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.
U.S. shopping app downloads on Black Friday reached a record 2.8M installs – TechCrunch
Many U.S. consumers spent this year’s Black Friday sales event shopping from home on mobile devices. That led to first-time installs of mobile shopping apps in the U.S. to break a new record for single-day installs on Black Friday 2020, according to a report from Sensor Tower. The firm estimates that U.S. consumers downloaded approximately 2.8 million shopping apps on November 27th — a figure that’s up by nearly 8% over last year.
However, this number doesn’t necessarily represent faster growth than in 2019, which also saw about an 8% year-over-year increase in Black Friday shopping app installs, the report noted. This could be because mobile shopping and the related app installs are now taking place throughout the month of November, though, as retailers adjusted to the pandemic and other online shopping trends by hosting earlier sales or even month-long sales events.
The data seems to indicate this is true. Between Nov. 1 and Nov. 29, U.S. consumers downloaded approximately 59.2 million shopping apps from across the App Store and Google Play — an increase of roughly 15% from the 51.7 million they downloaded in Nov. 2019. That’s a much higher figure than the 2% year-over-year growth seen during this same period in 2019.
Another shift taking place in mobile shopping is the growing adoption of app from brick-and-mortar retailers. During the first three quarters of 2020, apps from brick-and-mortar retailers grew installs 27%. This trend continued on Black Friday, when 5 out of the top 10 mobile shopping apps were those from brick-and-mortar retailers, led by Walmart.
Walmart saw the highest adoption this year, with around 131,000 Black Friday installs, followed by Amazon at 106,000, then Shopify’s Shop at 81,000. Combined, the top 10 apps saw 763,000 total new installs, or 27% of the first-time downloads in the Shopping category.
Because the firms are only looking at new app installs, they aren’t giving a full picture of the U.S. mobile shopping market, as many consumers already have these apps installed on their devices. And many more simply shop online via a desktop or laptop computer.
To give these figures some context, Shopify reported on Saturday it had seen record Black Friday sales of $2.4 billion, with 68% on mobile. And today, Amazon announced its small business sales alone topped $4.8 billion from Black Friday to Cyber Monday, a 60% year-over-year increase, but it didn’t break out the percentage that came from mobile.
Sensor Tower and rival app store analytics firm App Annie largely agreed on the top 5 shopping apps downloaded this Black Friday. They both saw Walmart again beating Amazon to become the most-downloaded U.S. shopping app on Black Friday — as it did in 2019. The two firms reported that Amazon remained No. 2 by downloads, followed by Shopify’s Shop app, then Target. However, Sensor Tower put Best Buy in 5th place, followed by Nike, while App Annie saw those positions swapped.
The rest of Sensor Tower’s top 10 included SHEIN, Sam’s Club, Klarna, then Offer Up, while App Annie’s list was rounded out by SHEIN, Sam’s Club, Wish, then Offer Up.
The pandemic’s impact may not have been obvious given the growth in online shopping this year, but the recession it triggered has played a role in how U.S. consumers are paying for their purchases. “Buy Now, Pay Later” apps like Klarna were up this year, even breaking into the top 10 per Sensor Tower’s data. The firm also noted that many new shopping apps launched this year focused on discounts and deals and retailers ran longer sales this year, as well.
Qualcomm announces the new Snapdragon 888 chip – TechCrunch
Qualcomm kicked off an all-virtual version of its annual summit this morning by announcing the launch of the the Snapdragon 888 platform. The chipmaker is clearly saving some key information for later in the virtual event, because it has yet to reveal a ton about its next SoC.
We do, however, have an extremely modest quote from Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon to go on: “Creating premium experiences takes a relentless focus on innovation. It takes long-term commitment, even in the face of immense uncertainty. It takes an organization that’s focused on tomorrow, to continue to deliver the technologies that redefine premium experiences.”
Granted, that’s more self-congratulatory than legitimately helpful. We do know that some key device makers have signed up to include the chip on future handsets, including ASUS, Black Shark, LG, MEIZU, Motorola, Nubia, realme, OnePlus, OPPO, Sharp, vivo, Xiaomi and ZTE.
Also, Qualcomm when ahead and blew past the expected 875. The company tells TechCrunch,
8 has always been a special number for Snapdragon. For over a decade, the number 8 has stood for premium. The Snapdragon 8-series is comprised of our premium tier mobile platforms, which is where we debut our latest technology innovations that will power the next generation mobile experiences. Year after year, these advancements are not only firsts for Snapdragon, but also for the mobile industry. Especially this year, 5G is rapidly expanding globally and creating new experiences and new opportunities, which are far beyond the industry’s expectation. Snapdragon is the platform of choice to deliver those 5G experiences to more consumers worldwide.
