Robot eyes. That’s a terrifying sentence. But robotics vision is an immense area of research interest, and a key technological field in terms of building the future of a wide variety of devices. That’s why it’s very interesting that Dyson is putting a sizeable investment into robotics vision via a joint robotics lab being launched in collaboration with Imperial College London.
The investment is worth £5 million (or around $8 million U.S.) and covers a five-year period. The lab will be working on robotics vision systems that are designed to help the next-gen of robots not only see things the way that humans do, but also process that visual information in a manner that better approximates human understanding.
For those unfamiliar with the field, it covers a broad range of potential uses: A friend with a graduate degree in robotics vision engineering helps design systems for production lines that inspect the products being built for quality assurance purposes. Typically, these offer up margins of error that are tiny compared to the standards established by human inspectors.
Dyson is no stranger to conducting robotics research – the company has been exploring that area of interest for the past 15 years, according to the company. With Imperial College London specifically, it’s been working on developing systems that can view, interpret and “logically navigate” their surroundings. This applies to robotic vacuums in terms of Dyson’s business interest (the company mentions this product category specifically, so watch out Roomba) but it’s not their only goal in terms of applied robotics.
What this signals for Dyson is a graduation of sorts, as the company moves from thinking about robotics as an area of sustained but relatively light interest, into something it would like to ramp up on the production side. Hopefully at the end of these next five years, we’ll all be living with an army of Dyson home cleaning automatons, but at the very least we should see some advancements in terms of the ocular powers of our robotic friends.
Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen may have pulled down his simple but maddening mobile game from the App Store and Google Play on Sunday, but that hasn’t stopped the swelling interest in the success of the seemingly impossible little app – success which, apparently, became too overwhelming for Nguyen to handle. Since then, the game has popped up on a number of places, including torrent sites, phones listed on eBay for $99,999 (I can’t believe those are serious bids), in a statement provided by Nintendo to counter rumors that they’re to blame for the game’s demise (it’s fine Nguyen copied Super Mario’s pipes, really!), and elsewhere.
But the absence of the official version of the Flappy Bird game has also led to the take-off of several would-be competitors and general clones, which are now filling the App Store’s and Google Play’s top charts. (And even the Pebble Appstore, I kid you not.)
In spots #1, 2, 5, and 20 on iTunes are Flappy Bird look-a-likes “Fly Birdie,” “Ironpants,” “Flappy Bee,” and “Flappy Plane,” respectively. And they’re only the ones that have risen to the top of the heap. A search for keyword “Flappy” on the App Store reveals even more developers – 81 in total now, and counting – who are looking to take advantage of the still strong interest in the title. Some of these include other Flappy Bird wannabes like “Flappy Penguin,” for example, while others are simply stuffing unrelated apps with the “flappy” keyword, like several camera apps now appear to be doing.
As with Flappy Bird itself, the charts for the clones show similar impressive growth trends, driven not by bots and paid downloads (though some would disagree) but rather the continuation of the viral growth that is the “Flappy Bird fiasco of 2014.”
Meanwhile, on Google Play, “Ironpants” has climbed to spot No. 11 and is trailed by “Clumsy Bird” at No. 19.
The question now is how long will our Flappy Bird obsession last? Does the app’s rise to the top of the App Store foreshadow a renewed interest in more basic mobile games that anyone can play with a few seconds to spare? That’s something that may only be answered in time, of course, but it’s worth pointing out that Flappy Bird itself may have tapped into a previously under-served demographic: children with smartphones.
When Nguyen spoke to TechCrunch, he had noted that, while he didn’t know how his app had become so popular, it was strong in the children’s demographic. “Most of my players are kids in schools,” he had said.
With ever-younger children getting smartphones that are being added to families’ shared data plans, and as the costs for those plans also come down, it’s possible that Flappy Bird was the first of many apps yet to come that is able to tap into schoolyard word-of-mouth, the way that apps before it have instead set their sights on college campuses.
In the future, will “it’s a hit on all the playgrounds,” be the new “it’s spreading among university students?” I guess we’ll soon find out.
Microsoft’s Power BI For Office 365 Comes Out Of Preview, Simplifies Data Analysis And Visualizations
After more than half a year in limited preview, Microsoft today launched Power BI for Office 365, its Business Intelligence for Office 365 Enterprise subscribers. In combination with Excel, Power BI allows users to model and analyze their data and query large datasets with complex natural-language queries. The tool also allows users to easily visualize their data in Excel with the help of Power View and Power Map.
