28 March, 2012



DEMO keynotes & industry sages set to take the stage

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 09:10 AM PDT

DEMOWe're getting ready for DEMO! Join the VentureBeat and DEMO teams, April 17-19, 2012 at the Hyatt Regency Silicon Valley as more than 70 companies from around the world launch new products and services to an audience of global press, VCs, angel investors and IT buyers.

The DEMO product launches are the main event. But attendees also come for the sage advice from VCs, technology leaders and veteran entrepreneurs who will provide insights into the latest technology trends in the areas of consumer, mobile, enterprise, social and media and cloud.

VentureBeat readers are invited to attend the 2-day DEMO conference for the special rate of $895 (a savings of over 45%). You can register here.

DEMO speakers and sage panelists who plan to join us onstage, include:

Keynote speakers:

  • David Lawee, Vice President, Corporate Development, Google
  • Aaron Levie, CEO, Box
  • Brad Smith, CEO, Intuit

Sage Panelists:

  • Mike Abbott, Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
  • Larry Augustin, CEO, SugarCRM
  • David Cohen, Founder and CEO, Techstars
  • Satish Dharmaraj, Managing Director, Redpoint Ventures
  • Ross Fubini, Advisor, Kabor Capital
  • Chuck Ganapathi, Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Accel Partners
  • Bill Gurley, General Partner, Benchmark Capital
  • David Gutelius, Chief Social Scientist, Jive Software
  • Trevor Healy, CEO, Amobee
  • Christine Herron, Director, Intel Capital
  • Sheila Jordan, VP, Communication & Collaboration IT, Cisco Systems
  • Joe Kraus, Partner, Google Ventures
  • Aileen Lee, Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers
  • Claire Lee, Head of Partnerships and Emerging Business, Microsoft.
  • Shervin Pishevar, Managing Director, Menlo Ventures
  • James Slavet, Partner, Greylock Partners
  • Go here for the complete list

“Hearing, and more importantly learning, from our speakers and sage panelists is one of the highlights of the DEMO conferences," said DEMO Executive Producer & VentureBeat Editor-in- Chief Matt Marshall. "We are excited to bring an influential group of seasoned entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and industry titans together with a stellar class of demonstrators for what promises to be another successful DEMO event.”

Hear more from Matt Marshall on DEMO Spring features and highlights!

DEMO Spring 2012: April 17-19, Hyatt Regency Silicon Valley. VentureBeat readers are invited to attend the 2-day DEMO conference for the special rate of $895 (as savings of over 45%). Register here.

Note: applies to new registrations only.

Filed under: DEMO, VentureBeat

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Martha Stewart guest stars in Zynga’s CastleVille social game

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 09:00 AM PDT

Social games are becoming a mass market medium. A clear sign of that today is Zynga’s announcement that Martha Stewart will make a guest appearance in the social game CastleVille.

CastleVille has 26 million monthly active users and this is the first celebrity integration for the game starring Stewart. Players can interact with Martha’s avatar and get special in-game rewards. Martha has her own neighboring kingdom, designed after her own home in Bedford, Conn. The home has new animals such as a Friesian horse, Araucana chickens and black sheep. It also has new flowers, black orchid and white tulip, and the largest building ever introduced in CastleVille (her home).

Stewart will host an Easter egg hunt in her kingdom and celebrate with a party. Players can craft a special gazebo and work on crafts such as egg decorating. I’m not exactly sure where, but somebody is making some money off this. Stewart certainly hits the older female demographic of Zynga’s games on Facebook.

Filed under: games

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Dylan’s Desk: 4 signs we’re not in a tech bubble

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 08:10 AM PDT

Octopus ice sculpture photo

Octopus ice sculpture: Awesome. But if you see it at a startup party, panic.

For someone who’s lived through one tech bubble, it’s hard not to see signs of another one every time the market starts edging upward.

Besides, no one wants to be the rube who’s the last one to realize the party’s over and the cool kids have already left. That’s why so many people are quick to jump to the conclusion that we’re in a bubble.

I’ll admit, the thought crossed my mind recently when I read that a company selling razor blades had raised $1 million from the likes of Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins. That was just a few days after I learned one of L.A.’s hottest new incubators was hatching a company offering dog-sitting services.

What’s next? Sock puppets on national TV? Companies competing to ship 40-pound bags of dogfood to you? Someone raising a billion dollars to build a new food-distribution infrastructure so that they can deliver groceries to your door?

Fortunately, the euphoria hasn’t risen to “let’s party like it’s 1999″ levels yet. In fact, there are a lot of good reasons to think that the current boom in tech fundings is more well-founded than it was during the dot-com era.

1. The infrastructure is better. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, broadband was scarce and expensive. You had to have a T-1 line at your company if you wanted decent connectivity, and a DSL line that offered a few hundred Kbps at home was the best you could hope for. Now people scoff at the 1.44Mbps that a T-1 line offers, as cable modems offer 5 or 10Mbps to every trailer park in the land, and some are getting speeds an order of magnitude faster than that, thanks to fiber to the home.

All that “dark fiber” that we laughed about in 2001 and 2002 because telcos had built way too much infrastructure? We’re using it now, and it’s one of the reasons Internet access is so cheap and ubiquitous.

2. Entrepreneurs are smarter and leaner. Instead of trying to raise $10 or $20 million right out of the gate and “get big fast,” smart entrepreneurs are far more likely to raise sub-$1 million rounds or even bootstrap their companies. Lean startups and agile development rule the day, enabling companies to move quickly without spending a ton of money. And, because the infrastructure is there (see point #1), it’s easier than ever to outsource development overseas, if you choose, giving you additional alternatives for developing products on the cheap.

3. Companies going public have actual revenues. Well, mostly. There are questions about how sound Groupon’s accounting practices are and how sustainable its profits will be, but the company does have revenues and made a point of showing profits before its IPO. Also, the exception proves the rule. Zynga, LinkedIn, Pandora, and other recently-public companies are all solid businesses with long track records. Facebook, the king of social media, has been remarkably transparent about its revenues and profits, and the business looks pretty good.

4. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket. As investor Doug Pepper put it recently, during the 1990s people were getting excited about just one platform: the Internet. Now, three huge platforms are under construction: the mobile ecosystem, social media, and cloud services. Each of these is a transformative new way of doing things and opens up possibilities for an enormous number of new businesses.

That said, I think it’s wise to be wary. I have my own personal litmus test, which is the ice sculpture index: How many ice sculptures have I seen at parties or schmoozefests I’ve been invited to in the past month?

It’s an index for wasteful spending, since no one puts money into carved ice unless they’ve got money to burn or they live in Alaska and are really bored. Fortunately, I haven’t seen too many ice sculptures recently.

Image credit: Gary Whitton/Shutterstock.com

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Mobile startup HyperBees wins seed funding in Android games contest

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 08:00 AM PDT

London-based HyperBees won the Get Discovered Android mobile game contest on Tuesday with a quiz game that will land the startup a funding deal.

The three-person team headed by Tom Mleko (pictured below, second from right) will receive a term sheet for a seed investment from Trinity Ventures. The amount could range from $50,000 to $100,000. Trinity Ventures sponsored the San Francisco along with Best Buy, Hooked Media and VentureBeat. I was one of the judges of the contest, which monitored the downloads for the games on the Android market (now called Google Play) during a one-month period.

The contest featured more than 152 games from 117 Android game developers — a sign that there is no shortage in the number of mobile game startups. The interesting thing about each of the finalist startups was that they all had some pretty serious traction for the games that they entered. Trinity Ventures general partner Gus Tai said he wanted to create a contest that highlighted not just good games, but good companies that deserved funding. I wouldn’t be surprised if each one of these companies — which all shared some interesting traffic and monetization data — picked up new funding.

The finalists were chosen for the most part based on their traffic. They included Doodle Grub, by Pixowl, HyperQuiz by HyperBees, Big Sport Fishing Lite by RocketMind, and Parallel Kingdom by PerBlue. The top 10 games in the Android contest recorded more than 12.5 million game sessions. They received 350,000 recommendations and were played for 214,000 hours during the month.

Each game was judged on the viability of the company, the viability of the game, the background of the team, the strengths and cleverness of the game mechanics, the monetization approach, distribution strategy.

Doodle Grub, a judges’ pick, is an arcade-oriented game inspired by Centipede and Doodle Jump. The game stars a little grub that crawls across the screen, depending on how you tilt it. You have to avoid predators and other obstacles.

