To own an AR future, Niantic wants to build a smarter map of the world

Niantic is continuing to bet heavily on the idea that it knows where consumer computing is headed, namely augmented reality. The game development startup behind Pokémon Go has some good company with companies like Apple, Facebook and Snap making similar bets, but stakes are high for the studio which hopes it can build an early advantage in foundational AR infrastructure and bring third-party developers on board, edging out efforts from companies that are quite a bit larger.

Niantic’s experiments are still being bankrolled by their 2016 first-party hit Pokémon Go, which SensorTower estimates is having its best year ever in 2020. A report from the firm suggests that the title has pulled in more than $1 billion in revenue since the start of the year, a marked increase since 2019 that might be surprising given the social effects of a global pandemic. Those revenues have allowed Niantic to be one of the more active acquirers in the AR infrastructure space, buying up small buzzy AR startups like Escher Reality, Matrix Mill and, most recently, 6D.ai.

That latest purchase in particular has acted as a signal for what the company’s next plans are for its augmented reality platform. 6D.ai was building cloud AR mapping software with companies like Airbnb among its early customers. The tech allowed users to quickly gather 3D information of a space just by holding up their phone to the world. Since the acquisition, Niantic has been integrating the tech into their developer platform and have been aiming to juice the technology with their own advances in semantic understanding so that they can not only quickly gather what the geometry of a space looks like, but also peer into the context of what the objects are that makes up that 3D mesh.

“We ultimately have this vision that for an AR experience, everything has to come together for it to be really magical,” Joel Hesch, Niantic’s Senior Director of Engineering, told TechCrunch. “You want precise location information so that you can see content in the right location and experience things together with others who are in the same location. You want the geometric information for things like occlusion or physics interactions. And you want to know about what things mean from a semantic perspective so that your characters can interact with the world in an intelligible way.”

While they’ve been building out the tech, they’ve also been pushing users to try it out. Niantic has been urging Pokémon Go players to actively capture videos of certain landmarks and destinations, visual data from which is fed back into bulking up models and improving experiences for subsequent users. As users gain access to more advanced tech like the LiDAR sensor inside the new iPhone 12 Pro, it’s likely that Niantic will gain access to more quality data themselves.

The ultimate goal of this data collection, the startup says, is to build an ever-updating 3D map of the world. Their latest tech allows them to peer into this map and distinguish what types of objects and scenes are in these scans, distinguishing buildings from water from the sky. The real question is how useful all of this data will actually prove to be in practice, compared to more high-level geographic insights like the Google Maps API .

Though the company has been talking about their Real World Platform since 2018, they’ve been slow to officially expand it as the enthusiasm behind phone-based AR has seemed to recede since Apple’s initial unveil of ARKit in 2017 prompted a groundswell of attention in the space. “We’ve primarily been focused on first party games and applications, but we are very excited about extending the platform to be something that more people can use,” Hesch says.

For Niantic and other companies that are bullish on an AR future, their best bet seem to be quietly building and hoping that their R&D will give them a years-long advantage when the technology potentially starts landing more consumer hits.

Developer productivity tools startup Raycast raises $2.7M from Accel

Workplace SaaS tools for teams have seen rocket ship growth in the past several years, and that adoption has given rise to a host of software tools geared towards improving individual productivity. Many of the startups behind these tools see building a cult following among individual users as the best way to set themselves up for later enterprise-wide success.

Raycast is a developer-focused productivity tool that aims to be the quickest way to get common tasks done. Today, it’s launching into public beta and sharing with TechCrunch that the team has raised new funding from Accel months after graduating from Y Combinator.

The company has closed a $2.7 million seed round led by Accel with participation from YC, Jeff Morris Jr.’s Chapter One fund as well as angel investors Charlie Cheever, Calvin French-Owen and Manik Gupta .

