The hearing, assembled and convened with naked haste in order to get ahead of the election, was dominated by Republican bullying and bloviating and Democratic expressions of distaste. Section 230, a law which is under serious and justified consideration for revision, was barely a footnote.
That the hearing, which promised “legislative proposals to modernize the decades-old law,” was thrown together at the last minute was evident from a lack of focus or coordination. When not mispronouncing Alphabet/Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s name, Senators asked redundant questions, presented scant and conflicting evidence of the practices they accused the companies of, and generally used the time to mint sound bites with little substance.
An excellent example of all this was the case, brought up three separate times by Republican senators, of tweets by the Iranian Ayatollah Khameini calling for war and questioning the Holocaust, which were not taken down, while Trump’s tweets regarding COVID-19 had warnings placed on them. Why, they asked again and again, does this not constitute a double standard and a clear example of bias against Trump?
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey explained what should be a well-known fact by now, especially by legislators who purport to have an interest in this topic: that there is no policy for general misinformation and that world leaders get special consideration anyway, and that the policies that resulted in warnings placed on tweets lately relate specifically to public health and election-related misinformation. This issue has been raised before, you see, and the explanation is quite simple.
The Republican senators avoided Section 230 altogether, using their time to berate Dorsey, Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:
- An irritable Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) shouted over the hearing’s guests, calling those three specifically “the greatest threat to free speech in America.”
- Sen. John Thune (R-SD) accused the companies of not having sufficient “ideological diversity” in their leadership, and others asked the CEOs to report the party affiliations of their employees. (The CEOs said they don’t ask, though Pichai admitted to Thune’s obvious pleasure that the young, highly educated tech sector skews left.)
- Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said Twitter had “censored Donald Trump 65 times,” and Biden zero times, though as Dorsey pointed out none of Trump’s tweets have in fact been removed.
- Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) asserted that the companies were committing false advertising in saying they were not politically motivated. He then asked the CEOs to provide “examples of censoring liberals.” They bridled at being asked to tacitly admit what they do is censoring, but with that reservation did provide examples — which Lee dismissed as insufficient.
- Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WS) accused the platforms of deliberately exerting influence on elections, citing as misinformation and political bias Twitter declining to take down a tweet that was obviously satirical.
Despite repeatedly claiming that the platforms were biased toward the left, the Republican contingent did not produce any examples of material from Democrats that should, in their estimation, have been taken down but was not. This seems an important part of making the argument, or it leaves open the distinct possibility that Republicans simply break the rules more.
Only Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) didn’t get the memo, and proffered constructive, informed questions relating to Section 230. She asked the tech leaders whether they thought the law’s use of the phrase “otherwise objectionable” as a catch-all was too expansive. They replied unanimously (and predictably) that it was not, and that, as Alphabet/Google CEO Sundar Pichai put it, the wording “is the only reason we can intervene with certainty” in cases like the dangerous “Tide pod challenge” and other situations that aren’t covered specifically by the law. Sen. Capito, to all appearances, took their answers seriously.
The Democratic senators, for the most part, cannot be said to have addressed Section 230 substantively either, but a few took the opportunity to address the issue ostensibly at hand.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) asked about the failure of Facebook to take down the Kenosha Guard group, which was actively fomenting violence against protestors, despite hundreds of complaints. She managed to extract from Zuckerberg that Facebook had stopped making group recommendations based on political preferences, while it has worked to clean up its private groups, now notorious for conspiracies and violent militias.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) had a timely reminder about what free speech actually is: “Maybe we need to have a history lesson from high school again — yes, free speech means that people can make outrageous statements about their beliefs. What the CEOs are telling us here is what their process is for taking down health care information that’s not true, that is a threat to the public, and information that is a threat to our democracy.”
The others primarily used their time to register their discontent with the obvious election-related motivations of the hearing.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) led the pack by declaring he would not take part. “I’ve never seen a hearing so close to an election on any topic, let alone on something that is so obviously a violation of our obligation under the law and the rules of the Senate to stay out of electioneering,” he said. “We never do this, and there’s a very good reason that we don’t call people before us to yell at them for not doing our bidding during an election. This hearing is a sham. I will be happy to participate in good faith, bipartisan hearings when the election is over.”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) derided the “false narrative about anti-conservative bias,” saying “the issue is not that the companies before us today are taking too many posts down, the issue is they are leaving too many dangerous posts up, in fact amplifying harmful content.” Out of context this may seem an endorsement of censorship, but it’s clear that he was referring to things like deliberate disinformation campaigns, conspiracy theories and public health hazards.
Though Republicans had tried to downplay the idea that they were “working the refs” by saying that Facebook et al. shouldn’t be refs in the first place, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) explained that “when we say ‘work the refs,’ the U.S. government is the referee. The FCC, Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court are the referees.” He warned of the danger of federal laws aimed at actions, such as restricting the reach of the NY Post’s highly suspect story, that were in his opinion the right thing to do, if difficult to get exactly right the first time.
Sen. Tester (D-MT), clearly out of patience with his colleagues across the aisle, deplored the double standard he believed he saw: “We’ve heard a lot of information out here today where when you hire someone you’re supposed to ask them their political affiliation. If that business is run by a liberal, we’re gonna regulate ’em different than if they’re run by a conservative outfit,” he said.
“That reminds me a lot of the Supreme Court, where you have two sets of rules, one for a Democrat president, one for a Republican. This is baloney, folks.” If he could have dropped the mic, no doubt he would have.
As for the CEOs themselves, they hardly had a chance to get a word in edgewise except in their opening statements. When they did speak it was mainly to acknowledge that they need to work on transparency, but that they were doing their best in unprecedented circumstances with policies that must be reworked on a daily basis.
Reserve your sympathy for these poor captains of industry, however, until those companies answer for their role in producing the problems of mass disinformation in the first place.
This isn’t the last we’ll hear of this issue by a long shot, but with the election looming, unbelievably, in less than a week, the next time a hearing like this is held it will be under altered circumstances.
The 2014-founded startup has built a gamified digital care platform that targets chronic and lifestyle disease management via digital nudges from a helmet-wearing cartoon helper — pushing patients toward relevant information to support more beneficial lifestyle choices (e.g. taking regular exercise, or cutting down on smoking), as well as offering help with patient treatment management, such as via digital reminders for taking medication and remote patient monitoring for clinicians.
