Category: Technology

The Oculus Rift Will Cost $599

Oculus

Anyone can now place an order for the Oculus Rift, and the big news is its price: $ 599

Born out of a Kickstarter campaign back in 2012, and purchased by Facebook for $ 2 billion in 2014, Oculus Rift launched what Silicon Valley is hoping becomes a virtual reality boom in 2016. Sony and HTC (in partnership with video game company Valve) are releasing virtual-reality headsets later this year, but putting the Rift on sale today means it will be the first concrete look anyone's had at how much virtual reality might cost the average consumer.

And: It'll be a lot, at least in the beginning.

The $ 600 price tag is slightly higher than expected, especially when considering that Facebook is incentivized to subsidize that price to help launch what it hopes could become an entirely new computing platform.

And the price is misleading, because many users will need to buy a new computer to work with the headset. The Rift is a powerful piece of hardware — it's not something that just can be plugged into a Mac laptop and run. Essentially, if a computer can't handle the massive loads of information creating a virtual environment quickly, it can either shut down or, worse, show everything at a slower frame-rate, which is what's most likely to cause nausea when using a headset.

If you don't have a serious PC (here's what Oculus considers to be a serious PC) but want to run virtual reality, you'll have to buy one, and that's probably going to cost somewhere in the ballpark of $ 1,000. That is the reason why many people are predicting that VR, at least for the next year or two, is going to be limited to gamers and early adopters and not everyone else; they're the ones that don't need to buy a whole new computer to use the technology.

By the time the Rift launches, Oculus will have an approval system in place to let consumers know which laptops and desktops are “Oculus Ready.” In February, pre-orders for an Oculus Bundle, which includes an Oculus Ready PC, will be available starting at $ 1,499.

You're not just buying a headset.

The Rift comes with a camera for positional tracking (how it knows where you're looking and where your head is), two games (EVE: Valkyrie and Lucky’s Tale), an Oculus Remote, and an Xbox One controller. That doesn't include the very cool Oculus Touch controllers that debuted last year, but a preorder now does put you at the front of the line to order one when they are available later this year.

Should you buy it?

If you contributed to the original Kickstarter, you're already getting a special-edition Rift for free. If you weren't so lucky, the answer is a little more complicated. Oculus is the biggest player in the game right now, the Rift is really, really good, and it has a wide range of exclusive games and experiences on the way. It also begins shipping to 20 countries on March 28th (although if you order now the delivery date has already been moved to April), far before the competition. So, if you're dying to get into VR right now, it's the quickest way to do so and almost certainly going to be a good experience.

That said, no one knows how much the Sony VR or HTC Vive are going to cost. They are likely to cost close to the same as the Oculus — it's going to be a hard sell to consumers that one virtual reality headset is worth much more than the others. However, the Sony will run exclusively on the Playstation 4, which costs just $ 349 if ordered today, and can be used for a traditional TV experience as well as VR. The HTC Vive faces similar constraints as the Rift in terms of necessary computing power, but features full room tracking, which basically means you can walk around a virtual environment. It's cool, and it's something this generation of Rift won't have.

So, if you're on the fence on this, jumping right in might not be the best move. 2016 is going to be a big year for virtual reality, and we're just at the beginning of it. In a few months, more people will be able to try it for themselves (the Rift will be available in “select retailers” by April), more experiences will be available on the headsets, and everyone will collectively decide whether VR is worth wearing those dumb headsets.

Wait a little, virtual reality will still be there when you make a decision.

BuzzFeed – Tech

Yahoo Shuts Down Yahoo Screen Video Service

Justin Lubin / NBC

Under CEO Marissa Mayer, Yahoo has spent the past few years buying up the rights to football games, launching news shows, reviving flailing network TV series, and creating original content. All of that programming — Community, Jaguars vs. Bills, Katie Couric's daily news show — was hosted on Yahoo Screen. And now Yahoo Screen is no more. BuzzFeed News has confirmed that Yahoo has shuttered the video hub. News of the move, which occurred last week, was first reported by Variety.

With investments in original programming and licensing deals with Viacom for Comedy Central shows and NBC for Saturday Night Live, Yahoo had big ambitions for Yahoo Screen, but they never came close to being realized. Last October, Yahoo took a $ 42 million write-down on the video division behind its original series push. “We thought long and hard about it, and what we concluded is … we couldn’t see a way to make money over time,” company CFO Ken Goldman told investors at the time.

Between October 2013 and October 2015, unique U.S. visitors to Yahoo Screen declined 28%, according to ComScore.

Yahoo's decision to shut down the flailing Yahoo Screen doesn't mean the company is abandoning its video properties. Instead, the company is relocating them to different places throughout the Yahoo ecosystem. “Video content from Yahoo as well as our partners has been transitioned from Yahoo Screen to our Digital Magazine properties so users can discover complementary content in one place,” a Yahoo spokesperson said in a statement.

Shutting down Yahoo Screen is the latest in a series of bad signs for the embattled Yahoo. Many of the company's Mayer-led initiatives have stumbled — Yahoo Screen was once a centerpiece of Yahoo's mobile-first turnaround plan. Last month the company abandoned plans to spin off its Alibaba stake, saying it would instead consider a spin-off of what most people think of as Yahoo. The company isn't about to collapse entirely, but it's proving time and time again that it can't keep up with ascendant tech giants; video is just the latest race it's lost.

