One ongoing theme in the world of smart homes has been the emergence of gadgets and other tools that can turn “ordinary” objects and systems into “connected” ones — removing the need to replace things wholesale that still essentially work, while still applying technology to improve the ways that they can be used.
In the latest development, a smart home startup from Santa Barbara called Shine Bathroom has raised $750,000 in seed funding to help build and distribute its first product: an accessory that you attach to an existing toilet to make it a “smart toilet.”
It’s a dirty business, but someone had to do it.
Shine’s immediate goal is to flush away the old, ecologically unfriendly way of cleaning toilets; and to provide the tools to detect when something is not working right in the plumbing, even helping you fix it without calling out a plumber.
The longer-term vision is to apply technology and science to rethink the whole bathroom to put less strain on our natural resources, and to use it in a way that lines up with what we want to do as consumers, using this first product to test that market.
“Bathrooms are evolving from places where we practice basic hygiene to where we prepare ourselves for the day,” said Chris Herbert, the founder and CEO of Shine. “Wellness and self care will be happening more in the home, and this is a big opportunity.”
Shine’s first injection of money is coming from two VCs also based in Southern California: Entrada Ventures (like Shine also in Santa Barbara), and Mucker Capital, an LA fund specifically backing startups not based in Silicon Valley (others in its current porfolio include Naritiv, Everipedia and Next Trucking).
The Shine Bathroom Assistant, as the first product is called, is currently being sold via Indiegogo starting at $99, with the first products expected to ship in February 2020.
It’s a fitting challenge for a hardware entrepreneur: toilets are a necessary part of our modern lives, but they are unloved, and they haven’t really been innovated for a long time.
Herbert admitted to me (and I’m sure Freud would have something to say here, too) that this has been something of a years-long obsession, stretching back to when he made a trip to Japan as a sophomore in high school and was struck by how companies like Toto were innovating in the business, with fancy, all-cleaning (and all-singing and dancing) loos.
“We thought to ourselves, how could we make a better bathroom?” he said. “We decided that the answer was through software. When you take a thesis like that, you can see lots of opportunity.”
Sized similar to an Amazon Echo or other connected home speaker, Shine’s toilet attachment is battery operated and comes in three parts: a water vessel, a sensor and spraying nozzle that you place inside your toilet bowl, and a third sensor fitted with an accelerometer that you attach to the main line that fills up the toilet’s tank. The vessel is filled with tap water (which you replace periodically).
That water is passed through a special filter that electrolyzes it (by sending a current through the water) and then sprays it with every flush to clean and deodarize. Shine claims this spraying technique is five times as powerful as traditional deodarizing spray, and as powerful as bleach, but without the harsh chemicals: the water converts back into saline after it does its work. (And to be clear, there are no soaps or other detergents involved.)
Alongside the cleaning features, the second part of the bathroom assistant is Sam, an AI on your phone. Linked up to the hardware and sensors, Sam identifies common toilet problems, such as leaks that trickle out hundreds of gallons of water, by measuring variations in vibrations, and when it does, it sends out a free repair kit to fix it yourself.
Users can also link up Sam to work with Alexa to order the machine to clean, check water levels, and do more in future.
The solution of monitoring vibrations is notable for how it links up with a past entrepreneurial life for Herbert and some of his team.
Herbert was one of two co-founders of Trackr, a Tile-like product that also played on the idea of making “dumb” objects smart: Trackr’s basic product was a small fob with Bluetooth inside it that could be attached to keys, wallets, bags and more to find their location when they were misplaced.
The company’s longer term goals extended into the area of IoT and how “dumb” machines could be made smarter by attaching sensors to them to monitor vibrations and sounds to determine how they were working — concepts that never materialised at Trackr but have found a new life at Shine.
On the other hand, Trackr is a cautionary tale about how a good idea can be inspiring, but not always enough.
The startup in its time raised more than $70 million, from a set of investors that included Amazon, Revolution, NTT, the Foundry Group and more. Ultimately, the basic concept was too commoditized (trackers are a dime a dozen on Amazon), Tile emerged as the market leader among the independents — a position it’s used to evolve its product — but even so, that’s before we’ve even determined if there really is a profitable business to be had here, and if platform companies potentially make their move to upset it in a different way.
Eventually, Trackr’s team (including Herbert) scattered and a new leadership team came in and rebranded to Adero . Now, even that team is gone, with the CEO Nate Kelly and others decamping to Glowforge. Multiple attempts to contact the company have been unanswered, although from what we understand, it’s not down for the count just yet. (Watch this space.)
“There is still something there, and I hope they can do something,” Herbert said of his previous startup.
Meanwhile, he and several of his ex-Trackr colleagues have now turned their attention to a new shiny challenge, the toilet and the bigger bathroom where it sits, and investors want in.
“We were impressed by Shine’s vision for a bathroom to better prepare us for our day head and saw a massively overlooked opportunity in the bathroom space” said Taylor Tyng from Entrada Ventures.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit old-fashioned when it comes to phones. Everyone scoffs at my iPhone SE, but the truth is it’s the best phone Apple ever made — a beautiful, well designed object in just about every way. But damn is the iPhone 11 Pro ugly. And so are the newest phones from Samsung and Google, while we’re at it.
Let’s just get right to why the new iPhones are ugly, front and back. And sideways. We can start with the notch. Obviously it’s not new, but I thought maybe this would be some kind of generational anomaly that we’d all look back and laugh at in a year or two. Apparently it’s sticking around.
I know a lot of people have justified the notch to themselves in various ways — it technically means more raw screen space, it accommodates the carrier and battery icons, it’s necessary for unlocking the phone with your face.
Yeah, but it’s ugly.
If they removed the notch, literally no one would want the version with the notch, because it’s so plainly and universally undesirable. If Apple’s engineers could figure out a way to have no notch, they’d have done it by now, but they can’t and I bet they are extremely frustrated by that. They try to hide it with the special notch-camouflaging wallpaper whenever they can, which is as much as saying, “hey, we hate looking at it too.”
You can forget for a few seconds. But in the back of your mind you know it’s there. Everyone knows.
It’s a prominent, ugly compromise (among several) necessitated by a feature no one asked for and people can’t seem to figure out if they even like or not. Notches are horrible and any time you see one, it means a designer cried themselves to sleep. To be fair that probably happens quite a bit. I grew up around designers and they can be pretty sensitive, like me.
I’m not a big fan of the rounded screen corners for a couple reasons, but I’ll let that go because I envision a future where it doesn’t matter. You remember how in Battlestar Galactica the corners were clipped off all the paper? We’re on our way.
Having the screen extend to the very edge of the device on the other hand isn’t exactly ugly, but it’s ugly in spirit. The whole front of the phone is an interface now, which would be fine if it could tell when you were gripping the screen for leverage and not to do something with it. As it is, every side and corner has some kind of dedicated gesture that you have to be wary of activating. It’s so bad people have literally invented a thing that sticks out from the back of your phone so you can hold it that way. Popsockets wouldn’t be necessary if you could safely hold your phone the way you’d hold any other object that shape.
The back is ugly now, too. Man, is that camera bump bad. Bump is really the wrong word. It looks like the iPhone design team took a field trip to a maritime history museum, saw the deep sea diving helmets, and thought, Boom. That’s what we need. Portholes. To make our phone look like it could descend to 4,000 fathoms. Those helmets are actually really cool looking when they’re big and made of strong, weathered brass. Not on a thin, fragile piece of electronics. Here it’s just a huge, chunky combination of soft squares and weirdly arranged circles — five of them! — that completely take over the otherwise featureless rear side of the phone.
The back of the SE is designed to mirror the front, with a corresponding top and bottom “bezel.” In the best looking SE (mine) the black top bezel almost completely hides the existence of the camera (unfortunately there’s a visible flash unit); it makes the object more like an unbroken solid, its picture-taking abilities more magical. The camera is completely flush with the surface of the back, which is itself completely flush except for texture changes.
The back of the iPhone 11 Pro has a broad plain, upon which sits the slightly higher plateau of the camera assembly. Above that rise the three different little camera volcanoes, and above each of those the little calderas of the lenses. And below them the sunken well of the microphone. Five different height levels, producing a dozen different heights and edges! Admittedly the elevations aren’t so high, but still.
