Digitizing Burning Man

For decades, Burning Man has represented an escape from the current reality. An event for free-er spirits to rethink new age ideals inside a stateless entity where art, music and partying reign supreme on the desert plains.

Over the years, the Bay Area-founded event has dealt with an internal clash as the gathering has grown larger and attracted a heavy presence from Silicon Valley’s wealthy tech class, with tales of turnkey experiences, air-conditioned camps, helicopters and lobster dinners. Now, under the shadow of a historic pandemic, the organization behind the massive, iconic event is desperately working to stick to its roots while avoiding financial ruin as it pivots the 2020 festival to a digital format with the pro bono help of some of its tech industry attendees.

With just a few weeks before the event is set to kick off, the organization is bringing together a group of technologists with backgrounds in virtual reality, blockchain, hypnotism and immersive theatre to create a web of hacked-together social products that they hope will capture the atmosphere of Burning Man.

Going virtual is an unprecedented move for an event that’s mere existence already seems to defy precedent.

Burning Man is held in late August every year inside Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. For nine days, the attendees, who refer to themselves as Burners, fill up the desolate landscape with massive art installations, stages and camps. Attendance has been climbing over the past several decades, to the point that the federal government got involved, creating a more than 170-page report arguing why the event’s attendance should be capped. More than 78,000 people attended in 2019.

It’s an escape from society in a shared social experience that doesn’t seem to be replicable elsewhere.

The Multiverse

Steven Blumenfeld became the CTO of Burning Man days before the org’s leaders publicly announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical event was being abruptly canceled and the team was going all-in on a virtual gathering. Though the serial CTO expected the position to largely involve crusty tasks maintaining the event’s media infrastructure, he soon was pressed to rethink the front-end of a sprawling event that’s decades old and steeped in lore.

“My first inclination is, ‘Great! Let’s go build a big 3D VR world blah blah blah… So then I spent the first two weeks looking at what I had for staff, what I had for time frame, and what we could actually do,” Blumenfeld says. “There was just no way. And you know, I actually still wanted to do it. I wanted a challenge… but the reality was it just wasn’t going to happen.”

Burning Man is a massive undertaking, with a particularly deep emotional hold inside San Francisco, where it was first held in 1986, and by extension Silicon Valley. It isn’t all that surprising that when the Burning Man Project announced the event was making the move to a digital format, there was a rapid influx of community input to help decipher what an on-the-grid virtual Burning Man might look like.

“We had 14,000 people tell us they wanted to contribute in some way to a virtual Black Rock City,” said Kim Cook, the org’s director of art and civic engagement. “Some of them said what they wanted to contribute was love; so that’s cool. We also had around a thousand of them say they wanted to do developer-type work.”

Some of the groups that reached out to the Burning Man Project were companies that were willing to build a Burning Man experience but wanted official branding present. Despite a precarious financial position, Burning Man’s organizers declined help from these sponsors, citing the org’s adherence to “de-commodification” — a desire to prevent corporate infiltration of the event, eschewing advertising, branded stages and corporate partnerships.

Turning away from the professional studios, Blumenfeld and others settled on a network of small indie teams filled with Burners that were willing to develop the official digital experiences for the event on their own time.

A new moment for social networking

Eight projects eventually emerged as official “recognized universes,” each taking drastically different approaches to what a virtual Burning Man should look like. While some focus their efforts on virtual reality, others add social layers to video chat or build 3D environments on top of existing platforms like Second Life or Microsoft’s AltspaceVR .

During the pandemic, revamped developer conferences and trade shows have been able to port keynote addresses or panels to a Zoom format fairly seamlessly, but there are plenty of elements of the Burning Man experience that the teams involved realize might be impossible to replicate with online platforms. The developers creating the event’s virtual worlds are determined to rethink the conventions of online social networking to ensure that Burners make new friends this year.

