Banuba raises $7M to supercharge any app or device with the ability to really see you – TechCrunch
Walking into the office of Viktor Prokopenya — which overlooks a central London park — you would perhaps be forgiven for missing the significance of this unassuming location, just south of Victoria Station in London. While giant firms battle globally to make augmented reality a “real industry,” this jovial businessman from Belarus is poised to launch a revolutionary new technology for just this space. This is the kind of technology some of the biggest companies in the world are snapping up right now, and yet, scuttling off to make me a coffee in the kitchen is someone who could be sitting on just such a company.
Regardless of whether its immediate future is obvious or not, AR has a future if the amount of investment pouring into the space is anything to go by.
In 2016 AR and VR attracted $2.3 billion worth of investments (a 300 percent jump from 2015) and is expected to reach $108 billion by 2021 — 25 percent of which will be aimed at the AR sector. But, according to numerous forecasts, AR will overtake VR in 5-10 years.
Apple is clearly making headway in its AR developments, having recently acquired AR lens company Akonia Holographics and in releasing iOS 12 this month, it enables developers to fully utilize ARKit 2, no doubt prompting the release of a new wave of camera-centric apps. This year Sequoia Capital China, SoftBank invested $50 million in AR camera app Snow. Samsung recently introduced its version of the AR cloud and a partnership with Wacom that turns Samsung’s S-Pen into an augmented reality magic wand.
The IBM/Unity partnership allows developers to integrate into their Unity applications Watson cloud services such as visual recognition, speech to text and more.
So there is no question that AR is becoming increasingly important, given the sheer amount of funding and M&A activity.
Joining the field is Prokopenya’s “Banuba” project. For although you can download a Snapchat-like app called “Banuba” from the App Store right now, underlying this is a suite of tools of which Prokopenya is the founding investor, and who is working closely to realize a very big vision with the founding team of AI/AR experts behind it.
The key to Banuba’s pitch is the idea that its technology could equip not only apps but even hardware devices with “vision.” This is a perfect marriage of both AI and AR. What if, for instance, Amazon’s Alexa couldn’t just hear you? What if it could see you and interpret your facial expressions or perhaps even your mood? That’s the tantalizing strategy at the heart of this growing company.
Better known for its consumer apps, which have been effectively testing their concepts in the consumer field for the last year, Banuba is about to move heavily into the world of developer tools with the release of its new Banuba 3.0 mobile SDK. (Available to download now in the App Store for iOS devices and Google Play Store for Android.) It’s also now secured a further $7 million in funding from Larnabel Ventures, the fund of Russian entrepreneur Said Gutseriev, and Prokopenya’s VP Capital.
This move will take its total funding to $12 million. In the world of AR, this is like a Romulan warbird de-cloaking in a scene from Star Trek.
Banuba hopes that its SDK will enable brands and apps to utilise 3D Face AR inside their own apps, meaning users can benefit from cutting-edge face motion tracking, facial analysis, skin smoothing and tone adjustment. Banuba’s SDK also enables app developers to utilise background subtraction, which is similar to “green screen” technology regularly used in movies and TV shows, enabling end-users to create a range of AR scenarios. Thus, like magic, you can remove that unsightly office surrounding and place yourself on a beach in the Bahamas…
Because Banuba’s technology equips devices with “vision,” meaning they can “see” human faces in 3D and extract meaningful subject analysis based on neural networks, including age and gender, it can do things that other apps just cannot do. It can even monitor your heart rate via spectral analysis of the time-varying color tones in your face.
It has already been incorporated into an app called Facemetrix, which can track a child’s eyes to ascertain whether they are reading something on a phone or tablet or not. Thanks to this technology, it is possible to not just “track” a person’s gaze, but also to control a smartphone’s function with a gaze. To that end, the SDK can detect micro-movements of the eye with subpixel accuracy in real time, and also detects certain points of the eye. The idea behind this is to “Gamify education,” rewarding a child with games and entertainment apps if the Facemetrix app has duly checked that they really did read the e-book they told their parents they’d read.
If that makes you think of a parallel with a certain Black Mirror episode where a young girl is prevented from seeing certain things via a brain implant, then you wouldn’t be a million miles away. At least this is a more benign version…
Banuba’s SDK also includes “Avatar AR,” empowering developers to get creative with digital communication by giving users the ability to interact with — and create personalized — avatars using any iOS or Android device.Prokopenya says: “We are in the midst of a critical transformation between our existing smartphones and future of AR devices, such as advanced glasses and lenses. Camera-centric apps have never been more important because of this.” He says that while developers using ARKit and ARCore are able to build experiences primarily for top-of-the-range smartphones, Banuba’s SDK can work on even low-range smartphones.
The SDK will also feature Avatar AR, which allows users to interact with fun avatars or create personalised ones for all iOS and Android devices. Why should users of Apple’s iPhone X be the only people to enjoy Animoji?
Banuba is also likely to take advantage of the news that Facebook recently announced it was testing AR ads in its newsfeed, following trials for businesses to show off products within Messenger.
