Ubisoft at E3: Mario Rabbids sequel, Rainbow Six: Extraction, more

On Saturday, Ubisoft joined the E3-timed announcement fray with its latest Ubisoft Forward video presentation, complete with a mix of familiar and brand-new game announcements.

The showcase kicked off with Rainbow Six: Extraction, a three-player co-op battling game that drops an alien invasion on top of Tom Clancy’s tactical-combat universe. (Did I miss that particular subgenre of Clancy books? No matter.) The game will launch on PC and most consoles on September 16.

A meaty gameplay preview video showed a three-player squad moving through one of the game’s combat levels, which will combine bespoke architecture with random alien placements—and Ubisoft’s reps hinted to the aliens being able to create walls, gates, and restrictions to randomly redefine your descent into each level’s belly.  The resulting gameplay resembles Left 4 Dead, with a mix of weak and superpowered aliens (dubbed “Archies”) potentially splitting squads up as they battle and survive.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#avatar, #avatar-2, #gaming-culture, #mario-rabbids-kingdom-battle, #ubisoft

0

Avatar startup Genies scores $65 million in funding round led by Mary Meeker’s Bond

Over the past several years, I’ve covered my fair share of upstart avatar companies that were all chasing the same dream — building out a customizable platform for a digital persona that gained wide adoption across games and digital spaces. Few of those startups I’ve covered in the past are still around. But by netting a string of successful partnerships with celebrity musicians, LA-based Genies has come closer than any startup before it to realizing the full vision of a wide-reaching avatar platform.

The company announced today that they’ve closed a $65 million Series B led by Mark Meeker’s firm Bond. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures also participated in the deal. Mark Meeker will be joining the Genies board. The company didn’t disclose the Genies’ most recent valuation.

This funding comes at an inflection point for the eight-year-old company, evidenced by the investments from NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs and crypto giant Coinbase. As announced last week, the company is rolling out an NFT platform on Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, partnering closely with the startup who will be building out the backend for a Genies avatar accessories storefront. Like Dapper Labs has leveraged its exclusive deals with sports leagues to ship NFTs with official backing, Genies is planning to capitalize on its partnerships with celebrities in its roster including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B and others to create a platform for buying and trading avatar accessories en masse.

In October, the company announced a brand partnerships with Gucci, opening up the startup to another big market opportunity.

Genies’ business has largely focused on leveraging high-profile partnerships to give its entertainer clients a digital presence that can spice up what they’re sharing on social media and beyond. As they’ve rolled out avatar creation to all users through beta mobile apps, Genies has been focusing on one of the more explicit dreams of the avatar companies before it; building out a broad network of avatar users and a broad network of compatible platforms through its SDK.

“An avatar is a vehicle to be able to showcase more of your authentic self,” Genies CEO Akash Nigam tells TechCrunch. “It’s not limited by real world constraints, it’s an alter-ego personality.”

Trends in the NFT world have provided new realms of exploration for Genies, but so have broader pandemic era trends that have pushed more users to wholly digital spaces where they socialize and connect. “The pandemic accelerated everything,” Nigam says.

Nigam emphasizes that despite the major opportunity its upcoming NFT platform will present, Genies is still an avatar company first-and-foremost, not an NFT startup, though he does say he is believes crypto-backed digital goods are going to be around for a long time. He has few doubts that the current environment around digital goods helped juice Genies’ funding round which he says was “6-8X oversubscribed” and was an opportunistic play for the startup, which “could have gone years without having to raise.”

The company says their crypto marketplace will launch in the coming months, as early as this summer.

#akash-nigam, #artificial-intelligence, #avatar, #breyer-capital, #ceo, #coinbase, #coinbase-ventures, #cryptocurrency, #dapper, #dapper-labs, #films, #gaming, #genies, #gucci, #justin-bieber, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #nea, #netease, #software-development

0

Virtual social network IMVU raises $35M from China’s NetEase and others

The line between social networking and gaming is increasingly blurring, and internet incumbents are taking notice. NetEase, the second-largest gaming company in China behind Tencent, is among a group of investors who just backed IMVU, an avatar-focused social network operating out of California.

