All posts in “Apps”

Standard Cognition raises $40M to replace retailers’ cashiers with cameras

The Amazon Go store requires hundreds of cameras to detect who’s picking up what items. Standard Cognition needs just 27 to go after the $27 trillion market of equipping regular shops with autonomous retail technology.

Walk into one of its partners’ stores and overhead cameras identify you by shape and movement, not facial recognition. Open up its iOS or Android app and a special light pattern flashes, allowing the cameras to tie you to your account and payment method. Grab whatever you want, and just walk out. Standard Cognition will bill you. It even works without an app. Shop like normal and then walk up to kiosk screen, the cameras tell it what items you nabbed, and you can pay with cash or credit card. That means Standard Cognition stores never exclude anyone, unlike Amazon Go.

“Our tagline has been ‘rehumanizing retail’” co-founder Michael Suswal tells me. “We’re removing the machines that are between people: conveyor belts, cash registers, scanners…”

The potential to help worried merchants compete with Amazon has drawn a new $40 million Series A funding round to Standard Cognition, led by Alexis Ohanian and Garry Tan’s Initialized Capital . CRV, Y Combinator, and Draper Associates joined the round that builds on the startup’s $11 million in seed funding. Just a year old, Standard Cognition already has 40 employees, but plans to hire 70 to 80 more over the next 6 months so it can speed up deployment to more partners. Suswal wouldn’t reveal Standard Cognition’s valuation but said the round was roughly in line with the traditional percentage startups sell in an A round, That’s usually about 20 to 25 percent, indicating the startup could be valued around $160 million to $200 million pre-money.

Instead of some lofty tech solution that requires a whole new store to be built around it, Standard Cognition gets retailers to pay for the capital expenditures to install its low number of ceiling cameras and a computer to run them. They can even alter their store layout without working with an engineer as they pay a monthly SAAS fee based on their store’s size, SKUs, and product changes.

Standard Cognition’s founding team

Amazon Go uses thousands of cameras to track what you pick up

Suswal tells me “Retailers’ two biggest complaints are long lines and poor customer service.” Standard Cognition lets stores eliminate the lines and reassign cashiers to become concierges who make sure customers find the perfect products. “It’s already fun to shop, but I think it’s going to become a lot more fun in the future” Suswal predicts.

Having seven co-founders is pretty atypical for startups, but it’s helped Standard Cognition move quickly. The crew came together while all working at the SEC. They’d meet up as part of a technology research group, discussing the latest findings on computer vision and machine learning. Suswal recalls that “After about a year, we said ‘if we were going to productize this somehow, what would we do?” They settled on retail, and narrowed it down to autonomous checkout. Then a bombshell dropped. Amazon Go, the first truly signficant cashierless store, was announced.

“We initially thought ‘oh no, this is bad.’ And then we quickly came to our senses that this was the best thing that could happen” Suswal explains. Retailers would be desperate for assistance to fight off Amazon. So the squad quit their jobs and started Standard Cognition.

In September, Standard Cognition opened a 1,900 sq ft flagship test store on Market St in San Francisco, besting Amazon to the punch. Customers can stuff items in their bags, reconsider and put some back, and stroll out of the store with no stop at the cashier. Standard Cognition claims its camera system is 99 percent accurate, and is trained to identify the suspicious movements and behavior of shoplifters.

The store is part of a sudden wave of autonomous retail startups including Zippen that opened the first one in SF, fellow Y Combinator startup Inokyo that launched a bare-bones pop-up in Mountain View, and Trigo Vision which is partnering with Israeli an grocery chain for more than 200 stores.

Now with plenty of capital and eager customers, Standard Cognition is equipping stores for its first four partners — all public companies. Three refuse to be named but include US grocery, drug store, and convenience store businesses. The fourth is Japan’s pharmacy chain Yakuodo. Standard Cognition is already working on its store mapping for its cameras and will begin camera installation next month, though it will be a little while until it opens.

