25 May, 2012



Ripped from Star Trek: Researchers say lasers could create tiny tractor beams

Posted: 25 May 2012 08:26 AM PDT

Star Trek science, meet the real world.

A group of researchers at the A*STAR Data Storage Institute has possibly figured out a way to take the fictional tractor beam and make it real.

Light’s ability to push objects has been known for some time, but what has evaded researchers so far is a way to create backwards force from a forward-moving beam.

The A*Star team has figured out how to do just that. The key to the discovery is the Bessel beam, a laser with particular distribution of light intensity. Instead of scattering backwards, the light of a Bessel beam can, with small enough particles, actually scatter forward, pulling the particles back towards the observer. So, while the beam of light is moving forward, the particles are moving backwards. Hello, tractor beam.

That’s the theory, anyway. The team says the idea could be used to manipulate smaller objects like biological cells, which don’t need all that much energy to be moved.

Higher level applications like cars or people, on the other hand, are seen as more or less impossible: One, moving something on that scale would would require far too much energy, and two, the ensuing Besssel beam would likely be powerful enough to damage — or, in the case humans, kill — whatever it was moving.

In short, a Bessel beam vacation would not be a fun trip.

Filed under: offBeat, VentureBeat

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The DeanBeat: Playstudios launches myVegas social casino games with MGM as a partner

Posted: 25 May 2012 08:00 AM PDT

Social casino game startups are the cliché of 2012. Everybody is either starting a new company in this hot market — on the bet that the U.S. will allow online gambling sites again — or spending a lot of money acquiring casino game startups.

But Playstudios believes it is different because it is a blend of Silicon Valley and Las Vegas. The company was founded by Andrew Pascal (pictured right), a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur and former casino empire executive. He has rounded up some talent, such as ace casino game designer Nicholas Koenig (pictured left).

Together, they’ve played both sides in the intersection of a market where most new entrants come from either Silicon Valley or Vegas, and they’ve signed up MGM Resorts International, which owns 80 percent of the casino properties on the Las Vegas Strip, as their marketing partner.

“The idea is to capture the fun and excitement of a Las Vegas weekend,” said Pascal in an interview with GamesBeat. “Here’s an interesting fact: More people will play slot machines on Facebook this month than visit Las Vegas this year. The profile of the player is very similar — affluent, middle-aged women, with an above-average education.”

Today, the company is revealing the result of its work. The myVegas app on Facebook is a social gaming destination, where players can come to enjoy games such as Blackjack or slot machines. You can earn virtual currency by playing the games and earn real rewards such as trips to real-world casinos. Then you can build out your own fantasy version of the Las Vegas Strip in a kind of meta-game (pictured at top).

The best thing about the new games is that they’re authentic casino games with high production values. The app is in closed beta testing now and will be available in the summer. In one of the cool games, you can play Bet the Farm, a slot machine with an isometric 3D viewpoint. When you click on the slot machine play button, the wheels roll by in a pseudo 3D look.

In the meta-game, you design your own casinos and then populate the world with your friends. You can click on your friends as they walk down the street and you’ll see their stats or the games they’ve played recently.

Playstudios has raised $12 million in two rounds of funding since early 2011. The company has launched free-to-play casino games, where users play for free and pay real money for virtual currency, which they can trade in for rewards.

Many companies, such as Caesars Entertainment and IGT, are looking at creating gambling empires that stretch from the free-to-play Facebook games to the offshore online gambling sites to the real-world casinos. Caesars bought Playtika. IGT paid $500 million for Double Down Casino, a 70-person development studio that makes casino games for Facebook. Such hybrid companies will become the norm.

But Pascal, who has two decades of experience in games and gambling, believes that the social casino game market is a great business on its own. Roughly 65 million of Facebook’s 900 million users play casino games on the social network.

“We are focused on virtual currency-based social goods gambling,” Pascal said. “A lot of people are very excited about for-cash gambling as an opportunity. It is an enormous prize when it gets sorted out. Everyone will position themselves for it. But having been in that business, I fully appreciate its complexity.”

His team has put a lot of work into polishing the company’s games, such as the slot machine title Lost In Time: Jules Verne (pictured above). In that game, you play a slot machine. But once you hit a certain level, you can play a bonus round where you pick out objects hidden in a scene.

Once you win earnings, you can get loyalty prizes, including a weekend at MGM Grand, a chance to choose the song for the Fountains of Bellagio show, an intimate dinner at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and tickets to the latest Cirque du Soleil show.

Pascal said that Las Vegas itself was the “very first social game.” It is a widely “shared experience that relies on alternate currencies.” He should know because he was the former president and chief operating officer of Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, two of the biggest properties in Vegas.

He worked for casino magnate Steve Wynn when he owned only the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas. Pascal helped open the Mirage hotel in 1989 and watched as it reinvented Las Vegas. Then he left to do the startup thing again in Silicon Valley, where he grew up.

“I felt I was too insulated, wasn’t learning as much,” he said. “I connected with a couple of guys who were enamored with gambling. We felt the content of the industry wasn’t changing. So we reinvented the slot machine.”

The problem in the recent past was that many games in real-world casinos stagnated. The one-armed bandits were pretty boring, but Pascal started a previous company, Silicon Gaming, to attack that problem by using computer and game technology to make casino games more fun. He sold Silicon Gaming to the world slot machine leader, IGT, in 2005.

After he sold that business, Pascal returned to Wynn and opened the Wynn and Encore resorts in Las Vegas. At its peak, he ran a business that had 14,000 employees and $1.4 billion in revenues. But he got the startup bug again and incubated another company, WagerWorks, in Europe, where internet-based online gambling became legal.

He Left WagerWorks in 2010 and started exploring social casino games in the spring of 2011. At that time, he attended his first Game Developers Conference and was struck by how the social game makers talked about their customers as if they were chasing high rollers in Las Vegas.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Pascal said. “I was thinking, ‘Am I in Las Vegas or at the Social Gaming Summit?” He added, “There are just so many interesting parallels.”

At Playstudios, Pascal assembled a team that included Monty Kerr, a casino game veteran and former executive at Hi5. Rather than just build a game, they decided to build a full platform to launch a bunch of games. Playstudios previously operated under the stealth name incuBET. But now it goes by Playstudios and has 30 employees.

Under the marketing partnership with MGM Resorts International, Playstudios gets the exclusive social and mobile gaming rights for big Las Vegas properties, including  ARIA, Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, The Mirage, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Luxor, Excalibur, and Circus Circus.

Bill Hornbuckle, MGM Resorts International’s chief marketing officer, said, "We have actively watched the explosion of the social gaming landscape and evaluated the options for extending our brands through these increasingly important channels.  In partnership with Playstudios, we have created a platform that will engage and entertain existing MGM Resorts customers, attract new ones, and allow us to strengthen our brands in a new and relevant fashion."

MGM Resorts International hopes to drive its tens of millions of customers to the social casino games. In turn, those games will feed customers to Las Vegas hotels. It’s a cycle, and Pascal says we are very early in it.

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, social

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Square Enix’s Mike Fischer says Activision was “crazy” to abandon True Crime: Hong Kong (interview)

Posted: 25 May 2012 08:00 AM PDT

Mike Fischer is the president and chief executive of the U.S. division of Square Enix. The Japanese parent company is the publisher of hit video games such as the Final Fantasy series, but it isn’t satisfied with just a strong position in Japan and Europe. The company is “westernizing” its content much the same way that Japan’s Sega tried to do. But Square Enix, which bought Eidos and has a number of North American game developers, is having an easier time crossing borders and is cherry picking the titles that make the most sense. The Japanese company is still making money (while others are losing money), and Fischer says he can choose the best of the content from Japan and Europe and then republish it in North America. But Fischer is also aware that the video game market is changing, and big publishers have to change with it. Among the big titles coming is Sleeping Dogs, which Square Enix picked up after Activision canceled it (under the previous name True Crime: Hong Kong). Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

GamesBeat: You have a big line-up coming. How do you view these games in terms of westernizing your content?

Mike Fischer: I think this is a great time to be answering this question. It would have been a lot harder a year ago. We had MindJack and Lord of Arcana (pictured right) to brag about. I think you’re seeing a couple of different trends and a couple of different strategies all coming to fruition at the same time. One of them is obviously the blending of East and West. So you’ve got Kingdom Hearts here for the 3DS right up against Hitman Absolution and Sleeping Dogs (two major upcoming titles).

I’m really lucky to be in charge of the U.S. market and getting the benefit of these big investments made by Square Enix Europe, which used to be Eidos of course, and Square Enix Japan. I’m supplement that by adding games that we’re sourcing and producing here in the U.S. The great thing for me is, because I have the benefit of these massive triple-A blockbusters, I don’t have to try to replicate that. So I can go out and sort of seek lower-risk, smaller-scale intellectual property investments that obviously I hope will eventually, over time, grow into big franchises of their own. You take a look at something like Quantum Conundrum (pictured below). We’re small enough so that we can really give a title like that the attention and love that it deserves. But we’re big enough that we can put the resources behind it so it gets an enormous amount of attention. That’s the kind of added value that I’m looking to bring to the company.

GamesBeat: The range is from a small iPhone game all the way up to a console title. That’s the amount of freedom that you have?

Fischer: That it is. I don’t go in and say, “I want an iPhone game,” or “I want an Android game,” or “I want a downloadable game.” I’m simply looking for great IP investments. And finding the right platform to fit them. And the great thing for me is there are just fewer business model limitations than we’ve ever had in the past.

GamesBeat: What’s the state of progress into those games and those business initiatives?

Fischer: So far so good. Ultimately the consumer’s going to judge, right? The two examples that you see here today are (name withheld) and Quantum Conundrum. And they’re very different. Quantum Conundrum is a downloadable game, it’s from Kim Swift, the creator of Portal, it’s a very whimsical puzzle platformer game. (Name withheld) is a very abstract. I don’t want to give it a blank-meets-blank type of explanation. B, you know, it’s a very unique, fun, quick to play phone game, but it also incorporates some user-generated content opportunities that put it in a class of its own. We’re not looking for one model of success. Our point is that these new platforms allow us to reach audiences that, up until now, have either been very difficult to reach or very uneconomical to reach. We’re always going to need the scale of these big blockbusters like Hitman and Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs and Kingdom Hearts, to really give us the scale that we need to make all of these games successful.

GamesBeat: EA has this approach where they seem to want a certain percentage of revenue to come from digital, in a certain time frame. They’re in a big rush. They think all of the industry is going in that direction. Do you guys have that same sense of urgency, that maybe the revenue mix is going to change drastically for the whole industry?

Fischer: To EA’s credit, I think they’ve invested. I can only speculate on their actual motivations. But I think it’s a great way to create a call to action internally for teams. I’m a content guy, not a platform guy. I’m simply seeing these platforms as opportunities to bring content to market that wasn’t possible before, and to monetize audiences that were out of our reach in the past.

