Let’s talk about chargers. They are, quite possibly, the least exciting thing about a computer. Don’t get me wrong. They’re necessary, obviously. But when was the last time you got really psyched about one?
And yet, here I am, tech blogger guy telling you that today is the first day of the rest of your charger-loving life. Why? Because of three alternately cased letters: GaN. Back at CES, I wrote a piece titled “GaN chargers are still worth getting excited about.” I stand by it. And you, too, will stand by GaN.
That’s short for Gallium Nitride, by the way. The main thing you need to know about it is that it has allowed accessory manufactures to jam a lot of wattage into a surprisingly compact footprint. I’ve been pretty smitten with them since picking up Anker’s 30w PowerPort Atom the CES prior. The thing wasn’t the world’s fastest charger, but it did the trick for a 13-inch MacBook with a footprint just slightly larger than the charger that ships with the iPhone.
These days, however, I lug around a 15-inch laptop, so 30 watts really isn’t going to do much. In fact, you’ll actually watch the battery drain while plugged in. I tried out a couple of new adapters at this year’s CES, as well, but none really scratched the itch. Aukey’s $55 OMNIA 100W PD Charger, on the other hand is pretty close to my sweet spot.
It’s half the size of Apple’s proprietary charger, sharing roughly the same footprint as the Google Pixelbook adapter I’ve been carrying around for a couple of years. But that one’s just a modest 45w. Heck, it’s even more powerful than the 96w model Apple sells for the 15 and 17-inch models.
The size is ideal, though, in part owing to the fact that Aukey didn’t attempt to stick another port on it. This is a one-device-at-a-time charger, which is perfectly fine for most of my needs, and it’s going to have a permanent spot in my bag in that far off time when I’m able to start traveling again.
I will say that it’s surprisingly heavy for its size. This is a dense little charger. It stays put in all of my wall outlets, but it’s going to be a test to see if it stays in place in Delta’s notoriously loose seat chargers. My suspicion is that it most likely won’t — making that a fairly big strike against it for my own once-frequent traveling. The good news is that these companies seem to have an even smaller model every four to six months.
In the meantime, it’s an otherwise great option if you’re looking for a lot of charge in a small footprint, at $24 less than Apple’s 96w model.
The Square Off robotic chess board was already a great device for these times. The system makes it possible to play a solo game using 20 different degrees of difficulty or challenge someone remotely through chess.com. I met with the Mumbai-based startup a couple of CESes ago, and was quite impressed with the execution.
Now, in the face of massive global isolation courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company has introduced a video calling feature. Using the connected app, players can connect with one another across the globe. It’s not quite like having another human on the other side of the board, but in these trying times and all that, we’ll take what we can get.
“The lockdowns have motivated people to rediscover their passion and the chess community is expanding,” CEO Bhavya Gohil says in a release. “The recent addition to the video calling feature was the call of the hour and we are thrilled for the response it has received. It takes the experience of connected board gaming one notch ahead. We are constantly innovating to provide the most quintessential gaming experience.”
The company says it has seen a 30% uptick in time spent on the board since the pandemic began. For those who are interested, there are a number of different board configurations currently available through the Square Off site.
People were already buying fewer handsets well before COVID-19 came into our lives. Now that the pandemic has impacted most of the world, however, those figures have taken an even more sizable dip — with shipments down 12% by the latest count. Budget devices have managed to hold firm in some markets, however, as consumers turn away from $1,000 devices.
As other manufacturers have turned toward cheaper flagship alternatives, Motorola has experimented with $1,000 Edge+ and the foldable Razr reboot. Neither product was particularly well received. The Razr, in particular got knocked by reviews for its pricing and build quality. Thankfully, however, the Lenovo-owned company knows that budget handsets are its core value proposition.
Today the company introduced the latest additions to two key budget lines. There’s the stiltedly-named Moto G Fast and the far more straightforward Moto E. The latest version of the G line gets its name from its purported “AI processing capabilities that boost performance to the next level.” I guess we’ll have to take Motorola’s word until we see one in person. Certainly the Snapdragon 665 alone isn’t enough to warrant the name, nor is the 3GB of RAM. Not terrible for a budget handset, but not exactly the thing that lends itself to the “Fast” moniker.
The handset also sports a dedicate macro camera and a 16MP camera that should taken a decent low light shot. Also of note is the beefy 4,000mAh battery. Motorola generally doesn’t skimp on that front. It’s going to be available in the States starting Jun 12 for $200. It’s up for pre-order today.
The $159 Moto E goes on sale at the same time frame. Unsurprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a ton to write home about in with the extremely affordable device. It’s got two cameras, a 6.2-inch HD+ display, 3,500mAh battery and a Snapdragon 632. It should be a decent device for the price, with Lenovo’s more budget-minded brand doing what it does best.
In the world of business and finance, the question on everyone’s mind is whether COVID-19 is going to lead to permanent changes in the economy. Will lockdowns become part of everyday life? Will new disruptive consumer behaviors emerge? How will investors react?
First, we’re headed for a period of radical required transparency. For me, this started hitting home two years ago. George Walker, CEO of massive fund of funds Neuberger Berman, told Bloomberg that his pricing power over clients was “zero” because customers had access to competing asset managers, as well as data, research and analysis and other investment options online.
“Clients are tough. Consumers are tough now. Technology is changing,” he said. “The pricing challenges are significant and real.”
One would think Walker would be averse to greater transparency. His self-interest theoretically might dictate that he behave like a wizard behind a curtain. But Walker embraced transparency, saying his clients should use the leverage they gain from shopping around to save money when hiring asset managers like him. Teachers’ unions and others need the cash, he said. He’s too smart to fight the tide.
Transparency, secondly, is going to put a lot of pressure on companies. Walker knows that transparency might put downward pressure on prices but, if deployed properly, it can also cultivate loyalty. It can also attract competitors’ clients who are also navigating the same comparison-shopping environment. The bottom line is that companies will need to work harder as their customers become savvier.
