Adventurous taps live actors and AR to take families on high-tech scavenger hunts

Augmented reality looked like it was supposed to a ubiquitous success, Apple and Google and Facebook seemed to say so, but things are taking a bit of time to get kicked off so the startups in the space are having to get real weird with it.

Adventurous is an augmented reality scavenger hunt geared towards families, but it drags in enough elements of the real world to make it a pretty robust experience. This isn’t your typical AR phone app that you pop open once. For one thing you have to be at a certain physical location in order to try it out, you also have to make an appointment, and, oh yeah, there are live actors involved.

This may be one of the more odd companies in Y Combinator’s latest startup batch, it’s basically a kind of tech-enabled live theater. The company’s co-founders acknowledge that having appointments and live actors involved with an app isn’t the most scalable business model in internet history, but they say that they’ll figure stuff out as they move along and that for now the families and kids involved really like the experience.

“We know that families are constantly looking for stuff to do with their kids and not all screen time is good screen time,” Adventurous co-founder Jeany Ngo tells TechCrunch.

Adventurous co-founders Jeany Ngo and Brian Schulman

When a family or group books an adventure, they meet at a designated location at a given time and get a run down on the mission and story from actors in full dress and character, then they’re tasked with walking around to different physical locations where different geo-tagged experiences will pop up on their ARKit or ARCore-enabled phone and they’ll have to complete the tasks to move on.

The experiences are designed to be around 45 minutes to 1 hour each and the whole shebang costs $15 per person.

One of the big selling points of augmented reality as a medium is that it can theoretically gain an understanding of a location’s geometry and plunk down digital content in a way that’s tailored to your space. That may be true for something like Google’s AR Stickers where it’s a little stationary 3D model, but when you start talking about actual storylines, the fact is that computer vision just can’t make reliable sense of a dynamic environment when it comes to a game or experience.

The company has been testing out various locations for their AR adventures, right now they’re sticking with missions in San Francisco’s Chinatown and Golden Gate Park. It’s a little unclear whether there could be any associated legal issues for a startup tying digital experiences to physical public locations, but the co-founders say they haven’t run in to any issues yet.

With Adventurous, the startup is banking on the robustness of an ironed-out experience to suck in fans and bring them back. The company’s co-founders foresee a world where narratives fit together like episodes in a TV series bringing families back to book appointments to see what happens next.

Location-based entertainment has been a hit-or-miss vertical for the VR industry, though some startups have seen success. Sandbox VR finished out a $68 million Series B earlier this year in a round led by a16z. For AR startups, there haven’t been too many stories of entertainment experiences that have been strictly tied to geographic areas outside of event activations. While you can find Pokéstops inside Pokémon GO, it isn’t a full linear experience that requires everyone to move along an identical path.

Adventurous is live now, if you’re in SF you can book yourself a fancy scavenger hunt in augmented reality this weekend.

Google is reportedly shutting down its in-house VR film studio

Google is shutting down its Emmy Award-winning VR film division, Spotlight Stories, after six years of building out content, Variety reports.

We’ve reached out to Google for confirmation.

“Google Spotlight Stories means storytelling for VR. We are artists and technologists making immersive stories for mobile 360, mobile VR and room-scale VR headsets, and building the innovative tech that makes it possible,” the group’s site reads.

The Spotlight Stories team was part of the company’s Advanced Technologies and Products (ATAP) group. Much like Facebook’s ill-fated Oculus Story Studio, there was never a big focus on monetizing what was being created internally.

The studio’s best-received work, “Pearl,” was nominated for an Academy Award and won an Emmy in 2017. The group also worked with Wes Anderson to bring a VR behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of his film “Isle of Dogs.” In November, the group released its last major work, “Age of Sail,” a narrative film that could be watched on mobile and high-end VR systems.

Google has made significant investments in AR and VR, but has allowed competitors like Facebook and Apple to surpass their consumer efforts.

