SoftBank Leads $1 Billion Investment in Indian Hotel-Booking Startup

SoftBank Group Corp. is doubling down on one of its biggest bets in India by leading a $1 billion investment in hotel-booking startup OYO Hotels. The company, based in Gurgaon, India, has received $800 million in a round led by SoftBank's Vision Fund, which SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son is using to back cutting-edge technologies, OYO said Tuesday.

It looks like Coinbase is preparing to add a lot more cryptocurrencies

Coinbase aspires to be the New York Stock Exchange of crypto, and it is taking a small — but not insignificant – step to offering a lot more cryptocurrencies after it revamped the process of listing new digital assets.

The exchange currently only supports just five cryptocurrencies — Ethereum, Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum Classic and Litecoin — and the process of adding each one has been gradual. The company would announce plans, and then later announce when listing the asset. The idea being to reduce the potential to send the value of a token skyrocketing. (Since support from Coinbase potentially adds a lot more trading volume.)

That clearly isn’t a sustainable process if Coinbase is to add “hundreds” of tokens, as CEO Brian Amstrong told an audience at TechCrunch Disrupt it eventually plans to.

Regulatory concern is high on the scale when evaluating support for new cryptocurrencies, so now Coinbase is speeding up the process by limiting trading of some tokens to specific locations where necessary.

“Today we’re announcing a new process that will allow us to rapidly list most digital assets that are compliant with local law, by satisfying listing requests in a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction manner. In practice, this means some new assets listed on our platform may only be available to customers in select jurisdictions for a period of time,” the company said in a blog post.

That’ll mean an end to the double announcement — ‘token X is coming soon’ and ‘token X is now supported’ — and instead a single reveal. That indicates that a large number of new assets may be incoming — for an idea of which ones, Coinbase recently said it is looking over a number of cryptocurrencies.

Interestingly, the company also noted that it may introduce a listing fee — this is common with many other exchanges — in the future in order to cover costs around adding some projects.

“Initially there will be no application fee. Depending on the volume of submissions, we reserve the right to impose an application fee in the future to defray the legal and operational costs associated with evaluating and listing new assets,” it explained.

The company has opened a listing proposal link, here. If similar features from other exchanges are anything to go by, Coinbase’s will be flooded by naive token holders who think they have a shot at getting listed on Coinbase, which will take them to the moon. Good luck maintaining that list, guys.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

As Magic Leap preps for its first developer conference, the focus shifts to content

Even as Magic Leap has cleared the milestone of its first hardware release, the augmented reality startup still has big challenges ahead as it aims to entice developers to build the content for its wild new device.

The $2,295 Magic Leap One headset is a very polished-looking developer kit, but it didn’t ship with a ton of software for buyers to play around with at launch, just a couple short experiences that were essentially concept proofs.

The startup, which was most recently valued at north of $6 billion, is just a few weeks away from its first developer conference taking place down in Los Angeles. The L.E.A.P. conference will be an opportunity for the company to bring more developers to its platform to build up a content library ahead of an eventual more consumer-facing release.

At L.E.A.P., Magic Leap is planning to show off more than a dozen demos from developers, the company tells TechCrunch.

We’ve already taken a hands-on look at a full Angry Birds game for Magic Leap One from Rovio and Resolution Games. Other demos to be showcased include Wingnut‘s Funhouse Pest ControlFunomena‘s Luna: Moondust GardenMeow Wolf‘s The Mech, Wayfair Sketch and Magic Leap’s own Create title. We’ll also finally see the first demo of Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders, a shooter title by Weta Workshops that Magic Leap has been hyping since its first-ever teaser video.

Though building up content for a new device category is certainly daunting, Magic Leap has the benefit of having seen the major players of the VR industry brute force their way past some of these issues.