“The sense of awe and scale is tricky,” says Ed Cooke, who is building one of the official apps. “One way of explaining Burning Man is that it’s a state of mind that you access as a side effect of all the things that happen on the way there.”

Cooke, a London startup founder who also boasts the title of Grand Memory Master, earned for — among other things — memorizing the order of 10 decks of cards in less than an hour, has been building SparkleVerse with his friend Chris Adams, whose daytime gig is as a senior software manager at Airbnb.

Their web app, which pairs a 2D map interface with video chat windows, is primarily focused on advancing how shared context can facilitate and better frame social relationships.

Amid quarantine, the pair tells TechCrunch they have been creating deeply complicated video chat parties for their friends. One example is a moon-themed party where they created a clickable map of the lunar surface that guided the 200 attendees through 16 separate virtual spaces with their own themes. Before the party kicked off, the hosts walked people through the “experience of traveling to the moon” by guiding them through the effects of zero gravity and instructing them to play along with experiencing it. Another hot tub-themed party invited guests to jump into their bath tub before firing up Zoom.

Cooke and Adams are leaning on some of these mechanics to create a Burning Man theme, hoping that taking cues from immersive theatre will enable people to commit more deeply to the experience. The acts of driving, losing your phone connection and growing tired and hungry on the way to the physical event add to a “spaciousness in your consciousness” that allows people to act more freely, Cooke says. He wants participants to replicate these experiences by taking steps outside their normal life in the run-up to the event, whether that’s sitting through an obscenely long video chat session to simulate a drive to the desert or setting up a tent in their living room, or cutting off their water line and avoiding showers during the nine days.

“All of this is embedding you further and further into this distant context, miles away from your normal life, where effectively in the course of this, you’re just becoming a radically less boring person,” Cooke explains in a nine-minute video outlining the platform.

Many of the apps are building on the idea of how spatial interfaces can feed greater social context and make it easier to approach people and make new friends.

Another official app, Build-a-Burn, takes the idea of a stylized 2D interface for video chat even further with a sketched-out grayscale map of Black Rock City that users can navigate little stick figures across. As a user moves through different camps and their avatars get physically close to each other, new video chat screens fade in and users can gain the experience of venturing into a new social bubble.

A screenshot of Build-a-Burn

While Build-a-Burn and SparkleVerse are leaning more heavily on video chat, other experiences hope that creating massive 3D landscapes that match the scale of the real-world event will help people get into the spirit of the event.

Other than Burn2, which is wholly contained within the Second Life platform, most of the 3D-centric apps integrate some level of virtual reality support. Projects that support VR headsets include The Infinite Playa, The Bridge Experience, MysticVerse, BRCvr (which taps into Microsoft’s AltspaceVR platform) and Multiverse.

Each of the VR experiences will also allow users to join on mobile or desktop, an effort to ensure that the apps are more widely accessible.


Over on Extra Crunch, read about how a new generation of chat apps are leaning on game-like interfaces


Multiverse creator Faryar Ghazanfari, who runs an AR startup and previously worked on Tesla’s legal team, says that the motivations for building his app were a bit on the selfish side, telling TechCrunch that he became “extremely sad” after the physical event’s cancellation and felt the need to help build a place where he could reunite with his own camp.

Screenshot from a demo of Multiverse.

Ghazanfari tells TechCrunch he feels a responsibility in creating the environment that other Burners will experience; he says his chief concern is capturing the event’s complexity. Compared to the other apps, Multiverse focuses primarily on providing a photorealistic 3D playground where avatars can zoom around.

“As Burners, we don’t think of Burning Man as just a music festival or art festival; it is much more than that. Burning Man is a social experiment of creating a community out of a shared struggle,” Ghazanfari says.

Each of the Burning Man-approved apps seem to engage with evoking that shared struggle differently, which appears to be the most looming challenge of moving this event to a virtual format. While the apps hope to bring elements of the physical event into their virtual spaces, the creators also seem to realize that aiming to compete with attendees’ past memories is unwise. It’s a challenge that has been faced by dozens of startups in the virtual reality space over the past several years.

