Earbuds lets audiences stream the playlists of athletes, entertainers and each other

Earbuds, a new startup from Austin founded by former Detroit Lions lineman Jason Fox, wants to bring the power of social media to your eardrums.

The company is one of a growing number of startups trying to rejuvenate the music streaming market by combining it with social networking so that audiences can listen to the playlists of their favorite athletes and entertainers… and their friends.

For Fox, the idea for Earbuds sprung from his experiences in the NFL, watching how other players interacted with crowds and hearing about the things fans wanted to know about their favorite players’ routines.

“We were playing Caroline in the first game of the season and Cam Newton was warming up right next to me,” Fox recalled. “He was jamming. Getting the crowd into it. And I was thinking there’re 85,000 people here and millions of more people watching at home…  And I thought… how many people would love to be in his headphones right now?”

Jason Fox TC

Earbuds founder Jason Fox

It wasn’t just Cam Newton who received attention. Fox said at every press conference one or two questions would be about what songs teammates played before games. On social media, players would take screenshots of their playlists and post them to platforms like Twitter or Instagram, Fox said.

The company has been out in the market in a beta version since February and has focused on lining up potential Earbuds devotees from among Fox’s friends in the NFL and entertainers from music and media.

“We made a decision to tweak something and make it very very heavily around influencers because that’s what’s really driving traffic for us,” Fox says. 

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Image courtesy of Earbuds

At its core, the app is just about making music more social, according to Fox. “There’s a social platform for everything, but in the days of terrestrial media distribution music has remain isolated,” he says. 

Logging on is easy. Users can create a login for the app or use their Google or Facebook accounts. One more step to link the Earbuds app with Spotify or Apple Music (the company offers one month free of the premium versions of either service to new users) and then a user can look for friends or browse popular playlists.

A leaderboard indicates which users on the app have streamed the most music and users can create their own streams by adding songs from their libraries to build in-app playlists.

Earbuds isn’t the first company to take a shot at socializing the music listening experience. The olds may remember services like Turntable.fm, which took a stab at making music social but shut down back in 2013. Newer services, like Playlist, are also combining social networking features with music streaming. That site focuses on connecting people with similar musical tastes.

Fox thinks that the ability to attract entertainers like Nelly (who’s on the app) and athletes could be transformative for listeners. Basically these artists and athletes can become their own online radio station, he says.

Fox spent nearly a year meeting with streaming services, music labels, athletes, artists and college students (the app’s initial target market) before even working with developers on a single line of code. The initial work was done out of Los Angeles, but after a year Fox moved the company down to Austin and rebuilt the app from the ground up to focus more on the user experience.

Early partnerships with Burton on an activation had snowboarders streaming their music as they rode a halfpipe proved that there was an audience, Fox said. Now the company is working on integrations across different sports and even esports.

Fox raised a small friends and family round of $630,000 before putting together a $1.5 million seed to get the app out into the market. Now the company is looking for $3 million to scale even more as it looks to integrations with sports teams and other streaming services like Twitch (to capture the gaming audience).

The company currently has seven employees.

Earbuds is available on iOS.

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Apple reportedly planning to fund creation of exclusive original podcasts

Apple is said to be planning to bankroll the creation of original podcasts from third-parties that it will offer exclusively on its own streaming services, Bloomberg reports. The report says that Apple’s plans to land podcast exclusives will help the company compete with similar offerings from streaming rivals including Spotify and Sticher, both of which are funding exclusive podcast content, and in some cases, wholly original shows to run on their own streaming audio offerings.

The report says that Apple execs have been reaching out to media companies that produce audio content to talk about the possibility of buying exclusive rights to some podcasts, albeit in a “preliminary” way, which suggests that this plan may be in the very early stages. It seems unlikely, then, that we would see any kind of Apple exclusive original podcast content ahead of other media efforts soon to launch from the company, including its Apple TV+ subscription video service coming this fall.

Apple has recently made a number of improvements to its podcast product offerings, both on the consumer and the creator side, including more detailed analytics for podcasters, and a full-fledged standalone Podcasts app for its macOS computers, which is launching alongside macOS Catalina this fall. Still, it’s largely been hands-off when it comes to content, aside from informally meeting with podcasters on occasion and sharing best practices.

