The Nudge is a planner app packaged as an SMS subscription service

How do you fix digital information overload and the resulting life-attention deficit that’s apparently afflicting smartphone owners everywhere — and even leading some very large tech giants to unbox “digital wellness” tools lately?

San Francisco-based startup The Nudge reckons the answer to getting millennials to spend less time sucked into screens, and more time out and about actually doing things, is — you guessed it — another technology service! Albeit one that delivers inspirational plan ideas for stuff to do in your free time, delivered via the traditional text message conduit of SMS.

The sibling duo behind the startup, John and Sarah Peterson, have bagged $540,000 in pre-seed funding for their text planner idea, after running a year-long public beta of the service in San Francisco. The investment is led by seed-stage VC firm NextView Ventures, with Sequoia’s scout fund also participating.

Peterson says the idea to send plans via SMS evolved out of his earlier (and first) startup, called Livday: Also a planner app for friends to share their favorite ideas for weekend hikes and so on. But being just another app meant having to compete for attention with noisy social content, so the siblings hit on the idea of using SMS — as a sort of artisanal reversion of current state consumer tech — to “find a way to rise above the noise,” as they put it. Or, well, attempt to circumvent app notification fatigue/mute buttons.

As is often the case in fashion-led consumer tech, old ways can get polished up to feel shiny and new again once whatever displaced them has lost enough sheen to start to look old.

The Nudge has garnered around 10,000 active weekly users at this point, launching out of its year-long public beta. Peterson describes the typical user as “an active millennial woman,” with the community skewing 70 percent female at this point.

For the active user metric the team defines an active user as someone who is reading and engaging with the text messages they’re sending — either by clicking a link or replying.

They further claim to have signed up 5 percent of San Francisco’s millennials to their lifestyle “nudges.”

“While our new rebrand has a somewhat feminine aesthetic it’s interesting that we initially were targeting men. It just really resonated with millennial women,” says Peterson.

“They need this because taking the initiative is the essential yet hardest part of living our lives to the fullest, and that’s what we give them,” he adds. “A nudge. We’re laser-focused on that demo right now but have plans to help other demographics long-term. My empty nest parents badly need this.”

Nudges take the form of — initially — an SMS text message, containing a handwritten brunch idea or a hike plan, or details of a hip coffee venue or volunteering opportunity which the startup reckons will appeal to its SF community.

The texts may also contain a link to a more fully fledged plan (with photos, address, logistics etc.). You can see some of their sample plans here.

While the core delivery mechanism is SMS, there also is a Nudge app where plans can be saved for later perusal, and subscribers to the service can mark Nudges as “done” (presumably to avoid being spammed with the same plan later).

Currently, the startup has an editorial team of three people coming up with plan ideas to inspire subscribers — writing in a friendly, narrative style that’s intended to complement the cozy SMS delivery medium.

They’re also working with local social media influencers to hit on trendy ideas that resonate with their target millennial users.

Convincing information-overloaded consumers to willingly hand over their mobile digits to get random texts might seem a bit of a counter-intuitive “fix” for digital information overload. But Peterson reckons it boils down to getting the tone of voice right. (And, clearly, being careful not to send too many texts that you end up coming across as spam.)

“We want people to really feel like The Nudge is just another one of their (ridiculously resourceful and fun) friends texting them, and I think we’ve succeeded there so far,” he tells TechCrunch. “Nearly all of our growth has come from word of mouth. You’re right that text messaging is a sacred space, and we’re very sensitive about that.”

Peterson claims that unsubscribe rates are less than 1 percent each week — though they’re also limiting themselves to sending three “personalized” lifestyle “nudges” per week at this point.

On the personalization front, they say plan ideas are customized based on factors such as the current weather and local trends. They are not, as a rule, customized per user though — beyond being personalized with the subscriber’s name. So it’s more “Nudge Club” than VIP personalized lifestyle advisor.