BuzzFeed – Tech

Meet The New Year’s Resolution That Will Kick Your Butt If You Mess Up

Like most American men, I dream of a future where I’ll be able to wear skinny jeans, drink fancy coffee and listen to music I don’t quite understand. The only problem is, I love eating so much I can’t quite pull off the jeans part.

For that reason, I spent the past month working on my New Year’s weight loss resolution in advance, both to get a head start on 2016 and to test out Rise, an app I heard was pretty effective at helping people shed the pounds.

Rise is a simple but wicked smart tool. You use it to snap photos of all the food you eat and a registered dietician or nutritionist rates each meal and snack with a green (good), yellow (not so good) or red (did you really need to eat five donuts??). When you join the app, you are assigned a dedicated ‘coach,’ so as you post your food the person reviewing it understands your specific eating habits and leaves comments, helping you figure out how to eat right. You can also message your coach with questions and feedback via a dedicated messaging line. The app costs $ 40 a month on a three month plan.

After telling Rise a little about myself and my goals, I was presented with a few options for coaches and settled on Nicole, a registered dietician based in California. Nicole immediately became significant part of my life.

Every time I’ve thought about food since, or actually consumed it, I’ve had an imaginary Nicole avatar in my head, ready with her red stamp in case I deviated from the healthy straight and narrow. I mentioned Nicole so much to friends and coworkers, she became an honorary part of our groups. They learned her name and warned me of her judgement at meals. When I posted a picture of a stir fry I cooked to Instagram, one coworker couldn’t help but comment: “Nicole will love this.”

Instagram: @alexkantrowitz

She did.

The specter of Nicole kept me in line. And that’s one part of what you get with Rise: fear. (Or for the optimist: positive reinforcement.) The other part is education.

I may have been petrified to show Nicole the garbage I ate, but when I did post it, she was never too harsh and gave me constructive criticism after every foul up. A 520 calorie snack that received a red mark came with the following advice: “Your meals should be around 500-600 calories and snacks around 100-200 calories. So this snack was as much as a meal.” Good advice. In another instance, a dinner of chicken and rice was paired with the following comment: “One thing to work on when plating your food, you want to cover half your plate with veggies, ¼ with grain (rice) and ¼ with protein (chicken). So although you had all the components of a great meal here, your portions just need some work.” More good stuff. Education, though, is half the battle. The more important aspect of all this is actually executing the plan.

Plan the work, eat the plan

The Michael Moss book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, should be required reading for anyone thinking about their relation with today’s food economy. The book, in painstaking detail, lays out how some food companies in the United States have engineered our food to the point where the product is essentially addicting. Some soft drink companies, for instance, optimize towards a “bliss point,” pumping their beverages with enough sugar to make consuming them as pleasurable as possible without leaving us feeling rotten. Similar calculations are made by other food producers who find optimal levels of salt and fat. These operations made unhealthy food so enjoyable and crave-inducing, it’s often very hard to quit them.

And so perhaps unsurprisingly, in this first month with Rise, despite paying more attention to my food consumption than perhaps ever before, I haven’t been able to kick a junk food habit. Worse, I’ve cheated and kept many of my deviations secret, not telling Nicole due to a sense of shame.

Rise likes to pitch itself as something of an anti-diet. “Diets don’t work. #truth,” read the subject line of a recent email the company sent to me. So I wondered if it was possible for the app to help me break free from the bad stuff that’s a fundamental part of my food experience.

When I posed the question to Suneel Gupta, Rise’s CEO (and brother of famous neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta), he told me that eliminating bad food completely is not Rise’s goal. Gupta’s instead insisted that traditional diets aren’t strong enough to win against engineered food. Losing weight is very difficult, he argued (I agree), and to achieve sustainable weight loss, you need more than a set of foods you can and cannot eat. You need real behavioral change. “We have to fight fire with fire,” Gupta explained.

To help its users succeed, Gupta said, Rise emphasizes cutting down on bad food instead of totally eliminating it, offering healthy substitute suggestions and teaching you how to balance the bad with the good. This feels a little weight watchers-y, but it’s helpful to receive constant feedback from someone on your approach to meals.

In a little over three weeks on the app, I’ve made small improvements in my approach to food. I’m eating more vegetables, cooking for myself more often (even trying out a few recipe suggestions sent over by Nicole) and thinking long and hard before scarfing down a bag of chips. If there’s a drawback, it’s that the app makes you think so much about food, it’s easy to become obsessed with your intake. This is dangerous territory for some.

By now you’re probably wondering how many pounds I lost with Rise. The answer is zero. Yes, it’s pretty embarrassing, especially considering I knew I’d be disclosing my results in this post. But though I may have fallen short of my goal, I like the direction I’m headed in. Or at least the one I think I’m headed in. And heck, not gaining weight during the holiday season is a small victory if you ask me.

BuzzFeed – Tech

There’s A Dating App That Lets You Review Your Dates

Anyone who’s been on an online date knows surprises come with the territory. The people you meet don't always resemble their photos. Witty texters can be dull. Single people can be married.

A year-old dating app called The Grade is trying to eliminate surprises and keep people honest. The company, in the hopes of accomplishing this goal, recently introduced “peer review,” a feature encouraging people to rate their matches as “quality person” or not, and then add more detail from there. The Grade includes this information in a public rating of each profile.

“We really do believe this is now the holy grail in dating,” Cliff Lerner, The Grade’s CEO, told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “What is more frustrating than meeting someone on a dating site and finding out they're in a relationship? Or finding out they lied about their age? There's nothing you've ever been able to do about that up until this point.”

