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Google will offer G Suite legacy edition users a ‘no-cost option’ – TechCrunch

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Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for January 28, 2022! It’s nearly blizzard o’clock where I am, so please enjoy the following newsletter as my final missive before hunkering down. In happier and better news, TechCrunch Early Stage is coming up in just a few months and not only am I hype about it, I’ll hopefully be there IRL. See you soon! – Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Google invests up to $1B in Airtel: With a $700 million investment and $300 million in “multi-year commercial agreements” with Airtel, and Indian telco, Google has made its second major bet on Indian infra. Recall that Google also put money into Jio, another Indian telco. The deal underscores the importance of the country in the future of technology revenues.
  • What’s ahead for Europe: On the heels of news that European startups had an outsized 2021 when it came to fundraising, TechCrunch explored what’s ahead for the continent. Some expect a slowdown from peak activity, while others anticipate further acceleration. Regardless of which perspective you favor, European venture investment is expected to remain elevated for some time to come.
  • Zapp raises $200M: And speaking of European startups, Zapp, the U.K.-based quick-convenience delivery startup, just raised a massive Series B. The company previously raised $100 million, meaning that this round was big in absolute and comparative terms. As we see some consolidation in the fast-delivery space, this deal caught our eye.

Startups/VC

  • Are charter cities the future for African tech growth? TechCrunch’s Tage Kene-Okafor has a great piece up on the site noting that “African cities have the fastest global urban growth rate,” which is leading to overcrowding. Some folks think that “charter cities offer a solution.” Special economic zones of all types have been tried before – will they offer African tech a faster route forward?
  • Personalized learning is hot: Our in-house edtech expert Natasah Mascarenhas has a great piece out today on personalized learning startups – Learnfully, Wayfinder, Empowerly, and others – that are taking the lessons of remote schooling to heart and working to make products that work better for our kids. It’s an encouraging, fascinating story.
  • Rise wants to remake team calendaring: There is no shortage of apps in the market to help individuals and teams work together. But we might not need as many as we have. That’s why Rise is making me think. The team calendaring app just raised a few million, and could replace a few tools that myself and friends use. I wonder if the solution to the Tool Overload of 2022 is tools that do less, intentionally.
  • Canvas wants non-tech folks to be able to squeeze answers from data: Developers are in short supply, so no-code tools that allow folks who don’t sling code to do their own building are blowing up. Similarly, a general dearth of data science talent in the market is creating space for tools like Canvas, which “is going all in with a spreadsheet-like interface for non-technical teams to access the information they need without bothering data teams,” TechCrunch reports.
  • Zigbang buys Samsung IoT business: The IoT promises of yesteryear are coming true, and not. Samsara recently went public on the back of its IoT business. That was a win for the category. That Zigbang, a South Korean proptech startup, is buying Samsung’s IoT unit feels slightly less bullish.
  • Series F-tw? Once upon a time I would have mocked a Series F as indication that the company in question had failed to go public. But that was then. Today Series Fs are not that rare. Indian B2B marketplace Moglix just raised one, which doubled its valuation to $2.6 billion. Tiger co-led the $250 million round.

And if you are looking down the barrel of a blizzard, TechCrunch’s Equity podcast has your downtime covered. Enjoy!

European, North American edtech startups see funding triple in 2021

Open laptop and book on a desk, edtech

Image Credits: Bet_Noire (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Pre-pandemic, VCs were notoriously reluctant to invest in education-related companies. Today, edtech startups are seeing higher average deal sizes, more seed and pre-seed funding from non-VC investors, and an influx of generalists.

According to Rhys Spence, head of research at Brighteye Ventures, funding for edtech startups based in Europe and North America trebled over the last year.

“Exciting companies are spawning across geographies and verticals, and even generalist investors are building conviction that the sector is capable of producing the same kind of outsized returns generated in fintech, healthtech and other sectors,” writes Spence.