I’m not trying to set an arbitrary goal. I think the retail market is still dominant. Hitman, Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs, Kingdom Hearts are all massive retail hits. I don’t think it’s an “or” solution anymore, it’s an “and” solution. I think we could have a big online hit tomorrow and shift a massive proportion of our games online. And then we could have a massive retail hit the quarter after that and the bar swings the other way. That’s kind of like asking yourself, you know, is Warner Bros. or Fox primarily a theatrical company or primarily a home video company? What percentage of their revenue is the right mix? I think they just want a hit movie. I just want a hit game.

GamesBeat: How about on the other trend of titles moving from east to west, or west to east?

Fischer: It’s fascinating for me to look at the difference in approaches that creators take for their games. I think the western developers tend to be built around the paradigm of the independent studio contracted with a big publisher, payments made on a milestone schedule, based upon a massive game development document. You ask a western developer, ‘why is this game going to be great?’ Boom, here’s a 400-page document.

I’m exaggerating for effect. I remember a conversation many years ago where someone asked one of the Japanese developers I was working with, “Why do you think this game is going to be great?” And he said… “Ore no game dakaran da yo!” Because it’s my game! Because I made it! There was a sort of auteur model. ‘I’m going to shut the doors and come out when it’s great.’ I think the ideal scenario is somewhere in between there. Getting it just right is like balancing on a ball. I think it’s like the platforms, I don’t think there’s any one model that’s right for every developer. But what I’m seeing that’s really nice is, some of the best practices from each team getting shared with the others, and some of the creative dialogue that can happen as you have folks that are more exposed to different ways of making games.

GamesBeat: Sleeping Dogs (formerly Activision’s True Crime: Hong Kong) has an interesting history there. How did you redirect that games and put it on its current path?

Fischer: The game was, in a sense, discovered. I’m making air quotes: ‘discovered’ by the folks in Wimbledon. The minute they showed it to us, we really felt like we had found a diamond in the rough. Obviously the game was originally True Crime: Hong Kong from Activision. I can’t speak to why they let that go. I’m not going to speculate on their behalf. All I know is, they’ve gotta be crazy. Because this game is just fantastic. The scale and scope of the game really encompasses all of everything you’d want to do in Hong Kong. The acting, the story, the characters are very deep.

There’s clearly a lot of inspiration from [the movies] The Departed and Infernal Affairs. You play an undercover cop who starts to feel mixed loyalties. But the open world feels like Arkham City, the combat feels as good as a fighting game, the driving is as good as a Need for Speed, and the story is every bit as rich as compelling as a Mass Effect. All in one game. In a sense it reminds me a little bit of Dead Island, which Square Enix America did the sales and distribution for. Nobody had heard of that game coming into E3, and in the U.S. alone it sold over 2 million units. It’s great to have a sleeper.

GamesBeat: Because of the great trailer for Dead Island?

Fischer: The game had to deliver at the end of the day. It offered, I think, role-playing-game-style upgrades, online co-op play, the zombie setting. It’s not a digital masterpiece, but it’s what everybody wanted. It’s great to bring out a Tomb Raider or a Final Fantasy, but the challenge there is, everybody expects it to be so great, right? Just meeting expectations is a challenge. Surpassing them requires masterful work.

The thrill that I love in bringing out a game like Sleeping Dogs is when nobody sees it coming. And then, boom, it’s the surprise of the holiday. The game’s coming out early in the year, so it has time to find its audience. We’re in a world where everything’s about social media, word of mouth. And yet you still see marketing presentations that are built around how big your TV campaign is. And again, it’s not an either/or. You have to have both components.

But we live in a world where word of mouth about a great game like Sleeping Dogs, combined with what I expect will be very good reviews and a strong marketing campaign, coming out early in the year, we’ve got the elements for a success. There’s something wrong when someone can tell you 12 months out what all the great games are going to be the next holiday. That means there’s no surprise, there’s no innovation. So it’s nice to come in here with big franchises like Hitman and Tomb Raider that everyone’s known about, Kingdom Hearts, everyone’s expecting. But also to bring in new stuff like Sleeping Dogs and Quantum that bring a little bit of innovation and hopefully will show our industry that consumers are still hungry for something new.

GamesBeat: I imagine Hitman: Absolution has a lot of buzz already. Something like that may not need that kind of help; it’s already got the ball rolling.

Fischer: You know, we’re a publicly traded company, so no matter how big people’s expectations are, it’s my job to beat it. So all that means is… [laughter] the numbers that I have to deliver are just that much higher. I wish there was a game in my lineup that I could just kick my feet up and let itself. There’s no game that big, and probably never will be.

GamesBeat: Has it seen a smoother development than, say, Sleeping Dogs?

Fischer: Hitman has been in development a long, long time. Some of that’s been smooth; some of that hasn’t been. But the fortunate thing is, we gave this game the time and the resources that it needed to be great. You saw the Glacier engine mentioned at the beginning of the trailer. The crowd dynamics that you saw — where the guy’s just having to literally push his way through people — show all of them reacting individually. That’s not just like walking down a busy street. That’s like being in a really crowded concert type of environment. That type of technology takes time to get right, and we took our time to get it right. The same thing applies to Tomb Raider, right? We just announced the game’s going to be coming out in 2013. We could ship that game now, it’s so good. So imagine how awesome it’s going to be when it hits the market.

GamesBeat: Is there an explanation for that, too? As far as why it needed to go out further?

Fischer: I can look you in the eye and tell you, honest to goodness, we want this to be the best game of the generation. And the time that we’re giving it is going to allow that to happen. Look, you’re going to see the game at E3. Tell me if you think I’m blowing smoke your way. It’s really that good.

GamesBeat: Yeah, I think as long as it doesn’t go to three E3s, right…? [big laughs]

Fischer: I think there is kind of a three-E3 rule. No game has ever been to three E3s and turned out to be a hit. You’ve got a good point there.

GamesBeat: We waited nine years for Diablo III…

Fischer: Yeah, but was it at E3?

GamesBeat: I don’t think so. Not until the last couple years. So yeah, it’s a diverse lineup; it’s a big slate. You guys are one of the only Japanese companies to make some money last year.

Fischer: It’s a hit-driven business. If there was a formula to success, all the companies would be equally successful. I think one of the things that’s helping us out is we do have a broad base of development now. We’re making games in Japan, in North America, and in Europe. That’s helping us develop a consistent line-up that’s not only cross-border,but it’s also going from casual to hardcore. And hopefully now we’ve smoothed out our release cycles so you’re not going to see as many peaks and valleys as maybe you have in the past.

GamesBeat: I assume most of your developers are in Japan, some are in Europe, and the smallest number is in North America?

Fischer: Well, it depends, because again, North America covers the Eidos Montreal studio, which is actually pretty significant. Of course we’re making Sleeping Dogs in Vancouver, but that’s an independent studio, United Front Games. We have the headquarters staff in Wimbledon, we have the IO studio in Copenhagen. I think there are certainly more individual developers in Japan than any other region. The net, east versus west, I can’t say.

All these studios are really sharing resources. Which I think is unique to a company like ours. You see a lot of western companies sharing resources, but we’re actually doing it in Japan now as well. The Hitman trailer you saw, the end at night, that was actually co-produced by our Visual Works studio, that’s famous for doing all the computer-generated imagery work in Final Fantasy. It’s not just about where it’s made. It’s how it’s made.

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

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Hackers release untethered jailbreak for iOS 5.1.1, works on most iOS devices

Posted: 25 May 2012 07:45 AM PDT

iOS update

You just can’t stop those wily jailbreak hackers. Today new software has been released that will fully jailbreak almost any iOS device running the latest iOS update, including the iPhone 4S and new iPad.

Hackers from the Chronic Dev Team have released Greenpis0n Absinthe 2.0, which offers a completely untethered jailbreak — meaning the hack will stick with your device even if you have to reboot it. There have been tethered jailbreaks around for some time, which are more cumbersome since you have to jailbreak every time your iOS device restarts.

Jailbreaking your iPhone allows you to run unauthorized apps and customize your phone in an assortment of ways. It's a direct affront to Apple's heavily locked-down app ecosystem, so the company has made each new hardware and software release more difficult for hackers to jailbreak.

The tool is compatible with just about every iOS device, except for iPad 2 models running Apple’s new 32-nanometer chipset.

As always, tread carefully when jailbreaking your device: backup first, and be vigilant when installing unauthorized apps. Though jailbreaking allows for more flexibility with your iOS device, it also opens you up to all sorts security vulnerabilities.

Via BGR, Jailbreak Untethered

Photo: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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First video taken with Google’s Project Glass shows off trampoline skills

Posted: 25 May 2012 07:28 AM PDT

Google Glasses

Google has debuted the first video taken with its new set of eyewear from its Project Glass project.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up, Project Glass' sci-fi-looking glasses allow a person to do many of the same things you do with your smartphone, except without the need of a separate device. The eyewear displays user interfaces for different programs, allows you to snap pictures, and as we said, even record live video (in this case, it’s a bit nausea-inducing).

Over the past week, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and others from the company have been field testing the eyewear and taking pictures to show off what it can do in a real life setting.

We’ve embedded the video below of a Google employee performing flips on a trampoline. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Photo via Google

Filed under: offBeat, VentureBeat

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How Roambi became one of the hottest business apps for the iPad

Posted: 25 May 2012 07:00 AM PDT


If there is one application that personifies how Apple’s mega-popular iPad is transforming the enterprise, it could very well be the intuitive, luscious, and just-plain-cool Roambi, a business intelligence app that brings mundane data to life in unimaginable ways.

Roambi, which has attracted $30 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, lets you show your company’s SAP, Oracle, or Salesforce data on the iPad in bright charts and graphs. Each report is available for online or offline viewing, so you can always bust out your iPad for presentations or routine queries.

And unlike business intelligence players with iPad app support like MicroStrategy, IBM Cognos, or SAP BusinessObjects, Roambi does not tie you down to a single data source. “Roambi is unique because it is designed to aggregate across different data warehouses,” Forrester mobility analyst Ted Schadler told VentureBeat. “They pull it all into a single data dashboard for an executive.”

The Roambi app serves more than 230 large enterprise customers, charging $795 per user per year, and more than 4,000 mid-size customers with its Pro offering, charging $99 per user per year. Its large enterprise customers have purchased support for between a hundred and several thousand employees, meaning the company is bringing in strong revenue.

Roambi comes from San Diego-based development firm MeLLmo. The company’s founders originally picked the odd name to throw off the competition, but they are stuck with it now because all their contracts use the name. They try to make the best of their funny name and in some ways they are affectionate toward it — in the office, the guys are “MeLLMen” and the ladies are “MeLLmettes.”

