Microsoft gets contract worth up to $22 billion to outfit US Army with 120,000 AR headsets

The killer use case for AR/VR might just be warfare.

Today, Microsoft announced that it has received a contract to outfit the United States Army with tens of thousands of augmented reality headsets based on the company’s HoloLens tech. This contract could be worth as much as $21.88 billion over 10 years, the company says.

Microsoft will be fulfilling an order for 120,000 AR headsets for the Army based on their Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) design. The modified design upgrades the capabilities of the HoloLens 2 for the needs of soldiers in the field.

“The program delivers enhanced situational awareness, enabling information sharing and decision-making in a variety of scenarios,”  a blog post from Microsoft’s Alex Kipman reads.

The contract builds on the two-year $480 million contract that Microsoft won back in 2018 to outfit the U.S. Army with augmented reality tech. At the time, the contract detailed that the deal could potentially result in follow-on orders of more than 100,000 headsets. “Augmented reality technology will provide troops with more and better information to make decisions. This new work extends our longstanding, trusted relationship with the Department of Defense to this new area,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement sent to TechCrunch at the time.

Microsoft says this announcement marks the transition from prototyping these designs to producing and rolling them out in the field.

This is a massive scaleup for augmented reality tech that has seen few large-scale rollouts and gives Microsoft a government contractor budget to tackle base technology problems that could scale down to consumer and enterprise-level devices in the future. Many of the industry’s biggest players in augmented reality have been reluctant or outspoken in their avoidance of military contracts but Microsoft has remained undeterred in competing for these contracts.

Source: Tech Crunch

Facebook says Trump can’t skirt its ban through daughter-in-law’s account

Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump promoted a new interview with the former president on Facebook and Instagram Tuesday, but a workaround to Trump’s ban on two of the world’s most popular social networks wasn’t long for this world.

She was apparently swiftly cautioned by Facebook that anything posted “in the voice of President Trump” is not currently allowed on Facebook or Instagram and would be subject to removal. Trump himself remains banned on Facebook pending a decision by the Oversight Board, the external governing body the company set up to tackle it thorniest platform policy decisions.

Those rules apply to any accounts or pages associated with the Trump campaign as well as any belonging to former surrogates for the campaign, two categories that Lara Trump’s account falls into. Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch that screenshots depicting emails from the company were legitimate.

Facebook does still make a news exemption for Trump, presumably for something more akin to a “60 Minutes” interview, but in this case he was being interviewed by someone involved in his campaign who then planned to promote the video on a campaign-associated account.

While Facebook won’t host the video itself, Lara Trump opted for a workaround to the workaround, linking to the interview on Rumble, a video sharing website that saw an influx of Trump supporters late last year.

She also posted to the video on The Right View, a web-based show previously produced by the Trump campaign that the Washington Post describes as “a sort of pro-Trump answer to ABC’s ‘The View.’”

Fox News announced this week that it would bring Lara Trump into the fold, hiring the member of the Trump family on as a paid contributor.

Source: Tech Crunch

Report finds going remote made workplaces more hostile for already marginalized groups

The last year wasn’t an easy one for just about anybody, but a new report from Project Include shows that the shift to remote work affected some groups more negatively than others. Unsurprisingly, it was people already struggling against harassment and bias, particularly women of color and those identifying as LGBTQ, who saw the biggest jumps in those behaviors.

The report is based on a survey of about 2,800 people and interviews with tech workers and subject matter experts in numerous countries and industries. There’s not a lot of good news in it, but why should there be? Sadly, the unprecedented confluence of multiple disasters in 2020 has spawned another, quieter disaster in working conditions.

Remote work has changed how people interact, and the result of that has been, among other things, significant increases to gender- and race-based harassment. Over a quarter of those surveyed reported an increase in harassment and workplace hostility — and of those experiencing increases, 98% were women or nonbinary and 99% were nonwhite.

Trans people were much more likely to experience harassment and hostility, as were were all Black respondents, especially women and nonbinary people. Asian, Latinx, and multiracial respondents also reported more.

Graphs illustrating the numbers of various demographics experiencing harassment.

Image Credits: Project Include

The switch to remote productivity and communication seems to have made this harassment difficult to avoid. An increase in reliance on 1:1 communication via chat, email and video calls meant working directly with harassers was inescapable and difficult to report. “Respondents noted that individual harassers would follow them across online spaces to where they were,” the report adds.