Sidekick Health’s platform addresses multiple therapeutic areas — offering what’s described as ‘evidence-based’, custom gamified digital therapeutics packages for conditions including diabetes, ulcerative colitis and smoking cessation.
This year it’s also branched out to offer support for patients with COVID-19 — an acute (rather than chronic) condition, albeit one that’s created huge and pressing challenges for healthcare providers.
The pandemic is of course more generally driving demand for digital care and remote patient monitoring as healthcare providers look for tools to help manage patients off-site — providing another tailwind for Sidekick Health’s business.
And while its gamification approach might seem more immediately suited to younger, app-savvy users, since launching the platform it says it’s worked with patients who are teenagers all the way up to people well over 80 — and now believes there are few limits on who can tap in to its digital care, assuming it can nail designing for easy access. Its software is designed to be accessible via (and integrate with) a range of connected devices.
“Our market, digital heath in general and our part of it, which you can either call digital care or digital therapeutics, has been fast growing over the past few years,” says CEO and co-founder Dr Tryggvi Thorgeirsson. “Obviously with the pandemic the whole trend has just been accelerated. That means accelerated adoption by more or less all the stakeholders in the market. And maybe especially by payers and providers.
“If you look at providers — like hospitals, clinicians — they have of course by necessity had to increase their use of digital health tools due to the pandemic. So the market was very fast growing already but with the pandemic it has really accelerated. So our customer base has been growing quite sharply now in the past six to 12 months.”
Sidekick Health doesn’t break out customer numbers but says it’s working with “several” of the top global pharma companies at this stage. While the platform reaches around 30,000 patients across different therapeutic areas via its b2b customers — with Europe it’s biggest market so far.
The new funding is going towards “further growth”, per Thorgeirsson — “both in terms of expanding the product but also accelerating our growth in both Europe and into the US market”. “We’re investing funds into the growth instead of aiming for profitability at this point,” he adds.
New conditions he says it’s set to expand into “over the next few months” include heart failure; oncology (supporting patients with different types of cancer); and a number of metabolic conditions.
Within two years he says he wants it to be able to address over 20 different types of chronic illness (plus “a few acute ones like COVID-19”).
Thorgeirsson also notes that people who are dealing with chronic conditions often suffer from multiple conditions — so being flexible enough to manage patients with comorbidity has been a strong focus for the clinician-founded startup.
“Most of our work is in chronic, lifestyle-related conditions… but when COVID-19 hit we saw that all of this functionality we had built for chronic diseases in our view was quite fitting for COVID-19 as well,” he says, explaining that the platform has been used to support coronavirus patients with educational videos on symptoms and “how to cope with the anxieties of being in home isolation”, as well as offering a reporting conduit to clinical staff to remotely monitor COVID-19 patients.”
“We felt all of these [features] were relevant also for this acute condition, so here in our home country, Iceland, we offered help and were picked up by the national authorities to support with a nationwide program to remotely monitor and support patients with COVID-19. So it definitely can apply in certain acute conditions as well,” he adds.
In addition to expanding the range of conditions the platform can address, the Series A funding will go on more clinical research aimed at validating its approach.
Recent research it’s published includes a random control trial comparing full standard care for type 2 diabetes vs the same full standard care plus its platform on top. (On that study, Thorgeirsson says the addition of the digital tool in the care pathway led to “a very significant drop in average blood glucose” which “translates to about 16% less risk of death and about 30% less risk of serious complications like amputation and blindness”.)
“One of the things we’re going to be using this funding for is to vastly increase our medical and science operations — so launching multiple studies into multiple therapeutic areas,” he tells TechCrunch. “Every condition has different aspects that we do focus on. With cardio and metabolic conditions it’s things like improving weight control, blood glucose, cardiovascular risk factors. Whereas in others it might be more focusing on quality of life or fatigue or anxiety or depression.
“This summer we did feasibility testing with patients with heart failure. And we saw really exciting first indications that we significantly improved one of the main symptoms [shortness of breath]. We saw very significant improvement in those symptoms… We even had a case where the remote patient monitoring of the heart allowed the clinicians to pick up a silent ‘heart attack’ — and led to an immediate hospitalization of a patient.
“So in general what I’m excited about is to see the breadth of the applicability. We started out in the cardiovascular space but over the past two years have been really fast expanding into a bunch of new conditions.”
The startup operates a b2b2c model in partnership with pharmaceuticals companies and healthcare providers who then offer the software to patients — recently inking deals with US pharma giant pfizer and German giant Bayer, with more touted in the pipeline.
A line on its website refers to the added “value” its platform can deliver for its business customers. Asked what that means in practice Thorgeirsson argues that digital therapeutics offers “multiple value levers” to pharma partners.
One key point to note here is that digital care/therapeutics tools continue to face regulatory barriers to being directly reimbursed by healthcare payers in many markets. So such businesses typically need to find alternative routes to market.
Working with big pharma is one option. Although some digital health startups are, conversely, aiming to more directly disrupt the pharmaceutical industry — i.e. by offering an alternative to taking drugs (such as in areas like sleep disorders). However Sidekick Health sees its platform as a treatment complement that can augment traditional drug therapies for a wide range of conditions. (While, on the flip side, it says it believes its chosen b2bc route is the best way to get its digital therapeutics in front of as many patients as possible.)
“Improving patient outcomes has a direct financial benefit for our pharma customers,” says Thorgeirsson, discussing the value proposition Sidekick Health offers its b2b partners. “If you have a drug that might have cost anywhere between $1-$3 billion [to bring to market] and if we can then help improve the efficacy of treatment for patients that are receiving that therapy by adding our digital companion to that drug that has a direct financial benefit in terms of competitive standing for our pharma partners.
“Also when our pharma partners discuss reimbursement for their drug with payers improved patient outcomes of course are key — so it’s the improved patient outcomes, it’s the improved medication adherence (we know that’s a huge problem; about 300,000 people die every year due to lack of medication adherence which is something that we help with); and then of course very interesting insights from real world data that we are able to gather as well.”
The potential for data generated by digital therapeutics to be used to extend the life of existing drug patents also “comes into the discussion” here, per Thorgeirsson — when we ask whether part of its ‘value add’ is the potential to extend the profitable shelf-life of existing drugs by injecting new life into pharmaceutical patents via bolting on a novel digital companion.
“That is one of the things that is extremely exciting in our space — working much more closely with pharmaceutical companies creating combinations of molecule plus digital,” he confirms. “In some cases, yes, this can potentially expand exclusivity or patents. So that’s absolutely a really interesting part of what we see happening in the market.
