SkyMul’s drones secure rebar on the fly to speed up construction

There are many jobs in the construction industry that fall under the “dull, dirty, and dangerous” category said to be ripe for automation — but only a few can actually be taken on with today’s technology. One such job is the crucial but repetitive task of rebar tying, which a startup called SkyMul is aiming to completely automate using fleets of drones.

Unless you’ve put together reinforced concrete at some point in your life, you may not know what rebar tying is. The steel rebar that provides strength to concrete floors, walls, and other structures is held in place during the pouring process by tying it to the other rebar where the rods cross. For a good-size building or bridge this can easily be thousands of ties — and the process is generally done manually.

Rodbusters (as rebar tying specialists are called, or so I’m told) are masters of the art of looping a short length of plastic or wire around an intersection between two pieces of rebar, then twisting and tying it tightly so that the rods are secured in multiple directions. It must be done precisely and efficiently, and so it is — but it’s backbreaking, repetitive work. Though any professional must feel pride in what they do, I doubt anyone cherishes the chronic pain they get from doing that task thousands of times in an hour. As you might expect, rodbusters have high injury rates and develop chronic issues.

Automation of rebar tying is tricky because it happens in so many different circumstances. A prominent semi-robotic solution is the TyBot, which is a sort of rail-mounted gantry that suspends itself over the surface — but while this makes sense for a bridge, it makes far less for the 20th floor of an office building.

Animated image of a drone floating over rebar and tying it together at intersections.

Image Credits: SkyMul

Enter SkyMul, a startup still in the very early stages but with a compelling pitch: rebar tying done by a fleet of drones. When you consider that the tying process doesn’t involve too much force, and that computer vision has gotten more than good enough to locate the spots that need work… it starts sounding kind of obvious.

CEO and co-founder Eohan George said that they evaluated a number of different robotic solutions but that drones are the only ones that make sense. The only legged robots with the dexterity to pick their way through the rebar are too expensive, and treads and wheels are too likely to move the unsecured rebar.

Diagram showing how SkyMul's drones map an area of rebar then divide it up for tying.

Image Credits: SkyMul

Here’s how the company’s SkyTy system works. First, a mapper drone flies over the site to mark the boundaries and then, in an automated closer flyover, to build a map of the rebar itself and where the ties will need to go. This map is then double-checked by the rodbuster technician running the show, which George said only takes about a minute per thousand square feet of rebar (though that adds up quickly).

Then the tying drones are released, as many as needed or wanted. Each one moves from spot to spot, hovering and descending until its tying tool (much like those used by human rodbusters) spans the rebar intersection; the tie is wrapped, twisted, and the drone is off to the next spot. They need their batteries swapped every 25 minutes, which means they generally have time to put down 70-80 ties; right now each drone does one tie every 20 seconds, which is in line with humans, who can do it faster but generally go at about that speed or slower, according to numbers George cited.

It’s difficult to estimate the cost savings and value of the work SkyTy does, because the value of the labor varies widely. In some places rodbusters are earning north of $80/hour, meaning the draw of automation is in cost savings. But in other markets the pay is less than a third of that, which compounded with the injury risk makes rodbusters a scarce quantity — so the value is in availability and reliability. Drone-based tying seems to offer value one way or the other, but that means the business model is somewhat in flux as SkyMul figures out what makes the most sense. Generally contractors at one level or another would lease and eventually own their own drones, though other methods are being looked into.

Animated image of a computer-generated grid overlaid on images of rebar.

Image Credits: SkyMul

The system offers value-add services as well, for instance the precise map of the rebar generated at the beginning, which can be archived and used later for maintenance, quality assurance, comparison with plans, and other purposes. Once a contractor is convinced it’s as good or better than the manually-produced ones currently used, this could save hours, turning a 3-day job into a 2-day job or otherwise simplifying logistics.

The plan at the company is to first offer SkyTy as an option for bridge construction, which is a simpler environment than a multi-story building for the drones. The market there is on the order of $30-40 million per year for rebar tying services, providing an easier path to the more complex deployments.

SkyMul is looking for funding, having spun out of Georgia Tech and going through Comcast-NBC accelerator The Farm and then being granted a National Science Foundation SBIR Phase I award (with hopes for a Phase II). They have demonstrated the system but have yet to enter into any pilot programs — there are partnerships in the works but the construction business isn’t a nimble one and a drone-based solution isn’t trivial to swap in for human rodbusters on short notice. But once a few projects are under its belt the company seems likely to find serious traction among forward-thinking contractors.

#artificial-intelligence, #automation, #construction, #drones, #gadgets, #hardware, #startups, #tc, #uavs

0

MIT’s insect-sized drones are built to survive collisions

Insects are a lot of things – but fragile they’re not. Sure, most can’t withstand the full force of a human foot, but for their size, they’re evolve to be extremely rugged and resilient. Insect-sized technology, on the other hand, is general another story.

That’s certainly been the historic case with scaled-down drones. The components, in particular, tend to become more fragile the more you shrunk them. In particular, motors both lose efficiency and weaken the smaller they get.

Earlier models from the MIT lab have relied on rigid ceramic-based materials. They did the job in terms of getting the robot airborne, but as the lab notes, “foraging bumblebees endure a collision about once every second.” In other words, if you’re going to build something this small, you need to ensure that it doesn’t break down the first time it comes into contact with something.

“The challenge of building small aerial robots is immense,” says MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen.

New drone models, which the lab describes as resembling, “a cassette tape with wings,” are built with soft actuators, made from carbon nanotube-coated rubber cylinders. The actuators elongate when electricity is applied at a rate up to 500 times a second. Doing this causes the wings to beat and the drones to take flight.

The drones are extremely light weight, as well, coming in at around 0.6 grams – basically as much as a big bumble bee. There are still limitations to these early models. Namely, the system currently requires them to be hardwired to deliver the necessary charge – as seen in the below gif. It can be a bit of a mess. Other modifications are being made, as well, including a more nature-inspired dragonfly shape being used for newer prototypes.

Image Credits: MIT

Should such the lab be able to to produce such a robot untethered with imaging capabilities and a decent sized battery, the potential applications are immense for the tiny drones. You’ve got everything from simple inspections currently being handled by larger models to pollination and search and rescue.

#drone, #hardware, #insects, #mit, #robotics

0

DJI launches an all-in-one FPV drone system

DJI has flirted with FPV goggles before, of course. The company got on the burgeoning FPV movement with the launch of its DJI Goggles back in 2016. It was a logical extension for the company that controls around 70% of the drone market, at last count, and a push toward a more mainstream experience for what has largely been the realm of hobbyists.

Today, it takes another important step toward conquering that market with the launch of DJI FPV. The simply named new drone model is aimed at offering a similar off-the-shelf solution for those looking to add a head-mounted display to their flying experience.

The DJI FPV occupies a strange space, both in the DJI ecosystem and the overall drone market. While FPV drones have largely been the realm of more advanced hobbyists and racers, the new model is aimed at beginning and intermediate drone users. In that, it essentially works out of the box. Though unlike racing models, this device isn’t particularly modular or customizable, so you can’t really tweak it for speed.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are beginner modes and a new optional motion controller to help ease the learning curve. The drone builds on several generations of DJI consumer hardware and software, both in terms of imaging and controller. There’s even a flight simulator baked in to the app, to help get you acquainted with flying the device virtually before accidently slamming the pricey hardware into a tree.

That’s the other thing that warrants mention up top: This is a $1,299 system. That price gets you the drone, the second-gen FPV goggles, a controller and a battery. The motion controller runs another $199 and additional batteries can be purchased with the Fly More bundle. Of course, drone pricing is a pretty wide spectrum, and racing models tend to be be fairly expensive. The price puts it between the $799 Mavic Air 2 and the $1,599 Mavic 2 Pro, which sports a Hasselblad camera. Given that the FPV goggles retail for $570 on their own, the asking price certainly isn’t outlandish.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Here’s how DJI’s European Creative Director describes the new system in a release:

Right out of the box, DJI FPV combines the best available technology for a hybrid drone like no other. It can fly like a racer, hover like a traditional drone, accelerate like a homebuilt project and stop faster than any of them. DJI FPV lets the world experience the absolute thrill of immersive drone flight without being intimidated by the technology or spending hours building a system from scratch.

That’s a pretty good assessment of the category here. It’s a way to dip one’s toes into this growing category, but backed with the peace of mind that comes with purchasing a more off-the-shelf solution from a company that knows how to build a good and fairly reliable drone (you’re not going to buy a product in this category that doesn’t give you some problems from time to time).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It’s not a racing drone, really, but it’s designed to offer a closer version of that experience than the company’s popular Mavic line. In fact, in one mode, it’s capable of speeds up to 87 MPH, with a 0-62 MPH acceleration in two seconds. Obviously, less experienced fliers are going to want to work up to that and familiarize themselves with the intricacies of the first-person view footage. When you flip over from Normal to Manual mode, you lose the hovering and obstacle sensors in the process, making it a lot easier to do some serious damage to the $1,300 drone.

The goggles themselves feature three different modes. Low-latency HD does 1440 x 810p at 60 fps or an increased field of view at 50 fps. Smooth mode increases the frame rate to up to 120 fps. Audience mode connects up to eight additional googles to the single view. The footage is shot with the on-board 4K/60fps 120 Mbps single-axis, image stabilized camera. Footage can be shot in up to 4x slow motion, as well.

The DJI FPV is available to purchase starting today.

#dji, #drones, #hardware

0

Orca wants to give boating navigation its ‘iPhone moment’

Boating is a hobby steeped in history and tradition — and so is the industry and those that support it. With worldwide connectivity, electric boats, and other technological changes dragging the sector out of old habits, Orca aims to replace the outdated interfaces by which people navigate with a hardware-software combo as slick as any other modern consumer tech.

If you’re a boater, and I know at least some of you are, you’re probably familiar with two different ways of chart-plotting, or tracking your location and route: the one attached to your boat and the one in your pocket.

The one on your boat is clunky and old-fashioned, like the GPS interface on a years-old budget sedan. The one in your pocket is better and faster — but the phone isn’t exactly seaworthy and the app drains your battery with a quickness.

Orca is a Norwegian startup from veterans of the boating and chart-plotters that leapfrogs existing products with a built-from-scratch modern interface.

“The industry hasn’t changed in the last 20 years — you have three players who own 80 percent of the business,” said co-founder and CEO Jorge Sevillano. “For them, it’s very hard to think of how software creates value. All these devices are built on a user interface that’s 10-15 years old; think about a Tomtom, lots of menus, lots of clicks. This business hasn’t had its iPhone moment, where it had to rethink its entire design. So we thought: let’s start with a blank slate and build a new experience.”

CTO and co-founder Kristian Fallro started working on something like this years ago, and his company was acquired by Navico, one of the big players Sevillano refers to. But they didn’t seem to want to move forward with the ideas, and so he and the others formed Orca to pursue them. Their first complete product opened up for pre-orders this week.

“The challenge up until now has been that you need a combination of hardware and software, so the barrier to entry was very, very high,” Fallro explained. “It’s a very protected industry — and it’s too small for Apple and Google and the big boys.”

But now with a combination of the right hardware and a totally rebuilt software stack, they think they can steal a march on the dominant companies and be ready for the inevitable new generation of boaters who can’t stand to use the old tech any more. Shuttling an SD card to and from the in-boat system and your computer to update charts? Inputting destinations via directional pad? Using a separate mobile app to check weather and tides that might bear on your route? Not exactly cutting edge.

The Orca system comprises a ruggedized industrial tablet sourced from Samsung, an off the shelf marine quality mounting arm, a custom-designed interface for quick attachment and charging, and a computing base unit that connects to the boat’s own sensors like sonar and GPS over the NMEA 2000 protocol. It’s all made to be as good or better than anything you’d find on a boat today.

