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Squad is the new screensharing chat app everyone will copy – TechCrunch

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Squad could be the next teen sensation because it makes it easy to do nothing… together. Spending time with friends in the modern age often means just being on your phones next to each other, occasionally showing off something funny you found. Squad lets you do this even while apart, and that way of punctuating video chat might make it the teen girl “third place” like Fortnite is for adolescent boys.

With Squad, you fire up a video chat with up to six people, but at any time you can screenshare what you’re seeing on your phone instead of showing your face. You can browse memes together, trash talk about DMs or private profiles, brainstorm a status update, co-work on a project or get consensus on your Tinder swipe. It’s deceptively simple, but remarkably alluring. And it couldn’t have happened until now.

How Squad screensharing looks

Squad takes advantage of Apple’s ReplayKit for screensharing. While it was announced in 2015, it wasn’t until June 2018’s iOS 12 that ReplayKit became stable and easy enough to be built into a consumer app for teens. Meanwhile, plus-size screens and speedy LTE and upcoming 5G networks make screensharing watchable. And with Instagram aging and Snapchat shrinking, there’s demand for a more intimately connected social network.

Squad only launched its app last week, but droves of Facebook and Snap employees have signed up to spy on and likely copy the startup, co-founder and CEO Esther Crawford tells me. Screensharing would fit well in group video chat startup Houseparty too. To fuel its head start, Squad has the $2.2 million it raised before it pivoted away from Molly, the team’s previous App where people can make FAQs about themselves. That cash came from betaworks, Y Combinator, BBG Ventures, Basis Set Ventures, Jesse Draper, Gary Vaynerchuk, Niv Dror, and [Disclosure: former TechCrunch editor] Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine. Next, Squad wants to let people tune in to screenshares via URL to unlock a new era of Live broadcasting, and equip other apps with the capability through a Squad SDK.

“People under 24 do video chat way different than people 25 and above” says Crawford. Adding screensharing is “an excuse for hanging out.”

Serious ideas are preludes to toys

Screensharing has long been common in enterprise communication apps like Webex, Zoom and Slack. I even called a collaborative browsing and desktop screensharing app my favorite project from Facebook’s 2011 college hackathon. But we don’t just use our screens for work any more. Teens and young adults live on the digital plane, navigating complex webs of friendships, entertainment and academia through their phones. Squad makes those experiences social — including the “social” networks we often scroll through in isolation. Charles and Ray Eames said “Toys are preludes to serious ideas,” but this time, it is happening in reverse.

Squad co-founders from left: Ethan Sutin, Esther Crawford

“The idea came from a combination of things — a pain we were experiencing as a team,” Crawford recalls. My development team is constantly sending each other screenshots and screen recordings. It seemed ridiculous that I can’t just show you what’s on my screen. It was a business use case internally.” But then came the wisdom of a 13-year-old. “My daughter over the summer was bugging me. ‘Why can’t I just show what’s on my screen with my friends?’ I said I think it’s not technically possible.” That’s when Crawford discovered advances in ReplayKit meant it suddenly was possible.

Crawford had already seen this cycle of tool to toy before, as she was an early YouTuber. Back in the mid-2000s, people thought of YouTube as a place to host videos about eBay listings, professional presentations or dating profile supplements. “They couldn’t imagine that if you let people just reliably and easily upload video content, there’d be all these creative enterprises.”

Use cases for Squad

After stints in product marketing at Coach.com and Stride Labs, she built Estherbot — a chatbot version of herself that let people learn about her. Indeed, 50,000 people ended up trying it, convincing her people needed new ways to reveal themselves to friends. She met Ethan Sutin through the project and together they co-founded FAQ app Molly before it fizzled out and was shut down. “Molly wasn’t working; it had high initial engagement sessions, but then they would drop off. Maybe it’s not the right time for the augmented version of you,” noted Crawford.

Crawford and Sutin pivoted Molly into Squad to keep exploring new formats for vulnerability. “What excited Ethan and I was this mission to help people feel less lonely.”