Anya Shapina (pictured far right), a representative for Pixowl, based in Buenos Aires, said the company — headed by founder Arthur Madrid — generated more than 4.5 million downloads for the Doodle Grub game and it made it to No. 10 in the U.S. Android store. The company has 12 employees and is working on a sequel dubbed Greedy Grub. It has already raised $700,000 and is raising a new round.

HyperBees has just three people, but the company has had more than 11 million downloads for its games. The company’s game, HyperQuiz, is the equivalent of a “Who Wants a Millionaire for the mobile generation,” Mleko said.

The game led the competition in the number of Likes and ratio of Likes to Dislikes. It’s a Trivial Pursuit style game where you have to compete with three other real people in a 10-question trivia quiz. In each round, you win points if you are the first to answer or simply answer a question correctly.

On average, users spend about 17 minutes per session. About 35 percent of the visits last more than 10 minutes. About 80 percent of the revenue comes in through in-app purchases and 20 percent is from ads. About 5.2 percent of the users buy something, with the average purchase at $4.20. You can spend money in the game buying lifelines or other aids that will help you compete with others. The game features dynamic pricing for the lifelines. Mleko said that the team plans to take the game to new venues such as Facebook or Google+.

Joe Hanson, chief executive of RocketMind, said his two-person firm creates “mobile games for the masses” using simple concepts, motion controls, and play that is designed for groups. The company’s Big Sport Fishing Lite game is a simple fishing simulator, where you literally go through the motions of casting, tapping into your Android phone’s motion-sensor system. You throw your line out to fish and then reel them in by drawing circles on the touchscreen. The next game is dubbed Big Dino Fishing, and the company plans a variety of expansion packs.

So far, the company has sold 70,000 copies of its paid version at $3.99. Banner ads have generated about 25 percent of the revenue. The company has a brand new game coming in the late summer.

PerBlue’s Parallel Kingdom is a two-dimensional cross-platform role-playing game that you can also play on the web. The location-based game has an animated map overlay on top of the real world. You can move your character around and do combat with rivals and take over locations on the map. If you want to buy virtual goods such as food in the game, you can pay real money ranging from $2.99 to $64.99.

So far, the game has a million registered users, 14,000 daily active users, and players stay in the game for two hours a day. About 85 percent of the users are on Android and 15 percent are on iOS. Revenue is coming in at a rate of $200,000 a month, and 60 percent of it comes from players who have played more than six months. About 15 percent of the users convert to paying, and the lifetime value of a customer is about $3.25 per user.

PerBlue, based in Madison, Wisc., already has 35 employees, said Forrest Woolworth (pictured far left), brand director. The company started three years ago as a student-run development house and has focused on creating location-based games. Next week, the company is launching a new title, Parallel Mafia, as another location-based title using the same platform.

The winners were selected in part based on metrics from Hooked Media’s discovery platform. The contest time ran from Feb. 1 to March 3. Judges included me, Tai, Bradley Horowitz (vice president of Google+), and Prita Uppal, chief executive of Hooked Media. Best Buy will provide distribution for HyperQuiz in its App Discovery Center.

[Disclosure: VentureBeat benefited from advertising for the event. The winner will receive promotional help from VentureBeat.]

GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat's fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry's latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your early-bird tickets here.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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Sony readies three new freemium PlayStation Home games

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 08:00 AM PDT

Sony is announcing three upcoming titles for its PlayStation Home virtual world for hardcore gamers on the Sony Entertainment Network (the former PlayStation Network).

The new games use high-end graphics and they reflect Sony’s goal of keeping its hardcore gamers entertained with free-to-play titles in between major launches of PlayStation 3 console games. Sony wants the games to stand out as “immersive,” with a higher-quality level than you normally see for free-to-play games, where users play for free and pay real money for virtual goods.

Sony is showing that it will keep investing in Home, which has more than 27 million registered users. The company said the average user spends 70 minutes in Home per session and last year it has 44 million engagements.

The titles are part of PlayStation Home’s redesigned core experience, which debuted in November with new games and genre-based districts. The world is now essentially a 3D social network for hardcore gamers.

“We’re listening to the feedback of our fans, and they’ve told us they want to shoot each other, even in PlayStation Home,” said Chris Mahoney (pictured left with Hom manager Jim Wallace), senior business manager of PlayStation Home, in an interview with VentureBeat. “We are going to blend deep, immersive games with casual game styles and the freemium model.”

The games include the pirate warship game Cutthroat: Battle for Black Powder Cove (pictured at top). In that multiplayer game, as many as four players band together on a ship, with one captaining the vessel and three manning the cannon. The game is available today as part of the new Adventure district in PlayStation Home, which is accessible via a PlayStation 3. The Adventure district is lush tropical island that is like a 3D world. It has an ancient temple, a sweeping coastal shoreline and a beachfront bar.

In the district, you can directly join a Home game with your friends. In Cutthroats, as many as 24 gamers can participate in a six-ship naval battle. They fire cannonballs at each other and purchase upgrades such as longer-range cannon or fiery cannonballs. The gunners can switch from one side to the other. You can fire a “barnacle ball” that slows your enemy down. And the cannonballs keep crashing in the noisy game the losing ships all go to the bottom of the sea. You can spend anywhere from 99 cents to $50 in transactions in the game. Of the three games, this one looks like the most fun and it is the most polished.

A second game in the works is the post-apocalyptic shooter No Man’s Land (pictured right), created by United Kingdom-based developer Veemee. The game will be available this spring. No Man’s Land is an advanced-third-person shooter with high-end graphics. But it does not allow complete freedom of movement, in part due to the memory limitations of PlayStation Home. With No Man’s Land, you maneuver from one vantage point to another by clicking where you want your soldier to run. You can choose from several directions and move from barrier to barrier, using cover-based game mechanics. In the game, a team of four can play against another team of four.

“We decided to go all-out and invest in a great action shooter inside Home,” Mahoney said. “This is an opportunity to build really deep, immersive spaces.”

Lastly, Sony will also launch Mercia (pictured right), a multiplayer role-playing game set in a fantasy world. The game has treacherous dungeons, magic spells, and a plethora of weapons and enemies.While it also has to adhere to the memory limits of Home, the game seems immersive because you never have to wait for a loading screen. Rather, when you approach a door, the next room loads while the door opens.

The game has a long way to go. You can basically hack and slash at enemies. You can craft gear and manage your inventory. The art style has Mayan influences and it looks pretty.

The game will launch this summer and is being developed by Lockwood Publishing.

[Image credits: Sony]


GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat's fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry's latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your early-bird tickets here.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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EU to release findings on Google search antitrust investigation soon

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 07:58 AM PDT


The European Union competition commission is expected to release its finding on whether Google violated antitrust regulations in the next few days, according to a new letter from consumer rights group the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC).

European Union

Back in November 2010, the European Commission first opened up an investigation about the matter after rival companies like Microsoft accused Google of abusing its dominant position in the search market. If Google is found in violation of abusing its dominance, it could face a fine of up to 10 percent of its global financial turnover.

“We are concerned that the dominant search engine, Google, may have abused its position in the search market to direct users to its own services and secondly to reduce the visibility of competing websites and services,” wrote head of the BEUC Monique Goyens in a letter to EU antitrust commissioner Joaquín Almunia. “Google continues to expand its areas of activities and develop its own services and products. Given its role as gatekeeper to the internet, Google is in a unique position to restrict access to its competitors and direct traffic to its own services.

The BEUC is one of many groups pressuring the EU to submit its findings sooner rather than later, which would minimize damages to other European Businesses if Google is found guilty.

The findings from the commission will essentially be a list of objections they have to Google’s practices. The search giant will then have a chance to respond to those objections prior to any official ruling.

But despite pressure from outside groups, EU chief Almunia said a decision won’t be reached until after the Catholic holiday Easter on April 8.

“Maybe after Easter we will have some more clear consideration,” Almunia said in a statement reported by Reuters. “We want to advance in our investigation but we want to advance on a solid basis, not because of a letter or some pressures.”

EU flags photo via jorisvo/ShutterStock; Via TechCrunch

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Siri co-founder: Steve Jobs didn’t care for the name Siri

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 07:57 AM PDT

iPhone 4S Siri

Apple’s Steve Jobs saw the potential in Siri back when it was a standalone application, but when it came to integrating the software into the iPhone as a virtual assistant he was resistant to keeping the name Siri, according to Siri co-founder (and former CEO) Dag Kittlaus.

Speaking at the Chicago startup event Technori Pitch yesterday, Kittlaus regaled the story of how he came up with the name Siri, and Steve Job’s initial hesitance to keeping the name, reports Network World.

