Twitter rolls out ‘sparkle button’ to let users hide the algorithmic feed

Twitter is giving users the ability to easily switch between seeing the latest tweets first and seeing the company’s algorithmically chosen “Top Tweets” first. The company began testing this feature a couple of months ago, but they are officially rolling it out globally to all iOS users today with Android and desktop users likely getting access to the feature sometime in January, according to the company.

This is part-resolution and part extended cop-out for Twitter which has spent the better part of the past couple years figuring out how to satisfy a need for growth with vocal, loyal users who want the act of opening the app to continue to mean getting the immediate pulse of the internet. The algorithmic timeline is probably a better business move for Twitter, something that will ensure that more causal users can get a more encapsulated experiences when they open the app rather than a hodgepodge snapshot of their followers’ thoughts.

The company has explicitly said that the “Top Tweets” feature has increased both engagement and conversations on the app.

Twitter’s solution to its algorithmic ails is called the sparkle button and it sits in the top right of your screen allowing users to essentially temporarily disable “Top Tweets” and enjoy a pure reverse chronological Twitter feed. Though the company see a lot of utility in algorithmic feeds, they also acknowledge that recency is critical to the ethos of Twitter and that in certain instances like a sporting event or breaking news situation, there’s a lot of value in seeing what’s new immediately.

In what is likely to be a controversial move, “Top Tweets” is enabled by default and it seems that you will have to re-enable the feature periodically though Twitter says it’s experimenting with how often that is, though it will at least remember your preference for the entirety of your session. So, if you check your mentions and tap on the Home tab you won’t return to “Top Tweets” if you had previously been browsing the reverse chronological feed.

Though the company has said this rollout won’t be affecting the volume or frequency of “Top Tweets” postings, it’s clear that this feature launch gives the company a much longer leash to experiment with changing up the core timeline and in general offers the company a proper means to get reverse chronological hold-outs people to gradually adapt the algorithmic feed without feeling quite as forced to do so.

It would have been great if Twitter introduced this months ago, for all the philosophical shifts that the algorithmic timeline signaled the most annoying part of the change was how users were given mixed messages about being able to choose whether they wanted the new timeline.

Today’s move is likely to make most users happy though. Unburying important toggles from the depths of settings is always welcome, and communicating these changes was important for a company like Twitter that doesn’t often change up its core product dramatically.

Discord announces 90/10 revenue split for self-published titles on upcoming games store

After gaming chat app startup Discord announced in August that they were building out a games store, today, they’ve detailed that they’ll be pursuing a very competitive 90/10 revenue split for self-published titles in 2019. In addition, the company revealed that they now have 200 million active users on their chat app, up from 130 million users in May.

The announcement follows a storefront launch from Epic Games last week with an 88/12 revenue split. Valve’s Steam store had typically offered a constant 70/30 revenue split for all developers regardless of the revenues they were pulling in. The company recently announced that Steam would give a more favorable split to devs pulling in more revenue.

Discord called up some of their thinking in a company blog post:

Why does it cost 30% to distribute games? Is this the only reason developers are building their own stores and launchers to distribute games? Turns out, it does not cost 30% to distribute games in 2018.

Steam’s efforts are largely focused on holding onto big developers, but indie devs now have to balance what advantages they’re earning by establishing their central home on a platform filled with tons of titles that’s also taking a more substantial cut.

This leaves some room for Discord to attract the self-publishing indies, though it’s still an uphill battle for the company that’s up against some big competitors.

Facebook restructures Building 8, separating projects into Reality Labs and Portal groups

Facebook is restructuring its experimental hardware efforts and giving its moonshot projects a home within its AR/VR research division. The restructuring, reported by Business Insider (paywalled), didn’t result in any layoffs but did see some shifts of teams as the old Building 8 group rebranded to Portal and some projects moved to the former Oculus Research group (now, Facebook Reality Lab).

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the reorganization to Business Insider. TechCrunch has reached out to Facebook for further comment.

The Building 8 brand is dead but the big change seems to be Facebook moving its more headline-grabbing experiments further away from its nearly ready-for-production ideas.

