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Balderton Capital raises new $400M fund to back European tech startups at Series A

03:00 | 12 November

Balderton Capital, one of the so-called “big four” early-stage VC firms in London (the others being Accel, Atomico and Index), has raised a new $400 million fund to continue backing European tech startups at Series A.

Dealroom recently released a report that pegged Balderton as the most active Series A investor in Europe (between 2014-2018), and in many ways this new fund is a continuation, and business as usual for the firm. It is also roughly the same size as the VC’s last Series A fund, which it closed in 2017 at $375 million.

That’s not to be confused with Balderton’s other recently launched “secondary” fund, which is dedicated to buying equity stakes from early shareholders in European-founded “high-growth, scale-up” technology companies. The move essentially formalised the secondary share dealing that already happens — typically as part of a Series C or other later rounds — which often sees founders take some money off the table so they can improve their own financial situation and won’t be tempted to sell their company too soon, but also gives early investors a way out so they can begin the cycle all over again.

Meanwhile, Balderton says the new Series A fund is being launched against a backdrop of “unprecedented momentum” within the European tech ecosystem. The VC notes that the number of Series A rounds in Europe per year has quadrupled since 2012, with the total amount of VC funding going into European startups hitting record highs last year — from €11.5 billion in 2014 to a chunky €24.6 billion in 2018.

That, together with the sheer number of new funds that have launched over the last 12 months — and three I’m covering this week — leads me to wonder out loud if tech, and Europe in particular, has entered a bubble.

“I don’t think we are,” Balderton Partner Suranga Chandratillake tells me during a call, before acknowledging that it is often hard to know if you are in a bubble if you are actually in one. “If you look at the public markets, the valuations around tech companies, while they are high, I would argue that in many cases they are justifiable when you look at the profitability and the growth rate of those businesses, especially things like enterprise software. But I think it’s harder when you get into businesses where they are more one-off… [where] we don’t necessarily know exactly how to value those long term.”

On Europe specifically, Chandratillake points out that some European tech hubs are more heated than others and that sentiment can vary considerably per geography. “As you get to more and more the local level, of course, you can experience what feel like sort of comparative bubbles. So, you know, maybe London was expensive two years ago, and France is expensive right now at Series A or whatever, but I don’t think those things really matter in the long run, because ultimately they iron out as long as the employee valuations are sensible. And as an investor, you’re paying attention to that stuff when you’re going to make an investment.”

One rumour within London VC is there are firms that have felt pressured to do follow-on investments in portfolio companies they otherwise might not have during cooler times, for fear of signalling to the market not just that a company isn’t doing well but that the VC firm itself isn’t as founder-friendly as competing VCs. How does Balderton think about signaling?

“Signaling is a massive deal [in venture capital],” says Chandratillake. “And actually, this is an area where, you know, we think we have a fairly strong position, because for over 10 years now we have focused almost entirely on Series A… and we are very open about that.”

He says that unlike other Series A VCs that invest at Series B or Series C, too, and also quite often dabble in seed, companies backed by Balderton shouldn’t expect the firm to “lead or be a major part of your Series B.”

“Of course, we’ll help, we’re going to do some of our pro-rata or maybe all of our pro-rata to try and protect some of our ownership, all those sorts of rational things we do. But we’re not raising a fund which allows us to be a big investor in your Series B and your C and your D and so on. I think as long as you’re really open with entrepreneurs about that early, they totally get that and they understand why it works economically for us and why it’s a good thing.

“Then if you do that for a long enough period of time, as we have, and stick to that — so you don’t do weird things like, you know, say that, but then on the other hand with the most interesting company, you try to bully your way into more of a Series B or whatever, then the ecosystem overall starts to realise… then the signal problem goes away.”

With regards to future investments, Chandratillake says Balderton will continue to invest all over Europe across any sector where “information technology” is being leveraged and creating value.

In the fund prior to last, for example, fintech was a major focus, backing companies like Revolut and Nutmeg, but more recently the VC has been investing more in health tech, where computer science is helping life science solve problems faster or cheaper.

“I think that there will be more of that,” says Chandratillake. “There’s a lot more to be done in this health tech space, both at the patient level, but also actually a lot of really interesting things behind the scenes that will help health systems operate more efficiently and use technology in interesting ways. It’s a really interesting area for Europe, because we have, you know, within the continent, a plethora of different health systems — from almost fully private systems through to obviously entirely state single payer systems like the NHS. It’s a great place to experiment with different models. It’s also of course, as a continent, home to some of the most important pharmaceutical companies [in the world].”

