Here’s what Atari’s upcoming Ataribox console will look like

Retro consoles are the new next-gen consoles, and nothing’s more retro console than Atari. That’s why the teases from the gaming company about its upcoming ‘Ataribox’ have been so intriguing to gaming fans – it could be amazing. Now, we know what it looks like, and thanks to an email update (via The Verge), also broadly what it will be able to do.

The design is clearly an homage to the Atari of yore, but it’s also not a straight up miniaturization like the NES Classic. Instead, it inherits some of the materials (there’s a woodgrain option and a black glass front, depending on your preference. There are also ports for an SD card, HDMI, and four USB, and the company will be offering classic games on the console, similar to the NES Classic’s library.

But the Ataribox will also be able to run “current” games, so it could be more like a modern set-top gaming device, too. We don’t yet know much about what that’s going to offer on that scale, but it’d be interesting if this was essentially a Shield-like Android TV device with a host of retro Atari titles pre-loaded and some media streaming capabilities.

Nothing yet on final availability or pricing, but it’s still an intriguing project to keep an eye on – and one which could indicate the true depth of the retro gaming fad’s appeal.

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We went gaming at a VR arcade in Hong Kong

TechCrunch was in Hong Kong last week for tech conference Rise — where we watched two robots talking together on stage, among other things. The event is well-known for its after-parties and social activities, but one night we sneaked away from the crowd with a few friends to check out a virtual reality arcade.

Playdium is a new entry to the city, having only opened its doors at the start of July. The studio is kitted out with a dozen or so VR ‘stations’ that include virtual boxing, gun fights, combat games, and even a Japanese Gundam robot machine.

Awesome games aside, the experience was a tiring one — more interesting than the gym for sure, and more fulfilling than gaming from the couch.

Sessions cost HK$260 (US$33) per hour on weekdays, and HK$280 (US$36) per hour on Fridays and weekends. The company advises customers to book ahead of time.

You can find more about Playdium on its Facebook page.

If you’re not in Hong Kong, why not track down the nearest VR arcade to you if you fancy a different kind of evenings out with friends?

Amazon launches Spark, a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members

Amazon today is launching Amazon Spark, a new feature aimed at improving product discovery, which is seemingly inspired by Instagram and its use of shoppable photos. Similarly, Amazon Spark users are encouraged to post stories, ideas and images of products they love, which others can react to with comments and “smiles” – Amazon’s own version of the Like or Favorite button.

The retailer has been quietly testing Amazon Spark in beta for a few months before today’s launch to consumers in the U.S. The goal with the new program is to shift some of the social activity around products taking place off-site back to Amazon, where product inspiration can translate directly into purchases with a click of a button.

In this way, Amazon Spark could be seen as something of a Pinterest competitor, as well, but the actual format for the service is a feed-style interface – which is why the comparison with Instagram seems more apt.

To get started with Amazon Spark, you have to use the Amazon mobile app, as the feature is not designed for desktop use at this time.

When you first join Spark – it’s available through the “Programs & Features” menu option in the app’s navigation – you’re asked to select at least five interests you want to follow. Using this information, Amazon Spark will create a customized feed of products, imagery and ideas that will relate to the sort of things you like to shop for, or learn more about.

You can select more than five interests, but you can’t proceed until you’ve chosen a minimum of five categories.

These interests vary, and generally tend to match up with Amazon’s own popular merchandise categories, like “Books,” “Style & Fashion,” “Technology,” “Home Décor,” “Music,” “Fitness,” “Toys & Games,” and many more. But there are also a number of niche categories like “TV Bingewatching,” “Cats,” “Internet of Things,” “BBQ” and others that are much more specific and narrowly focused.

Once you’ve completed the setup – which also includes entering your name and optionally enabling notifications for updates to your Spark posts and responses to comments – you’ll then be presented with an image-heavy feed of product ideas and other stories. In some cases, these posts will read more like a product review – someone detailing their personal experience with an item, for example.