Menlo Park-based Structural Capital among other institutions also joined in the strategic round totaling $35 million. IMVU has raised over $77 million from five rounds since it was co-founded by The Lean Startup author Eric Ries back in 2004. The company declined to disclose its post-money valuation.

The fresh investment will be used to fund IMVU’s product development and comes fresh off a restructuring at the company. A new parent organization called Together Labs was formed to oversee its flagship platform IMVU, in which users can create virtual rooms and chat with strangers using custom avatars, a product that’s today considered by some a dating platform; a new service called Vcoin that lets users buy, gift, earn and convert a digital asset from the IMVU platform into fiat; among other virtual services.

“NetEase operates some of the most successful, biggest in scale, and evergreen MMO [massively multiplayer online] games in China and they see in IMVU business highlights echoing theirs,” Daren Tsui, chief executive officer at Together Labs, told TechCrunch.

“IMVU operates one of the world’s oldest, yet most vibrant and young — in terms of our user base — metaverses. We have many shared business philosophies and complementary know-how. It is a natural fit for us to become partners,” he added.

Founded in 2005, NetEase is now known for its news portal, music streaming app, education products, and video games that compete with those of Tencent. It has over the years made a handful of minority investments in companies outside China, though it’s not nearly as aggressive as Tencent in terms of investment pace and volume.

A NetEase spokesperson declined to comment on the investment in IMVU.

The partnership, according to Tsui, would allow the virtual networking company to tap NetEase’s game development and engineering capabilities as well as leverage NetEase’s knowledge in global market strategy as Together Labs launches future products, including one called WithMe.

In 2020, IMVU saw record growth with over 7 million monthly active users and 400,000 products created every month by IMVU users. The service currently has a footprint in over 140 countries and is “always looking to expand” in existing markets, including Asia, in which it already has a localized Korean app, according to Tsui.

“With IMVU’s accelerating growth over recent years, the launch of VCOIN, and the development of the new WithMe platform, we felt timing was right to bring all of these products under a new roof to reinforce our commitment for creating authentic human connections in virtual spaces,” said the chief executive.

#apps, #avatar, #funding, #imvu, #social, #tc, #virtual-network

0

Roblox buys digital avatar startup Loom.ai

Roblox announced today that it’s buying a digital avatar startup called Loom.ai. Purchasing a company that has focused singularly on creating more realistic human avatars is an interesting play for a gaming platform that has made such an impact by building experiences that tend to cast realism to the wayside.

We covered the company’s $1.35 million seed round back in 2016. The company brought in additional seed funding since then, scoring $5.9 million in total capital raised. The startup’s investors include Y Combinator, Samsung Ventures, Anorak Capital and Zach Coelius.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

The startup was one in a long list of avatar companies to launch during the mid 2010’s that capitalized on computer vision advancements and aimed to build out a cross-game/cross-platform network of users that relied on their tech to create in-app avatars. This field of companies aimed to capitalize on opportunities in 3D that expanded beyond what companies like Snapchat had identified following its Bitmoji acquisition.

Image via Loom.ai

Over the years, Loom.ai shifted its effort from photorealism to creating more Memoji-like representations that allowed users to upload a 2D photo and automatically create a realistic 3D avatar. In recent years, Loom.ai focused heavily on enterprise opportunities. The company’s products also included a suite of integrations to build out personalized avatar stickers that could be used on messaging platforms like Slack or WhatsApp as well as live avatars that could be used during video calls.

Though Roblox has some of the more simplistic avatars on the market, this acquisition may suggest that the company is open to building out a system that places more of a premium on realism and more life-like facial animations. In a press release announcing the deal, Roblox shared that this acquisition “will accelerate the development of next-generation avatars.”

#avatar, #bitmoji, #bitstrips, #computing, #films, #mobile-applications, #online-games, #roblox, #samsung-ventures, #snap-inc, #snapchat, #tc, #virtual-reality, #y-combinator, #zach-coelius

0

Genies updates its software development kit and partners with Gucci, Giphy

Genies, has updated its software development kit and added Giphy and Gucci as new partners to enable their users to create personalized Genie avatars.