Google’s efforts on its VR program went full throttle in 2016 and early 2017 while the company sought to keep pace with Samsung which was aggressively hocking mobile hardware it had built alongside Oculus. It’s rumored the company made significant changes to its immersive divisions after Apple introduced ARKit in mid-2017, aggressively shifting resources from its VR division to AR projects like its ARCore mobile augmented reality platform.

The company has not updated its Daydream View VR headset since 2017, the company has ceded most of its ground to Oculus as its allowed products like Lenovo’s Daydream View to die on the shelf as its failed to make updates to its platform or direct significant resources to bringing new content on board. Now, with the reported shutdown of Spotlight Stories, the company is now making it clear that they don’t think building their own content is the right approach either.

Apple sends out invites for March 25 ‘special event’

Apple sent out invites to reporters this afternoon for a March 25 special event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino.

Reports have suggested that the company will focus its keynote on the content side of its business. The invite offers some pretty heavy-handed hints that the video content service will be on full display at the invite, mainly a film reel countdown timer that eventually reveals the phrase “It’s show time.”

Apple has been seeding a ton of TV shows and delivering plenty of announcements about the content that it has in the pipeline, but we’ve strangely heard quite little about the underlying platform or subscription that Apple has planned beyond media reports.

There’s also been some discussion about a subscription business for Apple News being announced here, but given the somewhat overt marketing references to the video service, the news product might either not be quite ready or could be on the back burner. Speaking of back burner, hardware announcements feel unlikely though AirPower and a second-generation AirPods feel long overdue.

Tidal’s high-fidelity ‘Masters’ audio mode lands on iOS apps

Tidal may be a distant competitor to Apple Music and Spotify, but much like Neil Young’s PonoMusic, Tidal is keeping its high-fidelity music service going far past its expected expiration date.

Tidal’s most premium-est audio vision, Tidal Masters, gives your tunes a studio-quality kick (typically 96 kHz / 24 bit), a substantial bump beyond what its HiFi streaming delivers. The “Master Quality” audio first came to the ill-fated Essential Phone, then Tidal rolled out the feature to Android phones this past January, and it’s now available on iOS devices as of today.

Tidal pitches the extra high-end mode for song quality as “exactly as the artist intended it to sound.”

It’s not going to change how you listen to your entire library; in January, the company detailed that about 165,000 of the tracks had support for the high-end bitrate. Tidal says that you also must be a subscriber of Tidal HiFi, which sets you back $19.99 per month.

‘Fresh Prince’ actor dismisses his Fortnite dance lawsuit

Fresh Prince star Alfonso Ribeiro has dropped his lawsuit against Fortnite creator Epic Games for using his “Carlton” dance as an emote in the popular game without his permission.

According to documents filed in LA court, Ribeiro voluntarily dismissed the suit. He had already dropped a suit against Take-Two Interactive similarly related to his dance. Last month, Ribeiro was denied a copyright for his dance by federal officials, which seemed to put the nail in the coffin for his lawsuit.

The “Carlton” dance seems to be pretty immediately recognizable for its dorky arm swinging maneuver, but that didn’t cut it for copyright officials. In the U.S. Copyright Office’s statement denying Ribeiro’s copyright claim, their detailed that his copyright was being refused because the work was a “simple dance routine” and thus wasn’t registrable as a choreographic work.

On one hand, original creative expression should always incentivize creators to keep pushing boundaries. On the other hand, singular dance moves are a bit of an annoying thing to copyright, though I still certainly understand the sentiment. Perhaps it’s for the best that future copyright trolls will have one less arena in which to file suit.

YC’s latest moonshot bet is a startup building a $380k ‘flying motorcycle’

David Mayman has a vision for personal aviation that he’s spent the past dozen years and millions of his personal fortune chasing. He hasn’t accepted the convention that jetpacks were just a misguided fantasy for the future; his company, Jetpack Aviation, has been building them and he’s been zooming around in publicity-grabbing stunts in a plea to the public that there’s room to dream when it comes to human flight.

And while an eight-person startup aiming to build out a fleet of $380,000 “flying motorcycles” might seem like a tall order, Y Combinator, a top accelerator known for its occasionally bizarre bets, is gambling on the company and its jet engine-obsessed CEO in one of its latest investments.