Other times, you might just see a beautiful photo, where the product being sold is less obvious – similar to the sort of fashion inspiration photos you’d come across on Instagram.

When a photo contains a product Amazon sells, there will be a shopping bag icon in the bottom right corner with a number that indicates how many items from the photo can be shopped on Amazon’s site.

For example, in the below photo of a woman watching the sunset at Yosemite, a click on the shopping bag icon will take you to the product detail page for the hat she’s wearing.

In addition to lifestyle imagery, Spark posts can also contain product photos, text, links or polls.

The ability to shop the photos on Amazon’s site is a much more seamless experience than on Instagram, where often the fashion labels’ Instagram handles are tagged in the photos, but you’re not provided with a way to go directly to product pages themselves for the numerous pieces of clothing and accessories tagged.

Or, if you manage to hunt the product in question down, you sometimes find it’s no longer sold or out of stock. That shouldn’t happen on Amazon Spark, thanks to the way the product images are connected with Amazon inventory.

To some extent, the retailer sees Amazon Spark as a new frontier for product reviews. With Spark, Amazon is moving away from rewarding “Top Reviewers” who write up their thoughts and rate items, and is rather embracing a new system that rewards those who are “Enthusiasts” instead.

Enthusiasts will also receive a badge, which appears when they post to Spark or write product reviews.

Anyone can become an Enthusiast by contributing to Spark, but there’s a catch – to post, you have to be an Amazon Prime member. Non-Prime members can browse Spark’s feed, but can’t post or comment.

Encouraging product discovery is a newer focus for Amazon, which has also been steadily upgrading its curated shop of product ideas, “Interesting Finds,” with personalized suggestions based on users’ activity and shopping patterns, through a feature called “My Mix.” It also quietly began testing its own invite-only influencer program, which allows consumers to connect with Amazon products via influencer posts across social media.

Amazon Spark isn’t directly connected with either of those earlier programs, but it does have a similar goal of helping people more serendipitously discover new things they might like to buy.

It also lays the groundwork for a social network that lives right on Amazon, as customers’ user profiles – which have been around for years, but aren’t really well known – now become a much more prominent part of the Amazon experience.

In the future, one could imagine that users will also be able to generate some sort of income via their Spark postings. Making money from product suggestions posted to Spark is not an aspect to this program Amazon is prepared to discuss today. But an influencer-courting service like this will eventually need to nail down a monetization angle if it truly wants to challenge Instagram – a place where the most-followed users can make five or six figures for their posted photos and campaigns.

In the near-term, however, Amazon will focus on helping seed Spark with more content. On July 30, it will begin to allow users to share their previously written product reviews from their profile to Spark, for example.

Amazon Spark is available today in the U.S., only in the Amazon iPhone application.

Google’s brave new friendless feed

 

Google’s brave new friendless feed

It’s like Facebook without all those annoying “friends.” Instead of having to look at what weird things other people are interested in, like their babies, Google shows me the weird things I’m interested in, like Legend of Zelda and Elon Musk.

This is a fundamental shift in content consumption from curation based on our explicit choices to curation based on our implicit preferences mined from past behavior. It could unlock our niche fascinations without us ever having to pledge allegiance to them.

Today Google officially launched “feed” in its main iOS and Android apps. Finally, technology has evolved to bring us personalized news without a social graph or personality quiz. Instead, Google combines the most important news stories of the day with ones about topics you’ve previously searched. That last part will strike some as a creepy misappropriation of sensitive data. But once people start scrolling, they might find those recycled insights quite delightful.

A genius solution to the problem that killed Google Plus

You don’t friend anyone, so there’s none of the filter-bubble echosphere problem of Facebook. You don’t manually follow publishers, so you don’t have to plant flags at a particular end of the political spectrum like on Twitter. And you don’t “Like” content, so there’s no pressure to support something out of guilt, pity or social obligation.

