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Sandbox VR raises millions more in celebrity party round – TechCrunch

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How funding rounds are classified these days has much more to do with positioning than any VC definitions, but it’s still true that nothing has quite the pizazz as the “strategic investment” celebrity party round.

Sandbox VR, a location-based virtual reality startup that capped off a huge $68 million Series A led by Andreessen Horowitz at the beginning of the year, is bringing on some new investors in a $11 million “strategic” round, let’s call this one the Series A-listers round.

Yeah, there were a couple Silicon Valley folks, David Sacks and the Andreessen Horowitz Cultural Leadership Fund led the round, but they joined the much glitzier names of celebs including Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom and Will Smith. Other investors include Michale Ovitz, Honda Keisuke and Kevin Durant.  Some of the investors in this latest round don’t have much in common beyond being LPs in the Andreessen Horowitz Cultural Leadership Fund, which seems to be the glue holding these stars together.

Sandbox VR operates physical spaces, generally in retail locations, that users can play multiplayer virtual reality games inside with friends. It’s a next-generation arcade of sorts that’s relying on expensive new technology to attract customers, but that formula hasn’t been a slam dunk for plenty of other VR startups, and it’s forced the leadership to get creative.

“It’s a difficult space to be in, because it’s one of those spaces where you have to be three startups in one,” Sandbox VR exec Siqi Chen told TechCrunch in an interview. “You have to build your own content, build your own technology and construct and operate retail locations.”

While most virtual reality startups that have raised substantial amounts of capital have had to dump it into R&D, Sandbox’s business is more focused on pinning virtual reality experiences to physical real estate giving the curious a hub to try out the technology.

Sandbox has plenty of obstacles ahead, the most dire of which will be building a content ecosystem that’s exclusive to the system. Even Facebook’s Oculus has struggled to court established studios to the system without bankrolling development, a process that could get very expensive very quickly for Sandbox. Consumer expectations are also quite high given the steep $48 ticket prices for the 30 minute experience. Sandbox recently partnered with CBS Interactive Studios to create a title based on Star Trek IP.

Sandbox will have to compete with consumer headsets like the Oculus Quest that are far cheaper and simpler than previous-generation at-home headsets. The startup will also have to find ways to deepen experiences while still relying on plenty of off-the-shelf consumer hardware. Sandbox’s success relies at least a bit on consumer VR headset adoption growing at a sluggish pace, something Facebook is still spending billions to accelerate.

Generating venture-sized returns will undoubtedly involve more than jacking up ticket prices for more immersive games, though we haven’t heard much of a grand vision from the young startup yet. Whatever Sandbox does, the team is going to have to walk in the same footsteps of many VR companies before it all while improving perceptions of the technology, something the company’s executives hope their new celebrity investor friends can help with.

For Sandbox, gathering attention from celebrities like Kanye West has already been part of the strategy. “Part of it is brand, in that VR is not perceived as a cool thing to do,” Chen says. “So having influential people onboard helps with that perception a bit.”

Sandbox has 16 locations planned by the end of 2020. The company has now raised a whopping $82 million.



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Apple Back to School 2021 promo adds free AirPods to select iPad and Mac

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Apple has launched its new Back to School deals, and if you’ve been considering a new iPad or Mac for the classroom – either remote or in-person – you could get a treat for your ears, too. The Cupertino company is adding to its usual education discount with an AirPods promo, and a discount for Apple Care+.

There are actually seven new deals, all of which include a free set of AirPods. If you’re looking for a Mac, you can take your pick from Apple’s latest M1-powered models both portable and desktop.

The MacBook Air is priced from $899 under Apple’s education pricing, for example, or $73.91 per month for 12 months. The MacBook Pro 13-inch, meanwhile, starts at $1,199 for students, or $99.91 per month for 12 months.

As usual, there are bundles of software with educational pricing as well. The Pro Apps Bundle for Education – which includes Final Cut Pro, among other things – is $199.99, for instance.

If it’s your dorm room desktop that needs an upgrade, meanwhile, Apple has two options there. The new 24-inch iMac – using Apple Silicon – gets new education pricing, starting at $1,249, or $104.08 per month for 12 months. Again, you get a set of free AirPods. The Mac mini is included too, for $649, or $54.08 per month for 12 months.

Those who have a bigger budget – or bigger requirements – can also get education pricing on the Mac Pro. That starts at $5,599, or $466.58 per month for 12 months.

Over on the tablet side, there are two education deals arriving just in time to get going on iPadOS 15. If you want an iPad Air, that starts at $549 for students, or $45.75 per month for 12 months. The Apple Pencil 2nd generation is $119, while the Smart Keyboard Folio for iPad Air is $159.

