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Yesterday — October 27th 2021Your RSS feeds

The Best Mesh Wi-Fi Routers

By Simon Hill
Forget about that patchy internet connection and dead spots with one of these WIRED-tested systems.
Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

Turn Your Smart Home Into a Haunted House With Spooky Tech

By Simon Hill
Add some high-tech horror to your Halloween decorations with scary sounds, frightening lights, and more.

Our Favorite Outdoor Security Cams for Your Home or Business

By Simon Hill, Adrienne So
These weatherproof devices can keep a watchful eye on your property and let you get on with life.

The Best Security Cameras for Inside Your Home

By Medea Giordano
Cameras can offer peace of mind, but choose carefully when you’re inviting one into your home.

These Smart Light Bars Will Brighten Up Your Living Room

By Simon Hill
Lights, camera, action! These affordable, colorful light bars react to onscreen activity or music.

Amazon’s Astro Is a Robot Without a Cause

By Lauren Goode
It’s the company’s first foray into mobile robots for the home, and likely not its last.

You Can Now Buy Ring’s In-Home Drone—if You’re Invited

By Lauren Goode
The flying camera from the Amazon-owned company is back.

Everything Amazon Announced—Including a Cute Security Robot

By Gear Team
At its hardware event, the retailer took the wraps off several new smart home gadgets, from a TV-sized Echo Show to an ultra-cheap smart thermostat.

HomeLight closes on $100M Series D at a $1.6B valuation as revenue surges

By Mary Ann Azevedo

HomeLight, which operates a real estate technology platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in a Series D round of funding and $263 million in debt financing.

Return backer Zeev Ventures led the equity round, which also included participation from Group 11, Stereo Capital, Menlo Ventures and Lydia Jett of the SoftBank Vision Fund. The financings bring the San Francisco-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $530 million. The equity financing brings HomeLight’s valuation to $1.6 billion, which is about triple of what it was when it raised its $109 million in debt and equity in a Series C that was announced in November of 2019.

Zeev Ventures led that funding round, as well as its Series A in 2015.

The latest capital comes ahead of projected “3x” year-over-year growth, according to HomeLight founder and CEO Drew Uher, who projects that the company’s annual revenue will triple to over $300 million in 2021. Doing basic math, we can deduce that the company saw around $100 million in revenue in 2020.

Over the years, like many other real estate tech platforms, HomeLight has evolved its model. HomeLight’s initial product focused on using artificial intelligence to match consumers and real estate investors to agents. Since then, the company has expanded to also providing title and escrow services to agents and home sellers and matching sellers with iBuyers. In July 2019, HomeLight acquired Eave as an entry into the (increasingly crowded) mortgage lending space.

“Our goal is to remove as much friction as possible from the process of buying or selling a home,” Uher said.

In January 2020, HomeLight launched its flagship financial products, HomeLight Trade-In and HomeLight Cash Offer. Since then, it has grown those products by over 700%, Uher said, in part fueled by the pandemic.

HomeLight’s Trade-In product gives its clients greater control over the timeline of their move and ability to transact, and Cash Offer gives people a way to make all cash offers on homes, “even if they need a mortgage,” he said. 

“The pandemic only highlighted many of the pain points in the real estate transaction process that we’ve been focused on solving since our founding,” Uher told TechCrunch. “Between the real estate industry’s historic information asymmetry, outdated processes and unreasonable costs — not to mention today’s record-low inventory and all-time high bidding wars — buying or selling a home can be an incredibly difficult process, even without the challenges put in place by a global pandemic.”

Image Credits: HomeLight

Then in August 2020, the company acquired Disclosures.io and launched HomeLight Listing Management, with the goal of making it easier for agents to share property information, monitor buyer interest and manage offers in one place. 

In June of 2021, HomeLight appointed Lyft chairman and former Trulia CFO Sean Aggarwal to its board.

Uher founded HomeLight after he and his wife felt the pain of trying to buy a home in the competitive Bay Area market.

“The process of buying a home in San Francisco was so frustrating it made me want to bang my head against the wall,” Uher told me at the time of HomeLight’s Series C. “I realized there were so many things wrong with the real estate industry. I went through a few real estate agents before finding the right match. So when I did find one, it made me feel empowered to compete and win against the other buyers.”

He started HomeLight with a single product, its agent matching platform, which uses “proprietary machine-learning algorithms” to analyze millions of real estate transactions and agent profiles. It claims to connect a client to a real estate agent on average “every 90 seconds.”