Alone, together

Squad recommends apps to screenshare

Squad worked, thanks to a slick way to activate screensharing. The app launches to the selfie camera similar to Snapchat, but with a + button for inviting friends to a video call. Tap the screenshare button at the bottom, select Squad and start the broadcast. To guide users toward the best screensharing experiences, a menu of apps emerges encouraging users to open Instagram, TikTok, Bumble, their camera roll and others.

People can bounce back and forth between screensharing and video chat, and tap a friend’s window to view it full-screen. And when they want another friend to see what they’re seeing, Squad goes viral. One concern is that Squad breaks privacy controls. You could have friends show you someone’s Instagram profile you’re blocked by or aren’t allowed to see. But the same goes for hanging out in person, and this is one reason Squad doesn’t let you download videos of your chats and is considering screenshot warnings.

What’s so special about Squad is that it lacks the intensity of traditional video chat, where you constantly feel pressured to perform. You can fire up a chat room, and then go back to phoning as you please with your screen displayed instead of your blank face (though the Android version in beta offers picture-in-picture so you can show your mug and the screen).

“There’s no picture-in-picture on iOS, but younger users don’t even really care. I can point it at the bed and you can tell me when there’s something to look at,” Crawford tells me. A few people, alone in their houses, video chatting without looking at each other, still feel a sense of togetherness.

The future of Squad could grant that feeling to a massive audience of a celebrity or influencer. The startup is working on shareable URLs that creators could post on other social networks like Twitter or Facebook that their fans could click to watch. Tagging along as Kylie Jenner or Ninja play around on their phone could bring people closer to their heroes while serving as a massive growth opportunity for Squad. Similarly, colonizing other apps with an SDK for screensharing could allow Squad to recruit their users.

Squad makes starting a screenshare easy

The startup will face stiff technical challenges. Lag or low video quality destroy the feeling of delight it delivers, Crawford admits, so the team is focused on making sure the app works well even in rural areas like middle America where many early users live. But the real test will be whether it can build a new social graph upon the screensharing idea if already popular apps build competing features. Gaming tools like Discord and Twitch already offer web screensharing, and I suggested Facebook should bring the feature to Messenger when in late-2017 it launched in its Workplace office collaboration app.

Helping a friend choose when to swipe right on Tinder via Squad

In June I wrote that Instagram and Snapchat would try to steal the voice-activated visual effects at the center of an app called Panda. Snapchat started testing those just two months later. Instagram’s whole Stories feature was cloned from Snapchat, and it also cribbed Q&A Stories from Polly. Overshadowed, Panda and Polly have faded from the spotlight. With Facebook and Snap already sniffing around Squad, it’s quite possible they’ll try to copy it. Squad will have to hope first-mover advantage and focus can defeat a screensharing feature bolted on to apps with hundreds of millions or even billions of users.

But regardless of who delivers this next phase of sharing, it’s coming. “Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality. The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations,” Crawford wrote.

Perhaps there’s no better antidote to the poison of social media success theater that revealing that beyond the Instagram highlights, we’re often just playing around on our phones. Squad might not be glamorous, but it’s authentic and a lot more fun.

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Netflix crackdown, monetizing ChatGPT and bypassing FB’s 2FA • TechCrunch

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Happy weekend, folks, and welcome back to the TechCrunch Week in Review. Henry here, standing in for a vacationing Kyle Wiggers, who is standing in for a parental-leaving Greg Kumparak. Listen, we’ve got a deep bench, and both blokes will be back very soon. Until then, check out just a few of the top stories from the week.

Want it in your inbox every Saturday AM? You can take care of that right here.

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Netflix’s password-sharing crackdown: The streaming giant has grown tired of its customers sharing passwords with friends and loved ones around the world. So this week it announced guidelines designed to keep the passwords close to home. Literally inside the walls of the abode of the account holder.

Monetized ChatGPT: OpenAI this week launched a pilot subscription for its text-generating AI. For $20 a month, subscribers can access more than what the base level gets: access to ChatGPT during peak hours, faster response times and priority access to new features and improvements.

