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This robot crawls along wind turbine blades looking for invisible flaws

Mon, 2019-06-24 16:17

Wind turbines are a great source of clean power, but their apparent simplicity — just a big thing that spins — belie complex systems that wear down like any other, and can fail with disastrous consequences. Sandia National Labs researchers have created a robot that can inspect the enormous blades of turbines autonomously, helping keep our green power infrastructure in good kit.

The enormous towers that collect energy from wind currents are often only in our view for a few minutes as we drive past. But they must stand for years through inclement weather, temperature extremes, and naturally — being the tallest things around — lightning strikes. Combine that with normal wear and tear and it’s clear these things need to be inspected regularly.

But such inspections can be both difficult and superficial. The blades themselves are among the largest single objects manufactured on the planet, and they’re often installed in distant or inaccessible areas, like the many you see offshore.

“A blade is subject to lightning, hail, rain, humidity and other forces while running through a billion load cycles during its lifetime, but you can’t just land it in a hanger for maintenance,” explained Sandia’s Joshua Paquette in a news release. In other words, not only do crews have to go to the turbines to inspect them, but they often have to do those inspections in place — on structures hundreds of feet tall and potentially in dangerous locations.

Aerones makes really big drones for cleaning turbines and saving lives

Using a crane is one option, but the blade can also be orientated downwards so an inspector can rappel along its length. Even then the inspection may be no more than eyeballing the surface.

“In these visual inspections, you only see surface damage. Often though, by the time you can see a crack on the outside of a blade, the damage is already quite severe,” said Paquette.

Obviously better and deeper inspections are needed, and that’s what the team decided to work on, with partners International Climbing Machines and Dophitech. The result is this crawling robot, which can move along a blade slowly but surely, documenting it both visually and using ultrasonic imaging.

A visual inspection will see cracks or scuffs on the surface, but the ultrasonics penetrate deep into the blades, making them capable of detecting damage to interior layers well before it’s visible outside. And it can do it largely autonomously, moving a bit like a lawnmower: side to side, bottom to top.

Of course at this point it does it quite slowly and requires human oversight, but that’s because it’s fresh out of the lab. In the near future teams could carry around a few of these things, attach one to each blade, and come back a few hours or days later to find problem areas marked for closer inspection or scanning. Perhaps a crawler robot could even live onboard the turbine and scurry out to check each blade on a regular basis.

Another approach the researchers took was drones — a natural enough solution, since the versatile fliers have been pressed into service for inspection of many other structures that are dangerous for humans to get around: bridges, monuments, and so on.

These drones would be equipped with high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors that detect the heat signatures in the blade. The idea is that as warmth from sunlight diffuses through the material of the blade, it will do so irregularly in spots where damage below the surface has changed its thermal properties.

As automation of these systems improves, the opportunities open up: A quick pass by a drone could let crews know whether any particular tower needs closer inspection, then trigger the live-aboard crawler to take a closer look. Meanwhile the humans are on their way, arriving to a better picture of what needs to be done, and no need to risk life and limb just to take a look.

Apple just released the first iOS and iPadOS 13 beta to everyone

Mon, 2019-06-24 13:46

This is your opportunity to get a glimpse of the future of iOS — and iPadOS. Apple just released the first public beta of iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, the next major version of the operating systems for the iPhone and iPad. Unlike developer betas, everyone can download those betas without a $99 developer account. But don’t forget, it’s a beta.

The company still plans to release the final version of iOS and iPadOS 13.0 this fall (usually September). But Apple is going to release betas every few weeks over the summer. It’s a good way to fix as many bugs as possible and gather data from a large group of users.

As always, Apple’s public betas closely follow the release cycle of developer betas. And Apple released the second developer beta of iOS and iPadOS 13 just last week. So it sounds like the first public beta is more or less the same build as the second developer build.

But remember, you shouldn’t install an iOS beta on your primary iPhone or iPad. The issue is not just bugs — some apps and features won’t work at all. In some rare cases, beta software can also brick your device and make it unusable. Proceed with extreme caution.

I’ve been using the developer beta of iOS and it’s still quite buggy. Some websites don’t work, some apps are broken.

But if you have an iPad or iPhone you don’t need, here’s how to download it. Head over to Apple’s beta website and download the configuration profile. It’s a tiny file that tells your iPhone or iPad to update to public betas like it’s a normal software update.

You can either download the configuration profile from Safari on your iOS device directly, or transfer it to your device using AirDrop, for instance. Reboot your device, then head over to the Settings app. In September, your device should automatically update to the final version of iOS and iPadOS 13 and you’ll be able to delete the configuration profile.

Here’s a quick rundown of what’s new in iOS 13. This year, in addition to dark mode, it feels like every single app has been improved with some quality-of-life updates. The Photos app features a brand new gallery view with autoplaying live photos and videos, smart curation and a more immersive design.

This version has a big emphasis on privacy as well thanks to a new signup option called “Sign in with Apple” and a bunch of privacy popups for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi consent, background location tracking. Apple Maps now features an impressive Google Street View-like feature called Look Around. It’s only available in a handful of cities, but I recommend… looking around as everything is in 3D.

Many apps have been updated, such as Reminders with a brand new version, Messages with the ability to set a profile picture shared with your contacts, Mail with better text formatting options, Health with menstrual cycle tracking, Files with desktop-like features, Safari with a new website settings menu, etc. Read more on iOS 13 in my separate preview.

On the iPad front, for the first time Apple is calling iOS for the iPad under a new name — iPadOS. Multitasking has been improved, the Apple Pencil should feel snappier, Safari is now as powerful as Safari on macOS and more.

iOS 13 brings many much needed quality-of-life improvements

The Raspberry Pi Foundation unveils the Raspberry Pi 4

Mon, 2019-06-24 02:01

The Raspberry Pi 4 is here — and it’s an awesome upgrade. Earlier rumors said that it would take a while before a major Raspberry Pi upgrade, but it’s available starting today.

When it comes to physical design, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B looks a lot like the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, the previous flagship model. It’s a single-board computer with a lot of connectors that is the size of a deck of cards.

But everything has been updated. It starts with a faster system-on-a-chip. The processor now uses the Cortex-A72 architecture (quad-core 64-bit ARMv8 at 1.5GHz). It supports H.265 hardware video decoding for instance.

The Raspberry Pi has been stuck at 512MB or 1GB of RAM for years. For the first time, you can buy models with more memory if you want more memory. The base model still starts with 1GB of RAM. But you can optionally buy a model with 2GB RAM or even 4GB of RAM.

In addition to raw memory capacity, memory transfer speeds should be faster as the foundation is switching from LPDDR2 to LPDDR4.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has already sent me a Raspberry Pi 4 and I plan to run some benchmarks and share the results. I’m just waiting for the Raspbian update as the existing release doesn’t run on the new architecture — I realized that after formatting the microSD card to replace the pre-installed NOOBS operating system with Raspbian Lite (oopsie).

When it come to connectivity, the two big changes are that you now get true Gigabit Ethernet (instead of Ethernet over USB 2.0). It should open up a ton of potential use cases for servers and headless Raspberry Pi devices.

There are now two USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0 ports. And you now get a USB-C port for the power brick. Bluetooth is also getting an update from Bluetooth 4.2 to Bluetooth 5.0.

The final big hardware change is that the full-size HDMI port is gone. You now get two micro-HDMI ports, which let you plug two 4K displays at 60 frames per second using one Raspberry Pi. I haven’t tested that setup yet. I’m sure it would be fine to run two statics dashboards in your office for instance, but I wouldn’t expect crazy dual-screen performances.

