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Yesterday — January 21st 2021Your RSS feeds

Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product

By Darrell Etherington

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

By Matt Burns

Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder.

TechCrunch surveyed five key investors who touch different aspects of the consumer electronics industry, based on our TechCrunch List of top VCs recommended by founders, along with other sources.

We asked these investors the same six questions, and each provided similar thoughts, but different approaches:

Despite the pandemic, each identified bright spots in the consumer electronic world. One thing is clear, investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups. Multiple respondents cited Peloton, Tonal and Mirror as recent highlights in consumer electronics.

Said Shasta Venture’s Rob Coneybeer, “With all due respect to my friends at Nest (where Shasta was a Series A investor), Tonal is the most exciting consumer connected hardware company I’ve ever been involved with.”

Besides asking about the trends and opportunities they’re pursuing in 2021, the investors we spoke to also identified other investors, founders and companies who are leaders in consumer hardware and shared how they’ve reshaped their investment strategies during the pandemic. Their responses have been edited for space and clarity.


Hans Tung, GGV Capital

Which consumer hardware sector shows the most promise for explosive growth?

For consumer hardware, offering end users a differentiated experience is extremely important. Social interactions, gamification and high-quality PGC (professionally generated content) such as with Peloton, Xiaomi and Tonal is a must to drive growth. It’s also easy to see how the acceleration of the digital economy created by COVID-19 will also drive growth for hardware.

First, services improved by the speed and reliability of 5G such as live streaming, gaming, cloud computing, etc. will create opportunity for new mobile devices and global mass market consumers will continue to demand high-quality, low-cost hardware. For example, Arevo is experimenting with “hardware as a service” with a 3D printing facility in Vietnam.

For enterprise hardware, security, reliability and fast updates are key competitive advantages. Also as a result of 5G… manufacturing automation and industrial applications. Finally IoT for health and safety may find its sweet spot thanks to COVID-19 with new wearables that track sleep, fitness and overall wellness.

How did COVID-19 change consumer hardware and your investment strategy?

One opportunity for consumer hardware companies to consider as a result of COVID-19 is how they engage with their customers. They should think of themselves more like e-commerce companies, where user experience, ongoing engagement with the consumer and iteration based on market feedback rule the day. While Peloton had this approach well before COVID, it has built a $46 billion company thinking about their products in this way.

For example, some consumers felt the bike was too expensive so instead of responding with a low-end product, the company partnered with Affirm to make their hardware more affordable with pay-as-you-go plans. A Peloton bike is not a one-and-done purchase; there is constant interaction between users, and the company that drives more satisfaction in the hardware adds more value in the business.

Entering 2021, in what way is hardware still hard?

Hardware is still hard because it takes more to iterate fast. The outcome for competitors relative to speed-to-market can be dramatic. For example, every year I look at future generation of EVs with lots of innovations and cool features from existing OEMs but see very few of these making it to market compared to Tesla and other pure players that are cranking out vehicles. Their speed of execution is impressive.

Who are some leaders in consumer hardware — founders, companies, investors?

  • John Foley, founder and CEO of Peloton. John and the Peloton team have cracked the code on the integration of community experience and hardware.
  • Sonny Vu, founder of Misfit and founder/CEO of Arevo, maker of ultrastrong, lightweight continuous carbon fiber products on demand. Experienced founder and team with 3D printing manufacturing know-how at scale are now able to offer breakthrough consumer and industrial products at competitive prices.
  • Manu Jain, head of Xiaomi’s business in India where Xiaomi is the #1-selling smart phone. He built the Indian operation from the ground up; had zero dollar marketing budget for the first three years; and localized manufacturing for all Xiaomi phones sold in India.
  • Jim Xiao, founder and CEO of Mason, a rising star who is creating “mobile infrastructure as a service.”
  • Irving Fain, founder and CEO of Bowery Farming. Irving and his team are on a mission to reimagine modern farming.

Is there anything else you would like to share with TechCrunch readers?

Worry less about trends and build products that resonate with customers.