With some of the more experimental hardware projects at Facebook — like a computer brain interface, “soft” robotics and a project to “hear” through a skin-worn device — moving to Facebook Reality Labs, it’s clear that the organization once centered around AR/VR technologies is seeing its scope expand to more distant-reaching technologies that aren’t vaguely ready for consumer products yet.

Meanwhile, the Portal group seems to be where some of Facebook’s more in-reach consumer hardware products are living, with the newly released video chat device serving as the foundation. The leader of Building 8, Rafa Camargo, who took over after the departure of Regina Dugan, is the VP of the Portal team now.

Meanwhile, Facebook Reality Labs is still led by Michael Abrash, who has long held a senior presence in the company’s AR/VR ambitions.

Having products like Portal that are already for sale fall under the same leadership as invasive brain chips research probably didn’t make a ton of organizational sense, especially when Facebook has already gone to lengths to separate projects focused on immediate product needs compared to ones that are more far-out in other areas of the company. Facebook’s hardware ambitions are nascent, but now that they have a product on shelves, it’s probably more clear that there are some completely different leadership needs and an organizational restructure makes sense.

Niantic reportedly raising $200M at $3.9B valuation

Pokémon GO creator Niantic is raising a $200 million Series C at a valuation of $3.9 billion, according to a report from Katie Roof at the WSJ. The round is expected to be led by IVP with participation from Samsung and aXiomatic Gaming.

The upcoming raise would bring the company’s total funding to $425 million, according to Crunchbase. Niantic’s last round was raised at a $3 billion valuation.

TechCrunch has reached out to Niantic for comment.

The gaming startup, which has invested significantly in augmented reality technologies, is also behind titles such as its recently updated Ingress title and an upcoming Harry Potter mobile game. The company was founded as a startup within Google in 2010 and was spun out as its own entity in 2015, releasing its hit title Pokémon GO the next year.

The company is currently working on its next big augmented reality mobile title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, aiming to create a proper follow-up hit that can capture the excitement of its Pokémon title. The app’s success will likely be crucial to perceptions that Pokémon GO was more than a fluke breakout success. A release date has not yet been set for the title.

IMAX pulls the plug on its dream of VR arcades

The company behind the biggest screens in cinema is giving up on bringing VR screens within a few inches of users’ faces. The company announced today in an SEC filing that it will be shutting down its three remaining virtual reality centers, including its flagship location in Los Angeles.

Via the filing:

In connection with the Company’s previously-announced strategic review of its virtual reality pilot initiative, the Company has decided to close its remaining VR locations and write-off certain VR content investments.

The locations in LA, Bangkok and Toronto will be shuttered in Q1 of 2019 according to Variety.

After making a lot of noise about the centers at launch, the company seemed to realize pretty quickly that the economics just weren’t there. Previous to today’s announcement, IMAX had already shut down 4 of the 7 VR centers that had been opened.

A lot of virtual reality startups that were counting on the pipe dream resurgence of the American arcade scene are probably sweating a bit after today’s news. It was clear that IMAX’s efforts hadn’t been a raving success, but there’s a big difference between dialing it back and shutting it down.

Earlier this year, IMAX confirmed that it had paused work on a VR camera project it was developing with Google.

Facebook settles OculusVR lawsuit with ZeniMax

Nearly five years after announcing its acquisition of OculusVR, Facebook is finally ready to put the drama surrounding its founding behind it.

Gaming giant ZeniMax Media’s lawsuit against Facebook over the misuse of intellectual property related to the founding of OculusVR has finally been settled.

In a statement, ZeniMax CEO Robert Altman confirmed the settlement saying, “We are pleased that a settlement has been reached and are fully satisfied by the outcome. While we dislike litigation, we will always vigorously defend against any infringement or misappropriation of our intellectual property by third parties.”

At the trial’s conclusion, the judge awarded ZeniMax $500 million in damages to be paid by the defendants including Facebook and some of the OculusVR co-founders, a figure that Facebook appealed and had reduced to $250 million. Following the initial verdict, ZeniMax sought an injunction on sales of Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset, claiming the device violated key IP. Terms of this settlement weren’t disclosed.

The trial was notable in that offered a rare moment on the stand for a number of Facebook executives including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It also gave rare insight into the details surrounding the company’s founding and acquisition.

