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Google’s Pixel 6 camera smartens up snapshots with AI tools – TechCrunch

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Google’s latest flagship phones have an impressive set of automated, AI-powered tools to help make your photos look better, with smart blurs, object removal, and skin tone exposure. While we’ll have to test them out to see if they work as advertised, they could be useful for everyone from pixel peepers to casual snapshot takers.

The new cameras themselves are pretty impressive to start with. The main rear camera, shared by the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, is a 50-megapixel beast with decent-sized pixel wells and an F/1.85 equivalent aperture (no, it doesn’t capture as much light as an F/1.8 on a DSLR, but it’s still good). The ultrawide one, also shared, is 12 megapixels and f/2.2 on a smaller sensor, so don’t expect mind-blowing image quality. The 6 Pro gets a 48-megapixel telephoto with less low light capability but a 4x equivalent zoom. They’re all stabilized and have laser-assisted autofocus.

Basically if you want the best quality in any situation, stick to the main camera, but if you’re sure about your light go ahead and fire up the wide or zoom. It sounds like all the new camera features work on all the cameras, but generally speaking the better the shot to start with, the better the final result.

The simplest tool to use is probably “face deblur.” How many times have you gotten the perfect shot but it’s not quite sharp? The Pixel Camera will automatically always capture multiple exposures (it’s part of the ordinary process of taking a picture now), and combines the main shot from one camera with a clear shot of the face captured with another. To do it, you just tap on a shot in your gallery that isn’t quite sharp and if there’s a “face deblur” option: boom.

Image Credits: Google

OK, it’s definitely kind of weird to have only the face sharp in a blurry photo, as you can see in the sample, but look: do you want the picture or not? Thought so.

Also in the blur department are two new “motion modes.” One is an “action pan” that assists in capturing a moving subject like a passing car clearly, while blurring the background “creatively.” That means it applies a directed zoom blur instead of the handheld blur it would normally have, so it looks a little ‘shoppy, if you will, but it’s a fun option. The other one is a long exposure helper that adds blur to moving subjects while keeping the background clear. Helpful for doing something like headlight streaks without a tripod. These will be found in their own motion mode area in the camera app.

An image on the beach before using 'magic eraser' and after, with background people removed.

Image Credits: Google

“Magic Eraser” is the most obviously “AI” thing here. If you take a picture and it’s great except someone just walked into the background or there’s a car parked in the scenic vista, it’ll help you zap those pesky real-world objects so you can forget they ever existed. Tap the tool and it’ll automatically highlight things you might want to remove, like distant people, cars, and according to the example they provided, even unsightly logs and other random features. Driftwood, though, on the beach…really? Fortunately you can pick which to throw in the memory hole, no pressure, or circle unrecognized objects and it will do its best to dispose of them.

“Speech Enhancement” isn’t for images, obviously, but when you’re in front camera mode you can opt to have the device tone down the ambient noise and focus on your voice. Basically Krisp by Google. If it works anywhere near as well you will probably want to use it all the time.

“Real Tone” is an interesting but potentially fraught feature that we’ll be looking into in more detail soon. Here’s how Google describes it: “We worked with a diverse set of expert image makers and photographers to tune our AWB [auto white balance], AE [auto exposure], and stray light algorithms to ensure that Google’s camera and imagery products work for everyone, of every skin tone.”

Photo of a family with dark skin sitting on the beach.

They look great, sure… but they’re models.

Basically they wanted to make sure that their “smart” camera’s core features don’t work better or look better on certain skin tones than others. This has happened many, many times before and it’s an insult and embarrassment when billion-dollar companies blow it over and over. Hopefully Real Tone works, but even if it does there is the fundamental question of whether it amounts to lightening or darkening someone’s skin in the photo — a sensitive matter for many people. “This feature cannot be turned off nor disabled,” Google says, so they must be confident. We’ll be testing this and talking with developers and photographers about the feature, so look for a deeper dive into this interesting but complex corner of the field.

It’s not entirely clear how many of these features will be available beyond the Pixel line of phones or when, but we’ll let you know what we find out.

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Enterprise escalator Impact Rooms rises to prepare African startups for growth and investment – TechCrunch

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A few years ago, at the start of the fintech services boom in Africa, Oliver Blantern got an opportunity to work in the continent offering advisory services to high-growth startups. For slightly over three years his company, Riverhouse Technology, helped the emerging tech firms in talent sourcing and acquisition.

The trained lawyer did all this while running the Africa Payments Club, a platform that brought together a pool of founders, experts and investors in the tech space to connect and address common business challenges as well as to scout for opportunities in Africa.

The platform, born out of his experiences at Riverhouse, provided a light-bulb moment to Blantern, who in March this year launched Impact Rooms to provide solutions to some of the obstacles that founders, investors and executives regularly face.

Impact Rooms offers well-rounded solutions for startup problems, from ensuring that they are investor-ready and are matched with the right investors, to raising capital. To be investor-ready means that the startups have strong financial models, are sourcing the right kind of human capital, and comply with regulations.