“This combination where the molecule can impact certain areas of the disease and we impact others — and the combination is more powerful than either alone.”
Drug development and/or finding new applications for existing medications is another area where Sidekick Health reckons that data derived from its platform will be able to aid pharma outcomes.
“The way we see it is that any new drug that’s being developed, in the not too distant future, most likely will have a digital companion when they go to market,” says CMO Gulli Arnason. “[It’s about] getting in early and launching something with a pharmaceutical company that’s augmented by a digital companion — as well as a more defensive play, around margins and patents. So these two areas are extremely important for pharmaceutical companies.”
As for the healthcare payer market, that’s “still maturing” in its response to digital therapeutics, as Thorgeirsson puts it. (Again, though, the coronavirus pandemic is kicking open doors as societies hurry to adopt digital tools to scale to meet the spike in demand for remote care.)
“What we feel is important also is that current value levers which are not dependent on direct reimbursements from payers because we know that the payer market is still maturing — really interesting things happening there but still kind of developing,” he adds.
On the competitive landscape, Thorgeirsson argues that Sidekick’s platform-play is relatively rare — and sets the business apart from digital therapeutics startups with a more niche focus. (One platform competitor he does name-check is France’s Voluntis; a business that’s been working on ’embedding connectivity into therapeutics’ for considerably longer, though with less of a focus on gamification.)
“There are companies that focus more narrowly on certain elements — like only on medication adherence or only on one or two specific conditions but we have this different approach where we believe it’s absolutely key to have a platform approach. And that’s really both when you look at the patient side — patients might have two or more conditions, they might have obesity, type 2 diabetes and smoke, and you don’t want one solution per condition; you want a platform that can tackle all of them,” he suggests, adding: “In general we don’t see strong competition when you combine the gamification, the outcomes that we’re showing and the platform approach.”
The platform approach aligns Sidekick Health with the needs of its target business partners, he says. “Our business partners have the same [priorities],” argues Thorgeirsson. “They have a portfolio of therapeutic areas that they address and they really don’t want one vendor per therapeutic area but a platform that can tackle across the spectrum. And when it come to the platform breadth we don’t really see a large number of competitors with that size of a platform.”
Commenting on the Series A in a statement, Dr Regina Hodits, managing partner at VC firm Wellington, said: “At Wellington, we are all about improving healthcare for all stakeholders, patients, practitioners, and payors alike. Sidekick’s team has done a remarkable job of creating a product platform with the potential to achieve this aim on a global scale. We are very excited to support the company with their plans for significant growth.”
“We are impressed by the way this team has been able to put together a technology platform delivering evidence-based therapeutic programs, that are effective, adaptive but also valuable for their commercial partners,” added Josep LI. Sanfeliu, managing partner and co-founder of Asabys, in another supporting statement.
At launch, the agreement allows Shopify merchants to create, run and optimize their TikTok marketing campaigns directly from the Shopify dashboard by installing the new TikTok channel app from the Shopify App Store. Once installed, merchants will have access to the key functions from the TikTok For Business Ads Manager at their disposal.
These ad tools allow merchants to create native, shareable content that turns their products into In-Feed video ads that will resonate with the TikTok community. Merchants will be able to target their audiences across gender, age, user behavior, and video category, and then track the campaign’s performance over time. The campaigns’ costs will vary, based on the merchant’s own business objectives and how much they want to spend.
As a part of this effort, Shopify merchants can also install or connect their “TikTok Pixel” — a tool that helps them to more easily track conversions driven by their TikTok ad campaigns.
Currently, e-commerce merchants can track user actions like a user browsing their page, a registration on a website, adding items to their cart, placing an order, and completing the payment.
Shopify tells TechCrunch a small number of merchants previously gained access to these features as part of a beta test. But as of today, Oct. 27, the product is being made available to all merchants across the U.S.
“TikTok is one of the world’s fastest growing entertainment platforms with over 100 million highly engaged users in the U.S. alone,” said Satish Kanwar, Vice President of Product at Shopify, in a statement about the new partnership. “The TikTok channel means Shopify merchants—even those without a strong TikTok following of their own yet—can connect with these new audiences using content that feels authentic and genuine to the TikTok experience,” Kanwar added.
To get started with the new features, merchants who want to advertise on TikTok will first install the TikTok channel app, then create and connect their TikTok For Business account and install the one-click pixel. They can then deploy In-Feed shoppable video ads by selecting the product they want to feature using ad templates specifically designed for commerce. Because these templates use existing imagery or videos, the TikTok channel can work for merchants of any size, Shopify notes.
To kick off the partnership, merchants are being offered a $300 ad credit to get started with their first TikTok campaign.
In addition, the two companies have partnered on their first co-branded Hashtag Challenge Plus campaign, #ShopBlack, to celebrate Black-owned businesses. Shopify had earlier featured Black-owned businesses in its own app, Shop. But from Nov. 10 through Nov. 15, the TikTok community will be able to browse videos from over 40 Shopify merchants via the new hashtag and its accompanying branded effect within TikTok, too.
Shopify and TikTok had been working together to test various social commerce initiatives ahead of today’s announcement.
The companies, for example, had been spotted trialing a new shopping button that allowed TikTok creators to link their Shopify storefront from their videos. (Teespring was also testing this with TikTok). TikTok had offered a TikTok Ads Pixel for Shopify merchants before today, as well. But the partnership makes the pixel integration a 1-click install, so merchants don’t have to manipulate code.
“We are delighted to partner with Shopify and provide a channel for their merchants to reach new audiences and drive sales on TikTok,” said Blake Chandlee, Vice President, Global Business Solutions at TikTok, in a statement. “As social commerce proliferates, retailers are recognizing that TikTok’s creative and highly engaged community sets it apart from other platforms. We’re constantly exploring new and innovative ways to connect brands with our users, and Shopify is the perfect partner to help us grow and expand our commerce capabilities globally,” he said.
TikTok and Shopify’s partnership won’t be limited to the new TikTok channel app, however. That’s just the first step.
We understand the deal will soon expand to other shopping features, too.
TikTok says it plans to start testing new in-app features that will make it easier for users to discover Shopify merchants and their products by expanding their reach through video and on their account profiles. These features will also “let users browse merchant’s products and shop directly through the TikTok app,” a spokesperson said. They didn’t offer specific details about the features or how the payments portion would work, saying that more information would be available when the new tools launched.
