Vine successor Byte is available now on iOS and Android

Dom Hofmann, the co-creator of Vine who has been quietly working on a successor to the short-form video platform, says the new app, called Byte, is available now on iOS and Android. The app has been available in beta form for quite some time, but its launch late on Friday afternoon came as a complete surprise.

Hofmann has been developing Byte on and off for years, after he quit Vine just after its acquisition by Twitter. Last we heard from him in an official capacity about the app’s launch (he’s been regularly dropping updates in the app’s rather active online forum) was in November 2018, when Hofmann said it would be arriving in the spring of the following year.

This was after Hofmann had postponed work on the Vine successor, which he initially named V2 before officially rebranding the project as Byte, in May 2018. The name itself is not to be confused with Beijing-based Bytedance, the Chinese maker of TikTok. TikTok is now Byte’s biggest competition, as the app has fast-become one of the most explosively popular platforms ever created and has largely taken up the short-form video mantle from Vine after Instagram and Snapchat matured into less teen-oriented and more ad-friendly platforms.

In fact, Hofmann came up with the Byte name back in 2015, when he was designing his next app. It was a short-lived creative app with a social component similar in ways to the original Vine that, in a wild twist, let you create custom soundtracks to play over images and GIFs, much like how TikTok would later use licensed music and a lip syncing theme to propel itself to viral stardom. Hofmann simply resurfaced the Byte branding as the official product name for V2 when he decided he would in fact follow through and release it.

Hofmann did miss that 2019 deadline. But Byte is out now and longtime fans of Vine, which Twitter unceremoniously shut down just four years after acquiring it, will probably be happy just to have anything that resembles the defunct platform’s short-lived but profoundly impactful creative spirit. We’ll have to see whether TikTok users give Byte a chance, and if the app can live up to the hype of carrying the Vine flame forward.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Hofmann says Byte will introduce a revenue-sharing mechanism to help creators get paid for their work when the app does eventually introduce advertising. “We’re looking at all of those, but we’ll be starting with a revenue share + supplementing with our own funds. We’ll have more details about exactly how the pilot program will work soon,” Hofmann says. And in a series of tweets from the official Byte Twitter account, the company says “compensation creators is one important way we can support” both creativity and community.

Update January 24th, 8:15PM ET: Added additional details regarding the history of Byte and Hofmann’s prior work, as well as a quote from Hofmann on Byte’s revenue sharing.

Here’s the logo for Trump’s Space Force, and it looks awfully familiar

President Donald Trump on Friday revealed the official logo for the Space Force, the newest branch of the armed forces and part of the existing United States Air Force department, in a tweet.

The Space Force, a fixation of Trump’s throughout his presidency, became a reality last month when Congress passed a $738 billion military bill that created the sixth branch of the military. And now the Air Force is responsible for branding, uniform design, and the various other requirements involved with creating a new armed force.

However, the logo appears to borrow heavily from the fictional logo of Starfleet from the Star Trek universe.

Vocal Trump critic and former Star Trek cast member George Takei also weighed in.

Analyst and former national security policy advisor John Noonan, who was a member of the USAF, commented on Twitter shortly after the announcement to point out that the Space Force logo, while similar in design to the Starfleet one, is in fact based on an existing Air Force command logo.

Adding another wrinkle to the situation is that Trump’s political action committee, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, was polling voters back in 2018 about which Space Force logos they liked the best. And the six options provided all look drastically different than the end result we have today, with quite a few featuring NASA-inspired iconography and type faces alongside retro-futurist aesthetics.

It’s not entirely clear how the team responsible for branding the Space Force went from that to what Trump revealed this afternoon. But here we are.

Although, as one user on Twitter noted, the designers did seem to take some cues from the NASA logo, predominantly the exact placement of the stars that appear to have been copied over directly.

CBS, which owns the rights to Star Trek, was not immediately available for comment.

YouTube signs exclusive streaming deal for Activision e-sports like Call of Duty and Overwatch

Video game publisher Activision Blizzard has entered into a multiyear partnership with Google that will see the search giant’s cloud platform power all of Activision Blizzard’s game hosting and other technical needs. But more importantly, as part of the deal, YouTube will become the exclusive streaming partner for all of the game publisher’s big e-sports titles, including the upcoming season of the Overwatch League and the Call of Duty League, which kicks off today in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The deal is a huge win for YouTube, which has struggled to compete with game streaming leader Twitch, despite YouTube being the largest video site in the world and the second most-visited website on the planet behind only its parent company’s search engine. Twitch was the exclusive streaming partner for Activision Blizzard’s first two seasons of the Overwatch League, and Twitch has long been the go-to destination for live gaming entertainment.

