Ignoring calls that it’s creepy, Facebook is forging onward with its Portal smart display. Today Facebook quietly launched iOS and Android Portal apps that let owners show off photos on the screen without sharing them to the social network, and video call their home while they’re out.
The app isn’t likely to move the needle for Portal whose potential users fall into two camps: those so alarmed by Facebook’s privacy practices that they couldn’t imagine putting its camera and microphone in their home, and those ambivalent or ignorant regarding the privacy backlash who see it as an Amazon Echo with a nice screen and easy way to video call family. Critics were mostly surprised by the device’s quality but too freaked out to recommend it. Those willing to buy it have given it a 4- to 4.4-star average rating on Amazon, praising its AI camera that keeps people in frame of a video chat while they move though jeering some setup difficulties.
“The app gives you convenient control of Portal, allowing you to send photos directly to your Portal’s Superframe, call your Portal, add accounts in your home, and manage your favorites” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. “Additional features will be added soon.”
Facebook announced at f8 a month ago that the Portal app was coming and eventually so would encrypted WhatsApp video calls. It also extended sales to Europe and Canada, though the new app is currently only available in the US according to Sensor Tower which tipped us off to the launch. The $199 10-inch Portal and $349 15.6-inch Portal+ launched in October, soured by a swirl of Facebook privacy scandals.
Last week, the company tried to score some points with the public by funding an art project displayed at the SF Museum Of Modern Art. But the “immersive” exhibit was just some Portals stuck to some funky painted wooden backdrops, and it all felt smarmy and forced.
Portal’s app lets you video call your Portal so you can say hi to family while you’re out. That’s great for traveling parents or seeing who is around the house in the post-land line age. The app also allows you to add and remove accounts on Portal and manage who’s in your speed dial Favorites, which you could already do from the device. There’s still no Amazon Prime Video or Smart home controls as were promised at F8.
The option to send photos directly from your camera roll to Portal’s Superframe fixes the worst feature of the digital photo frame. Previously you’d have to select just from photo/video albums you’d shared to Facebook. That meant you were only showing off sacchrine photos you were willing to post online, and if you selected Your Photos or Photos Of You, you might end up displaying shots that were embarrassing or that don’t make sense outside of the News Feed.
My workaround was to create a Facebook album of photos for Portal set to be visible only to me, but that was a hassle. Now you can manually grab pics and videos from your phone and send them to Portal without the worry they’ll show up on your profile. Portal also now can show off your Instagram photos, as was announced at F8. Still missing is Google Assistant support, which Facebook told me it was working to integrate last year.
Facebook’s steady improvements to Portal might not have shook its paranoia-inducing reputation amongst tech news readers and privacy enthusiasts, but they’ve kept it perhaps the best big screen and camera-equipped smart speaker. But in the seven months since launch, Google has copied Portal’s auto-framing camera for video chat in its new Nest Hub Max while Amazon is making a slew of home appliances smart. Portal will need more marquee innovations and some brand rehabilitation if it’s going to stay competitive.
PortalOne raises $60M as it levels up to launch its hybrid, immersive gaming platform later this year – TechCrunch
Gaming has been one of the most popular entertainment categories in the last two years of pandemic living. Now, a gaming startup that’s building a new kind of platform that it thinks will be a — wait for it — game changer in the category is announcing some funding as to ride that wave of attention.
PortalOne, which is building an immersive gaming platform that describes itself as hybrid in more ways than one — it mixes games with a game show/talk show format, and it’s designed to work across various devices from mobile through to consoles and VR headsets — has picked up $60 million. The startup — based in Oslo but with a significant presence also in Los Angeles — plans to use the funding to continue building out its platform and operations en route to its first commercial launch: PortalOne Arcade, a journey into a retro “arcade” featuring multiple games.
PortalOne Arcade has been running in a closed beta since last year, and the company is running a sign-up list for those interested to try it out, but what the team has built and its plans for the future are enough to be attracting some very big names.
Tiger Global is leading this round, a Series A, with Scooter Braun’s TQ Ventures, Temasek, Avenir Growth, Founders Fund, Talis Capital, Connect Ventures, Animoca Brands, Access industries, and Coatue Management also participating, along with “a number of high-profile angel investors”, the company said. This round comes about eight months after PortalOne raised a $15 million seed round, also notable for its size and the backers. It included games icon Atari, which is working with PortalOne to include some of its brands and IP in that Arcade launch.