 


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A16Z-backed Shift.org announces veterans hiring pipeline partnership with Better.com

02:43 | 12 November

While across much of Asia, November 11th is either “singles day” (a $38 billion Alibaba extravaganza this year) or Pepero Day (named because 11/11 looks like a bunch of chocolate dessert sticks), here in the United States and parts of Europe, November 11th also marks the end of World War I and the commemoration of Veterans Day.

Every year in the U.S., tens of thousands of soldiers leave active duty and transition into the civilian workforce, a route that can be startlingly difficult to navigate. How do you describe what an ordnance specialist does to civilians who have no idea what an MOS is? While the military teaches skills useful to a wide number of professions, holding the right conversations in a job search is key to making the leap.

That’s why a spate of new programs aims to help make it easier for veterans to head into the civilian workforce, and particularly into tech, which obviously has huge growth and great jobs waiting for those who can lock them up. I’ve previously covered one TechStars-connected non-profit, Patriot Boot Camp, which helps veterans looking to launch startups navigate the founder route.

One company that we haven’t covered on TechCrunch before though is Shift.org, an A16Z-backed for-profit startup that aims to help veterans learn the key career skills needed to “shift” from the military into the civilian workforce.

Today for Veterans Day, the company announced a new employer partnership with mortgage fintech startup Better.com that will see Better.com hire 80 veterans in the next few months using Shift.org as a sourcing pool, and a projected target of 5,000 veterans and their spouses by 2025 (assuming, as with all high-growth startups, that the high-growth continues firing on all cylinders).

In a press statement, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg said that “Veterans are an untapped source of talent that learned, operated and adapted to some of the world’s most innovative technologies from VR to robotics, nuclear technology and cyber.”

I chatted a bit with Shift.org CEO Mike Slagh about how he sees these partnerships and his own path into building a company. I “got started three years ago after serving in the Navy for just over five years as a bomb disposal officer,” he explained. In many ways, Shift.org was trying to fix his own challenge in moving back into the civilian workforce:

… My story was, I was going on base to the career fairs — there are these big aircraft hangers — and you’re sitting across the table from these employers, and they’re telling you what it’s like to work at their company, they’re telling you what [their] culture is like, and it’s just really hard to picture and it’s such an anxiety-ridden decision, and a big high-stakes moment in your life where you want to get it right for your family, you want to get it right for your future career trajectory.

Part of that anxiety is that saying the right things is often more crucial in recruitment settings than having the right skills. Slagh said that “I actually think that the gap is much narrower than many people naturally assume,” but, “you have to have oftentimes industry-specific context for somebody to take a bet on you when you have a non-traditional background.”

Since launching, Shift.org has partnered with employers like Better.com, Major League Baseball, and Symantec to help bridge the divide and open the pipeline to a wider and more diverse set of candidates.

The company was first funded by Garrett Camp of Expa Labs, and netted a reported $4 million round from Jeff Jordan at Andreessen Horowitz early last year. Slagh said his hope is to eventually work with hundreds of thousands of veterans not just secure great jobs, but also to train them in the skillsets they need to succeed in the future. The company is exclusively partnered today with Lambda School to help provide some of that technical background, for instance.

 


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Smartphone maker Realme is taking India and other emerging markets by storm

02:32 | 12 November

As Xiaomi widens its smartphone lead over Samsung in India, a new competitor is increasingly posing a challenge.

Realme, a one-and-half-year-old smartphone vendor that spun out of Oppo, commanded 14.3% of the world’s second largest smartphone market in the quarter that ended in September, research firm IDC said on Monday.

While Xiaomi, with 27.1% of the local smartphone market share, still dominates the market, the volume of handsets that Realme has shipped in India rose at a staggering 401.3% since the same period last year, according to IDC.

Market share of smartphone vendors in India

What’s fascinating about Realme’s expansion in India is just how closely it is replicating Xiaomi’s playbook in the country. Like Xiaomi, Realme for a year sold phones only through an online channel to cut overhead costs. Last quarter, the company began selling phones in India through offline stores, which still account for more than two-thirds of all smartphone sales.

In terms of online-only shipment, the company’s market share has ballooned to 26.5% in Q3 2019 from 16.5% in Q2 this year, the research firm said.