That looks like it’s beginning to change, in part due to competing platforms’ willingness to spend large amounts of money to lock down talent and ink exclusivity deals like this one. Since its launch in 2015, YouTube Gaming failed to flourish as its own distinct section of the broader YouTube ecosystem, and earlier this year, the company even shuttered the standalone YouTube Gaming app because its existence caused “confusion” among viewers. In its place is a game-focused hub on YouTube for finding popular live streams and videos.

Yet the failure of YouTube Gaming as a standalone platform hasn’t stopped the video site from continuing to try to capture more of the live-streaming market. YouTube has signed streaming exclusivity deals with top creators like Jack “CouRage” Dunlop and Lachlan Power in recent months, and the platform continues to be the prime destination for prerecorded footage. Even though many streamers still remain on Twitch or, like Fortnite star Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, have moved over to Microsoft’s competing Mixer, YouTube is still where all of these creators post highlight videos, vlogs, and other content that lives on after it’s streamed live.

In that context, this Activision deal is another chapter in the ongoing streaming wars saga playing out between online video platforms, streaming services, traditional cable and network companies, and content creators. In this particular scenario, it’s Amazon-owned Twitch competing against Google-owned YouTube, and Facebook is also trying to build out its own live-streaming platform to capitalize on the popularity of gaming content. But it seems like it’s only a matter of time before other big streaming wars players, be it Disney or HBO or Netflix, try to get more involved in the live-streaming and gaming spaces, too.

“With more than 200 million gamers a day watching more than 50 billion hours of gaming content per year, YouTube provides gamers and their passionate fans with the most popular video gaming platform in the world,” Ryan Wyatt, YouTube’s head of gaming, said in a statement.

“Both the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League are the quintessential examples of world class esports content. As a former Call of Duty esports commentator myself, I couldn’t be more excited for Activision Blizzard to choose YouTube as its exclusive home for the digital live streaming of both leagues. This partnership further demonstrates our dedication to having a world class live streaming product for gaming.”

Google is backtracking on its controversial desktop search results redesign

Google is backtracking on a controversial search engine redesign, announcing today that it will experiment with some elements of the new look in response to user feedback.

Google made one of the biggest changes to how it displays search results in the company’s history earlier this month, with the changes taking effect over the course of the last week. It involved a visual overhaul that makes it more difficult to differentiate between advertising and organic search results with the removal of color overlays and the introduction of small branded iconography, known on the web as favicons, next to non-ad results.

The company’s stated intention was to align desktop search results with the way they’re presented on mobile, but it became clear this also had the effect of making it harder to distinguish between paid results and non-paid ones. The only difference between an ad and an organic result in the new design is the small lettering or icon next to a link, meaning ads and organic results now look more similar than ever before. And critics have been noticing.

Now, Google says it’s going to experiment with both the existence of favicons next to search results and their placement on the web version of its search engine. The experiments will take place “over the coming weeks.”

“Last week we updated the look of Search on desktop to mirror what’s been on mobile for months. We’ve heard your feedback about the update. We always want to make Search better, so we’re going to experiment with new placements for favicons,” writes Danny Sullivan, Google’s search liaison, in a statement posted to Twitter. “Our experimenting will begin today. Over the coming weeks, while we test, some might not see favicons while some might see them in different placements as we look to bring a modern look to desktop.”

Google also released a more formal statement as to why it made the initial changes and making a commitment to “iterate on the design over time”:

We’re dedicated to improving the desktop experience for Search, and as part of our efforts around this we rolled out a new design last week, mirroring the design that we’ve had for many months on mobile. The design has been well received by users on mobile screens, as it helps people more quickly see where information is coming from and they can see a prominent bolded ad label at the top. Web publishers have also told us they like having their brand iconography on the search results page. While early tests for desktop were positive, we are always incorporating feedback from our users. We are experimenting with a change to the current desktop favicons, and will continue to iterate on the design over time.

As of shortly after 2PM ET on Friday, Google has already started experimenting with favicon removal.

Screenshots by Sean Hollister / The Verge

Update January 24th, 2:18PM ET: Clarified that Google has already begun its experiments with favicon removal for some users.

Controversial facial recognition firm Clearview AI facing legal claims after damning NYT report

Clearview AI, an artificial intelligence firm providing facial recognition technology to US law enforcement, may be overstating how effective its services are in catching terrorist suspects and preventing attacks, according to a report from BuzzFeed News.

