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Instagram adds TikTok-like Text-to-Speech and Voice Effects tools to Reels – TechCrunch

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Instagram added two features to Reels yesterday: text-to-speech and voice effects. These features are popular already on TikTok, but now, creators can use them on Instagram too. This marks yet another effort from Instagram to keep up with TikTok when it comes to short-form video, as Instagram offers big reels bonuses to incentivize creators,

Text-to-speech is a necessary accessibility feature that helps Blind and low-vision people understand written text. But videos with these robotic voices became so inexplicably popular on TikTok that the voice actor behind the feature sued the company since she hadn’t given it permission to use her recordings. After she filed her lawsuit, TikTok changed the voice behind the feature.

Creators often use text-to-speech voiceovers not so much for their accessibility benefits, but because it can be kind of funny to have a monotone, computerized voice narrating their content. The text-to-speech tool can be found within the text tool in the Reels camera. Once you record or upload a video, navigate to preview to add text. Once you add the text, a text bubble will appear at the bottom of the screen, which lets users time when they want that bit of text to appear. But now, you can tap a three-dot icon to open a menu for each text bubble, which will give you the option to add a text to speech voice over. There’s two voice options to choose from.

But voice effects let you get even more creative with your reels. These features let you modify the audio or the voiceover in your post. To see these effects, tap the music note once you’ve recorded your reel to open the audio mixer. Then, you’ll see an effects menu that lets you modify the audio in your reel or voiceover.

The new features rolling out now to Instagram mobile users.



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Gotham Greens opens a 10-acre farm/research facility in California – TechCrunch

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During the good number of hours I’ve spent researching and writing about vertical farming in recent months, one key word keeps popping up: proximity. So many of the resources spent on modern farming are devoted to transporting produce long stretches, ramping up carbon footprints in the process. Gotham Greens isn’t vertical farming, exactly, but it has become a poster child for locally grown agriculture, courtesy of its urban greenhouse that sits directly atop a Whole Foods in Gowanus Brooklyn.

The 10-year-old company currently has three New York City locations (two in Brooklyn and one in Queens), two additional farms on the East Coast (Baltimore and Providence), a pair in the Midwest (Chicago) and one in the Mountain region (Denver). Today, it announced further westward expansion with the opening of its first California greenhouse, based just outside UC Davis.

Image Credits: Gotham Greens

Gotham’s ninth location is a 10-acre farm designed to dramatically reduce the resources required to grow produce. Using its hydroponic technology, the company says it’s capable of reducing the standard 10 gallons of water required to grow a head of lettuce to less than a single gallon. Overall, it claims the farm will be able to save 270 million gallons of water a year, while occupying 300 fewer acres than traditional farming practices.

It’s an interesting move, heading to California, where so much of the nation’s produce is grown — and certainly a different tactic that opening a location in New York City or Chicago. Of course, in spite of California’s proud tradition of growing, the state has been plagued by the very real devastation of climate change.

Image Credits: Gotham Greens

“California is the center of North America’s leafy greens production, where water shortages, wildfires and other results of climate change are straining critical agricultural resources. By putting down roots in California, we aspire to be a part of the agricultural industry’s solution to the increasingly visible impacts of climate change,” co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri said in a release. “Our newest greenhouse facility in Northern California is strategically located to service retailers and food service providers throughout the region more quickly while conserving precious resources, including land and water.”

The proximity to UCD was no mistake, either. The company will be partnering with researchers from the school and will likely have a solid pipeline of future employees. The company also used the opportunity to announce plans to reduce the plastic in its packaging 40% (versus 2020) and electricity use 5% by the year 2024.



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Autonomous driving startup Deeproute.ai prices L4 solution at $10,000 – TechCrunch

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Deeproute.ai, an autonomous vehicle startup with offices in Shenzhen and Fremont, California, unveiled an ambitious self-driving solution on Wednesday.

