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Google’s Gboard now lets you create a set of emoji that look like you – TechCrunch



Last summer, Google introduced its own take on Bitmoji with the launch of “Mini” stickers in its keyboard app, Gboard, which leverage machine learning to create illustrated stickers based on your selfie. Today, Google is expanding the Mini Stickers with the launch of what it calls “Emoji Minis” – meaning, emoji-sized stickers that look like you.

Similar to the initial launch of Mini stickers, the new emoji are also created using machine learning techniques, Google says.

The company said the idea is to give people a way to use emoji they feel better represent who they really are.

“Emoji Minis are designed for those who may have stared into the eyes of emoji and not seen yourself staring back,” explained Google, in a blog post. “These sticker versions of the emoji you use every day are customizable so you can make them look just like you.”

That means your emoji can have differently colored hair – like green or blue or gray, for example – or piercings. It can be wearing a hat, head covering, or glasses.

Google says it uses neural networks to suggest skin tones, hairstyles, and accessories that you can then fine tune. You can choose a color for your hair, facial hair, or select different types of head covering and eyewear. You can also add freckles or wrinkles, if you want.

The result is a not just a single emoji, but a selection of options. For example, you can use your custom emoji as a zombie, mage, heart eyes, crying eyes, shruggie, and all the others.

This the third style of Mini stickers, first introduced last year. Already, these stickers come in two other styles – a more expressive “bold” and a nicer “sweet.”

While it may seem like a minor thing, creative emoji – and specifically, personalized emoji – can be a big draw for messaging apps. Apple advertises its clever Animoji and personalized Memoji as flagship features of its newer Face ID-powered phones. Snapchat bought Bitmoji (Bitstrips) to give its users access to more tools for creative expression. Samsung lets you make your own AR emoji that look like you. And people celebrated when the Unicode Consortium diversified to include more skin tones, and added, at long last, redheads.

Gboard, whose app has been downloaded over a billion times on Google Play, has a similar draw, thanks to its selfie-based stickers.

The company says the new Emoji Minis are available in all Gboard languages and countries, on both iOS and Android, starting today.

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Friendly Apps raises $3 million, pre-product, for apps that improve people’s well-being – TechCrunch



Longtime engineer and product designer Michael Sayman has been building apps since he was a kid, landing him roles at Facebook, Google, Roblox, and most recently Twitter, where he’s often been tasked with developing products aimed at a teenage audience. Sayman was only 17 when he joined Facebook, but had already built several apps — an experience documented in his book “App Kid.” Over the years, Sayman contributed to high-profile products like Instagram Stories, WhatsApp Status, YouTube Shorts, and the Roblox Graph, among others. Now, Sayman is looking to leverage his understanding of what users want from their apps with the launch of his new startup, Friendly Apps.

The startup’s thesis is that his generation, Gen Z, understands that many of the social apps that have been built to date can be toxic to users’ health and can prevent people from accomplishing their true goals. Friendly Apps’ mission is to create a suite of apps with a different set of values that are targeted toward helping people with both their physical and mental health in new ways.

Prior to starting Friendly Apps, Sayman was working at Twitter. In fact, the founder had just joined Twitter in March, where he intended to aid the social network by building out new product experiences for teens via its 0–>1 team.

But after the Elon Musk acquisition deal was announced, internal product development efforts slowed down, he says. That situation gave him a push to finally break out of Big Tech to work on his own thing.

“It takes a billionaire trying to acquire a company that I worked at for me to finally go and do this,” Sayman says, with a laugh.

The idea for Friendly Apps is something he’s had in the back of his mind for years as he’s seen how tech companies developed their products.

“A lot of social media products use retention tactics that slowly deteriorate the well-being and mental health of their users because of the way they’re designed,” explains Sayman. The companies encouraged the wrong behaviors from their users, and have become popular because they’re addictive, he says.

“They have tactics to keep people coming in.”

He suggests the problem lies not only with the product design, but also with the internal goals and metrics companies pursue.

“The structures and the incentives within a lot of these social media companies are not set up in a way to encourage longer-term thinking around the well-being of the person that’s using the product,” Sayman notes. “If somebody is not doing well on the platform…if they’re feeling anxious, depressed, or insecure, over time, they’ll stop using the product. They’ll try to find other avenues or other ways of communicating or connecting with the people they care about through some other means,” he says.

Image Credits: Michael Sayman (opens in a new window)

Sayman wants Friendly Apps to be different. Although the startup will take the learnings from social apps and products he’s helped create for teens, its apps won’t be solely aimed at Gen Z users.

