Tingles is an app devoted to ASMR videos

The Tingles team has not done much in the way of promotion, but the app has already built a fairly sizable following in its community. That’s one of the nice things about a targeted product — it spreads fast.

In the year since Slovenian co-founders Gasper Kolenc and Miha Mlakar launched, the service has focused almost exclusively on ASMR — autonomous sensory meridian response — those whispered, pleasant-sounding videos that give listeners a sense of low-level euphoria. The service is about to get a big push, with help from Y Combinator.

“We were just trying to figure the best way to build it for artists and the community,” Mlakar, who also serves as the company’s CPO, tells TechCrunch. “We established all of these relationships. All of the features came from the community. We needed time to work on the product.”

In spite of a lack of promotion, the company says it’s pulled in 60,000 monthly active users, bout a third of whom use the product every day. The site’s content is created by more than 200 “artists” (a term taken from the ASMR community’s almost-too-clever “ASMRtist”), many of whom were poached from YouTube.

Google’s video service has, of course, been ground zero for the rise of the ASMR online phenomenon. And while Mlakar admits that it’s proven a valuable resource for the community (it was where he first learned of the concept), the co-founder believes there were still issues unserved by YouTube’s catch-all approach to online video.

“I think YouTube is great for discovery,” says Mlakar. “I discovered ASMR on there. But when you become a regular user, it becomes a problem. The main thing is the ads. If you’re listening to ASMR to fall asleep and you’re just about to doze off, then a loud commercial wakes you up, it’s really unpleasant.”

The other benefits of offering such a hyper-focused service include a better monetization model for creators. The service is available ad-free for free, but the company is working with creators to develop exclusive premium content deals, along with other features like tipping. Creators are vetted through a short approval process, and Tingles does police the videos. But while the app — and most ASMR proponents — are quick to point out that the phenomenon itself isn’t a sexual one, there are indeed “more erotic channels,” according to Mlakar.

For Tingles, ASMR is just the beginning. Mlakar describes the Android/iOS app as “basically the best place to find any video content that helps you relax and fall asleep,” and future plans include a larger push into other relaxation categories, like meditation/mindfulness.

Zoosk relaunches dating app Lively as a way to meet new people while playing trivia games

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of trivia applications like HQ Trivia, dating app maker Zoosk has just released an experimental app that combines trivia with the potential for meeting someone new. The app is a relaunch and complete makeover of Zoosk’s Lively, which first debuted in July 2016 as a dating app that used video to tell stories, instead of static profile images.

The new version of Lively is nothing like its former namesake.

As Zoosk explains, the previous version of Lively’s group video chat app was fun, but people didn’t know how to connect and relate to one another using the video format. It felt awkward to start conversations, with no reason to be there besides wanting to date.

The company went back to the drawing board, so to speak, to think about what sort of experiences could bring people together. Trivia, naturally, came to mind.

Lively aims to reproduce the feeling that comes with competing at a bar trivia night. When you join, you’re placed in a group video chat team of two to four people. Together, the team works to answer a series of 12 questions while discussing the answers over video in real-time. When they finish the questions, they’ll be able to see how their scores compared with other teams.

The “dating” component to the app isn’t quite what you would expect. In fact, it’s less of a way to find a date for a night out, than it is to just make new friends. After the game wraps, you’ll have the option to continue chatting with the other players, if you choose. You can also add people as a friend, if you hit it off.

And when trivia isn’t in session – the games run twice daily at 3 PM and 7 PM PST – you can group video chat with others on Lively.

Because you’re not added to a team with nearby players, your ability to make friends who are also possible real-life dating prospects is decidedly limited. That’s something that Lively could change to support in time, if it’s able to grow its user base. But for now, it needs to match users with any live players in order to fill out its teams.

It’s understandable why it went this route, but it doesn’t lend itself well to meeting someone special – unless you’re open to meeting people anywhere (which some are), or are fine with just making new friends and seeing where that leads.