The package, named DeepRoute-Driver 2.0, is a production-ready Level 4 system that costs approximately $10,000. The price tag is incredible given the hardware used: five solid-state lidar sensors, eight cameras, a proprietary computing system, and an optional millimeter-wave radar.

Lidar accounts for roughly half of the total cost, a Deeproute spokesperson told TechCrunch. “As the whole supply chain is getting more developed and scale[s] up, we can expect the cost can go further down.”

The two-year-old startup is unabashed about going up against its more mature counterparts. As it said in its Wednesday release, “DeepRoute-Driver 2.0 offers differentiation from existing L4 pioneers like Waymo and Cruise, which boast sophisticated and efficient L4 algorithms but with a hefty price tag, and from advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) such as Tesla, that are affordable but have limited capabilities in terms of fully automated driving.”

Sensor makers in China have been working to reduce the once exorbitant prices of lidar to make them fit for mass production. DJI-spawned Livox is one, and so is Temasek-backed Innovusion.

Lidar on the car roof. Photo: Deeproute.ai

Deeproute’s L4 solution uses two pieces of lidar from Robosense, which is based in Shenzhen, as its main lidar on the car roof. Three other lidar sensors from Beijing-based Z Vision are located at the front, left and right around the rear wheel, covering the vehicle’s blind spot. Both Z Vision and Deeproute are backed by Fosun RZ Capital, an affiliate fund of Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group.

The low price of Deeproute’s L4 tech could mean thin profits for the startup, or, it’s squeezing the margins of its suppliers, a founder of an autonomous vehicle startup suggested to TechCrunch.

A test drive shows that Deeproute’s L4 system is able to navigate rush-hour traffic in downtown Shenzhen, performing tasks like flexible lane change, yielding to pedestrians and auto on or off-ramp merging.

Though merely two years old, the team behind Deeproute includes pioneers in China’s self-driving industry. In 2019, Zhou Guang founded Deeproute after he was forced out of his last company Roadstar.ai amid infighting. At the time, Roadstar had raised at least $140 million from investors and was widely considered a promising player in the autonomous vehicle space.

Investors have been rooting for Zhou’s new venture. In September, the startup announced a $300 million Series B round from Alibaba, Jeneration Capital, Chinese automaker Geely, among others. 

It’s not uncommon to see OEMs and carmakers pouring money into AV startups in exchange for future production partnerships. Momenta, for instance, has landed multiple strategic investments from titans like Bosch, Toyota and Daimler.

While Deeproute hasn’t officially secured a customer for its L4 solution, the startup’s spokesperson said a few “major automakers” have taken rides in the cars integrated with the tech and “they were impressed by the functionality as well as the pricing.”

“We are very positive on the prospect of signing the contract soon,” the spokesperson said.



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At ‘Lens Fest,’ Snap debuts creations tools for more sophisticated augmented reality experiences – TechCrunch

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As Snap’s creators begin to experiment with the company’s augmented reality Spectacles hardware, the company is delving deeper into juicing the capabilities of its Lens Studio to build augmented reality filters which are more connected, more realistic and more futuristic. At the company’s annual Lens Fest event, Snap debuted a number of changes coming to their lens creation suite. Changes range from efforts to integrate outside media and data to more AR-centric features designed with a glasses-future in mind.

On the media side, Snap will be debuting a news sounds library which will allow creators to add audio clips and millions of songs from Snapchat’s library of licensed music directly into their lenses. Snap is also making efforts to bring real-time data into Lenses via an API library that showcase evolving trends like weather information from Accuweather or cryptocurrency prices from FTX. One of the bigger feature updates will allow users to embed links inside lenses and send them to different web pages.

Image: Snap

Snap’s once-goofy selfie filters remain a big growth opportunity for the company which has long had augmented reality in its sights. Snap detailed that there are now more than 2.5 million lenses that have been built by more than a quarter-million creators. Those lenses have been viewed by users a collective 3.5 trillion times, the company says. The company is building out its own internal “AR innovation lab,” called Ghost, which will help the company bankroll Lens designers who are looking to push the limits of what’s possible, dishing out grants for up to $150k for individual projects.

