Playground launches in beta to help creators cultivate community

Launching today in beta, Playground is a social platform that seeks to help people discover and develop community while empowering creators to monetize their audience. Already, the website has a wide variety of users like the Museum of Modern Art, comedy host Alexis Gay, the Abolitionist Teaching Network, activist Nupol Kiazolu, and a Malaysian virtual dance club. For now, the beta is open to select creators in the cultural space (art, music, wellness, gaming, and more), and for community members, there’s a waitlist.

As a Taiwanese American daughter of immigrants who grew up in a culturally diverse Santa Fe neighborhood, founder Jia Ling Yang understands the value of bringing people together. But while working as a freelance creative director for brands like Facebook, Google Play and E! Entertainment, she decided that she wanted to help build community online in a new way. Of course, social media already creates communities, from neighborhood book exchange groups to One Direction stan Twitter. But life online can be isolating, too.

“Instead of scrolling and looking at each other’s lives, I’m saying, hey, let’s go put-put together. Let’s make Filipino food together, Let’s work out together,” said Yang.

Image Credits: Playground

In its current state, Playground helps users find both online and in-person events to attend with cultural institutions and creators. Eventually, Yang wants Playground to become an all-in-one, end-to-end platform for creators to run their business — they will be able to manage fan subscriptions, send newsletters, post their events, articles, and podcasts, view analytics, sell merch and more. Yang and her nine-person team are currently developing social tools to help community members connect with one another.

“We want to create forums for discussion between members,” Yang told TechCrunch. “The difference between having an audience where you’re just pushing content at them and having a community is that the members can actually interact with each other outside of the organizer.”

All-in-one platforms are valuable for creators, since it’s easier to manage one account than to juggle a Discord, Patreon, Eventbrite, Mailchimp and more. But there’s also inherent risk in entrusting the totality of your business with a startup. Still, Playground provides its creators with complete control over their list of subscribers and their contact info, so they’re not dependent on the Playground platform to reach their fans.

“It’s really frustrating when you don’t own your community,” Yang said. “Let’s say you built up an audience on Clubhouse or something, and that platform just goes away. Then your audience is just whoever messaged you in your Instagram DMs.”

There will be a free tier for creators on the platform, but to access monetization features, like paid ticketing and membership programs, they’ll have to pay $15 or $30 per month, depending on what level of customization they seek.

Image Credits: Playground

Yang is also considering how web3 plays into the future of Playground. Since its founding, her company has raised $2.3 million in seed funding from Animoca, Sogal, Gaingels and Anomaly. One investor, Animoca, is known for investing in blockchain-based projects, but among the cultural creators that Playground targets, there’s a visible anti-crypto sentiment. While some artists embrace the possibilities of NFTs for example, others worry about environmental costs and the proliferation of scams in an unregulated market. But Yang thinks that the crypto world has a communications problem.

“That world does not speak culture,” she told TechCrunch. “Cultural creators like the concept of being able to own your own art, monetize your community, decide the way your community is governed… These are all principles that creators are really into, and I feel like we’re just bridging the conversation a little bit.”

Yang is interested in a blockchain-based future for Playground, but for now, the platform is focused on onboarding creators and community members after its beta launch.

Best deals Dec. 2: $75 MagSafe Battery Pack, up to $100 off 4K monitors, more!

AppleInsider is supported by its audience and may earn commission as an Amazon Associate and affiliate partner on qualifying purchases. These affiliate partnerships do not influence our editorial content.

Thursday’s best deals include heavily discounted Intel-based MacBooks, $15 true wireless earbuds, 50% off a Blue Yeti microphone, and $400 off a 4K projector.

The internet has a plethora of deals each day, but many deals aren’t worth pursuing. In an effort to help you sift through the chaos, we’ve hand-curated some of the best deals we could find on Apple products, tech accessories, and other items for the AppleInsider audience.

If an item is out of stock, it may still be able to be ordered for delivery at a later date. These deals won’t last long, so act fast for anything that might be of interest to you.

New deals are added every day.

New sales

Nebula Mars II Pro 500 ANSI Lumen Portable Projector was $549.99, now $369.99 on Amazon.

MacBook Pro and MacBook Air deals

Get discounted MacBooks

Get discounted MacBooks

Get an additional 5% off on below items with code EM1CW.

Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro Intel Core i5 2.7GHz, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD storage was $1,999.99, now $436.99 on Dailysteals.

Apple 12-inch MacBook with Retina Display, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD storage was $1,199.99, now $525.99 on Dailysteals.

Older sales, still going

Apple’s hardware and accessories

AirPods (third-generation) was $179.99, now $169.99, but customers can save even more using a save $20 at checkout promotion. Final price is $149.99 at Amazon.