As Eron Kelly, Microsoft’s general manager for SQL Server product marketing, told me, most business users feel so comfortable using Excel, that the company decided not to build a new dashboard for Power BI. “We want to make use of the ubiquity of Excel,” he said, and Power BI will allow far more users access to critical business intelligence tools than ever before.
Instead of having to go to IT and ask for data, wait for it, and then probably ask IT to slice the data in a different way again, tools like Power BI allow for self-service business intelligence. The barrier to entry is relatively low, and as the volume of available data increases and companies look to make their processes more data-driven, Microsoft hopes that Power BI will become the go-to choice for enterprises.
Despite the self-service model, though, IT still remains in control of what data is shared. Microsoft allows IT admins to set up data sources for their users, but what makes the tool especially powerful is that this data can be mixed with publicly available data, too. That can come from Microsoft’s Azure Marketplace, but for advanced users, the tool will also allow you to query any REST API or service that uses OData, too.
The stand-out feature of Power BI, however, is its Q&A tool. This allows you to ask a question about your data in natural language. Say you are looking at public data about New York you’ve pulled in from the city’s open APIs. With Power BI, you can now ask for “noise complaints on Superbowl Sunday compared to an average day” and the tool will happily give you the answer. The technology behind this feature is based on a combination of work done by Microsoft Research and the Bing team.
As a part of Office 365, Power BI is only available through a subscription and only available as an add-on to Office 365 Enterprise customers.
Headliner.fm, a site where users promote each other’s content, is taking on a new name, CoPromote, and announcing that it has raised $1.8 million in seed funding.
If you’re a CoPromote user, the site recommends content that’s relevant to your interests, which you can then share on Facebook, Twitter, and other networks. You can enter your own content into the system too, where it’s promoted in a similar fashion by other users. The system uses a virtual currency called Karma Cash, which you receive for promoting other people’s content and pay to promote your own.
Founder and CEO Mike More said the site was originally designed for musicians, but it now serves a variety of creators and marketers, such as bloggers, charities, app developers, small businesses, and online video producers. The “fm” in the company name continues to confuse some people, making them think it’s still limited to musicians, which is why the company is now rebranding as CoPromote.
More acknowledged that there are other services, such as Klout, trying to sell businesses on getting posts and tweets from social “influencers”, but he said they’re mostly focused on large brand advertisers, not the smaller content creators and content marketers that CoPromote is targeting. He added that advertising on a site like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube doesn’t make sense for these marketers, because “they do not deliver the one action which content marketers value the most: shares or retweets in a manner which [makes] economic sense.”
The worry, I suppose, is that people feel incentivized to just spam their followers with random links, but that’s why More emphasized CoPromote’s ability to match relevant content with the right users, as well as the effectiveness of the company’s campaigns. The product is supposedly used by 45,000 people daily, and that it leads to 26 times more sharing of a post.
You can use the service for free, but you have to pay for features like the ability to run more than one campaign at once.
The funding was led by ff Venture Capital (which recently raised a new fund of its own) with participation from Correlation Ventures, AlphaPrime Ventures, The Social Internet Fund, and Greg Raifman, president of Rubicon Project.
Shazam’s iPhone app is getting an overhaul, starting with a release that puts a larger focus on TV results, music videos and lyrics, the company is announcing today. The update is the first of what Shazam describes as “a larger refresh of the app,” which is expected to roll out over the month ahead.
In the new version arriving today, the app, which now reaches 150 million iPhone users, will see a new tag result experience – tagging, meaning here the process of identifying a piece of audio and matching it to its source. The idea with the refreshed design and user interface is to encourage users to take additional steps after that identification has taken place. That’s arguably been one of Shazam’s weaker spots to date, as the app has struggled to break free of its more utilitarian aspects involving music identification, to become more of a social network or music discovery service of its own.
Now the company is making over what happens after the music (or TV show) is found with a new user interface that more heavily emphasizes the tools allowing users to preview the track on streaming services like Rdio and Spotify, watch the lyrics roll by in real-time, share the music on social networks, or purchase the track from iTunes. The app will also point users directly to music videos, when relevant, and recommendations of other songs to check out.
Most notably, to end users, is the updated look-and-feel, which presents things in more of a card-style interface reminiscent of something like Google Now. However, the features Shazam is highlighting with the release are not new in and of themselves – they’re only being revamped and rearranged.
