With the release of watchOS 7, Apple at last turned the Apple Watch into the GPS-based kid tracker parents have wanted, albeit at a price point that requires careful consideration. As someone in the target demographic for such a device — a parent of a “tween” who’s allowed to freely roam the neighborhood (but not without some sort of communication device) — I put the new Family Setup system for the Apple Watch through its paces over the past couple of months.
The result? To be frank, I’m conflicted as to whether I’d recommend the Apple Watch to a fellow …
Following a request from Apple, Foxconn could be shifting production out of China for some iPad and MacBook models according to a report from Reuters. The new assembly lines would be based in Vietnam.
As a recent investigation from The Information highlighted, both companies are intrinsically connected. The Taiwanese manufacturer is Apple’s main production partner. Apple is also Foxconn’s main client. When it comes to raw numbers, Foxconn is making 60% to 70% of iPhones, Apple’s main product.
Over the past few years, Apple has tried to diversify its supply chain in two major ways. First, Apple is trying …
Tech companies around the world are still identifying the “next big thing” enabled by 5G connections. Some, such as Oppo, are betting it will be augmented reality.
The Chinese smartphone firm showcased its progress in AR at a Tuesday event swarmed by hundreds of reporters, analysts, and partners in Shenzhen. Green strobe light, the color of its brand, beamed as vice president Liu Chang unveiled the Oppo AR Glass 2021, a lightweight headset slightly chunkier than regular glasses.
Still in the concept phase, the headset comes with fisheye cameras, tracks hands in milliseconds, and can supposedly simulate the experience of watching a 90-inch screen from three meters away.
AR has been a key focus for OPPO for sometime now. At last year’s inno day we announced a RMB 50 billion investment over 3 years to allow development of technologies including AR and the ecosystems they need to evolve. #OPPOINNODAY20https://t.co/pfJSTHKs6u
The concept product is the result of Oppo’s three-year-plan, unveiled last year, to spend 50 billion yuan ($7.62 billion) on futuristic tech including AR.
Smartphone makers from Xiaomi to Huawei are embracing AR as they design headsets that can tether to smartphones, taking advantage of the latter’s computing power. The Oppo AR Glass 2021, for instance, is designed to link to the Oppo Find X2 Pro which contains a Snapdragon 865 chipset.
It’s unclear when Oppo’s AR glasses will hit the shelf, but the firm is actively building the ecosystem needed for mass-market adoption, from working with content providers like video streaming site iQiyi to launching a developer initiative next year to make development tools widely available.
At the same event, Oppo also flaunted a concept phone with a “scrolling” OLED screen that could make an alternative to existing foldable phones. Oppo declined to disclose who the display maker is.
Nintendo will never stop mining its past for new nostalgia-based products, but at least it tends to do so with aplomb and occasionally even generosity. The former at least is on display with the Super Mario Bros. Game & Watch, a standalone handheld that plays the first Mario game, its unbelievably hard “Lost Levels” sequel, and acts as a totally impractical timepiece.
This tiny gaming system isn’t the most practical thing in the world, but it is a charming piece of hardware that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Turn on the Game & Watch with a button on the side and you can select between, naturally, the Game and Watch modes. In game mode, you can select between playing the original Super Mario Bros. for NES, the sequel we never got in the U.S., but was eventually released as “The Lost Levels,” and a recreation of an old-school LCD game where Mario juggles balls at ever-increasing speeds.
Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch
The screen, while certainly small, is bright and sharp, apparently displaying the exact pixel dimensions of the original Nintendo game. It plays well, too — the controls are responsive, though it feels strange to play the game on anything other than an original NES controller. The buttons of the Game & Watch are a bit softer than I’d like — but they were good enough that I cleared the first set of levels without any real frustration other than my own lack of skill.
While there is no support for saving or rewinding the game — pretty much essential for the 99 percent of us who can’t beat it honestly — at least you don’t have to to try to beat it in one sitting. The game freezes its state when you turn if off or switch to any other game or mode, meaning you can play a couple levels between subway stops and not worry about losing progress.
Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch
You can hand it back and forth with a friend (after sanitizing it, of course) too, since player 2 uses the same controls.
The juggling game is a fun little diversion but, like most of those old LCD games, goes from really boring to nearly impossible in the course of about 60 seconds.
