Genies brings lifelike avatars to other apps with $10M from celebrities – TechCrunch
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.
Netflix restructures its film units, aiming to make fewer (but better) original movies
Netflix is restructuring its film units and vowing to make fewer but better movies, according to a new report from Bloomberg, which Netflix partially confirmed. The report said the streaming giant is combining film units that produce small and midsize films, resulting in a handful of layoffs, including two longtime executives. Netflix told TechCrunch that these changes were made to simplify its structure and set it up for the next phase of its growth, but declined to comment on how many people were being let go.
Scott Stuber, chairman of Netflix Film, has been looking to scale back the company’s output of films to ensure that more of them are high quality, according to the report.
It appears that this change has already been implemented, as the report comes as Netflix recently revealed its 2023 original films lineup, which consists of 49 titles. In comparison, the company had 85 original films in its lineup last year. For context, a Netflix original refers to both the content that has been produced in-house and the content to which it owns the distribution rights. It’s unclear for now if Netflix would also be scaling back the addition of originals that it didn’t produce, but obtained the rights to — a move that would impact the output of new originals on the service.
One of the executives leaving the company is Lisa Nishimura, who was behind the company’s foray into standup comedy and original documentaries, Netflix confirmed. Nishimura had worked on some of Netflix’s most popular titles, including “Making a Murderer,” “Power of the Dog” and “Tiger King.”
Ian Bricke, who served as the vice president of Independent Original Film at Netflix, will also be leaving. Bricke played a big part of Netflix’s dominance in the rom-com space, as he spearheaded notable titles like “The Kissing Booth,” “Set It Up” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
“Lisa Nishimura joined Netflix in the DVD days, and as the company moved into streaming, she built our original documentary and stand-up comedy divisions from the ground up, and established Netflix as a powerhouse in both spaces,” Stuber said in an emailed statement. “Ian Bricke has been at the company for more than a decade, building and leading our independent film team, attracting filmmakers like Tamara Jenkins, Nicole Holofcener, and Mark and Jay Duplass. We thank them both for their contributions to making us a world-class film studio and wish them the best for the future.”
The handful of layoffs come after Netflix conducted a series of job cuts last year. In May 2022, the company laid off approximately 150 staffers. A month after that, the company laid off 300 more people, which represented 3% of its workforce at the time. Netflix then laid off another 30 employees in September who were part of its animation department.
On the editorial side, Netflix laid off 25 people on its editorial staff just five months after launching its in-house Tudum publication.
Earlier this year, Netflix boasted to shareholders it has successfully scaled its decade-long original programming initiative.
“Now that we are a decade into our original programming initiative and have successfully scaled it, we are past the most cash-intensive phase of this buildout,” the company wrote to shareholders. “As a result, we believe we will now be generating sustained, positive annual free cash flow going forward.”
Netflix is scheduled to report Q1 2023 results on April 18.
Hulu debuts a new interface with a vertical sidebar on Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku
Hulu is slowly rolling out a new interface on streaming devices like Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku, among other compatible devices. The new redesign moves the navigation to the left side with options for TV, Movies and My Stuff.
The company confirmed to TechCrunch that the updated interface began rolling yesterday. It will be available across all supported connected TV devices in the coming months, including Android TV devices as well as Chromecast, LG smart TVs, Samsung smart TVs, Vizio SmartCast TVs and more.
Cord Cutter News was the first to report the new interface.
Users that have seen the update were welcomed with a message from Hulu that writes, “Over the next few weeks, Hulu’s navigation menu will move to the left side of the screen on living room devices. Press ‘back’ to open the menu for easy access to TV, Movies, My Stuff, and more.”
The update makes it easier for TV users to navigate to these destinations. Previously, viewers had to scroll all the way up to the top of the page. Users can now click on the remote’s back button to access the menu.
The streaming company’s last major redesign push for the big screen was in 2020 when it introduced categories like “TV,” “Movies” and “Sports” through top navigation.
Last October, the streaming service raised its prices from $6.99 per month to $7.99 per month for the ad-supported plan and from $12.99 per month to $12.99 per month for the ad-free plan. Disney’s ad-supported bundled plan with ESPN+, Disney+ and Hulu also went from $13.99 per month to $14.99 per month.