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Northern Light Venture Capital’s He Huang says the Chinese robotics market is overheated: Per the investor, robotics in China is “riddled with speculation and overvalued companies,” calling the situation a bubble. It’s worth noting that China’s central government is working to retool where its tech investment dollars flow.
  • Robinhood goes down, back up: This morning, in the wake of the company’s lackluster earnings report, TechCrunch dug through why Robinhood’s stock sold off in after-hours, pre-market, and early trading sessions yesterday and today. And then Robinhood turned around and gained ample ground during the rest of the day. It’s a weird market moment, but good news for the U.S. fintech all the same.
  • Google to allow legacy G Suite users to move to free accounts: After angering techies still using the “G Suite legacy free edition” by announcing that it was ending the program and requiring payment, the search giant has decided to ”offer more options to existing users,” TechCrunch reports. Somewhere inside of Google, a business decision just met the market and was flipped on its head. Makes you wonder who is calling the shots over there, and if they previously worked for McKinsey.

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Holiday Gift Guide For Eco-Minded Travelers

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Traveling offers a greater understanding of the world but can also damage it. Here are some gift ideas for those who prefer to tread lightly. Almost all are from small businesses.

1. Water filtration bottle. Drink filtered water on the go instead of buying plastic water bottles with Hydros 20 oz Water Filter Bottle $20 or if the local water quality is iffy, protect against bacteria, parasites, dirt, and sand with a Lifestraw bottle $40.

2. Shampoo/conditioner bars. Eschew plastic shampoo bottles and airline liquid restrictions with shampoo and conditioner bars from Green Ablutions $12, Ethique $15, HiBar $13.95 or good juju $19.95. All brands have discounts on your first purchase.

3. Solar powered phone charger/lantern. This flat solar-powered phone charger from Luminaid is also a folded-up lantern that pops up into a cube shape for night time. A red light mode ensures your star-gazing won’t be interrupted if you are using it for camping. $60

4. Laundry saver. Do less laundry on the road with Magic BrushOff, designed as a reusable spot lifter/sponge to get rid of deodorant, makeup marks, lint, salt marks, and more from clothing and cloth surfaces. $14.50.

5. Makeup remover. Use this specially-designed washcloth from Make Up Eraser instead of packing and throwing away disposable makeup wipes. $20.

6. Personal lubricant (for vehicles). Gear Hugger’s plant-based lubricant can help keep bike parts, strollers or wheelchairs moving so the recipient can “buy less, fix more and play longer.” $13

7. Cozy hat made of sustainable recycled wool and cotton for your winter travels. Designed in Denmark. Comes in recycled packaging. From Trendhim $39

8. Silk Travel Eye Mask to help get some shut eye on the road. Silk can biodegrade, and uses less water, chemicals, and energy than many other fibers. From Saatva. $60

9. Reusable lunch and snack bags Eschew plastic bags and foil wrap on your day trips with colorful reusable, washable, dishwasher-safe zip up bags $13.50 from Green City Living.

10. Natural Bug Repellant. Murphy’s Naturals DEET-free, plant-based Mosquito Repellent Balm $9.99 or Bite Relief Soothing Balm Stick $5.99 can be thrown in a purse or backpack.

11. See home in a new way – Give the gift of experience with a food, coffee, or street art tour guided by local experts from the Tours By Locals website.

12. Recipient’s Choice: Reduce returns and waste by giving the recipient their choice of travel item from Snappy Gifts website. Items include a solar phone charger and sustainability sourced toiletry organizer.

Note to readers: I received product samples for evaluation but I will pass them along if possible (not the used shampoo bars) and I do not/will not receive any payment from the companies listed.

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Why graphic novels are lucrative IP for Web3: From MEFaverse to metaverse

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Marvel’s multi-billion dollar IP enterprise is eating up the film and streaming market — but the metaverse is offering new opportunities and creating a whole new market.

Marvel is valued at nearly $6 billion for films alone, $40 billion for streaming and about $3 billion for consumer products, according to a 2021 Forbes analysis. While the media giant dominates the lion’s share of graphic novel IP in entertainment within film and streaming, the metaverse offers new opportunities for graphic novel IP. The ‘metaverse in entertainment’ market share is expected to increase to $28.92 billion by 2026. 

The entertainment market is essentially expanding with the creation of the metaverse, therefore presenting opportunities to replicate the lucrative success that Marvel has enjoyed. But what made Marvel so popular, and why is the multiverse primed for the metaverse? 