The rest of the specifications should look familiar to anybody who has used a Raspberry Pi in the past. There’s a microSD card slot so that you can put the operating system and user data on a memory card. There’s a 40-pin GPIO header that should be compatible with existing add-on boards.

The product is launching today through authorized Raspberry Pi retailers. The base model still costs $35, while the 2GB RAM model costs $45 and the 4GB RAM model costs $55.

While the Raspberry Pi first started as a simple computer designed to teach kids how to code, it has become a versatile device with many different use cases. I’ve been using a few for the past couple of years and I learned a lot about programming, system administration, Docker containers and networking. And it looks like today’s update will be a hit for kids, parents and makers.

Crowdfunded spacecraft LightSail 2 prepares to go sailing on sunlight

Fri, 2019-06-21 13:47

Among the many spacecraft and satellites ascending to space on Monday’s Falcon Heavy launch, the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 may be the most interesting. If all goes well, a week from launch it will be moving through space — slowly, but surely — on nothing more than the force exerted on it by sunlight.

LightSail 2 doesn’t have solar-powered engines, or use solar energy or heat for some secondary purpose; it will literally be propelled by the physical force of photons hitting its immense shiny sail. Not solar wind, mind you — that’s a different thing altogether.

It’s an idea, explained Planetary Society CEO and acknowledged Science Guy Bill Nye said in a press call ahead of the launch, that goes back centuries.

NASA details Deep Space Atomic Clock and other tests launching on SpaceX Falcon Heavy

“It really goes back to the 1600’s,” he said; Kepler deduced that a force from the sun must cause comet tails and other effects, and “he speculated that brave people would one day sail the void.”

So they might, since more recent astronomers and engineers have pondered the possibility more seriously.

“I was introduced to this in the 1970s, in the disco era. I was in Carl Sagan’s astronomy class… wow, 42 years ago, and he talked about solar sailing,” Nye recalled. “I joined the Planetary Society when it was formed in 1980, and we’ve been talking about solar sails around here ever since then. It’s really a romantic notion that has tremendous practical applications; There are just a few missions that solar sails are absolutely ideal for.”

Those would primarily be long-term, medium-orbit missions where a craft needs to stay in an Earth-like orbit, but still get a little distance away from the home planet — or, in the future, long-distance missions where slow and steady acceleration from the sun or a laser would be more practical than another propulsion method.

Mission profile

The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted the “2” in the name of the mission. LightSail 2 is indeed the second of its type; the first launched in 2015, but was not planned to be anything more than an test deployment that would burn up after a week or so.

That mission had some hiccups, with the sail not deploying to its full extent and a computer glitch compromising communications with the craft. It was not meant to fly via solar sailing, and did not.

“We sent the CubeSat up, we checked out the radio, the communications, the overall electronics, and we deployed the sail and we got a picture of that deployed sail in space,” said COO Jennifer Vaughn. “That was purely a deployment test; no solar sailing took place.”

The spacecraft itself, minus the sail, of course.

But it paved the way for its successor, which will attempt this fantastical form of transportation. Other craft have done so, most notably JAXA’s IKAROS mission to Venus, which was quite a bit larger, though as LightSail 2’s creators pointed out, not nearly as efficient as their craft, and had a very different mission.

The brand new spacecraft, loaded into a 3U CubeSat enclosure — that’s about the size of a loaf of bread — is piggybacking on an Air Force payload going up to an altitude of about 720 kilometers. There it will detach and float freely for a week to get away from the rest of the payloads being released.

Once it’s safely on its own, it will fire out from its carrier craft and begin to unfurl the sail. From that loaf-sized package will emerge an expanse of reflective mylar with an area of 32 square meters — about the size of a boxing ring.

Inside the spacecraft’s body is also what’s called a reaction wheel, which can be spun up or slowed down in order to impart the opposite force on the craft, causing it to change its attitude in space. By this method LightSail 2 will continually orient itself so that the photons striking it propel it in the desired direction, nudging it into the desired orbit.

1 HP (housefly power) engine

The thrust produced, the team explained, is very small — as you might expect. Photons have no mass, but they do (somehow) have momentum. Not a lot, to be sure, but it’s greater than zero, and that’s what counts.

“In terms of the amount of force that solar pressure is going to exert on us, it’s on the micronewton level,” said LightSail project manager Dave Spencer. “It’s very tiny compared to chemical propulsion, very small even compared to electric propulsion. But the key for solar sailing is that it’s always there.”

“I have many numbers that I love,” cut in Nye, and detailed one of them: “It’s nine micronewtons per square meter. So if you have 32 square meters you get about a hundred micronewtons. It doesn’t sound like much, but as Dave points out, it’s continuous. Once a rocket engine stops, when it runs out of fuel, it’s done. But a solar sail gets a continuous push day and night. Wait…” (He then argued with himself about whether it would experience night — it will, as you see in the image below.)

Bruce Betts, chief scientist for LightSail, chimed in as well to make the numbers a bit more relatable: “The total force on the sail is approximately equal to the weight of a house fly on your hand on Earth.”

Yet if you added another fly every second for hours at a time, pretty soon you’ve got a really considerable amount of acceleration going on. This mission is meant to find out whether we can capture that force.

“We’re very excited about this launch,” said Nye, “because we’re going to get to a high enough altitude to get away from the atmosphere, far enough that we’ll really gonna be able to build orbital energy and take some, I hope, inspiring pictures.”

Second craft, same (mostly) as the last

The Lightsail going up this week has some improvements over the last one, though overall it’s largely the same — and a relatively simple, inexpensive craft at that, the team noted. Crowdfunding and donations over the last decade have provided quite a bit of cash to pursue this project, but it still is only a small fraction of what NASA might have spent on a similar mission, Spencer pointed out.

“This mission is going to be much more robust than the previous LightSail 1, but as we said previously, it’s done by a small team,” he said. “We’ve had a very small budget relative to our NASA counterparts, probably 1/20th of the budget that a similar NASA mission would have. It’s a low cost spacecraft.”

Annotated image of LightSail 2 courtesy of Planetary Society.

But the improvements are specifically meant to address the main problems encountered by LightSail 2’s predecessor.

Firstly, the computer inside has been upgraded to be more robust (though not radiation-hardened) and given the ability to sense faults and reboot if necessary — they won’t have to wait, as they did for LightSail 1, for a random cosmic ray to strike the computer and cause a “natural reboot.” (Yes, really.)

The deployment of the sail itself has also improved. The previous one only extended to about 90 percent of its full width and couldn’t be adjusted after the fact. Subsequently tests have been done, Betts told me, to exactly determine how many revolutions the motor must make to extend the sail to 100 percent. Not only that, but they have put markings on the extending booms or rods that will help double check how deployment has gone.

“We also have the capability on orbit, if it looks like it’s not fully extended, we can extend it a little bit more,” he said.

Once it’s all out there, it’s uncharted territory. No one has attempted to do this kind of mission, even IKAROS, which had a totally different flight profile. The team is hoping their sensors and software are up to the task — and it should be clear whether that’s the case within a few hours of unfurling the sail.

It’s still mainly an experiment, of course, and what the team learns from this they will put into any future LightSail mission they attempt, but also share it with the spaceflight community and others attempting to sail on sunlight.