What’s more, that new environment is coming as the tailwinds that fueled the growth of tech companies in the last 15 years are losing steam as the internet, social media and smart devices transition into mature technologies. Technology is still going to let companies scale up in extraordinary and cost-effective ways, but innovation will face a higher bar to wow clients.
This dilemma brings us to the third and most important point to consider moving forward as companies struggle to survive in the post-coronavirus economy. Leaders of firms that thrive in the coming years must be prepared for success in fits and starts, sometimes after failures that in the short term seem like unforced errors but in hindsight might become experiences crucial to progress on the crooked path to success.
Consider Intel’s Operation Crush in the 1970s. As business guru Hamilton Helmer wrote in his must-read “7 Powers: The Foundations of Business Strategy,” microprocessors at the time were not a big portion of Intel’s business. Many in the company didn’t think chips were worth much effort, in part because their competitors were producing perfectly good microprocessors, too. The fact that microprocessors were constituent parts of other companies’ machines and not standalone products bolstered skeptical views among Intel’s sales force.
Intel honchos nonetheless wanted to secure 2,000 contracts for their microprocessors under Operation Crush in part because they saw how Japanese competitors were beating them in the semiconductor space. They needed to pivot. One contract happened to be with IBM, which around that time had a market cap of almost $40 billion compared to Intel’s cap of $1.7 billion. Nobody thought the deal would yield a sea change for either company, but Intel and IBM’s collaboration resulted in a personal computer revolution that made Intel a success.
The 1970s were a heady time that, it turns out, were the transition decade to an entirely new phase of the economy. The Operation Crush lesson is that the avenues to success after the coronavirus subsides are not going to be straightforward, obvious or immediate. We simply don’t know the second and third-order implications of much of what has happened in the last few months to be able to chart a direct path forward.
Instead, we have some truths that can serve as our guiding lights. Companies will need to embrace transparency. They will need to show grace under pressure. And they will need to have the courage to embark on aggressive campaigns that seize the moment even if they don’t fully understand what that moment might be.
Another troubling report for the smartphone industry this week. This time the numbers come from IDC, which puts shipments at an 11.9% year-over-year decline for 2020. The number reflects a steep drop off in Q1, followed by what what will likely be continued struggles for companies to regain footing.
In fact, the report goes on to note that the first quarter’s figures represent the sharpest y-o-y drop in the history of its reporting. That’s bad enough news, right? Well, things aren’t getting too much better for smartphone makers any time soon. The whole of H1 is on track for an 18.2% decline.
The slowed recovered comes courtesy of all of the factors we’ve come to expect at this point in the global pandemic. Supply chain issues have given away to demand problems, as recession has gripped the global economy. Here in the States, some 40 million people have applied for unemployment since the beginning of the crisis. It’s an understatement to say people simply don’t have the expendable income to spend $500-$1,000+ plus on an unnecessary upgrade.
The widespread 5G adoption analysts were expecting would pull the industry out of the doldrums has likely been delayed until 2021. Likely the pandemic will also result in the lowering of 5G handset prices occurring much earlier than they would have otherwise. Meantime, a surprisingly robust market for remote working products like PCs will also continue to have an impact on consumer spending with regards to smartphones.
“There’s no question that challenges lie ahead for the smartphone industry and we believe the economic downturn is going to cause some fluctuation in the vendor and price-tier landscape,” IDC’s Ryan Reith says in a statement. “The surge in consumer spending around devices that are less mobile than smartphones (PCs, monitors, video game consoles, etc.) will undoubtedly take a share of the consumer wallet that would have been put towards smartphone upgrades and 5G.”
Sonos has been releasing new hardware at a remarkably consistent and frequent pace the past couple of years, and what’s even more impressive is that these new releases are consistently excellent performers. The new Sonos Arc soundbar definitely fits that pattern, delivering the company’s best ever home theater sound device with performance that should convert even diehard 5.1 traditionalists.
The Sonos Arc is a soundbar that’s designed to integrate wirelessly with your Sonos home audio system, as well as accepting audio from your TV or A/V receiver via HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC). Just about every modern TV should have at least one HDMI ARC port, and basically that just means that in addition to acting as a standard HDMI input for video sources, it can also offer audio output to a connected speaker or stereo system.
The Arc also comes with an HDMI to optical digital audio adapter in case your setup lacks ARC support (if a TV doesn’t have that, it almost surely has a TOSLINK digital audio output port) to cover all the bases. It also works as a wireless speaker that connects via Sonos’ dedicated mesh networking tech to other Sonos speakers you may have, so that it’s one more addressable multi-room speaker in a whole home wireless audio setup.
Arc can also be combined with other Sonos speakers, including the Sonos Sub, as well as Sonos One, One SL, Play:1 and others for setting up a more complete wireless 5.1 setup with a subwoofer and two rears. That’s an optional enhancement, however, and not necessary to take advantage of the Sonos Arc’s excellent virtual surround rendering, which with this new hardware also includes Dolby Atmos surround sound encoding for the first time on a Sonos soundbar.
The Sonos Arc really comes from the modern design pedigree that Sonos has put into its hardware releases since the debut of the Sonos One, which means monoblock coloring (in either black or white), smooth lines and rounded hole grill designs that look a lot more contemporary than the contrast color grills on the Play:1 for example.
Arc looks like a spiritual successor to the Sonos Beam, the first Sonos soundbar to feature a built-in mic and support for virtual voice assistants including Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. But it’s also a lot larger than the Sonos Beam at 45″ long – much more like the Sonos Playbar and Playable that marked the company’s entry into the category.
For a sense of how long it is, it runs almost the full length of my LG 65″ C7 OLED TV. It’s also a bit taller than the Sonos Beam, coming in at 3.4″. For my use, that was still short enough that it doesn’t obscure any of the TV’s display when it’s sitting on a TV bench in front of the television from my regular viewing angle, but your mileage may vary, and if you had a similar setup with the Beam, just note that you’ll need a bit more clearance with the Arc.
