All posts in “Augmented Reality”

Snapchat’s rumored Spectacles 3 has us worried about the company’s priorities

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

This seems to be the guiding principle for Snap Inc.’s relentless pursuit to make its Spectacles camera glasses A Thing. Despite two versions of Spectacles, each of which got a lukewarm response, the company is reportedly planning to release a new $350 version by the end of this year with two cameras. The new specs will also capable of augmented reality when connected to the Snapchat app.

According to Cheddar, Spectacles 3 will have a frame made of aluminum. The two cameras will enable the wearable to be able to create “augmented reality effects in videos.” 

But don’t get too excited just yet. The new Spectacles themselves won’t be able to overlay augmented reality effects on top of what you see through the lenses in real time.

No, you’ll still need to use the Snapchat app to “overlay AR lenses and create 3D-like photo effects from footage taken by the Spectacles,” according to Snap insiders who spoke to Cheddar.

It sounds kinda half-assed in my opinion, but it’s apparently a stopgap release until Snap CEO Evan Spiegel figures out how to make smart eyewear with the AR tech built right in.

Cheddar also claims the company is lowering its internal expectations for the new Spectacles, with plans to only manufacture about 24,000 pairs, which is less than the estimated 35,000 Spectacles 2 and 52,000 more premium Spectacles 2 the company had produced.

As someone who reviewed the original pair and found them fun, but not sustainable for daily use (even for diehard Snapchat users), I’m super skeptical of the new one. 

$350 is pretty steep for a pair of sunglasses (with cameras or not) and Snapchat’s core audience — mostly teenagers — haven’t exactly taken to its cheapest $150 Spectacles 2. What makes Snapchat think this same cash-strapped demographic will spend more than double for what sounds like another novel gimmick?

Spiegel’s obsession with molding Snap, Inc. into a “camera company” might ultimately be its own undoing.

Perhaps Snap’s trying to cater to an older audience, but anyone watching the race between Snapchat and Instagram knows the latter has already left the other in its dust. Anecdotally, it feels like everyone’s mom and grandpa is on Instagram and they’re almost certainly not on Snapchat. That’s no surprise since it’s essentially Facebook in hipper clothes.

Spiegel’s obsession with molding Snap, Inc. into a “camera company” might ultimately be its own undoing. It’s quite possible he’s trying to get a leg up on tech companies like Facebook, which has repeatedly and openly said it is building augmented reality-equipped eyewear and plans to release them in the next few years.

Similarly, Apple has been rumored a great many times to be be secretly working on AR glasses as well.

Getting ahead of the pack would put Snap in an enviable position with a track record for creating computerized consumer eyewear. But alas, that’s not how hit products always work; being first doesn’t equate to success. Making the best product — one with clear and purposeful value for our connected lives — usually does and is worth the wait.

While Snapchat continues to lose users, it’s worth questioning where the company’s priorities are. Getting the much-anticipated Android app redesign should at the top of the list; Spectacles seem like a distraction at best right now.

I don’t know what Snap’s thinking with plans to sell yet another pair of Spectacles, but I hope they know something we don’t. Because it’d be sad to see Snap destroy itself over such seemingly novel camera glasses.

Https%3a%2f%2fblueprint api production.s3.amazonaws.com%2fuploads%2fvideo uploaders%2fdistribution thumb%2fimage%2f86862%2f202d1064 84e8 465a 9bab ce6857230e83

Snap launches a certification program for AR shops to craft branded lenses

Snap has announced a partner program intended to make it easer for brands to get on board with — and pay for — its augmented reality ‘lenses’ by helping advertisers find certified AR shops to craft the digital product placements on their behalf.

The move follows the visual messaging platform opening up lenses, almost a year ago, to outside developers — with the launch of a Lens Studio AR developer tool.

Snap’s lenses use a combination of AR and hyper personalization as their selling strategy — by superimposing branded content directly onto users’ faces and/or around their person. This means the advert becomes all but inescapable (at least to the user’s friends) as branded stuff gets mapped onto and/or injected into their personal content where it can piggyback on social sharing to shoot for viral spread.

At launch, Snap says the global Lens Creative Partner Program has more than 30 certified ‘creators’ listed — with the largest number located in the US, followed by the UK, then Canada and Australia. (A similar number of partner shops are also badged as global.)

Snap says additional regions are being launched in a few weeks, and it says it’s expecting to onboard 100+ creators over the next few months.

Snap Lens Creative Partners program AR shop, Social Snack, with content created for Hasbro

“Today we are announcing the launch of a Lens Creative Partners program specific to building AR Lenses for brands. This group of certified creators spans large agencies and expert individuals who have been building engaging and immersive AR Lenses for Snap,” it writes in a blog post announcing the program.

“To be certified, creators had to be experienced in developing quality AR and complete a rigorous course about the development process, creative best practices, ad policies and buy models of sponsored AR Lenses on Snapchat.”