Image Credits: Devin Coldewey / TechCrunch
The “Watch” mode has a charming little landscape with the current time made out of bricks, and Mario running across the screen below stomping goombas and avoiding bullet bills. If you watch for a while he’ll moonwalk, mount a pipe, and perform other hijinks. You can switch the background from normal to hills to mushroom platforms. I wouldn’t use it as a watch but if you don’t want to pull your phone out while you’re playing, there you go.
For $50 it may seem a little steep, and perhaps it is. If this had Marios 1 through 3 on it I would consider it a bargain, especially considering the ability to come back to the game time after time — I’d work my way through the epic-length third game with pleasure.
As it is, however, it’s hard to justify the price — except, of course, as a gift to a Nintendo-loving friend or loved one. That’s why I suspect these will sell like hotcakes this holiday season. With no new Switch hardware, no N64 mini, and no must-have games on Nintendo’s platforms, it’s looking a bit dry, but a Game & Watch is just silly enough — and decent enough — a device to sate the hunger of a retro-minded gamer for a few days.
In the past several weeks we’ve seen refreshes and product expansions from about every facet of the smart home virtual assistant world. Apple launched the HomePod Mini, Google offered a long-overdue refresh of the Google Home and Amazon found even more speaker shapes to shove Alexa into.
Today, we’re getting an addition from a startup competitor. Josh.ai has aimed to build out a niche in the space by building a smart assistant product that’s designed to be professionally installed alongside other smart home wares, and they announced a new product this afternoon.
The device, Josh Nano, fully buys into a more luxury home-focused niche with a low-profile device that appears to be a little bit bigger than a half-dollar, though the bulk of the device is embedded into the wall itself and wired back to a central unit via power-over-ethernet. The device bundles a set of four microphones eschewing any onboard speaker, instead opting to integrate directly with a user’s at-home sound system. Josh boasts compatibility with most major AV receiver manufacturers in addition to partnerships with companies like Sonos . There isn’t much else to the device; a light for visual feedback, a multi-purpose touch sensor and a physical switch to cut power to the onboard microphones in case users want extra peace of mind.
Image via Josh.ai
The aim of the new hardware is to hide the smart features of a home and move away from industry-standard touchscreen hubs with dated interfaces. By stripping down a smart home product to its essential feature, Josh.ai hopes it can push more users to buy in more fully with confidence that subsequent hardware releases won’t render their devices outdated and ugly. The startup is taking pre-orders for the device (available in black and white color options) now and hopes to start shipping early next year.
Powering these devices is a product the company calls Josh Core, a small server which basically acts as a hub for everything Josh talks to in a user’s home, ensuring that interactions between smart home devices can occur locally, minimizing external requests. The startup will also continue selling its previously released Josh Micro, which integrates a dedicated speaker into the wall-mounted hardware.
Though Josh.ai partners directly with professional installers on the hardware, the startup has been scaling as a software business, offering consumers a license to their technology on an annual, five-year or lifetime basis. The price of that license also differs depending on what size home they are working with, with “small” rollouts being classified as homes with fewer than 15 rooms. In terms of hardware costs, Josh.ai says that pricing varies, but for most jobs, the average cost for users works out to be something like $500 per room.
Massive tech companies naturally design their products for massive audiences. For startups like Josh.ai this fact provides an in-road to design products that aren’t built for the common needs of a billion users. In fact, the selling point for plenty of their customers comes largely from the fact that they aren’t buying devices from Google, Amazon or Apple and hard-wiring microphones that feed back to them inside their home.
Though 95% of the startup’s business today focuses on residential, going forward, the company is also interested in scaling how their tech can be used in commercial scenarios like conference rooms or even elevators, the startup tells me.
Brynn Putnam has a lot to feel great about. A Harvard grad and former professional ballet dancer who opened the first of what have become three high-intensity fitness studios in New York, she then launched a second business in 2016 when — while pregnant with her son — she was exercising at home and couldn’t find a natural way watch a class on her laptop or phone. Her big idea: to install a mirrored screen in users’ homes that’s roughly eight square feet and through which they could exercise along to all manner of streamed and on-demand exercise classes through a subscription package costing just $39 per month.