The larger size isn’t just for show – it helps Sonos delivery much better sound vs. the lower-priced Beam. Inside the Arc, there are 11 drivers, including two upwards-facing ones, and two that face out either end of the long cylindrical soundbar. The end effect of all of these drivers, and the true distance separation that’s made possible by its long profile, is much more effective left/right/rear sound separation.
On the back, there’s a vent bar that provides additional sound quality improvements and holds the mounting outlets for attaching the Arc to a compatible wall mount. Either wall-mounted or resting atop furniture, the Arc is an attractive piece of hardware, and with just two cables required to run to power and the TV, it’s a minimal solution to home theater clutter that should mesh well with most home decor.
I mentioned this briefly above, but it’s amazing what the Sonos Arc can accomplish in terms of sound separation and virtual surround immersion with just a single speaker. It’s easily the best sound rendering I’ve experienced from a Sonos soundbar, and likely the best audio quality from a soundbar I’ve heard, period.
Stereo sound field testing shows that audio tracks really well left-to-right, and the Dolby Atmos support really shows its benefits when you have content that offers it. Speech intelligibility is also really fantastic on the soundbar alone, whereas with the Beam, I’ve found that it can suffer in some situations unless you have a Sonos Sub added to your system to take care of the low end frequencies and allow the soundbar to produce better clarity on the high end.
The Arc definitely benefits from pairing it with a Sonos Sub and other Sonos speakers acting as rears, but the soundbar on its own is a much better performer than anything Sonos has previously offered, in case you’re looking to save some money or you just want to focus on the most minimal sound setup possible that isn’t just terrible built-in TV speakers.
Sonos has also included a microphone on the Arc, which allows you to use it with either Alexa or Google Assistant to play music, turn on the TV, and do plenty more. It’s a great feature that’s optional, if you’d rather leave the mic off or not connect any assistants, and for me it’s perfectly suited to a device that essentially sits at the center of the living room experience. The mic seems very able to pick up commands even in a large room when you’re quite far away from it, so it could be the only voice-enabled smart speaker you require in even a large open-concept living/dining/kitchen space.
The Arc also acts as an Apple AirPlay 2 speaker out of the box, which means you can use it wireless. For minimalists, this is yet another selling point, since it means you can use it wirelessly with an Apple TV mounted to the back of your TV for instance – ridding yourself of one more wire if you want. It’s also super easy to stream any music or audio from your phone to the Arc as a result, even without opening up the Sonos app.
Speaking of that app, the Sonos Arc is exclusively compatible with Sonos’ new, forthcoming mobile app, which arrives on June 8. This app will live alongside the existing one, which will continue to be available in order to support older, legacy Sonos hardware that won’t work with the more modern version.
This new Sonos app, which I used as a beta during the testing period for the Sonos Arc, is not as dramatic a change as I was expecting. The app definitely offers a better, cleaner and more modern interface, but everything is still located pretty much where you’d expect it to be if you were a user of the existing version. Most of the changes are probably happening under the hood, where the app is presumably designed to work with the more modern chipsets, higher memory and updated wireless technology of more recently-released Sonos speakers and accessories.
Long story short, the new app is a pleasant, fresh take on a familiar control system that seems both more performant and aesthetically better suited to modern Sonos speakers like the Arc. Even in beta, it didn’t give me any problems during my two weeks testing the Arc, and worked perfectly with all my services and voice assistants.
The Sonos Arc is definitely a premium soundbar, with a $799 price tag and great audio quality to match. It’s a fantastic successor to the Playbar and Playbase that exceeds both of those in every regard, and a great companion to the Beam that means Sonos’ home theater lineup now offers excellent options for a range of budgets.
If you want the best, most versatile and well-designed wireless soundbar available, the Sonos Arc is the speaker for you.
Fitbit has secured an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for its Fitbit Flow emergency ventilator. The ventilator hardware is low-cost, and doesn’t require very much training or expertise to use, making it a good solution for deployment in scenarios where healthcare systems are overwhelmed by resource strain stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Fitbit ventilator is based on the MIT E-Vent system, as well as specs provided by the UK government for ventilators to be used by hospitals in that country during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. I’s an automated resuscitator-style ventilator, which essentially replicates the function of the types of manual resuscitation bags used by paramedics and EMTs in the field.
This is a style of emergency ventilator that has become popular in light of the pandemic, in part because they can be built using relatively affordable and readily available components vs. the standard style of medical ventilators healthcare facilities typically use. Fitbit says it believes that its design is particularly effective, with the right combination of sensors, automated alarms and other patient monitoring features that supplement the automation of resuscitation bag pump.
While a lot of the attention around the need for emergency use ventilators has subsided in recent weeks, the need still exists, and will likely resurge along with new waves of COVID-19 transmission in the coming months. Projects like the Fitbit Flow aim to provide options should they be required, and the FDA EUA means that the company can now work with its existing manufacturing partners to build these in large volumes to address need.
Ventilators like the Flow aren’t designed to replace existing, traditional medical ventilators – instead, they’re intended as stopgaps, to be used only when that hardware isn’t available in quantities needed to treat patients.
A lot of the attention in medical technology today has been focused on tools and innovations that might help the world better fight the COVID-19 global health pandemic. Today comes news of another startup that is taking on some funding for a disruptive innovation that has the potential to make both COVID-19 as well as other kinds of clinical assessments more accessible.
Nanox, a startup out of Israel that has developed a small, low-cost scanning system and “medical screening as a service” to replace the costly and large machines and corresponding software typically used for X-rays, CAT scans, PET scans and other body imaging services, is today announcing that it has raised $20 million from a strategic investor, South Korean carrier SK Telecom.
SK Telecom in turn plans to help distribute physical scanners equipped with Nanox technology as well as resell the pay-per-scan imaging service, branded Nanox.Cloud, and corresponding 5G wireless network capacity to operate them. Nanox currently licenses its tech to big names in the imaging space, like FujiFilm, and Foxconn is also manufacturing its donut-shaped Nanox.Arc scanners.
The funding is technically an extension of Nanox’s previous round, which was announced earlier this year at $26 million with backing from Foxconn, FujiFilm and more. Nanox says that the full round is now closed off at $51 million, with the company having raised $80 million since launching almost a decade ago, in 2011.
