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“How 4 chatbots responded to random, unrelated questions” plus 29 more VentureBeat

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“How 4 chatbots responded to random, unrelated questions” plus 29 more VentureBeat


How 4 chatbots responded to random, unrelated questions

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 02:10 PM PDT

Poncho screenshot

Chatbots are not new, especially for this generation. In fact, back in 2000, if any of you had ever been an avid user of AOL Instant Messenger, you probably tried chatting with its bot, SmarterChild. I did. I used it to request movie times and to be honest, called him names too (apparently, he didn’t mind).

SmarterChild was the only bot at that time and was loved for so many reasons. Who knew he would rest in peace so soon? Over the years, there have been other bots too, but no one came even close to Siri. Siri is the BFF of every iOS user and probably knows more about us than our own family. While researching for my previous post “Why ‘there’s a chatbot for that’ is now a thing” I came across some unusual chatbots that are handling the tasks assigned to them exceptionally well.

Out of curiosity, I started my chat session with some of the unusual bots and tried to be funny and nasty with them to test their A.I.

1. Poncho

Poncho bot

Poncho is a Messenger bot designed to be your one and only weather expert. It sends alerts up to twice a day with user consent and is intelligent enough to answer questions like “Should I take an umbrella today?” I was attracted to this chatbot because of the avatar they use. It’s a cat with the description: “You can now wake up to Poncho’s fun, free weather forecasts and see for yourself why so many people are in love with this sassy weather cat.” I searched this sassy messenger cat on Facebook Messenger and tried initiating a conversation the usual user way. The chatbot is not that human-like, so it didn’t understand my language, not even through the keywords I was using. But it does its job kind of OK; that is, it gives weather updates.

2. Right Click

rcbot

Right Click is a startup that introduced an A.I.-powered chatbot that creates websites. It asks general questions during the conversation like “What industry you belong to?” and “Why do you want to make a website?” and creates customized templates as per the given answers. Though I already have my personal CMS-based website, I started talking to the RC Bot that claims to make websites. I could only chat through the desktop bot. Their chatbot called me “Hooman” and actually understood my greeting. I tried to divert it from its job by asking it about love, but what a smart player it is! By replying to each of my queries, it tried to bring me back to the actual job of website creation. The process was short but kept me hooked. I must say, there are some great minds behind it!

3. Mitsuku

Mitsuku chatbot

Mitsuku is a chatterbot. One that you can talk to for hours without getting bored. It replies to your question in the most humane way and understands your mood with the language you’re using. I heard very good things about this chatbot — it won the Loebner award for most human-like bot award in 2013. With sheer excitement, I went to its website. The webpage wasn’t appealing at all, but the chatbot was my only concern so I ignored it. After having initial conversations as with all the other bots, I decided that this is realistically the most human-like bot I’ve ever talked to — kudos to team Mitsuku. It understood my language, my greetings, and most importantly, my moods. It is a bot made to chat about anything, which is one of the main reasons that make it so human-like — contrary to Poncho and Right Click that are made for a specific task. Mitsuku was a winner in lightening up my mood.

4. Insomno Bot

insomnoo bot

Insomno bot is for night owls. As the name suggests, it is for all people out there who have trouble sleeping. This bot talks to you when you have no one around and gives you amazing replies so that you won’t get bored. This bot caught my attention last week when I read the story about why mattress startup Casper built a chatbot for night owls. It’s not something that will help you count stars when you can’t sleep or help you with reading suggestions, but this bot talks to you about anything. It wants to be your friend when all your friends are busy or asleep. You can only chat with it between 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. I couldn’t get a chance to talk to it because of the regional restrictions, but I’m already a fan of the concept behind it.

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Overcharge adds Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube integration to Twitch’s esports livestreams

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 01:55 PM PDT

Overcharge surrounds Twitch video with supplementary information.

A new startup wants to improve the Twitch esports experience with an information-rich platform for competitive gaming fans.

Overcharge is a new platform for watching live esports from Twitch. The site is up now, and it aims to expand how people consume tournament broadcasts by linking Twitter, Reddit, and more into a single hub. Unlike Twitch proper, which only has its own chat, Overcharge wants to provide that chat as well as a live feed from Twitter and other communities related to the competition onscreen. Esports is a growing market worth $493 million before you count any gambling or daily fantasy revenues. Overcharge is expecting to carve out a piece of that business for itself by crafting a viewing experience specifically for esports fanatics.

Stew Houston, who is a former Counter-Strike pro and founder of Overcharge, argues that it is an evolution of Twitch. While that Amazon subsidiary wants to provide a home for both esports viewers as well as people who play games casually or for speedrunning, Overcharge focuses on the competitive gaming. That could help the startup establish a place for itself in the market.

Overcharge works by enabling you to pick the game you want to watch. Choosing Overwatch, Blizzard’s popular team shooter that’s beginning a push into esports, will load up the top livestream featuring the Blizzard shooter. In two sidebars, you can then tune to other channels and participate in Twitch chat while browsing through related Reddit threads, Twitter posts, and YouTube videos.

“With the explosive growth and increasing mainstream awareness of competitive gaming, building the Overcharge platform has not only been a passion project but a business venture that we expect to pay dividends over the next 5 years,” Houston said in a canned statement. “Esports tournaments are now selling out major stadiums, attracting over 10,000 attendees for major events, and online viewership is quickly rivaling that of conventional sports. The League of Legends Championship Series, for example, peaked at over 14 million concurrent viewers on Twitch alone.”

 

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Samsung: Problems with Galaxy Note7 replacements are ‘completely unrelated to batteries’

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 01:12 PM PDT

note7

Samsung cannot catch a break lately, with some South Korean consumers registering complaints about the replacement units received as part of the Galaxy Note7 recall. According to the Wall Street Journal (via XDA-Developers), the new devices have reportedly been overheating and losing battery power too quickly.

However, despite what sound decidedly like battery-related issues, a company spokesman rejected that diagnosis, claiming that the problems were “completely unrelated to batteries.” He went on to stress that they were isolated cases, and attributed them to a vague, overarching problem of “mass production issues.”

The company has plenty of incentive to downplay batteries as the culprit here: It is in the midst of an unprecedented — in terms of both cost and scale — global recall program as it endeavors to replace millions of defective Note7 handsets. The defect in question is a battery that is slightly too big for its housing, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission regulatory agency, which can short circuit and either explode or catch fire.

Because of the problems identified in the newest production run in Korea, as well as lower than expected return volume of phones already in the market, Samsung is pushing back the scheduled resumption of sales by three days, from September 28 to October 1. Sales have been resuming sporadically elsewhere in the world, with some U.S. carriers already offering the device once again.

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Microsoft launches Azure Monitor public preview, H-Series VM instances

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 12:58 PM PDT

A Microsoft Azure Monitor dashboard.

Microsoft today announced the launch of a new type of compute-intensive virtual machine (VM) instances for its Azure public cloud, along with a public preview for a new cloud infrastructure monitoring service called Azure Monitor.

Azure Monitor gives Azure customers a tool for checking the status of Azure resources they’re using, including VMs. The service provides an activity log and metrics, and it lets users create shareable dashboards and sign up for notifications. It’s accessible from the Azure portal, but data can also be accessed through application programming interfaces (APIs), Azure Monitor senior program manager Ashwin Kamath wrote in a blog post.

Now Azure has its own first-party monitoring tool, just like public cloud market leader Amazon Web Services (AWS) has CloudWatch and Google Cloud Platform has StackDriver.

Microsoft does already offer cloud-based monitoring tools, and some of them can be used as extensions of Azure Monitor. “Azure Monitor enables you to easily stream metrics and diagnostic logs to OMS [Operations Management Suite] Log Analytics to perform custom log search and advanced alerting on the data across resources and subscriptions,” Kamath wrote. “Azure Monitor metrics and logs for Web Sites and VMs can be easily routed to Visual Studio Application Insights, unlocking deep application performance management within the Azure portal.”

On top of that, Azure Monitor has integrations with monitoring and log analysis tools from other companies, including AppDynamics, Atlassian, Cloudyn, DataDog, New Relic, PagerDuty, Splunk, and Sumo Logic.

The new H-Series instances are now available only through the South Central US Azure region, with more geographical availability to come, Azure compute principal program manager Tejas Karmarkar wrote in a blog post. The instances have 8-16 cores, 56-224 GiB of RAM, and 1-2 TiB of solid-state local disk space.

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How Playboy grew its social presence from 11M to 29M — the answer isn’t nudes (VB Live)

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 12:55 PM PDT

Screen Shot 2016-09-26 at 12.16.43 PM

Want to tap the tremendous millennial opportunity on every social channel? Hear from Playboy's Chief Digital Officer and CRO how a revamp of their social strategy dropped their average user age from 47 to just 30 years old and their social media presence grew from 11M to 29M in just one year.

Register here for free.


Playboy was recently named a Top 15 Social Brand by Shareablee — and naked women have nothing to do with it. Surprised?

