Octi raises $7.5M to create augmented reality that understands human movement

The team at Octi says it’s building a crucial piece of the augmented reality puzzle — the ability to understand the human body and its movement.

Co-founder and CEO Justin Fuisz told me that most existing AR technologies (including Apple’s ARKit) tend to be “plane-based” — in other words, while they can make something cool appear against a real-world background, it’s usually on a flat surface, like a table or the floor.

Octi, on the other hand, recognizes where people are in-camera, and it can use that understanding to apply a variety of different effects.

For example, Fuisz and his team showed me how they could dance around their office while bright, squiggly lines overlaid their bodies — and then they erased their bodies entirely. They also showed me how effects could be tied to different gestures, like how a “make it rain” motion could result in dollar bills flying out of their hands.

To do this, Octi says it’s built sophisticated machine learning and computer vision technology. For starters, it looks at a human being and detects key points, like eyes, nose, hips and elbows, then uses those points to construct a model of a skeleton.

Fuisz suggested that the technology could be applied to a number of different industries, including fashion, fitness, entertainment and gaming. In fact, the company is announcing a partnership and strategic investment from the OneTeam Collective, the accelerator of the NFL Players Association. As a result, Octi plans to create and distribute avatars of more than 2,000 NFL players.

In addition, Octi is announcing that it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding from Shasta Ventures, I2BF Ventures, Bold Capital Partners, Day One Ventures, Human Ventures Live Nation and AB InBev, plus individuals, including former Pandora and Snap executive Tom Conrad, WeWork Chief Product Officer of Technology Shiva Rajaraman, Adobe Chief Product Officer Scott Belsky, A&D Networks Chairman Abbe Raven and Joshua Kushner.

If you want to try this out for yourself, the startup has its own iOS app — Fuisz described the app as a technology showcase for potential partners, but he added, “The app is available to the public and is totally awesome.”

For the first time, Netflix tops HBO for most Emmy nominations

Netflix has broken HBO’s 17-year streak as the most nominated network at the Emmy Awards.

In the nominations released this afternoon, Netflix came out slightly ahead, with 112 nominations compared to HBO’s 108. Those include Best Comedy nods for GLOW and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as well as Best Drama nominations for The Crown and Stranger Things.

Other Netflix shows got some love as well. Jordan Crook, my co-host on the Original Content podcast, will be glad to know that Jason Bateman was nominated for his work as both actor and director on Ozark. Meanwhile, Black Mirror‘s “USS Callister” episode was nominated for Best Television Movie.

The other big streaming services had good news, too. Hulu received 27 nominations, with last year’s Best Drama winner The Handmaid’s Tale up for the big award again. Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most-nominated shows overall, although its 20 nominations were just shy of Westworld‘s 21 and Game of Thrones’ 22. (These are nominations for GoT’s seventh season, which aired last summer.)

Meanwhile, Amazon’s shows received 22 nominations, including a Best Comedy nod for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The winners will be announced in a ceremony hosted by Colin Jost and Michael Che on Sept. 17.

Facebook is testing augmented reality ads in the news feed

Facebook is giving advertisers new ways to show off their products, including with augmented reality.

At its F8 developer conference earlier this year, Facebook announced that it was working with businesses to use AR to show off products in Messenger. Now a similar experience will start appearing in the News Feed, with a select group of advertisers testing out AR ads.

Ty Ahmad-Taylor, vice president of product marketing for Facebook’s global marketing solutions, showed off ads that incorporated his face into Candy Crush gameplay footage, and other ads that allowed shoppers to see how virtual sunglasses and makeup would look on their own faces.

“People traditionally have to go into stores to do this,” Ahmad-Taylor said. “People still really love that experience, but they would like to try it at home” — so this “bridges the gap.”

These ads look like normal in-feed ads at first, but they include a “Tap to try it on” option, which opens up the AR capabilities. And of course if you like the way it looks in AR, you can go ahead and buy the product.

