Tinder Places tracks your location to help you find matches

Tinder will now help you find matches with those people you may cross paths with in your day-to-day life. As promised earlier, the company today is announcing the launch of a new location-based feature that will narrow down your list of potential dating prospects to those who hit up your same bar for after-work drinks, or who stop by your favorite coffee shop for their daily caffeine fix, or who work out at your same gym.

Yes, that’s right – you no longer have to say “hello” in real life – you can match first, then speak.

This is what it’s come to, friends. Even the “meet cute” story is now a dating app product.

The feature, known as Tinder Places, was previously spotted during beta tests.

Starting today, Tinder Places is formally being announced as a public beta test that’s underway in three cities: Sydney and Brisbane, Australia and Santiago, Chile. (It was being tested privately in these markets prior to now.) The plan is to collect user feedback from the public trials, and tweak the product before it launches to all users worldwide, the company says.

The idea of sharing your location with strangers, however, is a bit creepy – especially considering that Tinder users are not always respectful. But Tinder believes that the fact it’s showing you people you might actually run into in real life will actually prompt more civility in those initial chats.

“I do think that – and this is a personal hypothesis of mine – if you match with someone who you know goes to the same place as you, I think that will set a very different tone to the conversation than someone who is more or less anonymous as an online match on a dating platform,” says Samantha Stevens, Director of Location Products at Tinder, who led the product’s development.

She says the larger idea here is to present users with potential matches who you already have things in common with, as reflected by the places you go.

“The places that you go say a lot about who you are as an individual, what you value, your hobbies, your interests,” she continues. “So being able to match with someone on Tinder who shares those same things with you, we believe creates a more genuine match and a better conversation.”

That said, not everyone would want strangers on a dating service to know where to find them.

But Stevens explains Places has a number of safeguards built-in to make users feel more comfortable, and to limit the feature’s ability to be used for stalking.

“As a female who designed this feature, I personally made sure that I would feel safe using it,” she says.

For starters, the feature is opt in, not opt out.

It leverages Mapbox and Foursquare’s Pilgrim SDK to identify and categorize places you go, and it only shares those places Foursquare deems “social.” (Foursquare is able to “wake up” Tinder’s app for background location, in case you’re wondering how this works). Tinder says it will not record places like your house, the office building where you work, banks, doctors’ offices, and other venues that are either too personal or not relevant to matching. All this appears in a separate section of the Tinder app’s interface.

Plus, your place visits aren’t recorded to the app in real-time. Instead, Tinder waits until at least 30 minutes before a place shows up, or even longer. It randomizes the time before someone appears associated with a particular venue in order to limit others’ abilities to deduce people’s routines.

In addition, users who are participating in Places will get an alert when a new place is added, and can then choose to toggle that place off so it’s not shown right away.

You can also tell Tinder to never show a particular place again after its first appearance. So, for example, if you never want to meet people at your gym when you’re all hot and sweaty, you can disable that place from ever appearing.

Your association with a place also deletes from the app after 28 days, not only as a privacy protection, but also because it helps keep data fresh, Stevens says. (After all, just because you went to that hip bar a year ago does not make you a person who goes to hip bars.)

Of course, a dedicated stalker could make a note of your favorite haunts and attempt to locate you in the real world, but this would require extra effort in terms of writing things down, and trying to determine your patterns. It wouldn’t be impossible to start making some connections, but it would require dedication to the task at hand.

Despite the safeguards, it’s unclear that the real-world benefit to users is significant enough to opt in to this additional data collection. While there are arguably use cases for matching with those you cross paths with, simply visiting the same coffee shop isn’t necessarily an indicator of a potential for a relationship. That comes down to a lot of other factors – including most importantly, that unpredictable chemistry – something neither Tinder, nor any other dating app, can determine – and a set of shared values. At best, this “place data” is a icebreaker.

But for Tinder, location data on its users holds far more value.

The company has no plans to delete its own records of your jaunts around town. You can’t push a button to clear your data, for instance. If you want it gone, you’ll need to delete your Tinder user account entirely, we understand.

The company says users haven’t asked for this sort of functionality during tests. Rather, they’ve opted in to the feature in full force, with very few qualms about their personal data or its usage, it seems.

“In terms of opt in rates – and we’ll see how this behaves as we go to a bigger population – but we’re at like 99 percent,” says Tinder CEO Elie Seidman, who moved over from Match Groups’s OKCupid’s top position to lead Tinder in January. “I don’t know that we’ll see that hold up on a broad population, but I think we could expect this is a 90-plus percent opt in rate.”