Nanox’s valuation is not being publicly disclosed, but a news report in the Israeli press from December said that one option the startup was considering was an IPO at a $500 million valuation. We understand from sources that the valuation is about $100 million higher now.
The Nanox system is based around proprietary technology related to digital X-rays. Digital radiography is a relatively new area in the world of imaging that relies on digital scans rather than X-ray plates to capture and process images.
Nanox says the ARC comes in at 70 kg versus 2,000 kg for the average CT scanner, and production costs are around $10,000 compared to $1-3 million for the CT scanner.
But in addition to being smaller (and thus cheaper) machines with much of the processing of images done in the cloud, the Nanox system, according to CEO and founder Ran Poliakine, can make its images in a tiny fraction of a second, making them significantly safer in terms of radiation exposure compared to existing methods.
Imaging has been in the news a lot of late because it has so far been one of the most accurate methods for detecting the progress of COVID-19 in patients or would-be patients in terms of how it is affecting patients’ lungs and other organs. While the dissemination of equipment like Nanox’s definitely could play a role in handling those cases better, the ultimate goal of the startup is much wider than that.
Ultimately, the company hopes to make its devices and cloud-based scanning service ubiquitous enough that it would be possible to run early detection, preventative scans for a much wider proportion of the population.
“What is the best way to fight cancer today? Early detection. But with two-thirds of the world without access to imaging, you may need to wait weeks and months for those scans today,” said Poliakine.
The startup’s mission is to distribute some 15,000 of its machines over the next several years to bridge that gap, and it’s getting there through partnerships. In addition to the SK Telecom deal it’s announcing today, last March, Nanox inked a $174 million deal to distribute 1,000 machines across Australia, New Zealand and Norway in partnership with a company called the Gateway Group.
The SK Telecom investment is an interesting development that underscores how carriers see 5G as an opportunity to revisit what kinds of services they resell and offer to businesses and individuals, and SK Telecom specifically has singled out healthcare as one obvious and big opportunity.
“Telecoms carriers are looking for opportunities around how to sell 5G,” said Ilung Kim, SK Telecom’s president, in an interview. “Now you can imagine a scanner of this size being used in an ambulance, using 5G data. It’s a game changer for the industry.”
Looking ahead, Nanox will continue to ink partnerships for distributing its hardware and reselling its cloud-based services for processing the scans, but Poliakine said it does not plan to develop its own technology beyond that to gain insights from the raw data. For that, it’s working with third parties — currently three AI companies — that plug into its APIs, and it plans to add more to the ecosystem over time.
As humans get used to working at a distance from each other, a startup in Massachusetts is providing sensors that bring industrial robots in close — centimeters away, in fact. The same technology may support future social distancing efforts on commutes, in a pilot application to allow more subway trains to run on a single track.
Humatics, an MIT spinout backed by Lockheed Martin and Airbus, makes sensors that enable fast-moving and powerful robots to work alongside humans without accidents. If daily work and personal travel to work ever go back to normal, the company believes the same precision can improve aging and crowded infrastructure, enabling trains and buses to run closer together, even as we all may have to get used to working further apart.
This is the emerging field of microlocation robotics — devices and software that help people and machines navigate collaboratively. Humatics has been testing its technology with New York’s MTA since 2018, and today is tracking five miles of a New York subway, showing the transportation authority where six of its trains are, down to the centimeter.
Image Credits: Humatics (opens in a new window)
Humatics’ technology in the MTA pilot uses ultrawide band (UWB) radio frequencies, which are less failure-prone than Wi-Fi, GPS and cameras.
“A good example of a harsh environment is a subway tunnel,” said David Mindell, co-founder of Humatics and professor of engineering and aerospace at MIT. “They are full of dust, the temperatures can range from subzero to 100 degrees, and there is the risk of animals or people tampering with devices. Working inside these tunnels is difficult and potentially dangerous for crews, also.”
Humatics has sold more than 10,000 UWB radio beacons, the base unit for their real-time tracking system, to manufacturers of sensor systems, the company says. They pinpoint the location of hundreds of RFID tags at a range of 500 meters, using multiple tags on an object to measure orientation.
CES 2020 barely made it in under the wire, before COVID-19 gripped the world. The following month, Barcelona’s MWC was ultimately shut down, as the pandemic began to move across Europe. That was the first of many dominoes to fall, as events were either taken online or canceled altogether.
Seems CES won’t miss a beat, however. The CTA (CES’s governing body) announced recently that it plans to go forward with the Las Vegas event in January 2021. Unlike Berlin’s IFA, which is purposely scaling back attendance, CES does not appear to have anything like an attendance cap in the works — though organizers note they will continue to expand online events tied to the show, as it seems many would rather not risk the in-person event.
The CTA also detailed the standard array of safeguards for show-goers. Those are as follows:
Regularly clean and sanitize spaces across the show venues and provide sanitization stations throughout;
Better enable social distancing, including widening aisles in many exhibit areas and providing more space between seats in conference programs and other areas where attendees congregate;
Issue best practices for attendees, such as wearing masks and avoiding shaking hands, and for exhibitors on product demonstrations;
Limit touch points throughout the facilities including through cashless systems for purchases and transactions;
Evaluate solutions for contactless thermal scans at key venue entry points;
Provide enhanced on-site access to health service and medical aid.
Organizers say they’re “working closely” with the Las Vegas community on other best practices. Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman has been particularly vocal in her opposition to COVID-related shutdowns. She referred to safety measures as “total insanity” in mid-April and offered to make her city a “control group” by opening casinos and other businesses to domestic and international travelers. A $980.3 million expansion to the LVCC is also nearly complete, presenting a key incentive to bring the show back to the city, even in less than ideal circumstances.
Many event planners, on the other hand, continue to be cautious as fears of additional COVID-19 waves spread across the globe. Given how notorious these conventions are when it comes to the spread of colds and flus in non-pandemic years, it seems safe to assume that many regular attendees will opt to sit this one out. Notably, the CTA is using the word “plan” here. It’s hard enough to imagine what the world is going to look like tomorrow, let alone seven months from now.