Over the years, Uher said that hundreds of thousands of agents have applied to be a part of the HomeLight agent network and that it has worked with over 1 million homebuyers and sellers in the U.S. Today, the company works closely with the top 28,000 of those agents across the country. HomeLight maintains that it is not trying to replace real estate agents, but instead work more collaboratively with them.

Uher said the company plans to use its new capital in part toward expanding to new markets its Trade-In and Cash Offer operations. HomeLight Trade-In and Cash Offer are currently available in California, Texas and, more recently, in Colorado.

“We plan to expand as quickly as we can across the entire country,” Uher said. “We also plan to hire aggressively in 2021 and beyond.”

HomeLight presently has over 500 employees, up from about 350 at the end of last year. The company has offices in Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Tampa, and plans to open new sites throughout the U.S. in the coming months. 

Oren Zeev, founding partner at Zeev Ventures, said he believes that HomeLIght is better positioned than any other proptech company “to reinvent the transaction experience” for agents and their clients.

“With the onset of iBuyers and other technology introduced in the past decade, many proptech companies are building products to cut agents out of the transaction process entirely,” Zeev wrote via email. “This is where HomeLight uniquely differs — and excels — from its competitors…They’re in the perfect position to revolutionize the industry.”

The 8 Best Smart Speakers With Alexa or Google Assistant

By Parker Hall, Jeffrey Van Camp
Chatty assistants from Google, Amazon, and Apple are popular. But which one is right for you?

3 ways to become a better manager in the work-from-home era

By Annie Siebert
Jeremy Epstein Contributor
Jeremy Epstein is the chief marketing officer at Gtmhub, the world’s leading SaaS provider enabling the OKR (objectives and key results) goal-setting methodology.

The average employee will prefer to work from home nearly half the time after the pandemic is over. Employees are also demanding flexible schedules and remote work, and as a result, executives are planning to reduce office space by 30%. The data surrounding the global shift to remote work is piling up and our post-pandemic professional landscape is starting to take shape.

Are you ready to lead a digital workforce?

The seismic shift in how we work requires a reassessment of how we manage, even for — or especially for — seasoned leaders. How do you wrangle a highly educated, decentralized workforce and rally them around a singular mission? How do you become a better people manager amid a workplace sea change?

As a seasoned CMO who has managed global workforces, I’ve finally hit my stride as a remote-only manager, all while navigating a global pandemic and riding my company’s unprecedented growth. What’s the secret sauce to managing today’s remote workforce? Strengthen your team by creating authentic workplace transparency, using numbers as a universal language and providing meaning behind your team’s work.

The biggest secret behind my management practices? It’s possible to produce more success with less stress. Consider these three ways I’ve strengthened my team and, in turn, become a more nimble manager.

Focus your team on meaningful work

A Harvard Business Review study found that knowledge workers are more fulfilled when they understand what organizations are trying to achieve and how their work lifts up their workplaces as a whole. In other words, meaning motivates your digital workforce.

On the surface, communicating your organization’s overarching mission, its reason for being, seems like a simple enough task. But I challenge you to ask each one of your team members to define your organization’s mission. If you have 10 employees, I bet you get nine or 10 different answers.

Instead of expecting employees to find your organization’s mission and vision on PowerPoint decks or on the website’s “about us” page, use the proven objectives and key results (OKRs) methodology.

The next piece of the puzzle helps you raise the visibility around why your employees are doing what they’re doing every day and creates a culture of motivation through meaning. Collaborate with your employees to create individual OKRs that identify goals and metrics for achievement. These OKRs should detail exactly how each employee contributes to the organization’s success and become the impetus behind everything an employee does.

I tell my workforce to review their OKRs every morning to help them focus on what’s important. It is like daily meditation for your business. So I didn’t worry when my director of marketing recently moved and had a baby. Because we had worked together to set thoughtful OKRs, my team member’s objectives and results were well defined. She knew where to focus her limited time. No distractions from the cacophony of requests. No anxiety over letting down her team. Just peace of mind that she was focusing on the right tasks.

The DOJ and DHS subpoenaed Peloton over treadmill injury reporting

By Brian Heater

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

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

Peloton writes in the filing:

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

The company declined to comment further on the investigations.

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

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

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

Which Amazon Echo or Alexa Speaker Is Best for You?

By Parker Hall, Jeffrey Van Camp
We've rounded up our favorite speakers—from the Echo Dot to a voice-enabled Yamaha soundbar—from Amazon and its partners.