Since the inception of the metaverse as a concept, some of the earliest explorations have included the creation — and adaptation of — graphic novels for this new virtual environment. From Method Man’s comic book MEFaverse, to the adaptation of Dan LuVisi’s iconic Last Man Standing: Killbook of a Bounty Hunter, to Killtopia catering to Japan’s ‘Otaku’ community of manga and animé fans.

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But why is graphic novel IP so attractive to directors writing for a digital medium with interactive audiences? And what opportunities are potentially being left on the table? To understand the attraction of graphic novel IP, we only need to look at the formula of success that Marvel and DC have built. 

An ever-expanding world

Marvel’s IP is not one story, but a universe that continues to expand. Recent editions to Marvel’s onscreen world include She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, Ms. Marvel and the upcoming Secret Invasion. The stories that come to life in film and TV are often based on specific heroes within that universe — or, more aptly, the multiverse.

In film, appearance-altering costumes, special FX make-up and visual FX (VFX) enable directors to cast different actors to play the same character in the franchise. The most popular and talented actors, with the strongest following in the target demographic for the box office, can have their turn playing the hero. In fact, actors no longer need to sign long-haul multi-movie contracts with Marvel.

The metaverse offers even more creative diversity. Graphic novel characters can be customizable according to the themes of different concept artists, and the same character can travel through a manga world into one that’s photorealistic. Perhaps a good interpretation is Dr. Strange’s journey through the multiverses, as we see him enter a variety of differently stylized worlds until he eventually finds himself surreally realized as a colorful gelatinous shape. 

One of the key differentiators between a virtual world and a game within the metaverse — or what will be the metaverse — is this interoperability, the way in which an avatar could be used in different virtual worlds. The way avatars are translated stylistically in those different worlds is a key focus for metaverse builders. And it’s something Marvel has been doing well for some time. People love the graphic novel style of Marvel films and how they not only pay homage to the original art form but also amplify the movie experience with state-of-the-art VFX. 

For example, LMS: Killbook of a Bounty Hunter is being translated for the metaverse after amassing a core fanbase. LMS is simultaneously a scrapbook-style graphic novel, a character bible for the anti-hero Gabriel and an introduction to the colorful yet deadly world of ‘New Amerika’. Initially released as a series of artworks, LMS soon gathered a solid fanbase that demanded more of Dan LuVisi’s world. The rights to LMS were bought by Section 9, which approached metaverse-as-a-service company Sequin AR with the idea of creating an LMS metaverse. With a rich world and a pre-existing community, Sequin believed LMS was the perfect property for a metaverse environment. 

The attractiveness of graphic novel IP

Sequin AR’s CEO Rob DeFranco explains why the graphic novel IP was so attractive: “The world that Dan created is vivid, imaginative, and full of pop-culture references with a sharp satirical tone that makes it a model property for the metaverse. There is a big community already in place for LMS. For example, a Comic-Con special edition toy of Gabriel, created by the popular brand Funko, sold out on the first day of the convention. Since the book first launched 10 years ago, there has been a cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love.” 

Graphic novels rely on captivating imagery, along with compelling stories. The community building the metaverse is a blend of creatives, technologists and storytellers, similar to the teams that produce the Marvel universe. For example, the team behind Method Man’s MEFaverse includes Method Man himself, and renowned graphics artist Jonathan Winbush of Winbush Immersive, with Xsens motion tracking technology helping them translate real-life movement into the digital world. It’s no coincidence that Winbush built his own brand as a creator from his time working at Marvel. 

“The trajectory of the NFT/Web3 space as a whole, in my opinion, only has one direction to go: up,” says Method Man. “I see no reason why it wouldn’t, as brands and individuals realize the unique opportunities and potential this space offers, as well as the utility it provides. That said, my hope is that it can continue to grow while remaining mindful of values such as inclusivity and positivity, which are both pillars of the MEFaverse community.”

The metaverse and the story of good vs. evil 

The metaverse has the potential to be many things, good or bad. Most metaverse evangelists also acknowledge how human influence tends to invade — and sometimes spoil — the utopian promise of future technology.

