford to do more, but perhaps its DNA as a Redmond-based company makes investing in a Silicon Valley gambit a touch more outside.
For now, later-stage venture capitalists have a new, exorbitantly wealthy competitor named Google.
This is not a joke. PediaPress launched an Indiegogo campaign to print the entire English Wikipedia encyclopedia on around 1,000 books, representing more than a million pages. The startup printed the first volume to see how it would look — in it, you will find all the articles from “A” to “A76 motorway”.
More than 4 million articles from 20 million volunteers could end up in the printed edition of Wikipedia. But first, the company needs to raise $50,000. You can donate from $5 up to $1,000 to sponsor the work. If it succeeds, the books will be presented at the Wikimania Conference 2014 in London. After that, the books will be donated to a big public library.
As a reminder, PediaPress is an on-demand printing startup for Wikipedia articles. While it’s mostly unknown, you can find a link to create a book in the left column of Wikipedia. After compiling articles, you can order a printed book.
PediaPress CEO Eingestellt von Heiko writes in a blog post that a German user planned to print the entire German Wikipedia using the service. “After doing some back of the envelope calculations and exchanging emails, we mutually agreed to drop his plan,” von Heiko writes. “But the idea was born and stuck with us.”
But it doesn’t tell us why it’s a good idea. Printing Wikipedia is a way to celebrate the gigantic work of the Wikipedia community over the past years. If the company gets enough money, it even plans to go on tour with the printed Wikipedia edition. The project also let you visualize how big Wikipedia is compared to the Encyclopædia Britannica.
But the most obvious reason is probably simpler. This campaign is a great communication move for PediaPress. Now everyone will know that Wikipedia readers can handpick a few dozen Wikipedia articles and print a book. In other words, printing Wikipedia is a fun way to spread the word about PediaPress. And as PediaPress developer Konrad says in the Indiegogo video, “somebody has to do it.”
Ubuntu will sell pre-loaded on smartphone hardware, despite the failure last year of the incredibly ambitious Ubuntu Edge crowdfunding campaign. The company detailed plans today (via TheNextWeb) to ship Ubuntu-based smartphones later this year, via hardware partners including Spain’s bq and China’s Meizu.
Ubuntu isn’t talking specifics yet, so don’t expect specs, but the company did reveal in a statement that initial devices will focus on “mid to high-end hardware,” so these won’t be the budget devices you might expect from an upstart mobile OS looking to compete in a crowded smartphone market. Given that the software maker originally wanted to launch the ultra premium Edge for an ultra premium price ($600 for ‘early’ backers), not immediately going after the entry-level market makes a lot of sense.
Calling Ubuntu’s efforts to crack the mobile market an uphill battle would be an understatement: Existing examples of latecomers who’ve tried to make a dent don’t inspire much confidence, with Firefox OS being the most noteworthy example that comes to mind. Mozilla’s project did focus on entry-level devices, however, which could provide another clue as to why Canonical won’t start off with that strategy.
Canonical’s differentiation strategy is to make content and services the central focus of the UI, rather than hiding them in siloed apps that each serve a different purpose. Still, Canonical hopes to have the top 50 apps available at launch, including Evernote, Grooveshark and Weather Channel to start. The company is also working with a Carrier Advisory Group formed out of the Edge campaign, which includes Vodafone, EE, T-Mobile, Verizon, Deutsche Telecom and many more.
A new application, Postcard, launching today, will help you cross-post to various social media websites, but with a few unique twists. Unlike similar tools, this “Swiss Army Knife” of an app lets you set any one social network, or even your own website, as the content’s host. So, for example, if you run multiple Twitter accounts, the app could allow you to tweet from one, while the others re-tweet you.
In other words, Postcard is a pro tool designed for those whose job likely involves social media management of some sort.
What’s old is new again, perhaps? In the early days of Web 2.0, with the arrival of social media, a series of applications like Ping.fm, HelloTxt, or Socialthing, helped early adopters handle the psychological overload of having to post to multiple social media websites at once. Today, those consumer-facing businesses have generally shut down, with companies turning instead to pro tools like HootSuite to manage their online presence, while self-promoters might use something like Buffer or IFTTT to manage their daily social media workflows.
