All posts in “Apps”

‘Paranormal Activity’ director Oren Peli launches a new social app


Oren Peli, who wrote and directed the enormously successful film Paranormal Activity, is launching a new iOS and Android app designed to help users create, find and join local events.

Spot‘s launch might be doubly surprising — not only is Peli launching an app, but it seems like an odd idea to come from someone best known for horror movies (he also produced the Paranormal Activity sequels and the Insidious films).

However, Peli told me that before moving into movies, he actually started his career as a developer of animation software and video games. So in some ways, he’s simply returning to his old career.

The app also addresses a problem Peli said he was facing after finding himself single again and feeling that standard one-on-one coffee dates were starting to feel “a little monotonous.” What if, instead, there was an app that helped people connect around shared activities and interests?

There have plenty of startups sitting in the intersection of social, local and mobile, enough that the industry spawned its own obnoxious buzzword, but Peli is hoping Spot can rise above the rest by making it as simple as possible to join these events.

Spot app

The Spot app allows people to create events in four categories: Hobbies, sports, community events and singles events. You can search for events by keyword, or just bring up a map showing what’s nearby. Events can be public or private, they’re shareable via social media and participants can chat with each other through the app.

“Spot’s technology means I can create events for just a few people or large events,” Peli said. “It’s an easy way to say, ‘Hey, I want to go hiking this afternoon, does anyone want to come with me?’ ”

When asked about safety, Peli noted that users create a Spot account by connecting to Facebook, Google or email, and they also can earn a verified user sticker by verifying their phone number over SMS. In addition, event organizers can ban users from their events and report inappropriate behavior.

Still, it seems like Spot is taking a fairly hands-off approach to the issue.

“I think that with a little bit of common sense, we can have a very nice and positive community,” Peli said. “We won’t allow anything unpleasant. If anyone’s harassing anyone, we’ll take care of that [by warning or banning users].”

Spot is available globally, but Peli said the initial focus is on building a community in Los Angeles. The app is free. Eventually, Peli said Spot could make money through advertising and by featuring deals from local businesses.

As for whether Peli’s time in Hollywood has affected the way he’s approaching his new startup, he said it was really the other way around: “When I got into film with Paranormal Activity, my experience as a video game programmer made me comfortable with all the technological aspects of it. I don’t know that the Hollywood experience had a similar effect.”

Apple Pay is coming to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the UAE and more banks


Apple has been announcing a bunch of news about Apple Pay recently. The company is expanding its mobile payment feature more aggressively. As announced in yesterday’s earnings call, Apple Pay is coming to the UAE, Denmark, Finland and Sweden before the end of the year.

Apple hasn’t shared any specific information about those new countries. For instance, the company hasn’t named its financial partners or mentioned a launch date.

In addition to this expansion news, the company is also adding support for more banks in the U.S. and around the world. Most new banks are in the U.S., but there are also two Japanese banks, a bank in Canada, one in Australia and another one in the U.K.

While Apple Pay was only available in the U.S. at first, it is now available in 16 countries. It’s been more successful in some countries than others, but Apple shows clear signs of commitment with these regular expansions.

Apple is also working on iOS 11 for the iPhone and iPad. This new version of the company’s mobile operating system is going to add peer-to-peer payments. Starting in September, you’ll be able to send money to your friends using an iPhone with Apple Pay.

The company is integrating this feature directly into the Messages app. The Apple Pay feature is going to be an iMessage mini-app and is going to use your Apple Pay-compatible cards. And if you receive money, you’ll be able to spend this balance using Apple Pay or withdraw it.

Many companies are working on peer-to-peer payments, such as Venmo, Square Cash, Facebook’s Messenger, WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay. But integrating Apple Pay’s peer-to-peer payments directly into your phone could help the payment feature.

Fitbit turns teens off exercising, study finds


Fitness tracker makers would have you believe that all that stands between you and the motivation to get up off your couch and get healthy is their shiny wearable device.

But a new study conducted by researchers in the UK suggests that, in some circumstances, fitness wearables can end up doing the opposite: becoming a de-motivating factor, after the initial novelty of wearing a tracker wears off.

Researchers at Brunel University London the University of Birmingham conducted an eight-week study to investigate whether fitness wearables could encourage young teenagers to take more exercise.