People with mental health conditions, particularly those with PTSD, were twice as likely to report experiencing harassment than those without.

Changes to expectations and tools meant big increases to anxiety and drops in work-life balance. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported being expected to work longer days, and more than half said they felt pressure (or were plainly expected) to be online outside of official working hours. The survey reported that 10% said managers were checking in daily, and 5% reported two or more times per day. Others complained about surveillance software like keystroke and screen monitoring.

Workers with disabilities found that companies often chose productivity and collaboration tools that had inadequate accessibility features — for example, Zoom calls without automatic captioning that required lip-reading to keep up.

As for reporting harassment, most said they did not do so because they didn’t trust their HR department or company at large to handle the complaints properly or respond fairly. One person even reported that it was a person within HR itself that was harassing them. Less than half of respondents said they trusted their company to respond to these issues properly; about a third said they did not trust the company to do so; about the same number said their workplace doesn’t even have the tools to intervene or solve any issue they might bring up.

These and more statistics are available in the report, which goes into detail on a number of other issues and behaviors, as well as making a number of suggestions as to what companies can do to step up. Of course if your company has waited until now to take action, that’s a problem right there. But in general the idea is to actually listen to workers, hold leadership accountable and take actions with measurable impact like no-meeting days and generous time-off policies.

Most of all, don’t expect things to just “go back to normal.” CEO of Vaya Consulting Nicole Sanchez puts it best as quoted in the report:

Most companies are not ready to bring people back together physically, even electively. People at the executive level are going to be shocked to find out that what they’re actually dealing with is a whole lot of live active trauma. A lot of companies that go back and try and make it like it was before will wonder, “Why aren’t these pieces fitting together anymore?” And the answer, I hope, that we get collective agreement on is: Those pieces never fit together. They just fit together for you. Now, you’re seeing all the seams and all of the vulnerabilities, and now you have to reinvent your company.

The authors of the report include Ellen Pao of Project Include itself, Yang Hong of Shoshin Insights, and Caroline Sinders of Convocation Design + Research.

Source: Tech Crunch

Datapeople announces $8M in raised capital as it works to make recruiting more equitable

This morning Datapeople, a startup that sells software designed to make recruiting more equitable, announced that it has raised $8 million across two funding events, including a $5 million round in mid-2020.

The company, which counts Uncork Capital, NextView Ventures and First Round Capital as backers, does two things. Its initial product, what Datapeople calls “Language Analytics,” scans job postings, offering suggested edits to customers to help them attract a more diverse group of applicants.

And, coming shortly, Datapeople is rolling out what it calls “Recruiting Analytics,” a service that provides a high-level view of a company’s aggregate recruiting efforts. The recruiting side of its software service will keep tabs on diversity data such as the pace at which a company’s job posting attracts women against related jobs’ own performance, among other bits of data-focused reporting.

Per a release that TechCrunch viewed ahead of publication, Datapeople’s view isn’t that there aren’t products in the market that provide charts of how a company’s recruiting process may be performing at a surface level. Instead its view is when it comes to asking more complex questions about the treatment of different groups of people, current solutions fall short. That’s the space it intends to place its new product.

TechCrunch caught up with Datapeople co-founder Phillip Reyland to chat about its recent capital raises and business performance.

According to Reyland, his startup’s language product is sold to in-house recruiting teams at mid-market through Fortune 100 companies. Related startup Textio raised more capital last spring, implying that there’s enough market demand for job-focused language tooling to support at least two venture-backed companies.

On the recruiting analytics side of the Datapeople house, Reyland told TechCrunch that the recruiting industry is today where marketing was 20 years ago. Given the rise in marketing software that we’ve seen over that time frame, Datapeople sees a long, broad market for new tooling in its target market.

It will be interesting to track how well Datapeople’s new product performs, as Reyland told TechCrunch that 2020 was the best year in its history. That, plus the capital it raised last year, means that the startup has a high bar to clear this year. Perhaps the new service will help it meet said goals.

The company intends to roughly double its mid-30s staff number to meet those expectations. It’s off to a good start, with Reyland telling TechCrunch that its Q1 2021 was “awesome.” As the company is, per its fundraising history, pretty early-stage, we’re willing to wait one more round to hammer it for more specifics.