That seems to contradict the shift in user sentiment around personal data collection in the wake of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, which has led the world’s largest social network to rethink its practices, and potentially face regulation. The fallout has led to users becoming more cynical and wary of social apps asking them to share their data – and in the case of Tinder, where it’s about – well, frankly, romance and sex – one would think users would give “opting in” a bit more thought.

Seidman doesn’t believe there’s much for users to be concerned about, though. That’s because Tinder’s main business isn’t ads – it’s subscriptions to its premium service, he explains.

“We’re not using [personal data] to sell advertising,” the exec says. “If you think about the trade between our members and us – like, what do you get in exchange for the data? In one place, you get photos of kids, right? And obviously, a lot of ads. And in the other place, you get connected to the most important part of your life. So I think it’s a very different thing,” Seidman says.

That’s certainly a starry-eyed way of viewing Tinder’s potential, of course.

One could argue that “photos of kids” – meaning your family, your friends and their family, and generally, those broader connections you have through social networks – are at least equally important to your romantic relationships, if not more valuable. (Especially if you’re just using Tinder for hook-ups).

 

Tinder claims that it’s not using the location data to target users with its in-app ads, but that doesn’t mean the option is off the table forever. Having a massive trove of location data on users could be an advantage there, as well as a way to improve its algorithm, and even potentially to help it expand into real-world events – something Stevens didn’t rule out, saying if that was something a large number of users demanded, Tinder may consider it.

Meanwhile, a better matching algorithm would be a significant competitive advantage for Tinder, which is today fending off other newcomers, too, not just the desktop web-era dating sites. It’s embroiled in back-and-forth lawsuits with top rival Bumble, for example, and even itself is adopting Bumble’s “women speak first” feature. Given that the industry at large has stolen the swipe to match mechanism Tinder popularized, that seems fair enough.

The new location feature won’t be as easily copied, Seideman believes.

“This is the first time, on an experience before people match, where we’ve changed – in a really fundamental way – the user interface. Of course, it feels very much like Tinder,” he says. “There’s a large body of work here and the team has worked for quarters to do this. It’s a product that inherently works better with scale. We’re drawing a smaller circle around the universe,” Seidman adds. “You need Tinder’s level of scale to make this work.”

Tinder officially claims “tens of millions” of users worldwide, with estimates putting that figure at over 50 million.

The company hasn’t provided a time-table as to when location-based dating will roll out worldwide.

Photo credits: illustration: Bryce Durbin; screenshots: Tinder; couple: Philip Lee Harvey/Getty Images

Subscription video services’ recommendations aren’t working, study claims

Streaming video services invest heavily in technology to improve their ability to show users a set of personalized recommendations about what to what next. But according to a new research study released today by UserTesting, it seems that consumers aren’t watching much recommended content – in fact, only 29 percent of the study’s participants said they actually watched something the service recommended.

On some services, those figures were extremely low – for example, only 6 percent of HBO NOW users said they watched recommended content.

That’s probably because consumers found it difficult to locate HBO NOW’s recommendations in the first place. The service was given a low 16.8 “customer experience” score on this front, the study says. That’s a much lower score than all other services analyzed, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and YouTube TV – all of which had scores in the 80’s. (See first chart, below).

To be fair, HBO NOW doesn’t really do recommendations in the same way as the others.

Its app offers a “Featured” selection of content for all users, and, if you scroll down further, there are a couple of editorial collections, like “Essential HBO” or “14 Hidden Gems You Missed the First Time.” A separate “Collections” section includes more of these suggestions, like “New Movies,” “Just Added,” “Last Chance” and others.

The lack of personalized, easily located recommendations also impacted HBO NOW’s overall score in the UserTesting study, which rated the services across a variety of metrics including availability of content, friction-free viewing, ease of scrubbing and episode scanning, and other factors. HBO NOW was also was dinged by survey respondents for lagging, freezing and buffering issues, though they said they appreciated its clean design.

Netflix’s overall score was 89.5, making it the highest-rated streaming service among those analyzed due to having the most relevant recommendations, overall high ease-of-use, and a speedy service. It was followed by Hulu (86.8), Amazon Prime (85), YouTube TV (80.7), and then HBO NOW (71.8).

