Google announces EPYC-based Tau virtual machines for Cloud

Google this morning announced the launch of Tau, a new family of virtual machines built on AMD’s third-gen EPYC processor. According to the company, the new x86-compatible system offers a 42% price-performance boost over standard VMs. Google notably first started utilizing AMD EPYC processors for Cloud back in 2017, while Amazon Cloud’s offerings date back to 2018.

Google claims the Tau family “leapfrogs” existing cloud VMs. The systems come in a variety of configurations, ranging up to 60vCPUs per VM, and 4GB of memory per vCPU. Networking bandwidth goes up to 32 Gbps, and they can be coupled with a variety of different network attached storage.

“Customers across every industry are dealing with more demanding and data-intensive workloads and looking for strategic ways to speed up performance and reduce costs,” Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian said in a press release.  “Our work with key strategic partners like AMD has allowed us to broaden our offerings and deliver customers the best price performance for compute-heavy, business-critical applications– all on the cleanest cloud in the industry.”

Image Credits: Google

Google has already signed up some high-profile customers for an early trial, including Twitter, Snap and DoIT.

“High performance at the right price point is a critical consideration as we work to serve the global public conversation,” Twitter Platform Lead Nick Tornow said in a blog post. “We are excited by initial tests that show potential for double digit performance improvement. We are collaborating with Google Cloud to more deeply evaluate benefits on price and performance for specific compute workloads that we can realize through use of the new Tau VM family.”

Image Credits: Google

The Tau VMs will be arriving for Google Cloud in Q3 of this year. The company has already opened the system up to clients for pre-registration. Pricing is dependent on the configuration. For example, a 32vCPU VM sporting 128GB RAM will run around $1.35 an hour.

#cloud, #enterprise, #google, #google-cloud, #hardware, #virtual-machine

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A look inside Google’s first store, opening in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood tomorrow

There have been plenty of pop-ups over the years, but tomorrow Google’s first store opens in NYC’s Chelsea neighborhood. The brick and mortar model finds the company joining peers like Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and even Amazon, all of whom have a retail presence in Manhattan, including several just around the corner from Google’s new digs.

The new space, which opens tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. local time, fills 5,000 square feet of selling space in Google’s big, pricey West Side real estate investment. The retail location was previously occupied by a Post Office and Starbucks, which vacated the premises once their leases expired under their new corporate landlord.

Image Credits: Photos courtesy of Google and Paul Warchol

The store’s layout is designed to be experiential, highlighting the company’s growing hardware portfolio along with select third-party partners. Essentially it’s a way for the company to get Pixel phones, Home offerings, Stadia, WearOS and the newest addition to the hardware portfolio, Fitbit devices, in front of tourists and locals.

“We really used the pop-ups over the last several years to get a better sense of what are customer expectations for what we can uniquely deliver at Google,” VP Jason Rosenthal said during a press preview week. We’ve taken learnings from our 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 pop-ups and really fed that learning into what we’re opening[…] in Chelsea.”

Due to pandemic restrictions, the preview was virtual. And while it’s open to the public this week, the company will be maintaining the standard safety precautions, as the city deals with (knock on wood) the tail end of the pandemic.

And while COVID-19 almost certainly slowed the planned opening, Google promises that things will be in full force starting tomorrow. This follows several weeks of piloting, wherein the store’s 50 or so staffers were put through their paces, while the company put the finishing touches on the experience. Prior to this, Google built a full-size store mockup in a hangar space in Mountain View to test out ideas.

Image Credits: Google and Paul Warchol

In addition to product screens and dioramas lining the 17-foot windows, the company filled the store with “sandboxes” — effectively scenarios like a living room, not dissimilar to what you might find in a large furniture store — albeit better lit. There’s also a gaming area for playing Stadia and a soundproof spot for testing out various Home/Nest products.

Like Apple’s Store, customers can bring in for repair broken devices like Pixels. The company says it’s growing the number of devices that can be repaired on-site, while certain issues, like a broken screen, should be able to be fixed same day.

It seems likely that the store is a pilot in and of itself, with further plans to open additional locations in the U.S. and, perhaps, international markets where the company sells hardware. For now, however, Google won’t discuss the subject beyond tomorrow’s opening in Chelsea.

#ecommerce, #google, #google-store, #hardware, #new-york, #new-york-city, #retail

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Nintendo teases 2022 release for Breath of the Wild sequel and releases Zelda Game & Watch to tide us over

Nintendo defied expectations today with an E3-timed Direct showing off not the hoped-for new Switch hardware but a dozen or so new games — as well as a general release window for the much-anticipated next Zelda game. And to celebrate the original’s 35th anniversary, it will sell a new Game & Watch featuring the first three games in the series.

Among other things, Nintendo showed off remasters or remakes of titles from the “Monkey Ball,” “Mario Party,” “Advance Wars, “Wario Ware” and other series, and announced new entries in the “Mario + Rabbids” and “Shin Megami Tensei” worlds. Other newly announced or teased games will be making it to Switch as well, like the new “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Perhaps most surprising was the inclusion of a new side-scrolling Metroid game, the first in nearly 20 years — and in fact, it has been in and out of development for half that time. “Metroid Dread,” the fifth in the mainline series that began on the NES, will release October 8, and we’ll see if Nintendo has managed to keep pace in a genre it pioneered but others have refined.

Samus steps out of a chamber in a screenshot from Metroid Dread.

Image Credits: Nintendo

Everyone was hoping for Zelda news, however, and Nintendo… only slightly disappointed us. As the announcers noted, it’s the 35th anniversary of the NES original, and the perfect time to announce something truly special, but they have “no campaigns or other Nintendo Switch games planned.”

Instead, they offered an admittedly tempting Game & Watch in the style of the one we saw released last year for the Mario series. I had lots of good things to say about that device, and the new one will no doubt be just as fun. The ability to pause the game and pick it up later (but not rewind or save states) should make for a fun, authentic playthrough of the first three games in the Zelda series: “The Legend of Zelda” and “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” for NES, and “Link’s Awakening” for Game Boy (recently remade).

A handheld gaming machine with Zelda games on it.

Image Credits: Nintendo

The last item on the list was a new look at the follow-up to Breath of the Wild, which years after its debut still shines as one of the, if not the, best game on the Switch. Its sequel has a lot to live up to!

While the first trailer was all cinematic, this one showed gameplay and the overworld, including a new level of verticality that brings flying fortresses and castles in the air into play. It certainly looks impressive, but one wonders how much further the company can push its Switch hardware. After all, “Breath of the Wild” pushed the system to its limits at its debut, and even then it was not as powerful as its rivals from Microsoft and Sony — both now replaced by a new generation.

One hopes that Nintendo is simply being weird and has a trick up its sleeve, as it has many times before. The Switch was announced out of nowhere, and previous hardware updates have also dropped with little or no warning and seemingly arbitrary timing. What’s expected is an updated Switch that’s physically the same dimensions but considerably updated inside and using a larger, better display. Perfect backwards compatibility, like with the 3DS series of handhelds, also seems only logical. But Nintendo has always done its own thing and its fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

#e3-2021, #gadgets, #gaming, #hardware, #metroid, #nintendo, #zelda

0

Apple Watch accessory maker Wristcam raises $25M

Last week word got out that Facebook was taking another big step into first-party hardware with the planned launch of its own smartwatch. The most intriguing part of the report was the inclusion of not one but two watches. Other wearable makers have flirted with video and images on wrist-worn devices, but the feature is far from mainstream.

Industry leader Apple certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing into the idea, so Wristcam went and did it for them with the launch of a band sporting its own camera capable of shooting 4K images and 1080p. The product launched late last year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Now its makers are going a more traditional funding route, announcing a $25 million raise led by Marker LLC. “We will use the funding to scale our team, Wristcam production, go to market, and R&D of our computer vision engine for wearables,” CEO Ari Roisman told TechCrunch.

Part of that funding involves effectively doubling the company’s headcount by early next year and helping deliver updates to some of the demands and concerns that have arisen since the product’s “public beta” launch in December.

Among the forthcoming features are live video. The company says it has sold “thousands” of units, which currently retail for $299 through the Wristcam site — so $20 more than a Watch SE. The company says it ran into COVID-19 supply chain issues earlier this year, but has pushed through and is now fulfilling orders daily.

In spite of Facebook’s apparent interest in wrist-base imaging, Roisman says he’s not concerned about possible Sherlock from Apple.

“I see camera continuing to be a core part of the iPhone strategy, with DSLR quality equivalence, including Pro offerings priced north of $1,000,” the exec says. “Meanwhile, I see continued Apple Watch focus on quantified health and wellness, as opposed to power, data and real estate intensive functionality that could conflict with the iPhone strategy.”

#apple, #apple-watch, #hardware, #marker-llc, #recent-funding, #startups, #wristcam

0

Sonos and Ikea’s latest collaboration is a picture frame speaker

Following a smattering of leaks, Sonos and Ikea just unveiled the newest addition to their three-year-old Symfonisk line of home speakers. As the name implies, the Picture Frame is a medium-size, flat-panel speaker that can either be mounted on a wall or sat on a shelf via kickstand.

As with the rest of the Symfonisk line, the product is designed to get out of its own way, and blend in its surroundings. It’s a direction much of the industry has gone in over the last several years, with fabric covers aimed at matching the surrounding décor and more or less fade into the background.

Image Credits: Ikea/Sonos

The Picture Frame form factor is another logical extension of this, with a design that doesn’t require clearing off desk space. The front grille is covered in either black or white, with a design created by artist Jennifer Idrizi, which Ikea notes was inspired by cymatics – a visualization of sound vibrations. Fitting and simple, though the company also offers a pair of replacement panels with different designs, at $20.

The Picture Frame itself is $199 – not cheap, exactly, but certainly not unreasonable – especially by Sonos hardware standards. It features built-in WiFi, connects with the rest of Sonos’ hardware and works with 100 different streaming services. There are volume and Play/Pause buttons built in and a number of small touches, like the ability to reconfigure the power cord placement, based on how the frame is positioned.

It’s will be available online and in Ikea stores starting a month from today. The Symfonisk line also includes a lamp speaker and a more traditional rectangular form factor, ranging between $100 and $200.

#hardware, #ikea, #sonos, #speaker, #symfonisk

0

Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation bets on Linux tablet maker Jingling in $10M round

Kai-Fu Lee’s Sinovation Ventures has its eyes on a niche market targeting software developers. In April, the venture capital fund led a $10 million angel round in Jingling, a Chinese startup developing Linux-based tablets and laptops, TechCrunch learned. Other investors in the round included private equity firm Trustbridge Partners.