The company released the first version of its sdk in 2018 when it raised a $10 million to directly challenge Snap and Apple for avatar dominance. Now, with the latest update, the company said it has managed to create a new three dimensional rendering that can be used across platforms — if developers let Genies handle the animation.

Genies has already managed to sign up many of the biggest names in entertainment to act as their official manager through their Genies talent agency. These include celebrities like Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, Cardi B, and Rihanna. Genies also locked in deals with the National Football League’s player’s association along with Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

Now, those celebrities and athletes can monetize exclusive digital goods made by Genies on platforms like Gucci and Giphy and the fashion house and meme generator can now give users their own digital identity to play around with.

“Over the past year, our technology has been sharpened by the exacting creative demands of celebrities. This advanced Genies’ march to be the go-to avatar globally,” said Akash Nigam, Genies CEO and co-founder, in a statement. “What was previously a celebrity exclusive experience, is now broadly available for consumers to use as their virtual portable identities. By opening up to the masses, we’ve now created an opportunity for tastemakers to forge new, unique relationships with their audiences through avatar digital goods.”

The SDK integrations are still highly curated and tailored (there’s a lot of heavy lifting that Genies needs to do with each one). For instance, Gucci users can try on the latest designs and the company will sell digital goods on its platform created by Genies. Giphy users will use their avatars as gifs on its site and through its distribution network.

“Our Avatar Agency has served as the go-to platform for thousands of artists, and with our next-gen, highly expressive and dynamic 3D Genie, we will further solidify our position as the universal digital identity,” said Izzy Pollak, Director of Avatar SDK at Genies. “For celebrities and everyday users alike, it unlocks new arenas and verticals for users to cultivate their avatars in. On top of traditional 2D environments like mobile apps and websites, Genies can now live in AR/VR platforms, games, and in use cases or SDK partner platforms that demand a 360-degree rendering of the digital goods they purchase,”

#akash-nigam, #animation, #apple, #avatar, #films, #genies, #giphy, #gucci, #justin-bieber, #major, #major-league-baseball, #national-basketball-association, #national-football-league, #player, #snap, #tc

0

The coronavirus has hastened the post-human era

In the mid-1970s, Professor Fereidoun M. Esfandiary decided to change his name. From then on he would be legally called “FM-2030.”

“Conventional names define a person’s past: ancestry, ethnicity, nationality, religion. I am not who I was ten years ago … The name 2030 reflects my conviction that the years around 2030 will be a magical time. In 2030 we will be ageless and everyone will have an excellent chance to live forever. 2030 is a dream and a goal,” he offered in explanation.

It didn’t hurt that by 2030 he would be 100 years old, an age he was sure he would reach.

Already in his forty-odd years of living, FM — which some speculated stood for “Future Man” — defied easy categorization. The son of an Iranian diplomat, he’d lived in 17 countries by the age of 11 and would go on to represent his country’s basketball team at the 1948 Olympic Games before beginning an academic career. He was educated at Berkeley and UCLA, later becoming one of the first professors of futurology at the New School. It was there that he would begin to espouse his “new concepts of the human,” discussing the steps necessary to transition to the age of post-humanity. FM described this as an epoch in which Homo sapiens became “post-biological organisms,” transcending the limits of their body through technology.

 

Much of the 21st century has seen us hurtle toward a post-human future, fulfilling predictions FM made half a century earlier. Over the course of his career, he foresaw the creation of 3D printers — which he referred to as “Santa Claus machines” — along with the advent of telemedicine, teleconferencing, teleshopping and genetic editing.

Though that suggests the process of post-humanization is well under way, we may look back on 2020 and the coronavirus crisis as a crossing over. A time in which our relationship to core aspects of our humanity is fundamentally remade. In particular, I believe we are seeing meaningful recalibrations of our relationship to identity, labor, health and love. In short, the post-human era is beginning in earnest.

