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✇ TechCrunch

Amazon’s Fire TV Cube now supports Zoom calls on your TV

By Sarah Perez — July 29th 2021 at 15:53

Late last year, Amazon launched support for two-way calling that worked with its Fire TV Cube devices. The feature allowed consumers to make and receive calls from their connected TV to any other Alexa device with a screen. Today, the company is expanding this system to enable support for two-way calling with Zoom.

Starting today, Fire TV Cube owners (2nd gen.) will be able to join Zoom work meetings or virtual hangouts via their Fire TV Cube.

To take advantage of the new feature, you’ll need Amazon’s Fire TV Cube, its hands-free streaming device and smart speaker that has Alexa built in, as well as a webcam that supports USB Video Class (UVC) with at least 720p resolution and 30fps. But for a better experience, Amazon recommends a webcam with 1080p resolution and a 60-90 degree field of view from 6 to 10 feet away from the TV. It doesn’t recommend 4K webcams, however.

Amazon suggests webcams like the Logitech C920, C922x, C310, or the Wansview 101JD, for example.

You’ll then connect your webcam to your Fire TV Cube using a Micro USB to USB adapter.

For best results, you’ll want to attach the webcam above the TV screen, Amazon notes.

Once everything is set up and connected, you’ll need to download and install the Zoom app from the Fire TV Appstore. When joining meetings, you can either sign in as a guest or use an existing Zoom account, per the on-screen instructions.

Thanks to the Alexa integration, you can join your meetings hands-free, if you prefer, by way of a voice command like “Alexa, join my Zoom meeting.” Alexa will respond by prompting you for the meeting ID and passcode. Alternately, you can choose to use the remote control to enter in this information.

An optional feature also lets you sync your calendar to Alexa to allow the smart assistant to remind you about the upcoming meetings it finds on your calendar. If you go this route, Alexa will suggest the meeting to join and you’ll just have to say “yes” to be automatically dialed in.

Amazon first announced it was bringing video calling support to its Fire TV platform last fall — a significant update in the new era of remote work and schooling, driven by the pandemic. However, it’s not the only option on the market. Google also last year brought group video calls to its Hub Max devices, and later added support for Zoom calls. Meanwhile Facebook Portal devices have offered video calling of a more personal nature, and last year updated to support Zoom, too.

In other words, Amazon is playing a bit of catch-up here. And its solution is a little more unwieldy as it requires consumers to buy their own webcam, while something like Portal TV offers a TV with a smart camera included.

To use the new feature, you’ll need the latest Fire TV Cube software update to get started, Amazon notes.

✇ TechCrunch

GM says it will seek reimbursement from LG Chem for $1B Chevy Bolt recall losses

By Rebecca Bellan — August 24th 2021 at 01:16

American automaker General Motors expanded its recall of Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles on Friday due to fire risks from battery manufacturing defects. The automaker said it would seek reimbursement from LG Chem, its battery cell manufacturing partner, for what it expects to be $1 billion worth of losses.

Following the news of the recall, the third one GM has issued for this vehicle, LG Chem shares fell by 11% on Monday, and its stock price lost $6 billion in market value. GM’s shares were down 1.27% at market close.

This isn’t the first time LG Chem’s batteries have resulted in a recall from automakers. Earlier this year, Hyundai recalled 82,000 EVs due to a similar battery fire risk at an estimated cost of about $851.9 million. Hyundai’s joint battery venture was with LG Energy Solution, the specific battery unit of LG Chem, which is preparing for its initial public offering in September, but experts say the IPO could be delayed due to the recall cost.

GM’s investigation into the problems with its batteries found battery cell defects like a torn anode tab and folded separator. The recall comes a week after a fire involving a Volkswagen AG ID.3 EV with an LG Energy Solution battery. Earlier this year Volkswagen, as well as Tesla, began making moves to shift from LG Chem’s brand of pouch-type lithium-ion battery cells and towards more prismatic-type cells, like those made by CATL and Samsung SDI.

The recall leaves GM without any fully electric vehicles for sale in North America, which means it can’t compete with Tesla and other automakers as EV sales are on the rise. The loss in sales, the safety risks and the possibility of better tech on the horizon might cause GM to take its business elsewhere.