Source: Tech Crunch

Embedded procurement will make every company its own marketplace

In 2019, my colleague Matt Harris coined the term “embedded fintech” to describe how virtually all software-driven companies will soon embed financial services into their applications, from sending and receiving payments to enabling lending, insurance and banking services, an idea that quickly spread within the fintech community.

Vertical apps such as Toast for restaurants, Squire for barbershops and Shopmonkey for car repair shops will deliver financial services to businesses in the future rather than traditional, stodgy financial institutions.

Embedded procurement is the natural evolution of embedded fintech.

The embedded fintech movement has just begun, but there is already a sister concept percolating: embedded procurement. In this next wave, businesses will buy things they need through vertical B2B apps, rather than through sales reps, distributors or an individual merchant’s website.

If you own a coffee shop, wouldn’t it be convenient to schedule recurring orders for beans and milk from the same software portal where you process payments, manage accounting and handle payroll? The companies that figured out how to monetize financial services via embedded fintech are well positioned to monetize through procurement, too.

Embedded procurement is the natural evolution of embedded fintech. The salon software company Fresha is a typical embedded fintech story. Fresha’s platform is an online and mobile platform specially designed for spas and salons, encompassing appointment scheduling, reporting and analytics, marketing promotions, and point-of-sale capabilities. The software is free for salons; Fresha monetizes through payment processing.

In the future, Fresha will undoubtedly turn to embedded procurement, becoming a logical place for business owners to order and manage inventory like shampoo, scissors, brushes and other supplies. In turn, Fresha can aggregate demand from thousands of spas to place orders with its suppliers, leveraging its scale to negotiate more favorable pricing on behalf of its customers. Borrowing a concept from the healthcare world, vertical software companies will become group purchasing organizations in every sector.

Source: Tech Crunch

Applications for Startup Battlefield at TC Disrupt 2021 are now open

Applications for Startup Battlefield are now open! Founders, this past year has been challenging in ways words can’t encompass. But you are persevering and now is the time to show the world what you have been working on. TechCrunch is on the hunt for game-changing and ground-breaking startups from around the globe to feature in Startup Battlefield during TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 this fall. Startups will be competing for a $100,000 equity-free prize, the eyes of investors from around the world and global media coverage on the most famous stage in tech media.

Eligibility & Application. Startup Battlefield highlights early-stage companies from all geographies, in any industry. Startups should have an MVP. Founders simply need to apply here. Every application is reviewed by a member of the TechCrunch editorial team. TechCrunch takes ZERO fees — the application and participation/training program for selected companies is free. TC does not take equity in any company.

Training. Startups selected to pitch will engage in intensive training over several weeks with the Startup Battlefield team. Founders will perfect their pitches, finesse their business models and hone their presentation skills. Founders will have access to master classes from experts on how to build, market and scale the startups.

Pitch. About 25 startups will be selected to pitch on the main stage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. Each founder will present for six minutes, with a live demo, followed by a Q&A with our esteemed panel of judges. Judges like Kristin Green, Aileen Lee, Alfred Lin, Susan Lyne and more. After the first round, the top set of companies will pitch again in the final round in front of a fresh panel of judges. The judges will pick the winner who will receive the Disrupt cup and the $100,000 equity-free prize money.

Disrupt. Startup Battlefield founders are the VIPs of TC Disrupt. Founders get access to private events, complimentary event tickets, exhibition space on the virtual show floor, access to CrunchMatch and a private Startup Battlefield reception with members of the Startup Battlefield alumni community. Battlefield founders will also get access to future TC events and a free subscription to Extra Crunch.

Launch your startup this September. Step into the spotlight. Apply now.

Source: Tech Crunch

NFT art marketplace SuperRare closes $9 million Series A

The NFT ecosystem is having an explosive moment and the startups that were ready to run with it are getting lots of cash to continue capturing that momentum.

SuperRare, an NFT art platform that has garnered tens of millions in new sales in recent weeks, has just raised millions from investors. The $9 million Series A round was led by Velvet Sea Ventures and 1confirmation. Other investors participating in the round include Collaborative Fund, Shrug Capital, Third Kind, SamsungNext, Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures, Mark Cuban, Marc Benioff, Naval Ravikant and Chamath Palihapitiya, among others.

