Month: August 2018

Skullcandy aims upscale with two new headphones

Skullcandy has always been an odd brand. Aimed at a younger, hipper audience, the headphones always featured wacky graphics and a lower price point. Now, facing competition from multiple players, they’ve decided to step up their game in terms of quality and style.

Their two new models, the noise-cancelling Venue and the bass-heavy Crusher 360, are designed to hit the Bose/B&O/Sony quality point while still maintaining a bit of Beats styling. The Venue are the most interesting of the pair. They are true over-ear noise cancelling headphones that cost a mere $179 – over $100 less than Bose’s best offerings.

The Venue’s noise cancellation was excellent as was the sound quality. The headphones were solidly built and last for two five-hour flights, a first for me when it comes to wireless or wired noise-cancelling headphones. Usually in almost every model I’ve tested I’ve had to charge or change the battery after about eight hours. This is a vast improvement.

As for audio quality I was quite impressed. Having heard earlier Skullcandy models, I went in expecting tinny sound and muddy bass. I got neither. What I got was a true sound without much modification and very nice noise cancelling. In short, it did exactly what it says on the tin.

One peeve is the size of the headphones and the case. Most headphones can fold up to a smaller package that is unobtrusive when it hangs off your back or sits in your lap. These headphones come in a massive, flat case that is not imminently portable. If you’re used to smaller, thinner cases, this might be a dealbreaker. That said, the price and sound are excellent and the Venue is a real step up.

Then we have the Crusher 360s. These are also well-made headphones that collapse into a slightly smaller package than the Venue’s. They also offer what Skullcandy calls Sensory Bass and 360-degree audio. What that means, in practice, is that these things sound like a bass-lover’s very effusive home theatre system on your head.

The Crusher, like the Venue, is wireless and lasts about 30 hours on one charge. They don’t have noise cancelling but what they do have is a set of haptics inside the ear cups that essentially turn bass events into wildly impressive explosions of sound. You can turn this feature up and down using a capacitive touch control on the side of the headphones and, if you’re like me, you probably will probably be using that feature multiple times.

How do they work? Well, the bass these things pump out is almost comical. While I don’t want to completely disparage these things – different ears will find them pleasant if not downright cool – the Crushers turn almost everything – from a drama to a bit of dubstep – into a bass-heavy party. I used these on another flight and heard every single bang, boom, and bop in the movies I watched and, oddly, I found the added bass response quite nice in regular music. If you like bass you’ll like these. If you don’t then you’d best stay away.

The headphones cost $299.

Skullcandy isn’t the audiophile’s choice in headphones. That said, their efforts to improve the brand, product, and quality are laudable. I avoided the company for years after a few bad experiences and I’m glad to see them coming back with a new and improved set of cans that truly offer great sound and a nice price. While the Crushers are definitely an acquired taste I could honestly recommend the Venue over any similarly priced noise cancelling headphones on the market, including Bose’s businessperson specials. These headphones aren’t perfect but they’re also not bad.

Twitter hints at new threaded conversations and who’s online features

Twitter head Jack Dorsey sent out a tweet this afternoon hinting the social platform might get a couple of interesting updates to tell us who else is currently online and to help us more easily follow Twitter conversation threads.

“Playing with some new Twitter features: presence (who else is on Twitter right now?) and threading (easier to read convos),” Dorsey tweeted, along with samples.

The “presence” feature would make it easier to engage with those you follow who are online at the moment and the “threading” feature would allow Twitter users to follow a conversation easier than the current embed and click-through method.

However, several responders seemed concerned about followers seeing them online.

Twitter’s head of product Sarah Haider responded to one such tweeted concern at the announcement saying she “would definitely want you to have full control over sharing your presence.” So it seems there would be some sort of way to hide that you are online if you don’t want people to know you are there.

There were also a few design concerns involved in threading conversations together. TC OG reporter turned VC M.G. Siegler wasn’t a fan of the UI’s flat tops. Another user wanted to see something more like iMessage. I personally like the nesting idea. Cleans it up and makes it easier to follow along and I really don’t care how it’s designed (flat tops, round tops) as long as I don’t have to click through a bunch like I do with the @reply.