If it was a dedicated camera or another device that by design needed and used peaks and valleys for grip or eyes-free navigation, that would be one thing. But the iPhone is meant to be smooth, beautiful, have a nice handfeel. With this topographic map of Hawaii on the back? Have fun cleaning out the grime from in between the volcanoes, then knocking the edge of the lens against a table as you slide the phone into your hand.
Plus it’s ugly.
The sides of the phones aren’t as bad as the front and back, but we’ve lost a lot since the days of the SE. The geometric simplicity of the + and – buttons, the hard chamfered edge that gave you a sure grip, the black belts that boldly divided the sides into two strips and two bows. And amazingly, due to being made of actual metal, the more drops an SE survives, the cooler it looks.
The sides of the new iPhones look like bumpers from cheap model cars. They look like elongated jelly beans, with smaller jelly beans stuck on that you’re supposed to touch. Gross.
That’s probably enough about Apple. They forgot about good design a long time ago, but the latest phones were too ugly not to call out.
Samsung has a lot of the same problems as Apple. Everyone has to have an “edge to edge” display now, and the Galaxy S10 is no exception. But it doesn’t really go to the edge, does it? There’s a little bezel on the top and bottom, but the bottom one is a little bigger. I suppose it reveals the depths of my neurosis to say so, but that would never stop bugging me if I had one. If it was a lot bigger, like HTC’s old “chins,” I’d take it as a deliberate design feature, but just a little bigger? That just means they couldn’t make one small enough.
As for the display slipping over the edges, it’s cool looking in product photos, but I’ve never found it attractive in real life. What’s the point? And then from anywhere other than straight on, it makes it look more lopsided, or like you’re missing something on the far side.
Meanwhile it not only has bezels and sometime curves, but a hole punched out of the front. Oh my god!
Here’s the thing about a notch. When you realize as a phone designer that you’re going to have to take over a big piece of the front, you also look at what part of the screen it leaves untouched. In Apple’s case it’s the little horns on either side — great, you can at least put the status info there. There might have been a little bit left above the front camera and Face ID stuff, but what can you do with a handful of vertical pixels? Nothing. It’ll just be a distraction. Usually there was nothing interesting in the middle anyway. So you just cut it all out and go full notch.
Samsung on the other hand decided to put the camera in the top right, and keep a worthless little rind of screen all around it. What good is that part of the display now? It’s too small to show anything useful, yet the hole is too big to ignore while you’re watching full-screen content. If their aim was to make something smaller and yet even more disruptive than a notch, mission accomplished. It’s ugly on all the S10s, but the big wide notch-hole combo on the S10 5G 6.7″ phablet is the ugliest.
The decision to put all the rear cameras in a long window, like the press box at a hockey game, is a bold one. There’s really not much you can do to hide 3 giant lenses, a flash, and that other thing. Might as well put them front and center, set off with a black background and chrome rim straight out of 2009. Looks like something you’d get pointed at you at the airport. At least the scale matches the big wide “SAMSUNG” on the back. Bold — but ugly.
Google’s Pixel 4 isn’t as bad, but it’s got its share of ugly. I don’t need to spend too much time on it, though, because it’s a lot of the same, except in pumpkin orange for Halloween season. I like the color orange generally, but I’m not sure about this one. Looks like a seasonal special phone you pick up in a blister pack from the clearance shelf at Target, the week before Black Friday — two for $99, on some cut-rate MVNO. Maybe it’s better in person, but I’d be afraid some kid would take a bite out of my phone thinking it’s a creamsicle.
The lopsided bezels on the front are worse than the Samsung’s, but at least it looks deliberate. Like they wanted to imply their phone is smart so they gave it a really prominent forehead.
I will say that of the huge, ugly camera assemblies, the Pixel’s is the best. It’s more subtle, like being slapped in the face instead of kicked in the shins so hard you die. And the diamond pattern is more attractive for sure. Given the square (ish) base, I’m surprised someone on the team at Google had the rather unorthodox idea to rotate the cameras 45 degrees. Technically it produces more wasted space, but it looks better than four circles making a square inside a bigger, round square.
And it looks a hell of a lot better than three circles in a triangle, with two smaller circles just kind of hanging out there, inside a bigger, round square. That iPhone is ugly!
Despite early-stage virtual reality market and augmented reality market valuations softening in a transitional period, total global AR/VR startup valuations are now at $45 billion globally — include non-pure play AR/VR startups discussed below, and that amount exceeds $67 billion. More than $8 billion has been returned to investors through M&A already, with the remaining augmented and virtual reality startups carrying more than $36 billion valuations on paper. Only time will tell how much of this value gets realized for investors.
(Note: this analysis is of AR/VR startup valuations only, excluding internal investment by large corporates like Facebook . Again, this analysis is of valuation, not revenue.)
Selected AR/VR companies that have raised funding or generated significant revenue, plus selected corporates as of September 2019.
There is significant value concentration, with just 18 AR/VR pure plays accounting for half of the $45 billion global figure. Some of the large valuations are for Magic Leap (well over $6 billion), Niantic (nearly $4 billion), Oculus ($3 billion from exit to Facebook), Beijing Moviebook Technology ($1 billion+) and Lightricks ($1 billion). While there are unicorns, the market hasn’t seen an AR/VR decacorn yet.
Across all industries — not just AR/VR — around 60% of VC-backed startups fail, not 90% as often quoted. That doesn’t mean this many startups crash and burn, but that 60% of startups deliver less than 1x return on investment (ROI) to investors (i.e. investors get less back than they put in). To better understand what’s happening in AR/VR, let’s analyze the thousands of startup valuations in Digi-Capital’s AR/VR Analytics Platform to see where the smart money is by sector, stage and country.
Free charts do not include numbers, axes and data from subscriber version, with underlying hard data sourced directly from companies and reliable secondary sources. Methodology in Digi-Capital’s companion Augmented/Virtual Reality Report Q4 2019
A rising tide lifts all boats, while an ebb tide reveals the rocks beneath the waves. Similarly, the AR/VR industry sectors in which startups operate have a big impact on how they deliver value. Across the 30+ AR/VR sectors that Digi-Capital tracks, some sectors appear to be more equal than others.
Core AR/VR tech startups have delivered the most value to date, with “picks and shovels” businesses supporting the entire market while avoiding customer risk in any one sector. The largest valuations are for core tech companies that operate across either augmented reality and computer vision markets (particularly in China), or games and AR/VR markets. These startups are not AR/VR pure plays, showing how revenue diversification can be highly valuable in early stage markets.
Smartglasses make up the next AR/VR sector in terms of valuation, with around two-thirds of that locked up in smartglasses platform company Magic Leap (again, this analysis is of startups only, excluding internal corporate investment like Microsoft mixed reality).
VR headsets come in at number three, due to Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus back in 2014. While that deal was arguably the catalyst for the current wave of AR/VR, other VR headset startups haven’t delivered similar levels of value to investors yet.
AR/VR games follow, with startup valuations dominated by Pokémon Go developer Niantic and smaller exits like Osmo. AR/VR photo/video is next, with a large chunk of that value having been realized for investors through exits such as Shenzhen Lianmeng Technology, Replay Technology and Magic Pony Technology. There are also ongoing startups like Goldman Sachs-backed Lightricks.
The long tail of 25 other AR/VR market sectors each make up a decreasing proportion of remaining startup valuations today. There are individual later-stage startups such as Beijing Moviebook Technology in AR/VR categories like social, but these are in the minority today (Note: this does not mean there isn’t significant value across remaining sectors or companies within them, but that value has not been quantified by exit value or investment round valuations yet).
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
The highest valuations on paper tend to be in later-stage startups for most tech markets, so it’s no surprise that companies at Series D and Series C stage in China and the USA make up around 45% of valuations in today’s AR/VR market. In terms of realized returns to investors, M&A has delivered over 12% of total global value. While the $3 billion Oculus exit to Facebook back in 2014 stands out, there have been a significant number of exits over the $100 million mark since that time.
