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This Week in Apps: App Store bill passes AZ House, ‘deep nostalgia’ goes viral, Twitter Spaces arrives on Android

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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week we’re looking into the app store bill in Arizona, the trend of animating family photos and what’s next for Twitter’s Clubhouse rival, among other things.

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Top Stories

Arizona House passes a bill that would allow developers to avoid the “Apple tax”

Image Credits: Apple

The Arizona House of Representatives this week passed a bill (HB 2005) that could significantly impact Apple and Google’s grip on the App Store market. Unlike a similar measure recently shot down by the North Dakota Senate, this new bill doesn’t force app stores to offer alternative ways for developers to distribute their apps. Instead, it focuses on giving developers the right to use third-party systems that would allow them to circumvent the 15%-20% cut that Apple and Google take from app sales, in-app purchases and subscriptions.

Apple and Google lobbyists were already fighting against this bill before it was even formally introduced by Arizona State Rep. Regina Cobb. Cobb says she was approached by a lobbyist representing Match Group and the Coalition for App Fairness (CAF) — the latter, which has organized some of Apple’s largest competitors — like Epic Games, Match Group, Spotify and Tile — to fight back against Apple’s control of the app ecosystem.

CAF had also backed the North Dakota bill,, and is helping push legislation in other states, including Minnesota, Georgia and Hawaii.

Some legislators may oppose the bill on the grounds that these decisions are more of a federal matter and concerns over how the state would be able to enforce such a policy. The Arizona bill still has to make it through the Senate (and could be vetoed by Governor Doug Ducey) in order to become a law. If it did pass, it would make Arizona an attractive place to set up an app business and could set the groundwork for other states to pass similar legislation.

Animated family photos top the App Store

MyHeritage’s recently launched update that lets users animate their old photos helped to send the app to the top of the App Store this week. The company had last week introduced “Deep Nostalgia” — a facial animation feature powered by technology from Israeli tech company (and TechCrunch Battlefield alum) D-ID. To animate the photos, the tech maps the facial features from the photo to a driver video to create what it calls a “live portrait.”

The app went viral on social media, including TikTok, as people used the photo to animate long-ago relatives and other historical figures.

@thomasflanigan_The app is called MyHeritage ##greenscreenvideo ##myheritage ##McDonaldsCCSing ##ancestors♬ record before u listen – penny lane

But in a number of more touching videos, people film themselves reacting to seeing their mom or dad “come to life” again through the tech, blinking, smiling and nodding, often set to “Remember When” by Alan Jackson or “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles as the background track.

Though MyHeritage shot up to become the No. 1 Overall app on the App Store as of Tuesday, a smaller startup, Rosebud, quietly pivoted to address the same use case with its TokkingHeads app. The app, founded by Berkeley PhD Lisha Li, was originally intended for making funny videos and memes with friends, video game avatars or celebs by animating portrait photos with text, speech and puppetry via video — but not so well that it would cross into “deepfake” territory.

But after the release of MyHeritage’s update, TokkingHeads quickly updated to alert users to its own feature set, while also elevating the MyHeritage-like animations it offers in the app. As a result, the app started to gain a following of its own. On February 28, 2021, TokkingHeads saw 1,000 downloads. The next day, it had 8,000 downloads. The following two days, March 2 and 3, it saw 24,000 downloads and 28,000 downloads, respectively.

The app has since reached as high as No. 12 in the App Store’s Entertainment category, as of the time of writing, and No. 94 Overall. (And was climbing daily.)

@mirandasevier#tokkingheads #fyp♬ Go Rest High On That Mountain – Vince Gill

The YC-backed startup’s ambitions extend beyond animated photos, however. It’s been developing internal tools which it used to generate backgrounds and visuals for use in personalized media. It’s been testing these tools with personalized meditation videos on TikTok, but isn’t yet ready to fully announce a new product. Rosebud is backed by $2.2 million in seed funding led by Khosla Ventures, with participation from Twitch COO Kevin Lin, OpenAI co-founder Ilya Sutskever, former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan and others.

 Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

Apple Music icon on iPhone

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Apple clarifies you can’t actually set a “default” music service in iOS 14.5. It explains that the Siri feature that asks you how you want to play the music or other audio (like podcasts or audiobooks) that you’ve requested is only an example of Siri Intelligence, and is not technically making that service a “default.”