Japan is the perfect market for Standard Cognition because their aging population has produced a labor shortage. “They literally can’t find people to work in their stores” Suswal explains. Autonomous checkout could keep Japanese retailers growing. And because 70 percent of transactions in Japan are cash-based, it also forced the startup to learn how to handle payments outside of its app. That could make Standard Cognition appealing for retailers that want to embrace the future without abandoning the past.

Getting long-running retail businesses to invest in evolving may be the startup’s biggest challenge. Since they have to pay up front for the installation, they’re gambling that the system will reliably increase sales or at least decrease labor costs. But if it makes their stores too confusing, they could see an exodus of customers instead of an influx.

As for Standard Cognition’s impact on the labor class, Suswal admits that “the major chains will have some reduction . . . no one is going to get fired but fewer people will get hired.” He believes his tech could actually save some jobs too. “I was walking around NYC talking to (small chains and mom-and-pop) retailers about problems they face, and an alarming number of them told me ‘we’re closing in a year. We’re closing in 6 months.’ And it was all tied to the next minimum wage hike” Suswal tells me.

Reducing labor costs could keep those shops viable. “These stores can stay open with a reduction of labor so people are keeping their jobs, not losing them” he claims. Whether that proves true will take some time, but at least Standard Cognition’s tech could incentivize merchants to retrain their clerks for more fulfilling roles as concierges.

Facebook Messenger starts rolling out Unsend. Here’s how it works

Facebook secretly retracted messages sent by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, TechCrunch reported seven months ago. Now for the first time, Facebook Messenger users will get the power to unsend too so they can remove their sent messages from the recipient’s inbox. Messages can only be unsent for the first ten minutes after they’re delivered so that you can correct a mistake or remove something you accidentally pushed, but you won’t be able to edit ancient history. Using the “Remove For Everyone” button also leaves a “tombstone” indicating a message was retracted. And to prevent bullies from using the feature to cover their tracks, Facebook will retain unsent messages for a short period of time so if they’re reported, it can review them for policy violations.

The Remove feature rolls out in Poland, Bolivia, Colombia, and Lithuania today on Messenger for iOS and Android. A Facebook spokesperson tells me the plan is to roll it out globally as soon as possible, though that may be influenced by the holiday App Store update cut off. In the meantime, it’s also working on more unsend features, potentially including the ability to preemptively set an expiration date for specific messages or entire threads.

“The pros are that user want to be in control . . . and if you make a mistake you can correct it. There are a lot of legitimate use cases out there that we wanted to enable” Facebook’s head of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky tells me in an exclusive interview. But conversely, he says  ”we need to make sure we don’t open up any new venues for bullying. We need to make sure people aren’t sending you bad messages and then removing them because if you report them and the messages aren’t there we can’t do anything.”

Zuckerberg did it. Soon you can too

Facebook first informed TechCrunch it would build an unsend feature back in April after I reported that six sources told me some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages had been silently removed from the inboxes of recipients, including non-employees with no tombstone left in their place. We saw that as a violation of user trust and an abuse of the company’s power, given the public had no way to unsend their own messages.

Facebook claimed this was to protect the privacy of its executives and the company’s trade secrets, telling me that “After Sony Pictures’ emails were hacked in 2014 we made a number changes to protect our executives’ communications. These included limiting the retention period for Mark’s messages in Messenger.” But it seems likely that Facebook also wanted to avoid another embarrassing situation like when Zuckerberg’s old instant messages from 2004 leaked. One damning exchange saw Zuckerberg tell a friend “if you ever need info about anyone at harvard . . . just ask . . . i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns.” “what!? how’d you manage that one?”  the friend replied. “People just submitted it . .  i don’t know why . . . they ‘trust me’ . . . dumb fucks” Zuckerberg replied.

The company told me it was actually already working on an Unsend button for everyone, and wouldn’t delete any more executives’ messages until it launched. Chudnovsky tells me he felt like “I wish we launched this sooner” when the news broke. But then six months went by without progress or comment from Facebook before TechCrunch broke the news that tipster Jane Manchun Wong had spotted Facebook prototyping the Remove feature. Then a week ago, Facebook Messenger’s App Store release notes accidentally mentioned that a ten-minute Unsend button was coming soon.