I also don’t think I’d want others knowing if I’m online and it’s not a feature I need for those I tweet at, either. Conversations happen at a ripping pace on the platform sometimes. You are either there for it or you can read about it later. I get the thinking on letting users know who’s live but it’s not necessary and seems to be something a lot of people don’t want.

Its unclear when either of these features would roll out to the general public, though they’re available to those in a select test group. We’ve asked Twitter and are waiting to hear back for more information. Of course, plenty of users are still wondering when we’re getting that edit button.

Google and AISense will talk voice at Disrupt SF 2018

Only a few years ago, talking to your phone or computer felt really weird. These days, thanks to Alexa, the Google Assistant and (for its three users) Cortana and Bixby, it’s becoming the norm. At this year’s Disrupt SF 2018, we’ll sit down with AISense founder and CEO Sam Liang and Google’s Cathy Pearl to discuss the past, present and future of voice — both for interacting with computers but also as a way to help us capture and organize information.

It’s probably a fair guess that you’ve heard of Google, and Cathy Pearl has literally written the book on designing voice user interfaces. You’re probably also quite familiar with the Google Assistant.

AISense, on the other hand, may not be a household name yet, but its flagship product, Otter.ai, is quickly gaining a following. Otter.ai is a mobile and web app that automatically transcribes phone calls, lectures, interviews and meetings in real time. The team built its own voice recognition tech that can distinguish between speakers, making for pretty clean transcripts that aren’t always perfect but are still very usable. Otter.ai is also the exclusive provider of automatic meeting transcription for Zoom Video Communications.

We’ll be using Otter.ai to provide real-time transcripts of all the panels on the Disrupt stage next week, so you’ll be able to see it in action at the event.

It’s Friday, so here’s a rap video about scooter startup Bird

Listen, if you’re the kind of person who wants to watch a rap video about scooters, here’s a rap video about scooters. You’re welcome.

Also, if you make it to the end, you might as well stick around for the credits. For one thing, you’ll learn that it was directed by Andrew Oleck, the man who created that fake Mark Zuckerberg video, “A World Without Facebook.”

And there’s this disclaimer: “This video is not an advertisement. It is comedic satire. Bayview Drive Films is not endorsed, affiliated or otherwise sponsored by Bird .”

It’s the kind of message that raises more questions than it answers. Like: What’s the joke here? Is the video pro-scooter, anti-scooter, neither, both? Was I supposed to laugh? I mean, I chuckled a little at the rubber chicken, but mostly I cringed. Is that normal? Would I have gotten more out of the video if I listened to more rap? Or if I’d ever been on a scooter? Right now, in the year 2018, is “satire” even possible?

In related news, here’s a a synth-pop song about Elon Musk . Happy Labor Day weekend!

User’s Guide to Disrupt SF 2018

Disrupt SF (Sept 5-7) approaches with just a few days until things kick off. We have an all-star lineup that only TechCrunch can assemble, and we’re expecting our largest number of attendees yet. Check out our star-packed agenda here, and keep reading to find out everything you need to make for a stellar conference experience.

Pre-Event Badge Pick Up

Disrupt is 3x the size as previous years! Skip the Wednesday rush by picking up your badge early on Tuesday, September 4th from 12pm – 4pm at Moscone West. Please have your Universe ticket confirmation email and a government-issued photo ID on you.

You can also pick up your badge at the WeWork Welcome Reception, also on Tuesday from 5:30pm – 7:30pm at their Montgomery Street location (44 Montgomery St.). Space is limited. Please register your interest here. Please have your ticket and a government-issued photo ID on you.

Event Registration & Badge Pick Up

Universe is the official ticketing platform of Disrupt. If you signed up for a pass, you used Universe. We love them and we think you will, too. If you haven’t purchased you pass, please go do that here.

Sessions begins at 9am each day. Print out your Universe ticket or pull it up on your phone for quicker entry.

Please bring your government-issued photo ID each day of the conference.

Registration opens at 7:30 am each day (7:00am for Startup Alley exhibitor).

Lost Badge Fee

Don’t forget your badge every day – there is a $75 reprint fee for lost or misplaced badges.