“I think the main challenge is taking something that exists in reality and then porting it into a different platform,” said Adam Arrigo, CEO of Wave, a venture-backed startup that initially launched a VR app for music concerts but has since shifted focus to mobile and desktop experiences. “When you’re in these digital spaces, the agency that you have as a user and the experiences you can create are so different than something that could exist, even at a concert.”

Financial uncertainty

Perhaps the biggest unknown, as the organization readies for Burning Man’s August 30 start date, is that nobody really has any idea how many people are going to show up. While Blumenfeld pointed me to suggestions the entire digital event could attract up to 30,000 people over its nine-day run, Ghazanfari hopes that hundreds of thousands or millions of users will come into the fold of his experience.

Another point of contention internally is how exactly the groups plan to monetize these digital experiences.

In 2020, the standard ticket price for Burning Man was $475. The organization postponed the “main sale” of tickets prior to this year’s physical event’s cancellation, but they had already sold tens of thousands of tickets. Ticket holders will have the option of being refunded, but the organization has encouraged those who “have the means” to consider making a full or partial donation of the ticket price instead.

In 2018, Burning Man cost $44 million for the organization to produce, according to tax documents. The Burning Man Project reported about $43 million in ticket sales from that event, with other donations and revenue streams bringing the nonprofit’s total revenue for that fiscal year to about $46 million. In a blog post, the event’s organizers noted that though the group had event insurance, they were not covered for a cancellation caused by a pandemic. Burning Man Project says it has $10 million in cash reserves, but that it anticipates draining through that funding by the end of the year to stay afloat. The organization is listed as having received a loan from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program for between $2-5 million.

While some like Ghazanfari are pushing to make their experiences free to access with the option of giving a donation later, others expressed desire for a single digital ticket that would give attendees access to all eight digital experiences. Cooke says users will need to pay a $50 entrance fee to access the SparkleVerse.

The disparate nature of the experience being built this year — with some being shipped as native apps, others in HTML5 and others inside existing tech platforms — meant that a unified ticketing platform just wouldn’t work, Blumenfeld told TechCrunch. Not all of the developers were thrilled with this outcome, which they fear could fracture attendance at events on certain platforms. The biggest concern seemed to be ensuring that all of this effort pays off in some way for the organization so that they can continue to host the Burning Man event post-pandemic.

“One of the biggest reasons we’re all doing this is to help Burning Man survive, because the Burning Man organization unfortunately was really badly hit because of COVID,” Ghazanfari says. “The organization is in kind of a precarious situation financially.”

The organization has attracted criticism in recent years for the event’s inclusiveness. Some of the developers acknowledge that planning for a nine-day trip to the middle of the desert can be daunting and prohibitively expensive for people that want to join the community, and they hope that this year’s shift to a digital format will open up the event to more people and that these apps can be a less intimidating way for skeptics to get a taste of the community.

Thinking of the future

None of the developers behind the digital experiences are being paid for their efforts building these apps. However, the Burning Man Project has given at least some of them perpetual licenses to continue operating these digital platforms with the Burning Man name and an option to monetize, though a percentage of proceeds will be kicked back to the organization.

While getting this event across the finish line by the end of the month is daunting enough, the Burning Man Project is also trying to consider how its rapid learnings will apply to next year, though they hope that the physical event returns for 2021.

Blumenfeld says he plans to spend the next year working on the background infrastructure so that items like gating and ticketing functions for a virtual Burning Man can all be centralized.

While having eight distinct experiences this year could complicate the goal of getting one big group together, developers concerned about troubleshooting their new apps or having a sudden influx of virtual Burners overwhelm their infrastructures view multiple entry points to the festival as a necessary logistical move. Organizers hope the diversity of options will keep things interesting for attendees.

“I think we’ve got a good mix, and part of it is, we want to learn,” Blumenfeld says. “What we’re trying very hard to avoid is being in Zoom meeting hell.”