“We all know each other and we all share information,” said Nye. “And it really is — I’ve said it as much as I can — it’s really exciting to be flying this thing at last. It’s almost 2020 and we’ve been talking about it for, well, for 40 years. It’s very, very cool.”

LightSail 2 will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy no sooner than June 24th. Keep an eye on the site for the latest news and a link to the livestream when it’s almost time for takeoff.

Hasselblad’s new medium format camera is a tiny, beautiful nod to history

Thu, 2019-06-20 15:25

While mirrorless cameras accelerate into the future, medium format models are hearkening unto the past — and Hasselblad is chief among them. Its new digital back fits lenses going back to the ’50s, and the tiny 907X camera body is about as lovely a throwback as one can imagine.

The new set of systems, announced today, are somewhat different from what most people are used to. Most interchangeable-lens systems, like Canon and Nikon’s DSLRs and Olympus and Fujifilm’s mirrorless cameras, generally have two parts: a lens and a body, in the latter of which is found the image sensor.

Hasselblad does make cameras like that, and in fact introduced a dandy-looking new one today, the X1D II 50C (just try to keep track of these names). But the more interesting item by far to me is the CFV II digital back and 907X camera body.

Unlike a traditional DSLR, digital backs are essentially just giant sensors; they fit where the medium format film would have gone and collect light in its place. But they also need a camera unit to do the heavy lifting of parsing all those pixels — about 50 million of them in this case.

What’s nice about this is that you can attach a modern back and camera unit to a lens decades old — you could also attach a modern one, but why? Part of the fun of medium format is using equipment from the distant past, and shooting in some ways the same way someone might have shot a century ago.

The system Hasselblad introduced today is one of the most compact you’ll find, packing all the processing power needed into an enclosure that’s hardly bigger than the lens itself. On the back of it is a high-resolution touchscreen that flips out to 45 and 90 degree angles, letting you shoot top-down or from an angle, like the old days.

It may seem a mere nostalgia bid, but it’s an interesting way to shoot and is more focused on careful composition than spontaneous captures. And brother, is it handsome, as you can see above. (The top picture shows the camera rotated so you can see the screen — normally it would face away from the lens.)

Pricing and availability are to be announced, but this won’t be cheap — think in the $4,000-$6,000 range for the two pieces.

I probably will never own one, but I’m satisfied to know that there is a shooting experience out there that emulates the old medium format style so closely, and not just superficially. It’s a lovely piece of hardware and if Hasselblad’s record is any indication, it’ll take lovely photos.

Two weeks with a $16,000 Hasselblad kit

Tripping grad students over and over for science (and better prosthetic limbs)

Thu, 2019-06-20 14:22

Prosthetic limbs are getting better, but not as quickly as you’d think. They’re not as smart as our real limbs, which (directed by the brain) do things like automatically stretch out to catch ourselves when we fall. This particular “stumble reflex” was the subject of an interesting study at Vanderbilt that required its subjects to fall down… a lot.

The problem the team is aiming to help alleviate is simply that users of prosthetic limbs fall, as you might guess, more than most, and when they do fall, it can be very difficult to recover, since an artificial leg — especially for above-the-knee amputations — doesn’t react the same way a natural leg would.

The idea, explained lead researcher and mechanical engineering Professor Michael Goldfarb, is to determine what exactly goes into a stumble response and how to recreate that artificially.

Prototype prosthesis proffers proper proprioceptive properties

“An individual who stumbles will perform different actions depending on various factors, not all of which are well known. The response changes, because the strategy that is most likely to prevent a fall is highly dependent on the ‘initial conditions’ at the time of stumble,” he told TechCrunch in an email. “We are hoping to construct a model of which factors determine the nature of the stumble response, so when a stumble occurs, we can use the various sensors on a robotic prosthetic leg to artificially reconstruct the reflex in order to provide a response that is effective and consistent with the biological reflex loop.”

The experimental setup looked like this. Subjects were put on a treadmill and told to walk forward normally; a special pair of goggles prevented them from looking down, arrows on a display kept them going straight, and a simple mental task (count backwards by sevens) kept their brain occupied.

Meanwhile an “obstacle delivery apparatus” bode its time, waiting for the best opportunity to slip a literal stumbling block onto the treadmill for the person to trip over.

When this happened, the person inevitably stumbled, though a harness prevented them from actually falling and hurting themselves. But as they stumbled, their movements were captured minutely by a motion capture rig.

After 196 stumbling blocks and 190 stumbles, the researchers had collected a great deal of data on how exactly people move to recover from a stumble. Where do their knees go relative to their ankles? How do they angle their feet? How much force is taken up by the other foot?

Exactly how this data would be integrated with a prosthesis is highly dependent on the nature of the artificial limb and the conditions of the person using it. But having this data, and perhaps feeding it to a machine learning model, will help expose patterns that can be used to inform emergency prosthetic movements.

It could also be used for robotics: “The model could be used directly to program reflexes in a biped,” said Goldfarb. Those human-like motions we see robots undertaking could be even more human when directly based on the original. There’s no rush there — they might be a little too human already.

The research describing the system and the dataset, which they’re releasing for free to anyone who’d like to use it, appeared in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation.

NASA’s X-59 supersonic jet will have a 4K TV instead of a forward window

Wed, 2019-06-19 13:22

NASA’s X-59 QueSST experimental quiet supersonic aircraft will have a cockpit like no other — featuring a big 4K screen where you’d normally have a front window. Why? Because this is one weird-looking plane.

The X-59, which is being developed by Lockheed Martin on a $247 million budget, is meant to go significantly faster than sound without producing a sonic boom, or indeed any noise “faster than a car door closing,” at least to observers on the ground.

NASA grants Lockheed Martin $248M contract to develop a quieter supersonic jet

Naturally in order to do this the craft has to be as aerodynamic as possible, which precludes the cockpit bump often found in fighter jets. In fact, the design can’t even have the pilot up front with a big window, because it would likely be far too narrow. Check out these lines:

The cockpit is more like a section taken out of the plane just over the leading edge of the rather small and exotically shaped wings. So while the view out the sides will be lovely, the view forward would be nothing but nose.

To fix that, the plane will be equipped with several displays, the lower ones just like you might expect on a modern aircraft, but the top one is a 4K monitor that’s part of what’s called the eXternal Visibility System, or XVS. It shows imagery stitched together from two cameras on the craft’s exterior, combined with high-definition terrain data loaded up ahead of time.

It’s not quite the real thing, but pilots spend a lot of time in simulators (as you can see here), so they’ll be used to it. And the real world is right outside the other windows if they need a reality check.

Lockheed and NASA’s plane is currently in the construction phase, though no doubt some parts are still being designed as well. The program has committed to a 2021 flight date, an ambitious goal considering this is the first such experimental, or X-plane, that the agency has developed in some 30 years. If successful, it could be the precursor to other quiet supersonic craft and could bring back supersonic overland flight in the future.

That’s if Boom doesn’t beat them to it.

Boom wants to build a supersonic jet for mainstream passengers; here’s its game plan

Kano, the kids-focused coding and hardware startup, inks deal with Microsoft, launches $300 Kano PC

Wed, 2019-06-19 13:00

Kano, the London-based startup that builds hardware designed to teach younger people about computing and coding, is taking a significant step forward in its growth strategy today. The startup has inked a partnership with Microsoft that sees Kano launching the Kano PC, a new 11.6-inch touch-enabled, Intel Atom-powered computer, its first to run Windows — Windows 10 S specifically. As part of the deal, Microsoft is also making an investment of an undisclosed amount in Kano.