For example, Aragorn Meulendijks, Chief Metaverse Officer (CMO) from Your Open Metaverse, a distributed metaverse for streaming Web3 content, recently shared his candid thoughts on Elaine Pringle Schwitter’s HeadsTalk Podcast. According to Meulendijks, the mission for those building the metaverse needs to align with the reality of flawed human nature. This sentiment is omnipresent in Marvel; the premise of superhero films is that good and evil always exist in tandem, and even heroes are flawed. 

While there are inevitable flaws, the multiverse can also be employed altruistically. Representation and connection are frequent themes in graphic novels, often speaking to those who don’t feel part of mainstream pop culture. This links back to Winbush’s work on the MEFaverse.

“We wanted to create more ‘metamasks’ or PFPs with different traits to represent our community,” he explained. “Method Man’s motivation in creating the MEFaverse was to show his fans their powers, the unique traits that make them who they are but in the superhero realm. Method Man wanted everyone that was excited about the MEFaverse to have a mask that truly represents them. He wanted his community to be shown their unique powers in a superhero realm.”

The building blocks of film production are being used to build the metaverse

The technology that underpins movie production is driving metaverse creation. For example, motion capture is harnessing and translating movement to avatars, while Unreal Engine is being used to create the worlds themselves.

Charles Borland, founder of real-time studio Voltaku explained: “When I was an actor in a video game called Grand Theft Auto IV, I would spend a lot of time in a mocap suit, and I’d been on a lot of TV and film shoots and saw just how inefficient the Hollywood production process is. I remember thinking, holy cow, when this technology and the economics get to a certain point, all of this gaming technology and real-time technology is going to revolutionize filmmaking and how you make content.” 

Talking about the use of technology in Killtopia, Charles elaborated: “If we’re going to build this in a game engine, like Unreal Engine, then we [had]to do things like set up a camera inside of Unreal. We knew we were going to have an actress and we were going to try and do this in real-time, but one of the things we were looking at was real-time ray tracing, and to push the envelope on that. We couldn’t go into the studio and do full camera tracking, so we wanted to find something inertia-based. Using the Xsens suit, capturing the raw mocap data, enabled us to create the avatars”. 

From an investment standpoint, how Marvel’s magic formula for success translates to the metaverse is clear. But IP in the metaverse goes far beyond a franchise of characters. Fans build on these worlds themselves, becoming creators in their own right. And in order to create, they need to feel invested. And that’s where the technology underpinning interoperability is key.

Blockchain blockbusters

Killtopia’s Charles Borland explains: “To invest in interoperability, stakeholders and project owners need to know that the assets for whom they’re building aren’t going anywhere. Of course, that’s if by ‘decentralized,’ you mean you’re applying blockchain. What’s great about that is it’s immutable and it’s public. So I know if I build around a project, even if it tanks, my pipeline will stay. Because the things I’ve been referencing and looking at are going to stay online in this decentralized file hosting system, which is great.”

This is an example of how the technology used in metaverse creation is improving the entire production pipeline. Accelerating the content production workflow, and safeguarding the assets for future use, is a challenge even Marvel faces. 

Cultural shift between content creators and consumers

Borland highlights the cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love. COVID-19 drove the rapid acceleration in digital experiences, helping us to forge genuine connections when real-life interaction wasn’t possible. The convergence of these behavioral changes and technology advancements is now paving the way for the future metaverse, with mixed reality live performances — which became more prevalent during the recent pandemic — offering a hint of what we might expect. 

Brett Ineson, founder of Animatrik Film Design, which has hosted mixed reality performances for Justin Bieber, Pentakill with Wave XR and even virtual circuses with Shocap Entertainment, says: “Nailing the look and feel of a world will be paramount to delivering the illusion of reality, and that’s where capture technology will come into play. Motion capture will be essential for creating lifelike animation for characters and creatures in these virtual worlds so that players feel like they are interacting with real beings.”

Technologists and storytellers are helping to unleash the potential of new IP into the metaverse. Right now, the reality is that the metaverse does not exist, but it represents the next step in immersive and engaging entertainment. The more engaged a community is, the more invested it is in the story. Powered motion tracking, performance capture, interoperable avatars, virtual worlds and hip hop artists-turned-super heroes, the metaverse is prime real estate for the next Marvel enterprise. 