Google has added its line of Nest smart home devices to its Advanced Protection Program, a security offering that adds stronger account protections for high-risk users like politicians and journalists.
The program, launched in 2017, allows anyone who signs up access to a range of additional account security features, like limiting third-party access to account data, anti-malware protections, and allowing the use of physical security keys to help thwart some of the most advanced cyberattacks.
Google said that adding Nest to the program was a “top request” from users.
Smart home devices are increasingly a target for hackers largely because many internet-connected devices lack basic security protections and are easy to hack, prompting an effort by states and governments to help device makers improve their security. A successful hack can allow hackers to snoop in on smart home cameras, or ensnare the device into a massive collection of vulnerable devices — a botnet — that can be used to knock websites offline with large amounts of junk traffic.
Although Nest devices are more secure than most, its users are not immune from hackers.
Earlier this year Google began requiring that Nest users must enable two-factor authentication after a spate of reported automated attacks targeting Nest cameras. Google said its systems had not been breached, but warned that hackers were using passwords stolen in other breaches to target Nest users.
Other devices makers, like Amazon-owned Ring, were also targeted by hackers using reused passwords.
While two-factor authentication virtually eliminates these kinds of so-called credential stuffing attacks, Google said its new security improvements will add “yet another layer of protection” to users’ Nest devices.
More dismal numbers confirm what we already knew: Q1 2020 was real rough for an already struggling smartphone category. Gartner’s latest report puts the global market at a 20.2% slide versus the same time last year, thanks in large part to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every single one of the global top-five manufactures saw large declines for the quarter, save for Xiaomi, which saw a slight uptick of 1.4%. The Chinese handset maker got a surprise bump, courtesy of international sales. Samsung and Huawei and Oppo all saw double-digit drop-offs at 22.7%, 27.3% and 19.1%, while Apple declined 8.2%. Other companies combined for a sizable 24.2% loss for Q1.
The reasons are ones we’ve gone over several times before, nearly all pertaining to the global pandemic. Chief among them are global stay at home orders and general economic uncertainly. Issues with the global supply chain have no doubt been a factor, as well, as Asia was the first to get hit with the virus.
All of this comes in addition to an already plateauing/declining smartphone market. Analysts had expected that the arrival of 5G would help stem the tide a bit — but, well, some stuff happened in there. Notably, Apple’s slide wasn’t as bad as it might have been thanks to a strong start to the year.
“If COVID-19 did not happen, the vendor would have likely seen its iPhone sales reached record level in the quarter. Supply chain disruptions and declining consumer spending put a halt to this positive trend in February,” Gartner’s Annette Zimmermann said in a release. “Apple’s ability to serve clients via its online stores and its production returning to near normal levels at the end of March helped recover some of the early positive momentum.”
Overall, I suspect that recovery won’t be instantaneous for the market. The future of COVID-19 still feels largely uncertain as countries have begun the process of reopening, and a pricey investment still may not be in the cards for many who are struggling to make ends meet.
Introduced in mid-2017, the Look was one of the more obscure — and, honestly, kind of bizarre — entries in the Echo line. It was a small camera designed to take videos and selfies of its owner, using machine learning to help choose outfits.
No surprise, really, that it never caught fire. And now, three years after its introduction, it’s dead. First noted by Voicebot.ai, Amazon sent a letter to customers noting that the camera has been discontinued — what’s more, service is going to completely shuttered in July.
Amazon confirmed the end of what seems to have amounted to an experiment and exercise in training a machine learning algorithm. The company tells TechCrunch,
When we introduced Echo Look three years ago, our goal was to train Alexa to become a style assistant as a novel way to apply AI and machine learning to fashion. With the help of our customers we evolved the service, enabling Alexa to give outfit advice and offer style recommendations. We’ve since moved Style by Alexa features into the Amazon Shopping app and to Alexa-enabled devices making them even more convenient and available to more Amazon customers. For that reason, we have decided it’s time to wind down Echo Look. Beginning July 24, 2020, both Echo Look and its app will no longer function. Customers will still be able to enjoy style advice from Alexa through the Amazon Shopping app and other Alexa-enabled devices. We look forward to continuing to support our customers and their style needs with Alexa.
Not a surprise, perhaps. But a bummer for those who spent the $200 on the product. For the looks of it, though, I don’t think the Look exactly caught the world on fire. It’s currently listed as the 51st best seller on Amazon’s list of Echo products. Honestly, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Again, not surprising for what was always destined to be a niche addition to the Echo line.
Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.
Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.
But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.
Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.
In this installment of our ongoing series around making the most of your at-home video setup, we’re going to focus on one of the most important, but least well-understood or implemented parts of the equation: Lighting. While it isn’t actually something that requires a lot of training, expertise or even equipment to get right, it’s probably the number-one culprit for subpar video quality on most conference calls — and it can mean the difference between looking like someone who knows what they talk about, and someone who might not inspire too much confidence on seminars, speaking gigs and remote broadcast appearances.
You can make a very big improvement in your lighting with just a little work, and without spending any money. The secret is all in being aware of your surroundings and optimizing your camera placement relative to any light sources that might be present. Consider not only any ceiling lights or lamps in your room, but also natural light sources like windows.
Ideally, you should position yourself so that the source of brightest light is positioned behind your camera (and above it, if possible). You should also make sure that there aren’t any strong competing light sources behind you that might blow out the image. If you have a large window and it’s daytime, face the window with your back to a wall, for instance. And if you have a movable light or an overhead lamp, either move it so it’s behind and above your computer facing you, or move yourself if possible to achieve the same effect with a fixed-position light fixture, like a ceiling pendant.
Ideally, any bright light source should be positioned behind and slightly above your camera for best results.
Even if the light seems aggressively bright to you, it should make for an even, clear image on your webcam. Even though most webcams have auto-balancing software features that attempt to produce the best results regardless of lighting, they can only do so much, and especially lower-end camera hardware like the webcam built into MacBooks will benefit greatly from some physical lighting position optimization.