12.9-inch Apple Smart Keyboard Folio was $199, now $98 on Amazon.

Find discounts on AirPods Pro and AirPods Max

Find discounts on AirPods Pro and AirPods Max

2018 Mac mini with Intel Core-i3, 256GB storage, and 16GB memory was $999, now $629 from OWC.

Refurbished iMacs

21.5-inch iMac (Mid 2017), Intel Core i5, 2.3GHz Dual-Core, 8GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB PCIe SSD storage for $629.99 on Woot!

27-inch 5K iMac (Early 2019), Intel Core i5-8500, 3.0GHz 6-Core, 8GB DDR4 RAM, 1TB Fusion Drive, AMD Radeon Pro 570X 4GB for $879.99 on Woot!

27-inch 5K iMac (Mid 2020), Intel Core i5-10500 3.1GHz 6-Core, 8GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB PCIe SSD storage, AMD Radeon Pro 5300 4GB for $1,099.99 on Woot!

Local and network storage

Samsung T7 Touch Portable SSD

Samsung T7 Touch Portable SSD

Samsung T7 Touch 1TB Portable USB 3.2 SSD with speeds of up to 1,050MB/s, was $189.99, now $149.99 on Amazon.

QNAP TS-653D-4G-US 6-bay NAS enclosure, was $699.99, now $549.99 on Newegg with code BCMAY22329

Samsung T5 2TB Portable USB 3.1 SSD with speeds of up to 540MB/s, was $279.99, now $199.99 on Amazon.

WD 2TB My Passport SSD External Portable Solid State Drive, was $379.99, now $229.99 on Amazon.

Monitors and computer accessories

Logitech G502 Lightspeed wireless gaming mouse was $149.99, now $99.99 on Amazon.

Logitech G305 Lightspeed wireless gaming mouse was $49.99, now $29.99 on Amazon.

Logitech K400 Plus Wireless Keyboard with Touchpad was $39.99, now $22.99 at Amazon

Microsoft 365 Family 12-month subscription with $50 Amazon gift card, was $149.99, now $105.99 on Amazon.

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Wireless Desktop Keyboard and Mouse was $129.95, now $94.99 at Amazon.

Sonnet AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT Graphics Card Bundle for Mac Pro was $1,839.98, now $1,719.99 on SonnetTech until December 3.


Eero Pro tri-band WiFi 6 system 3-pack

Eero Pro tri-band WiFi 6 system 3-pack

Netgear Nighthawk AX1500 Dual-Band Wi-Fi 6 Mesh System, was $249, now $169 on Walmart.

Netgear Orbi Pro WiFi 6 mesh routers 2-pack was $299.99, now $149.99 on Amazon using the on-page coupon.

TP-Link AX6600 Deco Tri-Band Wi_Fi 6 Mesh System, was $449.99, now $359.99 on Amazon.

Home and Smart Home

Ecobee smart HomeKit thermostat with voice control was $249, now $199 at Amazon.

Ring Video Doorbell wired bundle with Echo Dot was $99.98, now $69.99 at Amazon.

Photo and Video

Canon EOS R Mirrorless Full Frame Camera Body, was $1,799, now $1,599 on Amazon.

Canon EOS R Mirrorless Full Frame Camera with RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM Lens, was $2,099, now $1,899 on Amazon.

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mk IV with M.Zuiko Digital ED 14-42mm F3.5-5.6 EZ Lens, was $799.99, now $699 on Amazon.

Maker Tools and Items

Anycubic Photon Mono 3D Printer was $239.99, now $199.99 on Amazon using the on-page coupon.

Anycubic Photon Mono X Resin 3D Printer now $529.99 on Amazon using the on-page coupon.

Dewalt 120V 15A 12-inch Miter Saw was $599.99, now $429.99 on eBay. This is AppleInsider editor Mike’s favorite Miter Saw.

Podcasting Gear

TVs, Projectors, Set-top Boxes

Samsung 65-inch 4K TV

Samsung 65-inch 4K TV

Samsung 60-inch 4K Crystal LED Smart TV with HDR, was $598, now $508 on Walmart.

Samsung UR59C Series 32-inch Ultra HD Curved LCD Monitor, was $449.99, now $349.99 on Newegg.

Hisense ULED Premium 55-inch Quantum Dot QLED 4K Smart TV was $849.99, now $599.99 on Amazon.

TCL Alto 6 2.0 Channel Home Theater Sound Bar was $79.99, now $69 at Amazon.

Viewsonic M1 Mini+ Ultra Portable LED Projector with USB-C input was $199.99, now $169.99 on Amazon.

WEWATCH portable 5G Wi-Fi projector now $90 at Amazon, using both on-page coupon and code GJOD62O7.

