Pokémon Go’s lands Japanese mobile operator SoftBank as sponsored location

There may be a debate about whether we’ve reached peak Pokémon Go for gamers, but the hit title is just getting started with brands. That’s because Japanese mobile operator is the latest company to sign up to be a “sponsored location” inside the game.

The deal is undisclosed, but you can presume that SoftBank, which is valued at around $80 billion, is paying some pretty pennies for the chance to be featured as one of the select brands inside the red hot location-based game.

McDonald’s Japan was Pokémon Go’s first sponsored location when it tied up with the game for its launch in Japan in July. The fast food company’s 3,000 restaurants in the country became sponsored Pokémon Go stops and gyms in a bid to see if the popularity of the game could create real-life traffic.

The deal seemed to go well — even though a leak from McDonald’s did delay the game’s Japan launch — and now SoftBank has joined the legion. From today, 3,700 stores from SoftBank and its Y!Mobile subsidiary will be either PokéStops or gyms where gamers can grab free goodies or train their Pokémon.

“Pokémon Go collaborative campaigns and services unique to SoftBank will also be considered in the future,” SoftBank added in a statement.

It isn’t immediate clear what that might mean. McDonald’s ran a campaign of Pokémon Go themed meals and merchandizing, it seems likely that SoftBank will also release themed products and services.

News of the partnership has already helped lift SoftBank’s share price by 1.6 percent. Nintendo — which is involved in the title — saw its share price rose 3.3 percent, too, as Bloomberg noted.

So far, Niantic and the Pokémon Company — the two firms behind Pokémon Go — have only added sponsors in Japan, which makes sense since the country is the birth place of Pokémon and where its most loyal fans are. But, with over 100 million downloads worldwide and an apparent daily revenue rate in excess of $10 million, the game clearly has global appeal and that means potential for further business deals.

In an interview with Reuters last month, Niantic CEO John Hanke said he was keen to add more sponsors where there is a fit. Hanke is speaking at our Disrupt event in San Francisco this month, so let’s see what he has to say about the potential for sponsored locations in the U.S. and other places.

Featured Image: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Pullstring launches bot-authoring tools for fun & profit

Pullstring — née ToyTalk — today launched its eponymous product out of private beta and into the hands of creators of conversational interfaces everywhere. Out of the box, creators can make bots for Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype, Kik, Telegram and — using the company’s Web API — pretty much every other platform out there.

The company’s authoring tools are presented as a desktop software package that will be available for the Mac OS X platform today and for Windows “coming soon.”

Chatbots for entertainment and business

You know you’re not talking to a real human… Or do you? Screenshot of the Persona Synthetics chatbot that stole more time of my life than it had any right to. It was worth it.

“This weekend, one of the best examples of chatbots we’ve seen so far launched as part of Channel 4’s Humans TV show,” says Oren Jacob, CEO at Pullstring. “It was going gangbusters, and is seeing a huge amount of engagement.”

Eager to check out the quality of the bot, I dove into the world of Persona Synthetics and am embarrassed to say that the time I was meant to be writing this article, I was instead having an intriguing conversation with a chatbot (try it out, it’s pretty awesome). Don’t get me wrong, the bot wouldn’t pass the Turing test, but trying to do so is a different field of computing, Jacob claims.

“I’ve often said that the characters are better defined by the things they can’t talk about, rather than what they know about,” Jacob complains. He draws the comparison that when you’re ordering a pizza from a pizza restaurant, you could start talking about hamburgers. A human operator would get exasperated, reminding you they’re a pizza restaurant. It makes sense for a bot to do the same. “What happens when a conversation drifts off topic is important. With Pullstring, we have created bots with a huge range. When you are talking with your bank about financial issues, for example, we have to keep the conversation tight and to the point. At the other extreme is our Hello Barbie product, where kids can talk about almost anything.”

Rules + AI = smarter bots

In a near future, you can talk to your pizza-bot, and have Flirtey’s drones deliver the pizzas to your house. What a time to be alive. Flirtey, the drone delivery startup, developed a drone to deliver hot pizzas for Domino’s.

The newly launched Pullstring, then, is the set of tools to help developers and content creators create compelling bots and conversational interfaces as quickly as possible. Most compellingly, perhaps, is that the interactions are self-learning. By using a combination of simple rules and a machine-learning AI, the bot can have conversations that are genuine and useful. Not only that, but machine learning can help having context-appropriate conversations.

“We worked with Activision Blizzard to help create a bot for Lt. Reyes, one of the characters in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” Jacob tells me in an effort to explain the lengths the technology can go to in order to create an authentic vibe. “To get a genuine feel to the conversations, we pointed our AI at a large Call of Duty subreddit. We learned from the language used there to figure out how the gamers communicate together. As a result, the bot speaks in a similar way as the gamers would. We matched the tone and created a very credible experience.”