Apple’s courtroom battle with Epic Games over the App Store’s alleged anti-competitive behavior is set to start May 3. The judge believes the case is significant enough to hold an in-person trial with witnesses.

The U.K.’s anti-competition authority, CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) is opening its own investigation into Apple’s App Store, following a number of complaints from developers alleging unfair terms.

Apple releases iOS 14.5 beta 3. The new release adds a notification banner to iPhone if you have your Apple Watch set to unlock your paired phone; brings back the Siri feature to choose your preferred audio app for certain requests; updates the Find My screen with plans to support accessories; and makes reference to Apple Card Family features, among other things.

In a bit of App Store history revealed this week, Apple’s Scott Forstall once told Pandora to use jailbroken iPhones to develop their music app ahead of the App Store’s launch.

Apple shuts down Buddybuild, the app development service it acquired in 2018. The team had joined the Xcode group at Apple, but Buddybuild remained online for existing customers. An email has now informed those customers it will cease operations on March 31, 2021.

Apple’s upcoming AirTags gains an anti-stalking feature. In the latest iOS 14.5 beta, a new “Item Safety Features” option was found to be on by default. It would warn you if someone secretly hid an AirTag in your possessions.

Platforms: Google

Google Play announced it’s reducing the minimum price limit for products in over 20 markets across Latin America, EMEA and APAC. In these markets, developers can now set prices in the range of 10-30 cents U.S. equivalent — or “sub dollar” prices. Google says this will allow developers to reach new potential buyers.

Image Credits: Google

Google debuted Flutter 2, an upgrade that broadens Flutter from a mobile framework to a portable framework. Flutter 2 will allow developers to ship native apps across iOS, Android, Windows, macOS and Linux, as well as web experiences for Chrome, Safari, Firefox and Edge, and cars, TVs and smart TVs. Google says there are now more than 150,000 Flutter apps on the Play Store today, including WeChat, Grab, Yandex Go, Sonos, Betterment and others.

The Google Play Console added a new suite of metrics and comparison benchmarks that will allow developers to evaluate the app’s engagement and monetization against up to 250 different peer sets.

E-commerce

Twitter tests new e-commerce features for tweets. The company was spotted testing a different style of organic tweet which includes product info, pricing and a big “Shop” button. The company confirmed it’s one of many commerce tests in the works.

Amazon’s mobile app got a new icon…again. Customers complained the first iteration, which featured Amazon’s smiling arrow across a brown box with a piece of blue tape at the top, reminded them of Hitler. The updated look gives the tape a smooth edge.

Augmented Reality

The Google Play Service for AR app, which delivers ARCore updates to Android phones, was updated to include support for dual cameras instead of just one, as before. The change was spotted by Android Police, which noted that the support would arrive on Pixel 4 devices first.

Fintech

More evidence of Apple Card Family support spotted in iOS 14.5 beta 3. The new feature will allow family members to share the same Apple Card through iCloud Family Sharing, so each member can access the card in the Wallet app.

Social

Twitter logo at CES 2020

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Twitter Spaces beat Clubhouse to Android. Twitter’s social audio service and Clubhouse rival, Twitter Spaces, has been iterating at a rapid pace. The company has been sharing features in public as they’re designed and prototyped, including titles and descriptionsscheduling options, support for co-hosts and moderatorsguest lists and more. Twitter also updated the preview card that appears in the timeline and relabeled its “captions” feature to be more accurate, from an accessibility standpoint. This fast pace of development allowed the new product to reach Android users this week, ahead of Clubhouse. However, Android users can only join Spaces for the time being, they can’t host them. Still, the move will help to serve the pent-up demand for social audio among a huge chunk of the mobile market.

LinkedIn says it will stop using IDFA ahead of the iOS App Tracking Transparency launch. The business social network is getting ahead of the change and says it will instead leverage “first-party data” to help advertisers.

Instagram accidentally hid “likes” for a number of users in the U.S., who were unintentionally added to the ongoing test where likes are no longer displayed. The company attributed this to a bug and said it was fixing the issue ASAP.