The Google feed (lowercase?) instead looks at what’s popular around your town and the world, tying you closer to your community. Controversial news topics show a sliding carousel of different sources to widen your perspective. And Google understands that your interests wax and wane over time, so if you stop searching for something the algorithm allows that topic to atrophy in your feed.

The lack of your friends’ endorsements for links means you’re never persuaded to click something you didn’t think you cared about. Perhaps that trades the filter bubbles of a few friends for a solo filter condom. But we already have so many sources of spontaneous social content discovery. After testing since December, the launch of Google’s single-player feed adds something different to our mix of apps.

Instead of spotlighting its core incompetency in social, Google leverages its core competency knowing everything you do online thanks to its ownership of search, email, calendar, maps, YouTube and the Android operating system. The Google Now brand is being retired, and its utilitarian alerts about traffic and appointments relegated to a secondary tab in the Google app. But the underlying technology that pulled data from your Google app ecosystem had been wisely repurposed as signals about the news and entertainment you desire.

Google purposefully built a ghost town

The Google feed’s greatest flaw is its lack of depth. Facebook brags that it chooses just the best 200 stories from around 3,5000 it could show you each day. That’s in part because it’s had years to learn what you Like. After a few vertical swipes, Google has a tough time correlating your searches with current news, and the feed’s relevance starts to plummet. But at least the Google app seems cognizant of its shallow content pool, deterring further browsing past the first 10 links by forcing you to tap a “more stories” button instead of infinitely scrolling.

All in all, this feed is a genius solution to the problem that killed Google Plus: No friends. Rather than create a copycat feed that depended on them and fell short in their absence, Google purposefully built a ghost town that treats their omission as a feature, not a bug.

India’s Rentomojo raises $10M from Bain Capital and Lending Club founder

Indian startup Rentomojo — which lets consumers rent appliances furniture, motorbikes and other urban living essentials — has closed a $10 million Series B to continue its expansion.

The round was led by Bain Capital Ventures; others that put in include Lending Club founder and former CEO Renaud Laplanche and existing investors Accel and IDG.

It’s nearly one year to the day that Rentomojo raised $5 million, and since then the three-year-old company has expanded its focus from renting out home appliances and furniture into motorbikes, a potentially lucrative segment.

The idea of the company is to cater to India’s migrating workforce, so that when a person pitches up in a new city they can rent their home essentials as they need them rather than having to make an expensive outlay and buy items that they may not need in the long term. It is currently active in eight cities in India, including Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi.

All told, Rentomojo CEO and founder Geetansh Bamania told TechCrunch he believes the total market is worth $6 billion per year.

For the expansion into bikes, Bamania said the goal is to “offer something that’s less than the cost of Uber or Ola.” He estimates that many in urban areas spend upwards of $100 per month on such apps, whereas a Rentomojo bike typically costs $30-40 per month.

He said the company is evaluating another new transportation product that could launch in the next three to four months, though he declined to provide specific details at this time.

Besides that potential expansion, the goal is really to increase awareness of Rentomojo services among its target audience.

“Our eight cities cover a good 60-70 percent of online commerce [shoppers in India] right now, we are now looking to go into a lot more depth in the cities we exist in,” he said.

The company is also looking to hire in a select number of senior positions, but it doesn’t plan to massively increase its current headcount of around 300 staff.

“We’re trying to stay lean, but with 120 in management we are very operational heavy,” Bamania told TechCrunch. “We are looking for leadership, ideally those in senior leadership roles that we’d love to join with experiences in fintech, finance and consumer lending.”

Already, though, Rentomojo is getting a healthy injection of experience as Laplanche, who helped pioneer peer-to-peer lending with Lending Club, and Bain Capital Ventures MD Salil Deshpande have taken seats on the startup’s board.

“That’s been the most exciting part, we’ll be able to dive into both of their experiences,” Bamania said.

Laplanche was ousted from Lending Club more than a year ago after clashing with the board following falsified dates for loans and undisclosed conflicts of interest. The U.S.-French businessman founded the company in 2006 and took it public in late 2014, but earlier this year he launched a rival called Upgrade.