Identity

The shift to a locked-in world has accelerated the acceptance of identity as distinct from physical body or place. We still want to communicate, socialize and play during this time, but have only a digital version to offer. Those constraints are forcing new expressions of selfhood, from the Zoom background used to express a personal interest or make a joke, to the avatars roaming rich, interactive metaverses. Nintendo has seen millions turn to Animal Crossing to socialize, trade virtual assets and host both weddings and conferences, while Travis Scott’s surreal performance inside of Fortnite attracted 12.3 million concurrent views, and 27.7 million unique attendees. We are showcasing even the darker aspects of our nature via these platforms, with some on Animal Crossing bullying and torturing villagers they deem “ugly.”

Tools like Pragli illustrate how this development manifests in the workplace beyond Zoom backgrounds ripped from “Tiger King” or “Love Is Blind.” Rather than hopping onto a video call with co-workers, Pragli offers the ability to connect with anime-style avatars of your officemates. Changing one’s appearance on the platform is determined by the options the company rolls out, with a recent update showcasing the ability for men to sport a bun, braid or ponytail. Set “happy” or “sad” expressions blur the lines between real and performative feelings.

All of this is in stark contrast to the masked, distant, de-individuated person we show outside our homes, something a little less than human. There are indications that this redacted version of ourselves is becoming something of a style. G95’s “biohoodie” features a built-in face-cover, while creative studio Production Club showed off a hazmat suit designed for socializing. Even once the worst is over, we may see a new cautiousness and implied distance expressed in fashion.

Labor

“Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it,” said Stephen Hawking. Whether that is an assessment you agree with, much of our conception of ourselves is tied up in our labor. COVID-19 is accelerating a shift away from humans and toward machines, doing so at a time in which we may actually feel grateful for cyborg usurpers as they keep critical services running and spare us from disease. Neolix, a Chinese manufacturer of driverless vans, has seen a spike in demand since the outbreak and has been trusted to ferry food and medical supplies, and to disinfect streets. Suppliers like AMP, UVD, Nuro and Starship have experienced a similar surge, while the order books of industrial behemoths like Harmonic Drive and Fanuc suggest more universal demand. The latter saw orders increase 7% between Q4 and March.

This insinuation is not limited to manual labor. With customer support and moderation offices closing down, many companies are aggressively employing AI solutions. Facebook and Google have expanded automated moderation, while PayPal used chatbots for 65% of customer inquiries in recent weeks, a record for the firm.

Those lucky enough to retain their jobs may face a very different work environment in which they are forced to collaborate with robots and be treated as an increasingly mechanized system themselves. Walmart greeters will stand side-by-side with automated floor-scrubbers, and McDonald’s cooks may soon be joined by a kitchen full of bionic sous-chefs. Amazon warehouse workers — old-hands at human-robot collaboration thanks to the company’s acquisition of Kiva Systems — must adapt to being managed more like their pallet-ferrying co-workers, with temperatures monitored by thermal cameras. That is just a small part of the broader surveillance blitz being undertaken around the world and across industries. China is installing more cameras to monitor the comings-and-goings of citizens, while companies dip into budgets to purchase “tattleware,” software designed to surveil employees. Among the beneficiaries are companies like InterGuard, which provide minute-by-minute breakdowns of how workers spend time online. Sneek takes photos of workers as often as once a minute. The company’s CEO joked that the “sneeksnap” command came in particularly handy when a colleague did something embarrassing like picking their nose.

Health

Much of our waking life is filled with health-related ruminations. As we become more aware of our vulnerabilities, we are turning to technologies to extend corporeal limitations, treating our bodies more like software with which we can experiment. Consumers are turning to immunity-boosting supplements such as Vitamin C and zinc, which have soared in sales, in addition to courting riskier treatments like “rectal ozone insufflations,” peddled by influencers. Spurred on by world-leaders like Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, demand for hydroxychloroquine has grown rapidly, with prescriptions increasing ~500%.

