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Robotics startup lets machines get closer as humans keep their distance

As humans get used to working at a distance from each other, a startup in Massachusetts is providing sensors that bring industrial robots in close —  centimeters away, in fact. The same technology may support future social distancing efforts on commutes, in a pilot application to allow more subway trains to run on a single track.

Humatics, an MIT spinout backed by Lockheed Martin and Airbus, makes sensors that enable fast-moving and powerful robots to work alongside humans without accidents. If daily work and personal travel to work ever go back to normal, the company believes the same precision can improve aging and crowded infrastructure, enabling trains and buses to run closer together, even as we all may have to get used to working further apart.

This is the emerging field of microlocation robotics — devices and software that help people and machines navigate collaboratively. Humatics has been testing its technology with New York’s MTA since 2018, and today is tracking five miles of a New York subway, showing the transportation authority where six of its trains are, down to the centimeter.

UWB sensors for microlocation

Humatics’ technology in the MTA pilot uses ultrawide band (UWB) radio frequencies, which are less failure-prone than Wi-Fi, GPS and cameras.

“A good example of a harsh environment is a subway tunnel,” said David Mindell, co-founder of Humatics and professor of engineering and aerospace at MIT. “They are full of dust, the temperatures can range from subzero to 100 degrees, and there is the risk of animals or people tampering with devices. Working inside these tunnels is difficult and potentially dangerous for crews, also.”

Humatics has sold more than 10,000 UWB radio beacons, the base unit for their real-time tracking system, to manufacturers of sensor systems, the company says. They pinpoint the location of hundreds of RFID tags at a range of 500 meters, using multiple tags on an object to measure orientation.

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After a spate of device hacks, Google beefs up Nest security protections

Google has added its line of Nest smart home devices to its Advanced Protection Program, a security offering that adds stronger account protections for high-risk users like politicians and journalists.

The program, launched in 2017, allows anyone who signs up access to a range of additional account security features, like limiting third-party access to account data, anti-malware protections, and allowing the use of physical security keys to help thwart some of the most advanced cyberattacks.

Google said that adding Nest to the program was a “top request” from users.

Smart home devices are increasingly a target for hackers largely because many internet-connected devices lack basic security protections and are easy to hack, prompting an effort by states and governments to help device makers improve their security. A successful hack can allow hackers to snoop in on smart home cameras, or ensnare the device into a massive collection of vulnerable devices — a botnet — that can be used to knock websites offline with large amounts of junk traffic.

Although Nest devices are more secure than most, its users are not immune from hackers.

Earlier this year Google began requiring that Nest users must enable two-factor authentication after a spate of reported automated attacks targeting Nest cameras. Google said its systems had not been breached, but warned that hackers were using passwords stolen in other breaches to target Nest users.

Other devices makers, like Amazon-owned Ring, were also targeted by hackers using reused passwords.

While two-factor authentication virtually eliminates these kinds of so-called credential stuffing attacks, Google said its new security improvements will add “yet another layer of protection” to users’ Nest devices.

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Echo Looks will cease functioning in July, as Amazon discontinues the camera

Introduced in mid-2017, the Look was one of the more obscure — and, honestly, kind of bizarre — entries in the Echo line. It was a small camera designed to take videos and selfies of its owner, using machine learning to help choose outfits.

No surprise, really, that it never caught fire. And now, three years after its introduction, it’s dead. First noted by Voicebot.ai, Amazon sent a letter to customers noting that the camera has been discontinued — what’s more, service is going to completely shuttered in July.

Amazon confirmed the end of what seems to have amounted to an experiment and exercise in training a machine learning algorithm. The company tells TechCrunch,

When we introduced Echo Look three years ago, our goal was to train Alexa to become a style assistant as a novel way to apply AI and machine learning to fashion. With the help of our customers we evolved the service, enabling Alexa to give outfit advice and offer style recommendations. We’ve since moved Style by Alexa features into the Amazon Shopping app and to Alexa-enabled devices making them even more convenient and available to more Amazon customers. For that reason, we have decided it’s time to wind down Echo Look. Beginning July 24, 2020, both Echo Look and its app will no longer function. Customers will still be able to enjoy style advice from Alexa through the Amazon Shopping app and other Alexa-enabled devices. We look forward to continuing to support our customers and their style needs with Alexa.

Not a surprise, perhaps. But a bummer for those who spent the $200 on the product. For the looks of it, though, I don’t think the Look exactly caught the world on fire. It’s currently listed as the 51st best seller on Amazon’s list of Echo products. Honestly, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Again, not surprising for what was always destined to be a niche addition to the Echo line.

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TinyML is giving hardware new life

The latest embedded software technology moves hardware into an almost magical realm

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

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BeeHero smartens up hives to provide ‘pollination as a service’ with $4M seed round

Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.

Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.

Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.

So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.

“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them? ”

Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.

“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”

All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early, and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.

The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle, and cost.

The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.

“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35 percent in soybeans, 70-100 percent in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.

The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.

“We’ve seen cases where you can lower mortality by 20-25 percent,” said Davidi. “It’s good for the farmer to improve pollination, and it’s good for the beekeeper to lose less hives.”

That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”

Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly twenty thousand. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.

“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”

The $4M seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.

BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics, and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.

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Jabra’s Elite Active 75t earbuds offer great value and sound for both workouts and workdays

Technology improvements over the past few years mean that most fully wireless earbuds are a lot better than they used to be. That has led to something of a narrowing of the field among competitors in this arena, but some of the players still stand out – and Jabra have definitely delivered a standout performer with its newest Elite Active 75t fully wireless earbuds.

Basics

Jabra’s Elite Active 75t is a successor to its very popular 65t line, with added moisture resistance designed specifically for exercise use, as indicated by the ‘Active’ in the name. At $199.99, these are definitely premium-priced – but they’re a lot more affordable than many of the other offerings in the category, especially with their IP57-water and sweat resistance rating.

The Elite Active 75t also feature an esteemed 7.5 hours of battery life on a single charge, and their compact charging case carries backup power that adds up to a total of 28 hours potential run time across a single charge for both. The case charges via USB-C and also offers a fast-charge capability that provides 60 minutes of use from just 15 minutes of charging.

While they don’t offer active noise cancellation, they do have passive noise blocking, and an adjustable passthrough mode so that you can tune how much of the sound of the world around you you want to let in – a great safety feature for running or other activities.

They use Bluetooth 5.0 for low power consumption and extended connection range, have an auto-pause and resume feature for when you take out one earbud, and include a 4-mic array to optimize audio quality during calls.

Design

Jabra has accomplished a lot on the design front with the Elite Active 75t. Their predecessor was already among the most compact and low-profile in-ear wireless buds on the market, and the Elite Active 75t is even smaller. These are extremely lightweight and comfortable, too, and their design ensures that they stay put even during running or other active pursuits. In my testing, they didn’t even require adjustment once during a 30-minute outdoor run.

Their comfort makes them a great choice for both active use and for all-day wear at the desk – and the 7.5 hours of battery life doesn’t seem to be a boast, either, based on my use, which is also good for workday wear.

Another key design feature that Jabra included on the Elite Active 75t is that both earbuds feature a large, physical button for controls. This is much better and easier to use than the touch-based controls found on a lot of other headsets, and makes learning the various on-device control features a lot easier.

Finally in terms of design, the charging case for the Elite Active 75t is also among the most svelte on the market. It’s about the size of two stacked matchboxes, and easily slides into any available pockets. Like the earbuds themselves, the case features a very slightly rubberized outer texture, which is great for grip but, as you can see from the photos, is also a dust magnet. That doesn’t really matter unless you happen to be tasked with photographing them, however.

One final note on the case design – magnetic snaps in the earbud pockets mean you can be sure that your headset buds are seated correctly for charging when you put them back, which is a great bit of user experience thoughtfulness.

Performance

It’s easy to see why the Jabra Elite Active 75t is already a favorite among users – they provide a rich, pleasant sound profile that’s also easily tuned through the Jabra Sound+ mobile app. Especially for a pair of earbuds designed specifically for active use, these provide sound quality that goes above and beyond.

Their battery life appears to line up with manufacturer estimates, which also makes them class-leading in terms of single charge battery life. That’s a big advantage when using these for longer outdoor activities, or, as mentioned, when relying on them for all-day desk work. Their built-in mic is also clear and easy to understand for people on the other side of voice and video calls, and the built-in voice isolation seems to work very well according to my testing.

In my experience, their fit is also fantastic. Jabra really seems to have figured out how to build a bud that stays in place, regardless of how much you’re moving around or sweating. It’s really refreshing to find a pair of fully wireless buds that you never have to even think about readjusting them during a workout.

Bottom Line

Jabra has done an excellent job setting their offering apart from an increasingly crowded fully wireless earbud market, and the Elite Active 75t is another distinctive success. Size, comfort and battery life all help put this above its peers, and it also boasts great sound quality as well as excellent call quality. You can get better sounding fully wireless earbuds, but not without spending quite a bit more money and sacrificing some of those other advantages.

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Magic Leap has apparently raised another $350 million, in spite of itself

Magic Leap has reportedly received a $350 million lifeline, a month after slashing 1,000 jobs and dropping its consumer business. Noted by Business Insider and confirmed by The Information, CEO Rony Abovitz sent a note to staff announcing the funding, courtesy of unnamed current and new investors.