Their study focused on school pupils, aged 13 to 14, with participants split nearly equally between genders (44 girls and 40 boys), and recruited from two different schools in the north and south of the UK. The teenagers were asked to wear a Fitbit Charge wristband for eight weeks; to use the Fitbit app; and to take part in surveys and focus groups, before and after the trial period ended, responding to questions about how they felt about exercising and using the device.

The researchers had expected the wearable to have a positive impact on encouraging teens to exercise across a range of different forms of motivation, as well as hypothesizing it would help avoid kids feeling demotivated about physical activity.

However, while the researchers record an initial “novelty” bump in interest in physical activity among some participants “for the first few weeks”, the results of the full study were the opposite of encouraging — with participants overall reporting feeling less confident about their competence at exercising, and ultimately discouraged from doing so.

“It was consistently reported that after about 4 weeks pupils became bored with the Fitbit,” the researchers write. “This evidence suggests that though the Fitbit serves to promote physical activity, for the pupils in this study, the Fitbit may have only produced modest and short-term effects.”

Fitbit’s non-personalized 10,000 steps per day target, for example, was cited as an unfair and pressurizing goal by study participants — generating feelings of guilt or lack of ability among users, which in turn acted as a disincentive for taking more exercise.

Study participants also reported feeling like they had less choice over how to engage in physical activity — which also ended up being a demotivating factor.

While pressure from competition with peers, encouraged via in-app comparison in a social leaderboard scenario, also ultimately negatively impacted participants’ motivation to exercise.

“Data from this study demonstrated that though clear potential exists, healthy lifestyle technologies negatively impact young people’s motivation for physical activity,” the researchers write. “Competition, peer comparison and social comparison to normative predetermined targets result in only short-term motivational effects.”

In their paper they reference a framework of motivational behavior in youth physical activity, called self-determination theory, which proposes that individuals are optimally motivated if they are making changes fully of their own volition, and therefore internalizing the rational for doing so and satisfying core psychological needs; vs responding to feelings of “controlled motivation” — be it to avoid feelings of guilt or obtain social approval, or else gain a reward or avoid a punishment.

And while the researchers note that Fitbit’s wearable does include features that could, at least in theory, help support youngsters’ “basic psychological needs” to be self-motivated to exercise — citing features such as elements within the app that allow goal setting, give feedback on performance, and messaging features, for example — in practice the study found that Fitbit’s non-personalized goals ended up imposing overly exacting standards of social comparison on participants.

And that pressure over peer-group competition and standardized goals squeezed out any potential for the Fitbit to support more sustained motivation for individual youngsters.

“Our data suggests that peer-comparison was a key factor in undermining levels of competence and autonomous motivation. There wasn’t a desire for our participants to be more active for themselves and their own goals, or for fun, it was simply because they wanted to beat their mates,” said study author, Dr Charlotte Kerner, in a statement.

“Self-determined forms of motivation are much better in encouraging people to engage in a particular behaviour,” she added.

Despite the negative findings, the researchers suggest digital technologies could still play a useful role in encouraging exercise among young people — if they are coupled with support and guidance to help “educate young people in personalisation and interpreting data for individual goals and ability, rather than encouraging young people to compare themselves to others or a normative standard of achievement”.

They also emphasize the importance of autonomy in motivating young people to be more physically active.

“Young people need to see themselves as capable and confident, and the ‘origin’ of their behaviours rather than a ‘pawn’,” they add.

The study, entitled The Motivational Impact of Wearable Healthy Lifestyle Technologies: A Self-determination Perspective on Fitbits With Adolescents, is published in the American Journal of Health Education.

We reached out to Fitbit for comment on the study — we’ll update this story with any response.

Hustle scores $8M to kill telemarketing with personalized texts


No one picks up the phone and everyone gets too much email. If you want to contact people for fundraising, a political campaign or marketing, texting is the way to go. But a generic mass text is more like spam than a convincing conversation.

Hustle lets you personalize every message and turn it into persuasive one-on-one dialogue. Like CRM for SMS, organizers can assign lists of contacts to their reps and field agents, who text them from their own numbers and cajole them to get down with the cause.