Bård Anders Kasin, PortalOne’s CEO who co-founded the startup with his brother Stig Olav, said in an interview that the company plans to release PortalOne Arcade sometime later this year, but in closed beta the startup has now produced some 200 shows. He said this proves out its belief that the technology that it has assembled — which brings together cutting-edge games design, live broadcast, interactivity, and a low-cost approach to capturing and processing video all in the cloud — is scalable.
“It’s a very high number of shows, considering the complexity involved,” he said.
Stig has been spending time in LA building out the company’s studio there and the plan will be to set up more of these across other cities globally.
PortalOne is building its business in the midst of a perfect storm.
First of all, gaming, like other streamed entertainment, has been a lifesaver for many a consumer confined to staying at home during the pandemic. That has led to record levels of interest and engagement in games, and that has in turn resulted in a host of new entrants into the space (including some from other entertainment verticals, like Netflix).
This has also resulted in the category becoming of the hottest among tech startups at the moment, with investors rushing to put money into what they believe are the most promising players in the field. Just in the last couple of weeks, Yahaha and Spyke respectively announced that they’d raised $50 million and $55 million — with neither of them having yet actually launched anything. (Both are running closed betas and other pilot projects, costly efforts in themselves in this sphere.) Meanwhile, a more established, but still very young (it launched last year), startup called Dream Games, has now reached a paper valuation of $2.75 billion after its round, which also was announced earlier this month.
Second of all, PortalOne is fitting squarely into a zeitgeist. “Metaverse” has become one of the buzzy catchphrases of the moment, and while it is leaning dangerously close to getting overused and rendered meaningless (or has that already happened?), for the moment it is driving a lot of interest among bigger and smaller companies considering how and if they can fit into that new realm.
PortalOne seems almost custom made to fill a gap in the metaverse: one of the big issues with VR and AR (two of metaverse’s precursor concepts and industry efforts) has been a decided lack of compelling content, along with other hurdles involving hardware and more. With its “hybrid” mantra, PortalOne positions itself as supremely flexible, there to be used on whichever platform a user might have to hand.
And its focus on creating both lean-back (broadcast) entertainment mixed with engaging game play, leveraging a lot of familiar gaming brands alongside completely new titles, is a mix that will, again, be potentially poised to appeal to different demographics, different users, and the different states of mind that consumers might have when turning to their screens.
Bard tells me that the startup has been talking to a pretty wide range of companies in the gaming and social ecosystems — from those operating platforms, through to console giants and those publishing content, and companies building tech to make it all happen. But to be clear, the company for now at least is very focused on building its own walled garden of sorts, the Arcade, where people will play. That is to say, even if or when PortalOne creates an experience to be used in someone else’s metaverse (or more prosaically a third-party console) it will hold on to bringing people into its own “metaverse” world.
Part of that is because of how PortalOne has built out its platform.
“One of the big things we solved early on was how to scale this,” Bard said, “being able to produce the amount of content we can in a modular and efficient platform. It’s a cost efficient breakthrough: producing our hybrid games comes in way below industry standards.” The modular approach has both to do with how video and play is captured, but also with how PortalOne re-uses components across different games (with all those components in the cloud). “This is part of our secret sauce.”
That sauce is something that investors think will be to mass-market taste.
“We believe PortalOne is building an innovative experience at the intersection of gaming and entertainment. We are excited to back the Kasin brothers and their talented team as they continue to build and grow the business!” said Evan Feinberg, partner, Tiger Global, in a statement.
“PortalOne is building a platform that converges the most popular forms of entertainment into one seamless experience that will appeal to every category of performer,” added Scooter Braun. “This is the next place to be in the world of immersive gaming, with unlimited content possibilities.”
Recipe app Pestle helps you organize, plan, and cook hands-free or with friends on FaceTime – TechCrunch
A newly launched recipe app called Pestle aims to do more than provide a place to save and organize your favorite recipes. The app, from indie developer Will Bishop, also helps you plan meals, create shopping lists, keep up with new recipes from creators, and even cook hands-free or with friends and family remotely over Apple’s SharePlay feature for FaceTime.
The result is a well-built recipe app that provides a better experience for the end user, and one which tries to respect the creator content it organizes by offering source links, tools to discover more recipes from the same creator as they’re published, and a feature that encourages repeat visits to recipe sites. But some of Pestle’s other features make it almost too easy to bypass creators’ websites, which could cause concerns.
