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Sonic identity is the missing component for social metaverse experiences

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Sonic identity is the missing component for social metaverse experiences

In the many conversations around “the metaverse” sparked by the Facebook corporate name transition to Meta, much has focused on the visual elements. What’s hardly mentioned is audio. Yet voice really matters when making a virtual environment come to life.

Sometimes, it’s everything.

Just ask Spike Jonze. The movie director discarded the original voice actor in the title role of his 2013 film “Her” and substituted Scarlett Johansson’s sultry timbres. Although Samantha, a computer operating system, never appeared in the flesh, Jonze felt the original actress hadn’t nailed the emotion required to create a three-dimensional persona.

Voice was critical to creating a fleshed-out character that could absorb the viewer into the story’s premise and make it fully believable.

As The Washington Post noted, many keystones of the Meta vision of the metaverse already exist in video gaming — only in disconnected gaming worlds. And in the gaming universe, voice is playing an increasingly important role. Meta promises a unified, interoperable experience, but without a rich panoply of highly textured, lifelike digital voices, the metaverse will be incomplete rather than inclusive and immersive.

The McGurk Effect research of the mid-1970s observed the cognitive dissonance resulting from mismatched audio and visual perceptions; voices that don’t fully mesh with an avatar can rip the participant from the virtual environment.

Expressing the real you

Humans are social beings, and the metaverse as currently promoted is a social environment where participants create unique personas in both home and workplace settings. Avatars will allow players to express themselves the way they want to be seen — as human, alien, animal, vegetable, cartoon or myriad other options. Players can try on new “looks” temporarily, the way they try new outfits. Gender and species are fluid.

Changing identity is hamstrung, however, if people are not able to change how they sound along with their visual presence. Having your voice match the persona presented to other people is a core element of a personalized player identity. It is a situation many people are already accustomed to from video games.

If you encounter a gritty, bearded, hulking knight in a game you are playing, you would expect that character to have a deep, gruff voice, accompanied by the clank of armor. Game companies make sure to deliver this, with non-player characters (NPCs) being carefully crafted by voice actors and audio specialists to provide an immersive experience.

Yet in online gaming environments or in the future metaverse, where the knight is the representation of an actual person, you will have a vastly different experience. You may be startled to hear a high-pitched teenager with bad microphone quality instead of the anticipated gravelly, mature voice. The drastic incongruence between sound and vision shreds the immersive quality of the experience. Metaverse avatars can only be fully immersive if they allow people to create full digital experiences.

Providing cover

In addition to enabling immersion, sonic identity technology can also allow players to slip into “true” pseudonymity. They can fully become the person (or being) they want others to see — which for many people is powerful protection from a sometimes hostile online environment. It can disguise a geographical accent so the participant can more smoothly integrate a player community (a capability an offshore customer support call center might benefit from). For people with vocal tics, it can cloak a physical impairment they’d rather not reveal.

Voice changing technology can also help to mitigate online discrimination and harassment. A research study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction in 2019 notes that female gamers frequently avoid verbal communication with other players to reduce unpleasant interactions. Voice changing technology can allow them to participate in fully pseudonymous conversations, free of a specified gender, in which they might feel more comfortable in expressing themselves.

Regardless of the “why,” researchers in the scholarly journal Human-Computer Interaction concluded in 2014 that “voice radically transforms the experience of online gaming, making virtual spaces more intensely social.”

From my own internal company data, it’s clear that players who communicate with voice alter egos feel more engrossed in the game, engage it for longer periods of time and spend more money within the game as a result.

What’s missing in the metaverse

A truly complete immersive experience requires a combination of 3D visuals and real-time audio to enable people to express themselves in the way they want to be heard. Participants want a sonic representation of themselves that is just as original and unique as their visual avatar — and they want the tools to customize their voice as meticulously as their appearance. There must be a harmonious marriage of both augmented audio and 3D video to keep the player immersed and engaged.

