Google brings ‘The Mandalorian’ to AR in its new app

Google has teamed up with Disney and Lucasfilm to bring the Star Wars streaming series “The Mandalorian” to augmented reality. The company announced this morning the launch of a new Android AR app, “The Mandalorian” AR Experience, which will display iconic moments from the first season of the show in AR, allowing fans to retrace the Mandalorian’s steps, find the Child, harness the Force and more, according to the app’s Play Store description.

In the app, users will be able to follow the trail of Mando, Din Djarin and the Child, interact with the characters and create scenes that can be shared with friends.

New AR content will be released for the app on Mondays, starting today, November 23, and continuing for nearly a year to wrap on October 31, 2021. That makes this a longer-term promotion than some of the other Star Wars experiences Google has offered in the past.

Image Credits: Google/Lucasfilm

Meanwhile, the app itself takes advantage of Google’s developer platform for building augmented reality experiences, ARCore, in order to create scenes that interact with the user’s surroundings. This more immersive design means fans will be able to unlock additional effects based on their actions. The app also leverages Google’s new ARCore Depth API, which allows the app to enable occlusion. This makes the AR scenes blend more naturally with the environment that’s seen through the smartphone’s camera.

However, because the app is a showcase for Google’s latest AR technologies, it won’t work with all Android devices.

Google says the app will only support “compatible 5G Android devices,” which includes its 5G Google Pixel smartphones and other select 5G Android phones that have the Google Play Services for AR updated. You can check to see if your Android phone is supported on a list provided on the Google Developers website. Other phones may be supported in the future, the company also notes.

Image Credits: Google/Lucasfilm

While the experience requires a 5G-capable Android device, Google says that you don’t have to be on an active 5G connection to use the app. Instead, the requirement is more about the technologies these devices include and not the signal itself.

Google has teamed up with Lucasfilm many times over the past several years for promotional marketing campaigns. These are not typically considered ads, because they give both companies the opportunity to showcase their services or technologies. For example, Google allowed users to give its apps a Star Wars-themed makeover back in 2015, which benefited its own services like Gmail, Maps, YouTube, Chrome and others. It has also introduced both AR and VR experiences featuring Star Wars content over the past several years.

The Mandalorian AR Experience is a free download on the Play Store.

Google plans to test end-to-end encryption in Android messages

For the past year and a half, Google has been rolling out its next-generation messaging to Android users to replace the old, clunky, and insecure SMS text messaging. Now the company says that rollout is complete, and plans to bring end-to-end encryption to Android messages next year.

Google’s Rich Communications Services is Android’s answer to Apple’s iMessage, and brings typing indicators, read receipts, and you’d expect from most messaging apps these days.

In a blog post Thursday, Google said it plans to roll out end-to-end encryption — starting with one-on-one conversations — leaving open the possibility of end-to-end encrypted group chats. It’ll become available to beta testers, who can sign up here, beginning later in November and continue into the new year.

End-to-end encryption prevents anyone — even Google — from reading messages as they travel between sender and the recipient.

Google dipped its toes into the end-to-end encrypted messaging space in 2016 with the launch of Allo, an app that immediately drew criticism from security experts for not enabling the security feature by default. Two years later, Google killed off the project altogether.

This time around, Google learned its lesson. Android messages will default to end-to-end encryption once the feature becomes available, and won’t revert back to SMS unless the users in the conversation loses or disables RCS.

Google Pay gets a major redesign with a new emphasis on personal finance

Google is launching a major redesign of its Google Pay app on both Android and iOS today. Like similar phone-based contactless payment services, Google Pay — or Android Pay as it was known then — started out as a basic replacement for your credit card. Over time, the company added a few more features on top of that but the overall focus never really changed. After about five years in the market, Google Pay now has about 150 million users in 30 countries. With today’s update and redesign, Google is keeping all the core features intact but also taking the service in a new direction with a strong emphasis on helping you manage your personal finances (and maybe get a deal here and there as well).