For the VR industry’s first two years following the releases of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, one of the big issues was that you could play through most of the good available titles in a week or two. The “content problem,” as it was called, led Facebook to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into upstart studios to build games that wouldn’t have otherwise been created. Fast forward to 2018 and there are plenty of high-quality games available on the Oculus and Steam stores though groups like Oculus and HTC are still investing just as heavily.

With Microsoft pointing its HoloLens AR developer ecosystem towards the enterprise, Magic Leap is in the somewhat lonely position of wrangling developers around building stuff for an AR headset that appeals to consumers, though plenty are excited to just get in on the ground floor.

“I’ve always been very fascinated at being able to do things at the forefront of technology, I definitely think that games are going to be trailblazing on these platforms when it comes to user interface and just coming up with what you can use it for,” Resolution Games CEO Tommy Palm told TechCrunch. “I think we’re among a lot of small and big companies that are believing that this is going to be a very big computing platform in the future.”

Magic Leap has several partnerships built up already with game studios, media orgs like The New York Times, and, just announced today, medtech company Brainlab.

Getting other partners to invest significant resources into the early platform could require Magic Leap to invest more of its own funds into kickstarting the content ecosystem. The startup has raised at least $2.3 billion according to Crunchbase, but as it takes an end-to-end approach to the entire ecosystem, it’s going to have to decide where its efforts are best spent. Things will certainly be expedited if and when Apple and/or Google embrace AR headset hardware and bring their developer networks into the fold, but Magic Leap will obviously want to make the most of its head start before then.

Magic Leap may be an entirely new platform with some big investors and big ideas. It’s newest challenge is a very old one however, getting developers pumped up for something new.

Mars orbiter spots silent, dust-covered Opportunity rover as dust storm clears

Mars rover Opportunity has been operating on the surface of the Red Planet since 2004, but a dust storm this summer may prove to be the mission’s toughest challenge. The enormous storm caked Opportunity in dust and blocked out the sun, its source of energy — and there’s no guarantee the batteries aren’t dead for good. But now that the skies have cleared, we at least have our first look at the workhorse rover from orbit since it went radio silent.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captures fabulous imagery of the planet at a regular rate, but it happened that it passed over Perseverance Valley last week, where Opportunity is currently stationary. In the image you can just make it out as a few pixels raised above the surface.

That valley isn’t the only place that was hit by the storm — this was no flurry but a full-blown planet-spanning tempest that lasted for months. It isn’t the first dust storm Opportunity has weathered by a long shot, but it was probably the worst.

The last we heard from the rover was on June 10, at which point the storm was getting so intense that Opportunity couldn’t charge its batteries any more and lowered itself into a hibernation state, warmed only by its plutonium-powered heaters — if they’re even working.

Once a day, Opportunity’s deeply embedded safety circuit checks if there’s any power in its battery or coming in via solar.

“Now that the sun is shining through the dust, it will start to charge its batteries,” explained Jim Watzin, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA. And so some time in the coming weeks it will have sufficient power to wake up and place a call back to Earth. But we don’t know when that call will come.”

An Opportunity shadow-selfie from 2004, when Opportunity was comparatively young (and had “only” doubled its mission length).

That’s the hope, anyway. There is of course the possibility that the dust has obscured the solar cells too thickly, or some power fault during the storm led to the safety circuit not working… there’s no shortage of what-if scenarios. But space exploration is a unique combination of the deeply realistic with the deeply optimistic, and there’s no way Opportunity’s handlers aren’t going to give the little rover all the time it needs, within reason, to get back in touch.

The team has been sending extra signals out to spur a response from Opportunity and will continue to do so for the next few weeks, but even that won’t be the end of the line.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, assured the many Opportunity superfans out there that they plan to keep listening at least through January. And you can bet a few sentimental types will find a way to check now and then after that as well.

Should the worst happen and the dust storm appear to have disabled the rover for good, that would still be a hell of a run — Opportunity was intended to last for 90 days and has instead gone for 14 years. Nothing sad about that. But here’s hoping we hear from this long-lived explorer soon.