Home, Car, and Audio

Anova AN500-US00 Sous Vide Precision Cooker was $199, now $139 on Amazon.

Harmon Kardon JBL Reflect Mini 2 earbuds was $99.95, now $14.99 on eBay.

BestOffice PC Gaming Chair with Lumbar Support was $79.88, now $62.88 on Amazon. This is AppleInsider editor Mike’s chair of choice.

Bose QuietComfort 45 Bluetooth Wireless Noise-Cancelling Headphones, was $329.99, now $279.99 on Amazon.

Flexispot EC1 55×28-inch Electric Stand Up Desk, was $329.99, now $299.99 on Amazon using the on-page coupon.

JBL Live 500BT Wireless Bluetooth Over-Ear Headphones, was $149.95, now $39.95 on eBay.

Meross Smart Pro LED Strip Lights with HomeKit support, was $40.99, now $24.99 on Amazon using the on-page coupon.

Vantrue N2 Pro Uber Dual 1080p Dash Cam was $199.99, now $169.99 on Amazon with the on-page coupon.

Refurbished Sonos speakers

Software, video games, toys, tablets, wearables

Avalon Hill Axis & Allies 1942 Second Edition boardgame, was $68.99, now $56.01 on Amazon.

Avalon Hill Betrayal at House on the Hill boardgame (Green), was $49.99, now $27.59 on Amazon.

PowerA Fusion Pro Wireless Controller for the Nintendo Switch, was $99.99, now $69.99 on Amazon.

Moovit partners with smart cane company WeWALK to enhance mobility for visually impaired

Intel-owned Moovit, a mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) provider with a globally popular trip planning app, has partnered with WeWALK, a smart cane company, to help visually impaired people reach their destinations safer and more efficiently.

WeWALK’s app will now be integrated with Moovit’s Transit API, which combines official local transit agency information with crowdsourced information to get the best route for each journey, so that visually impaired users can navigate safely on public transit, according to Jean Marc Feghali, WeWALK’s R&D lead.

The partnership follows several Moovit integrations with micromobility companies, such as Lime, Bird and, most recently, Superpedestrian, to display their shared electric scooters and bikes within the app. Moovit has also launched new business units, such as on-demand transit for riders in transit deserts, as well as a partnership with Mobileye, another Intel company, to provide an autonomous ride-hailing service.

It seems Moovit, which currently operates in 3,400 cities, is trying to be everywhere and cater to everyone, and that definitely should include the visually impaired. Transportation tech specifically geared toward the disability community isn’t exactly plentiful, but a few helpful innovations are starting to crop up. For example, Ashirase, a Honda incubation, recently launched with an in-shoe navigation system that is somewhat similar to WeWALK’s cane.

While the cane itself provides analog ground-level obstacle detection via the shaft, the smart device attached to it provides upper body obstacle detection that’s facilitated by an ultrasonic sensor. The user is warned about obstacles detected at various distances through haptic feedback generated by vibration motors built into the cane.

“Indeed, WeWALK can do much more, including providing directions to bus stops,” Feghali told TechCrunch. “Through Bluetooth, the smart cane connects to our WeWALK smartphone app, which we consider to be one of the most comprehensive and accessible visually impaired navigation apps available. Our app integrates with the Moovit service and our custom-built navigation engine and app interface to provide walking and public transport navigation and urban exploration features.”

Once users put their destination in the app and select the route, the cane guides the user on their journey step-by-step through audio directions and low vision mapping, directing users to transport stops and notifying them when the next transport vehicle is arriving. The system also alerts the user when boarding and when the user has reached their stop, so they know that they’re at the right stop and when to get off.

The best part for users is not having one hand on their phone and another on the cane. The cane has a built-in touchpad on the handle that’s connected to the app, allowing users to make gestures so they can interact with their phones to find out where they are, check transit timetables and nearby transport stops, and navigate to their destinations.

“For instance, if a user is navigating to Imperial College London, the smart cane will announce the route options and guide the user step-by-step through each phase,” Feghali said. “For walking directions, WeWALK will announce, ‘Head 12 o’clock on Buckingham Palace Road for 50 meters and turn right, 3 o’clock, onto Station Road.’ At the metro station, WeWALK will notify the user of the right train to board when it arrives and will warn the user before they need to get off.”

The timing of the partnership syncs with International Persons with Disabilities Day, to be observed on Friday, and will hopefully give visually impaired people more autonomy and freedom of movement as they try to access opportunities for employment, education and social activities.

“While blind and partially sighted people have more independence than ever before, getting around via public transit can still be daunting and overwhelming,” Yovav Meydad, Moovit’s chief growth and marketing officer, said in a statement. “Through our partnership, we aim to instill more reassurance in people by breaking down some of these mobility barriers, empowering them to access more opportunities available to them.”