Whatever your opinion of the president or the treatment in question, this represents a rapid, iterative model of medicine more akin to the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” than a considered FDA approval process. Biohacking communities, a group with high-tolerance for health-related risks, are teaming up online to research COVID-19 vaccines on their own time. “Biohacking used to be a fringe space, but I think this is becoming a kind of breakout moment for things like DIY biology and community labs and hackerspaces,” one contributor noted.

Beyond immediate experimentation, we are looking to extend the limits of our bodies in order to accommodate changing plans for the future. Reports suggest that men have turned to at-home sperm collection companies like Legacy during quarantine, motivated by fears of diminished fertility and perhaps the acknowledgment that with life on hold, children may have to wait. That certainly seems to be the case for 1,894 women surveyed by Modern Fertility and SoFi: 31% noted that the pandemic had affected their fertility plans, while 41% stated they are delaying childbearing because of the coronavirus.

Love

“The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single,” novelist Charlotte Brontë once wrote, “but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.”

The current state of affairs does not offer many ways to amend that state of misery, prompting some to turn to AI companions. Created in 2015, Replika provides a sympathetic texting partner, designed to serve as a digital therapist. But for many of the company’s 500K monthly active users, Replika is too charming to resist: up to 40% consider the bot a romantic partner. The coronavirus may serve as the ideal catalyst for relationships between humans and artificial personalities to deepen. There are signs we may already prefer their company: research on Microsoft’s XiaoIce indicated that conversations with the chatbot last longer than human-to-human interactions.

For those committed to finding love among creatures of blood and bone, the pandemic has forced a recalibration of what it means to date. Interactions take place almost entirely online, through chat or video calls, changing the necessary criteria for a match. Location matters much less now than availability and responsiveness. When the desire for touch, or “skin hunger” as it is gruesomely called, becomes too much to bear, interested parties must navigate a meeting. In the process, we treat partners as potential threats, owners of a corpus that may endanger us, despite best intentions. In doing so, we view the individual as distinct from their body, a separate being in possession of a liability with which we must negotiate. Depending on the length of the pandemic, we may see this fear harden into an unconscious aversion, reviving the disgust for the corporeal felt by more puritanical eras. These mores may take time to correct.

The self, as we know it, is being decimated. That may not be a bad thing. As identity moves online, as work is stripped from us, as our physical bodies are optimized like an OS, as love sheds its carnality, new opportunities will emerge. Humans will find meaning in new modes of self-expression, discover purpose beyond work (or reclassify what work means), reengineer physical limits as “biology eats the world” and find affection in new beings. We are undergoing a period of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” felt at the anthropological rather than industrial level. Great things may come of it.

For FM-2030, the future was something at which to marvel, where “people will belong to no specific families or factions … we will free-flow across the planet and beyond. Highly individual yet universal.” Though the changes wrought by the coronavirus appear bleak, some of FM’s vision feels true: We are united as a world, fighting against a common enemy, more connected than ever before. Perhaps, in time, the rest of FM’s dream will be made manifest.

For all of his prescience, however, FM-2030 got one prediction very wrong. He did not make his 100th birthday, dying of pancreatic cancer in 2000. He was just 69. If he has his way though, he may still have a role to play in the creation of the future. Though dead, FM’s body remains frozen in a state of cryonic suspension in Scottsdale, Ariz. Perhaps he is waiting for the world to catch up.

#artificial-intelligence, #avatar, #column, #coronavirus, #covid-19, #health, #identity-management, #internet-culture, #opinion, #science, #telemedicine, #transhumanism, #virtual-reality

0

Watch Mitsubishi Heavy Industries launch a milestone Space Station resupply mission live

Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is launching a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) H-IIB rocket carrying the last of its H-II transfer vehicles. This cargo spaceship has enjoyed a long career of delivering supplies, payloads and experiments to the International Space Station, but MHI is working on a successor that will aim to begin flying in 2022, with advanced capabilities including automated docking. This vehicle will also be designed to make it all the way to NASA’s planned lunar Gateway for long-distance cargo delivery.