Blantern said the Impact Rooms is also using data to help investors make decisions on which countries, industries or startups to invest in – giving an equal opportunity to startups across all markets in Africa.

“We want to encourage a high percentage of capital into regions outside the four main markets (South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria) as much as we can. We want to encourage capital into African women-led businesses, and to support a high number of existing local and global investors to invest more capital in this market,” Impact Room CEO and founder Blantern told TechCrunch.

On Impact Rooms, startups also get access to a diverse range of services, including legal and marketing support, from the platform’s other partners. Impact Rooms is backed by US-based investment group Global Blockchain Ventures (GBV).

“Our job is to support startups and help them all the way to maturity. We conduct company evaluations through investor-readiness support and offer introductions to relevant service partners, and then support with capital raising.”

The Impact Rooms team is currently spread across the world with some of its experts in Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Australia, US, UK and Switzerland.

Blantern said that the startup has also built a database to provide insights on how investors are making investment decisions.

“It is the most comprehensive and intelligent investor database for Africa, and it allows us to understand why some companies raise capital and others don’t, as well as to improve their chances in the future,” he said.

Impact Rooms uses its proprietary algorithm, Cortex, to conduct company evaluations and in valuation benchmarking to understand trends.

The startup is planning to establish Smart Fund, an investor-matching program that uses algorithms to pick the best opportunities for funders. The fund will bring together investors with shared interests from across the world to expand their investment prospects in Africa.

“We work and partner with investors, incubators, companies, and all kinds of ecosystem players, including financial service providers –we are not a competitor. We are here to work with everyone in this ecosystem,” he said.

Impact Rooms is currently working with 14 startups from six countries across Africa, spanning different specialties from e-commerce to blockchain-based communications. The supported startups include Ghana’s Wala Digital Health, a SaaS Software connecting hospitals and donors for critical blood transfusions.

The startup has so far evaluated 85 companies and by the end of next year, it hopes to work with 5,000 companies across the continent and to directly, or indirectly create an additional 10,000 jobs. This in addition to helping 1,000 startups raise funds.

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App stores to see record consumer spend of $133 billion in 2021, 143.6 billion new app installs – TechCrunch

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The app economy will again set new records in 2021. According to a review of the global app ecosystem in 2021 by Sensor Tower, released today, first-time app installs grew to 143.6 billion during the year, a half percentage point higher than 2020, but consumer spending in apps is up a much larger 19.7% year over year to reach $133 billion. This includes spending on in-app purchases, premium apps and subscriptions across both the Apple App Store and Google Play, but excludes third-party app stores, like those in China.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

This growth is nearly in line with the growth seen in 2020 when consumer spending jumped 21% to reach $111.1 billion, Sensor Tower noted.

That the growth continued along the same lines this year is notable because, of course, 2020 had seen the world grappling with the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced consumers to work from home, shop online, virtually connect with friends, stream more entertainment content and attend classes online, amid other behavioral shifts. These changes had played out in terms of consumer app usage and spending in 2020. Global app revenue had rocketed to $50 billion during the first half of 2020, in part due to how the pandemic was impacting the world of mobile apps, TechCrunch had reported at the time.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

There were some early signals that these pandemic-driven shifts in consumer spending would outlast the COVID-19 government lockdowns seen in 2020 to continue to impact 2021 mobile trends. In the U.S., for example, consumer spending on iPhone apps was on track to reach an average of $180 in 2021, up from $136 last year, the firm had also said. It ended up at $165, we’re told, however. And consumer spending during the first half of 2021 was already hitting new records, with a global total of $64.9 billion.

Today, Sensor Tower reports the record $133 billion in global spend includes $85.1 billion in App Store spending, up 17.7% year over year from the $72.3 billion spent in 2020. It also includes $47.9 billion in Google Play consumer spend, up 23.5% from the $38.8 billion spent in 2020. The App Store continues to outpace Google Play with around 1.8 times the revenue, which is in line with previous years.

Outside of games, the app to pull in the most global revenue in 2021 was TikTok, including its Chinese counterpart, Douyin. Combined, the different iterations of ByteDance’s short-form video app passed $2 billion in revenue during the first 11 months of 2021 and is on track to reach $2.3 billion by year-end. That will bring its lifetime total to $3.8 billion.

The app also topped App Store’s charts in terms of global spending, but on Google Play, TikTok was only the No. 4 app by consumer spending. Google’s own Google One subscription was No. 1. By the end of this year, Google One will reach $1 billion in consumer spending, up 123% from $448.5 million in 2020.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Meanwhile, global app downloads are beginning to plateau. While overall, the figures inched up 0.5% year over year from 142.9 billion in 2020 to 143.6 billion, this was mainly due to growth in Android app downloads on Google Play. Installs there grew 2.6% year over year to reach 111.3 billion, up from 108.5 billion in 2020.

But Apple’s App Store saw new app installs drop. This year, downloads will have declined 6.1% from 34.4 billion in 2020 to 32.3 billion, Sensor Tower estimates.

