Introducing 0G: A History of Forgotten Phones

by Peter Rojas


Some news: I have a new podcast.

I love gadgets (you know this) and I love history podcasts (you may also know this), but it never occurred to me to combine the two. That is until I became friends with Christie Pitts. I first met Christie, who is a partner at Backstage Capital, at a VC dinner a couple of years ago, and instead of talking deals, we ended up nerding out and talking about old smartphones for most of the evening. Turns our Christie started her career selling phones at a Verizon store in the mid-2000's, which is right around the time I was spoiling consumer electronics company product launches at Gizmodo and then Engadget.

We had so much fun talking about the early days of smartphones whenever we'd meet that one of us (can't remember who) pointed out our conversations would make for a great podcast. So 0G: A History of Forgotten Phones was born. 0G is a limited-run podcast where we look back at how weird and wonderful smartphones were back in the days before iOS and Android took over and your only option became a rectangular slab running one or the other.

We've recorded seven episodes so far, kicking things off in our first episode with a look back at the smartphones of 2002, 2003 and 2004. I hope you'll check it out. If you lived through those years you'll get a kick out of revisiting that time, and if you're too young to have experienced it first-hand hopefully it'll be an entertaining look back at how wild mobile was back in the day!

Synthetic Reality: Our next Betaworks Camp

by Peter Rojas

For the past couple of years we've been doing Betaworks Camps, a program for startups building in emerging categories. Founders work out of our offices in NYC for 3 months & @betaworksVC makes an investment. Each has a theme, next one we're doing is around "Synthetic Reality".

Unlike Camps we've done in the past (which had themes like AR and voice-computing), Synthetic Reality is still very early not as well-defined. But what we're talking about are new technologies that are blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is synthetic.

There are a few different aspects of Synthetic Reality we're interested in. There's synthetic media, where powerful new tools for creating highly-realistic computer-generated imagery are increasingly accessible to anyone with a decent laptop or smartphone. Synthetic media will be to CGI what social media was to publishing. Driving this are huge advances in motion capture, pose estimation, 3D graphics software, and GPUs.

Another part of synthetic media is algorithmically-generated content, which often uses tools like generative adversarial networks to create, enhance, or edit media far more efficiently than could be done by humans. We'd also put news articles "written" by AI in this category.

Related to all this is the new world of digital avatars and virtual celebrities/influencers that use these tools. Lil Miquela is an obvious reference point, but we're also fascinated by avatars more generally and new kinds of social products that are being built around those.

Like a lot of people we're also concerned about DeepFakes and content that's been manipulated for the express purpose of deceiving people. We believe the need for software-based tools for detecting fakes is going to grow exponentially.

What kinds of startups do we want for Synthetic Camp? We want anyone building deep tech for enabling synthetic reality; consumer-facing applications for creating and/or distributing synthetic media; avatar-based social products; anything related to virtual celebrities/influencers; platforms for distributing/sharing synthetic media; and software tools for detecting fakes or otherwise altered content and media.

Synthetic Camp is for both pre-seed & seed stage startups. @betaworksVC will invest $200K into each participant. The program kicks off in February in NYC. It's an oppt. to work closely with us & a bunch of other startups all trying to define the future of a new category. 10/X

Want to apply? Go HERE.

Any questions? Email me HERE.

Telegram Office Hours Follow-up

by Peter Rojas

I've been doing open office hours off and on for the past few years, both in person and over Skype, but last month I decided to try something different and experiment with holding office hours over Telegram. There is clearly lots of value to doing these kinds of meetings in person or via video chat, but I thought holding the conversations over text messaging could offer a low pressure, more casual way for people to pitch me their startup, get feedback on their ideas, ask for advice on a product or career challenge, etc. I've become a big fan of Telegram over the past couple of years and have shifted a lot of my professional and personal messaging to the platform, so it seemed natural to try this there.  

My hope was that by making it easier to have a conversation that those who might find jumping on a Skype call with a stranger a little intimidating would feel more comfortable reaching out. I also thought it might be an easier format for those who aren't native English speaker. It probably wouldn't hurt that because everything would be conducted over text I'd probably be able to hold multiple conversations at the same time; it'd be a simple way to scale my availability since I'd be able to chat with more people during the same amount of time.