Jetpack Aviation is about to become a very different company. The startup has launched pre-orders this week for the moonshot of moonshots, the Speeder, a personal vertical take-off and landing vehicle with a svelte concept design that looks straight out of Star Wars or Halo.

Deep-pocketed, sci-fi-minded buyers are going to have to fork over $10,000 just to get a spot in the pre-order line for the first vehicles to ship, but the startup’s founder seems to see the campaign as less about the money than it is about the confirmation that there are people interested in planting a stake in his wild company’s future success.

“I think it’s a validation statement for all of us,” Mayman tells TechCrunch.”If you look at how long Tesla took to deliver the Model 3 to customers, I think people understand that this is not something that’s a Kickstarted pre-delivery campaign where at the tail-end of it we’re immediately going to be delivering product.”

There are gambles and then there are flying motorcycles. This is frankly an atypical startup for YC to fund, but it is also an unconventional business path for Mayman’s who has largely been self-financing his jetpack-building obsession for the past 12 years. For the Australian CEO, the YC investment is mainly about gaining access to Silicon Valley’s network of VCs though he also acknowledges it’s a fair assumption that SF breeds the type of executive that might be interested in pre-ordering something so seemingly outlandish. 

“I can’t imagine someone not being excited about a flying motorcycle,” YC Partner Jared Friedman told TechCrunch in an email. “Jetpack Aviation created the future with Speeder, and I look forward to seeing how this technology transforms the dreaded commute, vacation travel, and everyday errands.”

While much of the excitement Mayman has raised for his company’s jetpacks have relied on the spectacle of prototype demos in front of throngs of news networks (Jetpack Aviation has unsurprisingly partnered with Red Bull), the company has yet to build a full-scale prototype of the Speeder, though he says their new round of funding should get them there.

Mayman flying a jetpack around the Statue of Liberty in 2015.

Can they actually build this? That’s seems to be a pretty valid question.

In our conversation, Mayman acknowledges upfront that:

  1. The Speeder is “at least” two years of development time away from ending up in customer hands.
  2. The company will have to raise “tens of millions” of dollars to ship this design.
  3. There are still plenty of unknowns.

Jetpack Aviation’s current design is more ambitious than most helicopter-shaped concept VTOL vehicles being pursued by companies like Uber, namely due to its relatively sleek design where the human rider is directly above a set of several gimbal-mounted jet engines.

The company claims finished designs will move faster than 150mph at altitudes up to 15,000 feet. The flight time is still a limiting factor, max flight times for the models are estimated to be around 30 minutes. The company is planning out a number of versions including an ultralight model that complies with some federal regulations and won’t require a pilot’s license, the company says.

The startup’s most pertinent problem is creating the autonomous stabilization technologies that will make flying the Speeder effortless and safe. Mayman notes that most VTOL designs look like quadcopters simply because the physics of putting weight directly on top of the thrust system is so challenging. “It’s like trying to balance a pencil on your finger,” he says.

His team has been training people to use their jetpacks –now in their 11th design iteration– and say it takes about a week to get potential flyers up-and-running with the particulars of the system. But Mayman says he wants this to be a device that just works, a design concept that made a lot of sense when Steve Jobs was using it to refer to the simplicity of the iPad, but feels a tad more aggressive when presented with the rendered images of someone flying this thing over city centers:

A lot of the industry’s existing work around autonomous flight and stabilization for drone aircraft really doesn’t account for Jetpack Aviation’s design, though Mayman says they’ve already made some significant progress with their 1:3 scale prototype. He also notes that the company does have a “less elegant-looking” plan-B design if they determine the centrally-clustered jet engines are too much of a stabilization liability.

Indeed, the key for getting a concept like this off-the-ground and ensuring the company doesn’t miserably fail is being flexible about how this vision matures, Mayman says, noting that they’re approaching the vehicle with multiple designs and multiple considerations for how the regulatory environment for certification shapes up, including work on a separate military version and consideration for designs more focused on emergency response like rapid medical evacuation.