Instant grocery delivery startup JOKR bags another huge round to enter unicorn status

Online grocery sales are in single digits right now, but new data suggests it will top 20% by 2026 due to more consumers getting comfortable buying their groceries this way over the past two years.

JOKR, an instant grocery delivery startup based in New York and operating in the Americas, is getting out ahead of that demand with its frictionless shopping experience and delivery within minutes of purchase.

JOKR app

Image Credits: JOKR

The company took in $260 million in Series B, just five months after raising $170 million in Series A funding that was led by GGV Capital, Balderton Capital and Tiger Global Management. The new round also lifts JOKR into unicorn territory with a valuation of $1.2 billion, and the company touts itself as “one of the fastest companies to reach unicorn status in history.”

All of that is also after launching the company eight months ago, Ralf Wenzel, founder and CEO, told TechCrunch.

“We were not planning to raise so soon — we had sufficient capital after raising the substantial round in July,” he said. “Since then, we built out in so many different countries and began getting a lot of interest in what we were doing. Our existing investors wanted to double down on our phenomenal and healthy growth, as well as new investors. We are now well capitalized and happy about it.”

GGVl, Balderton and Tiger Global all returned for this new upsized round and were joined by a group that included Activant Capital, Greycroft, G-Squared, HV Capital, Kaszek, Mirae Asset, Monashees and Moving Capital.

Wenzel didn’t disclose specific growth figures, but did say that its gross merchandise volume is growing, on average, 15% each week and customer retention remains high as over 50% of its new customers come to them organically. JOKR has also increased its number of warehouse hubs, now operating 200 in 15 cities, like New York, Mexico City and Sao Paulo, some of which have achieved operational profitability, Wenzel said.

He plans to deploy the new capital into expansion within its existing geographies, gaining more traction down to the neighborhood level. For example, there is potential for a hundred more hubs surrounding Sao Paulo, Wenzel added. He also wants to launch in additional cities in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Chile in Latin America and expand in the United States — more to come soon on that, Wenzel teased.

In addition, JOKR will focus efforts on new customer acquisition and growth with marketing and data science and technology development, particularly around procurement and supply chain.

Since its last funding round, the company also released a new version of its product and app, offering a more personalized and curated experience as it shifts away from just offering convenience items. JOKR also aims to be carbon neutral within its processes by the end of the year.

“As we have said before, our vision is not just convenience and on demand, but to a more comprehensive grocery inventory that covers fresh produce, meat, dairy and packaged foods,” Wenzel said. “On the fresh side, we are increasing our offerings across geographies and becoming more personalized than the alternative grocery store.”

Here’s what’s happening today at the iMerit ML DataOps Summit 2021

And we’re off to the data races! Yes, today iMerit ML DataOps Summit 2021 dives deep into the data science solutions that power artificial intelligence and machine learning. It’s shaping up to be a productive and opportunity-filled day. Don’t have a pass yet? No problem — they’re free. Simply register here and then get ready to get busy.

Here’s a quick look at what you — and more than 2500 other attendees — can experience today. Check out the event agenda for full descriptions and exact times, and then get ready to learn, connect and network!

First up: Product demos you won’t want to miss.

  • iMerit Unveils: Reporting, Analytics and Insights for Scaling your ML Data Pipeline — presented by Glen Ford, iMerit’s VP of Product.
  • iMerit Unveils: AI Data Solutions for Solving Edge Cases with Greater Precision — presented by Sudeep George, iMerit’s VP of Engineering.
  • iMerit Unveils: The First End-to-End AI Data Solutions Platform — presented by Brett Hallinan, iMerit’s Director of Marketing.

Now serving up a flight of presentations:

Emerging AI Companies Are Driving A Paradigm Shift in ML — Hussein Mehanna (Cruise) and Ragavan Srinivasan (Facebook AI) discuss the emergence of AI native companies and the paradigm shift being driven by advances in ML and robotics. Just as web transformed business, then the emergence of mobile and cloud, autonomous technologies are redefining the companies building products that simply cannot exist without AI.

Bringing Complex Conversational AI to Production in RPA — Robotic processing automation (RPA) is a game-changer for enterprises looking to streamline customer service, create new operational efficiencies and realize cost savings. Hear from Infinitus Co-Founder and CEO, Ankit Jain as he shares how RPA is taking complex conversational AI to new heights.

Fireside Chat with Former U.S. Chief Data Scientist DJ Patil — Join former U.S. chief data scientist, DJ Patil and iMerit CEO, Radha Basu as they discuss what’s needed from data science for artificial intelligence to advance and potentially achieve human-like intelligence in the future. These industry veterans will explore the complex relationship between technology and humans; what’s needed for humans and AI to work together to bring new opportunities to market that will truly have a societal impact.