Coincidentally, Netflix also just beat HBO in a survey related to consumer appreciation for original programming, put out by Morgan Stanley. 39 percent of respondents in that survey said Netflix had the “best original programming” compared with HBO’s second place rank of 14 percent.

UserTesting’s study also backed up earlier research from Deloitte, as it found that subscription video customers are having to subscribe to more than one service in order to find all the content they want to watch.

More than half said they subscribe to at least two apps. For example, 90 percent of HBO NOW customers also subscribed to Netflix, while 80 percent subscribed to Amazon Prime.

The study additionally found that much of viewing (45%) takes place on TV or via streaming media devices like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV. 37 percent preferred laptops, and 11 percent said their smartphone or tablet was their primary streaming device. For some services, TV viewing is even higher – Hulu recently said that the majority – 78 percent – takes place on TVs.

UserTesting’s study involved 500 subscription video customers, 74 percent of whom said they watched streaming media every day. The full report is available here.

 

 

Comcast’s mesh Wi-Fi system, xFi Pods, launches nationwide

Comcast today is officially launching its own Wi-Fi extender devices called xFi Pods that help to address problems with weak Wi-Fi signals in parts of a customer’s home due to things like the use of building materials that disrupt signals, or even just the home’s design. The launch follows Comcast’s announcement last year that it was investing in the mesh router maker Plume, which offers plug-in “pods” that help extend Wi-Fi signals.

The company said that it would launch its own xFi pods that pair with Comcast’s gateways to its own customers as a result of that deal.

Those pods were initially available in select markets, including Boston, Chicago and Denver, ahead of today’s nationwide launch.

The pods themselves are hexagon-shopped devices that plug in to any electrical outlet in the home, and then pair with Comcast’s xFi Wireless Gateway or the xFi Advanced Gateway to help Wi-Fi signals extend to the hard-to-reach areas of the home.

The pods work with the Comcast Gateways to continuously monitor and optimize the Wi-Fi connections, Comcast explains, while its cloud-based management service evaluates the home’s Wi-Fi environment to make sure all the connected devices are using the best signal bands and Wi-Fi channels. Plus, the devices are smart enough to self-monitor their own performance, diagnose issues and “heal” themselves, as needed, says Comcast.

However, early reviews of Plume’s pods were mixed. CNET said the system was slow and the pods were too expensive, for example. But Engadget found the system had the lowest latency, compared with competitors, and helped devices roam more easily and accurately.

Comcast has addressed some of the earlier complaints. The pods are now much more affordable, for starters. While they’ve been selling on the Plume website for $329 for a six-pack, Comcast’s six-pack is $199. A three-pack is also available for $119, instead of the $179 when bought directly from Plume.

More importantly, perhaps, is that Comcast’s system is different from the pods featured in earlier reviews.

While Plume technology is a component of the new pods, they are not Plume devices, Comcast tells TechCrunch. Instead, Comcast licensed the Plume technology, then reconfigured some aspects of it in order to integrate xFi. It also designed its own pods in-house.

In addition, Comcast’s engineers developed new firmware and new software in-house to make it easy to pair the pods with a Comcast Gateway.

The Comcast xFi pods can be bought from its own website, the xFi app and in some Xfinity retail stores.

The xFi app (for iOS and Android) is also how customers can manage and view the connection status of the pods.

Comcast says it will make buying pods even easier later this year by offering a monthly payment plan.

The company has been upgrading its Wi-Fi offering in recent months as a means of staying competitive. Last year it launched the Xfinity xFi platform to help customers better manage their home Wi-Fi network with features like device monitoring, troubleshooting, “bedtime” schedules for families, internet pause and other parental controls.

Comcast declined to say how many pods were sold in its first trial markets, only that the response so far has been positive and boosted the company’s Net Promoter Score as a result.

Image credits: Comcast

Google Photos adds likes and favorites with hearts and stars

Twitter swapped out its Favorite star icon for an appreciation-focused heart icon instead, but Google Photos is embracing both icons with an update rolling out now. The company announced this afternoon it’s adding a new star-shaped Favorites button to its photo-sharing service starting today, which will be followed by a heart-shaped “Like” button next week. The two will have different functionality, however.

The Favorite (star) button will only appear on photos in your own library, allowing you to mark an individual item as a favorite which, in turn, will automatically populate a new photo album with just your favorite photos. This is a feature that most other photo services already offer, including Apple’s and, previously, Google’s own Picasa, so it’s a bit of an obvious catch-up addition on Google’s part.