Lerner cited a number of statistics — based on The Grade’s own research — meant to support his claim. He said 71% of The Grade’s users believe peer review will help the app eliminate “creeps.” Eighty-four percent of women, he added, said they feel safer on The Grade because of peer review. And 78% of women said they were more likely to “like” someone if they have a positive peer review. Eighty-eight percent of women said they wouldn't like a guy if he had a negative peer review.

Of men who had previously texted their business to a woman they met online, 90% said they would not do so knowing they could get peer reviewed, according to Lerner.

The Grade, using peer review and other factors, has kicked off 1,500 people for falling below its standards. To get kicked off, one needs to get Fs across the board, but it’s possible to get booted after sending a message that is reported by its recipient as abusive or picked up by The Grade’s technology and after human review, is found egregious.

The app has been downloaded 100,000 times in about a year of operation, according to Lerner.

The Grade stamps every profile with an actual letter grade, something I saw firsthand while using the app for the past few weeks. The letter grade takes into account everything from peer reviews, to how many people like your photo, to your spelling and grammar and how often you respond to messages. My grade is currently a B, but it’s been as high as an A-, and as low as an F. When The Grade kicks users off, it gives them a chance to appeal (thankfully, I didn’t get that far). New year’s resolution: respond to messages in a more timely fashion.

The Grade does sound somewhat similar to Peeple, the much-derided, still-unlaunched app pitching itself as a place to post Yelp-style reviews of, yes, people. But there’s one key difference, according to Lerner: There are no free-form reviews on The Grade. In other words, you can’t pen a screed about someone that everyone else on the app will see. Peer review grades, he added, only post if a number of people have rated you. That said, you can submit a peer review without even matching with someone, and most of the grades on The Grade follow a familiar pattern: people perceived as good-looking get the As, folks perceived as unattractive get Fs, and the people in between get Bs and Cs. This isn’t the case with every profile, but swipe around long enough on The Grade and you’ll see the pattern emerge.

One of the nicest things about The Grade is it gives you stats about how often you are liked when each profile picture is displayed. It then compares that against the average likes for people of your age and gender, so you know how you’re doing against the competition. This allows you to keep testing new profile pictures until one finally (hopefully) works, shortening the head-scratching period that accompanies almost every other dating app.

The Grade

“The profile grade is simply based on how much of your profile you've filled out and also how often you're getting liked,” Lerner said, before citing some common problems people run into. “They either have pictures that don't tell anything about their personality,” he said. “… And they don't write anything interesting about themselves.”

Competing against established players like Tinder and Hinge, it’s hard to tell if The Grade’s approach will be enough to give it an entry into the competitive online dating space. But if it can eliminate an unsolicited dick pic, or two, it will at the very least make the world a slightly better place.

BuzzFeed – Tech

The 13 Best Yule Log Videos To Watch During The Holidays

The yule log video is a cultural phenomenon. (There are nearly 100,000 on YouTube alone.) Here are 13 internet alternatives to building a dirty, smokey fire. Just turn on your laptop and crank the volume for some warm, crackling goodness to keep you merry and bright.

A classic, long-running yule log fire. Well-centered, with good crackle. The quintessential Christmas video.

youtube.com / Via youtube.com

Your standard yule log video, but with Christmas music and digital snow.

youtube.com

This one takes some creative liberties, featuring an entire Christmas tableaux instead of the traditional fireplace-only shot. The flashing lights will appeal to those who like their yule log with a little flair.

youtube.com

Another full-room shot, but this time we get a Bing Crosby radio Christmas special for the troops. Listen, and pretend it’s 1944!

youtube.com


View Entire List ›

BuzzFeed – Tech

Am I A Robot? Because I Have No Idea What This CAPTCHA Says

Warner Bros / Via HBOGO

You're in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down and have to solve a CAPTCHA.

The ubiquitous authentication method is meant to distinguish real live humans from bots trying to overload a form on a website. It is always annoying, but never in my experience has it been genuinely baffling. Until today.

I got eyeglasses to deal with myopia two years and since then I fear that my overall eyesight has only gotten worse. Today at work I had to authenticate myself to send a message to a company when I saw this.

Even though my initial thought was that the image showed “exe11i,” I wasn't at all sure. I asked my coworkers. While they couldn't agree with each other, they all thought I was wrong.

One suggested “xevui, ” while two others put forward “xevnr” and “exvur” respectively. At best, this showed we all had varying degrees of poor vision that was no match for a nasty CAPTCHA, at worst it confirmed that the majority of us were not human.

Instead we are like Rachael in Blade Runner, human-seeming androids who had been able to pass simple tests but end up revealing our artificial natures under closer examination.

We reached no definitive conclusion about the CAPTCHA, but instead were left with a nagging feeling that our apprehension of reality is deficient.

The consensus was it said “xevur” — I entered that and was rejected. A new CAPTCHA appeared, the old one disappeared forever and we'll never know what the right answer was.

For what it's worth, even my attempt at the subsequent image failed.

Finally after a third try, I passed. But that might have just been one machine taking pity on another.

Warner Bros / Via giphy.com

BuzzFeed – Tech

You Can Still Call It “Just Mayo” (Although It Doesn’t Have Eggs)

Still Just Mayo.

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for NYCWFF

It tastes like mayo, it smells like mayo, and it looks like mayo. Now the question of what Just Mayo can be called has been put to rest: It is, and will continue to be, Just Mayo. Got that?