Rob DeFranco is CEO of Sequin AR.

Brett Ineson is cofounder of Animatrik Film Studios.

Remco Sikkema is senior marketing communications manager at Movella and Xsens.

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Fortnite Chapter 4 debuts with Unreal Engine 5.1

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Fornite Battle Royale Chapter 4 arrived today and it makes use of Unreal Engine 5.1, Epic Games announced.

The debut shows how tightly Epic Games ties its overall strategy together. Fortnite is the prime revenue generator for the company, reaching tens of millions of players who buy in-game items. And Unreal Engine is the game developer tool that makes the advances in Chapter 4 available. To sell developers on the engine, Epic eats its own dog food by building Fortnite with Unreal to showcase what it can do.

Unreal Engine 5.1 provides new features that make the game look and run better. Unreal Engine 5 itself debuted earlier this year and it Unreal Engine 5 ushers in a generational leap in visual fidelity, bringing a new level of detail to game worlds like the Battle Royale Island.

Shadows and lighting are better in Fortnite with Unreal Engine 5.1.

Next-gen Unreal Engine 5 features such as Nanite, Lumen, Virtual Shadow Maps, and Temporal Super Resolution — all features that can make Fortnite Battle Royale shine on next-generation systems such as PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, PC, and cloud gaming.

Epic Games said that over half of all announced next-gen games are being created with Unreal Engine. And it said developers can now take advantage of updates to the Lumen dynamic global illumination and reflections system. This is important stuff if you’re a game developer, or you’re expecting to build the metaverse.

Epic has made updates to the Nanite virtualized micropolygon geometry system, and virtual shadow maps that lay the groundwork for games and experiences running at 60 frames per second (fps) on next-gen consoles and capable PCs. These improvements will enable fast-paced competition and detailed simulations without latency, Epic said.

Additionally, Nanite has also added a programmable rasterizer to allow for material-driven animations and deformations via world position offset, as well as opacity masks. This development paves the way for artists to use Nanite to program specific objects’ behavior, for example Nanite-based foliage with leaves blowing in the wind.

Nanite provides highly-detailed architectural geometry. Specifically, buildings are rendered from millions of polygons in real time, and each brick, stone, wood plank, and wall trim is modeled. Natural landscapes are highly-detailed too. Individual trees have around 300,000 polygons, and each stone, flower, and blade of grass is modeled.

On top of that, Lumen reflections provide high-quality ray traced reflections on glossy materials and water.

Water and shadows look prettier in Fortnite Battle Royale Chapter 4.

Also, Lumen provides real-time global illumination at 60 frames per second (FPS). You’ll see beautiful interior spaces with bounce lighting, plus characters reacting to the lighting of their surroundings. (For example, red rugs may bounce red light onto your outfit.) Also, Outfits that have emissive (a.k.a. glowing) qualities will scatter light on nearby objects and surfaces.

Virtual Shadow Maps allow for highly detailed shadowing. Each brick, leaf, and modeled detail will cast a shadow, and character self-shadowing is extremely accurate. This means that things like hats and other small details on characters will also cast shadows.

Temporal Super Resolution is an upgrade over Temporal Anti-Aliasing in Fortnite, and allows for high-quality visuals at a high framerate.

With the introduction of these UE5 features in Fortnite Battle Royale, Fortnite’s Video settings have changed on PC. You can see them here.

To run Nanite, the minimum hardware requirements are Nvidia Maxwell-generation cards or newer or AMD GCN-generation cards or newer.

For Nanite, Lumen, Virtual Shadow Maps, and Temporal Super Resolution to be available in Fortnite on your PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X|S, make sure the “120 FPS Mode” setting (in the “graphics” section of the Video settings) is set to off.

Unreal’s reach has grown well beyond games. Unreal Engine has now been used on over 425 film and TV productions, and is integrated into over 300 virtual production stages worldwide. Unreal Engine usage in animation has grown exponentially, from 15 productions between 2015 and 2019 to over 160 productions from 2020 to 2022.

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