This Week in Apps: Apple launches a COVID-19 app, the outbreak’s impact on social and video apps and more

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry saw a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re continuing our special coverage of how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting apps and the wider mobile app industry as more COVID-19 apps appear — including one from Apple built in partnership with the CDC, among others. We also take a look at the gains made by social and video apps in recent weeks as people struggle to stay connected while stuck at home in quarantine. In other headlines, we dig into Instagram’s co-watching feature, the Google for Games conference news, Apple’s latest releases and updates, Epic Games expansion into publishing and more.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Social video apps are exploding due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Survey shows growth in podcasts and voice assistants, little change in streaming

A new annual survey taken before the current COVID-19 crisis led to restrictions of movement in much of the U.S. suggests good news for Amazon, Facebook’s dominance unthreatened and continued growth in podcasting.

Edison Research and Triton Digital released their annual Infinite Dial survey last week, compiling data on consumers’ use of smart speakers, podcasts, music streaming and social media from 1,500 people (aged 12 and older) to compare year-over-year changes. Here are a few interesting findings:

Voice assistants and smart speakers

Sixty-two percent said they use a voice-based virtual assistant, most commonly via a phone or a computer. There has been a lot written about interactive voice as the next major medium for human-computer interaction after mobile phones, so it’s noteworthy to see that use of the technology is still associated with personal computing devices rather than hands-free smart speakers placed in the surrounding environment.

Smart speaker ownership did increase to 27% of respondents, up from 24% in 2019, even though respondents owned an average 2.2 speakers. In fact, the cohort that owned three or more speakers increased from one-quarter to one-third of owners in just a year, with Amazon Alexa continuing to dominate market share.

Where’s the Zoom of VR?

Remote collaboration tools like Zoom are gathering massive amounts of attention as people begin working from home en masse. But, as with most trends, virtual reality seems to be sitting out this boom.

This should be surprising to absolutely no one, but the lack of widespread adoption is not for lack of trying.

Virtual reality has already had a rough couple of years. Though a handful of startups in the space have continued to raise and find customers, most have done so by either committing to tight niches or opening up their services and minimizing their reliance on VR-only audiences. All the while, investors and founders have been left to wonder whether the “presence” offered by immersing yourself wholly in a digital environment is undone by crude avatars, clunky hardware and lackluster integrations with popular work software tools.

Enterprise VR hasn’t been completely quiet. A number of startups have raised funding in recent months on the premise that the future of work has a space carved out for virtual reality applications. In the collaboration space, VR startups argue that existing platforms are static, dated and leave employees feeling disconnected. VR’s oft-espoused mantra is that inhabiting a virtual space allows people to communicate more naturally.

I recently met with Anand Agarawala, CEO of Spatial, an AR/VR collaboration tool that locked down a $14 million round of funding earlier this year. VR startups haven’t been raising rounds this large lately, but Agarawala has ambitious plans for how his collaboration platform can outdo Zoom.

R&D Roundup: Smart chips, dream logic and crowdsourcing space

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

This week: crowdsourcing in space, vision on a chip, robots underground and under the skin and other developments.

The eye is the brain

Computer vision is a challenging problem, but the perennial insult added to this difficulty is the fact that humans process visual information as well as we do. Part of that is because in computers, the “eye” — a photosensitive sensor — merely collects information and relays it to a “brain” or processing unit. In the human visual system, the eye itself does rudimentary processing before images are even sent to the brain, and when they do arrive, the task of breaking them down is split apart and parallelized in an amazingly effective manner.

The chip, divided into several sub-areas, which specialize in detecting different shapes

Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology (TU Wien) integrate neural network logic directly into the sensor, grouping pixels and subpixels into tiny pattern recognition engines by individually tuning their sensitivity and carefully analyzing their output. In one demonstration described in Nature, the sensor was set up so that images of simplified letters falling on it would be recognized in nanoseconds because of their distinctive voltage response. That’s way, way faster than sending it off to a distant chip for analysis.