A bold bet

Roambi stems from the day MeLLmo chief executive Santiago Becerra (left) stood in line to get his hands on the first-generation iPhone in June 2007. A lifelong fan of Apple products, Becerra had the time to stand in line because he had sold a startup eight months prior and was taking a break from work. He deeply identified with the idea of the iPhone and loved the concept of using a flat touchscreen display for interacting with applications and the web.

“I remember that first day of playing with the iPhone and the pre-loaded apps like the stock widget,” Becerra told VentureBeat. “It was truly different because it required no instruction manual. At the time, I asked myself ‘How long before business people will want to see data on this device?’”

Becerra was so excited about the idea of enterprise applications for the iPhone that he called up and pitched a few friends and business colleagues on the idea. A few people shied away from the idea, but he found a solid founding team that believed in it, including Quinton Alsbury, David Becerra, and Jaime Zuluaga.

Alsbury, now MeLLmo’s president of product innovation, loved Becerra’s idea from the start. He wasn’t the lifelong Apple fanboy that Becerra was, but he was excited about the iPhone’s potential.

“It seemed obvious to anyone looking at the phone — there was no way that it would be relegated to just a consumer device,” Alsbury told me. “Apple being a computer company meant that they had everything they needed to make it a computing platform. It seemed obvious that the evolution of the iPhone would make it into a computing device. Motion and visual graphics didn’t exist in this form before.”

So Becerra, Alsbury, and the others talked about the idea until they finally formed MeLLmo as a stealth LLC in January 2008. Their goal was to create a touch-based data visualization app exclusively for the iPhone. But as they were just getting started, the team knew they’d have to overcome a host of obstacles, including convincing people their idea was sound. The biggest problem they had was that no software development kit existed for iPhone apps. The App Store didn’t even exist yet to distribute those apps.

From the outset, the team made two bets: One, that business users would eventually prefer using iPhones over BlackBerrys. And two, Apple would soon offer a distribution model for other applications.

Development and launch

The MeLLmo team started recruiting on the sly that January. Alsbury said the company chose the slogan “Bringing social networking 3.0 to web 2.0″ because, like the company name, it would not hint at what the company was building. Many developers and business folks saw the slogan and contacted the company about job opportunities. When the prospective employees came in, the team revealed they were actually working on a business app for iPhone. Some of the earliest prospects jumped at the idea and still work for the company today.

The most critical early hire for the company was Alex Schaefer, a part-time developer who created the popular app ApolloIM, which ran on jailbroken iPhones. Jailbreaking your iPhone opens the door to installing unapproved applications and using the phone on other carriers. Early in the life of the iPhone, jailbreaking was especially popular because Apple didn’t yet offer the ability to install apps, and people understood that the iPhone could do much more than it was allowed to do. Schaefer’s ability to work around Apple’s limitations was important for MeLLmo, since the team wanted to build an app without an SDK.

“[Schaefer] in himself is an interesting story,” Alsbury said. “He wasn’t even a full-fledged developer. He was a poetry major with two years of computer science. But we needed someone to take some of these early ideas and see what was even possible. We needed someone who could jailbreak and start messing around. When we hired him, we gave him the title of ‘iPro.’”

So about month before Apple released its first iOS SDK on March 6, 2008, MeLLmo was already hard at work figuring out app development and how its data visualization app would function. Becerra describes the earliest months of development as “difficult” because there were no rules and no playbook for creating these apps. There were only a few apps for the iPhone at that point, so designing an interface with touchscreen functionality was tedious.

“It was really a new paradigm,” Becerra said. “To us, the hardest part was to forget about the past and center on a new platform and new ways of thinking.”

The company remained in stealth mode until May 19, 2009. Just before coming out, the team met with bloggers, journalists, and analysts to preview the product, which MeLLmo expected to sell directly to corporations. They were met with lots of skeptical looks and some “well-known bloggers” told then it wouldn’t work.

“They told us we wouldn’t be successful unless we were on BlackBerry,” Alsbury said. “They said ‘No enterprise is going to buy software institutionally for the iPhone.’ They didn’t believe anyone would buy iPhone software.”

When the company finally launched Roambi for iPhone, many businesses complimented the intuitiveness of the design and realized that touch-based data visualization could add some pizzazz to sales calls, presentations, and meetings. Those businesses weren’t exactly lining up to get their hands on Roambi at first, but the response was generally positive. In fact, business users were slowly ditching their BlackBerrys in favor of more powerful and versatile iPhones and starting to find ways to use it for work and play alike.

“We were surprised how fast companies were buying into it at the beginning,” Becerra said.

Page two: How the iPad changed everything and where the company is headed next

Filed under: dev, enterprise, mobile, VentureBeat

Pages: 1 2 View All

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So much for open source webOS: HP’s core Enyo team goes to Google

Posted: 25 May 2012 06:43 AM PDT

The main coders working on HP’s Enyo  — the HTML5 application framework first seen in the HP TouchPad — have jumped ship and are headed to Google, the Verge reports.

This puts a huge dent in HP’s plan to open source webOS, which admittedly was weak from the start. HP only announced that it was opening up webOS after it failed to find a suitable buyer. We reported that HP tried to sell its Palm assets for $1.2 billion — the same price it initially paid for them.

Sources tell the Verge that the departing crew wrote “99 percent of the code” for Enyo, and that also includes Matt McNulty, who headed the Enyo team. HP planned to release the first version of Open webOS later this year, but without the Enyo folks I can’t really see that happening. (In a statement to the Verge, HP said everything was on schedule.)

HP announced earlier this week that it’s laying off 27,000 employees — which likely gave the Enyo crew the impetus to move on.

The news doesn’t mean that we’ll start seeing great webOS design influences and features in Android. The Enyo team was instead focused on making it easier for developers to create apps for the platform. It’s still unclear where they’ll end up at Google, but it will likely be either the Android team (though Android apps are built in Java, not HTML5) or Google Chrome (which could use a robust HTMl5 app framework).

Filed under: dev, mobile, VentureBeat

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SpaceX Dragon successfully captured by International Space Station

Posted: 25 May 2012 06:38 AM PDT


The closely watched SpaceX flight, the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station, has been successfully captured by the robotic arm of the ISS.

The capture occurred at 9:56 a.m. ET Friday and was broadcast by NASA on UStream. The mission took about 3 days and 6 hours to complete. Next up will be the ISS installing the capsule so it can access on-board supplies.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasted off carrying a Dragon capsule full of supplies on Tuesday morning. SpaceX hopes replace now-retired American Space Shuttles with missions to space, and eventually the private company hopes to send humans into space.

The ISS has a robotic arm that reached out and grabbed the SpaceX Dragon capsule. (See photo above.) “We’ve got a Dragon by the tail,” NASA astronaut Don Pettit said after he used the arm to capture the capsule. (You might remember Pettit from this awesome Angry Birds Space video.)

Check out the gallery below to see more photos of the Dragon capsule capture, NASA’s reaction at mission control, and more.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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The inside story: How Facebook panicked and botched its IPO

Posted: 25 May 2012 05:00 AM PDT

Facebook stock priceThere's been a ton of coverage about the Facebook IPO disaster, but very little of it looks at the crucial point two weeks ago where things went terribly wrong. It's becoming increasingly clear that Facebook itself messed up at that juncture.

Facebook CFO David Ebersman

Facebook CFO David Ebersman

The screw-up resulted in a major disappointment in Facebook's stock debut: The stock's 15 percent decline since the IPO last Friday may not in itself be tragic. But worse, lawsuits are flying saying that legal guidelines weren't followed. And there's the sad fact that regular mom-and-pop investors were apparently left with the more losses on average than large institutions who got privileged information. This all was aggravated by a separate annoyance: glitches in the Nasdaq stock market trading process, which caused delays in trade and cancel confirmations, among other things.

However, based on a number of interviews VentureBeat has had with observers and other sources close to the process, it's apparent that Facebook itself may be most to blame for the fallout. Facebook chose to be more furtive in public announcements about its business than it was in private talks with large investors.

The decisive action by Facebook came on May 9, three days into the "roadshow," which is the time when Facebook and its bankers visit major investors in hopes of getting them to buy the IPO stock. On that day, Facebook’s executives, led by chief financial officer David Ebersman, signed off on new language in the company's updated IPO prospectus.

In that May 9 update, Ebersman decided to use vague language when describing how the company’s second quarter was looking. According to the filing, specifically on page 57, Facebook said that it was experiencing the same trend in the second quarter that it had seen in the first quarter, that growth in “daily active users” (DAUs) was increasing more rapidly than the growth in ad impressions, driven by many users’ shift to mobile devices.

The exact wording is here:

Based upon our experience in the second quarter of 2012 to date, the trend we saw in the first quarter of DAUs increasing more rapidly than the increase in number of ads delivered has continued. We believe this trend is driven in part by increased usage of Facebook on mobile devices where we have only recently begun showing an immaterial number of sponsored stories in News Feed, and in part due to certain pages having fewer ads per page as a result of product decisions.

Now Facebook is generally growing quickly — and its ads are growing, even if they are growing more slowly on mobile — and so this update itself didn't send any alarm bells to most investors, and it shouldn't have. After all, Facebook had long warned about this mobile problem, ever since the first IPO prospectus filing on Feb 1, that revenues could be negatively affected by its huge mobile growth, because monetizing mobile hadn't been proven. (Indeed, VentureBeat was the first to report this on the day of the IPO filing.)

Facebook's lawyers may, in the wake of the legal mess it has gotten into, try to argue that the new May 9 language about "DAU's increasing more rapidly than the increase in number of ads delivered" pointed to something more significant than Facebook had released before. But the reality is that this wording was just too vague to be construed by normal people as meaning anything more than what had already been mentioned before. The sad things is, this was such an important update for Facebook, its team must argued about it a hundred times before publishing. So why was it written as though it was purposefully trying to obfuscate? More on that in a sec.

There's been sloppy reporting about the May 9 update, by the way. The WSJ, the leading publication for many bankers, for example on Thursday implied that the May 9 update was the first time Facebook disclosed that the mobile risks "may negatively effect results." But the WSJ is wrong. That wording had been in Facebook's S-1s from the beginning. Take a look for yourself at the original February filing. (See pages 5 , 13, and 46.) The fact is, there is nothing within the S-1 update on May 9 that would give normal investors the sense that there had been a material change about Facebook's revenue prospects.

The more significant point is, on the next day, May 10, Facebook made private statements to a select group of banking analysts, telling them the revenue prospects had changed. This was arguably material information at the time — a big no-no.

Here's what happened on May 10: Facebook got on the phone with a select group of 21 analysts, including analysts of its IPO underwriters, and briefed them on what was really going on behind the S-1 update. Facebook executives guided those analysts through much more explicit material than the S-1 update contained, according to our sources, saying that Facebook now expected the second quarter to be on the "low end of the range" of the financial guidance Facebook had previously given them. VentureBeat has confirmed this wording with someone with direct knowledge of those talks.