The new iPad Pro, meanwhile, will start at $749 for students, or $62.41 per month for 12 months. The iPad Pro’s Magic Keyboard is from $279.

As for Apple Care+, education pricing knocks 20-percent off the cost of Apple’s extended warranty.

To quality for education pricing, you’ll need to be either a current or newly accepted college student, or the parent of such a student. Faculty, staff, and homeschool teachers of all grade levels also qualify, and there are discounts for other models in Apple’s range, albeit without the free AirPods deal.

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Leica Leitz Phone 1 wraps a hefty 20MP 1-inch camera in familiar design

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Leica has revealed a new smartphone, with the Leitz Phone 1 promising a hefty sensor for photography along with 5G capabilities. Although the camera company has co-branded smartphone cameras before now, the Leica Leitz Phone 1 takes a fairly atypical approach.

Where it’s common to find three or four sensors on most recent smartphones, regardless of price point, Leica’s handset takes a more focused approach. It has a single rear sensor, in fact, packing 20-megapixels.

What makes the difference is the sensor’s physical size: a full 1 inch, which is far larger than the primary camera on just about every other device out there. It has an f/1.9 ultra-wide, 19mm-equivalent lens, too. If you’ve been keeping track of recent photo-focused smartphone launches, that might sound familiar.

Indeed, Sharp announced its Aquos R6 back in May, and the 1-inch Summicron camera and lens system tallies with this Leica-branded phone. The big sensor is primarily being positioned as a foolproof way to get more light, of course, just as you’d expect from a regular camera. However there’ll also be what Leica is calling “Leitz Looks,” which are basically things like monochrome modes to edit images.

Unsurprisingly then, there’s a 12.6-megapixel selfie camera on the front of the Leitz Phone 1 as well. There’s also a 6.6-inch IGZO OLED screen with a 240Hz variable refresh rate, to trim motion blur, running at 2,730 x 1,260 resolution. An ultrasonic fingerprint sensor is under the display.

Also inside is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 5G chipset running Android 11, paired with 12GB of memory and 256GB of storage. There’s a microSD slot compatible with up to 1TB cards as well. In addition to 5G there’s WiFi 802.11ax and Bluetooth 5.2; a 5,000 mAh battery rounds out the key specs, and the whole thing is finished in an IP68 glass and metal shell.

What distinguishes the two phones – Sharp-branded and Leica-branded – really is the aesthetic. That’s an important factor in the photography world, where Leica’s cameras are known for their distinctive red dot. For the Leitz Phone 1, there’ll even be a special branded soft-case, and a Leica lens-cap to protect the sensor.

Softbank will be offering the Leica Leitz Phone 1 as an exclusive in Japan, priced at 187,920 yen ($1,714), and right now there’s no apparent plan to launch it outside of the country.

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Amazon’s fake reviews policy catches a popular charger brand

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Most who shop on Amazon check the reviews for a particular product to ensure it’s worth their hard-earned money. However, many who frequently shop on Amazon may not realize how rampant fake reviews are on the website. There are many brands who pay people who purchase their products for reviews, sometimes handing out gift cards to entice buyers to leave five-star reviews.

Naturally, Amazon has a policy against fake reviews. Some very popular makers of electronics and electronics accessories have recently been booted from Amazon for allegedly violating that policy. The most recent brand to fall afoul of Amazon’s fake review policy is called RavPower, a popular maker of phone batteries and chargers.

Amazon has confirmed that all RavPower products have been removed from its virtual store shelves. There has been no official word from Amazon on why it removed RavPower products. Over the weekend, a journalist from the Wall Street Journal named Nicole Nguyen posted to Twitter that a RavPower charger she purchased had a card inside promising a $35 gift card in exchange for a review.

While Amazon hasn’t confirmed that tweet is the reason the RavPower products were removed from its marketplace, the proximity to the tweet and the products removal seems clear. RavPower isn’t the first popular brand on Amazon to be removed from the store. Previously Aukey and Mpow were also removed from the Amazon storefront. While no specific reasons for the removal have been offered, it appears the fake review policy resulted in those products being eliminated.

While, as of writing, you can still find some Aukey products listed on Amazon. However, it appears that everything RavPower branded has been eliminated. It’s worth noting that fake reviews aren’t limited to electronics on Amazon. I purchased a pump spray bottle for oil to use for seasoning cast iron pans earlier this year based entirely on many five-star reviews. When the product came in, inside was a card offering a $10 gift card if I showed them I left a five-star review for a product that cost me about the same amount. Ordering a product based on lots of good reviews only to find the reviewers are being paid to leave those reviews is quite disturbing.

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