FameGame wants to recreate reality TV for a mobile age

The pre-social media phenomenon that was early 2000s American Idol might be a weird place to spend a lot of focus when it comes to thinking about the future. But it’s also worth noting how little these types of shows adapted to build themselves into the fabric of live social commentary. Twitter has offered a nice second screen for thirsty users, but what would reality TV look like if it was built for the smartphone?

The team behind FameGame is aiming to answer these very fascinating/worrying questions with their new app which envisions the rebirth of live reality TV on your smartphone. The company’s first offering seems to be a mix of American Idol, Musical.ly and HQ Trivia with young users vying to flex their talents and social media prowess to win cash and glory.

The startup sees live gamified engagement as a social outlet that existing apps and platforms aren’t making much of a dent in. FameGame CEO Alexandra Botez grew interested in the concept after getting into live-streaming herself playing chess on Twitch and seeing the potential of bringing users closer to less gaming-focused verticals.

“We thought that the interactivity of live gaming could also be applied to make conventional TV more entertaining,” Botez tells TechCrunch. “We think Musical.ly and Instagram are pretty big so it’s hard for them to change their infrastructure in such a way that they make the type of immersive experience that we’ve created with FameGame.”

FameGame plays the game of fame by getting users to submit self-shot smartphone videos of their talents. The challenges differ by week but one contest may be focused on dance skills while another may be focused on lip-syncing. After an initial submission period, users can check out what’s been uploaded and vote for their favorites which will be included in a live show that’s hosted at 5:00 PM PT every day.

Cash prizes are at stake, but the real emphasis seems to be on social validation. Winners will also get a shoutout from a Musical.ly “celebrity” user and a big emphasis is put on the host shouting out users and their handles to drive attention their way. The whole design seems to take some pretty clear, erm, inspiration from HQ Trivia but the live voting component adds a more impactful community vibe to it though once users see they aren’t included amongst the finalists, it might be hard to hold onto viewers.

The startup’s efforts are going to start with a focus on the crowd that has helped catapult apps like Instagram and Musical.ly to rabid success. “We decided to go with young teenage girls because they are really obsessed with becoming famous on social media and they spend a lot of time on Musical.ly posting videos and not necessarily getting the gratification that they might want,” CTO Ruben Mayer-Hirshfeld tells me.

There are certainly some unique challenges with catering to such a young user base, especially from a safety standpoint. The company is going to curate the few videos that go into the live show, but there isn’t any screening happening in between user submission and user voting aside from a reporting button so the burden is ultimately put on a young user base to decide what crosses the line.

FameGame is just the start for the company’s ambitions. Botez tells me that there are a number of different TV show formats that seem ripe for the live social mobile elements, but that the main focus is getting excited teens on FameGame right now and seeing whether the format can catch steam and move beyond what’s out there already.

SmartArm’s AI-powered prosthesis takes the prize at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup

A pair of Canadian students making a simple, inexpensive prosthetic arm have taken home the grand prize at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, a global startup competition the company holds yearly. SmartArm will receive $85,000, a mentoring session with CEO Satya Nadella, and some other Microsoft goodies. But they were far from the only worthy team from the dozens that came to Redmond to compete.

The Imagine Cup is an event I personally look forward to, because it consists entirely of smart young students, usually engineers and designers themselves (not yet “serial entrepreneurs”) and often aiming to solve real-world problems.

In the semi-finals I attended, I saw a pair of young women from Pakistan looking to reduce stillbirth rates with a new pregnancy monitor, an automated eye-checking device that can be deployed anywhere and used by anyone, and an autonomous monitor for water tanks in drought-stricken areas. When I was their age, I was living at my mom’s house, getting really good at Mario Kart for SNES and working as a preschool teacher.

Even Nadella bowed before their ambitions in his appearance on stage at the final event this morning.

“Last night I was thinking, ‘What advice can I give people who have accomplished so much at such a young age?’ And I said, I should go back to when I was your age and doing great things. Then I realized…I definitely wouldn’t have made these finals.”

That got a laugh, but (with apologies to Nadella) it’s probably true. Students today have unbelievable resources available to them and as many of the teams demonstrated, they’re making excellent use of those resources.

SmartArm in particular combines a clever approach with state of the art tech in a way that’s so simple it’s almost ridiculous.

The issue they saw as needing a new approach is prosthetic arms, which as they pointed out are often either non-functional (think just a plastic arm or simple flexion-based gripper) or highly expensive (a mechanical arm might cost tens of thousands). Why can’t one be both?