Of course, this new information prompted the analysts to take a look at the guidance Facebook had previously given to them, then estimate where the "low end" was, and revise their own forecasts accordingly. They did this beginning on May 10, as disclosed by leaks to Reuters. The banks now forecasted 30.4 percent year-on-year 2012 revenue growth on average, instead of the 36.7 percent growth previously expected. (Compare that to 2011, when Facebook’s revenue grew 87.9 percent year-on-year to $3.71 billion.)

Let’s back up for a second. When Facebook gave its original guidance to analysts in March and April, at the start of the IPO process, it was on firm legal ground in doing so. Indeed, this guidance is a normal part of the process, described in good detail by Henry Blodget, himself a former Wall Street analyst, in his good post about the IPO process Tuesday. He covers a lot of ground that I won’t go over again here.

However, Facebook's subsequent guidance to analysts, made on May 10, "to the low end" of the earlier guidance, was not on firm legal ground, because this was clearly new information not already in the S-1. It was also clearly different than the general guidance made originally to analysts.

The bankers' downgrades beginning May 10 were significant, as we previously reported, and were shared with a limited circle of investors. The analysts also released lower earnings-per-share estimates, as well as lower revenue forecasts for the second quarter. The estimates ranged between 5.4 percent to 7.3 percent lower revenue for the second quarter than previously.

Here’s are the second quarter revenue estimates, as leaked to Reuters:

  • Morgan Stanley — $1.111 bln (new) from $1.175 bln (old)
  • Bank of America — $1.100 bln (new) from $1.166 bln (old)
  • JPMorgan — $1.096 bln (new) from $1.182 bln (old)
  • Goldman Sachs — $1.125 bln (new) from $ 1.207 bln (old)

Of course, this clearly became material information for investors. Facebook and its bankers, led by Morgan Stanley, were forced to respond to questions from key clients about the changed reports. We see that these key investors, once informed by these roadshows and reports, started to slash the number of shares they intended to buy. One example was Los Angeles-based Capital Research & Management which cut the number of shares it wanted after talking with the company and underwriters, according to the WSJ.

But not every potential investor was privy to these revised reports.

Facebook investors bad mood

The mood of investors in IPO stock

The question of what constitutes "material" information is an interesting one. The definition of material information is that "which would be likely to affect a stock’s price once it becomes known to the public." SEC guidelines are that a company is not allowed to issue information that is materially different from that already in its S-1 prospectus.

Now we're hearing from sources that Facebook is arguing that guidelines around what constitutes materiality is disputed when it comes to the issue of financial guidance. Facebook could arguably say it didn't know if its new guidance on May 10 was going to end up being material or not. Indeed, the Facebook IPO is unprecedented because this sort of change in guidance has never happened before, at least it has never happened this late in the IPO process. But precisely since that is the case, because Facebook was on shaky unknown ground, because SEC guidelines haven't been tested specific around this particular area, Facebook should have made doubly sure to err on the side of caution.

Indeed, a source at one of the underwriting banks we talked with could not give us a clear reason why Facebook should not have updated the S-1 with firmer trend data.

(For more on this topic, see Bloomberg's reporting on material information. It's good as far as it goes, but it’s missing a clear reference to the fact that Facebook chose a weaker statement in its S-1 update than what it gave to analysts afterward.)

We're seeing all kinds of reporting about how the IPO legal process is a mess, and it's true that IPO guidelines are frustrating. SEC guidelines do not allow analysts to print anything between when an IPO prospectus is filed until 40 days after the IPO. Yet they're allowed to speak verbally to a select few of their clients. The bizarre rules are a result of previous regulation, created a decade ago, after abuses made by investment bankers in written reports during the dot com era.

What Facebook should have done on May 9 is either update the S-1 with clearly-stated quantitative data, go forward with the IPO, and deal with the lower stock price — or else pull the IPO filing altogether and wait for a better quarter so as to get a better stock price.

So why didn't Facebook do either of those two things? Well, that's the $100 billion question. One can only imagine the huge amount of pressure that the company was feeling. Facebook, a web site that prides itself on being able to see real-time data about users, traffic and advertising, clearly knew how the quarter was progressing. The roadshow came halfway through the quarter, and Facebook’s update on May 9 was clearly a sign that it realized it needed to say something about its deteriorating revenue situation.

Now the following is just speculation, but it's possible Facebook felt that if it was too explicit, the wording could torpedo the healthy IPO it had put so much work into (indeed, the CFO had been preparing for the IPO for at least a year).

Facebook analyst Sam Hamadeh

Facebook bear Sam Hamadeh

This is interpretation taken by Sam Hamadeh, chief executive of PrivCo, a company that issues research about private companies. He says Facebook should have been clearer about the shift to mobile users, and tried to quantify the potential revenue in some way. Instead, he says, Facebook executives — led by Sheryl Sandberg and David Ebersman — initially appeared during the roadshow to blame the first quarter drop mostly on seasonal trends, and he bases this on sources he's talked with who were present during the roadshow. He takes the skeptical view, which is that Facebook executives buckled under the pressure, and decided to try to sweep the seriousness of the mobile ad revenue situation under the rug, at least when it came to the S-1. It’s true that Hamadeh has been consistently bearish on Facebook, almost predictably so, and so it’s important to keep in mind he presents just one view.

Whether or not this is true — that Facebook decided to say the bare minimum because it feared the consequences of doing otherwise — it's the events that followed that made Facebook's fumble on May 9 look so devastating.

That subsequent analyst downgrades — and the realization that mobile problems were bigger than expected — suddenly shed a new light on previous Facebook actions on the mobile front. And this light doesn't make Facebook look so good. Back on April 9, but already in the second quarter, Facebook announced a deal to acquire Instagram for $1 billion, and reports emerged afterward documenting that Zuckerberg had moved to seal the deal in a matter of days. Could this have been driven by panic reaction to internal metrics? The motivation around the Instagram purchase is relevant because it was so important in mobile. Facebook clearly had seen mobile usage growing quickly, and in particular had noticed Instagram's mobile photo-sharing usage becoming a bigger and bigger portion of all stories posted on Facebook. This of course directly tracked the negative mobile trend in revenues, since photos are so hard to monetize with ads.

And then there's the Facebook acquisition of AOL mobile patents that came on April 23 for $550 million. Was this another panicked move, driven by a growing mobile problem, the seriousness of which only Facebook was aware of?

That's just the beginning. There are more questions than answers raised by the timeline released by PrivCo's Hamadeh Tuesday evening on this site (scroll down).

On Wednesday, May 16, two days before the IPO, Facebook chose to increase the IPO share offering by 25 percent. These 83.8 million extra shares came from insiders, including folks like Peter Thiel and Jim Breyer, who are on Facebook's board, and who are almost definitely privy to the company's true financial position. They more than doubled the number of shares they intended to sell. The private equity arm of Goldman Sachs, one of the lead underwriters, doubled the number of shares it offered for sale. Of course, no intent can be drawn from these actions alone. There may be other reasons they chose to release the extra shares. But it looks really bad given that Facebook executives now knew that the most U.S. investors weren't fully privy to Facebook's real, downgraded revenue outlook.

"This stinks to high heaven," says Hamadeh, of the extra share allotment.

Facebook also set the number of shares it planned to offer to normal mom-and-pop investors — known as retail investors — to about 25 percent, much higher than is normal for IPOs. The cap was also raised for individual investors, so that they could now own 5,000 shares, up from 500 shares.

Finally, Facebook CFO Ebersman decided to set the price of the IPO at $38, at the very top of the price range, which itself had already been increased from an earlier range. This, even though Morgan Stanley has since made statements that the $38 price took into account the lower revenue guidance data.

Confused? You should be. The underwriting banks and Facebook have stayed mum on further commentary.

The rest of the story is known: Since trading started Friday, Facebook's shares have fallen hard. They opened at $42, and then fell and have languished in the low $30's. Facebook shares closed at $33 yesterday. Facebook had misjudged demand, and it now has a lot of angry investors. Facebook now has a bunch of investigations and lawsuits on its hands. Investors filed suit Wednesday in Manhattan federal court and in San Mateo county superior court in California, alleging that the company and underwriters failed to properly disclose changes to analysts forecasts made at the underwriting banks. Facebook faces claims that could be at least $1 billion or more.

To add insult to injury, as less-privileged investors complained about their investments going south, it emerged Wednesday that the main underwriting banks made $100 million in trades from the IPO, over and above the $176 million fee they charged for the process.

Facebook declined to comment for this story.

Yes, the legal process around IPOs is incredibly frustrating, and urgently needs to be looked at closely for ways to be reformed. But it's also clear Facebook should have much been more forthcoming about its real financial fundamentals. If it had, it could have avoided this mess.

[Chart image credit: Yahoo; Mood image: Kevin Dooley, Flickr]

Filed under: deals, media, mobile, social

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Yahoo! TimeTraveler: a travel app whose time has come

Posted: 24 May 2012 09:18 PM PDT

Question: what would you do with six hours in Amsterdam? Dubai? Barcelona? That is precisely what Yahoo TimeTraveler was created to answer.

A few years ago I stopped for six hours in Amsterdam en route to a conference in Cairo. I took the train from Schipol airport into the city, picked up a ride on a canal boat, dawdled through the ancient streets by the Oude Kerk, and toured the Anne Frank house. But did I see the best of Amsterdam? Hard to say.

Yahoo, which seems to be on a bit of a roll in the past few weeks, releasing “killer” mobile browsers and reinvigorating Flickr groups, released TimeTraveler for iPhone and iPod Touch today. With TimeTraveler, I’d have had a much better chance of seeing the best of Amsterdam that fit in my 6-hour slice.

Using TimeTraveler is easy: input your destination, your starting point, and the time you have available. TimeTraveler will do the rest, finding points of interest, tourist destinations, and historic monuments. It will then map them into an itinerary tailored to your available time and desired route, which can be shared with friends via email, Facebook, or Twitter. Yahoo calls it “timed travel” … hence the app’s name.

Part of the technology behind TimeTraveler is, interestingly, Flickr. Apparently, photos uploaded to Flickr with date, time, and geographical metadata are used in the calculation of what destinations you can expect to visit within a set period of time. As Shouvick Mukherjee, a vice-president for Yahoo India told The Business Standard, Time Traveler “computes through Flickr images which people have uploaded in the past and tells him the destinations he would visit, say in an hour."

Another clever feature is the ability to save your trips in the cloud. Once you publish your trips to Yahoo, they are accessible online as a permanent record of your adventure.

Available cities include London, New York, San Francisco, Bangkok, Rome, Paris, and 23 more. More are undoubtedly on the way. Actual time travel, alas, is not.