If you’ve followed the home fitness craze, you may know already that idea, Mirror, quickly took off with celebrities, who gushed about the product on social media. The company also attracted roughly $75 million in venture funding across several fast rounds. Indeed, by the end of last year, people had bought “tens of thousands” of Mirrors, according to Putnam, and she was beginning to envision Mirror’s as content portal that might feature fashion, enable doctor’s visits, and bring both kids classes and therapy into the home, among other things. As she told The Atlantic back in January, “We view ourselves as the third screen in people’s homes.”
Then, in June, the company sold for $500 million in cash — including a $50 million earn-out — to the athleisure company Lululemon. For Putnam, the deal was too compelling, allowing her to secure the future of her company, which continues to run as a subsidiary. Investors might have liked it, too, given that it meant a fast return on their investment, not to mention that Mirror had steep competition, including from Peloton, the biggest giant in the home fitness market.
Still, as the pandemic has raged on, it’s easy to wonder what the young company might have become, given the amount of time that people and their children are spending at home and in front of their screens. As it happens, that’s not something about which Putnam says she spends time worrying about, including as Lululemon begins to put more muscle behind Mirror — which Putnam is still running with a 125 employees.
Just today, for example, Lululemon announced that it is installing Mirrors in 18 of its now 506 U.S. locations, including in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Lulemon hasn’t start selling products directly through Mirror yet but “shoppable content” is “certainly on our radar,” says Putnam. And the company’s revenues, expected earlier this year to reach $100 million, and now on target to surpass $150 million revenue, she says.
We talked with Putnam late week about life at Lululemon, what could have been, and what will be in a chat that’s been edited lightly for length. (You can listen to the full conversation here.)
TC: People who follow the company know why you started Mirror, but how, exactly, did you start Mirror?
BP: In the case of Mirror, I had this concept for the product, and then really, the first step was buying a Raspberry Pi, a piece of one-way glass, and an Android tablet, and assembling it in my in my kitchen to see if this idea in my mind would be able to work and come to life.
TC: Did you take any coding classes? People might not imagine that a former ballet performer with a chain of fitness studios would put something together like that in her kitchen.
BP: No, I’ve been very fortunate to have a husband who has a bit of a development background. And so he helped me to put the first little bit of code into the Mirror and just really ensure that the concept I had in my mind could be brought to life. And then from there, obviously, over time, we hired a team.
TC: Are they manufactured in the States? In China? How did you start figuring out how to put those pieces together?
BP: I had heard a lot of hardware horror stories about teams working with design agencies to design these beautiful products and who, by the time they actually got to manufacturing, found out that something wasn’t feasible about their design when it came to commercialization or just running out of money in the process. So I actually went backwards. I drew a sketch on a napkin and did a small set of bullets of the things that I thought were really just crucial to make the product a success. And then I went to find factories in China that were familiar with digital signage, working with large pieces of glass, large mirrors, learned about their systems and processes, and then brought it back to the U.S. to a local manufacturer here on the East Coast to refine into a prototype. And then we eventually moved to Mexico when we were ready to scale.
TC: The mirror is about $1,500 dollars. How did you go about winning the trust of consumers that would lead them to make such a sizable investment?
BP: When you’re when you’re building an innovation product, you can’t really compete on specs and features like you do with phones or laptops. So you’re really building building a brand, which means that you’re telling stories. And in our case, we spent a lot of time, from the very early days, really imagining the life of our members and figuring out how to craft that story and tell that story.
And then we were fortunate early on to have members fall in love with the product. And then they started to tell our story for us. So once you have that customer flywheel that starts to kick in, your job becomes much easier.
TC: You had actors, celebrities, designers, and social media influencers talking about their Mirrors. Was it just a matter of sending it off to a few people who started getting online and sharing [their enthusiasm for the product] with their followers? Was it that simple?
BP: We knew that we wanted to make big bets early on to make the Mirror brand seem larger and more established than it was, because it’s a premium product in a new category. And we wanted people to trust in us and the brand. And so we did things like out-of-home advertisements quite early, we moved into television quite early, and we also did some very strategic early celebrity placements. But the way in which the celebrity placements grew and expanded was very much not intended and was just kind of a fascinating early example of the network effects of the product. One celebrity would get it and then another would see it in their home. Or they would see it in their stylist’s home or their agent’s home. And it spread through that community very, very quickly in one of the earliest examples of member love for us.