This launch is important not just because it’s a milestone for the MHI launch vehicle family, and an ending of sorts before the next phase, but also because it’s carrying some very interesting cargo. There are a number of different experiments, but one in particular stands out: It’s a “space avatar” – essentially a remote-controlled robot that a user on Earth can use effectively as a telepresence bot on the ISS, to allow them to remotely experience what it’s like to be on board the station in orbit.

The launch is set to take place at 2:31 AM local time from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, which translates to 1:31 PM EDT (10:30 AM PDT).

#aerospace, #avatar, #international-space-station, #jaxa, #science, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #tc

0

Snow’s avatar app Zepeto registers 150M users, eyes China market

Some of you may recall the South Korean app Zepeto that went viral among Gen Z users a year and a half ago. The app, which renders selfies into animated avatars and lets people adorn their computer-generated manifestations with virtual items, appears to have sustained its relevance. It has amassed 150 million registered users, the company told TechCrunch recently, although its number of monthly active users, which is a better metric to gauge an app’s performance, hovers around 10 million.

China is by far the largest market for Zepeto, locally known as Zaizai (崽崽), an affectionate nickname for children. “Zaizai aspires to develop into a comprehensive ecosystem while also offering robust content across China,” affirmed CEO Daewook Kim.

The app could benefit from its pedigreed background. It’s developed by the selfie app Snow, of which parent company Naver also owns the Asian messaging giant Line.

It’s not uncommon for a popular photo-editing tool to fade out as people move onto the next trending alternative, either because the new player arrives with more impressive visual capabilities or its marketing stunt creates a spell on many — or both. As such, apps that are disposable and serve utility purposes often have to think hard about retaining their users or engage aggressively to monetize them while the going is still good.

Zepeto did both.

Screenshot: a user shares videos of herself dancing and her Zepeto character dancing on Douyin

The app includes a social networking function where users can interact anonymously through their avatars in virtual spaces akin to The Sims. The challenge with that, of course, is building a big enough network that lures people to keep returning.

Zepeto also comprises of a series of mini games that are evocative of what Lee described as peaceful exploration people are enjoying in red-hot Animal Crossing.

In other words, the business is ripe for selling virtual items. Indeed, the leader in this category of business, Tencent, once generated the bulk of its income from the items it sold to decorate users’ virtual profiles and spaces, a business modeled on the South Korean internet pioneer Cyworld. That was before Tencent earned a wider global reputation by building WeChat and operating blockbuster video games.

Zepeto has so far generated some $10 million from 600 million pieces of virtual items sold. It stepped up the effort recently by launching a creative marketplace where third-party artists can offer their virtual lines of clothes and accessories. Called Zepeto Studio, the store clocked around $700,000 in sales in its first month. Many add-ons are branded — a common strategy for photo-enhancement apps — so you can sport things like virtual Nike apparel.

“We’ve partnered with global brands like Disney and Nike, as well as celebrities like BTS. We hope to continue to bring exciting partnerships to Zaizai Studio as well as better service to our creators,” said Rudy Lee, head of Zepeto’s global business, adding that the Studio feature for China is scheduled to launch mid-May.

Branded Nike apparel on Zepeto

If enough people keep using Zepeto, the third-party store can be a lucrative pursuit for designers. Among Zepeto’s 60,000 registered artists, the highest-paid creator pocketed some $9,000 in sales in the first month.

But as numbers grow, Zepeto is also getting cautious about keeping its marketplace civil. The firm maintains an internal moderation team that weeds out “political messaging, hate speech, or discriminatory messaging on the virtual clothes,” said Lee. The rule is particularly pertinent to its development in China where the flow of information is strictly controlled.

Another way to survive as a utility tool is to piggyback off another app’s success. We have written about the way PicsArt, a photo-editing app that rivals VSCO, managed to stay in the game by supporting TikTok-inspired stickers. Zepeto has taken notice. Many of its users are now sharing their animated avatars on Douyin, the Chinese edition of TikTok, observed Lee.

#asia, #avatar, #china, #instant-messaging, #naver, #selfie, #sims, #snow, #social, #tc, #tencent, #tiktok, #zepeto

0