Image credit: Dave Highbury/Flickr

Filed under: mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Zebit closes $25M in venture funding for microlending website

Posted: 24 May 2012 08:56 PM PDT

If you're looking to expand your business and/or purchase something you desperately need, but your credit is low, take a look at Zebit. The San Diego-based data platform that supports micro-lending businesses from start to finish, raised $25 million in a series D funding round led by Mohr Davidow Ventures along with Leapfrog Ventures, QED Investors and Crosslink Capital.

Launched in 2011, Zebit's mission is "to help people buy the things they want, when they want them, on terms that best suit their needs." The company helps businesses work with customers with low access to credit and enables them to make purchases using a single, customizable platform by using Adaptive Data Fusion.

"This is a science that has been used traditionally in military and wireless sensor applications – taking big, complex streams of data from multiple sources and transforming them into actionable inferences that are superior to using the data streams individually,” Michael Thiemann, CEO, said in a press release. “We've applied this to Zebit, the first platform that performs underwriting on a per-transaction basis – because each customer transaction is inherently different, involving a unique purchase, unique variables and a distinct point in time — the holy grail of risk management."

Global Analytics Holdings, Inc., a parent company, will use the funding to help Zebit grow its platform. To date, the San Diego company claims to have completed more than a million transactions.

Photo via 401K

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Groupon is testing a payments offering to compete with Square and PayPal

Posted: 24 May 2012 07:46 PM PDT

Groupon is testing out an offering of its own in the increasingly crowded payments space, according to an email I was forwarded by a business that was solicited for the service. (Disclosure: I have various puts against Groupon.)

The pricing is extremely aggressive, with a 1.8% transaction fee and a 15 cent per transaction charge for transactions processed through the terminal. Square charges 2.75% with no per transaction fee. PayPal Here and Verifone Sail charge 2.7%, also with no transaction fee. Groupon is charging 2.3% for AmEx transactions [update: a groupon insider tells me the AmEx pricing is 2.7, not 2.3]. Square and PayPal don’t charge extra, and Sail charges 3.7% for AmEx.

Unlike the other players, Groupon is offering an iPod Touch and card reader to merchants free of charge. (The others provide only the readers for free — that’s Square’s reader pictured above.)

The email hints at a forthcoming point-of-sale system for iPod and iPad and says the terminal is already in use in several places in the Bay Area.

Asked what he could tell me about the offering, Groupon spokesman Paul Taaffe replied, “Nothing.”

Groupon’s offering has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Square and could leave it with the least profitable customers. For customers whose typical transaction exceeds $15, it makes sense to use Groupon’s offering. On a $100 Visa transaction, Groupon would charge $1.95 vs. Square’s $2.75. That’s a 41% premium for Square.

Extremely low dollar transactions, such as the $4.34 I spend to buy an empanada at El Porteno, are money losers for Square because what it charges merchants doesn’t cover its transaction costs. (A crafty merchant looking to minimize fees could also put high dollar transactions on Groupon and run the $5 transactions on Square. That would be good for Groupon and bad for Square.)

Today’s announcement that PayPal will partner with terminal providers to target mid-market and large retailers could also limit Square’s ability to move up the food chain.

In March, Groupon acquired FeeFighters, a comparison shopping service for merchant accounts.

Although I have typically advised merchants to avoid most Groupon products, this pricing is compelling. The quality of the app is something I haven’t been able to assess yet.

It’s unclear what this means for Groupon as a company. It suggests that Groupon is trying a lot of different things. But payments processing is a highly competitive industry, and winning won’t be easy.

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DARPA invests $3.5M in TechShop to create pop-up weapons factories

Posted: 24 May 2012 06:59 PM PDT

A fundamental tenet of the modern maker movement is that everyone wants to build something. Especially the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Today DARPA took a break from funding next-generation weapons systems, advanced hypersonic aircraft, and frickin’ laser beams to put $3.5 million into TechShop, the paradise for “inventors, makers, hackers, tinkerers, artists … and anyone else who wants to be able to make things that they dream up but don’t have the tools, space or skills.” TechShop currently operates 5 locations around the US, giving members access to a vast array of tools, building space, and lessons.

In authentic military tradition, the project has a funky acronym: iFAB. The Instant Foundry Adaptive through Bits partnership between TechShop, DARPA, and the Department of Veteran Affairs is intended to “create a foundry to rapidly design and reconfigure manufacturing capabilities to support the fabrication of a wide array of military vehicles.”

In other words, DARPA wants to create insta-factories for weapons systems and military vehicles. Think a pop-up shop that follows the military through a battle zone: instead of new equipment manufacturing, repairs, and upgrades taking place thousands of miles away, military hardware could be built and serviced near the war zone and returned to battle within days.

“Supporting initiatives that expand the number and diversity of talent contributing to the nation's defense is critical to DARPA's efforts in advanced manufacturing," DARPA director Kaigham Gabriel said in a statement. "The resources made available through this effort enables more people to 'make,'—the DNA of creativity and innovation."

According to BusinessWeek, the funding will enable TechShop to open two new locations in Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh, joining locations already in Menlo Park, Raleigh, San Francisco, San Jose, and Detroit.

The Veteran Affairs also gains from the partnership. TechShop announced that, as part of the partnership, 2000 one-year memberships which typically cost over $1000 each, will be made available to veterans. Jonah Czerwinski, director of the VA's Center for Innovation, said that iFAB supports the VA’s goal of "finding new ways of providing veterans with resources that help them serve an important role in America’s economy."

Photo credit: cell105/Flickr

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LivingSocial attempts a more hands-on approach to local commerce

Posted: 24 May 2012 06:44 PM PDT

In its latest experiment in local commerce, LivingSocial is getting hands on with a new events space in downtown DC. Called 918 F, the space hosts a variety of events including cooking classes, zumba sessions, pop-up restaurants, and painting classes with wine.

When LivingSocial CEO Tim O’Shaughnessy described it to me, I said it sounded like an adult education program.

“It’s a pretty unique experience,” O’Shaughnessy replied, promising something more.

It definitely is. The space is the most luxurious adult community center I’ve seen.

It’s housed in a beautiful building built in 1890 for the National Union Insurance Company. The alley alongside is the one John Wilkes Booth used to escape after assassinating President Lincoln. LivingSocial bought the building last year and completely renovated it. It features a beautiful cage elevator that was once manually operated (but has since been converted to push buttons. The walls are exposed brick and remnants of steel tubing from the original construction are still evident.

The place features multipurpose rooms, a bar, a lounge, a showroom, a restaurant-grade kitchen, and a cooking classroom with cameras that automatically zoom in on what the instructor is doing at the moment.

The front desk resembles that of a luxury hotel. More than the daily deals that the company is known for, the venue exemplifies what I think of when I hear the words “LivingSocial”.

The company has partnered with a variety of local businesses to make it happen. The space has featured pop-up restaurants from DC’s culinary avante garde, including chef Mike Isabella, who tested the concept for Bandolero, a new Mexican restaurant that is scheduled to open today in the district’s Georgetown neighborhood.

O’Shaughnessy sees 918 F as a way for LivingSocial to provide more revenue opportunities for local businesses. Restaurants have high fixed costs for space and can’t easily expand. They also have high marketing costs for testing new concepts. With the flexible space that 918 F provides, restaurants don’t incur the space cost. Using LivingSocial’s mailing list to attract customers, they also don’t have upfront marketing costs.

For LivingSocial, it’s a way to entice people on its mailing list who might not have been interested in discounts. “It’s about introducing the brand to people on the list who haven’t purchased before,” said LivingSocial spokesman Andrew Weinstein.

“It’s not about the discount, it’s about the experiential,” said Robert Hannigan, who oversees 918 F as the general manager. He was previously a general manager at Kimpton Hotels, a boutique hotel chain. Talking to him, it’s clear that he has a passion for hospitality and connection among his guests.

“We’ve seen friendships growing out of these events,” Hannigan said.

As a consumer, I’m a big fan of the space. If I still lived in DC, I would probably go there several times a month. I would love to try their sippin’ and paintin’ class, which combines painting with wine. I’d take my eight-year-old niece to their cooking-with-kids class. I’d probably hang out at the speakeasy. It’s a much classier experience than I had when I took Indian cooking classes at Arlington County’s adult education center, and some place I might consider taking a date. (I only took a tour of the space with Hannigan and Weinstein.)

As an advocate for small businesses, my views are more mixed. I like that 918 F is focused on selling experiences rather than discounts. Competing on price is a fool’s errand, unless you’re Wal-Mart. It’s better and more sustainable if you can offer differentiated experiences that people are willing to pay a premium for.

But I worry that in some ways it can be competitive with the local business community. If I spend time and money at a LivingSocial event, I’m not spending it directly with a small business.

Hannigan said the experience has been additive for some businesses. Restaurateurs would see the same customers dropping by their main dining room after an event at 918 F. After a cheese event, several people followed the cheesemonger across the street to the Cowgirl Creamery and bought cheese.

Some businesses have complained that LivingSocial is using their brand and disintermediating them.

“I blogged before how Yoga studios using living social was a bad idea,” wrote Mike Graglia, a yoga instructor in DC. “Now they seem to be getting into the business directly.  This is bad news for Yoga studios.  To the 575 people who bought this deal (as of 5 pm the day it came out), please go, there will be great teachers.  But you could have spent half as much and gotten 3 intro classes at the actual studio…”

“I think many of his peers would disagree with him on the value of an expandable space to reach new customers,” responded Weinstein. “We are working closely with local artists, instructors, chefs, and other entrepreneurs who want to use our space to reach new fans, introduce their craft, and make money, all at the same time.  If you run a small Zumba or yoga studio, you might not be able to handle a couple thousand new clients from a regular daily deal, so we give them an easy and low-cost way to do so.” Weinstein also said the complaint came from opening week, so there were glitches in communications.

But I have the most trouble with 918 F when I put on my investor hat. It may be a great small- or medium-size business, but it doesn’t seem like a venture-scale business. As a technology investor, I wouldn’t want to be putting money into a food and beverage operation. (Technically, the events space is set up as a joint venture.)

I just don’t see it scaling in a meaningful way. As of right now, LivingSocial is running two events a day on weekdays and five to eight events across Saturday and Sunday. Classes draw 25-40 people; pop-up restaurants draw 75-80 people per seating with up to 3 seatings per night, said Weinstein.

As I was walking around DC wearing my newly acquired LivingSocial  T-shirt, I encountered two people who stopped me to say they worked at LivingSocial. One was a dishwasher and the other a bartender at 918 F. And I gave Groupon flak for not being a technology company.

You can view more pictures of the venue in the following gallery.

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App competing with Apple’s AirPlay removed from App Store

Posted: 24 May 2012 06:20 PM PDT

Rogue Amoeba app

Rogue Amoeba, creator of the Airfoil Speakers Touch, an app that lets you send and receive audio from an iPhone to many devices, was removed from Apple’s app store today. The reason? Apple didn’t say.

