December 12, 2018

Google’s search data shows YouTube’s influence over this season’s hottest toys

If there was any doubt about YouTube’s power to influence children, look no further than this year’s list of the hottest holiday toys, based on Google shopping search data. According to the search giant, at least four of the top ten most searched toys were among those heavily featured in YouTube unboxing videos – subsequently turning them into the most in-demand and best-selling toys of the holiday season. Plus, another top toy is the JoJo Siwa Singing doll – a product from the YouTube star of the same name.

Clearly, we’re long past the days where TV commercials are the ways toy makers are reaching children. Instead, they’re leveraging the power of YouTube to drive hype and interest in their products, as Google’s list and those from the major retailers themselves show.

In particular, MGA Entertainment is having a great 2018 holiday season. The company, which is best known for disrupting Barbie with its Bratz dolls back in the day, is today the force behind some of the most in-demand toys, like L.O.L Surprise! and Num Noms, plus top preschooler brand Little Tikes, and others.

The toy maker has not one but three of its L.O.L. Surprise! toys on Google’s list this year, which the search giant points out were also all the subject of numerous YouTube unboxing videos over the holiday shopping season, which helped drive searches. The most searched for toy – Spin Master’s Luvabella doll – was also regularly featured across YouTube, the company notes.

This search data turns into real-world sales, too. Though we’ll have to wait for the holidays to wrap to get the final count, already L.O.L Surprise! toys have made their way onto Amazon’s Holiday Toy List, for example, and its Best Sellers. In fact, L.O.L. Surprises have claimed half of spots on Amazon’s top 10 list of the Best Selling Toys & Games, as of today. (And they’ve snagged spots further down the list: L.O.L Surprise! toys are the No. 13 and No. 34 best sellers, too.)

Not coincidentally, L.O.L. Surprises are the sort of toy that’s designed perfectly for the YouTube era. They’re basically made for unboxing.

The toys themselves are not sold in transparent packaging, but are rather hidden away inside some sort of container – a box, case or a ball, for example. The excitement for the kids comes from the unboxing process itself – only then will they see their doll and all their accompanying accessories. Sometimes there’s another step, too – like decoding secret messages on the outside of the packaging, or dunking a fizz in some water to reveal the enclosed toy.

With multiple steps to even get to the toy itself, it’s ideal content for YouTube. Combined with YouTubers’ high-pitched squeals of joy as they work their way through the process, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for selling toys.

Other most-searched toys from Google’s list also made an appearance on Amazon’s Top Toy list of 2018, like LEGO Friends Heartlake City Resort and the Kano Harry Potter Coding Kit, for example.

Google’s list is also biased towards tech toys, with top searches for things like the DJI Tello, VTech Kidizoom Smartwatch DX, as well as the Harry Potter kit in addition to classics from NERF and LEGO.

Amazon’s best sellers include some VTech and Melissa and Doug products, but not the specific SKUs Google had picked up on.

YouTube’s influence can be spotted on Walmart’s toys list, as well.

In its list of top toys rated by kids, L.O.L Surprise!, Pikmi Pops, Hatchimals, and Fingerlings – all of which star in dozens upon dozens of unboxing videos – make several appearances.

And then, of course, there’s Ryans World Giant Mystery Egg, which comes from one of the best-known YouTubers to date – the 7-year old millionaire and toy unboxer supreme, Ryan of Ryan ToysReview who scored a lucrative deal with Walmart to launch his toy line. Walmart senior buyer Brad Bedwell recently told Yahoo Finance the toy egg has been “the big winner of the season.”

Walmart was pretty savvy to scoop up Ryan for this exclusive deal.

“Years ago, kids would have been glued to the TV watching the traditional channels, and now they’re watching content everywhere. They’re still watching TV, but they’re also watching it on tablets and parents’ cellphones,” Bedwell told Yahoo. “Everywhere they are, they can look at and consume content. And YouTube is now up there with the major TV channels with how many kids watch it.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

CTRL-labs’ first dev kit is a gesture-tracking neural controller

The race to replace the mouse and keyboard has yielded a lot of weird tech, but as various hardware startups try to find the missing link between what we have now and some sort of embedded brain chip, we’re seeing some fascinating solutions surface.

New York-based CTRL-labs just announced its first developer kit that’s aiming to refresh how people interact with computers, an armband that can track a user’s finger movements by measuring electrical impulses. It’s not quite a brain controller, though in practice this type of tech can definitely feel like it’s reading your mind, taking minor finger movements and yielding a surprising amount of insight into the position of your hand and the pressure you’re applying on your finger tips.

CTRL-labs’ investors are betting big on the insight this unconventional interface type can deliver. The startup closed a $28 million Series A in May with funding coming from Vulcan Capital, GV and others.