Meanwhile, Spotify in particular has been especially aggressive about acquiring its own podcast media companies, including Gimlet, which makes popular podcast ‘Reply All”; Anchor, which creates podcast making tools for publishing and monetization; and Parcast, another podcast creation network with a deep library of true-life and other content.

Apple still enjoys a strong majority of audience when it comes to overall podcast listenership by all accounts, but Spotify is definitely chipping away by focusing effort and investment both on the product and on the content side. Apple considering funding content of its own definitely makes sense given its tactics in video, and the changed landscape of the podcast business.

Microsoft’s $399 Azure Kinect AI camera is now shipping in the U.S. and China

Earlier this year, at MWC, Microsoft announced the return of its Kinect sensor in the form of an AI developer kit. The $399 Azure Kinect DK camera system includes a 1MP depth camera, 360-degree microphone, 12MP RGB camera and an orientation sensor, all in a relatively small package. The kit has been available for pre-order for a few months now, but as the company announced today, it’s now generally available and shipping to pre-order customers in the U.S. and China.

Unlike the original Kinect, which launched as an Xbox gaming accessory that never quite caught on, the Azure Kinect is all business. It’s meant to give developers a platform to experiment with AI tools and plug into Azure’s ecosystem of machine learning services (though using Azure is not mandatory).

To help developers get started, the company already launched a number of SDKs, including a preview of a body-tracking SDK that is close to what you may remember from the Kinect’s Xbox days.

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The core of the camera has more to do with Microsoft’s HoloLens than the original Kinect. As the company notes in its press materials, the Azure Kinect DK users the same time-of-flight sensor the company developed for the second generation of its HoloLens AR visor. And while the focus here is clearly on using the camera, Microsoft also notes that the microphone array also allows developers to build sophisticated speech solutions.

The company is positioning the device as an easy gateway for its users in health and life sciences, retail, logistics and robotics to start experimenting with using depth sensing and machine learning. We’ve seen somewhat similar dev kits from others, including Microsoft partner Qualcomm, though these devices don’t usually have the depth camera that makes the Kinect DK a Kinect.

Spotify Lite for Android gets an official launch in 36 countries

Spotify’s Lite app is now official. The app has been in beta since last year, and now Spotify is officially releasing it in 36 countries worldwide.

The app is designed to work on patchy or weak internet connections and, at just 10MB, it is small enough to cater to lower-end devices that have limited storage or older phones. Spotify Lite is limited to Android devices running version 4.3 or newer, and it is open to both paying and non-paying users. For those worried about maxing out their data plan, the app comes with an optional limit that can tell you when you are close to hitting that buffer.

Spotify claims that 90 percent of the features of the main app are available in Lite, in particular areas around multiple — including video and cover artist — are omitted as they are not critical to the core experience.

A spokesperson told TechCrunch that, as of now, there are no plans to bring the Lite experience to iOS. That makes sense as the majority of people who would benefit from the stripped-down experience would be Android owners.

India is likely to be a key focus. Spotify introduced Lite in India in June, months after the full service went live in the country in February.

The overall goal here is to expand Spotify’s reach beyond the current user base by focusing on emerging markets or older users. The company currently claims 217 million users, of which 100 million are paying customers. For comparison, Apple Music passed 60 million users in June.

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Cecilia Qvist, Global Head of Markets, Spotify (left) announced the release of Spotify Lite on stage at Rise in Hong Kong (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

According to Google Play Store data, Spotify Lite has been downloaded more than one million times. Expect that numbers to rocket as the company goes to town promoting Lite as an alternative entry point for its service.

Lite apps have been popularized by services such as Facebook, Messenger and YouTube which have tapped demand, particularly in emerging markets where data speeds tend to be inconsistent and lower-end devices are more prevalent.

Microsoft will offer console streaming for free to Xbox One owners

Microsoft’s Sunday E3 pressure was all about the games. In fact, while the company did offer some information about hardware and services, the information all arrived fast and furious at the end of the conference. While it’s probably unsurprising that the company had very little to offer in the way of information about its upcoming 8K console, Project Scarlett, most of us expected Project xCloud to get a lot more face time on stage.

The company powered through a whole lot of information about its upcoming streaming offering like it was going out of style (or, perhaps, like the lights were going out at its own theater). The speed and brevity of it all left a number of audience members confused on the specifics — and caused some to speculate that the service night not be as far along as Microsoft had hoped.