Real-time audio defines how people can bring the ultimate individuality to their content, making audio the great equalizer of the metaverse. Unfortunately, the current voice experience is challenged to offer the type of immersive qualities that will live up to the promise of an all-encompassing metaverse.

Real-time audio personas are still restrictive at best, despite experimentation by dogged early adopters. The tools to shape a person’s voice to match their digital self are limited and sound quality does not yet match visual quality.

Yet recent advancements in available audio technology are making it far easier for players to create a unique sonic identity. New solutions available to platform and game developers enable writers, producers and audio engineers to incorporate voice modification technology within their games to produce natural-sounding and fantasy voices on demand, in real time.

It offers the potential to generate new avenues for monetization by delivering an inclusive and immersive auditory experience that lures players and keeps them fully focused and engaged in the experience rather than dropping away.

Companies are investing in powerful tools that enable people to shape the visual representation of themselves in a digital space. They must not overlook the customized sonic identity for a matching social audio experience that makes the digital representation seamless.

The metaverse won’t be complete without it.

Source: Tech

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Spendesk is the fifth French startup to reach unicorn status this month

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Fintech startup Spendesk is announcing that it has raised an extension to its Series C round. Tiger Global is investing $114 million (€100 million) in the startup. Following today’s funding round, the company says that is has reached a valuation of more than $1.14 billion (more than €1 billion).

In other words, Spendesk is a new unicorn in the French tech ecosystem. Funding news has been accelerating over the last few months in France. In January alone, five startups announced that they have crossed the threshold to reach unicorn status — PayFit, Ankorstore, Qonto, Exotec and Spendesk.

Back Market, an e-commerce marketplace focused on refurbished smartphones and electronics devices, has also raised a mega round and reached a $5.7 billion valuation.

Let’s go back to Spendesk. The startup offers an all-in-one corporate spend management platform for medium companies in Europe. Originally focused on virtual cards for online payments, the company has expanded its product offering to tackle everything related to corporate spending.

Spendesk customers can order physical cards for employees, team members can use the platform to pay outstanding invoices, file expense reports, manage budgets and generate spending reports. By offering everything in a single service, Spendesk wants to simplify accounting and approvals in general so that money moves more freely.

The startup defines its platform as a “7-in-1 spend management solution”, meaning that Spendesk is no longer just a product that lets you order debit cards for your employees.

“We have had this goal since the beginning — we really want to become this platform, this operational system to manage your spending,” co-founder and CEO Rodolphe Ardant told me. “When we started working on the product, we looked at each use case and designed the right workflow for that.”

In particular, Spendesk helps you formalize your internal processes. You can define team budgets, set up complicated approval workflows for expensive payments, automate some pesky tasks, such as VAT extraction.

“We target mid-market clients. Those are customers with 50 to 1,000 employees. We have a few clients that are bigger than that and a few clients that are smaller than that,” Ardant said.

And the company currently has 3,500 clients — around half of them are based in France while other clients are mostly based in Germany and the U.K. Clients have spent €3 billion through Spendesk in 2021 alone.

With its central positioning in the financial stack, Spendesk needs to interface perfectly with other financial tools — banks on one side and ERP products on the other side.

The startup currently supports many of the popular accounting tools used by European companies, such as Xero and Datev. Spendesk customers can also export transaction batches and import them into Sage, Cegid and other accounting software solutions.

Spendesk is also working on automating the integrations with your bank accounts, which could be particularly useful for companies with multiple bank accounts. For instance, you could imagine setting up a rule that automatically triggers a transfer between your German bank account and your Spendesk account when you want to pay a German supplier.

Image Credits: Spendesk

Spend management in Europe

Spendesk isn’t the only spend management solution in Europe. There are some competitors, such as Pleo, which recently reached a $4.7 billion valuation, and Soldo — another well-funded competitor as it has raised $180 million last year.

In the U.S. as well, companies like Brex and Ramp have reached sky-high valuations. And yet, Spendesk doesn’t think it has the same positioning as American startups.