 

Dayna Grayson, Construct Capital

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

By Sarah Perez

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

Austin-based ReturnSafe raises $3.25 million for its employee health management tools

By Jonathan Shieber

ReturnSafe, a symptom checking and contact tracing employee health management toolkit for businesses, has raised $3.25 million in financing from investors including Fifty Years and Active Capital. 

With companies looking to reopen operations and have their employees return to work safely, management toolkits that track employee health are piling into the market offering all sorts of strategies to maintain a safe work environment.

These include offerings from companies like WorkSafe; or the ProtectWell tool from Microsoft and UnitedHealth; or NSpace, which has similar features and a scheduling tool for booking office space safely.

For its part, ReturnSafe is boasting six figure monthly recurring revenue and is working with 50 organizations since its launch six months ago.

The pitch to investors and customers is that the need to manage employees and ensure that workspaces are free from health risks is only going to grow in a post-COVID-19 world.

Of course, the best way for employers to ensure the safety and security of their employees is to provide adequate leave and time off if employees are sick and to ensure that everyone has access to adequate testing at regular intervals should they not be able to work remotely.

Like other companies in the market, ReturnSafe offers a symptoms screener, a testing dashboard, a case management dashboard and a new vaccine management service. In addition to those software tools, ReturnSafe pitches a set of wearable devices with built-in social distancing alarms to ensure that employees maintain safe distances. 

 

 

Apple Fitness+ launches on December 14

By Darrell Etherington

Apple is launching its subscription fitness service, which is built mainly to complement Apple Watch, on December 14. Apple Fitness+ was first announced at Apple’s iPhone event in September, and will offer guided workouts on iPhone iPad and Apple TV, with live personal metrics delivered by the Apple Watch’s health metrics monitoring.

The fitness offering will cover 10 workout types at launch, including Hight Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), strength, yoga, dance, core, cycling, indoor walking and running, as well as rowing and cooldown. All cases are led by real trainers that Apple selected to record the interactive sessions, and they’re soundtracked from “today’s top artists” according to the company.

The interactive elements are fed mostly by Apple Watch stats, and will display heart rate metrics, countdown timers, and goal achievement ‘celebration’ graphics which display on the screen when a user fills up their Apple Watch Activity rings. This is a level of direct integration that’s similar to what Peloton achieves with its service, but without requiring a whole connected stationary bike or treadmill to work.

Other distinguishing features of the service include a recommendation engine that leverages data including previous Fitness+ courses taken by a user, as well as their Apple Watch Workout App data and other third-party health and fitness app integration information from Apple Health to recommend new workouts, trainers and exercise routines. Apple’s use of third-party integrations is particularly interesting here, since it’s using its platform advantage to inform its service personalization.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple is also committing to weekly updates of new content across all categories of workouts, with varying intensity and difficult levels. Anyone using Fitness+ can also share their workouts with friends and family, and compete with others directly in the app if they want.

There’s also an optional Apple Music integration, which allows users to favorite songs and playlists directly from workouts to add them to their library, but users won’t require Apple Music in order to access the music used for the training videos, which are divided into different selectable “styles” or genres.

Apple Fitness+ is available starting December 14, and will retail for $9.99 per month, or $79.99 when paid for a twelve month period up front. It’s also part of Apple’s new Apple One Premier service bundle alongside other services.

This is definitely a major competitive service launch to existing subscription fitness offerings, including Peloton. Apple’s bundle offering, along with its system’s flexibility and syncing across its devices, could make it an easier choice for beginners and those just getting started with more serious training, though the lack of live classes might be a downside for some.

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners looks to make CA power grids more reliable with a $100 million investment

By Jonathan Shieber

Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, the company which spun out of Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to fund, develop, and own the next generation of infrastructure, has unveiled its latest project — Reslia, which focuses on upgrading the efficiency and reliability of power grids.

Through a $20 million equity investment in the startup OhmConnect, and an $80 million commitment to develop a demand response program leveraging OhmConnect’s technology and services across the state of California, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners intends to plant a flag for demand-response technologies as a key pathway to ensuring stable energy grids across the country.