The use cases for something like this that could theoretically  seem to be a little up in the air at the moment, hence the interest in getting a developer kit out into the wild. There are some more obvious use cases in the VR space, but pushing a theoretical input type on an industry with theoretical appeal obviously isn’t the best basket to put a Series A in.

The system (called CTRL-kit) is, indeed, a developer kit so there hasn’t been the highest premium placed on miniaturizing all of the tech in the tethered system, but the company tells TechCrunch that the intent is definitely to get into a wrist-worn form factor like a smartwatch in the future. Watch a few of the tech demos and you’ll see what an interesting proposition this is for the wearable of the future.


Think about the link between some lightweight glasses with a heads-up display and an Apple Watch-type controller that can parse hand gestures and you can see a more predictable endgame for this kind of tech.

Controlling augmented reality systems has always been a big UX question. Hand-tracking startups like Leap Motion have delivered very polished solutions that offer finesse but sidestep realistic user behaviors. Who’s going to wave their hands in front of their face while walking down the street? Microsoft has dumbed this down into optically-tracked gestures like the “air tap” for HoloLens that let you select things in a pretty straightforward, yet cumbersome way. Magic Leap integrates a few input types into their system but seems to be pushing developers told a physical controller while the current hardware is more focused on home use.

The company says they’re also intrigued by potential with the automotive industry and more conventional desktop applications. Like a good amount of technologies that are attractive for VR and AR tech, what CTRL-Labs is building has an attractive endgame but suspect near-term utility. Startups like Thalmic Labs, now North, tried and failed to gain an audience for a consumer-grade motion-control armband like this. For the time being, the company expects a decent amount of developer attention to go towards using this tech for gaming.

The company says it plans to begin shipping the CTRL-kit in the first quarter of next year.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google Fit gets improved activity logging and a breathing exercise

Google Fit, Google’ s activity-tracking app for Android, is getting a small but meaningful update today that adds a few new features that’ll likely make its regular users quite happy. Some are pretty basic, like the launch of a Fit widget for your Android home screen, while others introduce new features like a breathing exercise (though that will only be available on Wear OS), an updated home screen in the app itself and improved activity logging.

The app got a major redesign earlier this year and in the process, Google introduced Heart Points as a way of tracking not just the length but also the strenuousness of your activities. Those are tracked automatically as you go about your day, but since Fit also lets you log activities manually, you didn’t really get a chance to log the intensity of those exercises. Now, however, you can adjust the intensity in your quest for getting more Heart Points.

The other major new feature is the exact opposite of strenuous exercise: a breathing exercise for those moments when you want to calm down. For some reason, Google decided that this feature is Wear OS-only right now. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case, but if you don’t have a Wear OS watch, you’ll just have to figure out some other way to keep calm and bugger on.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Krisp reduces noise on calls using machine learning, and it’s coming to Windows soon

If your luck is anything like mine, as soon as you jump on an important call, someone decides it’s a great time to blow some leaves off the sidewalk outside your window. 2Hz’s Krisp is a new desktop app that uses machine learning to subtract background noise like that, or crowds, or even crying kids — while keeping your voice intact. It’s already out for Macs and it’s coming to Windows soon.

I met the creators of Krisp, including 2Hz co-founder Davit Baghdasaryan, earlier this year at UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, where they demonstrated their then-prototype tech.

The tech involved is complex, but the idea is simple: If you create a machine learning system that understand what the human voice sounds like, on average, then it can listen to an audio signal and select only that part of it, cutting out a great deal of background noise.

Baghdasaryan, formerly of Twilio, originally wanted to create something that would run on mobile networks, so T-Mobile or whoever could tout built-in noise cancellation. This platform approach proved too slow, however, so they decided to go straight to consumers.

“Traction with customers was slow, and this was a problem for a young startup,” Baghdasaryan said in an email later. However, people were loving the idea of ‘muting noise,’ so we decided to switch all our focus and build a user-facing product.”

That was around the time I talked with them in person, incidentally, and just six months later they had released on Mac.

It’s simple: you run the app, and it modifies both the outgoing and incoming audio signals, with the normal noisy signal going in one end and a clean, voice-focused one coming out the other. Everything happens on-device and with very short latency (around 15 milliseconds), so there’s no cloud involved and nothing is ever sent to any server or even stored locally. The team is working on having the software adapt and learn on the fly, but it’s not implemented yet.

Another benefit of this approach is it doesn’t need any special tweaking to work with, say, Skype instead of Webex. Because it works at the level of the OS’s sound processing, whatever app you use just hears the Krisp-modified signal as if it were clean out of your mic.