The desktop software takes a note from peers like Superhuman and Command E, allowing users to quickly pull up and modify data with keyboard shortcuts. Users can easily create and re-modify issues in Jira, merge pull requests in Github and find documents. The software is very much a developer-focused version of the Apple’s Spotlight search that aims to help software engineers navigate all of the parts of their job that aren’t development work with a single tool.

Image via Raycast.

Like plenty of workplace tools startups, one of the keys for Raycast is building out a network of extensions that can encompass a user’s workflow. For now, the software supports integrations from Asana, Jira, Zoom, Linear, G Suite, Calendar, Github and Reminders alongside core functionality that can help manage system settings and a calculator that can handle complex math problems. As the startup launches out of public beta, they’re looking to double down on extensions and are rolling out a developer program for early access to their API.

The Mac-only software is free while in public beta, but the company does plan on charging a monthly subscription for the service eventually, though they aren’t quite ready to talk about pricing yet.

Raycast’s team is interested in appealing to individual users for now, but might eventually expand to becoming a teams-level enterprise product that could help onboard new employees faster by quickly orienting them with their office’s software suite, but that’s all a bit down the road, the team says.

“We’re staying focused on single-player mode for a while,” CEO Thomas Paul Mann tells TechCrunch.

TravelPerk launches an API for COVID-19 restrictions

About a month after outting an open API platform for its customers to augment their apps, business trip SaaS startup TravelPerk has launched a standalone API product aimed at helping the wider travel industry provide up-to-date information on travel restrictions and risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The TravelSafe API is a monthly subscription product that lets travel providers integrate pandemic-related information on point to point restrictions between destinations during the booking process — with the service pulling data from official sources and local governmental websites that TravelPerk says is cross referenced by its own customer care agents.

It’s also calculating the risk level for travel to a particular country which it says is based on real-time analysis of the reproductive rate of the epidemic (R0).

The API launch follows TravelPerk’s acquisition of risk management startup Albatross in July, as the pandemic has pushed it to build out its travel risk management offerings.

Travel startups have of course been among the hardest hit by the pandemic, with the virus decimating demand for international trips and wiping out huge swathes of the business travel market. And, while domestic staycationing does appear to have offset some of the vacation-related demand crunch, it’s still a tough outlook for business tips — as scores of information workers Zoom into meetings from home.

TravelPerk’s response to the COVID-19 demand shock has been to focus on product development — and today’s launch of a subscription API looks like an attempt to find a business opportunity amid the travel crisis, while also offering a service it hopes will support the wider industry to reboot stalled demand.

The API has also been developed out of necessity, with TravelPerk initially putting the service together for its own customers, as it sought to provide them with the reassurance they needed to make a booking.

Now it’s opening access to the wider ecosystem of airlines, travel agents and booking platforms as a standalone product available via monthly subscription (without the need to lock into a contract).

“Access to TravelSafe is not dependent upon being a pre-existing TravelPerk customer. The TravelSafe API is a standalone product available to any company,” confirms CEO and co-founder Avi Meir. “We built this technology for our own platform initially, because we knew that in such an uncertain time our customers and travelers really needed accurate, up-to-date information. However, we quickly realised that this same need exists across the sector and that what we’d built for ourselves could be really valuable across the travel industry.”

“Our goal is to become the most open travel management platform, and this is the first step towards us building an ecosystem of travel services that lets other travel companies, and the industry as a whole, benefit from our technology investments,” he adds.

Meir says TravelPerk is expecting the strongest demand to come from mid-sized travel management companies — given the “developer-friendly” nature of the product (he touts ease and speed of integration as big draws) — and also because the content is “unique to TravelSafe and updated in real-time”. (That said, when we ask about the risk scoring element he confirms the information the TravelSafe API offers is “an aggregation of the best data and information available, rather than our subjective assessment”.)

“This is vital given the pace of change in the travel industry at the moment,” he adds.

Keeping travel guidance up-to-date with a highly volatile pandemic that’s complicated by a lack of access to data (and/or good quality data) about how the virus is spreading in different regions is clearly a major challenge.