As the company looks to make lenses smarter, they’re also looking to. make them more technically capable.

Beyond integrating new data types, Snap is also looking at the underlying AR tech to help make for enjoyable lenses for users with lower-end phones. Its World Mesh feature has allowed users with higher-end phones to leverage AR and view lenses that integrate more real world geometry data for digital objects in a lens to interact with. Now, Snap is enabling this feature across more basic phones as well.

Image: Snap

Similarly, Snap is also rolling out tools to make digital objects react more realistically in reference to each other, debuting an in-lens physics engine which will allow for more dynamic lenses that can not only interact more deeply with the real world but can adjust to simultaneous user input as well.

Snap’s efforts to create more sophisticated lens creation tools on mobile come as the company is also looking to build out more future-flung support for the tools developers may need to design for hands-free glasses experiences on its new AR Spectacles. Creators have been crafting experiences with the new hardware for months and Snap has been building new lens functionality to address their concerns and spark up new opportunities.

Image:Snap

Ultimately, Snap’s glasses are still firmly in developer mode and the company hasn’t offered any timelines for when they might ship a consumer product with integrated AR capabilities, so they theoretically have plenty of time to build to build in the background.

Some of the tools Snap has been quietly building include Connected Lenses which enable shared experiences inside Lenses so multiple users can interact with the same content using AR Spectacles. In their developer iteration, the AR Spectacles don’t have the longest battery life, meaning that Snap has had to get creative in ensuring that Snap’s are there when you need them without running persistently. The company’s Endurance mode allows lenses to continue running in the background off-display while waiting for a specific trigger like reaching a certain GPS location.



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Samsung Electronics merges mobile and consumer electronics units, names new co-CEOs – TechCrunch

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Samsung Electronics announced today it has merged its mobile and consumer electronics units and unveiled its new leadership to replace its three major divisions leaders, effective starting today (Dec.7), in the company’s biggest shake-up since 2017.

Jong-Hee (JH) Han, head of visual display business, was promoted to vice chairman and co-CEO and will lead the newly merged mobile and consumer electronics unit, which is also called SET division, and continue to head the visual display business.

Han, who played a key role in the company achieving the company’s top position in global TV sales for the last 15 years, is expected to “strengthen the synergies among the different businesses in the SET division and help drive new business and technologies,” Samsung said.

Kyehyun Kyung, CEO of Samsung Elecro-Mechanics, was also named co-CEO of Samsung Electronics and will lead the company’s device solutions (DS) division spanning semiconductor and components units.

The tech giant said the new leadership will help lead “the next phase of the company’s future growth and to strengthen its business competitiveness.”

The consolidation of its two main units, mobile and consumer electronics, is seen as an effort to simplify its structures and focus more on the semiconductor business.

The sweeping reshuffle announcement comes roughly four months after the company’s vice president and de facto leader Jay Y. Lee was released on parole in August.

Samsung announced in November its plans for a $17 billion US semiconductor plant in Taylor Texas and laid out a $205 billion investment plan, which includes semiconductor, artificial intelligence, robotics, and biopharma, over the next three years.

Kinam Kim, the former vice chairman and head of the DS division, was named chairman of Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology. As part of its reshuffle, the company also named Hark Kyu Park as its new chief financial officer.



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EV maker Arrival to build high-voltage battery module assembly plant in North Carolina – TechCrunch

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Arrival, the electric vehicle manufacturer that aims to break up the assembly line in favor of multiple microfactories, is investing $11.5 million to build a high-voltage battery module assembly plant in Charlotte, North Carolina. The plant will provide batteries for electric buses and vans produced at the company’s microfactories in Rock Hill, South Carolina and Charlotte, respectively.