“We’re pleased to put this behind us and continue building the future of VR,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Google Lens arrives in iOS search app

Google is bringing its Lens visual search feature to the iOS Google app, giving iPhone users a new way to search the web on mobile.

By tapping on the Google Lens icon, you dive straight into the camera at which point if Google recognizes something in the space that you tap on, the app will automatically populate search results for those objects.

Lens, which Google announced at its I/O conference in 2017, has been rolled out pretty slowly across the company’s suite of products, with most new features seeming to debut on the company’s Pixel phones before trickling down to other devices. Google Lens was previously available in the Google Photos app on iOS where the feature could recognize objects in images.

The company has also announced that they’re bringing some updates to Lens in Google Photos, with additional language support beyond English (now, Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Korean), and new ways to search images by style.

Artie aims to bring you closer to your digital idols with autonomous AR avatars

If you spend enough time scrolling through manicured photos of manicured lives on social media, you might come to the realization that maybe the fakeness of the online world has started to look too real.

This might be why so many investors are starting to stare headlong into the world of avatars and digital influencers that aren’t real people but can learn from their audiences in real time. Earlier this week, I chatted with a pair of interesting founders from the startup Artie. The team is basically trying to create an interaction engine for digital avatars to sit in the real world and have some sort of meaningful interaction with users through phone-based AR.

The startup’s backers include Founders Fund and YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley. Co-founders Armando Kirwin and Ryan Horrigan both come from some top startups in the VR media space.

The Artie team

Artie’s sort of autonomous storytelling platform really focuses in on a couple emerging trends.

One is this big idea of digital influencers revving up in Japan and Korea that’s basically leveraging all of these new face-tracking capabilities of smartphones to allow users to craft 3D avatars that are sort of animated, abstracted online personalities. It’s started to make waves stateside, but it’s a slower grind.  Artie isn’t necessarily looking at user-generated content at this moment, but the company’s work in more branded moments with already leveraged IP is an interesting first step towards something bigger.

Artie is also an AR company. The phone AR market really seems to have a number of usage obstacles to overcome. Despite the excitement coming from Apple and Google, platforms like ARKit and ARCore have mostly arrived with a thud. There are a few companies trying to build out some more fundamental backend capabilities to enable shared experiences that adjust to their surroundings, but it’s unclear where the missing link really is in getting people to use a feature that’s really just sitting dormant on their smartphone.

The company is working with WebXR standards that will basically allow anyone to tap a link on their phone and plunge straight into an experience where the avatar is inside their physical space. The video below gives some early insight into what their platform is going to offer.

As niche as this market sounds, Artie isn’t totally alone here, Google has actually flirted with this in its Playground release on Pixel phones where users can jump into photos with 3D characters who are somewhat aware of their environments. For Artie, the deeper interactions between the avatar and characters is really where they hope the magic comes into view. Their platform carries out emotion tracking and object detection to give Unity developers some freedom to let users interrupt the avatars and send them on tangents, all while learning from the user in how they interact with the character and want them to act.

“Think of it like how YouTube, back in the day, established this notion where content creators could for the first time get closer to their audiences through the comments, but it always happens post-mortem after the video was published and would inform what would happen next week,” Horrigan told TechCrunch. “So the difference here is that we’re actually bringing that intimacy between audience and content creator in real time.”

The co-founders both share some big ideas for the direction of storytelling that leverages deep learning to tell the content creators more about the world and audience they’re building for. Artie is at the forefront of some interesting but deeply odd market trends, ones that are probably driven as much by the state of pop culture as they are by tech capabilities, though it’s all still early tech coming from a small team.

The founders say they’ll start working with some early “power users” like media companies and celebrities in the first quarter of next year to start building out the first experiences for Artie on their “Wonderfriend” engine.

Magic Leap loses two women from top executive positions

Magic Leap’s executive team is pretty heavy on the dudes these days.

The augmented reality startup’s two female C-suite executives, Chief Marketing Officer Brenda Freeman and Chief Business Officer Rachna Bhasin, have recently both stepped back into advisory roles at the company, TechCrunch has learned.

Freeman joined the startup two years ago from National Geographic. Bhasin joined the company as chief business officer in October of 2015. With the two executives, both women of color, taking a step back from the startup’s C-suite, there seems to be a strong lack of diversity among the startup’s top executives, a group that includes a chief games wizard and chief futurist but does not appear to have a single female chief officer.