When Robin Zucker joined Playboy in 2013 as the senior vice president, digital media, with the goal of building the iconic brand's audience, she found that that they had missed targeting — and been mistargeting — their real audience. The brand already had tremendous social engagement, with a younger-skewing audience, and all of it was actually safe for work — nightlife, style, and even fully clothed women.

So in August 2014, the nudity was yanked from both the pages of the magazine and digital properties, social engagement across platforms became their focus, and the numbers soared.

By January 2015, site traffic went from 5.5 million unique users to 21.5 million, they ratcheted up over 6 million video views, and built an audience of nearly 30 million followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, SnapChat, and Tumblr. The brand's traffic is now 75 percent mobile, with men under 34 making up 60 percent of their fans.

For Zucker, it wasn't about where the fans were — it was about connecting with the audience on the platforms on which they were spending the most time, bringing them the content they were searching for. They had to go beyond simple questions of site traffic, and hit the metrics that mattered: How many people are we reaching, and how are we telling our story?

The strategy: to create shareable, branded content that resonates across every channel and platform. They leverage their iconic Playmate brand ambassadors, which of course gives them a leg up, but they focus on their signature voice and sophisticated mix of entertainment, lifestyle, humor, and politics, as well as offer behind-the-scenes, insider glimpses into the Playboy lifestyle.

While its key demographic is millennial men, Matt Mastrangelo, Playboy's chief revenue officer, noted that the company is working to reach women in search of smart content and looking for licensed loungewear.

The lesson? Any successful brand has to employ these same skills — identify an audience, keep up with consumer expectations, and deliver a consistent, branded, and engaging customer experience across all channels, because no single channel can provide that kind of all-encompassing brand identity customers take most seriously.

To learn more about nailing down your brand identity, creating shareable touchpoints, and leveraging anonymous, probabilistic, and accurate identity data, join Phillip Morelock, Chief Digital Officer and CRO, Playboy, and Stewart Rogers, Director of Marketing Technology, in our latest free, interactive VB Live event.


Don’t miss out!

Register here for free.


In this VB Live event, you’ll:

  • Learn how consumers move between channels, and how to manage it
  • Understand how to measure social success
  • Leverage the community without cannibalising the audience

Speakers:

  • Phillip Morelock, Chief Digital Officer and CRO, Playboy
  • Stewart Rogers, Director of Marketing Technology for VentureBeat

Moderator:

  • Wendy Schuchart, Analyst, VentureBeat

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The Nintendo 64 is now 20 years old

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 12:30 PM PDT

Nintendo 64

This story originally published during the Nintendo 64’s 20th anniversary of its Japanese launch. September 26, 1996 was when it came out in the U.S., so we’re highlighting this piece to help celebrate.

Twenty years ago, 3D gaming (no, not the pop-out-at-you kind) was exciting. Thanks to a plumber, an ocarina, a British spy, and bear with a bird in his backpack, one home console was able to master this new age of gaming.

The Nintendo 64 debuted in Japan on June 23, 1996. That makes the console 20 years old. The Nintendo 64 pioneered 3D gaming, brought us some of the greatest hits of all time, and gave us some of the best multiplayer memories. It also marked the beginning of a lot the troubles that plague Nintendo to this day, specifically third-part issues and lower sales (the Nintendo 64 sold 33 million units).

Nintendo’s previous consoles were mostly based on 2D games. But the company emphasized the hardware’s 3D capabilities so much that even the system’s name reflected what it could do: it had 64-bit central procession unit (hence Nintendo 64). Its previous console, the Super Nintendo Entertainment system, was only 16-bit.

The games

Nintendo 64

Above: Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64.

Image Credit: Super Mario 64

The N64 made an impact on 3D gaming with its best launch game, Super Mario 64. Just like how Super Mario Bros. defined 2D platforming in 1985, Super Mario 64 became a blueprint for how to make 3D, third-person game. Mario could now run and jump around open spaces easily with the controller’s analog stick. Many fans and critics consider Super Mario 64 to be one of the best and most important games of all time.

But it wasn’t the N64’s only notable release. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time also brought that series to 3D. It’s still one of the best known entries in the franchise. It event created a template all 3D Zelda games followed for decades. Only the next entry, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, seems to finally be ditching the Ocarina formula.

Meanwhile, GoldenEye made first-person shooters a hit on consoles, Star Fox 64 came with the Rumble Pack and introduced the control-shaking feature that’s now standard in all consoles, and Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire and Rogue Squadron gave aspiring X-wing pilots a chance to play out their fantasies away from a PC.

The Nintendo 64 also had four controller ports, while other consoles before and at the time only had two. This made the system fantastic for multiplayer games like Mario Kart 64, Mario Party, and Super Smash Bros., which started a fighting game franchise that would become one of Nintendo’s best-selling series.

The troubles

The Ocarina of Time came out on the Nintendo 64 in 1998.

Above: The Ocarina of Time came out on the Nintendo 64 in 1998.

Image Credit: GamesRadar

Despite all the great software and innovations, the Nintendo 64 was not the most successful system of its time. That honor belongs to the original PlayStation. Sony’s first console sold a whopping 105.5 million units. The Nintendo 64 only sold 33 million.

This was when Nintendo’s woes with third-party publishers really began impacting the House of Mario. For a long time, companies like Square, Capcom, EA, and Konami had to publish their games on Nintendo’s systems simply because it was the undisputed market leader, even if they were unhappy with Nintendo’s strict policies. At one point, Nintendo would even tell companies that they could only release five games a year. Nintendo was obsessed with controlling third-parties, and they resented it. Once Sega’s Genesis became popular in the early ’90s, publishers had another option.

Sega’s console in the Nintendo 64 era, the Saturn, was a bust and died quickly. Sony filled the void with the PlayStation — and companies unhappy with Nintendo’s policies still had another option.

That choice became easier when Nintendo revealed that the N64 would still use cartridges. By 1996, most consoles (including the PlayStation) were using CDs. Cartridges had less storage capacity and cost more to make, even if they could load games faster than discs. Cartridges were also harder to pirate. Still, most publishers prefered the lower cost and extra storage space available in CDs, especially once games began including videos and voice acting, both of which required a lot of memory.

Nintendo’s loss of third-party support would cost the system some big games, most notably with Final Fantasy VII, one of the PlayStation’s biggest hits. Before Final Fantasy VII, the series was exclusive to Nintendo consoles.

Despite the negatives, many gamers look back on the Nintendo 64 with fondness. Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, and others remain some of the best-loved titles ever, and no other system offered more fun for four friends with a big couch. Maybe Nintendo will try to recapture that spirit of technological innovation, discovery, and multiplayer fun with its next system, the NX.

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How machine learning can help the security industry

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 12:10 PM PDT

security

Machine learning (ML) is such a hot area in security right now.

At the 2016 RSA Conference, you would be hard pressed to find a company that is not claiming to use ML for security. And why not? To the layperson, ML seems like the magic solution to all security problems. Take a bunch of unlabeled data, pump it through a system with some ML magic inside, and it can somehow identify patterns even human experts can’t find — all while learning and adapting to new behaviors and threats. Rather than having to code the rules, these systems can discover the rules all by themselves.

Oh, if only that were the case! ML is this year’s “big data”: Everyone is claiming to do it, but few actually do it right or even understand what it’s good for. Especially in security, I’ve seen more misapplications than appropriate ones.

Most applications of ML in security use a form of anomaly detection, which is used to spot events that do not match an expected pattern. Anomaly detection is a useful technique in certain circumstances, but too often, vendors misapply it. For example, they will claim to analyze network traffic in an enterprise and use ML to find hackers in your network. This does not work, and you should be immediately skeptical of the vendors who make this claim.

Effective machine learning requires a low dimensionality problem with high-quality labeled data. Unfortunately, deployments in real enterprises have neither. Detecting novel attacks requires either clear, labeled examples of attacks, which you do not have by definition, or a complete, exhaustive understanding of “normal” network behavior, which is impossible for any real network. And any sophisticated attacker will make an attack appear as seamless and “typical” as possible, to avoid setting off alarms.

Where does ML work?

One example where ML and anomaly detection can actually work well for security is in classifying human behavior. Humans, it turns out, are fairly predictable, and it is possible to build fairly accurate models of individual user behavior and detect when it doesn’t match their normal behavior.

We’ve had success in using ML for implicit authentication via analyzing a user’s biometrics, behavior, and environment. Implicit authentication is a technique that allows users to authenticate without performing any explicit actions like entering a password or swiping a fingerprint. This has clear benefits to both the user experience as well as for security. Users don’t need to be bothered with extra steps, we can use many authentication factors (rather than just one, a password), and it can happen continuously in the background.

Implicit authentication is well-suited to ML because most of the factors are low dimensional, meaning they involve a small number of parameters, and you can passively gather high-quality labeled data about user identities. Much like ML is effective in matching images for computer vision even in the presence of variance and noise, it is also effective in matching unique human behavioral aspects.