Whether users are connecting via video chat or as avatars inside a large virtual world, the developers building Burning Man’s virtual experiences believe they are operating on the cutting edge of virtual interaction and that they are rethinking elements of modern social networking to create a virtual Burning Man where people will be able to form new social bonds.

“I’ve fallen in love with this idea that at some point in the future, some Ph.D. student in 300 years time is going to write a thesis on the first online Burning Man, because it does feel like an extraordinary moment of avant garde imagineering for what the future of human online interaction looks like,” Cooke tells TechCrunch.

NASA signs agreement with Japan to cooperate across Space Station, Artemis and Lunar Gateway projects

NASA has signed a new agreement with Japan that lays out plans for the two nations to cooperate on the International Space Station (continuing existing partnership between the countries there) as well as on NASA’s Artemis program, which includes missions in lunar space and to the lunar surface.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed the agreement with Government of Japan Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda on July 10. It’s a Joint Exploration Decoration of Intent (JEDI), which essentially commits the two countries to laying the groundwork for more concrete plans about how the two nations will work together on projects that will extend all the way to include both robotic and human exploration of the Moon .

Japan was one of the earliest countries to express their intent to participate as an international partner in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, all the way back in October 2019. Since then, a number of countries and agencies have expressed similar support, including Canada, which will contribute by building a third version of its Canadarm, the robotic manipulator that has been used on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and the European Space Agency.

This new agreement formalizes that arrangement, and from here you can expect both parties to begin to detail in more specificity what kinds of projects they’ll collaborate on. Japan has plans to launch a robotic space probe mission to the moons of Mars and return samples from Phobos, its largest natural satellite, with a launch schedule for 2024, and it has launched a lunar orbiter exploration spacecraft called SELENE, and is planning a lunar lander mission dubbed the ‘Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) for 2022 that will be its first lunar surface mission.

OTTO Motors raises $29M to fill factories with autonomous delivery robots

When Clearpath Robotics CEO and co-founder Matthew Rendall looks at the “miles” of roads inside industrial factories, he sees them filled with autonomous vehicles.

And in the past five years, the company has inched toward that goal through its industrial division OTTO Motors. The division, which launched in 2015, has landed a number of customer contracts to bring its autonomous mobile robot platform into factories, including GE, Toyota, Nestlé and Berry Global.

OTTO Motors is preparing to expand with a fresh injection of $29 million in funding. The Series C funding round announced this week was led by led by Kensington Private Equity Fund, with participation from Bank of Montreal Capital Partners, Export Development Canada (EDC) and previous investors iNovia Capital and RRE Ventures . To date, the company has raised $83 million in funding.

OTTO Motors’ autonomous mobile robot platform, or AMRs, are used to handle materials within warehouses and factories. These robots, which were once viewed as a luxury, are now a necessity, according to Rendall, who believes the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for companies to enhance work safety will only accelerate the trend toward robots.

Robots, and more broadly automation, are often viewed as job killers in manufacturing. But Rendall argues that AMRs help fill roles that are currently sitting vacant and allow humans to take on the higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs.

“We tend to see more situations where the operation is not at peak output, not operating peak performance because they just can’t find the people,” Rendall said in a recent interview, noting that one of its customer shut down an entire wing of its facility because they just can’t get people.

Factories are often located near smaller towns or sprawling communities with a limited labor pool, a shortfall that can be compounded when Amazon opens up a facility nearby.

“There’s a kind of vacuum that pulls qualified talent out of the established manufacturing or warehouse base,” he said.

A 2018 study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute forecast that a skills gap is projected to leave 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028 in the United States. The skills gap has popped up in other countries where OTTO Motors is now focused, including Japan, where the aging population is larger than the younger generation. Even China, which has historically been viewed as a place with an expanding labor pool, now has a national robotics strategy, Rendall said.

