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Discuss the unbundling of early-stage VC with Unusual Ventures’ Sarah Leary & John Vrionis

This year has been everything but business as usual for the venture and tech community. And we still have a presidential election ahead of us.

So, why not listen to the aptly-named experts over at Unusual Ventures? Partners Sarah Leary (co-founder of Nextdoor) and John Vrionis, formerly of Lightspeed Ventures Partners, will join us on Tuesday, October 20 on the Extra Crunch Live virtual stage.

Thanks to all of you who have joined us for our series of live discussions that has included tech leaders like Sydney Sykes, Alexia von Tobel, Mark Cuban and many others (all recordings are still accessible for Extra Crunch subscribers to watch and learn from).

If you’re new, welcome! You’ll have a chance to participate in the live discussion if you have an Extra Crunch subscription.

Unusual Ventures’ investments span the consumer and enterprise space, including companies like Robinhood, AppDynamics, Mulesoft and Winnie.

For this chat, I plan to spend some time talking to Leary and Vrionis about how early-stage venture capital has changed with the rise of rolling funds, community funds and syndicates. Unusual Ventures claims “there’s an enormous opportunity to raise the bar on what seed-stage investors provide for early-stage founders,” so we’ll get into that opportunity as well.

And if we have time, we’ll discuss remote work, building in public and the U.S. presidential election.

So, what are you waiting for? Add the deets to your calendar (below the jump!) and join me next Tuesday.

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Bose’s music-playing sunglasses are back

Glasses/sunglasses with built-in speakers have been a thing for a shockingly long time now. They’ve never been particularly popular, mind, but at the very least, they’re an interesting enough concept for companies to continue taking a sporadic stab at the category, whose primary appeal seems to be not being forced to purchase both glasses and headphones.

Bose may have put its AR ambitions on the back burner, but the company is still very much into the idea of sunglasses that play headphones. In fact, it’s back with three new models: the Tempo, Tenor and Soprano. The new additions follow the original Frames launched back in 2018.

Image Credits: Bose

The Tempo is the more premium of the trio, with a bulky temple/earpiece that also sports the charging port. The music is designed to fire toward the ear, while keeping it unobstructed, so you can hear the world around you. That’s good for alertness, obviously, but a mixed bag when it comes to actually, you know, being able to hear what the speakers are playing. Especially in an urban environment.

The Tenor and Tempo feature smaller 16mm speakers in each ear and a stated five hours of battery. They’re otherwise distinguished from one another based on size and design. There’s UV protection on all of the models. They’re available today, priced at $249.

Image Credits: Bose

Bose also announced two pairs of fully wireless earbuds. The more notable of the two are the QC Earbuds, which adopt the company’s flagship QuietComfort banner, owing to the company’s on-board noise canceling. Between that and the $279 price tag, the buds are positioned to take on the AirPods Pro and Sony’s own excellent noise-canceling models.

Image Credits: Bose

The simply named Sport Earbuds, meanwhile, are priced at $179 and feature a new locking mechanism to stay in place while working out. Both models are up for pre-order starting today and will begin shipping before the end of the month.

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Low-cost fitness bands see a resurgence in interest amid the pandemic

While wearable fitness devices saw an uptick in shipments in North America for Q2, the overall dollar amount of the market remained steady, according to new numbers out of Canalys. The discrepancy can be chalked up to a decline in the average selling price of the products.

Continuing an overall trend for 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in wearable devices, as consumers look to both monitor their health and track step counts, as mass closings have made many more sedentary. Perhaps owing to large unemployment figures and a massive economic downturn, the decisions customers have been making are trending toward the more frugal end of the spectrum.

Image Credits: Canalys

“Americans invested heavily in sub-US$50 trackers during the pandemic to stay accountable for the greater amount of time spent at home,” analyst Vincent Thielke said in a comment tied to the figures’ release.

The numbers buck larger ongoing wearable trends, which have found smartwatches starting to utterly dominate the conversation. Of course, results that can be tied directly to the pandemic ought not be viewed as indicators of broader, ongoing trends. They do, however, seem to open up a perhaps temporary opportunity to low-cost device makers. Amazon is striking while the iron is hot with the Halo band, and a number of companies that have had continued success in Asia could potentially find an opening in the market. Subscription services appear to be the key way forward for monetizing relatively low-cost devices.