TC: How did you convince early adopters that your business had staying power, and were investors persuaded as quickly?
BP: Trying to assure customers that they wouldn’t invest in this Mirror, and then the company would go out of business in a few years and they would be they’d be left with a piece of hardware but no access to the content or the community that they’d fallen in love with was very important. It was one of the factors in deciding to partner with Lululemon and have the incredible brand stability and love of such a premium global brand.
In terms of fundraising, I think we were we were really fortunate to have a product that once you saw it, you got it and fell in love with it in a market that was clearly big and growing, with a really good competitive data point in Peloton.
TC: Who started that conversation with Lululemon? Were you talking to Peloton and other potential acquirers?
BP: I’ve been really fortunate to actually work with Lululemon for my entire fitness career. There was a team of Lululemon educators here in New York who were the very first clients of my studio business, and frankly, in many ways were responsible for helping that business to grow and thrive and to give me confidence as a first-time small business owner. Then we reconnected with Lululemon about a year before the acquisition as an investor; they made a small minority investment in the company. And we began to work together on various projects . . .From there, really, the partnership just grew. Mirror was not for sale. We were not looking for an acquirer. But it’s really your responsibility as a founder to always be weighing your vision, your responsibility to your team and your responsibility to your shareholders. And so when the opportunity presented itself — before COVID actually — it felt like really just too good an opportunity to pass up.
TC: But you also you had ambitions of turning this into a much broader content portal where you would maybe have doctor visits and other things, which I would think won’t happen now.
BP: The vision for Mirror very much remains the same and we’re excited to continue to expand the types of content that we offer via the Mirror platform, really with an eye toward any type of immersive experience that makes you a better version of yourself. So I think you will see a broader range of content from us in the coming years.
TC: You’ve mention in the past as a selling point that Mirror is a product that’s used by families. Is there children’s programming or is that coming soon?
BP I think one of the things that surprised us but delighted us about Mirror has been the number of households that have over two members. More than 65% of our households have over two members, which means that you’re often getting younger members of the household involved. I do think that is a function of both the versatility of the platform and the fact that multiple people can participate in more content. At the same time, we’ve actually seen the number of users under 20 grow about 5x during the COVID months as young adults have returned home to be with their their families or teenagers have started doing remote schooling. So we’ve leaned into that with what we call “family fun” content that’s designed to be performed by the whole family together.
TC: Do you see a secondary market for refurbished Mirrors in the future? Will there be a second version, if there isn’t already?
BP: We’ll obviously continue to to refine the hardware over time, but the real focus of the business is through improving the content, community and experience, and so for us — unlike Apple, where the goal is to really release a new model every year and continue to have folks upgrade the hardware — we focus on providing updates via the software and the content, so that we’re continuing to add value onto the baseline experience.
TC: What can people look forward to on this front?
BP: We’re taking a major step toward building a connected community through our community feature set launching this holiday, including a community feature that enables members to see and communicate with each other and their instructor; face offs that allow members to compete head-to-head against another member of the community and earn points as you hit your target heart rate zones; and friending, so you can find and follow your friends in the Mirror community to share your favorite workouts, join programs together and cheer each other on.
TC: Are you still selling Mirrors to hotels and business outside of Lululemon?
BP: We do have b2b relationships. You can find mirrors in hotels, small gyms, buildings, residences, and then obviously direct-to-consumer through the Mirror website, the Lululemon website, and both of our stores
TC: When you look at Peloton now and how its stock has completely exploded this year, do you think ever that you should have hung on a little longer? Do you ever think ‘maybe I sold too soon?’
I’ve woken up every day really for my entire career kind of focused on the same mission but trying to solve the problem and achieve my vision and in different ways. Which is: I really believe that confidence in your own skin is the foundation of a good and happy life. And fitness is an incredible tool for building that confidence that carries over into your personal relationships, your work performance, your friendships. And so for me, that’s always really been the North Star, which is, ‘How do we get more Mirrors into more homes and provide more access to to that self confidence?’ So I spend very little time comparing to competitors and much more time focused on our members’ needs and how to meet them.
Bill Zhang lowered himself into lunges on a squishy mat as he explained to me the benefits of the full-body training suit he was wearing. We were in his small, modest office in Xili, a university area in Shenzhen that’s also home to many hardware makers. The connected muscle stimulator attached to the suit, called Balanx, is designed to bring so-called electronic muscle stimulation, which is said to help improve metabolism and burn fat.