When looking at all the different investment stages from Angel through to Series F, their valuation order is slightly jumbled. Series B, A, E and F (in that order) are a similar order of magnitude, followed by Seed, Pre-Seed, Angel and Accelerator at a much lower level. This is a product of the number and valuation of individual startups in each of these stages.
Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform
The geographic distribution of value in AR/VR is extreme, with the USA and China accounting for more than 80% of all AR/VR startup valuations worldwide. These are followed at a much lower level by the UK, Israel, Switzerland and Canada, with a long tail of around 50 other countries. At the regional level, the running order is North America, Asia and Europe, with Latin America and MEA making up the balance. It’s worth noting that while a lot of stored valuation has been in US startups historically, Chinese AR/VR startups have raised far more money in recent years. However, Chinese VC investment dropped dramatically this year across sectors — not AR/VR specifically.
Augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality (XR) remain early stage, with both consumer and enterprise markets looking for an inflection point to help them truly scale. During a transitional period with many VC and corporate investors taking a wait-and-see approach, startups might need to focus on generating revenue and controlling costs rather than seeing VC funding rounds and exits delivering valuation/value increases. This could end up being a good thing in the long run, as the strongest AR/VR startups rise to the top. For those that do, there’s a lot more value to come.
A lung condition apparently caused by vaping has been reported in every state but Alaska, the CDC has announced. The total number of suspected and confirmed cases has risen to 1,479, and at least 33 people have died as a result of the affliction.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) updates these numbers regularly and provides news on its progress in characterizing the condition, in which the only reliable shared factor is using vaping devices. More victims report using THC products than nicotine, but no specific chemical or mechanism has been proposed as the cause.
At the outset it appeared that the problem might have been rooted in a bad batch of unofficial vape cartridges tinged with some toxic chemical — and indeed the CDC has warned against buying vaping materials from any untrustworthy sources. But the scale of the problem has continuously grown and is now clearly nationwide, not local.
The demographics skew male (70 percent of victims) and younger: 79 percent are under 35, with a median of 23 (though for deaths the median is 44). 78 percent reported using THC products, while only 10 percent reported only using nicotine.
Reported victims are concentrated in Illinois and California, in both of which over a hundred cases have been reported, but that should not be taken as an indicator that states with fewer cases, like Kentucky and Oregon, are immune — they may simply be late to report. Likewise for U.S. territories, where only the Virgin Islands have reported cases — Puerto Rico and others are likely to be equally at risk.
If you use a vaping device and are experiencing shortness of breath or chest pain (though other symptoms are also associated), you should probably check with your doctor. In the meantime the CDC has recommended ceasing all use of vaping products, though as many have pointed out that may end up pushing some users back to cigarettes. Angry about that? Direct it at the vaping companies, which promoted their products as smoking cessation tools without adequate testing.
The CDC and FDA, along with state and municipal health authorities and partners, are working on determining the cause and any potential treatments of the “lung injury associated with e-cigarette use,” as they call it. Tests and sampling efforts are underway — efforts that probably should have been done before these products were allowed on the market.
You can keep up with the latest stats at the CDC’s dedicated page.
The fact that Nvidia is updating its Shield TV hardware has already been telegraphed via an FCC filing, but a leak earlier today paints much more of a detailed picture. An Amazon listing for a new Nvidia Shield Pro set-top streaming device went live briefly before being taken down, showing a familiar hardware design and a new remote control and listing some of the forthcoming feature updates new to this generation of hardware.
The listing, captured by the eagle-eyed Android TV Rumors and shared via Twitter, includes a $199.99 price point, specs that include 3GB of RAM, 2x USB ports, a new Nvidia Tegra X1+ chip and 16GB of on-board storage. In addition to the price, the Amazon listing had a release date for the new hardware of October 28.
If this Amazon page is accurate (and it looks indeed like an official product page that one would expect from Nvidia), the new Shield TV’s processor will be “up to 25% faster than the previous generation,” and will offer “next-generation AI upscaling” for improving the quality of HD video on 4K-capable displays.
It’ll offer support for Dolby Vision HDR, plus surround sound with Dolby Atmos support, and provide “the most 4K HDR content of any streaming media player.” There’s also built-in Google Assistant support, which was offered on the existing hardware, and it’ll work with Alexa for hands-free control.
The feature photos for the listing show a new remote control, which has a pyramid-like design, as well as a lot more dedicated buttons on the face. There’s backlighting, and an IR blaster for TV control, as well as a “built-in lost remote locator” according to the now-removed Amazon page.
This Amazon page certainly paints a comprehensive picture of what to expect, and it looks like a compelling update to be sure. The listing is gone now, however, so stay tuned to find out if this is indeed the real thing, and if this updated streamer will indeed be available soon.
UPDATE: Yet another Nvidia leak followed the first, this time through retailer Newegg (via The Verge). This is different, however, and features a Shield TV device (no “Pro” in the name) that has almost all the same specs, but a much smaller design that includes a microSD card, and seems to have half the amount of on-board storage (8GB versus 16GB) and a retail price of around $150.
Logitech recently introduced a new mouse and keyboard, the MX Master 3 ($99.99) and MX Keys ($99.99) respectively. Both devices borrow a lot from other, older hardware in Logitech’s lineup — but they build on what the company has gotten really right with input devices, and add some great new features to make these easily the best option out there when it comes to this category of peripherals.
This new keyboard from Logitech inherits a lot from the company’s previous top-of-the-line keyboard aimed at creatives, the Logitech Craft keyboard. It looks and feels a lot like the premium Craft — minus the dial that Logitech placed at the top of that keyboard, which worked with companion software to offer a variety of different controls for a number of different applications.
The Craft’s dial was always a bit of a curiosity, and while probably extremely useful for certain creative workflows, where having a tactile dial control makes a lot of sense (for scrubbing a video timeline during editing, for instance), in general the average user probably isn’t going to need or use it much.
The MX Keys doesn’t have the Craft’s dial, and it takes up less space on your desk as a result. It also costs $70 less than the Craft, which is probably something most people would rather have than the unique controller. The MX Keys still have excellent key travel and typing feel, like its bigger sibling, and it also has smart backlighting that turns on automatically when your hand approaches the keys — and which you can adjust or turn off to suit your preference (and extend battery life).
MX Keys has a built-in battery that charges via USB-C, and provides up to 10 days of use on a full charge when using the backlight, or up to five months if you disable the backlight entirely. For connectivity, you get both Bluetooth and Logitech’s USB receiver, which also can connect to other Logitech devices like the MX Master series of mice.
The keyboard can connect to up to three devices at once, with dedicated buttons to switch between them. It supports Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS out of the box, and has multi-marked keys to make it easier to transition between operating systems. Plus, when you’re using the MX Keys in tandem with the MX Master 3 or other Logitech mice that support its Flow software, you can transition seamlessly between computers and even operating systems, for doing things like copying and pasting files.
AT $99.99, the MX Keys feels like an incredible value, as it offers very premium-feeling hardware in an attractive package, with a suite of features that’s hard to match in a keyboard from anyone else — including first-party peripherals from Microsoft and Apple .
When it comes to mice, there are few companies that can match Logitech’s reputation or record. The MX Master series in particular has won plenty of fans — and for good reason.
The MX Master 3 doesn’t re-invent the wheel — except that it literally does, in the case of the scroll wheel. Logitech has introduced a new-school wheel with “MagSpeed” technology that switches automatically between fluid scrolling and more fine-grained, pixel-precise control. The company claims the new design is 90% faster and 87% more precise than its previous scroll wheel, which is pretty much an impossible claim to verify through standard use. That said, it does feel like a better overall scrolling experience, and the claim that it’s now “ultra quiet” is easy to confirm.
Logitech has also tweaked the shape of the mouse, with a new silhouette it says is better suited to matching the shape of your palm. That new shape is complimented with a new thumb scroll wheel, which has always been a stellar feature of the Master series and which, again, does feel better in actual use, though it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why. Regardless, it feels better than the Master 2S, and that’s all that really matters.
In terms of tracking, Logitech’s Darkfield technology is here to provide effective tracking on virtually all surfaces. It tracks at 4,000 DPI, which is industry-leading for accuracy, and you can adjust sensitivity, scroll direction and other features in Logitech’s desktop software. The MX Master 3 also supports up to three devices at once, and works with Flow to copy and past between different operating systems.