Earlier this week, Arrival also agreed to collaborate with Li-Cycle, a lithium-ion battery recycler, to create a closed-loop EV battery supply chain. Like most other automakers, Arrival is recognizing the reality of supply chain delays and materials shortages and is working to vertically integrate as much of the process as possible, while also maintaining its commitment to sustainability.

“This was not always part of the plan,” Katie Blixt, Arrival’s head of PR and communications in North America, told TechCrunch. “As we’re figuring out the production plan and timeline and figuring out what makes sense to bring in-house and add to our vertical integration, we just decided that the best move was for us to be able to assemble these ourselves and have more control over the process.”

Over the next several months, Arrival will be refitting an existing warehouse in order to start production in the third quarter of 2022, according to Blixt, who noted that Arrival’s battery chemistry supplier is LG. The plant should have a production capacity of up to 350,000 battery modules per year, which can be used across Arrival’s different commercial vehicle platforms and can be tailored to suit the customer’s specific battery requirements, according to the company.

Arrival has announced before that it hopes to build 31 microfactories by 2024. So far, it has three planned for 2022; Arrival aims to start production of its buses at Rock Hill in Q2 next year, vans in Bicester, England in Q3 and vans in Charlotte in Q4.

“We’ve withdrawn long-term forecasts on microfactory numbers beyond that because the advantage of the microfactory model is that we don’t have to plan several years in the future and the number will be determined by demand and access to capital,” said Blixt.

Whenever Arrival does start scaling up its microfactories, it will also now scale battery assembly plants alongside them, so it’s almost an opposite approach to the Tesla gigafactory style of production, said Blixt, noting that Arrival might build multiple regional battery assembly facilities to supply local microfactories.

The battery modules will be software-based and have self-diagnostic capabilities, so if there’s an issue with one, the module itself can be replaced instead of the entire set of batteries in the vehicle, said Blixt. If the software detects an anomaly, it will send information up to the cloud for Arrival’s technicians to diagnose and then send instructions back down to Arrival’s network of outside service providers. The company recently announced partnerships with companies like Valvoline and Firestone to provide Arrival customers with vehicle maintenance.



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Aussie online used car dealership Carma comes out of stealth with $20M seed round – TechCrunch

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Australia is emerging onto the online used car dealership scene with Carma, a startup that just raised a $20 million (AUD $28 million) seed round from Tiger Global, an American investment firm. Carma has been operating in stealth for the past nine months, and says the funding has enabled the company to recruit an executive team, develop its website and establish its first inspection and reconditioning facility in Sydney.

Carma isn’t the first online car dealership with a punny name. The startup now joins the ranks of Carvana and Vroom in the U.S., Clutch and Canada Drives in Canada, Kavak in Mexico and Cazoo in the U.K. They’re all coming to fruition at a time when the pandemic has resulted in a shortage of semiconductors, which has led to automakers being unable to meet rising demand in vehicles. Increasingly, consumers want a contactless, frictionless way to not only search for and buy a used car, but also have it delivered to their doors – a service companies like Carma are offering in their native markets around the world.

“We are convinced there is a massive opportunity to disrupt the used car industry in Australia by replicating an online, full-stack model that we see achieving success in the US and globally,” said Griffin Schroeder, partner at Tiger Global.

Carma’s service will open to Sydney customers first, but Carma plans to expand throughout the state of New South Wales in the coming months, and to Brisbane and Melbourne next year. The startup said it would begin another round of fundraising soon to support its accelerated expansion plans in 2022.

“Investment in the digital used car dealership space is very active globally, given the international success of the model,” said Carma co-founder and CEO, Lachlan MacGregor, in a statement. “Having this significant backing from Tiger Global has been a fantastic vote of confidence in Carma and allowed us to move rapidly to build out an exceptional team, technology stack and physical infrastructure. We skipped the start-up phase and were able to go straight to scaling up with a proven business model.”