Jingling was founded only in June 2020 but has quickly assembled a team of 80 employees hailing from the likes of Aliyun OS, Alibaba’s Linux distribution, Thunder Software, a Chinese operating system solution provider, and active participants in China’s open source community.

The majority of the startup’s staff are working on its Linux-based operating system called JingOS in Beijing, with the rest developing hardware in Shenzhen, where its supply chain is located.

“Operating systems are a highly worthwhile field for investment,” Peter Fang, a partner at Sinovation Ventures, told TechCrunch. “We’ve seen the best product iteration for work and entertainment through the combination of iPad Pro and Magical Keyboard, but no tablet maker has delivered a superior user experience for the Android system so far, so we decided to back JingOS.”

“The investment is also in line with Sinovation’s recognition and prediction in ARM powering more mobile and desktop devices in the future,” the investor added.

Jingling’s first device, the JingPad A1 tablet based on the ARM architecture, has already shipped over 500 units in a pre-sale and is ramping up interest through a crowdfunding campaign. Jingling currently uses processors from Tsinghua Unigroup but is looking into Qualcomm and MediaTek chipsets for future production, according to Liu.

On the software end, JingOS, which is open sourced on GitHub, has accumulated over 50,000 installs from users around the world, most of whom are in the United States and Europe.

But how many people want a Linux tablet or laptop? Liu Chengcheng, who launched Jingling with Zhu Rui, said the demand is big enough from the developer community to sustain the startup’s early-phase growth. Liu is known for founding China’s leading startup news site 36Kr and Zhu is an operating system expert and a veteran of Motorola and Lenovo.

Targeting the Linux community is step one for Jingling, for “it’s difficult to gain a foothold by starting out in the [general] consumer market,” said Liu.

“The Linux market is too small for tech giants but too hard for small startups to tackle… Aside from Jingling, Huawei is the only other company in China building a mobile operating system, but HarmonyOS focuses more on IoTs.”

Linux laptops have been around for years, but Jingling wanted to offer something different by offering both desktop and mobile experiences on one device. That’s why Jingling made JingOS compatible with both Linux desktop software like WPS Office and Terminal as well as the usual Android apps on smartphones. The JingPad A1 tablet comes with a detachable keyboard that immediately turns itself into a laptop, a setup similar to Apple’s Magic Keyboard for iPad.

“It’s a gift to programmers, who can use it to code in the Linux system but also use Android mobile apps on the run,” said Liu.

Jingling aspires to widen its user base and seize the Chromebook market about two from now, Liu said. The success of Chromebooks, which comprised 10.8% of the PC market in 2020 and increasingly ate into Microsoft’s dominance, is indicative of the slowing demand for Windows personal computers, the founder observed.

The JingPad A1 is sold at a starting price of $549, compared to Chrome’s wide price range roughly between $200 and $550 depending on the specs and hardware providers.

#android, #asia, #beijing, #china, #funding, #gadgets, #hardware, #ipad, #kai-fu-lee, #linus-torvalds, #linux, #mediatek, #operating-system, #operating-systems, #shenzhen, #software-developers, #tc, #trustbridge-partners

0

Beats Studio Buds offer a compact design, noise-canceling and Android/iOS fast pairing at $150

When they were released in 2019, Powerbeats Pro were standouts. Two-plus years later, they remain one of the more well-rounded wireless earbuds on the market. There are things I would change, of course. Even in 2019, that charging case was ridiculously large. In 2021, the original case is all the more absurd. And, of course, noise-canceling has become nearly standardized among mid-tier buds.

After weeks of rumors and leaks (including a very public cameo on the ears of one of the world’s most famous athletes), Beats’ latest take on the space is finally official. Meet the Beats Studio Pro. They are not, as the company will be quick to tell you, a Powerbeats Pro replacement. Those are sticking around (which isn’t to say they won’t be getting their own upgrade).

Beats may be Apple-owned, but in most respects, the brand operates as it has. It was a wildly successful brand well before Apple got its hands on it, after all. So the company’s opted not to fix what’s clearly not broken. And while technology is clearly shared between the two camps (the H1 chip on the Powerbeats, example), it maintains a line between its self-branded audio offerings (AirPods, et al.) and the Beats line. There’s a reason Beats never really shows up at Apple events, in spite of having a big announcement the following week.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Compared to AirPods, the Beats lines can get a bit convoluted. Effectively the new Studio Beats are a fully wireless earbud line from the company, borrowing a name from its premium over-ear line. But the new buds are actually significantly more compact than Powerbeats Pro, both in terms of the case and the buds themselves. Also notable — and frankly a bit surprising — is the pricing.

At $150, the Studio Buds are a fair bit cheaper than the two-year-old Powerbeats Pro, which currently go for between $160 and $200 online. Keep in mind, that’s down from a launch price of $250. That’s also $50 less than the AirPods and $20 less than the Galaxy Buds. It’s a nice price for what you’re getting here — though maybe my standards have shifted a bit, just coming off of a review of the $280 Sony WF-1000XM4.

Those Sonys are in a class of their own, of course. It’s much fairer for all parties concerned to pit them against other midrange headphones. And by that metric, they perform pretty well. The biggest addition here is active noise canceling — keep in mind, it was far from standard when the Powerbeats Pro were announced. These days, however, it feels like a glaring omission at this price range (Google, I’m looking at you).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Another interesting top-level feature is fast pairing for both iOS and Android, making the Studio Beats one of the first products to walk that line. Funny that it comes from an Apple product, but again, the company seems be afforded at least a little bit of freedom on that front. It’s a small thing — after all, many people will only use the iOS/Android one-touch pairing once, but there’s a lot to be said for making the product as accessible to as many potential customers as possible.

I like the new streamlined design of the buds. As mentioned above, the new case is a fraction of the size of the Powerbeats. Still, the Studio Buds have the same stated battery life, with eight hours on the headphones and 24 total, when you factor in the case. That’s a healthy bit of life, which is quickly becoming the standard these days. There’s a USB-C port on the bottom (a move away from the Apple-only Lightning), which will give you an hour of playback time on a five-minute charge.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is wider and a bit thicker than the AirPods Pro, but is still easily pocketed. It has a bit of a cheap plasticky feel to it, but the matte finish is a nice touch. The branding is the standard Beats level of loud, with a big, bold white “b” set against the black. The buds, too, sport the logo, which can pass for a “9” or a “6” depending on positioning. The lid has a snap to it, and the magnets on the buds snap nicely in place — though, as with the Powerbeats, it can take a little finagling to get them into the proper position.

The buds are fairly compact, as well. The earhooks are gone. That’s something of a mixed bag, honestly. I didn’t think I would love the Powerbeats Pros earhooks, but as someone who experiences some ear pain with a lot of different bud designs, I’ve found them to be among the most comfortable options, transferring the load bearing to the top of the ear.

The Studio Buds are fairly comfortable, and I was able to work out in them (IPX4 rating FTW), though I did have some trouble keeping them in place on occasion. That’s certainly never been a problem with the Powerbeats. If you really don’t want them to move, I recommend applying a bit of pressure to really corkscrew them in place.

One of the design choices I really appreciate that Beats brought back is the physical button. Powerbeats had them and they’re back here on the end of the Studio Buds. It’s got a nice little click to it that I prefer to purely touch-based buttons. A single click will Play/Pause and a long click will turn ANC on and off.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The ANC is a nice addition, of course. It does a decent job with ambient noise, but can’t really touch what you’ll find on higher-end systems. The sound quality, too, has come a ways in the last couple of years. Beats has refined things with a pair of 8.2mm drivers that offer solid sound at their price point. These aren’t sitting-around-and-enjoy-the-finer-points-of-classical-sonata-or-experimental-jazz-record buds; they are, however, solid, listen-to-music-or-a-podcast-while-going-about-your-life headphones.

There’s a lot to like about the buds, and with little question, they’re a much better deal in 2021 than the Powerbeats Pro, even if they don’t feel as groundbreaking as their predecessors did at launch.

The new Beats Studio Buds are up for preorder today and start shipping June 24.

#apple, #beats, #earbuds, #hardware, #headphones, #reviews, #wireless-earbuds

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The rapid hard-tech emergence

When I joined the team at SOSV’s HAX, a venture program designed to help early-stage hardware founders, my friends in tech shook their heads. Hadn’t I learned yet that hardware is too hard? What they didn’t see was a hardware scene evolving rapidly in contrast to its glacial reputation. The old hard-knocks hardware playbook has given way to a new, vastly more exciting one; emerging to meet civilization-level opportunities, like climate, that software can resolve alone.  

Today when I work with with founders in the HAX program, it is normal to build incredible (but feasible) plans to “reduce the world’s energy consumption by 10%” from Seppure, “eliminate all waste in the apparel supply chain” at Unspun or “make global battery recycling 5x more profitable” with Green Li-ion

Ambitions like those reflect emerging mega-trends in the global economy centered around demands to decarbonize, modernize infrastructure, secure supply chains and fully digitize traditional industries.

The tools and technology to move forward — from machine learning to sensors to nano materials — are more powerful and affordable than ever, which allows for higher ambition and far faster time to market. Visionaries like Bill Gates and Elon Musk have taken note, institutional giants like Blackrock are piling pressure on climate negligence and we witnessed the rise of HAX’s like-minded communities The Engine, New Lab and Greentown Labs. 

The scope of this new world is so broad, in fact, that we no longer define HAX’s thesis around “hardware”; we call it Hard Tech, both because it’s hard, as in difficult, as well as moving far beyond the initial scope of early 2010s personal hardware devices and around-the-home IoT. 

What’s emerging all around us is a new generation of hard-tech founders, investors and technology with a few early signals for the hard-tech tidal wave coming. 

If “software eats the world,” hard tech gives it teeth

The last three decades have been defined by “software eating the world,” and it’s been feasting on the lowest hanging fruit. But our screen-based, server-based digital world is increasingly limited to marginal gains in niche markets. As our friends at Ubiquity Ventures say, it’s time for “Software Beyond the Screen”.  

Affordable robotics, AI-driven sensor fusion, uninterrupted connectivity and super materials are merging into the technology stack to unlock massive new tranches of value for customers. Many HAX companies are operating 80%+ gross margin businesses that not long ago industry experts said only SaaS companies could achieve. Even more, the hardware + software combination can tackle more significant problems across industries than software alone ever could.