Right-wing social app Parler had dropped its lawsuit against AWS to get its cloud hosting services reinstated, but its fight isn’t over yet. In a new case, Parler is now going after Amazon with more charges, including defamation, negligence and breach of contract. The suit claims Parler lost “tens of millions” of users and future users” as well as “hundreds of millions” in revenue.

TikTok adds a Business Profile section for marketers and brands. The section offers marketing tips, insights on app usage and advertising events — and likely, in the future, e-commerce tools.

TikTok forms a Safety Advisory Council in Europe, following the death of a girl who fatally attempted the blackout challenge she saw on the app, leading to emergency intervention by Italy’s data protection authority.

Instagram launches “Live Rooms” for live broadcasts with up to four creators. Previously only two people could go live. The launch has a bit of Clubhouse envy to it, as Instagram notes it could be used for things like talk shows, Q&As and interviews, for example. A similar feature has been spotted in TikTok in recent weeks, as well.

Facebook launched BARS, a TikTok-like app for creating and sharing raps. In the app, users react with “fire” emoji while flipping through a full-screen, vertical video feed of people’s raps.

TikTok launches TikTok Q&A. The new feature will allow creators to respond to viewer questions with either text or video replies, including during livestreams. The questions and answers will also be organized in a new Q&A page, linked from the bio. The feature is a direct response to how many creators were already using the app to interact with fans.

Image Credits: TikTok

Photos

Apple introduced a service that will allow iCloud users to transfer their photos and videos to Google Photos. Anti-competitive scrutiny cracks the walled garden, it seems.

MyHeritage tops the App Store after launching a new feature called Deep Nostalgia that animates users’ old family photos.

Messaging & Communications

WhatsApp brought voice and video calls to the desktop companion app. The calls are end-to-end encrypted, and will later expand to include group calls.

WeChat updates its emojis to dial down the violence. It removed the cigar from the smoking soldier emoji and removed the blood from the meat cleaver emoji. It also no longer shows a hammer hitting a head — it’s now a frying pan.

Streaming & Entertainment

Image Credits: Netflix

Netflix launches “Fast Laughs,” a TikTok-like feed of funny videos. The mobile feature is currently iOS-only and lets users flip through a full-screen vertical video feed with short clips from Netflix programming, react, share and add items to a watchlist or immediately start streaming.

Apple pulls Music Memos, a music creation tool, from the App Store. The app was used to analyze rhythm and chords from acoustic guitar and piano recordings. The company advised users to export their content to Voice Memos library instead.

Hulu brings back picture-in-picture mode with the latest iOS update. The feature had been available previously, but was pulled so Hulu could make refinements.

Spotify’s podcast listeners in the U.S. expected to top Apple Podcasts for the first time in 2021, at 28.2 million listeners on Spotify versus 28 million on Apple Podcasts.

Gaming

Image Credits: Genshin Impact (via Sensor Tower)

Genshin Impact from miHoYo has reached $874 million in consumer spend since its September 2020 launch, reports Sensor Tower, making it already the world’s third-highest-earning mobile game.

Hypercasual games are now the largest genre for game downloads, a separate Sensor Tower report says. The genre has expanded from a 17% share of downloads in 2017 to now 31% in 2020. Other genres seeing growth include Arcade and Puzzle, increasing by 33% and 78% respectively.

Books and Reading

Flipboard expands its local coverage to over 1,000 cities and towns. The company last year launched a broader initiative around local news, allowing users to follow their local publications, TV stations, blogs and more.

Google Play Books was updated with new tools for younger readers, including “Read & Listen,” which will let kids listen to a book read out loud, “Tap to Read” to hear words spoken out loud and a kid-friendly dictionary.

Health & Fitness

COVID-19 exposure notification apps have still not seen widespread adoption, USA Today reports. Fewer than half of U.S. states offer the contact-tracing apps, and most people in participating states don’t use them.

Amazon Halo users, the app-paired health and fitness tracker from the retail giant, is being integrated with Alexa. The new feature will let you ask Echo and other Alexa devices for health stats.

Best Buy Health partnered with the Lively app to offer a range of health and safety services aimed at older adults on Apple Watch. Apple Watch users can use the app to get emergency and non-emergency assistance from the Lively agents and receive additional protection from things like Fall Detection.