Banuba’s technology won’t simply be for fun apps, however. Inside two years, the company has filed 25 patent applications with the U.S. patent office, and of six of those were processed in record time compared with the average. Its R&D center, staffed by 50 people and based in Minsk, is focused on developing a portfolio of technologies.
Interestingly, Belarus has become famous for AI and facial recognition technologies.
For instance, cast your mind back to early 2016, when Facebook bought Masquerade, a Minsk-based developer of a video filter app, MSQRD, which at one point was one of the most popular apps in the App Store. And in 2017, another Belarusian company, AIMatter, was acquired by Google, only months after raising $2 million. It too took an SDK approach, releasing a platform for real-time photo and video editing on mobile, dubbed Fabby. This was built upon a neural network-based AI platform. But Prokopenya has much bolder plans for Banuba.
In early 2017, he and Banuba launched a “technology-for-equity” program to enroll app developers and publishers across the world. This signed up Inventain, another startup from Belarus, to develop AR-based mobile games.
Prokopenya says the technologies associated with AR will be “leveraged by virtually every kind of app. Any app can recognize its user through the camera: male or female, age, ethnicity, level of stress, etc.” He says the app could then respond to the user in any number of ways. Literally, your apps could be watching you.
So, for instance, a fitness app could see how much weight you’d lost just by using the Banuba SDK to look at your face. Games apps could personalize the game based on what it knows about your face, such as reading your facial cues.
Back in his London office, overlooking a small park, Prokopenya waxes lyrical about the “incredible concentration of diversity, energy and opportunity” of London. “Living in London is fantastic,” he says. “The only thing I am upset about, however, is the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and what it might mean for business in the U.K. in the future.”
London may be great (and will always be), but sitting on his desk is a laptop with direct links back to Minsk, a place where the facial recognition technologies of the future are only now just emerging.
Years after its Audm acquisition, The New York Times launches its own audio app
Several years ago, The New York Times acquired audio journalism app Audm with the goal of using it as the basis of its own audio product. Today, the media company is unveiling the result of that work with the official debut of New York Times Audio — a new mobile app that combines the publication’s top podcasts, like “The Daily,” “The Ezra Klein Show,” “Hard Fork,” “Modern Love,” “The Run-Up,” and others, with those made exclusively for the new platform. These will range from short news briefs to lifestyle content to narrated longform journalism and more.
Plus, thanks to its $25 million acquisition of the production studio behind “Serial,” the app includes content related to that deal, as well. This includes the namesake show itself, plus new shows from the studio like “The Trojan Horse Affair,” “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” and others, as well as “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass, among others.
The Times has heavily invested in audio programming as another way to reach its audience, and particularly those who want to engage with its journalism while on the go — like when commuting, walking their dog, running, or traveling, for example. But, typically, NYT’s content is accessed through the third-party platforms where users already stream their podcasts, like Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Isolating that content in its own app gives NYT a more direct relationship with its audience, of course, which means it can also collect more data on user behavior, like what people stream and download. (Plus, it could sell its own ads). But its appeal could be limited given that the app will not have a podcast catalog to rival existing platforms, where people already stream their favorite NYT shows, like “The Daily.”
And, with the addition of exclusives to NYT Audio, listeners will have to constantly toggle between apps to hear all the shows they want to tune into — and that’s not necessarily something they’ll want to do.
Even Spotify belatedly realized that its exclusive strategy with podcasts was not paying off. The company once believed it could entice users with big names and could generate its own popular originals by purchasing studios, but it has since pivoted to focus more on being the hosting platform rather than the creator, laying off top podcast execs in the process. NPR also recently canceled four of its podcasts amid its own set of layoffs, which makes for an uncertain market ahead for NYT Audio.
Still, there could be some attraction for NYT loyalists or those who haven’t already made podcast listening a part of their routines, and will see this new app as a sort of value-add on top of their existing subscription. For the crowd willing to give the app a try, there will be a number of new shows to sample.
For starters, there’s a new morning show called “The Headlines,” hosted by Times reporter Annie Correal, that will catch you up on top stories in 10 minutes or less and let you hear from reporters across NYT’s newsroom. Meanwhile, a new short-form series, “Shorts,” will offer lifestyle content like recipe idea, TV and book recommendations, travel inspiration, and tips for living well.
A feature called “The Magazine Stand” will offer a curated selection of narrated longform journalism from other outlets, which is essentially what Audm had provided.
The company says that, as a result of this launch, the standalone Audm app will now be sunset. All existing Audm iOS subscribers will automatically transition to NYT Audio at the same monthly or annual rate, so they can continue accessing their existing narrated article content.
There is also a “Daily Playlist” that pieces together top stories, culture stories and other content into an hour or less and a “Reporter Reads” feature where journalists read their own work and share additional context around the story.
“This American Life,” “Serial” and other shows from Serial Productions are also included, along with sports talk shows from “The Athletic.”
The NYT’s audio app has been in beta testing for roughly a year and half before today’s arrival, and is available to all news subscribers.
The company notes it has no plans to pull any of its existing content from third-party platforms, like Apple or Spotify, as a result of this launch.