Realme has launched more than a dozen aggressively priced smartphone models so far, all priced between $80 to $240 — the sweet spot in the local market. In fact, IDC says Realme’s C2, 3i and 3 models — priced between $80 and $110 — were the top-selling phones for the company in Q3 this year.

Like Xiaomi’s handsets, Realme smartphones pack above the punch — sporting some of the highest-end hardware modules for their price range. The $80 Realme C2 features a six-inch HD+ display, 3+2 rear megapixel cameras, 4,000 mAh battery, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of expandable storage — and it supports 4G networks and has a facial unlock feature.

Other markets

Realme today operates in 18 countries, including its home market China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Vietnam and Egypt. In May this year, the company entered the European region.

In a report Counterpoint shared with its clients recently, the research firm said that based on the number of smartphones that Realme has shipped, the company’s rank went from 47th in Q3 2018 to 7th as of September this year. By shipping more than 10 million smartphones, the Chinese firm’s shipment grew by a whopping 808% during this period, the research firm said.

India and Indonesia accounted for more than 80% of smartphones that Realme has shipped to date, according to Counterpoint.

“We expect realme to become a serious contender in the market next year as growth will continue in emerging markets and online channels. The value for money proposition is also powerful in times of stagnant economic growth globally,” Counterpoint analysts wrote.

The aggressive growth of Realme hasn’t gone unnoticed with Xiaomi. The two companies have already exchanged testy words with one another and made allegations.

And you thought smartphone wars were over.

 


0

Uber CEO stokes #boycottuber fire with ‘mistakes happen’ comment

02:11 | 12 November

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s comments during an interview with Axios — and his subsequent apology — have done more than hand the company’s critics more ammunition in the renewed #boycottUber campaign. (Although, mission accomplished on that front.)

They also expose a weakness that if left uncorrected threatens to bring back the toxic culture Khosrowshahi promised he would eliminate when he took over as CEO in 2017.

First, a recap. During an interview, Khosrowshahi called the murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia a “serious mistake” and compared it to the death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg who was struck and killed by Uber’s self-driving car. And then he added, “People make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that they can never be forgiven.”

Khosrowshahi has tried to reel those murder is forgivable comments back. He’s issued an apology and Axios editor Dan Primack noted that the CEO called his cell soon after taping the show to express regret for the “language he used” about Khashoggi.

Khosrowshahi’s comments had a familiar ring to them. And that’s because he has applied this people-can-change-and-mistakes-happen attitude to serious infractions before.

During an interview in 2018 at TechCrunch Disrupt SF, Khosrowshahi defended Uber COO Barney Harford, who had reportedly made insensitive comments about women and racial minorities. Khosrowshahi described Harford as “an incredible person” and “one of the good people” as it relates to diversity and inclusion.

“I don’t think that a comment that might have been taken as insensitive and happened to report by large news organizations should mark a person,” Khosrowshahi said at the time. “I don’t think that’s fair. And I’m sure I’ve said things that have been insensitive and you take that as a learning moment. And the question is, does a person want to change, does a person wants to improve? Does a person understand when they did something wrong, and then change behaviors? And I’ve known Barney for years and that’s why I stand 100 percent behind him.”

This people-make-mistakes stance might not seem like a dangerous position to take. After all people do make mistakes and forgiveness is supposed to be a virtue, not a vice.

But in a company where toxicity and bad behavior reigned for years, applying the equivalent of “oops!” to serious infractions risks undoing any progress Khosrowshahi has made. If progress was made at all.

This latest incident, as well concerns around Uber’s treatment of its drivers and a new NTSB report that found the company’s self-driving system design did not include a consideration for jaywalking pedestrians, begs the question of whether the culture has indeed changed for the better?

 


0

Adidas backpedals on robotic shoe production with Speedfactory closures

01:38 | 12 November

An expensive experiment in global distribution has been abandoned by Adidas, which has announced that will close its robotic “Speedfactories” in Atlanta and Ansbach, Germany, within 6 months. The company sugar-coated the news with a promise to repurpose the technology used at its existing human-powered factories in Asia.

The factories were established in 2016 (Ansbach) and 2017 (Atlanta) as part of a strategy to decentralize its manufacturing processes. The existing model, like so many other industries, is to produce the product in eastern Asia, where labor and overhead is less expensive, then ship it as needed. But this is a slow and clumsy model for an industry that moves as quickly as fashion and athletics.