The Kano PC is up for pre-order now at $299.99 and £299.99 on Kano.me and the Microsoft Store, to ship in October. It will also go on sale at selected retailers in the US, Canada, and the UK starting October 21, 2019.

The shift to building a Windows-powered device is a significant one for Kano.

The startup first made its name with a popular Kickstarter campaign based around a device built using Raspberry Pi, speaking to the DIY ethos that has shaped it over the last several years.

Alex Klein, Kano’s founder and CEO, said in an interview that while Kano will continue to support its Raspberry Pi-powered devices, it has yet to determine what its roadmap will be in terms of launching new hardware on this processor:

“The Raspberry Pi devices remain in the portfolio at good price points, but this machine is designed for a much broader age set. It’s a proper Windows PC” — Klein said, pointing to the Intel Atom x5-Z8350 Quad core 1.44 GHz processor, the 4GB of memory, and 64GB of storage — “and a powerful machine for the price point.”

While the Kano line up to now has largely been used and tracked by 6-13 year-olds, Klein describes the Kano PC as a “K-12 device,” acknowledging that “branding might take more time to unfold” to connect with the younger and older ends of that range.

It will be doing so with an army of software now supplied by way of its Microsoft partnership:

Make Art – Learn to code high-quality images in Coffeescript
Kano App – Make almost anything, including magic effects and adventurous worlds, with simple steps and programming fundamentals
Paint 3D – Make and share 3D models and send them out for printing
Minecraft: Education Edition – The award-winning creative game-based learning platform
Microsoft Teams – To get new projects and content, and share your work (Yes, Slack, now kids will be using Teams)
Live Tiles – Personalized projects on coding and creativity delivered directly to your dashboard

Up to now, Kano’s traction with a core group of users — younger kids who are interested in computers and coding, as well as parents who want to encourage their kids to be interested in these — has led to it launching a number of other accessories to work with its basic computers. It’s also launched a clever tech toy that plays to its demographic: last year, it launched a Harry Potter magic wand that you could build yourself, program and use. Klein hinted in the interview that we’re going to see more products of this kind coming soon from Kano.

The Microsoft deal will bring it a higher profile among a wider set of consumers beyond early adopters, and likely a new entry point into selling into educational environments, where Microsoft has been making a big push.

This is the second side of the deal that’s also interesting: Microsoft has a long history of selling software and hardware into educational environments and this — a different brand from the rest of the pack — will bring move diversity into the mix, with a brand designed specifically for younger people, rather than adult-focused brands that have been downsized in functionality (but possibly not in price) for children.

“We’re very excited to partner with Kano for the launch of the Kano PC. We align with Kano’s goal of making classroom experiences more inclusive for teachers and students, empowering them to build the future, not just imagine it,” said Anthony Salcito, VP of Education at Microsoft, in a statement.

Kano’s scrappy success up to now has also led to it raising some $50 million in funding from a list of backers that include Saul and Robin Klein (relatives of the founder Alex Klein), as well as Marc Benioff, Index Ventures, Breyer Capital, Troy Carter and a number of other investors. Klein said that it’s likely to be looking for another equity round in the near future, but declined to comment further on that.

This $99 AirPower knockoff is available for order now

Tue, 2019-06-18 17:04

There are a number of key differences between Apple’s AirPower and lookalike knockoff, AirUnleashed. The most pertinent one, however, is that one of the two is actually available for purchase.

Apple gave up the AirPower ghost back in March, after having gone silent on the product for some time, citing an inability to “achieve [its] high standards.” The company released little additional information, but most reports came down to engineering problems with densely packed charging coils that could ultimately have caused the product to overheat.

Plenty of companies were no doubt planning their own off-brand take on the product, but Apple’s decision to pull out of the category ahead of launch has opened an AirPower-sized hole in the wireless charging mat market. And there are plenty of products waiting in the wings to fill it.

AirUnleashed is pretty shameless in its approach, right down to a minimalist white box that takes more than a few cues from the Cupertino design department. That’s doubly the case with the pad itself, which retains the same pill-shaped form factor, albeit with an off-white (cream? ivory?) coloring.

There are also two plus symbols flanking a small concave circle. The product’s designers designated three distinct spots for the three Apple products (iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods). Rather than the numerous overlapping charging coils AirPower was said to have, this one sports three, with different wattages for the different devices (7.5, 2 and 5, respectively).

You can use these interchangeably to some degree, but for all sorts of reasons, it’s best to use the allotted wattage for the device category intended. Because the device uses the Qi standard, however, it’s compatible with a pretty broad array of wireless devices.

Both the iPhone and AirPods 2 started charging as soon as I placed them on the pad. The Apple Watch was a no go. I reached out to the company about that one — turns out it required updating to the last version of watchOS, which did seem to fix the issue. The fact that the pad just sports the three coils means you’ve got the position the devices correctly, and even after the OS update, I still had trouble getting the watch in the right spot.

At $99, it’s $50 cheaper than the rumored AirPower price. Weirdly, that doesn’t factor in the price of a wall charger, which is going to set you back another $14 if you decide to go with AirUnleashed’s version. Though given the fact that you’re already dealing with an Apple knockoff, I do’t see why you would.

A cursory look at Amazon finds a number of other AirPower-esque charging pads at a fraction of the price, and all appear to use a similar three-coil solution. I can’t vouch for those, but after a few hours, at least, AirUnleashed seems to be working reasonably well.

Roli’s newest instrument, the Lumi, helps you learn to play piano with lights

Tue, 2019-06-18 13:10

There has been a longstanding gulf between the consumption music and the creation of it: not everyone has the time or money to spend on lessons and instruments, and for those in school, many music education programs have been cut back over the years, making the option of learning to play instruments for free less common. Still others have had moments of interest but haven’t found the process of learning that easy.

Now we’re seeing a new wave of startups emerge that are attempting to tackle those issues with technology, creating tools and even new instruments that leverage smartphones and tablets, new hardware computing innovations and new software to make learning music more than just a pastime for a select few.

In the latest development, London startup Roli is launching a new interactive keyboard called the Lumi. Part colourful, sound sensitive lightboard and part piano, the Lumi’s keys light up in a colorful array to help guide and teach you to play music. The 11-inch keyboard — which can  be linked up with one or two more of the same to add more octaves — comes with an iPad app that contains hundreds of pieces, and the two are now selling for $249 alongside a new Kickstarter to help drum up interest and offer early-bird discounts. The Kickstarter campaign blew through its modest £100,000 goal within a short while, and some of the smaller tiers of pledges now sold out. The product will start shipping in October 2019, the company says.

As you might already know, or have guessed by the reaction to the kickstarter, this is not Roli’s first rodeo: the company has made two other major products (and variations on those two) before this also aimed at music making. First came the Seaboard, which Roli described as a new instrument when it first launched. Taking the form factor of a keyboard, it contained squishy keys that let the player bend notes and create other effects alongside electronic-based percussive tapping, as you would do with a normal keyboard.

Its next product was Blocks: small, modular light boards that also used colored light to guide your playing and help you create new and interesting sounds and beats with taps (and using a similarly squidgy surface to the Seaboard), and then mix them together.

Both of these were interesting, but somewhat aimed at those who were already familiar with playing pianos or other instruments, or with creating and playing electronic music with synthesizers, FX processors and mixers. (Case in point: the people I know who were most interested in these were my DJ friends and my kids, who both play the piano and are a little nerdy about these things.)