Period tracking app Clue gets FDA clearance to launch a digital contraceptive. The app’s algorithmic prediction is based on Bayesian modeling and can display the days where there’s a higher risk of pregnancy.

Jamaica’s JamCOVID mobile app and website were taken offline following their third security lapse. The platform was exposing quarantine orders on over than half a million travelers.

Productivity

Image Credits: App Annie

Business and productivity apps reached 7.1 billion downloads in 2020, up 35% YoY, reports App Annie. The jump was attributed to the pandemic, with the biggest surge coming in mid-March when shelter-in-place orders kicked in.

Microsoft pulled the Delve mobile apps from the App Store and Google Play, which will be followed by a full shutdown of the service in June. Delve was designed to surface relevant info and insights using the Office Graph. Users were redirected to Outlook Mobile, which has some similar features.

Microsoft launched Group Transcribe, a new kind of mobile transcription app for in-person meetings. The app requires all meeting participants to record from their own phones, which improves accuracy and speaker identification. It also offers real-time translations to help non-native speakers follow along.

Security & Privacy

Thousands of Android and iOS app are leaking data from the cloud, Wired reports. In analysis run on more than 1.3 million Android and iOS apps, researchers found almost 84,000 Android apps and nearly 47,000 iOS apps used public cloud services. Of those, misconfigurations were found in 14% — 11,877 Android apps and 6,608 iOS apps — which were exposing personal information, passwords and medical information.

Hackers released a new jailbreak tool for almost every iPhone by using the same vulnerability Apple said last month was under active attack by hackers. The jailbreak, released by the Unc0ver team, works on iOS 11 to iOS 14.3, and iPhone 5s and later.

Google’s apps with privacy labels have begun receiving updates after lengthy pause. Apps that have started to get updates include Gmail, Slides, Docs, Sheets, Calendar, YouTube, YouTube TV, YouTube Music, Google Tasks and Google Podcasts. Google’s key apps still missing labels include Search, Photos, Assistant, Maps, Pay and Chrome.

Funding and M&A

💰 Stream raised $38 million for its service that lets developers build chat and activity feeds into apps with a few lines of code. The company now powers communications for 1 billion users, including in apps like TaskRabbit, NBC Sports, Delivery Hero, Gojek and others.

💰 Whatnot raised $20 million in Series A funding for its livestreaming platform for selling collectible toys and cards. The round was led by a16z, and follows a $4 million seed raised at the end of 2020.

💰 Snapcommerce raised $85 million for its platform that uses messaging to personalize the mobile shopping experience. Inovia Capital and Lion Capital co-led the new growth round, bringing the startup’s total raise to date to $100 million.

💰 Food delivery app Instacart raised $265 million at a $39 billion valuation. The round was raised from existing investors, including Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, D1 Capital Partners and others and pushes the valuation up from $17.7 billion in October 2020.

🤝 Okta acquired cloud identity startup Auth0 for $6.5 billion. Auth0 offers authentication and security for apps across native mobile, desktop, and web apps. Following the deal, Auth0 will continue to operate as an independent unit inside Okta.

🤝 Fintech Square acquired Jay-Z’s streaming service TIDAL for $297 million. Perhaps those yachting trips paid off? Square plans to offer financial tools to artists to help them collect revenue. Despite the deal’s seeming oddness, a good bet is that Square plans to expand into music-based NFTs.

📈 App marketing company AppLovin filed its S-1 ahead of its IPO. The company was valued at $2 billion in 2018, but posted a net loss of $125.9 million in 2020 on revenue of $1.45 billion, up 46% YoY. The company warned investors that it may be impacted by Apple’s IDFA changes.

💰 Maestro raised $15 million for its interactive commerce, community and engagement tools for livestreams across web and mobile. Maestro can also be embedded into native mobile apps using a web view.

🤝 Indie weather app Weather Line acquired. The company didn’t provide any details on its acquisition, including the buyer, but said the app will be removed from the App Store. Existing users will continue to have access until April 1, 2022.

💰 Indian jobs app Apna raised $12.5 million in a round led by Sequoia Capital India and Greenoaks Capital. The app is now used by 80,000 employers and 6 million+ workers such as drivers, delivery personnel, electricians and beauticians.