“Right now, most of our products are made out of Asia and we put them on a boat or on a plane so they end up on Fifth Avenue,” said Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke in an interview last year at Disrupt SF about new manufacturing techniques. The Speedfactories were intended to change that: “Instead of having some sort of micro-distribution center in Jersey, we can have a micro-factory in Jersey.”

Ultimately this seems to have proven more difficult than expected. As other industries have found in the rush to automation, it’s easy to overshoot the mark and overcommit when the technology just isn’t ready.

Robotic factories are a powerful tool but difficult to quickly reconfigure or repurpose, since it takes specialty knowledge to set up racks of robotic arms, computer vision systems, and so on. Robotics manufacturers are making advances in this field, but for now it’s a whole lot harder than training a human workforce to use standard tools on a different pattern.

In a press release, Adidas global operations head Martin Shankland explained that “The Speedfactories have been instrumental in furthering our manufacturing innovation and capabilities,” and that for a short time they even brought products to market in a hurry. “That was our goal from the start,” he says, though presumably things played out a bit differently in the pitch decks from 2016.

“We very much regret that our collaboration in Ansbach and Atlanta has come to an end,” Shankland said. Oechsler, the high-tech manufacturing partner that Adidas worked with, feels the same. “Whilst we understand adidas’ reasons for discontinuing Speedfactory production at Oechsler, we regret this decision,” said the company’s CEO, Claudius Kozlik, in the press release. The factories will shut down by April, presumably eliminating or shifting the 160 or so jobs they provided, but the two companies will continue to work together.

The release says that Adidas will “use its Speedfactory technologies to produce athletic footwear at two of its suppliers in Asia” starting next year. It’s not really clear what that means, and I’ve asked the company for further information.

 


0

D2C companies deliver customer delight and simplicity

00:53 | 12 November

Ashwin Ramasamy Contributor
Ashwin Ramasamy is the cofounder of PipeCandy, which provides algorithm-generated insights and predictions about ecommerce and D2C companies. His company helps investors, banks, tech firms and governments understand the global ecommerce landscape. @Ashwinizer

As the holiday season approaches, I can feel the tension in the air: how do I make my gifts stand out?

Thankfully, there are so many fun direct to consumer (D2C) categories — from bath salts to plants, to even organic fertilizer.

A New York City-based VC firm once asked us, “there are so many products that are getting launched in the direct to consumer route. It’s good that you track them. But can you tell us which segment is likely to go direct to consumer?” In other words, they were asking us to be psychics.

We aren’t, but I never let that question go.

There are many reasons why a brand can go D2C. You could unbundle every category on Amazon and there could be a case made for going direct to consumer. Several brands that do just that, but Amazon is not the obvious place to look for all answers.

Let’s take the example of plants and fertilizer. I want to gift a plant this holiday season, but I have two problems: I don’t know which plant to pick for my friend because I don’t know his preferences, and even if I find the right plant, I don’t know whether he’ll be able to keep it alive.

Generally, when people consider purchasing a plant, it’s not because they woke up after having a startling dream about a fern or a ficus that won its heart — it’s more likely that they looked at an empty balcony while sipping their morning coffee and thought it needed a touch of green. People aren’t buying plants; they’re buying better visuals, and a potted palm tree is a vehicle to their preferred emotional state.

But what if he’s unable to take care of the plants? Should I just buy some really good candles instead? Rooted, an online plant store, sorts its offerings using criteria like the amount of light required and how frequently a plant needs to be watered. As a result, I found Tim, a snake plant that’s “virtually indestructible and adaptable to almost any conditions.”

Some products are complex. No two plants are the same, and no two plant buyers are identical, either. It’s complicated. You can walk into a nursery and get the plant you are drawn towards and read the instructions wrapped inside, but the onus is still on you to help it thrive.

Companies like Rooted and Bloomscape know that you are buying an emotional state, so they help you avoid post-purchase dissonance. Instead, they offer a customer-focused product experience that starts with choosing the right plant and includes an onboarding kit that educates users, all contained within a continuous positive feedback loop delivered through carefully designed, friendly, educational content.

By going direct to consumer, brands can personalize the buying experience, optimize customer enjoyment and use, educate them at the right cadence, and ultimately, help them successfully harvest the emotions they were seeking.

This approach works for any category that is perceived to be complex. Whether it’s coffee, wine, food supplements or plants, these products are complex experiences that need to be tailored to customers, and the education process could be overwhelming. Brands that get it right can achieve the right experience by going direct to consumer.