Finally, don’t miss exploring the companies showcasing their tech and talent in the virtual expo: Alectio, Alegion, Dataloop, Datasaur, Deepen AI, Labelbox, Lightly, Picterra, Superb AI and Taskmonk Technology.

iMerit ML DataOps Summit 2021 happens today — and you still have time to join this world-class data-dive. Simply register here for your free pass.

Facebook is making two-factor mandatory for high-risk accounts

Facebook, a recently added subsidiary of Meta, said it will make two-factor authentication (2FA) mandatory for high-risk accounts likely to be targeted by malicious hackers.

The move is part of a major expansion of Facebook Protect, the social networking giant’s enhanced security program that’s intended to protect the accounts of people who may be at particular risk, like human rights defenders, journalists, and government officials. The initiative helps these accounts adopt stronger security protections by simplifying security features — including 2FA — and providing additional security protections for accounts and Pages, including monitoring for potential hacking threats.

The program was piloted in 2018 and expanded ahead of the 2020 U.S. election in a bid to try and stop abuse and election interference from spreading on the platform. It’s now enabled on more than 1.5 million accounts, according to Facebook, and is expanding to more than 50 countries by the end of the year, including the U.S., India, and Portugal. The company is planning a further expansion in 2022.

Of the 1.5 million accounts already enrolled in Facebook Protect, almost 950,000 have 2FA enabled, a feature that Facebook said has been “historically underutilized across the internet.” Facebook says it wants this feature to be used by all high-risk accounts, and is making it compulsory.

This means if a user identified by Facebook as high-risk does not enable 2FA at once a set period has expired, they won’t be able to access their accounts. The company said users won’t permanently lose access to their accounts, but will need to enable 2FA in order to regain access.

“2FA is such a core component of any user’s online defense, so we want to make this as easy as possible,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Security Policy at Facebook. “To help drive wider enrollment of 2FA, we need to go beyond raising awareness or encouraging enrollment. This is a community of people that sit at very critical points in public debate and are highly targeted, so for their own protection, they probably should be enabling 2FA.”

Gleicher added that, in early testing, mandating Facebook Protect saw more than 90% of high-risk users enroll in 2FA.

In order to balance the protection the tool provides against the potential consequences — such as critical voices being locked out of their accounts — 2FA will first be required in places Facebook “has the necessary resources in place to smoothly expand,” such as the Philippines and Turkey. The company will also focus on regions where an upcoming election could create an important civic moment.

Facebook says that, while its own figures show that less than 4% of its global monthly active user base has not enrolled in 2FA, it currently has “no plans” to mandate the feature for all accounts.

Hotel Engine raises $65M at a $1.3B valuation as corporate travel rebounds

With the pandemic heading into its second year, people all over the world are traveling more for work again. If you’ve flown anytime in the past few months, the packed planes are in part evidence of that.

Further evidence that travel is rebounding lies in the number of people staying in hotels, and the money going into startups that serve the industry as well as travelers. Hotel Engine is the latest such startup, having just raised $65 million in a Series B round at a $1.3 billion valuation.

Returning backer Telescope Partners led the financing, which also included participation from new investor Blackstone. Notably, the investment values the Denver-based company at nearly 9 times higher than the $150 million valuation it achieved when it raised $16 million in a Series A round in 2019 — its first round of funding after bootstrapping for four years.

Hotel Engine describes itself as a “Lodging Performance Network.” Or in other words, the startup is a B2B members-only, global booking platform that aims to provide companies access to better lodging rates as well as tools and insights designed to “optimize their travel programs.” Meanwhile, it partners with lodging providers (better known as hotels), who benefit from gaining access to more “high-value” business travelers, according to founder and CEO Elia Wallen.

Wallen started Hotel Engine in 2015 as a “simple” booking tool designed to support the hotel lodging needs of clients of another company he’d founded, Travelers Haven. That startup was more of a short-term corporate housing company.

Image Credits: CEO and Founder Elia Wallen / Hotel Engine

For the first two years, Hotel Engine was more of a side project for Wallen with admittedly “limited investment or attention.” But in 2018, he began to get more serious about it and began dedicating separate resources to the company, which led to triple-digit growth in a year’s time.

“Since then, we’ve been on an incredible growth trajectory,’ he told TechCrunch. And notably, Hotel Engine is something that many startups are not: profitable.

Between the third quarter of 2020 and the third quarter of 2021, Hotel Engine experienced a 201% increase in core bookings revenue and increased its customer base by 60% to over 40,000 companies. It also added 100,000 people to its membership base, bringing the total to more than 550,000. Meanwhile, its headcount has swelled from 119 to 300 over the same time period. The company expects to hire another 400 people in 2022. 