Learn from Tesla: Take big shots at big industries

When industry experts look to explain the unexpected rise of Tesla in the past 10 years to become a mass production automaker, they point to Tesla’s “software-led” approach. The truth is Tesla’s ascent centered on intense hardware innovation in batteries, motors, manufacturing and distribution models.  

This same equation is playing out in dominant, multitrillion-dollar industries such as energy, construction and agriculture. Investors on the hunt for opportunities in these categories will need to be bold, but will find disproportionate returns if they include hard tech. To move the world forward, we will need to take big shots like Commonwealth’s Fusion Energy nuclear fusion reactors, Boston Metal’s emissions free steel or Deepspin’s  low-cost MRIs. Just as with Tesla and transportation, software may kick off opportunities, but industrial revolutions come from innovation in the physical world.

New doors open for B2B sales

Addressing these massive opportunities requires partners and customers at industrial scale. Startups can’t afford to go it alone. The traditional advice for startups is to avoid corporate partners because they are scary, slow moving beasts that can’t work at startup pace. The reality is that large corporations have noticeably increased their appetite for emerging hard-tech startups and many have set up pipelines to engage with higher risk, more complex technology. In the last few years the number of corporations doing venture deals has more than doubled and many more are priming for the industry-wide upheavals already in motion. 

This enables startups to get inside corporate, B2B markets more quickly, which accounts for many B2B hard-tech startups scaling to millions in revenue at a pace once formerly limited to their software-only peers. It also accounts for the surge in VC capital to those same firms as well as the shift in HAX’s own make-up. Since our start in 2012, the HAX B2B portfolio has grown from 10% to 70% of our total investments, and that includes a majority of fastest growing early-stage companies. 

Tooling hard-tech companies is easier and cheaper

The technologies and strategies for spinning up early-stage, hard-tech startups have advanced by orders of magnitude in less than a decade. The price of 3D printers had dropped from $20,000 to $200. Printed circuit boards ship around the world in just days (even amongst wild supply chains shortages). Hundreds of thousands of suppliers exist online ready to make and ship components overnight. It’s reasonable for an early-stage founder on a slim budget to build an impressive and revenue-generating prototype. As a result, hard-tech founders can zero in on their core technology development and take for granted many things formerly considered really “hard.” Similar to the rise of APIs, AWS and “no-code” that unleashed new applications for software, similar revolutions are the backbone of the new hard tech world. 

PhDs are the future icons

Because hard-tech commercialization is no longer a Quixotic quest, more PhDs and post-docs are signing up to start companies. It’s routine for a HAX startup to have a PhD founder, or one that spent years working on a doctoral thesis (more than 40% SOSV Climate 100 companies have at least one PhD founder). They are responding to more entrepreneurial nudges directly from universities, but also are inspired by the call for big, civilization-level technology challenges, like climate. 

It’s not an easy road for investors because, almost by definition, the work that comes off a university lab bench is going to be very advanced, somewhat speculative and lacking a proven market. In other words, hard-tech startups are usually in very deep waters, and expert leadership and insight are at a premium. As a result, many VCs are picking up scientists and engineers for their investment teams lest they risk missing out on the next generation of great founders and industry-shifting startups. We are at the start of a golden era of opportunity for our best minds in science and technology. 

These highlights from HAX’s emerging Hard Tech rise are not a prediction of years to come, but a reflection of what the HAX team sees happening in our portfolio every day. We are stunned by the quality of ideas, ambition of the founders and the speed of execution against projects that not many years ago were written off as impossible. Sure, it’s still hard, but more entrepreneurs and investors are moving into hard tech as it becomes an inevitable force for the coming decades. 

Disclosure: Former TechCrunch COO Ned Desmond is now senior operating partner at SOSV.

#column, #hardware, #sosv

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Sony sets a new standard with the WF-1000XM4 earbuds

It’s been just under two years since I reviewed the WF-1000XM3, and in that time, Sony’s earbuds never stopped being the reference point for high-end earbuds. Seriously, I reviewed a new pair like a month ago and still made the customary reference.

That’s a rarity in these days of the yearly upgrade cycle. And that goes double for the wireless earbud space. It already felt crowded when Sony entered it in earnest in mid-2019, and things have only gotten worse on that front. But the M3s were a breath of fresh air. With so many companies competing for the middle and low end of the spectrum, Sony dropped something truly premium.

Six months before the AirPods Pro arrived, the M3 hit the market with excellent sound and noise canceling. The latter has, of course, become standardized across the category, but when Sony brought it, it was nearly unheard of. In spite of the headphones’ warm reception, however, the company’s waited two years to deliver a proper follow-up. Understandable, I suppose. Improving on very good is difficult.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

I’m happy to report that the WF-1000XM4 is worth the wait. Sony’s great at high-end headphones, and these are no exception. The new buds represent an improvement over their predecessors in a number of ways. Unfortunately, they’re priced to match. If you thought the M3’s were steep at $230, I’ve got some bad news for you, friend. The new ones run an additional $50.

The upshot is that new headphones means a price drop on the older units. A quick search shows them for around $178 from a number of places, putting them more in line with standard earbud pricing. At $30 more than the AirPods Pro, Sony’s really leaning into the premium end of the spectrum. If anyone has the resources and scale to keeping pricing down, it’s Sony.

Are the WF-1000XM4s worth the price? It’s a fairly subjective question, of course. What I can definitely say is that they’re among the best-sounding pairs of earbuds you can buy. I’m still not convinced that anyone can truly duplicate the over-ear headphone experience in a pair of buds — the form factor is just too limited for now. But there are definitely advantages to going with buds — namely portability and on these unspeakably hot summer days, a chance to let your ears breathe.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Buds are, of course, better suited to fitness, as well. Though if you’re specifically looking for a pair to work out in, these probably shouldn’t be your first choice. I mean, they’re IPX4 water resistant, which is plenty good for sweat, but these are more of a long plane ride or sitting at your desk and really enjoying the hell out of a jazz record kind of earbuds.

In part, because they’re big. Granted, they’re a fair bit smaller than their predecessors, and moving from a paddle design to placing the components above the ear canal is a net benefit, but they’re still a bit too large for a long run. And while this is one of those things that vary dramatically from person to person, I found that the buds tended to cause ear pain after wearing them for extended stretches. I found the pressure relieved a bit when I swapped the medium foam tips for a small (I’m a medium in virtually all variety of earbud tips), though the small were much worse at forming a seal in my ears — a necessity to really take advantage of the active noise canceling. And even still, the eventual dull pain was not non-existent.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

It is also worth noting that I’ve had less than spectacular experiences with foam tips. They tend to be more prone to wear and tear than silicone and have a habit of getting a bit gnarly in the earwax department (look, this job isn’t always pretty). Though I understand why high-end manufacturers go this route, from a comfort perspective.

Also, hey, kudos to Sony for going with sustainable paper packaging. It’s not much to look at, but how often do you really look at the package your electronics came in? Anything that’s even slightly better for the planet is a net positive in my book. And besides, the charging case looks great.

It’s significantly smaller than the W3’s. These are a helluva lot more pocketable. It’s an understated matte black, albeit with a pretty loud white Sony logo on top. The magnets are strong and the buds snap into the case with authority — they’ll also attach to each other. A thin LED strip directly below the lid glows green or red, depending on charge. The case is wide enough to sit upright, so the USB-C port is located around the back — or you can charge it up wirelessly with a Qi pad.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Interestingly, the stated charging time is the same as the M3s, though the numbers have been shifted around. With the originals, you got six hours on the buds and another 18 from the case. Here it’s eight hours on the buds and 16 on the case. So, a full day, either way, but I certainly prefer the two added hours on the actual earbuds.

The buds themselves are a bit flashier than the case. The design features two intersecting circles, the upper most of which is designed to lie flush with the ear. The outside is accented with a metal microphone, with a second, flush microphone up top.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The sound of the buds is really excellent. It’s got the kind of instrument separation that opens up new details on familiar songs you missed with inferior buds. The default balance is terrific, as well. Sony doesn’t lean to heavily into the bass because it doesn’t have to. The headphones sound terrific across a wide range of music varieties, as well as podcasts.

The noise-canceling is, once again, industry leading. A simple tap on the left earbud cycles between ANC and ambient noise, and the difference is like night and day. I was really impressed by the sounds it was capable of blocking, including my extremely loud vegetable juicer. I was also impressed by the buds’ Bluetooth range.

With earbuds, it’s true that you often get what you pay for. That’s certainly the case here. Sony’s once again managed to set the bar for high-end buds with the WF-1000XM4.

 

#earbuds, #hardware, #reviews, #sony, #wf-1000xm4, #wireless-earbuds

0

Microsoft plans to launch dedicated Xbox cloud gaming hardware

Microsoft will soon launch a dedicated device for game streaming, the company announced today. It’s also working with a number of TV manufacturers to build the Xbox experience right into their internet-connected screens and Microsoft plans to bring build cloud gaming to the PC Xbox app later this year, too, with a focus on play-before-you-buy scenarios.

It’s unclear what these new game streaming devices will look like. Microsoft didn’t provide any further details. But chances are, we’re talking about either a Chromecast-like streaming stick or a small Apple TV-like box. So far, we also don’t know which TV manufacturers it will partner with.

It’s no secret that Microsoft is bullish about cloud gaming. With Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, it’s already making it possible for its subscribers to play more than 100 console games on Android, streamed from the Azure cloud, for example. In a few weeks, it’ll open cloud gaming in the browser on Edge, Chrome and Safari, to all Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers (it’s currently in limited beta). And it is bringing Game Pass Ultimate to Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Japan later this year, too.

In many ways, Microsoft is unbundling gaming from the hardware — similar to what Google is trying with Stadia (an effort that, so far, has fallen flat for Google) and Amazon with Luna. The major advantage Microsoft has here is a large library of popular games, something that’s mostly missing on competing services, with the exception of Nvidia’s GeForce Now platform — though that one has a different business model since its focus is not on a subscription but on allowing you to play the games you buy in third-party stores like Steam or the Epic store.

What Microsoft clearly wants to do is expand the overall Xbox ecosystem, even if that means it sells fewer dedicated high-powered consoles. The company likens this to the music industry’s transition to cloud-powered services backed by all-you-can-eat subscription models.

“We believe that games, that interactive entertainment, aren’t really about hardware and software. It’s not about pixels. It’s about people. Games bring people together,”
said Microsoft’s Xbox head Phil Spencer. “Games build bridges and forge bonds, generating mutual empathy among people all over the world. Joy and community -that’s why we’re here.”

