AT&T reveals three more cities for 5G launch by end of year

AT&T Inc on Friday named Oklahoma City, Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, as three more cities where it plans launch its next-generation wireless network, or 5G, by the end of the year.

WhatsApp limits message forwarding in bid to reduce spam and misinformation

In a bid to cut down on the spread of false information and spam, WhatsApp recently added labels that indicate when a message has been forwarded. Now the company is sharpening that strategy by imposing limits on how many groups a message can be sent on to.

Originally, users could forward messages on to multiple groups, but a new trial will see that forwarding limited to 20 groups worldwide. In India, however, which is WhatsApp’s largest market with 200 million users, the limit will be just five. In addition, a ‘quick forward’ option that allowed users to pass on images and videos to others rapidly is being removed from India.

“We believe that these changes — which we’ll continue to evaluate — will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app,” the company said in a blog post.

The changes are designed to help reduce the amount of information that goes viral on the service, although clearly this isn’t a move that will end the problem altogether.

The change is in direct response to a series of incidents in India. The BBC recently wrote about an incident which saw one man dead and two others severely beaten after rumors of their efforts to abduct children from a village spread on WhatsApp. Reportedly 17 other people have been killed in the past year under similar circumstances, with police saying false rumors had spread via WhatsApp.

In response, WhatsApp — which is of course owned by Facebook has bought full-page newspaper ads to warn about false information on its service.

Beyond concern about firing up vigilantes, the saga may also spill into India’s upcoming national general election next year. Times Internet today reports that Facebook and WhatsApp plan to introduce a fake news verification system that it used recently in Mexico to help combat spam messages and the spreading of incorrect news and information. The paper said that the companies have already held talks with India’s Election Commission.

Apple Watch, FitBit could feel cost of U.S. tariffs

The latest round of U.S. tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods could hit the Apple Watch, health trackers, streaming music speakers and other accessories assembled in China, government rulings on tariffs show.

AnyVision AI startup locks in $28M for its body and facial recognition tech

As image recognition advances continue to accelerate, startups with a mind towards security applications are seeing some major interest to turn surveillance systems more intelligent.

AnyVision is working on face, body and object recognition tech and the underlying system infrastructure to help companies deploy smart cameras for various purposes. The tech works when deployed on most types of camera and does not require highly sophisticated sensors to operate, the company says

“It’s not just how accurate the system is, it’s also how much it scales,” Etshtein tells TechCrunch. “You can put more than 20 concurrent full HD camera streams on a single GPU.”

The Tel Aviv-based AI startup announced today that it has closed a $28 million Series A funding round led by Bosch. The quickly growing company already has 130 employees and has plans to open up three new offices by the year’s end.

Right now, AnyVision is working on products in a few different verticals. Its security product called “Better Tomorrow” has been a key focus for the company.

Even as tech giants in the U.S. like Amazon and Google are scrutinized for contracts with government orgs that involve facial recognition tech, Etshtein believes that their company’s solution will be an improvement over existing video surveillance technologies in terms of protecting the public’s privacy.

“Today, the video management systems basically record everything and you can see individuals faces, you can see everything.”Etshtein says. “Once our system is installed it pixelates all the faces in the stream automatically, even the operator in the control center cannot see your face because the mathematical models just represent the persons of interest.”

The company also recently released a product called FaceKey that leverages the company’s facial recognition tech for verification purposes, allowing customers with phones that are not just the iPhone X to use their face as a two-factor authentication method in things like banking apps. Now, there have certainly been a lot of issues with maintaining the needed accuracy which is exactly what has made FaceID so novel, but AnyVision CEO Eylon Etshtein claims to have “cracked the problem.”

Other products AnyVision is working on include some new efforts in the sports and entertainment spaces as well as a retail analytics platform that they’re hoping to release later this summer.

Disney to debut its first VR short next month

Walt Disney Animation Studio is set to debut its first VR short film, Cycles, this August in Vancouver, the Association for Computing Machinery announced today. The plan is for it to be a headliner at the ACM’s computer graphics conference (SIGGRAPH), joining other forms of VR, AR and MR entertainment in the conference’s designated Immersive Pavilion.

This film is a first for both Disney and its director, Jeff Gipson, who joined the animation team in 2013 to work as a lighting artist on films like Frozen, Zootopia and Moana. The objective of this film, Gipson said in the statement released by ACM, is to inspire a deep emotional connection with the story.

“We hope more and more people begin to see the emotional weight of VR films, and with Cycles in particular, we hope they will feel the emotions we aimed to convey with our story,” said Gipson.

Cycles centers around the meaning of creating a home and focuses on the ups and downs of a family as they create a life in theirs.

“Every house has a story unique to the people, the characters who live there,” says Gipson. “We wanted to create a story in this single place and be able to have the viewer witness life happening around them.”

While VR is a perfect candidate for this kind of emotionally driven story, the process of bringing an idea like this to life is no simple task. Apart from the technical feats involved (the short took about four months with 50 collaborators), even the notion of storyboarding is new when designing films like these. When working on Cycles, the team used both Quill VR animations and motion capture to bring their idea into a 3D space.