The problem with many of the current solutions is that they’re designed to automate sending messages from one account or service to another, but that’s generally not how social media is used. Sometimes, you’ll cross-post the same message everywhere, but generally you would pick and choose the right destination(s) depending on the type of content being shared.
Postcard gives you that post-by-post control about where and how your message should be shared. This includes posting to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or LinkedIn, for example, but also to your own website.
What’s more, you can designate a website or a social network as the content’s “host” using Postcard, which sets it as the primary destination which is then shared via a link to the other networks. This could be your website, as noted, or it could be Facebook, or Twitter, or something else. That means you could post long-form content which is then shared and truncated when posted to Twitter, or you could leverage your Twitter network to draw users back to your Facebook page, or all your social media sites could just serve as an extension of your company’s website itself…or whatever else you want.
Postcard was designed by Kyle Newsome, a WordPress blogger himself, who says he came up with the idea because he was struggling to keep posting great content on his website, despite the fact he was posting to social networks multiple times per day.
The initial focus for the app, which has been in beta testing over part of last year, was more so on the WordPress angle, but is now more broadly focused on supporting a variety of use cases.
“I wanted to find a way to keep doing the social media part but proverbially ‘hit two birds with one stone’ and also have the ability to search, filter and display feeds of my content however I please,” Newsome explained at the time. “So Postcard was born of the idea to help website owners get their own websites communicating on a social frequency and keeping content fresh.”
The app itself is a free download with support for 3 networks, and you can purchase an additional 2, 5, or unlimited networks ($0.99, $2.99, $4.99 respectively) via in-app purchases.
You can grab it here on iTunes.
Square is debuting a special-edition reader in partnership with AIDS organization (RED). The new ‘SQUA(RED) Reader’ is red in color, and for every order via the device, 97.25 percent of the $10 donation amount will go to the fund to fight AIDS. When consumers swipe their cards on a (RED), customers can donate right from their emailed receipts, as well.
Sellers in the United States can get a Special Edition SQUA(RED) Reader online at mkt.com/red.
“Square already helps millions of local sellers run and grow their business, and now with SQUA(RED) Reader, we’re empowering them to raise awareness for an important cause and help save lives in the process,” said Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square, in a release.
The ability to donate from the receipt itself is interesting considering Dorsey’s recent commentary around the opportunity behind receipts as an “unused piece of commerce.”
This isn’t the first special edition Square reader. The company teamed up with Vivienne Tam for a branded reader a few years ago.
Apple has also been a longtime partner of (RED) and announced last year that its branded products have helped the organization raise $65 million. Other (RED) partners include Starbucks, American Express and Beats.
Sessions, the behavioral health startup that launched out of the Rock Health startup incubator in June 2012, has been acquired by MyFitnessPal for an undisclosed sum. This is MyFitnessPal’s first acquisition.
The three-person Sessions team will be joining MyFitnessPal in San Francisco this month. The future of the Sessions app (which TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler reviewed in November 2013) is unclear. In a blog post announcing the deal, Sessions co-founder Nick Crocker wrote, “though our program is going to have to be reimagined for MyFitnessPal’s 50MM+ users, our mission and vision remain unchanged.” We’ve reached out for more details and will update with any further information we receive.
Sessions raised less than $1 million in funding from Rock Health, SV Angel, Collaborative Fund, Blackbird and Joshua Kushner.
PopTip, the Techstars-backed startup that offers real-time language tracking across social platforms, has today launched its Zipline analytics tool on Instagram.
Unlike PopTip questions, the product that launched the brand, Zipline doesn’t require brands to poll or ask a question to their audiences. Instead, brands can simply choose which words, phrases, etc. they want tracked and then watch the conversations play out right in front of them.