One example of this technology is how we can authenticate users based on unique aspects to the way they move. Attributes of the way you walk, sit, and stand are influenced by a large number of factors (including physiology, age, gender, and muscle memory), but are largely consistent for an individual. It is actually possible to accurately detect some of these attributes from the motion sensors in your phone in your pocket. In fact, after four seconds of motion data from a phone in your pocket, we can detect enough of these attributes to identify you. Another example is in using a user’s location history to authenticate them. Humans are creatures of habit, and by looking at where they came from and when, we can make an estimate of whether it’s them.

There are enough sensors in phones and computers (and more recently, wearables and IoT devices) that it is possible to passively pick up a large number of unique attributes about a user’s behavior and environment. We can then use ML to build a unique model for an individual user and find correlations between factors.

Threat models and anomaly detection

In any security system, it is important to understand the threat models you are trying to protect against. When using ML for security, you need to explicitly gather data, model the threats your system is protecting against, and use the model to train your system. Fortunately, for attacks against authentication, it is often possible to detect behavioral changes. For example, when a device is stolen, there are often clear changes in terms of its movement, location, and usage. And because false negatives are acceptable in that they just require the user to re-authenticate with a different method, we can tune the system to minimize false positives. In fact, once we combine four factors across multiple devices, we can get below a 0.001 percent false positive rate on implicit authentication.

There is no magic machine learning genie that can solve all your security problems. Building an effective security product that uses ML requires a deep understanding of the underlying system, and many security problems are just not appropriate for ML. For those that are, it’s a very powerful technique. And don’t worry, the companies on the hype train will soon move on to newer fads, like mobile self-driving AR blockchain drone marketplaces.

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Plex can now organize and play your movies from Amazon’s cloud

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 11:50 AM PDT

Amazon is powering the new Plex Cloud service.

Plex wants you to have all your digital movies available on your Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nvidia Shield whenever you need it without having to maintain expensive storage drives and finicky routers.

The company revealed today that it is partnering with Amazon to power the new Plex Cloud service that is live now as an invite-only beta. This new premium offering from Plex enables you to keep an unlimited number of movies, television shows, and movies stored on a remote Amazon server that is always on and ready to serve up your content to your gaming consoles and other devices. Plex is already one of the top services for organizing your personal media, and now it wants to remove the step that causes the most headaches: running your own local server. This means that even total novices can start their own version of Netflix or Hulu with the content they own without having to buy a 4TB hard drive and without having to keep a PC or Shield running 24/7.

Up until this point, Plex was primarily for power users who own a lot of media. The company made an effort to ensure its product is friendly, but it’s not really for the typical consumer. It’s something I’ve done, and I love it. But it’s not an option I’ve ever suggested to other people because it’s way more difficult than logging into Netflix. Plex Cloud could solve that simply by removing the hardware requirement.

Plex Cloud does require both a Plex Pass membership and an Amazon Drive account. The premium Plex Pass goes for $5 per month, $40 per year, or $150 for a lifetime membership. Unlimited Amazon Drive storage is $60 per year. While that cost could build up over time, it does come with some obvious benefits over running your own hardware.

Storage is not cheap. A large reliable hard drive can easily cost you more than $150. And that space is finite and is susceptible to failure. Amazon Cloud is unlimited in most countries, and it is also much less likely to lose your movies and pictures to corrupted data. If you are regularly expanding your media library or your vault of home videos and personal pictures, going with Plex Cloud could save you money and it could save you from losing important files.

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Microsoft is killing Yammer Enterprise in January 2017, will start integrating Office 365 Groups first

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 11:33 AM PDT

Picking files from OneDrive to share inside of Yammer.

Microsoft today provided new information about how it will be integrating Office 365 Groups into its Yammer enterprise social network. The integration will make it possible for people to make Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents using Office Online within Yammer, and it will be easy to go from Yammer to a shared OneNote notebook or the Microsoft Planner project management tool. Team members will be able to select existing files from OneDrive and SharePoint and share them with colleagues in Yammer, too. And Yammer teams will get their own SharePoint sites, enabling them to build wikis and blogs.

Microsoft will be rolling out the integration in phases, with the first phase beginning later this year, the Yammer team said in a blog post. The first Yammer customers to get it are those whose users log in with their Office 365 identity. And Microsoft will initially be targeting organizations with a single Yammer network connected to one Office 365 tenant.

The new integrations have implications for the way Microsoft sells Yammer. Specifically the Yammer Enterprise service tier will be going away on January 1, 2017, and Microsoft is encouraging customers to migrate to Office 365 plans. Effectively Microsoft will stop selling Yammer as a standalone service. (A support article has more detail.)

The changes will also affect what happens with data entered in Yammer. In the next few months Yammer Notes will be migrated into Word documents and will be accessible through the Files part of Yammer. But eventually Microsoft will replace Yammer Notes with group OneNote notebooks. More generally, over time Microsoft intends to “migrate all files stored in Yammer to SharePoint,” the Yammer team wrote.

What’s more, it will no longer be possible for users to set up private Yammer groups once Office 365 has been integrated with Yammer. And now people using Yammer will be able to have conversations either in Outlook (courtesy of Office 365 Groups) or in Yammer.

In a blog post in June Microsoft did mention that Yammer groups would be integrating with Office 365 Groups, and now it’s becoming clear how all this will work. Microsoft said in February that it was enabling Yammer by default for eligible Office 365 commercial customers.

Microsoft first acquired Yammer for $1.2 billion in 2012. As an individual product it has competed with VMware’s Socialcast, Facebook’s Facebook at Work, and Salesforce’s Chatter, among others, as well as more modern team communication tools like Slack.

Now Yammer is being tightly woven into Office 365, following Microsoft’s introduction of Office 365 Groups two years ago.

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Microsoft launches Project Springfield, a cloud-based fuzz-testing tool

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 10:05 AM PDT

Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

At the Microsoft Ignite conference in Atlanta today, Microsoft announced a preview of Project Springfield, a security-oriented cloud service that’s based on work from Microsoft Research.

Project Springfield can be considered a tool for fuzz testing, which involves giving software random input in order to uncover vulnerabilities that people could exploit. But the project’s use of artificial intelligence distinguishes it from other fuzz testing approaches. As Microsoft senior content manager Allison Linn explained in a blog post:

Project Springfield builds on that idea with what it calls “white box fuzz testing.” It uses artificial intelligence to ask a series of “what if” questions and make more sophisticated decisions about what might trigger a crash and signal a security concern. Each time it runs, it gathers data to hone in on the areas that are most critical.

Microsoft has used a part of Project Springfield called SAGE to find bugs in Windows and Office since the mid-2000s, Linn wrote. Now a full-fledged offering will become available for other organizations to use, and companies won’t need to run it on their own infrastructure.

“Project Springfield works on binaries, with no source code or private symbols needed,” Microsoft says on a website about Project Springfield. “You need to be able to install the software you deploy on a virtual machine that runs in Azure, provide a ‘test driver’ that exercises your software, and a set of sample inputs. Project Springfield uses these to create many test cases for exercising your program.”

Companies can now apply for access to the tool for free during the preview.

To learn more about white-box fuzz testing, you can watch Microsoft researcher Patrice Godefroid talk about the method in a 2009 video.

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Yikes! No Man’s Sky drops below 1,000 simultaneous players on Steam

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 09:51 AM PDT

No Man's Sky may expire a few years before the heat death of the universe.

The popularity of No Man’s Sky is drifting into a black hole.

The universe-exploring space sim that debuted August 12 on the PC-gaming service Steam (after hitting PlayStation 4 first on August 9), has lost 94 percent of its daily active players in just over 40 days, according to intelligence service GitHyp that has tracked game-performance data using Steam’s API and Twitch since January 2015. In the last several days, the number of people playing No Man’s Sky on Steam has plummeted below 1,000 per hour. And at its peak, the game is only attracting around 2,000 players per hour. That’s down from an all-time high for the procedurally generated sci-fi adventure of 212,000 on its launch day. That’s a drop from the No. 3 most-played game on Steam to No. 132 this past week. While No Man’s Sky certainly had impressive sales numbers in its early days, it is failing to maintain an engaged audience that is crucial if Hello is going to provide ongoing support.

No Man's Sky's concurrent players since launch.

Above: No Man’s Sky’s average concurrent players per hour since launch.

Image Credit: No Man's Sky

Players are dumping No Man’s Sky for a number of reasons. Many are upset that it is not more like the gameplay trailer Sony showed off at the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show in Los Angeles back in 2014. Others have played for dozens of hours and are finding that they are at a point where they are repeating the same tasks over and over. Many more No Man’s Sky players grew tired of its technical issues and bugs.

Since launch, Hello has gone to work updating No Man’s Sky, but the studio has primarily focused on fixing problems and patching bugs. But to keep players around, a game like this needs regular updates that introduce new items, quests, and creatures. That’s how games like Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust, both open-world survival sims, have maintained their audiences for more than a year. The developers responsible for each of those unfinished games (which are in Steam’s Early Access portal) have updates those games dozens of times. In the case of Ark, Studio Wildcard releases something new almost every other day.