Their solution is an extremely interesting and timely one: a relatively simply actuated 3D-printed forearm and hand that has its own vision system built in. A camera built into the palm captures an image of the item the user aims to pick up, and quickly classifies it — an apple, a key ring, a pen — and selects the correct grip for that object.

The user activates the grip by flexing their upper arm muscles, an action that’s detected by a Myo-like muscle sensor (possibly actually a Myo, but I couldn’t tell from the demo). It sends the signal to the arm to activate the hand movement, and the fingers move accordingly.

It’s still extremely limited — you likely can’t twist a doorknob with it, or reliably grip a knife or fork, and so on. But for many everyday tasks it could still be useful. And the idea of putting the camera in the palm is a high-risk, high-reward one. It is of course blocked when you pick up the item, but what does it need to see during that time? You deactivate the grip to put the cup down and the camera is exposed again to watch for the next task.

Bear in mind this is not meant as some kind of serious universal hand replacement. But it provides smart, simple functionality for people who might otherwise have had to use a pincer arm or the like. And according to the team, it should cost less than $100. How that’s possible to do including the arm sensor is unclear to me, but I’m not the one who built a bionic arm so I’m going to defer to them on this. Even if they miss that 50 percent it would still be a huge bargain, honestly.

There’s an optional subscription that would allow the arm to improve itself over time as it learns more about your habits and objects you encounter regularly — this would also conceivably be used to improve other SmartArms as well.

As for how it looks — rather robotic — the team defended it based on their own feedback from amputees: “They’d rather be asked, ‘hey, where did you get that arm?” than ‘what happened to your arm?’ ” But a more realistic-looking set of fingers is also under development.

The team said they were originally looking for venture funding but ended up getting a grant instead; they’ve got interest from a number of Canadian and American institutions already, and winning the Imagine Cup will almost certainly propel them to greater prominence in the field.

My own questions would be on durability, washing, and the kinds of things that really need to be tested in real-world scenarios. What if the camera lens gets dirty or scratched? Will there be color options for people that don’t want to have white “skin” on their arm? What’s the support model? What about insurance?

SmartArm takes the grand prize, but the runners up and some category winners get a bunch of good stuff too. I plan to get in touch with SmartArm and several other teams from the competition to find out more and hear about their progress. I was really quite impressed not just with the engineering prowess but the humanitarianism and thoughtfulness on display this year. Nadella summed it up best:

“One of the things that I always think about is this competition in some sense ups the game, right?” he said at the finals. “People from all over the world are thinking about how do I use technology, how do i learn new concepts, but then more importantly, how do I solve some of these unmet, unarticulated needs? The impact that you all can have is just enormous, the opportunity is enormous. But I also believe there is an amazing sense of responsibility, or a need for responsibility that we all have to collectively exercise given the opportunity we have been given.”

Qualcomm says it will drop its massive $44B offer to acquire NXP

Qualcomm today said it wouldn’t extend its offer to buy NXP for $44 billion today as part of its release for its quarterly earnings, and instead be returning $30 billion to investors in the form of a share buy-back.

So, barring any last-second changes in the approval process in China or “other material developments”, the deal is basically dead after failing to clear China’s SAMR. As the tariff battle between the U.S. and China has heated up, it appears the Qualcomm/NXP deal — one of the largest in the semiconductor industry ever — may be one of its casualties. The White House announced it would impose tariffs on Chinese tech products in May earlier this year, kicking off an extended delay in the deal between Qualcomm and NXP even after Qualcomm tried to close the deal in an expedient fashion. Qualcomm issued the announcement this afternoon, and the company’s shares rose more than 5% when its earnings report came out.

“We reported results significantly above our prior expectations for our fiscal third quarter, driven by solid execution across the company, including very strong results in our licensing business,” Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf said in a statement with the report. “We intend to terminate our purchase agreement to acquire NXP when the agreement expires at the end of the day today, pending any new material developments. In addition, as previously indicated, upon termination of the agreement, we intend to pursue a stock repurchase program of up to $30 billion to deliver significant value to our stockholders.”

Today’s termination also marks the end of another chapter for a tumultuous couple of months for Qualcomm. The White House blocked Broadcom’s massive takeover attempt of Qualcomm in March earlier this year, and there’s the still-looming specter of its patent spat with Apple. Now Qualcomm will instead be returning an enormous amount of capital to investors instead of tacking on NXP in the largest ever consolidation deal in the semiconductor industry.