People are generally resistant to change, but they love brands that can help them find a better version of themselves. Fear of the unknown and making the wrong decision ends in post-purchase dissonance; bad brands introduces dissonance, while a good brand attenuates this fear. The good or the bad is determined by the onboarding experience, intuitive design, content, online support, customer reviews and after-sales experience.

Like batteries that store power, brands store emotional states, positive and negative; a consumer’s interaction with Comcast taps into a different range of emotions than a visit to an Apple Store.

Creating comfortable footwear, for example, requires complex engineering; with unique types for walking, cycling and running, how do you figure which one is right for you? Nike Fit, an app released this year, uses AI to help customers find the optimal fit for their foot.

“Three out of every five people are likely to wear the wrong size shoe,” the company said in a statement. “Length and width don’t provide nearly enough data to get a shoe to fit comfortably. Sizing as we know it is a gross simplification of a complex problem.” The AI even tells you if your right foot is larger than your left and recommends the best sneaker; emotions unlocked! It’s no wonder Nike’s doubling down on its D2C channels.

Ultimately, a brand that performs well is a brand that has recognized and solved a customer’s problem; ecommerce and D2C are mediums that to do precisely that. A good brand offers good experience design that brings simplicity to a complex product, magically making it seem familiar.

 


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‘Death Stranding’ brings back appointment gaming

00:42 | 12 November

Game launches these days are frequently the very worst time to play them. Plagued by bugs, server issues, balance problems, and a lack of content, many “games as a service” titles are best consumed after a month or two. Not so with Hideo Kojima’s long-awaited Death Stranding, which if you’re going to play at all… you should probably play now.

This type of game comes out once every year or two: A title where the gradual discovery of mechanics and ideas by the players is part of the adventure. Being part of that vanguard of players who go in unsure of what to expect, learning by doing, and sharing that information with others has a special feeling, not of exclusivity exactly, but of a collective experience.

Sure, playing the new Call of Duty on day one can be thrilling, but it’s not exactly a journey of discovery. Furthermore, games like those tend to get better after the first few months as content is added, gameplay is tweaked, and so on.

But just as some TV and movies are best seen with friends on the day they’re released, some games beg to be played before they become over-amply documented, their mysteries vivisected and wikified.

The most frequent entries on this list are From Software’s Dark Souls type games, the esoteric workings of which are sometimes never fully revealed even years later. Bloodborne is still yielding up its secrets even now, for instance.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was another one, in which it wasn’t exactly that people were finding hidden things or speculating on lore, but rather finding how open-ended the world really was and demonstrating that in ingenious ways. When someone figured out you can trick an enemy into being struck by lightning by slipping them a metal weapon in a thunderstorm, it was like a million gamers worldwide squinted, said “wait, what?” and ran to their Switch to try it.

Death Stranding is likewise “appointment gaming,” because… well, it’s so weird. But it definitely belongs in the company of those games that are best experienced while steaming hot, like the frequent showers you’ll see Norman Reedus take in it. I’m glad I let a friend of mine convince me to jump in right away.

Don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling anything you don’t learn in the first couple hours. But there is a mechanic where items like ladders or climbing ropes you lay down to help navigate the terrain get shared with other people for their own use. Just as there is glory in being the first to call down lightning in Zelda, there’s a glory (slightly more obscure admittedly) in being the first to go a certain way and let others follow in your footsteps.

Lay down a bridge to reach a shelter more easily while carrying lots of cargo, and you may find that a day or two later, thousands of people have used it, given it “likes,” and maybe even upgraded or expanded it with their own resources.

The thing about this is that in a year or two, the locations of these bridges will have been optimized and documented for all to know, as if they were part of the game’s landscape to begin with. Where’s the fun in that? It’s a pleasure knowing that the environment around you is being improvised by players all over the world.

Similarly, there are “aha” moments already occurring. You’re told directly that your character’s bodily fluids seem anathema to the ghostly “BTs” that are your most serious enemies. You’re also given the option, once you’ve drank sufficient quantities from your canteen, to have a wee. Someone made that connection and decided to wee on the horrible ghostly BTs — and it repels them!

And a million gamers squint, say “wait, what?” and run to their PS4 to try it.

That collective experience that we shared when we sat in the same room to watch the Game of Thrones finale or, before that, Lost’s ultimately regrettable but thrilling perambulations, is present here in Death Stranding, as it has been for other games before it.

