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Mobile developer Tru Luv enlists investors to help build a more inclusive alternative to gaming – TechCrunch

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Developer and programmer Brie Code has worked at the peak of the video game industry – she was responsible for many of the AI systems that powered non-player character (NPC) behavior in the extremely popular Assassin’s Creed series created by Ubisoft. It’s obvious that gaming isn’t for everyone, but Code became more and more interested in why that maxim seemed to play out along predictable gender lines, leading her ultimately to develop and launch #SelfCare through her own independent development studio TRU LUV.

#SelfCare went on to win accolades including a spot of Apple’s App Store Best of 2018 list, and Code and TRU LUV was also the first Canadian startup to attend Apple’s Entrepreneur Camp program. Now, with over 2 million downloads of #SelfCare (without any advertising at all), Code and TRU LUV have brought on a number of investors for their first outside funding including Real Ventures, Evolve Ventures, Bridge Builders Collaborative and Artesian Venture Partners.

I spoke to Code about how she came up with and created #SelfCare, what’s next for TRU LUV, and how the current COVID-19 crisis actually emphasizes the need for an alternative to gaming that serves many similar functions, but for a previously underserved groups of people for whom the challenges and rewards structures of traditional gaming just don’t prove very satisfying.

“I became very, very interested in why video games don’t interest about half of people, including all of my friends,” Code told me. “And at that point, tablets were becoming popular, and everyone had a phone. So if there was something universal about this medium, it should be being more widely adopted, yet I was seeing really clear patterns that it wasn’t. The last time I checked, which was maybe a couple years ago, there were 5 billion mobile users and around 2.2 billion mobile gamers.”

Her curiosity piqued by the discrepancy, especially as an industry insider herself, Code began to do her own research to figure out potential causes of the divide – the reason why games only seemed to consistently appeal to about half of the general computer user population, at best.

“I started doing a lot of focus groups and research and I saw really clear patterns, and I knew that if there is a clear pattern, there must be an explanation,” Code said. “What I discovered after I read Sheri Grainer Ray’s book Gender Inclusive Game Design, which she wrote in 2004, in a chapter on stimulation was how, and these are admittedly gross generalizations, but men tend to be stimulated by the sense of danger and things flashing on screen. And women, in her research, tended to be stimulated by something mentioned called a mutually-beneficial outcome to a socially significant situation. That’s when you help an NPC and they help you, for instance. In some way, that’s more significant, in the rules of the world than just the score going up.”

TRU LUV founder and CEO Brie Code

Code then dug in further, using consumer research and further study, and found a potential cause behind this divide that then provided a way forward for developing a new alternative to a traditional gaming paradigm that might prove more appealing to the large group of people who weren’t served by what the industry has traditionally produced.

“I started to read about the psychology of stimulation, and from there I was reading about the psychology of defense, and I found a very simple and clear explanation for this divide, which is that there are two human stress responses,” she said. “One of them, which is much more commonly known, is called the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When we experience the fight-or-flight response, in the face of challenge or pressure or danger, you have adrenaline released in your body, and that makes you instinctively want to win. So what a game designer does is create these situations of challeng,e and then give you opportunities to win and that leverages the fight-or-flight response to stress: That’s the gamification curve. But there is another human stress response discovered at the UCLA Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab in 2000, By Dr. Shelly Taylor and her colleagues. It’s very prevalent, probably about half of stress responses that humans experience, and it’s called tend-and-befriend.”

Instead of generating an adrenaline surge, it releases oxytocin in the brain, and instead of seeking a victory over a rival, people who experience this want to take care of those who are more vulnerable, connect with friends and allies, and find mutually beneficial solutions to problems jointly faced. Seeking to generate that kind fo response led to what Code and TRU LUV call AI companions, a gaming alternative that is non-zero sum and based on the tend-and-befriend principal. Code’s background as an AI programmer working on some of the most sophisticated virtual character interactions available in modern games obviously came in handy here.

Code thought she might be on to something, but didn’t anticipate the level of #SelfCare’s success, which included 500,00 downloads in just six weeks, and more than 2 million today. And most of the feedback she received from users backed up her hypotheses about what the experience provided, and what users were looking for an an alternative to a mobile gaming experience.

Fast forward to now, and TRU LUV is growing its team, and focused on iterating and developing new products to capitalize on the clear vein of interest they’ve tapped among that underserved half of mobile users. Code and her team have brought on investors whose views and portfolios align with their product vision and company ethos, including Evolve Ventures which has backed a number of socially progressive ventures, and whose managing director Julius Mokrauer actually teaches a course on the subject at Columbia Business School.

#SelfCare was already showing a promising new path forward for mobile experience development before COVID-19 struck, but the product and TRU LUV are focused on “resilience and psychological development,” so it proved well-suited to a market in which mobile users were looking for ways to make sustained isolation more pleasant. Obviously we’re just at the beginning of feeling whatever impacts come out of the COVID-19 crisis, but it seems reasonable to expect that different kinds of mobile apps that trigger responses more aligned with personal well-being will be sought after.

Code says that COVID-19 hasn’t really changed TRU LUV’s vision or approach, but that it has led to the team moving more quickly on in-progress feature production, and on some parts of their roadmap, including building social features that allow players to connect with one another as well as with virtual companions.

“We want to move our production forward a bit faster than planned in order to respond to the need,” Code said.”Also we’re looking at being able to create social experiences a little bit earlier than planned, and also to attend to the need of people to be able to connect, above and beyond people who connect through video games.”