The potential to revolutionize both grassroots activism and corporate sales has won Hustle a new $8 million Series A led by existing investor Social Capital, whose founder Chamath Palihapitiya sits on Hustle’s board. That brings Hustle to over $11 million in funding to take the lessons it learned as Bernie Sanders’ texting tool for the 2016 presidential election and bring it to all kinds of organizations.

Co-founder Roddy Lindsay explains that “People don’t pick up the phone as much any more. Having a one-on-one conversation on text is the best way to get people to participate.”

Lindsay is well-versed on measuring what engages people. For six years he worked as one of Facebook’s first data scientists. His penchant for politics shone through, as Lindsay helped run Facebook’s congressional hackathon on Capitol Hill.

In 2014, Lindsay hooked up with former Obama ’08 Nevada new media director Perry Rosenstein to form Hustle. [Disclosure: Rosenstein and I were two of the co-founders of a social meetup utility called Signal that shut down before Hustle’s creation.] They set out to build a communication tool that combined the intimacy and ability to compel action of phone calling or door-knocking with the affordability and scalability of text messaging.

Here’s how Hustle works. Organizers build a phone number database, and write script templates on Hustle’s desktop app for the messages they want to send out. Their volunteers or representatives get assigned groups of contacts to ping through Hustle’s app, which automatically fills in variables in the scripts like the recipient’s name or how they got involved. The reps can rapidly send these messages via their own phone numbers, and reply like normal to answer questions or coax them into participation.

As respondents agree or decline to pledge money, show up to an event, volunteer or buy something, reps can mark their progress in Hustle’s analytics dashboard that tracks who they’ve contacted. And now Hustle is forging partnerships with payment processors and CRM systems to automatically track when recipients take action. Clients pay Hustle a monthly fee per contact in their database, starting at $0.30 per person.

While Hustle launched with a focus on politics, Lindsay says “We’re starting to do a lot of stuff beyond campaigns and advocacy. Higher education is a big growth area for us.” Now 30 schools are using Hustle for fundraising, like soliciting alumni donations without annoying phone calls. Amherst was able to double participation in its young alumni fundraiser from 10 percent to 21 percent using Hustle.

Hustle co-founders (from left): Roddy Lindsay, Tyler Brock and Perry Rosenstein

Those contracts have driven Hustle’s 40-person team to a $3 million annual recurring revenue runrate. And now Hustle has $8 million more to spend on accelerating growth. Joining Social Capital in the Series A are Canvas Ventures, Designer Fund, Foundation Capital, GSV Acceleration, Higher Ground Labs, Index Ventures, Kapor Capital, Matrix Partners, New Media Ventures, Omidyar Network, Twilio.org Impact Fund and Salesforce Ventures.

That last one could provide a well-aligned exit opportunity one day that could give Salesforce the same grip on text that its CRM has on email. “People respond to other people in a fundamentally different way than they respond to automated communication and bots,” Lindsay proclaims.

The cash will go first to building out Hustle’s platform and API so it can do more conversion tracking. That way, “If they say they’re going to give but haven’t yet, you can follow up,” says Lindsay. Hustle will also build out its sales and marketing teams for different verticals, growing its San Francisco, New York and DC offices. Its engineering team will grow, too, as it continues to support its iOS, Android, web and API surfaces.

Of course, for all of texting’s influence, it’s still only a piece of the communications puzzle. Hustle will need to develop ways to mesh better with the rest of an organization’s outreach strategy. And it will have to fend off clones trying to undercut its pricing. Hillary Clinton’s campaign developed its own version called MegaPhone rather than pay for Hustle.

Then there’s the issue that some people will still see Hustle’s texts as spam even if they’re sent by a real person from a real number. The startup may need to set frequency limits or usage restrictions to prevent clients from abusing Hustle.

Most startups stay away from polarizing politics that could limit their business, but Hustle refused to stay neutral. “We’re focused on building a strong business supporting clients in the Democratic Party and Progressive movement, and expanding into markets like Higher Ed and relationship-driven enterprises,” Lindsay says.

Supporting causes on both sides of the aisle could have gotten contentious, so Hustle chose the left. When ask if it refuses conservative clients, Lindsay admits that “If a potential client would violate our core values of Authenticity, Empowerment, Impact, and Respect, or erode the trust that our existing clients put in us, we would politely turn them away.”