Shortly after the iPhone 4S release last October, Siri quickly reached iconic status in popular culture. It was partly due to Siri’s sometimes magical capabilities, and partly to Apple’s slick marketing efforts. But Siri’s simple and unusual name likely helped cement it into the public mind as well.

Kittlaus explained that Siri means “beautiful woman who leads you to victory” in Norwegian, and it was also a name he was saving for his future daughter. But after his first child ended up being a boy, he ended up shelving the name until it came time to name his software.

During his discussions with Apple, he pushed to keep the name even though Jobs wanted to use something else. After failing to find an alternative, Siri ended up being the name of Apple’s new virtual assistant in the iPhone 4S. As Network World notes, Jobs was similarly hesitant to the names iMac and iPod — and look how that turned out.

Kittlaus described how Jobs initially got in touch with him, as recounted by Network World:

Three weeks after we launched I got a call in the office from someone at Apple that said, “Scott Forstall wants to talk to you and he’s the head software guy.”

And I said sure…

Only it wasn’t Scott that called it was Steve. And Steve never announces where he’s gonna be and what he’s gonna do because there’s too much commotion around it. So he said, “Dag, this is Steve Jobs.”

And he wanted me to come over to his house the next day, and I did, and I spent 3 hours with him in front of his fireplace having this surreal conversation about the future.

And, you know, he talked about why Apple was going to win, and we talked about how Siri was doing. And he was very excited about the fact that.. you know, he was very interested in this area in general but, you know, they’re patient, they don’t jump on anything until they feel they can go after something new and he felt that we cracked it. So that was his attraction.

I ended up very lucky, timing wise. I got to work with him for a year before he got real sick. And he’s pretty incredible. The stories are true. All of the stories.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Mobile operators lost $58B in 2011 from faulty billing systems

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 07:23 AM PDT


Mobile operators across the globe lost more than $58 billion last year because of deficient billing systems, according to a new study from Juniper Research.

As carriers now support a wider array of devices than ever before, including iPhones, Android devices, BlackBerrys, and Windows Phones, and manage a crazy amount of traffic from these devices, the billing systems carriers use can’t keep up. With so many people with devices in hand and so many ways to process transactions, the scale of loss for operators has increased because there’s a much greater opportunity for fraudulent activity and bad debt.

“The systems in place now can’t identify accurately how this traffic is being processed,” study co-author Windsor Holden told VentureBeat.

The $58 billion in revenue lost last year equals out to more than 6 percent of the industry’s total revenue. Under a “nightmare scenario” presented by the report, in which operators fail to implement any serious reforms during the next five years, the losses could rise as much as five times by 2016.

So what can carriers do to help remedy this problem? Juniper says they need to implement automated system solutions to “minimize the outflows resulting from next-generation connectivity.” Carriers also need to create a single repository of data to better track customer activity and integrate applications that can better track data on devices. With key investments, the report says that leakage will decline to 4 percent of revenue in 2016 from today’s 6 percent.

Holden suggests that as the mobile industry moves aggressively to deploy 4G LTE networks, carriers risk undermining revenue from value-added services by not investing in solutions to track data in real-time. However, regardless of how many reforms are put in place, revenue leakages will almost certainly continue to be higher in Africa and the Middle East more so that the rest of the world.

“In emerging markets, the emphasis has been on rapid expansion and not on things like preventing leakage,” Holden said.

Money burning image: bioraven/Shutterstock

Filed under: mobile

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Samsung ships 5M Galaxy Notes, proves many don’t mind looking like huge dorks

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 06:57 AM PDT

The Galaxy Note was one of the more interesting Android devices to launch recently, but in my review I couldn’t help but find it hopelessly dorky. Clearly, that hasn’t stopped many buyers though, as Samsung reports today that it has shipped 5 million units of the hybrid smartphone/tablet since it launched last October.

It’s well below Samsung’s fast-selling Galaxy S II flagship, which hit 5 million shipments in 85 days, but that’s not surprising given that the Note targeted a smaller audience. It’s unclear how many of those 5 million Galaxy Notes have actually reached consumers though — Samsung’s shipment figures just counts what it sends to retailers.

The Galaxy Note sports a massive 5.3-inch screen, but its real claim to fame is its S Pen stylus, which lets you draw and take hand-written notes on the device. I found that there was a lot of potential in the stylus in my review, but I think it’ll ultimately better served on a bigger screen (like Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy Note 10.1).

In other news, Japanese carrier NTT Docomo announced that it would receive an LTE version of the Note in April. That’ll likely bump up Samsung’s shipment figures even more over the next few months.

Below, check out an elephant playing with the Galaxy Note. Yup.

Via The Verge

VB Mobile SummitVentureBeat is holding its second annual MobileSummit this April 2-3 in Sausalito, Calif. The invitation-only event will debate the five key business and technology challenges facing the mobile industry today, and participants — 180 mobile executives, investors, and policymakers — will develop concrete, actionable solutions that will shape the future of themobile industry. You can find out more at our Mobile Summit site.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Google is a pay to play world, even with the best organic SEO

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 06:03 AM PDT

New research out today from Google finds that even when a brand is ranked number one for search on an organic basis, they can get 50% more clicks on average by paying up for an accompanying ad.

The report is a follow up to research from the same team that came out in July of last year showing that paid search advertising didn’t cannibalize the benefits a company got through great SEO, and in fact drove an 89% increase in incremental traffic.

Research from Google showing it helps to buy more ads doesn’t seem like the most objective data in the world, but it seems to have struck a nerve with a marketing industry that has long preached the gospel of search engine optimization.

A helpful breakdown from Google below. Hat tip to Phin Barnes for the headline.

Filed under: search

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Seismic Games paves new game category on Facebook with CelebrityMe

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 06:00 AM PDT

Social game startup Seismic Games is launching CelebrityMe, a new Facebook title that lets players live out the fantasy of being a celebrity.

The new game is an attempt to find a niche — in the genre of character-driven games related to celebrity culture — that big companies such as Zynga haven’t occupied on the social network. While everyone else is building social worlds, Seismic wants to create fun characters.

“We’re not trying to do what everyone else is doing,” said Eric Gewirtz, chief creative officer and co-founder of Seismic, in an interview with VentureBeat. “Console game companies have become risk averse. We think there is room for innovation in social games.”

Los Angeles-based Seismic Games came out of stealth in January when it announced it had raised $2 million from DFJ Frontier, venture capitalist Tom Matlack, and other entertainment industry investors. The company was started by Gewirtz, Greg Borrud (chief executive) and Chris Miller. The 20-person team includes a lot of veterans of the hardcore game industry; they have worked at places such as Pandemic Studios, Activision and Vivendi Universal. Their approach is to try to create addictive games that emphasize fun, rather than analytics.

Their first effort is not unlike The Movies, the tongue-in-cheek movie career simulation game created by Peter Molyneux and Lionhead Studios for the PC in 2005. But there aren’t a ton of other games like it where you can pretend to be a celebrity.

In the CelebrityMe game, you start out as a new arrival in Venice Beach, Calif., and try to land gigs as an actor. You make friends, go to parties and buy clothes that gets you noticed. You learn the ropes and work your way up to being a star. You hang out with the rich and famous, avoid scandals, and try to land roles that will put you into center stage.

In that way, Gewirtz thinks of the title as a character-building game with a narrative. You can customize your celebrity with thousands of combinations of hair styles, facial features, clothing and accessories — all of which can provoke a reaction from your audience and critics. The game helps you create simple animated music videos or movie clips that you can share with your friends. The more people like those animations, the more you rise as a star.

"Facebook is all about expressing who you are to the world. CelebrityMe takes it one step further by tapping into players' real world interests and dreams and delivers on the fantasy of living the celebrity lifestyle," said Borrud. "CelebrityMe gives players the tools to express not only who they are, but who they want to be, and lets them live out and share these fun aspirations with all their Facebook friends."

Activities include going to nightclubs and getting noticed by the paparazzi. If you get drunk and get into a fight, that will hurt your reputation. You get a “redo” if you bungle the task and want to try again. Over time, you build an entourage. You need help from casting agents, producers, directors, stylists and fellow stars. Eventually, you’ll be getting gigs for Oscar-quality movies, if you play your cards right.

There’s a limit to how much user-generated content is allowed. Initially, you have limited choices about what kind of film you want to shoot. You have to play certain mini games well to get your movie rated higher. If you want better ratings, you can bribe the critics with faux money.

