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The wait is over! mmhmm launches on Mac today

(TECH NEWS) The long anticipated release of mmhmm is finally here! Let’s talk about the features coming in from this virtual presentation startup.

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mmhmm logo on bright patterned background, saying "Funner Zooming" in white text on top

Last month, we wrote about mmhmm, a virtual presentation startup that turns boring Zoom meetings into entertainment like presentations. Brought to you by Evernote founder, Phil Libin, the tool has cool features that make you look more than just a bland head-in-a-box. And, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that we’re a little bit tired of being one.

One month into beta, mmhmm already had 100k people on its waiting list. And, for those of you who’ve patiently waited, the wait is finally over! mmhmm has launched today on Mac and is available for download. So, to get a little more information on how mmhmm came about and what new things we can expect down the pipeline, we chatted with Phil himself.

When asked whether he expected such a big turnout for the beta, Phil said it was totally unexpected, and he said they weren’t trying to instill FOMO by not letting everyone get a peek. “The purpose of the beta was very scientific. Every day we invited a few hundred people, just enough so that we could have a statistically significant test; whether the previous features and bug fixes were working or not.” By running the beta the way they did, Phil said they were able to build a “good product quickly”.

Another thing that helped move things along quickly for mmhmm was that timing was just right. Before the pandemic, we were able to perform our roles in our daily lives at work, school, social functions, etc, but the pandemic took that away. Phil said that everyone “knew how to be a little bit of a performer. We just lost that when we all went on video because it’s just like a new language of how to be engaging on video.” And, the video tools available to us were no fun. So, Phil took what he learned from Twitter’s Cofounder Ben Stone — fuseful. “It’s a combination of fun and useful. So the idea is like, we do these things that are like funny, but they actually serve, you know, an important purpose,” Phil said.

Thus, the idea of mmhmm was formed. This new tool aims to take back a little bit of what we lost, such as being able to present alongside another team member; and debating if our slideshows, or our faces are more important to display. And, a lot of people were here for it, especially investors. “Everyone that we pitched it to believed in the size of the opportunity. They also all wanted to use it immediately,” Phil said. This helped in acquiring funding easier.

So, let’s get down to the features!

Copilot: Interestingly enough, the copilot feature has come in handy for more than just office presentations. The feature, which lets two people work and present together has been used by teachers in a very interesting way. Educators in South Dakota are using it for storytime. With the book in the background and the educators in front, they can read a book to children in both English and Lakota languages. And, while they speak, the book is synchronized in the back just like if you were turning a page. “Things couldn’t be done like this before,” Phil said.

Dynamic Rooms: The library of beautiful, animated backgrounds has grown. There are now more places for you to visit (or, rather display) in the background. This is partially due to mmhmm’s acquisition of Memex. Memex creates cool filters that you can apply to videos. “We’re going to have so much more interesting effects and backgrounds,” said Phil. “In fact, a lot of our dynamic rooms were made by the Memex guys.”

Laser Pointer: This laser comes in multiple colors and even rainbow mode. This feature lets you add a pointer effect to your mouse so you can point to specific pieces of information on your slide.

Away (or more like the Terminator’s “I’ll be back”): Selecting this feature will bring up a screen with a cute graphic of an mmhmm character juggling and text that reads, “Be Right Back”. You can say goodbye to empty cameras when someone goes offscreen.

Big Hand Mode: This feature is mmhmm’s way of perfecting gestures. This mode lets you nonverbally communicate without interrupting the presentation. The feature uses gesture recognition. By turning it on, your hand turns into a big foam hand you normally see at sports events. How cool is that!? “[You can] quickly communicate visually without interrupting. To agree with someone, you can just like give a thumbs up you know, or thumbs down,” Phil said. Unfortunately, this feature is only available on the new Apple M1 powered Macs just announced. Fingers crossed we see it on older Macs soon.

So, mmhmm is here. For now, it’s only available on Mac, but Phil says it will eventually be available on Windows, iPhone, iPad, and Android. The holdup is that they are looking at “what is uniquely good” about each device so they can develop work that will make it really great.

The basic version of mmhmm is free. But if you want more fun and flexible features, you can subscribe to unlock the fun! For those lucky enough to be on the beta, you will have access to three months of the premium features for free. New subscribers will get a 7-day trial. Every day after that, users will be able to use the advanced features for one hour each day. To get rid of the time limits, you can subscribe for $9.99/month or $99.99/year. And, all teachers and students will get the premium version for free for one year.

“The mark of a successful product is when you see it being used in ways that the creators just didn’t imagine. That’s a good sign that you’re succeeding,” Phil said. Will you step up to the challenge to do something the creators couldn’t imagine?

Veronica Garcia has a Bachelor of Journalism and Bachelor of Science in Radio/TV/Film from The University of Texas at Austin. When she’s not writing, she’s in the kitchen trying to attempt every Nailed It! dessert, or on the hunt trying to find the latest Funko Pop! to add to her collection.

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Airbnb has blocked 50K+ bookings for being too big during COVID-19

(NEWS) Airbnb has cancelled a huge number of reservations as a security precaution during COVID-19 in the past year or so.

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In the last year or so, Airbnb has purposefully prevented at least 50,000 people from making irresponsible reservations on their properties, in many cases blocking those people from the platform itself. This prevention, at least in theory, helped cut down on the number of COVID parties during the pandemic.

According to The Verge, Airbnb’s head of trust and safety communication, Ben Breit, acknowledged blocked reservations in several cities across the United States, including Dallas, San Diego, and New Orleans. Breit confirmed that this response was an attempt to prevent large gatherings and parties during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during which many areas banned group activities involving more than a few people.