💰 Istanbul’s Dream Games raised $50 million and launched its first mobile gaming title, Royal Match. The round, led by Index Ventures, is the largest Series A raised by a startup in Turkey.

Downloads

West Tenth 

Image Credits: West Tenth

West Tenth’s new app aims to give local home-based business owners a platform to reach potential clients and make sales. The app focuses on women who have opted out of the traditional workforce to stay home, often to raise kids and work more flexible hours. Often targeted by predatory MLMs, West Tenth aims to convince women that many of their everyday skills are, in fact, marketable businesses — like cooking and meal prep, party planning, interior design, photography, home organization, baby sleep training, fitness instructions, homemade crafts and more. The startup also offers online education classes to teach women the basics of marketing and running a home business. (iOS and Android)

Cappuccino

Social audio is growing in popularity thanks to apps like Clubhouse and Twitter’s Spaces. A startup called Cappuccino, reviewed here by TechCrunch, now wants to bring social audio to a more intimate setting: groups of friends. The anti-Clubhouse app lets friends record “podcasts,” which are designed for private consumption. (iOS and Android)

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Oxbotica raises $13.8M from Ocado to build autonomous vehicle tech for the online grocer’s logistics network

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Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next chapter of how that business will grow: it is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.

Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop AI-powered, self-driving systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people’s homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — most likely in closed environments like warehouses rather than open streets — to be online in two years.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with Oxbotica to develop a wide range of autonomous solutions that truly have the potential to transform both our and our partners’ CFC [customer fulfillment centers] and service delivery operations, while also giving all end customers the widest range of options and flexibility,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in a statement.

The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica’s Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million.

The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round.

Walmart owns one of Ocado’s big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado has made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger’s online grocery business, which went live this week, too. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.

More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year. Earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the UK (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the US have seen record demand, but they have also been joined by a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants also keen to seize that opportunity, and bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products) to do so.

In Ocado’s home patch of Europe, other big names looking to extend outside of their home turfs include Oda (formerly Kolonial); Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that’s before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.

A lot of these companies will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic and how it drove many people to stay at home, and stay away from places where they might catch and spread the Covid-19 virus.

But now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.

As we pointed out earlier this week, Ocado has already laid out how demand is lower, although still higher than pre-pandemic times. And indeed, the new-new normal (if we can call it that) may well see the competitive landscape tighten some more.

That  could also be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services: one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.

The rationale of forking out big for autonomous tech, which is still largely untested and very, very expensive technology, to save money is a long-term play. Logistics today accounts for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.

My guess is also that with all of the subsidized services that are flying about right now, where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost.

So it’s no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work, even if it’s just a promise of discounts in years, not weeks. Of course investors might see it otherwise if that doesn’t go to plan.

In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado continues to seek further investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities.

Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:

 

“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, in a statement. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”

But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.

“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”

We’re speaking to Ocado and Oxbotica shortly and will update this post with more from that.

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All the tech crammed into the 2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS

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Mercedes-Benz lifted the final veil Thursday on its flagship EQS sedan after weeks of teasers, announcements and even a pre-production drive that TechCrunch participated in. The company peeled off the camouflage of the EQS — the electric counterpart to the Mercedes S Class — and revealed an ultra-luxury and tech-centric sedan.

The exterior is getting much of the attention today; but it’s all of the tech that got ours from the microsleep warning system and 56-inch hyperscreen to the monster HEPA air filter and the software that intuitively learns the driver’s wants and needs. There is even a new fragrance called No.6 MOOD Linen and is described as “carried by the green note of a fig and linen.”

“There is not one thing because this car is 100 things,” Ola Kaellenius, the chairman of the board of management of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz, told TechCrunch in an interview the morning of the EQS launch. “And it’s those 100 little things that make the difference and that makes a Mercedes, a Mercedes.”

Mercedes is betting that the tech coupled with performance and design will attract buyers. This is a high-stakes game for Mercedes. The German automaker is banking on a successful rollout of the EQS in North America that will erase any memory of its troubled — and now nixed — launch of the EQC crossover in the United States.