“In general, everyone is getting the same content, as we’ve found that there’s a lot of power in the shared experience (you know your friend just got the same text at that moment),” he says. “That said, we do sometimes create a dialogue where we ask you a question and depending upon your answer, we recommend something specific for you.

“We’re carefully not taking this part too far, as we really don’t view ourselves as a bot.”

Given they are (usually) sending ~10,000 people pretty much the same idea of what to do at the weekend or of an evening, Peterson admits that venue overcrowding has been a problem they inadvertently ended up creating — for example he says they recommended a free event that ended up getting 10x overbooked and had to cancel some tickets.

“Our answer is to only recommend small venues as a general suggestion (do this date idea this summer), and recommend larger venues specifically (do this hike tomorrow),” he says, explaining how they’ve tweaked the service to try to workaround creating unintended flash mobs of demand.

On the business model side, the plan is to make The Nudge a subscription service. Though they’re not going into details at this stage as they’re still experimenting with different options. (And they’re not currently charging for the service.)

But Peterson says the intention is not to make money via the specific things they’re recommending — which, in theory, frees them from needing to operate a creepy, privacy-hostile data-harvesting surveillance operation to determine whether an SMS can be linked to a specific bar bill or restaurant check for them to take a cut, for example.

Though, to be clear, Peterson says they’re gathering “as much data as we can about people doing a Nudge” — presumably so the team can better tailor the content and recommendations they’re making by figuring out what their users really like doing.

“We don’t promote any products or services,” he emphasizes. “Selling tickets or products or ads is tempting, and a lot of lifestyle services do that, but it would ruin or credibility. This is ultimately a subscription service based on trust.”

Despite that reassuring claim, it is worth noting that their current privacy policy states they “may periodically send promotional emails about new products/special offers/info etc via provided email addresses.” So be aware you are at least agreeing to theoretical email spam if you hand over your details.

What’s next for The Nudge now that the team has raised their first tranche of VC? Peterson says they’re planning to expand the service to LA this year — which he confirms will mean hiring a team on the ground to produce the custom content needed to power the service.

Albeit, he concedes, “right now our process is very manual.” And it’s not at all clear whether their concept could sustain much automation-based scaling — at least not if they don’t want to risk generating yet more impersonal noise versus the friendly digital lifestyle advisor tone they’re aiming to strike as a strategy to stand out.

Beyond LA, Peterson says they plan to expand “pretty aggressively” in 2019. “The Nudge as it stands now would work in any urban market as I believe it’s a solution to a fundamental human problem,” he says.

The Nudge’s spare time plans by text is by no means the only SMS-based lifestyle subscription service hoping to cut itself a slice of the attention economy.

In 2016 a startup called Shine launched on-demand life coaching by text messaging, for example.

And let’s not forget Magic — the “get anything via a text message” service that had a viral moment in 2015 — and now bills itself as a “24/7 virtual assistant.”

Google has also tried texting people shopping deals. And Microsoft has dabbled in event planning specifically — outing an iMessage app for social event planning last year.

Meanwhile Facebook added “M,” a text-based assistant app (which was itself human-assisted), to its Messenger platform back in 2015 — but went on to shutter the service in January this year, apparently never having found a way to scale M into a fully fledged AI assistant.

Court victory legalizes 3D-printable gun blueprints

A multi-year legal battle over the ability to distribute computer models of gun parts and replicate them in 3D printers has ended in defeat for government authorities who sought to prevent the practice. Cody Wilson, the gunmaker and free speech advocate behind the lawsuit, now intends to expand his operations, providing printable gun blueprints to all who desire them.

The longer story of the lawsuit is well told by Andy Greenberg over at Wired, but the decision is eloquent on its own. The fundamental question is whether making 3D models of gun components available online is covered by the free speech rights granted by the First Amendment.

This is a timely but complex conflict because it touches on two themes that happen to be, for many, ethically contradictory. Arguments for tighter restrictions on firearms are, in this case, directly opposed to arguments for the unfettered exchange of information on the internet. It’s hard to advocate for both here: restricting firearms and restricting free speech are one and the same.