The who — and more importantly, why — isn’t clear. A key healthcare company may be involved. Whatever the case, the company is withdrawing the WARN notice (a 60-day notification for large-scale layoffs) sent to staff in late April. The move represents an apparent reversal of the massive layoff round it previously announced.

In spite of the change, it seems that the lavishly funded augmented reality company still plans to turn all of its focus to the enterprise, as previously announced — a move that puts it in more direct competition with the likes of Microsoft’s HoloLens.

“We are making very good progress in our healthcare, enterprise, and defense deals,” Abovitz writes. “As these deals close, we will be able to announce them.”

Magic Leap cited COVID-19 as a key reason for April’s news. But the company wasn’t exactly the picture of consumer hardware success prior to the shutdown. In spite of raising an eye-popping $2.6 billion across nine rounds, the company’s early days were defined far more by hype than public progress. After years of teaser videos, its first device ultimately left much to be desired.

We’re reached out to the company for comment.

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Byte projects $100 million in 2020 revenue without increasing marketing spend

One usual characteristic of a bootstrapped company is that its growth is slower than its VC-backed competitors. Bootstrapped marketing spend relies on revenue, revenue often relies on marketing spend, and the tension between the two can force slower growth. VC-backed companies, in contrast, can afford to spend ahead of revenue, often allowing them to grow more quickly.

Byte has found a much faster bootstrapped path to growth. The company, which was founded in 2017 and launched its products at the beginning of 2019, is on track to reach a $100 million revenue run rate in Q2 of this year, according to president Neeraj Gunsagar.

Unlike bootstrapped startups with first-time founders, byte (it’s officially lowercase) was founded by serial entrepreneurs Scott Cohen and Blake Johnson. Cohen founded his first company in 2011 (acquired by Deluxe Corporation in 2016) and his second company, Currency, alongside Blake Johnson in 2016, which sold to a private equity firm in 2019.

The duo brought on Gunsagar, formerly CMO at TrueCar where he spent eight years, to help lead the next phase of growth at the company and prepare the organization for international expansion and the next product rollout.

But let’s back up. Byte is an invisible-aligner-for-teeth company that has entered the ring with behemoths like Invisalign and SmileDirectClub, as well as a smattering of smaller at-home braces startups, like Candid. But there are several big differences between byte and its competition.

The first is its technology. Alongside impression kits and invisible aligners, byte also includes a device called HyperByte in all of its treatment plans. HyperByte is an extra in-mouth device that uses high-frequency vibrations (HFV) to send micropulses through the roots of the teeth and the surrounding bone, speeding up the process of alignment.

HFV treatment is FDA-approved and offered in orthodontist offices around the country, but usually at a steep price.

HyperByte comes included with the cost of using byte’s service, which comes out to $1,895. (Folks can also pay via payment plan, called BytePay, which comes out to $349 down and $83/month for a little over two years.) The company also includes a whitening solution that can be used in conjunction with aligners.

Byte’s treatment plans are overseen and reviewed by licensed orthodontists each and every time, and customers can be connected to an orthodontist or dentist should they run into any clinical issue during treatment.

In some cases, insurance may reimburse customers for their byte treatment.

In other words, byte is working to bring down both the cost of aligners and the time it takes to treat patients. Importantly, byte focuses exclusively on Phase 1 malocclusions, or small misalignments in the teeth like tiny gaps or slightly crooked teeth, and not complicated issues like overbites.

Most interestingly, byte saw explosive growth in the first quarter of 2020 — the company saw 10x revenue growth over the last three months, compared to the same period of 2019, and says that it is continuing at that 10x growth rate through Q2. Byte also told TechCrunch that it generated “positive EBITDA business pre-[COVID-19].” (As is the case with all private companies, these numbers come from byte and are not independently verified by TechCrunch.)

Part of that profitability story is improving economics. Toward the end of 2019, byte’s cost to acquire customers (CAC) averaged $189 for initial impression kits, a figure that dropped to $88 by the end of April 2020.

The sharp CAC decline is due to several factors. According to Gunsagar, the price of Google keywords dropped dramatically in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the company has seen its direct and organic traffic double, perhaps driven by the coronavirus pandemic spurring increased interest in self-improvement.

Byte isn’t the only company caught in the self-improvement updraft. “There’s sort of this trend toward self-improvement and using this time constructively,” Jaimee Minney, SVP of marketing and PR at Rakuten Intelligence, told CNBC. “Book sales increase, games and puzzles, and we have seen health and beauty start to grow as well, especially when you look at it on a year-over-year basis. That’s one I might keep an eye on, the self-improvement piece.”

Gunsagar explained that, historically, other companies may have thrown even more marketing money at this type of environment to boost growth even more.

