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Swiping right on virtual relationships

There’s an episode in the latest season of the Hulu original series Casual, where the main character, Alex, tries his hand at dating in virtual reality. He quickly meets a woman and develops a big, adrenaline-inducing crush only to realize she’s a scammer out for his credit card information.

The season takes place around 2021 or 2022, when technological advances have made dating in VR both possible and socially acceptable. We’re not there yet, and we probably won’t be there as soon as the writers of the show think, but it’s time to imagine and plan for a future when entire relationships exist in and as a result of virtual reality.

Sextech entrepreneur and advocate Bryony Cole has built a career around the assumption that a full pivot to VR will happen in our lifetimes.

She’s the chief executive officer of Future of Sex, a podcast-turned-media company and sextech accelerator. Future of Sex has just released its inaugural report on virtual intimacy and plans to produce content on other topics at the intersection of technology and sex. 

Today, most people are more interested in Magic Leap’s new Angry Birds VR game than the ways in which VR can aid struggling relationships, but the report is full of interesting nuggets on how tech, like teledildonics (Internet-connected sex toys), is transforming intimacy.

There’s a whole class of startups named in the report embracing the notion that human experiences can be improved when powered by apps and devices. No, they aren’t advocating for you to bring your smartphone to the bedroom, but rather claiming that customizable tech can heighten the senses or create new avenues for exploration.

Kissenger, for example, has a mobile app that lets you exchange a kiss over the Internet. Fleshlight and Lovense sell Bluetooth-connected vibrators. And CamasutraVR streams virtual versions of real-life porn stars.

VR is the future of couples therapy

VR, Cole says, is a the forefront of the sextech industry’s transformation and if used correctly, can bolster relationships.

“It’s a new way for couples or thruples, or whatever relationship you’re in, to bond,” Cole told TechCrunch. “The ability to empathize with another person is enriched in this context, which is great, especially for understanding a lover.”

VR can facilitate more meaningful interactions for couples in long-distance relationships. If used right, it can fill the “intimacy gap,” or the space between a couple’s shared happiness and an individual’s personal happiness that, when too big, leads to many couple’s demise. 

As a safe space for experimentation, two people can explore fantasies, engage with educational content and even visit a couple’s therapist in VR. 

The release of the report is hot off the heels of Future of Sex’s fourth sextech hackathon. In New York, the company asked participants to create tech-enabled solutions to reinvent sex education for teenage boys, among other prompts. 

Women in sextech

Future of Sex partnered with porn site YouPorn to co-host the event and asked hackers to come up with ways to leverage YouPorn’s content, which includes VR porn, to improve the sex lives of viewers. VR porn is not a new phenomenon and while it can allow for more personal sexual experiences, researchers have warned that blurring the line between the real and the virtual could lead to ethical issues. How, for example, do you give consent in VR?

Women, who are often exploited for the purposes of sexual entertainment, need to be at the table while this content and other sextech are in development. Fortunately, Cole says, women are entering the sextech community in droves.

“[It’s] exploding at the moment and more and more women entrepreneurs are having a go at building a company,” she said. “It’s Important to highlight why women are getting involved in sextech especially in the current climate of #MeToo.”

On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Unbound, which makes fashion-forward vibrators and other sex toys for women, took home the second-place prize.

“Our dream at Unbound is for female sexual health to be viewed through the same lens as male sexuality — as a part of our overall health that deserves a conversation, platform, and shopping experience that doesn’t feel like a flaming pile of garbage,” Unbound founder Polly Rodriguez told TechCrunch’s John Biggs.

Rodriguez is a close friend of Cole’s — the community is still small — and she’s appeared on the Future of Sex podcast.

The podcast, hackathons and the 12-week accelerator program for sextech startups are part of Cole’s effort to expand the dialogue around VR & sextech, invite new voices into the movement and remove the stigma around having open and honest conversations about sex and intimacy.

“There has to be a way to invite more people into this conversation,” she said. “If we can normalize the conversation, we can raise the standards around talking about sex.”

Job hunting service Glassdoor sold to Japan’s Recruit for $1.2 billion

U.S. job hunting service Glassdoor, which is best known for providing insight into company working cultures, has been acquired for $1.2 billion in cash by Recruit, a $39 billion Japanese corporate that specializes in HR and recruitment services.

The all-cash acquisition will see Glassdoor continue to maintain its brand, CEO Robert Hohman explained in a blog post.

“Our mission has been the same since day one: to help people everywhere find a job and company they love. That mission will not change as part of Recruit. Glassdoor will continue to operate as a distinct brand to fulfill this mission — and will be able to do so with greater speed and impact than we could achieve alone,” Hohman wrote.

Glassdoor raised a total of just over $200 million from investors, with its most recent round a $40 million Series H in March 2016. That last investment gave Glassdoor a valuation of around $1 billion. That’s not a huge amount more than what Recruit is paying, which suggests that the last couple of years haven’t been so spectacular for Glassdoor in terms of growth.

Nonetheless, this deal looks like a win for those backers, particularly the earlier stage investors such as Benchmark and Battery Ventures .

Ten-year-old Glassdoor says it is used by 59 million people each month, many of whom come to the service to read about how companies are rated by the people who work, or worked there. While it is headquartered in the U.S., Glassdoor says it has information on more than 770,000 companies across 190 countries worldwide, including 40 million reviews covering company culture, CEO ratings, salary information and more.

Glassdoor’s revenue comes from recruitment services, and it claims to work with some 7,000 employees and 40 percent of the Fortune 500.

Recruit may not be a well-known name in the U.S. but the Japanese firm is huge, and it is history as a purchaser of overseas businesses.

The firm — which was founded in 1960 — is listed on the Toyko Stock Exchange and it has 45,000 employees across 60 countries.

