FreshRSS

🔒
❌ About FreshRSS
There are new available articles, click to refresh the page.
Yesterday — August 5th 2020Your RSS feeds

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

By Brian Heater

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

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

Image Credits: Samsung

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Samsung

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

Image Credits: Samsung

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

Image Credits: Samsung

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

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 features a reinforced screen, upgraded hinge and larger front screen

By Brian Heater

Samsung promised five “power devices” for its virtually-only Unpacked event. We already know about the Note 20, Galaxy Watch 3, Tab S7 and Buds Live — so what’s left? We speculated based on an earlier news that the company would debuting a new foldable — the biggest question, however, is whether it would be a rehash of the recently announced Galaxy Z Flip 5G or something else entirely.

Turns out the company is releasing the sequel to its first foldable, the…troubled Galaxy Fold. After a false start or two, the company says it sold one million units of the innovative but overly fragile handset. Announced earlier this year, however, the clamshell-styled Flip was better received, and frankly the foldable Samsung ought to have released in the first place.

With all of that in mind, what lessons has the company applied to the new version of the Fold? For starters, the front displays seemed like something of an afterthought on the original Fold. For the Galaxy Z Fold 2, it expands significantly to 6.2 inches, in addition to the main (foldable) 7.6-inch screen.

The colors will match the new Notes (and the rest of the devices announced today), available in  Mystic Black and Mystic Bronze.

The company notes in the press material, “After releasing two foldable devices and listening to user feedback on the most requested upgrades and new features, Samsung unveils the Galaxy Z Fold 2 with meaningful innovations that offer users enhanced refinements and unique foldable user experiences.”

The event ended with an appearance by the wildly popular boy band, BTS, which appeared in a brief unboxing video. In fact, the company spent a significant amount of time talking about the box itself. The new model is thinner and features a smaller gap between screens. Samsung says, thankfully, the screen is more reinforced than previous models and has a redesigned hinge — all good news after the last version.

The company appears to not quite be ready to talk about the new foldable beyond these first few details. Instead, it’s promising addition information next month — likely at the press event it has planned in lieu of an appearance at IFA in September. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to play around it then, too. We’ll try to be gentle this time.

 

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 ships August 21, starting at $1,000

By Brian Heater

Samsung promised a lot of gadgets for today’s big Unpacked event — five in all, as a matter of fact. As expected, the big headliners — both figuratively and literally — are the latest additions to the popular Note line.

Also unsurprising is the company’s positioning the Note 20 — along with the rest of today’s new hardware — as  “devices […] that seamlessly integrate to empower consumers navigating a rapidly changing world.” It’s mostly a bit of hyperbole as the company looks to position a pair of pricey flagship phones in the midst of an extraordinarily unprecedented year.

Like the Galaxy S20 before it, Samsung’s skipping 10 full numbers here for the sake of consistency. On a whole, nothing here jumps out as a huge leap in progress, a fact due in no small part to the company’s six-month flagship cycle. There are, however, a number of notable upgrades on-board here, as the company works to retain its position among the bleeding edge of smartphone advances.

Image Credits: Samsung

Samsung was, of course, one of the first company’s to embrace 5G, employing the next-gen technology well before achieving any sort of saturation point. The company has also embraced the budget side of the spectrum with the Galaxy A71 5G. It follows then, the Note line is the company’s “first fully 5G-capable Note,” meaning that the technology is no longer just the realm of the more premium model — and that it utilizes both the Sub-6 and mmWave versions of 5G technology.

Once again, the Note line is divided into two distinct models: this time out, the Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra, starting at $1,000 and $1,300, respectively. Much has been made of Samsung’s attempts to move the devices at a — less than opportune time. The fact of the matter is people aren’t really buying handsets these days. For one thing, lots of people just don’t have the sort of disposable income they did just a year ago. And what money is going to technology is generally being spent on things like PCs, as remote becomes the new norm for office workers.

Image Credits: Samsung

Handsets costing $1,000+ had already become a tough sell in recent years, with an overall market slow down — and recent figures from third-party analysts show that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been kind to Samsung’s sales bottom line.

All of that said, the Note is still very much the standard by which all other phablets are judged. Plenty of other companies have tried and failed to launch competitive pocket productivity devices, and for its nearly decade-long existence, no one has been able to come close to the Galaxy Note.

As is its custom, Samsung continues to press the bounds of screen size on the line. The Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra sport 6.7 and 6.9-inch displays, respectively. Both are up from the 10, which sported a 6.3 and 6.8-inch screen. The Ultra also sports a 120Hz refresh rate.

For the first Samsung launch in recent memory, I can’t tell you what kind of job the company has done keeping the footprint down in spite of an ever-enlarging screen — for reasons that are probably obvious, I haven’t seen or touched the device in person yet. Soon, I’m told.

Image Credits: Samsung

What I can say is that the dimensions have increased, but only by a millimeter or so. And both models have added somewhere between 10-30 grams apiece. The device retains the familiar three-camera array, albeit with a redesigned enclosure. The Note Ultra borrows some key cues from the S20 Ultra. The biggest additions are the 108-megapixel wide-angle and the Space Zoom technology, which brings up to 50x super zoom (only 5x optical) on the Ultra and 30x (3x hybrid optical) on the 20. The Ultra also sports laser auto focus for quicker shots, while the 20 sports a 64-megapixel telephoto. Both models can now shoot video in 8K, as well.

The fan favorite S Pen gets a bunch of updates, including increased precision and responsiveness, along with gesture controls that do things like shoot screenshots or return to the home screen. The stylus can be used as a remote control as well, up to 30 feet, courtesy of Bluetooth Low Energy. The associated Notes app features better cloud syncing and a new recording feature, which associates time stamps with written notes (there’s no live transcription à la Google Recorder, however).

[gallery ids="2026979,2027015,2027014,2027013,2027012,2027011,2027010,2027009,2027008,2027007,2027006,2027005,2027004,2027003,2027002,2027001,2027000,2026999,2026998,2026997,2026996,2026995,2026993,2026992,2026991,2026990,2026989,2026988,2026987,2026986,2026985,2026982,2026981,2026980"]

Samsung and Microsoft have broadened their partnership here. That includes the ability to access Samsung notes and mirror the mobile device on a Windows 10 PC. And mid-next month, the Note 20 will be getting Xbox Game Pass access, with 100+ games, as Samsung looks to position its high-end handsets as more serious mobile gaming devices.

There is, as ever, DeX support, letting users mirror the system to a connected smart TV. In spite of rumors around Samsung’s waning interest with Bixby, the company tells me that the smart assistant “remains consistent” with what has been offered on previous devices. A fun addition also worth pointing out is the ability to pair the new Galaxy Buds Live as microphones for when you’re shooting a subject talking. UWB (ultra-wideband) is another new addition that lets users share files when in close proximity and will double as a digital key at some point down the road.