As for the apps themselves, they haven’t yet been created. Despite that fact, the startup raised a seed round of $3 million in about a week’s time. It seems a lot of people were willing to bet on Sayman, starting with Weekend Fund’s Ryan Hoover, founder of Product Hunt.

“I’ve known Michael for eight years. It was clear that he would eventually start his own company. He has a very rare ability to deeply intuit human behavior, translate his ideas into clean design, and build quickly,” says Hoover. “We committed to invest pre-product, pre-deck.”

Sayman does have a few different product ideas, however. He envisions one app could be focused on helping people achieve their physical fitness goals — even if they’re not a regular gym-goer or runner, or some other kind of hardcore fitness advocate.

Another app could help people remember to prioritize their real-world relationships and encourage them to spend time with people they care about in the physical world.

“Everyone’s doing so many things that we don’t actually end up catching up in person for a while,” Sayman says.

As time goes by, friendships can deteriorate as people know less and less about each other, which can impact mental health. Today’s social apps don’t help — they only further isolate us, he explains. Instead, we end up experiencing relationships through “a little tiny window of filtered photos,” he notes.

“We didn’t evolve to live that way — like we all do right now,” says Sayman. “So I think a lot of the mental health issues that we start seeing, in particular with younger generations, come as a result of a lot of that isolation and that ‘tiny window’ view of the world.”

The founder also plans to bring his worldview as a second-generation Latino immigrant into Friendly Apps’ product experiences, seeing the potential to help address specific hurdles that new immigrants to the U.S. may need to overcome.

But these sorts of concepts may or may not be among the first apps to launch. Instead, the startup plans to test a suite of products, experiences, features, and even various design elements before bringing anything to the public.

Sayman can build apps quickly. But as a sole founder, he will still need some time to get the products off the ground and tested. He hopes to have something released to the public in around 6 months, he says.

Seed investors in Friendly Apps include BoxGroup, Weekend Fund, Shrug Capital, Day One Ventures, Betaworks Ventures, SRB Ventures, 305 Ventures, CoreVentures, plus founders and operators from Snap, TikTok, Instagram, Meta, Google, Tesla, Things, and others.

The company also wants to include the perspectives of those outside Silicon Valley, Sayman says.

One angel investor, Hayley Leibson, told TechCrunch she was “extremely happy that Michael prioritized bringing onboard womxn angel investors like myself, and others including teachers, mothers, students, and immigrants from diverse backgrounds.”

“The tech industry doesn’t really gather a lot of investors from places that aren’t the tech industry,” Sayman points out. “If we’re thinking about how to make products that help people’s mental health and help people’s like physical well-being…I think we can have opinions, feedback, and input directly from people who aren’t in the tech world.”

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Gen Z social app Yubo rolls out age ‘estimating’ technology to better identify minors using its service – TechCrunch



Yubo, a social livestreaming app popular with a Gen Z audience, announced today it’s becoming one of the first major social platforms to adopt a new age verification technique that uses live image capture technology to identify minors using its app, in order to keep them separated from adult users. While other companies serving a younger crowd typically rely on traditional age gating techniques, these are easily bypassed as all that’s generally required is for a user to enter a birthdate in an online form.

Many kids know they can lie about their age to gain access to platforms designed for older users, which is how they end up in online spaces that aren’t kid-friendly or that have greater risks associated with their use.

Yubo, on the other hand, has been thinking about what the future of social networking should look like for the next generation of users — and not just from a product standpoint, but also from a product safety perspective.

Founded in 2015, Yubo users hang out in live-streaming rooms where they can socialize, play games, and make new friends. There aren’t creators on the platform broadcasting to fans, and Yubo has no plans to move in that direction — the way that nearly all other major social platforms have today. Instead, its app’s focus is on helping users socialize naturally, the way they’re already comfortable with, after having grown up using services FaceTime and hanging out with friends in other live video apps.

According to Yubo co-founder and CEO, Sacha Lazimi, Generation Z sees “no difference between online and offline life,” he says.

“They have exactly the same needs of socializing offline as online, but there were no solutions [for this],” Lazimi explains. This led Yubo to launch a live video feature that launched to the app’s userbase in February 2018.

“We are taking the best of offline interaction and adding to that the power of technology to make sure that you will connect to the right group of people anywhere in the world, at any time, in a safe environment,” he adds.

