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Facebook seriously needs its own Bitmoji

Your Facebook profile used to be the online version of “you”. But over the past year, Bitmoji has usurped Facebook to become the preferred way to share your identity over the web.

The Facebook profile assembles a collection of text and real-world photos into a fixed set of poses, making it more of a snapshot of the offline you ported into the digital realm rather than a vision of you purposefully designed for the Internet. It worked well enough for the desktop era when we asynchronously stalked each other’s online representations and had the time and screen space to consume a lot of information.

But the modern mobile era is more about communication than representation. We need succinct and flexible versions of our identity for rapid-fire messaging and visual storytelling. You can’t cram your whole Facebook profile into a video just to tell someone what you’re up to, but inserting just a profile pic feels generic and far from vivid. Facebook’s missing something.

Bitmoji — Identity For Visual Communication On Mobile

Bitmoji let you communicate not just who you are, but what you’re doing and how you’re feeling in a single instantly recognizable image. With Bitmoji, you custom-design a cartoony avatar to look like your ideal self, and are then offered near-infinite poses of that avatar in any situation you could imagine, from blowing a kiss to flying a jetpack. You can then use these both within text messaging as well as photos or videos.

At first, way back in 2008, Bitmoji seemed like a joke. It was just a way to let you star in Bitstrips — little comic strips you could storyboard yourself. But most people didn’t need or have the time to make such involved content. Yet Bitstrips co-founder and CEO Jacob ‘BA’ Blackstock saw the potential early, telling AdWeek “It’s like you’re the medium.”

The breakthrough would come six years later when Bitstrips spun off a separate Bitmoji app that let you turn your avatar into stickers for use in messaging. They were personalized emoji. Still, by then social media had started to shift to visual communication via Snapchat Stories.

In one of Snap CEO Evan Spiegel’s smartest moves, the company paid just $64.2 million to acquire Bitstrips, and quickly integrated Bitmoji directly into Snapchat. Suddenly you could overlay your avatar onto your photos and videos, projecting your feelings and actions into social media. Regardless of whether you were camera shy, disheveled, or just couldn’t get the perfect photo of yourself, you could still communicate visually with your identity.

And for the 14 months since then, Bitmoji has hovered in the top 10 iOS App Store charts, often claiming #1 even above its parent company Snap or Facebook’s family of apps.

Facebook’s Avatars, Trapped In VR

Despite Facebook’s willingness to clone Snapchat with Instagram Stories…and Facebook Stories…and Messenger Day and WhatsApp Status, it still has no rival to Bitmoji. That’s surprising considering communicating your real identity online is what allowed Facebook to vanquish Myspace and become a ubiquitous utility. It’s such an important concept, you’d think Facebook would fight harder to protect its dominance.

Oculus avatar creation

That’s not to say the company hasn’t been experimenting. The problem is it’s all been in VR.

Facebook’s Oculus division has developed a customizable avatar system. While there’s plenty of flexibility in how you choose your avatar’s face, hair, and clothes, they always come out looking like an 80’s sci-fi movie. These Tron-style avatars are fine for playing around in Oculus Rooms and other VR apps, but don’t feel particularly human or familiar. That limits their potential for communicating outside of VR or conveying realistic emotion.

Oculus avatars look too sci-fi for every day use

Meanwhile, over the past few years Facebook has been gradually improving its own avatar system for Facebook Spaces, its VR hangout spot where you can chat with friends, visit 360 photo locations, and play basic games.

After some Minecraft-esque pixelated earlier attempts, in April 2016, Facebook revealed avatars drawn inside VR. It also told us it was testing using an Occipital Structure sensor to 3D model your head. By October, it was showing off much more life-like avatars with a “VR emoji” system that let you select “Angry” to make your avatar shake its fist, while “Joy” triggers a celebratory dance.

The evolution of Facebook’s VR avatars

But in April 2017, the company previewed Facebook Spaces with avatars constructed by scanning your Facebook profile photos and tagged photos to create a facsimile of your real face.

First Facebook lets you choose which of your photos you want as the basis of your avatar, and creates its best guess at what you look like in VR from there. Then you stand in front of a VR mirror to customize your face, hair, clothing and more (or start from scratch if you don’t have a good photo to use). Facebook tells me the goal was to make it so hanging out in VR with friends is more like hanging out in person. Since then, Facebook’s added more hair options, lipstick colors, and t-shirt decals.

Customizing your Facebook Spaces avatar standing in front of a VR mirror. Image Credit: VR Eugene

Yet you still can’t use the avatar you create anywhere else. And that seems crazy given Bitmoji’s success. Facebook’s old school 2D social network has a whole augmented reality camera platform, but no customizable avatars. Messenger has computer-generated photo filters based on the text you type, and Instagram has seasonal stickers and props you can paste atop your Stories.

