Google’s new YouTube Stories feature lets you swap out your background (no green screen required)


Google researchers know how much people like to trick others into thinking they’re on the moon, or that it’s night instead of day, and other fun shenanigans only possible if you happen to be in a movie studio in front of a green screen. So they did what any good 2018 coder would do: build a neural network that lets you do it.

This “video segmentation” tool, as they call it (well, everyone does) is rolling out to YouTube Stories on mobile in a limited fashion starting now — if you see the option, congratulations, you’re a beta tester.

A lot of ingenuity seems to have gone into this feature. It’s a piece of cake to figure out where the foreground ends and the background begins if you have a depth-sensing camera (like the iPhone X’s front-facing array) or plenty of processing time and no battery to think about (like a desktop computer).

On mobile, though, and with an ordinary RGB image, it’s not so easy to do. And if doing a still image is hard, video is even more so, since the computer has to do the calculation 30 times a second at a minimum.

Well, Google’s engineers took that as a challenge, and set up a convolutional neural network architecture, training it on thousands of labelled images like the one to the right.

The network learned to pick out the common features of a head and shoulders, and a series of optimizations lowered the amount of data it needed to crunch in order to do so. And — although it’s cheating a bit — the result of the previous calculation (so, a sort of cutout of your head) gets used as raw material for the next one, further reducing load.

The result is a fast, relatively accurate segmentation engine that runs more than fast enough to be used in video — 40 frames per second on the Pixel 2 and over 100 on the iPhone 7 (!).

This is great news for a lot of folks — removing or replacing a background is a great tool to have in your toolbox and this makes it quite easy. And hopefully it won’t kill your battery.

YouTube will remove ads and downgrade discoverability of channels posting offensive videos


After barring Logan Paul earlier today from serving ads on his video channel, YouTube has now announced a more formal and wider set of sanctions it’s prepared to level on any creator that starts to post videos that are harmful to viewers, others in the YouTube community, or advertisers.

As it has done with Paul (on two occasions now), the site said it will remove monetization options on the videos, specifically access to advertising programs. But on top of that, it’s added in a twist that will be particularly impactful given that a lot of a video’s popularity rests on it being discoverable:

“We may remove a channel’s eligibility to be recommended on YouTube, such as appearing on our home page, trending tab or watch next,” Ariel Bardin, Vice President of Product Management at YouTube, writes in a blog post.

The full list of steps, as outlined by YouTube:

1. Premium Monetization Programs, Promotion and Content Development Partnerships. We may remove a channel from Google Preferred and also suspend, cancel or remove a creator’s YouTube Original.

2. Monetization and Creator Support Privileges. We may suspend a channel’s ability to serve ads, ability to earn revenue and potentially remove a channel from the YouTube Partner Program, including creator support and access to our YouTube Spaces.

3. Video Recommendations. We may remove a channel’s eligibility to be recommended on YouTube, such as appearing on our home page, trending tab or watch next.

The changes are significant not just because they could really hit creators where it hurts, but because they also point to a real shift for the platform. YouTube has long been known as a home for edgy videos filled with pranks and potentially offensive content, made in the name of comedy or freedom of expression.

Now, the site is turning over a new leaf, using a large team of human curators and AI to track the content of what’s being posted, and in cases where videos fall afoul of YouTube’s advertising guidelines, or pose a threat to its wider community, they have a much bigger chance of falling afoul of YouTube’s rules and getting dinged.

“When one creator does something particularly blatant—like conducts a heinous prank where people are traumatized, promotes violence or hate toward a group, demonstrates cruelty, or sensationalizes the pain of others in an attempt to gain views or subscribers—it can cause lasting damage to the community, including viewers, creators and the outside world,” writes Bardin. “That damage can have real-world consequences not only to users, but also to other creators, leading to missed creative opportunities, lost revenue and serious harm to your livelihoods. That’s why it’s critical to ensure that the actions of a few don’t impact the 99.9 percent of you who use your channels to connect with your fans or build thriving businesses.”

The moves come at a time when the site is making a much more concerted effort to raise the overall quality of what is posted and shared and viewed by millions of people every day, after repeated accusations that it has facilitated a range of bad actors, from people peddling propaganda to influence elections, to those who are posting harmful content aimed at children, to simply allowing cruel, tasteless and unusual videos to get posted in the name of comedy.

The issue seemed to reach a head with Paul, who posted a video in Japan in January that featured a suicide victim, and has since followed up with more questionable content presented as innocuous fun.

As I pointed out earlier today, even though he makes hundreds of thousands of dollars from ads (the exact amount is unknown and has only been estimated by different analytics companies) removing ads was only a partial sanction, since Paul monetizes in other ways, including merchandising. So it’s interesting to see YouTube adding more details and ways of sanctioning creators, that will hit at their very virality.

As in the case of Paul, YouTube makes a point of the fact that the majority of people who post content on its platform will not be impacted by today’s announcement because their content is not on the wrong side of acceptable. These sorts of sanctions, it said, will be applied as a last resort and will often not permanent but will last until the creator removes or alters content. It will be worth watching how and if this impacts video content overall on the platform.

YouTube partners with Kevin Durant to expand original sports programming


YouTube announced today that it’s enlisted the help of basketball star Kevin Durant in a bid to expand original sports content. The Golden State Warriors small forward and business partner Rich Kleiman have signed on to develop programming centered around Durant and fellow professional athletes under the umbrella of their Thirty Five Media video business.

Durant’s interest in investing turned to tech when he moved to the Bay Area to play for The Warriors in 2016. As Durant and Kleiman put it during an appearance onstage at Disrupt last September, “We’d never have been introduced to a drone startup in Oklahoma City.”

