Openbook is the latest dream of a digital life beyond Facebook

As tech’s social giants wrestle with antisocial demons that appear to be both an emergent property of their platform power, and a consequence of specific leadership and values failures (evident as they publicly fail to enforce even the standards they claim to have), there are still people dreaming of a better way. Of social networking beyond outrage-fuelled adtech giants like Facebook and Twitter.

There have been many such attempts to build a ‘better’ social network of course. Most have ended in the deadpool. A few are still around with varying degrees of success/usage (Snapchat, Ello and Mastodon are three that spring to mine). None has usurped Zuckerberg’s throne of course.

This is principally because Facebook acquired Instagram and WhatsApp. It has also bought and closed down smaller potential future rivals (tbh). So by hogging network power, and the resources that flow from that, Facebook the company continues to dominate the social space. But that doesn’t stop people imagining something better — a platform that could win friends and influence the mainstream by being better ethically and in terms of functionality.

And so meet the latest dreamer with a double-sided social mission: Openbook.

The idea (currently it’s just that; a small self-funded team; a manifesto; a prototype; a nearly spent Kickstarter campaign; and, well, a lot of hopeful ambition) is to build an open source platform that rethinks social networking to make it friendly and customizable, rather than sticky and creepy.

Their vision to protect privacy as a for-profit platform involves a business model that’s based on honest fees — and an on-platform digital currency — rather than ever watchful ads and trackers.

There’s nothing exactly new in any of their core ideas. But in the face of massive and flagrant data misuse by platform giants these are ideas that seem to sound increasingly like sense. So the element of timing is perhaps the most notable thing here — with Facebook facing greater scrutiny than ever before, and even taking some hits to user growth and to its perceived valuation as a result of ongoing failures of leadership and a management philosophy that’s been attacked by at least one of its outgoing senior execs as manipulative and ethically out of touch.

The Openbook vision of a better way belongs to Joel Hernández who has been dreaming for a couple of years, brainstorming ideas on the side of other projects, and gathering similarly minded people around him to collectively come up with an alternative social network manifesto — whose primary pledge is a commitment to be honest.

“And then the data scandals started happening and every time they would, they would give me hope. Hope that existing social networks were not a given and immutable thing, that they could be changed, improved, replaced,” he tells TechCrunch.

Rather ironically Hernández says it was overhearing the lunchtime conversation of a group of people sitting near him — complaining about a laundry list of social networking ills; “creepy ads, being spammed with messages and notifications all the time, constantly seeing the same kind of content in their newsfeed” — that gave him the final push to pick up the paper manifesto and have a go at actually building (or, well, trying to fund building… ) an alternative platform. 

At the time of writing Openbook’s Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign has a handful of days to go and is only around a third of the way to reaching its (modest) target of $115k, with just over 1,000 backers chipping in. So the funding challenge is looking tough.

The team behind Openbook includes crypto(graphy) royalty, Phil Zimmermann — aka the father of PGP — who is on board as an advisor initially but billed as its “chief cryptographer”, as that’s what he’d be building for the platform if/when the time came. 

Hernández worked with Zimmermann at the Dutch telecom KPN building security and privacy tools for internal usage — so called him up and invited him for a coffee to get his thoughts on the idea.

“As soon as I opened the website with the name Openbook, his face lit up like I had never seen before,” says Hernández. “You see, he wanted to use Facebook. He lives far away from his family and facebook was the way to stay in the loop with his family. But using it would also mean giving away his privacy and therefore accepting defeat on his life-long fight for it, so he never did. He was thrilled at the possibility of an actual alternative.”

On the Kickstarter page there’s a video of Zimmermann explaining the ills of the current landscape of for-profit social platforms, as he views it. “If you go back a century, Coca Cola had cocaine in it and we were giving it to children,” he says here. “It’s crazy what we were doing a century ago. I think there will come a time, some years in the future, when we’re going to look back on social networks today, and what we were doing to ourselves, the harm we were doing to ourselves with social networks.”