The app’s arrifval follows The New York Times’ expanded investment in its own lineup of dedicated mobile apps which now include the popular NYT Cooking app, and, more recently, an updated NYT Games (previously, Crossword), which recently benefitted from its Wordle acquistion.
“We’re thrilled to introduce more people to a new way of experiencing The New York Times,” said Stephanie Preiss, senior vice president and general manager, Audio, in a launch announcement. “Audio journalism has the power to bring stories to life, and our app now allows our audience to take The Times with them — on dog walks, while commuting — in moments when reading isn’t an option. Offering New York Times Audio to news subscribers is just one way we’re adding more value to a Times subscription, in more moments throughout their day,” she added.
The New York Times Audio app is iOS-only.
As of the time of writing, it’s moved up to the No. 5 slot in the U.S. App Store’s News section.
Roku launches new sports hub dedicated to women’s sporting events
Roku is giving sports fans what they want—better access to women’s live sports. The company announced Wednesday the launch of Women’s Sports Zone, a new centralized hub that makes it easier for users to search, discover and stream women’s sports programming, from live games, matches and events to on-demand and free content.
Women’s Sports Zone will provide games from the National Women’s Soccer League, US Women’s World Cup, US Women’s Open, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) and more. In addition, fans can watch free female-focused sports content on The Roku Channel, such as the Women’s Sports Network, “The Longshots,” “Prodigy” and “Bring It!” among others.
Plus, the newly launched hub comes as the 2023 WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) season tips off this Friday, May 19, giving Roku users the ability to stream all games across channels like ESPN, ABC, CBS and CBS Sports Network, along with streaming services like ESPN+, Paramount+, Prime Video and WNBA League Pass.
The Women’s Sports Zone is located within Roku’s sports experience. Users can scroll down to the “Sports” tab on the home screen to find the new hub. They can also search for “women’s sports” or a favorite team or league in Roku Search or by using Roku Voice with the TV remote.
Demand around women’s sports increases year after year, with 30% of U.S. sports fans saying they’re watching more women’s sports than they were five years ago, per a 2022 study by the National Research Group. Additionally, 85% of sports fans — including 79% of men – agree that it’s essential for women’s sports to continue growing in popularity. Just by looking at the WNBA alone, viewership has grown dramatically for the league. Its 2022 season garnered an average of 416,000 viewers across all networks, making it the most-watched full season since 2006.
“The popularity and demand for women’s sports is greater than ever, and at Roku, we continue to commit to elevating this important programming for our customers,” said Kelli Raftery, Roku’s VP of Global Communications, in a statement. “At a time when it is harder than ever to find what you want to watch, our new Women’s Sports Zone makes it easier for fans to get to the content they love, and it arrives just in time for the tip-off of the WNBA season this Friday.”
Disney+ changes up its release model, plans to launch all ‘Echo’ episodes at once
President of Marvel Studios Kevin Fiege took to the Disney Upfront stage Tuesday to announce that Marvel’s new Disney+ show, “Echo,” is getting a binge release– a first for an MCU series. Disney+ will drop all Season 1 episodes on November 29.
The “Hawkeye” spinoff stars Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez, a deaf Native American character who has photographic reflexes. She is the adoptive daughter of supervillain Kingpin (played by Vincent D’Onofrio), however, has been known to fight alongside Daredevil, who wants to take down the criminal underworld. It’s reported that Charlie Cox is returning as Daredevil in “Echo.”
This will be the fourth female-led MCU series on Disney+, joining “Wandavision,” “She-Hulk” and “Ms. Marvel.”
Disney’s new binge strategy is a surprising move for the company and follows in the footsteps of rival Netflix, which swears by its bingeable release model as it drives “substantial engagement, especially for newer titles,” Netflix previously said in its Q3 2022 shareholder letter.
Disney+ tested the waters with its Star Wars titles, starting off with “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” which was the first live-action Star Wars show to premiere with multiple episodes. Meanwhile, “Andor” had a three-episode premiere and was the longest live-action Disney+ season with 12 episodes.
It’s likely the company feels the pressure to change up its release approach after losing four million Disney+ subscribers in the recent quarter, bringing the total to 157.8 million. In the first quarter of 2023, the streaming service saw its first subscriber loss, dropping 2.4 million subs.
Disney plans to save $5.5 billion in overall costs, with $3 billion going toward content savings.
The move also comes as Marvel rethinks its game plan. Fiege previously said the studio wants to be more calculated about which MCU projects get released. It’s been argued that many fans are overwhelmed by the wave of superhero shows, and it’s time for Marvel to slow it down a bit.
“It is harder to hit the zeitgeist when there’s so much product out there — and so much ‘content,’ as they say, which is a word that I hate,” Fiege said in an Entertainment Weekly interview. “But we want Marvel Studios and the MCU projects to really stand out and stand above. So, people will see that as we get further into Phase 5 and 6. The pace at which we’re putting out the Disney+ shows will change so they can each get a chance to shine.”
So, instead of airing episodes week to week, the decision to release “Echo” as a complete season looks to be the beginning of a deliberate effort to gradually reduce the MCU release schedule.
During the Upfronts presentation, Fiege also revealed the official premiere date for “Loki” Season 2, which is coming to Disney+ on October 6.
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