The Lumi is in a way a step back for Roli fom trying to break new ground by conceiving of completely new instruments, with new form factors built with the benefits of technology and electronics in mind. But it’s also a step ahead: using a keyboard as the basis of the instrument, the Lumi is more familiar and therefore more accessible — with an accessible price of $249 to go along with that.

Lumi’s emergence comes after an interesting few years of growth for Roli. The company is one of the select few (and I think the only one making music instruments) to be retailed in Apple stores, and it’s had endorsements from some very high profile people, but that’s about as mainstream as it has been up to now.

The startup’s founder and CEO, American-born Roland Lamb, is probably best described as a polymath, someone who comes across less as a geeky and nervous or (at the other end) ultra smooth-talking startup founder, and more like a calm-voiced thinker who has come out to talk to you in a break between reading and writing about the nature of music and teaching a small philosophy seminar.

His background also speaks to this unconventional manner. Before coming to found Roli, he had lived in a Zen monastery, made his way around the world playing jazz piano, and studied Chinese and Sanskrit at Harvard and design at the Royal College of Art.

Roli has always been a little cagey about how much it has raised and from whom, but the list includes consumer electronics giants like Sony, specialist audio makers like Onkyo, the music giant Univeral Music Group, and VCs that include Founders Fund, Index and LocalGlobe, Kreos Capital, Horizons Ventures and more. It’s also partnered with a number of big names like Pharrell Williams (who is also an investor) in the effort to get its name out.

And while it has most definitely made a mark with a certain echelon of the music world — producers and those creating electronic music — it has not parlayed that into a wider global reputation or wider accessibility. After bringing out instruments more for a high end audience, the Lumi seems like an attempt to do just that.

That seems to be coming at the right time. Services like Spotify and YouTube — and the rise of phones and internet usage in general — have transformed how we listen to music. We now have a much wider array of things to listen to whenever we want. On top of that, services like YouTube and Soundcloud furthermore are giving us a taste of creating our own music: using electronic devices, we can go beyond what might have been limitations up to now (for example, having never learned to play an instrument in the traditional sense) to get stuck into the craft itself.

The Lumi is also tapping into another important theme, and that is of music being “good for you”. There a line of thought that says learning an instrument is good for your mind, both if you’re a younger person who is still in school or indeed out of school and looking to stay sharp. Others believe it has health benefits.

But realistically, these beliefs don’t get applied very often. Roli cites stats that say that only 10% of adults aged 18-29 have played an instrument in the past year, and of those that played as children, some 80% say they quit by age 14.

Putting this together with the Lumi, it seems that the aim is to hit a wider swathe of the market and bring in people who might want to learn something like playing an instrument but had thought previously that it would be too much of a challenge.

Roli isn’t the first — nor likely the last — company to reconsider how to learn playing the piano through technology. The Chinese company ONE Music Group makes both smart pianos with keyboards that light up, as well as a strip that you overlay on any keyboard, that also corresponds to an iPad app to learn to play piano.

An American startup called McCarthy Music also makes illuminated-key pianos, also subscribing to the principle that providing this kind of guidance to teach muscle memory is an important step in getting a student acquainted with playing on a keyboard.

The Lumi is notable not just because of its cost, but its size — the single, lightweight keyboards have a battery life of six hours and can fit in a backback.

That said, Roli is hoping that there will be a double audience to these in the longer term, bridging the divide between music maker and listener, but also amateur and pro.

“Many people would love to play an instrument but worry that they don’t have the talent. Through our research, design, and innovation at ROLI, we’ve come to believe that the problem is not a lack of talent. Rather, instruments themselves are not smart enough,” said Lamb in a statement. “What excites me most is that the intelligence of LUMI means that there’s something in it for everyone. On one hand my own kids now prefer LUMI time to movie time. On the other hand, several of the world’s leading keyboard players can’t wait to use LUMI in the studio and on the stage.”

The Geesaa automates (but overcomplicates) pourover coffee

Tue, 2019-06-18 12:53

Making pourover coffee is a cherished ritual of mine on most mornings. But there are times I wish I could have a single cup of pourover without fussing about the kitchen — and the Geesaa, a new gadget seeking funds on Kickstarter, lets me do that. But it’s definitely still a ways from being a must-have.

I’m interested in alternative coffee preparation methods, low and high tech, so I was happy to agree to try out the Geesaa when they contacted me just ahead of their Kickstarter campaign going live (they’ve already hit their goal at this point). I got to test one of their prototypes and have used it on and off for the last couple weeks.

The Geesaa is part of a new wave of coffee makers that make advances on traditional drip techniques, attempting to get closer to a manual pourover. That usually means carefully controlling the water temperature and dispensing it not just in a stream powerful enough to displace and churn the ground coffee, but in a pattern that’s like what you’d do if you were pouring it by hand. (The Automatica, another one with a similar idea, sadly didn’t make it.)

Various manufacturers do this in various ways, so Geesaa isn’t exactly alone, though its mechanism appears to be unique. Instead of using a little showerhead that drips regularly over the grounds, or sending a moving stream in a spiral, the Geesaa spins the carafe and pours water from a moving head above it.

This accomplishes the kind of spiral pour that you’ll see many a barista doing, making sure the grounds are all evenly wet and agitated, without creating too thin of a slurry (sounds delicious, right?). And in fact that’s just what the Geesaa does — as long as you get the settings right.

Like any gadget these days, this coffee maker is “smart” in that it has a chip and memory inside, but not necessarily smart in any other way. This one lets you select from a variety of “recipes” supposedly corresponding to certain coffees that Geesaa, as its secondary business model, will sell to owners in perfectly-measured packets. The packet will come with an NFC card that you just tap on the maker to prompt it to start with those settings.

It’s actually a good idea, but more suited to a hotel room than a home. I preferred to use the app, which, while more than a little overcomplicated, lets you design your own recipes with an impressive variety of variables. You can customize water temperature, breaks between pouring “stages,” the width of the spiral pattern, the rate the water comes out, and more.

Although it’s likely you’d just arrive at a favorite recipe or two, it’s nice to be able to experiment or adjust in case of guests, a new variety of coffee, or a new grinder. You can, as I did, swap out the included carafe for your own cone and mug, or a mesh cone, or whatever — as long as it’s roughly the right size you can make it work. There’s no chip restricting you to certain containers or coffees.

I’m not sure what the story is with the name, by the way. When you start it up, the little screen says “Coffee Dancer,” which seems like a better English name for the device than Geesaa, but hey.

When it works, it works, but there are still plenty of annoyances that you won’t get with a kettle and a drip cone. Bear in mind this is with a prototype (3rd generation, but still) device and app still in testing.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the temperature seems too low in general. Even the highest available temperature, 97 C (around 206 F), doesn’t seem as hot as it should. Built-in recipes produced coffee that seemed only warm, not hot. Perhaps the water cools as it travels along the arm and passes through the air — this is nontrivial when you’re talking about little droplets! So by the time it gets to the coffee it may be lower than you’d like, while coming out of a kettle it will almost always be about as hot as it can get. (Not that you want the hottest water possible, but too cool is as much a problem as too hot.)

I ran out of filters for the included carafe so I used my gold Kone filter, which worked great.

The on-device interface is pretty limited, with a little dial and LCD screen that displays two lines at a time. It’s pre-loaded with a ton of recipes for coffee types you may never see (what true coffee-lover orders preground single-serve packets?), and the app is cluttered with ways to fill out taste profiles, news, and things that few people seem likely to take advantage of. Once you’ve used a recipe you can call it up from the maker itself, at least.