It’s worth noting that Microsoft says it’s not doing away with dedicated hardware, though, and is already working on the next generation of its console hardware — but don’t expect a new Xbox console anytime soon.

#amazon, #android, #australia, #brazil, #cloud-gaming, #computing, #directx, #gadgets, #gaming, #google, #hardware, #japan, #luna, #mexico, #microsoft, #nvidia, #phil-spencer, #tc, #xbox, #xbox-cloud-gaming, #xbox-game-pass

0

Ring won’t say how many users had footage obtained by police

Ring gets a lot of criticism, not just for its massive surveillance network of home video doorbells and its problematic privacy and security practices, but also for giving that doorbell footage to law enforcement. While Ring is making moves towards transparency, the company refuses to disclose how many users had their data given to police.

The video doorbell maker, acquired by Amazon in 2018, has partnerships with at least 1,800 U.S. police departments (and growing) that can request camera footage from Ring doorbells. Prior to a change this week, any police department that Ring partnered with could privately request doorbell camera footage from Ring customers for an active investigation. Ring will now let its police partners publicly request video footage from users through its Neighbors app.

The change ostensibly gives Ring users more control when police can access their doorbell footage, but ignores privacy concerns that police can access users’ footage without a warrant.

Civil liberties advocates and lawmakers have long warned that police can obtain camera footage from Ring users through a legal back door because Ring’s sprawling network of doorbell cameras are owned by private users. Police can still serve Ring with a legal demand, such as a subpoena for basic user information, or a search warrant or court order for video content, assuming there is evidence of a crime.

Ring received over 1,800 legal demands during 2020, more than double from the year earlier, according to a transparency report that Ring published quietly in January. Ring does not disclose sales figures but says it has “millions” of customers. But the report leaves out context that most transparency reports include: how many users or accounts had footage given to police when Ring was served with a legal demand?

When reached, Ring declined to say how many users had footage obtained by police.

That number of users or accounts subject to searches is not inherently secret, but an obscure side effect of how companies decide — if at all — to disclose when the government demands user data. Though they are not obligated to, most tech companies publish transparency reports once or twice a year to show how often user data is obtained by the government.

Transparency reports were a way for companies subject to data requests to push back against damning allegations of intrusive bulk government surveillance by showing that only a fraction of a company’s users are subject to government demands.

But context is everything. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Twitter all reveal how many legal demands they receive, but also specify how many users or accounts had data given. In some cases, the number of users or accounts affected can be twice or more than threefold the number of demands they received.

Ring’s parent, Amazon, is a rare exception among the big tech giants, which does not break out the specific number of users whose information was turned over to law enforcement.

“Ring is ostensibly a security camera company that makes devices you can put on your own homes, but it is increasingly also a tool of the state to conduct criminal investigations and surveillance,” Matthew Guariglia, policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechCrunch.

Guariglia added that Ring could release the numbers of users subject to legal demands, but also how many users have previously responded to police requests through the app.

Ring users can opt out of receiving requests from police, but this option would not stop law enforcement from obtaining a legal order from a judge for your data. Users can also switch on end-to-end encryption to prevent anyone other than the user, including Ring, from accessing their videos.

#amazon, #apple, #articles, #electronic-frontier-foundation, #encryption, #facebook, #google, #hardware, #judge, #law-enforcement, #microsoft, #neighbors, #operating-systems, #privacy, #ring, #security, #smart-doorbell, #software, #terms-of-service, #transparency-report

0

Tiny handheld Playdate ships next month for $179, with 24 charming monochrome games to start

Playdate, app and game designer Panic’s first shot at hardware, finally has a firm price and ship date, as well as a bunch of surprise features cooked up since its announcement in 2019. The tiny handheld gaming console will cost $179, ship next month, and come with a 24-game “season” doled out over 12 weeks. But now it also has a cute speaker dock and low-code game creation platform.

We first heard about Playdate more than two years ago, were charmed by its clean look, funky crank control, and black and white display, and have been waiting for news ever since. Panic’s impeccable design credentials combined with Teenage Engineering’s creative hardware chops? It’s bound to be a joy to use, but there wasn’t much more than that to go on.

Now the company has revealed all the important details we were hoping for, and many more to boot.

The Playdate handheld with a person playing a game on it.

Image Credits: Panic

Originally we were expecting 12 games to be delivered over 12 weeks, but in the intervening period it seems they’ve collected more titles than planned, and that initial “season” of games has expanded to 24. No one knows exactly what to expect from these games except that they’re exclusive to the Playdate and many use the crank mechanic in what appear to be fun and interesting ways: turning a turntable, opening a little door, doing tricks as a surfer, and so on.

The team hasn’t decided how future games will be distributed, though they seem to have some ideas. Another season? One-off releases? Certainly the presence of a new game by one-man indie hit parade Lucas Pope would sell like hotcakes.

Screenshots of the Pulp game creation tool.

Image Credits: Panic

But the debut of a new lo-fi game development platform called Pulp suggests a future where self-publishing may also be an option. This lovely little web-based tool lets anyone put together a game using presets for things like controls and actions, and may prove to be a sort of tiny Twine in time.

A dock accessory was announced as well, something to keep your Playdate front and center on your desk. The speaker-equipped dock, also a lemony yellow, acts as a magnetic charging cradle for the console, activating a sort of stationary mode with a clock and music player (Poolsuite.fm, apparently, with original relaxing tunes). It even has two holes in which to put your pens (and Panic made a special yellow pen just for the purpose as well).

Playdate attached to its little cubical dock.

Image Credits: Panic

The $179 price may cause some to balk — after all, it’s considerably more than a Nintendo 3DS and with the dock probably approaches the price of a Switch. But this isn’t meant to be a competitor with mainstream gaming — instead, it’s a sort of anti-establishment system that embraces weirdness and provides something equally unfamiliar and undeniably fun.

The team says that there will be a week’s warning before orders can be placed, and that they don’t plan to shut orders down if inventory runs out, but simply allow people to preorder and cancel at will until they receive their unit. We hope to get one ourselves to test and review, but since part of the charm of the whole thing is the timed release and social aspect of discovery and sharing, it’s more than likely we’ll be experiencing it along with everyone else.

#gadgets, #gaming, #hardware, #panic, #playdate

0

ISEE brings autonomy to shipping yards with self-driving container trucks

Robotaxis may still be a few years out, but there are other industries that can be transformed by autonomous vehicles as they are today. MIT spin-off ISEE has identified one in the common shipping yard, where containers are sorted and stored — today by a dwindling supply of human drivers, but tomorrow perhaps by the company’s purpose-built robotic yard truck. With new funding and partnerships with major shippers, the company may be about to go big.

Shipping yards are the buffer zone of the logistics industry. When a container is unloaded from a ship full of them, it can’t exactly just sit there on the wharf where the crane dropped it. Maybe it’s time sensitive and has to trucked out right away; maybe it needs to go through customs and inspections and must stay in the facility for a week; maybe it’s refrigerated and needs power and air hookups.

Each of these situations will be handled by a professional driver, hooking the container up to a short-haul truck and driving it the hundred or thousand meters to its proper place, an empty slot with a power hookup, long term storage, ready access for inspection, etc. But like many jobs in logistics, this one is increasingly facing a labor shortage as fewer people sign up for it every year. The work, after all, is fairly repetitive, not particularly easy, and of course heavy equipment can be dangerous.

ISEE’s co-founders Yibiao Zhao and Debbie Yu said they identified the logistics industry as one that needs more automation, and these container yards especially. “Working with customers, it’s surprising how dated their yard operation is — it’s basically just people yelling,” said Zhao.  “There’s a big opportunity to bring this to the next level.”

Two ISEE trucks without containers on the back.

Image Credits: ISEE

The ISEE trucks are not fully custom vehicles but yard trucks of a familiar type, retrofitted with lidar, cameras, and other sensors to give them 360-degree awareness. Their job is to transport containers (unmodified, it is important to note) to and from locations in the yards, backing the 50-foot trailer into a parking spot with as little as a foot of space on either side.

“A customer adopts our solution just as if they’re hiring another driver,” Zhao said. No safe zone is required, no extra considerations need to be made at the yard. The ISEE trucks navigate the yard intelligently, driving around obstacles, slowing for passing workers, and making room for other trucks, whether autonomous or human. Unlike many industrial machines and vehicles, these bring the current state of autonomous driving to bear in order to stay safe and drive as safely as possible among mixed and unpredictable traffic.

The advantage of an automated system over a human driver is especially pronounced in this environment. One rather unusual limitation of yard truck drivers is that, because the driver’s seat is on the left side of the cabin, they can only park the trucks on the left as well since that’s the only side they can see well enough. ISEE trucks have no such limitation, of course, and can park easily in either direction, something that has apparently blown the human drivers’ minds.

Overhead view of autonomous and ordinary trucks moving around a shipping yard.

Image Credits: ISEE

Efficiency is also improved through the infallible machine mind. “There are hundreds, even thousands of containers in the yard. Humans spend a lot of time just going around the yard searching for assets, because they can’t remember what is where,” explained Zhao. But of course a computer never forgets, and so no gas is wasted circling the yard looking for either a container or a spot to put one.

Once it parks, another ISEE tech can make the necessary connections for electricity or air as well, a step that can be hazardous for human drivers in bad conditions.

The robotic platform also offers consistency. Human drivers aren’t so good when they’re trainees, taking a few years to get seasoned, noted Yu. “We’ve learned a lot about efficiency,” she said. “That’s basically what customers care about the most; the supply chain depends on throughput.”

To that end she said that moderating speed has been an interesting challenge — it’s easy for the vehicle to go faster, but it needs the awareness to be able to slow down when necessary, not just when there’s an obstacle, but when there are things like blind corners that must be navigated with care.

It is in fact a perfect training ground for developing autonomy, and that’s kind of the idea.

“Today’s robots work with very predefined rules in very constrained environments, but in the future autonomous cars will drive in open environments. We see this tech gap, how to enable robots or autonomous vehicles do deal with uncertainty,” said Zhao.

ISEE co-founders Yibiao Zhao (top), Debbie Yu (left), and Chris Baker.

ISEE Founders

“We needed a relatively unconstrained environment with complex human behaviors, and we found it’s actually a perfect marriage, the flexible autonomy we’re offering and the yard,” he continued. “It’s a private lot, there’s no regulation, all the vehicles stay in it, there are no kids or random people, no long tail like a public highway or busy street. But it’s not simple, it’s complex like most industrial environments — it’s congested, busy, there are pedestrians and trucks coming in and out.”