Nonetheless Meir reckons technology can help an inherently uncertain situation via tools that collate and surface the best of the information that’s out there. (He also disputes there’s any tension in a travel company offering risk assessment advice on travel, arguing its incentives are aligned with ensuring safe travel.)

“We cannot improve the quality or the accuracy of the data that exists on Covid-19 globally, but we can make it much easier for travelers to access and understand the information that is available,” says Meir. “Currently, travelers are really struggling to find clear, digestible, and accurate information on the rules that apply to them. People often have to read multiple articles and go to many different sources just to understand what the local guidelines are, the risk-level, whether they must quarantine upon return and so on.

“To solve this problem, we invested in developing advanced information processing tools, automated daily updates of risk levels using R-rates computation, and internal tools to facilitate the checking and updating of this data by our policy analysts. This allows the TravelSafe API to offer safe, concise, and accurate information even amongst so much change and uncertainty.”

Asked about TravelPerk’s own API-based platform — following the launch last month — he describes the market response as “phenomenal”. “Since we launched three weeks ago, we saw 50 new partners reach out to begin building integrations, one full integration with Payhawk went live, and a number of other partners coming close to finishing their integration and getting ready to go live with the platform,” he says, adding: “We’re really pleased with both the level of interest so far and how easy our partners have found it to use the API.”

Vectary, a design platform for 3D and AR, raises $7.3M from EQT and Blueyard

Vectary, a design platform for 3D and Augmented Reality (AR), has raised a $7.3 million round led by European fund EQT Ventures. Existing investor BlueYard (Berlin) also participated.

Vectary makes high-quality 3D design more accessible for consumers, garnering over one million creators worldwide, and has more than a thousand digital agencies and creative studios as users.

With the coronavirus pandemic shifting more people online, Vectary says it has seen a 300% increase in AR views as more businesses start showcasing their products in 3D and AR.

Vectary was founded in 2014 by Michal Koor (CEO) and Pavol Sovis (CTO), who were both from the design and technology worlds.

The complexity of using and sharing content created by traditional 3D design tools has been a barrier to the adoption of 3D, which is what Vectary addresses.

Although Microsoft, Facebook and Apple are making it easier for consumers, the creative tools remain lacking. Vectary believes that seamless 3D/AR content creation and sharing will be key to mainstream adoption.

Designers and creatives can use Vectary to apply 2D design on a 3D object in Figma or Sketch; create 3D customizers in Webflow with Embed API; and add 3D interactivity to decks.

Brazil’s banks try to outflank challengers by investing in a $15 million round for Quanto

Trying to outflank competition from neo banks and other potential challengers, two of Brazil’s largest financial services institutions, Bradesco and Itaú Unibanco, have invested in Quanto, a company developing technology to let retailers and other businesses access financial information and services.

Joining Brazil’s two largest banks are Kaszek Ventures, one of Latin America’s largest venture capital firms, and Coatue, the multi-billion dollar hedge fund. 

Bradesco joined the round through its InovaBra Ventures investment fund while Itaú invested directly and had its participation approved by Brazil’s Central Bank, according to a statement.

“Open banking changes the way we understand and consume financial services, but it’s quite exciting to see the Brazilian market embracing this new moment in such a positive way,” said Richard Taveira, Quanto’s chief executive, in a statement. “Brazil has the potential to lead the use of open banking worldwide, and this round is a testament to that.”

Brazil’s Central Bank is deeply invested in the prospect of opening up banking regulation to allow information and data sharing between payment processors and technology providers, retailers, and other service providers in the financial services value chain.

Quanto, which provides standardized bank data application programming interfaces that allow institutions to slash the time it takes to ccess bank account data.

“Open banking is an important evolution in the financial services market and we believe that Quanto can contribute in an impactful way in creating a more competitive market, focused on the customer experience,” said Rafael Padilha, Director at Bradesco Private Equity and Inovabra Ventures, in a statement.