However, the features will launch to a limited beta group of testers soon, a TikTok spokesperson confirmed.
Shopify isn’t the first to recognize TikTok’s potential as a new type of social shopping platform. Its ability to drive merchant traffic and sales was a key reason for Walmart’s participation in the TikTok-Oracle deal — a deal whose current status is still unknown, of course, given the ongoing TikTok lawsuit and the upcoming Presidential election whose outcome could impact the Trump Administration’s TikTok ban.
TikTok itself has been steadily ramping up its tools for merchants and other social shopping features. To date, it has experimented with allowing users to add e-commerce links to their bios; launched “Shop Now” buttons for brands’ video ads; and introduced shoppable components to hashtags with the e-commerce feature (soon to be used for #ShopBlack), known as the Hashtag Challenge Plus.
Shopify, meanwhile, has been working to deliver more tools that give smaller businesses the ability to compete against Walmart and Amazon, while at the same time partnering with Walmart to give its merchants broader reach.
The TikTok-Shopify partnership could help the video platform better compete against other sources of social commerce, including the growing number of live stream shopping apps as well as efforts from Facebook and its family of apps. The social giant has recently rolled out a bevy of shopping-focused updates across Facebook, Instagram, and — just last week — WhatsApp, with the goal of directing users to shop in its apps, then check out seamlessly with Facebook Pay.
TikTok’s advantage is that it’s a video-based social network, more like YouTube, rather than a platform whose roots were in editorial-quality imagery, like Instagram. On Instagram, video features have been added in over time. Now, a number of Instagram products include video — like Feed posts, Stories, Instagram Live, IGTV, and, finally, Instagram’s TikTok rival, Reels. But overall, the impact is that Instagram has started to feel overcrowded.
TikTok says the new TikTok channel for Shopify merchants is available today in the U.S. It will roll out to other markets next year, including elsewhere in North America, Europe and Southeast Asia.
Following the news that China’s esport giant VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has raised close to $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings, TechCrunch interviewed founder and CEO Dino Ying via email about his strategy for the company.
Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Shanghai, VSPN was one of the early pioneer in esports tournament organization and content creation out of Asia. It has since expanded into other businesses including offline venue operation.
VSPN began hosting the first large-scale esport event with offline audiences in August, although tournaments now operate under strict COVID-19 prevention measures.
TechCrunch: VSPN has a large content production ecosystem surrounding its esports activity. Can you expand on the detail behind your stated short-form video strategy? Will this involve TikTok?
Ying: VSPN intends to use our world-class video production capabilities and industry insights to create different forms of content. We will give our existing fans and a wider audience a new and vivid esports experience. Kuaishou, as our investors and a strategic partner, will support in all ways as a media platform to help our content reach more users. Short-form video is an important part of our future strategy and we look forward to working with platforms all over the world in this regard.
TC: What is VSPN’s share of the eSports market?
Ying: There is no official estimation of the size of the esports market but VSPN is far the largest esports organization in China, with over 1000+ employees and covering every major esports tournament you’ve ever heard of. By many measures, we are the largest esports organization in the world and will continue to expand.
TC: Why do you think Shanghai has become a center for esports?
Ying: As the biggest and perhaps most international city in China, it has a vibrant and increasingly sophisticated economy. Tech innovation and new industries are actively encouraged to grow here.
The Shanghai government has implemented supportive measures and policies to encourage the growth of esports both domestically and internationally. Thanks to these measures Shanghai has become an international hub for the biggest and best tournaments in the world
TC: How important is research into eSports for VSPN and why?
Ying: It is vital for VSPN. As an esports total solutions provider aiming to build a sustainable global esports ecosystem, data and R&D allows us to give our fans a richer experience. The research center will allow us to continually improve as a company and develop the industry.
TC: You are the cofounder and chairman and CEO by title. What is the role of cofounder Ethan Teng?
Ying: Ethan Teng is Co-founder and president of VSPN. Ethan as one of the most important partners of VSPN, with his dedicated esports industry experience, he plays a vital role in leading and managing the company’s strategic goal setting and day to day management.
TC: What is the nature of the strategic relationship with Tencent?
Ying: VSPN is a key partner of Tencent in the esports industry. With Tencent’s support, VSPN has built a leading position in esports tournament content production. Since the emergence of esports in China, our deep-rooted industry expertise has helped further develop the esports ecosystem to grow and mature. Alongside Tencent we will continue to generate new opportunities within the industry.
TC: What made you choose these partners and why? What was the strategic thinking behind these decisions?
Ying: Together with Kuaishou, VSPN aims to establish an esports short-form video ecosystem to diversify existing content, and to build the connections between top quality creators and channels. With an extensive portfolio in the consumer and TMT sectors, both Tiantu Capital and SIG will utilize their industry insights and expertise to aid VSPN’s strategic development. With our investors, we will empower esports to be the new sports for the next generation.
TC: In addition to the core esports tournament and content production business, VSPN has branded esports venues. How important are these other businesses – like the venues – to the core offering of VSPN? What sort of growth do you expect in the next few years?
Ying: Regardless of business lines, VSPN’s core mission is to provide the best eSports experiences for our fans. And these experiences include not just online viewing experiences, but also offline ones where fans physically attend. We see our offline business as a natural way to extend our services to our fans; it is an important supplement to our overall offerings. We expect to grow it per our fans’ and partner’s demands.
TC: Mobile esports, especially the KPL and PUBG MOBILE (or Peacekeeper Elite in China), have attracted more and more female audiences. What is the future of eSports among women / girls?
Ying: Mobile gaming has really helped extend eSports’ reach to female participants and audiences. Rightfully so, we see a future of eSports where female participants take a more prominent role than they have done. Not just on stage as athletes, but also off stage as fans and more importantly backstage as top quality producers and decision-makers in the industry. The impact of having more female fans, athletes and professionals is exciting and will be hugely beneficial to the wider industry.
TC: What is the future of esports in Augmented Reality?
Ying: We think eSports in its full form will look and feel a lot different from what we’ve seen so far in sports and entertainment. The possibility of integrating real world gaming and virtual competitions is fascinating. VSPN is only beginning to test the boundaries of new technologies such as AR, VR. The emergence of these technologies will help us create fresher experiences, and the possibilities are endless.
TC: Please tell us more about your personal history?