Asked whether pre-orderers plunking down $10k might be disappointed by a different looking product, the founder said that they’ve done enough modeling to know that what they build will fall into a roughly similar design. “It may not look exactly like what we’ve rendered, but I’m confident that it’s still going to be the same sort of concept, a motorcycle or jet-ski size and shape.”

It is certainly a unique choice for the company to launch its pre-orders already with so much in the air, but it’s fairly apparent that they are looking to emulate Tesla here and if people with nearly $400k to throw around want to buy a jet-engine jet-ski, then by all means, let the free market do its thing.

Y Combinator’s $150,000 investment is an early step for the moonshot effort and a vote of confidence that places them on others’ radar. Mayman, for his part, does seem genuinely thrilled about expanding the ambitions of his passion project even if the road ahead is crowded with obstacles for realizing the vision.

“If you don’t start it, you’re never going to get there,” Mayman says. “If our guys weren’t able to wake up every morning saying, ‘Holy shit, this would be freaking amazing if we can build this,’ then it’s sort of not worth doing. We might as well go do something else.”

Nintendo brings virtual reality to the Switch with its new Labo kit

Google showed off virtual reality designed around cardboard in 2014, but it looks like Nintendo is ready to get in on the action now as well with a new Labo VR kit for the Switch that puts the system inches from your face.

In Labo fashion, there are some pretty outlandish projects to be built here. One of the projects involves the headset turning into an elephant mask with the controllers mounted to the trunk. The main VR kit retails for $79.99 which contains all six of the toy-con projects including the afore-mentioned elephant, VR goggles, a blaster, camera, bird and a wind pedal. You can also buy a $39.99 starter kit and purchase additional kits online after.

 

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This is hardly PlayStation VR, but like Nintendo’s other Labo demos, it looks like the aim is more around building out a fun concept rather than seriously engaging with a new form factor or gameplay mechanic.

The Switch isn’t a natural fit for virtual reality, largely due to the fact that a 720p screen split for two eyes results in an incredibly low-res experience. Though the content look like a lot of fun, this doesn’t sound very comfortable in my opinion. You don’t have to use the Switch in VR mode to play with the Labo VR projects though, Nintendo says you can also play without mounting your Switch to your face.

The kit is a way to “introduce virtual reality in a way that’s fun and approachable for both kids and kids at heart,” Nintendo of America incoming President Doug Bowser said in a statement. The sets launch April 12.

Qualcomm v. Apple patent suit trial kicks off in San Diego ahead of next month’s big one

Apple sues Qualcomm, Qualcomm sues Apple, Qualcomm sues Apple, Qualcomm sues Apple.

For the past two years, the legal battle between Apple and Qualcomm has played out much like this, while the patent cases have greatly inconvenienced Apple at times in certain markets, the royalties suit that Apple filed in January of 2017 has threatened a big part of Qualcomm’s core business and ultimately led Apple to start eschewing Qualcomm IP in their devices.

The entire saga is about to reach a fever pitch, we are just weeks away from proceedings kicking off for Apple’s $1 billion royalties suit. Today, a more low-key eight-day trial kicked off in San Diego federal court regarding Apple’s alleged usage of patent-infringing modem tech.

The case, overseen by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, is related to the power consumption and speed of boot-up times for iPhones sold in the period between mid-2017 and late-2018. A positive outcome for Qualcomm could result in up to $1.41 in damages per infringing iPhone sold during this period, an amount that could swell to tens of millions in damages, Reuters reports.

Qualcomm has scored some small victories in its efforts to chip away at Apple. The company has won iPhone sales bans in Germany and China for certain models, though the ban in China has yet to be enforced and Apple has modified some of its phones in Germany to comply with the ruling.

Tesla delivers big price cuts to Model S and Model X vehicles

Tesla made a flurry of announcements this afternoon with the highlight being the company’s reveal of its $35k Model 3. That reveal grabbed the most headlines, but updates to the Model S and Model X lines brought the costs of high-end models down with maxed out Performance + Ludicrous Mode versions of the S and X receiving healthy $18k discounts.