The Quanto technology could enable financial product distribution through the same API platform as business to business services, the company said. Quanto claims that its services will make it easier for customers to access low-interest credit lines with a single sign-on model and to receive competitive interest rates by sharing banking data with multiple lenders in a single flow.

“Quanto provides the rail for banks and fintechs to compete, and consumers are the ones who win”, said Taveira.

Jeff Lawson on API startups, picking a market and getting dissed by VCs

Last week TechCrunch sat down virtually with Jeff Lawson, the CEO and co-founder of Twilio as part of our long-running Extra Crunch Live series. As I expected, the chat was a good use of time.

Why? Lawson was early on the idea that software companies could deliver their features not through a web app, but through an API . Back when Twilio was getting started, the world was still uncertain on the future of cloud. But Twilio was already skating past that puck toward a more distant target.

And his company has been largely proven right in its view of the future. While cloud software is now the de facto position for startups and legacy providers alike, API-powered startups are having one hell of a year according to founders and investors.

The growing wave of API -delivered software is not looking set to slow down, with Lawson telling TechCrunch during our chat that “the world is getting broken down into APIs,” as “every part of the stack of business that a developer might need to build is eventually turning into APIs that developers can use.”

So, expect more startups to ask you to snag an API key instead of signing up for a 12-month commitment. That said, don’t get too excited, yet, as Lawson was also clear during our chat that “not everything that can be broken down into an API will end up being a huge business.”

As Salesforce helped set the stage for SaaS startups in year’s past, Twilio’s $40 billion market cap today could prove a similar North Star for API startups.

A big thanks to the Extra Crunch crew for showing up and helping us ask some fun questions. I’ve snagged some favorite quotes below and embedded the YouTube clip of the whole chat. Let’s go!

Join Twilio’s Jeff Lawson for a live Q&A August 25 at 2:30 pm EDT/11:30 am PDT

As we race toward Disrupt 2020, we’re keeping the Extra Crunch Live train rolling with a big entry next week as Twilio CEO and co-founder Jeff Lawson joins us for a chat.

Lawson is well-known in the tech industry for helping institutionalize API -delivered digital services, a business model variant that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Twilio has become a giant in and of itself, worth more than $37 billion today after going public in 2016.

As always, we’ll take some questions from the audience, so bring your best material.

Considering Twilio, it’s position in the mind of API-focused startups everywhere is notable. You tend to hear API-powered startups mention Twilio and Stripe as the two companies that they are mimicking, albeit usually with a different focus: “We’re building the Twilio for X.”

The power of API-driven startups with usage-based pricing and nearly SaaS-like gross margins is something private investors have certainly noticed and are betting on.

But there’s more to Twilio and Lawson than just that one topic, so we’ll also spend time riffing on when is the right time for a private company to go public, how his life has changed since the IPO, and what advice he might have for the super-late-stage startups who can’t seem to get out of the wings and onto the public markets. And, why, odd duck amongst most of the tech-famous, he doesn’t appear to make many angel investments.

Details follow for Extra Crunch members. If you aren’t one yet, sign up today so you can join our conversation.

Details

The race to building a fully functional quantum stack

Quantum computers exploit the seemingly bizarre yet proven nature of the universe that until a particle interacts with another, its position, speed, color, spin and other quantum properties coexist simultaneously as a probability distribution over all possibilities in a state known as superposition. Quantum computers use isolated particles as their most basic building blocks, relying on any one of these quantum properties to represent the state of a quantum bit (or “qubit”). So while classical computer bits always exist in a mutually exclusive state of either 0 (low energy) or 1 (high energy), qubits in superposition coexist simultaneously in both states as 0 and 1.

