Sherpa turns Instagrams best photos into a travel guide

There are a number of places to find travel inspiration Pinterest, Google Destinations, travel blogs or media sites like Cond Nasts Traveler, among others. But a new application called Sherpa launching this week believes that some of the best travel ideas can be found on Instagram. The iOS application curates photos from top Instagram photographers and turns them into visual travel guides that are augmented with data from other services, like Foursquare and Wikipedia.

Sherpa co-founder and CEO Paul Aaron previously founded NYC-based design studio Modern Assembly, which worked with brands like Coca-Cola, UNICEF, Droga5, The Climate Reality Project and even The Rock (Dwayne Johnson). He also spent several years heading digital at Silver + Partners, and previously Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Sherpa came about when the digital design and development studio I founded, Modern Assembly, was asked to pitch ideas for a leading travel review website, explains Aaron. As I dug into their business, it became apparent to me that the review system itself was creating an experience that was cumbersome, difficult to contribute to, and prone to fraud.

The idea for Sherpa was to use the photos we already share everyday to create a travel planning experience that is more authentic, emotionally resonant, and easy to contribute to, says Aaron.

The startup is currently working with more than 2,000 Instagram photographers or, as it calls them, micro-influencers across 90 countries. This includes names likeAndrew Kearns, Roman Koenigshofer, Marianne Hope, Sean Byrne, Kirsten Alana, Irina, Patrick Florian and Lukas Elias Winkler, among others.

Sherpa takes their content and turns it into guides that appeal to a variety of types of travelers ranging from backpackers to adventurers to luxury travelers and more. At launch, more than 500,000 geotagged photos have been organized into 15,000 travel guides that are presented in the app as albums.

To use the app, you first have to provide your email, connect with Instagram and tell Sherpa your home base (where you live). You can also optionally tell the app where youve been by allowing it to organize your own Instagram photos by location. (Id skip this if you have a private Instagram account, however, as your photos become public in the app.)

You can then browse through Sherpas travel guides either by typing in a specific destination in the search box or by scrolling through its selection of trending locations. While the Wikipedia content helps you get a basic understanding of the locale, Sherpas real purpose is to help you get inspired through travel photography.

As you browse the app, you can save to your suitcase photos of places you want to go, and, by doing so, Sherpa will begin to boost destinations related to those photos to personalize the content to your interests.

Because this is largely a visual browsing app, its not one thats best for actually planning the details involved with your travels, such as finding flights, booking lodging and tours or mapping out your route.

However, that could change in time.

Eventually, every photo you see on Sherpa will be bookable, and youll be able to search for trending hotels, or book the amazing off-the-beaten path trip that a travel photographer you follow has gone on, notes Aaron. As the platform grows, well monetize these bookings just like an online travel agency does.

But today, with its minimalistic design and beautiful imagery, its still a good first stop for figuring out where it is you might want to go.

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Brooklyn-based Sherpa is a three-person team, including co-foundersAdam Gettings and Tom Hadley. It has raised a small amount of angel funding.

The app was previously available as an invite-only beta for the past six months, while it built out it location-specific guides and community.

The app is a free download on the Apple App Store.

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Ex-Apple designer & former Twitter engineer launch Halide, a premium iPhone camera app

An ex-Apple designer and former Twitter engineer have teamed up fora new take on iPhone photography, with todays launch of theiriOS camera app called Halide. The idea is to offer a variety of high-end tools for taking quality photographs, but packaged in a way where accessing those controls via gestures becomes like muscle memory similar to using the dials on a camera.

Explains the apps website, the new apps gesture-based control scheme is meant to feel asintuitive and tactile as a great film camera, like an old Leica or Pentax.

While there are a number of alternative camera applications for iOS today like Camera+ or Camera Awesome, for example these tend to bemarketed towards mainstream users who want to shoot like a pro. Halide, on the other hand, is designed more with the power user in mind first. That is, it will largely appeal to those who have some understanding of photography, and want to do things like quickly change the exposure ormanually focus with a swipe.

However, there is a built-in automatic mode like the stock iOS app. This makes the app usable even by novice iPhone photographers, who sometimes need help when trying to take tricky shots.

But this automatic mode is designed tobe turned off by tapping the A button in order to tweak specific values like ISO, white balance and shutter speed, however. The app also includes professional tools like focus peaking (which highlights the areas in focus, allowing users to manually pull focus), a detailed histogram, an adaptive level grid and support for both JPG and RAW capture.

Halide was developed by Ben Sandofsky and Sebastiaan de With, both of whom have experience with high-end photography.Sandofsky previously worked on Periscopes video processing stack, was an advisor to both HBOs Silicon Valley and Shyp, and worked as the tech lead on TwittersiPhone, iPad and Mac applications.

Meanwhile, de With is an ex-Apple designer who has done client work for Sony, T-Mobile, Mozilla and others, and runs the San Francisco design agency Pictogram, which designed the Nylas Mail app; he also worked on Doubletwists design, and others. Hes a photographer, as well, often takingphotos as he take tripsby motorcycle.

Beyond the apps feature set, something that differentiates the app is its gesture-based interface. But its controls also work with a tap so you dont have to learn all the gestures immediately. Thismakes the overall experience more consistent, and doesnt leave newcomers hunting around toaccess the appsfeatures.

The team sees the gesture-based interface as part of what makes Halide usable even for less experienced photographers.

You dont really need to understand concepts like Exposure Compensation, EVs, or manual focus to enjoy the features in Halide, says de With. So we hope to see many people pick it up, not just the die-hard photographers.