‘We’re creating a virtual power plant,” said Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners co-CEO, Jonathan Winer. “With a typical power plant … it’s project finance, but for a virtual power plant… We’re basically going to subsidize the rollout of smart devices.”

The idea that people will respond to signals from the grid isn’t a new one, as Winer himself acknowledged in an interview. But the approach that Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners is taking, alongside OhmConnect, to roll out the incentives to residential customers through a combination of push notifications and payouts, is novel. “The first place people focused is on commercial and industrial buildings,” he said. 

What drew Sidewalk to the OhmConnect approach was the knowledge of the end consumer that OhmConnect’s management team brought to the table The company’s chief technology officer was the former chief technology officer of Zynga, Winer noted.

“What’s cool about the OhmConnect platform is that it empowers participation,” Winer said. “Anyone can enroll in these programs. If you’re an OhmConnect user and there’s a blackout coming, we’ll give you five bucks if you turn down your thermostat for the next two hours.”

Illustration of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners Resilia Power Plant. Image Credit: Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners

The San Francisco-based demand-response company already has 150,000 users on its platform, and has paid out something like $1 million to its customers during the brownouts and blackouts that have roiled California’s electricity grid over the past year.

The first collaboration between OhmConnect and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners under the Resilia banner will be what the companies are calling a “Resi-Station” — a 550 megawatt capacity demand response program that will use smart devices to power targeted energy reductions.

At full scale, the companies said that the project will be the largest residential virtual power plant in the world. 

“OhmConnect has shown that by linking together the savings of many individual consumers, we can reduce stress on the grid and help prevent blackouts,” said OhmConnect CEO Cisco DeVries. “This investment by SIP will allow us to bring the rewards of energy savings to hundreds of thousands of additional Californians – and at the same time build the smart energy platform of the future.” 

California’s utilities need all the help they can get. Heat waves and rolling blackouts spread across the state as it confronted some of its hottest temperatures over the summer. California residents already pay among the highest residential power prices in the counry at 21 cents per kilowatt hour, versus a national average of 13 cents.

During times of peak stress earlier in the year, OhmConnect engaged its customers to reduce almost one gigawatt hour of total energy usage. That’s the equivalent of taking 600,000 homes off the grid for one hour.

If the Resilia project was rolled out at scale, the companies estimate they could provide 5 gigawatt hours of energy conservation — that’s the full amount of the energy shortfall from the year’s blackouts and the equivalent of not burning 3.8 million pounds of coal.

Going forward, the Resilia energy efficiency and demand response platform will scale up other infrastructure innovations as energy grids shift from centralized power to distributed, decentralized generation sources, the company said. OhmConnect looks to be an integral part of that platform.

“The energy grid used to be uni-directional.. .we believe that in the near future the grid is going to be become bi-directional and responsive,” said Winer. “With our approach, this won’t be one investment. We’ll likely make multiple investments. [Vehicle-to-grid], micro-grid platforms, and generative design are going to be important.” 

Google launches Android Enterprise Essentials, a mobile device management service for small businesses

By Sarah Perez

Google today introduced a new mobile management and security solution, Android Enterprise Essentials, which, despite its name, is actually aimed at small to medium-sized businesses. The company explains this solution leverages Google’s experience in building Android Enterprise device management and security tools for larger organizations in order to come up with a simpler solution for those businesses with smaller budgets.

The new service includes the basics in mobile device management, with features that allow smaller businesses to require their employees to use a lock screen and encryption to protect company data. It also prevents users from installing apps outside the Google Play Store via the Google Play Protect service, and allows businesses to remotely wipe all the company data from phones that are lost or stolen.

As Google explains, smaller companies often handle customer data on mobile devices, but many of today’s remote device management solutions are too complex for small business owners, and are often complicated to get up-and-running.

Android Enterprise Essentials attempts to make the overall setup process easier by eliminating the need to manually activate each device. And because the security policies are applied remotely, there’s nothing the employees themselves have to configure on their own phones. Instead, businesses that want to use the new solution will just buy Android devices from a reseller to hand out or ship to employees with policies already in place.