The company today has seen 60 million sign-ups, which is up from the 40 million it reported in 2020 when it closed on its $47.5 million Series C funding round. 99% of them are Gen Z users, ages 13 to 25.

While Yubo doesn’t share its monthly active users, it notes that it’s seeing increasing revenue via its a la carte premium features and subscriptions, which grew from 7 million euros in 2019 to now 25 million euros as of last year. The app doesn’t run ads.

But with this younger audience and growth, comes the need for increased safety. Previously, Yubo had partnered with the digital identity provider Yoti to help it vet potentially suspicious users. If people were using different phone numbers or devices, for example, or if they had been reported by others, Yubo would ask them to verify themselves by submitting their IDs. The process of managing the ID verification was handled by Yoti.

On average, Yubo processed 6,500 verifications per day in 2021. Following this verification, 67,000 accounts per month were suspended due to discrepancies in age, the company says.

But there was one challenge with this system — minors often don’t have an ID.

“A lot of teenagers — especially under 18 years old — do not have any identity documents,” notes Lazimi. “So we could not ask everyone to verify their identity.”

Image Credits: Yubo

That led the company to now adopt another Yoti product for age estimations. This system will direct new and existing users to an age verification and agreement screen either during sign-up or as a pop-up for existing users upon launching the app. When they accept, their camera will activate and they’ll be prompted to place their face within an oval that appears on the screen. The “liveness algorithm” also takes a short video that analyses movement to confirm the image used is not fake or being pulled from a search engine.

When the face has been detected, the user will receive confirmation that they’ve been verified or they’ll be told if their age doesn’t match the age they entered upon sign-up, or that they’re not using a legitimate picture.

If the user’s age is confirmed, they’ll be directed to the homepage and can use Yubo as before. If verification fails, they’ll need to go through a full ID check instead.

Image Credits: Yubo

The new technology, as you may imagine, is not perfect.

Lazimi admits that it works better with younger people’s faces than with adults. Currently, the Yoti age estimation system can effectively identify the ages of 6 to 12-year-old users within 1.3 years, and those between 13 and 19 within 1.5 years, Yoti claims. After that, accuracy decreases. For 20 to 25-year-olds, it’s accurate within a range of 2.5 years. For 26 to 30-year-olds, it’s within an average of 3 years. But this accuracy could improve over time, as more analysis is performed.

“It’s actually very accurate for young users, and especially users under 15…I believe for 13 to 14-year-old users, it’s around 99%,” he says. (It’s 98.9% accurate across all ages, genders, and skin tones, says Yoti.). To date, Yoti has run the technology across some 500 million faces, and is certified by software testing service iBeta.

“It’s less accurate for older users — that’s why we’ve launched with the youngest users, because those are the ones we want to protect more and also because it’s more accurate and more precise,” Lazimi says.

The company will initially roll out the technology initially to 13 and 14-year-old users with the goal of age-verifying 100% of users by the end of 2022.

The age estimation tech is not the first tool that Yubo has adopted to keep younger users safe on live streams, the company points out.

It’s also using A.I. technology and human moderation to monitor livestreams by taking second-by-second screenshots, then flagging inappropriate content to human moderators in real-time, including nudity, partial nudity (including underwear), suggestive content, drug use, weapons, blood, and violence. (You can see some complaints about this in Yubo’s App Store reviews, where teens are complaining it flagged boys for streaming with their shirts off.)

Yubo also includes educational safety features. For example, the app pop-ups reminders about personalized modification options (like Muted Words), and sends alerts sent to users if they are participating in harmful and inappropriate behaviors or sharing sensitive personal information. The company has a Safety Advisory Board with international online safety experts, as well.

“We are also working closely with government and NGOs because we believe that social networks need to have stronger regulation from the top,” says Lazimi. But, he adds, “we are not waiting for regulation to do safety features. We are doing it proactively,” he says.


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Bumble is planning to expand further into social networking with a new communities feature – TechCrunch



Dating platform Bumble is looking to enhance its non-dating social features with a further investment into its Bumble BFF feature, first launched in 2016. This friend-finding feature currently uses the same swiped-based mechanics to connect people looking for platonic relationships but will soon expand to include social networking groups where users can connect with one another based on topics and interests, not just via “matches.”

TechCrunch heard Bumble was venturing more into the social networking space, and Bumble recently hinted at this development during its first-quarter earnings, announced this month.

On the earnings call, the company referenced a Bumble BFF “alpha test” that had been performing well.