Beyond recruitment and HR services, it also operates in real estates, travel, dining and other segments. That’s reflected in its past acquisitions, which have included U.S. job sites Indeed.com (2012), Simply Hired (2016) and, in Europe, restaurant site Quandoo (2015)hair and beauty service Wahanda (2015) and education technology company Quipper (2015).

Minds aims to decentralize the social network

Decentralization is the buzzword du jour. Everything – from our currencies to our databases – are supposed to exist, immutably, in this strange new world. And Bill Ottman wants to add our social media to the mix.

Ottman, an intense young man with a passion to fix the world, is the founder of Minds.com, a New York-based startup that has been receiving waves of new users as zealots and the the not-so-zealous have been leaving other networks. In fact, Zuckerberg’s bad news is music to Ottman’s ears.

Ottman started Minds in 2011 “with the goal of bringing a free, open source and sustainable social network to the world,” he said. He and his CTO, Mark Harding, have worked in various non-profits including Code To Inspire, a group that teaches Afghani women to code. He said his vision is to get us out from under social media’s thumb.

“We started Minds in my basement after being disillusioned by user abuse on Facebook and other big tech services. We saw spying, data mining, algorithm manipulation, and no revenue sharing,” he said. “To us, it’s inevitable that an open source social network becomes dominant, as was the case with Wikipedia and proprietary encyclopedias.”

His efforts have paid off. The team now has over 1 million registered users and over 105,000 monthly active users. They are working on a number of initiatives, including an ICO, and the site makes money through “boosting” – essentially the ability to pay to have a piece of content float higher in the feed.

The company raised $350K in 2013 and then a little over a million dollars in a Reg CF Equity Crowdfunding raise.

Unlike Facebook, Minds is built on almost radical transparency. The code is entirely open source and it includes encrypted messenger services and optional anonymity for users. The goal, ultimately, is to have the data be decentralized and any user should be able to remove his or her data. It’s also non-partisan, a fact that Ottman emphasized.

“We are not pushing a political agenda, but are more concerned with transparency, Internet freedom and giving control back to the user,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs when every network that cares about free speech gets lumped in with extremists.”

He was disappointed, for example, when people read that Reddit’s choice to shut down toxic sub-Reddits was a success. It wasn’t, he said. Instead, those users just flocked to other, more permissive sites. However, he doesn’t think those sites have be cesspools of hate.

“We are a community-owned social network dedicated to transparency, privacy and rewarding people for their contributions. We are called Minds because it’s meant to be a representation of the network itself,” he said. “Our mission is Internet freedom with privacy, transparency, free speech within the law and user control. Additionally, we want to provide our users with revenue opportunity and the ability to truly expand their reach and earn rewards for their contributions to the network.”

Pronoun, an ebook service for writers, shuts down

 Pronoun, a self-publishing service for authors, is shutting down after promising free ebook distribution for authors. The company, which raised millions in funding and ended up being sold to Macmillan announced the shutdown in an email to authors and on its website. Two years ago Pronoun set out to create a one-of-a-kind publishing tool that truly put authors first. We believed that the power… Read More

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Gear up for Disrupt Berlin’s Startup Battlefield and apply today

 One dozen days. That’s how much time you have left to apply for the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt Berlin 2017. If you want to introduce your early-stage company to the world, there’s no better place to do so than from the Startup Battlefield main stage. It’s the premier launching pad for startups, as Battlefield alumni — like Mint, Dropbox, Yammer and Tripit —… Read More

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Vertu is dead

 It’s been a long, downward slide for cellphone maker Vertu. The company, founded by Nokia in 1998, was supposed to be a luxury phone provider to the stars and, to a degree, it delivered. They sold the $11,000 phones like expensive watches in boutique stores in tony neighborhoods. Vertu, with its precious metals and fine, hand-cut leather was supposed to maintain its luxury lead for… Read More

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The consumerization of healthcare

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After beating the world’s elite Go players, Google’s AlphaGo AI is retiring

 Google’s AlphaGo — the AI developed to tackle the world’s most demanding strategy game — is stepping down from competitive matches after defeating the world’s best talent. The latest to succumb is Go’s top-ranked player, Ke Jie, who lost 3-0 in a series hosted in China this week. The AI, developed by London-based DeepMind, which was acquired by Google… Read More

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SoundCloud revamps its subscription service with cheaper $4.99 option

soundcloud-money SoundCloud has rebooted its paid membership plan with a new budget option less than a year after it was first launched. The Swedish company today revealed a cheaper tier of $4.99 per month, down from the initial $9.99 subscription that it rolled out last March, in a bid to make its plans more appealing to users. The company isn’t abandoning that higher pricing, though, and it will… Read More

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Will the last person to leave social media please turn off the light?

fb-dark-stage1 After the early, exciting expository years of the Internet – the Age of Jennicam where the web was supposed to act as confessional and stage – things changed swiftly. This new medium was a revelation, a gift of freedom that we all took for granted. Want to post rants against the government? Press publish on Blogspot. Want to yell at the world? Aggregate and comment upon some… Read More

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AOL is making a big, shiny bet on the power of live video and celebrity

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When a celebrity arrives in New York City with a new project to push, their schedule might look something like: Good Morning America, Facebook Live, the Tonight Show. 

AOL is hoping to add another destination to that itinerary: BUILD, its brand new 13,412-square-foot, three-story livestreaming studio set to open in downtown Manhattan on Thursday. It’s a big, shiny and clearly expensive (state-of-the-art everything) bet on being able to attract celebrities and an online audience with live video.

Of course, this isn’t your parents’ celebrity interview series. AOL wants to bring people downtown to relax. Maybe even have some fun. Read more…

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Training self-driving cars on the streets of Los Santos with GTA V just got easier

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