So far, so similar to many solutions out there. But Orca has rebuilt everything from the ground up as a modern mobile app with all the conveniences and connections you’d expect. Routing is instantaneous and accurate, on maps that are clear and readable as those on Google and Apple Maps but clearly still of the nautical variety. Weather and tide reports are integrated, as is marine traffic. It all runs on Android or iOS, so you can also use your phone, send routes or places of interest to the main unit, and vice versa.

Several devices showing the Orca chart-plotting interface.

Image Credits: Orca

“We can build new services that chart plotters can’t even dream of including,” said Sevillano. “With the latest tide report and wind, or if there’s a commercial ship going in your way, we can update your range and route. We do updates every week with new features and bug fixes. We can iterate and adapt to user feedback faster than anyone else.”

These improvements to the most central system of the boat mean the company has ambitions for coming years beyond simply replacing the ageing gadgets at the helm.

Information collected from the boat itself is also used to update the maps in near real time — depending on what your craft is monitoring, it could be used for alerting others or authorities, for example if you encounter major waves or dangerous levels of chemicals, or detect an obstacle where none is recorded. “The Waze of the seas,” they suggested. “Our goal is to become the marine data company. The opportunities for boaters, industries related to the sea, and society are immense.”

Being flexible about the placement and features means they hope to integrate directly with boats, becoming the built-in OS for new models. That’s especially important for the up-and-coming category of electric boats, which sort of by definition buck the old traditions and tend to attract tech-savvy early adopters.

“We’re seeing people take what works on land taking it to sea. They all have the same challenge though, the biggest problem is range anxiety — and it’s even worse on the water,” said Fallro. “We’ve been talking to a lot of these manufacturers and we’re finding that building a boat is hard but building that navigation experience is even harder.”

Whether that’s entirely true probably depends on your boat-building expertise, but it’s certainly the case that figuring out an electric boat’s effective range is a devilishly difficult problem. Even after building a new boat from starting principles and advanced physical simulations to be efficient and predictable, such as Zin Boats did, the laws of physics and how watercraft work mean even the best estimate has to be completely revised every few seconds.

“Figuring out range at sea is very hard, and we think we’re one of the best out there. So we want to provide boat manufacturers a software stack with integrated navigation that helps them solve the range anxiety problem their users have,” said Fallro.

Indeed, it seems likely that prospective purchasers of such a craft would be more tempted to close the deal if they knew there was a modern and responsive OS that not only accurately tracked range but provided easy, real-time access to potential charge points and other resources. Sure, you could use your phone — and many do these days because the old chart plotters attached to their boats are so limited. But the point is that with Orca you won’t be tempted to.

The full device combo of computing core, mount, and tablet costs €1,449, with the core alone selling for €449, with a considerable discount for early bird pre-orders. (For people buying new boats, these numbers may as well be rounding errors.)

Fallro said Orca is operating with funding (of an unspecified amount) from Atomico and Nordic VC firm Skyfall Ventures, as well as angel investors including Kahoot co-founder Johan Brand. The company has its work cut out for it simply in fulfilling the orders it has collected (they are doing a brisk trade, Fallro intimated) before moving on to adding features and updating regularly as promised.

#gadgets, #hardware, #tc, #transportation

0

Orca wants to give boating navigation its ‘iPhone moment’

Boating is a hobby steeped in history and tradition — and so is the industry and those that support it. With worldwide connectivity, electric boats, and other technological changes dragging the sector out of old habits, Orca aims to replace the outdated interfaces by which people navigate with a hardware-software combo as slick as any other modern consumer tech.

If you’re a boater, and I know at least some of you are, you’re probably familiar with two different ways of chart-plotting, or tracking your location and route: the one attached to your boat and the one in your pocket.

The one on your boat is clunky and old-fashioned, like the GPS interface on a years-old budget sedan. The one in your pocket is better and faster — but the phone isn’t exactly seaworthy and the app drains your battery with a quickness.

Orca is a Norwegian startup from veterans of the boating and chart-plotters that leapfrogs existing products with a built-from-scratch modern interface.

“The industry hasn’t changed in the last 20 years — you have three players who own 80 percent of the business,” said co-founder and CEO Jorge Sevillano. “For them, it’s very hard to think of how software creates value. All these devices are built on a user interface that’s 10-15 years old; think about a Tomtom, lots of menus, lots of clicks. This business hasn’t had its iPhone moment, where it had to rethink its entire design. So we thought: let’s start with a blank slate and build a new experience.”

CTO and co-founder Kristian Fallro started working on something like this years ago, and his company was acquired by Navico, one of the big players Sevillano refers to. But they didn’t seem to want to move forward with the ideas, and so he and the others formed Orca to pursue them. Their first complete product opened up for pre-orders this week.

“The challenge up until now has been that you need a combination of hardware and software, so the barrier to entry was very, very high,” Fallro explained. “It’s a very protected industry — and it’s too small for Apple and Google and the big boys.”

But now with a combination of the right hardware and a totally rebuilt software stack, they think they can steal a march on the dominant companies and be ready for the inevitable new generation of boaters who can’t stand to use the old tech any more. Shuttling an SD card to and from the in-boat system and your computer to update charts? Inputting destinations via directional pad? Using a separate mobile app to check weather and tides that might bear on your route? Not exactly cutting edge.

The Orca system comprises a ruggedized industrial tablet sourced from Samsung, an off the shelf marine quality mounting arm, a custom-designed interface for quick attachment and charging, and a computing base unit that connects to the boat’s own sensors like sonar and GPS over the NMEA 2000 protocol. It’s all made to be as good or better than anything you’d find on a boat today.

So far, so similar to many solutions out there. But Orca has rebuilt everything from the ground up as a modern mobile app with all the conveniences and connections you’d expect. Routing is instantaneous and accurate, on maps that are clear and readable as those on Google and Apple Maps but clearly still of the nautical variety. Weather and tide reports are integrated, as is marine traffic. It all runs on Android or iOS, so you can also use your phone, send routes or places of interest to the main unit, and vice versa.

Several devices showing the Orca chart-plotting interface.

Image Credits: Orca

“We can build new services that chart plotters can’t even dream of including,” said Sevillano. “With the latest tide report and wind, or if there’s a commercial ship going in your way, we can update your range and route. We do updates every week with new features and bug fixes. We can iterate and adapt to user feedback faster than anyone else.”

These improvements to the most central system of the boat mean the company has ambitions for coming years beyond simply replacing the ageing gadgets at the helm.

Information collected from the boat itself is also used to update the maps in near real time — depending on what your craft is monitoring, it could be used for alerting others or authorities, for example if you encounter major waves or dangerous levels of chemicals, or detect an obstacle where none is recorded. “The Waze of the seas,” they suggested. “Our goal is to become the marine data company. The opportunities for boaters, industries related to the sea, and society are immense.”

Being flexible about the placement and features means they hope to integrate directly with boats, becoming the built-in OS for new models. That’s especially important for the up-and-coming category of electric boats, which sort of by definition buck the old traditions and tend to attract tech-savvy early adopters.

“We’re seeing people take what works on land taking it to sea. They all have the same challenge though, the biggest problem is range anxiety — and it’s even worse on the water,” said Fallro. “We’ve been talking to a lot of these manufacturers and we’re finding that building a boat is hard but building that navigation experience is even harder.”

Whether that’s entirely true probably depends on your boat-building expertise, but it’s certainly the case that figuring out an electric boat’s effective range is a devilishly difficult problem. Even after building a new boat from starting principles and advanced physical simulations to be efficient and predictable, such as Zin Boats did, the laws of physics and how watercraft work mean even the best estimate has to be completely revised every few seconds.

“Figuring out range at sea is very hard, and we think we’re one of the best out there. So we want to provide boat manufacturers a software stack with integrated navigation that helps them solve the range anxiety problem their users have,” said Fallro.

Indeed, it seems likely that prospective purchasers of such a craft would be more tempted to close the deal if they knew there was a modern and responsive OS that not only accurately tracked range but provided easy, real-time access to potential charge points and other resources. Sure, you could use your phone — and many do these days because the old chart plotters attached to their boats are so limited. But the point is that with Orca you won’t be tempted to.

The full device combo of computing core, mount, and tablet costs €1,449, with the core alone selling for €449, with a considerable discount for early bird pre-orders. (For people buying new boats, these numbers may as well be rounding errors.)

Fallro said Orca is operating with funding (of an unspecified amount) from Atomico and Nordic VC firm Skyfall Ventures, as well as angel investors including Kahoot co-founder Johan Brand. The company has its work cut out for it simply in fulfilling the orders it has collected (they are doing a brisk trade, Fallro intimated) before moving on to adding features and updating regularly as promised.

#gadgets, #hardware, #tc, #transportation

0

Xiaomi further localizes India supply chain via BYD, DBG partnerships

China’s Xiaomi had dominated the Indian smartphone market for three consecutive years until recently losing the top spot to Samsung. It has played by the Indian government’s rulebook to support domestic manufacturing, making smartphones in India rather than shipping them from its home country of China. Now it is further ramping up production in India by adding two new supply chain partners, BYD and DBG, the company said in an announcement on Thursday.

The move comes at a time when the Indian government is applying more pressure on Chinese tech companies. Along with TikTok, dozens of other popular Chinese apps were banned in India last June over national security concerns.

So far the hardware companies have remained largely unaffected, but worsening India-China relations won’t likely bode well for Chinese companies that are wooing Indian consumers. Xiaomi and its Chinese competitors Vivo, Oppo and Oppo-affiliated Realme together commanded as much as 64% of the Indian market in the third quarter of 2020.

This is probably the time for Chinese firms to demonstrate to the Indian government how they could make contributions to the local economy. Under the new production partnerships, Xiaomi will be able to significantly ratchet up its output in India, the company said.

The tie-up with BYD and DBG also reflects a growing trend of Chinese manufacturers setting up overseas plants to cope with rising labor costs back home and increasingly hostile trade policies against China. BYD is China’s largest electric carmaker with a long history of making electronics parts, while DBG has been a major supplier to Chinese telecom firms including Huawei. DBG has set up a production plant in Haryana and has increased Xiaomi’s local production by about 20%. BYD’s facility in Tamil Nadu is scheduled to begin operation by H1 this year.

Prior to its deals with BYD and DBG, Xiaomi was already making 99% of its smartphones in India through Apple’s long-time contract manufacturers, the Taiwanese giant Foxconn and California-based Flex.

Xiaomi also stressed that it sources locally, buying mother-boards, batteries, chargers and other components from domestic suppliers like Sunny India and NVT, which together account for over 75% of the value of its smartphones.

Separately, Xiaomi’s India business has onboarded a new partner, Ohio-based Radiant Technology, to make its smart TVs, which have been a bestseller in India. Local electronics company Dixon currently makes its smart TVs.

Xiaomi’s localization effort has led to a 60,000-strong team in India, six years after it first landed in the country, including staff in production, sales, and logistics. The company prides itself on boosting local employment. As Manu Kumar Jain, managing director for Xiaomi India, pointed out in toay’s announcement, the company added 10,000 employees in India last year. “When organizations were downsizing their workforce, we were focused on putting together the building blocks for our growth in the India market – our employees.”

#asia, #gadgets, #hardware

0

Connected pet collar company Fi raises a $30M Series B

Pet tech company Fi today announced that it has raised a $30 million Series B. The round, led by Chuck Murphy of Longview Asset Management, follows a $7 million Series A raised back in 2019. The round values the startup at north of $200 million.

The New York-based startup specializes in connected dog collars, releasing its Series 2 device late last year. The second-gen version of the product brings some key hardware improvements to the pet tracking device, including battery optimization that gives up to three months of life on a charge (with an average of around 1.5, according to the company).

The device relies on Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, sending users a notification when a dog has traveled outside an AI-determined geofenced area.