Human or AI?: That is the question, and apparently OpenAI wants to help. The company launched a tool that is designed to distinguish between human-written and AI-generated text, but the success rate is only around 26%. OpenAI did say, though, that when used with other methods, it could help prevent AI text generators from being abused.

Bypassing FB 2FA: Meta created a new centralized system so users could manage their logins for Facebook and Instagram, but a bug could have allowed malicious hackers to switch off 2FA just by knowing a user’s phone number. Yikes. A security researcher from Nepal discovered the bug and reported it to Meta Accounts Center last September. And he got paid.

Salesforce layoffs hit: In January, the company announced the imminent reduction of 10% of its workforce. Not everyone was notified at the time, however. This week, hundreds more of the company’s staff found out the fate of their jobs.

“Spill the tea”: Alphonzo “Phonz” Terrell lost his job at Twitter as its global head of Social & Editorial three months ago and promptly got to work on a new app. Called Spill, the app has already attracted a seed round and 60,000 handle reservations. The app is due to launch in alpha during the first quarter of this year.

Google Fi breach: The company said its cell network provider, Google Fi, confirmed a data breach, which, based on the timing of the notice, was likely related to the recent security incident at T-Mobile that allowed hackers to steal millions of customers’ information.

audio roundup

This week out of the TechCrunch Podcast Network, Equity covered the usual slate of venture and startup funding news, and Mary Ann spoke with Hans Tung, investor and managing partner of GGVC, a venture firm with more than $9 billion in assets under management. On Found, Darrell and Becca talked to Rosie Nguyen, a co-founder and the CMO of Fanhouse, about her journey from content creator to founder and how her experience as a creator informs every product decision at Fanhouse.

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TC+ subscribers get access to in-depth commentary, analysis and surveys — which you know if you’re already a subscriber. If you’re not, consider signing up. I doubt you’ll regret it. Just check out the highlights from this week:

Not quite secondarily: Becca reports on data this week that shows secondary deals are breaking away from the downturned venture market this year.

Open source startups: Paul Sawers examines a report out this week that explores which commercial open source software startups are growing fast and raising cash.

Go team: Ever wonder which slide is the most important slide in a startup’s pitch deck? Why, it’s the team slide and Haje expresses his surprise at just how many startups fail to tell a good story about their teams. And speaking of pitch decks, Haje brings Laoshi’s $570K angel deck breakdown to you.

Dear Sophie: Immigration Sophie Alcorn answers the question, What H-1B and other immigration changes can we expect this year?

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Amazon ramped up content spending to $16.6B in 2022, including $7B on originals • TechCrunch

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Amazon detailed the costs of its content business during its fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday, citing that its content expenses jumped to $16.6 billion in 2022, a 28% increase from $13 billion in 2021.

According to Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky, around $7 billion of that figure went towards Amazon Originals, live sports programming, and licensed third-party video content included with Prime. In 2021, Amazon had spent $5 billion on those three areas of content, for comparison.

While the company didn’t break down exactly how much it invests in each title, it’s reported that Amazon is spending more than $1 billion annually for its NFL streaming rights. Plus, the first season of “The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power,” the most-watched Amazon original series worldwide, cost over $500 million.

Streaming services know by now that original content is the key to standing out amongst rivals and reducing churn. Amazon is likely boosting its content investments to better compete with Disney, Netflix, and HBO Max. Disney spends approximately $33 billion on content, while both Netflix and HBO Max spend a reported $18 billion. *Note that a portion of Disney’s figure goes towards sports rights—around $11 billion.) Paramount+ also plans to increase streaming content spending to $6 billion by 2024, it recently said.

Amazon didn’t report subscriber numbers for its streaming business. However, Olsavsky boasted during the earnings call that its Prime Video content is a “strong driver of Prime member engagement and new Prime member acquisition,” Olsavsky said.