Ying: Firstly, thank you for having me – it is a real pleasure to speak to TechCrunch and be able to announce our fundraise to the world. I have been working in the gaming and esports industry all my life and I’m excited about the future. With the team at VSPN we are proud to be pioneers in the esports industry.
I live between Beijing and Shanghai, but I spend a lot of my time travelling to other Chinese cities like Xi’an, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Shenzhen where we have esports arenas and business interests. Usually I travel internationally to some of our overseas operations and competitions, so I look forward to that when travel becomes easier.
I am a fan of traditional sports too and an avid football fan. I follow some of the European leagues – whenever I can, I go to matches to enjoy the atmosphere; I went to Stamford Bridge early this year and loved it, but seeing the AC vs Inter Derby live is hard to beat…
TC: Why did you get into this business and how?
Ying: Mostly because I am a HUGE gaming fan! I’ve been playing computer games since I was a teenager and enjoy playing all types. Earlier this year I played COD Warzone as soon as it came out and often play PUBG Mobile; I’m extremely lucky to be in an industry which I’ve loved since I was very young. It’s a great way to connect with friends and I am proud to have worked in game development and publishing for my whole career. 5 years ago, esports seemed like the obvious next step because of the competitive element. We saw the beginnings of a trend and founded VSPN with a world-class team to make that potential a reality.
VSPN is very proud to be leading the world in a relatively new industry. We think esports will continue to grow exponentially and will be an incredibly important part of the entertainment industry in years to come. To lead a Chinese company with a global future is really exciting.
TC: What motivates you as a businessman?
Ying: Bringing new forms of entertainment to millions of people around the world and building a global business.
TC: Who inspires you most in the business world?
There are so many fantastic businessmen in China who are doing some really innovative things at the moment. For example, the live-streaming industry has become enormous in 2020 due to the pandemic and has offered entrepreneurs a new way to sell products and engage with new audiences.
If I had to name one it would be Mark Ren (COO at Tencent Holdings) – he is an exceptional businessman. The way he has helped create sustainable ecosystems in the entertainment space and captured trends is something every businessman should aspire to. This is something VSPN works hard at and we are very proud to be such close partners of Tencent.
TC: What is your opinion of Silicon Valley?
Ying: It’s an amazing place and has shown the world how technology can improve lives all over the world. For many years it has led the world as a centre for creativity and innovation and continues to be an inspiration to entrepreneurs around the world. In China, we have lots of Silicon Valleys!
TC: Is there anything else you’d like to say to TechCrunch readers?
Ying: This has been a challenging year for many businesses and the esports industry has had to adapt, but I think the world has seen how big esports is and how it can bring communities and cultures together. As the industry grows there will bigger and bigger online and offline tournaments across the world, especially with 5G and mobile gaming becoming even more popular. We look forward to being at the forefront of esports for competitors all over the world and hopefully some of your readers will enjoy watching our original content and tournaments.
Finally, with celebrities and big brands seeing live streaming and casual gaming as a new way to engage with a wider audience, the future for VSPN is very, very bright.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019. People are now spending three hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
Quibi dies…and no one was surprised
There was so much wrong with Quibi’s premise that it’s sometimes hard to even know where to start. But at the core, its problem was that it fundamentally misunderstood how, when and why users would watch video on their phones.
The company’s thinking was that you could fund high-production value content ($100K/minute, yikes) then chop it up into smaller “bites,” add a technology layer, then call this a reinvention of cinema.
The reality is there was little demand for this sort of content, and it didn’t fit with how people want to be entertained on their phones.
When people want to appreciate high-quality filmmaking (or even TV production), they tend to want a bigger screen — they’ve spent money for their fancy high-def or 4K TV, after all. Pre-COVID, they might even pay to go a movie theater. On mobile, the production value of content is far less of a concern, if it even registers.
Quibi also misunderstood what users want to watch in terms of video on their phones when they have a few minutes to kill.
By positioning its app in this space, it had to compete with numerous and powerful sources for “short-form” content — existing apps like YouTube, TikTok, Facebook (e.g. News Feed content, Watch feeds), Instagram Stories, Snapchat and so on. This is content you don’t have to get invested in, since you’re just distracting yourself from a few minutes of boredom. It’s not a time or place to engage with a longer story — chopped or otherwise.
Quibi also cut the length of content to serve its artificial limitations — at the expense of story quality and enjoyment.
A reality show dumbed down to just its highlights is almost unwatchable, as it exposes the editors’ machinations and manipulations that are better hidden among longer stretches of fluff. And there was simply no reason to cut down movies — like Quibi’s “The Dangerous Game,” for example — into pieces. It didn’t elevate the storytelling; it distracted from it. And if you wanted a quick news update (e.g. Quibi’s “Daily Essentials”), you didn’t need a whole new app for that.
Quibi content may have been considered “high quality,” but it often wasn’t good. (I still can’t believe I sat through an episode of “Dishmantled,” where chefs had to recreate dishes of food that were thrown in their face. And Quibi had the nerve to shame YouTube’s low-quality and lack of talent?!)
Quibi also wanted to charge for its service, but its catalog wasn’t designed for families, with content that ranged from kids to adult programming. It didn’t offer parental controls. This immediately limited its competitiveness.
At launch, Quibi also limited itself to the phone, which meant it limited your ability to use the phone as a second screen while you watched a show. (There was no PiP support). TechCrunch has been writing about phones as the second screen for the better part of a decade, often with a focus on startups. But in Quibi’s case, it killed the second screen experience, seemingly forgetting that people text friends, order food, check Twitter and peek in on other apps while a TV show plays in the background. Did it really think that a reboot of “Punk’d” deserved our full attention?
Quibi naturally blamed COVID for its failure to thrive. It had imagined a world where users had ample time to kill while out and about: commuting on the subway, standing in long lines, that sort of thing.
But even this premise was flawed. It would have eventually caught up to Quibi, too; COVID just accelerated it. The issue is that Quibi imagined the U.S. as only a swath of urban metros where public transportation is abundant and standing in lines is the norm. In reality, more than half (52%) the U.S. is described as suburban, 27% is urban and 21% is rural. Non-urban commuters often drive themselves to work. Sure, they could stream Quibi during those commutes, but not really look at it. So why burn high-production value on them? And standing in long lines, believe it or not, is not actually that common in smaller cities and towns, either. If it only takes two minutes to grab a coffee or a burrito before you hop back in your car, do you really want to start a new show?
