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HQ Trivia launches HQ Words tonight under reinstalled CEO – TechCrunch

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HQ’s expansion beyond trivia emerges from beta tonight, but the question is whether it’s different and accessible enough to revive the startup’s growth. HQ Words opens to everyone with today’s 6:30pm pacific broadcast within the HQ Trivia app after several weeks of closed beta testing of the Wheel Of Fortune-style game. The launch will be the first big move of Rus Yusupov now that’s been officially renamed CEO a week after the tragic death of fellow co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll, HQ confirms to TechCrunch.

“Intermedia Labs introduced the world to a category defining product, HQ Trivia. Once again, with HQ Words, Intermedia Labs is poised to captivate the world with a revolutionary experience that will bring people together in new ways around live mobile video” Yusupov tells us. “HQ Words is the most interactive experience we’ve ever made.”

Kroll’s passing comes at a tough time for HQ. Its daily player count has declined since it became a phenomenon a year ago. The novelty has begun to wear off, and with so many experienced trivia whizzes, cash jackpots are often split between enough people that winners only get a few bucks. Interrupting your days or nights to play at a particular time can be inconvenient compared to the legions of always-available other games. Yusupov, who was HQ’s CEO until Kroll took over in September, will have to figure out what will attract casual crosswords players and those who flocked to Zynga’s Words With Friends — the kind of disruptive thinking Kroll excelled at.

“Colin and I shared many incredible life moments over the last 7 years. We embarked on an incredible journey co-founding two breakthrough companies together – and the lessons we learned at Vine and HQ will continue to have a big impact on me. Like many relationships, we’ve also had our challenges – but it was during these challenging times that Colin’s kind soul and big heart would truly shine” Yusupov wrote in a statement about his co-founder that was originally published by Digiday in a touching memorial post. Between building Vine and HQ together, the pair have reimagined mobile entertainment, giving millions a chance to show off their wits and creativity. “He had this incredible ability to make everyone feel special. He listened well. He thought deeply. But above all, he cared about people more than work. The driving force behind his innovations was the positive impact they would have on people and world. Colin’s innovations and inventions have changed many people’s lives for the better and will continue to impact the world for years to come.”

HQ Trivia’s co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll passed away earlier this month

How To Play HQ Words

In HQ Words, players compete live to solve word puzzles by correctly choosing what letters are hidden. You can find the game inside the existing HQ Trivia iOS and Android apps. Host Anna Roisman pluckily provides a clue and then dispenses hints as the 25-second timer for each puzzle counts down. If the clue is “gemstone” and you’re shown “_ _ _ m _ _ _”, you’ll have to tap D, I, A, O, and N in any order. Choose three wrong letters or fail to fill out the words and you lose. You’ll spin a wheel before the game starts to get one letter that’s automatically revealed each round.

Make it through ten rounds and you and other winners get a cut of the cash prize, with the three who solved the puzzles fastest scoring a bigger chunk of the jackpot. The startup earns money through selling you extra lives inside Words, though it will probably feature sponsored games and product placement like Trivia does to pull in marketing dollars. Words will go live daily at 6:30pm pacific after Trivia’s 6:00 game, so you can turn it into HQ hour with family and friends.

HQ Words is much more frenetic than Trivia. Rather than picking a single answer, you have to rapidly tap letters through a combination of educated and uneducated guesses. That means it really does feel more interactive since you’re not sitting for minutes with just a sole answer tap to keep you awake. And because it doesn’t require deep and broad trivia knowledge, Words could appeal to a wider audience. The spinner also adds an element of pure luck, as a weaker player who gets to auto-reveal a vowel might fare better than a wiser player who gets stuck with a “Z” like I always seem to.

Fill In The Blank

The concern is that at its core, Words is still quite similar to Trivia. They’re both real-time, elimination round-based knowledge games played against everyone for money. Both at times feel like they use cheap tricks to eliminate you. A recent Words puzzle asked you to name a noisy instrument, but the answer wasn’t “kazoo” but “buzzing kazoo” — something I’m not sure anyone has ever formally called it. Given the faster pace of interaction, even tiny glitches or moments of lag can be enough to make you lose a round. An HQ Words beta game earlier this week failed to show some users the keyboard, causing mass elimination. The pressure to get HQ’s engineering working flawlessly has never been higher.