Meanwhile, the heart icon is Google Photos’ version of the “like.” This will appear only on those photos that have been shared with you from your family and friends. You can also like a full shared album, but not any photos or albums that aren’t shared, says Google. If you want to save one of these shared photos to your own Favorites album, you have to copy it to your own library first.

Though seemingly minor additions, the implementation of a proper favoriting system is actually a big design decision for a social platform. When Twitter switched from stars to hearts, for example, there was quite the user backlash. And some people continue to be upset over the change years later. Even Facebook had to acquiesce to users’ demands for an alternative to its “Like” button by offering different ways to react to a post.

It would have been fun to see Google Photos do something similar — perhaps a shocked emoji, or laughing with tears — in addition to the simple heart. After all, we know not all the photos we take are beloved — some are just ridiculous, goofy, crazy, weird and so on. But the heart will suffice for now.

The features follow a few other changes to Google Photos announced at Google I/O, including more AI-powered photo fixes, and the promise of black-and-white photo colorization soon.

 

Siempo’s new app will break your smartphone addiction

A new app called Siempo wants to un-addict you from your smartphone and its numerous attention-stealing apps. To do so, Siempo replaces an Android device’s homescreen, while also taking advantage of a number of design principles to push distractions further away, and give you more control over your notifications.

The startup, which launched a few weeks ago on Google Play, actually began as a hardware company. 

A hardware startup shifts to software

In 2015, the original co-founders Andreas Gala and Jorge Selva began developing a minimalist feature phone device called Minium, in response to their concerns with today’s always-on culture. But designing hardware from scratch is hard, so they pivoted to making a mindful smartphone called Siempo using an existing handset from China.

The following year, Siempo brought on Mayank Saxena (CTO), who previously ran data storage engineering teams at NetApp, and Andrew Dunn (now CEO), who was previously the number six employee at Flexport. 

“I struggled with smartphone and social media addiction as a teenager and had been working on a wearable to help people balance their relationship with tech,” explains Dunn. And Mayank, he says, “had become increasingly concerned about raising balanced children in the digital age,” prior to joining Siempo.

Unfortunately, when the company tried raising funds on Kickstarter in 2017, it didn’t meet its goal.

What the team had underestimated was how difficult it is to convince people to switch smartphones. And in this case, it wasn’t just asking them to buy new hardware – it was a request to try a whole new type of mobile experience, too.

Although the Kickstarter failed, it had provided the team with valuable feedback.

 

“When we launched our Kickstarter campaign, we heard from dozens of potential backers that they loved our concept but would much prefer to try and pay for a software version on their existing devices,” says Dunn. “We knew we could still build ninety-five percent of what we wanted to, so it was a clear path to explore.”

At this point, the original co-founders moved on to other projects, leaving Dunn to take the helm.

The new project, he says, appealed to him because of the negative nature of today’s technology.

“The attention economy is making people more distracted, stressed, lonely and depressed,” Dunn says. “Big Tech is unlikely to take meaningful leadership in humane design, and individuals are at a loss for what to do because developing healthier digital habits is a long-term, manual, iterative process,” he adds.

Siempo, currently in beta, aims to address this problem with a set of features that should appeal to anyone questioning if they’ve become too addicted to their phone.

After downloading the launcher from the Play Store, you can set Siempo as your default home app – meaning, you’ll now interact with its humanely designed interface instead of the stock version from your smartphone’s maker.

To lessen your attachment to your device, Siempo reverses some of the persuasive, psychologically addicting techniques that have been built into our phone software and mobile apps by developers who specifically engineered their apps to increase user engagement, without fully understanding the ethics of that decision.

Entire OS platforms and massive social media companies like Facebook have, over the years, created systems to reward users who continually check in with their phones. These dopamine-driven feedback loops create a cycle of smartphone addiction, with users having no tools to fight back beyond their own willpower.

The world is just now starting to wake up to these mistakes, including some people who built the systems in the first place.

For instance, former Facebook president Sean Parker has said Facebook’s design exploited weakness in the human psyche to addict users, while former head of user growth turned VC Chamath Palihapitiya admitted to having “tremendous guilt” over what Facebook had become. Meanwhile, former Google exec Tristan Harris created a coalition called the Center for Humane Technology, in an effort to “realign technology with humanity’s best interests.”