Image Credits: Samsung

The models are powered by the new Snapdragon 865+. The Ultra ships with 12GB of RAM and either 128GB or 512GB of storage. The Note 20 has 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. Their batteries are 4,500mAh and 4,300mAh, respectively. Pre-orders open tomorrow, and they’ll start shipping August 21.

Samsung’s new Galaxy Buds Live bring active noise cancelation for $170

By Brian Heater

Samsung’s made quality earbuds for a number of years now. They’re never particularly exciting or innovative, but they’re always a solid choice in an overcrowded market. Today’s big Unpacked event adds yet another model to the growing list of options.

Already sporting the Galaxy Bean nickname based on early leaks, and for reasons that should be painfully obvious, the most notable thing here is the addition of Active Noise Canceling. That’s a feature that has most often been reserved for higher-priced models.

Image Credits: Samsung

For $170, these are certainly worth considering, even if they’re not quite as premium as the Sony WF-1000XM3 or AirPods Pro. But honestly, not everyone is looking to shell out more than $200 for a pair of wireless earbuds.

The Galaxy Buds Live sport a 12mm speaker (larger than what’s found on the Buds+), coupled with a bass duct for increased low-end sound. There are three mics on board, which can double for the phone microphone while shooting video with a connected Note 20. They’re IPX2 water resistant and feature removable tips with two different sizes for a better fit.

[gallery ids="2026955,2026971,2026970,2026969,2026968,2026967,2026966,2026965,2026964,2026963,2026962,2026961,2026960,2026959,2026958,2026957,2026956"]

The battery should give you eight hours on a charge (down to six with active noise canceling on), plus another 21 hours via the carrying case. Five minutes of charging, meanwhile, should get you an hour of playback. The Buds Live are available now through Samsung’s site.

The bezel is back for Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 3

By Brian Heater

The rotating bezel has always felt like Samsung’s secret weapon in the smartwatch battle. It is, without question, the best input device. No one, not even Apple’s crown, comes close. For that reason, it was a bit baffling when the company opted to drop it for its Active line of watches. Samsung attempted to convince us all that the “digital bezel” was just as good. It definitely, definitely wasn’t.

Thankfully, the newly announced Watch 3 brings back the bezel. The company is quick to note that it’s a “slimmed down” version, which, fair enough. The company’s smartwatches — like its smartphones — can tend toward the bulky. And it’s definitely possible to have too much hardware on one’s wrist.

Overall, the timepiece is 14% thinner and 15% lighter than its predecessor, in both the 41mm and 45mm versions, which offer a larger screen in spite of the smaller frame. The company is also promising two full days of battery life on a charge — a necessary feature with the introduction of National Sleep Foundation-approved sleep tracking, which measures breathing, movement and REM cycles to give you a better picture of your nocturnal activities.

There are a number of other health features on board, as well, including VO2 max blood oxygen tracking, fall detection, a running coach and activity tracking for 40 exercises (seven of which can be autodetected). The watch also features an EKG reader and blood pressure detection, both of which will be available in Korea at launch (U.S. users will have to wait for FDA approval to get in on that action).

The Watch 3 goes on sale tomorrow, priced at $400 and $430 for the 41mm and 45mm versions, respectively. There’s also an LTE-enabled version of each, priced at $450 and $480.

The Galaxy Tab S7 will bring 5G to Samsung’s tablet line

By Brian Heater

Samsung’s going all in on 5G. The company was an early adopter for the next-gen wireless technology and has just offered it across the newly announce Galaxy Note 20. Turns out its new tablets will be getting the connectivity as an upgrade option.

The Galaxy Tab S7 and S7+ were among the five devices launched at today’s unpacked event, arriving as “the first tablets that support 5G available in the United States,” according to the associated press material. And certainly they’re ahead of the curve here, though I’d expect to see the option become more common in the coming year, as carriers push toward a saturation point.

The two models sport 11- and 12.4-inch screens, respectively, coupled with four speakers featuring Dolby Atmos and Samsung’s own AKG tuning. The insides look fairly uniform, with either 6GB or 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 256GB of storage, augmentable up to 1TB by way of a microSD card. The on-board batteries are pretty nicely sized at 8,000mAh and 10,900mAh on the S7 and S7+, respectively. Definitely curious to see how much of an impact 5G will have on life.

The tablets are arriving at some point this fall, starting at $650 for the S7 and $850 for the S7+. No word yet on pricing for timing or the 5G models, however, but Samsung promises they’ll be hitting the States at some point.

Genki’s Covert Dock is the perfect dock for the Nintendo Switch – and other gadgets, too

By Darrell Etherington

The Nintendo Switch’s ability to quickly transition from portable to home console is definitely one of its major selling points, but Nintendo’s official dock never really made much sense with the portable nature of the Switch itself. Luckily, third-party accessory maker Genki created the Covert Dock, a device no larger than a smartphone USB charger that easily connects your Switch to any TV. Plus, it actually is a USB charger for all your devices, too.

The basics

The Covert Dock includes a USB Type-C port that’s rated for the Power Delivery 3.0 standard, which means it can charge not only the Switch, but also an iPhone, Android smartphones, the iPad Pro and even a MacBook (though its max output is 30w, so you won’t get full-speed charging for any power-hungry large devices). It also includes a USB-A port, which you can use not only for charging, but also for connecting controllers, microphones, mice, Ethernet adapters, and more to devices connected via USB-C. Finally, there’s an HDMI port, which you can use to connect your Switch (or other devices that support USB-C video out) to your TV or display.

The HDMI port supports a maximum resolution of 1080p at up to 60hz, so it can easily handle the 720p output of the Switch. The Genki Covert Dock also features folding power prongs for maximum portability – and it’s extremely compact, coming in smaller than a MacBook Air charger despite all of its capabilities.

Image Credits: Genki

Genki also provides a set of global power adapters that slide on to the folded prongs for easy travel compatibility, adding to its versatility. There’s also a six-foot USB-C 3.1 charging cable included in the box, so you have everything you need to begin using it right away. When you don’t have an HDMI cable plugged in, it can also power your Switch while you play just like with any other standard USB-C charger.

At $74.99, the Genki Covert Dock actually comes in under the retail price of Nintendo’s official dock set for Switch – and it’s a much more versatile device thanks to its ability to act as a hub for a wide range of devices that support display output over USB-C. Combine that with the travel adapter set, and the Covert Dock is really replacing two or three devices in your bag, rather than just a Switch dock.

Performance

Genki’s Covert Dock feels very sturdy and well-built, not at all like many of the third-party dock alternatives that you can find on Amazon. Inside, it uses Gallium Nitride technology to enable its small size while still making sure it can provide good power output without overheating.