They launched on Mac because they felt the early-adopter type was more likely to be on Apple’s platform, and the bet seems to have paid off. But a Windows version is coming soon — the exact date isn’t set, but expect it either late this month or early January. (We’ll let you know when it’s live.)

It should be more or less identical to the Mac version, but there will be a special gaming-focused one. Gamers, Baghdasaryan pointed out, are much more likely to have GPUs to run Krisp on, and also have a real need for clear communication (as a PUBG player I can speak to the annoyance of an open mic and clacky keys). So there will likely be a few power user features specific to gamers, but it’s not set in stone yet.

You may wonder, as I did, why they weren’t going after chip manufacturers, perhaps to include Krisp as a tech built into a phone or computer’s audio processor.

In person, they suggested that this ultimately was also too slow and restrictive. Meanwhile, they saw that there was no real competition in the software space, which is massively easier to enter.

“All current noise cancellation solutions require multiple microphones and a special form factor where the mouth must be close to one of the mics. We have no such requirement,” Baghdasaryan explained. “We can do it with single-mic or operate on an audio stream coming from the network. This makes it possible to run the software in any environment you want (edge or network) and any direction (inbound or outbound).”

If you’re curious about the technical side of things — how it was done with one mic, or at low latency, and so on — there’s a nice explanation Baghdasaryan wrote for the Nvidia blog a little while back.

Furthermore, a proliferation of AI-focused chips that Krisp can run on easily means easy entry to the mobile and embedded space. “We have already successfully ported our DNN to NVIDIA GPUs, Intel CPU/GNA, and ARM. Qualcomm is in the pipeline,” noted Baghdasaryan.

To pursue this work the company has raised a total of $2 million so far: $500K from Skydeck as well as friends and family for a pre-seed round, then a $1.5 M round led by Sierra Ventures and Shanda Group.

Expect the Windows release later this winter, and if you’re already a user, expect a few new features to come your way in the same time scale. You can download Krisp for free here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Pew: Social media for the first time tops newspapers as a news source for U.S. adults

It’s not true that everyone gets their news from Facebook and Twitter. But is now true that more U.S. adults get their news from social media than from print newspapers. According to a new report from Pew Research Center out today, social media has for the first time surpassed newspapers as a preferred source of news for American adults. However, social media is still far behind other traditional news sources, like TV and radio, for example.

Last year, the portion of those who got their news from social media was around equal to those who got their news from print newspapers, Pew says. But in its more recent survey conducted from July 30 through August 12, 2018, that had changed.

Now, one-in-five U.S. adults (20%) are getting news from social media, compared with just 16 percent of those who get news from newspapers, the report found. (Pew had asked respondents if they got their news “often” from the various platforms.)

The change comes at a time when newspaper circulation is on the decline, and its popularity as a news medium is being phased out – particularly with younger generations. In fact, the report noted that print only remains popular today with the 65 and up crowd, where 39 percent get their news from newspapers. By comparison, no more than 18 percent of any other age group does.

While the decline of print has now given social media a slight edge, it’s nowhere near dominating other formats.

Instead, TV is still the most popular destination for getting the news, even though that’s been dropping over the past couple of years. TV is then followed by news websites, radio, and then social media and newspapers.

But “TV news” doesn’t necessarily mean cable news networks, Pew clarifies.

In reality, local news is the most popular, with 37 percent getting their news there often. Meanwhile, 30 percent get cable TV news often and 25 percent watch the national evening news shows often.

However, if you look at the combination of news websites and social media together, a trend towards increasing news consumption from the web is apparent. Together, 43 percent of U.S. adults get their news from the web in some way, compared to 49 percent from TV.

There’s a growing age gap between TV and the web, too.

A huge majority (81%) of those 65 and older get news from TV, and so does 65 percent of those ages 50 to 64. Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the youngest consumers – those ages 18 to 29 – get their news from TV. This is the group pushing forward the cord cutting trend, too – or more specifically, many of them are the “cord-nevers,” as they’re never signing up for pay TV subscriptions in the first place. So it’s not surprising they’re not watching TV news.

Plus, a meager 2 percent get their news from newspapers in this group.

This young demographic greatly prefers digital consumption, with 27 percent getting news from news websites and 36 percent from social media. That is to say, they’re four times as likely than those 65 and up to get news from social media.

Meanwhile, online news websites are the most popular with the 30 to 49-year old crowd, with 42 percent saying they get their news often from this source.

Despite their preference for digital, younger Americans’ news consumption is better spread out across mediums, Pew points out.

“Younger Americans are also unique in that they don’t rely on one platform in the way that the majority of their elders rely on TV,” Pew researcher Elisa Shearer writes. “No more than half of those ages 18 to 29 and 30 to 49 get news often from any one news platform,” she says.


News Source = techcrunch.com

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