Apple continues to dominate the category overall. That’s helped along by a bump in shipments for the Apple Watch Series 3. As a $200 alternative to Apple’s higher-end devices, the three-year-old smartwatch saw a 30% year-over-year growth.

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LG is releasing a ‘wearable air purifier’

Frankly, the most surprising thing about the PuriCare is that more tech companies haven’t launched a similar product in recent months. LG is showing it off as part of the upcoming IFA press conference in Berlin — though the company is opting for a virtual presence at this year’s show.

There’s a lot going on in the press release for the “wearable air purifier.” As it notes, “LG PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier resolves the dilemma of homemade masks being of inconsistent quality and disposal masks being in short supply. The PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier employs two H13 HEPA filters, similar to the filters used in the company’s home air purifier products.”

The company seemingly goes out of its way not to mention COVID-19. After all, specific health claims are often subject to different regulations. It’s true, of course, that masks have, at various points, been in short supply during the pandemic. And likely that was the case when LG really started pushing the idea in earnest.

That said, it’s also worth noting that even professionally made masks offer a pretty wide range of efficacy against the virus’s transmission. There are plenty of questions here. For starters, the filter and the question of how effective it might potentially be for both the wearer and the people around them. The latter, after all, is the real argument for wearing masks — to protect the people around.

LG’s response to the COVID-19 question defers to potential future approval; “We’re waiting until further testing is complete before we’re able to share full details.” Hopefully we’ll get some more concrete answers before it goes on sale in “the fourth quarter in select markets.” Though there are certainly non-coronavirus-related reasons to wear a mask, including pollution and other environmental contaminants.

Image Credits: LG

Also worth asking is what happens when the battery runs down. The mask is capable of running eight hours on “low” and two hours on “high,” courtesy of an on-board 820mAh battery, according to figures from LG. But stuff happens. Sometimes you’re out longer than expected, or maybe you just forgot to charge it in full before leaving the house.

There are two H13 HEPA filters on-board, similar in nature to the kind the company uses for its in-home air filtration system. There are also UV-LED lights designed to kill bacteria — an added level of protection beyond the filtration system. In addition to the aforementioned home filtration systems, LG also manufacturers UV light wands for disinfecting purposes. The company has been working on a lot of this stuff already and clearly saw an opportunity to capitalize on it in mask form.

There’s a fair bit of on-board technology, including the ability to regulate the speed of the filtration based on the wearer’s breath. Overkill? Almost certainly. From the looks of the images, it’s also potentially cumbersome. And then there’s the matter of the still unknown price.

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Here are all the things Samsung announced at today’s Unpacked event

Samsung’s first virtual Unpacked ranked somewhere between Microsoft and Apple’s recent events in terms of overall presentation and general awkwardness. The show kicked off seven minutes late, and a number of on-screen presenters certainly tended toward the more…awkward side of things, but overall, it was a decent first virtual event as the company embraces what it’s branded as “The Next Normal.”

Toward the end of the show, mobile head TM Roh noted, “Going forward, 5G and foldable will be the major pillars of Samsung’s future.” 5G is certainly a no-brainer. The event saw the company taking a step toward standardizing the next-gen wireless technology across its flagship mobile devices — as well as making its first appearance on the company’s tablets.

Image Credits: Samsung

As expected, the big news is the latest version of Samsung’s perennial favorite phablet line. The Note 20 gets 5G for both models and now comes in 6.7 and 6.9-inch models. The Ultra version gets a 120Hz refresh rate along with a hybridized 50x super zoom, using the same technology introduced with the Galaxy S20 earlier this year.

The most unsung addition might be UWB (ultra-wideband), which will enable a number of new features, including close proximity file sharing, a future unlock feature (with partner Assa Abloy) and a find my phone-style feature with an AR element. Xbox head Phil Spencer also made a brief remote cameo to announce Game Pass access, bringing more than 100 streaming titles to the device.

The models start at  $1,000 and $1,300, respectively. They’ll start shipping August 21.