“Freeman will be taking on a new role for Magic Leap as Special Projects Advisor reporting to the CEO,” a Magic Leap spokesperson told TechCrunch. “[Bhasin] is now transitioning to a senior advisory role at Magic Leap reporting to the CEO.”

We have reached out to Freeman and Bhasin for comment on the scope of their continued involvement with Magic Leap.

Problems surrounding leadership diversity at Magic Leap have been highlighted in the past. Early last year, the company’s former VP of Marketing Tannen Campbell sued the company for gender discrimination after she was fired when she “challenged Magic Leap’s CEO, Rony Abovitz, to acknowledge the depths of misogyny in Magic Leap’s culture and take steps to correct a gender imbalance that negatively affects the company’s core culture,” the lawsuit alleged.

The suit, which was later settled, cast a negative light on the startup, which has raised more than $2.3 billion to build an augmented reality headset akin to Microsoft’s HoloLens. The company released its Magic Leap One Creator’s Edition earlier this fall.

The startup placed a major emphasis on diversity during the opening keynote for its first developer conference this October. Freeman helped kick off the event with a proclamation of support for underrepresented creators, an apt topic for many in the game development industry where female and minority representation has typically been quite low.

“We are committed to making significant investments to support the efforts of female and minority creators, it’s not just the vision, it’s brave leadership and we are going to make this real,” Freeman told the crowd. “We can’t underestimate the power of that trickle down effect, because when every voice is heard and people see themselves represented, it inspires and really energizes the next generation of creators.”

Fortnite-maker aims for Steam’s head with Epic Games Store

Fortnite-maker Epic Games is capping off their insanely successful 2018 with an even more ambitious product launch, a desktop games store built to take on Valve’s Steam Store.

The store which is “launching soon” on PC and Mac is going to be an attractive proposition to game developers with a revenue split that leaves them taking 88 percent of revenues on the store.

“As a developer ourselves, we have always wanted a platform with great economics that connects us directly with our players,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said in an emailed statement. “Thanks to the success of Fortnite, we now have this and are ready to share it with other developers.”

Valve’s Steam Store is by far the most dominant presence in online PC game sales, they’ve enjoyed years of prosperity with rather light rivalry from competing stores that haven’t been able to match the scale of Steam. Valve, in a very… conveniently timed announcement yesterday, announced that it was rehashing its revenue split with developers in a bid that they hope will keep higher-earning developers on the platform. While Valve will continue to take an App Store-like 30 percent from sales of game makers with under 10 million in revenue, that figure drops to 25 percent until they hit 50 million revenue, from which point the slice drops to 20 percent.

It’s a more complicated revenue split that obviously benefits successful game makers more so than indies. For Valve, holding onto big game publishers is mission critical. Epic Games already has the benefit of a close working-relationship with many major PC game developers that are using the company’s Unreal Engine to build their titles.

Epic Games earns money with their Unreal Engine by taking a slice of revenues from game makers. Generally that share is 5 percent after the title is released, though Epic also does deals with developers for higher upfront costs with a lower royalty rate. Publishers like EA, Sony Interactive, Microsoft Studios, Activision and Nintendo have titles out that are built on the Unreal Engine.

A big sell for developers using Epic’s game engine, is that the company says it will forego that Unreal revenue cut for any sales of the titles in the Epic Games Store. Depending on the early success of the game store, this could be a big threat to other game engines like Unity.

A 12 percent overall revenue slice for Epic Games is incredibly competitive and could have left a lot of big developers grumbling about the 30 percent cut they were missing out on because of Steam’s take.

Epic Games has notably eschewed storefront revenue splits on Fortnite wherever they can. The app isn’t on Steam for starters, but even on Android, users are forced to download it directly from the Epic Games site as well. This kind of highlights the sway that big studios hold in the market. This year that studio happens to be Epic Games, but in the future that will be some other studio and Valve likely doesn’t want the next blockbuster side-stepping their storefront.

Valve still has a lot going for them. Their store is a massive presence and diehard users already have a library of titles built up with little incentive to switch unless their favorite game makers are the ones to decide to shift their allegiances.