For instance, “The Rings of Power” was viewed by over 100 million global viewers with more than 24 billion minutes streamed. The company added that, during its launch window, “The Lord of the Rings” series helped drive more Prime sign-ups worldwide than any previous Prime Video content.

Amazon also touted that Thursday Night Football reached the youngest median age audience of any NFL broadcast package since 2013, and viewership among fans ages 18 to 34 years old increased by 11% compared to the 2021 season.

The company claimed the TNF games had an average audience of 11.3 million viewers. The first exclusive TNF game on Prime Video had 15.3 million viewers. Before the 2022 season began, Amazon expected to reach about 12.5 million viewers per week.

Other original content added to the streamer in 2022 includes “My Policeman” starring Harry Styles, the third season of “Jack Ryan” and the Western drama “The English,” among others.

Amazon is also benefiting from its 2022 acquisition of MGM for $8.5 billion. The company noted that “Wednesday,” the MGM-produced series on Netflix, premiered at No. 1 on Nielsen’s weekly streaming charts and earned two Golden Globe nominations. In December, “Wednesday” became the second most popular English-language series on Netflix, surpassing 1.02 billion total hours viewed in just three weeks since its streaming release. Over 150 million households watched the show.

Prime members in the U.S. also saw the return of HBO Max as a Prime Video Channel offering, giving customers access to approximately 15,000 hours of premium content.

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‘Nothing, Forever,’ an AI ‘Seinfeld’ spoof, is the next ‘Twitch Plays Pokémon’ • TechCrunch

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“So, I was at the store the other day, and as I’m checking out, the cashier asks me if I have any coupons, and I say, ‘No coupon problem!’” recalls a pixelated, barely three-dimensional figure that vaguely resembles Jerry Seinfeld. “So I’m walking down the street, and this guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and I say, ‘It’s going coupon!’”

An automated laugh track plays, but the joke doesn’t make sense. Then again, it doesn’t have to make sense.

“Nothing, Forever” is a never-ending, AI-generated spoof of “Seinfeld,” the show about nothing. It’s been streaming on Twitch since December, and until a few days ago, the stream had an average of about four concurrent viewers. Now, at the moment I write this, there are 15,097 people watching a group of badly animated friends — Larry Feinberg, Fred Kastopolous, Yvonne Torres and Zoltan Kalker — cycling through infinite “Seinfeld”-like scenes with very little plot.

The show has been streaming almost non-stop on Twitch since December, but it only reached a wider audience this week, when its creators slowly started promoting the stream on Reddit. Now, “Nothing, Forever” has over 98,000 followers on Twitch, and a Discord with about 6,000 members.

Behind the project are Skyler Hartle, a senior product manager at Microsoft, and Brian Habersberger, a polymer physicist. They call themselves Mismatch Media, though this venture remains a side project.

Aptly, the duo met online while playing “Team Fortress 2” and they kept in touch over time. Four years ago, they started working on creative projects together.

Image Credits: Nothing, Forever (opens in a new window)

“It kind of started its journey as a kind of art project that Brian approached me with, and we ended up collaborating and working on it together and iterating on it over the last four years,” Hartle told TechCrunch. “The show we’re creating is really cool, and scratches that creative itch as just a surreal, fun kind of project, but we saw the merit of generative technology as a tool for broad scale content creation and generation.”

To make “Nothing, Forever,” Hartle and Habersberger use various AI models to generate text, speech, and movements. The “script” of the show comes from an Open AI’s GPT-3 model, Davinci. To voice the characters, they use the Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services speech API, and the visuals are made on the Unity game engine.

“The Unity engine just does a lot of interpretation to basically run the show and inherit all this content, and the voices, and all these kinds of other pieces of direction from what we call ‘the director’ in the cloud,” Hartle said. “And the director dictates what happens on the show from a generative perspective.”

They set out to create a surrealist, never-ending television show, and it simply made sense to base it on “Seinfeld,” a show that has defined the structure of a sitcom.