With this sizeable seed round, Carma is gearing up to launch its online platform. The company currently has a fleet of 300 vehicles in stock, which it sources from private sellers, other dealers and through auctions, but will shortly have over 500, according to a spokesperson for the company.

“Typically, our cars are under five years old, with less than 100,000 kms (62,137 miles), and with the latest features,” a spokesperson for Carma told TechCrunch. “After we buy them, they undergo a thorough mechanical inspection, repair and reconditioning process in-house, before being photographed at our state-of-the-art facility in Sydney. We will only sell cars that meet our high standards.”

Customers looking at cars on Carma’s platform will be able to view 360-degree high-res imagery of the exterior and interior, with any flaws called out and photographed. The company says it will offer transparent prices and over-the-phone and online customer support. After a checkout process that can take as little as 10 minutes, customers can have a car delivered to their homes and are given a week to try it out. If they’re not satisfied, they get their money back – all standard stuff in this industry.

The Australian used car landscape is fragmented, and the online car buying space is somewhat limited to classifieds and Facebook Marketplace. Carma has no major competition to speak of, so it has a chance to corner the market while it’s hot.



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HR tech startup Sense valued at $500 million in SoftBank Vision Fund 2-led funding – TechCrunch

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Sense, an HR tech startup that helps some of the world’s largest staffing and recruitment agencies timely find and hire talent, has grown its valuation to $500 million in a new financing round, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

The San Francisco-headquartered startup has raised $50 million in its Series D financing round, it said. SoftBank Vision Fund 2 led the financing round, pushing the five-and-a-half-year-old startup’s to-date raise to $90 million. The multiple-fold surge in the valuation comes just six months after Sense closed its Series C round, TechCrunch has learned.

Sense focuses on catering to the blue-collar workers and helps firms manage the talent’s entire lifecycle at the firm.

Hiring knowledge workers may take up to six months, but in “this world, where you’re hiring a warehouse packager, companies need him or her to join today,” explained Anil Dharni, co-founder and chief executive of Sense, in an interview with TechCrunch. He declined to comment on the valuation.

The vast majority of professional social networks and other recruitment platforms are currently designed to serve knowledge workers, he said. “But for people like Uber drivers and Amazon warehouse workers, such platforms are not relevant,” he said, describing the challenge.

The startup, which says it uses automation, artificial intelligence, and personalization in its screening processes, has courted over 600 customers including Amazon, Sears, Vaco, and Kenny that use the Sense platform to scale their hiring, he said.

Citing its internal figures, Sense said its customers see an average of a whopping 263% increase in the number of candidates they are able to screen using the platform and reduce the time it takes to fill roles by up to 81%.

“Our latest funding is not only validation of the need for personalized talent engagement in today’s candidate-centric world but is also an accelerant for our platform globally as we help reshape the future of work,” he said.

Sense offers a number of services including chatbots that, Dharni said, help businesses remove biases from their hiring practices.

In the last one and a half years, the startup’s platform has also been used to hire healthcare workers, he said.

Dharni got the idea to launch Sense after facing challenges in hiring talent at his previous firms, said Dharni, who previously co-founded gaming firm Funzio, which was acquired by GREE for $210 million.

“We realized that talent is what makes or breaks a company. If you can’t attract the right people, your company is not going to be successful. It doesn’t matter what your TAM [total addressable market] or business model is,” he said.

“It was with that realization that I decided that the next startup we are going to do, it’s going to be around solving for the talent space,” he said.

Dharni said Sense is going after a $200 billion opportunity that remains largely untapped.

Sense has also more than doubled its revenue and employee headcount in the past one year. The startup now plans to expand Sense’s offerings in several markets including the Western Europe, he said.

“We believe the critical nature of the Sense platform in enabling enterprise customers to find and hire quality talent faster has been clear. As it expands both nationally and globally, we have no doubt in their ability to positively transform how companies build great teams and compete,” said Sumer Juneja, Managing Partner of SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement.



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