Another feature in the app is instant review, which lets you swipe left or right on the photos you just took to either trash them or mark them as favorites. You can also use 3D Touch to preview the last photo you took in Halide.

The team was inspired to build Halide after seeing how the iPhonessensors improved over the years, even as theshooting experience remained stagnant.

I went to Hawaii with friends, and I was that guy lugging around a giant camera, explains Sandofsky, of how he came up with the initial idea. At the bottom of a waterfall, the humidity made the camera sensor condensate, so I had to keep it off for a day while the camera internals dried out, he says. For the next day, I shot everything with an iPhone. At the time, iOS lacked important features, and all the camera apps had issues. But I was blown away by the quality of that tiny camera, and remembered how much more I enjoyed the trip by going light.

Sandofsky says he built the first prototype on hisflight home from that trip, and later showed it to de With, who had furtherideas around the user experience. Development officially started around WWDC last year, when the new camera APIs were announced.

A year later, the app was ready to launch.

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The team doesntexpect their new app to fully replace the default camera app, but instead exist alongside it ready for those times you want to take a great photo, not just a quick snap.

The apps co-creators tell TechCrunch theyre self-funding Halide, which they consider a passionate side project.

Halide is available for $2.99 at launch, and will increase to $4.99 next week. If it does well, the team may consider a new pricing structure in the future, but didnt go into details.

The app is available in English, with plans for localizations in Spanish, Dutch, German, and French.

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This app claims to tell you if someone’s into you by reading your texts

Image: ambar del moral / mashable

Text messages are the currency of modern-day courtship. But, when the texts start to become scarce, many of us search for signs of a relationship’s demise.

Instead of passing around your phone over brunch with friends, how about getting an app to overthink and analyse your text messages for you? Crushh is an algorithm-driven app that reads your text messages and according to its creator can interpret how much the other person likes you and detect any possible shifts in a relationship.

Creator Es Lee says the idea for the app came when he was sitting in a park with a “confused” friend who was new to the New York City dating scene. “He’d gone on a date that he thought had gone really well, but the woman hadn’t responded to his last text,” says Lee.

“I flipped through the text exchange and I could tell that she liked him from the ‘body language’ displayed in the texts. But that hadn’t been too obvious to my friend,” he continued. This textual body language refers to the punctuation, emoji and language used in a text, as well as the frequency of the messages and the time it takes to respond.

Lee decided to convert this analysis into an algorithm that works in a similar way to a human brain, minus the memory problems. The app takes the role of a friend and decodes text message chains using data and algorithms developed from analyzing more than 200,000 relationships and consulting with sociologists, psychologists and dating experts, says Lee.

To use the app, you need to select a contact and specify your relationship to that person. It then analyses your text messages already in your phone.

Image: rachel thompson / mashable

The app analyses sentiment, punctuation, emoji usage as well as message length and response rate to give you a score out of 5, telling you if that person likes you more, less or the same as you like them.

Image: rachel thompson / mashable

Machine learning algorithms are used to adjust scoring for personal behaviour, taking into account factors like age, and personality. “It takes into account personal behaviours,” says Lee. “Things like, the features he or she does and doesn’t use. It looks at individual patterns prevalent in a person’s messaging behaviour.”

The app also charts your relationship over time, and can point out any changes in messaging behaviour. Very useful if you’re trying to pinpoint the moment your relationship began turning sweet or sour.

Image: crushh

Does it actually work, though?

Can an app really tell you how much a person likes you based on a string of texts? We contacted two experts and neither were entirely convinced.

Stephen Pulman, a professor at Oxford University’s Department of Computer Science, says the app looks like a “straightforward application” of sentiment analysis and emotion detection techniques, which can be “reasonably accurate.”

“The problem is that nuances like sarcasm and metaphor are still difficult for this kind of technology to detect. Problems may arise in the interpretation of the contents of a message,” says Pulman. “The only technical problem I can see is determining whether the topic of the text actually concerns the person or the relationship, rather than being generally warm about something else,” Pulman continues.

Furthermore, the technology needed to analyse a relationship via text messages is very advanced and likely still at the academic research phase.

“What I can say for certain is that the app doesnt understand the messages and it’s making a decision based on the syntactical attributes of the messages without understanding the semantics behind it,” says Mark Bishop, Director of the Tungsten Centre for Intelligent Data Analytics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“We’re crowdsourcing intelligence about how a person texts” – Es Lee, creator of Crushh.

The app is only available on Android because iPhones don’t allow apps to access iMessages. Lee is hopeful that Apple will change this. The app also doesn’t pull in messages sent on apps like WhatsApp, Messenger or Snapchat, so if your convos are happening on multiple apps, your score and history won’t give an accurate reflection of your relationship.

Lee regards Crushh as a “diagnostic tool” for relationships, and a way to use data to pinpoint problems and potential areas to work on. “We’re crowdsourcing intelligence about how a person texts,” says Lee. He says there are no plans to sell that data and wants to convert that intelligence into advice and tips.

Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to use data to figure out why we’re being ghosted? Alas, if you’re an iPhone user, it looks you’ll have to keep going to brunch with friends for your answers.

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YouTube Kids comes to smart TVs

YouTube Kids, the application offering a filtered version of YouTube thats more kid-friendly, is now natively available on the big screen for the first time, Google announced today. Previously a mobile-only application, YouTube Kidswill now be offered on a range of smart TVs, including thosefrom LG, Samsung and Sony, which will make it easier for families with small children to access the service without having to use the apps built-in casting feature.