And digital wellness is now a movement raking in millions.

Siempo fits in within this broader category of self-care apps focused on a more balanced use of technology.

How Siempo works

Once installed, Siempo makes your homescreen a calmer interface, without things like badged icons or colorful corporate logos. Here, you can personalize a message that appears when you unlock your phone – like a daily mantra – and in an update rolling out Wednesday, you’ll be able to set a custom background or turn on a dark mode.

One of the launcher’s key features is how it lets you batch your notifications.

Instead of allowing apps to alert you at any time they choose, you can configure your phone to send your alerts on a schedule you prefer – like every half hour, the top of the hour, or – if you want to go all in – just once per day. (You can choose which apps, if any, are allowed to break through.)

Siempo also leverages a number of design techniques to distance you from your distractions, including by unbranding app icons and turning them to greyscale.

Plus, the launcher organizes apps into a tiered menu system where distracting apps are further away on a third page, and the location of those apps is randomized upon each visit to prevent unconscious opens and usage.

“Users have reported that merely the act of identifying which apps they want to use less creates a huge shift in their relationship with that app,” notes Dunn.

The app has now been endorsed by the Center for Humane Technology as an example of humane design.

Siempo has raised funds from Backstage Capital for its project. To date, Siempo raised $555,000 for its hardware project and $400,000 for its software.

The app is free during its beta, but plans to implement a pay-as-you-want subscription starting at $1 per month – this will make the app accessible to everyone, no matter how much they can spend. The company says it’s also talking to several startup smartphone brands to become their default interface.

Longer-term, Dunn believes the Siempo experience can span platforms.

“Siempo will be a unified layer across all your tools – smartphone, desktop, tablet, wearables, etc. – protecting your attention, preventing unconscious usage and improving mental health,” he says. “We are excited to build out an A.I. interface that can learn the user’s behavior and adjust their digital world to support their goals and intentions,” Dunn adds, speaking of what he envisions Siempo can become.

“We aim to be a good, trusted, impactful tech company that is on the user’s side, respecting their wellbeing and privacy,” he says.

The app is available on Google Play, as that platform allows for this level of change and customization. A modified version may arrive on iOS in the future.

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Selected’s recruiting platform matches teachers with schools they’ll love

A “dating app for teachers” is an odd but useful way to describe the startup Selected, which has just closed on $1.2 million in seed funding for its recruiting platform for educators. And, in all fairness, Selected said it first. The startup’s own website describes itself (a bit tongue-in-cheek) as a “dating app for job-seeking teachers and hiring schools.”

Before you roll your eyes at the shorthand being used here, let’s skip ahead to the main point. And that is – like dating apps – Selected takes advantage of profile-matching technology in order to help teachers find good jobs they’ll want to keep.

With Selected, this involves connecting candidates to schools based on mutual fit in terms of personal preferences, school culture, and teaching methods, among other things.

The dating app comparison didn’t just come out of nowhere, though.

The company began as a tutoring app in New York City, during which time it had teachers building out profiles where they would details their certifications and expertise. But the team found that it was schools who had interest in this app, not parents. In fact, the schools asked if they could reach out to the tutors and offer them jobs.

Seeing an opportunity, Selected pivoted to work on a teacher-to-schools matching app instead, instead of one for tutors.

Another reason for the comparison is that early employee, COO Eric Kim, was formerly a senior product manager at the dating app OKCupid.

“We started talking to him early on as we were thinking about how matching should be designed,” explains Selected co-founder and CEO Waine Tam, a Princeton grad whose own background is in software engineering and education.”[Selected is] similar to a dating app-type interface where you answer a couple of questions about what you’re looking for,” he adds.

However, Tam cautions that – also like dating apps – matches often don’t click until teachers and those hiring them meet in real life.

But Selected can at least get the process started by asking teachers to answer questions that help schools determine if they’re a fit – things like “how much do you value progressive education?” or “do you prefer inquiry-based learning over explicit instruction?,” for example.

This is combined with the collection of more objective data schools need to know, like teachers’ certifications or where they want to work.

The company has only been through one school year cycle since its launch in May 2016, and it placed around 100 teachers through the service that was then live only in New York.

It’s since expanded to reach 10,000 teachers and over 500 pre-K-12 public and private schools. The schools signed up on its platform are largely spread across the Northeast in urban metros like NYC, Boston, Newark/Trenton/Camden, N.J., Bridgeport/New Haven, Connecticut; Philadelphia, and D.C.