Venue

Disrupt is moving to Moscone West with three floors of glorious TechCrunch content. Basic pass holders only have access to the Startup Alley Expo Hall. If you have a Basic pass and want to see sessions, workshops, demos, Startup Battlefield or come to the official TC After Party, email events@techcrunch.com or stop by our help desk to upgrade.

Driving & Parking

Ridesharing and public transportation are always the suggested mode of travel to Disrupt. If you do need to drive, there are paid lots around the venue. The designated rideshare pickup/drop off zone is located on the south side of Howard Street between 4th Street and 5th Street. Riders and drivers can also utilize nearby hotel passenger loading zones.

Public Transportation

Take Bart or MUNI to Powell Street Station. Exit to 4th and Market Streets. Turn right on 4th. Walk two blocks south to Howard St. Moscone West is located at Fourth and Howard streets. The main entrance is on Howard.

Women of Disrupt Breakfast

All women who are registered for Disrupt SF are invited to the Women of Disrupt breakfast on Thursday from 8:00am – 9:30am. Look out for your invitation via email to attend. If you have already registered for Disrupt SF and have not received your invitation, just indicate your interest here. Your badge is all you need for entry into the breakfast.

CrunchMatch

Founders and Investors attending Disrupt SF will receive access to CrunchMatch, our premier matching service connecting founders and investors at the event. If you have a Founder or Investor Pass type, you’ll receive an invitation to join. There are already several hundred meetings scheduled and we anticipate holding at least 2500 meetings during Disrupt SF. If you have registered for a Founder or Investor Pass and haven’t received your invitation, please email events@techcrunch.com directly for assistance.

On-site Nursing Suite

Mamava is returning to provide a private nursing suite on site at Disrupt SF. A dedicated cooler is stationed at the help desk, if you’d like to store bottles during the show. Ask for more information at the Help Desk table in the first floor lobby.

After Party

Break out your hightops and your fanny packs. The Disrupt After Party is going 90’s. Hangout with TechCrunch at for some free drinks, games, music and a secret lounge sponsored by Universe on Thursday night at the Midway. Your badge gets you into the event. This party is 21+. Make sure to bring your badge and your government-issued photo ID! Basic pass holders will need to upgrade for access – email events@techcrunch.com for info or visit the help desk in the first floor lobby.

FAQs – If you have any other questions, check out our Event Info page.

Disrupt would not be able to exist without the help of our sponsors.

Byton is the official AI track sponsor of Disrupt SF. Swing by their booth to check out what they’re working on and don’t miss their innovation break on the Next Stage.

HERE Technologies is the official Mobility track sponsor of Disrupt SF. Discover why the question of ‘where’ is more relevant than ever before.

Novartis is the official healthtech and biotech track sponsor of Disrupt.

Sequoia Capital is the official sponsor of the 2018 Startup Battlefield cohort. Don’t miss the Startup Battlefield competition, going down on the main stage.

Dassault Systèmes’s 3DEXPERIENCE Lab is awarding ‘The Most Innovative Hardware Startup’. Win a trip to Paris! Submit here!

Looking forward to seeing you all at Disrupt SF on Wednesday!

Rappi raises $200M as Latin American tech investment reaches new highs

Rappi, the Colombian on-demand delivery startup, has brought in a new round of funding at a valuation north of $1 billion, as first reported by Axios and confirmed to TechCrunch by a source close to the company. DST Global has led the more than $200 million financing, with participation from Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia—all of which were existing investors in the company.

Rappi kicked off its business delivering beverages and has since expanded into meals, groceries, and even tech and medicine. You can, for example, have a pair of AirPods delivered to you using Rappi’s app. The company also has a popular cash withdrawal feature that allows users to pay with credit cards and then receive cash from one of Rappi’s delivery agents.

Rappi charges $1 per delivery. To help keep costs efficient, the company’s fleet of couriers use only motorcycles and bikes.

Simón Borrero, Sebastian Mejia and Felipe Villamarin launched the company in 2015, graduating from Y Combinator the following year. From there, Rappi quickly captured the attention of American venture capitalists. A16z’s initial investment in July 2016 was the Silicon Valley firm’s first investment in Latin America.