The company developed its AMRs to help manufacturers outsource the lower-value tasks to robots. “One of the least valuable things you can pay your people to do is walk from Point A to Point B,” Rendall said. “If you’re strapped for talent you want to have that team focused on what is at Point A or at Point B, like assembling an automobile. Walking to a warehouse with a part is something that can be outsourced to a machine.”

OTTO Motors’ initial customer base grew out of the automotive and transportation industries. It now works with six of the 10 OEMs. But Rendall says it has also seen success in the medical device and healthcare sector, as well.

COVID-19 has spurred demand, Rendall said, as essential businesses in the food, beverage and medical device industries attempt to lessen risks associated with the disease.

As fashion has its metaverse moment, one app looks to bridge real and virtual worlds for sneakerheads

Fashion is having its moment in the metaverse.

A riot of luxury labels, music, and games are vying for attention in the virtual world. And as physical events and the entertainment industry that depends on them shuts down, virtual things have come to epitomize the popular culture of the pandemic.

It’s creating an environment where imagination and technical ability, not wealth, are the only barriers to accumulating the status symbols that only money and fame could buy.

Whether it’s famous designers like Marc Jacobs, Sandy Liang, or Valentino dropping styles in Nintendo’s breakout hit, Animal Crossing: New Horizons; HypeBae’s plans to host a fashion show later this month in the game; or various crossovers between Epic Games’ Fortnite and brands like Supreme (which pre-date the pandemic), fashion is tapping into gaming culture to maintain its relevance.

One entrepreneur who’s spent time on both sides of the business as a startup founder and an employee for one of the biggest brands in athletic wear has launched a new app to try build a bridge between the physical and virtual fashion worlds.

Its goal is to give hypebeasts a chance to collect virtual versions of their physical objects of desire and win points to maybe buy the gear they crave, while also providing a showcase where brands can discover new design talent to make the next generation of cult collaborations and launch careers.

Aglet’s Phase 1

The app, called Aglet, was created by Ryan Mullins, the former head of digital innovation strategy for Adidas, and it’s offering a way to collect virtual versions of limited edition sneakers and, eventually, design tools so all the would-be Virgil Ablohs and Kanye Wests of the world can make their own shoes for the metaverse.

When TechCrunch spoke with Mullins last month, he was still stuck in Germany. His plans for the company’s launch, along with his own planned relocation to Los Angeles, had changed dramatically since travel was put on hold and nations entered lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Initially, the app was intended to be a Pokemon Go for sneakerheads. Limited edition “drops” of virtual sneakers would happen at locations around a city and players could go to those spots and add the virtual sneakers to their collection. Players earned points for traveling to various spots, and those points could be redeemed for in-app purchases or discounts at stores.

We’re converting your physical activity into a virtual currency that you can spend in stores to buy new brands,” Mulins said. “Brands can have challenges and you have to complete two or three challenges in your city as you compete on that challenge the winner will get prizes.”

Aglet determines how many points a player earns based on the virtual shoes they choose to wear on their expeditions. The app offers a range of virtual sneakers from Air Force 1s to Yeezys and the more expensive or rare the shoe, the more points a player earns for “stepping out” in it. Over time, shoes will wear out and need to replaced — ideally driving more stickiness for the app.

Currency for in-app purchases can be bought for anywhere from $1 (for 5 “Aglets”) to $80 (for 1,000 “Aglets”). As players collect shoes they can display them on their in-app virtual shelves and potentially trade them with other players.

When the lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders came through, Mullins and his designers quickly shifted to create the “pandemic mode” for the game, where users can go anywhere on a map and simulate the game.

“Our plan was to have an LA specific release and do a competition, but that was obviously thrown off,” Mullins said.

The app has antecedents like Nike’s SNKRS, which offered limited edition drops to users and geo-located places where folks could find shoes from its various collaborations, as Input noted when it covered Aglet’s April launch.