The company, which gained widespread recognition from a New York Times story published earlier this month, claims it was instrumental in identifying a New York suspect from video footage who had placed three rice cookers disguised as explosive devices around New York City last August, creating panic and setting off a citywide manhunt. BuzzFeed News found via a public records request that Clearview AI has been claiming in promotional material that law enforcement linked the suspect to an online profile in only five seconds using its database. But city police now say this is simply false.

“The NYPD did not use Clearview technology to identify the suspect in the August 16th rice cooker incident,” an NYPD spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “The NYPD identified the suspect using the Department’s facial recognition practice where a still image from a surveillance video was compared to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos.”

The NYPD now says it has no formal relationship with Clearview, despite the company’s claims otherwise both in the promotional material it’s using to pitch its technology around the country and even publicly on its website. Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That now says the NYPD is using its technology “on a demo basis,” BuzzFeed reports.

In a blog post published on Thursday responding to criticism, Clearview claims it has rejected the idea it produce a public, consumer-facing facial recognition app that could be accessed by anyone.

“Clearview’s app is not available to the public. While many people have advised us that a public version would be more profitable, we have rejected the idea,” the post reads. “Clearview exists to help law enforcement agencies solve the toughest cases, and our technology comes with strict guidelines and safeguards to ensure investigators use it for its intended purpose only.”

Clearview has quickly risen to the forefront of the national conversation around facial recognition technology — in particular, growing concern among activists and politicians over how it may be used to violate civil rights and whether it’s being adopted too quickly based on false or misleading claims about its effectiveness. Amazon, which makes a cloud-based facial recognition product called Rekognition, has also faced similar criticism for selling its technology to law enforcement despite repeated concerns from academics and activists who say it is flawed when used to try to identity darker-skinned and female individuals.

Clearview is also facing challenges from platforms in the wake of the NYT report. Twitter has sent Clearview a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the company stop scraping its platform for photos to include in its database. Twitter also demanded the company delete any existing data it may have obtained from the platform because using it to fill out a third-party database without user consent is against Twitter’s policies. Clearview has acknowledged publicly that it built out its database in part by scraping social media profiles.

Additionally, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General has barred the state’s police departments from using Clearview, and sent a cease-and-desist to Clearview on Friday after the Department of Law and Public Safety discovered that a photo fo New Jersey AG Gurbir S. Grewal was being used on Clearview’s website to falsely promote its product as having been used in a 2019 child predator sting.

Members of Congress are also expressing concerns over the product. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a vocal critic of Silicon Valley privacy practices and overreach, also sent a letter to Ton-That earlier this month demanding the company provide crucial information about its practices and technology. The list of questions includes information on which law enforcement agencies Clearview is working with, results of internal bias and accuracy tests if there are any, whether the company plans to market its technology to individuals or third-party companies beyond law enforcement, and its child privacy protections, among other info.

“The ways in which this technology could be weaponized are vast and disturbing. Using Clearview’s technology, a criminal could easily find out where someone walking down the street lives or works. A foreign adversary could quickly gather information about targeted individuals for blackmail purposes,” reads Markey’s letter. “Clearview’s product appears to pose particularly chilling privacy risks, and I am deeply concerned that it is capable of fundamentally dismantling Americans’ expectation that they can move, assemble, or simply appear in public without being identified.”

In one particularly dystopian twist, The New York Times reported that Clearview had identified and reached out to police officers who may have been talking with journalists by checking logs of which officers uploaded photos of those journalists into Clearview’s app. “It’s extremely troubling that this company may have monitored usage specifically to tamp down on questions from journalists about the legality of their app,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) tweeted last Sunday.

Update January 25th, 2:30PM ET: Added new information regarding a cease-and-desist from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, and that New Jersey police have been barred from using the app.

Apple Arcade’s latest game is a more family-friendly Fortnite called Butter Royale

Apple Arcade has so far been a great repository for polished, offbeat indie games that are best explored when you have some quiet time and perhaps no internet connection.

The latest entry into the iOS subscription game service is different. It’s a flashy multiplayer battle royale shooter, kind of like Fortnite — except it’s more kid-friendly, with a food fight theme instead of guns and bullets and a top-down design that gives it the look and feel of classic dungeon crawlers. It’s called Butter Royale, and it’s available today for all Apple Arcade subscribers.

But isn’t Fortnite already kid-friendly? you might ask. Well, sort of. You still shoot people with guns that are modeled after real-life firearms. Butter Royale is taking a more direct, no-gun approach to its game design that’s similar in many ways to Nintendo’s Splatoon, and its creators are even building that into the loose game lore of the shooter.