Google is also partnering with 11 banks to launch a new kind of bank account in 2021. Called Plex, these mobile-first bank accounts will have no monthly fees, overdraft charges or minimum balances. The banks will own the accounts but the Google Pay app will be the main conduit for managing these accounts. The launch partners for this are Citi and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

Image Credits: Google

“What we’re doing in this new Google Pay app, think of it is combining three things into one,” Google director of product management Josh Woodward said as he walked me through a demo of the new app. “The three things are three tabs in the app. One is the ability to pay friends and businesses really fast. The second is to explore offers and rewards, so you can save money at shops. And the third is getting insights about your spending so you can stay on top of your money.”

Paying friends and businesses was obviously always at the core of Google Pay — but the emphasis here has shifted a bit. “You’ll notice that everything in the product is built around your relationships,” Caesar Sengupta, Google’s lead for Payments and Next Billion Users, told me. “It’s not about long lists of transactions or weird numbers. All your engagements pivot around people, groups, and businesses.”

It’s maybe no surprise then that the feature that’s now front and center in the app is P2P payments. You can also still pay and request money through the app as usual, but as part of this overhaul, Google is now making it easier to split restaurant bills with friends, for example, or your rent and utilities with your roommates — and to see who already paid and who is still delinquent. Woodward tells me that Google built this feature after its user research showed that splitting bills remains a major pain point for its users.

In this same view, you can also find a list of companies you have recently transacted with — either by using the Google Pay tap-and-pay feature or because you’ve linked your credit card or bank account with the service. From there, you can see all of your recent transactions with those companies.

Image Credits: Google

Maybe the most important new feature Google is enabling with this update is indeed the ability to connect your bank accounts and credit cards to Google Pay so that it can pull in information about your spending. It’s basically Mint-light inside the Google Pay app. This is what enables the company to offer a lot of the other new features in the app. Google says it is working with “a few different aggregators” to enable this feature, though it didn’t go into details about who its partners are. It’s worth stressing that this, like all of the new features here, is off by default and opt-in.

Image Credits: Google

The basic idea here is similar to that of other personal finance aggregators. At its most basic, it lets you see how much money you spent and how much you still have. But Google is also using its smarts to show you some interesting insights into your spending habits. On Monday, it’ll show you how much you spent on the weekend, for example.

“Think of these almost as like stories in a way,” Woodward said. “You can swipe through them so you can see your large transactions. You can see how much you spent this week compared to a typical week. You can look at how much money you’ve sent to friends and which friends and where you’ve spent money in the month of November, for example.”

This also then enables you to easily search for a given transaction using Google’s search capabilities. Since this is Google, that search should work pretty well and in a demo, the team showed me how a search for ‘Turkish’ brought up a transaction at a kebab restaurant, for example, even though it didn’t have ‘Turkish’ in its name. If you regularly take photos of your receipts, you can also now search through these from Google Pay and drill down to specific things you bought — as well as receipts and bills you receive in your Gmail inbox.

Also new inside of Google Pay is the ability to see and virtually clip coupons that are then linked to your credit card, so you don’t need to do anything else beyond using that linked credit card to get extra cashback on a given transaction, for example. If you opt in, these offers can also be personalized.

Image Credits: Google

The team also worked with the Google Lens team to now let you scan products and QR codes to look for potential discounts.

As for the core payments function, Google is also enabling a new capability that will let you use contactless payments at 30,000 gas stations now (often with a discount). The partners for this are Shell, ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, 76 and Conoco.

In addition, you’ll also soon be able to pay for parking in over 400 cities inside the app. Not every city is Portland, after all, and has a Parking Kitty. The first cities to get this feature are Austin, Boston, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., with others to follow soon.