“We are not really aiming at Chinese consumers at this point,” said Zhang, who started Balanx in 2014. “The suit is for the more savvy consumers in the West.”
Chinese entrepreneurs don’t expect relationships between the countries to warm up anytime soon, but many do believe the new office will make “less erratic” and “more rational” policy decisions, according to conversations TechCrunch had with seven Chinese hardware startups. Chinese tech businesses, big or small, are adapting swiftly in the new era of U.S.-China competition as they continue to woo overseas customers.
Designed in China
Zhang is just one of the many entrepreneurs looking to bring state-of-the-art Chinese hardware to the world. This generation of founders no longer hawk cheap electronic copycats, the image attached to the old “Made in China” regime. Decades of knowledge transfer, product development, manufacturing, export practice and policy support have made China a powerhouse for producing new technologies that are both edgy and still widely affordable.
Anker’s power banks, Roborock’s vacuums and Huami’s fitness trackers are just a few items that have gained loyal followings in several overseas markets, not to mention global household names like Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and DJI.
Consumer sentiment is also changing. Europeans’ perception of “Made in China” quality and innovation has “improved significantly” over the last 10 to 15 years, said Frank Wang who oversees marketing at Xiaomi -backed Dreame which makes premium home appliances including cheaper alternatives to Dyson hairdryers and vacuums.
The new players are eager to replicate the success of their predecessors. They seek media attention and retail partners at international trade fairs like CES, teach themselves Facebook and Google campaigns, and court gadget lovers on crowdfunding platforms. Investors ranging from GGV Capital to Xiaomi rush to back scrappy startups that are already shipping millions of units around the globe.
For Donny Zhang, a Shenzhen-based electronics parts supplier to hardware companies, businesses have been shrinking as soon as the trade war began. “My clients are taking the brunt because the costs of procurement have increased,” he said of those who directly or indirectly deal with American firms.
While many export-led hardware businesses loathe decreasing profitability, some learn to adapt and look for a silver lining. That has unexpectedly spurred new directions for factory owners in China. Indiegogo, one of the world’s largest crowd-funding platforms, saw the changes first hand.
“Once tariffs increase, there’s not much profit margin left for manufacturers because the middlemen already eat up the bulk of their profit,” Lu Li, general manager for Indiegogo’s global strategy, told TechCrunch.
“A good solution is for factories to skip the middlemen and sell directly to consumers with their own brands. Once the goal of brand building is clear, they often come to us because they need marketing help as a first step to establish themselves as a global consumer brand.”
The trend, dubbed “direct-to-consumers” or D2C, also plays into China’s national plan to encourage manufacturing upgrade and homegrown innovations to compete globally, an initiative that began to take shape around 2015. The development naturally makes China Indiegogo’s fastest-growing region in the last two years: in the first three quarters of 2020, businesses coming from China jumped 50% year-over-year, according to Li.
Having an appealing product and brand is just the prerequisite. Ever-changing trade policies and geopolitics have forced many Chinese businesses to localize seriously, whether that means setting up a foreign entity or building a local team.
For Tuya, which provides IoT solutions to device makers around the world, the trade war’s effect has been “minimal” since it has operated a U.S. entity since 2015, which employs its local sales and technical support staff. Most of its research and development, however, still lies in the hands of its engineers in India and China, the latter of which can be a potential contention point, as shown by TikTok’s recent backlash in the U.S.
“The key is compliance. We have a dedicated team of security experts to work on compliance issues. For instance, we were one of the first to get GDPR certified in Europe,” said the company’s chief marketing office Eva Na.
The company’s readiness is prompted by practical needs though. Many of its clients are large Western corporations that demand strict legal compliance in vendors, so Tuya began collecting the needed certificates early on. Connecting 200,000 SKUs today, Tuya’s footprint is found in over 190 overseas countries, which account for over 60% of its business.
Well-funded Tuya may have the financial and operational capacity to sustain an overseas team; but for smaller startups, localization can be a costly and tedious learning curve. Many opted to set up a Hong Kong entity to tap the city’s status as a global financial hub and evade trade restrictions on China, an advantage of the territory that began to crumble following Beijing’s implementation of the national security law.