“We need an alternative to the social network work revenue model that we have today,” he adds. “The problem with having these deep machine learning neural nets that are monitoring our behaviour and pulling us into deeper and deeper engagement is they already seem to know that nothing drives engagement as much as outrage.

“And this outrage deepens the political divides in our culture, it creates attack vectors against democratic institutions, it undermines our elections, it makes people angry at each other and provides opportunities to divide us. And that’s in addition to the destruction of our privacy by revenue models that are all about exploiting our personal information. So we need some alternative to this.”

Hernández actually pinged TechCrunch’s tips line back in April — soon after the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal went global — saying “we’re building the first ever privacy and security first, open-source, social network”.

We’ve heard plenty of similar pitches before, of course. Yet Facebook has continued to harvest global eyeballs by the billions. And even now, after a string of massive data and ethics scandals, it’s all but impossible to imagine users leaving the site en masse. Such is the powerful lock-in of The Social Network effect.

Regulation could present a greater threat to Facebook, though others argue more rules will simply cement its current dominance.

Openbook’s challenger idea is to apply product innovation to try to unstick Zuckerberg. Aka “building functionality that could stand for itself”, as Hernández puts it.

“We openly recognise that privacy will never be enough to get any significant user share from existing social networks,” he says. “That’s why we want to create a more customisable, fun and overall social experience. We won’t follow the footsteps of existing social networks.”

Data portability is an important ingredient to even being able to dream this dream — getting people to switch from a dominant network is hard enough without having to ask them to leave all their stuff behind as well as their friends. Which means that “making the transition process as smooth as possible” is another project focus.

Hernández says they’re building data importers that can parse the archive users are able to request from their existing social networks — to “tell you what’s in there and allow you to select what you want to import into Openbook”.

These sorts of efforts are aided by updated regulations in Europe — which bolster portability requirements on controllers of personal data. “I wouldn’t say it made the project possible but… it provided us a with a unique opportunity no other initiative had before,” says Hernández of the EU’s GDPR.

“Whether it will play a significant role in the mass adoption of the network, we can’t tell for sure but it’s simply an opportunity too good to ignore.”

On the product front, he says they have lots of ideas — reeling off a list that includes the likes of “a topic-roulette for chats, embracing Internet challenges as another kind of content, widgets, profile avatars, AR chatrooms…” for starters.

“Some of these might sound silly but the idea is to break the status quo when it comes to the definition of what a social network can do,” he adds.

Asked why he believes other efforts to build ‘ethical’ alternatives to Facebook have failed he argues it’s usually because they’ve focused on technology rather than product.

“This is still the most predominant [reason for failure],” he suggests. “A project comes up offering a radical new way to do social networking behind the scenes. They focus all their efforts in building the brand new tech needed to do the very basic things a social network can already do. Next thing you know, years have passed. They’re still thousands of miles away from anything similar to the functionality of existing social networks and their core supporters have moved into yet another initiative making the same promises. And the cycle goes on.”

He also reckons disruptive efforts have fizzled out because they were too tightly focused on being just a solution to an existing platform problem and nothing more.

So, in other words, people were trying to build an ‘anti-Facebook’, rather than a distinctly interesting service in its own right. (The latter innovation, you could argue, is how Snap managed to carve out a space for itself in spite of Facebook sitting alongside it — even as Facebook has since sought to crush Snap’s creative market opportunity by cloning its products.)

“This one applies not only to social network initiatives but privacy-friendly products too,” argues Hernández. “The problem with that approach is that the problems they solve or claim to solve are most of the time not mainstream. Such as the lack of privacy.

“While these products might do okay with the people that understand the problems, at the end of the day that’s a very tiny percentage of the market. The solution these products often present to this issue is educating the population about the problems. This process takes too long. And in topics like privacy and security, it’s not easy to educate people. They are topics that require a knowledge level beyond the one required to use the technology and are hard to explain with examples without entering into the conspiracy theorist spectrum.”