Quick nuts and bolts

Before diving into the all the techy bells and whistles, here are the basics. The EQS is the first all-electric luxury sedan under the automaker’s new EQ brand. The first models being introduced to the U.S. market will be the EQS 450+ with 329 hp and the EQS 580 4MATIC with 516 hp. Mercedes didn’t share the price of these models. It did provide a bevy of other details on its performance, design and range.

The EQS that will be available in the U.S. has a length that is a skosh over 17 feet, precisely 205.4 inches long, which is the Goldilocks equivalent to the Mercedes S Class variants.

Mercedes-EQS

Mercedes EQS 580 4MATIC

The vehicle has a co-efficient drag of 0.202, which sneaks below Tesla’s Model S and the upcoming Lucid Motors Air, making its the most aerodynamic production car in the world. All EQS models have an electric powertrain at the rear axle. The EQS 580 4MATIC also has an electric powertrain at the front axle, giving it that all-wheel drive capability. The EQS generates between 329 hp and 516 hp, depending on the variant. Mercedes said a performance version is being planned that will have up to 630 hp. Both the EQS 450+ and the EQS 580 4MATIC have a top speed of 130 miles per hour. The EQS 450+ will have a 0 to 60 mph acceleration time of 5.5 seconds while its more powerful sibling will be able to achieve that speed in 4.1 seconds.

The EQS will have two possible batteries to choose from, although Mercedes has only released details of one. The heftiest configuration of the EQS has a battery with 107.8 kWh of usable energy content that can travel up 478 miles on a single charge under the European WLTP estimates. The EPA estimates, which tend to be stricter, will likely fall below that figure.

The vehicle can be charged with up to 200 kW at fast charging stations with direct current, according to Mercedes. At home or at public charging stations, the EQS can be charged with AC using the on-board charger.

Now onto some of the technological highlights within the vehicle.

ADAS

There are loads of driver assistance features in the EQS, which are supported by a variety of sensors such as ultrasound, camera, radar and lidar that are integrated into the vehicle. Adaptive cruise, the ability to adjust the acceleration behavior, lane detection and automatic lane changes as well as steering assist helps the driver to follow the driving lane at speeds up to 130 mph are some of the ADAS features. The system also recognizes signposted speed limits, overhead frameworks and signs at construction zones and includes warnings about running a stop sign and a red light.

Another new feature is the micro-sleep warning function, which becomes active once the vehicle reaches speeds over 12 mph. This feature works by analyzing the driver’s eyelid movements through a camera on the driver’s display, which is only available with MBUX Hyperscreen.

There are several active assist features that will intervene if needed. An active blind spot assist can give a visual warning of potential lateral collisions in a speed range from around 6 mph to 124 mph. However, if the driver ignores the warnings and still initiates a lane-change, the system can take corrective action by one-sided braking intervention at the last moment if the speed exceeds 19 mph, Mercedes said. The feature remains active even while parked and will warn against exiting if a vehicle or cyclist is passing nearby.

There is also an active emergency stop assist feature that will brake the vehicle to a standstill in its own lane if the sensors and software recognizes that the driver is no longer responding to the traffic situation for a longer period. The brakes are not suddenly applied. If the driver is unresponsive, it begins with an acoustic warning and a visual warning appears in the instrument cluster. Those warnings continue as the vehicle starts to slowly decelerate. Hazard lights are activated and the driver’s seatbelt is briefly tensioned as a haptic warning. The final step is what Mercedes describes as a “short, strong brake jolt” as an additional warning followed by the car decelerating to a standstill, with an optional single lane change if necessary.

Mercedes is also offering the option of DRIVE PILOT, which is an SAE Level 3 conditional automated driving system feature. This would allow hands free driving. Regulations in Europe prevent that level of automation to be deployed in production vehicles on public roads. However,  Kallenius told media in Germany on Thursday that the company is on “on the verge of trying to certify the first volume production car Level 3 system in Germany in the second half of this year,” Automotive News Europe reported.

The car that learns

Many of the technological gee-whiz doodads in the EQS tie back to an underlying AI that is designed to learn the driver’s behavior. That is achieved through software and a dizzying number of sensors. Mercedes said that depending on the equipment, the EQS will have up to 350 sensors that are used to record distances, speeds and accelerations, lighting conditions, precipitation and temperatures, the occupancy of seats as well as the driver’s blink of an eye or the passengers’ speech.