The company has experienced solid growth since launching in March 2019, and says demand for its product continued to grow in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s still a fairly small operation, but Fi is working on growing its availability in the U.S. The product was made available on the mega-pet online retailer Chewy in Q4 of last year.

“There’s such a huge market in the U.S. that we’re just scratching the surface,” founder and CEO Jonathan Bensamoun tells TechCrunch. “We want to stay focused here. And really make this a household product. The number one limitation to growth is that people just don’t know we exist or that the category exists.”

The company says discussions with large brick and mortar pet retailers are currently “up in the air.” In addition to research, the funding round will go toward marketing and exploring additional retail partnerships to help grow the product’s footprint.

“We’ve been tracking Jonathan and the team at Fi for over a year now and have been incredibly impressed with their execution and rapid growth rate,” AVP partner Courtney Robinson says in a statement offered to TechCrunch. They have established themselves as the clear leader in the emerging category of connected collars, with a device that blows away the competition in terms of design, battery life, and accuracy.”

#fi, #funding, #hardware, #longview-asset-management, #pet, #pets, #recent-funding, #startups, #tracking

0

Daily Crunch: We review the Amazon Echo Show 10

We check out Amazon’s new smart home device, Airbnb adds flexible search and Hopin is raising even more money. This is your Daily Crunch for February 24, 2021.

The big story: We review the Amazon Echo Show 10

Brian Heater spent some time with Amazon’s new smart home device, paying particular attention to the screen that rotates based on the user’s location. He reports that the screen works smoothly and silently, but also feels “unnecessary,” and in some cases “downright unnerving” (especially from a privacy perspective).

Ultimately, Brian concludes that the $249 device is “a well-constructed, nice addition to the Show family and one I don’t mind moving around the old-fashioned way.”

The tech giants

Airbnb plans for a new kind of travel post-COVID with flexible search — The feature will allow users to forgo putting in exact dates when they look to book lodging on the platform.

YouTube to launch parental control features for families with tweens and teens — YouTube announced a new experience for teens and tweens who are now too old for the schoolager-focused YouTube Kids app, but who may not be ready to explore all of YouTube.

Google Cloud puts its Kubernetes Engine on autopilot — This new mode turns over the management of much of the day-to-day operations of a container cluster to Google’s own engineers and automated tools.

Startups, funding and venture capital

VCs are chasing Hopin upwards of $5-6B valuation — According to multiple sources who spoke with TechCrunch, the company may be nearing the end of a fundraise in which it’s seeking to raise roughly $400 million.

Primary Venture Partners raises $150M third fund to back NYC startups — The firm’s portfolio includes Jet.com (acquired by Walmart for $3.3 billion), Mirror (acquired by Lululemon for $500 million) and Latch (which is planning to go public via SPAC).

Joby Aviation takes flight into the public markets via a SPAC merger — Joby has spent more than a decade developing an all-electric, vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Four essential truths about venture investing — Observations from Alex Iskold of 2048 Ventures.

Dear Sophie: Which immigration options are the fastest? — The latest edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

Can solid state batteries power up for the next generation of EVs? — For the last decade, developers of solid state battery systems have promised products that are vastly safer, lighter and more powerful.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Europe kicks off bid to find a route to ‘better’ gig work — The European Union has kicked off the first stage of a consultation process involving gig platforms and workers.

The Equity podcast is growing — More Equity!

Techstars’ Neal Sáles-Griffin will join us at TechCrunch Early Stage 2021 to talk accelerators — Neal has seen this industry from just about every angle — as a teacher, advisor, investor and repeat co-founder.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#amazon, #daily-crunch, #hardware

0

Metal 3D printing company Markforged announces plans to go public via SPAC

Big morning for Massachusetts tech companies planning to go public via SPAC. Shortly after Berkshire Grey unveiled its intentions, Watertown-based Markforged has announced its own plans. The metal 3D printing company intends to merge with ONE, a special purpose acquisition company created by Kevin Hartz, who will join its board.

The deal, which could value the additive manufacturing company at around $2.1 billion, would bring in around $400 million in cash. Markforged plans to use the money on R&D for new products, materials and building out new verticals for its tech. Shai Terem will stay on as CEO.

“We’ve been at the forefront of the additive manufacturing industry,” the executive said in a release tied to the news, “and this transaction will enable us to build on our incredible momentum and provide capital and flexibility to grow our brand, accelerate product innovation, and drive expanded adoption among customers across key verticals.”

The company says its technology has been used to print north of 10 million parts since its 2013 founding, with its machines deployed in some 10,000 locations across 70 countries. Last year, it pulled in around $70 million in revenue. It has raised north of $136 million thus far, including an $82 million round back in 2019.

3D printing seen some strong growth in recent years, and that’s expected to continue as companies look to the technology to expand beyond the rapid prototyping it’s best known for. Metal printing from the likes of Markforged and competitors including Desktop Metal are seen as an important step, offering far more durability than plastic deposits.

SPACs are, of course, becoming an increasingly popular route for taking companies public. Hardware makers haven’t been a huge player thus far (with a few exceptions like smart lock mater, Latch), though that looks like it may be changing. The deal is expected to close over the summer.

#3d-printer, #3d-printing, #hardware, #markforged, #metal

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Metal 3D printing startup Mantle launches out of stealth with $13M in funding

Additive manufacturing has been a popular buzz phrase for decades now. With a smattering of notable exceptions, however, 3D printing has largely been focused on rapid prototyping and limited-run, personal products. Metal 3D printing companies like Mantle represent an intriguing use case on the road to truly scaling the tech to mass manufacturing.

Arriving out of stealth today, the Bay Area-based company is not focused on replacing traditional manufacturing methods, as much as augmenting and improving them. Specifically, the startup is focusing its technology in helping creating better molds and dies for manufacturers.

There are, of course, a number of companies currently competing in the printable metal category. Notable names include Desktop Metal, ExOne and Markforged. Armed with $13 million in funding from Foundation Capital, Hypertherm Ventures, Future Shape, 11.2 capital, Plug and Play Ventures and Corazon Capital, Mantle seeks to differentiate itself with a machine capable of removing some steps from the process.

“The main difference, having interacted with 3D printing for close to three decades, is really around the focus on these use cases that are production oriented,” Foundational Capital General Partner Steve Vassallo tells TechCrunch. “The vast majority of 3D printing is to make a prototype as quickly as possible. To actually make something that can be used in production environments — real parts that you can use — has never been done before.”

Built on the familiar binder jetting, the company’s machine (roughly “The size of two standing desks” its says) builds part finishing into the process.

“Ours is the first sintering-based hybrid technology that does shape refinement prior to going into the furnace,” CEO Ted Sorom tells TechCrunch. “We do it with a unique material that’s designed not only to be deposited into a very dense body but to also be cut with high-speed cutting tools. That allows us to get a totally different level of surface detail than anyone’s able to get today.”

The company has thus far announced L’Oréal as its first partner. The cosmetics giant will be using Mantle’s printers to create precision molds for products and packaging.

Tony Fadell, of Future Shape Mantle, added in a comment offered to TechCunch, “Mantle gives you the superpowers to make Apple-quality mechanical parts in days not months and lowers your cost by orders of magnitude. That speed and affordability lets you iterate to get your parts to perfection and still lets you launch much earlier.”

#11-2-capital, #3d-printing, #corazon-capital, #foundation-capital, #funding, #future-shape, #hardware, #hypertherm-ventures, #mantle, #metal-printing, #plug-and-play-ventures, #recent-funding, #startups

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Amazon Echo Show 10 review: Unmoved

Every new smart home device invites new questions. Questions of privacy, security and what we’re willing to give up for the sake of convenience. It’s not an anti-technology stance to welcome these conversations and assess new products as we invite them into our homes.

For my part, my apartment is fairly limited when it comes to smart home tech. I own two large smart speakers and a third smaller one, mostly for the convenience of networking streaming music across different rooms. My smoke detector is connected, for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that my home wasn’t on fire back when I used to leave it for extended stretches. Oh, and a couple of connected lightbulbs, mostly because why not?

Back when Google announced its first-party smart screen, the Home (now Nest) Hub, I thought it was a savvy decision to leave the camera off. Of course, the company included one on its larger Max device, so the option is there, if you want it. Of course, for most of these products, video cameras are a given — and understandably so, with smart screens like the new Echo Show 10 edging into the teleconferencing space as the line between work and home has become far more fuzzy for many.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon’s gotten the message here, with the addition of a large physical shutter button on the top of the device. When slid to the right, the camera on the top right is covered by a white lens cap, contrasted against the black bezel, so it’s easy to spot across the room. Doing so will pop up a notification: “Camera off. Disabling motion.”

The “motion” here refers to the rotating screen — the headline feature of Amazon’s latest take on the Echo Show format. The company is positioning the new tech as a game changer for the category, and while I will say it’s done a good job implementing the feature in a way that works well and quietly, it’s precisely this new addition that reignites the privacy question.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The notion of creating a home device that fades into its surroundings is really out the window with that feature. The Echo uses figure tracking to make sure the display is facing you at all times when using it, drawing attention to itself in the process. One can inherently know and passively understand that a device is using imaging and AI for tracking, but largely effectively ignore it. After all, we’ve got cameras on pretty much everything now. These things are a part of the social media and services we regularly use. When the device physically follows you around the room, however, this stuff is top of mind.

Having used the product for several days, I would say the feature feels unnecessary in most cases — and downright unnerving in some. I’ve placed the Show on my desk next to the computer where I’m typing this, and I’ve mostly disabled the feature. It’s probably something I could get used to over time, but with the relatively limited amount I’m going to spend with it, I prefer to use the product in a stationary manner, manually swiveling the display and flipping the screen angle up and down as needed. I adjust screens all of the time. It’s fine.

Amazon will walk you through the feature during setup, including which direction you want the screen facing as a default and how much rotation it offers on either side. Keep in mind, the system really has no notion of what constitutes “straight ahead, until you adjust the setting sliders accordingly. You can adjust these later in settings, as well. There’s also a “Motion Preferences” option. Here you can limit the applications it will use to follow you, require voice to use the feature or disable it entirely.

Of course, I’m also someone who prefers to keep the camera shutter on while not in use, so that works out just fine. You can’t shutter the camera and have the device continue to move, since it needs to know what it’s seeing to move along with it. I will say that the moving screen has the unexpectedly nice side effect of reminding me when I’ve forgotten to disable the camera.

Amazon’s understandably — and thankfully — been talking up the privacy aspects since the Echo Show 10 was announced. There are eight mentions of “privacy” on the product page, but here’s the key graf:

Built with multiple layers of privacy controls, including a mic/camera off button and a built-in shutter to cover the camera. Easily turn on/off motion at any time by voice, on-device, or in the Alexa app. The processing that powers screen motion happens on device – no images or videos are sent to the cloud to provide the motion feature.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Notably, the tracking feature uses a vague outline of a person, rather than any sort of facial tracking. The image it processes looks more like a blotchy heat map than anything recognizable as an individual or even, generally, a human (though it’s able to distinguish human figures from pets). That, in particular, has been a hot button topic for the company.

The rotating feature is primarily a way to reduce user friction. Amazon notes that existing Echo Show owners will swivel their devices around when they’re, say, using it in the kitchen to cook. The front-firing audio also moves as the screen does. That’s in keeping with the company’s move away from 360-degree audio in recent Echo models. This is either a plus or a minus, depending on how you use the device, and how many people are around. It can also be used to follow you as you move around while video calling (a feature the competition has offered through zooming and cropping).

Amazon’s taken pains in recent generations to improve the audio on these device, prioritizing the “speaker” part of smart speaker, and the new Show certainly benefits from that. I wouldn’t use it as my primary sound system, but sitting here on my desk, it delivers a nice, full sound for its size, even with the screen obscuring a big portion of the front.