The name of Hampton Creek's popular condiment, which is sold in Safeway, Costco, Whole Foods, The Dollar Tree, and other major supermarkets worldwide, had been a point of contention since August, when the FDA pointed out in a warning letter that by legal definition “mayonnaise” or “mayo” is supposed to contain eggs. (Yes, the FDA has an official definition for mayonnaise, plus other types of food, as a means of preventing false advertising.) But Hampton Creek, a venture-backed San Francisco startup, substitutes plant protein–based compounds for eggs in its food products, which also include cookies and cookie dough.

After months of discussion, the dispute was resolved Wednesday night when the FDA told Hampton Creek it could keep the “Just Mayo” moniker, CEO Josh Tetrick told BuzzFeed News. FDA spokesperson Lauren Kotwicki confirmed the news and told BuzzFeed News by email, “The company committed to making labeling changes to ensure its products are labeled in a manner that is truthful and not misleading.”

The compromise between Hampton Creek and the FDA is a small yet meaningful truce in a world in which venture-backed startups seeking to overhaul entrenched industries clash with regulators.

Under the FDA's guidance, Hampton Creek has had to change its labeling to clarify what, exactly, its sandwich spread is (and is not). It added a definition of the “just” in “Just Mayo” (“guided by reason, justice, and fairness”), a summary of the company's philosophy, the words “SPREAD & DRESSING,” and a box around the nutrition facts to better highlight the ingredients. It also shrunk the egg logo and increased the size of the words “egg-free” and “soy-free.”

Of the FDA, Tetrick told BuzzFeed News, “They really wanted to be part of creating a better food system and it's important they were part of that. It's important we heard what they had to say.”

The new label.

Hampton Creek

Also in August, the FDA criticized Hampton Creek's claim that Just Mayo is cholesterol-free and its marketing message “Your Heart Matters. When your heart is healthy, well, we’re happy. You’ll never find cholesterol in our products.” Those claims together, the FDA said at the time, implied that the product can reduce the risk of heart disease. But Just Mayo in fact contained an amount of fat that would require disclosure, and that label was missing, the FDA said.

For now, Hampton Creek will remove the “cholesterol-free” wording from Just Mayo's label with the intention of putting it back on later, Tetrick said. The creamy condiment was, and remains, cholesterol-free.

The mayonnaise identity crisis came to the FDA's attention following a lawsuit last year filed by Unilever, the food conglomerate that owns mayonnaise brand Hellmann’s. (The lawsuit was later dropped.) Hampton Creek, which was founded in 2011 and has raised $ 120 million, has also faced criticism from anonymous ex-employees who told Business Insider that the products were less than scientifically sound, and concerted attacks by the government-backed American Egg Board, as reported by The Guardian.

BuzzFeed – Tech

How Pitbull Conquered Facebook

Pitbull joined Facebook May 17, 2009. The timing was auspicious: In a March 2014 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Pit had laid out his six-year play for global domination, saying, “2009 is freedom; 2010, invasion; 2011, build empire; 2012, grow wealth; 2013, put the puzzle together; 2014, buckle up; 2015, make history.”

And: He was right, more or less. Now, at the tail end of 2015, the diminutive, 34-year-old Cuban-American rapper is seemingly everywhere: Just in the last month or so alone, onstage with Taylor Swift during the Miami stop of her 1989 tour and at the iHeart Radio Fiesta Latina, rocking white jeans on a cruise ship for a ribbon-cutting ceremony; playing Good Morning America's 40th anniversary show. Perhaps nowhere is Pit's dominance clearer than Facebook, where he has managed to harness his own native, relentless optimism and unencumbered thirst for followers to become one of the platform’s biggest stars. Pitbull currently has more than 60 million fans on the social network, making him the 18th most followed celebrity on the platform — just above Bruno Mars and Selena Gomez, and in company with international powerhouses like Beyoncé, Shakira and Justin Bieber.

And unlike his celebrity peers, Pitbull appears to be doing it largely on his own: The page has largely remained advertisement free, has rarely focused on monetizing its fanbase, and remains, a full 10 months into the “make history” phase, charmingly low production value for the most part.

While Beyoncé’s social media manager posts yet another uncaptioned, professionally styled Instagram, Pitbull posts a blurry shot declaring “im in love with the hustle….im in love with the journey.. the grind. with LIFE! DALEEEEEEEEE!!!!” If Taylor Swift’s page is a stream of professionally shot tour photos and links to the singer’s merch shop, Pitbull’s page is more like flipping through a desktop motivational calendar peppered with Spanglish slang: “Dreams don’t work unless you do.” “Always do your best and you will never have regrets.” “Everyone has a story, a struggle.” “Reach for the stars, and if you don’t grab them at least you’re on top of the world.” “Everyday is my birthday gracias a dios y pa lanteeee ya tu sabeeeeee daleeee live life don't let life live u.”

It’s an endless feed of uplifting quotes, inspirational videos, and lessons of perseverance, modified slightly to fit Facebook’s trend du jour: In 2012, Pit jumped on the like-baiting trend along with many other brands, posting statuses such as “LIKE if u r never going 2 give up on ur dreams!!!!!” “LIKE” if u believe that every day is a gift!!!!!!” When infographics and photo posts took Facebook by storm in 2013 Pitbull released a series of photos overlaid with inspirational text messages declaring things like “You can’t be what you can’t imagine.” The posts functioned like self-help flashcards and racked up hundreds of thousands of shares. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: A 2013 study by Jonah Berger, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that not only do people tend to give their own status updates a more positive spin, sharing more positive life events than negative, but that the more positive a news article or piece of content, the more likely it is to be shared on platforms such as Facebook.