It worked flawlessly both for charging my Switch (and other devices) and for connecting the Switch to my TV. As soon as you plug in an HDMI cable, the Switch behaves just as it would when using the official dock, switching off the built-in display and outputting to the television in HD resolution.

Image Credits: Genki

Ditto with plugging in an iPad Pro, and a MacBook Pro. Both automatically detect the HDMI connection and behave just like they would using any other display adapter.

Users of other third-party Switch display docking solutions might be hesitant to trust another one, given how frequently third-party hardware has led to issues including console bricking. But Genki has a great and thorough explanation of why their dock shouldn’t encounter such issues, and it mostly relates to their proper implementation of the PD 3.0 specification. Over the course of testing on an up-to-date Switch console over a couple of weeks, I definitely haven’t encountered any issues.

Bottom line

If you own a Switch (not the Switch Lite, sadly, since it doesn’t support video out), then there’s no question that you should also own a Genki Covert Dock. It’s the dock that the console should’ve shipped with, since it respects the Switch’s portability and offers a way to connect to a TV that takes up no more space than the Switch USB charger itself.

Even if you don’t own a Switch, the Genki Covert Dock might be something you need – it’s a great way to power an iPad while presenting during a meeting, for instance, and also a fantastic travel charger even when you’re not using the display features. Genki has done a tremendous job of packing a whole lot of versatility into a unique and well-built device, and at a price that’s very reasonable when you consider how many other potential gadgets and dongles it’s replacing.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Microsoft, Amazon back a SoCal company making microchips specifically for voice-based apps

By Jonathan Shieber

Microsoft’s venture capital fund, M12 Ventures, has led a slew of strategic corporate investors backing a new chip developer out of Southern California called Syntiant, which makes semiconductors for voice recognition and speech-based applications.

“We started out to build a new type of processor for machine learning, and voice is our first application,” says Syntiant chief executive Kurt Busch. “We decided to build a chip for always-on battery-powered devices.”

Those chips need a different kind of processor than traditional chipsets, says Busch. Traditional compute is about logic, and deep learning is about memory access; traditional microchip designs also don’t perform as well when it comes to parallel processing of information.

Syntiant claims that its chips are two orders of magnitude more efficient, thanks to its data flow architecture that was built for deep learning, according to Busch.

It’s that efficiency that attracted investors, including M12, Microsoft Corp.’s venture fund; the Amazon Alexa Fund; Applied Ventures, the investment arm of Applied Materials; Intel Capital; Motorola Solutions Venture Capital; and Robert Bosch Venture Capital.

These investment firms represent some of the technology industry’s top chip makers and software developers, and they’re pooling their resources to support Syntiant’s Irvine, California-based operations.

smart speakers

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

“Syntiant aligns perfectly with our mission to support companies that fuel voice technology innovation,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon. “Its technology has enormous potential to drive continued adoption of voice services like Alexa, especially in mobile scenarios that require devices to balance low power with continuous, high-accuracy voice recognition. We look forward to working with Syntiant to extend its speech technology to new devices and environments.” 

Syntiant’s first device measures 1.4 by 1.8 millimeters and draws 140 microwatts of power. In some applications, Syntiant’s chips can run for a year on a single coin cell.

“Syntiant’s neural network technology and its memory-centric architecture fits well with Applied Materials’ core expertise in materials engineering as we enable radical leaps in device performance and novel materials-enabled memory technologies,” said Michael Stewart, principal at Applied Ventures, the venture capital arm of Applied Materials, Inc. “Syntiant’s ultra-low-power neural decision processors have the potential to create growth in the chip marketplace and provide an effective solution for today’s demanding voice and video applications.” 

So far, 80 customers are working with Syntiant to integrate the company’s chips into their products. There are a few dozen companies in the design stage and the company has already notched design wins for products ranging from cell phones and smart speakers to remote controls, hearing aids, laptops and monitors. Already the company has shipped its first million units.  

“We expect to scale that by 10x by the end of this year,” says Busch. 

Syntiant’s chipsets are designed specifically to handle wakes and commands, which means that users can add voice recognition features and commands unique to their particular voice, Busch says.

Initially backed by venture firms including Atlantic Bridge, Miramar and Alpha Edison, Syntiant raised its first round of funding in October 2017. The company has raised a total of $65 million to date, according to Busch.

“Syntiant’s architecture is well-suited for the computational patterns and inherent parallelism of deep neural networks,” said Samir Kumar, an investor with M12 and new director on the Syntiant board. “We see great potential in its ability to enable breakthroughs in power performance for AI processing in IoT [Internet of things].” 

 

Apple’s 27-inch iMac gets a processing and graphics boost

By Brian Heater

Apple sold a lot of Macs last quarter — a record, in fact, for Q3, jumping a full 21%, year over year. Given the state of the world, with most office workers moving to a remote setup, there’s little surprise the company’s desktop and laptops moved at such an impressive clip. For that reason alone, there’s probably no better time to offer a substantial refresh to the company’s perennial favorite all-in-one.

This morning, Apple took the wraps off the latest version of its 27-inch iMac. The changes are, notably, almost exclusively under the hood, but there are a number of key updates as it eyes its longtime bread and butter creative pro clients that it previously courted with the iMac Pro and Mac Pro.

Top-level changes here include the addition of the 10th-gen Comet Lake processors that Intel revealed back in April. The six and eight-core versions of the chips will come as standard configurations, upgradable all the way up to a 10-core i9, which starts to push into the low-end of iMac Pro territory. Per Apple’s numbers, there’s up to a 65% CPU performance increase on-board, particularly noticeable on creative pro apps like Logic and Final Cut Pro.

Graphics, naturally, are getting a boost, as well, at up to 55% faster than previous models, courtesy of the AMD Radeon Pro 5000 series — similar to what’s currently found on the 16-inch version of the MacBook Pro. The RAM is configurable all the way up to a hardy 128GB of DDR4. SSD storage is finally standard across all iMacs, as well. Here the base is 256GB, configurable up to 8TB. The system also now sports the company’s proprietary T2 security chip, as well as an optional 10GB Ethernet connection.

The display is essentially the same as the previous model, though it now features Apple’s True Tone technology for a more natural color balance based on ambient light in the room. There’s also an option for the nano-texture technology found on Apple’s Pro Display XDR, which promises to reduce glare by better scattering light — a nice upgrade for video editors, especially those now working from home with less than ideal lighting situations. Speaking of remote work, the webcam and mic system have been upgraded. The camera is 1080p, coupled with a similar microphone system as the one found in the 16-inch MacBook, featuring two in the system’s “chin” and one in the back.

