Amazon Prime Video will now show pay-per-view UFC fights



If you’re a UFC fan you’ll now have another place to watch fights – Amazon Prime Video.

The online retailers just announced that starting with UFC 222 on March 3rd, all pay-per-view UFC fights will be available to buy and watch on Amazon prime.

Fights can be preordered and also purchased up to four hours after the start time (in case you want to tune in late just for a title fight) and purchasers will also be able to rewind during the event and replay it within a 24-hoiur window.

It’s the first time live pay-per-view material is being made available on Amazon Prime Video, and is another reminder that the platform thinks live sports are an important component of an attractive content offering.

While UFC’s fights are available to buy and stream on their own website, this deal is important because it adds a viewing option where many more potential viewers will likely already have accounts and payment methods on file. No one likes signing up for a service or downloading a new streaming app on their device, so having UFC pay-per-view available for Prime members to easily buy should lead to more viewers and purchases, especially for the more casual fan.

Featured Image: Jeff Bottari / Zuffa LLC/Getty Images



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See you tonight in New York



 A reminder that I’m going to have Paul Vigna and Michael Casey, authors of The Truth Machine, onstage with me next week at Knotel, a co-working and event space in Manhattan. I’ll see you there tonight. RSVPs are closed. It starts at 7pm and will feature a 35-minute talk with two of the top writers in crypto. These guys literally wrote the book on bitcoin and their new book is about… Read More





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Piccolo is building a gesture-based smart home ‘vision assistant’



Voice assistants may be the hottest thing since sliced bread when it comes to controlling your $60 wifi light bulbs, but Piccolo is launching out of the latest Y Combinator class with a desire to put a camera in every smart home that can translate your physical motions and gestures into commands.

The company’s “Vision Assistant” product works pretty simply, users place the camera in their house and then once they get it fixed in position, they fire up the app and drag boxes over the internet-connected appliances or TVs or lights. From there, the Piccolo camera is basically looking to record your geometry through what’s called skeletal tracking — don’t worry it’s not using an X-ray or anything — which puts your movement into a model that tracks your body position. From there, the device will know where you’re pointing your hand and can interface with the compatible smart home item. It does more than just turn stuff on and off, they’re experimenting with gestures to fast forward through a Netflix show, change modes on the fan, etc. etc.

Founders Marlon Misra and Neil Raina started studying the technologies behind Piccolo through an interest in self-driving cars. The pair of buddies emerged from taking Udacity’s self-driving program in 2016 with an interest in perceptual engines and their far-flung capabilities, an interest which eventually turned to controlling the smart home with body movements.

The team isn’t aiming to replace your Echo or Google Home, this product would very much be sitting in parallel as a camera that can also control your home. This also means that they have to build support for each smart home product they want to control. The startup is currently in the pilot program phase and they’re hoping to launch via a crowdfunding campaign in the future. (You can join a waitlist on their site to get deets on when exactly)

There are definitely limitations from the existing setup, namely that it’s all pretty 2D at the moment and because of this, things seem like they would get pretty wonky if you had a bunch of smart home products stuffed into your casa. The team said that a hefty chunk of what they’re working with is subject to change and that they’re looking at the possibility of adding something like a depth camera.

One of the company’s biggest hurdles is likely getting people to feel comfortable tossing an internet-connected camera in their homes, but while people are skeptical of Google and Amazon because they have a pronounced interest to tailor ads as tightly as possible, the founders tell me they feel like they may have an advantage simply because they are a scrappy upstart that doesn’t have the scale or diverging interests of their competitors.

Other like Leap Motion have attempted (time and time again) to get hand movement controls for tech products to take off. Where Piccolo says its advantage is, is that their technology works from a further distance so you won’t need one of these things attached to every appliance in your home. In an effort to cut down on false positives, the team is currently leading users to raise their hand straight up and then point straight to the object. This is ultimately not that much lower-effort than telling Alexa to kill the lights, but the team’s ultimate ambitions are focused on getting the tracking tight enough that they can tell what you want from minor hand movements.