Is Death Stranding a game for everyone? Hell no. But nor was Dark Souls. Death Stranding is a game that is frequently original and odd and surprising, while also occasionally being heavy-handed, tedious, and obtuse. We need more of that in the increasingly cynical and predictable world of AAA gaming.

By its nature Death Stranding is something that, if you don’t give it a hard pass (and I definitely get that), you should be playing today — not next year or even next month. Get it, then be patient, be weird, have fun, and send likes.

 


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Facebook machine learning aims to modify faces, hands, and… outfits

23:53 | 11 November

The latest research out of Facebook sets machine learning models to tasks that, to us, seem rather ordinary — but for a computer are still monstrously difficult. These projects aim to anonymize faces, improvise hand movements, and — perhaps hardest of all — give credible fashion advice.

The research here was presented recently at the International Conference on Computer Vision, among a few dozen other papers from the company, which has invested heavily in AI research, computer vision in particular.

Modifying faces in motion is something we’ve all come to associate with “deepfakes” and other nefarious applications. But the Facebook team felt there was actually a potentially humanitarian application of the technology.

Deepfakes use a carefully cultivated understanding of the face’s features and landmarks to map one person’s expressions and movements onto a completely different face. The Facebook team used the same features and landmarks, but instead uses them to tweak the face just enough that it’s no longer recognizable to facial recognition engines.

This could allow someone who, for whatever reason, wants to appear on video but not be recognized publicly to do so without something as clunky as a mask or completely fabricated face. Instead, they’d look a bit like themselves, but with slightly wider-set eyes, a thinner mouth, higher forehead, and so on.

The system they created appears to work well, but would of course require some optimization before it can be deployed as a product. But one can imagine how useful such a thing might be, either for those at risk of retribution from political oppressors or more garden variety privacy preferences.

In virtual spaces it can be difficult to recognize someone at all — partly because of the lack of nonverbal cues we perceive constantly in real life. This next piece of research attempts to capture, catalogue, and reproduce these movements, or at least the ones we make with our hands.

It’s a little funny to think about, but really there’s not a lot of data on how exactly people move their hands when they talk. So the researchers recorded 50 full hours of pairs of people having ordinary conversations — or as ordinary as they could while suited up in high-end motion capture gear.

These (relatively) natural conversations, and the body and hand motions that went with them, were then ingested by the machine learning model; it learned to associate, for example, that when people said “back then” they’d point behind them, or when they said “all over the place,” they’d make a sweeping gesture.

What might this be used for? More natural-seeming conversations in virtual environments, perhaps, but maybe also by animators who’d like to base the motions of their characters in real life without doing motion capture of their own. It turns out that the database Facebook put together is really like nothing else out there in scale or detail, which is valuable in and of itself.

Similarly unique, but arguably more frivolous, is this system meant to help you improve your outfit. If we’re going to have smart mirrors, they ought to be able to make suggestions, right?

Fashion++ is a system that, having ingested a large library of images labeled with both the pieces worn (e.g. hat, scarf, skirt) and overall fashionability (obviously a subjective measure), can then look at a given outfit and suggest changes. Nothing major — it isn’t that sophisticated — but rather small things like removing a layer or tucking in a shirt.

It’s far from a digital fashion assistant, but the paper documents early success in making suggestions for outfits that real people found credible and perhaps even a good idea. That’s pretty impressive given how complex this problem proves to be when you really consider it, and how ill-defined “fashionable” really is.

Facebook’s ICCV research shows that the company and its researchers are looking fairly broadly at the question of what computer vision can accomplish. It’s always nice to detect faces in a photo faster or more accurately, or infer location from the objects in a room, but clearly there are many more obscure or surprising aspects of digital life that could be improved with a little visual intelligence. You can check out the rest of the papers here.

 


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Facebook finally lets you banish nav bar tabs & red dots

22:43 | 11 November

Are those red notification dots on your Facebook home screen driving you crazy? Sick of Facebook Marketplace wasting your screen space? Now you can control what appears in the Facebook app’s navigation bar thanks to a new option called Shortcuts Bar Settings.

Over the weekend TechCrunch spotted the option to remove certain tabs like Marketplace, Watch, Groups, Events, and Dating or just silence their notification dots. In response to our inquiry, Facebook confirms that Shortcut Bar Settings is now rolling out to everyone, with most iOS users already equipped and the rest of Android owners getting it in the next few weeks.