“We saw some really interesting patterns regarding the relationship between browsing on Instagram and purchasing power, so we wanted to get on Instagram to track the conversation,” said co-founder Kelsey Falter. “We have analysis going on Twitter and Instagram for Nike right now, and it turns out that there is 4x the volume of Nike mentions on Instagram than on Twitter, and that’s powerful information for Nike to have.”
When PopTip first launched back in summer of 2012, the company offered a polling product, letting brands ask things like: “do you wear #boxers or #briefs?”
PopTip would then offer a dashboard showing real time conversations around the questions and answers, even if respondents didn’t use a hashtag or spell the word correctly. At its core, after all, PopTip technology is all about natural language processing and tracking in real-time.
At launch, the analytics tool was only available on Twitter.
But in March of 2013, the company expanded their tracking tools to Facebook, letting brands get a true window into their following across multiple platforms.
Shortly after, PopTip launched Zipline, which takes the “polling” out of the equation and simply lets brands watch things play out as they normally would across social networks. With the launch of Zipline for Instagram, brands on PopTip can monitor the conversation across all three of the major network.
If you want to check out how Zipline on Instagram works, check out the demo here.
Zipline customers pay a flat rate of $6,500/month, which lets them track anywhere between 30 million and 50 million messages across all platforms.
PopTip has grown from 3 to 10 full-time employees, with 30 customers, including brands such as L’Oreal, NBA, ESPN, NFL, Spotify, Budweiser and Yoplait.
The New York-based company has raised a total of $2.5 million to date in angel funding from Lerer Ventures, SoftBank Capital, RSE Ventures, David Tisch, Scott Belsky, Soraya Darabi, Amer Rehman, Steve Martocci, Jared Hecht, Ori Allon, Tricia Black and Lee Ann Daly.
Glove, a new Android application launching today, is attempting to address a real-world pain point that affects an important decision that nearly every individual or family in the U.S. has to make at some point: which wireless carrier is the best one for you?
To do so, the app is installed on your device where it will run in the background for three days, keeping tabs on where you use your phone, and the network quality.
Typically, when someone is thinking of switching carriers, they ask around, checking with neighbors and friends in their area to find out if the coverage is any good, among other things, including perhaps whether the data plan is too pricey, what phones are available, or how the company’s customer support has treated their friend in the past. Sometimes, you also might pull up reception maps on the various carriers’ websites to try to determine if you’ll run into any dead spots or areas where you won’t be on 4G.
Glove doesn’t try to tackle all the decisions you have when choosing carriers, as its sole focus for right now is on finding you the best network, based on signal quality.
That, however, will change in time, we’re told. In the future, the app will also be used for other things like determining the best customer service or pricing, or determining the best handset per carrier by geography, for example.
Today, though, the Glove app turns to crowdsourcing to make its network quality determinations. That is, the company analyzes subscriber usage patterns and combines those patterns with hundreds of millions of crowd-sourced data points to determine which carriers are best for each user based on where and how the phone is used. This helps Glove determine the best network for you: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint.
Currently, Glove only works in two major U.S. markets: New York and San Francisco, but will roll out to other cities over time.
After you run the app on your phone for the initial few days, Glove will alert you via email when your results are in. Then you can decide if you want to make a switch.
With Glove, their plan is to make money by allowing consumers to switch carriers via the app, for which it would generate a commission of sorts.
To date, the company claims that in early testing Glove data found that approximately 75 percent of the time, people can be on a better carrier for them, from a network quality comparison that is. The app was pilot tested in Israel, however, so I’d imagine these percentages may change as U.S. adoption kicks in.
The idea itself is rather clever, though the business model may leave cynics questioning the accuracy of the results. After all, if the company makes money by recommending a switch, why would it tell users to stay put? At the end of the day, that answer will come down to a matter of trust. As early adopters get their hands on the app, and run their own extensive tests and comparisons with other third-party apps and speed tests, Glove will either be proven worthy or not.
An iOS version of Glove is due out in 2014. In the meantime, the beta Android app is here.