“On the American market, it shouldn’t be called the spend management industry — it’s the corporate card industry. Players like Brex and Ramp position themselves as a payment method,” Spendesk co-founder and CEO Rodolphe Ardant told me. “Europe’s corporate culture is a culture of debit — not credit. We don’t provide payment methods, we provide a process.”

It’s a slight difference in product positioning, so it’s going to be interesting to see if a European spend management startup can successfully enter the U.S. and vice versa.

When it comes to business model as well, Spendesk considers itself as a software-as-a-service company with recurring subscriptions. The startup didn’t want to share any hard numbers for its revenue. Its CEO just said that Spendesk’s revenue “more than doubles every year.”

With today’s funding round, Spendesk plans to triple the size of its team over the next two years. The company plans to have 1,000 employees by the end of 2023.

Source: Tech

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Crypto.com expands venture arm to $500 million to back early-stage web3 startups

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Crypto.com, a popular cryptocurrency exchange, has extended its venture arm’s fund size to $500 million as it looks to more aggressively back early-stage startups to help the nascent ecosystem grow, following similar moves by rivals Binance, Coinbase and FTX.

The broadening of Crypto.com Capital comes less than a year after the Singapore-headquartered firm unveiled its maiden fund of $200 million. The fund, unlike those of many of its rivals, has no LPs (meaning, it’s fully financed by the firm’s balance sheet.)

The maiden fund, whose individual checks run up to $10 million in size, has been so far deployed to back about 20 startups including YGG SEA, multi-chain crypto portfolio tracker DeBank, cross-chain token infrastructure Efinity and Ethereum scaling solution Matter Labs.

Crypto.com will continue to focus on backing early-stage startups, said Jon Russell, who joined the firm as a general partner this month, in an interview with TechCrunch.

With the fund, Crypto.com is broadly focusing on gaming, decentralized-finance and startups innovating on cross-chain solutions. But he cautioned that the industry could change and expand, as it has in recent years, to areas “we don’t know about,” hence the firm is keeping an eye out on everything.

Tuesday’s announcement also further illustrates the growing involvement of cryptocurrency exchanges in being the rainmaker – and beneficiary – of the ecosystem which encompasses the industry in which they operate.

FTX, which has backed over 15 startups, last week announced a $2 billion crypto fund. Its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, also owns Alameda Research, a venture firm that has backed close to 100 web3 startups.

Coinbase Ventures, the investment arm of the only crypto exchange that is publicly traded, and Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume, are also among the most prolific investors in the web3 space.

Venture investment in crypto / web3 in 2021 by category (Image credits: Galaxy Digital)

The funding activity in the space, even as most of the aforementioned names often co-invest in startups, is at an all-time high. VCs invested more than $33 billion in crypto/web3 startups in 2021, more than all prior years combined, Galaxy Digital, another prolific investor in the space, wrote in a recent report.

“Valuations in the crypto/blockchain space were 141% higher than the rest of the venture capital space in Q4, highlighting a founder-friendly environment and the intense competition among investors for deal allocations,” the report added.

Scores of venture capital firms have also raised new funds for their crypto investments. Just last year, Andreessen Horowitz added a $2.2 billion crypto fund, Paradigm unveiled a $2.5 billion fund, and Hivemind Capital Partners announced a $1.5 billion fund. Katie Haun, who co-led a16z’s $2.2 billion crypto fund, has left the firm to launch her own crypto-focused fund.

Russell – a former journalist who previously had stints at TechCrunch, The Next Web, and The Ken – said Crypto.com is backing startups to help the ecosystem grow.

“If you’re in the industry, it’s in your interest to help companies grow in the ecosystem and the ecosystem itself to grow,” he said. (Worth pointing out that Solana, Avalanche, Polkadot — as well as some of their major investors — are also aggressively backing startups that are building applications for the native blockchains.)