It described the test as offering new ways for “people to discover and get to know each other around shared joys and common struggles.” Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd added that, so far, over 40% of “active BFF users” were engaging with the new experiences being tested and the feature’s one-month retention was upward of 75%.

Bumble didn’t, however, describe the product in much detail, beyond noting it offered a “new group format” for networking.

Reached for further insights, product intelligence company Watchful had additional information. It had uncovered screenshots showing a women-focused “social groups” feature.

There were around 30 different topics available, including things like “Women in Business,” “Networking + mentoring,” “Finding fulfillment,” “Mental health,” “Working moms,” “Body positivity,” “Self care,” “Eating well,” “Grad students,” “Money management,” “Building a better world,” “Recent grads,” “Women’s empowerment,” “Mom life,” “Breakups suck,” “Single not alone,” “Workouts,” “Study hacks + motivation,” “Path to parenthood,” “Pet Parents,” “Wanderlust” and others.

Users could join the groups and create multimedia posts or reply to existing posts, similar to a threaded group chat or lightweight networking product. The topics, so far, seem to cater to a slightly broader crowd than just “young adults,” given there were groups for students as well as working moms.

Bumble confirmed to us this is the same feature that was being discussed during its earnings.

“We are currently testing new product features in our Bumble BFF community for a small number of people. We are assessing feedback from this test to help inform our final product decisions,” a Bumble spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Image Credits: Bumble screenshot via Watchful

On the call, Wolfe Herd had also suggested the new BFF feature could potentially help Bumble generate revenue further down the road.

“We are very focused on the product, building the ecosystem, the communities and really going into this new group format and testing the functionalities that we’ve been hard at work building,” Wolfe Herd said. “As we look to revenue in the future from BFF, there are really multiple pillars of opportunity — and one of them would be advertising,” she continued.

“We will be looking at baking in functionalities to be greater economy efficient or advertising ready for the future but not to expect any near-term revenue from that,” the exec had noted.

Image Credits: Bumble screenshot via Watchful

Originally, the Bumble BFF feature had been designed to help Bumble serve its growing audience of younger singles, who were often looking for new friends to hang out with, not just date. The company had explained at the time of its 2016 launch that it got the idea not only based on user feedback but also because it observed people using its dating app to make friends — particularly when they had just moved to a new city or were visiting a place for a limited time, like on vacation.

Bumble BFF also allowed the company to leverage some of the same technology it was using to create romantic matches — algorithms based on interests, for example — and put them to use for helping users forge platonic connections.

But in the years following its launch, friend-finding has spun out to become its own app category of sorts, particularly among the younger Gen Z demographic who’s more inclined to socially “hang out” online, including through live video, audio and chat-based groups. Snapchat’s platform apps are a good example of this trend in action, as is Gen Z livestreaming app Yubo. Then there was dating giant Match Group’s biggest-ever acquisition with last year’s $1.73 billion deal for Hyperconnect, a company that had been more focused on social networking than dating.

In addition, dedicated social experiences have sprung up to serve Bumble’s core demographic of young, professional women including the motherhood-focused Peanut app; leadership network for professional women, Chief; creator platform for women, Sunroom; female college influencer network 28 Row; community-focused Hey! Vina; and others.

Combined, these factors could create trouble for Bumble, particularly if younger Gen Z users are less inclined to adopt traditional swipe-based dating apps — or, when they do, it’s more to just meet new people, not partners.

Of these, Peanut seems to have more overlap with what Bumble is building — which is interesting, too, since Peanut was founded by former Badoo deputy CEO Michelle Kennedy who brought her understanding of dating app concepts to online socializing. (Today, Bumble, Inc. operates Bumble, Badoo and its latest acquisition Fruitz.) Now, Peanut’s concepts are making their way back to Bumble.

Asked for thoughts on this latest development, Kennedy said it “completely validates the market” that Peanut has been working in for many years — particularly as the current groups spotted had been women focused.

“It’s something that we’ve always believed in. We’ve always known that it’s a huge opportunity. We’ve always seen that. And for Bumble to say, ‘yeah, we agree.’ Huge! Couldn’t be happier,” she said.

Bumble has not said when it expects to launch the social features to the general public.

The company just posted a strong Q1 where it reported $211.2 million in revenue, higher than the consensus estimate of $208.3 million and a 7.2% increase in paying users in the quarter. Bumble’s forecast for its fiscal year 2022 revenue is expected to be in the range of $934-$944 million, higher than previously estimated.

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