We’ve reached out to Hello Games to ask how it plans to rebuild and maintain an active player base, and we’ll update this story with any new information.

For now, however, No Man’s Sky is looking derelict and abandoned, and it’s difficult to imagine it will have a vibrant future.

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Jetpack Joyride will blast its way into casinos

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 09:15 AM PDT

Jetpack Joyride

Gamblit Gaming said today it has cut a deal with Halfbrick Studios to take the smash hit Jetpack Joyride to casino floors.

The Glendale, California-based company specializes in real-money gambling and skill games in both mobile and land-based casinos. It announced a flurry of deals lately, including one with PikPok to take Into the Dead, which has been downloaded 60 million times, into casinos. Gamblit also announced it would take the Road Redemption racing game to its G-Sports esports platform in casinos. And it is taking the virtual reality game The Brookhaven Experiment into casinos as well.

The Australia-based Halfbrick Studios has been a huge success, with games like Fruit Ninja reaching more than 1 billion downloads. The two companies will work together to make a version of Jetpack Joyride that works well as a skill-based real-money gambling game in casinos. Jetpack Joyride has been downloaded more than 350 million times and it has 14 million monthly active users.

“We have great respect for Halfbrick Studios, so we are thrilled to be partnering with one of the world’s greatest game developers to bring one of their most beloved games to casinos,” said Darion Lowenstein, chief marketing officer at Gamblit Gaming, in a statement.  “I’ve been playing Jetpack Joyride for years, and adding real-money wagering makes dodging missiles while wearing bullet-powered jetpacks even more fun and exciting by raising the stakes.”

The company develops and publishes a wide variety of games that bring a casual, arcade sense of fun and skill into the casino market. Gamblit Gaming also works closely with game developers to gamblify and publish their games into new markets, tapping into the lucrative revenue streams of real money mobile gaming and land-based casinos.

“We were really impressed with Gamblit’s vision for a real-money, physical casino game for Jetpack Joyride,” said Sam White, vice president of entertainment and licensing at Halfbrick Studios, in a statement. “The skill-based casino category is an exciting new space and we are confident Gamblit will do the best job possible in taking the thrill of Jetpack Joyride to even more players in a very unique way.”

Gamblit Gaming provides all of the technology, gambling expertise, operations, account management, security, gambling licenses, regulations and compliance elements needed. The company also helps casino operators deliver a new entertainment experience to not only attract new players, but also retain existing users.

Jetpack hit casino floors in late 2017 on Gamblit’s TriStation game machine.

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This is the 4K Google Chromecast Ultra

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 09:14 AM PDT

4k Chromecast Ultra Google

Google is holding a wide-ranging hardware launch event on October 4, where it’s expected to debut a pair of Pixel-branded phones, a VR headset, a Wi-Fi router, the Amazon Echo-like Google Home, and the device pictured here, a 4K-capable digital media player. A person familiar with the company’s plans confirmed an Android Police report that the device will be marketed as the Chromecast Ultra.

Tipped to run firmware version 1.21 at retail, the Ultra will allegedly be sold alongside the existing high definition Chromecast dongle, released last year. Whereas that product retails for $35, Ultra will cost nearly double at $69, according to another Android Police report. The increased price brings more powerful hardware capable of streaming content with 4K resolution from a device like a smartphone to an HDMI-equipped display.

Notably, the 1.21 firmware, which was just released in beta form to members of the Chromecast Preview program, has eliminated all instances of the Chromecast logo. In its place is the Google “G” logo — the same one seen adorning the Chromecast Ultra hardware.

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Y Combinator chief’s nonprofit VotePlz launches $1 million voter registration sweepstakes

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 09:00 AM PDT

VotePlz voter registration sweepstakes

We’re hours away from the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, an event that could influence a third of voters. During this polarizing election season, there’s been an uptick in drives to get people registered to vote. For Sam Altman’s nonprofit VotePlz, registration has become the primary focus of the campaign season. With that in mind, Y Combinator’s president and cohorts Erika Reinhardt, Fouad Matin, and Ari Weinstein have launched a sweepstakes aimed at encouraging everyone to participate in the democratic process.

The sweepstakes starts today and lasts through November 2. All you need to do is check to see if you and your friends or family members are registered. In the end, participants will be selected to win part of the $1 million purse, which includes $50,000 in college scholarships, $50,000 in student debt forgiveness, $25,000 in cash, and $20 gift cards.

"We're excited to launch the VotePlz sweepstakes to raise awareness for young voters to make sure their friends are registered to vote in November," Reinhardt said in a statement.

To take part in the sweepstakes, check to see if you’re registered, and you’ll get one entry. Then, refer five other people to VotePlz, and have them do the same. For every new person who checks registration through VotePlz, you’ll receive another entry, up to 25 total. The contest is open nationwide and ends on November 2, a date chosen because that’s the last day some states offer voter registration.

From there, Matin said the team will randomly select winners from the eligible participants. Individuals must be 18 years or older at the time of entry and must be legal residents in the U.S. You’re limited to one prize.

Launched earlier this month, VotePlz is a byproduct of Altman’s political efforts and desire to increase young voter turnout. "We think registering to vote should be as easy as calling an Uber," Matin told VentureBeat. "The goal is to raise awareness of voter registration and get more people involved in the political process at a time when it's more important than ever."

With VotePlz, citizens can easily check to see if they’re registered. If they’re not, the service makes registering a breeze. And if you’re not able to physically make it to your polling place on election day, VotePlz can have an absentee ballot delivered to you by mail.

Right now, this nonprofit service isn’t focused on specific ballot measures or even candidate positions. It’s all about getting people registered to do their patriotic duty. VotePlz said that only 54 percent of eligible young people were registered during the last presidential election, and, in a survey it conducted this year, "around 10 percent of millennials don’t even know whether or not they are registered."

Silicon Valley companies are becoming very vocal this year, not only exerting influence on which candidate people should vote for, but also facilitating voter registration. Square recently allowed merchants to add links to voter registration systems on customer receipts. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel was a prominent speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention. And dozens of tech company founders and industry leaders have signed an open letter denouncing Trump’s candidacy.

Will VotePlz’s sweepstake be enough to increase voter registration around the country? It’s certainly worth a shot. But it’s one thing to get registered; it’s another to actually get to the ballot box and cast that vote. Let’s see how millennials respond to this incentive.

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Windows 10 adoption passes 400 million devices, 7 months faster than Windows 7

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 08:31 AM PDT

Windows 10

Microsoft today announced that Windows 10 is now installed on over 400 million devices. It took the latest and greatest operating system from the company about 14 months to hit the new milestone.

Windows 10 was installed on over 75 million PCs in its first four weeks. It passed 110 million devices after 10 weeks, 200 million in under six months, 270 million after eight months, 300 million after nine months, and then 350 million after 11 months. Microsoft was aiming for 1 billion devices running Windows 10 “in two to three years,” but recently the company backpedaled on that goal.

Here’s the progress in a chart, with Windows 8 thrown in for context (Microsoft stopped reporting Windows 8 milestones after 200 million):

windows_10_400_million

As you can see, Windows 7 and Windows 8 milestones were similar for the first six months or so, though it quickly became clear that Windows 8 was not selling as quickly as its predecessor did. Windows 10 has been ahead of both from the start, and while the slope of its growth has become less steep, it’s still very strong. Windows 10 got to 400 million devices about 7 months sooner than Windows 7.

Windows 10 adoption is faster than its predecessors for a number of reasons. Here are the three big ones:

  • Windows 10 was available as a free upgrade for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 users during its first year. This is why Microsoft counts “active devices” with Windows 10 rather than “license sales.”
  • Microsoft is also counting phones running Windows 10 Mobile (both purchased and those that have upgraded) in the total figure. Xbox Ones, Surface Hubs, and HoloLens devices are also included.
  • And finally, like with all Windows releases, there are more Windows computers now than there were before, not to mention more people in the world. The pie has grown, so the potential number of devices that can be running Windows 10 is larger than it was years ago when previous Windows versions were released.

Windows 10 is a service, meaning it was built in a very different way than its predecessors so it can be regularly updated with not just fixes but new features too. The most recent significant update is the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, released last month.

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Why mobile game maker Roadhouse Interactive ran out of cash

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 08:30 AM PDT

Roadhouse Interactive

Roadhouse Interactive was an ambitious mobile game studio in Vancouver. But like many in the treacherous games business, the Canadian company ran out of cash and shut down.

CEO James Hursthouse confirmed that Roadhouse closed earlier this month and laid off its remaining 120 employees. Earlier in the summer, the company laid off 25 people. It started when one of the company’s biggest clients, a publisher of apps, decided to exit the business altogether, Hursthouse said. The company had other projects such as Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast, that were also on the market. But the title wasn’t performing well enough to making ongoing investment easier. Publisher Nodding Frod Interactive has taken over operations for Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast.