An MIT project that aimed to bring light field refocusing powers to existing cameras for less than a dollar is being spun out as its own commercial venture: Tesseract wants to provide the same capabilities to mobile devices, and the startup has the demos to prove it, using actual Android smartphone hardware using its technology.
Some of the flagship features of Tesseract include light field-style refocusing a la Lytro, albeit accomplished for much less money. At these rates, incorporating it into existing hardware becomes a lot more palatable for smartphone OEMs, which are constantly concerned about component costs when speccing out new devices.
In addition to refocusing after capture, it also offers up the ability to selectively separate foreground and background components, as well as apply special filter effects to different elements of the photo, and edit on different, automatically defined layers. It’s part RAW, part PSD but straight from your mobile device’s camera.
The plan for Tesseract is to sell its tech directly to OEMs for use in their devices, but there are many other potential uses, too. One client that founder Kshitij Marwah never expected is a bank with annual revenue in the billions that wants to use it to make their account opening process easier, he told me via email. The startup is also in ongoing discussions with smartphone manufacturers, other OEMs and banks to see how it might be adopted in their respective devices and processes.
Already, companies like HTC are reported to be introducing some of these features on their next-gen mobile devices. But HTC’s implementation seems to require multiple lenses and no doubt considerable expense on the component front. Qualcomm recently demoed mobile processors that offer selective refocusing thanks to improvements on the system-on-a-chip, but that too might be fairly costly to implement. With so many different approaches to this kind of camera innovation, one thing’s nearly certain: Within the next few years, no one should have to live with the focal composition they originally chose when they take a photo with their top-tier smartphone.
Loop, the mobile payments startup backed by $10 million in Series A funding, and the makers of a series of hardware devices that allows smartphones to function like magstripe credit cards at point-of-sale, is today publicly launching its LoopWallet application in the U.S. Apple App Store. An Android version will be available in April.
The company, for background, is headed up by payments industry vets, including co-founder and CEO Will Graylin, who previously founded WAY Systems (sold to VeriFone) and ROAM Data (sold to Ingenico), and co-founder and chief technologist, George Wallner, who previously founded Hypercom, also sold to VeriFone.
Their idea? To work around the U.S.’ so far slow uptake on competing mobile payment technologies including PayPal, Google Wallet, Square, Isis and others, with a solution that utilizes either a smartphone fob or card case to “trick” point-of-sale terminals into thinking a credit card has been swiped, without you having to actually carry the card or remove it from your wallet. Loop does this via an engineered technology that induces a strong enough magnetic signal to emulate the card swipe, which the company calls “Magnetic Secure Transmission,” or MST for short.
Currently, only the Loop Fob is available for purchase ($39), but other devices including a smartphone case and smartphone charge case are in the works. These and other so-called “AppCessories,” will let users load and store all their payment cards, including credit, debit, gift cards and reward cards, within the iPhone application.
To facilitate the process of adding your payment cards and managing them on your phone, the new LoopWallet application walks you through a setup process where you can organize your cards in a simple interface.
Though I’ve had early access to the app for some time, I’ve personally encountered a few difficulties with the hardware (thanks to being shipped a wrongly programmed device in error) and issues with my account. Technical difficulties like these are common with early stage startups, so it’s too soon to write off Loop as being buggy. However, further (successful) testing is required before forming an opinion which I’d share publicly here.
One thing that did strike me, though, is that the process of loading cards, even had it gone smoothly, is something that takes a bit of initial setup time on the part of the end user. And the convenience of paying by holding your phone near the terminal, instead of swiping a card, is somewhat questionable - especially if you use an iPhone wallet, or a case that lets you slide your ID and credit card right on the back.
To encourage users to adopt mobile payment technologies, there needs to be a minimum amount of work for a maximum reward. The work Loop, and many others in its same space, require is still an obstacle for the companies to overcome. And if consumers are going to take action in terms of either manually entering in their credit card details, whether with software-based solutions like PayPal or loading cards as with Loop, it would be ideal if there was something delivered in exchange for those efforts: like digital receipts, instant coupons, rewards or points, giveaways, or other benefits. Google Wallet so far has this part of the equation right, but doesn’t have the real-world adoption needed, as its solution at point-of-sale is based on NFC technology, which isn’t ubiquitous.