View Video ›

facebook.com

In a 2014 Hollywood Reporter article about the rapper’s quest to be a “billion-dollar brand,” Shirley Halperin wrote of Pit’s “relentlessly upbeat attitude.” “That's his most powerful gift,” she wrote, “winning loyalty of everyone he encounters, from strangers on the street to dealmakers in a boardroom.”

But the internet has always been ready to love Pit. In 2012, GQ magazine named Pitbull one of the “25 Least Influential People Alive.” The magazine asked “who could be less influential than a guy whose music sounds like the aborted offspring of Nelly and Will.i.am?” Rather than shy away, Pitbull immediately posted a follow-up interview he did with GQ to his Facebook page declaring, “I luv 2 be underestimated…” The post garnered nearly 30,000 likes.

A few months later, Pitbull haters teamed up to stuff the ballot box in a Wal-Mart-sponsored Facebook contest that promised a live performance from the artist at the Walmart location that received the most Facebook likes. The hashtag #ExilePitbull quickly began trending, and various corners of the internet banded together to co-opt the contest and banish Pitbull to the most remote Walmart location possible, in Kodiak, Alaska.

True to form, Pitbull wasn’t fazed. “Wherever the fans want to have a party, I will be there,” he said on Good Morning America when the results were announced. He gave a blowout concert in Kodiak, received the key to the city, and even flew David Thorpe, one of the prank's organizers, up to Alaska to see the show. “Just met Pitbull. He shook my hand and said ‘Keep bullshitting. Next thing you know we’ll be on the moon,’” Thorpe tweeted. Around the same time, Pitbull posted a Facebook status that read, “always remember…. only the best are bullied DALLEEEE!!!!!!”

By 2014, Pit had hosted the American Music Awards, appeared on Dancing With the Stars, was named the new global face of Playboy, sold out shows in 25 cities, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and his song “We Are One (Ole Ola)” was the official song for the 2014 World Cup. His 2014 success is outlined in a BuzzFeed Community post titled “11 Reasons 2014 Is Pitbull’s Year.”

“Pitbull is only going to get bigger,” Rolling Stone journalist Simon Vozick-Levinson said in June of last year. “He's someone who's not going to stop until he takes over the entire world.”

But recently, in his quest to dominate the music industry and the larger world, Pitbull’s Facebook presence feels like it’s starting to take a backseat. As Facebook native video becomes ever more prevalent in News Feed, celebrities like Tyrese Gibson (27 million fans) have been quick to exploit the boost by uploading stolen viral videos to grow their own pages. While Facebook has vowed to crack down on stolen content, in the meantime celebrities and brands are racking up millions of new likes. Some have also begun creating more of their own native video content with apps like Facebook Mentions.

Pitbull has dabbled in native video, but his posts are mostly links and reuploaded YouTube videos. In the past six months, they have also taken on a decidedly more corporate tone. He still shares clips of his “biggest inspirations” along with photos captioned “Don’t talk about it, be about it” and “Patience, Passion and Perseverance,” but they’re sandwiched between an ever-increasing number of promotional messages like, “Only 7 days until #DALE and today starts Amazon.com enter-to-win” and “Join us now as we drop a 64 hour commercial free Mega-Mix weekend with the Globalization DJs on SiriusXM Radio CH4. It's now to Sunday night, DALE!”

The posts still have that Pitbull energy and copious use of the word “dale,” but it’s beginning to feel like Pitbull’s hustle has faded, at least on Facebook. Maybe in order to make history in 2015 Pitbull has finally had to hire a social media manager.

BuzzFeed – Tech

Razor USA Sues Swagway Over Hoverboards

The scooter giant wastes little time in flexing its legal muscles.

From Razor USA LLC v. Swagway, LLC, Case No. 2:15-CV-09209

Razor USA, which recently bought a patent for a “a two-wheel, self-balancing personal vehicle,” is suing leading hoverboard distributor Swagway for patent infringement, BuzzFeed News has learned.

According to the suit, filed in US District Court in California on November 27, and obtained by BuzzFeed News, Razor alleges that Swagway “infringes… by making, using, offering for sale, selling, and/or importing… without license or authority, Swagway, Swagway X1, Swagway smart balancing electric skateboard, and related and similar products…”

Razor, which makes the popular scooter of the same name, entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Shane Chen, the patent holder, last month. The nascent hoverboard industry has already been beset by litigation, including a suit by Chen and former partner Mark Cuban against IO Hawk, another leading hoverboard brand.

Razor USA, historically, has been no stranger to litigation. The company sued more than 20 sellers of copycat scooters in the early 2000s to protect its dominance as the toys exploded in popularity.

Hoverboards, including Swagway, are all manufactured in China, where the patent picture is even murkier. From there, they are typically branded by a Western distributor, and sold through a variety of poorly regulated outlets. This suit by Razor may be the first step in clearing the way to take over the still-nascent market that seems set to explode.

BuzzFeed – Tech

Weight Watchers’ App Isn’t Working And People Are Furious

A technical upgrade caused the popular food- and activity-tracking app and website to go glitchy on Thanksgiving, of all days.

Jennifer Hudson speaks at the opening of The Weight Watchers Jennifer Hudson Center in 2011 in Chicago.

M. Spencer Green / AP

Weight Watchers has a loyal digital following: About 1.5 million people pay to use the weight-loss program's website and app. And on Thursday — Thanksgiving — the company introduced an upgrade that included a new design and streamlined features.

But the website and app have since been glitchy to the point of being unusable, according to customers who are unhappy that the service went down during arguably the most food-centric time of year.