Although it’s an MIT spinout with a strong basis in papers and computer vision research, it’s not a theoretical business. ISEE is already working with two major shippers, Lazer Spot and Maersk, which account for hundreds of yards and some 10,000 trucks, many or most of which could potentially be automated by ISEE.

So far the company has progressed past the pilot stage and is working with Maersk to bring several vehicles into active service at a yard. The Maersk Growth Fund has also invested an undisclosed amount in ISEE, and one detects the possibility of an acquisition looming in the near future. But the plan for now is to simply expand and refine the technology and services and widen the lead between ISEE and any would-be competitors.

#artificial-intelligence, #automotive, #autonomous-trucks, #autonomous-vehicles, #funding, #fundings-exits, #hardware, #isee, #logistics, #recent-funding, #robotics, #self-driving-cars, #self-driving-trucks, #shipping, #startups, #tc, #transportation

0

Sony’s best-in-class noise-cancelling earbuds finally get a pricey upgrade

It’s been two years since Sony raised the bar for wireless earbuds. Six months before Apple upped its own game with the AirPods Pro, the WF-1000XM3 set a new standard for sound and active noise cancelation. Since then, few companies have been able to match – let alone surpass – their performance.

After several weeks’ worth of leaks, the electronics giant is back with the WF-1000XM4 – a pair of buds it claims will best both the sound quality and ANC of the originals. It’s a high bar with an equally lofty price tag. The pricing was steep with the originals at $230, and now it seems Sony is really leaning in here at $280.

The wireless earbud category was already feeling crowded in 2019, but that’s nothing compared to where we’re at in 2021. There are also plenty of sub-$50 options out (you can also pick up decent Sony earbuds for under $100). Rather than finding a way to drop the cost, however, Sony is looking to cement a place at the truly premium end of spectrum, at $30 more than even the AirPods Pro.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, given how high the company set the bar with the M3s, I’m definitely looking forward to testing these things out (a pair just arrived, so more soon). The M4s could well make a great pair of travel headphones – when we start doing that more regularly. The company says the secret sauce here is the V1, a newly designed processor that both enhances the ANC and the sound quality on the buds.

“Specially developed by Sony, the newly designed Integrated Processor V1 takes the noise canceling performance of Sony’s acclaimed QN1e chip and goes even further,” the company writes. “With two noise sensing microphones on the surface of each earbud – one feed-forward and one feed-back – the headphones analyze ambient noise to provide highly accurate noise cancellation.”

There are beam-forming mics on board, as well, to capture sound directly from the speaker’s mouth and reduce unnecessary ambient noise. Interesting tidbit here, too, “The new bone-conduction sensor only picks up vibrations from the user’s voice, enabling even clearer speech when making calls.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s automatic wind noise reduction for when you’re outside, coupled with a new 6mm driver. The redesigned system promises richer bass and better sound with less distortion. Naturally, Sony has also brought over its High-Resolution Audio Wireless technology, capable of transmitting 3x the data of standard Bluetooth with up to 990 kbps, according to the company.

The buds support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio – clearly something more manufacturers are looking at for high-end headphones, as they take small steps toward augmented audio. That feature needs to be enabled in the Sony app and naturally only works with select services. Adaptive Sound Control, meanwhile, adjusts playback volume based on ambient noise.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As mentioned above, I’ve got a pair sitting on my desk right now, and right off the bat, the charging case is significantly smaller than the M3, while still boasting a full 24 hours of life on a charge. The buds themselves get up to eight hours, which is around the industry standard for higher-end sets. Five minutes of charging the case should get you an hour of playback.

The shape has changed significantly from the M3. The long wings are now bulbous and sit above the ear canal. Curious to see whether this eases some of the pressure with long term use. The buds are rated IPX4 waterproof and work with both Google Assistant and Alexa. They’ll fast pair to Android devices and Windows 10 machines.

They’re available beginning today for $280.

#earbuds, #hardware, #sony

0

Global smartphone market continues rebound with 26% Q1 bump

More signs of the global market righting the ship after a disastrous 2020. New figures from Gartner point to 26% increase in global sales year over year for the first quarter of 2021. The overall increase is an impressive one, though it comes after a couple of years of market slow down, followed by a step drop amid the pandemic.

Manufacturers got hit from all sides last year. 2020 kicked things off with a manufacturing slowdown, as China and greater Asia were the first to be impacted by the effects of Covid-19. In the following months, global demand slowed, as shutdowns were instated and job loss and economic issues massively hampered sales.

Image Credits: Gartner

The new Gartner numbers maintain the same global top three manufacturers as this time last year. Samsung’s overall market share grew from 18.4- to 20.3%, courtesy of budget devices, returning to the number one spot.

Apple had managed to push its way to number one in Q4, on the strength of its belated 5G push. The company dropped down to number two for the first quarter – the same position it held this time last year. Overall, its market share is up around 2% y-o-y to 15.5, according to the figures. The top five are rounded out by three Chinese manufacturers — Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo – as Huawei’s struggles continue.

Thus far, global chip shortages appear to have had little impact on shipments.

#apple, #gartner, #hardware, #huawei, #mobile, #oppo, #samsung, #vivo, #xiaomi

0

Live from Apple’s WWDC 2021 keynote

And we’re back. Well, not back-back. But we’re here in the San Jose McEnery Convention Center of the mind. The parking is awful and the hotels all got booked up five months ago, so we’re taking the CalTrain in from Redwood City (of the mind).

We’ve got a full house at this morning’s virtual kick off to Apple’s annual developer conference. And good thing, too. It’s shaping up to be a packed event. You can read more about that here. You can also check out Apple’s own livestream here. And, of course, we’ll be breaking out the biggest news into bite-sized chunks.

As always, the kickoff event is focused on Apple’s (numerous) operating systems: iOS/iPadOS, macOS, watchOS, tvOS and, perhaps, a new homeOS. Often times that also comes with some new hardware. After all, you’ll need something to run those operating systems on.

Matthew will be leading the show, with help from various the TC team. Things kick off today at 10AM PT/1PM ET.

 

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#apple, #apps, #hardware, #ios, #ipados, #liveblog, #macos, #tc, #wwdc, #wwdc-2021

0

What to expect from WWDC 2021

All things considered, Apple put together a pretty slick all-virtual WWDC last year. Where other companies like Microsoft and Google have opted for a more live (or live-style) experience, the company was parading its execs through a series of smooth drone shots and slick transitions. And with the first year under its belt, it will be fun to see how the company outdoes itself.

As far as news goes, the WWDC keynote kickoff is always packed — and this year is no different. In fact, there’s a good chance that we could see even more. In addition to the standard developer-focused updates to iOS/iPadOS, watchOS, macOS, tvOS and the like, we could well see some new hardware dropping at the event.

As ever, we’ll be breaking the news live, and this time out, we’re bringing back the liveblog. So, you know, lots of different ways to follow along live. The event kicks off at 10AM PT/1PM ET on Monday, June 7.

Speaking of, you can also check out the YouTube livestream here:

As usual, iOS is the tentpole attraction here — if nothing else, because Apple sells more iPhones than anything else. That was certainly the case last year, when the company’s latest 5G devices provided much needed relief in an otherwise flagging mobile market.

At least right off the bat, iOS 15 doesn’t look like as radical an update as the latest version of Android. But a lot can happen between today and Monday morning. The top line issue (at least for now) seems to be updates to notifications. According to reports, the new version of the mobile operating system will offer customizable notifications based on status — meaning things like sleeping, working and driving.

The operating system is also believed to be getting a whole slew of new accessibility features.

Apple 2021 iPad Pro overview

Image Credits: Apple

Perhaps even bigger news is a long-awaited update to iPadOS 15. The dated software was a sticking point in our latest iPad Pro review, and it seems the company is finally making some key strides to further distance its tablet operating system from the mobile one. For most intents and purposes, the current execution is effectively a scaled-up version of iOS for the tablet.

Not a ton of details yet, but the home screen is reportedly set to get some major updates, including widgets. One imagines the company will be pushing to make better use of all that added real estate. It should also be getting some of the new iOS updates, including those new notifications and a big overhaul for iMessage.

a new iPhone 12 package on top of a MacBook Pro package.

YOKOHAMA, KANAGAWA, JAPAN – 2020/10/31: In this photo illustration a new iPhone 12 package on top of a MacBook Pro package. (Photo Illustration by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

After the big overhaul that was Big Sur, we’re expecting smaller waves from macOS 12. The big news here may be hardware. Rumors surround an update to Apple’s blazing-fast M1 chip. The M1X (as it’s currently being called) could well arrive alongside brand new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, which would finally put a little sunlight between the high and low end of Apple’s laptop line.

Apple Watch Series 5

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Also, watchOS seems due for a big update, even if information is pretty scant so far. New health features are always a sure bet — especially now that Apple is competing with the newly combined Google and Fitbit (not to mention that recently announced assist from Samsung).

Then there’s homeOS, the most intriguing mystery of the bunch. Job listings have pointed to the mysterious operating system — that could have just been a typo (later changed to “HomePod” in the listing).

Image Credits: Apple

This being a rumor roundup, we’ll point the compelling possibility that it might be something larger — perhaps a more unifying home operating system designed to work with existing and forthcoming Apple home products. Perhaps something that integrates a bit more closely with tvOS. A longstanding rumor centers around a new Apple TV device, but so far we’ve not seen a lot of confirmation on that front.

Other rumors involve a new Mac Mini (though we just saw a refresh late last year). Rumors around Beats Studio Buds are enticing as well. After all, when LeBron is seen sporting your unannounced hardware, people are going to talk. Traditionally, however, Apple has opted to let the Beats team do its own announcements, saving these big events for its own self-branded audio products like AirPods.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#apple, #apps, #events, #hardware, #ios, #ios-15, #macbook, #macos, #watchos, #wwdc, #wwdc-2021

0

Google’s Pixel Buds A Series are an exercise in earbud cost cutting

Google does a lot of things well. But hardware strategy has never really been among them. The last several years have seen the company at least finding some consistency with its Pixel and Nest devices. But the former, in particular, has continued to struggle as the company has worked to find its footing in an already crowded space.

In 2017, the company entered the wireless earbud space with the first-gen Pixel Buds. The product was certainly an original take on the category, both in terms of design and features. Ultimately, however, it fell flat. But an “A” for effort, I guess. The second-gen product, introduced in April of last year, corrected a lot of their predecessor’s problems, mostly by delivering a more straightforward approach.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Announced today, the Pixel Buds A-Series find the company capitalizing on that success with an approach that has worked well for Google’s smartphone line. The first Pixel A arrived just as the company was dealing with the consequences of poor mobile sales. The low-cost approach to the line sold well (by Google smartphone standards), helping deliver positive news for the beleaguered line.