The 10.1-inch screen is a nice size, as well. Again, I wouldn’t use it to replace a TV or even a good laptop, but it’s good size for quick videos. It’s a shame Amazon and Google haven’t been able to play nice here, because YouTube has the market cornered on short-form videos that are perfect for this form factor. (If you’re so inclined, you can still access YouTube via the built-in browser, though it’s not exactly an elegant solution.)

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Amazon Prime Video certainly has its share of good long-form content and series (it has a ton of trash, as well, but sometimes that’s fun, too), but Amazon’s best play is partnering with third-parties to bolster its offerings. And that’s another spot where Amazon has been improving the Echo experience. Netflix and Hulu are now available on the device for video, and Apple Music and Spotify have been added on the music side.

There are still a number of third-party apps that would be nice additions, but that’s a pretty solid starting point. Not to mention that services like Spotify can be set as the default for music playback. That’s one of those additions that genuinely reduces friction (and honestly, Amazon Music is a far less compelling service than Prime Video at the moment).

Zoom — arguably the most compelling addition from a software standpoint — is coming later. For now, calls are limited to other Alexa devices. Zoom and other third-party teleconference software has the opportunity to create an entire new dimension for these products, especially with the aforementioned blurring of home and work life.

Honestly, where the Show is currently sitting on my desk is really the perfect placement to use it for calls while working on my computer. I’m cautiously optimistic about the implementation. At the very least, it would give me a compelling reason to get more use out of that 13-megapixel camera on a regular basis.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

For the time being, I think the most compelling case to be made for both the camera and automatic screen swiveling is as a makeshift security camera. This is another “Coming Soon” feature that requires a Guard Plus subscription. With it, you can set a geofence, with the Show doubling as a smart security camera when you leave home. The system will send an alert if a person is detected in your home while you’re out.

This month has seen rumors that Amazon is working on a wall-mounted smart home hub. The form factor certainly makes sense, essentially serving as an Alexa-enabled touchscreen control for your various connected devices. For the time being, between Show and the Alexa mobile app, I think the bases are covered pretty well — though such a device could certainly lend a more premium experience to the space.

A well-placed Show will address that need for many. Certainly it does the job for my one-bedroom apartment. You can use voice or touch to control lighting, and the screen can monitor feeds from security cameras, including, naturally, Amazon-owned Ring. Additions like these have really made the smart screen category a much more compelling and capable one.

At $249, it’s $20 pricier than the 2018 Show. It’s hard to say how much of the increase is due to the new mechanical turning mechanism, but Amazon offered up a cheaper model without the functionality that’s almost certainly the one I would go for, for reasons outlined above. Again, not everyone will have the same misgivings.

And all told, it’s a well-constructed, nice addition to the Show family and one I don’t mind moving around the old-fashioned way.

#alexa, #amazon, #echo, #echo-show, #hardware, #reviews, #smart-display

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Rode’s Wireless Go II delivers key upgrades to the best mobile mic for creators

Rode Microphones has a new and improved version of its much-loved Go portable mic, the Wireless Go II, which uses the same form factor as the original but adds a list of new and improved features. Most notably, the Go II offers two transmitter packs that can simultaneously talk to a single receiver, letting you record two individual speakers to the same camera or connected device.

Basics

The Rode Wireless Go II ($299) ships with everything you need to begin recording high-quality audio to a camera or anything else that can connect to a 3.5mm jack. The transmitter packs – there are two of them in the box – have built-in microphones that offer great sound on their own, or you can use them with any 3.5mm-equipped lavalier mic depending on your needs.

The receiver pack can output to 3.5mm TRS, but it can also transmit using USB Type-C (which is also for charging). This is new for this generation, and Rode also sells USB-C to USB-C and USB-C to Lightning cables so that you can use them with modern Android devices, iPhones, iPads, Macs and PCs.

Image Credits: Rode

Each of the three packs has a built-in rechargeable battery that can provide up to 7 hours of operating time on a single charge. You can independently adjust the gain on each of the transmitters, and mute each individually or both from the receiver pack. You can also swap between mono recording with each transmitter as a channel, and stereo recording modes.

The transmitters can operate at a range of 200 meters (roughly 650 feet) from the receiver, provided they have line-of-sight, and the receiver has a display to show you input levels, battery status, connectivity and more. The transmitters each have two LEDs that provide visual feedback for connectivity and gain. Each also automatically records locally, with the ability to store more than 24 hours of audio on built-in storage in case of dropouts in connectivity.

Design and performance

With this update, it really feels like Rode has thought of everything. You can get started immediately, for one, since the transmitter packs and receiver come pre-paired and assigned to left and right channels by default. They’re incredibly user-friendly, and while Rode has introduced a new Windows and Mac app for centralized control of them called Rode Central, you don’t actually need any additional software to get started recording with them.

This updated version also uses a new RF transmission tech that has 128-bit encryption built in, with a much farther line-of-site range for their use. This is designed to make them much more reliable in areas where there’s a lot of RF traffic happening already – like a busy shopping mall (once COVID times are behind us), conference halls, or other public areas with lots of people and smartphones around.

The onboard memory is also new, and means you’ll never have to worry about any potential dropped connections since you’ll always have a local file to rely on on the transmitter packs themselves. A similar peace-of-mind feature is a safety channel that records a back-up track at -20db, so that if you encounter any overloud sounds that cause peaking in your primary recording, you’ll have another option. Both of these features have to be turned on proactively in the Rode Central app, which Rode will also use to deliver future firmware updates for the Go II, but they’re very welcome additions.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Meanwhile, the best new feature might be that you get all these improvements in the same great package. Rode’s original Go was remarkable in large part because it came in such a small, portable package, with transmitters that featured built-in mics as well as being great body packs. The size here is exactly the same, and these use the same integrated clips that make them compatible with all of Rode’s existing Go accessories.

Bottom line

There’s a concept of ‘lapping’ in racing, where you’re so far ahead of a competitor that you overtake them again. That’s basically what Rode has done with the Go II, which pads the lead for the best mobile video/field podcasting mic on the market, with smart features that address the few downsides of the original.

#android, #darrell-etherington, #gadgets, #hardware, #ipads, #microphone, #microphones, #reviews, #rode-microphones, #smartphones, #tc, #technology, #telecommunications, #transmitter, #usb, #wireless

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MSCHF mounted a remote-control paintball gun to Spot

I’ve piloted Spot a number of ways in a number of different settings. I had the chance to control the robot for the first time at one of our Robotics events a number of years back, and drove one around an obstacle course at Boston Dynamics’ headquarters. More recently, I navigated it via web browser as a test of the robot’s new remote interface.

But a recent test drive was different. For one thing, it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Boston Dynamics. Of course, the highly sophisticated quadrupedal robot has been out in the world for a while, and a few enterprising souls have begun to offer a remote Spot walking experience through the streets of San Francisco.

The latest project form MSCHF isn’t that. That should come as no surprise, of course. The Brooklyn-based company is never that straightforward. It’s the same organization that gave us the “pirate radio” streaming service All The Streams.FM and that wild Amazon Echo ultrasonic jammer. More than anything, their events are comments — on privacy, on consumerism or this case, a kind of dystopian foreshadowing of what robotics might become.

Like the rest of the world, the company was fascinated when Boston Dynamics put Spot up for sale — but unlike most of us, MSCHF actually managed to cobble together $75,000 to buy one.

And then it mounted a paintball gun to its back.

Image Credits: MSCHF

Starting Wednesday, users will be able to pilot a Spot unit through MSCHF’s site, and fire off a paintball gun in a closed setting. The company calls it “Spot’s Rampage.”

“The stream will start Wednesday at 1 PM EST,” MSCHF’s Daniel Greenberg told TechCrunch. “We will have a four-camera livestream going and as long as you’re on the site on your phone, you will have an equal chance of being able to control Spot, and every two minutes the driver will change. It should go for a few hours.”

Ahead of the launch of Spot’s web portal, the company built an API to remotely control both Spot’s SDK and the paintball gun mounted to the robot’s back. It’s a setup Boston Dynamics isn’t particularly thrilled with. Understandably so. For a company that has long been dealing with the blowback of cautionary science fiction like Black Mirror, the optics of a third-party mounting a gun — even one that shoots paint — are less than ideal.

Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch that it was interested in working with the company early on.

“They came to us with the idea that they were going to do a creative project with Spot,” a rep told TechCrunch. “They’re a creative group of guys, who have done a bunch of creative things. In our conversations, we said that if you want to cooperate with us, we want to make it clear that the robots will not be used in any way that hurts people.”

Boston Dynamics balked when paintball gun entered the conversation. On Friday, it issued the following statement through Twitter:

Today we learned that an art group is planning a spectacle to draw attention to a provocative use of our industrial robot, Spot. To be clear, we condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation. Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.

In addition, all buyers must agree to our Terms and Conditions of Sale, which state that our products must be used in compliance with the law, and cannot be used to harm or intimidate people or animals. Any violation of our Terms of Sale will automatically void the product’s warranty and prevent the robot from being updated, serviced, repaired or replaced. Provocative art can help push useful dialogue about the role of technology in our daily lives. This art, however, fundamentally misrepresents Spot and how it is being used to benefit our daily lives.

The statement is in line with the language in Spot’s contract, which prohibits using the robot to do anything illegal, or to intimidate or harm people. The company says it does additional “due diligence” with potential customers, including background checks.

Image Credits: MSCHF

The application is something of a gray area where Boston Dynamics is concerned. MSCHF approached the robotics company with its idea and Boston Dynamics balked, believing it wasn’t in-line with the stated mission for the quadrupedal robots. The official Spot’s Rampage site notes:

We talked with Boston Dynamics and they HATED [emphasis theirs] this idea. They said they would give us another TWO Spots for FREE if we took the gun off. That just made us want to do this even more and if our Spot stops working just know they have a backdoor override built into each and every one of these little robots.

Boston Dynamics says the company’s “understanding of the interaction” is “inaccurate.”

“We get approached by marketing opportunities all the time to create a really fantastic and compelling experience,” the company adds. “Selling one robot is not that interesting. Creating an amazing interactive experience is really compelling for us. One of the things they pitched to us was an interactive idea. It’s an expensive robot and they wanted to create an interactive experience where anybody can control the robot. We thought that was super cool and compelling.”

Boston Dynamics says it pitched the idea of using Spot’s robot arm to paint the physical space with a brush, rather than using the paintball gun. The company also offered to send technicians to the site to help maintain the robot during the stream, along with a few models as back up.

MSCHF’s inclusion of the paintball gun is, ultimately, about more than simply painting the canvas. The image of the robot with a gun — even one that only shoots paint — is menacing. And that’s kind of the point.

“It’s easy to look at these robots dance and cavort and see them as cute semi-sentient little friends,” says Greenberg. “They’re endearing when they mess up and fall over. We’ve adopted the trappings of that scenario by creating a ‘bull-in-a-china-shop’ scenario. Still, it’s worth remembering the big versions of Spot [Big Dog] were explicitly military mules, and that their public deployments tend to be by city agencies and law enforcement. At the end of the day, Spot is a terrestrial UAV – when you get to drive this robot and experience the thrill of pulling the trigger your adrenaline spikes — but, we hope, a few minutes later you feel a distinct chill. Anyone in their right mind knows these little cuties will kill people sooner or later.”

While early Boston Dynamics robots were, indeed, funded by DARPA for use as transport vehicles, the company is quick to distance itself from even the remotest hint of ominous imagery. Boston Dynamics came under fire from the ACLU after showcasing footage of a Spot being used in Massachusetts State police drills onstage at a TechCrunch robotics event.

Image Credits: MSCHF

The company told TechCrunch at the time:

Right now we’re at a scale where we can pick and choose the partners we engage with and make sure that they have a similar deployment and a vision for how robots are used. For example, not using robots in a way that would physically harm or intimidate people. But also have a realistic expectation for what a robot can and cannot do.

As MSCHF prepares to launch its event, the company is echoing those sentiments.