We caught up with a few Microsoft reps on our final day at the show to answer some questions. The company is unsurprisingly still mum on a number of key details around the offering. A couple of key things are worth clarifying, though. For starters console stream is not considered a part of Project xCloud. Rather, the ability to play games on one’s own Xbox One remotely is a separate feature that will be coming to users via a software update.

Asked what advantages console streaming has over the parallel xCloud offering, Microsoft’s answer was simple: it’s free. Fair enough. This serves a two-fold purpose. First, it helps differentiate Microsoft’s streaming offerings from Stadia and second, it provides another value proposition for the console itself. As to how performance is expected to differ between console streaming and XCloud, it wouldn’t comment.

As I wrote earlier today, the company does see the potential of a large scale move to the cloud, but anticipates that such a shift is a long ways off. After all, if it didn’t, it likely wouldn’t have announced a new console this week at E3.

We won’t be listening to music in a decade according to Vinod Khosla

Depending on who you ask, the advantage of technology based on artificial or machine intelligence could be a topsy-turvy funhouse mirror world – even in some very fundamental ways.

“I actually think 10 years from now, you won’t be listening to music,” is a thing venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said on stage today during a fireside chat at Creative Destruction Lab’s second annual Super Session event.

Instead, he believes we’ll be listening to custom song equivalents that are automatically designed specifically for each individual, and tailored to their brain, their listening preferences and their particular needs.

Khosla noted that AI-created music is already making big strides – and it’s true that it’s come a long way in the past couple of years, as noted recently by journalist Stuart Dredge writing on Medium.

As Dredge points out, one recent trend is the rise of mood or activity based playlists on Spotify and channels on YouTube. There are plenty of these types of things where the artist, album and song name are not at all important, or even really surfaced. Not to mention that there’s a big financial incentive for an entity like Spotify to prefer machine-made alternatives, since it could help alleviate or eliminate the licensing costs that severely limit their ability to make margin on their primary business of serving up music to customers.

AI-generated chart toppers and general mood music is one thing, but a custom soundtrack specific to every individual is another. It definitely sidesteps the question of what happens to the communal aspect of music when everyone’s music-replacing auditory experience is unique to the person. Guess we’ll find out in ten years.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

How gaming on Microsoft xCloud compares to Google Stadia

Cloud gaming is one of the big topics of excitement ahead of E3. The market is very niche but the technology feels exciting, allowing users to play graphically-complex titles on a bunch of low-powered devices thanks to server farms and fast internet connections.

We had a chance to go hands-on with Google’s Stadia platform at GDC and I/O, now at E3, Microsoft is letting the media test out their previously-announced service xCloud. I’ve spent a bit of time with both, so how do they compare?

The biggest difference is that we still know bizarrely little about xCloud, while many expected the service to be the main topic of discussion at the Xbox E3 event, the service was mentioned for mere seconds as execs focused their energies on Xbox Game Pass and the upcoming Project Scarlett hardware.

Pricing, exact release dates, device support and internet requirements of xCloud are all up in air. We know it’s coming later this year for public use just as Stadia is. There are a lot of question marks, but here’s what we were working with in our demo of server-based gaming on xCloud.

Much like Stadia, xCloud is a streaming service that abides by the laws of nature, like speed of light, so latency is a thing. On the topic of lag — which is one of the big viability questions with these platforms — it seems like Microsoft’s solution is in lockstep with Google Stadia. The naked eye can only detect so much especially in a demo environment where the environment is set up to be perfect, but streaming in LA from servers based in the Bay Area didn’t cause any major problems as I demoed a couple titles briefly.

The easiest way to showcase the latency on these systems seems to be picking up an in-game gun and finding the length of time that passes between trigger press and the muzzle flash. It was perceptible and more so than when I’m playing at home but likely only because I was directing all of my attention to that metric. When it came to frame rates flowing and resolution streaming, the brief demos held up, though again this is a tech platform that’s all about having network perfection in place and demo environments are pretty unreliable representations of standard scenarios.

I saw some hiccups in my Stadia demo, though a system restart rectified them. I didn’t have any issues on xCloud though the demo environments were different in each demo.

One big question mark is whether Xbox is going to release a specialized controller that connects to the Cloud directly to cut down on latency. Stadia has already done this, but this won’t make as big a difference to a lot of Xbox One users who likely won’t bother with buying a new controller to shave off a few milliseconds. That said, as you can see, there was some xCloud-specific branding on the Xbox controllers we used, so there could be some developments here.