So I posted something on Twitter and on my blog asking if anyone would be interested in trying it out and received enough responses via email and DM that I decided to carve out a couple of hours on my calendar the following week for eight 15-minute sessions, with the expectation that sessions would likely run over and so some discussions would happen concurrently. (If you're especially curious, I used Calendly for scheduling the sessions.) 

Some takeaways:

  • It was a more efficient use of time. Some people had a very specific ask of me and only needed to chat for a few minutes. For those requests scheduling a call or an in-person meeting would probably not have been the best use of time for either of us, especially since with chat it's easier to get straight to the point. Trying to have that same conversation over email would likely have taken longer and required much more back and forth to get the same result.
  • I was able to be more considerate in my responses. Doing the conversations over text message meant I could take time (although not too much time!) to think about my responses. When you're speaking with someone in person or a call there is a lot of pressure to respond immediately to whatever they're saying. Chatting over Telegram gave me a little bit of a buffer to consider my responses before offering them. 
  • Having overlapping chats worked, for the most part. Only a few people needed to chat for more than 15 minutes and I was able to handle two conversations simultaneously when I needed to. But I do need to work on being more responsive, one person told me that it was sometimes hard to tell if I was preparing to respond or waiting for them to respond. This is something that you don't have to worry about with a meeting or call and I will have to be mindful of this next time around.
  • There can be miscommunications/misunderstandings. One person explaining their business model to me kept writing "1.06%" when they meant "106%" and it took more than a few minutes to untangle what they meant. I suspect if we had been on the phone or in person it would have been easier to get clear up the confusion. Fortunately this was the only misunderstanding in the eight chat meetings I had that day, but having conversations entirely over text does risk some nuance being lost and it's something else I am going to keep in mind going forward.

Will I do it again? Yes, absolutely. I had a bunch of great conversations and the flexibility of the format made it easy for me to find time for it. If you're interested in signing up for a future Telegram office hours session let me know!

Why we're doing Livecamp

by Peter Rojas

Last week we opened up applications for Livecamp, our next themed pre-seed program. For each of these Camp programs we pick a specific emerging area that we're really excited about and want to go deep on, and the focus for Livecamp, which kicks off in September in New York City, will be on startups building live interactive experiences. 

What do we mean exactly by "Live"? While previous Camps have focused on more clearly delineated categories like voice-based computing (Voicecamp), AR and computer vision (Visioncamp), and conversational software and messaging (Botcamp), this will be the first Camp where what we are looking for is tougher to define; for example, it's pretty easy to decide what does and doesn't count as an augmented reality product. We picked "Live" as the theme of our next program because we believe something big is happening at the intersection of television and gaming that is reshaping media and culture. The boundary between those two once distinct categories is becoming increasingly blurry as TV becomes more like gaming and gaming becomes more like TV. For Livecamp we want to work with startups that are exploring these boundaries and working to define the future of live by creating new kinds of synchronous multiplayer experiences that borrow from both gaming and television.

After 25 years of false promises, a lot of the crazy stuff around "interactive TV" we've been waiting for is finally becoming a reality. Apps like HQ Trivia are proving you can build a massive audience by re-inventing the game show as something everyone can play, not just watch. Streaming platforms like Twitch and Mixer and esports titles like League of Legends and Overwatch have turned gaming into a spectator sport, showing that it can be just as much fun to watch someone play video game as it is to play it yourself. There is an inexorable trend of audiences moving beyond being just passive consumers of content and towards becoming active participants in their own right.

Why now? Some of it is simply cultural: we've had entire generations grow up for whom gaming and its dynamics are now second nature and they expect participatory experiences by default. It also helps that we’ve reached a point where a lot of the core infrastructure that’s needed to build these kinds of live interactive experiences is in place and is increasingly cheap and easy to use. That means startups can focus more on crafting amazing experiences and less on trying to keep servers from crashing (though of course that does still happen from time to time). That moment when startups need to differentiate through creativity and not just sheer engineering talent is exactly what we get excited about here at betaworks, because that’s when the real experimentation around product starts to happen. That is why we’re doing Livecamp: We're convinced something is going on here and we're looking for fresh approaches to what it means to build live interactive experiences. 

If you’re working on anything in this space we’d love to hear from you and see how we may be able to help. You can learn more about Livecamp here. If you're ready to apply you can start the application process here. Any questions? You can contact me here.