It’s early days but as computer vision advances bring new functionality to things like smart security cameras, there’s reason to see that the indoor camera could be the key to finding the full potential of the smart home assistant as well.



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Facebook Watch to live-stream ‘The Oscars: All Access’



Awards season might be coming to a close, but there is still one awards show left, and it’s a big one. The Academy Awards airs Sunday, March 4.

The awards show will air live on ABC, but Facebook users will also have the ability to tune in to “The Oscars: All Access” via Facebook Watch. The Academy’s show page, ABC Television Network’s Facebook page, Oscar.com and ABCNews.com will all carry the stream.

The stream will include red carpet coverage, backstage behind-the-scenes footage, and live ‘look-ins’ to the Oscars broadcast itself. Plus, viewers on Facebook will also be able to ask for a ‘digital autograph’ from one of their favorite stars, whatever that means.

As cord-cutting becomes more prevalent, a handful of firms are competing to own the streaming space, whether it’s Hulu and YouTube with live streaming products or incumbents like ABC, CBS and others creating digital streaming products to air their content. But you can never count out social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which are working their way into live streaming via major events like NFL games and awards shows.

This isn’t Facebook’s first go at an event like this. In January, it aired the Golden Globes red carpet pre-show.

The stream begins on March 4 at 6:30 pm ET.

Featured Image: Andrew H Walker/Getty Images



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Haier jammed a tiny projector into a smartwatch for some reason



Sure wearables have been having a tough go of it lately, but maybe the problem is just a general lack of tiny projectors jammed into the products. It’s an idea a few folks have flirted with in the past, and it’s one the folks at Haier are ready to deliver in the future.

The Asu is a gigantic new smartwatch from the company that regularly brings you things like transparent and brain controllable televisions, in addition to the usual array of appliances . Never let it be said the company isn’t willing to take a risk with a bizarre and probably misguided idea. The idea here is the essentially augment the 1.54-inch display with a 480 x 854 projection directly onto the wearer’s screen. You can then interact with the projected image with touch.

The projector offers a much larger surface area than you get on a standard smartwatch (though that’s somewhat counteracted by the massive footprint required to house the technology), so there’s that. It can project things like workout stats and phone numbers as you’re typing them.

Novel? Kind of. Useful? Not especially. Mostly though, it seems like an a company doing whatever it takes to stand out in an overcrowded and somewhat flagging market. The company says it plans plans to start selling the product in China this year. It will be joined by a small tabletop projector that displays touchscreen surfaces, similar to Sony’s Xperia Touch.



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Hangouts Chat, Google’s Slack competitor, comes out of beta



Hangouts Chat, Google’s take on modern workplace communication, is now generally available and is becoming a core part of G Suite. Hangouts Chat was first announced at Google I/O 2017, together with Hangouts Meet. While Meet went right into public availability, though, Chat went into an invite-only preview. Now, Google is rolling Chat out to all G Suite users over the course of the next seven days.

For all intents and purposes, Hangouts Chat is Google’s take on Slack, Microsoft Teams and similar projects. Since Google first announced this project, Atlassian also joined the fray with the launch of Stride. Like its competitors, Chat is available on iOS, Android and the web.

All of these companies are essentially riffing on the same theme, but all of them put their own spin on it. For Google, that means a strong emphasis on AI. The best example for this is probably the @Meet bot that helps you schedule meetings and the @Drive bot that keeps you abreast of when files are shared with you or when people request access to one of your own documents.

Chat currently supports 28 languages and each room can have up to 8,000 members. What’s maybe just as important, though, is that Google has already built an ecosystem of partners who are integrating with Chat by offering their own bots. The include the likes of Xero, RingCentral, Uberconference, SalesForce, Zenefits, Zoom.ai, Jira, Trello, Wrike and Kayak. As far as I can see, Chat doesn’t currently offer built-in support for Giphy, though, which is obviously a problem that will hopefully be fixed soon.

Developers can also build their own bots and integrate their own services with Chat.

Deep integrations with Google’s own products are, of course, also part of Chat. These include the ability to start Hangouts Meet video conferences from Chat, built-in file uploads to Drive, Docs collaboration, etc.