That at least seems to be conclusion of the government lawyers, who settled Wilson’s lawsuit after years of court battles. In a copy of the settlement provided to me by Wilson, the U.S. government agrees to exempt “the technical data that is the subject of the Action” from legal restriction. The modified rules should appear in the Federal Register soon.

What does this mean? It means that a 3D model that can be used to print the components of a working firearm is legal to own and legal to distribute. You can likely even print it and use the product — you just can’t sell it. There are technicalities to the law here (certain parts are restricted, but can be sold in an incomplete state, etc.), but the implications as regards the files themselves seems clear.

Wilson’s original vision, which he is now pursuing free of legal obstacles, is a repository of gun models, called DEFCAD, much like any other collection of data on the web, though naturally considerably more dangerous and controversial.

“I currently have no national legal barriers to continue or expand DEFCAD,” he wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “This legal victory is the formal beginning to the era of downloadable guns. Guns are as downloadable as music. There will be streaming services for semi-automatics.”

The concepts don’t map perfectly, no doubt, but it’s hard to deny that with the success of this lawsuit, there are few legal restrictions to speak of on the digital distribution of firearms. Before it even, there were few technical restrictions: certainly just as you could download MP3s on Napster in 2002, you can download a gun file today.

Gun control advocates will no doubt argue that greater availability of lethal weaponry is the opposite of what is needed in this country. But others will point out that in a way this is a powerful example of how liberally free speech can be defined. It’s important to note that both of these things can be true.

This court victory settles one case, but marks the beginnings of many another. “I have promoted my values for years with great care and diligence,” Wilson wrote. It’s hard to disagree with that. Those whose values differ are free to pursue them in their own way; perhaps they too will be awarded victories of this scale.

Nerf updates laser tag with smartphone AR

There’s nothing like a great new toy to make you mourn the ghost of bygone youth. I don’t have the opportunity to try many out at this job, but when I do, there’s an invariable pang of jealousy for kids today who have much broader access to sophisticated playthings than we did in our day.

Nerf Laser Ops Pro is a pretty solid example of this. It finds the company combining a solid bit of nostalgic IP with some modern technology, to good effect. The new toys, which hit virtual store shelves next Monday, look like a Nerf, play like a Lazer Tag and incorporate your smartphone to help take them a step beyond what either line has offered in the past.

Arguably the most compelling bit in all of this is the price point, with none of the sets running more than $50. I have a vague memory of the original Lazer Tag system being prohibitively expensive in my youth — or maybe that’s just what my parents told me because they didn’t want any fake guns lying around the house.

There was, after all, some controversy with the line from the outset. Here’s a pretty depressing story from the height of Lazer Tag’s success that no doubt caused its manufacturers to rethink the product’s presentation. In 1998, the brand was purchased by Hasbro, and in 2012, it was rolled into the Nerf line.

The foam gun brand has always offered a warmer, fuzzier take on toy weapons, and that’s very much at play here. The likelihood of ever mistaking Nerf Laser Ops Pro for a real gun is slim to none. That said, true diehards will likely miss the Knight Rider-esque black and red vibe of the original product. But if that’s enough to ruin your childhood, it was probably already on shaky ground to begin with.

The more important question is whether Laser Ops Pro is fun. I only played with it briefly today (reminder: I’m an adult with a job), but I can unequivocally state “yes” on that front. Habro’s done a good job marrying the new with the old here. The guns are big and plasticky and hearty, combining digital technology with mechanical haptic feedback.

Smartphone use is optional, which is good for the little ones. When you add that in, however, you get the benefit of things like leaderboards, states and GPS tracking (all secure and private, the company assures me). There’s also a fun little AR shooting game you can play when you’re all by your lonesome.

The blasters will be available online July 16, with retail availability next month. They’re a solid summer purchase for parents looking for ways to get their video game-obsessed offspring up off the couch while the weather’s still nice.