“I turned down a customer that wanted to use Spot for a haunted house,” Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch. “Even putting it in that context of using our technology to scare people was not within our terms of use and not how we imagined the product being beneficial for people, and so we declined that initial sale. Had this concept been brought to us while we were in the initial sales discussions, we probably would have said, ‘there’s Arduino quadruped that you could easily put this activation together. Go do that. This isn’t representative of how we view our technology being used.’ ”

Image Credits: MSCHF

But the question of whether the company can put the toothpaste back in the tube remains. In cases of violations of the Terms of Service, the company can opt not to renew the license, which effectively deactivates it the next time a firmware update is due. Other cases could essentially void the warranty, meaning the company won’t service it.

A paintball gun being fired in a closed space likely doesn’t fall under harm, intimidation or illegal activity, however. So it’s not entirely clear whether Boston Dynamics has a direct course of action in this case.

“This is something we’re evaluating now, around this particular use case,” Boston Dynamics says. “We do have other terms of service in there, regarding modification of the robot in a way that makes it unsafe. We’re trying to understand what the implications are.”

Boston Dynamics (whose sale to Hyundai is expected to close in June) has devoted a good deal of time to showcasing the various tasks the robot can perform, from routine inspections at hazard sites to the complex dance moves it’s performed in a recent viral video. MSCHF’s primary — and, really, only — use is an interactive art piece.

“To be honest, we don’t have any further plans [for the robot],” says Greenberg. “I know we won’t do another drop with it as we do not do repeats so we will just have to get really creative. Maybe a waking cup holder.”

#boston-dynamics, #hardware, #mschf, #robotics, #spot

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Toronto’s UHN launches a study to see if Apple Watch can spot worsening heart failure

A new study underway at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN), a group of working research hospitals in the city, could shift our approach to treatment in an area of growing concern in human health. The study, led by Dr. Heather Ross, will investigate whether the Apple Watch can provide early warnings about potentially worsening health for patients following incidents of heart failure.

The study, which is aiming to eventually span around 200 patients, and which already has a number of participants enrolled spanning ages from 25 to 90, and various demographics, will use the Apple Watch Series 6 and its onboard sensors to monitor signals including heart rate, blood oxygen, general activity levels, overall performance during a six minute walk test and more. Researchers led by Ross will compare this data to measurements taken from the more formal clinical tests currently used by physicians to monitor the recovery of heart failure patients during routine, periodic check-ups.

The hope is that Ross and her team will be able to identify correlations between signs they’re seeing from the Apple Watch data, and the information gathered from the proven medical diagnostic and monitoring equipment. If they can verify that the Apple Watch accurately reflects what’s happening with a heart failure patient’s health, it has tremendous potential for treatment and care.

“In the US, there are about six-and-a-half million adults with heart failure,” Ross told me in an interview. “About one in five people in North America over the age of 40 will develop heart failure. And the average life expectancy [following heart failure] is still measured at around 2.1 years, at a tremendous impact to quality of life.”

The stats point to heart failure as a “growing epidemic,” says Ross, at a cost of some “$30 billion a year at present in the U.S.” to the healthcare system. A significant portion of that cost can come from the care required when conditions worsen due to preventable causes – ones that can be avoided by changes in patient behavior, if only implemented at the right time. Ross told me that currently, the paradigm of care for heat failure patients is “episodic” – meaning it happens in three- or six-month intervals, when patients go into a physician’s office or clinic for a bevy of tests using expensive equipment that must be monitored by a trained professional, like a nurse practitioner.

“If you think about the paradigm to a certain degree, we’ve kind of got it backwards,” Ross said. “So in our thinking, the idea really is how do we provide a continuous style monitoring of patients in a relatively unobtrusive way that will allow us to detect a change in a patient status before they end up actually coming into hospital. So this is where the opportunity with Apple is tremendous.”

Ross said that current estimates suggest nearly 50% of hospitalizations could be avoided altogether through steps taken by patients including better self-care, like adhering to prescribed medicinal regimens, accurate symptom monitoring, monitoring dietary intake and more. Apple Vice President of Health Dr. Sumbul Desai echoed the sentiment that proactivity is one of the key ingredients to better standards of care, and better long-term outcomes.

“A lot of health, in the world of medicine, has been focused on reactive responses to situations,” she said in an interview. “The idea to get a little more proactive in the way we think about our own health is really empowering and we’re really excited about where that could take us. We think starting with these studies to really ground us in the science is critical but, really, the potential for it is something that we look forward to tackling.”

Desai, has led Apple’s Health initiatives for just under four years, and also spent much of her career prior to that at Stanford (where she remains an associate professor) working on both the academic and clinical side. She knows first-hand the value of continuous care, and said that this study is representative of the potential the company sees in Apple Watch’s role in the daily health of individuals.

“The ability to have that snapshot of an individual as they’re living their everyday life is extremely useful,” she said. “As a physician, part of your conversation is ‘tell me what’s going on when you’re not in the clinic.’ To be able to have some of that data at your fingertips and have that part of your conversation really enhances your engagement with your patients as well. We believe that can provide insight in ways that has not been done before and we’re really excited to see what more we’re learning in this specific realm but we already hearing from both users and physicians how valuable that is.”

Both Ross and Desai highlighted the value of Apple Watch as a consumer-friendly device that’s easy to set up and learn, and that serves a number of different purposes beyond health and fitness, as being key ingredients to its potential in a continuous care paradigm.

“We really believe that people should be able to play a more active role in managing their well-being and Apple Watch in particular, we find to be — and are really proud of — a powerful health and wellness tool because the same device that you can connect with loved ones and check messages also supports safety, motivates you to stay healthy by moving more and provides important information on your overall wellness,” Desai said.

“This is a powerful health care tool bundled into a device that people just love for all the reasons Sumbul has said,” Ross added. “But this is a powerful diagnostic tool, too. So it is that consumer platform that I think will make this potentially an unstoppable tool, if we can evaluate it properly, which we’re doing in this partnership.”

The study, which is targeting 200 participants as mentioned, and enrolling more every day, will span three months of active monitoring, followed by a two-year follow up to investigate the data collected relative to patient outcomes. All data collected is stored in a fully encrypted form (Ross pointed to Apple’s privacy track record as another benefit of having it as a partner) and anyone taking part can opt-out at any point during the course of the research.

Even once the results are in, it’ll just be the first step in a larger process of validation, but Ross said that the hope is to ultimately “to improve access and equitable care,” by changing the fundamental approach to how we think about heart failure and treatment.

#anatomy, #apple, #apple-inc, #apple-watch, #biotech, #hardware, #health, #heart, #north-america, #physician, #science, #self-care, #stanford, #tc, #toronto, #united-states

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Chromebooks had a banner 2020

2020 was a weird year by any measure. Certainly it was a wild ride for those in the consumer electronics category. Take smartphones — first there were manufacturing delays out of China, followed by an across the board decrease in demand. There are lots of reasons contributing to the latter, but the simplest and most prevalent one is that people just didn’t want to spend money to upgrade their devices.

But the pandemic also changed how — and where — many people work and learn. It was an abrupt shift for many that required tech investments, even in the face of economic uncertainty. After years of stagnating, plateauing and dropping, PC and tablet sales saw a spike. Earlier this month, IDC noted a nearly 20% increase in tablet sales for Q4, owing in part to a backlog in PC availability.

New figures from the firm (first noted by GeekWire) point to some significant gains for Chromebooks during that time period. According to IDC’s PC Tracker, the models comprised 10.8% of the PC market for 2020; that’s up from 6.4% a year prior. The number also pushed past MacOS’s 7.5% for the year.

Even so, Apple still grew as an overall percent of the market, up from 6.7%. Both of those numbers have eaten into Windows’ figures — though Microsoft continues to dominate the market at 80.5% (down from 85.4%).

The figures reflect positive reports from other firms. In January, Canalys noted, “Chromebook vendors enjoyed new heights of success in Q4, as the overall market almost quadrupled in size over the same period a year ago.” Pricing is certainly a factor, along with an overall scramble as schools have gone virtual amid COVID-19 concerns.

#chrome, #chrome-os, #chromebooks, #hardware, #idc, #macos, #windows

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Sennheiser partners with Formlabs for customized headphones

3D printing has come a long way over the course of the last decade, but questions about mainstream adoption still linger around the technology. Medical devices have been a pretty compelling use case — they’re not really mass produced and require a high level of personalization. Clear orthodontics are a great example of something that falls in that sweet spot — in fact, dental in general has been a big application.

Audio, too, holds a lot of potential. Imagine, for example, a set of headphones custom designed for your ears. The technology has been available on high-end models for a while, courtesy of molding, but 3D printing could unlock a more easily scalable version of that kind of luxury.

This week, Sennheiser announced a partnership that will utilize Formlabs technology to print custom earphones. Specifically, the headphone maker will be using the Form 3B, a printer design for use with biocompatible material that has largely been utilized for dental applications. Product specifics haven’t been revealed, but the audio company’s Ambeo division will be using the tech to create custom headphone eartips. Users would be able to scan their ears with a smartphone and send that to the company to get a tip printed.

Image Credits: Sennheiser

“Our technology collaboration with Sennheiser seeks to change the way customers interact with the brands they love by enabling a more customized, user-centric approach to product development,” Formlabs audio head Iain McLeod said in a release.. “Formlabs’ deep industry knowledge and broad expertise in developing scalable solutions enable us to deliver tangible innovations to our customers. In this case, we are working with Sennheiser’s Ambeo team to deliver a uniquely accessible, custom fit experience.”

The product is still very much in the prototype phase. And while such a partnership seems like a no-brainer for headphone makers going forward, there are some big questions here, including pricing and scalability. Clearly such a product would come at a premium over standard headphones, but not at so high a cost that supersedes such novelty.

The release calls it “an affordable and simple solution is now available to mass 3D print custom-fit earphones.” What, precisely, it means by affordable remains to be seen.

#3d-printing, #formlabs, #hardware, #headphones, #sennheiser

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ExOne gets $1.6M DoD contract to build a 3D printing ‘factory’ in shipping container

ExOne this week announced that the U.S. Department of Defense has granted it $1.6 million. It’s one of the Pennsylvania-based metal 3D printing company’s largest government contracts, in service of building a portable 3D printing factory for the front line – essentially a method for troops to fabricate broken and missing parts where the need them the most.

“Over the last two years, we’ve really focused on providing our technology into government-type applications: DoD, NASA, DoE,” CEO John Hartner tells TechCrunch. “Sometimes people talk about disrupting the supply chain and getting decentralized manufacturing. This is decentralized and forward deployed, if you will. Be it an emergency, humanitarian mission or frontlines for a war fighter.”

The money from the grant will specifically go toward R&D and building the first unit.

The system combines a series of machines with a software layer designed to lower the barrier of entry for use. While some training will be required, the hope is that people will be able to operate the system in the field.

“We’ve ruggedized the products that are going inside,” says Hartner. “There’s an element of software that makes the whole thing easier to use together. You start with scanning. So, there’s a possibility that you print from a cloud-based repository, but that may not be available for whatever reason, so you may have a broken part that you can scan and do some digital repair to the file and print.”

The devices rely on binder jet printing, the core tech behind ExOne’s machines. The system essentially composites powder, layer by layer to build up an object. ExOne expects to deliver the first system by Q3 2022. If all goes well, the parties will discuss further partnerships going forward.

#3d-printer, #3d-printing, #department-of-defense, #dod, #hardware

0

Amazon will let users vote on new Alexa devices with pre-orders, including a cuckoo clock

Amazon’s Day 1 Edition program pulled back the curtain ever-so-slightly on the company’s hardware development process. The initial class featured its Echo Frames smart glasses and Loop smart ring. Based on early user feedback, the company only opted to continue production on the former.