Specifically, the app will come to the following TVs:all 2015-2017 LG webOS TVs (via the LG content store); all 2013-2017 Samsung Smart TVs and Blu-ray players (via the Samsung App Store); and, following a firmware update, 2016-2017 Sony TVs (with the exception of Android TV, which is coming soon).

Now just over two years old, Google also offered an update on the YouTube Kids apps traction, noting that the app today sees more than 8 million weekly active users and has streamed more than 30 billion views.

The goal with YouTube Kids is to offer a window into the more appropriate, educational and entertaining content found on the larger video-sharing site, without exposing children to the sites more mature fare.

However, unlike the kids categories on streaming services like Netflix or Amazon, the content in YouTube Kids is filtered by algorithms. And like any technology implemented without human oversight, that means it will sometimes get things wrong. In those cases, parents are asked to flag the offensive video to alert the company and get it removed.

In addition, parents who choose to turn on the apps search feature may also inadvertently expose their kids to inappropriate content, for the same reasons.

The app has faced controversy when its filters fail, and this continues today. For example,the BBC reported in March that YouTube was hosting thousands of videos designed to look like popular kids cartoons, but were actually adult-oriented parodies. The YouTube Kids app filters out some of these sorts of disturbing videos, the report said,but doesnt necessarily capture them all because of its reliance on automation.

YouTube Kids has also come under fire from consumer watchdog groupsthat have complained to the FTC that YouTube isnt beholden to the same policies around advertising as TV programmers are, which leads to deceptive ad practices. These groups said that YouTube Kids is filled with videos that basically function like TV commercials, but without disclosure including those with product placements, host selling and company-produced promotional videos.

YouTube toes a fine line between advertising and content, saying in its own guidelines that it doesnt consider a videofrom a toy company a paid ad, and while itmay show videos of kids eating sweets, itdoesnt accept paid ads from candy makers.

Today, there continues to be a number of outstanding complaints the FTC has not addressed, including two focused on advertising and a third focused on how YouTube and YouTube Kids use influencers to market to children.

YouTuberolled out an ad-free option last summer, but it only removes the paid ads, not thosethat fall into thisgray area.

In other words, YouTube Kids is just an okay-ish substitute for the YouTube app, and nowhere near as reliable as Netflixs Kids section for being kid-safe.

The app still requires parental involvement and monitoring, whichmeans youll sometimes have to put your foot down on channels that seem to only fuel rampant consumerism in kids by encouraging themto buy toys. (Or, rather, use this to your advantage to get the kids to do their chores and earn their allowance!)

With the added support for smart TVs, YouTube Kids is now available on iOS, Android, Chromecast and now TV platforms in 26 countriesworldwide.

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Tumblr launches Cabana, a new app for watching videos with friends

Tumblr today is launching a new app, calledCabana, which allows a group of friends to video chat and watch videos together, in real time. The app is being introduced under the Tumblr brand, and will cater to the type of users who frequent Tumblrs blogging service teensand young adults but its not currently designed to interoperate with Tumblrs product or take advantage of the existing relationships between fellow Tumblr users.

Instead, Cabana came about more through happenstance than strategic direction.

Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp ran into Jason Lee, Director of Product Management at Polyvore Labs, at a Yahoo leadership offsite earlier this year, where Lee was demonstrating the product.

Polyvore Labs is an internal incubator inside Yahoo the company that acquired both Tumblr and the fashion site Polyvore in years past. (Yahoo is also in the process of being acquired by Verizon, which owns TechCrunchs parent company, AOL.) The Labs groupincludes engineers, designers and product managers from the Polyvore team.

It has developed other products in the social andlifestyle space, but none have ever made it to a public launch, until Cabana.

It just immediately clicked for me as this experience that every internet-connect human has had at this point, explains Karp, of having watched the Cabana demo. You find something incredible on the internet that latestviral video thats hilarious or profound, or that obscure thing that means a ton to you and then youre dragging your friends over to your computer to watch it, he says.

That same sort of thing also happens on Tumblr to some extent people find interesting content and share it with others.

However, the difference between the two products is that Tumblr is essentially a network of strangers who shareyour interests perhaps in anime, or art, or some TV show fandom but Cabana is meant to be used with a group of real-life friends.

If this sort of co-watching experiencesounds familiar, its because theres quite a bit ofaction in this space already.

The recently funded iMessage-based videochat app Fam has plans to move into the area of group video viewing, but there are existing apps from otherswho are doing this as well. We recently covered one of those efforts called Lets Watch It!, an app for watching YouTube or Twitch videos with friends.

But truthfully, there are a slew of services for group video viewing, including Gaze, MyCircleTV, ShareTube, Togethr TV, Rabbit, Rave, Houseparty, and many, many more. Even YouTube is experimenting in this space with an app calledUptime.

The co-viewing experience is also more broadly part of the appeal of the newer live-streaming video services, like those from Twitters Periscope and Facebook Live.

So the question is not really whether co-watching is going to be a thing its a thing but, rather its who will win thisthing if this is athing that isto be won.

How Cabana Works

In Cabana, up to six friends can hang out in a room in the app, where they share videos from YouTube that they watch together, in real-time and in sync. You can participate inonly one room at a time, but you can leave and rejoin rooms freely.

You can add friends by username or upload your address book from your phone to find your friends, then either create a room to hang out in, or join an existing one. These rooms can be public or private the latter by locking the room and you can invite friends to come in by tapping Hey!

Once youre in a room, youll find thetools to lock the room, flip your camera around, mute your mic, add friends, as well as search for videos and share them with the group. Friends can even swap out the currently playing video for another at any time. You can also exit the room to browse your phone while the conversation continues, which puts you on Pause.