The new capital will likely be used to help Rappi compete with Uber Eats, which is active across Latin America.

The round for Rappi is notable for a Latin American company, as is its new unicorn status. Only one other Latin American startup, Nubank, has surpassed a billion-dollar valuation with new venture capital funding so far in 2018. Sao Paulo-based Nubank makes a no-fee credit card and is also backed by DST.

Investment in Latin American tech continues to reach new highs. In the first quarter of 2018, more than $600 million was invested. That followed a record 2017, which was the first time VCs funneled more than $1 billion into the continent’s tech ecosystem during a 12-month period.

The rise in investment is mostly due to companies like Rappi and NuBank, as well as Brazil-based 99, which sold to Chinese ride-hailing business Didi Chuxing in deal worth $1 billion.

 

The Village Voice will no longer publish new stories

The Village Voice is dead — at least, as a functioning journalistic organization.

Starting today, the legendary alternative newspaper will no longer publish new stories. Gothamist reports that at a staff meeting, owner Peter Barbey said that about half the team would be laid off, while the other half would remain on-board for now to “wind things down” and work on creating a digital Voice archive.

Barbey acquired the Voice in 2015 and took the paper online-only last year. In a statement released today, he said:

In recent years, the Voice has been subject to the increasingly harsh economic realities facing those creating journalism and written media. Like many others in publishing, we were continually optimistic that relief was around the next corner. Where stability for our business is, we do not know yet. The only thing that is clear now is that we have not reached that destination.

The Village Voice was created to give speed to a cultural and social revolution, and its legacy and the voices that created that legacy are still relevant today. Perhaps more than ever. Its archives are an indispensable chronicle of history and social progress. Although the Voice will not continue publishing, we are dedicated to ensuring that its legacy will endure to inspire more generations of readers and writers to give even more speed to those same goals.

Some of that wording suggests that although The Voice’s editorial operations are ending, Barbey may still be working to salvage or sell parts of the company. In fact, Gothamist says that he told staff that he’s been talking to potential buyers, and that “for some of them this is something we’d have to do before they could talk to us any further.”

It’s also worth noting that Gothamist itself had a recent brush with death, having shut down last year before being revived by public media organization WNYC.

Leaked shots show off new Google Pixel 3 design, specs

The Google Pixel 3 XL has had a truly comical amount of leaks to date, but for the most part its younger, smaller brother has been a bit a more camera-shy. Well, today we finally have some purported photos of the real-life baby Pixel 3 via an anonymous Reddit user who leaked the shots that were discovered by 9to5Google.

The device seems to have a modest forehead and chin, certainly a bit larger than what we’ve seen on the screen-to-body ratio of the Pixel XL 3 photo leaks, but it seems to be a marked improvement over the smaller-bodied Pixel 2 and seems pretty similar to a miniature Pixel 2 XL in design.

We also have some screenshots of the phone’s specs pointing to a 5.5 inch 2160 x 1080 display that’s rocking 440 dpi. From this leak we also can see that the battery capacity of the phone will likely be 2,915 mAh. Previous leaks have suggested that this will be a Snapdragon 845 with Adreno 630 GPU and 4GB RAM.

At this point, what don’t we know about this phone? Well, if history holds, Google likely will be unveiling the new devices at a hardware event in October, so we’ll find out soon whether the company has any tricks up its sleeves.

More Alexa ‘blueprints’ arrive, offering customizable voice apps for families and roommates

Earlier this year, Amazon rolled out a new feature that allowed Alexa device owners to create their own custom skills using preconfigured templates. Today, Amazon is expanding Alexa Blueprints, as the service is called, to include a handful of new templates designed for families and roommates.

These include a chore chart template, a house rules template for roommates, and others.

The Chore Chart template allows families to schedule and track children’s weekly chores, and even lets multiple kids (or anyone, really) compete to see who has done the most. Parents first configure the skill with a list of weekly chores and who those chores are assigned to.

Throughout the week, the kids can log their completed chores by asking Alexa. (“Alexa, ask Chore Chart to log a chore.”). Anyone can then check the progress by asking for the “Chore Score.”