Airfoil Speakers Touch acted similarly to Apple’s own Airplay feature in iOS 5. The feature lets you stream audio and video from your iPhone or iPad to a high-definition television or speakers using AppleTV — the set top box that accepts the stream. Unlike the Airfoil Speaker Touch, Airplay does not let you receive content from other devices to your phone. It does, however, directly compete with the product, making it safe to assume that’s why Apple didn’t want the app in its store.

Apple contacted the company two days ago with notice that the app was going to be taken down but gave no explanation as to why, according to Rogue Amoeba. The company has filed an appeal with Apple’s App Review Board, and Rogue Amoeba insists that the app was — to the best of its knowledge — compliant with Apple’s developer guidelines.

We have not recently submitted a new version for approval, so this removal was not connected to any pending review caused by an update. Indeed, the removed version (3.0.0) already went through the review process, and was approved back in April. Further, Airfoil Speakers Touch has been repeatedly approved by Apple's review process since its introduction way back in 2009.

Apple has the right to add and remove any apps in the App Store. This means Rogue Amoeba wouldn’t be able to sue Apple or otherwise seek to force its app into the store.

This goes to show that while mobile application developing has become a very lucrative business for the likes of Instagram and FourSquare, it’s still a very young and vulnerable business. An app with too much success that winds up threatening Apple could have its business pulled right from under it.

via The Verge; Amoeba image via Shutterstock

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Funding daily: Predict the future with tweets

Posted: 24 May 2012 06:13 PM PDT

Happy Thursday! Check out the companies raking in funding today. If you want to stay on top of funding news as it happens, subscribe to our Deals Channel RSS feed either by clicking the red RSS icon at the top of this page or by adding the Deals Channel feed link to your favorite reader. And as always, send funding news our way at tips@venturebeat.com.

Huddle raises $24 million to promote collaboration

Huddle, the startup that's bringing simple tools for collaboration to huge companies around the world, has just sealed a sweet deal: $24 million in new venture capital. This is Huddle's third round of institutional funding. Jafco Ventures led the round, with participation from DAG Ventures and existing investors Matrix Partners and Eden Ventures. Read more on VentureBeat: Huddle raises a huge $24M round for unsexy, wildly profitable enterprise software.

Liquid Metal Battery Corporation gets a $15M charge

Liquid Metal Battery Corporation raised $15 million Thursday to store renewable energy. Cleantech investor Khosla Ventures led the round with participation from Total and investor Bill Gates, who returned for this second funding round. Read more on VentureBeat: Solving the energy storage problem, Liquid Metal Battery Corp raises $15M with support from Bill Gates.

Recorded Future looks into its crystal ball, finds $12M

News and social media content aggregator Recorded Future helps predict the future by using data it finds all over the web. It pulls from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and government sites to predict what might happen in, say, Israel in the next 60 days. The company announced today it has raised $12 million, bring its total to $20 million. New investor Balderton Capital led the round, joined by existing investors Google Ventures, Atlas Venture, IA Ventures, and In-Q-Tel. Read more on Boston Business Journal: Recorded Future raises $12M to expand its prediction tech.

Scoutmob finds a $3.25 million deal

Mobile coupon and deals startup Scoutmob has closed a $3.25 million round. AOL Ventures, Capitol Broadcasting, Cox Enterprises, Inc., Ben Lerer of Thrillist, and New Atlantic Ventures were named as investors. Read more on the Scoutmob Tumblr: Scoutmob Continuing to Disrupt Local Mobile Discovery with $3.25 million in Financing and First Data Payments Integration.

Zebit lands $25 million

Big data platform for financial transactions Zebit has raised $25 million in its fourth round of funding. The company helps finance big purchases that you don’t have the cash to buy outright. Mohr Davidow Ventures led the round, joined by Crosslink Capital, Leapfrog Ventures, QED Investors, and a few private investors. Read the press release here: Zebit Lands $25 Million in Venture Funding.

GreenPocket finds 3.5 million euros in its pockets

European smart meter software provider GreenPocket has raised a 3.5 million euro second round of funding. The company develops smart meter and smart home software to improve energy efficiency. Schwetje Digital, Rheinland Venture Capital, KfW Bankengruppe (ERP-Startfonds), the GreenPocket Management, and the NRW.Bank contributed to the round. Read more on the company website.

Crystal ball image via Flickr user Outdated Productions

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Fitness gadget maker Basis to BodyMedia: Your lawsuit claims are invalid

Posted: 24 May 2012 05:04 PM PDT

BodyMedia sues Basis, Basis respondsIt’s fitness gadget maker against fitness gadget maker. In February 2012, BodyMedia, maker of the FIT armbands that promote weight loss and health, filed a patent infringement civil action against competing fitness gadget maker Basis. On Monday of this week, three months after the suit was filed in court, BodyMedia served the lawsuit to Basis. Thursday, Basis countered back, telling BodyMedia that its lawsuit claims are invalid.

Basis filed an Answer and Counterclaims with the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, stating that BodyMedia’s claims of patent infringement are invalid.

"We believe these allegations are baseless," said Jef Holove, chief of Basis, in an interview with VentureBeat. "One, we are not infringing [on BodyMedia's patents] and we are haven’t even launched a product yet that would show we have infringed on anything. Second, there is a plethora of prior art for BodyMedia’s patents. From a larger point of view [the lawsuit] appears to be a tactic to hinder our launch."

Holove argues that BodyMedia’s patents are invalid because of prior art for fitness gadgets that promote health and weight loss. Prior art refers to ideas and information that were public before a patent was obtained. The company also says that now that these patents have been brought to light, it intends to prove they were invalid to begin with.

Basis provided some context for why it feels BodyMedia’s lawsuit is inappropriate, and some of the reasons are a bit odd. It says that BodyMedia noticed the positive attention Basis was attracting at CES and asserts that BodyMedia filed the suit just to release a press release that the company had filed a lawsuit.

BodyMedia, which has been around since 1999, holds 17 patents for body sensing technology. In the patent infringement filing from February, BodyMedia contended that Basis violated six patents. One patent is for an armband to be worn on the upper arm that can detect health information with an accelerometer and a heat flux sensor. The other patents named in the filing related to sensors used in a health tracking device.

BodyMedia has a line of fitness armbands, under the name FIT, which track movement, skin temperature, sweat, and heat dissipation to give an overall picture of your health and daily fitness levels. The company recently closed a $12 million funding round.

Basis is in the process of developing a fitness wrist band with an accelerometer to track movement and sensors to track heart rate, temperature, and sweat levels. The company debuted its device at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. It has raised $9 million in funding from Norwest Venture Partners and DCM.

VentureBeat has reached out to BodyMedia for comment and will update the post when we get a response. The full filing is below.

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Gaming art for your Facebook Timeline (Part 5: Social and Mobile)

Posted: 24 May 2012 05:00 PM PDT

Facebook timeline covers

Facebook’s Timeline is here to stay. And although not everyone loves this new layout, we can agree that the option to display a big image at the top of your profile is pretty cool — especially if it lets you show off your favorite video games.

We’re releasing seven days’ worth of artwork, each with a different theme, that you can use to decorate your Facebook profile:

Today’s batch of covers features 10 addicting games from mobile devices and social networks. Click on the thumbnails to enlarge the pictures, then right-click (or ctrl-click for Macs) them and hit “save image as” to save to your computer.

Timeline cover thumb Angry Birds Space
Angry Birds Space

Timeline cover thumb Bejeweled Blitz
Bejeweled Blitz

Timeline cover thumb Plants vs. Zombies
Plants vs. Zombies

Timeline cover thumb CityVille

Timeline cover thumb The Sims Social
The Sims Social

Timeline cover thumb Fruit Ninja
Fruit Ninja

Timeline cover thumb Hidden Chronicles
Hidden Chronicles

Timeline cover thumb Words With Friends
Words With Friends

Timeline cover thumb FarmVille

Timeline cover thumb Doodle Jump
Doodle Jump

Check back tomorrow for more Timeline covers.

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AOL is an unsuccessful media company that overpays its executive team, activist investor says

Posted: 24 May 2012 04:16 PM PDT


Unlike Yahoo, AOL’s activist shareholders won’t be able to boot out the company’s CEO due to false information on a resume.

Instead, Starboard Value LP, which owns 5.3 percent of AOL, decided to create a 96-page presentation outlining all of the missteps the company is currently making in regards to its media business.

Similar to what it has done in the past, Starboard highlights that AOL spent about $668 million on acquisitions since 2009 for the purpose of boosting its display advertising business. These acquisitions include the $315 million purchase of the Huffington Post, which generated about $30 million in revenue with a staff of about a hundred in 2009. HuffPo revenue is currently up, but so are its expenses. Starboard isn’t necessarily calling the Huffington Post a bad investment, but it does accuse AOL of mismanaging the property so that it became woefully unprofitable. (See table below.)

The most damning point in the report relates to AOL’s focus on turning its hyper-local news property Patch into a profitable business. Patch is returning $13 million in revenue this year (a number Starboard is convinced is padded), after AOL spent over $160 million. Based on interviews Starboard commissioned, the majority (70 percent) of advertisers admitted they didn’t renew their ad deals with the service after the first contract ended.

Starboard estimates that AOL’s overall display ad business is losing about $500 million per year and has already lost $1.3 billion cumulatively.

So, what do the activist investors propose should happen to change all of this?

Well, for starters, Starboard wants to replace three directors on AOL’s board so that the board will better represent the interests of shareholders. It also wants to kill Patch immediately. I imagine it would probably consolidate the number of properties AOL currently owns to only those that can be profitable on their own, without the help of pushing ad campaigns from other more successful properties.

One other thunderous slap to the face: Starboard wants to change the compensation of its executive team to mirror that of a media company — not a tech company. This makes perfect sense, especially since AOL recently laid off a large swath of employees in its email and instant messaging communications department. It also sold a very valuable chunk of technology patents to Microsoft. Starboard points out that AOL’s current board is allowing the company to compare itself to the likes of Apple, Microsoft, and Google.

You can check out the full hulking 96-page presentation via the SEC. Let us know your thoughts in the comment section.

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Facebook acqui-hires usability experts behind Bolt Peters to bolster design team

Posted: 24 May 2012 04:08 PM PDT

Could Facebook improve the experience of its web and mobile applications? Most certainly, and now they’ll have the usability, user experience, and interaction design expertise of Bolt Peters to do just that.

The social network picked up some of the six-person team behind the ten year-old research and design firm in an acqui-hire deal, Bolt Peters announced and Facebook confirmed.

“For more than ten years, Bolt Peters has worked with our clients (plus a robot and clay dinosaurs) to improve the design of their sites, apps, devices, video games, and cars,” head honcho Nate Bolt said in a blog post. “But the time has come for our next adventure — at Facebook.”