Bamania said Laplanche plans to visit India regularly and will have a very hands-on role advising Rentomojo

LinkedIn Lite launches as an Android app in India, coming to 60+ countries soon

LinkedIn, the social network for the working world with more than 500 million membersthat is now owned by Microsoft, is today taking its next step in its bid to court more users in emerging markets. The company has released an Android app for LinkedIn Lite, a pared-down version of its original LinkedIn mobile app that is developed for users in markets where data networks are slower and relatively more expensive for consumers, and phones are slower.

The app is live now in India, and LinkedIn says the plan will be to expand it to more than 60 more markets in the coming weeks and months.

LinkedIn says the app takes up only 1 MB of space on a device, reducing the data usage required to run LinkedIn by 80 percent; and it loads a page in less than five seconds, “even on a 2G network.” It features the LinkedIn basics, like its news feed, jobs, profile, access to your LinkedIn network, messaging, notifications, and search — but without heavy graphics and other features that might slow down page loads and eat up more of a user’s data allowance.

LinkedIn Lite was first launched as a mobile web site in September last year as part of a suite of new services tailored specifically for India, one of LinkedIn’s biggest emerging markets, where it currently has 42 million users.

A spokesperson confirms there are no plans currently to create an iOS app for LinkedIn Lite, which is not that surprising: Android long ago overtook iPhone when it comes to smartphone usage in developing markets. (In India, Android accounts for 97 percent of all smartphones in use.) For those who do use iPhones in those regions, there is LinkedIn Lite for the mobile web.

LinkedIn’s focus on emerging markets is a long-term effort to boost the company’s growth by tapping into new opportunities.

While LinkedIn has slowly, as part of Microsoft, been building out new tools to sharpen its focus on professionals in developed markets, it also has been building tools to increase usage of its service in emerging markets. This is part of the company’s mission to build a global “economic graph” (LinkedIn’s version of Facebook’s social graph) that links people with professions and all of the data points in-between.

Now that the social platform is a part of Microsoft, it discloses significantly less information about the progress of its business. We know that in the last quarter it contributed $975 million in revenue but no longer have visibility about monthly and daily active users and how they are growing (that’s one thing to look out for today, when Microsoft reports its Q4 earnings). Nevertheless, the trend that we were seeing at the company for some time before its sale was that growth was sluggish and at some points flat or even declining.

In that regard, focusing on newer markets — specifically the developing world and later-adopters among the global class of white-collar workers — makes a lot of sense.

In fact, it’s a pattern that other social networks have taken before to drive more growth, with the results having a direct impact on revenues.

At one point last year, Facebook Lite was Facebook’s fastest-growing app, and this year it hit 200 million users. In April, Facebook’s “rest of world” revenues (outside of North America and Europe) were up 52 percent to $839 million compared to a year ago; you can draw a line between the growth of the Lite app and the growth of Facebook’s business abroad.

Facebook is now hoping for a repeat performance with the newer Messenger Lite, an Android app that is now live in more than 100 countries, offering those of Messenger’s 1.2 billion users who either have older phones, or slower networks, or perhaps both, an easier way of connecting.

India is a key part of the strategy for LinkedIn. That’s not just because it is one of the fastest-growing, tech-savvy countries, but also because it is one of the biggest — number two after China in terms of population.

When LinkedIn Lite for mobile web made its debut last year (again, first in India), the company also launched an online test to help people find job placements, and a new set of business tools to help people build better profiles for themselves and their businesses. Providing a Lite mobile app completes that loop.

“Besides providing a fast, data-light solution for professionals in slow network areas, we hope the LinkedIn Lite app will democratize access to economic opportunity,” said Akshay Kothari, LinkedIn’s country manager for India, in a statement. Kothari originally joined the company in Silicon Valley when it acquired his news-reading app Pulse. “Regardless of their device or location, we hope to level the playing field for all LinkedIn members so they can get closer to their dream jobs, grow their networks and become more successful.”