While this film is Disney’s first foray into VR films, it is terrain that its subsidiary Pixar Animation Studios explored this past winter in a VR trailer for the award-winning film Coco. And, according to a statement Pixar studio executives gave The Washington Post in December, it’s an area the studio would like to explore further through possible VR spin-offs.

Films like Cycles are far from mainstream, but as influential companies like Disney and Pixar continue to experiment in this space, the distant future of widespread VR cinema may be finally approaching.

Shared electric scooters probably won’t return to SF until August

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is still reviewing the 12 applications from companies to operate electric scooters in the city. In early June, companies like Uber, Lime, Bird, Lyft and others applied for permits to operate electric scooter-share services in San Francisco. San Francisco’s permit process came as a result of Bird, Lime and Spin deploying their electric scooters without permission in the city in March. As part of a new city law, which went into effect June 4, scooter companies are not able to operate their services in San Francisco without a permit.

The SFMTA initially said it expected to make a decision about which five, if any, companies would receive permits by the end of June. Well, it’s now July and still no decision. The SFMTA expects to finalize its recommendations and documentation “in the coming weeks,” the SFMTA wrote in a blog post today. Once that’s done, the agency says it will work with companies to finalize and clarify the terms and conditions of the permit. The goal, according to the blog post, is to issue permits sometime in August.

As part of the 24-month pilot program, electric scooter companies selected to operate in the city will need to provide user education and insurance, share its detailed trip data with the city, have a privacy policy that protects user data, offer a low-income plan and operate in a to-be-approved service area. The city will allow no more than 2,500 electric scooters on the streets at any one time.

Despite the standstill in San Francisco, scooter companies are moving full force ahead, snatching up venture funding and partnering with larger players. Last week, Lime raised a $335 million round led by GV with participation from Uber. Late last month, Spin announced it’s closing a $125 million security token offering. That came shortly after electric scooter startup Bird raised a $300 million round led by Sequoia Capital.

For a breakdown of the ongoing scooter wars, be sure to read TC’s overview.

Farfetch acquires CuriosityChina to expand its social media efforts on the mainland

Farfetch — the e-commerce startup that works with some 900 high-end fashion boutiques and labels to present and sell clothes, shoes, accessories and jewelry online, and we and others have heard is gearing up for a $6 billion IPO — is making an acquisition to double down on China, one of the fastest-growing markets for luxury goods.

It’s acquiring CuriosityChina, a marketing firm that specializes in leveraging social media — specifically, WeChat — to target users and sell goods. It already works with some 80 brands that are also customers of Farfetch to help them use WeChat channels and accounts to reach would-be customers. It also offers CRM and a few other services.

The plan will be to incorporate CuriosityChina into Farfetch’s “Black & White” white-label API, which essentially allows boutiques to integrate their stock into Farfetch’s purchasing and logistics platform, or use that engine to sell its goods on their own sites. This will now give them the option also to use the API to run campaigns in China.

Terms of the deal have not been disclosed. This is Farfetch’s third acquisition, the other two being U.K. boutique Browns and Style.com. Farfetch also said it is buying all of the company’s tech and all of its employees and founders are coming on board.

Judy Liu, a co-founder of CuriosityChina, will become Farfetch’s managing director for China; another co-founder, Alexis Bonhomme, is taking on the role of VP of commercial, China; and the third co-founder, Arthur Shui, will become head of technology for the Chinese operation.

Farfetch’s acquisition of CuriosityChina underscores a few interesting trends currently underway in the market: the rise of the Chinese consumer, the ongoing challenges to target those consumers if you are from outside China and the rise of social media as a popular marketing and sales channel.

The luxury market was worth €262 billion in 2017, according to analysis from Bain, with customers from China accounting for 32 percent of that amount (shopping both in China and abroad). It turns out that among those buyers, social media — and specifically WeChat — is one of the most important routes to reach customers and for those customers to subsequently buy things, including directly in those social channels.

Curiosity China will fill a gap for Farfetch as it works on ways of expanding its revenues by tapping those two trends. Today, the Asia-Pacific region already accounts for about one-third of the company’s sales (it doesn’t break out China) — a decent bedrock on which to build.

But most of those sales today are coming by way of people shopping on Farfetch.com, and so the idea is to tap into the popular channel of the moment to grow those numbers in a complementary way.

“WeChat is the most important channel for commerce in China, so we want to see where it will go,” said Giorgio Belloli, Farfetch’s chief commercial and sustainability officer. “It’s where brands are focusing at the moment. They understand Chinese consumers are using dedicated channels on there for marketing and purchasing.”

On the part of retailers and brands — the other side of Farfetch’s marketplace — they have found it traditionally hard to reach Chinese consumers, and the idea is that this will also help them do that.

For now, there are no plans to expand CuriosityChina’s model to other markets beyond its home country. Belloli said that although Farfetch has been keeping its eye on messaging everywhere, and despite the efforts of Facebook to replicate the same commercial experience, so far no other messaging app has managed to break through as a strong channel for fashion commerce as WeChat has. It will be interesting to see whether and how that evolves over time.

At patent trial, Groupon casts IBM as shaking down other tech companies

A lawyer for discount e-commerce company Groupon Inc told a court in Delaware on Thursday that International Business Machines Corp has shaken down practically every large tech firm for patent fees.