So where would that have left Quibi? Hoping for Gen Z’ers attention as they lounge around their bedrooms looking for something to do? And yet it wanted to appeal to these kids using Hollywood A-Listers they don’t even know? As COVID pressed down, it left Quibi in competition with (often arguably better) content that streamed natively on the TV from apps like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Prime Video, Disney+, and others where you could binge through seasons at once instead of waiting every week for a new “quick bite” to drop.
There’s more, so much more that could still be said, including the fact that a former eBay and HP CEO may not be the right person to lead a company that wanted to dazzle a younger demographic. Or how its video-flipping TurnStyle feature was clever, but added complexity to filmmaking, and was not enough of a technological leap to build a business around. Or how, no matter how much money it had raised, it was still not enough, compared with the massive budgets of competitors like Netflix and Amazon.
In the meantime, TikTok still isn’t banned.
Snap hits record $50B valuation
Snapchat’s maker was forecast to bring around $555 million in revenues in Q3 but posted $679 million instead, a 52% YoY increase, in a surprise earnings beat. EPS were an adjusted $0.01, beating an expected loss of $0.04. The company also grew daily active users by 4% (11 million) to 249 million, an 18% YoY increase. Snap’s net loss of $200 million was a 12% improvement over last year, too.
As a result of the earnings, shares jumped nearly 30% the next day and its valuation cracked $50 billion for the first time, a record high.
During earnings, the company touted it now reaches 90% of the Gen Z population and 75% of millennials in the U.S., U.K. and France. User growth was attributed to new products, including Profiles, Minis, Lens creation tools and AR ads. In particular, Snap leveraged the Facebook ad boycott to reach out to brands that wanted to “realign their marketing efforts” with companies that “share their corporate values,” the company said.
Snap also just launched its TikTok competitor, Sounds on Snapchat, which lets users add licensed music to their Stories.
- Apple releases iOS and iPadOS 14.1. The first major update to iOS 14 delivers multiple bug fixes, including those impacting widgets, streaming video and Family Setup on Apple Watch, among others. It also added support for 10-bit HDR video playback and editing in Photos on iPhone 8 and later.
- iOS 14 bug continues to reset default email and browser apps. After updating your preferred email or browser app, iOS 14 forgets what third-party app you’ve set as the default. Yes, it was doing this before. Are we still so sure it’s a bug?
- DOJ antitrust lawsuit goes after the multibillion-dollar deal that positioned Google as the default search engine on browsers, phones and other Apple devices.
- AirTags patent applications describe use cases like locating the nearest defibrillator, monitoring users’ posture and playing avatar-based games, giving a little more insight into how Apple envisions the future of its smartphone-findable tags.
- Google embraces iOS 14 widgets. Google already offered one of the more useful widgets for iOS 14 with its Search widget, which has been downloaded by “millions.” This week, it introduced more, including a Google Photos widget that let you revisit your memories, and a YouTube Music widget.
- RCS support in Android Messages expands. Following the U.S. debut, RCS has rolled out to a number of new countries, and can now be found in Italy, Portugal, Singapore, Argentina, Pakistan, Poland, Turkey, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Croatia, Czechia, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Kosovo, Lithuania, New Zealand, Serbia, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Australia, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Uganda and Ukraine. The last nine were just this month.
- Buy Now, Pay Later app usage in the U.S. up 186% year-over-year as of Sept. According to Sensor Tower, apps that let consumers make purchases on payment plans have been climbing steadily this year since the COVID-19 pandemic. The report looked at Klarna, Affirm, Afterpay and QuadPay, which together have generated 18 million lifetime installs across the App Store and Google Play. Installs were up 115% YoY in September, while monthly actives were up 186%.
- U.S. contact-tracing apps are a disjointed wreck. The WSJ examined the state of COVID-19 contact-tracing apps in the U.S. and found that states focusing on their own efforts, due to the lack of a national plan, has left a disjointed patchwork of tools. Only 10 states, plus D.C., have used the framework built by Google and Apple; 11 are piloting or building apps. The EU, meanwhile, switched on cross-border interoperability for its first batch of tracing apps.
- Gen Z spends 10% more time using top non-game apps than older users, at 4.1+ hours per month. The figure excludes pre-installed apps and was calculated on Android devices in select markets, including the U.S. Gen Z users also engaged with non-game apps more often than older users, at 120 sessions per month per app.
- U.S. consumers spend $20.78/mo on average on their app subscriptions, according to new data from Adjust. The 25 to 34-year-old age group spends the most on subscription apps at $25.85/mo, while those 55 and over spend the least, at $13.97/mo. In addition, more than a quarter of millennials and Gen Z consumers said they have stopped paying for other services in order to buy subscriptions on mobile app services (e.g. option for fitness apps over going to the gym).
- Dating apps are on the rise in the U.S., says Apptopia. New users for Hily, Match, BLK, Bumble and Grindr are on pace to grow month-over-month at 32%, 28%, 20%, 18% and 11%, respectively.
- Amazon’s Luna game streaming service opens in early access to its first customers. The service offers a library of 50 games and works on Mac, PC, Amazon Fire TV, and iOS devices, courtesy of a web app to work around the App Store rules. Initial reviews describe the service as sometimes struggling with performance over Wi-Fi, but offering a good web app experience. Luna features some big titles but xCloud still has the better lineup. Its real killer feature, however, may be the promised Twitch integration, arriving in the future.
- SoundCloud launches a $19.99/month DJ plan, SoundCloud DJ, that offers unlimited offline access to its catalog. Users can also stream high-quality audio and mix tracks using select DJ apps, including Virtual DJ, Cross DJ and Denon DJ.
- Put your five-star reviews on your home screen. IMore spotted a must-have motivational tool for developers: a way to put your app’s five-star reviews as a widget on your home screen; $1.99 for this happiness boost.
- Apple quietly discontinues its Apple TV Remote app. The app was removed from the App Store on Wednesday. Users are now expected to use the Remote feature built into the Control Center since iOS 12 instead.
- Google will end support for its location-sharing Trusted Contacts app in December, and removes it from the Play Store. Users are directed to use similar features in Google Maps instead for finding friends and family.
Policies and Politics
- Coalition for App Fairness more than doubles a month after its debut. The Coalition for App Fairness (CAF), a newly formed advocacy group pushing for increased regulation over app stores, has more than doubled in size with this week’s announcement of 20 new partners. The organization, led by top app publishers and critics, including Epic Games, Deezer, Basecamp, Tile, Spotify and others, debuted in late September to fight back against Apple and Google’s control over app stores, and particularly the stores’ rules around in-app purchases and commissions.