Balanx, the smart training suit maker, has a Hong Kong entity like many of its export-facing hardware peers. To cope with new global headwinds, it registered a virtual company in Nevada but quickly realized the entity is of little use unless it has an on-the-ground operation in the U.S.
“Many local banks would ask for utility bills and etc. if I want to open an account, which we don’t have. We realized we must have a local team,” asserted the founder.
Zhang is positive that small companies like his own will remain under the radar in spite of U.S. sanctions. “Just avoid having any government connection,” he said.
Indeed, some of the more “benign” and niche products are continuing to thrive in their global push. PopuMusic, a Xiaomi-backed startup making smart instruments like ukulele and guitar to teach beginners, is one. “We aren’t affected by the trade war. We are in a business that’s neither threatening nor aggressive,” said Zhang Bohan, founder of PopuMusic, which counts the U.S. as one of its biggest overseas markets.
Chinese brands are also seeing their edge as the coronavirus sweeps across the globe and confines millions at home. Hardware makers like Balanx, Dreame and PopuMusic have long learned to master e-commerce and logistics in a country where online shopping is ubiquitous.
“Consumers in Europe and the U.S. are growing more accustomed to e-commerce, a bit like those in China five to eight years ago,” said Wang of Dreame.
Rather than rethinking the U.S., PopuMusic is forging further ahead by launching a new connected guitar via an Indiegogo campaign. Global expansion is at the core of the startup’s vision, the founder said. “We are global from day one. We had an English name before even coming up with a Chinese one.”
In the process of making big bucks, hardware makers may have to downplay their “Made in China” or “Designed in China” brand, said Li of Indiegogo. This could help them avoid unnecessary geopolitical complications and attention in their international push. But one has to wonder how this new generation of entrepreneurs is reckoning with their national pride. How do they deal with the mission passed down by Beijing to promote Chinese innovation in the global marketplace? It’s a line that Chinese entrepreneurs have to tread carefully in their global journey in the years to come.
We dug DJI’s Mavic Mini when the drone arrived last year. As Matt noted in his review, “It packs everything critical to be a quality drone. It has a good camera, good range and a good controller. It holds up well in the wind and is quick enough to be fun.” Today, DJI improves two of those things with the arrival of the Mini 2.
The new version, which hits retail today, is more refinement than redefinition. This is one of those cases where that’s perfectly fine, as the first release was a solid one, owing to the learnings of several generations of DJI and Mavic drones. The size and weight are essentially the same here. The Mini 2 weighs 249 grams — which comes out to about 0.55 pounds. It folds up and can be stashed away in a bag.
Image Credits: Gregory Manalo
The camera is probably the biggest upgrade here. The system is now capable of shooting 4K videos at 30 FPS. Stills, meanwhile, are 12-megapixels, and there’s 4x digital zoom (which DJI says is capable of up to 2x and still offer lossless quality). I suspect zoom is going to be a continued spot for improvement on these systems, going forward.
The other big change is the arrival of DJI’s proprietary OcuSync wireless technology — specifically OccuSync 2.0 here. The technology is also available on the latest Mavic Air. Per DJI:
OcuSync 2.0 is DJI’s world-renowned transmission technology responsible for ensuring stable, long distance, and reliable connection between the remote controller and the drone. Dual-frequency technology automatically switches between channels to help against interference.
Image Credits: Gregory Manalo
Among other things, the upgrade means a transmission rate of 19 km — around 150% of the range its predecessor delivered. Though DJI has to remind you here that you really ought to keep the tiny drone in your line of sight while operating. The battery should give you a solid 31 minutes (a slight improvement over the original’s stated 30-minute flight time).
DJI’s preprogrammed image capture is always a highlight. There are five quick-shot modes (Dronie, Helix, Rocket, Circle, Boomerang), three panoramas (Sphere, 180 and Wide-Angle) and two image modes (Triple Shot and Timed Shots).
Image Credits: Gregory Manalo
There’s a bit of a notable price bump here. The system now starts at $449 (up from $399), which includes the drone, remote and a single battery; $599 will get you two additional batteries, a charging hub and a carrying case — a solid addition.
Apple has packed an interesting new accessibility feature into the latest beta of iOS: a system that detects the presence of and distance to people in the view of the iPhone’s camera, so blind users can social distance effectively, among many other things.