Bolt Peters was founded in 2002 and has completed 238 projects, a book, and a real-time research recruiting application called Ethnio, according to its website. The firm’s client list spans automotive, finance, gaming, healthcare, music, and — ding, ding, ding, ding — mobile categories, and includes everyone from Twitter and Zynga to name brands such as Levis, Sony, and Volkswagon.

The Bolt Peters team will be joining Facebook’s design team, headed by director of design Kate Aronowitz. The company has spun out Ethnio into a separately held entity, but will be shutting down all other operations on June 22.

“We’re absolutely thrilled the Bolt Peters team is joining Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson told VentureBeat.

Facebook’s talent get underscores the newly public company’s commitment to making its products better — especially its mobile apps, which could use a little work and a whole lot of creative ad placements. One of Bolt Peters expressed strengths is in mobile research; the company takes an ethnographic research approach to “uncover how people use mobile interfaces, the ways they adapt to the logistic and technological limitations of those interactions, and how the interfaces perform.”

The social network also recently acquired mobile, social-gifting startup Karma. Expect more strategic buys in the weeks and months ahead. With IPO money lining Facebook’s now deep pockets, we certainly expect the company to pick up the pace on its already aggressive acquisition and talent plays.

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Who are the top New York City tech influencers? Get your nominations in now!

Posted: 24 May 2012 04:00 PM PDT

There’s something special going on in New York City’s vibrant technology scene: startup ideas (and money) are flowing freely, big tech companies are beginning to claim a bigger presence, and the tech community has never been stronger and more supportive.

To help celebrate technology in NYC, we’re looking for the most interesting and influential people helping to shape this scene. We’re taking nominations now and will name the Top Silicon Alley Techie at an event in the city next month.

After living in Brooklyn for the past three years, and seeing the dramatic changes the tech community in NYC has gone through in that short time, it feels like we’re on the cusp of something great. (So much so that we convinced VentureBeat Editor-in-Chief Matt Marshall to move out here for several months to drink it all in.) That wouldn’t have been possible without intelligent and disruptive people shaking things up.

How to Nominate

Fill out this form for the person that you’d like to nominate as the “Top Silicon Alley Techie” in 2012.

We’re looking for people — not companies — who’ve helped shape tech scene in the New York City metro area into what it is today. Nominees can be entrepreneurs, executives, venture capitalists, and just about anyone alive who has made an impact.

Nominate yourself, if you're brazen enough, but make sure you give us a good reason to consider your nomination. Whoever you nominate, please include contact information so we can reach you (and the nominee, if you represent that person).

The deadline to submit nominations is Thursday, June 7, at 5pm Pacific time.

We’ll then invite you to vote on the short list of nominees, but since it’s so easy to game online polls, they won’t be binding. We’ll be factoring your results into our judges’ decision, which will announced at an event in New York City in late June (details are still being worked out).

Photo: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

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Pinterest taps Facebooker Barry Schnitt to lead comms

Posted: 24 May 2012 03:33 PM PDT


Hot social media service Pinterest has hired Facebook Corporate Communications Director Barry Schnitt to lead communications and public policy, VentureBeat has confirmed. He will start in mid-June.

"Barry brings incredible relevant experience to Pinterest and will be pivotal as we grow our community,” a Pinterest spokesperson told us. “Pinterest has tremendous respect for Facebook and is grateful that Barry can apply his invaluable experience here at Pinterest."

Pinterest recently raised $100 million in new funding at a $1.2 billion valuation. That money appears to be going toward hiring people like Schnitt, and we’re sure many other folks are being looked at as the company expands internationally.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Schnitt has been the director of corporate communications and public policy at Facebook for the past four years. Before that, he worked a senior manager of communications and public affairs at Google for eight years.

Earlier in his career, Schnitt worked as a legislative aide to California State Senator Byron D. Sher, working on transportation, healthcare and education issues. Schnitt has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Davis.

Hat tip to AllThingsD

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Nvidia expects a “breakout year” for mobile chips

Posted: 24 May 2012 03:12 PM PDT

Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of graphics chip maker Nvidia, said today he expects this year to be a breakout year for his company because years of investments in mobile chips will begin to pay off.

Nvidia’s business will grow thanks to growing acceptance of Tegra 3, a mobile processor that combines Nvidia’s high-end graphics with five computing brains. A leader in PC graphics, Nvidia has reinvented itself in the last five years to become a major player in mobile graphics chips. It competes with huge rivals such as Intel and Qualcomm, and it is holding its own on that front, Huang said.

“It stands to reason that because mobile and cloud computing are new paradigms, new computing paradigms would have to be invented,” Huang said. “There’s a new growth market in mobile.”

So far, Nvidia’s partners have shipped two phones with Tegra 3, including the HTC 1x and the Fujitsu Aero. This year, Nvidia expects that 30 Tegra designs will hit the market this year, compared to 15 last year, said Mike Rayfield (pictured), general manager of the Tegra business. In 2011, the Tegra 2 designs were used in 34 tablets and 67 smartphones. And that has generated a $400 million revenue business to date for Nvidia.

The Tegra 3 chip, which is five times more powerful in computing and three times more powerful in graphics than the

Nvidia has also just received AT&T’s certification for Nvidia’s LTE data modem chip. That means it could be used in phones that access AT&T’s LTE high-speed data network. That could help the company get off the ground in the U.S. market. The modem chips are built by Icera, a startup that Nvidia recently acquired.

Rayfield said that Tegra will be getting into sub-$300 tablets and smartphones. And the company is making progress in China. Rayfield said that five Tegra designs debuted in China last year, and 18 more will debut in China this year. Two carriers embraced Tegra phones in a big way last year, but dozens are expected to do so this year, Rayfield said.

Last week, Nvidia started talking about Kai, a mobile platform that could be the heart of an Android tablets that cost less than $199. And Nvidia has high hopes for Windows RT, the ARM-based software platform that Microsoft will release for tablet computers later this year. Those tablets are expected to give Apple a run for its money, finally.

“Mobility is going to be the most significant part of this new market,” Huang said. “These aren’t PCs. They don’t connect to printers. People don’t worry about that. It’s a different device from a PC.”

Nvidia had a tough time in the past quarter because it couldn’t get enough high-end 28-nanometer wafers from its contract chip manufacturers such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. The demand for chips was there, but Nvidia couldn’t get enough chips out to meet that demand, Huang said.

Nvidia is pushing mobile apps that make use of its chips. The Tegra Zone on Android devices has been downloaded more than 3 million times. Rayfield also showed a cool-looking game dubbed Dark Meadow: The Pact working on a Tegra 3 device. It had high-end 3D graphics and realistic lighting and shadows.

By next year, Nvidia expects to launch two new chips: one code-named Wayne for the high end and another code-named Grey for the low end.

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Google Transparency Report reveals Microsoft has the most copyright removal requests

Posted: 24 May 2012 12:04 PM PDT


Google is rolling out a new section of its Transparency Report today that provides detailed information about copyright infringement removal requests.

“We believe that openness is crucial for the future of the Internet. When something gets in the way of the free flow of information, we believe there should be transparency around what that block might be,” Google stated in a recent blog post announcing the new section of the report.

The company first launched the Transparency Report about two years ago, which primarily focused on the number of URL or content removal requests  — as well as requests for personal data of an individual — made by governments across the world.

The new section of the report details the companies and organizations that are asking Google to remove content or de-index a URL from search results on the basis of copyright infringement. In the past month, the report indicates that 1,246,854 URLs have been targeted for removal from over 24,000 domains. The top sites being listed are shady sounding domains, such as Filestube.com, 4shared.com, zippyshare.com, etc.

So, who exactly is requesting these removals? The report indicates that over 1,200 copyright owners have asked for removals (either directly, or from an organization representing them). Here’s he shocking part though.

While companies/organizations like NBCUniversal, Lionsgate, the RIAA, and BPI (the British version of RIAA) are all at the top of the list for copyright infringement URL takedown requests, none of them come close to the top company — Microsoft, with a total of 552,252 requests.

Google also says the number of requests has been increasing rapidly, and that its not unusual for the company to receive more than 250,000 requests each week. That’s more than what copyright owners asked it to remove in all of 2009.

“Fighting online piracy is very important, and we don't want our search results to direct people to materials that violate copyright laws. So we've always responded to copyright removal requests that meet the standards set out in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA),” Google states. “At the same time, we want to be transparent about the process so that users and researchers alike understand what kinds of materials have been removed from our search results and why.”

The company said it will eventually provide information about content removal requests, such as those made through its video site YouTube.

In terms of how Google goes about these copyright infringement requests is pretty reasonable at least on YouTube. Once contacted by a copyright holder, it removes the content in question and contacts the user responsible. That user can then appeal the infringement claim, and if Google hasn’t heard back from the copyright holder after a two weeks, its restored.

With its search results, it’s not as easy, but Google said it’s working hard to better identify the legitimate requests and discard all the others.

Copyright stamp photo via filmfoto /Shutterstock

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PayPal partners with Verifone, Equinox to accept mobile payments in-store

Posted: 24 May 2012 11:11 AM PDT

At an event at eBay’s headquarters Thursday, online and mobile payment company PayPal announced partnerships with several point of sale system companies to integrate mobile check ins, electronic receipts, and PayPal integrated cash registers.

“In-store payments are a natural extension of what we’ve done. As mobile has become important, retailers have gotten interested in how they can use mobile as a connective tissue the consumer,” said PayPal’s vice president of retail Don Kingsborough in an interview with VentureBeat.

PayPal has cut deals with VeriFone Systems and Equinox Payments to integrate the company’s payment system into cash registers already present in many retail stores. Both company’s point of sale equipment is found in many large- and medium-sized chain stores, along with smaller businesses.

Verifone has entered “a comprehensive licensing, marketing and implementation agreement” with PayPal for its cash registers. Initially, PayPal’s digital wallet will integrate with Verifone systems, as an alternative payment option. Likewise, the deal with Equinox enables customers to pay with PayPal’s mobile app.

The payment company has also partnered with smaller point of sale system companies Vend, Erply, Shopkeep, and Leapset. Small businesses use their POS software to run their business and accept in-store payments. PayPal’s partnership with Vend and others focuses on mobile payments and check-ins. Customers can check into a store using Vend, Erply, Shopkeep, or Leapset cash registers, pay with the PayPal mobile app, and receive email receipts.

PayPal announced partnerships with several retailers, including JCPenneys, Office Depot, and Jamba Juice, to process mobile payments and offer mobile offers, such as coupons.

The news could threaten mobile payment company Square, which offers payments processed with a smartphone but only with Square-enabled cash registers. Right now, the majority of businesses using Square are small and localized. Now that PayPal has partnered with POS companies whose terminals are used in major retailers, it could hamper Square’s potential growth into larger-scale retailers.