As with the budget phones, the price is, once again, the thing. Here that means $99. It’s a price point that puts it below the new Echo Buds ($119) and Samsung Galaxy Buds ($110), and well under the AirPods 2 ($159). Essentially it’s the low end of the mid-tier of fully wireless earbud pricing. There is arguably even more competition at the really low end, where you can pick up of a pair of Anker earbuds for around $40. But relative to what we’d generally consider brand names, the pricing is quite aggressive.

It’s also a significant reduction from the standard Pixel Buds, which sport an MSRP of $170 (though you can find them quite a bit cheaper with minimal effort). The Series A aren’t replacing the standard Pixel Buds, so much as augmenting them — similar to what Apple did with AirPods, albeit on the other end of the pricing spectrum. With the new buds on the market, I would anticipate a further narrowing of the price gap between the products on many online retailers. As of this writing, there’s at least one offering the Pixel Buds second gens for $99.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As you’d expect, the lower cost comes with a bit of corner-cutting — or at least the removal of some non-essentials. Ultimately the value for a given user comes down to what you’re willing to lose for the sake of a lower price point. The top-level losses here are:

  • No wireless charging
  • The loss of Attention Alerts (a feature that momentarily reduces volume when things like a siren, baby crying or dog barking are heard), due to lower-cost sensors
  • The loss of noise reduction for calls and wind
  • Limited tap gestures

Otherwise, the Series A are a lot like the Pixel Buds 2, including a similar 12 mm dynamic speaker driver and a nearly identical design. In fact, I was struck by just how similar they were. The size, the shape — really, the only immediate distinction here is coloring. It wasn’t broke, so Google didn’t really fix it. Gone are the bolder matte colors of the predecessors. Now the headphones feature two glossy colors: Clearly White and Dark Olive. Google sent the former, which is a bit more off-white than the AirPods (a bit closer to the Echo Buds coloring), paired with a kind of dull gray. If you want bolder colors, you’re going to have to stick with the standard buds, which also feature a striking orange and mint green colors. I prefer the matte coloring of the original, but the company had to do something to set these apart, I suppose.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The case is the same vertically oriented oval design as the earlier version. It’s similar in volume to the AirPods Pro — so pretty easy to just pop into a pocket. The USB-C charging port is on the bottom; a light up front tips you off on charging status and the sync button is toward the bottom of the back. Flip up the top and reveal two familiar earbuds.

The size and shape are more or less the same as the Pixel Buds — a good thing, as they’re pretty comfortable over long periods. That’s certainly not something I can say for all of the competition. The silicone tips are user-replaceable for a better fit, but the small silicone ear tip is stuck in there for good. That’s fine for me, but your results may vary.

Like their predecessors, the A Series’ (total side note, but after writing so many funding rounds, I really want to write “Series A”) sound falls in the middle of the pack. You can get better quality from higher-end headphones like the AirPods Pro or Sony WF-1000XM3 (talk about being overdue for a refresh), but these are totally capable for day to day listening and making calls, even if the mic has lost a few of its tricks.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There’s no noise canceling here. That’s to be expected, of course, given that the standard Pixel Buds don’t have the feature either. Given that it’s becoming increasingly standardized, it’s probably a no-brainer that the Pixel Buds 3 will offer the feature to further distinguish them from the budget model.

The buds offer five hours on a charge (2.5 hours of talk time) and 12 hours when the case is factored in — again, same as the Pixel Buds. They also boast the same IPX4 rating for water/sweat resistance. The Bluetooth connectivity is fairly strong. I found I was able to walk over to another room without losing connection, which is often hit or miss on buds.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

They’ll pair to either an Android (6.0+) or iOS device. Naturally, of course, they play nicely with the former, using Fast Pair. On an Apple handset, you’ll have to use the pairing button. Google Assistant — one of the standout features — also only works with Android devices. It’s handiest for enabling notifications, as well as real-time use of Google Translate.

Nothing about the Pixel Buds A Series is going to set the earbud world on fire. And that’s not really the point. More than anything, the product is an exercise in trimming the fat in order to deliver a solid experience at less than $100. And by that standard, they largely succeed.

#earbuds, #google, #google-pixel, #hardware, #pixel, #pixel-buds, #reviews, #wireless-earbuds

0

Fujifilm becomes the latest victim of a network-crippling ransomware attack

Japanese multinational conglomerate Fujifilm has been forced to shut down parts of its global network after falling victim to a suspected ransomware attack.

The company, which is best known for its digital imaging products but also produces high tech medical kit including devices for rapid processing of COVID-19 tests, confirmed that its Tokyo headquarters was hit by a cyberattack on Tuesday evening.

“Fujifilm Corporation is currently carrying out an investigation into possible unauthorized access to its server from outside of the company. As part of this investigation, the network is partially shut down and disconnected from external correspondence,” the company said in a statement posted to its website.

“We want to state what we understand as of now and the measures that the company has taken. In the late evening of June 1, 2021, we became aware of the possibility of a ransomware attack. As a result, we have taken measures to suspend all affected systems in coordination with our various global entities.

“We are currently working to determine the extent and the scale of the issue. We sincerely apologize to our customers and business partners for the inconvenience this has caused.”

As a result of the partial network shutdown, Fujifilm USA added a notice to its website stating that it is currently experiencing problems affecting all forms of communications, including emails and incoming calls. In an earlier statement, Fujifilm confirmed that the cyberattack is also preventing the company from accepting and processing orders. 

Fujifilm has yet to respond to our request for comment.

While Fujifilm is keeping tight-lipped on further details, such as the identity of the ransomware used in the attack, Bleeping Computer reports that the company’s servers have been infected by Qbot. Advanced Intel CEO Vitali Kremez told the publication that the company’s systems were hit by the 13-year-old Trojan, typically initiated by phishing, last month.

The creators of Qbot, also known as QakBot or QuakBot, have a long history of partnering with ransomware operators. It previously worked with the ProLock and Egregor ransomware gangs, but is currently said to be linked with the notorious REvil group.

“Initial forensic analysis suggests that the ransomware attack on Fujifilm started with a Qbot trojan infection last month, which gave hackers a foothold in the company’s systems with which to deliver the secondary ransomware payload,” Ray Walsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, told TechCrunch. “Most recently, the Qbot trojan has been actively exploited by the REvil hacking collective, and it seems highly plausible that the Russian-based hackers are behind this cyberattack.”

REvil, also known as Sodinokibi, not only encrypts a victim’s files but also exfiltrates data from their network. The hackers typically threaten to publish the victim’s files if their ransom isn’t paid. But a site on the dark web used by REvil to publicize stolen data appeared offline at the time of writing.

Ransomware attacks have been on the rise since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so much so that they have become the biggest single money earner for cybercriminals. Threat hunting and cyber intelligence firm Group-IB estimates that the number of ransomware attacks grew by more than 150% in 2020, and that the average ransom demand increased more than twofold to $170,000.

At the time of writing, it’s unclear whether Fujifilm has paid any ransom to the hackers responsible for the attack on its systems.

#articles, #ceo, #computer-security, #crime, #crimes, #cyberattacks, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #dark-web, #digital-imaging, #fujifilm, #hardware, #intel, #ransomware, #security

0

Tractive raises $35M as it expands GPS pet tracking to the US

Another sizable raise for a pet (cats and dogs) tracking company this morning. Austria-based Tractive has announced a $35 million Series A, led by Guidepost Growth Equity. The round is the company’s first since 2013, when its GPS-based tracker first hit the market.

Along with the funding round, the company is also announcing its official push into the U.S. market — though Tractive has had some presence here through a “soft launch” of an LTE tracker over the summer. That product apparently made the States its fastest growing market, in spite of a lack of official presence.

The funding will go toward its expansion into the U.S./North American market, along with additional scaling and headcount. For the latter, the company is already naming a new EVP of North America and a VP of marketing.

“Tractive is like a seatbelt for your dog or cat. It provides coverage when and where they need it,” said co-founder and CEO Michael Hurnaus in a release. “We designed Tractive to deliver the best possible experience, with up-to-the-second information, so that all pet parents can care for their dogs and cats the way they want and deserve — whether that means monitoring activity levels to reduce the risk of obesity or tracking a dog or cat that slipped out of the yard.”

Also new is the arrival of an upgraded tracker from the company, primarily focused on improved battery life. The big change is the use of Wi-Fi to reduce battery strain when a pet is in the home. The company says it’s able to bump up battery life up to 5x. The tracker is available for $50 in the U.S., plus a monthly subscription fee.

In February, smart pet collar maker Fi announced a $30 million Series B.

 

#cat, #dog, #gps, #guidepost-growth-equity, #hardware, #location-tracker, #pet, #recent-funding, #startups, #tractive

0

Deep Science: Robots, meet world

Research papers come out far too frequently for anyone to read them all. That’s especially true in the field of machine learning, which now affects (and produces papers in) practically every industry and company. This column aims to collect some of the most relevant recent discoveries and papers — particularly in, but not limited to, artificial intelligence — and explain why they matter.

This edition, we have a lot of items concerned with the interface between AI or robotics and the real world. Of course most applications of this type of technology have real-world applications, but specifically this research is about the inevitable difficulties that occur due to limitations on either side of the real-virtual divide.

One issue that constantly comes up in robotics is how slow things actually go in the real world. Naturally some robots trained on certain tasks can do them with superhuman speed and agility, but for most that’s not the case. They need to check their observations against their virtual model of the world so frequently that tasks like picking up an item and putting it down can take minutes.

What’s especially frustrating about this is that the real world is the best place to train robots, since ultimately they’ll be operating in it. One approach to addressing this is by increasing the value of every hour of real-world testing you do, which is the goal of this project over at Google.

In a rather technical blog post the team describes the challenge of using and integrating data from multiple robots learning and performing multiple tasks. It’s complicated, but they talk about creating a unified process for assigning and evaluating tasks, and adjusting future assignments and evaluations based on that. More intuitively, they create a process by which success at task A improves the robots’ ability to do task B, even if they’re different.

Humans do it — knowing how to throw a ball well gives you a head start on throwing a dart, for instance. Making the most of valuable real-world training is important, and this shows there’s lots more optimization to do there.

Another approach is to improve the quality of simulations so they’re closer to what a robot will encounter when it takes its knowledge to the real world. That’s the goal of the Allen Institute for AI’s THOR training environment and its newest denizen, ManipulaTHOR.