The sensors capture information, which is then processed by electronic control units (computers) and software algorithms then take over to make decisions. TechCrunch automotive reviewer Tamara Warren noticed the vehicle’s ability to learn her preference during a half day with the EQS.

Mercedes ran through a number of examples of how these sensors and software might work together, including an optional driving sound that is interactive and reacts to different parameters such as position of the accelerator pedal, speed or recuperation.

The intuitive learning is mostly apparent through interactions with the MBUX infotainment system, which will proactively show the right functions for the user at the right time. Sensors pick up on change in the surroundings and user behavior and will react accordingly. Mercedes learned from data collected from the first-generation MBUX, which debuted in the 2019 Mercedes A Class, and found most of the use cases fall in the Navigation, Radio/Media and Telephone categories.

That user data informed how the second-generation MBUZ, and specifically the one in the EQS, is laid out. For instance, the navigation app is always in the center of the visual display unit.

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Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

The MBUX uses a natural language processing and so drivers can always use their voice to launch a radio station or control the climate. But Mercedes is really pushing the EQS’ intuitive learning capabilities. This means that as a driver uses the vehicle, items that might be typically buried in the menu will appear up front, or offered up depending on the time or even location of the vehicle.

“The car gets to know you as a person and your preferences and what you do,” said Kaellenius. “It’s almost like it serves up the option that you want to do next, before you even think about it you get.”

“You get a pizza delivered before you even get hungry,” Kaellenius said, jokingly. “That phenomenal in terms of intuition.”

According to Mercedes there are more than 20 other functions such as birthday reminders that are automatically offered with the help of artificial intelligence when they are relevant to the customer. These suggestion modules, which are displayed on the zero-layer interface, are called “Magic Modules.” Here is how it might work: if the driver always calls a particular friend ore relative on the way home on certain evenings, the vehicle will deliver a suggestion regarding this particular call on this day of the week and at this time. A business card will appear with their contact information and – if this is stored – their photo, Mercedes said. All the suggestions from MBUX are coupled with the logged-in profile of the user. This means that if someone else drives the EQS on that same evening, with their own profile logged-in, this recommendation is not displayed.

If a driver always listens to a specific radio program on their commute home, this suggestion will be displayed or if they regularly use the hot stone massage, the system will automatically suggest the comfort function in colder temperatures.

This also applies to the vehicle’s driving functions. For example, the MBUX will remember if the driver has a steep driveway or passes over the same set of speed bumps entering their neighborhood. If the vehicle approaches that GPS position, the MBUX will suggest raising the chassis to offer more ground clearance.

Health and wellness

Remember those sensors? There’s a way for drivers to take it a step further and link their smartwatch — Mercedes-Benz vivoactive 3, the Mercedes-Benz Venu or another compatible Garmin — to the vehicle’s so-called energizing coach. This coach responds to the user’s behavior and will offer up one of several programs such as “freshness,” “warmth,” “vitality,” or “joy” depending on the individual. Via the Mercedes me App, the smartwatch sends vital data of the wearer to the coach, including pulse rate, stress level and sleep quality. The pulse rate recorded by the integrated Garmin wearable is shown in the central display.

What does this all mean in practice? Depending on the user’s wants and the AI system’s understanding of what he or she wants, the lighting, climate, sound and seating might change. This is, of course, all integrated with the voice assistant ‘Hey Mercedes’ so drivers can simply make a statement to trigger the program they want.

If the driver says “I am stressed,” the Joy program will be launched. If the driver says “I’m tired,” they are then prompted to take a break the Vitality program.

Mercedes S Class owners might already be familiar with these options, although the automaker notes that EQS builds on the system. There are now three new energizing nature programs called forest glade, sounds of the sea and summer rain as well as training and tips options. Each program launches different and immersive sounds, which created in consultation with the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton. For instance, “forest glade” will deliver a combination of birdsong, rustling leaves and a gentle breeze. The program is rounded off by warm music soundscapes and subtle fragrance.