- Facebook to increase investments in WhatsApp for business. The company said it will expand Shopping on WhatsApp and will charge businesses for some of the services it offers on the chat app, in order to grow revenues. This includes offering to manage businesses’ WhatsApp messages via Facebook’s own hosting services. Facebook offered this info as more of a look into its roadmap, but without specifics on new services or pricing.
- Facebook is cloning Nextdoor. The feature is in testing in Canada and sees Facebook automatically generating neighborhood groups to connect local users with people, activities and items for sale.
- Court approves Kik’s settlement with SEC. The ruling ends a multi-year court battle by allowing Kik to pay a one-time $5 million fine for its violation of securities law for failing to register its 2017 distribution of its Kin tokens in its ICO.
- Roblox passes $2B in mobile player spending ahead of its planned IPO. The company’s revenues, accelerated by the pandemic, crossed the $1.5 billion mark in May 2020, then picked up another $500 million in five months, says Sensor Tower.
- Cameo enters B2B sales. The custom celebrity video app repositions its business of personalized greetings for B2B sales through an integration and rev share agreement with corporate gifting platform Sendoso.
- Adobe adds a chain of custody tool in the beta release of Photoshop and Behance that will fight misinformation and keep content attributed properly.
- Stitcher’s podcasts come to Pandora as acquisition completes. The Stitcher app also got a revamp following the deal’s finalization. The move brought several bigger podcast titles in house, thanks to Earwolf, including “Freakonomics Radio,” “My Favorite Murder,” “SuperSoul Conversations from the Oprah Winfrey Network,” “Office Ladies,” “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” “Literally! with Rob Lowe,” “LeVar Burton Reads” and “WTF with Marc Maron.”
- NYT has an iOS 14 widget now. The new widget will put NYT headlines on your home screen. Note that while the widget can be installed by anyone, if you want to click through to read, you’ll still need to be a subscriber.
- PicsArt brings its app-based design tools to the web. The creative platform is chasing business users with the launch of its AI tools on picsart.com. The debut suite includes a template editor, background and object remover, video slideshow maker, text editor, and others.
- Chinese tutoring app Yuanfudao has raised $2.2 billion from investors, surpassing Byju’s as the most valuable edtech company in the world, as it’s now worth $15.5 billion.
- Retool raises $50M in funding, led by Sequoia, for its low-code tools for building internal apps that work on either desktop or mobile. The new round values the business at nearly $1 billion. Other backers include GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison, Brex Inc. founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi and Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham.
- Syte raises $40M to bring visual shoppers to e-commerce retailers. Visual search is already popular in apps like Google, Pinterest and eBay, but Syte wants under retailers to have the option. The round was led by return investor Viola Ventures.
- 98point6 raises $118M for its AI-powered telemedicine platform that works on web and mobile (iOS and Android).
Halide Mark II
The developers of popular pro iPhone camera apps Halide and Spectre this week launched their latest creation, the Halide Mark II camera app. The new interface has been designed for one-handed operation and includes a range of new features.
These include a new gesture-based automatic and manual switcher; tactile touch for enabling and disabling features like exposure warnings, focus peaking, and loupe as you adjust exposure or focus; an overhauled manual mode; new dynamic labeling of controls and actions to explain features to new users; support for the edge-to-edge interface of the iPhone 12 models; a redesigned reviewer with a full metadata read-out; in-app memberships for photo lessons; and over 40 more changes.
A new “Coverage” feature can take a photo with Smart HDR 2/3 and Deep Fusion for maximum quality and computational processing as well as a RAW file — with only a slight delay between captures.
Halide Mark II also uses machine learning to process an iPhone RAW file in the app (ProRAW) with 17 steps, including detail enhancement, contrast and color adjustment and more. This feature, called Instant RAW, intelligently develops the file to get the best possible results.
And the app includes top pro tools, like a new waveform and color exposure warnings (zebras) that use XDR (Extended Dynamic Range) 14-bit RAW sampling, for accurate exposure previews and readings.
The app is $36 (currently $30 during a promo period) if you want to only pay once. Otherwise it’s $11.99 per year on subscription (currently $9.99 per year if you lock in the price now during the promo period). Subscribers to the membership plan also get perks, like custom icons. Existing Halide 1 users, unbelievably, are upgraded for free but are asked to support the app with a membership.
ClipDrop — AR Copy Paste
A new app called ClipDrop launches on iOS, Android, macOS and Windows as a new sort of “copy and paste” experience. The app uses state-of-the-art vision AI to copy images from your desktop with a screenshot to any other app (e.g. Docs, Photoshop, Canva, etc.) and it allows you to extract anything — objects, people, drawings or text.
The mobile app lets you snap photos of real-world items and then digitally transfer them to other apps or websites. In the below demo, the company shows how you could “clip” an image of an article of clothing using the camera, then import the photo into a document.
The company also just released a plugin for Photoshop that lets you drop the image into its app as a new layer with an editable mask.
The app is $39.99 per year (until November 2020, when it ups to $79.99 per year.)
Adobe Illustrator on iPad + Adobe Fresco on iPhone
As part of Adobe’s virtual MAX 2020 conference this week, the company launched the first public version of its Illustrator vector graphics app on the iPad and brought its Fresco drawing and painting app to the iPhone. In time, the company plans to bring more effects, brushes and AI features to Illustrator. Fresco 2.0, meanwhile, includes new smudge brushes and support for personalized brushes, among other things.
Designed for landlords, Airbnb owners or other vacation rental property owners, Party Squasher offers a hardware device and paired mobile app that counts the number of people at your house by counting the mobile phones in or around a house. The phones can be counted even if they’re not connected to the home’s Wi-Fi.
Because the device doesn’t include cameras or microphones, it’s ideal for ensuring that renters aren’t hosting large (and these days, potentially illegal) parties without violating privacy.
In the event that a large gathering is present, you’re sent a text or email so you can take action.
The device is $249 and the app charges a $199 per year subscription.
The No. 1 game in the App Store is now Among Us!.
Can you guess why?
This week, a startup that’s using UAV drones for mapping forests, a look at how machine learning can map social media networks and predict Alzheimer’s, improving computer vision for space-based sensors and other news regarding recent technological advances.