One time I saw the carafe was a bit off-center when it started brewing, and when I adjusted it, the spinning platform just stopped and wouldn’t restart. Another time the head didn’t move during the brewing process, just blasting the center of the grounds until the cone was almost completely full. (You can of course stop the machine at any point and restart it should something go wrong.)

Yet when it worked, it was consistently good coffee and much quicker than my standard manual single cup process.

Aesthetically it’s fine — modern and straightforward, though without the elegance one sees in Bodum and Ratio’s design.

It comes in white, too. You know, for white kitchens.

The maker itself is quite large — unnecessarily so, I feel, though I know the base has to conceal the spinning mechanism and a few other things. But at more than a foot wide and 8 inches deep, and almost a foot tall, it has quite a considerable footprint, larger than many another coffee machine.

I feel like the Geesaa is a good coffee-making mechanism burdened by an overcomplicated digital interface. I honestly would have preferred mechanical dials on the maker itself, one each for temperature, amount, and perhaps brew style (all at once, bloom first, take a break after 45 seconds, etc). Maybe something to control its spiral width too.

And of course at $700 (at the currently available pledge level) this thing is expensive as hell. The comparisons made in the campaign pitch aren’t really accurate — you can get an excellent coffee maker like a Bonnavita for $150, and of course plenty for less than that.

At $700, and with this thing’s capabilities, and with the side hustle of selling coffee packets, this seems like a better match for a boutique hotel room or fancy office kitchen than an ordinary coffee lover’s home. I enjoy using it but its bulk and complexity are antithetical to the minimal coffee making experience I have enjoyed for years. Still, it’s cool to see weird new coffee making methods appear, and if you’re interested, you can still back it on Kickstarter for the next week or so.

Simone Giertz’s converted Tesla Model 3 pickup truck is wonderful

Tue, 2019-06-18 12:19

YouTuber Simone Giertz, celebrated DIY inventor, roboticist and general maker of cool stuff, decided not to wait for Tesla’s forthcoming pickup truck. Instead, she bought a Tesla Model 3 direct from the company new and then used elbow grease, ingenuity, some help from friends and power tools to turn it into a two-seater with a flatbed.

The amazing thing is, unlike some of the robots Giertz is famous for making, the final product looks terrific — both in terms of the detail work and in terms of its functionality. Giertz also installed a cage over the truck bed, and a tailgate that can double as a work bench. Plus, as you can see from this fake commercial for the so-called “Truckla,” the thing still rips both on and off-road.

Along with her crew, Giertz rented a dedicated workshop to do the build, which took around two weeks and a lot of sawing at the metal chassis. The team had to rebuild crucial components like the roll cage to ensure that the finished product was still safe.

There’s still work to be done in terms of waterproofing, lifting up the vehicle, giving it a paint makeover and more, per Giertz, but the finished product looks amazing, and potentially better than whatever sci-fi nightmare Elon Musk is putting together for the actual Tesla pickup.

Focals by North Review: The future is (almost) here

Tue, 2019-06-18 11:38

The concept of an IRL heads-up display has been a part of science fiction since basically the beginning. Big players have tried their hand at it with less than stellar results — most notably Google with Glass, and more recently Intel’s Vaunt. But North may have cracked the nut on smart glasses with Focals.

They are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination — they’re slightly heavy and don’t feel quite as seamless as science fiction promised they would — but this may be the best pair of smart glasses yet.

Who

Focals were created by North, a Canadian company backed by Intel Capital, Spark Capital and the Amazon Alexa Fund with nearly $200 million in funding. Around the time Google Glass was released, founders Aaron Grant, Matthew Bailey and Stephen Lake were working on a smart arm band. They were disenchanted, as were many, with Glass and sought out to make something better.

Their first priority? Make a great pair of glasses, then outfit them with technology. In order to do that, they had to allow for prescription lenses, which means that the lenses of their product had to be curved. This throws a huge wrench in the idea of lens-projected notifications and content, so Focals created its own special projector.

The company also felt that the touchpad on the side of Google Glass was overly cumbersome, leading them to build the Focals Ring to let users navigate through the menu.

What

The Focals are technically AR glasses, but they’re not focused on gaming or content consumption. The product is designed to move notifications from your phone to your sightline. It’s a bit like an Apple Watch for your face.

These notifications include the date and time, the weather, text notifications, email, Slack, Apple News alerts, Uber notifications, sports scores, turn-by-turn navigation and more. Users navigate through this content using the Ring, outfitted with a nub of a joystick, which is meant to be worn on the index finger of your dominant hand.

Users can proactively seek out information by clicking the joystick and scrolling, but the headset also serves up information in a push notification, including incoming messages and emails.

Importantly, North implemented a smart response system to keep users from having to pick up their phone each time they get a notification. The system gives users two options: choose from a list of smartly generated responses, or use speech-to-text through Focals’ built-in Alexa integration (the system is listening via built-in mic — but wearers have to opt-in during set up).

However, one of the great advantages for the Focals is also one of its weaknesses. The company chose to build a custom pair of glasses that could work with Rx lenses. That also means that the eyebox (the surface where you can see the projection) is smaller than other AR gadgets, which often use waveguides. In other words, your Focals have to be positioned pretty near perfectly to see the image. The company works hard to make sure that’s the case, fitting the glasses to your specific face. But glasses shift and move throughout the day, which means there’s plenty of re-adjusting in order to see the picture.

All that said, the Focals look surprisingly good. In fact, passersby would be hard-pressed to detect that they’re smart glasses in the first place. They aren’t comfortable enough to wear all day — the extra weight on the front means they get a bit uncomfortable after a few hours. But overall, these are pretty discreet as far as smart glasses go.

How

It’s a relatively time-consuming process to get your hands on a pair of Focals. Because the fit and size are so important to usability, users interested in purchasing a pair have to go to one of North’s two stores (there’s one in Toronto, and one in Brooklyn, NY).

The visit to the store is by appointment. Upon arrival, store associates will take you into a booth where you’ll sit before 11 cameras that will 3D model your head, determining where your eyes and ears sit relative to the rest of your face. The cameras also try to understand your gaze.

From there, you get a demo with a standard (not fitted) pair of Focals, during which you learn how to align the Focals and use the Ring. It takes a few weeks for your custom-fit Focals to be ready to pick up, at which point you go through a final sizing with an optician.

It’s tedious, and will be difficult for the company to scale, but it’s part of what gives Focals an edge in quality. Luckily for folks outside of Toronto and NY, Focals is heading off on a pop-up tour. You can check out the tour dates and locations here.

Why

‘Why?’ is perhaps the toughest question to answer when it comes to the Focals. The goal, as outlined by the company, is to keep you connected to the digital world without taking you out of the real world. In short, stop looking down at your phone.

That said, Focals also take away the option. When your phone rings, or even when your Apple Watch buzzes, you have a choice to make: look down, or ignore. When you’re wearing the Focals, that decision is eliminated.

For this reason, I feel like this product is meant for early adopters and folks who enjoy being ultra-connected to the digital world. If you’re already addicted to the sweet chime of your phone, the Focals may very well keep you more connected to the real world, and potentially save your neck from some stiffness. But if you do well to live in the real world and don’t appreciate the constant flow of notifications to your phone, the Focals likely won’t help you maintain that separation.