Unlike HQ Trivia, which features live streams with a host, Lively is just group video chat with a trivia component. That means it won’t be as challenging for Zoosk to operate, as it doesn’t have to worry with bandwidth issues and other costs of putting on a live game show. Also, because there are no prizes or payouts, you can join anytime during the 30-minute gaming session to be placed into a team and play along.

Lively is not the first app to support a group video chat interface where gameplay is an option. A number of video chat apps over the years have integrated games into their experience, including older apps like Tango or Google+ Hangouts, Line, and more recently, Facebook Messenger. But none have integrated games for the purpose of facilitating new relationships.

Zoosk today has 38 million members, but wanted to find a way to reach a younger demographic, which is why it originally launched Lively. The app was the first product to emerge from Zoosk’s in-house incubator, Zoosk Labs, where the company experiments with new ideas to expand its core business.

Whether or not Zoosk can turn trivia players into love connections remains to be seen, but it’s interesting how HQ Trivia’s success has led to this wider market full of knock-offs (e.g. Genius, Joyride, Cash Show, The Q, TopBuzz, Live Quiz, Live.me, Halftime Live!, Jam Music, etc.) and other tweaks that follow its idea of live trivia games.

Lively is available on iOS only for now.

Equity podcast: Theranos’s reckoning, BroadQualm’s stunning conclusion and Lyft’s platform ambitions

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Katie Roof and I were joined by Mayfield Fund’s Navin Chaddha, an investor with early connections with Lyft to talk about, well, Lyft — as well as two bombshell news events in the form of an SEC fine for Theranos and Broadcom’s hostile takeover efforts for Qualcomm hitting the brakes. Alex Wilhelm was not present this week but will join us again soon (we assume he was tending to his Slayer shirt collection).

Starting off with Lyft, there was quite a bit of activity for Uber’s biggest competitor in North America. The ride-sharing startup (can we still call it a startup?) said it would be partnering with Magna to “co-develop” an autonomous driving system. Chaddha talks a bit about how Lyft’s ambitions aren’t to be a vertical business like Uber, but serve as a platform for anyone to plug into. We’ve definitely seen this play out before — just look at what happened with Apple (the closed platform) and Android (the open platform). We dive in to see if Lyft’s ambitions are actually going to pan out as planned. Also, it got $200 million out of the deal.

Next up is Theranos, where the SEC investigation finally came to a head with founder Elizabeth Holmes and former president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani were formally charged by the SEC for fraud. The SEC says the two raised more than $700 million from investors through an “elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.” You can find the full story by TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos here, and we got a chance to dig into the implications of what it might mean for how investors scope out potential founders going forward. (Hint: Chaddha says they need to be more careful.)

Finally, BroadQualm is over. After months of hand-wringing over whether or not Broadcom would buy — and then commit a hostile takeover — of the U.S. semiconductor giant, the Trump administration blocked the deal. A cascading series of events associated with the CFIUS, a government body, got it to the point where Broadcom’s aggressive dealmaker Hock Tan dropped plans to go after Qualcomm altogether. The largest deal of all time in tech will, indeed, not be happening (for now), and it has potentially pretty big implications for M&A going forward.

That’s all for this week, we’ll catch you guys next week. Happy March Madness, and may fortune favor* your brackets.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocketcast, Downcast and all the casts.

assuming you have Duke losing before the elite 8.

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 gets Disney AR Emojis at launch

I wasn’t alone in suggesting that Samsung’s Animoji competitors were, well, creepy. AR Emojis sit firmly in the uncanny valley between face scans and cartoon characters — generally lacking the adorableness of Apple’s offering. They have, however, had one saving grace: Disney, the entertainment company that essentially owns all of your best childhood memories. 

Samsung teased the partnership this month at Mobile World Congress, during the big Galaxy S9 launch, but didn’t offer much in the way of specifics. There is, however, some good news on the front. Disney’s AR Emojis will be available at launch for the S9 and S9+ — which, as it so happens, is today.

Right now, only Mickey and Minnie are available, accessible to phone buyers as a free download.  More character offerings from such blockbuster films as The Incredibles, Zootopia and Frozen will be made available before the end of the year.