Instead of trying to proceed with a skeleton crew, Hursthouse decided to pull the plug after other efforts failed. He said the company fulfilled its obligations for payroll, and he was happy with that. I spoke with him last week, and here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Nick Maliperiman and James Hursthouse (right) of Roadhouse

Above: Nick Maliperiman and James Hursthouse (right) of Roadhouse

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: Are there any more details you're able to share about what happened?

James Hursthouse: It's obviously been quite a difficult summer. The long story short is it was a series of cash flow issues that compounded together. The fundamentals of the business were still pretty strong. We had some great games, and most of the games will continue in one form or another with their publishers or other companies that will take them over. But ultimately, while we still had a great group of people and the business was moving in the right direction, we did have this domino effect of cash flow problems.

In July, one of our key clients decided to get out of the app business altogether. That was the first domino in a series of cash flow issues that led to a significant problem. We still never missed payroll in the history of the company, right up until the end. Everybody was paid up until the day they were let go, which is not so much consolation for some folks, but from my perspective it was important. Now we're on to figuring out what the next chapter looks like.

GamesBeat: How many people were left at the time you closed?

Hursthouse: We had some layoffs in July, around 25 people at that point in time, which was just a right-sizing exercise. We thought, at that stage, we could still make it through. On September 1, when the business closed, I think there were 125 people affected that day.

GamesBeat: Did you find the environment for raising money pretty tough?

Hursthouse: I don't know if it was the environment for raising money. Vancouver and British Columbia have a profile as far as the type of money around here. From our perspective it was just this series of events – the cancellation of one project, and then we released the Iron Maiden game in July. We were quite pleased with that. It was monetizing and did pretty well. But in the context of Pokemon Go and an interesting environment over the summer for apps in general, it didn't do as well as we'd hoped it would. I'm still very confident that game will achieve the success we expected of it, but it wasn't doing so in a time frame that was going to work for us.

Everything happened very quickly. Obviously the ability to raise money to get over that hump—it was a very short period of time and we weren't able to do that. We had a few offers for the company, but not within the time frame that was available to us.

Red Bull Air Race is one of Roadhouse's previous releases.

Above: Red Bull Air Race is one of Roadhouse’s previous releases.

Image Credit: iPad Modo

GamesBeat: Is there a chance to keep the team together at a new company? What do you see going forward?

Hursthouse: A lot of the games we had are moving forward. In the case of games we built for other companies, those companies have an interest in keeping those games moving. A couple of the teams are still together working on their games for different owners. The Iron Maiden team is continuing to work directly for Nodding Frog, the publisher. The Bingo team is continuing to work together. Obviously it's only been a couple of weeks, so the dust has only just begun to settle.

It was a great group of people and I know that the inclination is for folks to continue to work together. But Vancouver is going through a bit of a boom right now – not just the games industry, but technology in general. I know that a lot of the guys at Roadhouse will be working for some of the other shops in town and I wish them all well. I don't see all that much trouble as far as finding another role for these guys. Some of them are continuing to work together and some are going on to new opportunities.

GamesBeat: Do you have a plan for yourself right now?

Hursthouse: I'll take a few weeks to see what's around. I love British Columbia. I moved here six years ago and it's been great. I love Vancouver. I love technology and I love games. It'll be something in tech and in Vancouver, but I'm not sure what that is yet. I'm still assessing the opportunities.

GamesBeat: What's your own view of opportunities in the mobile game market versus other things?

Hursthouse: The research we were doing and the market intel we were gathering—I think there's still room in the mobile games industry. There are some dominant incumbent players, which is certainly part of a late-stage, mature market, but I don't think people are going to stop using mobile phones or stop wanting to play games on mobile phones. I don't think that brands and IP holders will want to stop accessing that audience through mobile devices. There's still an opportunity in mobile, although it's quite competitive and there are these giant players making it increasingly difficult to stake a claim.

I'm looking at VR and AR, obviously. Mixed reality is the next frontier, whether or not the market itself is ready for that. There's a lot of activity there. Vancouver is quite well-poised to capitalize on that, given the mix of mobile and console and PC development experience here. Also, as generations of kids grow up having played video games and become employed in all sectors of society—gamification has become a bit of a dirty word, but I do see the influence of game development spreading more broadly across society. There are lots of opportunities. It'll be interesting to find out what that next chapter is for me.

Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast

Above: Iron Maiden: Legacy of the Beast

Image Credit: Iron Maiden

GamesBeat: What's your view of Canada? Does it seem like a strong player in mobile?

Hursthouse: I think it can be. At Roadhouse we had a great dialogue with the provincial government. In February we visited Ottawa to talk on a federal basis. There's a renewed interest in technology, especially in B.C. We had B.C. Tech Week. The government's been talking a lot about its support for the technology sector. Games have a high level of attraction as a gateway to technology careers more broadly for kids. I've been quite heavily involved in some programs around that. The government particularly sees games as a cornerstone of tech, an important piece of the jobs strategy moving forward.

There's a lot of talent here already, a lot of creativity here already. For the development environment, we have the right factors. We could obviously use a bit more seed and series A money that's willing to invest in content companies, but that's a challenge wherever you are. Proximity to Asia, single flight to Europe, direct flight away from San Francisco, really good tax rate—it's a good place to be building anything in creative technology. Not just video games, but animation, VFX, everything more broadly. I'm very much hoping I can figure it how to stay here.

It's interesting, too, that it's not just Vancouver anymore. It's Kamloops and Kelowna and some other areas in the province that are starting to flourish. Kelowna in particular has a strong, burgeoning tech scene. When people think B.C. they think Vancouver, but there's also Victoria, Kelowna, and other areas that are starting to flourish.

GamesBeat: Still, I'm sorry to see the company go.

Hursthouse: It was a good six years. We achieved a lot. It was something to see how quickly it can all go away, but at the same time, we did get quite a long way for a number of years. It was fun while it lasted. It's not the first games company to go out of business and it won't be the last. You take the risk in order to achieve the reward.

GamesBeat: One thing I wonder, did you consider going down to a skeleton crew and trying to survive that way?

Hursthouse: Without going into too much detail, there were issues that wouldn't have allowed us to do that. There's a couple of pieces of employment legislation in British Columbia that make that difficult. We looked at it and we realized that the key value in the company was in the team. That's been proven out as the teams have moved on to work on these games in different scenarios.

Really, it was the factor of cash flow rather than anything wrong in the fundamentals of business. If we'd cut the team significantly, would we have been able to maximize the value and the success that we all believed existed in, for instance, the Iron Maiden game? There was a factor of being all in. A smaller, skeleton Roadhouse—and as I say, there was the factor of this employment legislation not working in our favor. In the end, we had to take the path we did.

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Philadelphia 76ers is first among NBA, NFL, and MLB franchises to own an esports team

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 08:26 AM PDT

League of Legends draws huge audiences, and many want to participate in related fantasy sports.

Professional sports have just passed the ball to its digital counterpart.

The professional basketball team the Philadelphia 76ers announced today that it has acquired and merged two esports teams, Dignitas and Apex. This is the first time a major North American sports franchise has had its own professional gaming team. Esports is a growing market worth $493 million, and now major organizations that used to stick their noses up at this kind of competition are seeing dollar signs.

The merged Dignitas and Apex teams will be called Team Dignitas. They will compete in five of the most popular esports games: League of Legends, Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Heroes of the Storm, and Smite.

"The esports industry is primed for incredible growth and we are thrilled to become an owner of such a storied franchise as Team Dignitas,” said Philadelphia 76ers managing general partner Josh Harris in a press release sent to GamesBeat. “There is a tremendous opportunity to leverage the infrastructure, resources, and experience of the Sixers organization to support these exciting teams as they continue to compete at the highest levels across multiple games. We see our entrance into esports as a natural extension of our expanding interests in traditional sports and entertainment and are confident that our involvement will accelerate the already rapid pace of growth in esports as a whole."

Esports has slowly been creeping into the realm of “real” sports. ESPN has broadcast tournaments for games like Heroes of the Storm on its networks, and notable players like future NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal and retired MLB star Alex Rodriguez have invested in professional gaming teams. Esports growth is so fast and trendy right now, it’s hard to see exactly where it will go. But it’s definitely getting bigger, and having the 76ers get involved could be the start of an interesting, new trend.

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Square updates contactless and chip reader to cut transaction speed by 25%

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 08:00 AM PDT

Square's EMV card reader, which supports NFC services, including contactless payments from Apple Pay and Android Pay.

Square has released an update to its contactless and chip reader to expedite the speed at which transactions are processed. The software, which previously clocked in at 5.7 seconds, has been fine-tuned, and the company says the time between when a customer inserts their card and when the payment is complete is now 4.2 seconds, a 25 percent difference.