Image Sarah Mitroff/VentureBeat

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Not dead yet, Flickr adds life to its 1.5M groups

Posted: 24 May 2012 11:00 AM PDT

Trying to prove that its not dead yet, Yahoo owned-Flickr is releasing yet another batch of updates, but this time with the emphasis on improving its Groups.

Thursday, Groups on Flickr, the site’s community-shared photo pools, have been gifted with the acclaimed “Justified View” (pictured above) for a richer, more impactful photo-browsing experience. The Groups experience also now features a right-hand sidebar for additional photo context, and allows for direct photo uploads. Flickr has even released new Group APIs for third-party app developers.

Just how popular are Flickr Groups? There are more than 1.5 million groups on Flickr with a total of 1.2 billion photos spread across them, and 850,000 photos are added to groups each day, a Flickr spokesperson said.

The most arresting update to Groups is the introduction of the Justified layout, which features group photos in an image-centric, collage-like grid. The view reveals high-resolution images on scroll-over and includes a light-box option for a full-screen view of a selected image. Flickr members were first introduced to the Justified view three months ago when Flickr rolled out a revamped Contacts page.

The new Group sidebar is an interesting addition to the Groups experience and should stimulate conversation for the photo-sharers still active in their Groups. The sidebar, a part of the Justified view, surfaces the most recent discussions happening in a group, and highlights the top group contributors and tags.

Flickr members may also appreciate that they can now finally upload photos simultaneously and directly to their groups when using the new Flickr Uploadr tool. Why Flickr is just now introducing a direct-to-Group photo upload feature, however, boggles the mind.

The past three months have been jammed packed with Flickr feature updates, with development and vision spearheaded by head of product Markus Spiering who continues to promise significant changes to the product and user experience.

So far, Flickr’s feature-by-feature facelift has been as rejuvenating as an eyebrow lift or a chemical peel. Sure, there are some noticeable cosmetic improvements here and there, but the procedures, just as in real life, aren’t fooling anyone. A little nip and tick doesn’t appear to be the solution to bringing the photo sharing community back to the heyday of its youth.

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Solving the energy storage problem, Liquid Metal Battery Corp raises $15M with support from Bill Gates

Posted: 24 May 2012 10:42 AM PDT

Liquid Metal Battery Corporation, which says it found the solution to storing energy from renewable sources, is getting a new charge in funding.

Led by cleantech investor Khosla Ventures, the battery tech company has raised $15 million in a second round of funding. LMBC has also attracted the attention of energy company Total and  investor Bill Gates, who returned for this second funding round.

The company is the brainchild of Dr. Donald Sadoway, an MIT professor who developed the battery technology to be low cost and easy to deploy.

“The way things stand today, electricity demand must be in constant balance with electricity supply,” Sadoway said in March during a Technology Entertainment and Design talk titled “The Missing Link to Renewable Energy.”

One big problem with renewable energy sources today is that there’s no good way to store power for when you actually need it (current battery technology hasn’t scaled well for this). LMBC’s liquid battery solves that problem, splitting energy demand from storage and allowing clean energy sources to have a hand in energy generation.

“With a giant battery, we’d be able to address the problem of intermittence that prevents wind and solar from contributing to the grid in the same way that coal and gas and nuclear do today,” Sadoway said.

One of the biggest advantages to the battery is that it can be added to existing systems, eliminating the need for further build outs. This, coupled with its flexibility, means that the system is cheap — a factor that has kept much of energy investment focused on established technologies.

“We need to think about the problem differently. We need to think big. We need to think cheap,” Sadoway said in the TED talk.

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Facebook launches stand-alone camera app for iPhone

Posted: 24 May 2012 10:30 AM PDT


Facebook has launched a stand-alone camera application for the iPhone to help people share photos faster and easier on the massive social network, the company announced today.

Although Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire photo-sharing service Instagram, the Facebook Camera app seems focused on bulk uploading your photos from your iPhone to Facebook rather than helping you re-touch and add effects to photos. The new app does let you edit, crop, rotate, and add filters if you so choose. (We think i is a little weird to include filters when that’s Instagram’s big focus.) Besides uploading photos, you can also use the app to browse your friends’ Facebook images.

The app appears to be a response to Google+, which recently released beautiful new photo-centric apps for iPhone and Android. Google+ hasn’t caught on with users for status updates, so it hopes it get people to come for photo-sharing. Facebook isn’t going to just sit back, apparently.

However, the app also has clear ties to Instagram. Facebook Camera was likely in development before Facebook decided to buy Instagram, and it even looks a fair amount like Instagram. Since the Instagram deal has not closed yet, that team did not work on this app, but Facebook was clearly influenced by it. Once the Instagram deal does close, we expect the lines to blur even more.

You can download the new app here.

And you can watch a video outlining the Facebook Camera app below:

Photo credit: Facebook

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Nvidia CEO describes strategic importance of cloud graphics

Posted: 24 May 2012 10:09 AM PDT

Nvidia chief executive Jen-Hsun Huang told analysts today just how important cloud graphics will be to the world. The company announced last week that its recently announced Kepler-based graphics chips are capable of cloud graphics. That means they can process graphics for multiple users in a data center and then dispatch the appropriate graphics as needed to the displays of distant remote users.

That allows big new applications for cloud computing in the enterprise. You can, for instance, use your own puny laptop to access huge visual projects such as engineering designs. Your computer will tap the graphics computing power in the cloud to render the images that your laptop could never display in real-time. One graphics processing unit (GPU) in the cloud can supply the graphics for at least four remote users today, compared to just one for prior chips. That makes cloud gaming and enterprise cloud graphics applications far more economical than in the past.

“Now we have a GPU for the cloud, a virtual GPU,” Huang said at Nvidia’s analyst day in Santa Clara, Calif. “What that means is that a whole bunch of users can see one GPU and use it as if it were their own.”

Nvidia has created a lot of software that enables the virtualized GPU, which can take graphics processing commands from a variety of users and process them on the GPU without regard for where those commands are coming from. No longer do the processing tasks have to come from just one computer.

This allows the graphics chip to catch up to the central processing unit, or CPU, which, when combined with hypervisor software originally created by IBM for sharing mainframe computers among many users, can serve many users from a single chip in a data center.

Huang said this cloud GPU will be valuable to the world’s 25 million product designers around the world. These users now buy Quadro-based graphics workstations in the millions each year. Power graphics users then make use of those designs and then share them. Other enterprise workers have to access high-end graphics, but in the enterprise, many of them don’t have beefy computers. Virtualization gets around that problem, so you can run high-end graphics applications on a device as simple as an iPad. Hundreds of millions of enterprise users could benefit from cloud graphics, Huang said.

“That is completely empowering,” Huang said.

The Nvidia technology can handle virtualization quickly. It doesn’t use a software layer, or emulation, because that approach is too slow. The hardware has been tweaked for virtual GPU tasks.

“We wanted to put this in the cloud and for the first time, a GPU needs to be aware that a display may not be directly connected to the GPU,” he said. “It could be anywhere in the world. You just tell the GPU an address, and the bits coming out of the chip are sent to that address” to display the graphics on a distant computer.

Huang demonstrated an iPad running Windows and other demanding PC graphics applications running on the cloud. The iPad was able to show a high-end design program displaying a photorealistic image of a car. A total of 1,536 Kepler cores were accessible to the iPad, so it could handle the computing task easily.

As far games, Nvidia wants to use cloud graphics to make games instantaneously convenient to play as TV shows. This taps a technology dubbed the GeForce Grid. You no longer have to download a big game for hours and have a powerful computer to play it. That’s similar to the vision that OnLive and Gaikai have, and both are partners with Nvidia in cloud graphics.

“This will do the same for video games what TV has done for video,” Huang said. “We think it could expand the market.”

Of course, high-end games that are played remotely could suffer from lag, where the inputs that a gamer makes aren’t immediately translated into actions in the game.  So serious gamers are playing online games on PCs, rather than consoles, since the delays on a high-end PC are about 65 milliseconds and they are 166 milliseconds on an online console.

With the GeForce Grid powered by Gaikai, Nvidia can reduce the lag of the cloud graphics games to 161 milliseconds, or essentially just as fast as a game console. That could enable large numbers of casual gamers and non-gamers to play high-end games on relatively simple computing devices, Huang said.

Huang showed a demo of Hawken, an upcoming high-end 3D downloadable game, working in a cloud-based environment.

“For the game developer, we can expand their reach,” he said. “Today, you need to have the right hardware. But we can make it run on any hardware.”

On top of that, cloud-based games are piracy free, Huang said.

[Photo credit: Dean Takahashi]

Filed under: games

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Senator tells critics to stop treating Facebook’s Eduardo Saverin as a ‘patron saint’ for dodging taxes

Posted: 24 May 2012 10:02 AM PDT

Chuck Schumer

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) hijacked the senate floor today to address critics of his recently proposed Ex-PATRIOT act legislation, which would impose new taxes on people who give up their U.S. citizenship to avoid taxes and bar them from re-entering the country.

Schumer, along with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), introduced the Ex-PATRIOT act (Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy Act) last week after the public had caught wind of Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s decision to renounce his citizenship. The move ended up saving Saverin an estimated $100 million.

“When you renounce your citizenship to swell your bank account, you’re un-American,” Schumer said. “What Saverin is doing is free-riding on America, and dodging taxes from an IPO.”

The Senator also called out the Wall Street Journal for labeling him a vocal spokesperson in the “age of envy”, and scalded republican opponents of his legislation, saying “they make Eduardo Saverin into their patron saint.”

Honestly, I don’t think Saverin would argue with being called “un-American,” considering that he didn’t feel compelled to continue being a citizen. And while I agree that having the ultra rich dodge taxes is a bad thing for the country, Schumer’s plan for handling this situation is utterly awful.

Under the proposed bill, expatriates with either a net worth of $2 million or an average income tax liability of at least $148,000 (over the last five years) will be presumed to have renounced their citizenship for tax avoidance purposes. Any person who fits this description does have a chance to appeal to the IRS to prove they aren't just dodging taxes. Anyone who the IRS determines was indeed dodging taxes by renouncing citizenship will be slapped with a new tax on all future investment gains — no matter where he or she resides. The senators said this stipulation would eliminate any tax benefit/financial incentive associated with renouncing one's citizenship. Also, the rate of the new capital gains tax will be 30 percent, which is consistent with the current rate applied on non-resident aliens for dividends and interest earnings.

So to summarize, Schumer wants to tax people who give up their citizenship as if they were still citizens. And if they refuse to pay these taxes, they can’t come back into the country.

I highly doubt this is going to prevent people from giving up their citizenship. I do, however, think the Ex-PATRIOT act (if passed into law) would end up driving investment into Europe and Asia in the long run.

Please feel free to sound off with your own thoughts in the comment section.

Photo via Sen. Schumer/ Flickr

Filed under: deals, social

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