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The app was built in just two months time, says Lee, and was designed to offer aspontaneous feeling and experience.

In Cabana, we try to blend the experience of hanging out and watching, says Lee. We keep your face front-and-center along with the video. Instead of focusing on text-based on emoji-based conversations, we give you friends full face and range of emotionswe think thats pretty unique and differentiating feature that allows you to really recreate the experience of being together whileyoure apart.

The thing I thought was so cool when Jason demoed this is that just it seemsso humanthey captured this type of hanging out that so many of us do, adds Karp.

A new home for brands ads

YouTubes videos are available through an API integration in Cabana, not an official partnership, to be clear.

But assuming this proves popular, Cabana could expand to include videos from other social sources in the future.

Karp sees a path for this, having taken a similar position with regard to live video on Tumblr. The company had originallyconsidered building out its own video platform and publishing tools,but later decided it made more sense to work with partners, like YouTube, YouNow, and others when it came time to move into the live video space itself. Cabana could eventually do the same.

Theres also overlap with Tumblr when it comes to brand advertisements, Karp believes. The brands currently advertising on Tumblr may want to reach a similar, young demographic those aged 13 through 18 through the Cabana app. (Over half of Tumblr today isteens and millennials, ages 13-34).

But there is not advertising in Cabana at launch, nor a definitive plan as tohow it would be integrated in the future.

While Cabanais the first standalone social app to emerge from Tumblr, its not the first time Tumblr has tried to branch out into other mobile apps.Back in 2012, it launched Photoset, a separate app for posting photos to the social web, including Tumblr. (This app was later shut down.)

But though its a separate product, its not a pivot for Tumblr itself. The site today is still active, with over 340 millionblogs on its platform. The company declined to share its active user base, but one third-party report from early2016 pegged Tumblr as having 23.2 million users here in the U.S. Tumblr is available worldwide so this is not the full picture, though the report did claim that it would add fewer users over the next few years than rivals like Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

The issue for Tumblr is that the way users are connecting today on mobile is changing were more likely to message and chat, than share blog posts. But Tumblr claims it has made the mobile transition, saying over 80% of its users access its service on mobile. Still, Cabana could help Tumblr enter thenew era of video chatting, if it succeeds.

Cabana is initially available on iOS with an Android launch planned for May.

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Googles parental control software Family Link hits iOS

In March, Google introduced its own parental control software for parents of kids with Android devices called Family Link but there was a bit of a catch. In order for the system to work, it required that both parent and child use Android. That has now changed, as the parents app for configuring and monitoring the childs device usage has just arrived on iOS devices.

That means mom or dad can be an iPhone user, but still manage their childs screen time, daily usage limits, set bedtimes and more, for their kids who useAndroid.

This launch expands the reach of Family Link dramatically, given that iOS has grown to capture 42 percent of the smartphone market here in the U.S., where Family Link is currently available.

The parental control platform is still in testing. When Google unveiled the software last month, it explained that parents would first have to request an invite to join the program. The idea is that Google wants to first work out the kinks and get feedback from early adopters before making Family Link more broadly available.

As for the software itself, Family Link lets parents set some basic limits on how their child can use their Android phone. It offers tools that allow parents to either block or approve app downloads similar totheiCloud Family Sharing Ask feature on Apple devices or block apps that are already installed.

In addition, parents can track how much time kids are spending in which apps through weekly and monthly activity reports, remotely lock the childs device on a set schedule (device bedtimes), and configure daily screen timelimits.

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The iOS version, released on Thursday, doesnt appear to have any new features compared with its Android counterpart it simply ports the parental control app to Apples platform.

There are a few other caveats to be aware of if you want to try Family Link, however. It still requires the child has an Android devicerunning Nougat (7.0) or higher, or has one of a handful of supported Marshmallow devices. (A listof those is availableon the Family Link FAQ page.)

Of course, you should also be aware that this is an early preview of the software, and there could still be bugs to contend with here.

Family Link for iOS works on devices running iOS 9 or higher and is a free download on the App Store.

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Apple Clips scored up to 1 million downloads in its first 4 days

In its first four days on the market, Applesnew social video editing app Clips reached between 500,000 and a million downloads, according to estimatesfrom app store analytics firm App Annie. However, despite heavy press coverage and featured positions in the App Store, Clips hasnt yet broken into the top 20 apps by ranking in the U.S. App Stores Top Charts.

The day after its debut on Thursday, the app climbed to No. 28 in the App Store, its highest rank so far, per App Annies data. To put that in perspective, Apples Music Memos app a fairly niche app aimed at musicians reached No. 29 that day.

Music Memos, we should note, no longer registers on the Top Overall Charts, as App Annie doesnt track rankings below No. 1750.

But according to data from two firms, Sensor Tower and App Annie, Clips alreadybeat Music Memos in terms of downloads, if not rankings.

Another point of comparison for Clips is Instagrams Layout. While the former is focused on video and the latter is for photos, both apps are broadlyabout editing media for the purpose of social sharing. During Clips first four days, it was ranking in the No. 5 to No. 6 range in the competitive Photo & Video category on the App Store, while Instagrams Layout was in the No. 17 to No. 35 range, and as low as 80, in its first days, App Annie said.

But Clips is slipping in the U.S. charts already. Over itslaunchweekend a time whenthe app could have gotten a boost from curious users looking to play with Apples latest toy Clips instead continued to drop. By Saturday, it was No. 39 in the U.S. By Sunday, 40. Today, its 53.