This is an example of what not to do: Having a bright light source behind you will make your face hard to see, and the background blown out.
The best way to step up beyond the basics is to learn some of the fundamentals of good video lighting. Again, this doesn’t necessarily require any purchases – it could be as simple as taking what you already have and using it in creative ways.
Beyond just the above advice about putting your strongest light source behind your camera pointed towards your face, you can get a little more sophisticated by adopting the principles of two- and three-point lighting. You don’t need special lights to make this work – you just need to use what you have available and place them for optimal effect.
A very basic, but effective video lighting setup involves positioning not just one, but two lights pointed towards your face behind, or parallel with your camera. Instead of putting them directly in line with your face, however, for maximum effect you can place them to either side, and angle them in towards you.
A simple representation of how to position lights for a proper two-point video lighting setup.
Note that if you can, it’s best to make one of these two lights brighter than the other. This will provide a subtle bit of shadow and depth to the lighting on your face, resulting in a more pleasing and professional look. As mentioned, it doesn’t really matter what kind of light you use, but it’s best to try to make sure that both are the same temperature (for ordinary household bulbs, how ‘soft,’ ‘bright’ or ‘warm’ they are) and if your lights are less powerful, try to position them closer in.
Similar to two-point lighting, but with a third light added positioned somewhere behind you. This extra light is used in broadcast interview lighting setups to provide a slight halo effect on the subject, which further helps separate you from the background, and provides a bit more depth and professional look. Ideally, you’d place this out of frame of your camera (you don’t want a big, bright light shining right into the lens) and off to the side, as indicated in the diagram below.
In a three-point lighting setup, you add a third light behind you to provide a bit more subject separation and pop.
If you’re looking to improve the flexibility of this kind of setup, a simple way to do that is by using light sources with Philips Hue bulbs. They can let you tune the temperature and brightness of your lights, together or individually, to get the most out of this kind of arrangement. Modern Hue bulbs might produce some weird flickering effects on your video depending on what framerate you’re using, but if you output your video at 30fps, that should address any problems there.
All lights can be used to improve your video lighting setup, but dedicated video lights will provide the best results. If you really plan on doing a bunch of video calls, virtual talks and streaming, you should consider investing in some purpose-built hardware to get even better results.
At the entry level, there are plenty of offerings on Amazon that work well and offer good value for money, including full lighting kits like this one from Neewer that offers everything you need for a two-point lighting setup in one package. These might seem intimidating if you’re new to lighting, but they’re extremely easy to set up, and really only require that you learn a bit about light temperature (as measured in kelvins) and how that affects the image output on your video capture device.
If you’re willing to invest a bit more money, you can get some better quality lights that include additional features including wifi connectivity and remote control. The best all-around video lights for home studio use that I’ve found are Elgato’s Key Lights. These come in two variants, Key Light and Key Light Air, which retail for $199.99 and $129.99 respectively. The Key Light is larger, offers brighter maximum output, and comes with a sturdier, heavy-duty clamp mount for attaching to tables and desks. The Key Light Air is smaller, more portable, puts out less light at max settings and comes with a tabletop stand with a weighted base.
Both versions of the Key Light offer light that you can tune form very warm white (2900K) to bright white (7000K) and connect to your wifi network for remote control, either from your computer or your mobile device. They easily work together with Elgato’s Stream Deck for hardware controls, too, and have highly adjustable brightness and plenty of mounting options – especially with extra accessories like the Multi-Mount extension kit.
With plenty of standard tripod mounts on each Key Light, high-quality durable construction and connected control features, these lights are the easiest to make work in whatever space you have available. The quality of the light they put out is also excellent, and they’re great for lighting pros and newbies alike since it’s very easy to tune them as needed to produce the effect you want.
Beyond subject lighting, you can look at different kinds of accent lighting to make your overall home studio more visually interesting or appealing. Again, there are a number of options here, but if you’re looking for something that also complements your home furnishings and won’t make your house look too much like a studio set, check out some of the more advanced versions of Hue’s connected lighting system.
The Hue Play light bar is a great accent light, for instance. You can pick up a two pack, which includes two of the full-color connected RGB lights. You’ll need a Hue hub for these to work, but you can also get a starter pack that includes two lights and the hub if you don’t have one yet. I like these because you can easily hide them behind cushions, chairs, or other furniture. They provide awesome uplight effects on light-colored walls, especially if you get rid of other ambient light (beyond your main video lights).
To really amplify the effect, consider pairing these up with something one the Philips Hue Signe floor or table lamps. The Signe series is a long LED light mounted to a weighted base that provide strong, even accent light with any color you choose. You can sync these with other Hue lights for a consistent look, or mix and max colors for different dynamic effects.
On video, this helps with subject/background separation, and just looks a lot more polished than a standard background, especially when paired with defocused effects when you’re using better quality cameras. As a side benefit, these lights can be synced to movie and video playback for when you’re consuming video, instead of producing it, for really cool home theater effects.
Vast monoculture farms outstripped the ability of bee populations to pollinate them naturally long ago, but the techniques that have arisen to fill that gap are neither precise nor modern. Israeli startup BeeHero aims to change that by treating hives both as living things and IoT devices, tracking health and pollination progress practically in real time. It just raised a $4 million seed round that should help expand its operations into U.S. agriculture.
Honeybees are used around the world to pollinate crops, and there has been growing demand for beekeepers who can provide lots of hives on short notice and move them wherever they need to be. But the process has been hamstrung by the threat of colony collapse, an increasingly common end to hives, often as the result of mite infestation.
Hives must be deployed and checked manually and regularly, entailing a great deal of labor by the beekeepers — it’s not something just anyone can do. They can only cover so much land over a given period, meaning a hive may go weeks between inspections — during which time it could have succumbed to colony collapse, perhaps dooming the acres it was intended to pollinate to a poor yield. It’s costly, time-consuming, and decidedly last-century.
So what’s the solution? As in so many other industries, it’s the so-called Internet of Things. But the way CEO and founder Omer Davidi explains it, it makes a lot of sense.
