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To own an AR future, Niantic wants to build a smarter map of the world

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Niantic is continuing to bet heavily on the idea that it knows where consumer computing is headed, namely towards augmented reality.

The game development startup behind Pokémon Go has some good company with companies like Apple, Facebook and Snap making similar bets, but stakes are high for the studio which hopes it can build an early advantage in foundational AR infrastructure and bring third-party developers on board, edging out efforts from companies that are quite a bit larger.

Niantic’s experiments are still being bankrolled by their 2016 first-party hit Pokémon Go, which SensorTower estimates is having its best year ever in 2020. A report from the firm suggests that the title has pulled in more than $1 billion in revenue since the start of the year, a marked increase since 2019 that might be surprising given the social effects of a global pandemic. Those revenues have allowed Niantic to be one of the more active acquirers in the AR infrastructure space, buying up small buzzy AR startups like Escher Reality, Matrix Mill and, most recently, 6D.ai.

That latest purchase in particular has acted as a signal for what the company’s next plans are for its augmented reality platform. 6D.ai was building cloud AR mapping software with companies like Airbnb among its early customers. The tech allowed users to quickly gather 3D information of a space just by holding up their phone to the world. Since the acquisition, Niantic has been integrating the tech into their developer platform and have been aiming to juice the technology with their own advances in semantic understanding so that they can not only quickly gather what the geometry of a space looks like, but also peer into the context of what the objects are that makes up that 3D mesh.

“We ultimately have this vision that for an AR experience, everything has to come together for it to be really magical,” Joel Hesch, Niantic’s Senior Director of Engineering, told TechCrunch. “You want precise location information so that you can see content in the right location and experience things together with others who are in the same location. You want the geometric information for things like occlusion or physics interactions. And you want to know about what things mean from a semantic perspective so that your characters can interact with the world in an intelligible way.”

While they’ve been building out the tech, they’ve also been pushing users to try it out. Niantic has been urging Pokémon Go players to actively capture videos of certain landmarks and destinations, visual data from which is fed back into bulking up models and improving experiences for subsequent users. As users gain access to more advanced tech like the LiDAR sensor inside the new iPhone 12 Pro, it’s likely that Niantic will gain access to more quality data themselves.

The ultimate goal of this data collection, the startup says, is to build an ever-updating 3D map of the world. Their latest tech allows them to peer into this map and distinguish what types of objects and scenes are in these scans, distinguishing buildings from water from the sky. The real question is how useful all of this data will actually prove to be in practice, compared to more high-level geographic insights like the Google Maps API .

Though the company has been talking about their Real World Platform since 2018, they’ve been slow to officially expand it as the enthusiasm behind phone-based AR has seemed to recede since Apple’s initial unveil of ARKit in 2017 prompted a groundswell of attention in the space. “We’ve primarily been focused on first party games and applications, but we are very excited about extending the platform to be something that more people can use,” Hesch says.

For Niantic and other companies that are bullish on an AR future, their best bet seem to be quietly building and hoping that their R&D will give them a years-long advantage when the technology potentially starts landing more consumer hits.

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Pinterest tests online events with dedicated ‘class communities’

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Pinterest is getting into online events. The company has been spotted testing a new feature that allows users to sign up for Zoom classes through Pinterest, while creators use Pinterest’s class boards to organize class materials, notes and other resources, or even connect with attendees through a group chat option. The company confirmed the test of online classes is an experiment now in development, but wouldn’t offer further details about its plans.

The feature itself was discovered on Tuesday by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who found details about the online classes by looking into the app’s code.

Currently, you can visit some of these “demo” profiles directly — like “@pinsmeditation” or “@pinzoom123,” for example — and view their listed Class Communities. However, these communities are empty when you click through. That’s because the feature is still unreleased, Wong says.

When and if the feature is later launched to the public, the communities would include dedicated sections where creators will be able to organize their class materials — like lists of what to bring to class, notes, photos and more. They could also use these communities to offer a class overview and description, connect users to a related shop, group chat feature and more.

Creators are also able to use the communities — which are basically enhanced Pinterest boards — to respond to questions from attendees, share photos from the class and otherwise interact with the participants.

When a user wants to join a class, they can click a “book” button to sign up, and are then emailed a confirmation with the meeting details. Other buttons direct attendees to download Zoom or copy the link to join the class.

It’s not surprising that Pinterest would expand into the online events space, given its platform has become a popular tool for organizing remote learning resources during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers have turned to Pinterest to keep track of lesson plans, get inspiration, share educational activities and more. In the early days of the pandemic, Pinterest reported record usage when the company saw more searches and saves globally in a single March weekend than ever before in its history, as a result of its usefulness as a online organizational tool.