For now, there’s still work to be done together. GM said it will replace defective battery modules with new modules in the Chevy Bolt EVs and EUVs, which it says accounts for the $1 billion in losses. This is on top of the $800 million GM already is spending for the original Bolt recall last November. Battery packs are the most expensive components of the electric vehicle, on average costing about $186 per kWh, according to data from energy storage research firm Cairn ERA. GM pays about $169 per kWh, and the Bolt has a 66 kWh battery pack.

LG Chem and GM did not respond to requests for comment, so it’s not clear whether the two plan to move forward on plans announced in April to build a second U.S. battery cell factory in Tennessee. The joint venture, dubbed Ultium Cells, would aim to produce more than 70 GWh of energy.

✇ TechCrunch

The DOJ and DHS subpoenaed Peloton over treadmill injury reporting

By Brian Heater — August 27th 2021 at 15:14

On Tuesday, Peloton announced the upcoming release of its entry-level Tread device. The news came ahead of a disappointing earnings report and after recalls of both of its treadmill products. Today, the connected fitness company noted in a filing with the SEC that it has been subpoenaed by both the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security.

Both subpoenas are part of  investigations around the way the company reported injuries from its treadmills. It’s seemingly another sign that, in spite of the return of one of its two Tread products to market, the larger implications are far from over for the company.

Peloton writes in the filing:

Injuries sustained by Members or their friends and family members, or others who use or purchase our Connected Fitness Products, could subject us to regulatory proceedings and litigation by governance agencies and private litigants brought against us, that regardless of their merits, could harm our reputation, divert management’s attention from our operations and result in substantial legal fees and other costs. For example, we are presently subject to a CPSC investigation and other litigation related to injuries sustained by Members and others who use or purchase the Tread+, and we have reporting obligations to safety regulators in all jurisdictions where we sell Connected Fitness Products, where reporting may trigger further regulatory investigations.

The company declined to comment further on the investigations.

Peloton was, notably, at odds with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)’s initial warning to stop using its treadmill products after an accident with the Tread+ resulted in a child’s death. At the time, Peloton said it was “troubled” by the reporting and insisted that “there is no reason to stop using the Tread+, as long as all warnings and safety instructions are followed.” In May, CEO John Foley apologized for the pushback and agreed to work with the CPSC on a recall.

The Commission cited more than 70 incidents in all, noting, “a six-year-old child recently died after being pulled under the rear of the treadmill. In addition, Peloton has received 72 reports of adult users, children, pets and/or objects being pulled under the rear of the treadmill, including 29 reports of injuries to children such as second- and third-degree abrasions, broken bones, and lacerations.”

The cheaper Tread model, meanwhile, was at the center of separate issue wherein the product’s touchscreen could detach and cause injury during use. The new version of the device features a reinforced screen. The recalls impacted around 125,000 Tread+ systems and more than 5,500 Treads, which were in early release.

✇ Wired

Last Stop Is a Playable Love Letter to London

By Lewis Gordon — August 28th 2021 at 11:00
The title’s three codirectors discuss bringing their TV-show-meets-adventure-game project to life.
✇ TechCrunch

Sanas aims to convert one accent to another in real time for smoother customer service calls

By Devin Coldewey — August 31st 2021 at 23:23

In the customer service industry, your accent dictates many aspects of your job. It shouldn’t be the case that there’s a “better” or “worse” accent, but in today’s global economy (though who knows about tomorrow’s) it’s valuable to sound American or British. While many undergo accent neutralization training, Sanas is a startup with another approach (and a $5.5 million seed round): using speech recognition and synthesis to change the speaker’s accent in near real time.

The company has trained a machine learning algorithm to quickly and locally (that is, without using the cloud) recognize a person’s speech on one end and, on the other, output the same words with an accent chosen from a list or automatically detected from the other person’s speech.

Screenshot of the Sanas desktop application.

Image Credits: Sanas.ai

It slots right into the OS’s sound stack so it works out of the box with pretty much any audio or video calling tool. Right now the company is operating a pilot program with thousands of people in locations from the U.S. and U.K. to the Philippines, India, Latin America and others. Accents supported will include American, Spanish, British, Indian, Filipino and Australian by the end of the year.

To tell the truth, the idea of Sanas kind of bothered me at first. It felt like a concession to bigoted people who consider their accent superior and think others below them. Tech will fix it … by accommodating the bigots. Great!