U.S. rankings dont tell the full story of downloads, of course Clips is available worldwide. But in this case,the U.S. accounts for around a quarter of its total downloads, so its performance in this market matters.

The U.S. is currently thelargest market for Clips downloads (25% share), saysApp Annie, followed by China (roughly 16%), with Japan, Russia and Hong Kong rounding out the top five.

Beyond Clipssimply being a new app from Apple, the appwill ultimately succeed or fail based on its ability to tap into the network effects that come with social sharing.

The average user is not yet aware of it, notes Danielle Levitas, Senior Vice President, Research & Professional Services at App Annie.Theyll start to become more aware of it through thatnetwork effect as people share these clips in Facebook, in Instagram, in WeChat, she says. Clips does not have its own built in social network, so it will rely on these shares.

The question for Apple will be not only where this is in terms of downloads which is obviously important when a new app launches butwhat is the network effect?, saysLevitas.

Those effects will be tied to Apples ability to get the app onto peoples devices. In this area, it has an advantage: it owns the platform. With a 42 percent share of smart devices in the U.S. and the App Store as thesingle point of entry to the world of mobile applications, Apple can heavily promote its own apps if it chooses. And it certainly is doing so with Clips.

The company placed Clips in featured banners both on the homepage and in the Photo & Videocategory pagein its App Store, and it gave Clips the number one positionon ApplesNew apps we love list.

Plus, theres the accompanying onslaught of press coverage from not only the typical array of technology news sites and Apple blogs, but also a slew of mainstream media outlets like The Wall St. Journal, Reuters, Time, CNN, CNBC, and many others. Its kind of impossible to not know that Apple launched a new app, if you spend any time online at all.

That being said, not all iOS device owners read the news, or launch the App Store regularly.

It seems like Clips is catching on with those whove tried it, however, leading to a 4-star rating and many rave reviews on the App Store. The appseems to appeal to those who are already familiar with video editing, and find Clips to be a less bloated alternative to iMovie for iOS. But those with less experience complainedthe app doesnt feel that intuitive or has poor navigational elements, among other things.

As TechCrunchs own review noted, many of Clipsfeatures are buried, with the goal of keeping it simple. This could have the side effect ofmaking them hard to find. Andits clearnot everyone agrees that Apple has built a straightforward app. The user interface is not as simpleas it could be, some reviewers said, leading to a bit of learning curve to getting the hang of it. These are areas Apple may need to iterate upon in the future.

In the meantime, Apple couldgain real-world insight into what people want to do with their videos. Eventually, it could choose toport a feature or two from Clips like its filters, overlays or other live editing tools to its main Camera app.

But Clipsreal test wont be rankings or downloads, butin the number of clips the app ends up producing, and their distribution. Those numbers wont be visible for at least a month out from launch, at the earliest.

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Speed-reading apps: can you really read a novel in your lunch hour?

Apps such as Spreeder and Spritz are bringing speed reading back into fashion. But what gets lost in this race for the last page?

This article contains 1,993 words. If you were to read it to the end, without being distracted by your email or your dog or your children or the contents of the fridge or the bills you have to pay, it would take you, on average, a little over six minutes. But what if you were able to imbibe all of its (undoubted) nuance and richness in half of that time? Or a quarter? What if you could glance at the text and know everything it said just by running your eyes down the page?

The idea of speed reading was invented by an American schoolteacher named Evelyn Wood, whose search for a way to improve the lives of troubled teenagers in Salt Lake County, Utah, by teaching them to read effortlessly, led her to the belief that she herself could read at the rate of 2,700 words a minute, 10 times faster than the average educated reader. And further, that the techniques that allowed her to do so could be taught and sold.

With Doug, her husband, Wood opened her Reading Dynamics institutes across the US and beyond in the 1950s and 60s, and her methods became a self-help craze. The way in which we read, she professed, in the managerial spirit of the moment, was inefficient in terms of time and motion. We had to stop subvocalising saying words out loud in our heads as our eyes moved across the page as well as learning to outlaw the pauses and detours that led to us reread phrases when our minds drifted or our understanding snagged. Print should be consumed in blocks rather than words and sentences. To achieve this, Wood promoted a technique of running a finger down the middle of a page to activate peripheral vision. By the end of a course in Reading Dynamics, breathless students were reading Orwells Animal Farm at the rate of 1,400 words a minute, and telling tales of revolution.

President Kennedy, who believed himself to be a gifted speed reader (and who colleagues observed reading the New York Times and the Washington Post each morning in 10 minutes flat, scanning and turning the pages), sent a dozen of his staff tothe Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Institute in Washington. Presidents Nixon and Carter, under mountains of briefings, followed suit. The science of Woods method was never remotely proven, however, and by the time of her death in 1995, her ideas had fallen out of fashion.

Recently, the attractions of speed reading have been revived and promoted, for a couple of reasons. The first is the persuasive perception that we are living in times of information overload, that we are daily presented with more words than we can possibly cope with, and that new tactics are called for to enable us to make sense of it all. The second factor is the belief that since text can now be presented more dynamically on screens we are not restricted by the rigidity of printed sentences on a page: surely there is a better way?

These twin perceptions have led to a wave of businesses and apps that once again aim to revolutionise your reading speed (at the cost of $4.99, or whatever, a month). For the past couple of weeks Ive been experimenting with a few of the best known, mostly on my smartphone. The apps generally use a technology called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), in which individual words, or blocks of two or three words, appear one after the other in the centre of your screen. The rate at which they do so can be set to 300 or 500 or 1,000 words a minute, enabling you to feed in text and books to be read faster and faster.