But it takes the idea even further. The program is akin to a kind of in-house crowdfunded pre-order program. Amazon presents a handful of concepts and potential customers vote with their pre-order. If the goal is met, they’ll bring the product to market. If not, they spike it. It’s not dissimilar to the “First Flight” program Sony Japan launched a little over five years back.

Clearly Amazon doesn’t wont for resources when it comes to launching products. But while a system like this isn’t necessary, I can certainly appreciate how it will facilitate letting the hardware team get a little weird with it. There have been a few exceptions from the company in recent years, with an Alexa-enabled Big Mouth Billy Bass, but as a rule, big corporations don’t often let really weird hardware concepts get all the way to production.

Image Credits: Amazon

There are three products in this first batch, and they run the gamut from straightforward to wacky. The common thread — at least with this round — is they all work with Alexa. I’d anticipate that will be the case going forward, but Amazon’s willingness to tip its hand has some very clear limits.

On the more mundane side is a Smart Stick Note printer. Basically you tell Alexa/Echo something and it will use thermal technology to print to an off-brand Post-it. The thermal tech means there’s no ink to replace. The idea is you can print, say, grocery lists and event reminders using voice. That’s up for a $90 pre-order (like Kickstarter/Indiegogo, prices will increase if/when these come to market).

Image Credits: Amazon

The $35 Smart Scale is designed to work with an Echo Show. You say something like, “Alexa, ask Smart Scale how much sugar is in these blueberries,” or “Alexa, ask Smart Scale to weigh 200 calories of blueberries” and the smart screen will show off the nutritional information for the weighed amount.

The weirdest/most fun of the bunch is the Smart Cuckoo Clock. Following up on the much more mundane Echo Wall Clock, the proposed model adds a mechanical cuckoo to the mix. There’s also a removable pendulum, allowing users to mount it on a wall or stick it on a shelf. That one is $80 in pre-order.

Image Credits: Amazon

The company isn’t listing specific goals, but each project will show the percentage toward completion (with no numbers listed). If the goal isn’t met, pre-orders won’t be charged and the company will move on to the next project.

#alexa, #amazon, #echo, #hardware

0

Want to invest in Nothing? Carl Pei opens investment opportunity to community

Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, knows a thing or two about communities. At the Chinese smartphone maker, Pei fielded product and feature ideas from fans and held frequent gatherings to hear their feedback. At his new venture, Nothing, Pei is going a step further.

London-headquartered firm said on Tuesday it will allow its community to invest $1.5 million in the company through a community equity round early next month. One community member will be elected to Nothing’s board of directors to always keep the firm in “check” and remind it of ‘what users want,” said Pei.

The startup, which recently raised a $15 million Series A round from Alphabet’s GV, said it will raise money from the community at the same valuation as implied in the Series A round. (The startup has raised an additional $7 million from high-profile executives including Kunal Shah of Cred, Tony Fadell, principal at Future Shape and inventor of the iPod, well-known YouTuber Casey Neistat, Kevin Lin, co-founder of Twitch, Steve Huffman, chief executive of Reddit, and Kim Fai Kok of Truecaller.)

“We want our community to be part of our journey from the very start and play an active role in it.” said Pei, who serves as the chief executive of Nothing. Pre-registrations to the financing option will open on February 16 at 10AM GMT, and the campaign will go live on March 2 at 10AM GMT.

Pei has yet to share what all products he wants to tackle at his new venture. So far he has said the startup plans to develop a pair of wireless headphones and smart and connected consumer electronics devices.

TechCrunch asked him why he couldn’t do all of this at OnePlus. “When you want to build something new and different, the best way is to start-off on a clean sheet and with a change of environment,” he said.

This week, 9to5Google reported that Nothing had acquired some trademarks from Android creator Andy Rubin’s now-defunct Essential.

#carl-pei, #funding, #hardware, #nothing, #oneplus

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Ember names former Dyson head as consumer CEO, as the startup looks beyond the smart mug

Ember today announced that founder Clay Alexander will transition to Group CEO effective February 16. In his place, the Los Angeles-based smart mug company is bringing on Jim Rowan as Consumer CEO. The executive served as CEO of Dyson from 2017 to 2020, after five years as COO.

It’s a big get for a relatively small company like Ember, which is best known for its smart, heated mugs. Founded in 2012, the hardware startup most recently raised a $20 million Series D in early 2019, bringing its total funding up to just shy of $50 million.

Alexander’s continued role at the company points to additional categories for Ember beyond consumer. “When I founded Ember, I knew there were endless applications for our temperature control technology and with Jim joining our team, we’ll be able to focus on our emerging healthcare vertical and use our technology to help improve and even save lives,” the exec said in a statement.

Courtesy of clever technology and smart design, the company has built a pretty sizable footprint for what might otherwise be a fairly niche product, expanding retail sales to Target, Costco, Best Buy and Starbucks, among others. The startup has done so while maintaining a low headcount of around 100 staffers.

“They have great IP, great design and great innovation, all around precise temperature control,” Rowan said in an interview with TechCrunch. “Obviously that started with the temperature control mugs and flasks, but that IP lends itself to so many other application. For me, that golden thread of being able to use that in myriad of different industries and markets is really, really exciting. One of them, of course, is the cold chain, which has become a lot more important since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a good indication of how you can disrupt and innovate in new markets.

Rowan has previously served as the COO of BlackBerry and as a senior exec at Flextronics. After exiting Dyson, he joined both PCH International and KKR as an advisor. It’s Dyson, however, that provides the most direct analogy for what the executive hoping to do at Ember. At its core, Dyson is a company that moves air. That translates to vacuums, fans, hairdryers and myriad other product categories.

The underlying question is how Ember’s proprietary heating and cooling tech can translate to other fields. On an industrial level, it means, potentially, helping keep foodstuff and medicine at a predetermined temperate while shipping in the international cold chain. It also means additional consumer products built around the same underlying tech.

“There will be a lot more products that come out, beyond the current mugs and travel mugs,” Rowan says. “There’s a whole bunch of new products which are in the consumer pipeline and will launch in the next year or couple of years. And then you have the expansion into new geographies with existing products.”

That largely means Asia (Rowan will remain based in Singapore) and Europe. Thus far Ember’s footprint has been U.S.-centric, though a push toward online commerce amid the pandemic has helped expand it some. There does, however, remain a question of how high the ceiling is on adoption for a $130 electric smart mug. Ember has yet to release any actual numbers, and Rowan, whose experience at Dyson has more than familiarized him with selling premium products at a premium price point, isn’t ready to commit to a lower price point or less premium take on the space.

It’s worth noting, of course, that low end of the mug category is ready available at your local 99 cent store, and that’s not likely a space Ember is raring to compete in. And certainly those products — unlike its current lineup — likely wouldn’t end up in Apple Stores. Instead, it seems likely the company will continue a play as a premium consumer brand into additional categories at a more rapid pace. “The actual technology can expand into a whole bunch of new areas beyond just beverages because of the temperature control technology,” Rowan said.

#dyson, #ember, #hardware, #health, #personnel

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Frame.io streamlines film production with ‘camera to cloud’ video uploads

Video collaboration startup Frame.io unveiled a new technology today that it calls Frame.io Camera to Cloud.

Michael Cioni, the startup’s global senior vice president of innovation, explained that while consumers expect to instantly upload video footage to the cloud, professional film and TV productions still rely on hard drives.

There’s a good reason for that: Those productions used much higher quality footage, which means that the files are enormous. But Frame.io gets around that by uploading “proxy” footage that’s not nearly so bandwidth-intensive.

It can, in fact, be uploaded on an LTE connection, as the Frame.io team demonstrated for me by shooting brief footage that was accessible a few seconds later from a computer on the other side of the country.

Cioni said this means the editing process no longer has to wait on the movement of hard drives: “We take this linear process and make it parallel.”

Frame.io Camera to Cloud iPhone app

Image Credits: Frame.io

Footage uploaded through Camera to Cloud can then be edited in Frame.io, but the technology is also integrated with popular editing software like Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere. And because the proxy footage has the same timecodes and metadata as the original, any edits can be synchronized once you receive the drives.

In addition, Camera to Cloud allows production members on and off the set to view footage from their computer, iPhone or iPad, as soon as it’s shot.

“The moment that you hit stop [on the camera], wouldn’t it just be great pull the footage up on your phone, because you want to see what you shot?” said Frame.io CEO Emery Wells. “You can’t do that right now on a professional set. There’s person whose job it is to do that, there are playback monitors all over the set and everybody watches playback at the same time.”

And while the company started to develop this technology before the pandemic, Wells said, “It turns out thee’s even more of a need for this now, when fewer people can be on sets.”

In fact, the technology was already used during the production of the pandemic movie “Songbird,”. The movie was filmed last summer, and by using Camera to Cloud, producers who were not allowed on the set (due to new safety protocols) could still keep up with the footage.

Camera to Cloud works on existing devices like the Teradek CUBE 655, Sound Devices 888 and Scorpio recorders, which can be attached to compatible cameras from Arri, RED and Sony. And it’s available at no additional charge to paying Frame.io subscribers.

“It’s our prediction that by the end of the decade, everybody shooting audio, video and whatever, they’re going to shoot into the cloud,” Cioni said.

#emery-wells, #frame-io, #hardware, #media, #songbird, #tc

0

Huawei files suit over security threat designation

Earlier this week, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei spoke rather diplomatically about the company’s hopes of holding talks with the new U.S. administration. The hardware giant is also taking a less conciliatory route, challenging its FCC designation as a national security threat.

The company this week filed a suit with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, calling the FCC ruling, “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion and not supported by substantial evidence.”

Questions have swirled around the smartphone maker’s ties to the Chinese government for years, but the U.S. greatly ramped up actions against Huawei during the Trump years. The federal government has taken a number of routes to essentially kneecap the company, including, notably, its addition to the Department of Commerce’s “entity list,” which effectively barred it from working with U.S. companies.

Huawei likely sees a change in U.S. governance as an opportunity to be reevaluated by the powers that be. The company has long denied spying and other security charges. “I would welcome such phone calls and the message is around joint development and shared success,” Ren earlier this week told the media that he was eager to speak with Biden. “The U.S. wants to have economic growth and China wants to have economic growth as well.”

In a statement offered to The Wall Street Journal, however, an FCC spokesperson stayed firm to the 2020 decision, stating, “Last year the FCC issued a final designation identifying Huawei as a national security threat based on a substantial body of evidence developed by the FCC and numerous U.S. national security agencies. We will continue to defend that decision.”

Thus far, the Biden administration hasn’t indicated any plans to soften restrictions on Huawei. Facing opposition from Republican lawmakers, Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo noted, “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”

The Biden administration does appear to be reviewing other actions against Chinese companies taken during the Trump administration. Notably, a planned forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. wing has been put on hold while the White House reassesses security concerns.

#biden, #fcc, #hardware, #huawei, #policy

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Huawei’s CEO wants to talk to Joe Biden

During a small gathering of journalists in China, Ren Zhengfei made his first public remarks since Joe Biden was inaugurated at the 46th President of the United States. The Huawei CEO struck a hopeful tone for those gathered around the table, in comments reported by CNBC among others.

“I would welcome such phone calls and the message is around joint development and shared success,” the executive said, noting a readiness to speak with the new administration in translated remarks. “The U.S. wants to have economic growth and China wants to have economic growth as well.”

Huawei’s future in the U.S. has been a major question mark hanging over the new administration. Under Trump, a number of high profile Chinese companies were added to the Commerce Department’s so-called “entity list” to various effects. Huawei has been among the hardest hit by the moves.

In addition to blocking sales in the world’s third-largest smartphone market, the company has been unable to work with key U.S. companies, including Google. That, in turn, has blocked access to key technologies, including the Android ecosystem and left Huawei scrambling. The company’s support among consumers has increased within China, but the move has been a big blow to the smartphone maker’s bottom line.