It’s not as instantly arresting as cat lenses but Snap’s push to expand advertiser interest in paying for the chance to virtually adorn users with branded content — by making it easier to find a tried and tested AR shop to do the work — will probably result in Mr Tibbles wearing a lot more virtual merch on his head in future.

So expect plenty more feline indignity in future.

Snap says that more than one in three of its 186 million daily active users play with AR lenses on the app each day, averaging three minutes each — adding up to a collective 500 years of daily AR play time.

Just think how much quality cat petting time people are missing out on.

Genies brings lifelike avatars to other apps with $10M from celebrities

Genies is emerging as the top competitor to Snapchat’s wildly popular Bitmoji as Facebook, Apple, and Google have been slow to get serious about personalized avatars. Over one million people have customized dozens of traits to build a realistic digital lookalike of themselves from over a million possible permutations.

When Genies launched a year ago after raising $15 million in stealth, it misstepped by trying to show people’s Genies interpreting a few weekly news stories and seasonal moments. Now the startup has figured out users want more control, so it’s shifting its iOS and Android apps to let you chat through your avatar, who acts out keywords and sentiments in reaction to what you type, which you can then share elsewhere. And Genies is launching an SDK that charges other apps apps to let you create avatars and use them for chat, stickers, games, animations, and augmented reality.

To power these new strategies and usher in what CEO Akash Nigam calls “the next wave of communication through avatars where people feel comfortable expressing themselves”, Genies has raised $10 million more. The party round comes from a wide range of investors from institutional firms like NEA and Tull Co; angels like Tinder’s Sean Rad, Raya’s Jared Morgenstern, and speaker Tony Robbins, athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, and Richard Sherman; and musicians including A$AP Rocky, Offset from Migos, The Chainsmokers, and 50 Cent. Some like Offset have even used their Genie to stand in for them brand sponsorships so their avatar poses for photos instead of them.

“We’ve transitioned from being an app to an avatar services company” Nigam tells me. The son of WebMD’s co-founder, Nigam build a string of failed apps before meeting his Genies co-founders through University Of Michigan hackathons. Watching Snapchat-owned Bitmoji stay glued atop the app download charts inspired them to see more opportunity in the avatar space.

With the Genies SDK, the startup is ready to challenge Snapchat’s new Snap Kit that lets apps build Bitmoji into their keyboards. But for $100,000 to $1 million in licensing fees, Genies allows apps to develop much deeper avatar features. Beyond creating keyboard stickers, games can plaster your Genies’ face over your character’s head, and utilities apps can have your Genie act out the weather or celebrate transactions. And since Genies is still taking off, partners can create experiences that feel fresh rather than just a repurposing of Bitmoji’s already-established cartoony avatars. Genies has also launched its first official brand deal, where Gucci has created a wheel in the Genies creator so you can deck out your mini-you with luxury clothing.

The Avatar Wars (from left): Facebook Avatars, Google Gboard Mini Stickers, Apple Memoji

Despite Bitmoji’s years of success, it’s yet to have a scaled competitor. TechCrunch broke the news that Facebook is working on a “Facebook Avatars” feature but seven months later it’s still not publicly testing and the prototype looks childish. Google’s Gboard just added the ability to create avatars based on a selfie, but they’re bland, low on detail, and far from fun looking. And Apple’s latest mobile operating system lets you create a Memoji, though they too look generic like actual emoji rather than something instantly identifiable as you. By designing avatars that not only look like you but like a cooler version of you, Genies could capture the hearts and faces of millions of teens and the influencers they follow.

How cities can fix tourism hell

A steep and rapid rise in tourism has left behind a wake of economic and environmental damage in cities around the globe. In response, governments have been responding with policies that attempt to limit the number of visitors who come in. We’ve decided to spare you from any more Amazon HQ2 talk and instead focus on why cities should shy away from reactive policies and should instead utilize their growing set of technological capabilities to change how they manage tourists within city lines.

Consider this an ongoing discussion about Urban Tech, its intersection with regulation, issues of public service, and other complexities that people have full PHDs on. I’m just a bitter, born-and-bred New Yorker trying to figure out why I’ve been stuck in between subway stops for the last 15 minutes, so please reach out with your take on any of these thoughts: @Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com.
  

Well – it didn’t take long for the phrase “overtourism” to get overused. The popular buzzword describes the influx of tourists who flood a location and damage the quality of life for full-time residents. The term has become such a common topic of debate in recent months that it was even featured this past week on Oxford Dictionaries’ annual “Words of the Year” list.

But the expression’s frequent appearance in headlines highlights the growing number of cities plagued by the externalities from rising tourism.

In the last decade, travel has become easier and more accessible than ever. Low-cost ticketing services and apartment-rental companies have brought down the costs of transportation and lodging; the ubiquity of social media has ticked up tourism marketing efforts and consumer demand for travel; economic globalization has increased the frequency of business travel; and rising incomes in emerging markets have opened up travel to many who previously couldn’t afford it.

