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Logitech accessory kit makes the Xbox Adaptive Controller even more accessible

20:59 | 18 November

Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller was a breath of fresh air in a gaming world that has largely failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities. Now Logitech has joined the effort to empower this diverse population with an expanded set of XAC-compatible buttons and triggers.

Logitech’s $100 Adaptive Gaming Kit comes with a dozen buttons in a variety of sizes, two large analog levers to control the triggers, and a Velcro-style pad to which they can all be securely attached. It’s hopefully the start of a hardware ecosystem that will be at least a significant fraction of the diversity available to the able population.

The visibility of gamers with disabilities has grown both as the communities have organized and communicated their needs, and as gaming itself has moved towards the mainstream. Turns out there are millions of people who, for one reason or another, can’t use a controller or mouse and keyboard the way others can — and they want to play games too.

Always one of the more reliably considerate companies when it comes to accessibility issues, Microsoft began developing the XAC a couple years back — though admittedly after years of, like the rest of the gaming hardware community, failing to accommodate disabled gamers.

Logitech was an unwitting partner, having provided joysticks for the project without being told what they were for. But when the XAC was unveiled, Logitech was stunned and chagrined.

“This is something that, shame on us, we didn’t think about,” said Mark Starrett, Logitech G’s senior global product manager. “We’ve been trying to diversify gaming, like getting more girls to play, but we totally did not think about this. But you see the videos Microsoft put out, how excited the kids are — it’s so motivating to see that, it makes you want to continue that work.”

And to their credit, the team got in contact with Microsoft soon after and said they’d like to collaborate on some accessories for the system.

In some ways this wouldn’t be particularly difficult: The XAC uses 3.5mm headphone jacks as its main input, so it can accept signals from a wide range of devices, from its own buttons and sticks to things like blow tubes, so there’s no worries about proprietary connections, for instance. But when it comes to accessible devices and systems like this, there are often other rigorous standards in place that need to be upheld throughout, so it’s necessary to work closely with both the platform provider (Microsoft) and, naturally, the people who will actually be using them.

“This community, you can’t make anything for them without doing it with them,” said Starrett. “When we design a gaming keyboard or mouse, we engage pros, players, all that stuff, right? So with this, it’s absolutely critical to watch them with every piece.”

“The biggest takeaway is that everybody is so different: every challenge, every setup, everyone we talked to,” he continued. “We had a 70, 80 year old guy who plays Destiny and has arthritis — all we really needed to do was put a block on the back of his controller, because he couldn’t pull the trigger. Then we worked with a girl who has a quadstick, she was playing Madden like a pro with something you just puff and blow on. Another guy played everything with his feet. So we spent a lot of time on the site just watching.”

The final set of buttons they arrived at includes three very large ones, four smaller ones (though still big compared with ordinary controller buttons), four “light touch” buttons that can be easily activated by any contact, and two big triggers. Because they knew different gamers would use the sets differently, there’s a set of labels in the box that can be applied however they like.

Then there are two hook and loop (i.e. Velcro) mats to which the buttons can be attached, one rigid and the other flexible, so it can be draped over a leg, the arm of a couch, etc.

Even the packaging the buttons come in is accessible: A single strip of tape pulls out and causes the whole box to unfold, and then everything is in non-sealed reusable bags. The guide is wordless so it can be used in any country, by any player.

It’s nice to see such consideration at work, and no doubt the players who will benefit from these products will be happy to have a variety of options to choose from. I was starting to think I could use a couple of these buttons myself.

Starrett seemed very happy with the results, and also proud that the work had started something new at Logitech.

“The groups we talked to brought a lot of different things to mind for us,” he said. “We’re always updating things, but now we’re updating everything with an eye to accessibility. It’s helped Logitech as a company to learn about this stuff.”

You can pick up Logitech’s Adaptive Gaming kit here for $100.

 


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John Legere is stepping down as CEO of T-Mobile, succeeded by deputy Mike Sievert on May 1

17:18 | 18 November

He’s reportedly not going to take over WeWork, but John Legere is definitely on his way out of the CEO role at T-Mobile, the carrier that is currently merging with SoftBank-controlled Sprint. Today the carrier and Legere confirmed that Mike Sievert — currently T-Mobile’s COO — will succeed Legere as CEO on May 1 of 2020. Legere will stay on the board.

Neither Legere or T-Mobile commented on what his next move will be, and specifically if this will pave the way to him taking over the top job at WeWork. There had been reports that Legere — something of a turnaround specialist — was being lined up for the job at the very troubled office-space startup, which had to shelve its IPO earlier this year after showing poor financials amid questionable management that not only led to the departure of its founder Adam Neumann as CEO, but a strong devaluation of the company that resulted in SoftBank, as a major creditor, taking control.

The reports of Legere coming in to fix things at WeWork seemed to get refuted quite swiftly. However, the same “sources” that quashed that story also insisted he had “no plans” to leave T-Mobile, so that effectively puts the WeWork rumors (or thoughts of other SoftBank roles, for that matter) back on the table. We’ve asked Legere directly and will update this post if he replies.