Two of the more popular platforms offer a slightly different approach. The Spreeder app allows you to choose the number of words you see at each moment, and to vary the rate at which these words come at you. I found that I could just about take in three-word chunks of Animal Farm for sense at 800wpm, but that in doing so I not only had a slight feeling of panic in trying to keep up, I lost any sense of the rhythm of language, and with it any of the tone of what was being said.

Spritz technology, meanwhile, developed by a company in Boston, is based on the idea that much of the time wasted in reading is spent in the fractions of seconds as the eyes focus moves between words and across the page. Spritz which drives the app ReadMe! offers successive individual words in which one letter, just before the midpoint of each word, is highlighted in red, keeping your focus on that precise point on the screen (the Optimum Recognition Point). With this technology I found I could just about read simple passages for sense at 700wpm, an ability I imagine would become more natural, if not necessarily more comfortable, the longer you practised it.

Both of the apps and there are dozens of others to choose from come with tutorials and exercises to help you master the system. In most cases you start, as Evelyn Wood used to, with an assessment of your current (bad) reading habits. Its the nature of my job as a journalist to often assimilate a lot of information under time pressure, so I like to think no doubt along with pretty much everyone else that I have developed quite fast comprehension skills. An app called Acceleread was mildly impressed with my ability to read a passage about deep sea creatures and then answer a series of questions about it.

The assessment began positively enough: 385wpm Fantastic! You already demonstrate some advanced techniques such as reading words in groups rather than individually. But the assessment had caveats: You may still find that you often say words silently and get easily distracted. (Youre not kidding.) Your program will focus on reducing subvocalisation, strengthening your eye muscles and increasing your capacity to absorb more information at once. You should see rapid and dramatic results

Before embarking on this body-building course for my eyes and brain, I read through some of the quite complex science of reading (generally at no more than 200wpm, and with plenty of distractions). There have been many studies of the claims made by speed reading courses, going back to the early promises of Evelyn Wood. As well as arguing that it was possible to utilise peripheral vision, she claimed that our eyes were lazy, unless yoked into rigorous training. The studies most definitively a large-scale research project, So Much to Read, So Little Time: How Do We Read, and Can Speed Reading Help?, led by scientists at the University of California, San Diego and published last year concluded that in general such training is neither biologically nor psychologically possible.

The mechanics of reading have only recently been fully understood. They depend on a brief fixation of the focal point of the eye, which lasts about 0.25 of a second on each word. The transition of that focus to the next word is allowed by saccades fine, ballistic eye movements, which last for about 0.1 of a second. The eye then either keeps moving forward or momentarily and subconsciously flicks back to confirm the sense of what has been read so far. All the experiments suggested that short-circuiting any part of this process led to a loss of comprehension and retention. The genius of normal reading is that it can minutely vary those fractions of seconds depending on how much of the sense of what is being read has been grasped. In a dense sentence, with sub-clauses and unfamiliar language, fixations and saccades are adjusted accordingly, so there is no break in reading flow. In easier passages the eye dances along swiftly. About 30% of the time it automatically shrinks the saccade over a familiar run of words, skipping past those it can predict.

How does this understanding bear on the apps such as Spreeder and Spritz? The acceleration they promise tends to depend on three issues: sub-vocalisation, looping backwards, and the time lag between words. The So Little Time study examined each of these in turn. When scientists tried to get people to eliminate sounding words subliminally in their heads by having them constantly hum while reading, for example comprehension dropped precipitously. The evidence suggested that when people saw words, they instantaneously accessed the sounds of those words to help understand them. The two processes worked seamlessly; speed dislocated them.

The problem with the second promise is perhaps more obvious you dont have to use the apps on fast speed for very long to realise that without the ability to go back and reread a phrase or a sentence, you can quickly lose the thread of what is being said. (Some of the apps have recognised this and added a rewind button.) The issue with the third claim has to do with rhythm. While it is true that you dont receive any fresh information in the spaces between words, the research suggests that the millisecond pauses are crucial for cognition: they are our brains tiny spaces for reflection.

In the fast lane: the speed-reading innovator Tim Ferris. Photograph: Amy E Price/Getty Images for SXSW

One of the things the studies dont dwell too much on is the nature of what is being read. I cant imagine ever wanting to read a novel at more than the normal 300wpm (by comparison, a speaking voice is roughly 150wpm and even cattle auctioneers can only rattle at 250wpm), but the virtue of reading short articles or emails on RSVP at double that speed seems more plausible. Chances are, however, that most of us already use various intuitive skimming techniques to extract information from such documents when time is short.

You dont really need studies to prove (though they do) that the more familiar we are with a subject, the more likely we are to be able to extract important information from it at pace. It is for this reason that JFK was able to read the New York Times so quickly presumably he knew most of the stories first hand, anyhow, and was just letting his eye flick across headlines and first sentences for a sense of argument. Most of us do something like this with material with which we are familiar although we are all probably less adept at it than we imagine.

Ronald Carver, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Missouri, proved in a landmark study of brainiacsin 1985 that, even for very practised speed readers, attempting to read above 600 words a minute meant that comprehension of any text fell below 75%, and went down dramatically as the reading speed increased beyond that. There is some evidence to show that we can, however, develop the ability to fillet a book quite quickly if we use adaptive techniques. In another study of the various techniques of skimming, two researchers at the University of Bath showed that skimmers who were most successful at extracting and retaining meaning were able to focus on critical sections of an argument and to jump forward as soon as the rate at which they are gaining new information drops below a threshold. They were particularly alive to bullshit or repetition.