So why the seven month wait? Especially given Instagram already allows users to unsend messages no matter how old? “The reason why it took so long is because on the server side, it’s actually much harder. All the message are stored on the server, and that goes into the core transportation layer of our how our messaging system was built” Chudnovsky explains. “It was hard to do given how we were architected, but we were always worried about the integrity concerns it would open up.” Now the company is confident it’s surmounted the engineering challenge to ensure an Unsent message reliably disappears from the recipient.

“The question becomes ‘who owns that message?’ Before that message is delivered to your Messenger app, it belongs to me. But when it actually arrives, it probably belongs to both of us” Chudnovsky pontificates.

How Facebook Messenger’s “Remove For Everyone” Button Works

Facebook settled on the ability to let you remove any kind of message — including text, group chats, photos, videos, links, and more — within ten minutes of sending. You can still delete any message on just your side of the conversation, but only messages you sent can be removed from their recipients. You can’t delete from someone else what they sent you, the feature’s product manager Kat Chui tells me. And Facebook will keep a private copy of the message for a short while after it’s deleted to make sure it can review if it’s reported for harassment.

To use the unsend feature, tap and hold on a message you sent, then select ‘Remove’. You’ll get options to “Remove for Everyone” which will retract the message, or “Remove for you” which replaces the old delete option and leaves the message in the recipient’s inbox. You’ll get a warning that explains “You’ll permanently remove this message for all chat members. They can see that you removed a message and still report it.” If you confirm the removal, a line of text noting “you [or the sender’s name] removed a message” (known as a tombstone) will appear in the thread where the message was. If you want to report a removed message for abuse or another issue, you’ll tap the person’s name, scroll to “Something’s Wrong” and select the proper category such as harassment or that they were pretending to be someone else.

Why the ten minute limit specifically? “We looked at how the existing delete functionality works. It turns out that when people are deleting messages because it’s a mistake or they sent something they didn’t want to send, it’s under a minute. We decided to extend it to ten, but decided we didn’t need to do more” Chudnovsky reveals.

He says he’s not sure if Facebook’s security team will now resume removing executive messages. However, he stresses that the Unsend button Facebook is launching “is definitely not the same feature” as what was used on Zuckerberg’s messages.

Messenger is also building more unsend functionality. Taking a cue from encrypted messaging app Signal’s customizable per thread expiration date feature, Chudnovsky tells me “hypothetically, if I want all the messages to be deleted after 6 months, they get purged. This is something that can be set up on a per thread level” though Facebook is still tinkering with the details. Another option would be for Facebook to extend the per message expiration date option from its encrypted Secret messages feature to all chats.

“It’s one of those things that feels very simple on the surface. And it would be very easy if the servers were built one way or another from the very beginning” Chudnovsky concludes. “But it’s one of those things philosophically and technologically that once you get to the scale of 1.3 billion people using it, changing from one model to another is way more complicated.” Hopefully in the future, Facebook won’t give its executives extrajudicial ways to manipulate communications…or at least not until it’s sorted out the consequences of giving the public the same power.

With ‘Rivals Week,’ Tinder tests an expansion of its well-performing Tinder U

Starting this weekend, Tinder will allow college students on its Tinder U service to match with others outside their own university for the first time. The dating app is positioning this market test of a potential Tinder U expansion as the  “Rivals Week” – a way to match users with those who attend a rival university for a limited period of time.

Tinder U’s Rivalry Week starts November 17 in the U.S. for students attending 4-year, degree-granting colleges and universities. It ends November 24, Tinder says.

Tinder U itself is still a relatively new feature, having only launched a few months ago as a way to attract more younger users to its service and re-engaged lapsed users.