This Tracker Uses Helium Hot Spots to Locate Your Valuables

By Christopher Null
Invoxia's LongFi Tracker can report the location of your car, backpack, or teenager by pinging community-operated Helium wireless devices.

These Are the Best Dyson Vacuums You Can Buy

By Matt Jancer
It's easy to get sucked into the brand's vast catalog. Here are the ones that floored us.

Apple launches a new iOS app, ‘Siri Speech Study,’ to gather feedback for Siri improvements

By Sarah Perez

Apple recently began a research study designed to collect speech data from study participants. Earlier this month, the company launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” on the App Store, which allows participants who have opted in to share their voice requests and other feedback with Apple. The app is available in a number of worldwide markets but does not register on the App Store’s charts, including under the “Utilities” category where it’s published.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the iOS app first launched on August 9 and was updated to a new version on August 18. It’s currently available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan — an indication of the study’s global reach. However, the app will not appear when searching the App Store by keyword or when browsing through the list of Apple’s published apps.

The Siri Speech Study app itself offers little information about the study’s specific goals, nor does it explain how someone could become a participant. Instead, it only provides a link to a fairly standard license agreement and a screen where a participant would enter their ID number to get started.

Reached for comment, Apple told TechCrunch the app is only being used for Siri product improvements, by offering a way for participants to share feedback directly with Apple. The company also explained people have to be invited to the study — there’s not a way for consumers to sign up to join.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

The app is only one of many ways Apple is working to improve Siri.

In the past, Apple had tried to learn more about Siri’s mistakes by sending some small portion of consumers’ voice recordings to contractors for manual grading and review. But a whistleblower alerted media outlet The Guardian that the process had allowed them to listen in on confidential details at times. Apple shortly thereafter made manual review an opt-in process and brought audio grading in-house. This type of consumer data collection continues, but has a different aim that what a research study would involve.

Unlike this broader, more generalized data collection, a focus group-like study allows Apple to better understand Siri’s mistakes because it combines the collected data with human feedback. With the Siri Speech Study app, participants provide explicit feedback on per request basis, Apple said. For instance, if Siri misheard a question, users could explain what they were trying to ask. If Siri was triggered when the user hadn’t said “Hey Siri,” that could be noted. Or if Siri on HomePod misidentified the speaker in a multi-person household, the participant could note that, too.

Another differentiator is that none of the participants’ data is being automatically shared with Apple. Rather, users can see a list of the Siri requests they’ve made and then select which to send to Apple with their feedback. Apple also noted no user information is collected or used in the app, except the data directly provided by participants.

WWDC 2021 on device privacy

Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021

Apple understands that an intelligent virtual assistant that understands you is a competitive advantage.

This year, the company scooped up ex-Google AI scientist Samy Bengio to help make Siri a stronger rival to Google Assistant, whose advanced capabilities are often a key selling point for Android devices. In the home, meanwhile, Alexa-powered smart speakers are dominating the U.S. market and compete with Google in the global landscape, outside China. Apple’s HomePod has a long way to go to catch up.

But despite the rapid progress in voice-based computing in recent years, virtual assistants can still have a hard time understanding certain types of speech. Earlier this year, for example, Apple said it would use a bank of audio clips from podcasts where users had stuttered to help it improve its understanding of this kind of speech pattern. Assistants can also stumble when there are multiple devices in a home that are listening for voice commands from across several rooms. And assistants can mess up when trying to differentiate between different family members’ voices or when trying to understand a child’s voice.

In other words, there are still many avenues a speech study could pursue over time, even if these aren’t its current focus.

That Apple is running a Siri speech study isn’t necessarily new. The company has historically run evaluations and studies like this in some form. But it’s less common to find Apple’s studies published directly on the App Store.

Though Apple could have published the app through the enterprise distribution process to keep it more under wraps, it chose to use its public marketplace. This more closely follows the App Store’s rules, as the research study is not an internally-facing app meant only for Apple employees.

Still, it’s not likely consumers will stumble across the app and be confused — the Siri Speech Study app is hidden from discovery. You have to have the app’s direct link to find it. (Good thing we’re nosy!)

Shopping for a Router Sucks. Here’s What You Need to Know

By Simon Hill
How much speed do you need? And what’s a MU-MIMO? We decipher the jargon and explain what to look for.

Audio out-of-home advertising is reinventing personalization

By Annie Siebert
Paul Brenner Contributor
Paul Brenner is the chief strategy officer and president of audio out-of-home at Vibenomics, a location-based advertising and audio experience company creating memorable in-store experiences for shoppers.