Wallen believes Hotel Engine is unique in the way that it leverages technology to connect businesses and lodging partners globally. 

“Our approach allows our customers the ability to centralize their lodging needs on one platform from sourcing and negotiation to booking and reconciliation,” he said. “Our technology provides significant savings and world-class customer support on a no-contract platform.”

Looking ahead, the company is eager to expand its international footprint.

Image Credits: Hotel Engine

Ramzi Ramsey, managing director at Blackstone, believes that Hotel Engine provides “a unique and differentiated” experience, especially for industries that have historically been underserved by traditional travel booking companies that do not specialize in group or long-term stays.

By providing a set of fintech and expense management software tools to make the booking process less painful, Hotel Engine has seen “explosive growth” in recent years, he points out.

“For example, Hotel Engine has expanded the addressable market for hotel providers by facilitating upfront payments, as many companies do not have the working capital for large group or long-term stays,” Ramsey wrote via email. “As the economy reopens, we expect Hotel Engine to be a strong secondary beneficiary of the recently passed $1.2 trillion U.S infrastructure bill.”

Telescope Managing Partner and Founder Mickey Arabelovic joined Hotel Engine’s board as part of the new funding round.

“Since our investment in late 2019, we’ve worked closely with Elia and the Hotel Engine team, and are consistently impressed by their passion, tenacity and singular focus on business lodging,” said Arabelovic in a written statement. “There is no other company that delivers a friction-less, easy-to-use solution for travelers, and they’re just getting started.”

Uber intros several safety features, including one that records audio during a ride

Uber is adding several new safety features to its app, including an audio reminder to riders to wear their seat belts, allowing riders or drivers to record audio during rides, and detection of unexpected route changes or stops before the final destination. The updates are designed to help both riders and drivers feel safer during trips, Uber said.

“Many people admit to not always buckling up in the back seat, especially on shorter trips, and that can create an uncomfortable situation for drivers,” Kristin Smith, road safety public policy manager at Uber, told TechCrunch. “We think introducing an audio reminder can help reinforce the message that people need to buckle up in every seat, every time. This feature builds on a number of seat belt awareness campaigns we’ve launched over the past several years. We’ve partnered with GHSA on our ‘Make It Click’ Campaign and have worked to educate riders and drivers on the importance of wearing a seat belt.”

The seat belt feature will begin to roll out to some users later this month and expand nationally early next year, according to an Uber spokesperson, who also said the impetus for the audio alert came from feedback from drivers who bear the brunt of responsibility for paying off tickets. At the start of the trip, the driver’s phone will have an audio alert reminding riders to buckle up, while a push notification is sent to the rider’s phone.

The audio recording feature, which has been live in Latin America for around two years, will begin rolling out in the U.S. next week as a pilot in Kansas City, Louisville and Raleigh-Durham. Drivers and riders can choose to record audio by tapping the shield icon on the map screen and selecting “Record Audio.” If a driver has opted into the feature, riders will get a notification within the app before the trip begins. 

The audio files are encrypted and stored on the rider’s or driver’s device, and no one, including Uber, can listen to the recording, according to the company. If a user submits a safety report to Uber, they can attach the audio file to their report and a trained Uber safety agent will decrypt and review the recording as evidence to help determine what happened and what to do next.

Finally, Uber is enhancing RideCheck nationwide on Thursday, a feature the company added in 2019 to detect possible crashes or unusually long stops during a trip using GPS data and sensors in the driver’s smartphone. Now, RideCheck has expanded to detect when a trip ends unexpectedly before reaching the final destination or when a driver goes off course.

When the system detects possible issues, both the rider and driver will receive a RideCheck notification prompting them to let Uber know through the app that all is well or take other actions like pressing the emergency button or reporting the issue.

Over the summer, dozens of women represented by a handful of California plaintiffs’ firms filed suit against Uber over alleged sexual attacks by drivers in multiple U.S. states. Both Uber and Lyft have faced claims for years of drivers assaulting passengers, but those lawsuits have either ended in voluntary dismissals or settlements as the companies have consistently denied liability, according to Bloomberg Law.

Many of the new claims against Uber are based on negligence, asserting Uber has been aware of the danger of sexual assaults committed by drivers and hasn’t taken reasonable preventative steps, all the while advertising safe rides to the public, according to the law firm bringing the case in California referenced above. Some firms are claiming “common carrier” negligence, saying that Uber is classified as a transportation company under California law and therefore owes its passengers a better duty of care. Several of the cases are also claiming product liability, saying that Uber’s product, the app-based platform connecting riders and drivers, fails to keep passengers safe.

The new safety features, in particular the audio recording and updates to RideCheck, could be moves by the ride-hailing giant to cover its bases in the midst of lawsuits. Uber did not comment on the claims against the company, instead pointing out that the audio recording feature has been present in 14 Latin American countries since 2019, where 70% of riders and drivers surveyed in Rio de Janeiro said the feature made them feel safer when using Uber.