The updated app will arrive on iTunes, with the Android version to follow in a few weeks.
[Note: as of the time of writing the updated app had not hit iTunes, but it should arrive shortly.]
Back at CES in January, among all the fun and interesting new projects we investigated, one gadget stood out among the rest. That gadget was Urb-E.
And today, almost a month later, the Urb-E scooter is live on Indiegogo. As part of the campaign, the company is launching two separate models to consumers.
The first is the Urb-E commuter, which has three wheels instead of two, making for a more reliable and smooth ride. The Urb-E GP, on the other hand, only has two wheels and can thus make sharper turns, though both models have the same speed and power specifications.
The Urb-E folds up to the size of a rollerboard suitcase for easy handling, and weighs just under 30 pounds making it an easy last-leg vehicle for urban commuters.
Topping out at 15mph, the Urb-E can last up to 20 miles on a single charge. And to top it all off, the Urb-E is easily customizable thanks to inserts that fit within the frame, giving the Urb-E a nice accent color alongside the metal.
Plus, Urb-E comes with a compartment to charge your phone and check in on the charge of your Urb-E through a dedicated Urb-E app.
According to creator Grant Delgatti, Indiegogo felt like a better fit than Kickstarter for this type of product, which he believes will be highly appreciated by the Indiegogo community.
The Urb-E campaign has just begun, with a goal of $150k in 40 days. The lowest price point to secure an actual Urb-E is $1,599, for ultra-early adopters. However, Delgatti says that the final price will be closer to $1,799, with shipments expected to go out at the end of this summer.
If you’re interested in participating in the e-vehicle revolution, head on over to the Indiegogo campaign and check it out.
PlaceIQ, a startup that uses location data for mobile advertising, is announcing that it has raised $15 million in Series C funding.
The company was founded in 2010, back when most of the interest in location-based ads was focused on geofencing — i.e., if you’re close to a store, you get an ad for that store. CEO Duncan McCall told me that PlaceIQ’s approach is more about “a proprietary understanding of the world,” where location data is used to build a broader profile of user behavior, which in turn can be used for targeting ads and tracking their success.
In 2013, PlaceIQ says its headcount grew by more than 70 employees (444 percent). It claims to have achieved profitability as well, and it raised a $6.75 million round of funding.
So why does it need more money? McCall said that he told investors, “We’re not raising any money,” but VCs continued to show interest, and eventually he looked at the offers and decided that there was an opportunity to expand. He argued that location data can be used for more than mobile ads: “It’s sort of the next frontier for understanding consumer behavior.”
The round was led by Harmony Partners. New investor Iris Capital also participated, as did previous backers from the Series B, including US Venture Partners, IA Ventures, and Valhalla Partners.
PlaceIQ is also expanding its relationship with Publicis Group. The company was already working with Publicis’ agency SMG, but now it’s partnering with the ad giant’s innovation-focused group VivaKi to bring PlaceIQ technology to all Publicis agencies.
One of the big draws of PlaceIQ for agencies and brand advertisers, McCall said, is the fact that it offers them the aforementioned tracking and attribution. For example, if a travel company is running a campaign to convince people to visit a given state, PlaceIQ can tell them how many people actually came after they saw the ad, and if they’d been to the state before.
Update: The company previously told me their headcount grew 543 percent last year, but a spokesman now says the number is 444 percent. This post has been rewritten with the updated number.
More fintech news coming out of London. Kantox, a peer-to-peer foreign currency exchange for businesses, has raised €6.5 million in a series A investment. The round was led by Partech Ventures and Idinvest Partners, with participation from existing investor Cabiedes & Partners. It previously raised a 1 million Euro seed investment in July 2012.
Founded in 2011 by former Deloitte employee Philippe Gelis, London and Spain-based Kantox enables SMEs and “mid-caps” to exchange currency for the purpose of money transfer. Its trading platform displays the mid-market rates and offers businesses the opportunity to match their transaction requirements with other companies through its P2P model.
So, for example, you’re a company located in Europe who needs to pay your Chinese supplier in U.S. Dollars. Using the Kantox marketplace, you locate another company based in Europe who is exporting goods to the U.S. and has U.S. Dollars to sell in exchange of your Euros. By going the P2P route, cutting out banks and brokers, Kantox is able to offer a better exchange rate.
It claims more than 500 corporate clients across Europe and says in the just under three years since launch it’s traded $300 million. It currently supports the exchange of over 25 currencies, and has grown its team to 45 employees.