Animated image of a robot navigating a virtual environment and moving items around.

Image Credits: Allen Institute

Simulators like THOR provide an analogue to the real world where an AI can learn basic knowledge like how to navigate a room to find a specific object — a surprisingly difficult task! Simulators balance the need for realism with the computational cost of providing it, and the result is a system where a robot agent can spend thousands of virtual “hours” trying things over and over with no need to plug them in, oil their joints and so on.

#artificial-intelligence, #deep-science, #ec-hardware, #ec-news-analysis, #ec-robotics, #gadgets, #hardware, #lab-wrap, #robotics, #science, #tc

0

Microsoft’s Surface Duo gets dual-screen gaming support

In December, Microsoft wrote a blog post highlighting “The year ahead for Surface Duo.” The news highlighted the dual-screen device’s upcoming availability outside the U.S. (including Canada, the U.K., France and Germany this year), as well as a smattering of features. It’s been pretty well acknowledged from most everyone who reviewed the device (us included), that it’s very much a work in progress.

After making the feature available in beta, Microsoft today is issuing at update to Xbox Cloud Gaming for Android that will unlock some of the product’s entertainment potential. It’s something the company has discussed, and even previewed, but until now, it has remained one of a handful of blind spots.

The app works as you’d expect on the Duo — displaying the game on the top screen and transforming the bottom into a virtual version of an Xbox controller in the Compose Mode orientation. Obviously you can only go so far on that front with a touchscreen, but gaming is genuinely an application where having a second screen can really come in handy.

As Engadget notes, there are now more than 50 titles that support Xbox Touch Controls. Those will be available to users with an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription.

A much-hyped — and eagerly anticipated — alternative to the foldable form factor, the Duo was a disappointment on launch. The company has since dropped the product’s price from $1,500 to $1,000 — not exactly a sign that it was selling well — but continued software support like this is, perhaps, an indication that the company is going to support the line going forward, in spite of early stumbles.

 

#foldables, #gaming, #hardware, #microsoft, #mobile, #surface, #surface-duo, #xbox

0

Taking Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4 for a spin

These days, the path of least resistance in laptop design is straight-up knocking off the MacBook. We’ve certainly seen our share of egregious cases over the years. Microsoft, however, has defiantly forged its own path with industrial design across the board. Its products are largely interesting and innovative — something not every hardware manufacturer can say these days.

The company doesn’t always get it right. It swung for the fences with the Surface Duo, for example. While certainly innovative, the product came up short in enough categories that made it extremely hard to recommend. The Surface Laptop, on the other hand, while not the most groundbreaking product in the line, has pretty consistently been one of the best, marrying a Windows-ready touchscreen with a more standardized notebook design.

The last few models have been solid, and this year’s — perhaps predictably — doesn’t present a big change. The big upgrades after about a year and a half are new chips (your choice of AMD Ryzen or an Intel Core i5 or i7) and enhanced battery life that offers a beefy additional 8.5 hours. Essentially, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect — or hope for — from a regular system refresh.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The design language remains largely unchanged. The Surface Laptop is nothing if not unique on that front, with its tapered sides and felt-covered palm rests. The material has a nice feel to it — one that bests just straight-up metal on a cold day, though I’ve already noticed a bit of wear after some light use.

The keyboard remains on the soft side, with a surprising amount of give to it. Not the best keyboard I’ve seen on a laptop, but certainly not the worst (who can forget that rough run for Apple?), and like anything else, it takes a bit of getting used to.

You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now. Maybe it’s the fact that Microsoft’s Surface Laptops keep coming out when the weather is nice that I always feel inclined to take them outside. But jeez is that display reflective. Almost distractingly so. Plenty of laptop screens are glossy, of course, but Microsoft’s really leaned in here, to the point I wouldn’t recommend using it in any sort of sunshine — even at full brightness, the screen can’t counteract that reflection.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

When you can see it, the display looks great. Microsoft sent along the smaller of the two. At 13.5-inches, the screen clocks in at 2256 x 1504 at 201 ppi (you get the same pixel density on the 15-inch version, as well). Ours was the new Ice Blue color. It’s subtle, though. Honestly, I read it more as a silver/gray. The speakers sound great, and the webcam is just fine, but it’s safe to say it’s probably time to upgrade to 1080p across the board as teleconferencing remains front of mind.

The 13.5-inch system starts at $1,000, which gets you 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, along with the AMD Ryzen 5 4680U process. As configured, our system runs $1,700, which doubles the RAM and storage and swaps the AMD in for an Intel Core i7. Another $600 will double the RAM and storage yet again (same processor). Geekbench scored the processor at a solid 1378 on single-core and 4876 on multi-core. Performance was solid throughout — though after spending a fair amount of time using Apple’s M1, it’s clear that Intel has its work cut out for it.

Microsoft is still hanging onto its magnetic proprietary charging port here. I know it still has its diehard fans, but I’d much prefer to see the company go with something more universal, like adding another USB-C port — though that impacts the system’s compatibility with a slew of different Surface accessories. Around the other side you get USB-A, USB-C and a headphone jack. It’s a nice mix, but more ports would certainly be a step up.

I was fairly disappointed with the various corners the company cut on the Surface Laptop Go last year. Of course, the entry-level 13.5-inch Laptop is $300 more than the 12-inch Laptop Go. But if you’re looking to do more than just the basics, this is probably is a wise investment.

#hardware, #microsoft, #microsoft-surface, #surface

0

Snap announces a new generation of Spectacles, streamlined glasses to experience the world in AR

Amid a pre-recorded Partner Summit where Snap took users through a whole set of new tools for Snapchat users, creators and companies, Snap also threw in a “one more thing” at the end that shows the company, after a rocky start several years ago, is definitely not giving up on hardware soon.

Today the company announced the latest generation of its Spectacles, a streamlined 60s-style design in black that is the company’s biggest play yet in merging some of the work its been building in augmented reality technology to a specific device tailored to work with it. You can pre-order the new glasses on Spectacles.com.

Evan Spiegel, Snap’s co-founder and CEO, described the Spectacles as the company’s “first pair of glasses that bring augmented reality to life,” and if you ever owned or tried out earlier versions of the glasses, it sounds like these are just more intuitive and seamless.

The fourth generation of these glasses will operate at 30 minutes at a time, he said, and will feature dual 3D waveguide displays, and a 26.3-degree diagonal field of view for an immersive lens experiences that “feel like they’re naturally overlaid on the world in front of you.” The glasses come with a lot of brightness built in to make them as usable inside as outside, and the glasses come with built in microphones, stereo speakers and touchpad controls. They are also relatively light at 134 grams.

Spiegel said that the glasses will feature the company’s new spatial engine, “which leverages six degrees of freedom, hand and surface tracking realistic ground digital objects in the physical world,” with 15 millisecond motion to photon latency for more responsiveness. The glasses are also integrated with Snap’s Lens Studio so that creators can build custom lenses for the devices. It’s rolled out the glasses already to a small group of early users, so expect to see these ship pre-populated with a range of lenses and other customizations.

#hardware, #snap, #snapchat, #social, #spectacles, #tc

0

Esper raises $30M Series B for its IoT DevOps platform

There may be billions of IoT devices in use today, but the tooling around building (and updating) the software for them still leaves a lot to be desired. Esper, which today announced that it has raised a $30 million Series B round, builds the tools to enable developers and engineers to deploy and manage fleets of Android-based edge devices. The round was led by Scale Venture Partners, with participation from Madrona Venture Group, Root Ventures, Ubiquity Ventures and Haystack.

The company argues that there are thousands of device manufacturers who are building these kinds of devices on Android alone, but that scaling and managing these deployments comes with a lot of challenges. The core idea here is that Esper brings to device development the DevOps experience that software developers now expect. The company argues that its tools allow companies to forgo building their own internal DevOps teams and instead use its tooling to scale their Android-based IoT fleets for use cases that range from digital signage and kiosks to custom solutions in healthcare, retail, logistics and more.

“The pandemic has transformed industries like connected fitness, digital health, hospitality, and food delivery, further accelerating the adoption of intelligent edge devices. But with each new use case, better software automation is required,” said Yadhu Gopalan, CEO and co-founder at Esper. “Esper’s mature cloud infrastructure incorporates the functionality cloud developers have come to expect, re-imagined for devices.”

Image Credits: Esper

Mobile device management (MDM) isn’t exactly a new thing, but the Esper team argues that these tools weren’t created for this kind of use case. “MDMs are the solution now in the market. They are made for devices being brought into an environment,” Gopalan said. “The DNA of these solutions is rooted in protecting the enterprise and to deploy applications to them in the network. Our customers are sending devices out into the wild. It’s an entirely different use case and model.”

To address these challenges, Esper offers a range of tools and services that includes a full development stack for developers, cloud-based services for device management and hardware emulators to get started with building custom devices.

“Esper helped us launch our Fusion-connected fitness offering on three different types of hardware in less than six months,” said Chris Merli, founder at Inspire Fitness. “Their full stack connected fitness Android platform helped us test our application on different hardware platforms, configure all our devices over the cloud, and manage our fleet exactly to our specifications. They gave us speed, Android expertise, and trust that our application would provide a delightful experience for our customers.”

The company also offers solutions for running Android on older x86 Windows devices to extend the life of this hardware, too.

“We spent about a year and a half on building out the infrastructure,” said Gopalan. “Definitely. That’s the hard part and that’s really creating a reliable, robust mechanism where customers can trust that the bits will flow to the devices. And you can also roll back if you need to.”

Esper is working with hardware partners to launch devices that come with built-in Esper-support from the get-go.

Esper says it saw 70x revenue growth in the last year, an 8x growth in paying customers and a 15x growth in devices running Esper. Since we don’t know the baseline, those numbers are meaningless, but the investors clearly believe that Esper is on to something. Current customers include the likes of CloudKitchens, Spire Health, Intelity, Ordermark, Inspire Fitness, RomTech and Uber.

#ambient-intelligence, #android, #cloud, #cloud-computing, #developer, #device-management, #enterprise, #esper, #hardware, #healthcare, #internet-of-things, #iot, #madrona-venture-group, #microsoft-windows, #mobile-device-management, #operating-systems, #recent-funding, #retail, #root-ventures, #scale-venture-partners, #smartphones, #software-automation, #software-developers, #startups, #tc, #technology, #uber, #ubiquity-ventures

0

Google is opening a retail store in New York this summer

Google’s explored storefronts for a while now. Here’s a pop-up Manhattan’s SoHo district that we took a trip to some 4+ years back. But the company’s own branded retail experience has been fairly limited – unsurprising, given that it has always been a software company first.