“This is a math game, a probabilistic game,” he said. “We’ve modeled the problem, and the main factors that affect it are, one, how do you get more efficient bees into the field, and two, what is the most efficient way to deploy them?”
Normally this would be determined ahead of time and monitored with the aforementioned manual checks. But off-the-shelf sensors can provide a window into the behavior and condition of a hive, monitoring both health and efficiency. You might say it puts the API in apiculture.
“We collect temperature, humidity, sound, there’s an accelerometer. For pollination, we use pollen traps and computer vision to check the amount of pollen brought to the colony,” he said. “We combine this with microclimate stuff and other info, and the behaviors and patterns we see inside the hives correlate with other things. The stress level of the queen, for instance. We’ve tested this on thousands of hives; it’s almost like the bees are telling us, ‘we have a queen problem.’ ”
All this information goes straight to an online dashboard where trends can be assessed, dangerous conditions identified early and plans made for things like replacing or shifting less or more efficient hives.
The company claims that its readings are within a few percentage points of ground truth measurements made by beekeepers, but of course it can be done instantly and from home, saving everyone a lot of time, hassle and cost.
The results of better hive deployment and monitoring can be quite remarkable, though Davidi was quick to add that his company is building on a growing foundation of work in this increasingly important domain.
“We didn’t invent this process, it’s been researched for years by people much smarter than us. But we’ve seen increases in yield of 30-35% in soybeans, 70-100% in apples and cashews in South America,” he said. It may boggle the mind that such immense improvements can come from just better bee management, but the case studies they’ve run have borne it out. Even “self-pollinating” (i.e. by the wind or other measures) crops that don’t need pollinators show serious improvements.
The platform is more than a growth aid and labor saver. Colony collapse is killing honeybees at enormous rates, but if it can be detected early, it can be mitigated and the hive potentially saved. That’s hard to do when time from infection to collapse is a matter of days and you’re inspecting biweekly. BeeHero’s metrics can give early warning of mite infestations, giving beekeepers a head start on keeping their hives alive.
That’s part of the company’s aim to provide value up and down the chain, not just a tool for beekeepers to check the temperatures of their hives. “Helping the bees is good, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem. You want to help whole operations,” Davidi said. The aim is “to provide insights rather than raw data: whether the queen is in danger, if the quality of the pollination is different.”
Other startups have similar ideas, but Davidi noted that they’re generally working on a smaller scale, some focused on hobbyists who want to monitor honey production, or small businesses looking to monitor a few dozen hives versus his company’s nearly 20,000. BeeHero aims for scale both with robust but off-the-shelf hardware to keep costs low, and by focusing on an increasingly tech-savvy agriculture sector here in the States.
“The reason we’re focused on the U.S. is the adoption of precision agriculture is very high in this market, and I must say it’s a huge market,” Davidi said. “Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, so you have a small area where you can have a big impact.”
The $4 million seed round’s investors include Rabo Food and Agri Innovation Fund, UpWest, iAngels, Plug and Play, and J-Ventures.
BeeHero is still very much also working on R&D, exploring other crops, improved metrics and partnerships with universities to use the hive data in academic studies. Expect to hear more as the market grows and the need for smart bee management starts sounding a little less weird and a lot more like a necessity for modern agriculture.
The Presso team first piqued my interest in a trip to Hong Kong last summer. The startup promised a clever approach to dry cleaning that involved setting up robotic kiosks in hotel hallways. The product is aimed at traveling business people looking for a quick clean of rumpled up clothing ahead of an important business meeting. Best of all, it cuts out pricey hotel laundry services.
Obviously, a lot has changed in late-August, and like many others, the team has attempted to find a way to leverage its technology in the battle against the spread of COVID-19. The solution is a bit more niche than some, but Presso is still a fairly small team. The company has added a disinfecting element to its robot in line with CDC guidelines and has begun selling a limited number of units to TV and film production companies.
“My family in India actually contracted coronavirus and my mom and grandparents had to be hospitalized,” cofounder and CEO Nishant Jain told TechCrunch. “They are all safe now thankfully. If we can play even a small part in keeping clothes sanitized and people safe, we’d be honored. Even our team members have been quite active with helping out their local communities by sourcing masks and PPE for hospitals and designing ventilators.”
The move comes as California governor Gavin Newsom has announced plans to get film production back on track. Many studios are balking at such a rush to return to work, but for those who are still interested, Presso is offering up units for sets looking to remove the potential spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus.
Presso’s latest push is fueled in part by an additional $250,000 in funding, bringing the team’s total up to $511,000. The company says it’s seen a 200% growth in orders from one month to the next, including high profile clients like Disney/Marvel, HBO, CBS an FOX.
The USB audio interface is a fairly standardized device – for those who might not know, that’s the hardware you use to take a microphone or instrument that uses an XLR or 1/4″ output and get that into your computer via a USB connection for recording or streaming. There are a lot of choices in USB audio interfaces, from a wide range of brands, but a relatively new entrant from Audient is the EVO 4, a modern take on the device that includes some smarter tech tweaks to make using one even easier.
The EVO 4 is a 2in / 2out audio interface, which means that it supports input from up to two microphones or instruments, and can output to speakers and/or headphones, as well as your computer. Audient has made the EVO 4 even more flexible on the input front with a dedicated 1/4″ input for plugging in your guitar, in addition to the combo XLR+1/4″ connectors on the back. This is a great feature for anyone looking to use this as a recording method for instruments, and goes above and beyond most of its competitors in terms of flexibility.
Audient has also helpfully used USB-C as the primary connector for linking up the EVO 4 to your computer. This means it’s likely to work with cables you already have or that are easy to find no matter where you happen to want to use it. The USB-C connection also not only routes audio to your computer, but also provides all the power the EVO 4 needs to operate, including what it requires to provide 48V phantom power to microphones that require that to operate. The fact that it’s powered via USB makes it super handy for portable use, and its overall small size helps with this as well, making it the perfect audio interface for creating a lightweight, very packable podcast interview kit.