One of the most noteworthy changes on the MX Master 3 is that it gains USB-C for charging, replacing Micro USB, which is fantastic news for owners of modern Macs who want to simplify their cable lives and just stick with one standard where possible. Because that matches up with the USB-C used on the MX Keys, that means you can just use one cable for charging both when needed. The MX Master 3 gets up to 70 days on a full charge, and you can gain three hours of use from a fully exhausted battery with just one minute of charging.
Logitech has long been a leader in keyboard and mice for very good reason, and the company’s ability to iterate on its existing successes with improvements that are smart and make sense is impressive. The MX Keys is probably the best keyboard within its price range that you can get right now — and better than a lot of more premium-priced hardware. The MX Master 3 is without a doubt the only mouse I’d recommend for most people, especially now that it offers USB-C charging alongside its terrific feature set. Combined, they’re a powerful desktop pair for work, creative and general use.
As handset makers continue to work on ways of making smartphones more streamlined and sleek, while at the same time introducing new features that will get people buying more devices, a startup that is pioneering something called “software-defined” surfaces — essentially, using ultrasound and AI to turn any kind of material, and any kind of surface, into one that will respond to gestures, touch and other forces — is setting out its stall to help them and other hardware makers change up the game.
Sentons, the startup out of Silicon Valley that is building software-defined surface technology, is today announcing the launch of SurfaceWave, a processor and accompanying gesture engine that can be used in smartphones and other hardware to create virtual wheels and buttons to control and navigate apps and features on the devices themselves. The SurfaceWave processor and engine are available to “any mobile manufacturer.”
Before this, Sentons had already inked direct deals to test market interest in its technology. There were already three smartphones released — two of which were only sold in Asia (models and customer names undisclosed by Sentons) and one of which is made by Asus in partnership with Tencent, the Republic of Gamers phone (the Air Triggers are powered by Sentons). Jess Lee, the company’s CEO, told me in an interview that there are another 10-12 devices “in process” right now due to be released in coming cycles. He would not comment on whether his former employer is one of them.
Sentons has been around since 2011, but very much under the radar until this year, when it announced that Lee — who had been at Apple, after his previous company, the cutting-edge imaging startup InVisage, was acquired by the iPhone maker — was coming on as CEO.
The company has quietly raised about $35 million from two investors; NEA and Lee confirmed to me that it’s currently raising another, probably larger, round. (Given the company’s partnership with Tencent and Asus, those are two companies I would think are candidates as strategic investors.)
Sentons’ core idea is focused around sound — specifically ultra sound.
Its system is based around a processor that emits ultrasonic “pings” (similar to sonar array, the company says, which is used for example on submarines to navigate and communicate) to detect physical movement and force on the surface of an object. The company says that this technique is much more sophisticated than capacitive touch that has been used on smartphones up to now, because combined with Sentons’ algorithms it can measure force and intent as well as touch.
Combined with the processor that emits the pings and houses the gesture engine, Sentons also uses “sensor modules” around the perimeter of a device to detect when those pings are interrupted. The system trains itself and can adjust both to temporal “buttons” and also other unintended things like when a screen cracks and your gestures move over to a different area of the phone.
Gaming — the main use case for Asus’s ROG phone — is an obvious category ripe for software-defined surfaces. The medium always strives for more immersive experiences, and as more games are either natively made for phones, or ported there because of the popularity of mobile gaming, handset makers and publishers are always trying to come up with ways to enhance what is, ultimately, very limited real estate (even with larger screens). Using any and all parts of a device to experience motion and other physical responses, and to control the game, is a natural fit for what Sentons has built.
But the bigger picture and longer-term goal is to apply Sentons’ technology for other uses on devices — photography and building enhanced camera tools is one obvious example — and on other “hardware,” like connected cars, clothes and even the human body, as Sentons’ technology can also work on and through human tissue.
“Every surface is an opportunity,” Lee said, noting that conversations around health and medical technology are still very early, while other areas like wearables and automotive are seeing “engagement” already. “In the cabin of a vehicle, you have a wealth of tactile materials, whether it’s leather dashboards or metal buttons, and all of those are extremely interesting to us,” he added.
At the same time, the more immediate opportunity for Sentons is the mobile industry.
Smartphone sales have slowed down, and for some vendors declined, in recent years; and while some of that might have to do with premium device prices continuing to climb, and much higher smartphone penetration globally, some have laid the blame in part on a lack of innovation. Specifically, newer phones are just not providing enough “must have” new features to merit making a purchase of a new device if you already have one.
You could argue that making a technology like this widely available and open to all comers might make those who are trying to make their devices stand out with special features less inclined to jump on the bandwagon.
“Yes, you could say there is more value in scarcity, an approach we took in the last company,” Lee said, referring to InVisage and how very under the radar it was before being snapped up by Apple.
However, he thinks a different approach is needed here. “Whether we launched this platform to everyone or not, the gates have opened, the piñata has broken, and we see a lot more opportunities and want to go for them,” he said.
“You can call it a multi-pronged approach,” he continued, “but ensuring the adoption of software-defined interactions [by trying to work with as many companies as possible] gets the technology or use out there quickly.” He noted that when a new gesture is introduced on devices, it can take time for the world to absorb it, “and we are positive there will be followers, perhaps with different technology, that will compete with us, so a broad launch is what we are going for.”
The tech world has a lot to offer those with disabilities, but it can be hard to get investors excited about the accessibility space. That’s why Microsoft’s AI for Accessibility grants are so welcome: equity-free Azure credits and cash for companies looking to adapt AI to the needs of those with disabilities. The company just announced ten more, including education for the blind startup ObjectiveEd.
The grant program was started a while back with a $5 million, 5-year mission to pump a little money into deserving startups and projects — and get them familiar with Microsoft’s cloud infrastructure, of course.
Applications are perennially accepted, and “anybody who wants to explore the value of AI and machine learning for people with disabilities is welcome to apply,” said Microsoft’s Mary Bellard. As long as they have “great ideas and roots in the disability community.”
Among the grantees this time around is ObjectiveEd, which I wrote about earlier this year. The company is working on an iPad-based elementary school curriculum for blind and low-vision students that’s also accessible to sighted kids and easy for teachers to deploy.
Part of that, as you might guess, is braille. But there aren’t nearly enough teachers capable of teaching braille as students who need to learn it, and the most common technique is very hands-on: a student reads braille (on a hardware braille display) out loud and a teacher corrects them. Depending on whether a student has access to the expensive braille display and a suitable tutor at home, that can mean as little as an hour a week dedicated to these crucial lessons.
A refreshable braille display for use with apps like ObjectiveEd’s.
“We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could send a sentence to the braille display, have the student speak the words out loud, then have Microsoft’s Azure Services translate that to text and compare that to the braille display, then correct the student if necessary and move on. All within the context of a game, to make it fun,” said ObjectiveEd founder Marty Schultz.
And that’s just what the company’s next app does. Speech-to-text accuracy is high enough now that it can be used for a variety of educational and accessibility purposes, so all it will take for a student to get some extra time in on their braille lessons is an iPad and braille display — admittedly more than a thousand dollars worth of hardware, but no ever one said being blind was cheap.
Braille literacy is dropping, and, I suggested, no surprise there: With pervasive and effective audio interfaces, audio books, and screen readers, there are fewer times when blind and low-vision people truly need braille. But as Schulz and Bellard both pointed out, it’s great to be able to rely on audio for media consumption, but for serious engagement with the written word and many educational purposes, braille is either necessary or a very useful alternative to speech.
Both Schultz and Bellard noted that they are not trying to replace teachers at all — “Teachers teach, we help kids practice,” Schultz said. “We’re not experts in teaching, but we can follow their advice to make these tools useful to students.”
There are ten other grantees in this round of Microsoft’s program, covering a wide variety of approaches and technologies. I like the SmartEar, for instance, which listens for things like doorbells or alarms and alerts deaf people of them via their smartphone.