It’s likely that you won’t notice the 1.5-second change, and this update may not seem significant, but every second counts. "Consumers and business owners alike loathe waiting for chip cards to process. And we, at Square, feel the same," said Jesse Dorogusker, the company’s hardware lead.

To put the speed into context, in a test done by The Wall Street Journal, on average, it took 13 seconds to pay with a chip card. Perhaps it’s because EMVs are new to the U.S., and therefore additional resources are required to expedite the process, but many wonder how long customers will be patient. Square promises that this update makes its version of the technology much faster than any others in the market.

Of course, Square isn’t alone in launching adaptive hardware; it’s competing against First Data’s Clover Go reader, among others.

Square began rolling out its contactless and chip reader in November 2015 in response to a liability shift for card payments in the U.S. The ruling stated that liability for fraudulent transactions would be passed on to the merchant if EMV chip-enabled devices and applications weren’t used to process that payment. But rather than just giving merchants a new credit card reader, Square also added support for NFC payments, including Apple Pay.

The company shared that it has received 500,000 orders for its new card reader, to date.

In May, the commerce company announced a leasing program that lets merchants use the reader for $1 per week. This was done to reduce the "financial strain" business owners may have felt in purchasing the $49 contactless and chip reader from a store or online.

The latest firmware update will be installed automatically, so merchants don’t have to do anything.

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Beyond Verbal wants to use virtual assistants to detect disease by analyzing your voice

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 08:00 AM PDT

microphone-1246057_1280

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced a $3 billion plan to cure, prevent, or manage "all diseases in our children's lifetime."

For the past two years, a startup called Beyond Verbal has been working on disease detection through voice samples and machine learning, an application Zuckerberg himself has talked about as having interesting potential.

Today, the company launched the Beyond mHealth Research Platform to collaborate with research institutes, hospitals, businesses, and universities to collectively search for unique markers in voice samples.

"[This idea] really got my imagination," Beyond Verbal CEO Yuval Mor said. "Here you have people who say, ‘We know that there are new tools that can be utilized on a global basis, and let’s do something about this’, so I think it's an amazing thing."

Beyond Verbal wants to get the attention of Zuckerberg and his wife and of researchers, hospitals, and tech companies interested in exploring the way voice can be used for the tracking of "acoustic abnormalities to identify specific medical conditions."

"One of the things that we've been doing is research with the Mayo Clinic on the ability to detect some heart problems just by analyzing the tone of voice. And when we realized that these types of correlations exist, we've decided to [expand] the work we've been doing," Mor said.

Beyond Verbal and others claim to have found unique biomarkers for diseases like Parkinson's and ALS. Partners have already agreed to submit voice samples to help develop detection of PTSD and neurological diseases. Early partners include the Scripps Research Institute, Mayo Clinic, and Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Beyond Verbal has also been working on a related program — emotion detection through voice analysis. To date, the startup has gathered more than 2.5 million voice samples in 40 languages to help it tackle this machine learning task.

Emotion analytics is now available through an API, and app users can help label emotions found in voice samples shared by other users.

The company wants to follow a similar process to track health through voice analysis, and it is using another app, Beyond Clinic, to collect voice samples for this research. Medical records can be shared on the research platform to corroborate voice analysis for health.

Like many in the quantified self movement, Mor believes that as long as people know how their data is being used, individuals should be allowed to carry out ongoing collection of voice samples to detect specific health conditions. This might include monitoring a heart patient who’s just returned home after surgery, keeping tabs on aging parents who live far away, or monitoring your kids after school.

Mor believes Beyond Verbal can put health tracking into consumer products in one year, but the company will first have to substantiate its claims.

"We need to substantiate [this idea], which is again why we are coming with this research platform to really engage with institutions all over the world," he said. "We are still in the research phase."

Beyond Verbal wants to create a common API to detect health changes through voice data collected continuously through smart cars, Internet of Things devices in smart homes, and personal assistants like Siri and Alexa.

The hope is that the API could someday be used to detect cardiological conditions and diseases like dementia, Parkinson's disease, and ALS from the sound of a person's voice.

Mor hopes that, eventually, people will be able to call a doctor or caretaker and have specific medical conditions identified using this type of voice analysis. The same technology could theoretically help doctors provide medical care to people in remote parts of the world.

Emotion analytics, or what is called “affective computing,” is an area of expanding interest.

Startups like Retinad are tracking head movement to determine the emotional state of virtual reality users.  Affectiva monitors facial movement to detect emotion in video. In January, Apple acquired San Diego-based emotion analytics company Emotient.

IBM Watson can track the tone of your message, and companies like Cogito use a smartphone app to listen to the voice of people who have experienced a trauma, depression, or an ongoing mental health condition.

Mor wants to see more collaboration across fields of biometric tracking, which is why Beyond Verbal and Affectiva recently held a hackathon.

"We feel this research platform is an important tool to bring together researchers and engineers and let them collaborate under one umbrella, so if we have hospitals use our application, and if we can get…reliable medical data, this is really a way to call the different forces in the world and say ‘Let’s collaborate and do some fascinating things together’,” Mor said.

Beyond Verbal works with 25 data scientists, researchers, and contractors primarily based in Israel. It was created in 2011 but uses technology based on decades of research obtained through an acquisition. On Sept. 1, the company announced that it had received $3 million in venture capital funding  to continue its emotion analytics work.

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Zynga hires a game veteran as its chief marketing officer

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 07:30 AM PDT

Doug Scott is the new CMO at Zynga.

Zynga has hired seasoned game marketer Doug Scott as its new chief marketing officer. Scott has more than 20 years of experience in interactive entertainment and gaming, including developing marketing strategies, business partnerships, and overseeing product design and development.

The new hire shows that Zynga is still a company in transition.

Scott replaces Jennifer Nuckles, who was Zynga’s CMO for two years and four months. She was hired by former Zynga CEO Don Mattrick, who had replaced many of Mark Pincus’ hires. But Mattrick left Zynga in April 2015, and Pincus returned to the top job. Then, in March 2016, Pincus hired former Electronic Arts executive Frank Gibeau as CEO. Nuckles recently took a job as CMO of Doctor on Demand.

Before Zynga, Scott was an advisor to YouTube Music, where he helped develop solutions for musicians to increase their revenue and fans on YouTube. Before that, Scott spent more than two years as the CMO of BandPage, which Google acquired in February. At BandPage, Scott led the company's marketing, sales, customer support, communications, and business analytics teams.

Scott was also the vice president of marketing and revenue at DeNA, the Japanese mobile gaming giant, where he was responsible for marketing, business development, advertising sales, and operations for DeNA’s western efforts.

From 2009 to 2011, Scott served as CEO and co-founder of Lionside, a sports-focused Facebook game developer that DeNA acquired in 2011. Before Lionside, Scott was the vice president of marketing at RMG Networks.

Scott spent nearly six years at Electronic Arts, where he crossed paths with Gibeau. Scott worked on a number of franchises, including SimCity: Superstar, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Need for Speed: Underground 2, 007: Everything or Nothing, and Def Jam: Fight for NY.

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The epic Gilgamesh is the Sumerian leader in Civilization VI

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 07:30 AM PDT

Gilgamesh in Civilization VI.

2K announced today that Gilgamesh, the hero of the oldest work of literature (the epic that’s named after him), is the in-game leader for Sumeria in Civilization VI. That turn-based strategy game is coming out for PC on October 21.

Now, 2K has been slowly revealing the in-game leaders for Civilization VI for months. Gilgamesh is interesting, though. Most of these characters are based on people known for their deeds in history, like Teddy Roosevelt for the U.S. and Gandhi for India. People best know Gilgamesh because of the fictional stories we hear and read about him. However, many scholars believe that he was a real man.

“Scholars generally concur that Gilgamesh was in fact a real person, as several individuals referenced in the epic are confirmed to have lived in the region at the time, between 2800 and 2500 BC,” 2K notes on its site. “An ancient manuscript, called the Sumerian King List, posits that Gilgamesh ruled over the city of Uruk for 126 years.”

Still, it’s interesting to see a person who may not have even existed represent an entire people in Civilization VI. This would be like having King Arthur lead the English. You can learn more about Gilgamesh and the Sumerians in Civilization VI by watching the trailer below.

Note that he is not be confused with the awesome character from the Final Fantasy series.

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Uber launches gift cards in thousands of U.S. retail outlets, online purchase coming soon

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 07:10 AM PDT

Uber Gift Cards

Uber is making it easier to give out rides to friends and family with the launch of gift cards in thousands of retail outlets across the U.S.

Uber Gift CardFrom today, you can buy gift cards in Walmart, Target, and CVS, and Uber says that the cards will be available in around 35,000 locations across the country in the coming weeks. They will also be available to buy online soon, presumably sidestepping the need for a physical gift card.