The Model S has the same entry-level price at $79k but the price bump to go from the Standard Range to more souped up versions is a lot more accessible with some huge price drops on the Long Range and Performance models.

The Long Range Model S, which takes the top speed from 140mph to 155 mph and the range from 270 miles to 335 miles, now prices in at $83k, down from $96k. With $4k separating the standard and long-range models, it’s interesting that they even decided to keep the Standard Range version and didn’t just have the Long Range as the entry-level model with the Performance version (now $13k cheaper as well at $99k) maxing things out.

The Long Range Model X now starts at $88k, down from $96k. Moving up to the Performance model which drops the 0-60 mph time to 3.5 seconds is $104k, previously $117k. With both Performance models of the S and X, you can add Ludicrous Mode for $15k, an upgrade that used to be $20k.

How is Tesla able to make these big cuts? Well, Tesla CEO Elon Musk highlighted the company’s coming closure of its physical dealerships as a major catalyst for the price drop across its product line.

“Shifting all sales online, combined with other ongoing cost efficiencies, will enable us to lower all vehicle prices by about 6% on average, allowing us to achieve the $35,000 Model 3 price point earlier than we expected,” the company wrote in a post.

Via Tesla:

Model S variants 

  • Standard Range ($79K): 270-mile range; 140mph top speed; 4.2-sec 0-60mph.
  • Long Range (now $83k; previously $96k): 335-mile range; 155mph top speed; 4.1-sec 0-60mph. 
  • Performance (now $99k; previously $112k): 315-mile range; 155mph top speed; 3.0-sec 0-60mph. 
  • Performance + Ludicrous Mode (now $114k; previously $132k); 155mph top speed; 2.4-sec 0-60mph. 

Model X variants

  • Long Range (now $88k; previously $96k): 295-mile range; 155mph top speed; 4.7-sec 0-60mph.
  • Performance (now $104k; previously $117k): 289-mile range; 155mph top speed; 3.5-sec 0-60mph. 
  • Performance + Ludicrous Mode (now $119k; previously $137k): 289-mile range; 155mph top speed; 2.8-sec 0-60mph.

Cherry lets startup employees choose their own office perks

Forget the office ping pong table, Cherry, a startup in Y Combinator’s latest batch, wants to let employees take company perks into their own hands.

Cherry co-founders (and sisters) Gillian and Emily O’Brien say their Slackbot marketplace will let employees completely personalize the lifestyle benefits they get from their company, allowing them to set up a Spotify Premium account or buy a subscription to Classpass instead of just taking what perks their company dishes out at face value.

Companies will pay huge amounts of money to deliver sweeping employee memberships or build a company gym even if there are only a few people interested in using them. Cherry could potentially eliminate a lot of wasted efforts while still managing to  potential recruits. The available subscriptions run the gamut from things like Classpass, Netflix, Spotify, Peloton, Postmates and other services that allow employees to feel like they’re getting.

A sampling of Cherry’s 40+ available services.

“There’s money that [companies] are wasting that they could save by just giving everyone this budget and letting them choose for themselves,” CEO Gillian O’Brien told TechCrunch. “We also feel [our service] really stands out on an offer — it could be a big differentiator in terms of hiring or just having that on a company’s careers page.”

Users set up their own subscription accounts; Cherry handles paying for employee perks via gift codes and lets them make changes to their cyber-benefits whenever they’d like.

Cherry is charging startups $149 per month to manage the first 10 employees with $15 per person. You can designate as little as $15 per month per employee, but given that it costs that much per employee to even use the service, it’s more likely that customers will be throwing down a bit more.

For now, all of this takes place in Slack via a Cherry chatbot, you can pick from available options by tapping buttons; it’s all pretty lightweight and simple.

The service seems like something that would be especially attractive to remote teams, giving employees who aren’t able to stop in for a free lunch or get a monthly massage the ability to treat themselves on company dime. This also enables smaller startups to just throw money at an attractive employee perks solution without having to add more responsibilities to someone’s job.

Cherry’s platform is live now, you can sign-up and check things out on their website.