The movie shorts have a few still scenes and may be good for some laughs. Players may enjoy sharing them with friends at first, but they will probably also get the urge to gain more control over the actual content over time. Gewirtz said the team will grant more freedom to experienced players over time, but exactly what that means isn’t yet clear.

“We think these are mainstream fantasies that appeal to both genders and they could get a wide international audience,” Gewirtz said. “On Facebook, the fantasies today are more like build a castle, a farm, a mafia or a city.”

The key to whether the game succeeds or not is whether gamers truly enjoy the short movies they create and the sense of humor that comes with them. They may (or may not) like the fact that you can’t do that many of the bad things that come with being a movie star: hookers, drugs, thugs and generally bad behavior. There are no limos or jets yet either. But the company will introduce a reputation system over time that will allow you to pursue alternative paths.

“It’s a light-hearted approach to celebrity,” Gewirtz said. “We stay on the family friendly side, though you can decide to be a ruthless bad-boy rocker.”

You can buy lots of clothes and, if these generate a better reaction from the audience, you’ll get higher ratings in movies. Rival games include the Electronic Arts’ The Sims Social and CrowdStar’s It Girl, but neither really highlights being a celebrity.

GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat's fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry's latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your early-bird tickets here.

Filed under: dev, games, social, VentureBeat

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Kip Katsarelis on designing the next SimCity (interview)

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 06:00 AM PDT

Kip Katsarelis is lead producer for the new SimCity game Electronic Arts’ Maxis studio is developing. We recently made the trek to Emeryville, Calif., to get a look at the PC game, which is due out in 2013. The new SimCity is aimed at reviving a franchise that began in 1989. EA hasn’t released a major title in the franchise since SimCity Societies in 2007. And even then, its last full version of the game was SimCity 4, released in 2003.

Katsarelis’ job is to bring the franchise forward by a decade and take full advantage of the improved processing power of today’s PCs. To do that, his team has created a new game engine, dubbed GlassBox, the simulates everything down to individual Sims and buildings. The art style will be full 3D, and the cities will be interconnected. If one city produces smog, another city will feel the pollution. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Katsarelis:

GamesBeat: Can you summarize your take on the new SimCity?

Katsarellis: One of the key pillars of SimCity has been the way it makes you think about the world. It is a game and you get sucked into it, but then you start looking at the real world a little differently. It kinda makes you think; it inspires people in different ways. (SimCity was one of the reasons I came to Maxis, actually got into the games industry.) We wanted to make sure that SimCity held true to that, so we made a little video about some of the things you’re going to be able to do in your city to impact the world.

GamesBeat: How many of these Sim games have you worked on now?

Katsarelis: I was on SimCity 4, and I worked on Rush Hour. And I’ve been at Maxis about 11 years. I worked on Spore and some other titles.

GamesBeat: The interesting challenge for you is this: You can use a lot more computing power and get a lot more detail and data and all that, simulating anything you want, but you also want to make the experience of playing the game simpler for players?

Katsarelis: Our new GlassBox engine is very powerful. It’s an agent-based simulation, so we’re tracking every single Sim in the world. We know if they’re sick or they have a job or if they’re unhappy. That’s pretty powerful. We could simulate down to the level of knowing when they have a hangnail. [He's joking]. We don’t want to go that deep. It’s finding the right granularity for the simulation, so that people care about the details you give them. It’s simming at a city level, and your cities are now part of these greater regions that are interconnected. It’s really city planning at that regional level, and that’s important. There’s definitely simulation between cities now, which is totally new. It’s balancing the micro and the macro.

GamesBeat: And the art style, how did you look at that, how did you want to change it?

Katsarelis: SimCity is going 3D, which is a first in the franchise for us. One of the things we were inspired by was the tilt-shift look, and oversaturation, depth of field. We’re all big fans of model railroads, so we kinda came to this from that view. We want to build this tiny little model world that you’re going to be the god of. We just fell in love with that idea.

GamesBeat: The individual buildings almost look more detailed and bigger when you’re zooming in.

Katsarelis: Yeah. There’s a ton of detail. We didn’t go hyper-real, but there is a ton of detail in there, and we surface what’s important. I don’t know if you picked up on any of it. You can see inside buildings. There’s interior mapping going on, so it makes the insides come to life. There’s detail on the textures themselves, on the cars, everywhere. It all has meaning, too. We’re able to change values if things go to a depressed state in the neighborhood. We can get graffiti on buildings, things like that. We can really show off what’s going on in the simulation, or even in that particular building. I don’t know if you saw when the lights go on, we’ve got deferred lighting in the game, so we can tag every building with different lights.

GamesBeat: [In a demo showing a fire scene, a fire truck with sirens blaring stopped at a street signal, even though there were no cars blocking it]. Looks like you have to watch out for little things, like the fire engine stopped at the signal?

Katsarelis: Yeah, yeah. We’re still early in our traffic development. The plan is that fire engines will override traffic laws, so we’re still working on that one.

GamesBeat: It looks like you can almost start telling individual stories of your Sims in a city that operates from the ground up. Is that true?

Katsarelis: We’ve got the Sims, and so we want to bring out some characters within the simulation as well. Crime is a big part of SimCity, and we’re going to have different characters around that. Arsonists, bank robbers, things like that. We’ve got garbagemen. Every system has its characters and people associated with those systems.

GamesBeat: You have missions. It seems like everyone who makes an open world figures out soon enough that they have to give missions in order to direct people to undertake particular tasks?

Katsarelis: Yeah. I think that’s just the evolution of games in the last 10 years. Previous SimCities were very open. It was an open sandbox, open world. Here’s your palette of tools. Go to town. Build what you want. Gamers today, they want to be led through a story. They want to know what the rewards are. They want to achieve something in a small amount of time, or long amounts of time. But they want to know where they’re going. They want some help with that story. The Sims changed from the original Sims to Sims 2 when they introduced wants and fears. That added a little bit of that structure. It’s finding that right balance. We don’t want to make a linear, role-playing game. We still want to have that sandbox and play within that. Players are going to be able to opt into those missions.

GamesBeat: I guess the context is different, too, because there’s things like CityVille out there. We have simpler city simulations. You want to do something that’s over in the deep end, the deepest experience in city simulation?

Katsarelis: Definitely. But we want to serve it up in a way that even somebody who’s been playing a Facebook game could come over and not be blown away by the complexity. That’s why all the data layers are really simple and easy to understand. We want anyone to be able to pick it up and play it. And if you really want to get deep, that information is there, that simulation is there.

GamesBeat: How do you think people are going to find that the game reacts to them? Like, the game will change for a specific person. When do you think people are going to notice that this is what’s happening?

Katsarelis: I think they’ll notice it at the wider level. You look at your city from the highest perspective. You will see that a coal city looks very different from a normal, maybe a green city. It’s night and day. But I think it’s the characters that come up, the individual buildings themselves will all change. There’s that kind of large-scale city change that you’ll see at a glance, but when you get in close, your educated or high-wealth areas of town, maybe they’ll have solar panels on their roofs, or they drive Priuses. You’re going to notice a different character and feel, down to that Sim level, the individual Sim level.

GamesBeat: And then the environmentally conscious part of this game is new. It seems like that adds an interesting challenge to whatever you’re building. It also constrains you. You maybe can’t do your dream city with no regard to polluting your neighbors.

Katsarelis: You can build your dream city. That’s just it. We don’t want to stop you. Going green and green technology has always been part of SimCity, and we have that. One of the things we want to do is encourage is both sides of the spectrum. And there are more spectrums than just green and dirty. If you build a dirty, coal city, that’s a win state. That’s success. The Sims that live in your city are a little different than the Sims that live in your high-educated or high-tech city; they’ve got different demands and wants. They’re happier. They’re okay if it’s a little dirty. They need just the basics, like jobs. Really, the gameplay is different, but there are win states, and you are rewarded for each of those.

GamesBeat: It seems like it takes a huge effort to pull this together.

Katsarelis: Building games takes a lot of folks. And to build a city-builder, you’re not just building a room, a level. We’re building everything. I’ve seen much bigger teams. We’ve tried to keep it as tight as possible.

[Photo credit: Dean Takahashi]

GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat's fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry's latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your early-bird tickets here.

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An in-depth preview of SimCity reveals a crafted, intricate experience

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 05:00 AM PDT

Inside the Maxis game studio in Emeryville, Calif., the next SimCity is taking shape. The new game won’t debut until 2013, but Electronic Arts recently revealed enough of the game to get longtime fans of the series — which originally debuted in 1989 and hasn’t had a real blockbuster version since 2003 — salivating for more.