It’s one thing to let Google handle your credit card transaction but it’s another to give it all of this — often highly personal — data. As the team emphasized throughout my conversation with them, Google Pay will not sell your data to third parties or even the rest of Google for ad targeting, for example. All of the personalized features are also off by default and the team is doing something new here by letting you turn them on for a three-month trial period. After those three months, you can then decide to keep them on or off.

In the end, whether you want to use the optional features and have Google store all of this data is probably a personal choice and not everybody will be comfortable with it. The rest of the core Google Pay features aren’t changing, after all, so you can still make your NFC payments at the supermarket with your phone just like before.

Google updates Maps with more COVID info and finally launches its Assistant driving mode

Google today announced an update to Google Maps that includes a number of new COVID-related features, as well as the ability to see the live status of your takeout or delivery orders, as well as the launch of the long-expected new Assistant driving mode.

In addition, the company shared a few new stats around Google Maps today. The company says that it makes 50 million updates to Maps each day now, for example, though that includes user-generated content like user reviews, photos and ratings. The company also now features “popular times” information for 20 million places around the globe.

Image Credits: Google Maps

As far as COVID is concerned, there are two announcements here. First, Google is updating the COVID layer in Google Maps on Android and iOS with some new information, including the number of all-time detected cases in an area and links to COVID resources from local governments. Second, Google Maps can now tell you, in real time, how busy a given transit line is so you can avoid packed trains or busses, for example. That’s based on real-time feedback from Google Maps users and will feel familiar if you are aware of how Google Maps can already show you how busy a given store or restaurant currently is.

Image Credits: Google Maps

Semi-related — delivery services are booming during the pandemic, after all (even as they continue to struggle to make a profit) — Google Maps on mobile will now be able to show you the live delivery status of your takeout and delivery orders in the U.S., Canada, Germany, Australia, Brazil and India. To do so, you have to book your order from Google Maps on Android or iOS.

For Google Maps users who don’t have an Android Auto-compatible car, the new Google Assistant driving mode in Maps has long been something to look forward to. The company first talked about this set of new features at its I/O developers conference in May 2019, but as is so often the case, features announced at I/O take a while to get to market. Originally, this was supposed to launch last summer.

Image Credits: Google Maps

The idea here is to allow drivers to get alerts about incoming calls, have the Assistant read out text messages and control your music right inside of Google Maps. Using the Assistant ideally reduces driver distractions. For now, this new mode is only coming to Android users in the U.S., though, and the number of features it supports remains limited. Google promises to support more features over time, but it’s not clear which features it plans to add to this mode.

Strava raises $110 million, touts growth rate of 2 million new users per month in 2020

Activity and fitness tracking platform Strava has raised $110 million in new funding, in a Series F round led by TCV and Sequoia, and including participation by Dragoneer group, Madrone Capital Partners, Jackson Square Ventures and Go4it Capital. The funding will be used to propel the development of new features, and expand the company’s reach to cover even more users.

Already in 2020, Strava has seen significant growth. The company claims that it has added more than 2 million new “athletes” (how Strava refers to its users) per month in 2020. The company positions its activity tracking as focused on the community and networking aspects of the app and service, with features like virtual competitions and community goal-setting as representative of that approach.

Strava has 70 million members, according to the company, with presence in 195 countries globally. The company debuted a new Strava Metro service earlier this year, leveraging the data it collects from its users in an aggregated and anonymized way to provide city planners and transportation managers with valuable data about how people get around their cities and communities — all free for these governments and public agencies to use, once they’re approved for access by Strava.

The company’s uptick in new user adds in 2020 is likely due at least in part to COVID-19, which saw a general increase in the number of people pursuing outdoor activities, including cycling and running, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic when more aggressive lockdown measures were being put in place. As we see a likely return of many of those more aggressive measures due to surges in positive cases globally, gym closures could provoke even more interest in outdoor activity — though winter’s effect on that appetite among users in colder climates will be interesting to watch.

Strava’s app is available free on iOS and Android, with in-app purchases available for premium subscription features.