The feature emerged from Apple’s ARKit, for which the company developed “people occlusion,” which detects people’s shapes and lets virtual items pass in front of and behind them. The accessibility team realized that this, combined with the accurate distance measurements provided by the lidar units on the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, could be an extremely useful tool for anyone with a visual impairment.
Of course during the pandemic one immediately thinks of the idea of keeping six feet away from other people. But knowing where others are and how far away is a basic visual task that we use all the time to plan where we walk, which line we get in at the store, whether to cross the street and so on.
The new feature, which will be part of the Magnifier app, uses the lidar and wide-angle camera of the Pro and Pro Max, giving feedback to the user in a variety of ways.
The lidar in the iPhone 12 Pro shows up in this infrared video. Each dot reports back the precise distance of what it reflects off of.
First, it tells the user whether there are people in view at all. If someone is there, it will then say how far away the closest person is in feet or meters, updating regularly as they approach or move further away. The sound corresponds in stereo to the direction the person is in the camera’s view.
Second, it allows the user to set tones corresponding to certain distances. For example, if they set the distance at six feet, they’ll hear one tone if a person is more than six feet away, another if they’re inside that range. After all, not everyone wants a constant feed of exact distances if all they care about is staying two paces away.
The third feature, perhaps extra useful for folks who have both visual and hearing impairments, is a haptic pulse that goes faster as a person gets closer.
Last is a visual feature for people who need a little help discerning the world around them, an arrow that points to the detected person on the screen. Blindness is a spectrum, after all, and any number of vision problems could make a person want a bit of help in that regard.
The system requires a decent image on the wide-angle camera, so it won’t work in pitch darkness. And while the restriction of the feature to the high end of the iPhone line reduces the reach somewhat, the constantly increasing utility of such a device as a sort of vision prosthetic likely makes the investment in the hardware more palatable to people who need it.
Here’s how it works so far:
This is far from the first tool like this — many phones and dedicated devices have features for finding objects and people, but it’s not often that it comes baked in as a standard feature.
Wyze first made a name for itself when it launched its $20 indoor security camera a few years ago. Since then, the company branched out into other smart home products, ranging from doorbells to scales. Today, it’s going back to its origins with the launch of the Wyze Cam V3, the third generation of its flagship camera.
The new version is still $20 (though that’s without shipping unless there’s a free shipping promotion in the Wyze store), but the company redesigned both the outside and a lot of the hardware inside the camera, which is now also IP65 rated, so you can now use it outdoors, too.
Image Credits: Wyze
The Cam V3 now also features new sensors that enable color night vision, thanks to an F1.6 aperture lens that captures 40 percent more light than the previous version. That lens now also covers a 130-degree field of view (up from 110 degrees in V2) and the company pushed up the frames per second from 15 during the day and 10 at night to 20 and 15 respectively.
The company also enhanced the classic black and white night vision mode — which you’ll still need when it’s really dark outside or in the room you are monitoring — by adding a second set of infrared lights to the camera.
Other new features are an 80dB siren to deter unwanted visitors. This feature is triggered by Wyze’s AI-powered person-detection capability, but that’s a feature the company recently moved behind its $2/month CamPlus paywall, after originally offering it for free. That’s not going to break the bank (and you get a generous free trial period), but it’d be nice if the company could’ve kept this relatively standard feature free and instead only charged for extra cloud storage or more advanced features (though you do get free 14-day rolling cloud storage for 12-second clips).
Wyze Cam V2 (left) and V3 (right).
Wyze provided me with a review unit ahead of today’s launch (and a Cam V2 to compare them). The image quality of the new camera is clearly better and the larger field of view makes a difference, even though the distortion at the edges is a bit more noticeable now (but given the use case, that’s not an issue). The new night color vision mode works as promised and I like that you can set the camera to automatically switch between them based on the lighting conditions.
The person detection has been close to 100% accurate — and unlike some competing cameras that don’t feature this capability, I didn’t get any false alarms during rain or when the wind started blowing leaves across the ground.
If you already have a Wyze Cam V2, you don’t need to upgrade to this new one — the core features haven’t changed all that much, after all. But if you’re in the market for this kind of camera and aren’t locked into a particular security system, it’s hard to beat the new Wyze Cam.