And City University of London has a great idea in personalizing object recognition. It’s pretty straightforward for a computer vision system to recognize a mug or keychain on a table. But for a blind person it’s more useful if a system can identify their mug or keychain, and then perhaps say, it’s on the brown table left of the door, or what have you.
Here are the ten grantees besides ObjectiveEd (descriptions provided by Microsoft, as I wasn’t able to investigate each one, but may in the future):
The grants will take the form of Azure credits and/or cash for immediate needs like user studies and keeping the lights on. If you’re working on something you think might be a good match for this program, you can apply for it right here.
The FrankOne coffee maker, fresh off a successful crowdfunding campaign, is now available for purchase, and I got a chance to test out one of the first run of these funky little gadgets. While it won’t replace my normal pourover or a larger coffee machine, it’s a clever, quick and portable way to make a cup.
Designer Eduardo Umaña pitched me the device a little more than a year ago, and I was taken by the possibility of vacuum brewing — and the fact that, amazingly, until now no one from Colombia had made a coffee maker (it’s named after Frank de Paula Santander, who kicked off the coffee trade there). But would the thing actually work?
In a word, yes. I’ve tested the FrankOne a few times in my home, and, while I have a couple reservations, it’s a coffee making device that I can see myself actually using in a number of circumstances.
The device works quite simply. Ground coffee goes in the top, and then you pour in the hot (not boiling!) water and stir it a bit — 30-50 seconds later, depending on how you like it, you hit the button and a pump draws the liquid down through a mesh filter and into the carafe below. It’s quick and almost impossible to mess up.
The resulting coffee is good — a little bit light, I’d say, but you can adjust the body with the size of the grounds and the steeping time. I tend to find a small amount of sediment at the bottom, but less than you’d get in a cup of French press.
Because it’s battery powered (it should last for ~200 cups and is easily recharged) and totally waterproof, cleaning it is a snap, especially if you have a garbage disposal. Just dump it and rinse it, give it a quick wipe and it’s good to go. It gets a bit more fussy if you don’t have a disposal, but what doesn’t?
I can see this being a nice way to quickly and simply make coffee while camping — I usually do a French press, but sometimes drip, and both have their qualities and limitations. The FrankOne would be for making a single cup when I don’t want to have to stand by the pourover cone or deal with disassembling the French press for cleaning.
It’s also, I am told by Umaña, great for cold brew. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t really like cold brew, but I know many do, and Umaña promises the FrankOne works wonders in a very short time — four minutes rather than an hour. I haven’t tested that, because cold brew tastes like bitter chocolate milk to me, but I sincerely doubt he would mention it as many times as he did if it didn’t do what he said.
There are, I feel, three downsides. First, you’re pretty much stuck with using the included glass carafe, because the device has to create a seal around the edge with its silicone ring. It didn’t fit in my biggest mug, but you might find an alternative should the carafe (which I have no complaints about — it’s attractive and sturdy) crack or get lost.
Second, it doesn’t produce a lot of coffee. The top line as indicated in the reservoir is probably about 10-12 ounces — about the size of a “tall” at a coffee shop. Usually that’s a perfect amount for me, but it definitely means this is a single-serving device, not for making a pot to share.
And third, for the amount of coffee it produces, I feel like it uses a lot of grounds. Not a crazy amount, but maybe 1.5-2x what goes into my little Kalita dripper — which is admittedly pretty economical. But it’s just something to be aware of. Maybe I’m using too much, though.
I reviewed the Geesaa a little while back, and while it’s a cool device, it was really complex and takes up a lot of space. If I wanted to give it to a friend I’d have to make them download the app, teach them about what I’d learned worked best, share my “recipes” and so on. There was basically a whole social network attached to that thing.
This is much, much easier to use — and compact, to boot. It’s a good alternative to classic methods that doesn’t try to be more than a coffee maker. At $120 it’s a bit expensive, but hey, maybe you spend that on coffee in a month.
And by the way, you can use the discount code “TC” at checkout to get 10% off — this isn’t a paid post or anything, Umaña’s just a nice guy!
We are still waiting to see if Apple officially unveils a new spin on the business of tracking tags — the small devices that you put on ‘dumb’ objects like keys, wallets and other objects you have a habit of losing or leaving places to be able to pinpoint their location — but in the meantime, Tile, one of the pioneers of this technology, is upping its game today with its least-obtrusive device yet: a sticker.
Today, the startup unveiled Sticker, a new, waterproof tracking device that it created in collaboration with 3M, which uses adhesive to attach to objects to be able to track them by Bluetooth to a range of 150 feet, or further using Tile’s community network by way of its app.
Alongside this, the startup is also announcing enhancements to its existing range of Tile tracking devices. The Slim is now in the shape and thinness of a credit card, designed for wallets and other places where you might insert card-shaped information (for example, in luggage ID compartments), and its range has been extended to 200 feet with a battery life of three years.
And the Mate and Pro tags — the square-shaped fobs that Tile is most famous for — are also getting their ranges extended to 400 feet.
All four models are going on sale as of today at a range of prices: Tile Stickers starting from $39.99 for a 2-pack, $59.99 for a 4-pack; Tile Slim at $29.99; Tile Mate at $24.99; and Tile Pro at $34.99. The message here is that Tile is continuing to increase its flexibility and use cases with these updates and new Sticker release.
“Over the years we’ve seen our customers use Tile for a variety of items,” said CJ Prober, Tile CEO, in a statement. “From wallets to remote controls, power tools to backpacks, our customers have shown us they want a Tile for everything. We’ve designed our new product line to empower the Tile community to find literally anything.”
The moves come on the heels of a competitive time for Tile. On the one hand, the business area that it identified early on has clearly caught the attention of a number of other companies, underscoring the opportunity. But the flip side of that is a lot of new competition in an area that is already crowded and has seen some high-profile failures.
On the launch front, in addition to Apple’s reported interest in launching a competitor, earlier this year Verizon (which also owns TechCrunch) also launched its own IoT play in this area, and Google has also created tighter integrations for people to use its Home devices and Android platform to locate objects. At the same time, some of Tile’s earliest competitors have been heavily challenged to make a go of it: Trackr last year rebranded to Adero and just weeks later laid off nearly half its staff, a decline that we’ve heard has not been halted in the months since.
For its part, Tile last summer raised $45 million last summer on the heels of some interesting strategic partnerships with the likes of Comcast — which, similar to Verizon, Apple, and Google, sees an opportunity in doing more with item tracking as part of a bigger end-to-end connected home play. The feeling is that Tile raised the money to help leverage its bigger market profile in the hopes of staving off this wave of competitors and the many others that already existed before that.
Indeed, if you search on something like Amazon for Bluetooth tracking stickers, you’ll see that this is not exactly a new thing, and there are a number of alternatives out there (one of the big reasons why this market has been a challenging one).
One big differentiator with Tile has been the wider network and economies of scale that it promises to its users: once you are out of the Bluetooth range of your tag, you are able to track the object by way of its app and the wider Tile community, which forms a Bluetooth-based P2P network of sorts to be able to locate items. Of course, the premise of this is that enough people are using Tiles to begin with to create the locating network in the first place, which is one reason why forming collaborations with the likes of Google and Comcast can be very critical longer term to Tile’s success.
Sony announced a successor to its popular A9 mirrorless interchangeable lens full-frame camera today. The A9 II carries over some of the specs and stats of its predecessor, like the 24.2 megapixel stacked imaging sensor, but adds an upgraded BIONZ X image processor, which powers the much more powerful autofocus capabilities in the new camera.
Sony debuted a number of improved AF features on its A6400 APS-C camera earlier this year, and its brought those and more to the A7R IV it launched at the beginning of September, and on this new iteration of the A9. There’s real-time eye autofocus for both people and animals, with right and left eye selection for animals, along with real-time eye AF during movie shooting, and the company’s real-time object tracking, which basically sticks your focus point to whatever you want to point it at remarkably well, based on my experience with it in other modern Sony cameras.
Other new features to the camera include a body with upgraded dust and moisture resistance, which Sony also brought to the A7R IV, as well as a beefier design with a deeper grip that should be a welcome change in terms of ergonomics, especially for photographers with bigger hands. And while it uses the same battery, it also is rated for slightly more shots.