Kantox says the new capital will be used to further develop its technology and “consolidate its presence across Europe’, as it continues to pitch its FX trading platform as a more cost-effective and transparent alternative to banks and brokers. If that sounds familiar, it’s because, along with those incumbents, the company competes with a host of other P2P currency exchanges in Europe.
Competitors include Dublin-based CurrencyFair, which recently raised a further $2.5 million led by Frontline Ventures, bring total funding to ~$4 million; TransferWise, backed by Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures, SV Angel, IA Ventures, Index, Seedcamp, and TAG; and Lithuanian-based TransferGo, which also operates a P2P model to undercut the banks, and recently raised a modest €200,000 in funding to launch in the UK.
The new mobile video platform also underscores InMobi’s growing ambitions beyond being a pure ad network, and seriously challenge Google and Facebook as a more broad-based rival in the ecosystem. Last year in October, InMobi launched a white label app store for publishers to boost mobile ads.
InMobi CEO Naveen Tewari told me that over next 6-12 months, nearly 30-40% of the company’s existing advertisers will shift to the new video platform.
“We believe at least 25% of the revenue we earn currently could move to video. It also unlocks a new set of advertisers, who were earlier going to television,” Tewari added.
His forecast doesn’t look unusual, especially given the early response from customers.
Around 9 partners invested $50,000 each during past few weeks in a global beta launch of the new platform, delivering around 200 million video views and over 60,000 conversions.
The new mobile platform goes beyond serving traditional videos that are more suited for television viewing, and increases customer engagement levels by five times, resulting in more revenue for the partners, the company said. All this is made possible by several innovations on the mobile front, apart from making good use of the contextual capabilities that came from the acquisition of Overlay Media last year.
For InMobi, which is expected to reach $1 billion revenue milestone in about two years (it crossed $500 million in annual revenue last year), this shift to mobile is crucial not only because that’s where more users are headed, but also because that’s the biggest battlefield for innovation going forward.
“We started with simple text ads, moved to banner ads, then native ad (released two weeks ago) and now moved to video. It’s a sign of how advertisers are evolving and more dollars are moving to video,” Tewari said.
With over 691 million users on its network (which is second only to Facebook), InMobi has raised $216 million so far from investors including SoftBank, Sherpalo Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. After raising $200 million from SoftBank in Series C in 2011, InMobi has made three acquisitions — MMTG Labs, Appstores.com and Overlay Media.
The key differentiator is contextualizing mobile video ads, which InMobi seems to be betting on since it acquired Overlay Media last year. But more importantly, these ads are also far more interactive and can create real-time transactions. This is made possible by four video formats being launched with the new platform — Interactive canvas, video smart ads, video continuum and form capture.
Basically, these formats will serve personalized ads that are location specific and contextualized. For instance, if you’re anywhere near a Starbucks on a hot summer afternoon, the video ads on your phone will serve ads of cold beverages. The new format will also enable real-time e-commerce by allowing users to click on the products displayed in an ad, and buy products immediately.
“We have in excess of one billion video ad impressions demonstrating the scale and reach of our offering,” said Piyush Shah, VP, Products of InMobi said in a statement.
InMobi’s transition to becoming a more broad-based mobile ad company reflects a much deeper shift in the market. As the installed base of smartphones is rising, users are spending much more time consuming content on their mobiles. Everybody from Google to Facebook are following this shift, and it’s becoming exciting to track how each one of them is innovating in a year when traditional banner ads are supposed to be dead.
Imagine that you are a teenager and the most annoying person in your class has a massive crush on you. Your would-be paramour keeps following you around like a lovesick puppy. What do you do? Well, if you have a particularly sadistic streak, you send your object of disaffection a message through Amazing Cupid. The twist? In order to see your note, he or she has to earn a certain number of points within a time limit, set by you, by playing a Flappy Bird clone. Otherwise the message disappears forever.
There are already tons of Flappy Bird knockoffs (in fact, one even took its #1 spot on the iOS charts after creator Dong Nguyen pulled the game out of the App Store) out there. But Amazing Cupid’s developer, TouchTen CEO Anton Soeharyo, is careful to point out that he got permission from Nguyen to copy Flappy Bird’s annoyingly addictive game mechanic before releasing Amazing Cupid, which Nguyen confirmed to me by email.