Though primarily aimed at smaller companies, Google notes the solution may work for select larger organizations that want to extend some basic protections to devices that don’t require more advanced management solutions. The new service can also help companies get started with securing their mobile device inventory, before they move up to more sophisticated solutions over time, including those from third-party vendors.

The company has been working to better position Android devices for use in workplace over the past several years, with programs like Android for Work, Android Enterprise Recommended, partnerships focused on ridding the Play Store of malware, advanced device protections for high-risk users, endpoint management solutions, and more.

Google says it will roll out Android Enterprise Essentials initially with distributors Synnex in the U.S. and Tech Data in the U.K. In the future, it will make the service available through additional resellers as it takes the solution global in early 2021. Google will also host an online launch event and demo in January for interested customers.

Microsoft reveals Pluton, a custom security chip built into Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm processors

By Zack Whittaker

For the past two years, some of the world’s biggest chip makers have battled a series of hardware flaws, like Meltdown and Spectre, which made it possible — though not easy — to pluck passwords and other sensitive secrets directly from their processors. The chip makers rolled out patches, but required the companies to rethink how they approach chip security.

Now, Microsoft thinks it has the answer with its new security chip, which it calls Pluton. The chip, announced today, is the brainchild of a partnership between Microsoft, and chip makers Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm.

Pluton acts as a hardware root-of-trust, which in simple terms protects a device’s hardware from tampering, such as from hardware implants or by hackers exploiting flaws in the device’s low-level firmware. By integrating the chip inside future Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm central processor units, or CPUs, it makes it far more difficult for hackers with physical access to a computer to launch hardware attacks and extract sensitive data, the companies said.

“The Microsoft Pluton design will create a much tighter integration between the hardware and the Windows operating system at the CPU that will reduce the available attack surface,” said David Weston, director of enterprise and operating system security at Microsoft.

Microsoft said Pluton made its first appearance in the Xbox One back in 2013 to make it far more difficult to hack the console or allow gamers to run pirated games. The chip later graduated to Microsoft’s cloud service Azure Sphere, used to secure low-cost Internet of Things devices.

The idea now is to bring that same technology, with some improvements, to new Windows 10 devices.

The chip comes with immediate benefits, like making hardware attacks against Windows devices far more difficult to succeed. But the chip also solves a major security headache by keeping the device’s firmware up-to-date.

Whether or not the Pluton chip can stand the test of time is another matter. Most of the chip vulnerability research has been done by third-party researchers through extensive, and often tedious work. Microsoft’s Weston said the Pluton chip has undergone a security stress-test by its own internal red team and by external vendors. But that could come back to haunt the company if it got something wrong. Case in point: just last month, security researchers found an “unfixable” security flaw in Apple’s T2 security chip — a custom-built chip in most modern Macs that’s analogous to Microsoft’s Pluton — that could open up Macs to the very security threats that the chip is supposed to prevent.

Microsoft declined to say if it planned to offer the Pluton chip designs to other chip makers or if it planned to make the designs open source for anyone to use, but said it plans to share more details in the future, leaving the door open to the possibility.

Amazon’s new ‘Care Hub’ lets Alexa owners keep tabs on aging family members

By Sarah Perez

Amazon today announced a set of new features aimed at making its Alexa devices more useful to aging adults. With the launch of “Care Hub,” an added option in the Alexa mobile app, family members can keep an eye on older parents and loved ones, with their permission, in order to receive general information about their activities and to be alerted if the loved one has called out for help.

The idea behind Care Hub, the company explains, is to offer reassurance to family members concerned about an elderly family member’s well-being, while also allowing those family members to maintain some independence.

This is not a novel use case for Alexa devices. Already, the devices are being used in senior living centers and other care facilities, by way of third-party providers.

Amazon stresses that while family members will be able to keep an eye on their loved ones’ Alexa use, it will respect their privacy by not offering specific information. For example, while a family member may be able to see that their parent had played music, it won’t say which song was played. Instead, all activity is displayed by category.

In addition, users will be able to configure alerts if there’s no activity or when the first interaction with the device occurs on a daily basis.

And if the loved one calls for help, the family member designated as the emergency contact can drop in on them through the Care Hub or contact emergency services.