Hangouts Chat is launching into an increasingly crowded field. There’s still plenty of space for growth, but a lot of enterprises have already placed their bets. Google’s advantage, of course, is that Chat is part of G Suite and companies that already use Google’s services won’t need to pay extra for it. Google surely also hopes that its machine learning-powered features and deep integrations with popular services will give it a leg up on the competition.

For consumers who just want to use Hangouts on their phones, this launch just adds to the confusion of which Google messaging services to use. Google’s overall positioning has long been clear: Duo and Allo are its consumer video and text chat apps and Hangouts Meet and Chat are their equivalents on the business side. But Allo never caught on and Hangouts happily lives on millions of smartphones (and there’s also Android Messages, but that’s more of a carrier and hardware OEM thing and all about traditional text messaging and RCS).

As for the rest of G Suite, Google also today announced the launch of a smart scheduling service that helps you find a convenient meeting room for your bi-weekly status meeting, as well as the launch of Quick Access in Docs, which uses machine learning to automatically surface the most relevant files. That’s similar to the Quick Access feature that already exists in Drive.



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Designed for enterprise, PullString Converse lets anyone create Alexa apps



PullString, the voice technology company that began its life as ToyTalk, and counts among its customers brands like Mattel, Activision, and Samsung, is today publicly launching software that allows non-technical creative professionals the ability to design, prototype and publish voice apps for Amazon Alexa.

Originally focused on helping companies build voice-enabled toys like Hello Barbie and Hello Barbie Dreamhouse, or allowing kids to chat with favorite characters like Thomas the Tank Engine, ToyTalk rebranded to PullString back in 2016 to reflect its expanded mission.

The company had found there was demand – perhaps more demand, in fact (and definitely less consumer backlash) – for the software toolkit it had built along the way to craft the narratives between children and their toys. This software became a platform that made it easy for anyone to build chatbots, and then, with the launch of the web-based PullString Converse in November 2017, the company shifted further away from chatbots, and more fully into voice computing.

Today, PullString Converse 1.0 is becoming broadly available to any interested customers.

“[Converse] will let a lot a companies – particularly the digital professionals who are not computer programmers – and let them build Alexa skills themselves and for the companies they work for,” says PullString CEO Oren Jacob, whose previous experience at Pixar comes into play here when it comes to understanding the design process.

Of course, “let anyone build a voice app” is a description that a number of other companies are today using, when talking about their own web-based, voice app design software. But PullString has a longer history in the business, and has learned about how best to structure conversations to give them a more natural feel thanks to the large-scale projects it’s handled, including those for Barbie, or Activision’s Alexa-enabled speaker “Ghost,” designed for Destiny 2, for instance.

“The best practices for how we build computer conversations are well-expressed in the system and the kinds of conversational blocks that you use, so it really helps you build the highest-quality conversation in the market, flat out, ” Jacob says.

In Converse, users build out their conversations visually on the screen by laying out conversation blocks on a canvas and customizing what they say (see above). To speed things up, Converse also includes a number of built-in conversation blocks, like those for greetings, navigation, Q&A, and more.

The software, Jacob notes, can also take advantage of the history of the person interacting with it. That is, the skill can respond differently to first-time users versus returning users. It can also remember support remembering users’ preferences and the responses shared in prior sessions to make skills feel more personalized. And when a user returns to the skill – even if it’s weeks or months later – they can pick right where they left off.

This aspect of the system is powered by PullString’s Conversation Cloud, which was originally built to power complex voice experiences, like Hello Barbie, and is capable of preserving the conversation states over time.

In addition, PullString Converse supports dynamic content. Instead of only stilted conversations, the software lets companies integrate their customers relations management, employee resource planning, content management system’s data, or anything other third-party API into their voice apps. That means customer support teams could build voice apps that take over some of the more lightweight customer service duties from call centers, for example, or digital marketers could capture leads through voice apps, PullString suggests. At launch, over 1,000 integrations are available.