So the Openbook team’s philosophy is to shake things up by getting people excited for alternative social networking features and opportunities, with merely the added benefit of not being hostile to privacy nor algorithmically chain-linked to stoking fires of human outrage.

The reliance on digital currency for the business model does present another challenge, though, as getting people to buy into this could be tricky. After all payments equal friction.

To begin with, Hernández says the digital currency component of the platform would be used to let users list secondhand items for sale. Down the line, the vision extends to being able to support a community of creators getting a sustainable income — thanks to the same baked in coin mechanism enabling other users to pay to access content or just appreciate it (via a tip).

So, the idea is, that creators on Openbook would be able to benefit from the social network effect via direct financial payments derived from the platform (instead of merely ad-based payments, such as are available to YouTube creators) — albeit, that’s assuming reaching the necessary critical usage mass. Which of course is the really, really tough bit.

“Lower cuts than any existing solution, great content creation tools, great administration and overview panels, fine-grained control over the view-ability of their content and more possibilities for making a stable and predictable income such as creating extra rewards for people that accept to donate for a fixed period of time such as five months instead of a month to month basis,” says Hernández, listing some of the ideas they have to stand out from existing creator platforms.

“Once we have such a platform and people start using tips for this purpose (which is not such a strange use of a digital token), we will start expanding on its capabilities,” he adds. (He’s also written the requisite Medium article discussing some other potential use cases for the digital currency portion of the plan.)

At this nascent prototype and still-not-actually-funded stage they haven’t made any firm technical decisions on this front either. And also don’t want to end up accidentally getting into bed with an unethical tech.

“Digital currency wise, we’re really concerned about the environmental impact and scalability of the blockchain,” he says — which could risk Openbook contradicting stated green aims in its manifesto and looking hypocritical, given its plan is to plough 30% of its revenues into ‘give-back’ projects, such as environmental and sustainability efforts and also education.

“We want a decentralised currency but we don’t want to rush into decisions without some in-depth research. Currently, we’re going through IOTA’s whitepapers,” he adds.

They do also believe in decentralizing the platform — or at least parts of it — though that would not be their first focus on account of the strategic decision to prioritize product. So they’re not going to win fans from the (other) crypto community. Though that’s hardly a big deal given their target user-base is far more mainstream.

“Initially it will be built on a centralised manner. This will allow us to focus in innovating in regards to the user experience and functionality product rather than coming up with a brand new behind the scenes technology,” he says. “In the future, we’re looking into decentralisation from very specific angles and for different things. Application wise, resiliency and data ownership.”

“A project we’re keeping an eye on and that shares some of our vision on this is Tim Berners Lee’s MIT Solid project. It’s all about decoupling applications from the data they use,” he adds.

So that’s the dream. And the dream sounds good and right. The problem is finding enough funding and wider support — call it ‘belief equity’ — in a market so denuded of competitive possibility as a result of monopolistic platform power that few can even dream an alternative digital reality is possible.

In early April, Hernández posted a link to a basic website with details of Openbook to a few online privacy and tech communities asking for feedback. The response was predictably discouraging. “Some 90% of the replies were a mix between critiques and plain discouraging responses such as “keep dreaming”, “it will never happen”, “don’t you have anything better to do”,” he says.

(Asked this April by US lawmakers whether he thinks he has a monopoly, Zuckerberg paused and then quipped: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me!”)

Still, Hernández stuck with it, working on a prototype and launching the Kickstarter. He’s got that far — and wants to build so much more — but getting enough people to believe that a better, fairer social network is even possible might be the biggest challenge of all. 

For now, though, Hernández doesn’t want to stop dreaming.

“We are committed to make Openbook happen,” he says. “Our back-up plan involves grants and impact investment capital. Nothing will be as good as getting our first version through Kickstarter though. Kickstarter funding translates to absolute freedom for innovation, no strings attached.”

You can check out the Openbook crowdfunding pitch here.