The startups Crypto.com backs are under no obligation to list their tokens on Crypto.com over any of its rivals or offer the exchange any other preferential treatment, he said. The exchange team similarly doesn’t have a soft spot for the investment arm’s portfolio firms, he added.

(What’s up with the career move? “I’ve been crypto curious for a number of years but I wasn’t gasping to dive in full-time. This project appeals to me because Crypto.com is ambitious but yet it does things the right way. There’s certainly a lot of hype and hot air in crypto and web3 right now, but it’s impossible to ignore the talent that’s pouring into the industry,” he said.)

Crypto.com, which started its life as a blog of professor Matt Blaze (who sold the domain to the crypto exchange), has aggressively expanded in the past year as it looks to court more users. The Singapore-headquartered firm last year agreed to pay more than $700 million for the naming rights of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The downtown Los Angeles complex has been rebranded as Crypto.com Arena for the next 20 years.

The firm, which bills itself as the “fastest-growing” crypto exchange, said at the time of the announcement that the move is positioned to make cryptocurrencies mainstream. Crypto.com, which processes trade volumes of over $2.5 billion every day, also teamed up with Hollywood star Matt Damon last year to promote the brand and cryptocurrencies.

The Damon-starring ad equated buying crypto tokens and NFTs to one of the greatest and boldest accomplishments in the history of humankind. Hyperbole, to be sure, but having the most mainstream American actor as Crypto.com’s celebrity sponsor has certainly helped bring the trading platform, and all that it sells, into the mainstream. The ad went viral and also attracted criticism for being cringeworthy.

Source: Tech

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Focused on smaller cities, Vietnamese social commerce startup Mio raises $8M Series A

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Mio, the Vietnamese social commerce platform, has raised an $8 million Series A, less than a year after announcing its seed round. The funding was led by Jungle Ventures, Patamar Capital and Oliver Jung, with participation from returning investors GGV, Venturra, Hustle Fund, iSEED SEA and Gokul Rajaram.

TechCrunch first covered Mio at the time of its $1 million seed funding in May 2021. Founded in 2020, Mio is a group buying platform that focuses on selling fresh produce and groceries in Tier 2 and 3 cities in Vietnam. The company is able to offer next day delivery because it built a logistics infrastructure that enables it to send produce directly from farms to customers.

The Series A brings Mio’s total raised to $9.1 million, and will be used to expand its logistics and fulfillment system, enter new areas in Vietnam and add new product categories like fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and household appliances.

Mio co-founder and chief executive officer Trung Huynh said that since TechCrunch first covered Mio seven months ago, it has achieved 10x gross merchandise value growth, a 10x increase in agents, or resellers, and grew its team from 60 people to 240. It now fulfills more than 10,000 pieces of fresh produce per day, operating in Ho Chi Minh, Thu Duc, Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An, with plans to expand into northern Vietnam.

The numbers “strengthened our conviction in this model and its potential,” he said. “We need fresh capital to accelerate hiring, product development and supply chain to keep up with the pace of growth as we deepen our presence in existing geographies and expand to new provinces.”

Mio is able to offer next day deliveries because its vertically integrated mayor layers of the value chain, including procurement, warehousing, order sorting and bulk delivery. The startup owns the majority of its logistics infrastructure and uses its own fleet of couriers. Its ability to delivery fresh produce directly from farms to customers in less than 16 hours contributed to higher customer retention and growth, Huynh said, and it will continue to shorten delivery times. .

Mio resellers are called Mio Partners. Huynh said one of the driving factors behind Mio is targeting the right people for the program, or “housewives and stay-home-moms in lower income regions who love sharing value-for-money products to their social circle of friends.”

They aggregate orders, usually from friends and family, and orders are delivered to them in batches for distribution. The startup claims Mio Partners can make up to $400 a month, including a 10% commission on each order and additional commissions based on the monthly performance of other resellers they referred to the program.

“There is a strong possibility” that Mio will expand beyond Vietnam, Huynh said, “but will only be considered at a more appropriate time after we successfully built our playbook for Vietnam.”

Source: Tech

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