Users normally log their food and exercise in the program, which then calculates points (rather than calories) and tells people how many points they've used on a given day and how many they have left. Amber Kowalski, a 25-year-old from Fishkill, New York, who's been a paying subscriber at $ 45 a month since March, told BuzzFeed News that the app has been deleting her entries, recording them multiple times, or entering them incorrectly.

“I literally depend on it for everything,” Kowalski said. “Anything that goes in my mouth or I think about eating, I do. When you're doing this it literally is a lifestyle change and you need to depend on this. The biggest thing that people are upset about is it's the holiday season. Thanksgiving is when it was down — that's one of the biggest times of the year. It's not good for someone trying to diet or eat better, and you couldn't even keep track of what you're eating.”

Via Facebook: weightwatchers


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BuzzFeed – Tech

Startup Zenefits Under Scrutiny For Flouting Insurance Laws

Zenefits founder Parker Conrad speaks at a conference in New York in 2013.

Brian Ach / Getty Images

The Silicon Valley startup Zenefits, valued at $ 4.5 billion in a funding round earlier this year, apparently flouted insurance laws by allowing unlicensed brokers to sell health insurance — an approach that has led to at least one regulatory inquiry into the legality of its operations.

Zenefits, a middleman in the health insurance business, has repeatedly failed to enforce legal requirements that anyone selling a health insurance policy have an appropriate state license, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found. The San Francisco-based company allowed numerous salespeople to act as insurance brokers in at least seven states without licenses to do so, according to internal emails and records, as well as interviews with eight former employees with direct knowledge of the matter.

BuzzFeed News has reviewed examples of the unlicensed sale of insurance by Zenefits employees dating back as far as the summer of 2014 and continuing through this summer. It is unclear when the practice began and whether it continues today; the company says it now has strict procedures in place to enforce licensing rules.

At least one regulator, the insurance commissioner in Washington state, is currently examining whether Zenefits operated there without licenses, according to a spokesperson for the agency, Stephanie Marquis. The Washington inquiry began in early 2015 and has not yet been resolved, she said.

Zenefits management seemed aware of the potentially serious consequences of violating licensing rules. Under Washington law, anyone who knowingly sells, solicits, or negotiates insurance without the proper state license is guilty of a Class B felony, which can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years, as well as a civil penalty of up to $ 25,000 for each violation.

“You are putting the company at risk” by not “immediately” getting broker licenses in Washington, Niji Sabharwal, a Zenefits senior sales operations manager, told sales reps in April.

Upon learning of the Washington inquiry, Zenefits scrambled to get its house in order. Sales reps who had closed deals in that state were told of the inquiry by a Zenefits senior sales operations analyst, Erin Stephens, in an email in early April. The subject line read, “URGENT — Get Licensed in Washington.”

The email, and two follow-up notes, were sent on a Thursday. On the following Monday, 22 Zenefits employees became licensed brokers in Washington, state records show. Four others received their Washington licenses later that month.

Only this July, more than two years after Zenefits launched, did the company introduce a standardized “license management system” to track whether sales reps had licenses, an internal email shows. (Earlier efforts at license tracking were not comprehensive, according to two former employees.) That email, sent by Sabharwal to managers who oversaw sales reps, acknowledged that there were still “a few reps” who hadn’t yet received licenses “but are currently working deals.”

While Zenefits sales reps were told that they needed licenses to do their job, managers in many cases showed a blasé attitude toward the requirement, pushing the unlicensed reps to meet sales quotas, the former employees said. In several cases, sales reps who had failed a broker license exam once or more times were allowed to continue working the phones. At least one person who lacked any license in any state but hit his sales quotas last fall was promoted, according to state records and former employees.

“It is — and has always been — Zenefits’ policy that every individual who sells insurance at Zenefits, as well as the company itself, must be licensed to sell insurance,” Zenefits said in a written statement provided to BuzzFeed News by a spokesman, Kenneth Baer. “Zenefits has more than 280 active resident insurance licenses and more than 2,500 active non-resident licenses, and these licensed brokers have sold thousands of insurance policies over the past two-and-a-half years.”

“We have taken corrective action, including terminating the employee, when we have learned of violations, either because individuals failed to pass the brokerage exam or have otherwise violated our licensing policies,” the statement continued. “Any accusations of other individuals violating our licensure policies will be thoroughly investigated, and we will take appropriate remedial action.”

Zenefits gives away free software to small businesses to manage their employee benefits, though fundamentally it is an insurance brokerage firm, collecting recurring commissions when it sells health insurance policies to those businesses. It says its technology and user-friendliness can help it displace stodgy insurance brokers and claim their lucrative commissions.

The insurance brokerage industry is heavily regulated, and technological innovation has historically been slow to take hold. Many conventional brokers still rely on mountains of forms and spreadsheets — enhancing the appeal of Zenefits for customers who resent paperwork and value speed. On the other hand, conventional brokers argue that an important part of their job is to provide advice gained from study and experience, something that can’t easily be replicated by fresh-faced sales reps and sophisticated software.

Zenefits’ strategy for disrupting this industry — where human lives literally are at stake — has typified the current tech boom: rapid growth, with little regard for the conventions of old-school industries.

“If you’re an insurance broker, we’re going to drink your milkshake,” Parker Conrad, the Zenefits co-founder and CEO, said at a tech event in 2013.