The incoming Biden administration has mostly been quiet on the matter. Though, facing mounting criticism from Republican lawmaker, Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo has since added that, “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”

While there haven’t been many positive signs for Huawei thus far, the company’s Chief understandably would prefer to make nice with the new administration.

“If Huawei’s production capacity can be expanded, that would mean more opportunities for U.S. companies to supply too,” Ren said in the translated comments. “I believe that’s going to be mutually beneficially. I believe that (the) new administration would bear in mind such business interests as they are about to decide their new policy.”

 

#china, #hardware, #huawei, #joe-biden, #policy

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DoorDash acquires salad-making robotics startup, Chowbotics

DoorDash is expanding its robotic footprint into the kitchen. The delivery service is set to acquire Chowbotics, a Bay Area-based robotics best known for its salad-making robot, Sally. TechCrunch has confirmed the acquisition, which was first noted by The Wall Street Journal.

“We have long admired the work that Chowbotics has done to increase access to fresh meals, with its groundbreaking robotics product and vision,” DoorDash co-founder Stanley Tang said in a comment offered to TechCrunch. “At DoorDash, we are always working to innovate and continue improving how we support our merchant partners and their success — and are excited to leverage this technology to do so in new ways. With the Chowbotics team on board, we can explore new use cases and customers, providing another service to help our merchants grow.”

Founded in 2014, Chowbotics has raised around $21 million to date, including an $11 million round back in 2018. The company’s vending machine-style salad bar robot was already well-positioned for the pandemic, removing a human element from the food preparation process — not to mention the fact that salad bars and buffets tend to be open air affairs. In October, the startup added a contactless feature to the robot, letting users order ahead of time, via app.

“Joining the DoorDash team unlocks new possibilities for Chowbotics and the technology that this team has built over the past seven years,” CEO Rick Wilmer said in a statement. “As the leader in food delivery and on-demand logistics, DoorDash has the unparalleled reach and expertise to help us grow and deploy our technology more broadly, so together, we can make fresh, nutritious food easy for more people.”

It’s not entirely clear how the company’s technology will fit into the delivery service’s current offering, though DoorDash notes it will “improve consumer access to fresh and safe meals, and enhance our robust merchant offerings and logistics platform.” It also remains to be seen whether Chowbotics will continue to operate as its own entity within the broader DoorDash. We’ve reached out for more insight.

“At DoorDash, we strive to become a merchant’s first call when they want to grow their business,” Tang said. “What excites us most about Chowbotics is that the team has developed a remarkable tool for helping merchants grow. Bringing Chowbotics’ technology into the DoorDash platform gives us a new opportunity to help merchants expand their current menu offerings and reach new customers in new markets — which is a fundamental part of our merchant-first approach to empowering local economies.”

DoorDash has been working with robotics companies for a number of years now. Perhaps the most prominent example is a partnership with Starship Technologies to explore food delivery robots. Though that technology has seen a fair number of roadblocks among local officials not eager to turn their sidewalks over to robots. The delivery company likens Chowbotics’ kiosk-style technology to its work with ghost kitchens, effectively serving as a conduit to help expand food options at local merchants – be it in store or through delivery. The former will likely be of more interest once the current pandemic is in the rear view.

Details of the acquisition have not been disclosed.

#chowbotics, #doordash, #hardware, #ma, #robotics

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MIT is building a ‘one-stop shop’ for 3D-printing robots

Additive manufacturing has proven an ideal solution for certain tasks, but the technology still lacks more traditional methods in a number of categories. One of the biggest is the requirement for post-printing assembly. 3D printers can create extremely complex components, but an outside party (be it human or machine) is required to put them together.

MIT’s CSAIL department this week showcased “LaserFactory,” a new project that attempts to develop robotics, drones and other machines than can be fabricated as part of a “one-stop shop.” The system is comprised of a software kit and hardware platform designed to create structures and assemble circuitry and sensors for the machine.

A more fully realized version of the project will be showcased at an event in May, but the team is pulling back the curtain a bit to show what the concept looks like in practice. Here’s a breakdown from CSAIL’s page:

Let’s say a user has aspirations to create their own drone. They’d first design their device by placing components on it from a parts library, and then draw on circuit traces, which are the copper or aluminum lines on a printed circuit board that allow electricity to flow between electronic components. They’d then finalize the drone’s geometry in the 2D editor. In this case, they’d use propellers and batteries on the canvas, wire them up to make electrical connections, and draw the perimeter to define the quadcopter’s shape.

Printing circuit boards is certainly nothing new. What sets CSAIL’s machine apart here is the breadth of functionality that’s been jammed into the machine here. An accompanying video lays it out pretty well:

Of course, this is early days — we’re still months out from the official presentation. There are a lot of questions, and more to the point, a lot of potential points of failure for a complex machine like this — especially one that seems to have non-experts as a target audience.

“Making fabrication inexpensive, fast, and accessible to a layman remains a challenge,” PhD student and lead author Martin Nisser says in the release. “By leveraging widely available manufacturing platforms like 3D printers and laser cutters, LaserFactory is the first system that integrates these capabilities and automates the full pipeline for making functional devices in one system.”

The software appears to be a big piece of the puzzle — allowing users to view a version of the product before it’s printed. By then, of course, it’s too late.

#3d-printing, #csail, #drones, #hardware, #massachusetts-institute-of-technology, #mit, #mit-csail, #robotics

0

CHIPS Alliance hires new director to push open-source chips ecosystem into next gear

Over the past two decades, there has been a complete revolution in software engineering driven by the rise of open source. Proprietary tools and libraries have widely given way to open-source libraries and editors shared on sites like GitHub. The result has been an explosion of new software engineers who can both learn from and contribute to the most cutting-edge software in the world.

That open model remains mostly a pipe dream in the silicon world. The pipeline and tooling for designing and engineering chips remains almost entirely proprietary, and while new architectures like RISC-V and new specifications like OpenRAN have made some headway in recent years, the industry is still almost hermetically sealed to open innovation.

CHIPS Alliance was started in March 2019 with the mission to open that ecosystem up and encourage the development of open-source practices throughout the hardware silicon world. It’s hosted as a member of the Linux Foundation, and shares a similar ethos of using openness to spur further innovation.

The Alliance announced today that it has hired Rob Mains as its new executive director. Mains joined the organization last month as general manager, and previously, had a multi-decade career across the silicon industry at companies like Qualcomm, Oracle, Sun Microsystems and IBM.

Mains sees those experiences as being formative for understanding the current ecosystem, but understands that the silicon world has to change. “Obviously, it’s a very different mindset from silicon companies have had in the past,” Mains said. CHIPS Alliance is “creating a platform that different companies and members can contribute to … and bridge us to the next stage of innovation.”

New CHIPS Alliance executive director Rob Mains. Photo via CHIPS Alliance.

Currently, the organization has more than two dozen corporate and university members, including Intel, Google, Alibaba and RISC-V darling SiFive.

Compared to the RISC-V Foundation and other orgs focused on specific open-source technologies, Mains sees CHIPS Alliance trying to create a more open ecosystem holistically. “There are a number of different areas where we can promote standards and examples,” he said, pointing to examples like bus protocols and interfaces between chiplets. CHIPS Alliance hosts the OpenXtend protocol first developed at Western Digital, which is designed to provide a consistent interface between processor caches and memory controllers, and it is also backing the Advanced Interface Bus (AIB) standard first developed at Intel to connect multiple semiconductor dies together.

Mains has a particular background in electronic design automation (EDA) tools, which help chip designers translate their models into actual transistors on physical silicon. He sees a real opportunity to further expand open-source tools in the EDA space. In addition, the organization is interested in further exploring progress on Open PDK (process design kit) infrastructure such as a recent experimental preview offered by Google and Skywater.

Mains hopes that by being a community and a champion for open-source methodologies in hardware, this cloistered industry can open up and expand the range and efforts of innovation happening.

#hardware

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Jiobit launches an improved version of its kid (or pet) tracker, the Jiobit Next

A Chicago-based startup, Jiobit, wanted to make a better child location tracker than the bulky smartwatches and other insecurely designed products already on the market. So in 2018, it launched its own modular kid tracker — a small dongle of sorts that could be tied to shoelaces, belt loops, or school backpack, for example. Today, the company is out with a new generation of this device, the Jiobit Next, which aims to improve the accuracy, battery life, reliability, and more.

The company says it took its two years’ of learning and customer feedback into account, when developing the new design, which is today used not only by parents, but also by pet owners.

The updated version of the Jiboit, now $129.99, is a small device that weighs less than four quarter coins, and includes a combination of radios — Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellular, and GPS — as well as sensors including an accelerometer/pedometer, temperature sensor, and barometer.

Image Credits: Jiobit

The upgraded version now includes a new antenna system designed to increase performance inside schools, stores, high rises, and other challenging signal environments, the company claims.

It also leverages the reach of low-power, wide-area (LPWA) wireless networks in order to better serve rural regions where cellular coverage is limited and spotty. This allows the device to still be tracked when outside of Wi-Fi or Bluetooth mesh networks.

The new Jiobit is also waterproof (IPX8) up to 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes and includes an alert button that instantly notifies loved ones that the user is lost or in danger. This button can be customized through the Jiobit app as to which family members will receive the alert, or it can even be turned off — which may be useful if the child is too young to understand how to use it.

Jiobit owners can continue to monitor the device through the app or now, a web app that includes alerting and notification controls. This opens the service up to more than just families — it could be used by organizations to deploy Jiobit into the field.

Like some software-based tracking apps, the device supports features like “Trusted Places,” which are geofenced areas where you expect the device to be at certain times, like school or maybe a doggie day care. When the device is not in a Trusted Place, you can enable “Live Mode” to watch its movement in real-time.

Image Credits: Jiobit

Another improvement focuses on battery life. The upgraded version offers 50% longer battery life than the prior version, the company says. Under typical use cases, the Jiobit will last up to 10 days between charges, though it last longer when on standby and not in active use. (That may be why pet owners are seeing slightly longer battery life of 10-20 days, for instance.)

The original idea for Jiobit had come about because founder John Renaldi, a previous VP at Motorola, was shocked to find that most child trackers on the market were strong their certificate keys in the clear and were hackable. He wanted to build a more secure alternative, and brought on co-founder and CTO, Roger Ady, a previous director of engineering at Motorola, to help.

Today, the Jiobit has its own dedicated security chip to communicate with the company’s servers, and uses its AES-256 “Jiobit TrustChip” technology to encrypt data both at rest and in transit with TLS1.2 encryption. It also refuses to download any software that’s not cryptographically signed by Jiobit in order to prevent malware or other “rogue” software from being installed.

Image Credits: Jiobit

The service itself, meanwhile, is compliant with U.S. children’s privacy regulations (COPPA).

The new Jiobit Next will work only within the U.S., while the 1st generation works internationally across 146 countries. But both will continued to be supported by way of subscriptions. Users can choose between a 2-year subscription plan ($8.99/month), a 6-month subscription plan ($12.99/month) or a month-to-month subscription plan ($14.99/month). These don’t require a cellular plan or SIM card from your existing carrier, like other child trackers and smartwatches, though.

To date, the startup says it’s raised $12 million in outside investment, including from Netgear and other midwest VC firms. Jiobit isn’t disclosing how many devices its sold to date, specifically, but says it’s in the “mid-five figure range.”

The new device is on pre-order starting today and will be sold later this month on its website, and then Amazon, Chewy, and Target. It has also partnered with family tracking app Life360 to offer special pricing.

#hardware, #jiobit, #kid-tracker, #startups

0

Hasselblad X1D II 50C: out of the studio and into the streets

We crawled into an abandoned school bus, trespassed through dilapidated hallways, dodged fleeting thunderstorms and wandered through empty streets of Chinatown late into the evening. For two summery weeks, I couldn’t have been happier.