The phrasing of some HQ Words answers seems like a stretch

HQ originally agreed to let TechCrunch interview Kroll about what makes Words different enough to change the startup’s momentum. Yusupov was supposed to fill in after Kroll was sadly found dead last Friday of an apparent drug overdose. He later declined to talk or provide written responses. That’s understandable during this time of mourning and transition. But HQ will still need to build an answer into its app. Meanwhile, Chinese clones and US competitors have begun co-opting the live video quiz idea. Facebook has even built a game show platform for content makers to create their own.

HQ could benefit from a better onboarding experience that lets people play a sample game solo to get them hooked and tide them over until the next scheduled broadcast. Mini-games or ways to play along after you’re eliminated could boost total view time and the value of brand sponsorships. A “quiet mode” that silences the between-round chatter and distills HQ to just the questions and puzzles might make it easier to play while multi-tasking. Head-to-head versions of Trivia and Words might help HQ feel more intimate, and there’s an opportunity to integrate peer-to-peer gambling like ProveIt trivia.  And branching out beyond knowledge games into more social or arcade-style titles would counter the idea that HQ is just for brainiacs.

Around the height of HQ’s popularity it raised a $15 million funding round at a $100 million valuation. That seems justified given HQ will reportedly earn around $10 million in revenue this year. Gamers are fickle, though, and today’s Fortnite can wind up tomorrow’s Pokemon Go — a flash in the pan that fizzles out. Words is a great bridge to a world outside of Trivia, but HQ must evolve not just iterate.

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HTC’s newest headsets signal end of Vive’s 5-year “VR for the home” mission

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Today’s VR-centric ViveCon 2021, presented by HTC’s Vive division of VR headsets, kicks off with two new headset models slated to launch this year.

That’s probably the headline HTC wants VR fans to focus on—hooray, new stuff to strap to faces—but a closer examination of both headsets (and feedback directly from HTC’s executive team) puts a damper on that, at least for any average consumer interested in buying either.

The Vive Focus 3, HTC’s newest “all-in-one” untethered VR headset, competes directly with the Oculus Quest 2, but it costs a whopping $1,000 more than the Facebook-branded option, at $1,299 MSRP. And the Vive Pro 2, a long-overdue spec bump to 2018’s Vive Pro, resembles the earlier model all too much while costing either $799 by itself or $1,399 for its “full kit.”

Those high prices aren’t accidents, as the HTC Vive department is full-speed ahead with a focus on business, enterprise, and public entertainment centers (aka “VR-cades”).

HTC doesn’t want to go downstream

When pressed, Vive General Manager Dan O’Brien confirmed that this month’s event has zero announcements in store for its Vive Cosmos line of headsets—which he also admitted is the company’s “consumer offering for PC-VR.” That’s not great news for VR fans outside the enterprise sphere. The Cosmos’ default inside-out tracking remains wonky, even after getting firmware updates, and its default controllers are an unfortunate mix of heavy and power-inefficient. Something like ViveCon would’ve been a great time to offer assurances for either current or future Cosmos customers. The silence there, as far as I’m concerned, speaks volumes.

When pressed about Oculus as VR’s top-selling consumer option, O’Brien was frank: HTC wants to make its VR money from upfront purchase revenue, not from “downstream” opportunities. He described at length the business model of “some brands” subsidizing expensive hardware at a lower MSRP “with the hope of monetizing downstream on shared services” and “maybe using data-mining tactics to understand user behavior and then run a program that also generates downstream income.” (It’s not hard to piece together who he may be talking about.)

O’Brien is instead bullish about targeting companies in the manufacturing and intensive training sectors who “can find the return-on-investment (ROI), their savings on efficiencies, and time to market, within six months of buying” Vive headsets.

But follow-up questions reveal that HTC isn’t necessarily interested in consumers who are willing to spend more for untethered Quest-like options. On paper, the untethered Vive Pro 3 sure seems like a sexy jump from Quest 2. The only spec they have in common is the Snapdragon XR2 as an SoC. Vive Focus 3 is otherwise an across-the-board jump: a 120-degree FOV (compared to Quest 2’s 92 degrees), a default refresh rate of 90 Hz (up from Quest 2’s 72 Hz default, which can scale up to 90 Hz and beyond), 8GB of RAM (up from Quest 2’s 6GB), and a “5K” display that offers a 170 percent jump in pixel resolution over Oculus’ latest model.

Plus, its granular interpupillary distance (IPD) slider will be great news for many head shapes and sizes that don’t conform to Quest 2’s backwards, cost-saving IPD slider. (That remains a sticking point for me, since every time I use Quest 2, its ill-fitting IPD leads me to headaches within 30 minutes of strapping in.)