We joined a group of journalists who got a sneak peak at the game in a briefing from Kip Katsarelis (pictured left, see our interview), lead producer at EA’s Maxis, at the studio. Katsarelis revealed that the team has envisioned a huge game that takes advantage of a full decade’s worth of progress in computing power. The game is going to have outstanding graphics and a mindblowing level of detail, but it will also be simpler to play. That is a must, Katsarelis said, in age of simple city simulators on Facebook.

As with the earlier games, you serve as mayor of a city, setting the policies that allow the city to grow as you wish. If EA pulls this game off in the right way, you’ll be happy running your town, and the company could have a massive blockbuster hit.

A massive simulation

The new reimagined game will have a constructible, full 3D world based on what EA calls its GlassBox Engine, or simulation software that enables an intricately connected world.

“We track every Sim (person) in the world,” Katsarelis said. “We know if that Sim is sick or happy.”

Ocean Quigley, creative director on the game, said in a briefing that the engine gathers all of the lessons of games such as The Sims, which simulates individual people and families, and brings them together on a massive scale.The game does not take the programming model of The Sims and scale it up, since that programming model was never meant to scale up to such a massive level. The engine was redesigned from the ground up.

Each building in a city is now fully simulated, Quigley (pictured left) said, with full details that describe its purpose, show its status as a working cog in a larger world, and translate its impact on everything else. It is a bottoms-up designed world, designed by a team of around 80 people who have already been working for a year or two.

“Everything is connected,” Katsarelis said. “One of the key pillars here is the way that SimCity makes you think about the world.”

To prove that, Katsarelis rolled some giant bowling balls through a town to show the havok they cause as they crush each tree or building.

Each vehicle, person or building is considered an agent. The agent moves about in the world an interacts with the objects near it. The simulator can support tens of thousands of agents. Agents trigger simulation rules when they arrive at a destination. A truck may drop off water at a water tank, which will then be able to supply water to a home. At a glance, you can look at an overhead map to see which parts of your city need power or water. As with older SimCity games, you can create a zone for industry, commercial, or residential buildings and construction will organically grow buildings in those zones, as agents deliver the resources for the construction. With lots of construction, you’ll have lots of jobs and many Sims moving into your city.

Wherever you look in the city, you’ll notice the details. Businesses will have fictitious names on signs that make the city blocks look like a real city. The graphics have cool features: clouds, smoke, sunlight glinting off glass windows, waves and boat wakes in the water, and the flashing lights of sirens. The simulation uses depth of field, where the section you are looking at is in sharp focus, but more distant objects are fuzzy.

Despite all of that, the game is designed to run well on PCs that will be about five years old by the time the game launches. It should have sufficient speed to run without boring gamers to death because it is too slow.


If you haven’t build enough police stations, for instance, you’ll notice evidence of crime such as graffiti. Characters such as arsonists, driving a black van with orange flames, will show up. The arsonist will go around the city setting fire to buildings. If a building is burning, it will produce smoke that contributes to pollution. The fire can burn individual citizens, or Sims, who will cry for help. An ambulance will be dispatched to pick up the burning Sims, douse them, and take them to a hospital. But if the hospital is full, the Sims will be unhappy and that will lead to more dire consequences for the city. Back at the fire, a fire engine will be dispatched and navigate its way through traffic. If it gets there in time, it can put out the fire. But if not, the fire will spread.

Each Sim will have a mind of its own with wants and desires. If the Sim has no job, it may organize an Occupy-style protest at your City Hall and demand jobs. The Sim will be unhappy at home and spread more unhappiness. Eventually, the Sim may move out. The Sim may leave the city, and if a building is abandoned, it will bring down the property values in the neighborhood. Shops where your Sims used to shop may shut down.

For the most part, many of the logical rules apply. If you build a city with a lot of parks, you’ll have less land for commerce, industry, and residences. But the values of the homes alongside the parks might be high, and you’ll collect more property taxes. I still remember how the original SimCity helped me understand taxes. You can raise taxes to build a lot of infrastructure. But those taxes may drive people out of your city to towns with lower tax rates. You might be trying to build your dream city, but if you’re not careful, you may create a ghost town.

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The wild wild web: top U.S. cyber-cop says we’re losing the war against computer criminals

Posted: 28 Mar 2012 04:42 AM PDT

The outgoing executive assistant director of the F.B.I., Shawn Henry, is not leaving on an optimistic note. “We’re not winning,” the nation’s top cyber-cop told the Wall Street Journal. ”I don’t see how we ever come out of this without changes in technology or changes in behavior, because with the status quo, it’s an unsustainable model. Unsustainable in that you never get ahead, never become secure, never have a reasonable expectation of privacy or security.”

Increasingly, says Henry, the F.B.I. came across stolen information during the course of one investigation which revealed that another corporate network had been breached for months or even years without the company in questions having any idea they were ever under attack. We reported earlier this month on the 100 million people who’s data was breached by Anonymous this year. But its seems increasingly clear that the hacking attacks which are made public are just the tip of the iceberg.

For example, testimony this Monday in front of Congress by the security firm Mandiant revealed that in the majority of cases traced back to Chinese hackers, the average company was unaware of the problem for 416 days before being alerted to the problem, often by a third party security.

This grim portait explains why some companies are getting more creative. VentureBeat chatted a bit yesterday with Richard Boscovich, the senior lawyer in Microsoft’s digital crimes division who led the Microsoft’s recent raids on the Zeus botnet. He says that big companies need to step up and plug the gap left by law enforcement and traditional corporate security. “We’re very lucky because our legal department is very forward thinking and allows us to get creative in order to address what is a rapidly growing problem,” Boscovich said.

Boscovich was actually waiting in a courthouse for a trail to begin and overheard a case being brought by a handbag manufacturer against a counterfeit ring. “I realized that we could use the same principles laid down in the Lanham Trademark Act of the 1940s to go after the botnet armies that use Microsoft’s name to further their malicious email.”

The actual criminal gangs behind the Zeus botnet are believed to be located overseas, but Boscovich says the idea is to change the ecosystem at home. “When we shut them down here, it makes it more expensive to do business. We can’t eliminate the threat entirely, but hopefully we can get to a point where crime doesn’t pay like it used to.”

Image via Flickr user altermark

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Japan’s DeNA cuts mobile gaming deals with Chinese carriers that have a billion users

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 11:14 PM PDT

Japanese mobile social gaming network firm DeNA has announced it has signed deals with China’s three largest mobile carriers, enabling DeNA’s games to get in front of nearly 1 billion mobile subscribers.

DeNA’s Mobage China network, which allows gamers to buy social games and play them with their friends, will now be accessible via China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. That should give Tokyo-based DeNA a huge reach for its free-to-play mobile gaming apps. It’s also important because Google’s official Google Play Android store is not supported in China.

The apps will now appear in the carriers’ official mobile app stores, rather than only on mobile web sites. Chinese subscribers can use their direct carrier billing to purchase virtual items in Mobage China games and have the payment executed through their mobile phone bills.

China Mobile, which has 650 million subscribers, started offering Mobage China apps on March 1. China Unicom, with 205 million subscribers, debuted its Mobage China store section on March 8. And China Telecom, with 126 million subscribers, began offering Mobage China apps on Feb. 29. DeNA generated sales of $1.4 billion in the past year and it has 35 million users in Japan and 1,800 games.

GamesBeat 2012 is VentureBeat's fourth annual conference on disruption in the video game market. This year we’re calling on speakers from the hottest mobile, social, PC, and console companies to debate new ways to stay on pace with changing consumer tastes and platforms. Join 500+ execs, investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and press as we explore the gaming industry's latest trends and newest monetization opportunities. The event takes place July 10-11 in San Francisco, and you can get your early-bird tickets here.

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Adobe Flash-based mass market games will go 3D in a big way

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 09:01 PM PDT

Adobe is about to taking mass market gaming up a notch. The company is introducing a number of high-end gaming features — from 3D graphics to easier mobile porting — today with the launch of version 11.2 of its Flash Player. The company is also launching a partnership with Unity Technologies, maker of the Unity 3D game engine.

This means that browser-based games and Facebook titles will be able to take a big leap forward in graphics fidelity, potentially offering a big boost for the whole game industry. Social and casual games on the web are expected to grow from $4.94 billion worldwide in 2011 to $8.64 billion in 2014, according to the Casual Games Association.