Tinder’s ‘Swipe the Vote’ campaign aims to educate young voters and get them to polls

Tinder has partnered up with nonprofit Rock the Vote for a second time, in the hopes of driving young people to the polls through in-app messaging. The company claims a young adult user base where more than half are in the 18 to 24 demographic, and believes it’s well-positioned to mobilize younger voters during the 2018 U.S. Midterm Elections.

It’s critical to get these voters to the polls, as only 46.1 percent of the 18 to 29-year old turned out to vote during the 2016 election, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the company notes.

Tinder says it will begin to share “fun facts” with its users during election season right in the app – like the volumes of voter registrations and other anecdotes related to past and upcoming elections. These facts will have a particular focus on those that of most interest to Tinder’s younger users.

For example, some that will be shared include: “Did you know that only about 40% of eligible voters turn up for the midterm elections?,” and “Even though millennials make up 25% of the population, they make up less than 5% of state legislatures,” plus, “The average American is twenty years younger than their congressional representative.”

The facts will pop up in the app as often as two to three times a week in the U.S. as a “Swipe the Vote” native display card.

These cards will also include a way to tap to navigate in-app to the Rock the Vote website where users can enter their ZIP code and details in order to register to vote.

Additionally, the two organizations also produced a Schoolhouse Rock!-inspired video encouraging young Americans to vote. (Though the Schoolhouse Rock reference may fly over the 18-year olds’ heads.)

Tinder isn’t the only large platform participating in National Voter Registration Day today (September 25).

Others, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, Lyft, HBO, and many more have also rolled out their own campaigns in an effort to mobilize and register voters.

But because of Tinder’s access to a very young group of potential voters, it’s one of the more interesting efforts to watch, along with Snapchat.

DoorDash customers say their accounts have been hacked

Food delivery startup DoorDash has received dozens of complaints from customers who say their accounts have been hacked.

Dozens of people have tweeted at @DoorDash with complaints that their accounts had been improperly accessed and had fraudulent food deliveries charged to their account. In many cases, the hackers changed their email addresses so that the user could not regain access to their account until they contacted customer services. Yet, many said that they never got a response from DoorDash, or if they did, there was no resolution.

Several Reddit threads also point to similar complaints.

DoorDash is now a $4 billion company after raising $250 million last month, and serves more than 1,000 cities across the U.S. and Canada.

After receiving a tip, TechCrunch contacted some of the affected customers.

Four people we spoke to who had tweeted or commented that their accounts had been hacked said that they had used their DoorDash password on other sites. Three people said they weren’t sure if they used their DoorDash password elsewhere.

But six people we spoke to said that their password was unique to DoorDash, and three confirmed they used a complicated password generated by a password manager.

DoorDash said that there has been no data breach and that the likely culprit was credential stuffing, in which hackers take lists of stolen usernames and passwords and try them on other sites that may use the same credentials.

Yet, when asked, DoorDash could not explain how six accounts with unique passwords were breached.

“We do not have any information to suggest that DoorDash has suffered a data breach,” said spokesperson Becky Sosnov in an email to TechCrunch. “To the contrary, based on the information available to us, including internal investigations, we have determined that the fraudulent activity reported by consumers resulted from credential stuffing.”

The victims that we spoke to said they used either the app or the website, or in some cases both. Some were only alerted when their credit cards contacted them about possible fraud.

“Simply makes no sense that so many people randomly had their accounts infiltrated for so much money at the same time,” said one victim.

If, as DoorDash claims, credential stuffing is the culprit, we asked if the company would improve its password policy, which currently only requires a minimum of eight characters. We found in our testing that a new user could enter “password” or “12345678” as their password — which have for years ranked in the top five worst passwords.

The company also would not say if it plans to roll out countermeasures to prevent credential stuffing, like two-factor authentication.