Converse also supports custom audio, which allows the voice apps to use other voices, not just Alexa, as well as integrate sound effects and music.

When the skill has been built, PullString allows designers and others to preview the project instantly in the browser; and when it’s ready to go, PullString can publish it to Amazon’s Skill store.

This more advanced feature set differentiates PullString from some other voice app design software already on the market, and positions it as enterprise software. Pricing, as is common in enterprise scenarios, is handled on a case-by-case basis, depending on the customer’s needs.

PullString Converse today supports Amazon Alexa, but Google Assistant is planned for the future.

  1. Variables

  2. Canvas B

  3. Sharing

  4. Projects

  5. Canvas A

 



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Rodolfo Rosini enters VC, joins AI and machine learning accelerator Zeroth.ai as Partner



If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Rodolfo Rosini, a genuine serial entrepreneur and well-connected figure in the U.K. startup scene, is giving up startup life to move over to the “dark side” and become a VC.

He’s joined Zeroth.ai, the Hong Kong-based AI and machine learning-focused accelerator, as a Partner — a move Rosini tells me was inspired by the technology’s potential to drive “exponential growth” and his own learnings having founded three AI startups of his own, albeit with limited success.

The first was Storybricks, which ran from 2010 to 2015 and developed immersive, AI-driven storytelling for video games. Despite decent revenues — including a contract working on EverQuest Next for Sony — Rosini says that, in the end, the startup couldn’t scale.

This was followed by Weave.ai, an alumni of TechStars London 2015, which worked on merging machine learning and graph theory and ran for two years. “Ultimately the product could only be useful for existing AI agents and there was no way to go to market,” he says.

And then there was short-lived Kalitta, co-founded with Slush-founder Ville Vesterinen to deploy AI models on blockchains. Founded in late 2017, it was killed after just three months as the market was “too bubbly without any mass customer adoption”.

Prior to Rosini’s AI upstarts, he also founded a number of cybersecurity companies, all of which saw relative success, including Cellcrypt, which he successfully exited.

On joining Zeroth.ai, Rosini says he is bullish about AI because “it’s a force multiplier, bigger than any previous tech revolutions”. But, as it stands, there isn’t a stable supply of smart capital going into early stage AI, which he is hoping to help alter.

“Mobile changed some parts of the world a lot, so will blockchain, but if you look at how people lived 60 years ago (or 2000 years ago for that matter if you want to go extreme), we go through the same motions. We wake up, drive to work, use public transport, the way we consume etc, technology gave us more caloric leverage but the structure of society hasn’t changed,” he says.

“I believe we are headed towards exponential growth and the one technology behind it is AI. And I believe some things will be solved once (like transportation), and everything after that will have diminishing returns. So doesn’t make sense to run only one AI company right now, unless it’s GAFA-sized. And the advantage of an accelerator is that I can do things that they won’t”.

In addition to his multiple ventures, Rosini has been an advisor behind the scenes for a while, with TechStars (UK/US) and Entrepreneur First startups, and more recently Zeroth itself.

“Generally speaking I have been trying to help as many people without the expertise to navigate the London and SF tech scene which is hard if you don’t have the initial connections,” he adds. “When I moved to London in 2002 I knew four people in total so I know how hard it can be”.

I can personally attest to Rosini’s helpfulness. I first met him at a dinner shortly after I quit TechCrunch to do a startup of my own all the way back in 2011, where he offered to connect me with London VCs, not knowing we’d already raised.

And a couple of years ago I called him up to help me prepare for an AI panel I was appearing on. “I’ve got 20 minutes, teach me everything I need to know about Artificial Intelligence,” I said, ambitiously. Let’s just say, I didn’t end up looking like a fool.

Meanwhile, along with Rosini, Zeroth.ai has picked up another new partner. Sherman Lee, who previously founded Rocco.AI and GoodAudience.com, has also joined the AI and machine learning-focused accelerator where he’s focusing on funding AI and blockchain companies



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Apple Watch apps now track ski performance



Skiers, rejoice!

It just got a lot easier to track your mountain treks.