Contrary to all of the rumors, there’s no redesign here. While it seems entirely plausible — even likely — that a major one is on the way, you’ll have to wait for that. Ditto for the upcoming in-house ARM-based chips. Apple, of course, previously announced that the transition process would take two years to complete — and that there were still Intel Macs in the pipeline. It remains to be seen, however, if the 27-inch iMac will be the last of its kind of that front.

Apple has also noted that it will continue to support Intel Macs for “years to come,” though it’s easy to imagine plenty of folks simply holding off on an upgrade, unless their needs are more dire. And there are probably a number of people in the latter camp, as well, as the reality of working from home doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon (not, for instance, Google’s recent decision to push things back to next July).

The 27-inch still starts at $1,799 and is available starting today. The iMac Pro, meanwhile, now features a 10-core processor (up from 8) as the default configuration, at the same price of $4,999, while the 21.5-inch line (which offers SSDs across the board, as per the above) starts at $1,099.

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

By Brian Heater

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

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

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

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

Apple says next iPhones will launch later than usual

By Lucas Matney

Users gearing up to buy the latest iPhones are going to have wait longer than they did last year.

In a call following the release of Apple’s Q3 earnings, the company’s CFO Luca Maestri shared that compared to the September 2019 release of iPhone 11 models, Apple is expecting this year’s supply of new iPhones “to be available a few weeks later.” It’s an exceedingly rare move for the company, which generally refuses to even acknowledge its timeline for releasing new products, even the iPhone which refreshes annually.

It is not unprecedented for the iPhone’s release to be delayed, in 2017 Apple’s iPhone X was not released until November. The company also often releases different iPhone models on a different release cadence in the weeks following the device announcements.

Apple is expected to release several new models this year integrating 5G network support.

On Thursday, Apple shared quarterly earnings results from the third-quarter which smashed Wall Street expectations delivering revenue of $59.69 billion, up 11 percent year-over-year. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t knocked Apple’s share price or revenue growth, but the admission is one sign that it did halt momentum in its product pipelines in delivering another September release.

Amazon says police demands for customer data have gone up

By Zack Whittaker

Amazon has said the number of demands for user data made by U.S. federal and local law enforcement have increased during the first half of 2020 than during the same period a year earlier.

The disclosure came in the company’s latest transparency report, published Thursday.

The figures show that Amazon received 23% more subpoenas and search warrants, and a 29% increase in court orders compared to the first half of 2019. That includes data collected from its Amazon Echo devices and its Kindle and Fire tablets.

Breaking those figures down, Amazon said it received:

  • 2,416 subpoenas, turning over all of partial user data in 70% of cases;
  • 543 search warrants, turning over all of partial user data in 79% of cases;
  • 146 court orders, turning over all of partial user data in 74% of cases.

The number of requests to the company’s cloud services, Amazon Web Services, also went up compared to a year earlier.

But it’s not clear what caused the rise in U.S. government demands for user data. A spokesperson for Amazon did respond to a request for comment.

But the company saw the number of overseas requests drop by about one-third compared to the same period a year earlier. Amazon rejected 92% of the 177 overseas requests it received, turning over partial user data in 10 cases and all requested data in four cases.

Amazon also said it received between 0 and 249 national security requests, flat from previous reports. Justice Department rules on disclosing classified requests only allow companies to respond in numerical ranges.

Amazon was one of the last major tech companies to issue a transparency report, despite mounting pressure from privacy advocates. But its report remains far lighter on details compared to its Silicon Valley rivals.

The company’s Ring smart camera division, despite facing criticism for its poor security practices its close relationships with law enforcement, has yet to release any data related to police requests for user data.

The road to recurring revenue for hardware startups

By Walter Thompson
Nils Mattisson Contributor
Formerly at Apple, Nils Mattisson is now CEO and co-founder of smart home tech company Minut.

If you look at the most successful startups today, you’ll find plenty of proof that the hardware-enabled service (Haas) model works: Peloton, Particle, Latch and Igloohome all rely on subscriptions along with product sales. Even tech giants like Apple are rapidly reinventing themselves as service companies.

Yet, if you currently rely on device sales, the prospect of changing your entire business model might seem daunting.

At Minut, we are building smart home monitors (privacy-safe noise, motion and temperature monitoring) and recently made the transition despite the lack of resources on the process. Here are the seven lessons we learned:

  1. It is a question of when  —  not if.
  2. The transition will have company-wide impact.
  3. Your current and future target audience may differ.
  4. Price should reflect the value for the customer. Your revenue should grow with theirs.
  5. Avoid your free offer competing with your premium ones.
  6. Be transparent (internally and externally) about the changes. Over-communicate.
  7. Start the process early, check regularly with your team and set measurable targets.

Why subscriptions are the future of industry (and your startup)

Hardware has one advantage over software: customers understand there is a cost to your product. Now, this allows hardware startups to generate revenue with their first iteration, but it’s unsustainable as the company grows and needs to innovate: the software and user experience need continuous improvement and excellent support, just like in a software-only startup.

That’s why we see most hardware startups eventually launching a subscription model and limit what’s available for free. Even established companies  —  think Strava or Wink  —  often end up having to radically limit free features after years of operations.

Experienced founders and financial markets favor subscription models and recurring revenue. Market valuation multiples are typically much higher for companies that benefit from service revenue in addition to sales.

Huawei overtook Samsung in global smartphone shipments for Q2

By Brian Heater

Things haven’t exactly been smooth sailing for Huawei in recent years. The company’s rapid trajectory has been disrupted by on-going battles with the U.S. government that have, among other things, blocked its access to Google apps and services. But a new report from Canalys paints a reasonably rosy picture as the hardware giant overtook Samsung to snag the top spot in global smartphone shipments for the second quarter of 2020.

The news is a milestone for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that this is first time in nine years that neither Apple nor Samsung has been at the top of Canalys’ charts. Huawei’s figures were almost exclusively boosted by sales in its native China, which currently comprises more than 70% of its total figure.

Image Credits: Canalys

It’s important to note here, however, the fact that the company took the top spot by essentially shrinking at a less rapid rate than Samsung. Huawei’s overall figures are down 5% year-over-year. But that figure pales in comparison to Samsung’s 30% drop. The two Goliaths are currently at 55.8 million and 53.7 million, respectively.

Things were bad for the smartphone industry prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped overall, as people are less inclined toward shelling out hundreds to north of $1,000 for inessential upgrades. And, indeed, Huawei’s numbers dropped by 27% outside of China, but the overall slide was dampened by an 8% growth in China. Samsung, meanwhile, currently controls less than 1% of the Chinese market.