New to the 5G game is the Galaxy Tab series. Samsung says the line includes “the first tablets that support 5G available in the United States.” The S7 and S7+ sport an 11 and 12.4-inch display, respectively, and start at $650 and $850, respectively. No word yet on pricing for the 5G versions.

Image Credits: Samsung

The event included a pair of new wearables. The more exciting of the two is probably the Galaxy Buds Live. Samsung has made consistently solid wireless earbuds, and the latest version finally introduce active noise canceling, along with some cool features like the ability to double as a mic for a connected Note device. The bean Buds are available today for $170.

Image Credits: Samsung

I’d be lying if I said the most exciting part of the Galaxy Watch 3 wasn’t the return of the physical bezel — long the best thing about Samsung’s smartwatches. Also notable is the addition of improved sleep and fitness tracking, along with an ECG monitor, which Samsung announced has just received FDA clearance. The Galaxy Watch 3 runs $400 and $430 for the 41mm and 45mm, respectively. There will also be LTE models, priced at $50 more.

Image Credits: Samsung

As for the foldable side of things, the event also found Samsung announcing its latest foldable, the Galaxy Z Fold 2, with help from superstar boy band, BTS. The focus on the new version mostly revolves around fixing the numerous problems surrounding its predecessor. That includes a new glass reinforcement for the screen and a hinge that sweeps away debris that can fall in and break the screen in the process. More information on the foldable will be announced September 1.

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It’s not an Apple Watch, it’s an Oppo Watch

Behold, the Opple Watch. Many have borrowed heavily from Apple’s wearable, but few, if any, have done so as brazenly as Oppo. Sure Fitbit received some guff for the squircle hardware design of its Versa line, but it’s not useful to get too hung up on those vague similarities — there are, notably, relatively few geometrical options for hardware makers looking to move outside the traditional circle watch face.

But based on the press material, the Oppo Watch is — to put it gently — a dead ringer for the best-selling smartwatch. There are some key differences, of course. The first and biggest is the fact that the device runs Wear OS, Google’s oft-neglected wearable operating system. Also of note is the “dual curved screen,” which allows the watch face to monopolize more space on the device, with a 73% screen-to-body ratio on the 45mm version and 65% on the 41mm. Those displays are 1.91 and 1.6 inches, respectively.

There’s a Wi-Fi and LTE version of the larger model, and both feature GPS+GLONASS tracking, along with heart-rate monitoring and sleep tracking. The battery is 430mAh on the big one and 300mAh on the smaller. The former should get around 36 hours of life on a charge, according to the company, charging back up to full capacity in about 75 minutes. There’s also a battery-saver mode that should keep it alive for a few weeks.

The watches are available starting today in select markets. If you’re in the market for a Wear OS watch, you have a lot of choices, all of which are significantly less likely to be mistaken for an Apple Watch.

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Google’s Fitbit deal could avoid EU antitrust probe by agreeing not to use health data for ads

Google announced its plans to acquire Fitbit for $2.1 billion back in November. As of this writing, the deal has yet to go through, courtesy of all the usual regulatory scrutiny that occurs any time one large company buys another. EU regulators are often a key hurdle for these sorts of deals, and this time it may be no different.

Citing “people familiar with the matter,” Reuters notes that Google may be facing down some scrutiny in the form of an EU antitrust investigation if it doesn’t make some concessions. The heart of the concern here is a matter of health privacy. Fitbit — like many other wearable companies — collects a tremendous amount of health information from wearers.

Google, of course, is a company tremendously invested in data and advertising. Critics of the deal have suggested that purchasing Fitbit would provide yet another rich vein of data for Google to mine. As such, the deal could hinge on the promise that Google will never use health data to sell ads.

The stipulation is in keeping with a promise the company made when the acquisition was first announced, with the company’s head of hardware Rick Osterloh promising, “[P]rivacy and security are paramount. When you use our products, you’re trusting Google with your information. We understand this is a big responsibility and we work hard to protect your information, put you in control and give you transparency about your data.”

In a follow-up to this week’s reporting, the company noted that it believes the acquisition would increase competition. While Fitbit has a sizable footprint, Apple, Xiaomi and Huawei currently dominate the category, due in part to Fitbit’s late start in the smartwatch category. Google’s efforts to make inroads through Wear OS have largely come up short, though the company did also purchase a chunk of smartwatch tech from Fossil last January.