“A sitcom has a laugh track and a sort of formulaic structure,” Habersberger told TechCrunch. “So when characters are saying things that don’t quite make sense, but the structure is one that you’re very familiar with, it really helps you to interpret and make sense of it, even though the sense isn’t there.”

AI dialogue can get repetitive. Characters are constantly referencing new restaurants and stores to the point that it’s become an in-joke. On a fan-made “Nothing, Forever” bingo generator, the free space is “New thing!”

Per the nascent wiki, some new places include a new type of bagel (it’s shaped like an octopus, and called the octobagel), a new shake shop (they serve pickles in their shakes), a new taco truck (they sell tacos and burgers) and a new all-you-can-eat buffet (nothing but pink flamingo wings!). One of the few interactive items in Larry’s apartment is a microwave, a prop that characters frequently and inexplicably use in ways that have no bearing on the plot — the microwave has spurred a fandom of its own, custom Discord emojis and all.

Image Credits: Nothing, Forever bingo (opens in a new window)

“To take that idea even further, ‘Seinfeld’ is famously the show about nothing. What could be more nothing than a robot, right?” said Habersberger. “And then even further with ‘Seinfeld,’ there was a period of fifteen years or so where you could just turn on the TV, and if you flip through the channels, there’s a good chance it’s on, because it was syndicated […] So I was like, wait, now it can really be always on.”

We’ve all seen far too many AI-generated gimmicks, but the AI isn’t what’s most interesting about “Nothing, Forever.” It’s the community that’s gathered around the stream, making the project feel like this generation’s “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”

Image Credits: Nothing, Forever (opens in a new window)

In 2014, an anonymous Australian streamer set up a channel where fans could collaboratively play “Pokémon Red,” pressing buttons and moving the player character via Twitch chat commands. When enough players got involved, the stream turned into chaos. (The route through Rock Tunnel is confusing enough, but imagine navigating it with thousands of people clamoring to control the character’s movement.)

Yet over the two weeks it took to beat the game, fans built deep lore to explain why the character was behaving so erratically. No, we didn’t keep opening our bag to look at the Helix Fossil because of the chaotic button mashing in the chat; indeed, it was because our player character worshiped the Helix Fossil like a deity.

In the same vein, “Nothing, Forever” fans try to parse dialogue to learn more about the universe of the show. On Discord, fans requested a new channel to keep track of new lore as it develops; one page on the wiki chronicles what we know from past mentions of aliens. The community also keeps track of Larry’s recurring standup jokes, which are pretty bad (“What do you call a bear with no teeth? A gummy bear”), but somehow get funnier the more they’re repeated.

“The way that the chat is engaging, they’re kind of creating their own memes and their own culture,” said Hartle. “We’ve had people who have reached out wanting to be community mods and have been watching the show for eight hours at a time.”

Like “Twitch Plays Pokémon,” the creators of “Nothing, Forever” hope to include audience participation features in the future. Hartle told TechCrunch that there are not currently any interactivity features embedded in the livestream, though some fans began theorizing that they were causing Larry to repeat his jokes by getting excited when he talked about gummy bears again.

Mismatch Media hopes they can repurpose the tech stack behind “Nothing, Forever” into an actual system for creating generative media projects. For now, Hartle and Habersburger are taking things slow with their newfound popularity. They’ve been able to make a bit of money from Patreon and Twitch subscriptions, but it’s still unclear how long it will take for the novelty of “Nothing, Forever” to wear off.

Sudden virality can’t last forever. “Twitch Plays Pokémon” became an ongoing series after the completion of the first game, but fan engagement dropped drastically once the excitement around the initial experiment died down. Now, we just fondly remember it as a time when the internet felt less hellish, capturing the same lightning in a bottle as projects like r/Place.

Similarly, it’s difficult to predict how long “Nothing, Forever” will retain its fanbase, and whether or not people would find more joy if the creators started other constant, AI-based sitcom spoofs.

For now, it’s a simple delight to just click off Twitter and watch Larry tell the same jokes over and over.

“What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?”

“Dam!”

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