Predicting Alzheimer’s through speech patterns
Machine learning tools are being used to aid diagnosis in many ways, since they’re sensitive to patterns that humans find difficult to detect. IBM researchers have potentially found such patterns in speech that are predictive of the speaker developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The system only needs a couple minutes of ordinary speech in a clinical setting. The team used a large set of data (the Framingham Heart Study) going back to 1948, allowing patterns of speech to be identified in people who would later develop Alzheimer’s. The accuracy rate is about 71% or 0.74 area under the curve for those of you more statistically informed. That’s far from a sure thing, but current basic tests are barely better than a coin flip in predicting the disease this far ahead of time.
This is very important because the earlier Alzheimer’s can be detected, the better it can be managed. There’s no cure, but there are promising treatments and practices that can delay or mitigate the worst symptoms. A non-invasive, quick test of well people like this one could be a powerful new screening tool and is also, of course, an excellent demonstration of the usefulness of this field of tech.
(Don’t read the paper expecting to find exact symptoms or anything like that — the array of speech features aren’t really the kind of thing you can look out for in everyday life.)
Making sure your deep learning network generalizes to data outside its training environment is a key part of any serious ML research. But few attempt to set a model loose on data that’s completely foreign to it. Perhaps they should!
Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden took a model used to identify groups and connections in social media, and applied it (not unmodified, of course) to tissue scans. The tissue had been treated so that the resultant images produced thousands of tiny dots representing mRNA.
Normally the different groups of cells, representing types and areas of tissue, would need to be manually identified and labeled. But the graph neural network, created to identify social groups based on similarities like common interests in a virtual space, proved it could perform a similar task on cells. (See the image at top.)
“We’re using the latest AI methods — specifically, graph neural networks, developed to analyze social networks — and adapting them to understand biological patterns and successive variation in tissue samples. The cells are comparable to social groupings that can be defined according to the activities they share in their social networks,” said Uppsala’s Carolina Wählby.
It’s an interesting illustration not just of the flexibility of neural networks, but of how structures and architectures repeat at all scales and in all contexts. As without, so within, if you will.
Drones in nature
The vast forests of our national parks and timber farms have countless trees, but you can’t put “countless” on the paperwork. Someone has to make an actual estimate of how well various regions are growing, the density and types of trees, the range of disease or wildfire, and so on. This process is only partly automated, as aerial photography and scans only reveal so much, while on-the-ground observation is detailed but extremely slow and limited.
Treeswift aims to take a middle path by equipping drones with the sensors they need to both navigate and accurately measure the forest. By flying through much faster than a walking person, they can count trees, watch for problems and generally collect a ton of useful data. The company is still very early-stage, having spun out of the University of Pennsylvania and acquired an SBIR grant from the NSF.
“Companies are looking more and more to forest resources to combat climate change but you don’t have a supply of people who are growing to meet that need,” Steven Chen, co-founder and CEO of Treeswift and a doctoral student in Computer and Information Science (CIS) at Penn Engineering said in a Penn news story. “I want to help make each forester do what they do with greater efficiency. These robots will not replace human jobs. Instead, they’re providing new tools to the people who have the insight and the passion to manage our forests.”
Another area where drones are making lots of interesting moves is underwater. Oceangoing autonomous submersibles are helping map the sea floor, track ice shelves and follow whales. But they all have a bit of an Achilles’ heel in that they need to periodically be picked up, charged and their data retrieved.
Purdue engineering professor Nina Mahmoudian has created a docking system by which submersibles can easily and automatically connect for power and data exchange.
The craft needs a special nosecone, which can find and plug into a station that establishes a safe connection. The station can be an autonomous watercraft itself, or a permanent feature somewhere — what matters is that the smaller craft can make a pit stop to recharge and debrief before moving on. If it’s lost (a real danger at sea), its data won’t be lost with it.
You can see the setup in action below:
Sound in theory
Drones may soon become fixtures of city life as well, though we’re probably some ways from the automated private helicopters some seem to think are just around the corner. But living under a drone highway means constant noise — so people are always looking for ways to reduce turbulence and resultant sound from wings and propellers.
Researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology found a new, more efficient way to simulate the airflow in these situations; fluid dynamics is essentially as complex as you make it, so the trick is to apply your computing power to the right parts of the problem. They were able to render only flow near the surface of the theoretical aircraft in high resolution, finding past a certain distance there was little point knowing exactly what was happening. Improvements to models of reality don’t always need to be better in every way — after all, the results are what matter.
Machine learning in space
Computer vision algorithms have come a long way, and as their efficiency improves they are beginning to be deployed at the edge rather than at data centers. In fact it’s become fairly common for camera-bearing objects like phones and IoT devices to do some local ML work on the image. But in space it’s another story.
Performing ML work in space was until fairly recently simply too expensive power-wise to even consider. That’s power that could be used to capture another image, transmit the data to the surface, etc. HyperScout 2 is exploring the possibility of ML work in space, and its satellite has begun applying computer vision techniques immediately to the images it collects before sending them down. (“Here’s a cloud — here’s Portugal — here’s a volcano…”)
For now there’s little practical benefit, but object detection can be combined with other functions easily to create new use cases, from saving power when no objects of interest are present, to passing metadata to other tools that may work better if informed.
In with the old, out with the new
Machine learning models are great at making educated guesses, and in disciplines where there’s a large backlog of unsorted or poorly documented data, it can be very useful to let an AI make a first pass so that graduate students can use their time more productively. The Library of Congress is doing it with old newspapers, and now Carnegie Mellon University’s libraries are getting into the spirit.
CMU’s million-item photo archive is in the process of being digitized, but to make it useful to historians and curious browsers it needs to be organized and tagged — so computer vision algorithms are being put to work grouping similar images, identifying objects and locations, and doing other valuable basic cataloguing tasks.
“Even a partly successful project would greatly improve the collection metadata, and could provide a possible solution for metadata generation if the archives were ever funded to digitize the entire collection,” said CMU’s Matt Lincoln.
A very different project, yet one that seems somehow connected, is this work by a student at the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de Pernambuco in Brazil, who had the bright idea to try sprucing up some old maps with machine learning.
The tool they used takes old line-drawing maps and attempts to create a sort of satellite image based on them using a Generative Adversarial Network; GANs essentially attempt to trick themselves into creating content they can’t tell apart from the real thing.
Well, the results aren’t what you might call completely convincing, but it’s still promising. Such maps are rarely accurate but that doesn’t mean they’re completely abstract — recreating them in the context of modern mapping techniques is a fun idea that might help these locations seem less distant.