Also in 2019, Uber came under fire for its safety transparency report, which revealed that the company had received nearly 6,000 reports of sexual assault in 2017 and 2018 on its platform. The report prompted a probe from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which later fined Uber $150,000 for refusing to hand over data about drivers and riders who were sexually assaulted. (Uber also agreed to pay the CPUC $9 million to be spent on addressing physical and sexual violence in the state.) The CPUC specifically wanted incident details including date, time and location of assault — information that Uber’s GPS capabilities and these new safety features, like reports of shortened rides, could potentially provide.

An Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch that nothing specific had prompted the enhancements to RideCheck.

“We are just adding additional situations as the tech is now ready and riders are coming back,” they said.

Mexican BNPL player Kueski secures $202M in debt & equity as it nears $100M+ in ARR

Kueski, a Mexico City-based “buy now, pay later” and online consumer lender, announced today it has secured $202 million in equity and debt funding.

StepStone Group (formerly known as Greenspring Capital) led the $102 million equity round and Victory Park Capital led the $100 million debt financing. StepStone was joined by other new investors including One Prime Capital and Glisco, as well as existing backers Altos Ventures, Cathay Innovation, Richmond Global Ventures, Rise Capital, Tuesday Capital, Angel Ventures and Cometa. With the latest financing, Kueski has now raised over $300 million in equity and debt capital. Altos Ventures led its Series B in 2019.

The company declined to reveal its current valuation or hard revenue figures, but CEO and founder Adalberto Flores told TechCrunch he expects it will “soon achieve the $100 million+ ARR milestone.”

Flores founded the company in 2012, technically before “buy now, pay later” (BNPL) was cool. He was motivated after he, his friends and family experienced difficulty in getting access “and how terrible the user experience was in accessing financial services in Mexico.”

For example, he says, his father owned a stable and profitable business with almost 100 employees and yet, he was unable to access credit. Also, the experience of having to visit a bank branch physically can be a daunting experience “since you can become a target for robbers if they think you have cash,” according to Flores.

“This situation is a prevailing issue in Mexico, and Mexico has the fifth highest rate of unbanked citizens globally,” he said. “Almost two-thirds of people are employed in the informal economy, meaning they are paid in cash, which is never deposited into a bank account. These circumstances lead to a challenging environment where financial institutions have little to no information to determine someone’s credit repayment ability.”

As a result, 80% of the consumers in Mexico lack access to a credit card and because of this, 78% of merchants don’t have a POS terminal.

Flores founded Kueski because he wanted to expand access to basic financial services to Mexico’s population. Instead of relying on credit bureau information, the company uses contextual data such as device information, real-time behavioral data and sociodemographic data, and many other types of data sources that are then analyzed by its artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to predict an applicant’s repayment ability.

“The vast dataset that we’ve been able to build after receiving six million unique applicants provides Kueski a powerful data network effect that allows us to more precisely predict an applicant’s ability to repay a loan,” Flores said.

Overall, the fintech has three products: Kueski Pay (BNPL), Kueski Cash (its inaugural offering focused on personal loans) and Kueski Up (interest-free earned wage advances) — all of which Flores says have seen “very strong growth” in the past 12 months. In particular, three-year-old Kueski Pay had “210x” Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) growth from November 2020 to November 2021. During that same time frame, its Cash product grew by 320%. Kueski Up is its newest product. Since 2012, the company has granted nearly 5 million loans online.

“Our goal is to become a financial super app focused on the Mexican consumer,” Flores told TechCrunch.

One unique aspect of Kueski’s services, according to Flores, is that the company allows users to generate a credit history because it reports when customers pay on time (or default on a payment).

Like many other fintechs, Kueski saw increased demand as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the pandemic, Kueski’s growth has been historic and as a company we have been able to take advantage of this moment to reduce the friction that users had when making online purchases, which includes having to visit a convenience store and prepay the full purchase price before getting their order confirmed,” Flores told TechCrunch. “From a credit perspective, the results were fantastic. We were able to update our AI and machine learning models on a daily basis, when banks typically update theirs every six months.”

The new funding will be used to continue growing the BNPL footprint in Mexico and build new products for Mexican consumers. Today, the company has nearly 500 employees, up from 223 in September of 2020. It plans to also use its new capital to reach almost 1,000 employees by the end of 2022.