The decision to go with Samsung is no doubt a sore spot for Apple, which has had a tight partnership with Disney for decades, including numerous product crossovers and shared board members. But the entertainment giant is no doubt looking to spread the love. The company also recently licensed Star Wars characters for some very Porg-y Pixel 2 AR stickers.

“By extending our characters and stories to new digital platforms,” Disney VP John Love said in a release tied to the announcement, “we are creating daily Disney experiences everywhere our audience goes, and we are able to draw in new generations of fans.”

The S9 hits the market today, priced starting at $720.

Stock trade app Robinhood raising at $5B+, up 4X in a year

By adding a cryptocurrency exchange, a web version and stock option trading, Robinhood has managed to quadruple its valuation in a year, according to a source familiar with a new round the startup is raising. Robinhood is closing in on around $350 million in Series D funding led by Russian firm DST Global, the source says. That’s just 11 months after Robinhood confirmed TechCrunch’s scoop that the zero-fee stock trading app had raised a $110 million Series C at a $1.3 billion valuation. The new raise would bring Robinhood to $526 million in funding.

Details of the Series D were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The astronomical value growth shows that investors see Robinhood as a core part of the mobile finance tools upon which the next generation will rely. The startup also just proved its ability to nimbly adapt to trends by building its cryptocurrency trading feature in less than two months to make sure it wouldn’t miss the next big economic shift. One million users waitlisted for access in just the five days after Robinhood Crypto was announced.

The launch completed a trio of product debuts. The mobile app finally launched a website version for tracking and trading stocks without a commission in November. In December it opened options trading, making it a more robust alternative to brokers like E*Trade and Scottrade. They often charge $7 or more per stock trade compared to zero with Robinhood, but also give away features that are reserved for Robinhood’s premium Gold subscription tier.

Robinhood won’t say how many people have signed up for its $6 to $200 per month Gold service that lets people trade on margin, with higher prices netting them more borrowing power. That and earning interest on money stored in Robinhood accounts are the startup’s primary revenue sources.

Rapid product iteration and skyrocketing value surely helped recruit Josh Elman, who Robinhood announced yesterday has joined as VP of product as he transitions to a part-time roll at Greylock Partners. He could help the company build a platform business as a backbone for other fintech apps, they way he helped Facebook build its identity platform.

In effect, Robinhood has figured out how to make stock trading freemium. Rather than charge per trade with bonus features included, Robinhood gives away the bare-bones trades and charges for everything else. That could give it a steady, scalable business model akin to Dropbox, which grew by offering small amounts of free storage and then charging for extras and enterprise accounts. From a start with free trades, Robinhood could blossom into a hub for your mobile finance life.

Google adds a wheelchair-accessible option for transit maps

Google Maps has a pretty solid set of data for taking transit from here to there, but anyone with a physical disability knows it isn’t quite that simple. Some stations may be wheelchair-unfriendly, have out-of-service elevators, that kind of thing. A new update to the service adds an option for you to specify a wheelchair-accessible route — though that’s just a start on what’s really needed.

Transit riders in London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston and Sydney will now have the option to select “wheelchair accessible” in their route options in the same way they might opt to have fewer transfers or minimal walking. More are on the way.

No doubt this will make life easier for disabled folks, people with strollers or even anyone lugging around something heavy.

But maps, even Google’s extremely detailed ones, are still extremely short on information critical to anyone with a physical disability. Walking routes that take into account sidewalk condition and grade, curb cuts, pedestrian crossing zones or buttons, wheelchair-accessible entrances to buildings and much more could be better integrated into the world’s most popular mapping platform.

We know it can be done because a handful of students did it on their own for a summer project. AccessMap uses a combination of manually generated and publicly available data to label sidewalks as safe or risky for people who have trouble getting around. It’s limited to Seattle at present (can’t expect undergrads to map the country) but the concept is more than sound.

Here’s hoping Google dedicates a bit more of its considerable resources to improving this aspect of the product. Millions will thank them.