Another blueprint is a variation on the existing “houseguest” and “babysitter” templates, which let you fill in useful information about the home, like where to find the TV remote or what the Wi-Fi password is, for example. The new “Roommate” blueprint, available now, lets you program in other information about the house, like the “house rules.”

You can have Alexa nag users to turn off the lights or run the dishwasher when they ask for the “house rules” for a given room. This passive aggressive roommate shaming system may not be the most useful – unless maybe used to poke fun – however, the template also lets you program in other important contacts, like the landlord or building manager.

The two other new blueprints are more lighthearted in nature.

One, “Whose Turn,” will have Alexa either randomly pick whose turn it is to take on a particular task – like walking the dog – or she can pick from the next name in the list, depending on how it’s configured.

Similarly, the “What To Do” skill will let Alexa make the decision when you’re stumped about what activity to do next. Alexa can pick what movie or TV show to watch from a list you configure, and can even suggest what’s for dinner, if you program in a list of favorite meals. This is also clearly intended more for parents with kids, who like to incorporate Alexa into family discussions and activities, as a third-party arbitrator of disputes, so to speak.

Many of the existing blueprints are already family-friends, like the family jokes, trivia, and stories. Amazon said in June that Alexa Skill Blueprints’ adoption has been higher than expected, when it introduced a way for people to share their custom blueprints with others.

The new blueprints are live now, bringing the total number of customizable skills to 41.

Samsung Galaxy Watch review

The industry is forever chasing the Apple Watch. After all, the smartwatch has been a rare bright spot in a plateauing wearables category. Even Fitbit recently found itself heading in that direction, finding a fair bit of success with the Versa.

Samsung’s approach, on the other hand, has always been very, well, Samsung. The company’s watches are big, hulking things, covering chrome with a kind of Swiss Army knife approach customary of its various other products.

Announced alongside the Note 9, the Galaxy Watch wasn’t the departure many expected. While the name implied a potential shift toward Android Wear, the company is intent on sticking with Tizen. And why not? Samsung’s spent a lot of time making Tizen its own — multiple generations have been devoted to tweaking the operating system to its specifications.

It’s the result of a pretty clear cost-benefit analysis. The biggest drawback of not embracing Wear OS is the relative lack of third-party app support on Tizen. The biggest advantage: support for Samsung’s unique bezel-based navigation. To this day, it’s the best of the bunch, beating the more finicky crown control most of the competition relies on. It was an early choice for the company and continues to be one of the best elements of Samsung’s watches.

That’s as solid a foundation as any, really. Several different models have helped the company fine-tune its watch offerings, including last year’s Gear Sport, which finally found Samsung introducing a much more manageable 42mm model. It was the first such device from the company that recognized not every user is looking to place a massive device on their wrist.

The fact that there’s been a name change here owes much more to branding than it does any sort of radical departure on the hardware side. Instead, the watch is more of a fine-tuning for the line. Multi-day life aside, there’s not enough here to justify an upgrade for those who own a recent generation, but over the course of several years, Samsung has slowly been fine-tuning one of the better smartwatches in the game.

I wore the Galaxy Watch around for a few days, and used every opportunity I could to quiz others on their thoughts about the aesthetics. The results were largely positive. I don’t know that any onlookers were particularly wowed, but in most cases folks said they would consider wearing the watch. That’s certainly something.

Samsung’s among the companies that have subscribed to the notion that smartwatches ought to look like watches — an entirely different school than the Apple Watches and Fitbit Versas of the world. If I’ve had one complaint about the company’s design choices, it’s the push toward over-detailing — all of the numbers and notches. The design language clearly draws inspiration from sport watches.

For me, the pinnacle of the line was the hyper minimalist S2. It was subtle, modern and went pretty well with just about anything else you had on, from work to work out. Samsung, clearly, has gone in an altogether different direction here, targeting those who have a fondness for the classic outdoor style from companies like Casio. That said, the design is thankfully more subtle than past versions (see: the Gear S3 Frontier).

More importantly, in terms of appealing to a wider audience, the watch finally gets two distinct sizes — 42 and 46mm. The groundwork for the decision was laid with the last year’s Gear Sport, which brought a smaller size into the mix. The addition of the 42mm case makes the Sport somewhat redundant, though the company tells me it’s keeping it around for the time being.