Facebook says Michael Kors was the first brand to test out AR ads in the News Feed, with Sephora, NYX Professional Makeup, Bobbi Brown, Pottery Barn, Wayfair and King planning their own tests for later this summer.

Ahmad-Taylor made the announcement this morning at a New York City event for journalists and marketers highlighting Facebook’s advertising plans for the holidays.

In addition, he announced a new Video Creation Kit, which will allow advertisers to incorporate existing images into templates for mobile video ads. According to weight loss company Noom, which has been testing out these tools, the resulting videos performed 77 percent better than the static images.

Lastly, Facebook says it will continue to expand its support for shopping in Instagram Stories. It made shopping tags available to select brands in Stories last month, and for the holidays, it plans to roll that out to all brands that have enabled shopping in Instagram. It’s also making its collections ad format available to all advertisers.

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ director Peyton Reed on following ‘Infinity War’

If you watch Ant-Man and the Wasp hoping for clues to the aftermath of Avengers: Infinity War, you’ll probably be disappointed: Although the just-released film coming out a few months after Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp actually takes place earlier, and it’s focused almost entirely on the personal struggles of its heroes.

In fact, after Infinity War, there was at least one article wondering, “How the hell are we supposed to care about Ant-Man and the Wasp now?” In other words, after you’ve watched armies of Marvel heroes battling for the fate of the universe, how can you care about an adventure that takes place earlier, with a mere two superheroes?

Peyton Reed, director of both Ant-Man films, told me he wasn’t worried about the stakes feeling too low. There’s some precendent, after all, with Ant-Man came out a few months after Avengers: Age of Ultron.

“That really is part of the Ant-Man movies — the stakes are really high … they’re just personal stakes,” Reed said. “You know it’s not a gigantic, genocidal villain like Infinity War. On that level, we don’t want to top Thanos.”

Instead, Reed said these films have “very different storytelling ambitions,” and in fact his hope is that they have “the most personal tone” of the Marvel films.

Ant Man and the Wasp

At the same time, it’s also a sequel, and the 20th (!) film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Asked how he approaches the audience when you’re this deep into a mega-franchise, Reed said, “I really just use myself the moviegoer, as a litmus test in terms of what they have and haven’t seen. [At] Marvel, no one wants to repeat themselves, no one wants to bore an audience.”

One of the big changes from the first Ant-Man is right there in the title: Hope van Dyne (played by Evangeline Lilly) is no longer just assisting her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Instead, she’s putting on her own costume, fighting crime directly and searching for her long-lost mother Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer). In many ways, Hope proves to be a more competent superhero than Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who took on the mantle of Ant-Man in the previous film.

Rather remarkably, this is the first time a female superhero has made it into the title of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film (Marvel characters like Black Widow and Gamora have thus far been limited to team movies, or appeared as supporting characters in someone else’s story). Reed said even while he was developing Ant-Man, there was already a plan to have Hope step up in the second film — partly because, thanks to the comics, he’d always thought of the characters as a duo.

“It also felt like the organic way to forward these characters from the first movie,” he said. “We knew Hope van Dyne was very capable, but was being held back from that by her issues with her father. Now that the issues between them are resolved, we can create a really fully-formed hero.”

The sequel also provided more of an opportunity to explore the the sub-microscopic “quantum realm” introduced in Ant-Man. The setting may feel pretty out-there, but Reed said he worked with the film’s technical consultant Spyridon Michalakis (a quantum physicist at Caltech) to try to get the science right.

Ant Man and the Wasp

“We don’t want to give the audience a headache — but 20, 30, 50 years form now, we don’t want people to say, ‘Oh man, that was way off, that has no bearing on reality,'” Reed said.

As an example, he pointed to the film’s treatment of quantum entanglement as a way to incorporate a real scientific concept while introducing it in a way that’s funny and character-driven.