Much of the buzz of our so-called digital overload comes from those latter growth industries. It has been argued that the subconscious mind can process 20,000,000 bits of information per second; but of those, the conscious mind holds on to only about 40 bits at any moment. Rather than trying to read more quickly we might be better advised to read more selectively. A lot of our lives can be scanned and scrolled and skipped, but reading remains a more immersive kind of act, dependent on detail. As Woody Allen observed: I took a course in speed reading and was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes. Its about Russia.

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Microsoft launches Whos In, a social event planning app for iMessage

Microsofts name isnt exactly synonymous with social networking, though that hasnt stopped the company from finding angles into this space generally, with more of a focus on the business side of socializing, as with its LinkedIn and Yammer acquisitions. Its own efforts in social, meanwhile, have failed, as with last months shuttering of itssocial network for students, Socl.

Now the company is giving social another shot with a new iMessage app called Whos In, aimed at helping friends plan events and other outings, like movie dates, dinners out, visits to nearby attractions, and more.

The app, which just launched today on the iMessage App Store, does not have an iPhone or iPad version at this time it can only be accessed viaiMessage.

When you first launch the app, it asks you to select an activity: Eat and drink, Watch a movie, Visit an attraction, or Create your own.

After choosing one of the options, Whos In thenleverages Microsofts search engine Bing for its suggestions of things to do likearea restaurants or movie showtimes, for example. These appear after you consent to sharing your location with the app.

With a few more taps you enter theother details, like the event time, or in the case of a custom event the location, name, and a description.

The app will thecreate a custom card for yourevent, designed for texting, which includes a thumbnail image with the location and the time. The images the app uses are generic, however, as you can see in the above example. Thats disappointing in terms of the overall experience.

Recipients can tap on this card and then tap a thumbs up button to indicate theyre in or the thumbs down to indicate theyre out. (Hence the apps name.)

Whats also useful is that the app offers a way for the events organizer to enter in multiple dates/times, allowing Whos In to serve as a sort of group polling app.

This addresses one of the common struggles of organizing outings via iMessage theres often a lot of back and forth chatter about what time everyone wants to do the thing being discussed. With Whos In, you can instead send out the events card and collect votes.

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One funny thing to note about Whos In is that Google years ago launched its own social app aimed at getting friends together to hang out. Its name? Whos Down. That app was eventually shut down for lack of use.

That said, Microsoftsapp (also not to be confused with this indie app of the same name) seems like a handy addition for anyone who spends a lot of time in SMS and iMessage chats making plans with friends.

Unfortunately, with the way the app integrations in iMessage have been designed, its still overly cumbersome to find apps, anduse them after installation. This has led to slowing growth in the store, according to one third-party report, as well as complaints from developers and pundits alike about the iMessage stores design issues. These concerns are valid, and willlikely impact the adoption of Microsofts Whos In app, too.

We should note, too, that this is not Microsofts first entry into the iMessage App Store, nor even its first social app for iMessage.

The company already launched iMessage apps for OneDrive, Yammer, and Bing, plus a Halo stickers app, and a similarly focused event planning app, called #MovieDate. This latter app,as the name implies, is only for movies, and it has a dating focus.

Whos In is a free download for iPhone users.

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Feedlys reader app now caters to knowledge workers with launch of boards, notes & annotations

Following the death of Google Reader several years ago, there was a brief renewed interest in alternative RSS readers news readers that let you track updates from blogs or other websites in a single interface. While there was a lot of hype around Diggs entry into the space, its Feedly that has best picked up the Google Reader mantle, and continued to roll out features aimed at those who ingest, save and reference a large number of news items on a regular basis. Today, Feedly is adding to its feature set again with a series of updates that turn its reader into a more powerful knowledge board creation tool.

Like mostRSS readers on the market, Feedly alreadyallowsyou to subscribe to feeds, organize them into folders, mark content for later reading, share posts across social media, and tag articles for later access, among other things.

Today, Feedly is introducing Boards, a feature that makes it easier to organize the stories you want to save for yourself, or share with others on a team. This latter addition, Team Boards, is ideal for business users and co-workers who want to track stories about clients, projects or other interests.

The functionality of Boards replaces tags for all users Basic, Pro (a paidtier) and Teams.

Instead of clicking a button to tag an article, you now click a star icon instead to add it to a board of your choosing. If its the first time youve used boards, Feedly will ask you to create one by entering in a name.

Like tagging, however, you can save a story to multiple boards. And you can still save stories toread it later-style services, like Pocket and Instapaper, if you choose.

The Teams product is where Boards can become even more useful. You can track website feeds, Twitter feeds for accounts, lists and hashtags, as well as Google keyword alerts. When you save one of theseitems to a Board, you can now mark itup with added context.

For example, you can highlight key parts of an article and annotate the article with your expanded thoughts orideas. Plus, you can notify fellow teammates using integrated Slack and email mentions.

This curated set of content can additionallybe used to build out email newsletters based on the stories youve saved inthe Boards. Items can also be shared out to social media, including through Buffer, LinkedIn, and Hootsuite, either immediately or on a scheduled basis. An API is available, too, with integrations into workflow systems like IFTTT or Zapier.

Whats interesting about Feedlys development over the years is that it demonstrates the potential that Google squandered by shuttering its own RSS Reader, instead of realizing how it could have been modernized to become a paid toolsetfor researchers, knowledge workers, and businesses. It also ties in nicely with thegrowing interest in email newsletters as a way to reach an audience.