There are also some minor issues with the Focals themselves. The Ring isn’t super comfortable, particularly when typing on a computer (something most of us spend hours each day doing). The Ring also seems like something that would be very easy to lose or break — this hasn’t happened to me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (For now, North is replacing broken rings for free.)

With the Focals themselves, I’d like to be clear when I say that I was pleasantly surprised with the over all experience. The UI is pleasant to look at, and the little chime of a notification that whispers in your ear is most certainly addictive.

However, I found my eyes getting tired after more than an hour wearing the Focals. Using the Focals means that you’re constantly changing the focus of your eyes from close to far away, which can be tiring. Moreover, if the glasses shift a bit on your face, the text of the notification can become fuzzy, making the experience even more tiring.

Plus, the glasses are built to bend halfway through the arms, as opposed to where the arms meet the frames. This means you can’t hang the Focals off the front of your shirt, which is an admittedly minor gripe, but it bugged me throughout the review process.

Add to that the fact that Focals start at $600, this product is really for technophiles. For now.

North is on the right track. The company is constantly developing new features that are released each week — they recently launched Google Fit support to check your steps, as well as language lessons to brush up on your French during your walk to work. And they’ve started with the right priorities in mind. The Focals are fine looking glasses, and in general, the tech works. Now it’s about refinement.

GoTenna is ramping up public sector mesh networking with a $24M C round

Tue, 2019-06-18 10:02

GoTenna is best known for its outdoors-oriented consumer products that let you text and share locations between smartphones off the grid. But the company has found that government work — military, fire, rescue — is the real market, and is pursuing it with a vengeance on the strength of a $24 million funding round.

“We’ve been busy!” said Daniela Perdomo, founder and CEO of the company, in an interview. “We have a good problem, which is a technology that can be so foundationally enabling for so many use cases.”

GoTenna’s core tech is mesh networking over radio frequencies normally used for walkie-talkies: long range but low bandwidth. Yet if all you need to send are GPS coordinates or a short message, it’s perfectly sufficient and works great where mobile and satellites connections are impractical. Just on the device, smaller than a deck of cards, and you can chat over miles in the middle of nowhere with your climbing partners or back country ski pals.

In the last couple years the company has shifted its priorities from consumer tech — the GoTenna and Mesh series of gadgets — to filling the needs of public sector clients that have been asking for something like this for years.

Firefighters, military operations, local law enforcement, search and rescue — many were using bulky, over-engineered, expensive solutions that haven’t changed much in decades. GoTenna works with nearly any smartphone and instantly creates a mesh network that can span miles, making it perfect for off-grid communications.

GoTenna Pro meshing radio aspires to deploy next to rescue, fire and security teams

Perdomo said this was actually more or less the plan from the beginning.

“It was in my first ever pitch deck when we raised our seed in 2013, there was this blue-sky vision of how the technology would be used,” she told me. “But it was simpler to launch an MVP to consumers. We always felt that product was going to bring in the public sector. And that’s exactly what happened — when we launched our first generation product, I think within 24 hours we had a variety of different public sector customers reach out to us.”

“We now have some federal agencies that have been customers through every generation of the product. We sill have our consumer product, and people love it, but it’s a small part of our business compared to the public sector,” she said.

An example of how the interface might look in use. It can relay the locations of other GoTenna devices at intervals, helping teams keep in touch automatically.

While disaster response crews could of course just buy a couple dozen of the regular GoTenna products, they were quick to ask for “pro” versions with features prized by advanced users and military customers.

Longer range, more programmable wireless parameters, compatibility with various legacy systems — the Pro and new ProX versions of the GoTenna system hit a lot of sweet spots. As Perdomo told me when the Pro first came out, legacy systems are powerful in some ways but can also be horribly expensive, incompatible with foreign wireless systems, or even have legal restrictions on where they can be used.

For a cash-strapped NGO that goes around doing global aid, a $100-$500 gadget that turns an ordinary phone into a versatile mesh node is potentially game-changing. (You can also use them to temporarily replace destroyed communications infrastructure.)

A mesh network spontaneously erupts in the US and helps connect Puerto Rico

But deep-pocketed federal agencies and military branches are also shelling out for the devices, and increasingly for the software support contracts that go with them. GoTenna’s Aspen Grove is a proprietary mesh network protocol that they’ve engineered to be faster and more robust than anything else out there. I’d exert a little skepticism here normally, but from what I’ve seen the systems GoTenna is replacing or augmenting aren’t exactly competitive.

In fact GoTenna’s next major hardware project is to create a mesh networking board that can be integrated right into existing hardware, simplifying the systems and baking its protocols in even deeper.

“We have a long list of companies that want to integrate our tech into vehicles, aircraft, anything you can think of,” Perdomo said. “So you can put one of these babies on a UAV and let ‘er rip! Our record range, point to point from a UAV, is 69 miles.”

Meanwhile the company is also releasing a broader open source mesh platform called Lot 49 that’s meant to be capable of supporting a global messaging infrastructure without relying on any wireless providers. That could be a big deal for internet of things type devices as well.

Interestingly, Perdomo doesn’t feel threatened by the new and rather scary kid on the block: communications satellite constellations like Starlink and OneWeb. If the idea is that GoTenna lets you communicate where the grid doesn’t reach, what happens when the grid is global?

“No matter how many satellites you put up, repeaters you put up, cables you lay down, you always have that last mile. You need resiliency, access, and I believe neutrality as well,” she said. And indeed you’re not going to take a Starlink ground station with you on a covert operation or into an active wildfire. And having an existing, ongoing business agreement with a satellite communications provider may not even be desirable in the first place.

“There’s a reason why certain incumbents in the tactical radio space as well as carriers are partnering with us,” Perdomo pointed out — and indeed Comcast Ventures is a new face among the investors. “We’re creating a new layer in the communications stack, mesh networks with a focus on bursty data. I think of us as perfectly complementary to every other communications company.”

As for that funding, it will go towards easing the rapid growth the company is experiencing, finishing the pro and embedded options, hiring up, and expanding operations to support their growing services business. The $24M round was led by Founders Fund, with participation from Comcast Ventures and existing investors Union Square Ventures, Collaborative Fund, Walden VC, MentorTech, and Bloomberg Beta.

“We’ve been in R&D for a really long time,” Perdomo said. “It’s exciting now to also be becoming a business. All of the most impressive mainstream telecommunications technologies we use today, things like the internet or GPS, they hit it out of the park with the public sector first. If you can win there, in life or death situations, you know you can win everywhere else as well.”

Sprint is the latest telecom to offer a tracking device that uses LTE

Tue, 2019-06-18 00:40

Following in the footsteps of AT&T and Verizon*, Sprint is now offering an LTE tracker. The matchbook-sized device, simply called Tracker, provides real-time location tracking on Safe + Found app.

Sprint Tracker

Sprint’s new Tracker

The Tracker competes with Tile, but instead of Bluetooth, Sprint’s device uses 4G LTE, GPS and Wi-Fi location services, so it can be used to track things, people or pets that might travel a significant distance away, compared to a range of 100 ft to 300 ft for Tile (depending on the version). The Tracker is manufactured by Coolpad and users need to pay $2.50 per month for 24 months to cover the cost of the device, plus an additional $5 per month to connect it.

AT&T and Verizon both launched LTE trackers over the past year and Apple is also rumored to be working on a tracking device that connects to iPhones, based on an asset package for pairing devices by proximity spotted in the first beta of iOS 13 by 9to5Mac.

*Disclosure: TechCrunch is part of Verizon Media, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.

Comcast adds gaze control to its accessible remote software

Mon, 2019-06-17 09:01

The latest feature for Comcast’s X1 remote software makes the clicker more accessible to people who can’t click it the same as everyone else. People with physical disabilities will now be able to change the channel and do all the usual TV stuff using only their eyes.

TVs and cable boxes routinely have horrendous interfaces, making the most tech-savvy among us recoil in horror. And if it’s hard for an able-bodied person to do, it may well be impossible for someone who suffers from a condition like ALS, or has missing limbs or other motor impairments.

Voice control helps, as do other changes to the traditional 500-button remote we all struggled with for decades, but gaze control is now beginning to be widely accessible as well, and may prove an even better option.

[gallery ids="1844437,1844439,1844436"]

Comcast’s latest accessibility move — this is one area where the company seems to be genuinely motivated to help its customers — is to bring gaze control to its Xfinity X1 web remote. You load it up on a compatible computer or tablet, sync it with your cable box once, and then the web interface acts as your primary controller.

Users will be able to do pretty much all the everyday TV stuff using gaze: change channels, search and browse the guide, set and retrieve recordings, launch a live sport-tracking app, and call up and change accessibility options like closed captioning.

A short showing how one man finds the tech useful is worth a watch:

It’s amazing to think that among all the things Jimmy Curran has worked to make himself capable of in spite of his condition, changing the channel was not one of them. Perhaps there was some convoluted way of going about it, but it’s still an oversight on the part of TV interfaces that has limited accessibility for years.

Voice controls may also be more easily usable by people with conditions that affect their speech; Google is applying machine learning to the task with its Project Euphonia.

Users will need a gaze control setup of their own (this isn’t uncommon for folks with physical disabilities), after which they can direct the browser on it to xfin.tv/access, which will start the pairing process.

ThinkGeek.com to close, replaced as a section of GameStop

Fri, 2019-06-14 16:42

Sad news for anyone who loves geeky goods and top-notch April Fools’ jokes: ThinkGeek.com, the 20-year-old online retailer known for selling more geek-centric gadgets and peripherals than you could fit in a TARDIS, is going away.

According to an FAQ sitting at the top of its site, ThinkGeek isn’t “shutting down,” it just won’t continue on as the site we’ve come to know, instead living on as a shadow of its former self as a section in GameStop (which acquired ThinkGeek in 2015 for a reported $140 million.)

Says the FAQ:

On July 2nd, 2019, ThinkGeek.com will be moving in with our parent company GameStop. After this move, you will be able to shop a curated selection of unique items historically found on ThinkGeek.com via a ThinkGeek section at GameStop

The word “curated” is pretty key, there, because there’s just no way a couple of shelves in GameStop will be able to cover the array of fandoms that ThinkGeek.com covered. From Marvel, to Star Wars, to Potter, to Tolkien, it covered a whole lot of (fan)bases in one swoop.

ThinkGeek.com is — or, I guess, was — one of those shops that was fun to explore; anytime I found myself there, I’d inevitably lose track of time clicking around from category to category, often throwing down a credit card for some Star Wars shirt or Aperture Science pint glass I probably didn’t need. Hopefully that sense of “Oooh, look at that! And that! And that!” will live on in whatever section springs up on GameStop’s site.

The company also says that the 40 standalone ThinkGeek retail stores dotting the U.S. will stay open.

This news comes after a few back-to-back 75%-off sales of all clearance goods, and now it looks like they’ve marked things down 50% site-wide to clear the warehouses.

Perhaps most of all, we’ll miss ThinkGeek’s April Fools’ day gags. On a day in which many companies find themselves trying a bit too hard to make us laugh, ThinkGeek just always seemed to get it right. They’d sprinkle their site with fake product listings for people to stumble upon. Things like…

The Fortnite R/C Battle Bus:

Or the Admiral Ackbar Singing Bass:

Or the absolutely brilliant Tauntaun sleeping bag (a gag that proved so popular that they ended up making and selling them for a while):

Alas.

ThinkGeek says it’ll still take return requests for orders made before June 13th, and that any ThinkGeek gift cards you’ve got sitting around will be honored at GameStop’s online and real-world locations.

AT&T cancels Samsung Galaxy Fold orders

Thu, 2019-06-13 09:26

AT&T has cancelled early orders for the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

Tom’s Guide first reported the cancellation, noting that AT&T said the Galaxy Fold would be available again to order as soon as Samsung announces a new launch date.

The Samsung Galaxy Fold was originally scheduled to launch on April 26. However, early reviews indicated that there were issues with the phone, which Samsung initially said was the fault of reviewers. The company eventually decided to postpone the launch and get back to the drawing board.

Earlier this week, a Samsung rep told Cnet that it would announce timing on the nearly $2,000 phone “in the coming weeks.”

However, AT&T’s move here suggests that it may be a while before the Galaxy Fold resurfaces, if at all.

Samsung itself asked customers who pre-ordered to confirm that they still want the device following the review period. On May 24, Best Buy cancelled all pre-orders of the phone.

Willo is a robot that wants to replace your toothbrush

Thu, 2019-06-13 09:00

If you think about it, the basic concept of a toothbrush hasn’t evolved since… forever. Sure, many people have switched to an electric toothbrush, but it remains a stick with a brush at the end.

Willo thinks that’s not good enough. The company has developed an oral care device to improve brushing with a focus on plaque. The company says that basic brushing only cleans 42 percent of dental plaque, while electric brushes clean 46 percent of dental plaque.

The startup has worked with actual dentists to design its product. It still sounds a bit mysterious as the company isn’t sharing much about the product. The photo is the only image of the product right now.

But what we know is that the startup has raised a $7.5 million funding round led by Kleiner Perkins, with Bpifrance and Nest co-founder Matt Rogers also participating. The company has been founded by Hugo de Gentile and Ilan Abehassera, and it attended The Refiners accelerator program.

Now let’s see how it actually works, how much it costs and if people are willing to change everything about the way they brush their teeth.

What do subscription services and streaming mean for the future of gaming?

Wed, 2019-06-12 13:14

The future of gaming is streaming. If that wasn’t painfully obvious to you a week ago, it certainly ought to be now. Google got ahead of E3 late last week by finally shedding light on Stadia, a streaming service that promises a hardware agnostic gaming future.

It’s still very early days, of course. We got a demo of the platform right around the time of its original announcement. But it was a controlled one — about all we can hope for at the moment. There are still plenty of moving parts to contend with here, including, perhaps most consequentially, broadband caps.

But this much is certainly clear: Google’s not the only company committed to the idea of remote game streaming. Microsoft didn’t devote a lot of time to Project xCloud on stage the other day — on fact, the pass with which the company blew threw that announcement was almost news in and of itself.

It did, however, promise an October arrival for the service — beating out Stadia by a full month. The other big piece of the announcement was the ability for Xbox One owners to use their console as a streaming source for their own remote game play. Though how that works and what, precisely, the advantage remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Microsoft is hanging its hat on the Xbox as a point of distinction from Google’s offering.

It’s clear too, of course, that Microsoft is still invested in console hardware as a key driver of its gaming future. Just after rushing through all of that Project xCloud noise, it took the wraps off of Project Scarlett, its next-gen console. We know it will feature 8K content, some crazy fast frame rates and a new Halo title. Oh, and there’s an optical drive, too, because Microsoft’s not quite ready to give up on physical media just yet.

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