As for what this all means for the future, it seems that it may be difficult for Huawei to maintain its top spot. “Its major channel partners in key regions, such as Europe, are increasingly wary of ranging Huawei devices, taking on fewer models, and bringing in new brands to reduce risk” Canalys’ Mo Jia said of the report. “Strength in China alone will not be enough to sustain Huawei at the top once the global economy starts to recover.”

Connected audio was a bad choice

By Lucas Matney

The past week, I’ve spent ample time looking to revamp my home audio setup. I think my only qualification is that my next setup is as dumb as possible.

In the past five years, my setup has gone from a fairly middling wired 2.1 speaker setup to a confusing menagerie of connected smart speakers. I’ve likely gone through at least five Google Assistant-laden speakers including the Google Home Max, a couple connected Sonos speakers, three HomePods, a Facebook Portal+, non-smart speakers connected via Chromecast Audio and god knows how many Alexa-integrated speakers. All in all, I can firmly say I have made some very bad audio decisions in my recent life.

I’ve had a lot of frustrations with my current setup, but they’re really issues with the entire smart speaker market:

  • Good audio hardware should be timeless, and devices that need frequent firmware updates, have proprietary support for a certain operating system or can lose integration support quickly fly in the face of that.
  • Home entertainment integrations with these speakers are just awful, even among products built by the same company. Repeatedly connecting my stereo HomePods to my Apple TV has been maddening.
  • Smart assistants are much less ambitious than they were years ago and the ceiling of innovation already seems to have come down significantly. Third party integrations have sunk far below expectations and it’s pretty uncertain that these voice interfaces have as bright a future as these tech companies once hoped.
  • These assistants were once going to be the operating systems of the home, but the smart home experiment largely feels like a failure and it’s growing clearer that the dream of a Jarvis-like system that plays nicely with all of your internet-connected devices was totally naive.

All in all, it’s time for me to move on and invest some cash in a setup that will sound good for decades.

Now, many of you will say that my true error was a lack of commitment to one ecosystem, which is undoubtedly spot-on and yet I don’t think any of the players had precisely what I wanted hence the wildly piecemeal approach. Dumping more funds into a robust Sonos setup probably would have been the wisest commitment, but I have commitment issues and I think part of it was a desire to see what was out there.

In quarantine, I’ve gotten ample time to spend with my home audio system and the destructive weave on non-compatible hardware is all too much. I don’t want my speakers to have their own operating systems or for one speaker to play nice with my music streaming platform of choice, but not the other. I want something that can last.

After doing half-commits to several ecosystems, I feel I’ve seen and heard it all and now I’m shopping for some good old-fashioned dumb wired surround sound speakers to integrate with a slightly smarter AV receiver. God willing, I will have strength to not buy whatever cool audio gadgets come out next year and can stay strong. If you have some good tips on a nice setup, please help me out.

Where is voice tech going?

By Richard Dal Porto
Mark Persaud Contributor
Mark Persaud is digital product manager and practice lead at Moonshot by Pactera, a digital innovation company that leads global clients through the next era of digital products with a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence, data and continuous software delivery.

2020 has been all but normal. For businesses and brands. For innovation. For people.

The trajectory of business growth strategies, travel plans and lives have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn with supply chain and market issues, and a fight for equality in the Black Lives Matter movement — amongst all that complicated lives and businesses already.

One of the biggest stories in emerging technology is the growth of different types of voice assistants:

  • Niche assistants such as Aider that provide back-office support.
  • Branded in-house assistants such as those offered by BBC and Snapchat.
  • White-label solutions such as Houndify that provide lots of capabilities and configurable tool sets.

With so many assistants proliferating globally, voice will become a commodity like a website or an app. And that’s not a bad thing — at least in the name of progress. It will soon (read: over the next couple years) become table stakes for a business to have voice as an interaction channel for a lovable experience that users expect. Consider that feeling you get when you realize a business doesn’t have a website: It makes you question its validity and reputation for quality. Voice isn’t quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

Voice assistant adoption and usage are still on the rise

Adoption of any new technology is key. A key inhibitor of technology is often distribution, but this has not been the case with voice. Apple, Google, and Baidu have reported hundreds of millions of devices using voice, and Amazon has 200 million users. Amazon has a slightly more difficult job since they’re not in the smartphone market, which allows for greater voice assistant distribution for Apple and Google.

Image Credits: Mark Persaud

But are people using devices? Google said recently there are 500 million monthly active users of Google Assistant. Not far behind are active Apple users with 375 million. Large numbers of people are using voice assistants, not just owning them. That’s a sign of technology gaining momentum — the technology is at a price point and within digital and personal ecosystems that make it right for user adoption. The pandemic has only exacerbated the use as Edison reported between March and April — a peak time for sheltering in place across the U.S.

Mirror competitor Tempo raises a $60M Series B

By Brian Heater

No doubt about it, home fitness is hot. The category had already been gaining considerable traction in recent years and months, but the ongoing pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated interest by orders of magnitude. And understandably so. After all, while some businesses have begun reopening in some locations, gyms are still a big red flag, with one of the highest potential transmission risks of any communal space.

This morning Tempo announced a healthy $60 million Series B, led by Norwest Venture Partners and General Catalyst, along with a repeat investors Founders Fund, Signal Fire, DCM, Y Combinator and Bling Capital.

The news comes almost exactly a month after Mirror, one of the San Francisco-based company’s chief competitors, was acquired by fitness brand Lululemon for $500 million. Also worth noting here is the continued success of Peloton, whose streaming fitness classes have continued to catapult the home fitness equipment maker. A number of other startups have announced raises in recent weeks, while stalwarts like Technogym have introduced their own home streaming services.

Image Credits: Tempo

The Tempo device runs ~$2,000, plus a $39 monthly membership to its content, which includes strength, cardio and various other exercises as either live streams or on-demand content. Notably, the company says it’s on track to hit a $100 million run rate by year’s end, owing in part to sales that have jumped 500% since the company opened up pre-orders this February (without disclosing actual unit sales).

That’s due, no doubt, to word of mouth, but the company certainly isn’t discounting the role of COVID-19 in its fast success. “With tens of millions unable to go to the gym or attend classes in person, consumers’ fitness needs have evolved,” the company notes in a press release. “App-based services lack the necessary equipment to be effective for most people, while previous smart devices often do little more than stream videos without two-way guidance.”

Thanks to COVID-19, everybody wants Density’s technology tracking building occupancy and use

By Jonathan Shieber

Before the COVID-19 epidemic, Density was being used by companies like TechCrunch’s parent company, Verizon, to see how it could better use office space after the Yahoo!/Aol merger. Now, thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic everyone wants the company’s technology to track building and room occupancy and use.