But while I still have a little bit of that feeling, I can see there’s more to it than this. Fundamentally speaking, it is easier to understand someone when they speak in an accent similar to your own. But customer service and tech support is a huge industry and one primarily performed by people outside the countries where the customers are. This basic disconnect can be remedied in a way that puts the onus of responsibility on the entry-level worker, or one that puts it on technology. Either way the difficulty of making oneself understood remains and must be addressed — an automated system just lets it be done more easily and allows more people to do their job.

It’s not magic — as you can tell in this clip, the character and cadence of the person’s voice is only partly retained and the result is considerably more artificial sounding:

But the technology is improving and like any speech engine, the more it’s used, the better it gets. And for someone not used to the original speaker’s accent, the American-accented version may very well be more easily understood. For the person in the support role, this likely means better outcomes for their calls — everyone wins. Sanas told me that the pilots are just starting so there are no numbers available from this deployment yet, but testing has suggested a considerable reduction of error rates and increase in call efficiency.

It’s good enough at any rate to attract a $5.5 million seed round, with participation from Human Capital, General Catalyst, Quiet Capital and DN Capital.

“Sanas is striving to make communication easy and free from friction, so people can speak confidently and understand each other, wherever they are and whoever they are trying to communicate with,” CEO Maxim Serebryakov said in the press release announcing the funding. It’s hard to disagree with that mission.

While the cultural and ethical questions of accents and power differentials are unlikely to ever go away, Sanas is trying something new that may be a powerful tool for the many people who must communicate professionally and find their speech patterns are an obstacle to that. It’s an approach worth exploring and discussing even if in a perfect world we would simply understand one another better.

✇ TechCrunch

Goodcall picks up $4M, Yelp partnership to answer merchant inbound calls

By Christine Hall — September 1st 2021 at 16:00

Even without staffing shortages, local merchants have difficulty answering calls while all hands are busy, and Goodcall wants to alleviate some of that burden from America’s 30 million small businesses.

Goodcall’s free cloud-based conversational platform leverages artificial intelligence to manage incoming phone calls and boost customer service for businesses of all sizes. Former Google executive Bob Summers left Google back in January, where he was working on Area 120 — an internal incubator program for experimental projects — to start Goodcall after recognizing the call problem, noting that in fact 60% of the calls that come into merchants go unanswered.

“It’s frustrating for you and for the person calling,” Summers told TechCrunch. “Every missed call is a lost opportunity.”

Goodcall announced its launch Wednesday with $4 million in seed funding led by strategic investors Neo, Foothill Ventures, Merus Capital, Xoogler Ventures, Verissimo Ventures and VSC Ventures, as well as angel investors including Harry Hurst, founder and co-CEO of Pipe.com, and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff.

Goodcall mobile agent. Image Credits: Goodcall

Restaurants, shops and merchants can set up on Goodcall in a matter of minutes and even establish a local phone number to free up an owner’s mobile number from becoming the business’ main line. The service is initially deployed in English and the company has plans to operate in Spanish, French and Hindi by 2022.

Merchants can choose from six different assistant voices and monitor the call logs and what the calls were about. Goodcall can also capture consumer sentiment, Summers said.

The company offers three options, including its freemium service for solopreneurs and business owners, which includes up to 500 minutes per month of Goodcall services for a single phone line. Up to five additional locations and five staff members costs $19 per month for the Pro level, or the Premium level provides unlimited locations and staff for $49 per month.

During the company’s beta period, Goodcall was processing several thousands of calls per month. The new funding will be used to continue to offer the free service, hire engineers and continue product development.

In addition to the funding round, Goodcall is unveiling a partnership with Yelp to tap into its database of local businesses so that those owners and managers can easily deploy Goodcall. Yelp data shows that more than 500,000 businesses opened during the pandemic. The company pulls in from Yelp a merchant’s open hours, location, if they offer Wi-Fi and even their COVID policy.

“We are partnering with Yelp, which has the best data on small businesses, and other large distribution channels to get our product to market,” Summers said. “We are bringing technology into an industry that hasn’t innovated since the 1980s and democratizing conversational AI for small businesses that are the main driver of job creation, and we want to help them grow.”

 

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