This summer, however, the company is joining a growing number of tech companies will their own retail stores. The first Google Store is opening in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, in the former Port Authority building that also houses the company’s NY offices.

The move follows in the footsteps of Apple and Samsung – both of whom have stores nearby (Amazon’s got its own book store, as well, but that’s further up town near the Empire State Building).

Like the competition, the shopping experience will center on Google hardware products first – that means things like Pixel phones and various Nest home devices. Google’s product offerings are still fairly limited compared to the likes of Apple and Samsung, though the recent closing of its Fitbit acquisition should go a ways toward offering a bit more variety in its brightly lit aisles.

This year is a particularly weird time to open your first retail store. Google’s had a fair amount of retail space in Chelsea for a while now, but Covid-19 almost certainly put a damper on any plans to launch last year. Though NYC has been pretty quick to vaccinate its massive population, with 41% of adults fully vaccinated as of earlier this month.

Still, Google is prioritizing safety here. Per a blog post,

Masks, hand sanitation and social distancing will be required in the Google Store, and we’ll clean all spaces multiple times a day. The number of guests inside will be limited to ensure our customers feel safe during their shopping experience, and easy pickup options will also be available. We will continue to closely follow the guidance of the local and national authorities to adapt our health and safety procedures as needed.

This sounds to be part of a bigger hardware push for the company, which has struggled of late – particularly in the mobile category. Google calls the first store, “an important next step in our hardware journey.”

 

#google, #google-i-o-2021, #google-io-2021, #google-store, #hardware

0

OneNav locates $21M from GV to map our transition to the next generation of GPS

GPS is one of those science fiction technologies whose use is effortless for the end user and endlessly challenging for the engineers who design it. It’s now at the heart of modern life: everything from Amazon package deliveries to our cars and trucks to our walks through national parks are centered around a pin on a map that monitors us down to a few meters.

Yet, GPS technology is decades old, and it’s going through a much-needed modernization. The U.S., Europe, China, Japan and others have been installing a new generation of GNSS satellites (GNSS is the generic name for GPS, which is the specific name for the U.S. system) that will offer stronger signals in what is known as the L5 band (1176 MHz). That means more accurate map pinpoints compared to the original generation L1 band satellites, particularly in areas where line-of-sight can be obscured like urban areas. L5 was “designed to meet demanding requirements for safety-of-life transportation and other high-performance applications,” as the U.S. government describes it.

It’s one thing to put satellites into orbit (that’s the easy part!), and another to build power-efficient chips that can scan for these signals and triangulate a coordinate (that’s the hard part!). So far, chipmakers have focused on creating hybrid chips that pull from the L1 and L5 bands simultaneously. For example, Broadcom recently announced the second-generation of its hybrid chip.

OneNav has a totally different opinion on product design, and it placed it right in its name. Eschewing the hybrid chip model of mixing old signals with new, it wants one chip monitoring the singular band of L5 signals to drive cost and power savings for devices. One nav to rule them all, as it were.

The company announced today that it has closed a $21 million Series B round led by Karim Faris at GV, which is solely funded by Alphabet. Other investors included Matthew Howard at Norwest and GSR Ventures, which invested in earlier rounds of the company. All together, OneNav has raised $33 million in capital and was founded about two years ago.

CEO and co-founder Steve Poizner has been in the location business a long time. His previous company, SnapTrack, built out a GPS positioning technology for mobile devices that sold to Qualcomm for $1 billion in stock in March 2000, at the height of the dot-com bubble. His co-founder and CTO at OneNav Paul McBurney has similarly spent decades in the GNSS space, most recently at Apple, according to his LinkedIn profile.

OneNav CEO and co-founder Steve Poizner, seen here in 2009. Image Credits: David McNew via Getty Images

They saw an opportunity to build a new navigation company as L5 band satellites have switched on in recent years. As they looked at the market and the L5 tech, they decided they wanted to go further than other companies by eliminating the legacy tech of older GPS technology and moving entirely into the future. By doing that, its design is “half the size of the old system, but much higher reliability and performance,” Poizner said. “We are aiming to get location technology into a much broader number of products.”

He differentiated between upgrading GPS from upgrading wireless signals. “With these L5 satellites, we don’t need the L1 satellites anymore [but] with 5G, you still need 4G,” he said. L5 band GPS does everything that earlier renditions did, but better, whereas with wireless technologies, they often need to complement each other to offer peak performance.

There’s one caveat here: the L5 signal is still considered “pre-operational” by the U.S. government, since the U.S. GPS system only has 16 satellites broadcasting the signal today, and is targeting 24 satellites for full deployment by later in this decade. However, other countries have also deployed L5 GNSS satellites, which means that while it may not be fully operational from the U.S. government’s perspective, it may well be good enough for consumers.

OneNav’s goal according to Poizner is to be “the Arm of the GNSS space.” What he means is that like Arm, which produces the chip designs for nearly all mobile phones globally, OneNav creates comprehensive designs for L5 band GPS chips that can be integrated as a system-on-chip into the products of other manufacturers so that they can “embed a high-performance location engine based on their silicon.”

The company today also announced that its first design customer will be In-Q-Tel, the U.S. intelligence community’s venture capital and business development organization. Poizner said that through In-Q-Tel, “we now have a development contract with a U.S. government agency.” The company is expecting that its customer evaluation units will be completed by the end of this year with the objective of potentially having OneNav’s technology in end-user devices by late 2022.

Location tracking has become a major area of investment for venture capitalists, with companies working on a variety of technologies outside of GPS to offer additional detail and functionality where GPS falls short. Poizner sees these technologies as ultimately complementary to what he and his team are building at OneNav. “The better the GPS, the less pressure on these augmentation systems,” he said, while acknowledging that, “it is the case though that in certain environments [like downtown Manhattan or underground in a subway], you will never get the GPS to work.”

For Poizner, it’s a bit of a return to entrepreneurship. Prior to starting OneNav, he had been heavily involved in California state politics. Several years after the sale of SnapTrack to Qualcomm, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the California State Assembly. He later was elected California’s insurance commissioner in 2007 under former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He ran for governor in 2010, losing in the Republican primary against Meg Whitman, who made her name as the longtime head of eBay. He ran for his former seat of California insurance commissioner in 2018, this time as a political independent, but lost.

OneNav is based in Palo Alto and currently has more than 30 employees.

#aerospace, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gps, #gv, #hardware, #karim-faris, #logistics, #mobile, #navigation, #onenav, #recent-funding, #silicon, #startups, #steve-poizner

0

Apple Watch gets a motion-controlled cursor with ‘Assistive Touch’

Tapping the tiny screen of the Apple Watch with precision has certain level of fundamental difficulty, but for some people with disabilities it’s genuinely impossible. Apple has remedied this with a new mode called “Assistive Touch” that detects hand gestures to control a cursor and navigate that way.

The feature was announced as part of a collection of accessibility-focused additions across its products, but Assistive Touch seems like the one most likely to make a splash across the company’s user base.

It relies on the built-in gyroscope and accelerometer, as well as data from the heart rate sensor, to deduce the position of the wrist and hand. Don’t expect it to tell a peace sign from a metal sign just yet, but for now it detects “pinch” (touching the index finger to the thumb) and “clench” (make a loose fist), which can act as basic “next” and “confirm” actions. Incoming calls, for instance, can be quickly accepted with a clench.

Most impressive, however, is the motion pointer. You can activate it either by selecting it in the Assistive Touch menu, or by shaking your wrist vigorously. It then detects the position of your hand as you move it around, allowing you to “swipe” by letting the cursor linger at the edge of the screen, or interact with things using a pinch or clench.

Needless to say this could be extremely helpful for anyone who only has the one hand available for interacting with the watch. And even for those who don’t strictly need it, the ability to keep one hand on the exercise machine, cane, or whatever else while doing smartwatch things is surely an attractive possibility. (One wonders about the potential of this control method as a cursor for other platforms as well…)

Memoji featuring new accessibility-focused gear.

Image Credits: Apple

Assistive Touch is only one of many accessibility updates Apple shared in this news release; other advances for the company’s platforms include:

  • SignTime, an ASL interpreter video call for Apple Store visits and support
  • Support for new hearing aids
  • Improved VoiceOver-based exploration of images
  • A built-in background noise generator (which I fully intend to use)
  • Replacement of certain buttons with non-verbal mouth noises (for people who have limited speech and mobility)
  • Memoji customizations for people with oxygen tubes, cochlear implants, and soft helmets
  • Featured media in the App Store, Apple TV, Books, and Maps apps from or geared towards people with disabilities

It’s all clustered around Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which is tomorrow, May 20th.

#accessibility, #apple, #apple-watch, #gadgets, #hardware

0

Liquid Instruments raises $13.7M to bring its education-focused 8-in-1 engineering gadget to market

Part of learning to be an engineer is understanding the tools you’ll have to work with — voltmeters, spectrum analyzers, things like that. But why use two, or eight for that matter, where one will do? The Moku:Go combines several commonly used tools into one compact package, saving room on your workbench or classroom while also providing a modern, software-configurable interface. Creator Liquid Instruments has just raised $13.7 million to bring this gadget to students and engineers everywhere.

Students at a table use a Moku Go device to test a circuit board.

Image Credits: Liquid Instruments

The idea behind Moku:Go is largely the same as the company’s previous product, the Moku:Lab. Using a standard input port, a set of FPGA-based tools perform the same kind of breakdowns and analyses of electrical signals as you would get in a larger or analog device. But being digital saves a lot of space that would normally go towards bulky analog components.

The Go takes this miniaturization further than the Lab, doing many of the same tasks at half the weight and with a few useful extra features. It’s intended for use in education or smaller engineering shops where space is at a premium. Combining eight tools into one is a major coup when your bench is also your desk and your file cabinet.

Those eight tools, by the way, are: waveform generator, arbitrary waveform generator, frequency response analyzer, logic analyzer/pattern generator, oscilloscope/voltmeter, PID controller, spectrum analyzer, and data logger. It’s hard to say whether that really adds up to more or less than eight, but it’s definitely a lot to have in a package the size of a hardback book.

You access and configure them using a software interface rather than a bunch of knobs and dials — though let’s be clear, there are good arguments for both. When you’re teaching a bunch of young digital natives, however, a clean point-and-click interface is probably a plus. The UI is actually very attractive; you can see several examples by clicking the instrume