Enterprise barcode scanner startup Scandit raises a $30 million Series B

“Augmented reality for enterprise” is the sort of phrase that surely hits all of the right neurological pleasure centers for VCs. No surprise, then, that Scandit just raised a $30 million Series B, in a round led by GV (née Google Ventures) and NGP Capital. That joins a previous $13 million raise for the Zurich-based startup.

We highlighted the company back in early 2017. At the time, its mission was focused on focused on weaning enterprises off of pricey proprietary scanning hardware — instead, its technology leveraged standard smartphones with custom software on top. AR has also always been a key part of the Scandit picture.

The company has focused on the Microsoft Hololens and other wearable displays as ways to help streamline warehouses. “A number of data capture use cases for HoloLens come to mind,” the company wrote in a 2016 blog post. “For example, a warehouse associate with a HoloLens headset could be directed with virtual markers to the correct items. They could then use the built-in HoloLens camera for hands-free scanning. HoloLens could also indicate where an item should be placed once it is scanned, or deliver additional information about scanned objects.”

This latest round will go toward growing the company globally and introducing its technology across various mobile platforms or “any camera-equipped device,” as it puts it in a press release tied to the news.

“This new funding will enable us to keep up our rapid growth, but also, looking at the bigger picture,” says CEO Samuel Mueller, “it’s going to increase the overall adoption of mobile computer vision and augmented reality in the enterprise, which will help to streamline operations and lead to cost savings.”

Comics writer Grant Morrison signs a content deal with Magic Leap

Grant Morrison’s Square Slice Studios just signed a content deal with Magic Leap. If you’ve read a comic book at some point in the past two decades, odds are you’re very excited at this news. Morrison is, after all, one of the most exciting writers working in the comics media today.

The Scottish writer came to prominence with series like the mind-bending ’90s title The Invisibles, before helming some of the most exciting big-name superhero books, from All-Star Superman to the New X-Men. Magic Leap, meanwhile — well, those precious few who have actually tried the thing say it’s pretty cool, at least.

Morrison’s been trying his hands with a number of different storytelling mediums of late. The writer is behind the well-received SyFy series, Happy!, along with the channel’s upcoming Brave New World adaptation. He’s also been flirting with augmented reality for a while, having served as a consultant for Magic Leap since its early days.

“Storytelling is my passion and I’ve found that new platforms allow me to extend my creative boundaries,” Morrison told Deadline, which broke the news during San Diego Comic Con this week. “We see Magic Leap as the next great platform for storytelling and we are excited to collaborate on content that helps bring our wildest dreams to life in the near future.”

That, apparently, will be happening sooner than later. Magic Leap announced earlier this month that its One headset will finally start shipping this summer. That announcement came in the wake of years of building up a crazy amount of funding that pegged the company at a $6.3 billion valuation.

Morrison co-founded Square Slice in 2016, along with a handful of gaming industry veterans, including Rockstar’s Stewart Waterson.

InkHunter heads to YC to build a try-and-buy tattoo marketplace

InkHunter, an augmented reality tattoo try-on app that was born out of a 48-hour hackathon back in the altogether gentler days of 2014 has bagged a place in Y Combinator’s summer 2018 batch, scoring itself the seed accelerator’s standard $120,000 deal in exchange for 7% equity.

We first covered InkHunter in April 2016 when it had just launched an MVP on iOS and was toying with building a marketplace for tattoo artists. Several months and 2.5 million downloads later InkHunter launched its Android app, having spent summer 2016 going through the ERA accelerator program in New York.

At that time the team was considering a b2b business model pivot, based on licensing their core AR tech to ecommerce apps and other developers. Though they wanted to keep the tattoo try on app ticking over as a showcase.

Fast forward two years and it’s the SDK idea on ice after InkHunter’s app gained enough traction in the tattoo community for the team to revive their marketplace idea — having passed eight million users — so they’ve relocated to Mountain View and swung back around to the original concept of a try-before-you buy tattoo app, using AR to drive bookings for local tattoo artists.