See the new iPhone’s ‘focus pixels’ up close

The new iPhones have excellent cameras, to be sure. But it’s always good to verify Apple’s breathless on-stage claims with first-hand reports. We have our own review of the phones and their photography systems, but teardowns provide the invaluable service of letting you see the biggest changes with your own eyes — augmented, of course, by a high-powered microscope.

We’ve already seen iFixit’s solid-as-always disassembly of the phone, but TechInsights gets a lot closer to the device’s components — including the improved camera of the iPhone XS and XS Max.

Although the optics of the new camera are as far as we can tell unchanged since the X, the sensor is a new one and is worth looking closely at.

Microphotography of the sensor die show that Apple’s claims are borne out and then some. The sensor size has increased from 32.8mm2 to 40.6mm2 — a huge difference despite the small units. Every tiny bit counts at this scale. (For comparison, the Galaxy S9 is 45mm2, and the soon-to-be-replaced Pixel 2 is 25mm2.)

The pixels themselves also, as advertised, grew from 1.22 microns (micrometers) across to 1.4 microns — which should help with image quality across the board. But there’s an interesting, subtler development that has continually but quietly changed ever since its introduction: the “focus pixels.”

That’s Apple’s brand name for phase detection autofocus (PDAF) points, found in plenty of other devices. The basic idea is that you mask off half a sub-pixel every once in a while (which I guess makes it a sub-sub-pixel), and by observing how light enters these half-covered detectors you can tell whether something is in focus or not.

Of course, you need a bunch of them to sense the image patterns with high fidelity, but you have to strike a balance: losing half a pixel may not sound like much, but if you do it a million times, that’s half a megapixel effectively down the drain. Wondering why that all the PDAF points are green? Many camera sensors use an “RGBG” sub-pixel pattern, meaning there are two green sub-pixels for each red and blue one — it’s complicated why. But there are twice as many green sub-pixels and therefore the green channel is more robust to losing a bit of information.

 

Apple introduced PDAF in the iPhone 6, but as you can see in TechInsights’ great diagram, the points are pretty scarce. There’s one for maybe every 64 sub-pixels, and not only that, they’re all masked off in the same orientation: either the left or right half gone.

The 6S and 7 Pluses saw the number double to one PDAF point per 32 sub-pixels. And in the 8 Plus, the number is improved to one per 20 — but there’s another addition: now the phase detection masks are on the tops and bottoms of the sub-pixels as well. As you can imagine, doing phase detection in multiple directions is a more sophisticated proposal, but it could also significantly improve the accuracy of the process. Autofocus systems all have their weaknesses, and this may have addressed one Apple regretted in earlier iterations.

Which brings us to the XS (and Max, of course), in which the PDAF points are now one per 16 sub-pixels, having increased the frequency of the vertical phase detection points so that they’re equal in number to the horizontal one. Clearly the experiment paid off and any consequent light loss has been mitigated or accounted for.

I’m curious how the sub-pixel patterns of Samsung, Huawei, and Google phones compare, and I’m looking into it. But I wanted to highlight this interesting little evolution. It’s an interesting example of the kind of changes that are hard to understand when explained in simple number form — we’ve doubled this, or there are a million more of that — but which make sense when you see them in physical form.

Big cameras and big rivalries take center stage at Photokina

Photokina is underway in London and the theme of the show is “large.” Unusually for an industry that is trending towards the compact, the cameras on stage at this show sport big sensors, big lenses, and big price tags. But though they may not be for the average shooter, these cameras are impressive pieces of hardware that hint at things to come for the industry as a whole.

The most exciting announcement is perhaps that from Panasonic, which surprised everyone with the S1 and S1R, a pair of not-quite-final full frame cameras that aim to steal a bit of the thunder from Canon and Nikon’s entries into the mirrorless full frame world.