While Mullins’ vision for Aglet’s current incarnation is an interesting attempt to weave the threads of gaming and sneaker culture into a new kind of augmented reality-enabled shopping experience, there’s a step beyond the game universes that Mullins wants to create.

Image Credits: Adidas (opens in a new window)

The future of fashion discovery could be in the metaverse

“My proudest initiative [at Adidas] was one called MakerLab,” said Mullins.

MakerLab linked Adidas up with young, up-and-coming designers and let them create limited edition designs for the shoe company based on one of its classic shoe silhouettes. Mullins thinks that those types of collaborations point the way to a potential future for the industry that could be incredibly compelling.

“The real vision for me is that I believe that the next Nike is an inverted Nike,” Mullins said. “I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to have young kids on Roblox designing stuff in the virtual environments and it’ll pop there and you’ll have Nike or Adidas manufacture it.”

From that perspective, the Aglet app is more of a Trojan Horse for the big idea that Mullins wants to pursue. That’s to create a design studio to showcase the best virtual designs and bring them to the real world.

Mullins calls it the “Smart Aglet Sneaker Studio”. “[It’s] where you can design your own sneakers in the standard design style and we’ll put those in the game. We’ll let you design your own hoodies and then [Aglet] does become a YouTube for fashion design.”

The YouTube example comes from the starmaking power the platform has enabled for everyone from makeup artists to musicians like Justin Bieber, who was discovered on the social media streaming service.

“I want to build a virtual design platform where kids can build their own brands for virtual fashion brands and put them into this game environment that I’m building in the first phase,” said Mullins. “Once Bieber was discovered, YouTube meant he was being able to access an entire infrastructure to become a star. What Nike and Adidas are doing is something similar where they’re finding this talent out there and giving that designer access to their infrastructure and maybe could jumpstart a young kid’s career.”

Impact of Culture on M&A: Survey Report

Culturelytics-Venture Intelligence Survey Report Globally, mergers and acquisitions worth a total of more than $4 trillion take place every year. Studies show that more than 85% of these deals fail to create value, and in more than 30% of these, cultural misalignment is one of the key reasons cited. COVID-19 will almost certainly trigger a significant wave of consolidations and a big spike

Uber drivers and riders will be required to wear face coverings

Uber is planning to require drivers and riders to wear face masks as it prepares to ramp its ride-hailing business back up after being hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

CNN was first to report that executives approved a new policy that would require drivers and riders to wear face masks or coverings in some markets, including the U.S.. TechCrunch confirmed Monday that Uber has developed a policy for certain markets.

Uber still faces one considerable challenge: securing enough face masks and other supplies to protect drivers. The company said multiple orders have either been delayed or canceled as from major manufacturers prioritize healthcare workers and other first responders.

It’s also not clear how Uber will enforce its policy.

“As countries reopen, Uber is focused on safety and proceeding with caution,” an Uber spokesperson said in a emailed statement. “Today, we continue to ask riders to stay home if they can, while shipping safety supplies to drivers who are providing essential trips. At the same time, our teams are preparing for the next phase of recovery, where we will all have a role to play. We’ll communicate updates directly to users when ready, but in the meantime, we continue to urge all riders and drivers to wear masks or face coverings when using Uber.”

Uber has been encouraging riders to stay home through an in-app message and through marketing such as TV spots. The app is still available and people have used it to take trips to grocery stores, to essential jobs and pharmacies. Uber has urged, but not yet required, riders and drivers to wear masks or face coverings.

Protecting drivers

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Europe and North America, Uber drivers have found themselves on the front lines, often times transporting healthcare and other essential workers who were potentially exposed to the disease.

Uber announced last month that it would buy and ship face masks to active drivers and delivery workers globally. However, COVID-19 has squeezed global supplies for face masks and disinfectant. Uber and other ride-share drivers have reported problems accessing the supplies.