Loop, meanwhile, works at virtually any magstripe-enabled terminal in the U.S., but any sort of merchant program involving offers or rewards is still a ways off. It’s the proverbial chicken-and-egg scenario: Loop needs adoption to attract the merchants, but needs merchants and offers to attract a wider group of users.
That being said, the company easily surpassed its Kickstarter campaign’s goal, indicating that there is at least a core early adopter audience willing to test, and possibly evangelize, the technology if all goes well.
The new LoopWallet iOS application is available for download here.
Israeli startup Umoove is reaching out to developers in the Android camp, with the launch today of a beta SDK for Android devs wanting to use its face and eye tracking technology.
The SDK is not public, nor is it open to all — with Umoove picking and choosing only the app ideas it thinks will best fit with its tech. Interested developers are being asked to contact the startup via its website or by emailing SDK@umoove.me.
It says it’s released an Android SDK earlier than planned, owing to “increased” developer interest and “positive initial feedback” from Android OEMs.
It also says it’s currently in talks about raising a Series A. To date, Umoove has raised around $3 million in total funding (a $1.5 million seed round, and a recently closed <$1.5 million Angel round from undisclosed investors).
Umoove already has an SDK for iOS devs, and last month launched its first app to showcase what the head-tracking interface can do — a 3D flying game called Umoove Experience.
Gaming is one area it sees plenty of potential applications, such as in first person shooters — allowing the gamer to aim by turning their face to the place where they want to shoot, for example.
Umoove’s technology is designed to work with any smartphone which has a front-facing camera and can therefore see where the user’s head/eyes are pointing. The head-tracking interface is not intended to replace touchscreen interactions, but rather be a supplement — offering a way to augment touch-based interactions with additional, potentially more immersive functionality.
However there’s definitely a learning curve involved for users — and it remains to be seen whether the ability to control certain mobile interfaces with gentle head movements will catch on or not. That will depend, in large part, on the quality of the apps and devs Umoove can attract.
The startup’s CEO Yitzi Kempinski told TechCrunch it’s had “hundreds” of enquiries about its iOS SDK in the past few weeks, of which it sees around 100-150 being “relevant” ideas that can mesh well with its technology — and of those some 40 have actually started the process of building something that will incorporate Umoove’s head-tracking interface.Kempinski says app ideas being actively worked on include “maps, children’s games, children’s books, virtual tours, racing games, 3D models, hands free interaction for apps used in situations where hands are busy, science education, medical diagnose and more”.
Amazon Coins, the virtual currency introduced by the e-commerce giant last spring, are now available on Android devices, including both smartphones and tablets, in the U.S., U.K. and Germany. This is the first time the Coins have been offered outside Kindle Fire tablets, which is where they first launched.
The goal of Coins to date has been multi-fold: to encourage developers to build for the Amazon Kindle platform; to reduce the “sticker shock” of paying for things in dollars (something that Android users seem especially sensitive to in comparison with their iOS counterparts); and to increase the revenue-generating opportunities for both developers and Amazon.
The idea is to get consumers to think of paying for purchases not as “99 cent” downloads, but rather as a number of Coins they deduct from a bigger stockpile. It’s an idea that’s a holdover from console and PC gaming platforms, but one that is not offered today on either Apple or Google’s official app stores.
Customers can earn Coins by shopping for their apps from Amazon’s Appstore, earning achievements in select titles (currently over 3,800 apps are listed), and they can buy them directly at a 10 percent discount. The more Coins you buy, the larger the discount, which encourages users to purchase the currency in bigger quantities. (100 Coins are worth $1.)
The Coins can be used to buy games and apps, purchase extra features within apps, like extra lives in “Candy Crush,” unlock new levels, and more.