Panasonic’s cameras have generally had impressive video performance, and these are no exception. They’ll shoot 4K at 60 FPS, which in a compact body like that shown is going to be extremely valuable to videographers. Meanwhile the S1R, with 47 megapixels to the S1’s 24, will be optimized for stills. Both will have dual card slots (which Canon and Nikon declined to add to their newest gear), weather sealing, and in-body image stabilization.

The timing and inclusion of so many desired features indicates either that Panasonic was clued in to what photographers wanted all along, or they waited for the other guys to move and then promised the things their competitors wouldn’t or couldn’t. Whatever the case, the S1 and S1R are sure to make a splash, whatever their prices.

Panasonic was also part of an announcement that may have larger long-term implications: a lens mount collaboration with Leica and Sigma aimed at maximum flexibility for the emerging mirrorless full-frame and medium format market. L-mount lenses will work on any of the group’s devices (including the S1 and S1R) and should help promote usage across the board.

Leica, for its part, announced the S3, a new version of its medium format S series that switches over to the L-mount system as well as bumping a few specs. No price yet but if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it.

Sigma had no camera to show, but announced it would be taking its Foveon sensor tech to full frame and that upcoming bodies would be using the L mount as well.

This Fuji looks small here, but it’s no lightweight. It’s only small in comparison to previous medium format cameras.

Fujifilm made its own push on the medium format front with the new GFX 50R, which sticks a larger than full frame (but smaller than “traditional” medium format) sensor inside an impressively small body. That’s not to say it’s insubstantial: Fuji’s cameras are generally quite hefty, and the 50R is no exception, but it’s much smaller and lighter than its predecessor and, surprisingly, costs $2,000 less at $4,499 for the body.

The theme, as you can see, is big and expensive. But the subtext is that these cameras are not only capable of extraordinary imagery, but they don’t have to be enormous to do it. This combination of versatility with portability is one of the strengths of the latest generation of cameras, and clearly Fuji, Panasonic and Leica are eager to show that it extends to the pro-level, multi-thousand dollar bodies as well as the consumer and enthusiast lineup.

Federal appeals court rules Uber drivers must arbitrate claims

A federal appeals court has handed a defeat to Uber drivers who were suing the company in three separate lawsuits over claims that they were misclassified as independent contractors instead of full-time employees.

The litigants must go through arbitration to pursue their claims against the company rather than have the claims heard in open court.

The decision also means that the drivers in one of the suits can’t file a class-action against Uber. Had the case been able to go to trial, drivers could have pursued larger damage claims against the company.

In a 3-0 decision, judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco flipped the ruling of a lower court judge that would have allowed Uber drivers to sue in open court.

As full-time employees, the drivers argued they would be entitled to reimbursement for gas and expenses around maintenance and general upkeep.

According to Reuters, the drivers also claimed that Uber was not allowing them to keep all of their tips from passengers.

While Uber drivers aren’t able to avoid forced arbitration for complaints against their non-employer the platform, Uber did do the right thing recently in ending forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment or assault.

Were the Uber drivers to proceed with their lawsuit and become full-time employees of the ride-hailing company, they’d be likely to face the same forced arbitration claims. Full-time Uber employees are also forced into arbitration to settle disputes rather than have their claims heard in open court.

At the heart of the dispute for Uber drivers is the demand for the safety net that comes with full-time employment and for companies a potentially significant hit to their bottom line.

Ride-hailing platforms like Uber and Lyft have long argued that the drivers on the platform aren’t actually employees of the company, despite being the providers of the service that the technology platforms facilitate. For drivers, the inability to set pricing or negotiate the percentage that Lyft or Uber will take of the fees that are charged means they operate more like employees than bidders in a marketplace.

And earlier this year, the California Supreme Court seemed to agree with the drivers’ argument.

In April, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case involving the nationwide delivery company Dynamex Operations West Inc. and its contract drivers. The decision established a new test for enforcement of California wage laws, and made it much harder for companies in California to claim that independent contractors are not actually full-time employees.