Things get interesting at a larger scale, as QC systems are capable of isolating a group of entangled particles, which all share a single state of superposition. While a single qubit coexists in two states, a set of eight entangled qubits (or “8Q”), for example, simultaneously occupies all 28 (or 256) possible states, effectively processing all these states in parallel. It would take 57Q (representing 257 parallel states) for a QC to outperform even the world’s strongest classical supercomputer. A 64Q computer would surpass it by 100x (clearly achieving quantum advantage) and a 128Q computer would surpass it a quintillion times.

In the race to develop these computers, nature has inserted two major speed bumps. First, isolated quantum particles are highly unstable, and so quantum circuits must execute within extremely short periods of coherence. Second, measuring the output energy level of subatomic qubits requires extreme levels of accuracy that tiny deviations commonly thwart. Informed by university research, leading QC companies like IBM, Google, Honeywell and Rigetti develop quantum engineering and error-correction methods to overcome these challenges as they scale the number of qubits they can process.

Following the challenge to create working hardware, software must be developed to harvest the benefits of parallelism even though we cannot see what is happening inside a quantum circuit without losing superposition. When we measure the output value of a quantum circuit’s entangled qubits, the superposition collapses into just one of the many possible outcomes. Sometimes, though, the output yields clues that qubits weirdly interfered with themselves (that is, with their probabilistic counterparts) inside the circuit.

QC scientists at UC Berkeley, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, UT Sydney and elsewhere are now developing a fundamentally new class of algorithms that detect the absence or presence of interference patterns in QC output to cleverly glean information about what happened inside.

The QC stack

A fully functional QC must, therefore, incorporate several layers of a novel technology stack, incorporating both hardware and software components. At the top of the stack sits the application software for solving problems in chemistry, logistics, etc. The application typically makes API calls to a software layer beneath it (loosely referred to as a “compiler”) that translates function calls into circuits to implement them. Beneath the compiler sits a classical computer that feeds circuit changes and inputs to the Quantum Processing Unit (QPU) beneath it. The QPU typically has an error-correction layer, an analog processing unit to transmit analog inputs to the quantum circuit and measure its analog outputs, and the quantum processor itself, which houses the isolated, entangled particles.

Google launches the final beta of Android 11

With the launch of Android 11 getting closer, Google today launched the third and final beta of its mobile operating system ahead of its general availability. Google had previously delayed the beta program by about a month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image Credits: Google

Since Android 11 had already reached platform stability with Beta 2, most of the changes here are fixes and optimizations. As a Google spokesperson noted, “this beta is focused on helping developers put the finishing touches on their apps as they prepare for Android 11, including the official API 30 SDK and build tools for Android Studio.”

The one exception is some updates to the Exposure Notification System contact-tracing API, which users can now use without turning on device location settings. Exposure Notification is an exception here, as all other Android apps need to have location settings on (and user permission to access it) to perform the kind of Bluetooth scanning Google is using for this API.

Otherwise, there are no surprises here, given that this has already been a pretty lengthy preview cycle. Mostly, Google really wants developers to make sure their apps are ready for the new version, which includes quite a few changes.

If you are brave enough, you can get the latest beta over the air as part of the Android Beta program. It’s available for Pixel 2, 3, 3a, 4 and (soon) 4a users.

UK reported to be ditching coronavirus contacts tracing in favor of ‘risk rating’ app

What’s going on with the UK’s coronavirus contacts tracing app? Reports in the national press today suggest a launch of the much delayed software will happen this month but also that the app will no longer be able to automatically carry out contacts tracing.

The Times reports that a repackaged version of the app will only provide users with information about infection levels in their local area. The newspaper also suggests the app will let users provide personal data in order to calculate a personal risk score.

The Mail also reports that the scaled back software will not be able to carry out automated contacts tracing.

We’ve reached out to the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) with questions and will update this report with any response. DHSC is the government department leading development of the software, after the NHS’s digital division handed the app off.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world this year, digital contacts tracing has been looked to as a modern tool to COVID-19 by leveraging the near ubiquity of smartphones to try to understand individual infection risk based on device proximity.