Adobe believes that it will continue to reach the largest mass market of game players with its Flash Player, which is already running on 1.3 billion PCs worldwide. That vast reach is Adobe’s biggest selling point: developers can create one version of a game and reach the most people. In the past, Flash games running on these PCs were two-dimensional and relatively primitive compared to console games with 3D graphics.

But the new Flash Player 11.2, which debuted in October and is now being enhanced, now has the option of tapping the 3D graphics hardware in a PC, not just the microprocessor. The player uses the Stage 3D applications programming interface that makes it possible to access 3D hardware. That API makes it possible for Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 to run inside Flash. It can also access fast memory features in a computer as well.

That enables Flash-based animations to take on a 3D look that is far better than the old Flash, which is the basis of most Facebook games today. Currently, nine of the top ten Flash games use Flash today.

“We consider Flash to be the game console for the web,” said Diana Helander, product marketing manager for gaming solutions at San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe, in an interview with VentureBeat.”We give game developers extraordinary reach.”

And now it’s not so outlandish to think that Adobe can deliver console-quality games that run in web browsers, with minimal downloading required. That means that Facebook users will be able to log into a Flash-based game instantly and enjoy rich 3D graphics — something that isn’t really a real experience with most of today’s Facebook games.

The deal with Unity Technologies will enable Unity customers to publish web-based 3D games, like Madfinger's Shadowgun, to the Flash Player using tools built into the Unity developer interface. The full integration with Unity will arrive later this year.

While Adobe gave up trying to adapt the Flash Player to mobile devices, it has enabled Adobe Air to distribute Flash-based games to mobile app stores such as the Android Market, the Apple iTunes App Store, and the Amazon Appstore for Android. Those games are packaged as native mobile apps. The Stage 3D APIs will now work with Adobe Air.

The premium game features for games are supported in today’s version of Flash Player 11.2 and Adobe is making them available for free for content published prior to Aug. 1. After that, the premium game features can be licensed for commercial use, but will remain free for the first $50,000 in app revenues. After the first $50,000, Adobe will charge a royalty of 9 percent. The use of premium features within Adobe Air will be royalty free.

Unity has more than 260,000 active developers. Existing Flash apps range from Zynga’s FarmVille to Electronic Arts’ The Sims Social on Facebook. With Flash Player 11.2, games will run faster and show off better graphics. Over time, game developers will get used to using the technology and will create more and more high-end 3D graphics-based games in Flash.

Will Harbin, chief executive of Kixeye, a maker of hardcore games on Facebook, said his company plans to use the new Flash tools to deliver “mind-blowing browser-based game experiences” in 3D on platforms such as Facebook.

Emmy Huang, director of product management at Adobe, said in an interview that Flash 11 has penetrated about 80 percent of the Flash-based audience already. Version 11.2 just launched.

“We think that some of the games coming soon are going to be very exciting,” Huang said. “Adoption is still ramping up.”

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Apple’s Newsstand generates $70K per day, study says

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 05:50 PM PDT

The top 100 publications in Apple’s iOS Newsstand generate about $70,000 per day, according to a study released today by research firm Distimo.

Apple first released its Newsstand back in October as a new feature for iOS 5. The Newsstand is a store that allows people to buy digital versions of magazines and newspapers that are optimized for the iPad and (to a lesser extent) the iPhone/iPod touch. It’s displayed as a unique folder on the iOS home screen, meaning you can’t really ignore it. And much like the App Store, Apple takes a 30 percent cut of all Newsstand sales.

The study said most of the revenue generated daily is from in-app purchases from U.S. customers. The New York Times, News Corp.’s The Daily, and the New Yorker are among some of the top publications raking in money. News apps as a whole account for seven percent of the top 200 highest grossing apps, according to the study.

Not long after the Newsstand launched, several big magazine publishers were gushing about the boost in sales. For example, after reporting a 268 percent uptick in revenue, Conde Nast revised its digital strategy to put a greater focus on the Newsstand.

Do you use the iOS Newsstand to read your magazines and newspapers? Let us know in the comments.

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10k users take to new list-your-enemies Facebook app

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 05:33 PM PDT

Proving that not all people want to characterize online relationships in the friendliest of terms, a new Facebook application for listing your enemies is now working its way through the social network at breakneck pace.

EnemyGraph, first released last month, is a play on Facebook’s social graph and encourages people to use the popular social network to do the exact opposite of what they’re used to: declare their enemies.

The app, developed by a research group in the Emerging Media and Communications program at the University of Texas at Dallas, has received a lot of media coverage in the past two days for its anti-friending product, adding more than 10,000 users in the last 36 hours.

“People want to express themselves in broader ways, and not always in the ways that Facebook prefers. I think this is a blind spot, an opportunity,” EnemyGraph co-creator and program director Dean Terry told VentureBeat.

He might be right. The frenzy of activity may be too much for the little app, however, as it appears to be buckling under the pressure of maintaining so many enemy relationships.

In addition to encouraging folks to finger their foes, the application also tracks the most disliked people on Facebook. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and pop-star Justin Bieber are two of the most despised people on Facebook, according to EnemyGraph’s tabulations.

For Terry and his student co-creators Bradley Griffith and Harrison Massey, though, EnemyGraph is less about making enemies and more about understanding the complexities of online relationships. The current crop of social networks are lopsided, they argue.

“You learn a lot about people by what they dislike,” Terry said. “This app opens the door to wondering if there’s a way to draw people together against something that in turn results in positive social change, or at least brings [people] together in new ways.”

With the influx of attention, the application, launched primarily as an exploration in social dissonance, could evolve into a full-fledged company. “We’re interested in developing this idea further in a non-Facebook app. There’s certainly a startup angle here,” Terry said.

Photo credit: joeshlabotnik/Flickr

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FamilyLeaf lets your mom stalk your life without the embarrassment

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 05:14 PM PDT


There are social networks for friends, social networks for work, even social networks for relationships. FamilyLeaf wants to make a social network for the family.

“You couldn’t design a product more viral than a tool for families,” said FamilyLeaf co-founder Ajay Mehta at today’s Y Combinator Demo Day. “You don’t ignore family, so it’s spreading like a weed.”

Nineteen year-old co-founders Mehta and Wesley Zhao have known each other since the fourth grade. The two find it embarrassing to add parents, aunts, and uncles on Facebook, but know it’s inefficient to keep an ever-changing paper address book. They showed a picture of the classic printed excel spreadsheet of family birthdays, phone numbers, and email addresses that many of us taped to our refrigerators growing up. FamilyLeaf is intended to replace that sheet, and instead provide a digital way for staying in touch.

Just like any social network, you can post pictures from trips, be alerted to a birthday, and see when family members post about personal achievements.

“There are only a few extremely important things in life: work, friends, and family,” said Mehta. “LinkedIn and Facebook have done an amazing job capitalizing on their unique social graphs, but the most important one is family.”

Thus far, 70 percent of the company’s alpha users are returning to the service. There are a number of competitors to the social network, however. Chattertree, Famster, and others all allow people to gather with family on the web. FamilyLeaf remains confident in its vision and is hoping to take on more funding.

To potential investors Mehta says this: “We’re just like the biggest social networks you already know of, that maybe you wish you invested in when they were at our stage.”

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99Dresses is e-commerce “crack for women”

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 04:47 PM PDT


99Dresses co-founder Nikki Durkin describes her company as an enabler to one of the world’s most powerful drugs: shopping.

“I have created crack for women,” said Durkin at today’s Y Combinator Demo Day.

The company allows women to upload items of clothing to the website, rate the quality, and then assign prices. But prices aren’t in dollars, they’re in a 99Dresses currency called “buttons.” Buttons can be purchased for a dollar each, and can only be spent on the website. This creates a closed-loop e-commerce environment that the founders hope will feel like a social network.

Thus far, 4,500 dresses have been uploaded to the website.

But how do you constantly monitor the quality of clothing going through the system? Co-founder Peter Delahunty explained to VentureBeat that 99Dresses is really relying on its community. The company encourages users to sign up through Facebook to create a sense of accountability. If a damaged item of clothing does change hands, however, the company will work with that customer to return her money, as well as note the issue in the seller’s history.

Poshmark, a mobile application, provides a similar service to 99Dresses. It also attempts to create a community around selling fashion, but does not have its own currency. Instead, it does this by only allowing people to buy items from “posh parties,” or e-commerce trunk shows that are held around a specific genre of fashion.

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Matterport’s scanner can create a 3D model from anything

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 04:37 PM PDT

3D printing is turning heads these days, especially with do-it-yourselfers. Y Combinator startup Matterport has invented a small scanner, pictured above, that can scan any space or object and create a 3D model.