On top of the EVO 4, you’ll find all the physical controls. There’s a single large volume dial, two buttons to select the XLR inputs, a 48v phantom power toggle, a monitor mix and pan button and a volume button that applies to both headphones and any attached speakers. There’s also a dedicated, large green button that’s specifically for Smartgain, a unique feature Audient has included with the EVO 4 that really boosts its convenience – more on that later.
The EVO 4’s control interfaces are a bit of a mixed bag – on the one hand, they help keep the hardware minimalist and sleek. On the other, there is a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to adjust input volume levels, control interfaces, switch between different outputs and adjust the mix to each, and more. It’s definitely a more modern interpretation of an audio control surface (many other USB interfaces still just primarily user dedicated hardware switches and dials for most of these things), and so it’s going to have a learning curve for anyone used to the older way of doing things. That said, once you do figure out what everything does and what to press, in what order, it’s all relatively intuitive and easy to remember from that point on.
Where the EVO 4 really shines is in the features that Audient has added to make it more convenient and flexible than your average USB audio interface. Two in particular, Smartgain and Audio Loop-back, are immensely useful and make using the EVO 4 incredibly easy and convenient even for people inexperienced in any kind of audio recording or editing.
Smartgain, which as mentioned has a dedicated button on the top of the EVO 4, lets you automatically set the gain (essentially the input volume) level of any instrument or mic you plug into the interface for the best possible results. Typically, setting gain levels on a USB audio interface is a fully manual affair, and involves a lot of listening back to yourself either via monitors or through recordings. With Smartgain, you simply tap the button, tap the input you want to set (you can select both), and start speaking, singing or playing – after a few seconds, the button will flash green to indicate that it has set the gain level based on the volume of your input.
If you’re doing a recording where you’re both singing and playing guitar, for instance, you can set Smartgain to determine the best level for each input, which makes it super simple to record a balanced multitrack recording of both. It’s hard to understate how much time and frustration this can save in the recording process.
As for Audio Loop-back, it similarly makes it easier to record audio – but by allowing you to capture the sound coming from your computer, as well as the inputs from whatever mics or sources you have plugged into the EVO 4 itself. This is a super handy feature for something like an advanced game streaming setup, since you can use it to route the sound from any game you’re playing along with your commentary via your mic plugged into the interface to the same output source.
Audient accomplishes this without the need for any additional hardware or connections from the EVO 4 to your computer, but you will need to makes some adjustments in either the streaming or recording software you’re using, or in your computer’s audio devices settings. Luckily, the company provides clear and easy-to-follow instructions about how to do that depending on your specific needs.
Often, this kind of thing requires an additional dedicated capture device, and a much more complicated and roundabout setup in software, too. Audient building it into the EVO 4 shows that they recognize the needs of the modern market for USB audio interfaces, and it’s a great competitive advantage for the gadget over the rest of the field.
At $129, Audient’s EVO 4 is a remarkable value for a USB audio interface with these capabilities. One of the most popular devices in the same category, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, retails for $30 more, is larger and doesn’t come with any features similar to Smartgain or Audio Loop-back.
EVO 4 is compatible with PC, Mac, and iOS devices, and it’s small enough to be perfect for a portable setup, as well as taking up very little desk space. It has a matte black, lightly textured surface that looks great, and the large volume dial has graduated, clicky tactile response that makes it simple to use.
For podcasters and at-home recording artists, this is a fantastic option that packs a lot of value and quality into a sleek, feature-rich package.
Even though it’s a vast sector in the midst of transformation, manufacturing is often overlooked by early-stage investors. We surveyed top VCs in the industry to gather their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing manufacturing.
Traditionally, manufacturing companies are capital-intensive and can be slow to implement new technology and processes. The investors in the survey below acknowledge the long-standing barriers facing founders in this space, yet they see large opportunities where startups can challenge incumbents.
These investors noted that the pandemic is bringing overnight change in the manufacturing world; old rules are being rewritten in the face of worker safety, remote work and the need for increased automation. According to Eclipse Ventures founder Lior Susan, “COVID-19 has exposed the systemic vulnerabilities inherent to manufacturing and supply chain and, as such, significant opportunities for innovation. The market was lukewarm for a long time — it’s time to turn up the heat.”
What trends are you most excited about in manufacturing from an investing perspective?
Digital solutions that offer manufacturers greater agility and resilience will become major areas of focus for investors. For example, manufacturers still reliant on manual assembly were unable to build products when factories closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. While nothing would have kept production at 100%, the ability to quickly pivot and engage software-defined processes would have allowed manufacturing lines to continue building with a skeleton crew (especially important for any facility required to implement social distancing). Such systems have remote monitoring capabilities and computer vision systems to flag defeats in real-time and halt production if necessary.
When Looking Glass Factory showed of its first holographic display way back on August 2018, it felt more like a proof of concept than anything — though it was immediately an impressive concept. In November of last year, the Brooklyn-based startup showed off an 8K display that used its holographic tech.
The feeling wasn’t quite as immersive, but the form factor certainly made more sense. The system has 33.2 million pixels and relies on a 45-element light field to provide a 3D effect. I saw it at some hotel meeting room at CES. It’s really neat. And now it can be yours for some unspecified price.
The system is shipping now, when ordered through Looking Glass’s site. The target markets here are medical imaging, mapping, automotive, architecture and engineering. A press release tied to the announcement features a handful of folks in these categories who are excited at what such a technology could mean, going forward. Here’s Epic Games CTO Kim Libreri,
Having access to a glasses-free holographic display is a massive breakthrough, and presents an exciting prospect for teams working in immersive computer graphics, visualization and content creation. The Looking Glass holographic display provides a stunning level of realism, and we look forward to seeing the innovations that emerge with the support of Unreal Engine generated content.
The company is only offering pricing quotes by request through its site — which means it’s pretty likely to be cost prohibitive for those just looking to augment our remote working set up. As noted in the earlier piece, the company is targeting enterprise users with early applications — organizations that generally have money to spend on state of the art harder. More consumer-focused applications, including gaming, could be coming a ways down the road.