Amazing Cupid is currently available only in the Google Play store, but the iOS build has already been submitted to the App Store and Indonesia-based TouchTen hopes it will be available for download by Valentine’s Day.
Soeharyo also says that TouchTen has not monetized Amazing Cupid and the only ads inside the app are for the studio’s other games. Instead, he made Amazing Cupid to test out the messaging feature. If it proves successful, Soeharyo plans to insert it into other TouchTen releases as the Jakarta-based studio, which is backed by CyberAgent Ventures, builds its mobile gaming platform.
Instead of a flappy bird, the game features a blue-haired cupid. Your goal is to keep him from crashing into a never-ending series of Doric columns. If you fail, Amazing Cupid treats you to tidbits of verbal abuse like “No wonder you’re alone.” or “Why am I grumpy? You are my only friend.” If you succeed, you eventually gain access to your secret message.
Amazing Cupid also has a game-only mode, in case you really don’t have any friends. To make the game more difficult (and addicting), TouchTen added a few features that weren’t in Flappy Bird. For example, there are three levels: normal, hard, and “impossibro.”
I told Soeharyo that Amazing Cupid is funny but evil.
“That’s kind of the idea,” he said. Soeharyo first thought about self-destructing secret messages after realizing that many teenagers use Snapchat to send silly and obnoxious photos to their friends. “But Snapchat is just too easy. You send something and it disappears. So I thought, what if I add some gamification?”
If the messaging feature proves popular, Soeharyo thinks companies and celebrities can use TouchTen’s games as a marketing tool. For example, they can hold contests with a special prize for the first person who sees their message or have it be a promo code.
Soeharyo hopes to meet up with Nguyen one day. On his Twitter account, Nguyen, who runs indie game studio .GEARS, declared that he now “hates” Flappy Bird the game’s popularity ruined his “simple life.”
“I feel for Dong. He is overwhelmed. I was surprised that he was really friendly to me even though we hadn’t met before. It turns out that he’s a good guy and a good person,” Soeharyo said. “He mentioned on Twitter that he’s coming to Jakarta, so I hope to see him. I don’t want to force him, but if he wants to then maybe we can work on something together.”
Hot on the heels of Silicon Valley competitor Xola raising $1.8 million last week, Swiss startup TrekkSoft, which offers a SaaS for tour and activity providers, has raised $800,000 in follow-on funding, bringing the total raised to $1.6 million.
The new investment comes from the company’s original backers, including Redalpine Capital II, the Innovation Fund of Schwyzer Kantonalbank, and a group of private investors comprising Armin Meier (former CEO of Kuoni), Walter Güntensperger (CEO of Active Travel and former CEO of Hotelplan Switzerland), and Adrian Locher (founder and COO of DeinDeal.ch).
Rather than targeting consumers directly, TrekkSoft primarily offers a B2B solution to enable tour and other activity providers to promote, manage and sell their tours online, offline and on mobile. It’s designed to let them manage prices, capacity and sales channels from one platform — specifically supporting real-time, online bookings of live inventory both online and in-destination via mobile devices.
In addition, TrekkSoft includes an integrated payment gateway, tour management software, and a CMS with a suite of promotional tools including social media integration, and agent tracking.
For tour and activity providers, TrekkSoft is free at sign-up, with no fixed fees, or set-up costs. Instead it charges 6% plus a $.50 transaction fee on any online booking, which includes credit card and PSP fees. All offline reservations and bookings — i.e. those where payment isn’t processed via TrekkSoft — are free of charge, such as POS bookings, telephone reservations, direct payment on arrival etc.
In a statement, TrekkSoft co-founder and CEO Jon Fauver talked up the challenge of offering a pure B2C marketplace for tours and activities, noting the fragmented nature of the market, “high inventory acquisition cost, and lack of live inventory online.”
Instead the company has chosen to go the B2B route with a SaaS that makes it easy for tour and activity providers to bring their inventory online, along with facilitating direct sales, and enabling them to connect to extended distribution partners via the TrekkSoft Channel Manager.
In this sense, TrekkSoft is able to act as a conduit between tour and activity providers and B2C offerings — either the tour and activity operator’s own sites or those of partners.
Since launch in 2010 TrekkSoft says it’s processed over 850,000 tour & activity bookings and grown its live inventory to more than 4,800 tours in 115 different countries. Companies using Trekksoft range from one person owner operators to large tour operators.
It’s also recently partnered with TripAdvisor to jointly collect reviews for both properties and help drive sales for tour and activity providers.