In the first week of April, Uber said it began receiving and then shipping about 500,000 ear-loop face masks to drivers. The company initially targeted the most active drivers in COVID-19 hotspots such as New York City and Los Angeles. (In LA, Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a Worker Protection Order that requires companies to provide essential workers with personal protective equipment.) Uber said it also is prioritizing cities and states such as San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New Jersey that have asked drivers to wear face covers.

Uber said it will make these supplies available to all active drivers as more become available. Uber’s goal is to be able to offer masks nationwide regardless of local regulations.

As of this week, Uber has either shipped or preparing to ship 1.4 million ear-loop face masks in the United States. The company also started in early April to ship disinfectant to drivers in Chicago, Los Angeles, NYC, Seattle and Washington D.C.

A team of Imagineers will discuss Disney’s tech breakthroughs at TC Sessions: Robotics + AI, March 3 at UC Berkeley

With TC Sessions: Robotics + AI 2020 a little over a week away, you likely thought we were finished with our big announcements. Understandably. We have top executives from Amazon and Toyota Research, and some of the hottest startups and biggest VCs. But there’s still some excitement left to announce.

On March 3, Disney will be returning to the event to discuss some of the breakthroughs the entertainment giant has been making around robotics for its theme parks. We’ll be joined by Disney Imagineers Dawson Dill, Selina Herman and Joe Mohos.

The trio have been working on using robotics to enhance rides at the park, blending physical trackless vehicles with other physical and virtual tools to transport riders both figuratively and literally. The team will discuss their latest breakthroughs in the space and the applications such technologies will have in entertainment and beyond.

Tickets are now available for $345 right here. Take advantage of this discounted pricing now, as prices will go up soon! Students, book a super-discounted $50 ticket right now and get in on the action.

Join the TechCrunch team and 1,000+ of today’s leading minds in robotics and artificial intelligence for this single-day conference. The event will feature great panels and fireside chats, breakout sessions and plenty of networking opportunities. There also will be an expo hall packed full of startups looking for their big break, and awesome hands-on demos for you to interact with.

 

Sundance: Feels Good Man charts a path of redemption for Pepe

Can a meme be redeemed? That’s the central question in Arthur Jones’ Feels Good Man — a documentary that premiered at Sundance this year charting the course of the creator of Pepe the Frog, a comic book character turned universally recognized meme, as he attempts to reclaim it from racists and shitposters.

The sweet, gentle pacing of the doc fits well with the calm, sensitive demeanor of its creator Matt Furie . Furie is described as “ethereal” by one of his friends in the piece and that’s mostly true. As Pepe is created, then coopted by the residents of 4chan and turned into a meme representing ennui, disenfranchisement and white supremacy in turn, Furie takes it mostly in stride.

But he’s not without passion, as lines begin to be crossed and Pepe becomes registered as hate speech by the Anti-Defamation League, Furie sees an opportunity to try to reclaim his symbol. He’s unsuccessful for the same reason anything is popular on the internet — there are simply too many nerve endings to properly anesthetize them all.

The vast majority of the people that use Pepe are completely unaware of its origins. And the general community of Internet people that communicate via memes go a step beyond that to being un-able to even grasp the concept of ownership. Once something has entered into the cultural bloodstream of the Internet, its origins often dwindle to insignificance.

That doesn’t, of course, stop a creator from existing or caring how their creation is used. And the portrait painted here of a gentle and caring artist forced to watch the subversion and perversion of his creation is heartbreaking and important.

Feels Good Man stands above the pack of docs about internet cultural phenomenon. It peels back enough of the layers of the onion to be effective in ways that analysis of culturally complex idioms born online are often deficient.

Too many times over the years we’ve seen online movements analyzed with an overly simplistic point of view. And the main way they typically fall down is by not including the influence and effect of that staple of online life: trolls. People doing things for the hell of it who then become a part of a larger movement but always have that arms length remove to fall back on, able to claim that it was just a gag.