In an announcement of the raise, the team called the crypto art scene a “global phenomenon.”

SuperRare launched its art platform in 2018, since then it has differentiated by maintaining a closed early-access platform that more closely curates the art they sell. Everything on the platform is a single-edition 1/1 sale. The team has said they plan to launch the site widely next year. The company earns a 3% transaction fee on art sales on the platform in addition to a 15% gallery fee for primary sales. One unique facet of the platform is that creators can continue to earn on a piece’s appreciating value following with 10% commissions on secondary sales.

While NFT art sales have taken off in recent weeks, there are still many structural issues facing their mainstream adoption largely due to scalability issues with Ethereum’s mainnet, which SuperRare operates on. Plenty of firms are building layer-two infrastructure that improves speed and cuts down on energy usage and transaction fees. Today, ConsenSys launched a platform called Palm featuring artists Damien Hirst as the platform’s first artist drop.

After a lengthy crypto winter, blockchain startups are coming back with a vengeance amid a surge in startup investing, a surge in enthusiasm around NFTs and a surge in bitcoin prices. Today, NBA Top Shot maker Dapper Labs announced in had raised $305 million in venture funding.


Source: Tech Crunch

YouTube tests hiding dislike counts on videos

YouTube announced today it will begin testing what could end up being a significant change to its video platform: It’s going to try hiding the dislike count on videos from public view. The company says it will run a “small experiment” where it will try out a few different designs where dislike counts are no longer shown, however none will see the “dislike” button itself removed entirely.

The company announced the tests on Twitter, but then explains further in a community forum post that the goal is not to remove the ability for users to signal they disliked a video — creators will still have access to the video’s like and dislike count from YouTube Studio and dislikes will still help power YouTube’s recommendation algorithms.

Instead, YouTube says that the idea to try hiding dislikes is based on creator feedback.

“We’ve heard from creators that the public dislike counts can impact their well-being and may motivate a targeted campaign of dislikes on a creator’s video,” the announcement reads. “So, we’re testing designs that don’t include the visible like or dislike count in an effort to balance improving the creator experience, while still making sure viewer feedback is accounted for and shared with the creator.”

Of course, there can be a sort of mob mentality that accompanies the use of the Like and Dislike buttons on YouTube. But seeing the dislike count can also help to signal to others when videos are clickbait, spam or misleading, which can be helpful.

YouTube showed off one potential design being tested that simply shows the same button layout but instead of a number of dislikes, the word “Dislike” appears underneath the thumbs down icon.

There will be no way to opt out of the test if you see the changes appear when you’re logged into YouTube — you’ll only be able to share feedback, the company notes.

To be clear, however, YouTube isn’t yet committed to removing the dislike count for everyone at this time. The feedback from this test will help inform YouTube as to if, when or how it will release designs like this more broadly.

YouTube wouldn’t be the first to experiment with removing metrics from a social app. Instagram has also been testing removing the number of positive engagements (Likes), in order to make the experience feel more authentic and less about chasing clout. And Facebook this year removed the “Like” button from Facebook Pages, in favor of the more accurate “Followers” measurement. However, in the case of removing just the dislike count and not the likes, viewers may misunderstand a video’s true popularity.

The company hasn’t said how long the tests will run before it has enough feedback to make a decision on the feature’s permanence.

Source: Tech Crunch

Substack confirms $65M raise, promises to ‘rapidly’ expand its financial backing of newly independent writers

This afternoon Substack, a paid-newsletter startup, confirmed that it has raised $65 million, as initially reported by Axios. TechCrunch dug into the math behind the financing here. As anticipated, a16z led the new financing.

What’s in store from the now Series B-backed company? Product work. The company wrote that intends to “rapidly” expand its Substack Pro program, which pays writers for a year to assist them in launching their own mini-publication; Substack takes a larger cut of Pro user earnings during their first year, reverting to its usual split the next.

The Substack Pro model has attracted controversy in recent days, with some writers — both on Substack and not — criticizing the startup for opacity in whom it pays via its Pro program; some have argued that Substack is subsidizing anti-trans writers in particular.