“We turn reality into 3D models and our scanner is 20 times faster and 18 times cheaper than any other tool on the market,” says Matterport co-founder Michael Beebe, “We are creating fundamentally new technology, like the steam engine or the car.”

Best of all, no precision is needed. With a wave of the hand, the device smartly scans the environment and understands the shapes, features, and placement of everything it scans.

Beebe showed off the technology at Y Combinator’s Demo Day. The team highlighted that its scanner is currently being used in the construction, film making, and real estate industries.

Beyond just scanning a room, the implications for a 3D scanner can be quite cool. You could scan any object of your choosing and send the model to a 3D printer to get a 3D replica of virtually anything in the world. Excuse me while I go scan the new iPad and make a replica.

Matterport is one of 39 companies presenting at Y Combinator’s Demo Day Spring 2012 event. Check out other cool companies making their debut here

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Ark’s cute penguin knows who you are, and is letting people search for you

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 04:18 PM PDT


There a new search engine in town to freak out about: Ark, a “people” search engine that scrapes social networks to compile its own profile of you.

Ark found that over 30 percent of searches were for individuals. The startup asked the question, “What could Google and Facebook build if they were not at war with one another. Co-founder Patrick Riley believes the answer to that is Ark. The company looks at every major social network (including Facebook, RenRen, LinkedIn, and more), and then creates profiles that are housed on its own servers. People can then query the database to search for individuals not by name, but by different qualities. For instance, if you’re looking for a person who lives in New York, speaking Mandarin Chinese, and works in technology, you can find that person using Ark.

Ark has already indexed over a billion people this way, which is roughly 14 percent of the world’s human population. The average length of time people spend on Ark is 13 minutes per session, which is a pretty fair amount. However, it’s obvious why people spend so much time on the site — Ark is another way for people to stalk those they don’t know.

This is just another lesson in “watch what you put on the Internet.” Much of the information people supply to Facebook, Google+, Twitter, even Myspace is easily accessible by the public. If you aren’t okay with people aggregating that picture of your kids, your hometown, or the place you worked when you were in high school don’t put them online. Otherwise you’re subject to having your data crawled and collected by companies like Ark, which is essentially just trying to make it easy for people to meet each other.

The startup currently has 10,000 beta testers, and it’s received over 80,000 requests to join the beta test in the past 48 hours alone.

Ark is one of 39 companies presenting at Y Combinator's Demo Day Spring 2012 event. Check out other cool companies making their debut here.

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Facebook updates investors on Yahoo and Ceglia suits in amended S-1

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 03:58 PM PDT

Facebook amended its prospectus Tuesday to update would-be IPO investors on the status of two highly publicized legal matters.

The company also added comScore data from January showing a 57 percent increase from 2011 in the aggregate minutes per day that users spent on the social networking site. It also addressed challenges in determining mobile monthly active users, added more information to the voting agreement section, and better explained how it calculates fair value.

Of most significance, the social network, in amendment number three of its S-1 document, said that it intends to “vigorously defend” patent litigation from Yahoo, and that it has filed a motion to dismiss Paul Ceglia’s suit for 50 percent ownership of the company.

“On March 12, 2012, Yahoo filed a lawsuit against us in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California that alleges that a number of our products infringe the claims of ten of Yahoo's patents,” Facebook said in the new S-1. “We have not yet filed an answer or asserted any counterclaims with respect to this complaint. We intend to vigorously defend this lawsuit.”

Further down in the document, Facebook added that it cannot yet estimate financial damages to the company as a result of the suit. “If an unfavorable outcome were to occur in this litigation, the impact could be material to our business, financial condition, or results of operations,” the company explained.

Facebook also informed investors of the new developments in the Paul Ceglia case that first came to light yesterday.

“On March 26, 2012, we filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Ceglia's complaint and a motion for judgment on the pleadings,” Facebook said in the amended S-1. “We continue to believe that Mr. Ceglia is attempting to perpetrate a fraud on the court and we intend to continue to defend the case vigorously.”

On a lighter note, Facebook also plucked information from a recent comScore report to show potential buyers and advertisers that its users are more hooked than ever. “Aggregate minutes per day increased 57 percent and average minutes per user per day increased 14 percent during January 2012 as compared to January 2011,” Facebook said in a blurb added to a section on its display advertising opportunity.

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Hackpad aims to build a better wiki with real-time updating

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 03:54 PM PDT

Creating and managing a wiki can take work. It requires a special syntax to format your text and build out the wiki how you’d like it. Hackpad is trying to make the wiki fresh again, with real-time updating and no special text editor.

“Hackpad is easy to edit, works in real-time, and is simple to share,” said co-founder Alex Graveley.

Hackpad is aiming to create a better option for collaborating than the traditional wiki or Google Docs. Hackpad uses color coding to show which authors have contributed which content. When someone makes a change to the wiki, all the collaborators are emailed. You can also send an email to update the wiki, without having to visit the wiki page. A simple, but useful feature is the ability to create a new page by just typing @ before the page title link.

Hackpad has more features than a traditional wiki, such as in-line photos, check lists, and a smoother text editing format. Companies can use it for collaborative work between co-workers, and everything typed into the wiki is updated in real-time.

The company says its users are creating 1,000 new documents per week and that 400 companies are using its beta service. Thee service is simple, but looks clean and makes using a wiki much easier.

Hackpad is one of 39 companies presenting at Y Combinator’s Demo Day Spring 2012 event. Check out other cool companies making their debut here.

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Shoptiques pulls boutiques, a traditionally offline industry, into the e-commerce world

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 03:20 PM PDT

ShoptiquesBoutiques are the last type of store you'd expect to get technical, but Shoptiques co-founder Olga Vidisheva is confident she can bring the tiny shops to your digital doorstep.

“The type of inventory boutiques sell is produced in small batches,” said Vidisheva at today’s Y Combinator Demo Day.

Boutiques sell clothes and accessories in small quantities and usually only service the area they are in, as opposed to bigger, global brands. That makes setting up an e-commerce business more difficult than taking some pictures and putting them on Craigslist. You need to have an attractive website, a point of sale function, and the ability to keep up with the inventory on the physical end.

Vidisheva believes her product gives boutiques a way to show off their clothing and reach loyal customers who may not live in the area. Shoptiques takes a “healthy commission” on purchases made through its site, as it takes care of the heavy e-commerce lifting for the small-scale business.

“We go find the most exclusive, unique boutiques, we put them online, and then consumers … can come on Shoptiques and find their favorite little shops from all over the world,” she said.

Vidisheva is banking on her knowledge of what women want. She came from Russia in a classic $100-dollars-in-my-pocket story and studied at Harvard. She later worked for Chanel and became familiar with the fashion industry. She explained that, in her mind, women are most concerned about not showing up in the same room with the same outfit as another. For her, boutiques offer a way for women to find unique clothing, without having to trek to a boutique far away.

Already, Shoptiques has promised funding from Greylock Partners as well as Andreessen-Horowitz, and it proudly announced that it will not be accepting further offers.

Shoptiques is one of 39 companies presenting at Y Combinator's Demo Day Spring 2012 event. Check out other cool companies making their debut here.

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Pair lets you kiss your lover with your thumb, share private moments of love

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 03:06 PM PDT

If your friends are sick of seeing lovey-dovey status updates meant only for your significant other, it might be time to take your love to a new private social network.

Pair is an iOS app for couples to share pictures, messages, video, sketches, and locations with each other. No one else can see the content and you’re friends won’t roll their eyes when they read an “I love you” tweet anymore. You can also share more, ahem, private pictures without the fear of others looking at them.

One of Pair’s features is the “thumbkiss,” which lets couples “kiss” with their fingers by touching the screen in the exact same place. If you both tap the same spot on the screen, your phone will vibrate. Adorable? Maybe. Hilarious? Absolutely.

The app launched last Friday and according to founder Jamie Murai, Pair has sent one million messages and has more than 50,000 registered users in just four days.

Pair is getting funding from Dave Morin (founder of private social network Path) and SV Angel. Onstage at Y Combinator’s Demo Day, Murai said that Morin was quite smitten with the app.

“Dave said to us Facebook is building cities, Path is building homes, and Pair is building bedrooms,” said Murai.

Pair is cute, but it’s not the first of its kind. Korean-based Between is an Android and iOS app exclusively for couples. Ourspot is a web-based private social network for couples or best friends.