Sounds of the Sea will produce soft music soundscapes, wave sounds and seagull sounds. Blasts of air from the air conditioning system completes the effect. Meanwhile “summer rain” offers up sounds of raindrops on leafy canopies, distant thunder, pattering rain and ambient music soundscapes.

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Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

For those long drives which require a break, Mercedes added a power nap feature. Once power nap is selected (and no never when driving), the program runs through three phases: falling asleep, sleeping, and waking up. The driver’s seat moves into a rest position, the side windows and panorama roof sunshade are close and the air ionization is activated. Soothing sounds and the depiction of a starry sky on the central display support falling asleep, according to Mercedes. Once it is time to wake up, a soundscape is activated, a fragrance is deployed and a brief active massage and seat ventilation begins. The seat raises and the sunshade in the roof liner opens.

Voice

As mentioned before the “Hey Mercedes” voice assistant uses natural language processing and can handle an array of requests. Mercedes said the assistant can now do more and certain actions such as accepting a phone call can be made without the activation keyword “Hey Mercedes.” The assistant can now explain vehicle functions.

The assistant can also recognize vehicle occupants by their voices. There is in fact individual microphones placed at each seating area within the vehicle. Once they have been learned, the assistant can access personal data and functions for that specific user.

The voice assistant in the EQS can also be operated from the rear, according to Mercedes.

These personal profiles are stored in the Cloud as part of “Mercedes me.” That means  the profiles can also be used in other Mercedes-Benz vehicles with the new MBUX generation. Security is built in and includes a PIN and then combines face and voice recognition to authenticate. This allows access to individual settings or verification of digital payment processes from the vehicle, the automaker said.

Screens and entertainment

Finally, yes the screens. All of the screens. The 56-inch hyperscreen gets the most attention, but there are screens throughout the EQS. What is important about them is how they communicate with each other.

The hyperscreen is actually three screens that sit under a common bonded glass cover and visually merge into one display. The driver display is 12.3 inches, the central display is 17.7 inches and front passenger display is 12.3 inches. The MBUX Hyperscreen is a touchscreen and also throws in haptic feedback and force feedback.

“Sometimes when I think about the first design and what we’ve actually done here, it’s like, ‘Are we mad to try to create a one meter 41 centimeters curved bonded glass, one piece in the car,” said Kaellenius. “The physical piece in its own right — It’s a piece of technological art.”

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Image Credits: Mercedes-Benz

A lot of attention was paid to the backseat because the EQS, like its S Class counterpart, are often used to chauffeur the owner. Mercedes won’t call this a rear-seat entertainment system and instead refers to it as multi seat entertainment system because everything is connected to each other.

Kaellenius explained that if a driver wants the two rear passengers to watch a different movie, a simple drag and swipe motion on the main screen will throw that new programming back to the rear. The passengers can also throw movies from left to right.

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Twitter bans James O’Keefe of Project Veritas over fake account policy

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Twitter has banned right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe, creator of political gotcha video producer Project Veritas, for violating its “platform manipulation and spam policy,” suggesting he was operating multiple accounts in an unsanctioned way. O’Keefe has already announced that he will sue the company for defamation.

The ban, or “permanent suspension” as Twitter calls it, occurred Thursday afternoon. A Twitter representative said the action followed the violation of rules prohibiting “operating fake accounts” and attempting to “artificially amplify or disrupt conversations through the use of multiple accounts,” as noted here.

This suggests O’Keefe was banned for operating multiple accounts, outside the laissez-faire policy that lets people have a professional and a personal account, and that sort of thing.

But sharp-eyed users noticed that O’Keefe’s last tweet unironically accused reporter Jesse Hicks of impersonation, including an image showing an unredacted phone number supposedly belonging to Hicks. This too may have run afoul of Twitter’s rules about posting personal information, but Twitter declined to comment on this when I asked.

Supporters of O’Keefe say that the company removed his account as retribution for his most recent “exposé” involving surreptitious recordings of a CNN employee admitting the news organization has a political bias. (The person he was talking to had, impersonating a nurse, matched with him on Tinder.)

For his part O’Keefe said he would be suing Twitter for defamation over the allegation that he operated fake accounts. I’ve contacted Project Veritas for more information.

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