But there’s still no substitute for Bitmoji. Whether Facebook builds a competitor itself or buys one like Gabsee’s 3D personalized ‘hologram’ avatars, it needs to do something. Maybe we’ll see its next move at tomorrow Oculus Connect conference.

Sure, at its core, Facebook wants you to be the real you. That’s how it drives trust and relevancy. You might be able to instantly recognize the Bitmoji of a close pal, but what about someone new you just met who sends you a friend request? Would you be as comfortable meeting someone on Facebook Marketplace and going to their apartment to buy their couch if their profile pic was an avatar instead of a photo? And will you be able to identify distant acquaintances at a glance in the News Feed based on a cartoon version of their face?

Perhaps not. But Facebook can’t let the ubiquity and utility of its core social network block innovation in its mobile communication apps. With Zuckerberg’s crew recently getting a handle on AR, Bitmoji is the last massively popular feature that separates Facebook from Snapchat, the bastion of teen cool.

And that’s not because Bitmoji are a silly toy or just the next step in the evolution of emoji. The Internet isn’t merely for sharing what happens in the real world. It’s a place where we can dream and aspire. Personalized avatars let our identity scale alongside our imagination. Facebook can’t let you communicate “you” anymore without them.

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Truepic raises $8M to expose Deepfakes, verify photos for Reddit

How can you be sure an image wasn’t Photoshopped? Make sure it was shot with Truepic. This startup makes a camera feature that shoots photos and adds a watermark URL leading to a copy of the image it saves, so viewers can compare them to ensure the version they’re seeing hasn’t been altered.

Now Truepic’s technology is getting its most important deployment yet as the way Reddit will verify that Ask Me Anything Q&As are being conducted live by the actual person advertised — oftentimes a celebrity.

But beyond its utility for verifying AMAs, dating profiles and peer-to-peer e-commerce listings, Truepic is tackling its biggest challenge yet: identifying artificial intelligence-generated Deepfakes. These are where AI convincingly replaces the face of a person in a video with someone else’s. Right now the technology is being used to create fake pornography combining an adult film star’s body with an innocent celebrity’s face without their consent. But the big concern is that it could be used to impersonate politicians and make them appear to say or do things they haven’t.

The need for ways to weed out Deepfakes has attracted a new $8 million round for Truepic. The cash comes from untraditional startup investors, including Dowling Capital Partners, former Thomson Financial (which become Reuters) CEO Jeffrey Parker, Harvard Business school professor William Sahlman and more. The Series A brings Truepic to $10.5 million in funding.

“We started Truepic long before manipulated images impacted democratic elections across the globe, digital evidence of atrocities and human rights abuses were regularly undermined, or online identities were fabricated to advance political agendas — but now we fully recognize its impact on society,” says Truepic founder and COO Craig Stack. “The world needs the Truepic technology to help right the wrongs that have been created by the abuse of digital imagery.”

Here’s how Truepic works:

  1. Snap a photo in Truepic’s iOS and Android app, or an app that’s paid to embed its SDK in their own app
  2. Truepic verifies the image hasn’t been altered already, and watermarks it with a time stamp, geocode, URL and other metadata
  3. Truepic’s secure servers store a version of the photo, assigned with a six-digit code and its URL, plus a spot on an immutable blockchain
  4. Users can post their Truepic in apps to prove they’re not catfishing someone on a dating site, selling something broken on an e-commerce site, or elsewhere
  5. Viewers can visit the URL watermarked onto the photo to compare it to the vault-saved version to ensure it hasn’t been modified after the fact

For example, Reddit’s own Wiki recommends that AMA creators use the Truepic app to snap a photo of them holding a handwritten sign with their name and the date on it. “Truepic’s technology allows us to quickly and safely verify the identity and claims for some of our most eccentric guests,” says Reddit AMA moderator and Lynch LLP intellectual property attorney Brian Lynch. “Truepic is a perfect tool for the ever-evolving geography of privacy laws and social constructs across the internet.”

The abuses of image manipulation are evolving, too. Deepfakes could embarrass celebrities… or start a war. “We will be investing in offline image and video analysis and already have identified some subtle forensic techniques we can use to detect forgeries like deepfakes,” Truepic CEO Jeff McGregor tells me. “In particular, one can analyze hair, ears, reflectivity of eyes and other details that are nearly impossible to render true-to-life across the thousands of frames of a typical video. Identifying even a few frames that are fake is enough to declare a video fake.”

This will always be a cat and mouse game, but from newsrooms to video platforms, Truepic’s technology could keep content creators honest. The startup has also begun partnering with NGOs like the Syrian American Medical Society to help it deliver verified documentation of atrocities in the country’s conflict zone. The Human Rights Foundation also trained humanitarian leaders on how to use Truepic at the 2018 Freedom Forum in Oslo.