The company is motoring ahead on building out its infrastructure regardless, stating in its note that it intends to spend some of its new capital on creating “increasingly powerful subscription-publishing tools,” and “a support infrastructure for independent writers.” More tooling, and more assistance could prove key to enticing more writers from their current employers — or Substack rivals — to its platform.

The company also wrote that it plans to boost its community-building and local news efforts.

Substack did not provide material new growth metrics, instead saying that it has “more than half a million people” paying for writers on its network; that figure is unchanged from a January figure that Bloomberg reported.

As Facebook and Twitter build out their own newsletter efforts, and rival startups like Pico and Ghost offer related services, the paid-media space is a hot market today. At issue is more than the future homes for a handful of well-known writers with large audiences. The various tech companies competing in the space are each wagering that the long tail for paid writing is long, and that individuals of many profile sizes will be able to attract and hold a paid audience.

After what feels like decades in which online writing was devalued to commodity prices, it’s startling to find ourselves in a world where various well-financed companies are competing for our pens.

Source: Tech Crunch

Optimus Ride partners with Polaris to commercialize electric autonomous vehicles

Autonomous, electric mobility service provider Optimus Ride announced a partnership with powersports vehicle manufacturer Polaris to bring fully autonomous GEM electric vehicles to market. The two will introduce a new line of Polaris GEM low-speed vehicles that will be engineered to fully integrate Optimus Ride’s autonomous software and hardware suite.

The microtransit vehicles are expected to come to market during the second half of 2023, when they’ll be deployed in geofenced, localized environments, such as corporate and academic campuses and mixed-use developments.

The Polaris GEMs aren’t the only electric autonomous vehicles on the roads. Big companies like Alphabet’s Waymo, Uber, Ford, Motional and GM subsidiary Cruise are all investing in autonomous vehicles to be used for either delivery or ride-hailing services on city streets. But Optimus Ride CEO Sean Harrington sees a market advantage in starting in a localized, geofenced environment, then, once the tech is safe and developed, expand it outward.

“Microtransit is a great starting point for autonomy and it will be the place where AVs will start to penetrate,” Harrington told TechCrunch. “The concentration of short trips in a low-speed, localized environment means you can most rapidly deploy autonomous mobility solutions and deliver an exceptional experience. Whereas with a robotaxi, the technology challenge is unbounded.”

Optimus Ride has already deployed about 30 Polaris GEM vehicles, which have been retrofitted with Optimus Ride autonomous technology, for commercial ride-hailing operations in Brooklyn, Boston, California, Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia, or as part of testing. There’s a testing site near its headquarters at the Boston Seaport, and there’s a closed track environment, called Union Point, in South Weymouth, Massachusetts.

In the near future, they’ll be continuing to expand current partnerships, like with real estate giant Brookfield Properties in Washington, D.C., as well as into new markets. Harrington specifically hinted at academic campuses as a next step.

Polaris GEMs are deployed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard to transfer workers on a fixed microtransit route. Image Credits: Optimus Ride

The GEMs provide visitors, residents and workers a combination of fixed route and on-demand mobility around the sites and in some cases out to regional transit hubs and neighboring areas.

“In D.C., at our Brookfield campus, we have the Opti Ride app that allows users to schedule rides and reserve a seat on the shuttle,” said Harrington. “Then in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, for example, we run on a fixed schedule and a fixed route.”

The microtransit vehicles, which drive at speeds less than 25 miles per hour, can currently seat four passengers, with a safety operator in the front row. Harrington says once they remove the steering wheel and brake pedals with the next generation of GEMs, the vehicles will accommodate six passengers.

Both the current set of GEMs and the next generation operate at Level 4 autonomy, which means they can operate without the need of a human operator. Despite the constraints of the geofenced environment, Harrington says the vehicles can fully interact with their environments.

“It has a complete perception stack leveraging lidar and computer vision, as well as situational awareness, classifying and tracking objects, full planning and motion control algorithms that allow the vehicle to safely operate within a given environment,” said Harrington. “The benefit of the geofence is that we can develop HD maps for those locations and be deterministic about everything we expect to see from a traffic standpoint. Being constrained in a specific environment means high safety and performance levels quickly, rather than an unbounded vehicle expected to operate in all conditions, anywhere.”

Source: Tech Crunch