Among new startups of recent years, few have generated as much praise from investors and reporters as Zenefits. Launched only in 2013, it quickly grew into a Silicon Valley “unicorn,” with a $ 4.5 billion valuation as of May. Forbes called it the “hottest startup” of 2014. Business Insider said it was a startup “to bet your career on in 2015.”

The Hollywood celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Jared Leto are investors in the privately held company. A Silicon Valley celebrity, the former PayPal executive David Sacks, is its chief operating officer. Its other backers include the mutual fund giant Fidelity and the big private equity investor TPG, as well as the prominent venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested more money in Zenefits than in any other startup in its portfolio. (Andreessen Horowitz is also an investor in BuzzFeed.)

Virginia Mayo / Associated Press

The revelation about unlicensed brokers, which has never previously been made public, comes as the company is facing questions about its ability to live up to its lofty valuation. Fidelity, which bought Zenefits shares in the May investment round, marked down the value of its stake by 48% as of the end of September, according to data from the investment research company Morningstar. While Zenefits has said it hopes to hit $ 100 million in annual revenue by January, one indicator suggested the figure had reached only $ 45 million by August, according to a recent Wall Street Journal report. The Zenefits spokesman declined to comment on that report.

Zenefits is among a class of richly valued startups that have taken an aggressive stance toward longstanding industry rules. Uber and Airbnb, for example, have shown that it can be a winning strategy to clash with state and city governments over rules that the startups claim are outmoded or unfair. Zenefits got a taste of this sort of battle late last year, when Utah insurance regulators sought to block the company from operating there over claims that its free software amounted to an improper inducement for customers. (Utah allowed Zenefits back in this year.)

The sale of insurance is governed at the state level. In every state, brokers who sell health insurance policies to companies based there are required to have a license from that state. Many brokers interpret the laws to mean that they need a license not only to sell insurance but also to discuss it with clients in any meaningful way.

In California, where many Zenefits customers are located, the law says people can't “solicit, negotiate, or effect contracts of insurance” without a license. An important exemption is for clerical and support work, like setting up appointments or gathering basic information from customers. Under California law, selling insurance without a valid license is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $ 50,000 or up to a year in prison.

Zenefits itself is a licensed brokerage company and Conrad, the CEO, has a broker license in all 50 states. But the employees who do the selling are also legally required to be licensed brokers in the states where they work.

“Whether you’re selling through an app or through a brick-and-mortar store, you have to be licensed” in every state in which you sell insurance policies, said Adam Beck, a professor of health insurance at the American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. “Working for someone who happens to be licensed in not sufficient.”

The unlicensed sale of insurance is challenging for regulators to catch, largely because there is no public database of insurance policies sold. Regulators generally rely on tips, including from customers, who can check whether their broker is licensed using state databases like this one, this one, or this one.

“When we started Zenefits, we followed a practice common to many small independent brokerages of having each broker licensed in their home state and having the agency itself also registered in all 50 states so as to allow out-of-state sales,” Zenefits said in its statement. “As we grew and heard from regulators that they wanted each licensed broker individually to acquire a non-resident license, we set out to do just that.”

Conrad speaks at a conference in San Francisco in 2015

Steve Jennings / Getty Images

The Zenefits sales force is run by Sam Blond, the San Francisco-based vice president of sales. He joined the company in late 2013 after quickly rising through the sales organization at EchoSign, a software startup that was sold to Adobe in 2011. Many of the apparently unlicensed insurance sales occurred in Zenefits’ big satellite office in Scottsdale, Arizona, which opened in the fall of last year and quickly filled up with hundreds of employees. But there is evidence of unlicensed selling of insurance in Zenefits’ San Francisco headquarters as well.

One Zenefits sales rep who didn’t have a license in any state closed insurance deals with at least 27 companies, starting in February and continuing through June, an internal document shows. The sales rep, who was based in Scottsdale and left Zenefits this summer, convinced eight of the companies to enroll in new health insurance, according to the document. He convinced 19 companies to make Zenefits their broker of record, the document shows. The states where he closed deals included Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, and New Jersey.

In San Francisco, a different sales rep, who started in June 2014, sold a health insurance policy to a New York-based startup called Goodsie during her first months on the job. Conrad had personally reached out several times to woo Goodsie, which provides e-commerce software to businesses, but he bowed out and let the rep take over, emails show. This sales rep, however, lacked a New York broker license until June of this year, state records show.

Among the 22 Zenefits employees who got insurance licenses in Washington on the Monday after being warned about the regulatory inquiry, nine were based in Scottsdale, state records and their LinkedIn profiles show. The other 13 were in San Francisco.

Three of the former Zenefits employees interviewed by BuzzFeed News, refusing to speak on the record for fear of professional or legal consequences, acknowledged that they routinely pitched or sold health insurance policies without adequate licensing. Three others said they supervised the sale of health insurance by unlicensed sales reps.

“I made like $ 15,000 in the time I was there, just on commissions. And I never got my license,” said an insurance salesperson who left Zenefits this summer. She estimated she had more than 100 conversations with different customers about insurance. “I took my test three times in a row, and I failed. They still let me work.”

Without her license, she had to improvise on calls with customers.

When faced with a tricky question, “I would just Google it,” she said. She would tell the customer, “hold on one second, let me email the expert, he's on the line, hold on one second, I'll get back to you.” But in reality, “I would pick one of the first three links and I would just go off of that.”

A large number of the new hires in the Scottsdale office came from other technology companies, with experience in sales but little familiarity with health insurance. Zenefits offered to pick up the cost of studying for and taking the broker test, several former employees said. But new sales reps there soon discovered that getting licensed wasn’t seen as an urgent priority. More important was hitting sales quotas, which initially would increase each month.