Sony also brought its new digital audio interface to the hotshoe on the camera, again something it first introduced in the A7R IV. That will let you use their new shotgun mic and XLR adapter to pipe audio from external sources into the camera when recording video.
This camera is really intended to meet the needs of photographers who need high-speed capture capabilities, and Sony has bumped things up there, too. You get blackout-free, silent continuous shooting at up to 20fps, with a buffer size capable of capturing 361 JPGs or 239 of Sony’s ‘compressed’ RAW files in one continuous go – it can also calculate AF and auto exposure at up to 60 times per second, so each of these should be in focus and properly exposed even in changing lighting conditions.
The new A9 II goes on sale in November, and will be priced at $4,500 for the body only.
Many expectant mothers are told that breastfeeding will come naturally, but it is often a fraught and confusing experience, especially during the first few weeks after birth. Parents often worry about if their babies are getting enough nutrition or if they are producing enough milk. MyMilk Labs wants to give nursing mothers more information with Mylee, a sensor that scans a few drops of breast milk to get information about its composition and connects to a mobile app. The Israel-based company presented today at Disrupt Battlefield as one of two wild card competitors picked from Startup Alley.
The Mylee launched at Disrupt with a pre-order price of $249 (its regular retail price is $349). Based in Israel, MyMilk Labs was founded in 2014 by Ravid Schecter and Sharon Haramati, who met while working on PhDs in neuroimmunology and neurobiology, respectively, at the Weizmann Institute of Science.
Breast milk changes in the first days and weeks after birth, progressing from colostrum to mature milk. Mylee scans the electrochemical properties of milk and then correlates that to data points based on MyMilk Labs’ research to calculate where the sample is on the continuum, then tells mothers if their milk is “delayed” or “advanced,” relative to the time that has passed since they gave birth.
The device’s first version is currently in a beta pilot with lactation consultants who have used them to scan milk samples from 500 mothers.
MyMilk Labs already has consumer breast milk testing kits that enable mothers to provide a small sample at home that is then sent to MyMilk Labs’ laboratories for analysis. One is a nutritional panel that gives information about the milk’s levels of vitamins B6, B12 and A, calories and fat percentage, along with dietary recommendations for the mother. Another panel focuses on what is causing breast pain, a frequent complaint for nursing mothers. It tests for bacterial or fungal infections and gives antibiotic suggestions depending on what strains are detected.
Though some doctors believe testing kits are unnecessary for the majority of nursing mothers, there is demand for more knowledge about breastfeeding, as demonstrated by the line-up of breast milk testing kits from MyMilk Labs and competitors like Lactation Labs, Everly Well and Happy Vitals. Haramati said on stage that MyMilk Labs plans to eventually transfer some of the tests’ capabilities to the Mylee.
Clean drinking water is one of the most urgent needs in developing countries and disaster-stricken areas, but safety tests can take days — during which tainted water can infect thousands. OmniVis aims to make detection of cholera and other pathogens as quick, simple, and cheap as a pregnancy test. Its smartphone-powered detection platform could save thousands of lives.
OmniVis, which presented on stage at Disrupt SF’s Startup Battlefield today, emerged from research conducted at Purdue University, where CEO and co-founder Katherine Clayton completed her doctorate. She and her advisors were working on the question of using microfluidics, basically very close inspection of the behavior of fluids, to detect cholera bacteria in water.
In case you forgot your Infectious Diseases 101, cholera is a bacterium that thrives in water polluted by fecal matter. When ingested it multiplies and causes severe diarrhea and dehydration — which as you might imagine can become a life-threatening problem if a community is short on clean water.
While normally uncommon, there was a huge cholera outbreak in Haiti in 2010 following a major earthquake there; 665,000 people were infected and more than 8,000 people died. It was this humanitarian disaster that prompted Clayton to look into how such an event might have been prevented. She’s been working on what would become the OmniVis platform since 2013.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she told me.
That’s not uncommon for academic spin-offs with valuable IP but zero product experience. Moving from lab bench to field-ready hardware has taken years of hard work. But the resulting device could upend a costly and slow water testing process that leaves communities at risk in crucial moments.
Existing water testing is generally done at a central location, a lab run by a university, utility, or the local government. It depends on the region — and of course if there has been a disaster, it may not even be functional. Going from sample collection to results may take several days, and it isn’t cheap, either. Clayton estimated it at $100 per sample.
“But that’s just supplies and labor,” she said. “Not the cost of the lab, the PCR machines — which are tens of thousands of dollars — the pipettes, the dyes, the disposables and consumables, the training… not to mention in a lot of areas you’re not just going to walk by a nice central laboratory. Some countries may only have one or two testing facilities.”
Another option is disposable rapid diagnostic tests, more like pregnancy tests than anything, meant for use with stool samples — but their accuracy is low even then, and with cholera diluted in a water source you may as well be flipping a coin.
Such was the state of testing when Haiti had its outbreak and Clayton began looking into it. In 2013 they began investigating microfluidics as a method for detection. It works by exposing a set of chemical reagents, or “primers,” to a water sample. These primers are engineered to bind to bits of cholera’s DNA and then when heated, replicate it — a process called DNA amplification.
The more cholera is present, the more DNA will be available to amplify, and it multiplies to the point where it affects the viscosity of the water — a factor that can be tested by the device. Interestingly, the device in no way “analyzes” the DNA or identifies it; all it does is measure how viscous the water is, which is a highly reliable proxy for how much cholera was present in it to begin with.
It turns out this method is both quick and accurate: In 30 minutes it gives as good or better results as central testing.
“The worst thing we could ever do is say there’s no cholera in the water when there is,” Clayton said. So they’re focused on robust test results over all else. But ultimately the device still had to go from the lab to the real world. To that end the team conducted pilot tests in Haiti, where they worked with local NGOs and communities to get some direct feedback.
What they found was promising — but also resulted in major changes to the product. For one thing, they had to switch from iPhone to Android.
“People feel safer with Android than iPhone, which is considered a luxury item,” Clayton said. They also found that men and women operated the system equally well — the team is 84 percent women, she noted, and their design choices may have crept into the product the same as can happen on what is much more common, a male-dominated team. English and Svengali users likewise did fine. Interestingly, locals were baffled by roman numerals. “That was surprising,” she said, but illustrative of how even the smallest assumptions need to be questioned.
“I love user-centered design,” Clayton said. “I think it’s the only way to get engineering to work. UX and graphic design is not my or my colleagues’ specialty, so we had to get some outside contractors for that.”
The production device, which OmniVis hopes to ship in about six months, should cost around a thousand dollars — but at about $10 per test it will pay for itself quickly, especially considering how much easily it can be deployed and used. A half-hour turnaround on a test that can be performed by an aid worker with an hour’s training is an invaluable tool in a disaster-stricken area where infrastructure like mail and roads may be in disorder.
These devices, by the way, are not bought and paid for by the people who drink the water. Like the water-testing labs, they’ll be owned and operated by NGOs, governments and others with budgets for this kind of thing.
Cholera is the first pathogen the company is aiming to detect, but the system can just as easily detect several others simply by using different disposable tests equipped with different primers. E. Coli could be next — with the proper testing, Clayton said. And others would follow. It’s not hard to imagine an OmniVis device being a must-have for any relief work where water needs to be tested.
Today at its special hardware event, Microsoft unveiled the new Surface Pro 7. The new Surface Pro finally brings USB-C to the convertible laptop category of Microsoft hardware, which will be a welcome addition for fans who’ve been waiting for the company to adopt this now-prevalent connection technology.
The latest generation Surface Pro starts at $749, preorders start today, and it’s available on October 22.
Like its predecessors, the Surface consists of a tablet component with a folding kickstand for adjustable angle viewing. There’s also a detachable keyboard cover accessory, and a Surface Pen stylus that allows for writing, drawing, note-taking and more.
The Surface Pro also features ‘studio mics,’ new microphone array builds into the new Surface Laptop as well.
“Studio mics are optimized for your voice their place perfectly tuned, so that we capture what’s coming from your mouth rather than all the background sounds around you,” said Robin Seiler, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Devices who presented the new device on stage at the event. They’ll also be used for Microsoft’s Your Phone app, which is a recently released Windows feature that connects your smartphone to your computer for calls, messaging and more.