It’s a smart move on Samsung’s part. By just going large with the watch, the company was ceding a large potential user base to Apple, including a big portion of female smartwatch wearers. Now that Fitbit is serious about smartwatches, the company clearly needs to do more to appeal to a larger segment of Android users.

The company’s watches have always felt large on me, and I’m around six feet tall. When I asked smaller colleagues to try them out, they looked downright cartoonish. The 42mm version fits much more comfortably on my wrist — though if you have a smaller stature, I’d strongly encourage finding a store and trying one on first. Even the smaller version is by no means compact.

The spinning bezel is back, because of course it is. It’s long been the best part of Samsung’s watches. It’s also the best smartwatch control mechanism in the industry, including Apple’s crown. It’s swift, it’s smooth and it’s much easier to use when exercising. That said, I still find myself using the side buttons with more frequency — they’re a much easier way to get where you’re going quickly.

The bezel is apparently the main reason for keeping Tizen around — Wear doesn’t support that sort of input method. And honestly, it’s a pretty good justification. Besides, Samsung’s done a lot to tweak the operating system to its specifications, and we’ve got a pretty good and well-rounded wearable operating system as a result.

There are a number of good reasons to go with Google’s OS, including better Android integration and a more robust app store, but Samsung’s always been interested in developing its own ecosystem — and besides, Tizen isn’t broken, so Samsung ain’t fixing it, as the saying goes.

Exercise tracking is another bit that’s benefited from several generations of tweaks. Fitness is pretty widely understood as the primary driver of smartwatches’ purposes, in spite of the existence of fitness trackers, and as such, all the major players are constantly attempting to one-up one another.

There’s nothing exceptional here on the exercise side, but the Galaxy watch is a workhorse. There’s autotracking on board and 40 trackable exercises. I’m a runner, and found the tracking to work pretty well, along with plenty of reminders to get off my lazy ass. Not great for my self-esteem, but good for my waistline, I suppose.

There’s sleep tracking on board, as well, though that’s become a pretty standard feature across all of these devices. More compelling is the addition of stress tracking. The feature reads the wearer’s vital signs to paint an overall picture of their mood. I’m sure the science behind all of this is lacking, and it generally read me as “neutral” (which, as anyone who has ever met me will tell you isn’t the best word).

That said, I’m sure there’s something in the psychology of it all. Like Fitbit and Apple’s reminders to breathe, there’s something to be said in the simple act of taking a moment to recognize your mood. Like a meditation body scan that reminds you that you’re constantly clenching your jaw, focusing on your mood and breathing goes a surprisingly long way toward de-stressing.

The Galaxy Watch isn’t the revolution Samsung suggested (but marketers are gonna market). That the company spent so little time on the product during the recent Note 9 event was at least partially a product of the fact that it’s more fine-tuning than anything else. There is, however, one piece that really stands out — and it’s perhaps the largest quibble with the smartwatch category of all.

Samsung says the 42mm’s 270 mAh battery will get you up to three days of life and the 46’s 472 mAh will get you up to four. That’s a bit of wishful thinking in my experience, but it’s not far off. Wearing the watch straight both day and night, I was able to squeeze just over two and a half days — pretty impressive, so far as smartwatches go. It’s also a bit of a necessity for something designed to be worn to bed.

It’s the best addition to the watch this time out. It’s not enough to help the device truly stand out from an overcrowded and underselling category — especially one where a single player is utterly dominating the sales charts. But Samsung’s still got one of the better devices in the game.

The pricing remains, well, pricey. The 42mm runs $329 and the 46mm is $349. It’s an additional $50 to upgrade either one to LTE. That puts the product roughly on par with the Apple Watch. From an Android user’s perspective, however, the real competition is the far cheaper ($200) Versa. Things have shifted a bit since Samsung’s last major watch release, with Fitbit becoming the major player in the Android-compatible smartwatch field. Samsung’s at a bit of a crossroads.

For now, the company seems content to go directly after Apple. Competing on that field is going to take some serious innovating. The Galaxy Watch isn’t that, but it’s a perfectly solid choice for Android users.

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