I haven’t played multiplayer games in a while, but one can only assume that the phrases “pwned” and various slurs were filtered out of the discourse. It worked great, though: Within the first 24 hours, more than 6 million chats were exchanged over Facebook Messenger, and the fans are eagerly awaiting the game’s launch in November.

Metrics and smart learning

Humani: Jessie’s Story is an interactive game based on messaging back and forth with Jessie, trying to help her get a new boyfriend, a new job and an apartment. A busy day, indeed.

Rules-based conversations are a great way to push a conversational product live; it is the bare bones of the experience. However, as millions of customers start having conversations, it becomes possible to learn from these interactions.

Pullstring’s platform includes metrics tools to help analyze how the conversational interface is performing. In addition to the obvious parts, such as warning the bot’s creators where in the conversations customers are getting stuck, there are ways of optimizing the conversations toward particular goals or outcomes.

The platform’s superpower, however, is that it remains context-aware across longer conversations, so a conversation you’re having with a customer is less likely to disappear into the weeds.

It’s not (just) about entertainment

Gaming was an early adopter of Pullstring’s tech, including the company’s own Facebook Messenger and Skype game Humani, and a number of games aimed at younger children under the company’s ToyTalk brand. It would be a mistake to think this is all about entertainment, however.

“We have the ambition to create human-fidelity conversations,” explains Jacob. “We started in entertainment, but that’s not what this technology is primarily for. Our customers are constructing interactions in health, commerce, and much more.”

There is a strong parallel, however: In entertainment, character and narrative is the only thing that matters — but the same is becoming increasingly important in interactions with commercial and enterprise bots, too. Speaking to computers simply isn’t a lot of fun — after all, when was the last time pressing 2 for English made you squeal with delight? Making conversations feel more human and more conversational is a much more natural way to converse.

“Conversations are more than he-said-she-said,” Jacob says. “Much more. When you listen to a real conversation between two humans, there are a huge number of variables. A conversation is initiated with an intent: Someone wants to accomplish something. The content is important, too, of course. Together, they create a conversation.”

In addition to the actual words being said, the company goes deep into linguistics to simulate true conversations. Most importantly, then, there is the language-level interaction. A real conversation isn’t that person A finishes what they say, and person B listens carefully before giving a considered answer. It’s a game of back-and-forth, of interjections, queries, prompts and suggestions. This is ultimately what Pullstring is trying to help facilitate when you are having a conversation with your pizza parlor, your hairdresser or, potentially, the automated meter-maid that ticketed your car. Again.

DIY or guided services

With today’s launch, Pullstring offers both a DIY solution, where those wanting to author conversational interfaces can get started, or more managed, agency-style options.

“We have tutorials, sample code and sample e-commerce solutions,” says Lucas Ives, head of conversation engineering at Pullstring. He says that over the past five years of Pullstring, the company has learned more about getting computers to pose as human conversations than anyone else and that it is eager to maximize the knowledge transfer to its customers “There’s videos you can watch, a huge library of documentation and our support team is here to help, too.”

For larger accounts, the company continues to offer its agency model, where the company’s writers and content creators can work with in-house teams to create bots.

Pullstring’s authoring tools are available to everyone, starting today, and the company has an overview of its main features on the site.

Razer refreshes Blade, Blade Stealth laptops with Intel Kaby Lake CPU, Nvidia Pascal graphics

Razer Blade gaming laptop

It may not have done anything as crazy as launch a $5,000 21-inch notebook with a curved screen, but Razer continues to refine its gaming laptop lineup, announcing updates to its Razer Blade and Blade Stealth systems at this week’s IFA tradeshow in Berlin.

While the Blade received a graphics boost, the Blade Stealth sees a processor refresh — but neither laptop gets both upgrades. The bigger Blade is the latest gaming system to upgrade to Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1060 graphics based on its new Pascal architecture. The boost in performance would seemingly make up for the fact that the Blade is otherwise unchanged. It still offers an Intel Core i7-6700HQ processor, 16 gigs of RAM, solid-state storage, and the option of a 3200×1800 14-inch touchscreen. The new GeForce card not only should improve traditional game performance, but also prepare the system for VR applications.

Razer rolled out the Blade Stealth as an ultraportable, so gaming is just one of its priorities. So while the Blade pumps up its graphics, the Stealth gets the latest and greatest from Intel to improve its performance as an all-around laptop. It will now ship with the seventh-generation Core i7 processor, code-named Kaby Lake. The new 14nm chips promise particular performance gains in media performance, which is especially important for the Stealth as it relies on Intel’s integrated graphics (though you can add an external card via its Razer Core solution).