To redeem a gift card, head to the payments section of the app, tap the Add Promo / Gift Code option, and then enter the code. The cards can be bought in denominations from $15 all the way up to $500, but it’s worth noting here that they cannot be redeemed against Uber’s off-shoot services — such as UberEats and UberRush — they can only be used to pay for Uber rides. Once a gift card is added to an account, it becomes the default payment option, though you can manually reconfigure this in the Payment settings section.

Though Uber is now the default travel option for millions of people across the U.S., gift cards offer an interesting new conduit for Uber to access an as-yet untapped market. Those who have yet to sign up for Uber will be more inclined to do so if they receive a $50 dollar gift card for their birthday, and, once on board, they will be more likely to use the service again.

Uber says that it will soon be offering a new company gift card program, in which perks are given out to employees — perhaps as part of a bonus scheme or simply to help cover the costs of commuting. This could complement a recently announced partnership with WageWorks, whereby employees are able to pay for UberPool ride-shares using pre-tax dollars.

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Pandora hires former Apple and LinkedIn marketer Nick Bartle as its new CMO

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 06:40 AM PDT

Pandora new logo

Pandora has announced the latest step in its push to reinvent itself, as the music-streaming company unveils its new chief marketing officer (CMO) — only the second person to hold the position.

Starting on October 3, Nick Bartle will join the company from LinkedIn, where he has served as VP for member marketing and communications since last September. Prior to that, Bartle was senior director for marketing communications at Apple from 2011 through 2015.

Nick BartleToday’s news comes five months after Pandora’s first CMO, Simon Fleming-Wood, announced he was stepping down after five years in the role. That followed on the heels of the announcement that Pandora cofounder Tim Westergren was taking over as CEO as part of a broader management makeover.

“From the moment I met Nick, his ability to make a substantial and immediate impact on Pandora was clear," said Westergren, in a statement. “Nick brings a deep understanding of consumer marketing and strategic communications from years of experience with the world’s most revered brands. He is the perfect leader to accelerate Pandora’s brand momentum during this transformative time.”

Launched in 2000, Pandora is available in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. It has differed from on-demand music-streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify in that it lets you listen to personalized music stations built around a song, artist, or genre, rather than letting you search for and play any music you like.

Today’s appointment comes at a crucial time for Pandora, however, as it recently launched Pandora Plus, an enhanced version of its $5 monthly service. That was really a precursor for what’s to come, as the company is expected to launch an on-demand streaming service later this year to compete with the likes of Spotify.  “I’m thrilled to join Pandora at this inflection point,” added Bartle. “The company is poised to completely redefine the music experience once again. I can't wait to roll up my sleeves and connect our listeners to artists in ever more unique and personal ways."

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Skylanders Imaginators hands-on: Creating your own characters is a breeze

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 06:00 AM PDT

Mysticat character in Skylanders Imaginators.

The hallmark of Skylanders is that it’s easy to play. And that’s the case with the newest release in the franchise, Skylanders Imaginators, which debuts October 13 on consoles and the PC.

Activision’s Toys for Bob studio started the toys-to-life market in 2011 by making hybrid toy-game products. And now, it is finally allowing consumers to create their own Skylanders characters. I visited Toys for Bob in Novato, Calif., and got some hands-on time with Imaginators. I created my very own Skylander, as you can see in the video at the bottom. Toys for Bob is betting that this kind of customization is the innovation that fans have been waiting for, and it will get the whole market growing again.

Skylanders still dominates, but Nintendo and Warner Bros. have moved into the market. Disney dipped its toe in with Infinity, but it canceled that project earlier this year. Those other companies have big brands, but Activision has built Skylanders from the ground up to be the dominant $3 billion franchise in the sector. And Paul Reiche III, cofounder of Toys for Bob, believes that innovation will come from the imagination of players in this version of Skylanders.

Skylanders Imaginators Ember character.

Above: Skylanders Imaginators Ember character.

Image Credit: Activision

“Having something that you have made is powerful,” Reiche said. “You can create an awesome, badass character.”

You can still buy a few hundred Skylanders created by Toys for Bob at toy stores. But Reiche thinks that fans are going to go nuts and create a million new Skylanders of their own.

The battle classes for the Skylanders include character types, such as Quick Shot or Ninja. I created my own Swashbuckler character. You can choose body types, colors, facial features, weapons, and clothing. For instance, you can go into battle with colorful spandex if you wish. Over time, you collect more options, so you can go back and revise your character over time. You can even change the character's voice and the catch phrase it’ll repeat often. Somewhere along the way, I chose a snake-like body for my character, and, no surprise, it turned out to be particularly slow at moving.

In the background story, the evil Kaos supervillain has figured out how the ancients created the original Skylanders. Using this mind magic, he tries to unlock this power just for himself, but he accidentally gives the magic to Portal Masters (players) everywhere. Kaos tries to create a perfect villain — himself. He manages to do so, but the clone then tries to fight Kaos for control. So now, you can play as Kaos the character (his clone, really) for the first time. The only way to beat Kaos and his "Doomlanders" is to create your own brand new characters.

As I traveled the Skylands with my character, I took a selfie. If you save your character to the crystal, you can take it with you and play it at your friend's house. You get one character per crystal, but you can buy as many crystals as you want.

Skylanders Imaginators Hoodsickle character.

Above: Skylanders Imaginators Hoodsickle character.

Image Credit: Activision

There's no word yet on whether you'll be able to create your own toy based on your digital character, but Reiche says cryptically that fans will be able to share their creations. The game has a guest star, Crash Bandicoot, as well as his nemesis, Dr. Neo Cortex. Crash unlocks a new territory, the Thumpin' Wumpa Islands level. You can get a free Kaos toy with preorder and purchase of a $75 Starter Pack. I played a bunch of the Crash level, and it has side-scrolling or forward-running platform challenges that resemble the original Crash Bandicoot game. You can buy the Crash pack, dubbed Thumpin' Wumpa Islands Adventure Pack, this holiday season for $30.

Here’s our video of creating a Skylander, along with some gameplay.

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FTV Capital raises $850 million fund for investments in fintech and enterprise

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 05:15 AM PDT

money bag

FTV Capital announced today that it has closed its fifth fund — totaling $850 million — a number that brings its total raised over the past 20 years to $2.7 billion.

“We are grateful for the strong support from our existing investors, and we are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with some terrific new limited partners,” said Richard Garman, FTV Capital managing partner and head of the firm’s San Francisco office, in a statement. “We have worked long and hard to build an outstanding team at FTV and an institutionalized model that enables us to deliver consistent returns for our limited partners.”

Founded in 1998, the firm says it focuses on enterprise technology and services, financial services, and payments and transaction processing. FTV argues that the continued shift to mobile and the digitization of a wide range of services will make for interesting investment targets.

Among FTV’s investments, the company has seen at least 12 startups acquired and one IPO. Recent investments include NewsCred and WePay.

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FreshDirect raises $189 million to push its online grocery delivery service into new markets

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 04:46 AM PDT

Asparagus - Food

Online grocery delivery service FreshDirect has raised a chunky $189 million in a round led by J.P. Morgan Asset Management, with participation from W Capital and AARP Innovation Fund, among others.

Launched in 2002, FreshDirect delivers fresh food to homes and businesses across five states in the U.S. Northeast, including the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. Up to this point, FreshDirect had raised around $90 million, so today’s news represents the company’s biggest funding round by some distance.

The latest cash injection will be used to “fuel expansion into new markets, increase capacity with new manufacturing and distribution facilities, and launch new businesses that meet today's consumers' needs,” said Jason Ackerman, FreshDirect's cofounder and CEO, in a press release.

FreshDirect garners north of $600 million in annual revenues and claims to have been profitable since 2010. But its latest funding comes as the startup faces increasing competition in the digital realm, with Amazon pushing its AmazonFresh grocery delivery service into more markets and Instacart making inroads, too.

“As demand for fresh ingredients delivered to your door continues to rise, high quality food, produce, and packaged goods providers are drawing significant attention from the investment community,” said Larry Unrein, head of J.P. Morgan Asset Management's Private Equity Group. “FreshDirect is one of the first to connect its customers with farmers and artisans at the click of a button. The company is also expanding its reach through the new mobile, on-demand offering FoodKick. By meeting the demands of the modern shopper on these two fronts, FreshDirect remains a forward-thinking leader in this growing market segment.”

As a result of this investment, Unrein will join FreshDirect’s board of directors, alongside managing director Ashmi Mehrotra.

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Canvas Ventures launches $300 million fund for early-stage software and services startups

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 04:30 AM PDT

Canvas Ventures

Canvas Ventures has announced a new $300 million fund, as the Silicon Valley VC firm looks to continue investing in early-stage U.S. startups, with a focus on software and services firms in the Valley.

Founded out of Portola Valley, California, in 2013, Canvas Ventures has hitherto invested in startups such as CrowdFlower, HealthLoop, and Zola from its inaugural $175 million fund, though its partners — Rebecca Lynn, Gary Little, Paul Hsiao, and Ben Narasi — have invested in myriad notable startups between them in the past, including Dropcam, Houzz, Lending Club, and Evernote, among others.