“We won’t sacrifice our customer experience and we won’t sacrifice profitability as we grow the business,” said Gunsagar. “We don’t want to have too many impression kits going through the system because we want to make sure we can support it from a technology and experience standpoint. Every dollar we spend is still super profitable. I could go spend more money and still stay below our CPC goal of $150 and blow past $100 million in revenue this year, but I just wouldn’t be super confident that our NPS score or our customer experience wouldn’t be penalized.”

In formulating this careful growth strategy, Gunsagar and byte aren’t just looking at the broader tech ecosystem, where we’ve seen growth at all costs backfire on companies. They can find examples in their own industry — SmileDirectClub grew fantastically ahead of its initial public offering in September of 2019 only to feel backlash from some customers who were reportedly asked for an NDA in exchange for a refund.

One other important piece of byte’s strategy is an upcoming bytePro launch in conjunction with dentists and orthodontists. The idea is to grow alongside the dental and orthodontic industry, rather than cut these healthcare professionals out of the food chain.

With bytePro, which launches next month, dentists and orthodontists are included even more in the process. Incoming clients can ask to work with their own dentist or orthodontist as they go through the byte aligner process, and even get their impression kits in their dentist’s office rather than order them online. On the other side, dentists and orthodontists can join the bytePro network to be matched with new patients. Moreover, folks that purchase byte show an increased interest in caring for their teeth year round, according to the company, whether that be cleanings or other dental work. Byte aims to connect those folks with a good dentist or orthodontist to protect the investment they’ve made in their new smile.

Though byte is not venture-backed, the company has taken a small investment from actress and investor Kerry Washington, who has also invested in The Wing and Community. Washington serves as Creative Director at byte.

“When I was looking at ways to continue growing my portfolio, I focused on companies that I can be really proud to be associated with, and that pride comes from the quality of the product and how it improves the quality of people’s lives,” said Washington. “The idea of having a voice is really important. With byte, I said really early on ‘if you can’t open your mouth, you can’t find your voice’ and when you hear the stories from real customers, people were afraid to smile and afraid to speak and that’s when I realized that this is a tool that can better people’s lives in so many ways.”

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Arm’s financials and the blurring future of the semiconductor sector

Amidst the blitz of SoftBank earnings news today comes the financials for all of SoftBank’s subsidiaries, which includes Arm Holdings, the most important chip design and research company in the world that SoftBank bought for $32 billion back in 2016. Arm produces almost all of the key designs for the chips that run today’s smartphones, including Apple’s A13 Bionic chip that powers its flagship iPhone. In all, 22.8 billion chips were shipped globally last year using Arm licenses according to SoftBank’s financials.

It’s a massively important company, and its finances show a complicated picture for itself — and the semiconductor industry at large.

We sat down with Arm Holding’s CEO Simon Segars last year to discuss the company’s growing appetite for ambitious research, fueled by SoftBank dollars and the bullish vision of the conglomerate’s chairman Masayoshi Son:

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China’s Oppo partners with Vodafone for bigger European push

Huawei is facing an uphill challenge in the overseas market as its upcoming devices lack the full set of Google apps and services. That leaves ample room for its Chinese rivals to chase after foreign consumers.

That includes Oppo, the sister brand of Vivo under Dongguan-based electronics holding company BBK. In an announcement on Monday, the Chinese firm announced a partnership with Vodafone to bring its smartphones to the mobile carrier’s European markets. The deal kicks off in May and will sell Oppo’s portfolio of advanced 5G handsets as well as value-for-money models into the U.K, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Romania and Turkey.

While Vodafone pulled Huawei phones from its U.K. 5G network last year following the U.S. export ban that stripped Huawei models of certain Android services, the British operator can now tap Oppo’s wide range of mobile products in a heated race to sign up 5G customers. The partners will jointly explore online sales channels as many parts of Europe’s physical premises remain closed due to the COVID-19.

Oppo, currently the second-largest smartphone vendor in its home country after Huawei, has seen a spike in sales across Europe since entering the market in mid-2018. The company was one of the first to launch commercially available 5G phones in Europe last year and now ranks fifth on the continent with a 2% share, according to a survey from research firm Canalys.

“Oppo has a product range that can hit many of the same segments as Huawei, enabling it to gain market share at the expense of Huawei,” Peter Richardson, research director at Counterpoint Research, explained to TechCrunch. “Oppo has always used quite a European flavour in its product design. This extends to things like colour choice, packaging, and advertising materials. This makes it acceptable to European consumers.”

Interestingly, Richardson pointed out that Oppo, which has a less “Chinese sounding” name than its domestic rivals Xiaomi and Huawei, will help it circumvent some of the “negative media surrounding China just now – first Huawei’s difficulties around security threats and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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