Vive Pro 2: Resolution, and little else

I’m cautious to call Vive Focus 3 superior to Quest 2, since I’ve yet to test the headset, but I can already call out one major issue: HTC’s unwillingness to unlock its tethered, Android-powered software suite for consumer-facing software. O’Brien confirms that this decision has enterprise in mind, because HTC “doesn’t want to put any concern for our business customers… that their users would access consumer content.” Womp, womp.

With Quest 2’s rise in sales of both hardware and software, it’s no secret that VR apps are shifting away from dedicated PC-VR and toward Android-based ecosystems. Focus 3 will support both tethered PC-VR via a USB 3.0 cable and wireless PC-VR via the Wi-Fi 6 protocol, which is great news for consumers with libraries on PC storefronts. But its Android software restriction will make Focus 3 a tough sell as a future-proofed Quest rival. (That high cost includes a full HTC warranty, repair, and customer service package, to be fair.)

Meanwhile, Vive Pro 2 only improves upon the original HTC Vive Pro by boosting its frame rate and pixel count—and that’s good news for anybody who has stayed within the Vive ecosystem (complete with its tracking boxes and compatible accessories) and simply wants to jump to 120 Hz refresh and a 260 percent higher resolution than 2018’s Vive Pro. But that assumes you’re a fan of the Vive Pro’s design, weight, strap, FOV, and built-in speakers—and that you’re not interested in perks found in 2019’s eye-tracking Vive Pro Eye.

I’ve yet to test Vive Pro 2, but on paper, its resolution is arguably the only real selling point compared to the Valve Index headset, which retails for $499 by itself (and, in my humble opinion, surpasses the original Vive Pro’s elements in every way imaginable, especially FOV). When pressed on one of the Vive Pro’s worst aspects—its dated, heavy wand controllers—O’Brien basically tells consumers to buy Valve’s Index Controllers. I’m not kidding: “Customers have gravitated to the Knuckles, and we want to be supportive of that,” he says. (Sadly, this means anyone buying the $1,399 “full kit” is getting saddled with the old wands—and that means the kit in question is arguably targeted to non-gaming customers by default.)

There’s no place like home?

HTC could astound us all by announcing another Cosmos headset or update by year’s end—or maybe resurface its augmented reality-minded prototype, the Vive Proton, though O’Brien didn’t mention the latter in our call. Even if that were to happen, I was left with a clear indication that HTC is done with the consumer-facing sector. He had much longer answers to offer about business strategy and enterprise customers than he did about consumer-facing products and plans.

If you’ve been holding out for a great, forward-thinking home-VR option from the HTC Vive division, think of this year’s ViveCon as a very, very loud breakup letter. It’s over.

Listing image by HTC

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It’s the battle of the alien symbiotes in Venom: Let There Be Carnage trailer

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Tom Hardy returns to the big screen as the lethal protector Venom, taking on Woody Harrelson’s villainous Cletus Kasady/Carnage, in Sony’s forthcoming film Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road) returns as intrepid reporter Eddie Brock, infected with a parasitic alien symbiote that gives him super powers, in Venom: There Will be Carnage. Directed by motion-capture icon Andy Serkis, it’s the sequel to 2018’s box-office smash, Venom. After being delayed for nearly a year due to the ongoing pandemic, Sony just dropped the official trailer, in which Brock/Venom must battle serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), infected with another alien symbiote dubbed Carnage.

(Some spoilers for first film below.)

A Venom film was in development at New Line Cinema back in 1997, although the project didn’t really get off the ground until Sony acquired the rights to the character, as well as Spider-Man. Sony initially planned for Venom and Spider-Man to inhabit a shared universe, given their history in the comics. (Spider-Man was Venom’s first host, before moving on to Brock, and the character gradually evolved from villain to more of an antihero.) The disappointing box office performance of 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 changed those plans, and Venom was re-conceived as a standalone film, with Tom Hardy signing on as the star and Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer agreeing to direct.

That first film served as an origin story for our antihero. A bioengineering firm called the Life Foundation discovered a comet covered with symbiotic lifeforms and brought four samples back to Earth. Brock’s then-fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, Fosse/Verdon), shows him classified documents revealing that the foundation is conducting human/symbiote experiments. The symbiotes need oxygen-breathing hosts to survive, but they invariably end up killing those hosts.