While some requests for reservations were simply denied or “redirected”, many users were blocked from using Airbnb entirely. Airbnb noted that the number of blocked requests outpaced the number of people who were blocked, signifying that some accounts attempted to make more than one reservation before being removed from the platform.
Airbnb reportedly stated that “Instituting a global ban on parties and events is in the best interest of public health” prior to enacting a total ban on rentals at the beginning of 2020, a decision that gave way to the blocks and redirections in the last 12 months.

The evaluation system used to flag problematic reservations is relatively simple, according to Breit: “If you are under the age of 25 and you don’t have a history of positive reviews, we will not allow you to book an entire home listing local to where you live.”

But Airbnb didn’t entirely remove multiple-body listings or large rentals. The Verge reports that flagged users with the aforementioned criteria were still able to book both small rentals in local locations and larger rentals in reasonably distant locations.

Regardless of the optics here, Airbnb’s policy efficacy can’t be ignored. Multiple cities reported comparatively “quiet” holiday seasons–something that may contribute to Airbnb’s decision to extend their policy through the end of this summer.

The hosting company is also offering increased security measures, such as noise detection and a 24-hour hotline, at a discounted rate to property owners.

As both the vaccine gap and the proliferation of the Delta variant of COVID-19 continue to contribute to outbreaks, one can reasonably expect Airbnb to hold to this policy.

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TL;DV summarizes video meetings so folks can catch up in quickly *with* context

(TECHNOLOGY) TL;DV makes catching up on video team meetings slightly more tolerable and easily digestable.

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TLDV

2021 was the year of virtual meetings, and while there are some perks associated with remote collaboration (I’m looking at you, pair of work pants that I didn’t have to wear once this year), these meetings often feel exponentially more arduous than their dressed-up counterparts. TL;DV, a consolidation app for Google Meet, looks to give back a bit of your time.

TL;DV (an acronym for “Too Long; Didn’t View”) is a Google Chrome recording extension that helps users specify important sections of meetings for anyone who needs to view them asynchronously. Users can tag specific segments in Google Meet sessions, transcribe audio, and leave notes above tagged sections for timestamp purposes, and the subsequent file can be shared via a host of both Google and third-party apps.

While the extension is only available for Google Meet at the time of writing, the TL;DV team has included a link to a survey for Zoom and MS Teams users on their site, thus implying that the team is looking into expanding into those platforms in the future.

The mission behind TL;DV is, according to the website, to empower users to “control how we spend our precious time” in the interest of combatting FOMO and meeting fatigue. By dramatically shortening the amount of time one must spend perusing a meeting recording, they seem well on their way to doing so.

Of course, the issue of human oversight remains. It seems likely that meeting facilitators will drop the ball here and there while tagging sections of the recording, and employees who miss crucial information in a recorded session are sure to be frustrated in the process–just not as frustrated as they might be if they attended the entire meeting live.

The current (free) version of TL;DV is in Beta, so users will have a three-hour cap on their videos. The development team promises a professional version by the end of 2021, with the added bonus of leaving prior recordings available for free for anyone who used the Beta. This is certainly an extension to keep an eye on–whether or not you’re remaining remote in 2022, virtual conferencing is no doubt here to stay.

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Hiding from facial recognition is a booming business

(TECH NEWS) ‘Cloaking’ is the new way to hide your face. Companies are making big money designing cloaking apps that thwart your features by adding a layer of make up, clothing, blurring, and even transforming you into your favorite celebrity.

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Facial recognition companies and those who seek to thwart them are currently locked in a grand game of cat and mouse. Though it’s been relentlessly pursued by police, politicians, and technocrats alike, the increasing use of facial recognition technology in public spaces, workplaces, and housing complexes remains a widely unpopular phenomenon.

So it’s no surprise that there is big money to be made in the field of “cloaking,” or dodging facial recognition tech – particularly during COVID times while facial coverings are, literally, in fashion.

Take Fawkes, a cloaking app designed by researchers at the University of Chicago. It is named for Guy Fawkes, the 17th century English revolutionary whose likeness was popularized as a symbol of anonymity, and solidarity in V For Vendetta.

Fawkes works by subtly overlaying a celebrity’s facial information over your selfies at the pixel level. To your friends, the changes will go completely unnoticed, but to an artificial intelligence trying to identify your face, you’d theoretically look just like Beyonce.

Fawkes isn’t available to the general public yet, but if you’re looking for strategies to fly under the radar of facial recognition, don’t fret; it is just one example of the ways in which cloaking has entered the mainstream.

Other forms of cloaking have emerged in the forms of Tik Tok makeup trends, clothes that confuse recognition algorithms, tools that automatically blur identifying features on the face, and much more. Since effective facial recognition relies on having as much information about human faces as possible, cloaking enthusiasts like Ben Zhao, Professor of computer science at the University of Chicago and co-developer of Fawkes, hope to make facial recognition less effective against the rest of the population too. In an interview with The New York Times, Zhao asserts, “our [team’s] goal is to make Clearview [AI] go away.”

For the uninitiated, Clearview AI is a start-up that recently became infamous for scraping billions of public photos from the internet and privately using them to build the database for a law enforcement facial recognition tool.

The CEO of Clearview, Hoan Ton-That, claimed that the tool would only be improved by these workarounds and that in long run, cloaking is futile. If that sounds like supervillain talk, you might see why he’s earned himself a reputation similar to the likes of Martin Shkreli or Ajit Pai with his company’s uniquely aggressive approach to data harvesting.

It all feels like the beginning of a cyberpunk western: a story of man vs. machine. The deck is stacked, the rules are undecided, and the world is watching. But so far, you can rest assured that no algorithm has completely outsmarted our own eyeballs… yet.

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