Those who hit the quotas, even if they lacked broker licenses, were rewarded, the former employees said. One of the earliest hires for the Scottsdale office started as a health insurance sales rep in September 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile and interviews with two former colleagues. He was promoted in January to a sales manager job, which would not necessarily require a broker license, and he was promoted again last month.

This sales rep had no broker license until September of this year, when he got a license in California, according to a search of every state insurance database for his name. After BuzzFeed News first attempted to contact him for this article, he got licenses in states including Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, and Virginia, state records show.

Once an insurance broker gets a license in one state, they can pay a fee and fill out information online to have the credential replicated in other states where they do business. But even this simple task eluded many sales reps. One former sales rep who started in the Scottsdale office last fall said he had an Arizona license but didn’t bother to get licenses in the other states where he was selling insurance until January, when Blond instructed sales reps to focus on particular states.

Even after that instruction, sales reps had a relaxed attitude toward the licensing requirements, former employees said. Another former sales rep said he procrastinated after passing his broker exam, waiting two months before filling out the paperwork to get his first license this spring. In the meantime, he sold insurance.

Washington state regulators delivered a jolt to Zenefits, however. On April 2, just after 2 p.m., Stephens, the senior sales operations analyst, sent an email to sales reps who had “closed business in Washington in 2014 or 2015 without providing your licensing information to the sales operations team (thus, Zenefits at large.)”

She said Zenefits faced “an inquiry” from Washington's insurance regulator into the company's business practices. “As part of the response,” she said, “we must list out every broker who deals with Washington clients and their WA license number. This requires that we gather all licensing information from individual reps” — this part was underlined and in red lettering — “TODAY by 4:00 PM.”

“If you are not licensed in Washington, take 5 minutes to complete the process on NIPR,” Stephens added, referring to the website that lets people apply to transfer their credentials to other states. She told sales reps to add their confirmation numbers to a Google doc after completing online applications.

Not everyone who received the email appeared to grasp its urgency.

“Drop what you are doing and submit the application to get licensed in WA,” read a bolded sentence in a follow-up email, sent just after 6 p.m. by Sabharwal, the senior sales operations manager.

“This is the third communication on this. It takes less than 10 mins,” he continued. “You are putting the company at risk by not doing this immediately.”

Months later, in July, unlicensed insurance sales were apparently still a problem. In the July 6 email announcing the license management system, Sabharwal said Zenefits would “now be able to prevent a rep from closing a deal if they are not licensed to sell into that state.”

“This is an area of great concern as the consequences of breaking these rules can be detrimental to our ability to operate in that state,” he continued.

In its written statement, Zenefits said, “As we have grown, so have our compliance procedures.” Zenefits said job offer letters to sales reps now specify licensing requirements, and that the company’s internal software systems now include licensing checks as part of the sales process.

A week after Sabharwal’s email, licensing information for a number of sales reps still hadn’t been entered into the new system, according to another email from him. The email, which Sabharwal sent to sales managers on July 13, contained a chart showing “Incomplete Resident Licenses by Manager.” The 16 managers listed by name in the chart corresponded to a combined 33 incomplete records for sales reps.

“A valid license means that they have their license number and expiration date,” Sabharwal reminded the managers. “Just passing the insurance test does not constitute a license.”

The former sales rep who closed at least 27 deals without a broker license appeared to shift his strategy toward the middle of the year, emails to his customers show. In a February email to one small business CEO he was courting, he said, “I primarily am a broker and obtain the responsibility to work with our clients in that capacity.”

Later, in interactions with a different company, he appeared to take a more conservative approach. The customer, Defib This, a small company in Santa Cruz, Calif. that runs emergency response training courses, had been “desperately searching for insurance,” according to Aki Williams, the chief operating officer.

But Williams was a “little peeved,” when the sales rep refused to have any meaningful discussions about insurance policies. “He sent us emails that had multiple options, but we really couldn't pin him down to say, 'This is what's going to work best for your company,'” Williams said.

Williams ended up buying an insurance policy through the sales rep that took effect in July. She said she had no idea that he lacked a broker license.

When Zenefits sought to fix this issue, it declined to pull unlicensed sales reps off the phones entirely, the July 6 email from Sabharwal shows. For new hires going forward, Sabharwal told sales managers, the company would start “requiring reps to have passed their license exams before starting boot camp, which will ensure that they have a license by the time they get on the phones.” But the policy for current sales reps was apparently different.

“There [are] still, however, a few reps who have passed the test, submitted the application, and are awaiting their license number but are currently working deals,” he continued. “We are going to make an exception for these reps and allow them to close deals as long as their manager is on the phone with them.”

Sabharwal emphasized this instruction in his follow-up email on July 13.

“A reminder that if any of your reps do not have a valid license in hand for their resident state (usually CA or AZ), YOU MUST be on every call where insurance is discussed,” he told sales managers.

Two former employees said they participated in such phone calls, in which an unlicensed rep would be supervised by a more senior employee with a broker license. Such a solution, however, falls into a legal gray area, according to William Gausewitz, a Sacramento-based partner at the law firm Michelman & Robinson who formerly was a deputy insurance commissioner at the California Department of Insurance.

“I don't think it complies technically with the licensing laws,” Gausewitz said, commenting in general on the practice. “But if the unlicensed people are supervised by a licensed broker, the department is not going to be as suspicious that the agency is engaged in flagrant lawbreaking violations.”

BuzzFeed – Tech