Do you remember the first time you received a personalized ad? Perhaps you discussed a product with a friend, and the next day, an advertisement for that product popped up on social media. It almost makes you think someone’s listening to your conversations, doesn’t it?

Over time, consumers have become increasingly skeptical about ads like these — and for good reason. A 2019 Accenture study found many customers felt brands communicated in a way they felt was too personal — and 71% of those customers worried how the brands had acquired personal information they hadn’t voluntarily shared.

First-, second- and third-party data make it possible to generate hyperpersonalized ads. But these data collection efforts fall short. Consumers find these methods invasive and a breach of trust — and the data collected is often inaccurate. Google’s third-party cookie is going away, and Apple has made recent changes to its Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), but no one has clarified the effect of these changes on advertisers’ or marketers’ abilities to reach and remarket consumers.

Many advertisers have begun leveraging AOOH as a more significant part of their brand and marketing strategy to improve reach, frequency and overall business outcomes.

It’s not so much that customers don’t appreciate ads targeting their interests — the concern lies in the methods marketers use to collect data and how consumers can maintain control over what personal data they choose to share. Interestingly, as consumer demands for personalization have increased, according to the 2021 State of Ad Personalization report, half of marketers have yet to invest in ad personalization.

Personalization and data play a vital role in the success of marketing and advertising campaigns today. Brands and their marketing departments must think outside the box and use a more targeted medium not predicated on invading privacy but designed, nevertheless, to provide a unique, personalized experience for in-store shoppers: audio out-of-home (AOOH) technology.

AOOH technology does not request the use of personal data to work effectively. Instead, it focuses on the in-store customer experience. AOOH broadcasts premium music and programmatic advertisements to enrich customer experiences and reach shoppers directly at the point of sale, influencing buying decisions and positively impacting sales.

The current generation of personalization and data collection

In the marketing world, personalization has many nuances. Ultimately, marketers see its goal as providing a unique experience to every individual based on personal preferences and data. The current generation of personalization in marketing is not about collecting cookies or third-party data, merchandising or guesswork.

Today’s personalization focuses instead on delivering the right content, the right offer, the right channel and, most importantly, the right sequence of events generating value exchange between the brand and the consumer.

Although consumers don’t trust superpersonalized ads, they still expect brands to offer a personalized experience. Ninety-one percent of consumers polled in another Accenture study indicated a willingness to shop brands with some form of personalization.

On the other hand, personalization in audio advertising has seen significant growth over the past 15 years, as reflected by a willingness by brands to invest in this medium. A recent report predicts an astonishing 84% growth in digital audio ad revenue for 2025 compared to 2019.

Gamified home rowing machine Aviron raises $4.5M

By Brian Heater

Along with a surge in connected fitness funding, it seems that rowing machines are really having their moment. In April, Ergatta announced a $30 million raise, last month, CityRow announced a $12 million round for its studios and home machines, and today, Aviron is announcing a $4.5 million round. A rising tide and all that good stuff.

The round, which includes Samsung Next, Formic Ventures, GFC and Y Combinator, follows $750,000 in early-stage funding. As we noted in January, the Toronto-based startup spent much of the pandemic (understandably) pivoting from gym equipment to connected home fitness. As more people look to rowing as a full-body alternative to cycling that’s much kinder on your knees than running, the company’s looking to differentiate itself through gamification.

Image Credits: Aviron

“We’re going a lot harder on the gamification side of things,” founder and CEO Andy Hoang tells TechCrunch. “And that’s the biggest differentiator between, say, us and a Peloton or a Hydro. They focus almost exclusively on instructor-led classes, while we focus on these high-intensity races and fully animated games, where you’re shooting bugs or running away from zombies.”

Last month, however, Peloton announced plans to compete more directly on the game side of things, with plans to roll out in late-2021/early 2022. The first product is a Tron-esque racing game. “Peloton created Lanebreak to complement instructor-led classes with a fresh new experience for members, giving them more ways to stay engaged and motivated with their workouts,” the company wrote in a release last month. Aviron says it’s trying to add something deeper.

“What makes Aviron really different is we’re not gamifying the fitness experience by added new graphics or achievements to the end of your workout,” says Hoang. “What we’re doing is gaming the fitness experience. What makes games really fun and exciting isn’t the bells and whistles. It’s the characters, it’s the story, discovering new things and unlocking them.”