A spokesperson also attempted to put to rest potential regulatory fears, stating, “Throughout this process we have been clear about our commitment not to use Fitbit health and wellness data for Google ads and our responsibility to provide people with choice and control with their data.”

Regulators are set to decide on the deal by July 20. Google reportedly has until July 13 to present its concessions.

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NASA’s JPL open-sources an anti-face-touching wearable to help reduce the spread of COVID-19

There are some wearables out there in the world that are making claims around COVID-19 and their ability to detect it, prevent it, certify that you don’t have it and more. But a new wearable device from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory might actually be able to do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and it’s not really all that technically advanced or complicated.

JPL’s PULSE wearable uses 3D-printed parts and readily available, affordable electronic components to do just one thing: remind a person not to touch their face. JPL’s designers claim that it’s simple enough that the gadget “can easily be reproduced by anyone regardless of their level of expertise,” and to encourage more people and companies to actually do that, the lab has made available a full list of parts, 3D modeling files and full instructions for its assembly via an open-source license.

The PULSE is essentially a pendant, worn around the neck between six inches and one foot from the head. It can detect when a person’s hand is approaching their face using an IR-based proximity sensor. A vibration motor then shakes out an alert, and the response becomes stronger as your hand gets closer to your face.

The hardware itself is simple — but that’s the point. It’s designed to run on readily available 3V coin batteries, and if you have a 3D printer at hand for the case and access to Amazon, you can probably put one together yourself at home in no time.

The goal of PULSE obviously isn’t to single-handedly eliminate COVID-19 — contact transmission from contaminated hands to a person’s mouth, nose or eyes is just one vector, and it seems likely that respiratory droplets that result in airborne transmission is at least as effective at passing the virus around. But just like regular mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission risk, minimizing how often you touch your face can have a big combined effect with other measures taken to reduce the spread.

Other health wearables might actually be able to tell you when you have COVID-19 before you show significant symptoms or have a positive test result — but work still needs to be done to understand how well those work, and how they could be used to limit exposure. JPL’s PULSE has the advantage of being effective now in terms of building positive habits that we know will limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as other viral infections.

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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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Smart ring maker Motiv acquired by ‘digital identity’ company

We weren’t alone in being impressed by Motiv. The startup helped flip the script on wearables by essentially cramming a fitness tracker’s worth of technology into a ring. This week, San Francisco ‘digital identity’ startup Proxy announced that it’s acquiring the company.

The company’s site is littered in buzzwords, but Proxy specializes in digital key cards — essentially providing a way to use digital devices like smartphones to access businesses and homes. An odd fit for a company that makes exercise rings, until you look at what Motiv’s been up to in recent years.

Among the additions to the tiny hardware platform are NFC payments, lost phone tracking and two-factor device authentication through gait monitoring. Whether or not Proxy ultimately has interesting in manufacturing and selling a fitness ring, there’s plenty of underlying technology here that would be of interesting to a digital identity company.

“The demand for our technology is only going to increase and we saw a clear path forward in the importance of validating one’s identity in both the physical and digital worlds,” Motiv said in a blog post. “Keys, access cards and passwords are rapidly being replaced with a biometric identity which provides greatly improved security and convenience.”

While the app will continue to be available for download (no word on how long it will continue to offer support), the deal mark the end of Motiv’s online sales, while partner retailers will burn through the rest of their stock.

Proxy, on the other hand, says it’s committed to the ring as the future of the wearables category. “With this acquisition, Proxy plans to bring digital identity signals to smart rings for the first time and revolutionize the way people use technology to interact with the world around them,” the company writes. “We believe it’s possible to ignite a paradigm shift in how people use wearables to interface with the physical world, so they can do and experience things they never have before.”

While compelling, the fitness ring hasn’t exactly taken the wearable category by storm in the past three years, as the space continues to be almost exclusively dominated by smartwatches and headphones. For those who still believe in the form factor, Motiv has had some competition recently, from companies like Oura, a ring largely built around sleep tracking. 

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