Surface Pro is the most popular two-in-one on the market, according to Microsoft, with over 75% of Fortune 500 companies purchasing Surface devices, according to Seiler.
Microsoft emphasized the creative potential of the Surface Pro in a video featuring an artist named Connie using the Pen for digital painting, and Seiler showed off the productivity angle via a live demo of various features of Office on the two-in-one.
Can you never find a scooter to rent when you need one? Here’s a radical idea. Buy one. While Bird, Lime, Skip, Scoot, Uber, Lyft and more compete for on-demand micromobility, a new startup invented a vehicle worthy of ownership. The Unagi looks downright futuristic with its classy paint jobs, foldable body, LED screen, and built-in lights. The ride feels sturdy, strong, and responsive while being light enough at 24lbs to lug up subway stairs or the flights to your home.
That’s why Unagi has become a hit with musicians like Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, Halsey, Steve Aoki, and teen pop megastar Billie Eilish, who use the scooter to rip around the empty venues as they soundcheck before concerts. Paparazzi shots of those moments have spurred demand for the $990 dual motor and $840 single motor Unagis, with co-founder David Hyman telling me the startup can’t make them fast enough but it’s ramping up production.
To fuel the fervor for the scooter before it’s inevitably copied by cheap knock-offs, Unagi has raised a $3.15 million seed round led by Menlo Ventures. Building on its $750,000 in Kickstarter, angel, and founder-contributed funding, the cash will go to building out a distribution network and developing its next-gen scooter with a smoother ride but no more pounds.
“We felt Unagi’s focus on light weight and substantial powering in a beautifully designed package was the right approach for ownership” Menlo partner Shawn Carolan tells me. “This is what premium brands do – continue to reinvent the way we think about the world. This category of vehicle – personal, portable, and electric has enormous potential and we are still in the first inning of the game.”
The magic of the Unagi Model One is how it balances speed, battery, weight, price, and style so it works for most anything and everyone. That combination won it CNET‘s best all-around scooter award versus the hardcore but extremely heavy Boosted Rev, cheap but weak Swagtron, long-lasting but boring Ninebot, and speedy but scary Mercane.
The Unagi’s biggest flaw is the smoothness of the ride due to its harder airless wheels and narrow handlebars that can make gravelly roads precarious. The high-pitched beeeeeep of its horn is also so annoying that people are more likely to cover their ears than get out of your way, but Hyman promises his 12-person team will fix that.
Where Unagi truly excels is in its looks. The lithe curves of its polished carbon fiber frame are accented with candy paint jobs in matte black, white, grey, and blue. It ditches the bike handlebar vibe for something closer to space shuttle controls. And while many people scoff at scooter riders, I saw those smirks turn into curious awe as I flew by.
Hyman got the idea for a premium scooter you own after a rental turned into a melty mess. He’d taken an on-demand scooter to the grocer on a hot day, picked up some ice cream, and emerged to find his ride snatched by another user. He hustled to another nearby but someone else got their first. He walked home dripping sugar everywhere wondering “Why am I messing around with rentals i just want to own one?”
He bought a generic scooter off Alibaba, and despite being janky straight out of the box “it made me feel like I was a super hero with this magic carpet”. But he wanted something better.
Previously the CEO of audio fingerprinting giant Gracenote and then Beats Music before it sold to Apple, Hyman is known for his obsession with hi-fi speaker systems. So after touring Chinese scooter factories and still being unsatisfied, he partnered with a group of inventors called QMY who’d prototyped a slick vehicle they called the Swan. Hyman funded it to production, brought the team in house, and now they’re selling Unagis as fast as they can.
Now the startup wants to double-down on selling to more petite riders who could never carry the 46lb Boosted Rev out of a train station. But the clock is ticking before copycats with similar silhouettes but inferior insides spring up. Meanwhile, Unagi must keep safety top-of-mind to avoid any disastrous crashes hurting customers and its brand. There are also plenty of better funded mobility giants that could barge into the space if Unagi can’t build a lead.
Scooters are part of a powerful wave of new technologies that actually sell us back our time. When a 20-minute walk becomes a 4-minute scoot, you gain something priceless. Urban landscapes unfold beneath their wheels as you explore new neighborhoods or parts of parks. I was once a diehard electric skateboarder until a crash on a Boosted Board shattered my ankle. Unagi is the first scooter that delivers that same gliding feeling of weightlessness and freedom but in a form-factor safe enough for most people to experience.
GoPro has released new versions of both its Hero line and its newer 360-degree ruggedized action cameras. The $399 GoPro Hero8 Black’s most significant change is that it gains a new body design that incorporates GoPro’s signature mounting system right into the case, so that you no longer need add-on frames to attach it to selfie sticks, suction mounts, body mounts and more.
The GoPro Hero8 Black shoots at resolutions between 1080p and 4K, and also gains HyperSmooth 2.0, the aptly named second-generation version of GoPro’s proprietary digital stabilization technology. The first version, which premiered on the GoPro Hero7, was hailed for its effectiveness, and the follow-up is apparently even more powerful — plus, it provides new adjustment options so you can tweak how aggressive it is.
GoPro’s proprietary variable speed recording mode TimeWarp also gets upgraded to 2.0, and there’s better on-board wind suppression for mic-free recording. The body changes mean that the lens is no longer removable, but GoPro is planning to release a new mounting system for filters soon to make up for this limitation.
On top of the new design, there’s a series of new aftermarket add-ons, which GoPro calls “Mods,” to provide add-on features. There’s a Media Mod ($79.99) that includes a built-in shotgun mic; a Display Mod ($79.99), which has a flip-up LCD viewfinder for vlogging; and a Light Mod ($49.99), which has a 200 lumen LED continuous video light source.
The other new camera, the GoPro MAX, is a $499 successor to the GoPro Fusion, and provides 360 capture. It’s designed to also produce great single lens, traditional wide-angle footage, and has its own version of HyperSmooth stabilization called Max HyperSmooth (which you know must be extreme because it’s called “Max”).
The MAX seems less oriented at 360 video and more at advanced content creators who want maximum editing flexibility and the ability to more easily vlog, as it also includes a front-facing display.
GoPro faces increased competition from legit sources in their home category, including competing devices from DJI and Insta360, but the slate of new upgrades here really do sound like quality, meaningful improvements versus the existing Hero7, and the new all-in-one body design should make it even more convenient for general use while out on the go.
Pre-orders are live now for the cameras, with shipping starting on October 15 for the GoPro Hero8, and shipments for the Max starting on October 24.
Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.
These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.
The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.
What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.
“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”
What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.
Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).
He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.
“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.
Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”
I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.
Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.
The Delta EcoFlow is a new battery generator available on Kickstarter with incredible claimed features. Most are true, some are not.
Device like the Delta offer incredible battery storage capacity. Designed for more than just recharging phones and tablets, these can run refrigerators, pumps, power tools and medical equipment. They’re great for emergencies, camping and general use where power is not available. Similar devices have been on the market for some years so I was eager to verify EcoFlow’s claims.
The EcoFlow Delta can recharge from a wall outlet to 80% in an hour. It’s amazing. The GoalZero Yeti battery of a similar size takes 25 hours. This capability means the Delta can be used and then reused more than competitors.
The device is currently on Kickstarter where it quickly acquired over $2 million from over 2,000 backers. The device’s features listed on the Kickstarter page are clear, but after testing a pre-production unit, I found several of these advertised capabilities and features misleading or false.
The Delta is the latest product from EcoFlow. The company’s founder, Eli Harris, says it’s “The world’s strongest battery generator.” I found the Delta to be a competent battery generator with similar capabilities to competitors but it’s hampered by loud fans.
In short, if you need a battery generator that can recharge much faster than others, the Delta is a great option. Otherwise, the GoalZero Yeti makes more sense for most people.
Battery generators are a safe and more portable option than their gas counterparts. There are no harmful fumes or fuel allowing them to be used indoors, nearer the appliances or tools. Most often (though not with the Delta) they’re silent, too, making them perfect for a camping or hunting companion.