Image Credits: Aviron

The company has already begun to increase headcount. Last time we checked in, Aviron was at 10 full-time employees. The company has increased to 25, roughly half of whom are involved in its game development team.

“We’re constantly looking for people. Content is our focus, and we’re hiring the right people for marketing and branding,” adds Hoang. “We’re doing a whole new rebrand.”

 

Amazon aims to inject new life into Alexa with release of developer tools and features

By Sarah Perez

Amazon is giving its Alexa voice platform a shot in the arm after seeing further declines in skill growth over the past year, indicating lagging interest from third-party voice app developers. At the company’s Alexa Live developer event today, the company announced a slew of new features and tools for the developer community — its largest release of new tools to date, in fact. Among the new releases are those to encourage Alexa device owners to discover and engage with Alexa skills, new tools for making money from skills, and other updates that will push customers to again make Alexa more a part of their daily routines.

The retailer’s hopes for Alexa as voice shopping platform may have not panned out as it had hoped, as only a sliver of Alexa customers actually made Amazon.com purchases through the smart speakers. However, the larger Alexa footprint and developer community remains fairly sizable, Amazon said today, noting there are “millions” of Alexa devices used “billions of times” every week, and over 900,000 registered developers who have published over 130,000 Alexa skills.

However, Amazon hasn’t yet solved the challenge of helping customers find and discover skills they want to use — something that’s been historically difficult on voice-only devices. That’s improved somewhat with the launch of Alexa devices with screens, like the Alexa Show, which offers a visual component.

Image Credits: Amazon

On this front, Amazon says it will introduce a way for developers to create Widgets for their skills which customers can then add to their Echo Show or other Alexa device with a screen sometime later this year. Developers will also be able to build Featured Skill Cards to promote their skills in the home screen rotation.

For voice-only devices, developers will now be able to have their skill suggested when Alexa responds to common requests, like “Alexa, tell me a story,” “Alexa, let’s play a game,” or “Alexa, I need a workout,” among others. Alexa will begin to offer personalized skill suggestions based on customers’ use of similar skills, while new “contextual discovery” mechanisms that will allow customers to use natural language and phrases to accomplish tasks across skills.

Amazon also said it’s expanding the ways developers can get paid for their skills.

Already, it offers tools like consumables, paid subscriptions and in-skill purchases. Now, it will add support for Paid Skills, a new in-skill purchase that allows customers to pay a one-time fee to access the content a skill provides. It will also now expand in-skill purchases to India and Canada.

Amazon will attempt to leverage the developer community to drive sales on its retail site, too. With new Shopping Actions, developers can sell Amazon products in their skill. For example, a role-playing game could suggest customers buy the tabletop version, as sci-fi game Starfinder does. Developers can also earn affiliate revenue on their product referrals.

Music and media skill developers will be able to use new tools for more entertaining experiences, like a Song Request Skill that DJs can use to take song requests via Alexa, which iHeartRadio will adopt. Others will shorten the time it takes for Radio, Podcast and Music providers to launch interactive experiences.

Other new features aim to make skills more practical and useful.

Image Credits: Amazon

For example, restaurants will gain access to a Food Skill API that will allow them to create pickup and delivery order experiences. A new “Send to Phone” feature will allow developers to connect their skill with mobile devices, and new event-based triggers and proactive suggestions will enable new experiences — like a skill that reminds users to lock their home when they are leaving. Amazon-owned Whole Foods will use these features for a curbside pickup experience arriving later this year, the company says.

Alexa replenishment support, which allows customers to reorder common household items like laundry detergent or batteries, will also expand to replacement parts to better tie in with other sorts of household and smart home devices. Thermostat makers Carrier and Resideo will use this to replenish air filters and Bissell will use this with its vacuum cleaners.

Menahile, safety device makers — like smoke, carbon-monoxide, and water leak detectors — will be able to tie into Alexa’s security system, Alexa Guard to send notifications to mobile devices.

Amazon is also introducing a set of new tools that make creating skills easier for developers, including the ability to use Alexa Entities, which is basically Amazon’s own set of general, Wikipedia-like knowledge. They’ll also gain access to new tools to aid with custom pronunciations plus the previously U.S.-only Alexa Conversations nature language feature (now in beta in Germany, developer preview in Japan, and live all English locales). A longer list of tools, detailed on Amazon’s announcement, focus on regional expansions of existing toolkits (i.e. AVS, ACK), and others that enable better interoperability with smart home devices — like those that allow for unique wake words, among others.

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