In the UK, an earlier attempt to launch an NHS COVID-19 app to support efforts to contain the virus by automating exposure notifications using Bluetooth signals faltered after the government opted for a model that centralized exposure data. This triggered privacy concerns and meant it could not plug into an API offered by Apple and Google — whose tech supports decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

At the same time, multiple countries and regions in Europe have launched decentralized contacts tracing apps this year. These apps use Bluetooth signals as a proxy for calculating exposure risk — crunching data on device for privacy reasons — including, most recently, Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

However in the UK’s case, after initially heavily publicizing the forthcoming app — and urging the public to download it in its daily coronavirus briefings (despite the app not being available nationwide) —  the government appears to have stepped almost entirely away from digital contacts tracing, claiming the Apple -Google API does not provide enough data to accurately calculate exposure risk via Bluetooth.

Decentralized Bluetooth coronavirus contacts tracing apps that are up and running elsewhere Europe have reported total downloads and sometimes other bits of data. But there’s been no comprehensive assessment of how well they’re functioning as a COVID-fighting tool.

There have been some reports of bugs impacting operation in some cases, too. So it’s tricky to measure efficacy. Although the bald fact remains that having an app means there’s at least a chance it could identify contacts otherwise unknown to users, vs having no app and so no chance of that.

The Republic of Ireland is one of the European countries with a decentralized coronavirus contacts tracing app (which means it can interoperate with Northern Ireland’s app) — and it has defended how well the software is functioning, telling the BBC last month that 91 people had received a “close contact exposure alert” since launch. Although it’s not clear how many of them wouldn’t have been picked up via manual contacts tracing methods.

A government policy paper published at the end of last month which discussed the forthcoming DHSC app said it would allow citizens to: identify symptoms; order a test; and “feel supported” if they needed to self isolate. It would also let people scan a QR codes at venues they’ve visited “to aid contact tracing and help understand the spread of the virus”.

The government paper also claimed the app would let users “quickly identify when they have been exposed to people who have COVID-19 or locations that may have been the source of multiple infections” — but without providing details of how that would be achieved.

“Any services that require more information from a citizen will be provided only on the basis of explicit consent,” it added.

Ahead of the launch of this repackaged app it’s notable that DHSC disbanded an ethics committee which had been put in place to advise the NHS on the app. Once development was handed over to the government, the committee was thanked for its time and sent on its way.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World at One program today, professor Lilian Edwards — who was a member of the ethics committee — expressed concern at the reports of the government’s latest plans for the app.

“Although the data collection is being presented as voluntary it’s completely non-privacy preserving,” she told the program, discussing The Times’ report which suggests users will be nudged to provide personal data with the carrot of a ‘personal risk score’. “It’s going to involve the collection of a lot of personal, sensitive data — perhaps your health status, your retirement status, your occupation etc.

“This seems, again, an odd approach given that we know one of the reasons why the previous app didn’t really take off was because there was rather a loss of public trust and confidence in it, because of the worries partly about privacy and about data collection — it not being this privacy-preserving decentralized approach.”

“To mix the two up seems a strange way to go forward to me in terms of restoring and embedding that trust and confidence that your data won’t be shared with people you don’t want it to be,” Edwards added. “Like maybe insurers. Or repurposed in ways that you don’t know about. So it seems rather contrary to the mission of restoring trust and confidence in the whole test and trace endeavour.”

Concerns have also been raised about another element of the government’s digital response to the coronavirus — after it rushed to ink contracts with a number of tech giants, including Palantir and Google, granting them access to NHS data.

It was far less keen to publish details of these contracts — requiring a legal challenge by Open Democracy, which is warning over the impact of “Silicon Valley thinking” applied to public health services.

In another concerning development, privacy experts warned recently that the UK’s test and trace program as a whole breaches national data protection laws, after it emerged last month that the government failed to carry out a legally required privacy impact assessment ahead of launch.