Hot on the story, Brock breaks into the research lab and ends up infected with one of the symbiotes, named Venom. Venom reveals that the symbiotes are intent on taking over Earth by possessing/devouring all humans, but Brock ultimately strikes up a bargain with Venom, and they decide to protect Earth instead. Together, they take on Life Foundation CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal), infected with a symbiote called Riot.

Venom was released in October 2018 and was roundly panned by critics, several of whom specifically bemoaned the lack of a Spider-Man connection. Audiences, however, begged to differ. Venom racked up $856 million globally and was the seventh-highest grossing film of the year. Hardy had already committed to two sequels, and a midcredits sequence featured Harrelson’s Cletus Kasady taunting Brock (who is interviewing Kasady for a story) from his cell. Kasady vows to escape and bring “carnage,” leaving little doubt as to the villain’s identity in a sequel.

Audiences particularly responded to the burgeoning relationship between Brock and Venom, who remained secretly bonded at the film’s end as a kind of hybrid vigilante. One scene in particular—Venom giving Brock a lingering French kiss while transferring from Anne’s body back to Brock’s—launched a thousand ships for “Symbrock.” Sony embraced the fan response by marketing the home release with ads playing up romantic-comedy overtones.

The trailer for Venom: Let There Be Carnage plays up more of a bromance/odd-couple angle, opening with Brock and Venom preparing breakfast—with mixed results—as Venom raspily sings along to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” Brock’s friendly neighborhood convenience store owner, Mrs. Chen (Peggy Lu, Always Be My Maybe), is back to provide comic relief, Williams reprises her role as Anne Weying, and Naomie Harris (Skyfall, Moonlight) plays a secondary villain named Shriek—because even serial killers like Kasady need a love interest, and this one can manipulate sound.

Other than Kasady’s escape and emergence as Carnage, the trailer gives little away as to the actual plot, although there do seem to be elements from the Maximum Carnage storyline. Chances are, if you enjoyed the first Venom film, you’ll like the sequel, too.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage opens exclusively in theaters on September 24, 2021.

Listing image by YouTube/Sony

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Sony says PS5 could be difficult to find into 2022

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Enlarge / This Sony engineer can get a PS5, but millions of others can’t, thanks to short supplies that are likely to continue.

Sony thinks demand could continue to outstrip supply of the PlayStation 5 into 2022. That’s according to a Bloomberg report citing a number of unnamed analysts who listened in on an explanatory call following Sony’s recent earnings report.

“I don’t think demand is calming down this year, and even if we secure a lot more devices and produce many more units of the PlayStation 5 next year, our supply wouldn’t be able to catch up with demand,” Sony CFO Hiroki Totoki reportedly said.

Sony has been warning for months that worldwide shortages of semiconductors and other components have made it hard to increase production for the PS5. But this is the most direct sign that those shortages will extend past this year and into the next.

Sony President and CEO Jim Ryan said in February that he expected PS5 supplies would “get better every month throughout 2021,” leading to “really decent numbers indeed” by the second half of this year. But Totoki amended that statement in April to say that it’s “not likely” Sony could “drastically increase the supply” before the company’s fiscal year ends in March 2022.

Supply problems aside, demand for the PS5 seems to be matching that of the early days of the PS4, which has sold over 115 million units to date. The PS5’s 7.8 million sales through March and 14.8 million additional projected sales in the current fiscal year are broadly in line with sales of the PlayStation 4 at the same point in its life cycle.

But while the PS4 was in short supply in the early months of 2014, by August of that year, Wired was citing the lack of retail PS4 shortages as one reason behind the system’s unexpected success at the time. In other words, the difference between shelves full of PS4s and shelves empty of PS5s is due to the supply, not demand, levels between the two systems.

Totoki reportedly told analysts that he “can’t imagine demand dropping easily” for the PS5, and that situation would continue to put pressure on Sony to increase supplies in any way it can. But with the company already taking a loss on every system sold, spending more money to secure scarce chips over competitors could be difficult (if it’s possible at all).

Put it all together, and you have a situation that could mirror that of the Nintendo Wii, which remained hard to find on store shelves for well over a year after its late-2006 release. That situation got so bad that former Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime had to actively deny that there was a conspiracy to keep Wii supplies artificially low.

Today, of course, Nintendo is facing the same semiconductor shortages as Sony in trying to keep up with demand for the Switch, as are many carmakers. All told, it looks like the “big scramble” for silicon chips is set to continue for a while.

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