The startup’s long-term goal is to help teachers find jobs they like in order to reduce turnover in the U.S. educational system.

Today, there are over 3.8 million teachers in the U.S., the company notes, making teaching one of the largest professions in the U.S. But every year, over 500,000 teachers turn over nationally – something Selected sees as an opportunity to make better matches, in the hopes of keeping teachers long-term.

One of the issues is that teachers have trouble finding jobs despite high demand because they apply to schools that have different requirements than what they bring to the table. Other times, they don’t end up in the right jobs, because the hiring process doesn’t offer a lot of transparency around critical topics, like school culture.

“The number one driver of teacher retention, or on the other side – attrition – is a poor culture match,” Tam points out.

After teachers sign up on Selected, they’re screened for certifications before being approved. Selected then helps applicants with their resumé, and offers coaching.

The teachers then just sit back and wait for schools to reach out with offers. In their first week, they receive around 5 matches, and average around 15 in total. It’s too soon to say if Selected’s hypothesis around improving teacher retention is paying off. That won’t be known for several years still.

Schools are charged a fixed fee when a teacher is hired, which is currently the only source of revenue for the company.

Propel Capital led the seed round, which included participation from Kapor Capital and other investors.

With the seed funding, Selected will continue to develop its business in the NE U.S., and, later, the rest of the country.

New York-based Selected is currently a team of four full-time and four part-time, including co-founder and CTO Luis Pazmiño.

Google and Levi’s ‘connected’ jacket will let you know when your Uber is here

Remember Project Jacquard? Two years ago, Google showed off its “connected” jean jacket designed largely for bike commuters who can’t fiddle with their phone. The jacket launched this past fall, in partnership with Levi’s, offering a way for wearers to control music, screen phone calls, and get directions with a tap or brush of the cuff. Today, Google is adding more functionality to this piece of smart clothing, including support for ride-sharing alerts, Bose’s “Aware Mode,” and location saving.

The features arrived in the Jacquard platform 1.2 update which hit this morning, and will continue to roll out over the week ahead.

 

It’s sort of odd to see this commuter jacket adding ride-sharing support, given that its primary use case, so far, has been to offer a safer way to interact with technology when you can’t use your phone – namely, while biking, as showcased in the jacket’s promotional video. (See above).

But with the ride-sharing support, it seems that Google wants to make the jacket more functional in general – even for those times you’re not actively commuting.

To use the new feature, jacket owners connect Lyft and/or Uber in the companion mobile app, and assign the “rideshare” ability to the snap tag on the cuff. The jacket will then notify you when your ride is three minutes away and again when it has arrived. When users receive the notification, they can brush in from their jacket to hear more details about their ride.

Another new addition is support for Bose’s Aware Mode, which picks up surrounding sounds and sends them to the user’s ear through supported headphones. The feature is helpful in terms of offering some noise reduction without losing the ability to hear important things happening around you – like approaching vehicles, horns, and other people, for example.

Jacquard will now allow users to turn any gesture into a toggle for Aware Mode to turn it on or off for Bose’s QC30 and QC35 headphones.

And lastly, the jacket will support being able to drop a pin on the map to save a location then see, share or edit it from the app’s Activity screen.

The jacket continues to be a curious experiment with connected clothing – especially given that much of what the jacket can do, can now be accomplished with a smartwatch these days.

Google and Levi’s aren’t sharing sales numbers, so it’s hard to speak to adoption at this point, either.

However, a Google spokesperson did tell us that “[Levi’s is] pleased with the response and continue[s] to be excited to hear from people about what’s useful and what requests they have once they purchase the jacket.”

Given the addition of ride-sharing support, one wonders if maybe the focus is expanding beyond the bike commuters crowd, to those who just don’t like having their smartphone out, in general.

 

Google Clips gets better at capturing candids of hugs and kisses (which is not creepy, right?)

Google Clips’ AI-powered “smart camera” just got even smarter, Google announced today, revealing improved functionality around Clips’ ability to automatically capture specific moments — like hugs and kisses. Or jumps and dance moves. You know, in case you want to document all your special, private moments in a totally non-creepy way.

I kid, I kid!

Well, not entirely. Let me explain.

Look, Google Clips comes across to me as more of a proof-of-concept device that showcases the power of artificial intelligence as applied to the world of photography rather than a breakthrough consumer device.