“We are focusing on iterating from ‘try’ to ‘try and buy’ experience, based on feedback we got from our users. And this is our goal for the YC program, which places a lot of focus on growth and user interactions,” CTO Pavel Razumovskyi tells us.

“Last time we have talked, we did not expect such adoption on the tattoo market. But when we saw really strong usage and feedback from the tattoo community, we decided to double down on that audience.”

The newly added booking option is very much an MVP at this stage — with InkHunter using a Typeform interface to ask users who tap through with a booking request to input their details to be contacted later, via text message, with information about relevant local tattoo artists (starting with the US market).

But the team’s hope for the YC program is help to hone their approach.

Razumovskyi confirms they’ve started with a booking request concierge service in the US without onboarding any tattoo artists into the planned marketplace as yet, and are merely hand picking local tattoo artists to help users with bookings.

“While this approach doesn’t scale, it helps us to figure out problems and quickly iterate solutions,” he adds. “We are almost done with this stage, and close to launch an in-app search for tattoo artist into selected locations, listing only licensed artists with the large portfolio.”

InkHunter says close to half (45%) its users have expressed a desire to get a tattoo within the next few months, while it got more than 500 booking requests in the first week of the concierge feature.

Though you do have to wonder whether users’ desire to experiment with ink on their skin will also extend to a desire to experiment with different tattoo artists too — or whether many regular inkers might not prefer to stick with a tattooist they already know and trust, and whose style they like. (A scenario which may not require an app to sit in the middle to take repeat bookings.)

“We want to help them do this with as little regret as possible,” says CEO Oleksandra Rohachova of InkHunter’s tattoo hungry users — so presumably the team will also be carefully vetting the tattoo artists they list on their marketplace.

The main function of the app lets users browse thousands of tattoo designs and virtually try them on using its core AR feature — which requires people spill a little real-world ink to anchor the virtual design by making a few pen marks on their skin where they want the tattoo to live. As use-cases for AR go it’s a pretty pleasing one.

InkHunter also supports taking and sharing photos — to loop friends’ opinions into your skin-augmenting decision, and help the app’s fame spread.

The team’s hope for the next stage of building an app business is once an InkHunter user has settled on the design and placement of their next tat, they’ll get comfortable about relying on the app to find and book an artist. And the next time, for their next tattoo too.

Octi raises $7.5M to create augmented reality that understands human movement

The team at Octi says it’s building a crucial piece of the augmented reality puzzle — the ability to understand the human body and its movement.

Co-founder and CEO Justin Fuisz told me that most existing AR technologies (including Apple’s ARKit) tend to be “plane-based” — in other words, while they can make something cool appear against a real-world background, it’s usually on a flat surface, like a table or the floor.

Octi, on the other hand, recognizes where people are in-camera, and it can use that understanding to apply a variety of different effects.

For example, Fuisz and his team showed me how they could dance around their office while bright, squiggly lines overlaid their bodies — and then they erased their bodies entirely. They also showed me how effects could be tied to different gestures, like how a “make it rain” motion could result in dollar bills flying out of their hands.

To do this, Octi says it’s built sophisticated machine learning and computer vision technology. For starters, it looks at a human being and detects key points, like eyes, nose, hips and elbows, then uses those points to construct a model of a skeleton.

Fuisz suggested that the technology could be applied to a number of different industries, including fashion, fitness, entertainment and gaming. In fact, the company is announcing a partnership and strategic investment from the OneTeam Collective, the accelerator of the NFL Players Association. As a result, Octi plans to create and distribute avatars of more than 2,000 NFL players.

In addition, Octi is announcing that it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding from Shasta Ventures, I2BF Ventures, Bold Capital Partners, Day One Ventures, Human Ventures Live Nation and AB InBev, plus individuals, including former Pandora and Snap executive Tom Conrad, WeWork Chief Product Officer of Technology Shiva Rajaraman, Adobe Chief Product Officer Scott Belsky, A&D Networks Chairman Abbe Raven and Joshua Kushner.