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Azota is solving exam headaches for Vietnam’s teachers – TechCrunch

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Creating and grading tests is one of the most time-consuming tasks teachers need to deal with. In Vietnam, a startup called Azota wants to help with an online software platform that not only helps educators develop and proctor tests, but also automatically grades them using information from Vietnamese teaching materials. The company announced today it has raised $2.4 million in pre-Series A funding led by GGV Capital, with participation from Nextrans and returning investor Do Ventures. 

Founded last year, Azota now counts 700,000 teachers and 10 million students in primary, secondary and high schools among its users. It says that during peak test periods, it serves over six million users each month, or about 30% of the total number of teachers and students in Vietnam. It claims it can cut down the grading process from two hours when done manually to just two minutes. 

Azota’s creation came amidst the pandemic in 2021. Before co-founding the startup, Au Nguyen, its CEO, worked for Viettel, one of the largest telecoms in Vietnam. He led an educational unit on school management solutions, but realized that educators had many pain points that his team could not solve. As a result, he decided to team up with his friends, Dai Nguyen and Hung Le, to create Azota. 

“As the team sees it, there are two major scopes of work for teachers: teaching and assigning and grading tests,” they told TechCrunch in an email. “During the COVID times, teaching had to go online, and there were numerous tools to support this change such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Team, etc. But when it comes to online assigning and grading, there were few tools available, which made the process very labor-intensive and time-consuming.” 

Azota built an optical character recognition app to automatically recognize Q&A’s from test images taken from teachers’ phones. It shuffles those questions and answers to create hundreds of modified test combinations. Since the OCR was built using Vietnamese teaching materials, the team said it can recognize Vietnamese tests with a 99% accuracy rate. 

Azota’s founders are also working on a more advanced question bank features that will allow teachers to pick and chose from its inventory to create exams from scratch. 

The startup is used by educators across the nation, with about 22% coming from the major cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and the rest distributed equally among all provinces in Vietnam, they added. 

The team identifies two main groups of competitors. The first are big corporations that provide learning management software (LMS) to schools, but they say it’s still a fragmented market in Vietnam with different companies dominating different regions.

The second are startups that provide tools for teachers, but Azota’s founders say the teaching tool segment is still early and Azota differentiates by using a product-led growth model, solving teachers’ main challenges as they grow, especially for assigning and grading, instead of trying to address every issue that comes up. 

In a prepared statement, GGV Capital global managing partner Jixun Foo said, “Using technology to empower teachers to teach better, Azota makes great education accessible to millions of students. They can unleash the true potential of teachers to groom the next generation of Vietnamese youth.”

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Raising capital for robotics startups with Bee Partners and Rapid Robotics – TechCrunch

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Jordan Kretchmer founded Rapid Robotics with the mission of simplifying robotics for manufacturing by providing out-of-the-box automation solutions. Founded in 2019, the company quickly gained the attention of top VCs, including Bee Partners, which led Rapid Robotics’ seed round and participated in each of the following rounds. Hear Rapid Robotics’ pitch and hear from Kira Noodleman, partner at Bee Partners, to learn why robotic companies are quickly (and easily) gaining VC money.

This TechCrunch Live event opens on July 6 at 11:30 a.m. PDT/2:30 p.m. EDT with networking. The interview begins at 12 p.m. PDT followed by the TCL Pitch Practice at 12:30 p.m. PDT. Register here for free.

TechCrunch Live records weekly on Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. PDT/2:30 p.m. EDT. Join us! Click here to register for free and gain access to all TechCrunch Live events — including TechCrunch Live, City Spotlight, Startup Pitch Practice, Networking and other TechCrunch community events — with just one registration.

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AI chipmaker Rebellions gets $22.8M Series A extension from Korean telco company KT  – TechCrunch

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South Korean AI chip developer Rebellions has raised a $22.8 million (30 billion KRW) extension to its Series A financing from a strategic investor KT, one of the largest telecom companies in South Korea. 

Last month, TechCrunch reported on Rebellions closing on $50 million in funding that valued the company at an estimated $283 million. At that time, Rebellions CEO and co-founder Sunghyun Park told TechCrunch that the startup wrapped up its initial Series A, which was oversubscribed, in less than three months from financial investors. 

The Pavilion Capital-backed AI chipmaker has raised about $72.8 million (92 billion KRW) in total Series A funding, bringing its total funding to about $102.8 million since its inception in 2020. 

Rebellions spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company plans to use the extension round to mass-produce its second AI chip prototype, ATOM, that will be used for large companies in the cloud sector and data centers. 

KT says it wants to develop AI chips such as NPU (neural processing unit) that will be used for data centers, autonomous vehicles and fintech.

This is the second strategic investment KT has made with AI chipmakers in South Korea in its effort to accelerate the AI semiconductor business. Ku also said in a prepared statement that KT would continue to invest in startups amid a tough investment environment. 

The competition for AI chips has been heating up as companies, including big tech giants like Nvidia, Intel, Google, and Apple, develop competing products. Intel acquired Habana Labs, an Israeli startup developing AI chipmaker for data centers, in 2019.  

The global AI chip market is projected to reach $194.9 billion by 2030, up from $8.02 billion in 2021, per the AI chip market outlook report. 

“AI semiconductor is one of the next big technologies,” said CEO of KT Hyeon-Mo Ku in a prepared statement. “Through the partnership with KT, we hope Rebellions will become a global fabless company like NVIDIA and Qualcomm.”  

Rebellions is also currently in discussions with potential customers in the financial sector to get its first AI chip, ION, which was launched in November 2021.

“We are looking forward to collaborating with KT, a leader in the Cloud and internet data center industry, and the strategic partnership will be the driving force behind Rebellions’ new growth and business,” Park said in the statement. 

Investors participating in Rebellions’ Series A include Temasek’s Pavilion Capital, Korean Development Bank, SV Investment, Mirae Asset Capital, KT Investment and Kakao Ventures. 

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