Pair is one of 39 companies presenting at Y Combinator’s Demo Day Spring 2012 event. Check out other cool companies making their debut here.

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Report: Number of U.S. mobile gamers reaches 100 million

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 02:53 PM PDT

Angry BirdsA new report from international market research firm Newzoo is highlighting the ever-increasing popularity of mobile gaming. According to the Mobile Games Trend Report, the number of Americans who play video games on their smartphone, tablet, or iPod Touch has surpassed 100 million.

Newzoo says 69 percent of U.S. mobile gamers play on a smartphone, while 21 percent play on a tablet, and 18 percent play on an iPod Touch. The firm’s latest trend report claims 13 percent of all time spent on games worldwide in 2011 was on a mobile device, totaling more than 130 million hours a day.

The firm also estimates that 9 percent of total game spending last year was on mobile titles and says the free-to-play (F2P) business model is increasingly converting players into continuous payers. F2P games already account for 90 percent of mobile game spending in the U.S., Newzoo says. In February, the five top-grossing titles were all free, with Dragonvale, Smurfs' Village, and Zynga Poker topping the charts. Paid games enter the top five at launch, Newzoo says, but drop out within a month. Newszoo says it’s proof that monetizing games as a free service can provide a more continuous and higher revenue stream.

Although smartphones and tablets are often seen as “casual” platforms, Newzoo says there is major opportunity for “core” games to be offered as full titles or game extensions, as 62 percent of core gamers in the U.S. also play on mobile devices. Developers that can combine core genres with the games-as-a-service business model on mobile platforms will be the ones that reap the most benefit from what Newzoo is dubbing “mid-core” games.

"The recent launch of the new iPad did not bring us the edgeless display and other innovations we were hoping for, but…the two main upgrades, processing power and resolution, dramatically improve the immersive experience of  ‘core’ games on that platform,” said Newzoo CEO Peter Warman. ”The intuitive interface forces developers to offer more casual gameplay, ensuring the games cater to a far broader audience, including the young moms and dads who used to play core games on their PC, Xbox, or PlayStation. Immersive experience and casual gameplay combined is what ‘mid-core’ gaming is about."

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Sprint won’t be left behind when the LTE iPhone comes

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 02:50 PM PDT

Aiming to quash fears that Sprint will once again be left behind in iPhone availability, the carrier’s chief financial officer Joe Euteneuer said today that it could offer an LTE 4G iPhone whenever Apple makes one available.

Speaking at an investor conference today, Euteneuer said Sprint’s contract with Apple is similar to AT&T and Verizon’s, reports Dow Jones. Specifically, he said Sprint isn’t being held to any 4G coverage requirements before it makes the iPhone available. Sprint plans to debut LTE in six U.S. cities by the middle of the year, covering 100 million Americans.

“If you make the assumption that [Apple will] launch a device at a similar time they did last year, [we're] basically done [covering] the major markets,” Euteneuer said, regarding the company’s LTE rollout.  “So I don’t think we are really disadvantaged at all.”

Sprint was the last major carrier to receive the iPhone, and it seems as if the carrier has bet its entire future on Apple’s smartphone, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. Sprint reportedly agreed to buy 30.5 million iPhones over the next four years, a deal potentially worth around $20 billion.

Euteneuer didn’t actually confirm that an LTE iPhone was coming, but given that the latest iPad touts LTE as one of its biggest additions, I’d think it’s a safe bet for the next iPhone. I never questioned whether Sprint would be able to offer an LTE iPhone — the real question is if the carrier’s new LTE network will be ready in time.

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Kyte uses an Android app to protect your kids from smartphone evils

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 02:42 PM PDT

kyte failThe problem with kids these days is … actually a problem with smartphones. Parents are hard-pressed to find a safe way let kids have the smart-gadgets they really want. Kyte, however, believes it has found a solution for Android phones.

“Your kids are smart and they hate [dumb phones],” said co-founder Martin Drashkov at the Y Combinator Demo Day today. “[But] with all the dangers out there, who wants to give a smartphone to a seven-year old? Every kid wants a smartphone and there are no good solutions.”

Kyte is an application that can be downloaded to any Android phone, activated and then given to a child. The app allows the child to make per-approved phone calls and only play authorized games. A kid is unable to leave the app to access the rest of the Android phone’s features. Parents have full control over the applications from the browser. Should the child lose the phone, or if there is a more dire situation, parents can also track the phone’s GPS online.

Drashkov explained that right now, there are 50 million children in the United States. At $10 a month, the company could make up to $6 billion a year. Of course, it would have to sign up every child in the U.S.

Mobile technology company Fuhu created a similar solution, but for tablets. Its Nabi “Kiddified” tablet, allows children to play on an application that cannot be shut off, and is otherwise controlled by the parents.

Kyte is one of 39 companies presenting at Y Combinator's Demo Day Spring 2012 event. Check out other cool companies making their debut here.

Filed under: mobile

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Secrets of Facebook’s success: Identity

Posted: 27 Mar 2012 02:18 PM PDT

facebook-timeline-jane-smithIdentity is important to everyone, but many startups get it wrong. Getting identity right has been one of the main keys to Facebook’s success.

As Facebook gets ready for its monster IPO, which will likely value the company at more than $100 billion, I thought it would be valuable to take a look at some of the critical product decisions that lead to its success.

In this series, I’ll take a look at how Facebook did some things differently from most companies. These are very small product design decisions that can have a tremendous impact, starting with identity.

There was a time when Facebook and Twitter were neck-and-neck for which was going to be the dominant social network. In many ways, Twitter got it wrong.

Back in my CompuServe days, my online identity was 72457,0056. Handles aren’t that bad, but they’re not much better, either.

Real people refer to each other by names, not handles. Real people can’t remember arbitrary strings. Facebook made the right call by focusing on the names people use for each other instead of handles. (This shouldn’t we confused with the discussion of real names vs. pseudonyms.)

Although nerds, SEOs, and marketers care about getting a single letter username or being “rocky,” this isn’t a concern for a lot of regular people. A name is the most personal thing to someone, but many startups force people to give that up.

Computers need unique identifiers, but people don’t. Most people don’t have namespace collisions within their friend circles. To the extent that they do, they’re easily resolvable by context. (For example, I know two Mike McCarthys from two different companies.) Facebook has a unique identifier to address the needs of its computers, but I don’t know what mine is or the IDs that Facebook computers associate with my friends. I don’t have to.

One of my product-design mantras is “Don’t make people think like computers.” The most successful apps we use address this for us. With type-down on Gmail, I never actually have to remember someone’s email address. (My personal address on Gmail was designed deliberately such that it isn’t memorable, to prevent dictionary spam attacks.) With cell phone address books, we don’t have to remember people’s phone numbers.

Part of the reason Twitter never took off as a communications medium among the masses (versus a publishing medium) is that they’ve made it too damn hard to communicate with anyone. Twitter only searches against the handle when you start addressing someone. And the search algorithm doesn’t even make sense.

Look at this search for Carol:

For some reason, Carol matches against CharlotteHill. (All the letters are in there, but in a different order.) But if I try to enter @fuller, I get no results because Fuller isn’t in Charlotte’s handle, even though it’s part of her name.

Another problem is that Twitter only searches against the 500 most recently followed people. The other day, I wanted to meet my friend Jill Okawa Fletcher for a drink. But because I followed Jill a long time ago, she doesn’t come up when I do a search. (My friend Carol Glover doesn’t show up in the Carol search for the same reason.) This is really silly in 2012. Computing power and storage is cheap enough that you could search against the whole follower list. Google searches much larger datasets for its search suggestions.

This limitation makes it hard to communicate. And when you make something hard, people will do less of it. In many cases, they’ll say forget about it. In other cases, they’ll go to the trouble of searching Google to find the right handles, but get annoyed by it. I often Google “Twitter [real name]” to find the Twitter handle of someone I’m following. I shouldn’t have to use another product to accomplish core functions of your product.

Handles create another problem: they make it harder to onboard people. For very popular services, trying handle after handle only to find them taken creates a barrier to sign up. (My Twitter handle of rakeshlobster comes with its own back-story.) This reduces ROI on marketing dollars.

Google’s success can also be attributed to the need for people to relate with computers on people terms, not computer terms. The domain name system is unfriendly to humans. There can only be one Nissan.com, but that isn’t the car company. Google translated people’s desire to quickly find the car company, http://www.nissanusa.com/  (if you’re in the U.S.), into a $200 billion business.

Twitter is successful in its own right. But this fundamental element of product design influenced the divergent directions of Facebook and Twitter.

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