Ant-Man and the Wasp also takes better advantage of real San Francisco locations like Lombard Street — Reed noted that while the first film took place in SF, much of the action was limited to Hank Pym’s house. This time around, he wanted to “open up and be in actual San Francisco,” which created its own challenges, particularly since the new movie is also playing with Scott’s ability to both shrink and increase his size.

“Shooting in daylight, exterior San Francisco, you had to believe that Giant Man was really there,” Reed said. “That was probably the biggest overall challenge — we’d done a shrinking movie already, so we played with variable size while trying to keep it photo realistic.”

While Reed’s found new success with superheroes, I also wondered if he ever worries that Marvel and Marvel-style blockbusters are crowding out the studio comedies that he made his name with, like Bring It On and Down With Love. Reed countered that this was an issue “long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” with studios either wanting to make “low, low budget movies” or giant blockbusters.

“I don’t think it any tougher now,” he said. “Honestly, in some ways it’s a bit easier, because not only studios but people like Netflix are financing comedies and stuff like that. I guess what I’m saying is: It’s always been tough.”

Captiv8 is making its influencer database available for free

You might think that the main selling point of an influencer marketing startup like Captiv8 is to help marketers find influencers and creators to work with. Maybe so, but that isn’t stopping the company from making its creator discovery product available for free.

“We felt that we really wanted to just open up that ecosystem, to provide brands access to find and research influencers without having to pay for it,” co-founder Krishna Subramanian told me.

Through the free product, marketers can look through the 1 million-plus influencers indexed on the platform — in some cases, those profiles are based entirely on public data, but influencers can also claim them and provide additional data.

Marketers can then search based on filters like personality archetype, content type, location, representation and much more. Plus, Captiv8 is offering demographic and brand affinity data about an influencer’s audiences.

Until now, Subramanian said that if you weren’t paying for a service like Captiv8, you could only find influencers in scattershot, ad hoc ways, like reading articles about the top influencers in various categories.

Captiv8 Creator Discovery

On Captiv8, meanwhile, marketers are apparently spending two hours per day on creator discovery, saving them 60 percent of the time they would have spent on the process.

So why make it available for free? While brands like Dr Pepper, Snapple, StubHub and Honda already use Captiv8, Subramanian said the goal is to “widen the funnel,” turning this into “the default place” where marketers go to learn about influencers.

And then, of course, the company can upsell you on Captiv8’s entire “end-to-end SaaS platform,” charging for additional audience data, as well as tools like campaign management, measurement and social listening.

Facebook confirms that it’s acquiring Bloomsbury AI

Facebook announced this morning that the London-based team at Bloomsbury AI will be joining the company.

My colleague Steve O’Hear broke the news about the acquisition, reporting that Facebook would deploy the team and technology to assist in its efforts to fight fake news and address other content issues.

In fact, Bloomsbury AI co-founder and Head of Research Sebastian Riedel also co-founded Factmata, a startup that purports to have developed tools to help brands combat fake news.

Facebook doesn’t quite put it that way in the announcement post. Instead, it says the team’s “expertise will strengthen Facebook’s efforts in natural language processing research, and help us further understand natural language and its applications” — but it certainly seems possible that those applications could include detecting misinformation and other problematic content.

While financial terms were not disclosed, we reported that Facebook is paying between $23 and $30 million. Bloomsbury AI is an alumnus of Entrepreneur First, and it was also backed by Fly.VC, Seedcamp, IQ Capital, UCL Technology Fund and the U.K. taxpayer-funded London Co-investment Fund.

TrendKite expands its PR analytics platform by acquiring Insightpool and Union Metrics

TrendKite is making its first two acquisitions — according to CEO Erik Huddleston, they give the company “the last two components” needed for a complete PR analytics platform.

Until now, TrendKite’s main selling point was the ability to look at the articles written about a company and measure things like the audience reached and the impact on brand awareness.

But while that kind of journalistic coverage remains important, Huddleston said, “The world now is more complicated in terms of who has influence on the public.” That’s where Insightpool and its database of social media influencers comes in, allowing PR teams to find and pitch influencers who can help spread the company’s story.