If you want to try this out for yourself, the startup has its own iOS app — Fuisz described the app as a technology showcase for potential partners, but he added, “The app is available to the public and is totally awesome.”

Microsoft backpedals on VR promise

If you were still waiting patiently for the virtual reality features that Microsoft promised in 2016, then I have some bad news for you. During E3 last week, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer for gaming, Mike Nichols, told GamesIndustry.biz that the company had no plans to fulfill that promise.

“We don’t have any plans specific to Xbox consoles in virtual reality or mixed reality,” Nichols told GamesIndustry.biz.

This goes against a promise that Microsoft made two years ago when Xbox chief Phil Spencer told The Verge that the Xbox One X (then dramatically known as Xbox Scorpio) would support “[the kind of] high-end VR that you see happening in the PC space.”

The release of the Xbox One X came and went without any news of VR integration, but in the interim, Microsoft did make strides toward VR and mixed reality tech for PC gaming with the release of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets for Windows 10.

According to Nichols, it seems like Microsoft may be sticking to this PC gaming territory for awhile.

“PC is probably the best platform for more immersive VR and MR … but as it relates to Xbox, no,” he said.

Football matches land on your table thanks to augmented reality

It’s World Cup season, so that means that even articles about machine learning have to have a football angle. Today’s concession to the beautiful game is a system that takes 2D videos of matches and recreates them in 3D so you can watch them on your coffee table (assuming you have some kind of augmented reality setup, which you almost certainly don’t). It’s not as good as being there, but it might be better than watching it on TV.

The “Soccer On Your Tabletop” system takes as its input a video of a match and watches it carefully, tracking each player and their movements individually. The images of the players are then mapped onto 3D models “extracted from soccer video games,” and placed on a 3D representation of the field. Basically they cross FIFA 18 with real life and produce a sort of miniature hybrid.

Considering the source data — two-dimensional, low-resolution and in motion — it’s a pretty serious accomplishment to reliably reconstruct a realistic and reasonably accurate 3D pose for each player.

Now, it’s far from perfect. One might even say it’s a bit useless. The characters’ positions are estimated, so they jump around a bit, and the ball doesn’t really appear much, so everyone appears to just be dancing around on a field. (That’s on the to-do list.)

But the idea is great, and this is a working if highly limited first shot at it. Assuming the system could ingest a whole game based on multiple angles (it could source the footage directly from the networks), you could have a 3D replay available just minutes after the actual match concluded.

Not only that, but wouldn’t it be cool to be able to gather round a central location and watch the game from multiple angles? I’ve always thought one of the worst things about watching sports on TVs is everyone is sitting there staring in one direction, seeing the exact same thing. Letting people spread out, pick sides, see things from different angles to analyze strategies — that would be fantastic.

All we need is for someone to invent a perfect, affordable holographic display that works from all angles and we’re set.

The research is being presented at the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference in Salt Lake City, and it’s a collaboration between Facebook, Google and the University of Washington.

What’s under those clothes? This system tracks body shapes in real time

With augmented reality coming in hot and depth tracking cameras due to arrive on flagship phones, the time is right to improve how computers track the motions of people they see — even if that means virtually stripping them of their clothes. A new computer vision system that does just that may sound a little creepy, but it definitely has its uses.

The basic problem is that if you’re going to capture a human being in motion, say for a movie or for an augmented reality game, there’s a frustrating vagueness to them caused by clothes. Why do you think motion capture actors have to wear those skintight suits? Because their JNCO jeans make it hard for the system to tell exactly where their legs are. Leave them in the trailer.

Same for anyone wearing a dress, a backpack, a jacket — pretty much anything other than the bare minimum will interfere with the computer getting a good idea of how your body is positioned.

The multi-institutional project (PDF), due to be presented at CVPR in Salt Lake City, combines depth data with smart assumptions about how a body is shaped and what it can do. The result is a sort of X-ray vision, revealing the shape and position of a person’s body underneath their clothes, that works in real time even during quick movements like dancing.