Hustle is the kind of tech the world will need to claw back government from blustering leaders who exploit fear to divide people. Lindsay says Hustle wants “to make people feel like participants in the system and not just observers.” Motivated grassroots organizations can use Hustle to leverage the passion you see seething on Twitter into actual progress.

But that can’t wait until 2019. “Voter communication isn’t something you just need to do 30 days before the election,” Lindsay concludes. Whether it’s a campaign or a donation drive, people need to feel like there’s a person on the other end rooting them on like a personal trainer. Hustle conveniently puts that trainer in people’s text inbox.

Featured Image: hustle

Instagram Stories turns 1 as daily use surpasses Snapchat


Instagram Stories has blossomed from a Snapchat clone into an integral part of the world’s largest dedicated visual communication app in the first year since its launch. Half of the businesses on Instagram produced a story in the last month, and it’s boosted the app’s average usage to 32 minutes per day for those under 25, and 24 minutes per day for those 25 and up.

If Facebook’s goal was stop Snap in its tracks, it’s largely succeeded with Instagram Stories. Snapchat’s monthly active user growth rate has plummeted from 17.2% per quarter to just 5%, while Snap’s share price has fallen from its $17 IPO to $13. Instagram Stories now has 250 million daily users compared to Snapchat’s 166 million. Instagram’s usage per day beats the “more than 30 minutes per day” of usage Snapchat claims on average now, as well as the over 30 minutes per day for under 25s and 20 minutes per day for over 25s Snap cited in its IPO filing.

It’s clear to see why users are flocking to Instagram. It has stolen some of Snap’s primary use cases and party tricks. Instagram’s most popular augmented reality filter is the same as the Snap one it copied: virtual puppy ears. Also in the top five Instagram face filters are bunny ears at #3 and Koala ears at #5, both inspired by the meme-worthy popularity of Snap’s dog face. Meanwhile, Instagram keeps iterating with new features and sticker packs, like the one below to celebrate Instagram Stories’ first birthday.

Instagram is actually getting more efficient at copying Snapchat. While it took almost 3 years to launch its own version of Stories, Instagram needed just 4 months to copy Snapchat’s create-your-own-stickers feature launched in April.

Instagram not only copied Snapchat’s Stories, but has turned its Instagram Direct feature into a full-fledged Snapchat ephemeral private messaging competitor. By allowing people to send quick visual messages that disappear, Instagram Direct has grown to 375 million monthly users. Snap’s influence has helped Instagram’s chat feature one of the most popular messaging apps in the world behind WhatsApp, Messenger, and WeChat. Now one in five Instagram Stories posted by a business receives a Direct Message reply, allowing Instagram to seduce advertisers who want private channels for communicating with customers.

Instagram writes that “Stories made Instagram a place for people to share all of their moments – the highlights and everything in between”. If CEO Kevin Systrom set out to make Instagram an app for displaying everything fun in your life, not just the perfecly polished meals and vacations, it’s suceeded. And for better or worse, Instagram Stories has emboldened Facebook to put Stories into all its apps. WhatsApp Status has boomed to 250 million daily users, while Facebook Stories and Messenger Day are seeing weaker traction since they’re repectively redundant or obtrusive.

The flood of apps where you can post them is creating ‘Stories fatigue’ in some users like me. If the audience is fractured across five different apps and I have to go through a ton of work to post to them all, I sometimes reconsider whether it’s worth disrupting life in the present in order to show off to my friends. So while Instagram and Facebook are further popularizing the Stories format Snap invented, they may also be commoditizing it. Either way, the Snap threat is being neutralized.

Snapchat’s iconic flower crown face filter on the right, and Instagram’s good-enough clone on the left.

Unless Snap can pull off a big uptick in growth when it reports earnings later this quarter, it may see Wall Street sour on its future the same way it did with Twitter. But you can bet Instagram won’t let up the heat.

A year ago, it looked like Snapchat was destined to rule social media. Its full-screen sharing would be impossible to outdo. There was no way to give a more immersive window into friends’ lives. But Facebook and Instagram didn’t have to to outdo Snapchat. They just needed to copy it and put it in a more convenient place in apps that people of all ages already use.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch