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What AI startups need to achieve before VCs will invest

By Walter Thompson
David Blumberg Contributor
David Blumberg is founder and managing partner of early-stage venture capital firm Blumberg Capital.
More posts by this contributor

Funding of artificial intelligence-focused companies reached approximately $9.3 billion in the U.S. in 2018, an amount that will continue to rise as the transformative impact of AI is realized. That said, not every AI startup has what it takes to secure an investment and scale to success.

So, what do venture capitalists look for when considering an investment in an AI company?

What we look for in all startups

Some fundamentals are important in any of our investments, AI or otherwise. First, entrepreneurs need to articulate that they are solving a large and important problem. It may sound strange, but finding the right problem can be more difficult than finding the right solution. Entrepreneurs need to demonstrate that customers will be willing to switch from what they’re currently using and pay for the new solution.

The team must demonstrate their competence in the domain, their functional skills and above all, their persistence and commitment. The best ideas likely won’t succeed if the team isn’t able to execute. Setting and achieving realistic milestones is a good way to keep operators and investors aligned. Successful entrepreneurs need to show why their solution offers superior value to competitors in the market — or, in the minority of cases where there is an unresolved need — why they’re in the best position to solve it.

In addition, the team must clearly explain how their technology works, how it differs and is advantageous relative to existing competitors and must explain to investors how that competitive advantage can be sustained.

For AI entrepreneurs, there are additional factors that must be addressed. Why? It is fairly clear that we’re in the early stages of this burgeoning industry which stands to revolutionize sectors from healthcare to fintech, logistics to transportation and beyond. Standards have not been settled, there is a shortage of personnel, large companies are still struggling with deployment, and much of the talent is concentrated in a few large companies and academic institutions. In addition, there are regulatory challenges that are complex and growing due to the nature of the technology’s evolutionary aspect.

Here are five things we like to see AI entrepreneurs demonstrate before making an investment:

Demonstrate mastery over their data and its value: AI needs big data to succeed. There are two models: companies can either help customers add value to their data or build a data business using AI. In either case, startups must demonstrate that the data is reliable, secure and compliant with all regulatory rules. They must also demonstrate that AI is adding value to their own data — it must explain something, derive an explanation, identify important trends, optimize or otherwise deliver value.

With the sheer abundance of data available for companies to collect today, it’s imperative that startups have an agile infrastructure in place that allows them to store, access and analyze this data efficiently. A data-driven startup must become ever more responsive, proactive and consistent over time.

AI entrepreneurs should know that while machine learning can be applied to many problems, it may not always yield accurate predictions in every situation. Models may fail for a variety of reasons, one of which is inadequate, inconsistent or variable data. Successful mastery of the data demonstrates to customers that the data stream is robust, consistent and that the model can adapt if the data sources change.

Entrepreneurs can better address their customer needs if they can demonstrate a fast, efficient way to normalize and label the data using meta tagging and other techniques.

Remember that transparency is a virtue: There is an increased need in certain industries — such as financial services — to explain to regulators how the sausage is  made, so to speak. As a result, entrepreneurs must be able to demonstrate explainability to show how the model arrived at the result (for example, a credit score). This brings us to an additional issue about accounting for bias in models and, here again, the entrepreneur must show the ability to detect and correct bias as soon as they are found.

GitHub faces more resignations in light of ICE contract

By Megan Rose Dickey

Microsoft-owned GitHub has been under intense scrutiny as of late for its $200,000 contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Now, another employee, engineer Alice Goldfuss, has resigned.

In a tweet, Goldfuss said GitHub has a number of problems to address and that “ICE is only the latest.”

Meanwhile, Vice reports at least five staffers quit today. These resignations come the same day as GitHub Universe, the company’s big product conference. Ahead of the conference, Tech Workers Coalition protested the event, setting up a cage to represent where ICE detains children.

We joined @techworkersco & @githubbers protesting the Github ICE contract at #GithubUniverse this morning in San Francisco.

Immigrant communities are under attack & tech companies are complicit.

They can no longer profit from our people without feeling the wrath.#NoTechForICE pic.twitter.com/Ja0CawBvy7

— Mijente (@ConMijente) November 13, 2019

Last month, GitHub staff engineer Sophie Haskins resigned, stating she was leaving because the company did not cancel its contract with ICE, The Los Angeles Times reported.

Last month, GitHub employees penned an open letter urging the company to stop working with ICE. That came following GitHub’s announcement of a $500,000 donation to nonprofit organizations in support of “immigrant communities targeted by the current administration.” In that announcement, GitHub CEO Nat Friedman said ICE’s purchase was made through one of GitHub’s reseller partners and said the deal is not “financially material” for the company. Friedman also pointed out that ICE is responsible for more than immigration and detention facilities.

“[…] We recognize that ICE is responsible for both enforcing the US immigration policies with which we passionately disagree, as well as policies that are critical to our society, such as fighting human trafficking,” Friedman wrote. “We do not know the specific projects that the on-premises GitHub Enterprise Server license is being used with, but recognize it could be used in projects that support policies we both agree and disagree with.”

But some employees were not persuaded by Friedman’s words.

“We are not satisfied with GitHub’s now-public stance on this issue,” GitHub employees wrote in an open letter. “GitHub has held a ‘seat at the table’ for over 2 years, as these illegal and dehumanizing policies have escalated, with little to show for it. Continuing to hold this contract does not improve our bargaining power with ICE. All it does is make us complicit in their widespread human rights abuses.”

In response to that open letter, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said preventing ICE from using GitHub could “hurt the very people we all want to help,” The Los Angeles Times reported last month. Still, employees are not letting up, as illustrated by the action this morning.

When reached for comment about GitHub’s stance on its contract with ICE, GitHub directed me to its blog post from last month. TechCrunch has sent a follow-up note to see if the company will comment on the resignation.

Rocket Lab’s new ‘Rosie the Robot’ speeds up launch vehicle production — by a lot

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket launch startup Rocket Lab is all about building out rapid-response space-launch capabilities, and founder/CEO Peter Beck is showing off its latest advancement in service of that goal: A room-sized manufacturing robot named “Rosie.”

Rosie is tasked with processing the carbon composite components of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle. That translates to basically getting the rocket flight-ready, and there’s a lot involved in that — it’s a process that normally can take “hundreds of hours,” according to Beck. So how fast can Rosie manage the same task?

“We can produce one launch vehicle in this machine every 12 hours,” Beck says in the video. That includes “every bit of marking, every bit of machining, every bit of drilling,” he adds.

Meet Rosie. She processes Electron's composite stages in just 12 hours. pic.twitter.com/NcC34Ylg66

— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) November 13, 2019

This key new automation tool essentially takes something that was highly bespoke and manual and turns it into something eminently repeatable and expedited, which is a necessary ingredient if Rocket Lab is ever to accomplish its goal of providing high-frequency launches to small satellite customers with very little turnaround time. The company’s New Zealand launch facility recently landed an FAA license that helps sketch out the extent of its ambition, as it’s technically cleared to launch rockets as often as every 72 hours.

In addition to innovations like Rosie, Rocket Lab uses 3D printing for components of its launch vehicle engines that result in single-day turnaround for production, versus weeks using more traditional methods. It’s also now working on an ambitious plan for rocket recovery, which should help further with providing high-frequency launch capabilities as it’ll mean they don’t have to build entirely new launch vehicles for every mission.

GitHub launches a mobile app, smarter notifications and improved code search

By Frederic Lardinois

At its annual Universe conference today, Microsoft -owned GitHub announced a couple of new products, as well as the general availability of a number of tools that developers have been able to test for the last few months. The two announcements that developers will likely be most interested in are the launch of GitHub’s first native mobile app and an improved notifications experience. But in addition to that, it is also taking GitHub Actions, the company’s workflow automation and CI/CD solution, as well as GitHub Packages, out of beta. GitHub is also improving its code search, adding scheduled reminders and it’s launching a pre-release program that will allow users to try out new features before they are ready for a wider rollout.

GitHub is also extending its sponsor program, which until now allowed you to tip individual open source contributors for their work, to the project level. With GitHub Sponsors, anybody can help fund a project and the members of that project then get to choose how to use the money. These projects have to be open source and have a corporate or non-profit entity attached to it (and a bank account).

“Developers are what’s driving us and we’re building the tools and the experiences to help them come together to create the world’s most important technologies and to do it on an open platform and ecosystem,” GitHub SVP of Product Shanku Niyogi told me. Today’s announcements, he said, are driven by the company’s mission to improve the developer experience. Over the course of the last year, the company launched well over 150 new features and enhancements, Niyogi stressed. For its Universe show, the company decided to highlight the new mobile app and notification enhancements, though.

The new mobile app, which is now out in beta for iOS, with Android support coming soon, offers all of the basic features you’d want from a mobile app like this. The team decided to focus squarely on the kind of mobile use cases that would make the most sense for a developer on the go, so you’ll be able to share feedback on discussions, review a few lines of code and merge changes, but this isn’t meant to be a tool that replicated the full GitHub experience, though at least on the iPad, you do get a bit more screen real estate to work with.

“When you start to look at the tablet experience, that then extends out because you now got more space,” explained Niyogi. “You can look at the code, you can navigate some of that, we support some of the key same keyboard shortcuts that github.com does to be able to look at a larger amount of content and a larger amount of code. So, the idea is the experience scales with the mobile devices you have, and but it’s also designed for the things you’re likely to do when you’re not using your computer.”

Others have built mobile apps for GitHub before, of course, and it turns out that the developers of GitHawk, which was launched by a group of engineers from Instagram, recently joined GitHub to help the company in its efforts to get this new app off the ground.

The second major new feature is the improved notifications experience. As every GitHub user on even a medium-sized team knows, GitHub’s current set of notifications can quickly become overwhelming. That’s something the GitHub team was also keenly aware of, so the company decided to build a vastly improved system that includes filters, as well as an inbox for all of your notifications right inside of GitHub.

“The experience for developers today can result in an inbox in Gmail or whatever email client you use with tons and tons of notifications — and it can end up being kind of hard to know what matters and what’s just noise,” Kelly Stirman, GitHub’ VP of Strategy and Product Management, said. “We’ve done a bunch of things over the last year to make notifications better, but what we’ve done is a big step. We’ve reimagined what notifications should be.”

Using filters and rules, developers can zero in on the notifications that matter to them, all without flooding your inbox with unnecessary noise. Developers can customize these filters to their hearts’ content. That’s also where the new mobile experience fits in well. “Many times, the notification will be sent to you when you’re not at your computer when you’re not at your desktop,” noted Stirman. “And that notification might be somebody asking for your help to unblock something. And so it’s natural we think that we need to extend the GitHub experience beyond the desktop to a mobile experience.”

Talking about notifications: GitHub also today announced a new feature in a limited preview that adds a few more notifications to your inbox. You can now set up scheduled reminders for pending code reviews.

Among the rest of today’s announcements, the improved code search stands out because that’s definitely an area where some improvements were necessary. This new code search is currently in limited beta, but should roll out to all users over the next few months. It’ll introduce a completely new search experience, the company says, that can match special characters and casing, among other things.

Also new are code review assignments, now in public beta, and a new way to navigate code on GitHub.

Volkswagen’s $800M Tennessee factory expansion to include battery pack plant

By Kirsten Korosec

Volkswagen said Wednesday it will build a battery pack assembly facility as part of an $800 million expansion project that will turn the Chattanooga, Tenn. factory into its North American base for manufacturing electric vehicles.

The Chattanooga factory expansion, which is includes a 564,000-square-foot addition to the body shop and is expected to create 1,000 new jobs at the plant, has been in the works for some time now. But the battery pack assembly announcement, while logical, came as a surprise.

“This is a big, big moment for this company,” Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America said in a statement. “Expanding local production sets the foundation for our sustainable growth in the U.S. Electric vehicles are the future of mobility and Volkswagen will build them for millions of people.”

The automaker’s Chattanooga expansion is just a piece its broader plan to move away from diesel in the wake of the emissions cheating scandal that erupted in 2015. Globally, VW Group plans to commit almost $50 billion through 2023 toward the development and production of electric vehicles and digital services.

The Tennessee factory (along with the other new facilities) will produce electric vehicles using Volkswagen’s modular electric toolkit chassis, or MEB, introduced by the company in 2016. The MEB is a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

The company also built a European facility in Zwickau, Germany. Earlier this month, VW began production of the ID. 3 electric vehicle began at the Zwickau factory. By 2022, VW’s MEB vehicles will be produced at eight locations on three continents.

EV-production at facilities are expected to come online in Anting and Foshan in China in 2020, and in the German cities of Emden and Hanover by 2022.

Volkswagen currently produces the midsize Atlas SUV and the Passat sedan at the Chattanooga factory. Production of its electric vehicles is  set to begin in Chattanooga in 2022. First model will be a SUV of ID. family.

Disney+ has already attracted over 10 million subscribers

By Darrell Etherington

Disney’s launch of its premium subscription streaming service Disney+ was not without issues — high demand resulted in content not being accessible for hours on its first day of availability. The company cited higher-than-expected demand as a factor, and now we have a rough estimate of the size of that demand — Disney has revealed that it signed up 10 million users since its Tuesday debut.

That’s a lot of subscribers in a very short period. To put it in perspective, Netflix recently reported 158 million subscribers, but that’s its total audience after many years of availability, across a broad global market. Disney+ is launching only in a few markets around the world, including the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, while Netflix has grown to cover much of the world. Netflix also started out with much lower subscriber counts when it was U.S.-only, with 7.38 million in 2007, the year it began offering streaming for the first time.

Disney+ has been offering customers in the U.S. the ability to pre-order their accounts since a couple of months ago, so its subscriber count represents a bit of runway and marketing effort, rather than just pent-up demand. It’s also offering a year of free access to qualifying Verizon subscribers. But that’s still a very impressive debut for a brand new streaming offering, and a firm basis upon which Disney can grow its audience through future releases and marketing efforts.

Google Maps adds a new translation feature that speaks place names out loud

By Sarah Perez

Google Maps is adding a feature that will make it easier for people traveling in foreign countries where they don’t speak the local language: built-in translation with text-to-speech support. The feature will allow users to tap on a new speaker button next to a place name or address, to have Google Maps say the name out loud — a particularly useful addition for anyone who has needed to communicate about directions when traveling.

Most people who have ventured outside of their home country, at some point, needed to ask for directions or tell a taxi driver their destination. And when you don’t speak the language, that can be difficult to do — even with the aid of translation apps or language dictionaries, as they’re often more focused on everyday vocabulary, not necessarily on the proper names of places.

Now, instead of struggling with pronunciation and having awkward conversations or even handing over your phone to a cab driver, you can tap a button.

In addition, Google Maps will also now link you to the Google Translate app if you need to continue the conversation further.

The new feature works by detecting what language your phone is currently using, then determining when to show you the translate option. For example, an English speaker who was browsing a map of Tokyo may see the speaker icon, but may not see the icon if looking at places in the U.S.

It’s somewhat surprising this sort of text-to-speech functionality wasn’t already included in Google Maps, given its use for travel purposes. But Google has more recently been waking up to the power of integrating Google Translate into other experiences outside the app itself, including in Google Home, Google Assistant, Google Lens, and more. And in the end, this translation support makes Google’s products more powerful and competitive — and for consumers, more useful.

Translate for Google Maps is rolling out this month on iOS and Android with initial support for 50 languages. More languages will arrive in the future, Google says.

After selling enterprise biz, Docker lands $35M investment and new CEO

By Ron Miller

In what’s proving to be an interesting day for Docker, it announced it has received a $35 million investment from existing investors Benchmark Capital and Insight Partners.

It also announced the company has named long-time Chief Product Officer, Scott Johnston as CEO. Johnston is the third CEO at Docker this year, replacing Rob Bearden, who replaced Steve Singh after he stepped down in May.

The news came shortly after Mirantis had announced it had purchased Docker’s enterprise business. The moves are curious to say the least, but Johnston says that he still sees an opportunity for the company helping developers use Docker, the popular containerization engine that has struggled to find a business model.

“Specifically, we are investing in expanding our cloud services to enable developers to quickly discover technologies for use when building applications, to easily share these apps with teammates and the community, and to run apps frictionlessly on any Kubernetes endpoint, whether locally or in the cloud,” Johnston said in a statement.

Bearden said that the company decided to go in this direction after carefully studying its existing business models. “After conducting thorough analysis with the management team and the Board of Directors, we determined that Docker had two very distinct and different businesses: one an active developer business, and the other a growing enterprise business. We also found that the product and the financial models were vastly different. This led to the decision to restructure the company and separate the two businesses, which is the best thing for customers and to enable Docker’s industry-leading technology to thrive,” he said in a statement.

Prior to today’s announcement, the company had raised over $272 million, according to Crunchbase data. Now Benchmark and Insight are throwing it a $35 million lifeline to try one more time to build a successful business on top of the open source Docker project.

Facebook says government demands for user data are at a record high

By Zack Whittaker

Facebook’s latest transparency report is out.

The social media giant said the number of government demands for user data increased by 16% to 128,617 demands during the first-half of this year compared to the second-half of last year.

That’s the highest number of government demands its received in any reporting period since it published its first transparency report in 2013.

The U.S. government led the way with the most number of requests — 50,741 demands for user data resulting in some account or user data given to authorities in 88% of cases. Facebook said two-thirds of all of the U.S. government’s requests came with a gag order, preventing the company from telling the user about the request for their data.

But Facebook said it was able to release details of 11 so-called national security letters (NSLs) for the first time after their gag provisions were lifted during the period. National security letters can compel companies to turn over non-content data at the request of the FBI. These letters are not approved by a judge, and often come with a gag order preventing their disclosure. But since the Freedom Act passed in 2015, companies have been allowed to request the lifting of those gag orders.

The report also said the social media giant had detected 67 disruptions of its services in 15 countries, compared to 53 disruptions in nine countries during the second-half of last year.

And, the report said Facebook also pulled 11.6 million pieces of content, up from 5.8 million in the same period a year earlier, which Facebook said violated its policies on child nudity and sexual exploitation of children.

Read more:

Mirantis acquires Docker Enterprise

By Frederic Lardinois

Mirantis today announced that it has acquired Docker’s Enterprise business and team. Docker Enterprise was very much the heart of Docker’s product lineup, so this sale leaves Docker as a shell of its former, high-flying unicorn self. Docker itself, which installed a new CEO earlier this year, says it will continue to focus on tools that will advance developers’ workflows. Mirantis will keep the Docker Enterprise brand alive, though, which will surely not create any confusion.

With this deal, Mirantis is acquiring Docker Enterprise Technology Platform and all associated IP: Docker Enterprise Engine, Docker Trusted Registry, Docker Unified Control Plane and Docker CLI. It will also inherit all Docker Enterprise customers and contracts, as well as its strategic technology alliances and partner programs. Docker and Mirantis say they will both continue to work on the Docker platform’s open-source pieces.

The companies did not disclose the price of the acquisition, but it’s surely nowhere near Docker’s valuation during any of its last funding rounds. Indeed, it’s no secret that Docker’s fortunes changed quite a bit over the years, from leading the container revolution to becoming somewhat of an afterthought after Google open-sourced Kubernetes and the rest of the industry coalesced around it. It still had a healthy enterprise business, though, with plenty of large customers among the large enterprises. The company says about a third of Fortune 100 and a fifth of Global 500 companies use Docker Enterprise, which is a statistic most companies would love to be able to highlight — and which makes this sale a bit puzzling from Docker’s side, unless the company assumed that few of these customers were going to continue to bet on its technology.

Here is what Docker itself had to say. “Docker is ushering in a new era with a return to our roots by focusing on advancing developers’ workflows when building, sharing and running modern applications. As part of this refocus, Mirantis announced it has acquired the Docker Enterprise platform business,” Docker said in a statement when asked about this change. “Moving forward, we will expand Docker Desktop and Docker Hub’s roles in the developer workflow for modern apps. Specifically, we are investing in expanding our cloud services to enable developers to quickly discover technologies for use when building applications, to easily share these apps with teammates and the community, and to run apps frictionlessly on any Kubernetes endpoint, whether locally or in the cloud.”

Mirantis itself, too, went through its ups and downs. While it started as a well-funded OpenStack distribution, today’s Mirantis focuses on offering a Kubernetes-centric on-premises cloud platform and application delivery. As the company’s CEO Adrian Ionel told me ahead of today’s announcement, today is possibly the most important day for the company.

So what will Mirantis do with Docker Enterprise? “Docker Enterprise is absolutely aligned and an accelerator of the direction that we were already on,” Ionel told me. “We were very much moving towards Kubernetes and containers aimed at multi-cloud and hybrid and edge use cases, with these goals to deliver a consistent experience to developers on any infrastructure anywhere — public clouds, hybrid clouds, multi-cloud and edge use cases — and make it very easy, on-demand, and remove any operational concerns or burdens for developers or infrastructure owners.”

Mirantis previously had about 450 employees. With this acquisition, it gains another 300 former Docker employees that it needs to integrate into its organization. Docker’s field marketing and sales teams will remain separate for some time, though, Ionel said, before they will be integrated. “Our most important goal is to create no disruptions for customers,” he noted. “So we’ll maintain an excellent customer experience, while at the same time bringing the teams together.”

This also means that for current Docker Enterprise customers, nothing will change in the near future. Mirantis says that it will accelerate the development of the product and merge its Kubernetes and lifecycle management technology into it. Over time, it will also offer a managed services solutions for Docker Enterprise.

While there is already some overlap between Mirantis’ and Docker Enterprise’s customer base, Mirantis will pick up about 700 new enterprise customers with this acquisition.

With this, Ionel argues, Mirantis is positioned to go up against large players like VMware and IBM/Red Hat. “We are the one real cloud-native player with meaningful scale to provide an alternative to them without lock-in into a legacy or existing technology stack.”

While this is clearly a day the Mirantis team is celebrating, it’s hard not to look at this as the end of an era for Docker, too. The company says it will share more about its future plans today, but didn’t make any spokespeople available ahead of this announcement.

Yahoo Japan and Line are reportedly going to merge

By Romain Dillet

According to Nikkei, messaging app Line and Yahoo Japan are about to merge and form a single tech company. Despite the name, Yahoo Japan is currently 100% owned by Z Holdings, a company that is controlled by Japanese telecom company SoftBank (Yahoo Japan isn’t related with TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media). Line Corporation is owned by Naver Corporation, a South Korean internet giant.

The two companies are still discussing terms of the deal according to Nikkei. But you could imagine Z Holdings becoming a 50-50 joint venture between SoftBank and Naver, with Z Holdings owning both Yahoo Japan and Line.

Line operates one of the most popular messaging apps in Japan. In addition to conversations, the company operates Line Pay, Line Taxi and other services. But competition has been fierce in the messaging space.

Yahoo Japan was originally formed by Yahoo and SoftBank in the late 1990s. When Verizon acquired Yahoo in 2017, Verizon didn’t acquire Yahoo’s stake in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan. Yahoo created a spin-out company called Altaba to hold those stakes.

Altaba first sold its stake in Yahoo Japan. In July 2018, SoftBank acquired part of Altaba’s stake in Yahoo Japan in order to increase its ownership of Yahoo Japan. Altaba later sold its remaining Yahoo Japan shares, its Alibaba shares and shut down. In 2019, SoftBank received additional shares to become Yahoo Japan’s parent company.

Yahoo Japan is a household name and a big internet conglomerate in Japan. It has an online advertising business, an e-commerce business, finance services and more. Yahoo Japan and Line probably hope to reach more users and boost engagement with the merger.

We’ve reached out to Line Corporation and Z Holdings and will update if we hear back.

Techstars launches a virtual space tech accelerator with USAF, the Netherlands and Norway

By Darrell Etherington

Techstars is following up the first class of their Starburst space-focused program with a new, virtual accelerator program that is being run in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, the Netherlands Ministry of Defence, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and the Norwegian Space Agency. It’s called the Techstars Allied Space Accelerator, and its focus is specifically on startups operating in the commercial space industry.

Unlike most other Techstars programs, this one won’t require companies to work out of a centralized physical hub during the course of the program, which will span 13-weeks. It’ll be mostly remote, punctuated by three separate one-week visits on-site at the program’s government agency sponsors, which will supplement the virtual mentorship and guidance.

Techstars already has experience working with the U.S. Air Force, through the Techstars Air Force Accelerator, but this new program will give it a chance to work together both with the entrepreneurial organization, and also with some of its international partners. This kind of collaboration with industry could help pave the way to establishing more clear and widely accepted rules of the road when it comes to how the commercial space industry operates relative to national borders and international cooperation.

This inaugural program will run from June through September of 2020, and it’s open for applications as of today, with the cut-off for accepting new potential participants on March 3, 2020.

Netflix and Nickelodeon partner on original programming, following Disney+ launch

By Sarah Perez

Netflix is taking on the Disney+ threat by partnering with kids’ entertainment giant Nickelodeon, which will produce original content, including films and TV shows, for Netflix’s streaming service. The company announced this morning it has entered into a new, multi-year output deal that will produce animated feature films and shows that will include both Nickelodeon’s well-known library of characters as well as all-new IP.

The shows will be aimed at kids and families around the world, Netflix says.

The deal is an expansion of Nickelodeon’s existing relationship with Netflix. Already, Netflix streams a number of popular Nickelodeon titles, including animated specials like “Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling” and “Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus.” It’s also soon to add specials based on “The Loud House” and “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

The deal news comes only a day after the launch of Disney+ in the U.S., which will be one of its largest markets. Disney+ has been positioned as a potential rival for Netflix, with some forecasts even stating that Netflix could lose subscribers to the family-friendly streamer. One report from market research firm AudienceProject out today, in fact, claims that 33% of U.S. consumers who are planning to sign up for Disney+ are considering canceling their Netflix subscriptions at the same time.

To retain customers, Netflix will need to have more kids’ content that will appeal to families — a powerful demographic that all streamers today target with investments in original programming and other licensing deals.

“Nickelodeon has generated scores of characters that kids love, and we look forward to telling wholly original stories that re-imagine and expand on the worlds they inhabit,” said Melissa Cobb, vice president, Nickelodeon, in a statement. “We’re thrilled to continue collaborating with Brian Robbins, Ramsey Naito, and the creative team at Nickelodeon in new ways as we look to find fresh voices and bring bold stories to our global audience on Netflix.”

“Nickelodeon’s next step forward is to keep expanding beyond linear platforms, and our broader content partnership with Netflix is a key path toward that goal,” said Brian Robbins, president, Nickelodeon.

“The Nickelodeon Animation Studio is home to the world-class artists and storytellers behind some of the most iconic characters and shows ever made, and our head of Animation, Ramsey Naito, has been building on that legacy over the past year by ramping up development and production exponentially. The ideas and work at our Studio are flowing, and we can’t wait to work with Melissa and the Netflix team on a premium slate of original animated content for kids and families around the world,” Robbins added.

Netflix didn’t offer any details on which iconic Nickelodeon IP would be involved in the new programming, or what sort of new characters may be under development. Nor did it speak to the number of titles it expects the multi-year deal to produce or when the first shows or movies would arrive. Instead, today’s announcement was more focused on taking the wind out of Disney’s sails following its big (and sometimes glitchy) U.S. launch.

Nickelodeon isn’t the only new partner in the children’s and family space working with Netflix, as part of the streamer’s larger strategy to challenge the Disney+ threat. As The New York Times recently reported, the streamer has been amassing a number of creators and executives as part of its counterattack strategy, including former Pixar and Disney animators, and others. It also recently worked with the Jim Henson Company to produce “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.”

Netflix also touted to The NYT the value of kids’ programming to its service, noting that around 60% of Netflix’s global audience watches the service for children and family content on a monthly basis.

Disney+ isn’t Netflix’s only streaming challenger in the kids’ programming space, these days. Newly launched Apple TV+ features kids’ shows, including “Snoopy in Space” and “Ghostwriter” from Sesame Workshop. HBO Max also has a deal with Sesame Workshop for 4,500+ “Sesame Street” back-catalog episodes and first-run episodes. NBCU, a supplier of one of Netflix’s top kid shows (“The Boss Baby: Back in Business”) is also planning to launch its own streaming service next year.

The new Nickelodeon programming will be a part of the Netflix Animation division, which currently includes family animated feature film “Klaus” from Sergio Pablos (streaming November 15), kids animated series “Dino Girl Gauko” from Japan (streaming November 22), adult animated film “I Lost My Body” from Jérémy Clapin (streaming November 29) and “Fast & Furious Spy Racers” from DreamWorks (streaming December 26), among others.

Brave launches version 1.0 of its privacy-focused browser

By Frederic Lardinois

Brave, the company co-founded by ex-Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich after his ouster from the organization in 2014, today launched version 1.0 of its browser for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android and iOS. In a browser market where users are spoiled for choice, Brave is positioning itself as a fast option that preserves users’ privacy with strong default settings, as well as a crypto currency-centric private ads and payment platform that allows users to reward content creators.

As the company announced last month, it now has about 8 million daily users. Its Brave Rewards program, which requires opt-in from users and publishers, currently has about 300,000 publishers on board. Most of these are users with small followings on YouTube and Twitter, but large publishers like Wikipedia, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate and the LA Times are also part of the ecosystem. Using this system, which not every publisher is going to like, the browser replaces the ads on a publisher’s site with its own, based on the user’s browsing habits. Users then receive 70 percent of what the advertisers spend on ads, while Brave keeps 30 percent.

As users view these ads, they start earning Basic Attention Tokens (BAT), Brave’s cryptocurrency, which they can keep or give to publishers. In its early days, Brave actually started with Bitcoin as the currency for this, but as Eich noted, that quickly became too expensive (and since the price was going up, users wanted to hold on to the Bitcoin instead of donating it).

Brave also comes with a built-in ad blocker that is probably among the most effective in the industry, as well as extensive anti-tracking features. “Everybody’s bothered by the sense of being tracked and bothered by bad ads,” Eich told me. “But I think ad aesthetics are not the problem. It’s the tracking and the cost of tracking which is multifarious. There’s page load time, running the radio to load the tracking scripts that load the other scripts that load the scripts that load the ads, that drains your battery, too.” Eich argues that with Brave, the team found a way to tie this all together with anti-tracking technology and an approach to ad blocking that goes beyond the industry-standard blocklists and also uses machine learning to identify additional rules for blocking.

For those users that really want to be anonymous on the web, Brave also features a private browsing mode, just like every other browser, but with the added twist that you can also open a private session through the Tor network, which will make it very hard for most companies to identify you.

At its core, Brave is simply a fast, extensible Chromium-based browser. That’s also what the company believes will sell it to users. “The way you get users, […] I think speed is the first one that works across the largest number of users. But you can’t just leave it at speed. You want to have all your benefits tied up in a pretty knot and that’s what we have done,” he said. For Brave, speed and ad/tracking protection are obviously interconnected, and all the other benefits accrue from that.

Looking beyond version 1.0, the Brave team plans to implement better sync, with support for tab and history syncing, for example. Brave also aims to make participating in Brave Rewards an experience with much lower friction for the user. In the early days, before it was on Android, the opt-in rate was around 40 percent, Eich told me, and the team wants to get it back to that.

If you want to give Brave a try, you can download it here.

Wayfair’s app adds 3D visualization tools, including interactive photos & a room planner

By Sarah Perez

Home furnishing retailer Wayfair was among the first to adopt AR technology as a means of helping people better visual furniture and accessories in their own home, ahead of purchase. Today, the company is expanding its feature set to allow for more visualization capabilities — even when you’re shopping out in the real world and aren’t able to take a photo of your room to use AR.

Instead, shoppers will be able to leverage a new feature called “Interactive Photo,” which lets shoppers take a photo of their room then visualize multiple products within it, even when they’re not home in their own space. The feature itself uses technology to understand the spatial information of the room in the image to give you an AR-like experience using your photo.

Alongside this addition, Wayfair has updated its app to put its camera tools more at the forefront of the app experience. Similar to how you can click a camera icon next to the Amazon app’s search bar, you can now do the same in Wayfair. You can also then toggle between the various camera-based features with swipe gestures, in order to move between Wayfair’s visual search and its “View in Room” AR feature, which is also where you’ll find the new “Interactive Photo.”

The retailer has also launched its room design tool, Room Planner 3D, on the mobile shopping app. This allows shoppers to create an interactive room 3D room that they can view from any angle, while testing out different layouts, styles, room dimensions and more.

The update follows Amazon’s launch earlier this year of its own visual shopping experience called Showroom, which let online and mobile shoppers try out furniture and other décor in a customizable virtual room where they pick the wall color, flooring, carpet and more.

“With the latest updates to the Wayfair app, we continue to push the limits of what’s possible by iterating on advanced AR and machine learning capabilities, and introducing new and innovative spatial awareness techniques to an e-commerce experience, bridging the gap between imagination and reality,” said Matt Zisow, Vice President of Product Management, Experience Design and Analytics at Wayfair, in a statement.

The new feature set comes shortly after Wayfair’s third-quarter earnings, where the company reported a wider-than-expected loss of $2.33 per share, adjusted, versus the expected $2.10 per share. Revenue was up 35% year-over-year to $2.3 billion, above the anticipated $2.27 billion, however. The company attributed the miss to “short-term headwinds from tariffs.”

However, as the holiday shopping season heats up, Wayfair still needs to unveil enticing features that will encourage consumers to redownload its app and shop — especially given that smartphones alone drove $2.1 billion in U.S. online sales last Black Friday.  

The new Wayfair app is out now on iOS and Android, but the new features — Interactive Photo, Integrated Camera and Room Planner 3D — are only on iOS.

JetPack Aviation raises $2M to build the prototype of its flying motorcycle

By Darrell Etherington

Flying cars are fine – but why use a car when you can have a motorcycle instead? YC-backed startup JetPack Aviation wants to answer that question with the world’s first flying motorcycle, a personal aircraft dubbed ‘The Speeder,’ a name that Star Wars fans will surely appreciate. Now, JetPack has raised a seed round of $2 million from investors indulging Draper Associates, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, YC, Catheis Ventures and a group of angels that it says will fund the development of the Speeder’s first functional prototype.

Back in March, JetPack revealed its plans for the Speeder, which it says will provide a fully stabilized ride that’s either pilot-controlled or fully autonomous. It can take off and land vertically, and reach top speeds of potentially over 400 MPH. There are not exposed rotors systems, which make it a lot safer and easier to operate than a lot of other VTOL designs and helicopters, and the company says it can also be refuelled in under 5 minutes, which is a dramatically shorter turn around time for powering up vs. an electric vehicle.

This isn’t JetPack’s first aerial rodeo: The company, led by CEO and founder David Mayman, has already created an actual jet pack. Mayman himself has demonstrated the personal aerial jet pack numerous times, and it’s been certified by the FAA, plus it landed a CARADA agreement with the U.S. Navy Special Forces for use in short-distance troop transportation. The jet pack also boasts a lot of features that sound, on paper, like diene fiction: Over 100 mph top seed, and suitcase-sized portability, for instance.

That track record is why when Mayman tells me this $2 million round “should fully fund the first full scale flying prototype, including all modelling designs and build,” I tend to believe him more than I would just about anyone else in the world making a similar claim.

Part of the reason the Speeder is more viable near-term than other VTOL designs is that it will rely on turbine propulsion, rather than battery-based flight systems. This is because, in Mayman’s opinion, “current battery energy density is just too low for most electrically powered VTOLs to be truly practical,” and that timelines optimistically for that to change are in the 5 to 10 year range. The Speeder, by comparison, should feasibly be able to provide quick cargo transportation for emergency services and military (its first planned uses before moving on to the consumer market) in a much shorter period.

Apple’s Mac Pro ships in December with maximum 8TB of storage

By Matthew Panzarino

Apple is making its Mac Pro and Apple Pro Display available in December, it announced today. The machine was announced earlier this year, but no availability window had been set.

In addition to the previously announced specs, Apple also noted that it would be able to be ordered with up to an 8TB SSD. Apple’s Pro Workflow Team continues to take feedback about wants and needs of its pro customers, and Apple says that the Mac Pro can now handle up to six streams of 8K Pro Res video, up from three streams quoted back in June. 

Apple also says that Blackmagic will have an SDI to 8K converter for productions using a serial digital interface workflow on set or in studio. This was a question I got several times after Apple announced its reference monitor to go along with the Mac Pro. This makes it more viable for many on-set applications that use existing workflows. 

I was able to get a look at the Mac Pro running the SDI converter box as well as a bunch of other applications like Final Cut Pro, and it continues to be incredibly impressive for pro workflows. One demo showed six 8K Pro Res streams running with animation and color coding in real time in a pre-rendered state. Really impressive. The hardware is also still wildly premium stuff. The VESA mount for the Pro Display XDR alone feels like it has more engineering behind it than most entire computers.

The new Mac Pro starts at $5,999 for the base configuration, which includes 32GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a Radeon Pro 570X graphics card. The Pro Display XDR 32-inch reference-quality monitor that Apple will sell alongside it starts at $4,999.

MacBook Pro 16” first impressions: Return of the Mack

By Matthew Panzarino

In poker, complacency is a quiet killer. It can steal your forward momentum bit by bit, using the warm glow of a winning hand or two to cover the bets you’re not making until it’s too late and you’re out of leverage. 

Over the past few years, Apple’s MacBook game had begun to suffer from a similar malaise. Most of the company’s product lines were booming, including newer entries like the Apple Watch, AirPods and iPad Pro. But as problems with the models started to mount — unreliable keyboards, low RAM ceilings and anemic graphics offerings — the once insurmountable advantage that the MacBook had compared to the rest of the notebook industry started to show signs of dwindling. 

The new 16” MacBook Pro Apple is announcing today is an attempt to rectify most, if not all, of the major complaints of its most loyal, and vocal, users. It’s a machine that offers a massive amount of upsides for what appears to be a handful of easily justifiable tradeoffs. It’s got better graphics, a bigger display for nearly no extra overall size, a bigger battery with longer life claims and yeah, a completely new keyboard.

I’ve only had a day to use the machine so far, but I did all of my research and writing for this first look piece on the machine, carting it around New York City, through the airport and onto a plane where I’m publishing this now. This isn’t a review, but I can take you through some of the new stuff and give you thoughts based on that chunk of time. 

This is a re-think of the larger MacBook Pro in many large ways. This is a brand new model that will completely replace the 15” MacBook Pro in Apple’s lineup, not an additional model. 

Importantly, the team working on this new MacBook started with no design constraints on weight, noise, size or battery. This is not a thinner machine, it is not a smaller machine, it is not a quieter machine. It is, however, better than the current MacBook Pro in all of the ways that actually count.

Let’s run down some of the most important new things. 

Performance and thermals

The 16” MacBook Pro comes configured with either a 2.6GHz 6-core i7 or a 2.3GHz 8-core i9 from Intel . These are the same processors as the 15” MacBook Pro came with. No advancements here is largely a function of Intel’s chip readiness. 

The i7 model of the 16” MacBook Po will run $2,399 for the base model — the same as the old 15” — and it comes with a 512GB SSD drive and 16GB of RAM. 

Both models can be ordered today and will be in stores at the end of the week.

The standard graphics configuration in the i7 is an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of memory and an integrated Intel UHD graphics 630 chip. The system continues to use the dynamic handoff system that trades power for battery life on the fly.  


The i9 model will run $2,699 and comes with a 1TB drive. That’s a nice bump in storage for both models, into the range of very comfortable for most people. It rolls with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of memory.

You can configure both models with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory. Both models can also now get up to 8TB of SSD storage – which Apple says is the most on a notebook ever – and 64GB of 2666 DDR4 RAM but I’d expect those upgrades to be pricey.

The new power supply delivers an additional 12w of power and there is a new thermal system to compensate for that. The heat pipe that carries air in and out has been redesigned, there are more fan blades on 35% larger fans that move 28% more air compared to the 15” model. 

The fans in the MacBook Pro, when active, put out the same decibel level of sound, but push way more air than before. So, not a reduction in sound, but not an increase either — and the trade is better cooling. Another area where the design process for this MacBook focused on performance gains rather than the obvious sticker copy. 

There’s also a new power brick which is the same physical size as the 15” MacBook Pro’s adapter, but which now supplies 96w up from 87w. The brick is still as chunky as ever and feels a tad heavier, but it’s nice to get some additional power out of it. 

Though I haven’t been able to put the MacBook Pro through any video editing or rendering tests I was able to see live demos of it handling several 8K streams concurrently. With the beefiest internal config Apple says it can usually handle as many as 4, perhaps 5 un-rendered Pro Res streams.

A bigger display, a thicker body

The new MacBook Pro has a larger 16” diagonal Retina display that has a 3072×1920 resolution at 226 ppi. The monitor features the same 500 nit maximum brightness, P3 color gamut and True Tone tech as the current 15”. The bezels of the screen are narrower, which makes it feel even larger when you’re sitting in front of it. This also contributes to the fact that the overall size of the new MacBook Pro is just 2% larger in width and height, with a .7mm increase in thickness. 

The overall increase in screen size far outstrips the increase in overall body size because of those thinner bezels. And this model is still around the same thickness as the 2015 15” MacBook Pro, an extremely popular model among the kinds of people who are the target market for this machine. It also weighs 4.3 lbs, heavier than the 4.02 lb current 15” model.

The display looks great, extremely crisp due to the increase in pixels and even more in your face because of the very thin bezels. This thing feels like it’s all screen in a way that matches the iPad Pro.

This thick boi also features a bigger battery, a full 100Whr, the most allowable under current FAA limits. Apple says this contributes an extra hour of normal operations in its testing regimen in comparison to the current 15” MacBook Pro. I have not been able to effectively test these claims in the time I’ve had with it so far. 

But it is encouraging that Apple has proven willing to make the iPhone 11 Pro and the new MacBook a bit thicker in order to deliver better performance and battery life. Most of these devices are pretty much thin enough. Performance, please.

Speakers and microphone

One other area where the 16” MacBook Pro has made a huge improvement is the speaker and microphone arrays. I’m not sure I ever honestly expected to give a crap about sound coming out of a laptop. Good enough until I put in a pair of headphones accurately describes my expectations for laptop sound over the years. Imagine my surprise when I first heard the sound coming out of this new MacBook and it was, no crap, incredibly good. 

The new array consists of six speakers arranged so that the subwoofers are positioned in pairs, antipodal to one another (back to back). This has the effect of cancelling out a lot of the vibration that normally contributes to that rattle-prone vibrato that has characterized small laptop speakers pretty much forever.

The speaker setup they have here has crisper highs and deeper bass than you’ve likely ever heard from a portable machine. Movies are really lovely to watch with the built-ins, a sentence I have never once felt comfortable writing about a laptop. 

Apple also vents the speakers through their own chambers, rather than letting sound float out through the keyboard holes. This keeps the sound nice and crisp, with a soundstage that’s wide enough to give the impression of a center channel for voice. One byproduct of this though is that blocking one or another speaker with your hand is definitely more noticeable than before.

The quality of sound here is really very, very good. The HomePod team’s work on sound fields apparently keeps paying dividends. 

That’s not the only audio bit that’s better now though, Apple has also put in a 3-mic array for sound recording that it claims has a high enough signal-to-noise ratio that it can rival standalone microphones. I did some testing here comparing it to the iPhone’s mic and it’s absolutely night and day. There is remarkably little hiss present here and artists that use the MacBook as a sketch pad for vocals and other recording are going to get a really nice little surprise here.

I haven’t been able to test it against external mics myself but I was able to listen to rigs that involved a Blue Yeti and other laptop microphones and the MacBook’s new mic array was clearly better than any of the machines and held its own against the Yeti. 

The directional nature of many podcast mics is going to keep them well in advance of the internal mic on the MacBook for the most part, but for truly mobile recording setups the MacBook mic just went from completely not an option to a very viable fallback in one swoop. It really has to be listened to in order to get it. 

I doubt anyone is going to buy a MacBook Pro for the internal mic, but having a ‘pro level’ device finally come with a pro level mic on board is super choice. 

I think that’s most of it, though I feel like I’m forgetting something…

Oh right, the Keyboard

Ah yes. I don’t really need to belabor the point on the MacBook Pro keyboards just not being up to snuff for some time. Whether you weren’t a fan of the short throw on the new butterfly keyboards or you found yourself one of the many people (yours truly included) who ran up against jammed or unresponsive keys on that design — you know that there has been a problem.

The keyboard situation has been written about extensively by Casey Johnston and Joanna Stern and complained about by every writer on Twitter over the past several years. Apple has offered a succession of updates to that keyboard to attempt to make it more reliable and has extended warranty replacements to appease customers. 

But the only real solution was to ditch the design completely and start over. And that’s what this is: a completely new keyboard.

Apple is calling it the Magic Keyboard in homage to the iMac’s Magic Keyboard (but not identically designed). The new keyboard is a scissor mechanism, not butterfly. It has 1mm of key travel (more, a lot more) and an Apple-designed rubber dome under the key that delivers resistance and springback that facilitates a satisfying key action. The new keycaps lock into the keycap at the top of travel to make them more stable when at rest, correcting the MacBook Air-era wobble. 

And yes, the keycaps can be removed individually to gain access to the mechanism underneath. And yes, there is an inverted-T arrangement for the arrow keys. And yes, there is a dedicated escape key.

Apple did extensive physiological research when building out this new keyboard. One test was measuring the effect of a keypress on a human finger. Specifically, they measured the effect of a key on the pacinian corpuscles at the tips of your fingers. These are onion-esque structures in your skin that house nerve endings and they are most sensitive to mechanical and vibratory pressure. 

Apple then created this specialized plastic dome that sends a specific vibration to this receptor making your finger send a signal to your brain that says ‘hey you pressed that key.’ This led to a design that gives off the correct vibration wavelength to return a satisfying ‘stroke completed’ message to the brain.

There is also more space between the keys, allowing for more definitive strokes. This is because the keycaps themselves are slightly smaller. The spacing does take some adjustment, but by this point in the article I am already getting pretty proficient and am having more grief from the autocorrect feature of Catalina than anything else. 

Notably, this keyboard is not in the warranty extension program that Apple is applying to its older keyboard designs. There is a standard 1 year warranty on this model, a statement by the company that they believe in the durability of this new design? Perhaps. It has to get out there and get bashed on by more violent keyboard jockeys than I for a while before we can tell whether it’s truly more resilient. 

But does this all come together to make a more usable keyboard? In short, yes. The best way to describe it in my opinion is a blend between the easy cushion of the old MacBook Air and the low profile stability of the Magic Keyboard for iMac. It’s truly one of the best feeling keyboards they’ve made in years and perhaps ever in the modern era. I reserve the right to be nostalgic about deep throw mechanical keyboards in this regard, but this is the next best thing. 

Pro, or Pro

In my brief and admittedly limited testing so far, the 16” MacBook Pro ends up looking like it really delivers on the Pro premise of this kind of machine in ways that have been lacking for a while in Apple’s laptop lineup. The increased storage caps, bigger screen, bigger battery and redesigned keyboard should make this an insta-buy for anyone upgrading from a 2015 MacBook Pro and a very tempting upgrade for even people on newer models that have just never been happy with the typing experience. 

Many of Apple’s devices with the label Pro lately have fallen into the bucket of ‘the best’ rather than ‘for professionals’. This isn’t strictly a new phenomenon for Apple, but more consumer centric devices like the AirPods Pro and the iPhone Pro get the label now than ever before. 

But the 16” MacBook Pro is going to alleviate a lot of the pressure Apple has been under to provide an unabashedly Pro product for Pro Pros. It’s a real return to form for the real Mack Daddy of the laptop category. As long as this new keyboard design proves resilient and repairable I think this is going to kick off a solid new era for Apple portables.

These sneakers vibrate

By Jordan Crook

Sometimes it seems like you can hear a song all the way in your toes. With these new sneakers, you actually can.

Meet the new EP 01 sneakers out of DropLabs. Yes, you read that right. We’re talking about sneakers.

Invented by a man named Ross Seiler, and led by former Beats by Dre CEO Susan Paley, DropLabs aims to take audio to a whole new level by syncing music, movies and other audio to shoes that vibrate the soles of your feet.

It started when Seiler, who works in the music industry, was standing in a side room at a recording studio while a band was recording. He could feel every beat and low note in the song in his feet while standing over this particular patch of floor, and wanted to experience all music like that, as though he could feel the energy of the stage itself.

Eventually, Paley signed on as CEO of DropLabs and the EP 01 was born.

The EP 01 is a slightly chunky sneaker that’s equipped with Bluetooth, a speaker-grade transducer, and a power source to sync with almost any audio. As a movie or music or video game plays, the sneaker picks up the audio and sends it as a perfectly synced vibration right to the soles of your feet. For big, thunderous steps of a T-Rex in Jurassic World, the vibrations are heavy and full. For the pitter patter of the townspeoples’ footsteps in Red Dead Redemption II, the vibrations are light and muted.

What’s more, the vibrations are slightly directional. Noise that’s coming from the right vibrates on the right, and vice versa, which can be particularly impactful while playing video games.

Indeed, Paley sees gaming as a huge opportunity to enter the market. Audio, and particularly good directional audio, is incredibly important for gamers who compete at a high level. The growth of esports has allowed a number of brands to emerge as the “X for gamers”, not least of which being energy drinks.

DropLabs has an opportunity to market to gamers, offering a more immersive experience across their games and potentially even a competitive advantage.

Paley explained to TechCrunch that the brain actually functions at a higher level when three or more of the senses are engaged. Feeling something, alongside hearing and seeing it, flips a switch when it comes to processing information.

For this reason, Paley sees a huge potential to target gamers as an early demographic, particularly big name streamers and gaming influencers.

In fact, DropLabs has given the shoes to various researchers and universities around the country to learn more about how these shoes might be used. After meeting with them, Paley believes that there are applications that extend well beyond entertainment and into the health space.

I got a chance to try on the shoes and play around with them for a little while last week, and while I’d like to reserve my complete thoughts for a proper review, it goes without saying that wearing the shoes surely leaves an impression.

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But the EP 01 have challenges ahead.

For one, the shoes cost upwards of $500. It’s a mighty high price point for a gadget that most folks will need to try before they feel committed to buying.

“Whenever you create a new category and a new product, you have the challenge of asking consumers to change their behavior,” said Paley. “And this, in particular, is so visceral. How do you communicate viscerally what is an emotional experience? You can talk about it, but it’s very different to put someone in the shoe.”

The EP 01 must also find their place in a category that’s defined by fashion and personal style. Our shoes say something about us, and for now, the EP 01 comes in one style and one color (black). It’s as universal a shoe as it can be, considering all the electronics packed in there, but it doesn’t leave customers many options to change up their own look.

Of course, DropLabs is deep in the learning phase, soaking up as much information about its first-gen sneaker as possible as it looks to iterate for v2.

The EP 01 is available for pre-order now, and DropLabs has plans to launch pop-up shops and other IRL experiences for folks interested in the shoes.

Google to offer checking accounts in partnership with banks starting next year

By Darrell Etherington

Google is the latest big tech company to make a move into banking and personal financial services: The company is gearing up to offer checking accounts to consumers, as first reported by The Wall Street Journal, starting as early as next year. Google is calling the project “Cache,” and it’ll partner with banks and credit unions to offer the checking accounts, with the banks handling all financial and compliance activities related to the accounts.

Google’s Caesar Sengupta spoke to the WSJ about the new initiative, and Sengupta made clear that Google will be seeking to put its financial institution partners much more front-and-center for its customers than other tech companies have perhaps done with their financial products. Apple works with Goldman Sachs on its Apple Card credit product, for instance, but the credit card is definitely pretend primarily as an Apple product.

So why even bother getting into this game if it’s leaving a lot of the actual banking to traditional financial institutions? Well, Google obviously stands to gain a lot of valuable information and insight on customer behavior with access to their checking account, which for many is a good picture of overall day-to-day financial life. Google says it’s also intending to offer product advantages for both consumers and banks, including things like loyalty programs, on top of the basic financial services. It’s also still considering whether or not it’ll charge service fees, per Segupta – not doing so would definitely be and advantage over most existing checking accounts available.

Google already offers Google Pay, and its Google Wallet product has hosted some features beyond simple payments tracking, including the ability to send money between individuals. Meanwhile, rivals including Apple have also introducing payment products, and Apple of course recently expanded into the credit market with Apple Card. Facebook also introduced its own digital payment product earlier this week, and earlier this year announced its intent to build its own digital currency called ‘Libra’ along with partners.

The initial financial partners that Google is working with include Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union, and their motivation per the WSJ piece appears to be seeking out and attracting younger and more digital-savvy customers who are increasingly looking to handle more of their lives through online tools. Per Sengupta’s comments, they’ll also benefit from Google’s ability to work with large sets of data and turn those into value-add products, but the Google exec also said the tech company doesn’t sue Google Pay data for advertising, nor does it share that data with advertisers. Still, convincing people to give Google access to this potentially sensitive area of their lives might be an uphill battle, especially given the current political and social climate around big tech.

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