College students can choose to opt into Tinder U by signing up with their “.edu” email address. Once enrolled, the users can switch over to Tinder U using a toggle switch at the top of the app.

Until now, however, Tinder U limited users to matching only with those who attend their same school.

That changes with “Rivals Week,” as Tinder will now let students match with others at nearby schools – or even cross-country – just so long as those schools are considered a “rival.”

Tinder is not, of course, calling out the move as anything more than just a bit of fun. But the week-long event could return valuable data to the dating app maker, in terms of consumer demand for a Tinder U product that was less restrictive in terms of its catalog of potential matches.

The launch also notably fits in with Tinder’s new strategy to position itself as a dating app for younger users who are less interested in settling down into long-term relationships. The company is investing in a marketing campaign across the U.S. where it promotes the “single lifestyle” Tinder offers.

Essentially, the company is embracing Tinder’s reputation as the “hook-up app,” but in a way that brands short-term dating – if you can call it that – as a more positive thing.

Tinder is able to do this because its parent company, Match Group, now owns a majority stake in Hinge. It says it simultaneously plans to invest in growing that app’s user base along with its reputation for serious relationships.

Meanwhile, Tinder sees Tinder U as a possible growth engine for the young adult-oriented service.

“We created Tinder U to both attract new college students to the Tinder experience and re-engage students who have been part of the Tinder community in the past. Ultimately, we see it as a way to deliver more value to the college user by providing more relevant recommendations, which helps to increase engagement,” said Match Group CEO Mandy Ginsberg. “We’ve seen strong early traction with Tinder U, both in terms of driving higher swipe rates and higher retention,” she noted.

The Tinder U product is live in over 1,200 colleges across the U.S.

No display for your Mac Mini? No problem.

Astropad’s Luna Display isn’t just for your MacBook. It turns out that you can take advantage of that tiny little red dongle to turn your iPad into your one and only Mac Mini display.

The Luna Display was designed to extend your laptop display. Many desktop users who travel tend to feel limited with a 13-inch or 15-inch display. That’s why the Luna Display turns any iPad into a second monitor. It works wirelessly and pretty well.

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But the team behind the device tried a fun experiment. Many Mac Mini users tend to use the Mac Mini as a headless server. It sits below your TV, near your router or in a closet. In that case, there’s no display connected to your Mac Mini.

You can control it using screen sharing or a VNC client. And of course, you can also enable SSH access to control it using the command line or even an SSH app on your phone.

But it also works as expected with the Luna Display. After plugging the dongle into a Thunderbolt 3 port, you can launch the Luna app on your iPad and see what’s happening on your Mac. If your Mac Mini is connected to a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, you’ll see your actions on the screen.

And because Luna’s dongle works over Wi-Fi, you can even control your Mac Mini from your couch. It’ll feel like you’re running macOS on an iPad. The Luna adapter was first released on Kickstarter and is now available for $80.

This isn’t the ideal setup if you plan on using your Mac Mini for multiple hours per day. But if you just need to quickly fix something, that could be enough.

Uber launches rider loyalty Rewards like credits & upgrades 9 cities

Uber’s new loyalty program incentivizes you not to check Lyft or the local competitor. Riders earn points for all the money they spend on Uber and Uber Eats that score them $5 credits, upgrades to nicer cars, access to premium support, and even flexible cancellations that waive the fee if they rebook within 15 minutes.

Uber Rewards launches today in nine cities before rolling out to the whole US in the next few months, with points for scooters and bikes coming soon. And as a brilliant way to get people excited about the program, it retroactively counts your last six months of Uber activity to give you perks as soon as you sign up for free for Uber Rewards. You’ll see the new Rewards bar on the homescreen of your app today if you’re in Miami, Denver, Tampa, New York, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego, or anywhere in New Jersey, as Uber wanted to test with a representative sample of the US.

The loyalty program ties all of the company’s different transportation and food delivery options together, encouraging customers to stick with Uber across a suite of solutions instead of treating it as interchangeable with alternatives. “As people use Uber more and more in their everyday, we wanted to find a way to reward them for choosing Uber” says Uber’s director of product Nundu Janikaram. “International expansion is top of mind for us” adds Holly Ormseth, Uber Rewards’ product manager.