Throwing shade at Facebook, McGregor concludes that “The internet has quickly become a dumpster fire of disinformation. Fraudsters have taken full advantage of unsuspecting consumers and social platforms facilitate the swift spread of false narratives, leaving over 3.2 billion people on the internet to make self-determinations over what’s trustworthy vs. fake online… we intend to fix that by bringing a layer of trust back to the internet.”

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Google Play now makes it easier to manage your subscriptions

Mobile app subscriptions are a big business, but consumers sometimes hesitate to sign up because pausing and cancelling existing subscriptions hasn’t been as easy as opting in. Google is now addressing those concerns with the official launch of its subscription center for Android users. The new feature centralizes all your Google Play subscriptions, and offers a way for you to find others you might like to try.

The feature was first introduced at Google’s I/O developer conference in May, and recently rolled out to Android users, the company says. However, Google hadn’t formally announced its arrival until today.

Access to the subscriptions center only takes one tap – the link is directly available from the “hamburger” menu in the Play Store app.

Apple’s page for subscription management, by comparison, is far more tucked away.

On iOS, you have to tap on your profile icon in the App Store app, then tap on your name. This already seem unintuitive – especially considering that a link to “Purchases” is on this Account screen. Why wouldn’t Subscriptions be here, too? But instead, you have to go to the next screen, then scroll down to near the bottom to find “Subscriptions” and tap that. To turn any individual subscription off, you have to go to its own page, scroll to the bottom and tap “Cancel.”

This process should be more streamlined for iOS users.

In Google Play’s Subscriptions center, you can view all your existing subscriptions, cancel them, renew them, or even restore those you had previously cancelled – perfect for turning HBO NOW back on when “Game of Thrones” returns, for example.

You can also manage and update your payment methods, and set up a backup method.

Making it just as easy for consumers to get out of their subscriptions as it is to sign up is a good business practice, and could boost subscription sign-ups overall, which benefits developers. When consumers aren’t afraid they’ll forget or not be able to find the cancellation options later on, they’re more likely to give subscriptions a try.

In addition, developers can now create deep links to their subscriptions which they can distribute across the web, email, and social media. This makes it easier to direct people to their app’s subscription management page directly. When users cancel, developers can also trigger a survey to find out why – and possibly tweak their product offerings a result of this user feedback.

There’s also a new subscription discovery section that will help Android users find subscription-based apps through both curated and localized collections, Google notes.

These additional features, along with a good handful of subscription management tools for developers, were all previously announced at I/O but weren’t in their final state at the time. Google had cautioned that it may tweak the look-and-feel of the product between the developer event and the public launch, but it looks the same as what was shown before – right down to the demo subscription apps.

Subscriptions are rapidly becoming a top way for developers to generate revenue for their applications. Google says subscribers are growing at more than 80 percent year-over-year. Sensor Tower also reported that app revenue grew 35 percent to $60 billion in 2017, in part thanks to the growth in subscriptions.

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Instagram hits 1 billion monthly users, up from 800M in September

Instagram’s meteoric rise continues, dwarfing the stagnant growth rates of Snapchat and Facebook. Today Instagram announced that it has reached 1 billion monthly active users, after reaching 800 million in September 2017 with 500 million daily users.

That massive audience could be a powerful draw for IGTV, the longer-form video hub it’s launching for creators today. While IGTV monetization options are expected in the future, content makers may flock to it early just to get exposure and build their fan base.

While Snapchat’s daily user count grew just 2.13 percent in Q1 2018 to 191 million, and Facebook’s monthly count grew 3.14 percent to reach 2.196 billion, Instagram is growing closer to 5 percent per quarter.

Hitting the 1 billion user milestone could put more pressure on Instagram to carry its weight in the Facebook family and bring home more cash. Facebook doesn’t break out Instagram’s revenue and has never given any guidance about it. But eMarketer estimates that Instagram will generate $5.48 billion in U.S. ad revenue in 2018, up 70 percent from last year. It reports that Instagram makes up 28.2 pecent of Facebook’s mobile ad revenue.

IGTV could open even more premium mobile ad inventory that traditional television advertisers crave, which helped push Facebook share price up more that 2.2 precent to nearly $202.

The Instagram brand increasingly looks like Facebook’s life raft. Sentiment toward Facebook, especially amongst teens, has been in decline, and it’s constantly rocked by privacy scandals. But many users don’t even realize Facebook owns Instagram, and still love the photo-sharing app. With the 1 billion user badge, businesses and content creators may take the photo and video app even more seriously. Selling windows into your friends’ worlds is a lucrative business.

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