Genies is emerging as the top competitor to Snapchat’s wildly popular Bitmoji as Facebook, Apple and Google have been slow to get serious about personalized avatars. More than one million people have customized dozens of traits to build a realistic digital lookalike of themselves from over a million possible permutations.
When Genies launched a year ago after raising $15 million in stealth, it misstepped by trying to show people’s Genies interpreting a few weekly news stories and seasonal moments. Now the startup has figured out users want more control, so it’s shifting its iOS and Android apps to let you chat through your avatar, which acts out keywords and sentiments in reaction to what you type, which you can then share elsewhere. And Genies is launching a software developer kit that charges other apps to let you create avatars and use them for chat, stickers, games, animations and augmented reality.
To power these new strategies and usher in what CEO Akash Nigam calls “the next wave of communication through avatars where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” Genies has raised $10 million more. The party round comes from a wide range of investors, from institutional firms like NEA and Tull Co. to angels like Tinder’s Sean Rad, Raya’s Jared Morgenstern and speaker Tony Robbins; athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and Richard Sherman; and musicians, including A$AP Rocky, Offset from Migos, The Chainsmokers and 50 Cent. Some like Offset have even used their Genie to stand in for them for brand sponsorships, so their avatar poses for photos instead of them.
“We’ve transitioned from being an app to an avatar services company,” Nigam tells me. The son of WebMD’s co-founder, Nigam build a string of failed apps while at University of Michigan and worked with Genies co-founders Evan Rosenbaum and Matt Geiger on a startup called Blend that raised some money. Watching Snapchat-owned Bitmoji stay glued atop the app download charts inspired them to see more opportunity in the avatar space. Genies has had some talent issues, though. Nigam says it fired co-founder and president Matt Geiger, and a source tells me there were company culture issues that led to issues with the content writers it hired to create scenes for Genies to act out. Now it’s getting out of that scripted content creation business to focus on algorithmic suggestions of animations.
The revamped Genies app lets you chat with up to six friends through your avatar. As you type, Genies detects actions, places, things and emotions, and offers you corresponding animations your avatar acts out with a tap. Given people already have plenty of place to chat, it might be tough to get people to move real conversations inside Genies for more than a quick hit of novelty. But that functionality is also coming to Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and iMessage’s keyboards, where the expressive animations could naturally augment your threads.
With the Genies SDK, the startup is ready to challenge Snapchat’s new Snap Kit that lets apps build Bitmoji into their keyboards. But for $100,000 to $1 million in licensing fees, Genies allows apps to develop much deeper avatar features. Beyond creating keyboard stickers, games can plaster your Genies’ face over your character’s head, and utilities apps can have your Genie act out the weather or celebrate transactions. And since Genies is still taking off, partners can create experiences that feel fresh rather than just a repurposing of Bitmoji’s already-established cartoony avatars. Users spent an average of 19 minutes creating their Genie, so the SDK could add significant engagement to these apps. Genies has also launched its first official brand deal, where Gucci has created a wheel in the Genies creator so you can deck out your mini-you with luxury clothing.
Despite Bitmoji’s years of success, it’s yet to have a scaled competitor. TechCrunch broke the news that Facebook is working on a “Facebook Avatars” feature, but seven months later it’s still not publicly testing and the prototype looks childish. Google’s Gboard just added the ability to create avatars based on a selfie, but they’re bland, low on detail and far from fun looking. And Apple’s latest mobile operating system lets you create a Memoji, though they too look generic like actual emoji rather than something instantly identifiable as you. By designing avatars that not only look like you but like a cooler version of you, Genies could capture the hearts and faces of millions of teens and the influencers they follow.
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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