The one other key difference for the Stealth is a bigger battery, which the company says will provide 15 percent more capacity, allowing 9 hours of battery life between charges. The starting price remains $999, which is clearly more than most laptops, though the Blade Stealth is decently spec’d for a 12.5-inch notebook that tips the scales at less than 3 pounds. Given its pricier components (processor aside), the Blade is more expensive, remaining at $1,799.

Softbank has completed its £24B cash acquisition of ARM Holdings

One of the biggest tech deals this year — and the biggest ever in the UK — has now closed. Today, Softbank announced that it has completed its acquisition of ARM Holdings, the semiconductor firm that it said in July it would acquire for £24 billion in cash (around $32 billion in today’s currency, $31 billion at the time of the deal), in order to make a big jump into IoT. As a result, ARM will be delisted from the LSE effective September 6. Softbank has said that it plans to run the company as a standalone business.

The news comes a couple of days after the deal received its final required regulatory clearance, paving the way for the close.

“Pursuant to the terms of the Acquisition, SBG purchased all of ARM’s issued and to be issued shares (excluding any ARM shares already owned by SBG or an SBG subsidiary) for cash, for a total acquisition price amounting to approximately GBP 24.0 billion (approximately USD 31.0 billion or JPY 3.3 trillion),” the company noted in its announcement. “Subsequent to the completion of the Acquisition, ARM will be delisted from the London Stock Exchange as of September 6, 2016 (GMT) and will cease to be a listed company.”

Softbank will announce the financial and operational impact of the consolidation once it is verified, it said. The companies will start to consolidate their financials as of today.

As we reported at the time the deal was announced, the acquisition of ARM is a big play by Softbank to jump into Internet of Things technology, a sizeable pivot for a company that has made its name more recently around mobile and fixed internet services for consumers, and large investments in outsized- and fast-growing tech companies.

Masayoshi Son, Softbank’s CEO and founder, earlier this year surprised the industry when he announced that he would not retire as he had previously planned, and the acquisition — which he said took took only two weeks to initiate and close — is, in a sense, a mark of how he plans to run things in this next phase of the company’s life.

It’s in contrast to a different spin on the deal, where some believed that Softbank opportunistically swooped in on ARM because of the decline of the pound in the wake of the Brexit vote. That referendum, where the majority of voters in Britain said they wanted the UK to leave the European Union, caused a huge reverberation in the UK economy, and a drop in the value of the British pound.

“Brexit did not affect my decision,” Masayoshi Son said in a press conference the day the deal was announced. “Many people many are worried about Brexit and concerned about he complex situation of the country, but good or bad… I did not make the investment because of Brexit.”

He added that although the price of the pound declined by about 16% in the two weeks that Softbank and ARM negotiated, but ARM’s share price went up by about the same amount, meaning they cancelled each other out. There were other financial factors in play as well: in the weeks leading up to the deal, Softbank sold a chunk of its Alibaba stake and its stake in Supercell, and today it announced a large loan for some $9 billion (¥1 trillion). “This is not opportunistic about the currency,” he joked. “I have wanted to do this but was waiting for the cash to come in.

“I’m not investing in a distressed asset,” he continued. “I’m investing in a paradigm shift…. that’s my passion, and that’s my view.”

If Softbank was in the thick of it at the “beginning of the PC internet,” in Masayoshi’s words (he invested in via Yahoo when it only had 16 employees), and then doubled down on mobile (by way of Softbank’s investments in various mobile companies and acquisition of Sprint) then — he believes — IoT is the natural progression of that.

For ARM, the company has been been one of the UK’s biggest tech success stories. Its growth coincided with the rise of smartphones and its chip reference designs are used by the likes of Apple and many others.

That smartphone business is still there — just last month, longtime chip rival Intel, interestingly, announced it would license ARM’s technology for smartphone chips, in hopes of boosting its own smartphone chipmaking business (in this case to grow business with third-party smartphone chipmakers).

But more importantly, ARM has been shifting its own business to IoT for several years now, in anticipation of a time when growth of its bread-and-butter business might slow down.

(And indeed, that is exactly what’s happening: growth of smartphone sales is now essentially flat as penetration has reached saturation in many markets, and people are waiting longer to replace the phones they already have.)

While there are definitely a lot of products out there now that are “connected” — that is, many ordinary “dumb” objects like refrigerators, locks and lights can now be controlled wirelessly by way of internet connections — the bigger market for IoT products and services is really only just at its start. ARM — and now Softbank — hope that by getting into the game early, they can dominate much as ARM has done in smartphones.

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