This growth has continued throughout the year. In October, Pinterest’s stock jumped on strong earnings after the company beat on revenue and user growth metrics. The company brought in $443 million in revenue, versus $383.5 million expected, and grew its monthly active users to 442 million, versus the 436.4 million expected. Outside of the coronavirus impacts, much of this growth was due to strong international adoption, increased ad spend from advertisers boycotting Facebook and a surge of interest from users looking for iOS 14 home screen personalization ideas.

Given that the U.S. has failed to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, many classes, events and other activities will remain virtual even as we head into 2021. The online events market may continue to grow in the years that follow, too, thanks to the kickstart the pandemic provided the industry as a whole.

“We are experimenting with ways to help creators interact more closely with their audience,” a Pinterest spokesperson said, when asked for more information.

Pinterest wouldn’t confirm additional details about its plans for online events, but did say the feature was in development and the test would help to inform the product’s direction.

Pinterest often tries out new features before launching them to a wider audience. Earlier this summer, TechCrunch reported on a Story Pins feature the company had in the works. Pinterest then launched the feature in September. If the same time frame holds up for online events, we could potentially see the feature become more widely available sometime early next year.

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SpaceX targeting next week for Starship’s first high-altitude test flight

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SpaceX looks ready to proceed to the next crucial phase of its Starship spacecraft development program: A 15km (50,000 feet) test flight. This would far exceed the max height that any prior Starship prototype has achieved so far, since the current record-setting hop test maxed out at around 500 feet. Elon Musk says that SpaceX will look to make its first high-altitude attempt sometime next week.

This tentative date (these are always subject to change) follows a successful static test fire of the current SN8 generation prototype — essentially just firing the test spacecraft’s Raptor engines while it remains stationary on the pad. That’s a crucial step that paves the way for any actual flight, since it proves that the spacecraft can essentially hold together and withstand the pressures of active engines before it leaves the ground.

SpaceX’s SN8 prototype is different from prior versions in a number of ways, most obviously because it has an actual nosecone, along with nose fins. The prototypes that did the short test hops, including SN6, had what’s known as a mass simulator up top, which weighs as much as an actual Starship nose section but looks very different.

Musk added that the chances of an SN8 high-altitude flight going to plan aren’t great, estimating that there’s “maybe a 1/3 chance” given how many things have to work correctly. He then noted that that’s the reason SpaceX has SN9 and SN10 ready to follow fast, which is a theme of Starship’s development program to date: building successive generations of prototypes rapidly in parallel in order to test and iterate quickly.

We’ll likely get a better idea of when the launch will take place due to alerts filed with local regulators, so watch this space next week as we await this major leap forward in SpaceX’s Starship program.

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Police case filed against Netflix executives in India over ‘A Suitable Boy’ kissing scene

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Netflix, which has invested more than $500 million to gain a foothold in India in recent years, is slowly finding out just about what all could upset some people in the world’s second-largest internet market: Apparently everything.

A police case has been filed this week against two top executives of the American streaming service in India after a leader of the governing party objected to some scenes in a TV series.

The show, “A Suitable Boy,” is an adaptation of the award-winning novel by Indian author Vikram Seth that follows the life of a young girl. It has a scene in which the protagonist is seeing kissing a Muslim boy at a Hindu temple.

Narottam Mishra, the interior minister of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, said a First Information Report (an official police complaint) had been filed against Monika Shergill, VP of Content at Netflix and Ambika Khurana, Director of Public Policies for the firm, over objectionable scenes in the show that hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus.

“I had asked officials to examine the series ‘A Suitable Boy’ being streamed on Netflix to check if kissing scenes in it were filmed in a temple and if it hurt religious sentiments. The examination prima facie found that these scenes are hurting the sentiments of a particular religion,” he said.

Gaurav Tiwari, a BJP youth leader who filed the complaint, demanded an apology from Netflix and makers of the series (directed by award-winning filmmaker Mira Nair), and said the film promoted “love jihad,” an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that alleges that Muslim men entice Hindi women into converting their religion under the pretext of marriage.

Netflix declined to comment.

In recent days, a number of people have expressed on social media their anger at Netflix over these “objectionable” scenes. Though it is unclear if all of them — if any — are a Netflix subscriber.

The incident comes weeks after an ad from the luxury jewelry brand Tanishq — part of the 152-year-old salt-to-steel conglomerate — which celebrated interfaith marriage received intense backlash in the country.

For Netflix, the timing of this backlash isn’t great. The new incident comes days after the Indian government announced new rules for digital media, under which the nation’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will be regulating online streaming services. Prior to this new rule, India’s IT ministry oversaw streaming services, and according to a top streaming service executive, online services enjoyed a great degree of freedom.

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