Jones mentioned during a Q&A after the screening that they wanted Furie’s art to be a character, to have a part to play throughout the film. In addition to scenes of Matt drawing, this is best accomplished by the absolutely gorgeous animation sequences that Jones and a team of animators created of Pepe and the rest of the Boy’s Club characters. They’re delightful and welcome respite from the somewhat hammer-like nature of the dark places Pepe is unwittingly drawn by the various subcultures he is adopted by.

It’s not a perfect film, the sequences with an occultist are goofy in a way that doesn’t fit with the overall flavor of the piece. But it’s probably one of the better documentary films ever made about the Internet era and well worth watching when it gets picked up.

Watch experts from Boston Dynamics, Built, Dusty and Toggle discuss robotic construction at TC Sessions: Robotics

After recently doing a survey of the top robotics investment rounds, it became pretty clear: construction is going to be huge for this industry. Global construction is expected to hit $13 trillion by 2022 (with China alone hitting that number in 2030), and there are plenty of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs that seem well positioned for potential automation.

With that in mind, we’ve put together a fantastic — and packed — panel set to examine how robotics, AI and automation are poised to transform the industry. There’s a wide range of potential opportunities for the right startup, from producing construction materials to surveying sites. The latter, in particular, could amount to a big market for a company that can help correct mistakes before they become too costly.

Today we’re excited to announce that Boston Dynamics’ Construction Technologist Brian Ringley will be joining an already packed panel that includes Built Robotics’ Noah Campbell-Ready, Tessa Lau of Dusty Robotics and Toggle’s Daniel Blank at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3.

A longtime robotics pioneer, Boston Dynamics is a recent entrant into the construction space. The company’s now commercially available Spot robot is currently being piloted at construction sites. With LIDAR and other imaging technologies mounted on its back, the robot is able to give a more complete picture of in-progress construction sites.

 Save $50 when you book your tickets today as prices go up at the door. We still have a small handful of Startup Exhibitor Packages available that can be booked here. Each package comes with 4 tickets so you can divide and conquer the show to increase your network.

Stanford’s Doggo quadrupedal robot and siblings Pupper and Woofer are coming to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI

Animal-like, four-legged robots have been a crowd-pleaser since Boston Dynamics’ BigDog, and Stanford’s Doggo shows how the technology can be made open source, accessible and educational. Doggo’s creators will bring the diminutive robot, plus its smaller and larger siblings Pupper and Woofer, to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI on March 3.

P.S. Early-bird ticket sales end this Friday — book your tickets today and save $150.

We first heard of Doggo last year when the Stanford Robotics Club showed off the highly capable design, which uses mostly off-the-shelf parts and can be assembled by anyone… as long as “anyone” has considerable experience building robots and a couple thousand dollars to spend.

Still, a couple thousand is an order of magnitude or two lower than most quadrupedal robots go for, and project lead Nathan Kau told TechCrunch they’ve seen a ton of interest.

“I had no idea how many people were going to pick it up,” he said. “It’s complicated! But I get emails every day from people building this thing, from all over. The first team to get it running, to my knowledge, was in Sri Lanka.”

In order to further push the lower bounds of who can build and experiment with a robot like this, the team is building a smaller, even less expensive robot called Pupper. They hope to get the cost down to the level where even high school clubs can afford one.

“It’s less than $500 in development materials if you make it by yourself,” said Kau. “We imagine that if it becomes a kit and we have a partnership with the part manufacturers, it could be much less. We built it as a platform for learning, so it uses a Raspberry Pi and everything is programmed in Python. It’s about as complicated as building a drone, I’d say.”

You’ll be able to see Doggo and Pupper in action at the event, and they’ll be joined by one more robot: Woofer, a jumbo-sized step up from the others. It’s earlier in development than the other two, but to keep things simple it shares much of its codebase with the others.

Grab your tickets to the show today and get to see these awesome robots in person and hear from today’s leading minds in the industry. Early-bird tickets expire this Friday, January 31, so book yours today and save $150 before prices go up.