TikTok remained the most-downloaded app with 745.9 million global installs, despite a drop from the 980.7 million installs it saw in 2020. (Apple had also recently confirmed TikTok was the top U.S. download of the year on its Free iPhone Apps chart, for what it’s worth.) On Google Play, Facebook topped the charts with 500.9 million installs, demonstrating the social networking app’s ability to gain traction in a number of emerging markets where Android is more popular. But across both app stores, Facebook will see 624.9 million installs in 2021, down 12% year over year from 707.8 million in 2020.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Mobile games continue to pull in the lions’ share of global app revenue, as in previous years. In 2021, mobile game spending will reach $89.6 billion across the App Store and Google Play, up 12.6% year over year from the $79.6 billion spent in 2020.

But in an ongoing trend, gaming’s slice of the overall pie is shrinking. In 2019, games accounted for 74.1% of all app spending, which dropped to 71.7% in 2020. This year, they’ve fallen again, representing just 67.4% of all in-app spending. This shift is due to the rise of subscription-based apps outside of games, and this year, particularly the growth in streaming and Entertainment apps, which have financially benefitted from the pandemic.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

On the App Store, games will account for $52.3 billion in consumer spending this year, up 9.9% from 2020. The gaming market on iOS is led by Tencent’s Honor of Kings, which generated $2.9 billion on iOS, up 16% from the $2.5 billion it saw last year.

On Google Play, the highest-grossing title is again Moon Active’s Coin Master, up 13% year over year to reach nearly $912 million. Overall, games on Google Play will generate $37.3 billion in global spending, up 16.6% year over year from $32 billion in 2020.

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Game installs, like the rest of mobile app installs, declined year over year on the App Store, going from 10.1 billion in 2020 to 8.6 billion this year. PUBG Mobile, including the Chinese version Game of Peace, grabbed the most downloads (47.5 million). On Google Play, game installs grew 1.3% from 46.1 billion last year to 46.7 billion this year, with Garena Free Fire pulling in the most downloads (218.8 million).

To some extent, this year’s trends saw a bit of normalization after an unusual burst of activity in 2020. But other trends have remained the same — like the shrinking slice of consumer spend attributed to games, for instance, or how Android continually beats iOS on downloads but not on revenue.

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Kenya’s president signs new law to police digital lenders, apps have six months to apply for licenses – TechCrunch

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In the past one decade, numerous mobile lending apps have been launched in Kenya riding on the growing need for quick loans.

However, these startups have been operating in an unregulated environment until today when the country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, approved a new law that gives the country’s monetary authority, the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), the power to regulate the industry and take action on those that violate consumer privacy.

“The amended Central Bank Act , 2021, gives the Central Bank of Kenya authority to license digital lenders in the country as well as ensure the existence of fair and non-discriminatory practices in the credit market,” said the president’s office.

Under the new legislation, lenders are required to apply for licenses from the CBK, as compared to previously, when they only had to register to set up operations in the East African country.

The lack of regulation meant that customer privacy was never guaranteed as these digital lenders arbitrarily shared user data with third parties. Besides, customers defaulting on loan repayments faced unending reminder calls from debt collectors, who also used shaming tactics like calling friends and family to compel defaulters to pay.

Almost all lending apps were found to use debt-shaming tactics to recover debt in Kenya. They have also faced claims of using predatory lending tactics.

The digital lenders now have six months to apply for the licenses.

“Any person who before the coming into force of this Act was in the digital credit business and is not regulated under any other law, shall apply for a license… within six months of publication of the regulations,” according to a clause in the newly passed law.

Digital lenders are preferred by borrowers in emerging markets, who are often unbanked and have no access to financing from conventional banking institutions.

Besides, loan apps offer collateral-free loans but they are also high-priced, with some annualized interest rates going up to 876%, according to this report that published findings of the exorbitant and predatory pricing strategies of the Chinese-owned Okash and Opesa loan apps.

Other loan apps with a presence in Kenya include San Francisco-based Branch International Ltd., and PayPal-backed Tala.

The loan apps will be expected to observe customer confidentiality by adhering to “the conditions of the Data Protection Act or the Consumer Protection Act”, or risk license withdrawal.
Kenya’s Data Protection Act ensures that borrowers’ confidential information is safe from infringement by unauthorized parties and requires firms to disclose to customers the reasons for collecting their data. The lending apps have earlier been accused of sharing customer data with allies and marketing companies.

Usually, loan apps collect borrowers’ phone data, including contacts, and demand access to messages to check the history of mobile money transactions — for credit scoring, and as conditions for disbursing loans.

Rogue lenders, however, use some of the contact information collected to recover the loans disbursed in cases where borrowers default, or for marketing purposes.

Going forward, the mobile loan apps will be required to reveal all the information concerning their products including details on pricing, penalties for defaulters and the modalities of debt recovery.
This is per Kenya’s Consumer Protection Act, which requires sellers to disclose to consumers all the terms and conditions pertaining to the purchase of goods or services.

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