Recently, Kueski reached the milestone of integrating thousands of merchants (such as Steve Madden and Sally Beauty) into its BNPL “ecosystem.” That’s up from 49 at the beginning of the year. Currently, Kueski Pay is integrated with Walmart, the largest retailer in Mexico, and offers purchases from other retailers and services such as Kipling, VivaAerobus, Nautica and Xiaomi Shop. Specifically, in the fourth quarter, Kueski plans to launch its BNPL product in brick-and-mortar stores, which it says provides an alternative to the traditional high-interest financing plans that have been offered by Mexican banks “for decades” and are still popular due to the lack of alternatives.

Kueski will also soon launch an application in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store.

Image Credits: Kueski

Merchants love Kueski Pay, according to Flores, because it has allowed “hundreds” of companies to increase their online sales by up to 70%, eliminating chargebacks and increasing the average ticket by up to 50%.

“We will close the year with over a million unique users that have transacted with us through one of our financial products,” Flores said. “We think that buy now, pay later is just getting started in Latin America. In Mexico, BNPL represents a huge opportunity for us, considering how few people have access to traditional banking, the role cash plays in our society and the limited range of available payment methods.”

Kueski is currently focused on the Mexican market, but it is planning to expand to other countries in Latin America in the future.

Greenspring Managing Partner Jim Lim said his firm is excited by the opportunities in the BNPL sector in Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

“We are delighted to be partnering with the undisputed market leader, Kueski,” he said in a written statement.

Altos Ventures’ Anthony Lee believes that the fact that Kueski has “leveraged years of technology development and consumer lending data” to launch its buy now, pay later product gives it “valuable market experience that is simply unavailable to newer entrants.”

“Because of this, the company can better underwrite consumers and uniquely support merchants in a way that its competitors cannot match,” he wrote via email.

Of course, Kueski is not the only BNPL player in Mexico. Nelo, a startup founded by former Uber international growth team leads, began offering buy now, pay later services to Mexico earlier this year. Its ultimate goal is to expand to all of Latin America. Earlier this month, it raised $20 million in an effort to help it advance on that goal.

Future MacBook Pro screens could automatically open & tilt to suit the user

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Forget Center Stage moving the camera lens to follow you — future MacBook Pro screens may be able to automatically tilt themselves to the best viewing angle.

Apple famously pays a lot of attention to precisely what angle its MacBook Pro screens are tilted at in every Apple Store. They are positioned at just exactly the right angle that buyers automatically open them wider, and so start to form a relationship with the machine.

Seriously. That tactile sensation, that touch, it makes a difference. Yet now it’s possible that Apple might even throw this idea away in favor of screens that adjust themselves.

As you sit in front of your MacBook Pro, the screen could spot when you’re at an ergonomically sound angle — and when you’re not. When you’re not, it could tilt the screen to suite you better.

“Self-Actuating Hinge Mechanism for Electronic Device,” is a

“>newly-revealed patent application

that describes this. It’s a new idea, but the way it is described is very familiar — because it’s as if Apple is finding further uses for its best inventions.

“The processing system may be configured to determine a target position for the display portion,” says the patent application, “based at least in part on a location of the object in the image and cause the actuation system to actuate the hinge mechanism to move the display portion, relative to the base portion, from an initial position to the target position.”

“The notebook computer may further include a position feedback system configured to determine an actual position of the display portion relative to the base portion,” it continues.

All of which is a long way to describe a great deal of what Center Stage already introduced on iPad Pro. That doesn’t physically move the screen, but it does track where you are and so as you change position, it moves the lens.

There’s an argument, too, that both Center Stage and this new tilting screen idea are leveraging Apple’s very many patents and patent applications for Apple AR. The company has repeatedly filed concepts for gaze-tracking, for instance.

A camera —  maybe in the notch —  could use Face ID-like technology to center the screen on your face

A camera — maybe in the notch — could use Face ID-like technology to center the screen on your face

This application even says that the “processing system configured to determine a target position for the display,” will “at least in part [use] the gaze direction of the user and cause the actuation system to rotate the display portion.”

Just to add to this notion that Apple milks everything it can out of every good idea, there’s even an element of the technology behind Face ID in this one. “The optical sensing system may include a projector configured to project a pattern of light onto the user,” continues the patent application, “and a sensor configured to sense at least a portion of the pattern of light that is reflected by the user.”

Plus all of the patent application’s drawings show the gaze being detected from a camera mounted just about where the new notch is on the lid. We’re just saying.

If the screen can adjust itself while it’s open like this, though, it also follows that it could perhaps do something when it’s closed, too. Although the patent application concentrates on how to determine the right positioning for an open display screen, it also refers to “a technique for automatically opening a device.”

In that idea, tapping on the lid of a closed MacBook Pro, or perhaps knocking three times, would cause it to open up by itself. If you’ve ever struggled opening the lid with just one hand, you might like this.

If you instead think this is Apple going far too far with ease of use, think of all the time saved by Apple Store employees as they just shut every lid at night.