The paper builds on two previous methods, DynamicFusion and BodyFusion. The first uses single-camera depth data to estimate a body’s pose, but doesn’t work well with quick movements or occlusion; the second uses a skeleton to estimate pose but similarly loses track during fast motion. The researchers combined the two approaches into “DoubleFusion,” essentially creating a plausible skeleton from the depth data and then sort of shrink-wrapping it with skin at an appropriate distance from the core.

As you can see above, depth data from the camera is combined with some basic reference imagery of the person to produce both a skeleton and track the joints and terminations of the body. On the right there, you see the results of just DynamicFusion (b), just BodyFusion (c) and the combined method (d).

The results are much better than either method alone, seemingly producing excellent body models from a variety of poses and outfits:

Hoodies, headphones, baggy clothes, nothing gets in the way of the all-seeing eye of DoubleFusion.

One shortcoming, however, is that it tends to overestimate a person’s body size if they’re wearing a lot of clothes — there’s no easy way for it to tell whether someone is broad or they are just wearing a chunky sweater. And it doesn’t work well when the person interacts with a separate object, like a table or game controller — it would likely try to interpret those as weird extensions of limbs. Handling these exceptions is planned for future work.

The paper’s first author is Tao Yu of Tsinghua University in China, but researchers from Beihang University, Google, USC, and the Max Planck Institute were also involved.

“We believe the robustness and accuracy of our approach will enable many applications, especially in AR/VR, gaming, entertainment and even virtual try-on as we also reconstruct the underlying body shape,” write the authors in the paper’s conclusion. “For the first time, with DoubleFusion, users can easily digitize themselves.”

There’s no use denying that there are lots of interesting applications of this technology. But there’s also no use denying that this technology is basically X-ray Spex.

Now Snapchat lets you unsend messages like Faceboook promised

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages were retracted from the inboxes of some users, six sources told TechCrunch in April. Facebook quickly tried to normalize that breach of trust by claiming it would in the coming months give everyone the ability to unsend messages. We haven’t heard a word about it since, and Facebook told me it had nothing more to share here today.

Well Snap is stepping up. Snapchat will let you retract your risqué, embarrassing or incriminating messages thanks to a new feature called Clear Chats that’s rolling out globally over the next few weeks.

Hold down on a text, image, video, memory, sticker or audio note in a one-on-one or group chat Snapchat message thread and you’ll see a Delete button. Tap it, and Snapchat will try to retract the message, though it admits it won’t always work if the recipient lacks an internet connection or updated version of the app. The recipient will also be notified… something Facebook didn’t do in the case of Zuckerberg’s messages.

The Clear Chats feature could make people more comfortable sending sensitive information over Snapchat. The app already auto-deletes messages after they’re viewed, unless a recipient chooses to screenshot or Save them, which their conversation partner can see. This could be especially useful for thwarting cases of revenge porn, where hackers or jilted ex-lovers expose someone’s nude images.

Unfortunately, the Clear Chats option could also be used to send then retract abusive messages, destroying the paper trail. Social media evidence is increasingly being used in divorce and custody battles, which an unsend feature might undermine… especially if Facebook goes through with rolling it out on its platform where messages are normally permanent. But right now, Snapchat’s priority is doing whatever it can to boost usage after hitting its slowest growth rate ever last quarter. If teens feel like Snapchat is a consequence-free place to message, whether or not that’s true, they might favor it over SMS and other social apps.

More Snapchat Spectacles and e-commerce news

Snap made a few other announcements today. Spectacles v2, which are actually pretty great and I continue to use, are now available for purchase through Amazon in the U.S., U.K and Canada. The $150 photo- and video-recording sunglasses come to more European countries via Jeff Bezos soon, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Amazon will sell Spectacles in three color combos: Onyx Moonlight, Sapphire Twilight and Ruby Daybreak.