Due to an Apple Watch update that combines GPS and altimeter (altitude) measuring, ski apps are now able to quantify performance. If you’re wondering how many calories you’ve burned or how fast you were going, all that data is available and more.

The new features are rolling out today, with Ski Tracks, Slopes, SnocruSnoww, and Squaw Valley’s apps all getting updates. They are most compatible with Apple Watch Series 3 and an updated operating system of watchOS 4.2.

TechCrunch had the opportunity to get a sneak preview of the apps.

Slopes

 

Slopes was one of our favorites. The app lets you track your vertical feet, distance, heart rate, and lets you know exactly how much time you’re spending skiing versus waiting in lines and riding lifts. And it’s not just skiers. Slopes works for snowboarders, too. It tells you both your top and average speeds. It also shows you a map of your journey. The app auto-detects when you’re idle, so there’s no need to stop and restart with each run.  The app is free, but users can upgrade to “Season Pass” for $19.99 per year and receive terrain and satellite maps and more.

 

Snoww

Snoww is another app that helped us gauge performance. It also has the added focus of helping us connect and compete with friends. The latest update allows users to find their friends’ locations and access the app hands-free via Siri (important for when it’s freezing cold). There are leaderboards for tracking distance, speed, runs, hours and vertical feet. You can compare yourself against friends and also other local users of the app. Winners can unlock virtual “trophies,” although we think you’ll feel like a winner as long as you’re performing at your personal best.

 

Squaw

And if you are a fan of Lake Tahoe skiing, check out Squaw Valley’s app the next time you’re there. The mountain that was proudly the home of the 1960 Olympics, is looking to provide a modern ski experience, with an app that enables users to get real-time updates on wait times and lift closures. It will even tell you whether your friends are halfway up a chairlift, or nearing the bottom of a run. You can also purchase lift tickets and send group messages directly via the app. Workout metrics like average speeds and vertical feet are available, too.



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Baidu’s video business iQiyi to raise up to $1.5B in US IPO



Baidu’s iQiyi video division is set to become the latest Chinese tech company to go public in the U.S. after it filed to raise up to $1.5 billion via an IPO on the Nasdaq.

The service was started in 2010 by search giant Baidu, which owns a dominant 70 percent of the company. Xiaomi (eight percent) and Hillhouse (six percent) are the other major names that have backed it.

A Netflix-like service that include paid and ad-supported content, iQiyi claims to have over 50 million paying subscribers. The company says its content gets 420 million monthly viewers, with as many as 126 million tuning in on a daily basis.

The company is rivaled by Tencent’s video service and Alibaba-owned Youku Tudou. A recent report from eMarketer suggested that iQiyi holds a slim lead in the market but there’s plenty to play for. The Chinese video market forecast to expand from 22 billion RMB ($3.5 billion) in 2015 to 96.2 billion ($15.2 billion) RMB by 2020, according to IHS Markit.

The iQiyi story is one of high growth but also large losses. The company recorded revenue of 17.4 billion RMB in 2017 ($2.7 billion) which represented a 55 percent year-on-year jump and was tripled its revenue in 2015.

It has, however, been unprofitable since day one. iQiyi lost 3.7 billion RMB ($574 million) in 2017, as operating losses widened from 3.1 billion RMB and 2.6 billion RMB in 2016 and 2015, respectively.

That’s where Baidu comes in, and the search engine giant has propped iQiyi up financially and also let the company lean on its artificial intelligence technology and tap into its DuerOS smart operating system. Indeed, Baidu gave the company an interest-free $100 million loan last month, according to the filing.

It isn’t yet confirmed exactly how much iQiyi will raise from its public listing, but the company said the primary purpose of the IPO is to expand its content catalog using half of the proceeds. It also plans to develop its technology and stock up on working capital which could be used to fund acquisitions.

The iQiyi listing follows U.S.-based IPOs from Huami, Xiaomi’s wearables partner, in February and Tencent-backed search engine Sogou last November. Others that are expected to follow suit include Xiaomi and Tencent’s music division.

Featured Image: jonrussell/Flickr



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