Stadia requires a 35 Mbps download connection in order to play 4K games, we don’t know anything about the xCloud standards there, but I’d imagine expectations should be kept fairly similar though you might have to worry about both ends of the equation if you’re streaming from your personal Xbox on a home network to a mobile device elsewhere.

What’s a bit fascinating is how both Microsoft and Google chose to showcase the advances in their streaming technology. While Google showcased Stadia as a console replacement, xCloud’s demo reframed the service as a way to bring console gaming on-the-go.

This isn’t entirely revolutionary as services like Sony’s Remote Play offered some of this functionality, but the scope of support could be larger here. Our demo was on a Samsung Galaxy device attached to an Xbox One controller. We haven’t heard details on the scope of supported mobile devices but given that Stadia is only launching on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3a, even with the latest Samsung Galaxy devices, Microsoft could already have Google beaten there out-of-the-gate.

I will say it felt different playing a console-level title with a phone screen. You have wildly different expectations of what your phone can handle because you’ve spent years with limited mobile games while open-world RPGs have been out of reach. Mobile processors have gotten more beefy, but pushing graphics that have teraflops of power behind them is a very cool experience though it does make me wish that Microsoft had a mobile system or a controller that was a bit more phone-friendly because the current solution feels more than a little hack-y.

On the topic of value, we know that console streaming for existing console owners will be free, we similarly know that 1080p streaming on Stadia will be free once you buy games on the platform, though if you want 4K resolution, you’ll have to pony up $9.99 per month. We don’t know if xCloud is going to have any limitations on console streaming users.

If xCloud boasts support for the full Xbox library, that’s going to be something that keeps Stadia from competing. The network effects of buying single-player titles might be limited but if cross-play for multi-player is something a title doesn’t boast than chances are gamers will want to stay where their friends are. Building an entire player network from scratch won’t be easy for Google and Xbox has one hell of a head-start.

The biggest unanswered question is how Microsoft prices xCloud for gamers without a console and whether there is some too-good-to-refuse combo deal with Xbox Game Pass. The entire market still feels a little niche and I think it’s a bit unrealistic to think we’re already approaching a post-console world, but Microsoft being aggressive here could prevent Stadia from gaining any sort of a foothold.

Here are the game trailers from Microsoft’s E3 2019 press conference

Trailers. You love them, Microsoft’s got them. According to the company, there were a ridiculous 60 games trotted out on stage at today’s big E3 kickoff. Looks like the Xbox got a little extra love at the event since Sony’s MIA this year. Along with more information on its streaming service Project XCloud a sneak peek at its next console and a very special appearance by Keanu, the company had a LOT of games to show off.

Here are the biggest trailers from today’s event.

Minecraft: Dungeons – Everyone’s favorite building block title gets its very own single and multiplayer RPG adventure.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps: Announced in 2017, Moon Studio’s platformer finally arrives next February.

Bleeding Edge: Ninja Theory’s latest is a multiplayer melee combat title.

Flight Simulator: You know, you love it — or are otherwise indifferent. The classic simulator returns in 2020.

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition – Coming later this year, the title will also be available for Xbox Game Pass for PC.

Wasteland 3: The party-based role-playing sequel takes players to…Colorado Springs?

Battletoads: Don’t call it a comeback. Zitz, Pimple and Rash return for a new Gamepass title.

Gear 5: Probably the most eagerly anticipated game of the press conference, the new Gears is launching September 10.

Gears 5: Terminator Dark Fate – Here’s a fun reveal. Those who buy Gears 5 by September 16 with get a character pack, featuring the T-800 Endoskeleton from the forthcoming Terminator sequel.

Forza Horizon 4 Lego Speed Champions: The popular racing series gets the Lego treatment.

Kitten Around with RAAM: A series of animated shorts based on characters from Gears POP.

State of Decay Heartland: A new DLC pack for Heartland 2, features two stories and will be available as part of GamePass.

CrossfireX: The latest version of Smilegate’s FPS is arriving on Xbox One.

Halo: Infinite – What’s this, then? Why it’s a brand new Halo title, launching alongside Microsoft’s next-gen Project Scarlett console during the 2020 holiday season.