Facebook launches Express Wi-Fi app for its local-operated hotspots

Facebook wants you to pay for internet. This week TechCrunch was tipped off that Facebook had quietly launched an Express Wi-Fi Android app in the Google Play store that lets users buy data packs and find nearby hotspots as part of Facebook’s distributed Wi-Fi network. The company’s Express Wi-Fi program is live in five developing countries that see local business owners operating Wi-Fi hotspots where people can pay to access higher-speed bandwidth via local telecoms instead of paying steep prices for slow cellular data connections.

Previously, Express Wi-Fi users had to dig out a mobile website, or directly download an app from a telecom that required reconfiguring a phone’s settings. There wasn’t any way to look up where hotspots were located. The new Google Play app can be downloaded the normal way. It’s now live in Indonesia with bandwidth from telecom partner D-Net, and in Kenya through Surf. The app can also tell if a user’s Wi-Fi is turned on to help with set up, and they can file reports to Facebook about connectivity or retailer issues.

The launch signals Facebook expanding its pursuit of developing world audiences that first need internet access before they can become lucrative Facebook users. Unlike its much-criticized zero-rating program called Free Basics (formerly Internet.org), Express Wi-Fi offers a full, unrestricted version of the web for a price instead of only low-bandwidth services approved by Facebook. This strategy could help it achieve its mission of getting more disconnected people in the developing world online without the net neutrality concerns. Making Express Wi-Fi an actual business might save Facebook from backlash about it masking a user growth driver inside a philanthropic initiative.

Facebook confirmed the launch to TechCrunch, with a spokesperson telling us, “Facebook is releasing the Express Wi-Fi app in the Google Play store to give people another simple and secure way to access fast, affordable internet through their local Express Wi-Fi hotspots.” Sensor Tower first tipped us off to the app.

Weak or expensive connectivity is a huge barrier to Facebook deepening its popularity in the developing world at a time when it’s reaching saturation or even shrinking in some developed world nations. Facebook saw its first user loss ever in the U.S. and Canada region in Q4, with daily active users decreasing by 700,000 in part because of News Feed changes that reduced the presence of engagement-drawing viral videos.

Facebook needs user growth more than ever, and the developing world is where it can find it. That’s why it’s developing advanced technologies like the Aquila solar drone and satellites that can beam down connectivity. It’s also working with telecoms that use microwave towers to beam backhaul bandwidth to its Express Wi-Fi units.

Monetizing the international market has been a big focus for the company. It’s launched new region-specific and low-bandwidth ad units like click-to-missed-call and slideshows. It’s paid off. From 2012 to 2016, average revenue per user grew 4X in the Rest of World region. And that revenue grows even faster when people can load Facebook quickly and cheaply thanks to strong Wi-Fi access. The more accessible Facebook makes this program, the more it could see those internet users turn into social networkers.

SwiftKey gets stickers

Back in 2016, Microsoft bought the popular SwiftKey keyboard for Android and iOS for $250 million. It’s still one of the most popular third-party keyboard on both platforms and today, the company is launching one of its biggest updates since the acquisition. With SwiftKey 7.0,  which is out now, the company is adding stickers — because who doesn’t like stickers?

Going forward, the service will offer a number of sticker packs, including some that can be edited and some that are exclusive to Microsoft, too.

That by itself wouldn’t be all that interesting, of course (and I can already see you rolling your eyes) but the real change here is under the hood and sets SwiftKey up for adding more interesting features soon. That’s because the stickers will live in the new SwiftKey toolbar, which will replace the current ‘hub,’ the menu where you can change your keyboard’s layout, size, etc. Right now, what you can find there are stickers and collections, that is, a library of stickers, images and other media you like to torture your friends with.

In the near future, SwiftKey will use this toolbar to enable a number of other new features like location sharing (though only in the U.S. and India for now) and calendar sharing.

“We remain committed to making regular typing as fast and easy as possible,” writes Chris Wolfe, Principal Product Manager at SwiftKey in today’s announcement. “Today’s release of Toolbar, Stickers and Collections, as well as the announcement of Location and Calendar, also shows our ambition to improve users’ experience of rich media. With the support of Microsoft, you can expect to see more innovations in both regular and rich media typing coming soon”