According to Kleiman, Durant began to take YouTube more seriously after meeting Neal Mohan at a Ben Horowitz-hosted party in honor of the basketball all-star’s 28th birthday. YouTube’s head of product introduced him to the platform’s potential for content delivery beyond the standard highlight reels he was accustomed to watching on the site. 

“Kevin always wanted to produce original content and wanted to produce shows, but we didn’t realize what direction it would take until then,” says Kleiman.

Durant’s channel blossomed during a self-imposed sabbatical from social media after calling out his former team on Twitter. 

In the intervening months, Durant’s YouTube channel has grown into a destination for basketball fans, giving the player a direct venue to interact with fans through Q&As and offer up documentary-style productions aimed at offering insight into the life of an all-star professional basketball player. In less than a year, it’s racked up north of 21 million views.

Outside of the incredible relationship that we’ve developed with the team at YouTube,” Durant told TechCrunch, “it’s a huge destination for video content where sports fans — including myself — spend a lot of time, and we really wanted to create content where fans are most likely to find and engage with it.”

Durant and Thirty Five Media began reaching out to fellow players prior to the deal. Warriors teammate JaVale McGee was given his own show on Durant’s channel. Parking Lot Chronicles is a play on the traditional post-game interview that finds the center moderating conversations with fellow Warriors outside of Oracle Arena.

That series will continue to be hosted on Durant’s channel, along with an upcoming show featuring actor/basketball super fan, Michael Rapaport. “We’re looking to build Kevin’s channel as a real network for himself and trying to encourage more athletes to look at it as a hub for their content, and look at it as their own Bleacher Report or ESPN,” says Kleiman. “And we’ll look to produce content to live on all of these different channels.”

Kleiman says the content for the channels will be a mix of high-production values from Thirty Five Media and more direct, raw video, depending on the needs and desires of a given partner athlete.

Durant, for his part, plans to remain involved in the undertaking. “I will have an active role both in my channel and in working with other athletes,” he explains. “I’ve seen what resonates with fans and I know how to achieve that while focusing on my job as an athlete first and foremost, and I’m excited to help others be able to do the same thing.”

YouTube tightens the rules around creator monetization and partnerships


In an effort to regain advertisers’ trust, Google is announcing what it says are “tough but necessary” changes to YouTube monetization.

For one thing, it’s setting a higher bar the YouTube Partner Program, which is what allows publishers to make money through advertising. Previously, they needed 10,000 total views to join the program. Starting today, channels also need to have 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of view time in the past year. (For now, those are just requirements to join the program, but Google says it will also start applying them to current partners on February 20.)

This might assure marketers that their ads are less likely to run on random, fly-by-night channels, but as Google’s Paul Muret writes, “Of course, size alone is not enough to determine whether a channel is suitable for advertising.”

So in addition, he said:

We will closely monitor signals like community strikes, spam, and other abuse flags to ensure they comply with our policies. Both new and existing YPP channels will be automatically evaluated under this strict criteria and if we find a channel repeatedly or egregiously violates our community guidelines, we will remove that channel from YPP. As always, if the account has been issued three community guidelines strikes, we will remove that user’s accounts and channels from YouTube.

Muret also described changes planned for the more exclusive Google Preferred program, which is supposed to be limited to the best and most popular content. Vlogger Logan Paul was part of Google Preferred until the controversy over his “suicide forest” video got him kicked out last week — a story that suggests some of the limitations to Google’s approach.

Moving forward, Muret said the program will offer “not only … the most popular content on YouTube, but also the most vetted.” That means everything in Google Preferred should be manually curated, with ads only running “on videos that have been verified to meet our ad-friendly guidelines.” (Looks like all those new content moderators will be busy.)

Lastly, Muret said YouTube will be introducing a new “three-tier suitability system” in the next few months, aimed at giving marketers more control over the tradeoff between running ads in safer environments versus reaching more viewers.

YouTube’s battery drain problem on iOS devices is now fixed


Google confirms it has now addressed an issue that caused the YouTube app to drain the battery excessively when running on iOS devices, even when the app was idle in the background. In some cases, users reported the device would even become heated as a result of the problem, but not everyone experienced this issue.

It’s unclear to what extent the issue affected the combined iOS and YouTube user base, as reports varied. One user said that watching a 15-minute clip degraded usage by over 10 percent, noted one report. Another said that battery life on the iPhone X dropped by 20 percent in over 30 minutes, according to a different report. Many others complained more generally about the problem on Twitter and Reddit.

But TechCrunch editor Matthew Panzarino, who reviewed the iPhone X here in-depth, watches a lot of YouTube and didn’t experience the issue himself.

To what extent users were affected is likely related to app version, however. We understand the problem impacted users on YouTube versions 12.42 and 12.43, specifically, regardless of which version of iOS they were running, or what iOS device they ran the YouTube app on. In other words, it wasn’t just a problem for those who had upgraded to the newest iOS 11 mobile operating system, as some reports had said, nor did it only affect those with Apple’s flagship iPhone, the iPhone X.

YouTube addressed users’ complaints on Twitter earlier this month, promising a fix was on the way.

That fix actually rolled out in version 12.44 of the app, which launched on November 14th, Google tells us. But the company didn’t confirm the fix publicly until the release notes in version 12.45, which arrived today. (That’s why it’s only now being reported.)

Given that video watching is one of the most popular activities on mobile devices, the issue was a notable problem for those who were affected.

Google would not say what caused the problem in the first place, only that it was now resolved.