With Canvas Ventures 2 now out of the starting gate, the company says it will be looking to invest largely in Series A and B rounds, with investment size ranging between $5 million and $20 million over the company’s pre-exit time frame, and initial investments typically falling in the $250,000 to $10 million ballpark.

The company says that it originally set out to raise $250 million but was oversubscribed by $50 million when it closed back in June. Canvas says that it will look at companies working across a range of areas, including artificial intelligence (A.I.), fintech, digital health, and network marketplaces.

“Canvas is a team of passionate investors who have all been successful entrepreneurs or operators,” explained Little, who has served as partner, investor, board member, and more at a number of notable tech companies. “Paul and Ben each founded startups and guided their companies through their respective M&A and IPO. Rebecca and I have run and scaled marketing and sales operations at pioneering tech companies. Each partner at our firm has had profit-and-loss responsibilities or started technology companies from scratch, and therefore has a high level of commitment and empathy for our startup founders."

Today’s news comes two weeks after fellow Valley VC firm Sapphire Ventures closed its third fund at $1 billion, which in turn came hot on the heels of a number of new funds around the U.S. and further afield. In 2016 alone, Accel unveiled a new $500 million fund; Index Ventures closed a $550 million pot; Partech Ventures announced a $440 million fund; Northzone launched a $335 million fund; E.ventures lifted the lid on a $150 million fund; and a new Silicon Valley VC firm cropped up in the form of Clear Ventures, which launched with $120 million for early-stage companies.

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LOL the future: That time I was invited to watch Twitter and Al Gore Hack The Debate in 2008

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 04:08 AM PDT

Twitter logo

Tonight, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go toe to toe in the first presidential debate, the real action will be happening across social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

That is where supporters of both sides, plus a mix of snarky cynics, will engage in digital trench warfare through an avalanche of tweets, GIFs, and meme-pushing in an attempt (that will convince absolutely nobody) to prove their candidate had the upper hand. We can expect much of that social media chatter to be hostile, insulting, and quite likely misogynist and racist.

This tone has been devolving for years, sadly. But now Facebook and Twitter will officially be at the center of the maelstrom with their respective decisions to livestream the event. Double the fun, double the hate.

When I heard the news, my mind flashed back to the 2008 election, when it was Obama versus McCain. On a chilly October evening, I and a gaggle of other tech journalists in San Francisco were invited to an exciting new event called Hack The Debate.

The event was a partnership between Current TV, the cable channel started by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt in hopes of revolutionizing TV show creation, and the then-fledgling little social media service called “Twitter.”

As I explained in a story for the San Jose Mercury News:

Twitter is “the micro-blogging service that lets you write messages up to 140 characters (known as "tweets")…If you want to participate, you need to have an account with Twitter (it’s free). If you don’t have an account, sign up for one at www.twitter.com.

Hooray, future!

The folks working at Twitter and Current had rigged up a system in which certain tweets would appear on the screen as Current TV broadcast the debate, providing they had the right hashtag. Before the event, Gore met us media people in the lobby of Current to give us a lofty speech about the future and TV and Twitter and democracy.

“I think this is a fantastic breakthrough,” Gore said. He went on to say that he hoped it would “break down the walls between the television medium and everyone else out there.” He added that “Current was designed from the get-go to be a bridge tween the internet and the TV medium and, in the process, to democratize the TV medium.”

Neat! I was pretty optimistic about this exciting new interactive TV future. It was still a time to naively believe in the wisdom of the crowd:

I was simultaneously trying to watch the debate, read the stream of comments, and furiously type my own thoughts into my BlackBerry. For much of the debate, that mental juggling left me feeling alert and engaged.

This was, of course, back when I was never ever, ever giving up my BlackBerry keyboard for that stupid new iPhone that was, like, totally impossible to type on.

Still, the road ahead looked shiny and new and full of goodwill and cheer toward all mankind. And I was sure Twitter would help make all-out digital utopian dreams come true.

In the case of a political debate, it made for more informed, critical viewing than if I had watched on a network and listened to some talking head after it ended tell me what to think about what I'd seen…And in this age of spin and cynicism, anything that helps us be more engaged and informed as citizens is something to be applauded.

Nope. Oh well…The crowd, we know now, has turned out to be a mob. Our digital democracy dreams have been crushed beneath the reality of humanity’s worst instincts.

Eight years later, the Twitter story has also largely stalled, a tale of missed chances and puzzlingly slow product development. We are now debating when Twitter might be sold and to whom. And we are wondering if Twitter can ever get a handle on the range of miscreants, from trolls to terrorists, who have burrowed in and made the service a cesspool of hate.

Speaking to Wired magazine after the Hack The Debate event, author and social media guru Shel Israel was probably more prescient than me.

“It's just a bunch of young people making shallow comments,” he said of the tweets on the screen. “Next time, I'll stay in the privacy of my home, and have a conversation with my wife.”

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Didi Chuxing invests ‘tens of millions’ of dollars in Chinese bike-sharing startup Ofo

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 03:05 AM PDT

china-taxi-red

Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing (“Didi”) announced that it has invested “tens of millions” of U.S. dollars into bike-sharing platform Ofo. The deal represents part of a “multi-layered partnership” in the urban mobility realm, according to a statement released by the company.

Didi Chuxing was born in early 2015 as the result of a merger between local rivals Didi Dache and Kuaidi Dache. Similar to Uber, it offers smartphone-based car services such as carpooling, taxis, and premium cars with drivers. Didi is the market leader in China by some distance, a fact that ultimately led Uber to merge its Chinese operations with Didi in a $35 billion deal just a few months back. This followed a gargantuan funding round by Didi, which saw Apple contribute $1 billion to the total $7.3 billion pot.

At the other end of the technology spectrum, Ofo has been doing something similar to Didi — but for bicycles —  since 2014. Ofo originally launched on the campus at Peking University as part of a student project, and it follows the “access over ownership” model of many other sharing-economy companies. Today, Ofo says that its platform hosts some 70,000 bikes, which are shared by 1.5 million users across 20 cities.

The general concept behind Ofo — “an Uber for bikes” — is nothing new, and many startups have attempted similar businesses in recent years. But achieving scale with any such venture requires capital, and Ofo now has that with what is arguably one of the best backers it could’ve hoped for.

Didi has the technology infrastructure to support any kind of service that requires logistical organization, and it already offers taxis, car rental, bus services, chauffeurs, and more — there is no reason why bikes wouldn’t work just as well.

However, it has elected to invest in Ofo rather than acquire it, for now, though Didi has hinted that it could integrate Ofo’s offering into its own in the future.  “Didi and Ofo will explore strategic cooperation in urban rideshare, including offering quality bike-sharing experience on Didi's platform,” it said.

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Zomato acquires Sparse Labs to give restaurants and customers real-time delivery-tracking data

Posted: 26 Sep 2016 01:51 AM PDT

Zomato

Restaurant search service Zomato has acquired fellow Indian company Sparse Labs, a logistics technology startup specializing in helping restaurants track delivery drivers, allocate orders to the most suitable delivery person based on location, and show customers where their order is in real time.

Founded in 2008, Zomato offers an online search service for 30 million restaurant-seekers in 20 countries, serving up information such as menus, photos, and locations, with users able to submit reviews and ratings. The company has raised more than $200 million in VC funding since its inception, and it expanded into the U.S. last year with the acquisition of Urbanspoon. However, some months later, news emerged that Zomato was laying off many of its U.S. employees and was refocusing its efforts where it was already a market leader and doing well.

Zomato has made a number of acquisitions over the past couple of years, including NexTable, a U.S.-based startup that offers a restaurant reservation and table-management platform (similar to OpenTable). But Zomato’s move to acquire a logistics technology company is notable, as it mirrors the offerings of a number of other food-delivery companies. Indeed, companies such as Deliveroo (in Europe) make it easy for restaurants and customers to view drivers’ location in real time, meaning hungry customers can always see where their food is, and kitchens can be sure they’re using the nearest driver for delivery.

Sparse Labs’ smarts include a web dashboard, APIs, driver apps, customer notifications, maps, and more. It’s all about helping restaurants optimize their operations to minimize friction between receiving an order and delivering it to the customer. There is also an additional proprietary GPS tracker built by Sparse Labs that can be fitted to bikes, meaning restaurants can always see where a rider is — regardless of whether their phone is switched on.

“Joining forces with Sparse Labs will allow us to significantly improve the food ordering experience on the app, by giving users real-time GPS-based status updates on their order,” explained Zomato founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal , in a blog post. “While we were already working on making this feature available for deliveries handled by our logistics partners, Sparse Labs will now help us enable delivery tracking for restaurant-owned fleets as well. At the restaurant end, this technology will help make deliveries highly cost- and time-efficient, allowing them to optimize delivery routes and ensuring minimal wait time for riders.”

Following the acquisition, Sparse Labs will be rebranded as Zomato Trace and will be made available to restaurants “soon.”

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