In real-world operation, this quick recharge time could come in handy. Say, on a construction site or in an emergency incident where power is still available, but out of reach of an extension cord — situations where loud gas generators are generally used. While the Delta is louder than other battery generators, it is not as loud as a gas generator.
The Delta battery comes packaged with a warning that the battery must be fully charged before use. I generally ignore warnings, but I followed this one and immediately plugged it in. Instantly, fans whirled to life and the screen popped on displaying the current charge levels and how long it would take to get to 100%. The Delta was at 30% and would take 45 minutes to fully recharge. It worked as advertised and 45 minutes later the battery was at 100%.
Recharging the Delta battery was a noisy affair. The fans are loud and continue to run after the battery is fully charged. Compared to a GoalZero Yeti, this was a shock. The Yeti is silent where the Delta is not. I keep a Yeti 1400 in my basement, plugged in and ready to use. But with the Delta, even when the battery is fully charged, loud fans still run presumably to keep the unit cool. EcoFlow says the shelf life on the Delta is over a year where the GoalZero Yeti is six months. To me, I would rather have the battery constantly plugged into power so I know it’s ready to go when needed.
The Delta recharges without an AC power inverter (a power brick); it uses the same sort of cable as a desktop PC. The company says by passing through the inverter directly, the Delta can increase charging speed to more than 10 times the traditional AC to DC adapter cable. This also means it’s easier to replace a lost charging cable.
The Delta is much lighter than competing products and its design makes it easier to move. EcoFlow says it’s rugged, and it feels the part. Even my pre-production sample feels tough and ready to go to work. Large rubber pads keep the battery in place and the tough plastic feels more durable than competing products.
There are a handful of plugs and outlets around the device, including USB, USB-C and six AC outlets. It’s a lot and similar in capacity to large gas generators. Most battery generators have much fewer AC outlets, though I’ve often supplemented the capability with small power strips.
The Delta is currently on Kickstarter for pre-order and exceeded its goal. I fear a good amount of backers will be upset to learn several notable advertised features are false or misleading.
The Delta is not silent. Under operation, either recharging a cell phone or running a power tool, loud fans run on both sides of the battery. These fans run when recharging the battery, too — even when the battery is fully charged. The Kickstarter page and video lists throughout that the Delta produces no noise.
These fans detract from the appeal of the Delta battery. They’re loud. You have to raise your voice to speak over them. Because of these fans, I wouldn’t take the Delta camping or use it in the backyard for a quiet get-together. During power outage situations, I wouldn’t want to sleep near it. But I would use it for power tools — like EcoFlow does in one of its demo videos.
Only one of the four videos on the Kickstarter page allows potential owners to hear the Delta battery. The third video on the page shows the battery powering a hammer drill. Six seconds into the video, the drill stops running, and the battery’s fans are audible.
There are a handful of competing batteries that operate without noisy fans. I’ve taken GoalZero’s Yeti batteries camping and they’re great despite their heft. They’re truly silent and can still recharge from solar panels and car batteries. I’ve used battery generators from Jackery, too, and those are also silent.
I spoke with Ecoflow CEO and Founder Eli Harris during the run-up of this review. He was clear that Ecoflow’s main competitor is not other large batteries, but rather small gas generators available from Honda and others. And that makes a lot of sense. Those are the best selling generators available and widely used for emergency and convenience. These small generators are loud, and the Ecoflow Delta is quieter than those options while still offering most of the power capabilities.
When asked why the Kickstarter page is misleading, he said “that fallacy has never been called out” and he would check with his team about the use of “superlatives and blanket statements.” Three days later, the Kickstarter page still lists the false claims.
EcoFlow claims the Delta battery can run a variety of power tools, including drills, circular saws, power washers and welders. I found this capability hit or miss. Despite some tools being under the claimed amperage and wattage of the Delta battery, the battery wouldn’t power my small or large circular saw or power washer. EcoFlow also claims the battery can recharge a Tesla; it doesn’t recharge my Chevy Volt.
Many tools require extra power when starting up, and I found most of these surge requirements to exceed the capabilities of the Delta battery. This is the same with other batteries like the GoalZero Yeti. In fact, I couldn’t find one tool in my workshop that the Delta powered and the Yeti did not; they worked the same for me, and I have a lot of tools.
Don’t mistake what I’m saying. The EcoFlow Delta has impressive capabilities mainly around its recharge capabilities. This makes it an attractive option for the right use. It’s compact and solid. It has a lot of outlets and is easy to move. This could be a lifesaver in emergency situations where a person still has access to power.
The Delta has some downsides just like other battery generators. It doesn’t offer a dramatic increase in electrical output over competitors so don’t expect this battery to power larger devices. Don’t expect a silent operation, either. This massive battery is loud though, I admit, that’s a relative term. It’s louder than other battery generators but less loud than a gas generator.
I would rather have a silent battery generator that recharges slowly versus a noisy, fast-recharging battery. I use my battery generators camping and around the house when the power goes out. The Delta makes sense on a construction site or on the scene of a natural disaster. I just can’t get over the loud fans.
At least a dozen people have died of an acute lung condition related to vaping, and while officials aren’t ready to pin it on any one chemical or brand, they are warning that many of the patients reported buying THC cartridges from “informal sources” — which is to say off the street or online.
“The vast majority of patients received their products on the streets from friends or dealers,” said Dr. Jennifer Layden, chief epidemiologist for the Illinois Department of Health, in a press call today.
Unfortunately this also resulted in a huge variety of brand names and types of cartridges and devices. “Among all 86 patients in our study, 234 unique e-cigarette or vaping products across 87 different brands were reported,” Layden said. THC products were reported by more than three-quarters of those surveyed, with only 16% of patients saying they used only nicotine cartridges.
The most common brand name, which two-thirds of the patients surveyed reported using, was “Dank Vapes.” While testing of products with this brand name has not yet been carried out, it’s probably safest to avoid them for now. Studies have shown that even popular brands like Juul don’t know exactly what chemicals are produced when these substances are vaporized. And an NBC News-commissioned study showed that many off-brand cartridges contained pesticides that could form hydrogen cyanide when heated.
“We do not know yet what exactly is making people sick,” emphasized Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC. “For example, whether solvents or adulterants are leading to lung injury or whether cases stem from a single supplier or multiple ones. Because of the variety of chemicals that are present in e-cigarettes or vaping liquids and may be added to e-cigarettes or vaping liquid as well as the diversity of products in circulation, laboratory analysis may be complex, but these are ongoing.”
The CDC, FDA and individual states and cities have taken a variety of actions, banning vaping outright, restricting sales and so on. But in many places these sales were already illegal, or were conducted online in such a way that it is difficult to detect. And of course a great deal of the consumption of these products takes place at home or otherwise in private.
The worry, of course, is that by banning the use of vaping products, there is a risk of pushing smokers using them to quit back to cigarettes, which are obviously known to be extremely harmful. It’s certainly not ideal, but if certain vaping materials are causing immediate and serious harm to people, they shouldn’t be used at all, let alone as a smoking cessation product. In the meantime, proven (though perhaps less convenient) methods of quitting like nicotine gum and patches are still available.
The various medical authorities looking into this outbreak, which now affects more than 800 people, are being very cautious in identifying the cause, but are updating press regularly with new figures and any relevant information as the investigation proceeds.
Earlier this month, HTC co-founder Cher Wang stepped down from her role as CEO. In her place, former Orange EVP Yves Maitre has taken up the reins for the Taipei-based smartphone maker.
One of Maitre’s first acts as the head of HTC will be to join us at Disrupt in October. The interview — and his new role — comes at a tenuous time for HTC. The company has been harder hit than most by several years of stagnant smartphone sales.
In spite of a $1.1 billion deal in 2017 that gave Google access to most of the Taiwanese company’s R&D resources, the following year still saw massive layoffs. All the while, it has looked to emerging technologies like VR and blockchain as a potential way forward in an oversaturated market. In his first public interview, Maitre will discuss how HTC got here and what the company can and will do to help turn the ship around.
Maitre joins an incredible speaker lineup, which includes Steph Curry, Rachel Haurwitz from Caribou Bioscience, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zoox’s Aicha Evans. Still need tickets? You can pick those up right here.