Image Credits: Amazon

These new features are double-opt in, meaning that both the family member and their loved one need to first establish a connection between their Alexa accounts through an invitation process. This is begun through the new Care Hub feature in the Alexa app, then confirmed via text message or email.

That may seem like a reasonable amount of privacy protection, but in reality, many older adults either struggle with or tend to avoid technology. Even things seemingly simple — like using a smartphone, email or texting — can sometimes be a challenge.

That means there are scenarios where a family member could set up the Care Hub system by accessing the other person’s accounts without their knowledge or by inventing an email that becomes “the parent’s email” just for this purpose.

Alternatively, they could just mislead mom or dad by saying they are helping them set up the new Alexa device, and — oh, can I borrow your phone to confirm something for the setup? (Or some other such deception.)

A more appropriate option to protect user privacy would be to have Alexa periodically ask the loved one if they were still okay with the Care Hub monitoring option being enabled, and to alert the loved one via the Alexa mobile app that a monitoring option was still turned on.

Of course, there may certainly be older adults who appreciate the ability to be connected to family in this way, especially if they are located at a distance from their family or are feeling isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing requirements that’s keeping family members from being able to visit.

Amazon says Care Hub is rolling out in the U.S. The company notes it will learn from customer feedback to expand the feature set over time.

Josh.ai launches a ‘nearly invisible’ Amazon Echo competitor that’s the size of a coin

By Lucas Matney

In the past several weeks we’ve seen refreshes and product expansions from about every facet of the smart home virtual assistant world. Apple launched the HomePod Mini, Google offered a long-overdue refresh of the Google Home and Amazon found even more speaker shapes to shove Alexa into.

Today, we’re getting an addition from a startup competitor. Josh.ai has aimed to build out a niche in the space by building a smart assistant product that’s designed to be professionally installed alongside other smart home wares, and they announced a new product this afternoon.

The device, Josh Nano, fully buys into a more luxury home-focused niche with a low-profile device that appears to be a little bit bigger than a half-dollar, though the bulk of the device is embedded into the wall itself and wired back to a central unit via power-over-ethernet. The device bundles a set of four microphones eschewing any onboard speaker, instead opting to integrate directly with a user’s at-home sound system. Josh boasts compatibility with most major AV receiver manufacturers in addition to partnerships with companies like Sonos . There isn’t much else to the device; a light for visual feedback, a multi-purpose touch sensor and a physical switch to cut power to the onboard microphones in case users want extra peace of mind.

Image via Josh.ai

The aim of the new hardware is to hide the smart features of a home and move away from industry-standard touchscreen hubs with dated interfaces. By stripping down a smart home product to its essential feature, Josh.ai hopes it can push more users to buy in more fully with confidence that subsequent hardware releases won’t render their devices outdated and ugly. The startup is taking pre-orders for the device (available in black and white color options) now and hopes to start shipping early next year.

Powering these devices is a product the company calls Josh Core, a small server which basically acts as a hub for everything Josh talks to in a user’s home, ensuring that interactions between smart home devices can occur locally, minimizing external requests. The startup will also continue selling its previously released Josh Micro, which integrates a dedicated speaker into the wall-mounted hardware.

Though Josh.ai partners directly with professional installers on the hardware, the startup has been scaling as a software business, offering consumers a license to their technology on an annual, five-year or lifetime basis. The price of that license also differs depending on what size home they are working with, with “small” rollouts being classified as homes with fewer than 15 rooms. In terms of hardware costs, Josh.ai says that pricing varies, but for most jobs, the average cost for users works out to be something like $500 per room.

Massive tech companies naturally design their products for massive audiences. For startups like Josh.ai this fact provides an in-road to design products that aren’t built for the common needs of a billion users. In fact, the selling point for plenty of their customers comes largely from the fact that they aren’t buying devices from Google, Amazon or Apple and hard-wiring microphones that feed back to them inside their home.

Though 95% of the startup’s business today focuses on residential, going forward, the company is also interested in scaling how their tech can be used in commercial scenarios like conference rooms or even elevators, the startup tells me.

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