It’s one reason why the company managed to raise $51 million in a new round of funding led by Kleiner Perkins with participation from previous investors like Dick Costolo’s 01 Advisors and the Los Angeles-based investment firm, Upfront Ventures.

“The primary driver [for demand] has been being able to reopen buildings safely and to do so without invading privacy,” says Density chief executive Andrew Farah.

And while the company started out as a service for data-loving tech companies, retail stores and coffee chains, it’s now become a ubiquitous technology for needed for every business with shared space, said Farah. That means fulfillment centers, grocery stores, warehouses, meat processing plants, in addition to something like TechCrunch headquarters.

What will the company do with all that money? Spend it on sales, marketing, and actually getting the tech into customers’ buildings, according to Farah.

“A lot of what we’re going to invest in is customer success, core infrastructure and growing our product and sales,” said Farah. “The first time our customers hear about us is when they get on a demo for a sales call.”

New orders for the company’s hardware and software service are pouring in, he said. And these order range from $20,000 to $50,000 pilot projects to seven-figure, thousand-unit initial deployments. “All of our customers end up tripling in size from their initial land,” he said. Density charges a one-time fee of $895 for installation of its sensors and another $800 per-sensor per-year for access to the data. 

Density works through both channel partners and direct sales, according to Farah, and the urgency of its potential customers has led to the massive uptick in funding.

“A lot of customers are trying to solve a problem that they had last week. There’s a sense of urgency from real estate and safety teams that we haven’t seen before,” said Farah.

Behind all of this is the demand from employees for safe, socially distanced public workspaces as the country continues to battle the COVID-19 epidemic that continues to ravage the U.S.

And while COVID-19 may be today’s main selling point, investors like Upfront Ventures’ Mark Suster saw the value in Density’s technology much earlier. “The investment thesis for me combines my belief in computer vision as a next-gen I/O (3) along with my thesis that The Innovator’s Dilemma or Deflationary Economics drive all of the largest success on the Internet (4). Today’s people tracking solutions are hugely expensive and mostly used in retail environments,” Suster wrote in a blog post announcing Upfront’s initial investment in the company, back in 2016. “The costs have greatly limited adoption and we think that’s about to change in a massive way.”

A 2016 animation of Density’s tracking capabilities via GIPHY

At Kleiner Perkins, the latest firm to back Density’s computer vision-based technology, the investment was a year-long process.

“I had heard through the grapevine that they were going to talk to investors,” said Ilya Fushman, a new director at the company and one of Kleiner Perkins’ partners, who had first begun speaking with Farah about a year ago.

Fushman said that Kleiner was interested in the real estate market and its commitment to Density falls in line with another recent investment in Proxy, a startup providing cardless and fobless building access controls.

“If you look for market sizing, which we do, there are few markets that are as big as real estate,” Fushman said. “It’s also a market that’s historically been under-penetrated by technology. A lot of building management is done on pen and paper when it comes to space utilization.”

Both access control and utilization have been areas that more companies need to get a handle on thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic, which made backing a company like Density a natural fit, he said.

 

The hype, haplessness and hope of haptics in the COVID-19 era

By Walter Thompson
Devon Powers Contributor
Devon Powers is an associate professor of advertising at Temple University and the author of "On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future."
David Parisi Contributor
David Parisi is an associate professor at the College of Charleston and author of "Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing."

In March, Brooklynite Jeremy Cohen achieved minor internet fame when he launched an elaborate scheme to court Tori Cignarella, a cute stranger living in a nearby building.

After spotting Cignarella across an air shaft, Cohen used drones, Venmo, texting and FaceTime to interact with his socially distanced crush. But it was on their second date when Cohen pulled out all the stops. He purchased a gigantic plastic bubble, sealed himself inside and invited his new friend to go on a touchless walk. As Cohen wrote on Instagram, “just because we have to social distance doesn’t mean we have to be socially distant.”

Cohen’s quirky, DIY approach made for fun clickbait for a few days. But it’s also a somewhat unflattering metaphor for the kinds of touch-centric entrepreneurialism that has proliferated in the age of COVID-19. From dating to banking, education to retail, the virus has pushed everyone to rethink how touch and proximity factor into daily interactions. Businesses besieged by the uncertainty of shutdown orders, partial re-openings, remote work, disease spikes and changing consumer behavior have been forced to test-drive solutions on the fly.

Amid that confusion, a few common approaches have emerged. Some are rushing to return to normalcy, adopting quick fixes at the expense of more broad-based solutions. Others are using the pandemic as an excuse to accelerate technological shifts, even those that may be unwelcome, impractical or both. Still others are enforcing guidelines selectively or not at all, tempting consumers back, in part, through the promise of “normal” (read: non-distanced and non-regulated) interactions.

Enter haptics. Investment in touch technologies had been on the rise before COVID-19, with virtual reality fueling fresh interest in haptic gloves and full-body suits, and haptics for mobile devices like wearables and smartwatches infusing the field with new resources. While it is difficult to capture the health and growth of the haptics industry with a single number, one estimate puts the global haptics market at US$12.9 billion in 2020, projected to grow to US$40.9 billion by 2027.

In addition to established players like Immersion Corporation, founded in 1993 and active working on haptics applications ranging from gaming and automotive to medical, mobile and industrial, Sony, Apple, Microsoft, Disney and Facebook each have dedicated teams working on new haptics products. Scores of startups, too, are currently bringing new hardware and software solutions to market: Ultraleap (formerly Ultrahaptics), a Bristol-based company that develops midair haptics, has secured $85 million in funding; HaptX, which makes exoskeleton force feedback gloves for use in VR and remote manipulation, has raised $19 million in funding; and Neosensory, focused on routing sound through the skin with a wrist-based wearable Buzz, has received $16 million in funds. A recent industry-wide initiative intended to make it easier to embed haptics in multimedia content suggests that we could soon see growth in this area accelerate even further.

Despite these trends, the business of touch isn’t heading in one clear direction. And with such variety in business responses, customers have responded with confusion, frustration, anxiety and defiance. More than disgruntlement, though, COVID-19 shines a light on a longstanding debate over whether the future will have more touch or less. Tensions around touch were already high, but rapid changes, Band-Aid solutions and short-term thinking are making the problems worse.

What’s needed now is a longer view: serious, systematic thinking about where we — as consumers, citizens, humans — want and need touch, and where we don’t. To get there, we need greater investment not just in technologies that sound good, but ones that will deliver on real needs for connection and safety in the days ahead.

Plexiglass is the new mask

While the mask may be the most conspicuous symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic in much of the world, the new normal has another, clearer symbol: plexiglass.