“Set in the near future, after a global ban on weapons, contestants engage in food fights on Butter Island to satisfy their hunger for competitive action. Contestants use ‘Nutritionally Operated Machines’ (NOMs) to launch food at one another during five minute matches, while trying to escape floods of butter to get to safe zones,” reads the game description. Some of the weapons have amazing and absurd names like the Mayonator3000, Breadzooka, and Sniparmesan.

The developer, a Singapore studio called Mighty Bear Games that grew out of Candy Crush maker King’s local Singaporean office, wants to be clear that it’s making an inclusive, nonviolent game that kids of all ages can enjoy.

“We designed Butter Royale to push the envelope on fun and inclusivity. We want everyone in the family to love it and see themselves represented in the game, from young children to grandparents,” CEO Simon Davis said in a statement. “It is also important to us that Butter Royale is a nonviolent shooter, so younger players can safely join in. The food-fight theme was perfect for that.”

Butter Royale features an offline mode where you play against AI. But in its online version, 32 players compete either as a solo participant or in squads of four in five-minute matches where they try to take down opponents, stockpile resources, and outrun the encroaching butter storm. Players can choose from up to 52 characters to play as that span “diverse backgrounds, age, and genders.” Like all Apple Arcade titles, there are zero microtransactions.

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Transcription service Rev is raising prices for the first time to $1.25 a minute

Online transcription service Rev is raising its prices for the first time ever, from $1 a minute to $1.25. The price hike was disclosed in a message the company sent to Rev transcribers on Thursday outlining the change and assuring the contract workers that this is not expected to significantly impact the number of job orders available. The company, which has been around since 2010, is one of the leading online transcription services, and it made its name largely off its advertised $1 per minute rate.

“We’ve already spoken with dozens of clients. They seem to get it: companies raise prices. Rev has been charging $1 per minute since we launched almost a decade ago and that’s been far less than our competition,” reads Rev’s message to transcribers. “So, while we suspect some may not like it, based on the conversations we’ve had we also anticipate the negative response to be fairly limited. For you, that means Revvers shouldn’t expect a noticeable drop in the number of jobs available.”

To help offset any negative effects of its price hike, Rev says that it will start paying its transcribers “more on average” starting in March, yet not across the board and only for “harder jobs.” Rev did not elaborate on this distinction. The company says it is also going to make its grading system fairer, among other changes designed to make transcribing for Rev more manageable.

Yet one Rev transcriber who spoke with The Verge on Thursday said some workers are “quite unhappy” with the change, considering Rev will be earning more money per minute transcribed while base pay for all transcriptions will remain the same.

Pricing and pay rates are particular hot button issues for Rev and its labor force. The company found itself embroiled in controversy this past November for a series of damning reports about working conditions for its contract labor force, starting with the news that the company would be slashing its minimum pay rate from 45 cents per minute transcribed to 30 cents.

Following that, an investigation from The Verge found that Rev transcribers were routinely subjected to disturbing audio recordings without adequate mental health benefits or even without any warning prior to the recording. The audio clips have included such incidents as violent police recordings, descriptions of child abuse, and graphic medical videos. A day later, Rev banned people under the age of 18 from transcribing for its service; prior to the rule change, loose labor law allowed minors to do contract labor like the kind Rev uses to supply customers.

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri was swatted last November

Adam Mosseri, the CEO of Instagram and a longtime Facebook employee, became a target of an anonymous online attacker who called in a fake hostage situation at his San Francisco home last November. The phone calls eventually led a SWAT team to Mosseri’s door, according to a new report in The New York Times that was published on Thursday.

The practice, known as swatting, has long been a particularly extreme form of online attack, and in some situations, it has even led to violence. After a Kansas swatting attack over an online match of Call of Duty led to the accidental police shooting of a 28-year-old Wichita man in 2017, the perpetrator — a serial swatter who had also called in numerous bomb threats in years prior — was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Two other men were charged with crimes related to the incident.

According to the NYT, which cites conversations and records with local police departments, swatting and similarly extreme online harassment has become more common in the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle where many wealthy tech executives reside. The report says people have been using swatting, in particular, to target Facebook employees.

The NYT says dedicated swatting forums, many hidden from public view on the dark web, contain sensitive information about Facebook employees. Conversations on those forums seem to indicate that Facebook and Instagram employees are prime targets due to both companies’ policies on cracking down on fake accounts and certain types of speech.

Pokémon Go’s live events drove nearly $250 million in tourism revenue last year

Niantic Labs says its live events for augmented reality hit Pokémon Go contributed $247 million in tourism revenue last year across three cities. The announcement on Wednesday was paired with the new schedule for 2020 events across Pokémon Go, Ingress Prime, and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

“Over the last 7 years, live, real-world events have been central to Niantic’s goal in leveraging technology to create interactive experiences that foster exploration and discovery, active and healthy lifestyles and lasting friendships,” Michael Steranka, Niantic’s senior manager for live events, said in a statement. “Niantic’s large-scale real-world events have had a true and clear positive economic impact on tourism, bringing people from around the world together for a weekend of adventure.”