I’m the target market for this camera — a parent and a pet owner (and look how cute she is) — but I don’t at all have a desire for a smart camera designed to capture those tough-to-photograph moments, even though neither my kid nor my pet will sit still for pictures.

I’ve tried to articulate this feeling, and I find it’s hard to say why I don’t want this thing, exactly. It’s not because the photos are automatically uploaded to the cloud or made public — they are not. They are saved to the camera’s 16 GB of onboard storage and can be reviewed later with your phone, where you can then choose to keep them, share them or delete them. And it’s not even entirely because of the price point — though, arguably, even with the recent $50 discount it’s quite the expensive toy at $199.

Maybe it’s just the camera’s premise.

That in order for us to fully enjoy a moment, we have to capture it. And because some moments are so difficult to capture, we spend too much time with phone-in-hand, instead of actually living our lives — like playing with our kids or throwing the ball for the dog, for example. And that the only solution to this problem is more technology. Not just putting the damn phone down.

What also irks me is the broader idea behind Clips that all our precious moments have to be photographed or saved as videos. They do not. Some are meant to be ephemeral. Some are meant to be memories. In aggregate, our hearts and minds tally up all these little life moments — a hug, a kiss, a smile — and then turn them into feelings. Bonds. Love.  It’s okay to miss capturing every single one.

I’m telling you, it’s okay.

At the end of the day, there are only a few times I would have even considered using this product — when baby was taking her first steps, and I was worried it would happen while my phone was away. Or maybe some big event, like a birthday party, where I wanted candids but had too much going on to take photos. But even in these moments, I’d rather prop my phone up and turn on a “Google Clips” camera mode, rather than shell out hundreds for a dedicated device.

Just saying.

You may feel differently. That’s cool. To each their own.

Anyway, what I think is most interesting about Clips is the actual technology. That it can view things captured through a camera lens and determine the interesting bits — and that it’s already getting better at this, only months after its release. That we’re teaching AI to understand what’s actually interesting to us humans, with our subjective opinions. That sort of technology has all kinds of practical applications beyond a physical camera that takes spy shots of Fido.

The improved functionality is rolling out to Clips with the May update, and will soon be followed by support for family pairing, which will let multiple family members connect the camera to their device to view content.

Here’s an intro to Clips, if you missed it the first time. (See below)

Note that it’s currently on sale for $199. Yeah, already. Hmmm. 

YouTube rolls out new tools to help you stop watching

Google’s YouTube is the first streaming app that will actually tell users to stop watching. At its Google I/O conference this week, the company introduced a series of new controls for YouTube that will allow users to set limits on their viewing, and then receive reminders telling them to “take a break.” The feature is rolling out now in the latest version of YouTube’s app, along with others that limit YouTube’s ability to send notifications, and soon, one that gives users an overview of their binge behavior so they can make better-informed decisions about their viewing habits.

With “Take a Break,” available from YouTube’s mobile app Settings screen, users can set a reminder to appear every 15, 30, 60, 90 or 180 minutes, at which point the video will pause. You can then choose to dismiss the reminder and keep watching, or close the app.

The setting is optional, and is turned off by default, so it’s not likely to have a large impact on YouTube viewing time at this point.

Also new is a feature that lets you disable notification sounds during a specified time period each day — say, for example, from bedtime until the next morning. When users turn on the setting to disable notifications, it will, by default, disable them from 10 PM to 8 AM local time, but this can be changed.

Combined with this is an option to get a scheduled digest of notifications as an alternative. This setting combines all the daily push notifications into a single combined notification that is sent out only once per day. This is also off by default, but can be turned on in the app’s settings.

And YouTube is preparing to roll out a “time watched profile” that will appear in the Account menu and display your daily average watch time, and how long you’ve watched YouTube videos today, yesterday and over the past week, along with a set of tools to help you manage your viewing habits.

While these changes to YouTube are opt-in, it’s an interesting — and arguably responsible — position to take in terms of helping people manage their sometimes addictive behaviors around technology.

And it’s not the only major change Google is rolling out on the digital well-being front — the company also announced a series of Android features that will help you get a better handle on how often you’re using your phone and apps, and give you tools to limit distractions — like a Do Not Disturb setting, alerts that are silenced when the phone is flipped over and a “Wind Down” mode for nighttime usage that switches on the Do Not Disturb mode and turns the screen to gray-scale.