Plexiglass leads the way as our environments are retrofitted to protect against the virus. In the U.S., demand began rising sharply in March, driven first by hospitals and essential retailers like grocery stores. Traditional sectors like automotive are using much less of the stuff, but that difference is more than made up for by the boom among restaurants, retail, office buildings, airports and schools. Plexiglass is even popping up in temples of bodily experience, surrounding dancers at strip clubsclients at massage parlors and gymgoers in fitness centers.

Like plexiglass itself, the implications for touch are stark, if invisible. Plexiglass may communicate sterility and protection — though, truth be told, it dirties often and it’s easy to get around. More to the point, it puts up a literal barrier between us.

The story of plexiglass — like that of single-use plastic, ventilation systems, hand sanitizer and ultraviolet light — underscores how mundane interventions often win the day, at least initially. It is much easier for a grocery store to install an acrylic sneezeguard between cashiers and customers than it is to adopt contactless shopping or curbside pickup. At their best, interventions like plexiglass are low-cost, effective and don’t require huge behavior changes on the part of customers. They are also largely reversible, should our post-pandemic lifestyles revert back to something more closely resembling our previous behaviors.

Besides their obvious environmental consequences, plasticized approaches can erode our relationship to touch and thereby to each other. In Brazil, for example, some nursing homes have installed “hug tunnels” to allow residents to embrace family members through a plastic barrier. Given that “when will I be able to hug my loved ones again?” is a common and heart-wrenching question these days, the reunions hug tunnels facilitate are, well, touching. But as a shadow of the real thing, they amplify our desperate need for real connection.

The same with circles on the floor in elevators or directional arrows down store aisles: In expecting us to be our best, most rational and most orderly selves, they work against cultural inclinations toward closeness. They indicate not so much a brave new future as a reluctant present. And without proper messaging about their importance as well as their temporariness, they are bound to fail.

Touch tech to the rescue

To feed our skin hunger, futurists are pushing haptic solutions — digital technologies that can replicate and simulate physical sensations. Haptics applications range from simple notification buzzes to complex whole-body systems that combine vibration, electricity and force feedback to re-create the tactile materiality of the physical world. But although the resurgence of VR has rapidly advanced the state of the art, very few of these new devices are consumer-ready (one notable exception is CuteCircuit’s Hug Shirt — released for sale earlier this year after 15+ years in development).

Haptics are typically packaged as part of other digital techs like smartphones, video game controllers, fitness trackers and smartwatches. Dedicated haptic devices remain rare and relatively expensive, though their imminent arrival is widely promoted in popular media and the popular technology press. Effective haptic devices, specially designed to communicate social and emotional touch such as stroking, would seem particularly useful to re-integrate touch into Zoom-heavy communication.

Even with well-resourced companies like FacebookMicrosoft and Disney buying in, these applications will not be hitting home offices or teleconferencing setups anytime soon. Though it would be easy to imagine, for example, a desktop-mounted system for facilitating remote handshakes, mass producing such devices would prove expensive, due in part to the pricey motors necessary to accurately synthesize touch. Using cheaper components compromises haptic fidelity, and at this point, what counts as an acceptable quality of haptic simulation remains ill-defined. We don’t have a tried and tested compression standard for haptics the way we do with audio, for instance; as Immersion Corporation’s Yeshwant Muthusamy recently argued, haptics has been held back by a problematic lack of standards.

Getting haptics right remains challenging despite more than 30 years’ worth of dedicated research in the field. There is no evidence that COVID is accelerating the development of projects already in the pipeline. The fantasy of virtual touch remains seductive, but striking the golden mean between fidelity, ergonomics and cost will continue to be a challenge that can only be met through a protracted process of marketplace trial-and-error. And while haptics retains immense potential, it isn’t a magic bullet for mending the psychological effects of physical distancing.

Curiously, one promising exception is in the replacement of touchscreens using a combination of hand-tracking and midair haptic holograms, which function as button replacements. This product from Bristol-based company Ultraleap uses an array of speakers to project tangible soundwaves into the air, which provide resistance when pressed on, effectively replicating the feeling of clicking a button.

Ultraleap recently announced that it would partner with the cinema advertising company CEN to equip lobby advertising displays found in movie theaters around the U.S. with touchless haptics aimed at allowing interaction with the screen without the risks of touching one. These displays, according to Ultraleap, “will limit the spread of germs and provide safe and natural interaction with content.”

A recent study carried out by the company found that more than 80% of respondents expressed concerns over touchscreen hygiene, prompting Ultraleap to speculate that we are reaching “the end of the [public] touchscreen era.” Rather than initiate a technological change, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to push ahead on the deployment of existing technology. Touchscreens are no longer sites of naturalistic, creative interaction, but are now spaces of contagion to be avoided. Ultraleap’s version of the future would have us touching air instead of contaminated glass.

Touch/less

The notion that touch is in crisis has been a recurring theme in psychology, backed by scores of studies that demonstrate the negative neurophysiological consequences of not getting enough touch. Babies who receive insufficient touch show higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have all kinds of negative effects on their development. In prisons, for example, being deprived of touch through restraint or solitary confinement is a punishment tantamount to torture. As technology continues to make inroads into our lives, interactions that once required proximity or touch have become mediated instead, prompting ongoing speculation about the consequences of communicating by technology rather than by touch.

The coronavirus pandemic intensifies this crisis by demanding a sudden, collective withdrawal from physical contact. The virus lays a cruel trap: the longer we’re apart, the more we crave togetherness and are willing to take dangerous risks. But giving in to the desire to touch not only exposes us and those we care about to a potentially mortal danger, it also extends the amount of time before we can resume widespread touching.

The pandemic has already revealed important lessons about touch, haptics and humanity. First is that while circumstances can change quickly, true social and behavioral change takes longer. The many examples of Americans acting as though there is no pandemic going on should give pause to anyone thinking touch-free futures are just around the corner. Atop this, there is plain-old inertia and malaise, which suggests some pandemic-era interventions will stick around while others will disappear or slacken over time. Consider 9/11 — nearly two decades later, though we still can’t greet our loved ones at their gate, most airports don’t strictly monitor our liquids and gels.

By the same token, one can imagine unfilled hand sanitizer stations as the ultimate hangover from these times. We may begin to like the plexiglass barriers between ourselves and our fellow subway passengers, but hate them at restaurants and sporting events. We may encounter more motion-detecting sliding doors and hand-tracking options, but when they falter we may revert to revolving doors, handles and push-buttons.

A second and equally important insight is that the past and the future exist side by side. Technological development takes even longer than behavioral change, and can be bedeviled by momentary trends, expense and technological limitations. For example, there are a lot of pressures right now to transform stores and restaurants into “last-mile” fulfillment centers, to embrace AR and VR and to reimagine space as contact-free. In these scenarios, objects could be touched and handled in virtual showrooms using high-fidelity digital touch technologies. But some of this pressure is based on promises that haptics have yet to fulfill. For instance, being able to touch clothing through a mobile phone may be possible in theory, but would be difficult in practice and would mean other trade-offs for mobile phones’ functionality, size, weight and speed.