New York City was in lockdown. I’d been quarantined in my dinky apartment, disheartened and restless. I was anxious to do something creative. Thankfully, the Hasselblad X1D II 50C arrived for review, along with approval from the studio heads for socially-distanced, outdoor shoots.

Taking pictures of the mundane (flowers, buildings, and such) would’ve been a disservice to a $10,000 camera kit, so instead, my friends and I collaborated on a fun, little project: we shot portraits inspired by our favorite films.

Hasselblad X1D II shotlist

Image Credits: Veanne Cao

Equipped with masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer, we put the X1D II 50C and 80mm F/1.9 lens (ideal for close-ups without actually having to be close up) through its paces in some of NYC’s less familiar backdrops.

Before I get into any trouble for the last photo – Alex and Jason are professional stuntmen and that’s a rubber prop gun. They were reenacting the penultimate scene from Infernal Affairs – a brilliant piece of Hong Kong cinema (much better than the Scorsese remake).

While the camera is slightly more approachable in terms of cost and ease of use with a few upgrades (larger, more responsive rear screen, a cleaned-up menu, tethering capabilities, faster startup time and shutter release), the X1D II is essentially the same as its predecessor. So I skipped the standard review. Hasselblad X1D II 50C Hasselblad X1D II 50C

Image Credits: Veanne Cao

What it is, what it isn’t

The most common complaint about the X1D was its slow autofocus, slow shutter release and short battery life. The X1D II improved on these features, though not by much. Rather than seeing the lag as a hindrance, I was forced to slow down and re-wire my brain for a more thoughtful shooting style (a pleasant side effect).

As I mentioned in my X1D review, Apple and other smartphone manufacturers have made shooting great pictures effortless. As such, the accessibility has created a culture of excessively capturing everyday banalities. You shoot far more than you’ll ever need. It’s something I’m guilty of. Pretty sure 90% of the images on my iPhone camera roll are throwaways. (The other 10% are of my dog and he’s spectacularly photogenic.)

The X1D II, however, is not an easy camera. It’s frustrating at times. If you’re a beginner, you may have to learn the fundamentals (ISO, f-stops, when to click the shutter), but the payoff is worth it. There’s an overwhelming sense of gratification when you get that one shot. And at 50 megapixels, it’s packed with details and worthy of hanging on your wall. Shelling out a ton of money for the X1D II won’t instantly make you a better photographer, but it ought to encourage you to become one.

Without the contrived studio lights and set design, our outdoor shoots became an exercise in improvisation:  we wandered through the boroughs finding practicals (street lights, neon lights… the sun), discovering locations, and switching spots when things didn’t pan out.

We explored, we had purpose.

My takeaway from the two weeks with this camera:  pause and be meaningful in your actions.

Reviewed kit runs $10,595, pre-taxed:
Hasselblad X1D II 50C Mirrorless Camera – $5,750
Hasselblad 80mm F/1.9 XCD Lens – $4,845

#hardware, #hasselblad, #iphone, #medium-format, #tc

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Peloton will pump $100M into delivery logistics to ease supply concerns

This probably falls under “good problems,” in the grand scheme of things. After another record quarter, Peloton has announced that it will invest more than $100 million in air and ocean freight deliveries due to “longer-than-acceptable wait times for the delivery of our products.”

The fitness company is among those tech firms that have seen a tremendous rise in interest amid the pandemic. In fact, it seems these days that VCs can’t pump money into at-home fitness solutions quickly enough to appease their interest. 2020 was a banner year for home workout solutions, from LuluLemon’s $500 million acquisition of Mirror to new platforms from Apple and Samsung.

In all, Peloton pulled in $1.06 billion in revenue last quarter, marking a more than 200% increase, year over year. The numbers beat Wall Street expectations and are showing no sign of slowing, with another massive quarter expected for the connected fitness brand.

The market did balk slightly at Peloton’s admission that, “While this investment will dampen our near-term profitability, improving our member experience is our first priority.” Clearly this big spend on reducing supply bottlenecks is a longer-term play.

Of course, it remains to be seen how the company’s earnings will stabilize after the pandemic. I’d anticipate there will be some slowing for Peloton and other brands when vaccines make returning to gyms a more widescale phenomenon. Still, home workouts — like remote work — may well be an aspect that is fundamentally transformed even with COVID-19 in the rearview.

#connected-fitness, #earnings, #fitness, #hardware, #peloton

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Biden Commerce nominee Raimondo sees no reason to remove Huawei from entity list

Huawei’s status in the U.S. has been one of many question marks hovering over the newly minted Biden administration. The smartphone maker was one of a number of Chinese companies added to the Department of Commerce’s “entity list” during Trump’s four years in office.

Gina Raimondo, Joe Biden’s nominee for Commerce secretary, has offered what is potentially one of the clearest looks so far at how Huawei’s status might (or might not) evolve under a new administration. Responding to questions from Senate Republicans, former Rhode Island Governor Raimondo indicated that the Biden administration likely would not be in any hurry to remove Huawei from the blacklist.

Republican House members had previously raised concerns over Raimondo’s position on companies like Huawei, a stance she had yet to clarify. “We urge those Senators who have a history of calling for Huawei to remain on the Entity List to stick to their principles and place a hold on Ms. Raimondo’s confirmation until the Biden Administration clarifies their intentions for Huawei and on export control policies for a country that is carrying out genocide and threatening our national security,” they wrote.

Raimondo has since responded.

“I understand that parties are placed on the Entity List and the Military End User List generally because they pose a risk to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests,” the politician said, in a note reported by Bloomberg. “I currently have no reason to believe that entities on those lists should not be there. If confirmed, I look forward to a briefing on these entities and others of concern.”

The statement isn’t definitive in either direction (as is perhaps to be expected for a Cabinet nominee), but it certainly doesn’t point to a radical change from Trump’s position on the issue. The smartphone marker was added to the list in 2019, following longtime accusations over security and spying concerns. The company has also variously been tied to the Chinese government.

The DoC noted at the time:

Huawei was added to the Entity List after the Department concluded that the company is engaged in activities that are contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, including alleged violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), conspiracy to violate IEEPA by providing prohibited financial services to Iran, and obstruction of justice in connection with the investigation of those alleged violations of U.S. sanctions, among other illicit activities.

The Trump administration proved especially aggressive in regards to blacklisting Chinese tech companies, a fact that has already had a profound impact on Huawei’s bottom line. Drone giant DJI and AI company SenseTime have been added to the DoC list, while Xiaomi made a separate military blacklist in the waning days of the administration.

#biden, #gina-raimondo, #government, #hardware, #huawei, #mobile, #policy

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Metalenz reimagines the camera in 2D and raises $10M to ship it

As impressive as the cameras in our smartphones are, they’re fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips over that part with a camera made of a single “metasurface” that could save precious space and battery life in phones and other devices… and they’re about to ship it.

The concept is similar to, but not descended from, the “metamaterials” that gave rise to flat beam-forming radar and lidar of Lumotive and Echodyne. The idea is to take a complex 3D structure and accomplish what it does using a precisely engineered “2D” surface — not actually two-dimensional, of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.

In the case of a camera, the main components are of course a lens (these days it’s usually several stacked), which corrals the light, and an image sensor, which senses and measures that light. The problem faced by cameras now, particularly in smartphones, is that the lenses can’t be made much smaller without seriously affecting the clarity of the image. Likewise sensors are nearly at the limit of how much light they can work with. Consequently most of the photography advancements of the last few years have been done on the computational side.

Using an engineered surface that does away with the need for complex optics and other camera systems has been a goal for years. Back in 2016 I wrote about a NASA project that took inspiration from moth eyes to create a 2D camera of sorts. It’s harder than it sounds, though — usable imagery has been generated in labs, but it’s not the kind of thing that you take to Apple or Samsung.

Metalenz aims to change that. The company’s tech is built on the work of Harvard’s Frederico Capasso, who has been publishing on the science behind metasurfaces for years. He and Rob Devlin, who did his doctorate work in Capasso’s lab, co-founded the company to commercialize their efforts.

“Early demos were extremely inefficient,” said Devlin of the field’s first entrants. “You had light scattering all over the place, the materials and processes were non-standard, the designs weren’t able to handle the demands that a real world throws at you. Making one that works and publishing a paper on it is one thing, making 10 million and making sure they all do the same thing is another.”

Their breakthrough — if years of hard work and research can be called that — is the ability not just to make a metasurface camera that produces decent images, but to do it without exotic components or manufacturing processes.

“We’re really using all standard semiconductor processes and materials here, the exact same equipment — but with lenses instead of electronics,” said Devlin. “We can already make a million lenses a day with our foundry partners.”

Diagram comparing the multi-lens barrel of a conventional phone camera, and their simpler "meta-optic"

The thing at the bottom is the chip where the image processor and logic would be, but the meta-optic could also integrate with that. the top is a pinhole.

The first challenge is more or less contained in the fact that incoming light, without lenses to bend and direct it, hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic way. Devlin’s own PhD work was concerned with taming this chaos.

“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] lens is controlled on the macro scale, you’re relying on the curvature to bend the light. There’s only so much you can do with it,” he explained. “But here you have features a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the lens.”

Those features, as you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like little nano-scale Coke cans,” Devlin suggested. Like other metamaterials, these structures, far smaller than a visible or near-infrared light ray’s wavelength, manipulate the radiation by means that take a few years of study to understand.

Diagram showing chips being manufactured, then an extreme close up showing nano-scale features.The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and vastly less complexity than the compact camera stacks found in consumer and industrial devices. To be clear, Metalenz isn’t looking to replace the main camera on your iPhone — for conventional photography purposes the conventional lens and sensor are still the way to go. But there are other applications that play to the chip-style lens’s strengths.

Something like the FaceID assembly, for instance, presents an opportunity. “That module is a very complex one for the cell phone world — it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” said Devlin. Likewise the miniature lidar sensor.

At this scale, the priorities are different, and by subtracting the lens from the equation the amount of light that reaches the sensor is significantly increased. That means it can potentially be smaller in every dimension while performing better and drawing less power.

Image (of a very small test board) from a traditional camera, left, and metasurface camera, right. Beyond the vignetting it’s not really easy to tell what’s different, which is kind of the point.

Lest you think this is still a lab-bound “wouldn’t it be nice if” type device, Metalenz is well on its way to commercial availability. The $10M round A they just raised was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures and TDK Ventures, along with Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures — a lot of suppliers in there.

Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz isn’t starting with a short run of boutique demo devices but going big out of the gate.

“Because we’re using traditional fabrication techniques, it allows us to scale really quickly. We’re not building factories or foundries, we don’t have to raise hundreds of mils; we can use whats already there,” said Devlin. “But it means we have to look at applications that are high volume. We need the units to be in that tens of millions range for our foundry partners to see it making sense.”

Although Devlin declined to get specific, he did say that their first partner is “active in 3D sensing” and that a consumer device, though not a phone, would be shipping with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 — and later in 2022 will see a phone-based solution shipping as well.

In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a startup just coming out of stealth and raising its A round… it already has shipments planned on the order of tens of millions. The $10M isn’t a bridge to commercial viability but short term cash to hire and cover up-front costs associated with such a serious endeavor. It’s doubtful anyone on that list of investors harbors any serious doubts on ROI.

The 3D sensing thing is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex lab equipment to handheld electronics that can be fielded easily is one, and improving the benchtop versions of tools with more light-gathering ability or quicker operation is another.

Though a device you use may in a few years have a Metalenz component in it, it’s likely you won’t know — the phone manufacturer will probably take all the credit for the improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nevertheless, it may show up in teardowns and bills of material, at which point you’ll know this particular university spin-out has made it to the big leagues.

#3m, #braemar-energy-ventures, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #hardware, #harvard, #harvard-university, #intel, #intel-capital, #metamaterials, #photography, #recent-funding, #sensors, #startups, #tc, #tdk

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