Boards, Notes, and Highlights will also work on any device including the web and mobile, via the Feedly app.Basic accounts can only create up to 3 private Boards. For unlimited boards, youll need to upgrade to Pro ($5/mo.) or Teams ($18/mo. per user).

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The 10 most influential smartphone apps

From Maps to Instagram, Uber to Foursquare the top 10 app developments which have been copied, adopted or simply absorbed into everything else

Maps, 2007

Once upon a time, there was no Google Maps and Apple Maps. There was just Maps, the mapping app that shipped with the first iPhone. Where many of the Apple-developed apps in the first iPhone have had little long-term influence, Maps more-or-less created the user experience that is still standard across OSes to this day: pinch to zoom, a small blue dot to mark your location, and an in-built compass for orienting yourself. And with Google as the source of data until the rocky divorce ended that.

Tweetie, 2008

Three words: Pull to refresh. Its not often a one-person development studio invents a new user interface concept which goes on to be adopted by the entire world, but Loren Brichter, the developer of the independent Twitter client, pulled it off. Tweetie 2.0 was released in September 2009; by 2012, the concept had made it to Mail in iOS, with Apple effectively confirming that Brichters innovation was the best way to solve the problem. Oh, and Tweetie itself? It was bought by Twitter in 2010 and became the social networks first official app, three years after it launched.

Uber making tenuous low-paying employment seem sexy in the eyes of investors. Photograph: Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA

Uber, 2009

The cab app is known for pushing the limits of the law, thumbing its nose at regulations and singlehandedly making tenuous low-paying employment seem sexy in the eyes of investors. Its hard to remember life before the uberisation of everything. Key to its success is its mobile-first approach for passengers and drivers. All you need to drive for Uber is a car and a phone, leaving its roll-out cost at a minimum. No clunky, proprietary equipment required here, which allowed the service to expand as fast as its legal department could handle.

Instagram, 2010

Sure, now its now just Facebooks second brand the Cos to Zuckerbergs H&M, the Picturehouse to his Cineworld, the Audi to his VW but once upon a time, Instagram was the future. The app pioneered the misdirection approach to building a business: pretend what youre offering users is a fancy set of camera filters, when actually youre building a social network. At the time, everything Instagram did was wrong, from its refusal to support Android to its total absence of any web view, but it all came together in the end.

The internets safe space Instagram. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Snapchat, 2012

Snapchat makes it on this list twice over. Its broad influence on the app market was the promotion of ephemerality as a desirable concept: once the app outgrew its sexting reputation, others took note of the fact that users seemed far happier to share content if they knew there wasnt going to be a permanent record of everything they posted. But more specifically, Snapchats influence is in one direction: towards Facebook. The company has gone after Snapchat in one way or another more than sixteen times, most notably cloning the Snapchat Stories feature into Messenger, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Clash of Clans, 2012

Its sometimes easy to forget Clash of Clans is a game, rather than a money-making machine that brought Finnish developers Supercell to the pinnacle of Europes technology scene on a wave of cash. A multiplayer base-building game, it took the basic freemium mechanics that had made its predecessors so successful, and turbocharged them. Players are still encouraged to fork out through frustration, as build-timers stretch out in to the future, but theres also the competitive element: teaming up with the rest of your clan to take on opponents is a powerful motivation for forking out cash. Sure, Farmville did much of it first, but Clash of Clans showed that free games could be huge.

Dark Sky, 2012

Dark Sky: Hyperlocal Weather. Photograph: PR

When Dark Sky launched, its pitch was simple: a weather app for knowing whether you would need an umbrella in the next hour. Not will it rain in my city today, or whats the temperature going to be at the weekend, but right here, right now, with those grey clouds overhead, am I going to get soaked? It served as a salutary lesson, not just for weather apps, but for a lot of services being ported over to mobile, about what personalisation could mean in practice. Before apps, a weather site could have offered something like Dark Sky, but it would have been mostly useless; now, a rain notification is a cost of entry.

Foursquare, 2013

Foursquare has had many iterations: from a Find My Friends-style app focused on enabling serendipitous moments of hanging out, to a crowdsourced city guide for the whole world, and these days ending up largely as a quiet data-broker sitting on the back-end of services as varied as Citymapper and Untapped. But its biggest influence is the basis of it all: the check-in. Thats what youre doing when you tag a location in Instagram, share where you are in an iMessage chat, or mark that youve arrived at the venue in Eventbrite, and it all started with Foursquare.

Mailbox, 2013

Dearly departed Mailbox, we still mourn your absence. Before it was bought by Dropbox, then unceremoniously shuttered, the mail app was the first one really good enough to replace Apples in-built email client. It worked by narrowing its focus (only working with Gmail, only working on one platform), and building from the ground to help users achieve Inbox Zero, that nirvana of personal productivity. Swipe one way to archive, swipe another to snooze, and get a cheery Instagram pic at the end of each day if you manage to clear out your inbox. The app may be dead, but its influence lives on in, most obviously in the form of Googles Inbox, an app built from the ground up to present a mailbox-style interface to Gmail.

Hearthstone, 2014

The original collect-em-up app Hearthstone. Photograph: handout/Handout

Blizzards collectible card battler has proved a few things in its two or so years of existence. One is that a casual game can achieve real critical success, and be taken seriously outside the realms of those who only think about mobile games. Another is that being first doesnt matter if you can be slicker, smoother and more accessible than what came before. But most importantly, for the games influence on the rest of the market, it proved that people will pay a lot of money to collect virtual cards. Everyone and their dog has a Hearthstone-inspired collect-em-up today, and that would never have happened if Blizzard hadnt had that initial success.

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