In December, Hulu also hiked the Live TV bundle prices from $69.99 per month to $74.99 per month for the Basic plan, which offers Hulu Live TV and ESPN+ with ads and Dinsey+ with no ads. The premium plan got a raise from $75.99 per month to $82.99 per month, which offers Hulu Live TV and Disney+ with no ads and ESPN+ with ads.
Ambani bats for IPL cricket streaming glory as Disney scales back in India
Reliance’s Jio, having aggressively recruited talent from Disney’s Hotstar, is placing a substantial wager on IPL in a bid to win a large slice of India’s streaming market.
Mukesh Ambani’s Jio, the South Asian telecom powerhouse, has long sought to entice its customer base with a plethora of services aimed at boosting subscriber retention. Despite amassing over 425 million customers and claiming the mantle of India’s top network provider—due in large part to its aggressively competitive data pricing—Jio’s array of additional services has yet to gain significant traction.
With the highly anticipated Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament starting later today, Ambani is eyeing this as the perfect opportunity to revamp Jio’s service adoption strategy.
Viacom18 – a venture between Ambani’s Reliance and Paramount – outbid Disney to secure five years of IPL’s streaming rights for the Indian subcontinent region with a sum of $3 billion. Unlike Disney’s Hotstar, which restricted access to IPL streaming to paid subscribers in recent seasons, Viacom18 is opening the floodgates for IPL games to everyone on the Jio network.
In a move that proved transformative, Star India executives Ajit Mohan and Uday Shankar’s strategic investment in cricket streaming nearly a decade ago catapulted Hotstar to prominence as a household name. The platform drew over 100 million digital viewers during the two-month-long event year after year, with cricket alone solidifying Hotstar’s position at the pinnacle of the market.
Star India’s Hotstar was a crown jewel in Fox’s large portfolio in the $71 billion acquisition by Disney, prompting the Mickey Mouse company to expand the service to many international markets.
However, Disney’s decision last year to relinquish digital streaming bids in favor of securing television broadcast rights under the leadership of former CEO Bob Chapek left many industry insiders perplexed. The company has also decided not to renew the licensing rights for HBO content in India in a move that has understandably frustrated many Hotstar subscribers.
In 2016, as Reliance prepared to launch Jio, the company emerged as the first telecom operator to believe in Hotstar’s vision and commit to collaboration, according to a source familiar with the discussions. Disney reaped significant benefits from Jio’s competitively priced data plans, which enabled tens of millions of Indian consumers to alter their internet consumption habits virtually overnight.
Now, it appears that Reliance is shifting gears and focusing on its own interests.
Jio has been assertively recruiting talent from Disney’s Hotstar, restructuring its infrastructure to accommodate a large user base. The company plans to provide 16 distinct feeds for IPL matches, featuring ultra-HD resolution – a first for cricket in India – and coverage in 12 languages.
Analyst group Media Partners Asia estimates that Jio Cinema, where Viacom18 plans to stream matches, will be able to drive sales of up to $350 million during the IPL season this year, up from $128 million in digital sales in 2022. The group marked down advertising sales on pay TV to $220 million, from $442 million last year.
“The US$550 mil. number across digital and pay-TV is marginally flat Y/Y and represents a steep loss against annualized 2023-27 IPL rights fees of US$1.2 bil. Subscription fees are expected to be very modest this year because of challenges on pay-TV distribution and the lack of a subscription fee on digital,” it wrote in a report.
Reliance has “promised” advertisers that cricket streaming on Jio Cinema will reach 400 million users, said Media Partners Asia. Jio Cinema has also promised a concurrent user base of 100 million, nearly four times of the current records, the analyst group added.
Nonetheless, this underscores a considerable leap for Jio Cinema, which currently boasts fewer than 30 million monthly active users, as per data from mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower. This is despite the fact that over 400 million Jio subscribers are eligible to access Jio Cinema at no extra charge.
Numerous industry executives have expressed skepticism regarding the likelihood of such a significant number of users transitioning to streaming on their smartphones when they have the option of watching games on their satellite televisions.
Additionally, whether Jio Cinema can effectively manage the technical demands of tens of millions of viewers tuning in to cricket matches remains an open question for the time being.
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