The move could save the sanity and improve the well-being of people who don’t want their Facebook cluttered with distractions. Users already get important alerts that they could actually control via their Notifications tab. Constant red notification counts on the homescreen are an insidious growth hack, trying to pull in people’s attention to random Group feeds, Event wall posts, and Marketplace.

“We are rolling out navigation bar controls to make it easier for people to connect with the things they like and control the notifications they get within the Facebook app” a Facebook spokesperson tells me.

Back in July 2018, Facebook said it would start personalizing the navigation bar based on what utilities you use most. But the navigation bar seemed more intent on promoting features Facebook wanted to be popular like its Craigslist competitor Marketplace, which I rarely use, rather than its long-standing Events feature I access daily.

To use the Shortcuts Bar Settings options, tap and hold on any of the shortcuts in your navigation bar that’s at the bottom of the Facebook homescreen on iOS and the top on Android. You’ll see a menu pop up letting you remove that tab entirely, or leave it but disable the red notification count overlays. That clears space in your nav bar for a more peaceful experience.

You’ll also now find in the three-line More tab -> Settings & Privacy -> Settings -> Shortcuts menu the ability to toggle any of the Marketplace, Groups, Events, and Pages tabs on or off. Eagle-eyed reverse engineering specialist

spotted in June that Facebook was testing Notification Dots settings menu that’s now available too.

A Facebook spokesperson admits people should have the ability to take a break from notifications within the app. They tell me Facebook wanted to give users more control so they can have access to what’s relevant to them.

For all of Facebook’s talk about well-being, with it trying out hiding Like counts in its app and Instagram (this week starting in the US), there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit. Better batching of Facebook notifications would be a great step, allowing users to get a daily digest of Groups or Events posts rather than a constant flurry. Its Time Well Spent dashboard that counts your minutes on Facebook should also say how many notifications you get of each type, how many you actually open, and let you disable the most common but useless ones right from there.

If Facebook wants to survive long-term, it can’t piss off users by trapping them in an anxiety-inducing hellscape of growth hacks that benefit the company. The app has become bloated and cramped with extra features over the last 15 years. Facebook could get away with more aggressive cross-promotion of some of these forgotten features as long as it empowers us to hide what we hate.

 


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Google Chrome to identify and label slow websites

22:29 | 11 November

Is it the web page that’s slow or is it your network connection? In the future, Google’s Chrome web browser may have an answer for you. Google announced today a plan to identify and label websites that typically load slowly by way of clear badging. The company says it may later choose to identify sites that are likely to be slow based on the user’s device and current network conditions, as well.

Google hasn’t yet determined how exactly the slow websites will be labeled, but says it may experiment with different options to see which makes the most sense.

For example, a slow-loading website may show a “Loading…” page that includes a warning, like a caution icon and text that reads “usually loads slow.” Meanwhile, a fast website may display a green progress indicator bar at the top of the page instead of a blue one.

And for links, Chrome may use the context menu to help users know if the site will be slow so you can decide whether or not you want to click.

In the long-term, Chrome’s goal will be to identify and badge websites offering “high-quality” experiences which may include other factors beyond just the website’s speed. The company didn’t yet detail what those other factors may be, but says the identification process will include more stringent criteria that’s rolled out gradually over time. However, the goal will be to make these “good user experiences” something any web developer can achieve.

In the meantime, Google suggests web developers visit its resources focused on site performance, including its learning platform web.dev./fast; online tool for optimization suggestions, PageSpeed Insights; and personalized advice tool, Lighthouse.

A faster, more usable web benefits Google, as it helps the company better cater to its primarily mobile users. Since 2015, the majority of Google users start their searches from mobile devices. But that shift has required new ways of indexing and ranking pages and serving users whose connection speeds vary and who may not have powerful devices.

Google now uses a website’s mobile version when indexing its pages, and it offers fast AMP pages to help mobile users get to information more quickly. It makes sense that a next step would be to nudge site owners themselves to speed things up or risk getting labeled as a “slow” website.

This sort of feature would particularly help Google users in emerging markets, like India, where decent bandwidth is often lacking and low-end smartphones are prevalent.

“Speed has been one of Chrome’s core principles since the beginning – we’re constantly working to give users an experience that is instant as they browse the web,” a Chrome blog post explained. “That said, we have all visited web pages we thought would load fast, only to be met by an experience that could have been better. We think the web can do better…,” it read.

 


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