The number 8 is also a lucky number around the world. For some, it signifies infinity, success or inner wisdom, while for others it symbolizes luck. For example, in India the number 8 is known as Ashtha, Asta, or Ashta in Sanskrit and is the number of wealth and abundance. While in Chinese numerology 888 is a representation of triple luck.
So, not dissimilar from moves we’ve seen from handset makers like OnePlus. Naturally, 5G is on board. The chip will sport the company’s third-gen X60 5G modem, which sports both sub-6 and mmWave 5G bands. There’s also a 6th-gen AI Engine, capable of performing 26 tera operations per second (TOPS) with improved power efficiency.
Imaging is, naturally, a big piece of the puzzle, as well. The 888 features an up to 35% faster ISP, with support for up to 2.7 gigapixels per second (~120 12-megapixel photos). Gaming performance has also been improved, courtesy of an update to its Elite Gaming platform. More info — including the first few smartphones to sport the new SoC — soon, no doubt.
Google Play’s Best of 2020 Awards highlight the stressful year it’s been – TechCrunch
Continuing its annual tradition, Google today announced its Best of 2020 awards — the company’s list of the best apps, games, movies and books for the year. Not surprisingly, the top apps picked by both Google Play users and editors reflect the stressful year that 2020 has been, with a top sleep app, Loóna, winning the title of “Best App” of 2020. Meanwhile, Google Play users picked streaming service Disney+ as their choice.
Loóna is a fitting app to win the award this year. The sleep aid promises a mood-altering experience that helps its users deal with the negative emotions that accumulate during the day and are then processed during sleep. As anxiety and stress grow, people’s sleep patterns and REM sleep be disrupted, Loóna explains. To combat this, its app offers nightly “sleepscapes,” that combined activity-based relaxation, storytelling and sounds to help people shut out their stress and relax.
Unlike other sleep or meditation apps where users close their eyes and drift off, Loóna is intended to help people wind down while still on their phones. Users tap to color images while the sleep story plays. The company also this year introduced music playlists, called soundscapes.
In October, the company reported its app — which is also available on iOS — was seeing daily average time spent of 34 minutes from its subscribers. And its average conversion rate from trial to paid subscriber was 52.5%. With version 2.0, Loóna plans to reposition its app from being solely focused on bedtime relaxation to become a broader mood management app that also covers the sleep to wake up cycle, among other things. It also plans to add personalized content recommendations.
In addition to Loóna, Google Play editors selected the free-to-play action role-playing game Genshin Impact as the year’s best game for giving players a “wondrous world to explore” while unraveling mysteries. The game, miHoYo’s first-ever open-world game, features battles with elemental magic, character switching, and gacha game monetization for obtaining new characters, weapons, and other additions.
Google Play users, however, selected SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off as the year’s best game.
Another app that benefitted from coronavirus lockdowns was Disney+, which won this year’s User’s Choice award for Best App. The streaming service helped families stuck at home to keep their kids entertained. Plus, with new shows like the “The Mandalorian,” the service has been a hit for adults in the family, too.
In addition to the top winners, Google gave a shout-out to a few other notable titles in its announcement, including Chris Hemsworth’s training app Centr, behavioral modification app Intellect, as well as games like The Gardens Between, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, and Sky: Children of the Light.
The Play Store also awarded various gaming subgenres with awards of their own, like best competitive games, best indies, best pick up and play, and best game changers. These winners include Brawlhalla, Bullet Echo, GWENT: The Witcher Card Game, Legends of Runeterra, The Seven Deadly Sins: Grand Cross, Cookies Must Die, GRIS, inbento, Maze Machina, Sky: Children of Light, Disney Frozen Adventures, DreamWorks Trolls Pop, EverMerge, Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, Fancade, Genshin Impact, Minimal Dungeon RPG, Ord., and The Gardens Between.
Other top apps won awards in categories like best everyday essentials, best for personal growth, best hidden gems, best for fun, and best apps for good. These app winners include Calmaria, Grid Diary, The Pattern, Whisk, Zoom, Centr, Intellect, Jumprope: How-to Videos, Paird: Couples App, Speekoo, Cappuccino, Explorest, Loóna, Paperless Post, Tayasui Sketches, Bazaart, Disney+, Dolby On, Reface, Vita, GreenChoice, Medito, and ShareTheMeal.
Movies that won “Best of” for 2020 included Bill & Ted Face the Music, Just Mercy, Miss Juneteenth, Onward, and Parasite; while book winners included A Promised Land by Barack Obama, The City We Became by N.K. Jesmin, Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, and You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria,
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