As for the drivers, “They absolutely get paid their full rate” Ormseth explains. “We understand that offering the benefits has a cost to Uber but we think of it as an investment” says Janakiram.

So how much Ubering earns you what perks? Let’s break it down:

In Uber Rewards you earn points by spending money to reach different levels of benefits. Points are earned during 6 month periods, and if you reach a level, you get its perks for the remainder of that period plus the whole next period. You earn 1 point per dollar spent on UberPool, Express Pool, and Uber Eats; 2 points UberX, Uber XL, and Uber Select; and 3 points on Uber Black and Black SUV. You’ll see your Uber Rewards progress wheel at the bottom of the homescreen fill up over time.

Blue: $5 Credits

The only Uber perk that doesn’t reset at the end of a period is that you get $5 of Uber Cash for every 500 points earned regardless of membership level. “Even as a semi-frequent Uber Rewards member you’ll get these instant benefits” Janakiram says. Blue lets you treat Uber like a video game where you’re trying to rack up points to earn an extra life. To earn 500 points, you’d need about 48 UberPool trips, 6 Uber Xs, and 6 Uber Eats orders.

Gold: Flexible Cancellations

Once you hit 500 points, you join Uber Gold and get flexible cancellations that refund your $5 cancellation fee if you rebook within 15 minutes, plus priority support Gold is for users who occasionally take Uber but stick to its more economical options. “The Gold level is all about being there when things aren’t going exactly right” Janakiram explains. To earn 500 points in six months, you’d need to take about 2 UberPools per week, one Uber X per month, and one Uber Eats order per month.

Platinum: Price Protection

At 2,500 points you join Uber Platinum, which gets you the Gold benefits plus price protection on a route between two of your favorite places regardless of traffic or surge. And Platinum members get priority pickups at airports. To earn 2,500 points, you’d need to take UberX 4 times per week and order Uber Eats twice per month. It’s designed for the frequent user who might rely on Uber to get to work or play.

Diamond: Premium Support & Upgrades

At 7,500 points, you get the Gold and Platinum benefits plus premium support with a dedicated phone line and fast 24/7 responses from top customer service agents. You get complimentary upgrade surprises from UberX to Uber Black and other high-end cars. You’ll be paired with Uber’s highest rated drivers. And you get no delivery fee on three Uber Eats orders every six months. Reaching 7,500 points would require UberX 8 times per week, Uber Eats once per week, and Uber Black to the airport once per month. Diamond is meant usually for business travelers who get to expense their rides, or people who’d ditched car ownership for ridesharing.

Uber managed to beat Lyft to the loyalty game. Lyft just announced that its rewards program would roll out in December. Uber spent the better part of last year asking users through surveys and focus groups what they’d want in a loyalty program. It found that customers wanted to constantly earn rewards and make their dollar go further, but use the perks when they wanted. The point was to avoid situations where riders says “Oh I’ve been an Uber user for years. When something goes wrong, I feel like I’m being treated like everyone else.” When riders think they’re special, they stick around.

One risk of the program is that Uber might make users at lower tiers or who don’t even qualify for Gold feel like second class citizens of the app. “One thing that’s important is that we don’t want to make the experience for people who are not in these levels poor in any sense” Janakiram notes. “It’s not like 80% of people will suddenly get priority airport pickups, but we do want to monitor very closely to make sure we’re not harming the service more broadly.”

Overall, Uber managed to pick perks that seem helpful without making me wonder why these features aren’t standard for everyone. Even if it takes a short-term margins hit, if Uber can dissuade people from ever looking beyond its app, the lifetime value of its customers should easily offset the kickbacks.

[Disclosure: Uber’s Janakiram and I briefly lived in the same three-bedroom apartment five years ago, though I’d already agreed to write about the redesign when I found out he was involved.]