Until now, you could only buy v2 on Snap’s website. That’s because Snapchat’s eagerness to develop a bevy of sales channels made it very tough to forecast demand for its lackluster v1 Spectacles. They only sold 220,000. That led to hundreds of thousands of pairs gathering dust unsold in warehouses, and Snapchat taking an embarrassing $40 million write-off.

“We had an inventory challenge with v1,” Snap’s VP of hardware Mike Randall told me in April. “We don’t think it was a product issue. It was an internal understanding our demand issue versus a planning issue. So we think by having a more simplistic channel strategy with v2 we can more thoughtfully manage demand with v2 versus v1.” Working with Amazon and its robust toolset should help Snap get Spectacles in front of more buyers without obscuring how many it should be manufacturing.

Still, the worst thing about Spectacles is Snapchat. The inability to dump footage directly to your phone’s camera roll, and the incompatibility of its round media format with other social networks, means it’s tough to share your Spectacles content anywhere else while making it look good. Snap has experimented with a traditional landscape export format, but that hasn’t rolled out. Spectacles could strongly benefit from Snap partnering with fellow apps or open sourcing to let others show its circular always-full-screen format in all its glory.

Finally, Snapchat is launching a new e-commerce ad unit that shows a carousel of purchaseable items at the bottom of the screen that users can tap to buy without leaving the Snapchat app. This follows our prediction that Snap launching its own in-app merch store was really the foundation of a bigger e-commerce platform that’s now rolling out.

Merchants can use the Snap Pixel to measure how their ads lead to sales. The ability to shave down the e-commerce conversion funnel could get advertisers spending more on Snapchat when it could use the dollars. Last quarter it lost $385 million and missed its revenue target by $14 million.

Snapchat is also bringing its augmented reality advertisements to its self-serve ad-buying tool. They’re sold on an effective CPM basis for $8 to $20 depending on targeting. Snapchat is also turning its new multiplayer game filters, called Snappables, into ads.

Overall, it’s good to see Snapchat iterating across its software, hardware and business units. Plagued by executive departures, fierce competition from Facebook, a rough recent earnings report and share price troubles, it’s easy to imagine the team getting distracted. The long-term roadmap is fuzzy. With Stories becoming more popular elsewhere, Spectacles sales not being enough to right the ship and Instagram preparing to launch a long-form video hub that competes with Snapchat Discover, Snap needs to figure out its identity. Perhaps that will hinge on some flashy new feature that captures the imagination of the youth. That could be its upcoming Snapkit platform that will let users log into other apps using their Snapchat credentials, bring their Bitmoji, and even use Snap’s AR-equipped software camera within other apps.

But otherwise, it must lock in for a long-haul of efficient and methodical improvement. If it’s not growing, the best it can do is hold on to its core audience and squeeze as many dollars out of them as possible without looking desperate.

Google builds its cross-platform multiplayer AR tech into a doodling app

At Google I/O earlier this month, the company announced Cloud Anchors, a tool that shares with the cloud 3D data captured by a user’s smartphone — and can match that data with another user to create a shared AR experience where each person’s phone is seeing the same things in the same places.

Today, Google is rolling out Cloud Anchor functionality to its AR drawing app called Just a Line, which it released a couple of months ago. Just a Line is hardly a breakout hit for Google, but the simplistic app that lets users paint the 3D world with a white line offers a nice testbed for early AR functionality that’s just as experimental.

What will likely differentiate Google’s offering from whatever Apple ends up shipping is that Cloud Anchor is cross-platform. The Just a Line app is available on both Android and iOS, and with today’s update users on both platforms will be able to collaborate and view items in a shared space.

What’s generally important about multiplayer AR experiences is making the process simple enough for users to sync their spatial map with another user so they see the same digital objects in the same physical locations. What Google has built seems a bit cumbersome, with each user needing to stand next to each other to pair their environments. It also seems that the functionality is limited to two people at the moment.

Just a Line isn’t the most high-stakes place for Google to be dropping this feature, so there is clearly room for the company to keep updating what they’ve got as they see what early usage looks like.