Union Metrics, meanwhile, provides social media analytics. As Huddleston put it, “they do the same analytics about the conversation around the story as we do around the media coverage.”

With these acquisitions, he said TrendKite can build deeper integrations with products that were already being used together. In fact, he noted that the company had an existing partnership with Union Metrics, and he started thinking about Insightpool in the same context when a customer showed him how they were using TrendKite and Insightpool side-by-side, literally open in adjacent tabs.

The details of how Insightpool and Union Metrics will be packaged and priced as part of the TrendKite platform have yet to been determined. In the meantime, Huddleston said TrendKite will continue to support them as standalone products.

In addition, he said the entire teams of both companies (including Insightpool CEO Devon Wijesinghe and Union Metrics CEO Hayes Davis) will be joining TrendKite, with Insightpool giving Austin-based TrendKite a footprint in Atlanta.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. According to Crunchbase, Insightpool had raised $7.5 million from investors including TDF Ventures and Silicon Valley bank.

Science fiction writer Harlan Ellison is dead

Harlan Ellison, the 84-year-old author of some of science fiction’s best-known stories, has died. His death was announced on Twitter by Christine Valada.

In addition to short fiction, Ellison also wrote for the movies and TV, most notably penning “The City on the Edge of Forever” — he was vocally unhappy with how his script was rewritten, but the filmed version is still generally considered the finest episode of any Star Trek series.

Ellison also made his mark as an editor, thanks to his 1967 anthology “Dangerous Visions” — while the stories’ sex and violence, as well as their stylistic experimentation, may no longer seem groundbreaking, “Dangerous Visions” remains the definitive collection of New Wave science fiction.

He was also a teacher, most notably championing the work of “Kindred” author Octavia Butler after meeting her at the Clarion Workshop. And he experimented with other media as well, for example working on the computer game adaptation of his story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and even providing the voice for the game’s evil AI.

But the stories were his greatest accomplishment. Tales like “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” (about a future where being late is the greatest crime) and “The Deathbird” (a man witnesses the dying Earth’s final moments) and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” (the saddest Las Vegas ghost story you’ll ever read) won him many awards, and have been anthologized many times. They show a pessimistic imagination at work — his most famous stories generally end in death or defeat — but thanks to the tremendous energy of Ellison’s writing, they’re never dour or boring.

Ellison was a hero of mine, especially when I was younger. He seemed like the kind of writer I wanted to be when I grew up, someone who could be wildly creative while remaining passionately engaged with the world’s real problems. In fact, I wrote an entire college application essay about how I wanted to be him — and later, when I had to write an adventure game for class, I borrowed shamelessly from the post-apocalyptic, underground suburbs of his story “A Boy and His Dog”.

(I wasn’t the only one who cribbed from Ellison. After seeing similarities with his short story/”Outer Limits” script “Soldier”, Ellison sued the makers of “The Terminator” — they settled, and his name was added to the credits.)

It’s been a while since Ellison was in the spotlight. He hasn’t written much in recent years, and since his reputation rested on short stories, he didn’t have a novel like “Dune” or a “Stranger in a Strange Land” or a “The Left Hand of Darkness” sitting on bookstore shelves for new readers to discover him.

Ellison never seemed to back down from controversy — not for nothing was a recent biography titled “A Lit Fuse” — so when he did get attention, it was usually because he’d said or done something offensive or dumb.

But the stories remain. For those who’ve read and loved them, what we’ll remember — what I’ll remember — is the strange hum of the Ticktockman, the laughter of the mad AI ruling over the ruins of the Earth, and a gambler’s tired eyes staring out from a haunted slot machine.

Startup Grind founders raise $6.4M for community event platform Bevy

The founders of entrepreneurial community Startup Grind have a startup of their own — Bevy, which announced today that it has raised $6.4 million in Series A funding.

The funding comes from Upfront Ventures, author Steve Blank, Qualtrics founders Ryan Smith and Jared Smith, and Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard.