The digital well-being movement at Google got its start with a 144-page Google Slides presentation from product manager Tristan Harris, who was working on Google’s Inbox app at the time. After a trip to Burning Man, he came back convinced that technology products weren’t always designed with users’ best interests in mind. The memo went viral and found its way to then-CEO Larry Page, who promoted Harris to “design ethicist” and made digital well-being a company focus.

There’s now a Digital Wellbeing website, too, that talks about Google’s broader efforts on this front. On the site, the company touts features in other products that save people time, like Gmail’s high-priority notifications that only alert you to important emails; Google Photos’ automated editing tools; Android Auto’s distracted driving reduction tools; Google Assistant’s ability to turn on your phone’s DND mode or start a “bedtime routine” to dim your lights and quiet your music; Family Link’s tools for reducing kids’ screen time; Google WiFi’s support for “internet breaks;” and more.

Google is not the only company rethinking its role with regard to how much its technology should infiltrate our lives. Facebook, too, recently re-prioritized well-being over time spent on the site reading news, and saw its daily active users decline as a result.

But in Google’s case, some are cynical about the impact of the new tools — unlike Facebook’s changes, which the social network implemented itself, Google’s tools are opt-in. That means it’s up to users to take control over their own technology addictions, whether that’s their phone in general, or YouTube specifically. Google knows that the large majority won’t take the time to configure these settings, so it can pat itself on the back for its prioritization of digital well-being without taking a real hit to its bottom line.

Still, it’s notable that any major tech platform is doing this at all — and it’s at least a step in the right direction in terms of allowing people to reset their relationship with technology.

And in YouTube’s case, the option to “Take a Break” is at the very top of its Settings screen. If anyone ever heads into their settings for any reason, they’ll be sure to see it.

The new features are available in version 13.17 and higher of the YouTube mobile app on both iOS and Android, which is live now.

The changes were announced on May 8 during the I/O keynote, and will take a few days to roll out to all YouTube users. The “time watched profile,” however, will ship in the “coming months,” Google says.

Google makes the camera smarter with a Google Lens update, integration with Street View

Google today showed off new ways it’s combining the smartphone camera’s ability to see the world around you, and the power of A.I. technology. The company, at its Google I/O developer conference, demonstrated a clever way it’s using the camera and Google Maps together to help people better navigate around their city, as well as a handful of new features for its previously announced Google Lens technology, launched at last year’s I/O.

The maps integration combines the camera, computer vision technology, and Google Maps with Street View.

The idea is similar to how people navigate without technology – they look for notable landmarks, not just street signs.

With the camera/Maps combination, Google is doing that now, too. It’s like you’ve jumped inside Street View, in fact.

In the interface, the Google Maps user interface is at the bottom of the screen, while the camera is showing you what’s in front of you. There’s even an animated guide (a fox) who you can follow to find your way.

The feature was introduced ahead of several new additions for Google Lens, Google’s smart camera technology.

Already, Google Lens can do things like identify buildings, or even dog breeds, just by pointing your camera at the object (or pet) in question.

With an updated version of Google Lens, it will be able to identify text too. For example, if you’re looking at a menu, you could point the camera at the menu text in order to learn what a dish consists of – in the example on stage, Google demonstrated Lens identifying the components of ratatouille.

However, the feature can also work for things like text on traffic signs, posters or business cards.

Google Lens isn’t just reading the words, it’s understanding the context, which is what makes the feature so powerful. It knows that you want to understand the menu item, for instance.

Another new feature called Style Match is similar to the Pinterest-like fashion search option that previously launched in Google Images. 

With this, you can point the camera at an item of clothing – a shirt or pants – or even accessories like a handbag – and Lens will find items that match that piece’s style. It does this by running searches through millions of items, but also by understanding things like different textures, shapes, angles and lighting conditions.

Finally, Google Lens is adding real-time functionality, meaning it will actively seek out things to identify when you point the camera at the world around you, then attempt to anchor its focus to a given item and present the information about it.

It can also display the results of what it finds on top of things like store fronts, street signs or concert posters.

“The camera  is not just answering questions, but putting the answers right where the questions are,” noted Aparna Chennapragada, Head of Product for Google’s Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Vision-based products (Lens), at the event.

Google Lens has previously been available in Photos and Google Assistant, but will now be integrated right into the Camera app across a variety of top manufacturer’s devices. (See below).

The updated features for Google Lens will arrive in the next few weeks.