Touch/more?

But just as the coronavirus pandemic did not create making us miss touching, it also did not create all the problems with touching. Some of the touch we were used to — like the forced closeness of a crowded subway car or the cramped quarters of airline seats — is dehumanizing. Social movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have drawn attention to how unwanted touch can have traumatic consequences and exacerbate power imbalances. We must think broadly about the meaning of touch and its benefits and drawbacks for varying types of people, and not rush toward a one-size-fits-all solution. Although touch may seem like a fundamentally biological sense, its meaning is continually renegotiated in response to shifting cultural conditions and new technologies. COVID-19 is the most rapid upheaval in global practices of touching that we’ve seen in at least a generation, and it would be surprising not to see a corresponding adoption of technologies that could allow us to gain back some of the tactility, even from a distance, that the disease has caused us to give up.

Too often, however, touch technologies prompt a “gee whiz” curiosity without being attentive to the on-the-ground needs for users in their daily lives. Businesses looking to adopt haptic tech must see through the sales pitch and far-flung fantasies to develop a long-term plan for where touch and touch-free make the most sense. And haptic designers must move from a narrow focus on solving the complex engineering problem touch presents to addressing the sorts of technologies users might comfortably incorporate into their daily communication habits.

A useful exercise going forward is to consider how would we do haptic design differently knowing we’d be facing another COVID-19-style pandemic in 2030? What touch technologies could be advanced to satisfy some of the desires for human contact? How can firms be proactive, rather than reactive, about haptic solutions? As much as those working in the field of haptics may have been motivated by the noble intention of restoring touch to human communication, this mission has often lacked a sense of urgency. Now that COVID-19 has distanced us, the need for haptics to bridge that physical gap, however incompletely, becomes more obvious and demanding.

Businesses feel it too, as they attempt to restore “humanity” and “connection” to their customer interactions. Yet as ironic as it might feel, now is the time not to just stumble through this crisis — it’s time to prepare for the next one. Now is the time to build in resilience, flexibility and excess capacity. To do so requires asking hard questions, like: do we need VR to replicate the sensory world in high fidelity, even if it’s costly? Or would lower-cost and lower-fidelity devices suffice? Will people accept a technologized hug as a meaningful proxy for the real thing? Or, when touch is involved, is there simply no substitute for physical presence? Might the future have both more touch and less?

These are difficult questions, but the hardship, trauma and loss of COVID-19 proves they demand our best and most careful thinking. We owe it to ourselves now and in the future to be deliberate, realistic and hopeful about what touch and technology can do, and what they can’t.

Withings raises $60 million to bridge the gap between consumer tech and healthcare providers

By Darrell Etherington

Since being re-acquired from Nokia in 2018 by a group including its original founders and some of its original investors, health tech company Withings has been focused on evolving their offering of consumer health hardware to provide medical-grade data that can be shared with, and leveraged by healthcare professionals to deliver better, more personalized care. The company has now raised another $60 million to continue pursuing that goal, a Series B funding round co-led by Glide Healthcare, along with existing Withings investors IDinvest Partners, Bpfrance and BNP Paribas Développement, ODDO BHF and Adelle Capital.

Withings will use the funds to ramp up its MED PRO division, a part of the business formed last year that focuses on the company’s B2B efforts, placing its medical-grade consumer health devices in programs and deployments managed by medical professionals, health institutions, insurance payers, researchers and more.

In an interview, Withings CEO Mathieu Letombe explained that following the re-acquisition of the company, the team set out to “pivot slightly” in regards: First, the company would only focus on medical grade products and services from here on out, something that Letombe said was done at least in part because of how crowded the general ‘wellness’ tech category has become, and in part because players like Apple had really, in their view, made the most of that category with their Apple Watch and other health features.

The second was to shift on their business side to better address the B2B market – primarily due to inbound requests to do so.

“We were getting a lot of requests from the healthcare industry,” Letombe told me. “And by the healthcare industry I mean major healthcare programs, like the diabetes prevention program, the hypertension program. Also hospitals, insurers and Pharma, so we decided to dig into it and we saw the there was a huge demand for medical connected devices from this world.”

According to Letombe, Withings was well-positioned to address this need, and had an advantage over other traditional medical device suppliers for enterprise and industry. The company’s DNA was in building accurate, user-friendly devices to help them keep an eye on their wellbeing at home, and so they put their focus on evolving those products so that the results they provide pass the standards of governing medical device regulatory bodies around the world.

Withings’ special advantage in this pursuit was that it knew very well how to build products that customers want to use, and have opted to pay out of pocket for in the past. Most medical equipment for at-home monitoring that comes from a payer or a healthcare institution hasn’t had to face the challenges and focusing rigor of the consumer technology market, and it’s foisted upon users, not selected by them from a field of choices. Letombe says that this consumer edge is what has helped Withings with its B2B business, and notes that both sides of the market will continue to be of equal importance to the company going forward.

The company had been turning its attention to building out a suite of products, from smart blood pressure monitors, to scales that measure body fat percentage, to contactless thermometers and much more, long before there was any hint of the current COVID-19 pandemic, obviously. But that demand from the healthcare industry has stepped up considerably in the wake of the coronavirus, which has accelerated plans from insurers, care providers and healthcare pros to develop and deploy remote care capabilities and services.

“We also got a ton of requests from a company that wanted to create back-to-work packages, were there was a thermometer or a scale or blood pressure monitor for them to help the employee understand if they are at risk for COVID,” Letombe said, noting that the B2B opportunities the company has seen extend beyond the healthcare industry itself.

Image Credits: Withings

To assist with its new medical B2B focus, Withings has also formed a Medical Advisory Board, which Letombe says they’ve actually been working with for a year but that they’re only announcing publicly alongside this funding. The board includes Mayo Clinic Platform President Dr. John Halamka, former head of Clinical Pharmacology in Hôpital Européen Georges Pompidou Dr. Stéphane Laurent, and former head of Clinical Innovation at Pfizer Craig Lipset – top medical professionals across respected institutions and one of the largest therapeutics companies in the world.

Letombe notes that Withings also has a number of medical physicians and professionals on staff, as well as a psychologist and a physicist, and so they’re involved in building the products themselves throughout their design and creation, rather than just validating their results after the fact.

Withings would seem to be in a great position to address not only the growing need for connected medical monitoring tools, but also to understand exactly what makes those products work for consumers, and become something they actively want to use as part of their lifestyle. This new $60 million round is a vote of confidence in that strategy, and in its ability to become something bigger and still more ambitious.

❌