CEO Derek Andersen (who founded and runs both Bevy and Startup Grind with CTO Joel Fernandes) said that the product was created to deal with Startup Grind’s challenges as the team tried to organize events using a mix of Eventbrite, Meetup and MailChimp,

“It worked fine at first, but a few years later, we looked up and we had hundreds of cities, and we had maybe 500 people that were working on it, and it was too much,” Andersen said. “For the first time in many years, we started to get smaller instead of bigger. We were spending all of this time just running triage and maintenance on the platform.”

So in early 2016, the team built its own event management software, with what Andersen said was “no intention of anyone else using it.” But eventually, he realized that other companies were facing similar problems, so he launched Bevy as a separate startup to further develop and commercialize the product.

“We really focus on the smaller, community events,” Andersen added. “If you just do a conference, Eventbrite is great — I’ve hosted thousands of events on Eventbrite. But if you want to host five or 10 events a month or jack that number up anywhere above that, and you don’t want to hire 10 people, then that’s really what we’re perfect to do.”

Bevy Analytics

Usually, these are events where community members play a big role, or are even doing most of the organizing themselves. So beyond supporting tasks like creating event listings, sending out promotional emails and managing sponsorships, Andersen said one of Bevy’s big differentiators is the ability to precisely control which users are authorized to perform different roles at different events.

In addition, Andersen said that with Bevy, companies can create fully branded experiences and get full access to the customer data around their events. Customers include Atlassian, Duolingo, Docker, Evernote and Asana.

Andersen also suggested that the company is taking advantage of a broader shift in marketing, where companies are relying more on their own customers and communities.

“All the best companies do it today,” he said. He predicted that in the future, “Every company will have a customer-to-customer marketing strategy. Now we’ve made it affordable and turnkey.”

Personal finance startup SmartAsset raises $28M

I first wrote about SmartAsset nearly six years ago, when it launched its first product, a tool allowing prospective homebuyers to analyze the rent vs. buy decision and to see what kind of home they could actually afford.

According to co-founder and CEO Michael Carvin, “On the consumer side, our strategy has never really changed. Our mission is to help people make the best personal finance decisions and to build the web’s best resource for personal finance decision-making.”

Of course, some aspects of the company have evolved. For one thing, SmartAsset now offers tools, calculators and content in a number of categories, including taxes, retirement and banking.

For another, it’s announcing today that it has raised $28 million in Series C funding, bringing its total raised to more than $51 million. The new round comes from Focus Financial Partners (a firm backed by Stone Point Capital and KKR), Javelin Venture Partners, TTV Capital, IA Capital, Contour Venture Partners, Citi Ventures, Fabrice Grinda and others.

Carvin said SmartAsset reached more than 45 million uniques last month, nearly doubling its traffic year-over-year. And 25 percent of that traffic comes from repeat visitors.

smartasset

As for how SmartAsset makes money from those visitors, it does so partly by promoting financial products like mortgages. But Carvin said the biggest piece is the SmartAdvisor platform, which connects financial advisors with potential investors.

Carvin described it as “the web’s first digital lead generation platform for financial advisors,” and compared the SmartAsset business model to Zillow’s, saying both companies have built big audiences that they can then match up with real estate or finance professionals.

In SmartAsset’s case, users fill out a questionaire and then work with a SmartAsset concierge to help them find an advisor who’s a good fit. Carvin added that the advisors on the platform have been screened by the company, for example to ensure that they haven’t had any criminal violations and that SEC hasn’t upheld any complaints against them for the past decade.

Asked whether this focus on financial advisors has led SmartAsset to change the way it designs its consumer products Carvin said, “We believe the better the user experience, the better our business will work. And so when we’re building a retirement tool, a home affordability tool, a tax tool, we’re building that only with the consumer interest in mind.”

Looking ahead, Carvin said he plans to continue following this strategy.

“We’re going to build out the web’s premiere personal finance resources and then leverage that on advisor side,” he said.