Like many people who use the web to find cooking inspiration, Bishop grew frustrated with the clutter common to today’s recipe websites where you have to scroll all the way to the bottom to find the actual recipe steps — a format designed to capture more Google Search traffic. Also like many home chefs, Bishop found himself copying and pasting recipes into Apple’s Notes app so he could annotate them with his own tweaks and tips. This wasn’t the ideal solution, of course — as it involved many manual steps and resulted in a disorganized system, given that Notes isn’t designed to be a recipe database. So he decided to create his own solution with Pestle.
The app integrates with Safari, so you can save any recipe you find on the web by tapping on the “Share” button from your iOS browser, like Safari or Chrome, then tapping on Pestle from the list of apps that appears. Pestle will then automatically import the recipe, including the list of ingredients and instructions. This is similar to how other popular recipe-saving apps work, like Whisk or Paprika, for instance.
However, where other apps may highlight the source directly on the recipe’s page, making it obvious who to credit, Pestle’s attribution link is tucked under its 3-dot “more” menu at the top of the recipe’s page. This isn’t likely an issue for the end user, who can easily seek out the link if they need to refer back to the website for more information. But it could cause complaints from the recipe’s creator, given that it takes an extra tap to get to the link, and feels a bit hidden.
In addition, while competitor Whisk even goes so far as to not import a recipe’s instructions — forcing users to visit the recipe site, where they can then choose to copy and paste instructions into the app for later reference — Pestle automatically imports the instructions alongside the ingredient list and nutritional info. Again, handy for the end user; less so for the creator.
Finally, while premium users can enjoy smart suggestions of new recipes from the recipe sites they like to visit, these can also be browsed and saved without a website.
Bishop, however, says he tried to be careful about the implementation here with regard to creator content.
“Ultimately I think Pestle compliments recipe websites as opposed to simply taking. Firstly, when you share a recipe to Pestle, you have to already be on their page. Meaning you’ve loaded their ads, their ranking improves, etc,” he explains. “Pestle is akin to clicking the print button in recipe websites.”
Plus, he notes, the sources are attributed and linked to, and the app also prompts you to revisit the website after you finish cooking to leave a review, which is an interesting idea in terms of recirculating traffic from the app back to the creator’s original content.
“Additionally, recipes are not redistributed en-mass,” Bishop adds. “Pestle users can share recipes with one another, but if they share the recipe to someone who doesn’t have Pestle it’ll simply load the original site.”
From the end user’s perspective, there are few complaints as Pestle offers an easy-to-use app with a lot of helpful features. Though you can create your own folders, Pestle will automatically organize recipes for you by category and cuisine, so you can quickly find recipes without having to come up with your own foldering system.
As you cook, you can switch into a guided experience where you move through the recipe on a step-by-step basis. You can also set multiple timers along the way, and tap on links within each to be reminded of the quantities you need. Many other apps force you to switch back and forth between ingredient lists and the steps, which can complicate matters when the recipe’s steps have to be implemented quickly or when hands are messy.
And if dirtying your screen is a concern, you can also navigate the app hands-free using voice commands like “Back” and “Next.”
Pestle also supports Apple’s SharePlay, so you can place a FaceTime call with family or friends, and cook together while using the app.
Premium users gain access to a few more features, like the discover section for finding new cooking inspiration, handoff and sync between iPhone and iPad devices, 14-day meal planning support, and shopping lists with Apple Reminders integration. (It won’t go so far as to help you order the ingredients through a shopping site like Instacart, however).
The paid subscription is on sale during its launch where a “lifetime” subscription will cost just $4.99, rather than the $9.99 per year (or $0.99/mo) subscription that will otherwise be available. After launch, the lifetime subscription will later cost $25.
Bishop, a 19-year old indie developer and former WWDC scholar, had built other apps before Pestle, including an Apple Watch Reddit app Nano for Reddit and an Apple Watch Twitter app, Chirp, among others. But Pestle is his main focus as the others are largely self-sufficient.
He’d like to bring Pestle to other platforms, but for the time being, that may not be possible as a one-person operation, he says.
Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa – TechCrunch
Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.
The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.
Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.
Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.
“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.
Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”
Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”
“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”
“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”
Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.
Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.
Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.
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