Developers continue to receive a 70 percent revenue share whether the customer spends Coins or dollars, Amazon notes.
In order for Android users to take advantage of Coins, they’ll need to install or update their version of the Amazon Appstore client on their device, which can be done from here: www.amazon.com/getappstore.
Online gadget retailer Grand St wants to be the go-to spot for interesting new hardware to be sold online. But after curating a daily selection of goods, the company is opening up its e-commerce shop for any hardware to list goods to be sold, as well as to test them out in beta and even make available for pre-order.
Grand St has spent the last year searching for all the best hardware products to list on its site and to make available through daily flash sales. Goods sold on the platform typically are listed for a week, although the best of the best have been added to the site’s “collection” of goods that are always for sale.
With the launch of its new marketplace, the company is extending its e-commerce platform to others who wish to leverage it as a new sales channel. Not only will hardware manufacturers be able to sell finished goods through the marketplace, but they’ll also be able to make them available for testing to beta users, as well as take pre-orders for their products.
Even better, Grand St will be taking no commission on goods that are put up for pre-order or beta testing. In doing so, the platform will compete against existing sales channels like Celery and Shoplocket — recently acquired by PCH International — for pre-order sales.
The company has already attracted hundreds of thousands of customers who have an affinity toward the types of interesting gadgets and hardware devices that are available on its site. As a result, it believes that it can provide hardware manufacturers with new potential buyers for their products.
Not everything will make the cut, however. According to Grand St co-founder Amanda Peyton, interested hardware manufacturers will need to apply to take part in the marketplace. To do so, they need only go to grandst.com/onboarding and fill out information about their hardware products.
Like Apple and its App Store, Grand St will evaluate whether or not those goods should be listed alongside its other hardware products. They’ll be judged based on creativity, reliability, user experience, design, and delight factor. And for certain products, there’s the possibility of being featured as part of Grand St’s daily sales and in its email newsletter.
According to Peyton, the marketplace will launch with more than 150 total items, in pre-order, beta, or available for sale. Of the items that have been accepted, 15 percent of the new products listed are in beta, 35 percent are available for pre-order, and the final 50 percent are available for purchase on the shop.
Grand St has raised $1.3 million in funding from First Round Capital, David Tisch, Gary Vaynerchuk, betaworks, Collaborative Fund, MESA+, Quotidian Ventures, and Undercurrent.
Video game store Humble Bundle announced that the Humble Store has switched to more traditional Steam-like prices, with different prices depending on your region. European customers will have to pay more for some games if the publisher chooses to set higher prices in Europe.
Humble Bundle is mostly known for its Humble Indie Bundles and smaller weekly bundles. So far, Humble Bundle has mostly been about indie games. Even though the company released a couple of bundles with major publishers like EA, small developers and publishers are still on center stage. Similarly, the company has started experimenting with ebook and audio book bundles.
The Humble Store has had compelling arguments to seduce gamers. Most games are cross-platform, DRM-free and come with a Steam key to activate the game on Steam. Moreover, charities, such as the American Red Cross, Child’s Play Charity, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, World Land Trust and Charity Water, receive 10 percent of the proceedings — Humble Bundle keeps 15 percent.
But one of the key differentiating element was also pricing. Everything was in USD, so you knew that you wouldn’t have to pay 20 or 30 percent more because of price differences between regions like on competing platforms. If your bank account wasn’t in USD, PayPal is pretty good at providing a good conversion rate.
Now, there are two scenarios. If Humble Bundle handles the conversion, it will sell the game at the same price in USD, EUR or GBP, without adding any VAT. But if the publisher wants to set different prices, the company will let the publisher do so. Like on Steam, there is apparently no way to choose your currency, so European customers will sometimes be forced to pay more for the same game. Many publishers could now choose to set the same prices in USD, EUR and GBP on the Humble Store and Steam.
For now, the Humble Store only added Euro and British Pound. If you don’t live in a country that accepts these currencies, you will still pay in U.S. dollars. The big bundles and the weekly bundles will still work the same way — everything will be in USD.