Now, unsurprisingly, tourism has spiked dramatically, with the UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reporting that tourist arrivals grew an estimated 7% in 2017 – materially above the roughly 4% seen consistently since 2010. The sudden and rapid increase of visitors has left many cities and residents overwhelmed, dealing with issues like overcrowding, pollution, and rising costs of goods and housing.

The problems cities face with rising tourism are only set to intensify. And while it’s hard for me to imagine when walking shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers on tight New York streets, the number of tourists in major cities like these can very possibly double over the next 10 to 15 years.

China and other emerging markets have already seen significant growth in the middle-class and have long runway ahead. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the global middle class is expected to rise from the 1.8 billion observed in 2009 to 3.2 billion by 2020 and 4.9 billion by 2030. The new money brings with it a new wave of travelers looking to catch a selfie with the Eiffel Tower, with the UNWTO forecasting international tourist arrivals to increase from 1.3 billion to 1.8 billion by 2030.

With a growing sense of urgency around managing their guests, more and more cities have been implementing policies focused on limiting the number of tourists that visit altogether by imposing hard visitor limits, tourist taxes or otherwise.

But as the UNWTO points out in its report on overtourism, the negative effects from inflating tourism are not solely tied to the number of visitors in a city but are also largely driven by touristy seasonality, tourist behavior, the behavior of the resident population, and the functionality of city infrastructure. We’ve seen cities with few tourists, for example, have experienced similar issues to those experienced in cities with millions.

While many cities have focused on reactive policies that are meant to quell tourism, they should instead focus on technology-driven solutions that can help manage tourist behavior, create structural changes to city tourism infrastructure, while allowing cities to continue capturing the significant revenue stream that tourism provides.

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Yes, cities are faced with the headwind of a growing tourism population, but city policymakers also benefit from the tailwind of having more technological capabilities than their predecessors. With the rise of smart city and Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives, many cities are equipped with tools such as connected infrastructure, lidar-sensors, high-quality broadband, and troves of data that make it easier to manage issues around congestion, infrastructure, or otherwise.

On the congestion side, we have already seen companies using geo-tracking and other smart city technologies to manage congestion around event venues, roads, and stores. Cities can apply the same strategies to manage the flow of tourist and resident movement.

And while you can’t necessarily prevent people from people visiting the Louvre or the Coliseum, cities are using a variety of methods to incentivize the use of less congested space or disperse the times in which people flock to highly-trafficked locations by using tools such as real-time congestion notifications, data-driven ticketing schedules for museums and landmarks, or digitally-guided tours through uncontested routes.

Companies and municipalities in cities like London and Antwerp are already working on using tourist movement tracking to manage crowds and help notify and guide tourists to certain locations at the most efficient times. Other cities have developed augmented reality tours that can guide tourists in real-time to less congested spaces by dynamically adjusting their routes.

A number of startups are also working with cities to use collected movement data to help reshape infrastructure to better fit the long-term needs and changing demographics of its occupants. Companies like Stae or Calthorpe Analytics use analytics on movement, permitting, business trends or otherwise to help cities implement more effective zoning and land use plans. City planners can use the same technology to help effectively design street structure to increase usable sidewalk space and to better allocate zoning for hotels, retail or other tourist-friendly attractions.

Focusing counter-overtourism efforts on smart city technologies can help adjust the behavior and movement of travelers in a city through a number of avenues, in a way tourist caps or tourist taxes do not.

And at the end of the day, tourism is one of the largest sources of city income, meaning it also plays a vital role in determining the budgets cities have to plow back into transit, roads, digital infrastructure, the energy grid, and other pain points that plague residents and travelers alike year-round. And by disallowing or disincentivizing tourism, cities can lose valuable capital for infrastructure, which can subsequently exacerbate congestion problems in the long-run.

Some cities have justified tourist taxes by saying the revenue stream would be invested into improving the issues overtourism has caused. But daily or upon-entry tourist taxes we’ve seen so far haven’t come close to offsetting the lost revenue from disincentivized tourists, who at the start of 2017 spent all-in nearly $700 per day in the US on transportation, souvenirs and other expenses according to the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office.

In 2017, international tourism alone drove to $1.6 trillion in earnings and in 2016, travel & tourism accounted for roughly 1 in 10 jobs in the global economy according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. And the benefits of travel are not only economic, with cross-border tourism promoting transfers of culture, knowledge and experience.

But to be clear, I don’t mean to say smart city technology initiatives alone are going to solve overtourism. The significant wave of growth in the number of global travelers is a serious challenge and many of the issues that result from spiking tourism, like housing affordability, are incredibly complex and come down to more than just data. However, I do believe cities should be focused less on tourist reduction and more on solutions that enable tourist management.

Utilizing and allocating more resources to smart city technologies can not only more effectively and structurally limit the negative impacts from overtourism, but it also allows cities to benefit from a significant and high growth tourism revenue stream. Cities can then create a virtuous cycle of reinvestment where they plow investment back into its infrastructure to better manage visitor growth, resident growth, and quality of life over the long-term. Cities can have their cake and eat it too.