Niantic says the biggest revenue generator was last year’s Pokémon Go Fest Chicago, which drove an estimated $120 million in tourism expenditures from attending players, which included 64,000 attendees across the four-day event. That’s triple the number of participants from the inaugural Pokémon Go Fest Chicago in 2017, which suffered from severe cellular connection issues that made accessing accounts and playing the game difficult.

Niantic has greatly improved its live events infrastructure in the years since, and its events now go off largely without any issues. Another Pokémon Go Fest, this one in the German city of Dortmund, drew even more players last year, totaling more than 86,000 attendees, although it ultimately generated just under $60 million in tourism revenue, Niantic says.

Still, the company has proved that it’s capable of handling large-scale events now. It’s planning more festivals for the game in St. Louis and Philadelphia later this year, as well as one in Liverpool, England. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is also getting its second fan festival, while Ingress will have a series of events that happen concurrently across three days in the first half of the year.

Correction: Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is hosting its second fan festival in the first half of 2020; an early version of this story said it was its first.

Netflix uses Google Trends to claim The Witcher was more popular than The Mandalorian

Netflix released its quarterly earnings report Tuesday afternoon, including a trove of new data on its latest hit, The Witcher. Among the data points Netflix cites in promoting its business over the last three months includes a Google Trends chart comparing interest in its new fantasy adaptation to Disney+’s The Mandalorian, the other huge streaming hit of the holiday season.

According to Netflix, The Witcher blew the competition out of the water, including trouncing not only the Star Wars spinoff, but also Apple TV Plus’ The Morning Show and Amazon’s Jack Ryan. Yet the data is a bit misleading. Netflix’s included chart relies on global Google search data. That’s an issue when comparing Netflix hits to those of new streaming services from Apple and Disney, both of which only launched in the last few months.

Screenshot by Nick Statt / The Verge

As you can see above, a popular Netflix show made available all across the world naturally trounces programs made available only in a few territories. That makes sense. Netflix is available in 190 countries, and The Witcher — based both on a popular Polish book series and its video game counterpart from a Polish game studio — was made available in multiple languages, helping its global appeal.

Disney+, on the other hand, has only been available in five countries since its November launch: the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand. So although The Mandalorian featured more language and subtitle support than The Witcher, it simply can’t be watched in anywhere near as many countries.

If we adjust the Google Trends chart from “worldwide” to “United States,” we get a more telling look at the two hit shows’ popularity in comparison:

Screenshot by Nick Statt / The Verge

What we see here is emblematic of the difference in release approach between Disney+ and Netflix, and the results are not as flattering for Netflix as they may seem. The Witcher did indeed enjoy a huge spike in searches with its release in mid-December. That’s to be expected, considering Netflix drops entire seasons all at once nearly everywhere its service is available. And yes, that initial spike was greater than any one moment for The Mandalorian.

But Disney has opted for a traditional, weekly release approach in line with the standard TV practice we see HBO and others keep using. And it looks like it paid off. The Mandalorian experienced sizable, sustained boosts from its entire eight-episode run over the course of two months. The finale and the premiere both had similar spikes in line with The Witcher’s popularity just a week or so after its release, indicating The Mandalorian likely maintained an impressive level of popularity throughout its entire run. Right now, The Witcher as a whole is less popular than at any time a new episode of The Mandalorian released throughout its first season.

As my colleague Chaim Gartenberg noted last month, this clashing of release strategies may help Netflix in the short term, but hurt the platform in the long run: “By dropping every episode at once, Netflix is sacrificing weekly discussions around The Witcher for a short burst of popularity, after which it trickles off into the void as people’s attentions are quickly grabbed by the next big thing. That extra time between episodes would let viewership build over time, as more people hear about the show or proselytize it to their friends.”

The Mandalorian, on the other hand, had the benefit of a enormous, organic meme in the form of Baby Yoda on top of a weekly and passionate deluge of recaps and analysis, fan theorizing, and genuine discussion on the series and its many Easter eggs and other Star Wars lore references. Perhaps this isn’t as big of a deal for Netflix right now, especially if its big hits keep clocking impressive viewing metrics like The Witcher did.

But if the goal for all of these services is to create the next big, buzzy hit show in the post-Game of Thrones era, the all-at-once release method may not be the best approach. And the Google Trends data proves it.