Legere has been with T-Mobile since 2012, where he used his irreverent personality to directly spar with the industry while at the same time position the carrier — which has long trailed bigger competitors like AT&T and Verizon (which owns us) in size — as a growth story and different from the pack (hence the “un-carrier” marketing strategy).

Sievert will be tasked with continuing that route, T-Mobile said, “demonstrating that T-Mobile will remain a disruptive force in US wireless marketplace to benefit consumers.”

“I hired Mike in 2012 and I have great confidence in him. I have mentored him as he took on increasingly broad responsibilities, and he is absolutely the right choice as T-Mobile’s next CEO,” said Legere in a statement. “Mike is well prepared to lead T-Mobile into the future. He has a deep understanding of where T-Mobile has been and where it needs to go to remain the most innovative company in the industry. I am extremely proud of the culture and enthusiasm we have built around challenging the status quo and our ongoing commitment to putting customers first.”

“The Un-carrier culture, which all our employees live every day, will not change,” Sievert said in a separate statement. “T-Mobile is not just about one individual. Our company is built around an extraordinarily capable management team and thousands of talented, committed, and customer-obsessed employees. Going forward, my mission is to build on T-Mobile’s industry-leading reputation for empowering employees to deliver an outstanding customer experience and to position T-Mobile not only as the leading mobile carrier, but as one of the most admired companies in America.”

Regardless of whether this is a sign that SoftBank indeed has a job lined up for Legere at one of its other portfolio companies, such as WeWork, the changing of the guard makes some sense, since the merger with Sprint would leave a question mark over who would lead the combined business. The two companies were reportedly close to releasing a management line-up for the merged business earlier this year, but that has yet to happen. The merger is due to be completed early next year.

 

 


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Bolt Bikes launches e-bike subscription platform for gig delivery workers in U.S., UK

16:00 | 18 November

Bolt Bikes, the Sydney, Australia-based startup founded in 2017, is taking its electric bike platform designed for gig economy delivery workers to the U.S. and UK.

The company is expanding on the heels of a $2.5 million seed round led by Maniv Mobility, European e-mobility firm Contrarian Ventures, individual investors and former executives of Uber and Deliveroo . The company was founded by Mina Nada, former Deliveroo and Mobike executive) and Michael Johnson, a former Bain & Co executive.

Bolt Bikes now provides its flexible subscriptions, which include vehicle servicing, in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, San Francisco and London. The company sells its electric bikes. But the main premise is to rent them out for commercial use. The electric bikes are rented on a week-to-week contract for $39.

The Bolt Bikes platform includes a the electric bike, fleet management software, financing and servicing. Subscribers get 24-hour access to the bike. A battery charger, phone holder, phone USB port, secure U-Lock and safety induction is included. Bolt Bikes also offers the first week as a free trial.

“Being in the food delivery industry since its inception, we saw that light electric vehicles were the real future of ‘last mile’ logistics, yet no-one was offering the right vehicle, financing or maintenance solution,” Nada said in a statement.

Bolt Bikes has piqued the interest of more than investors. Postmates has been piloting a Bolt Bikes rental program in San Francisco since June.

And the company has aspirations to increase its fleet and to expand to more cities in the U.S., UK and Australia.

 


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Fertility startup Mojo wants to take the trial and error out of IVF

14:00 | 18 November

Fertility tech startup Mojo is coming out of stealth to announce a €1.7 million (~$1.8M) seed round of funding led by Nordic seed fund Inventure. Also participating are Doberman and Privilege Ventures (an investor in Ava), plus a number of angel investors including Josefin Landgard (founder and ex-CEO of Kry) and Hampus Jakobsson (partner at BlueYard, BA in Clue & Kind.app).

Mojo’s mission, says co-founder and CEO Mohamed Taha, is to make access to fertility treatment more affordable and accessible by using AI and robotics technology to assist in sperm and egg quality analysis, selection and fertilization to reduce costs for clinics. Only by reducing clinics’ costs will the price fall for couples, he suggests.

“What the AI does in our technology stack from now until our roadmap is completed, product wise, is to look at sperm, look at eggs, look at data and ensure that the woman or the couple get precise treatment or the precise embryo that yields healthy baby,” he tells TechCrunch. “The role of robotics is to ensure that the manipulations/procedures are done precisely and at reduced time compared to nowadays, and also accurately.”

The idea for the business came to Taha after he was misdiagnosed with a kidney condition while still a student. His doctor suggested freezing his sperm as a precaution against deterioration in case he wanted to father a child in the future, so he started having regular sperm tests. “I was super annoyed with one particular fact,” he says of this. “Every time I do a sperm test I get a different result.”

After speaking to doctors the consensus view of male fertility he heard was “I shouldn’t care about my fertility — worst case scenario all that they need from me is one sperm”. He was told it would be his future partner who would be put on IVF to “take the treatment for me”. Doctors also told him there was little research into male fertility, and therefore into sperm quality — such as which sperm might yield a healthy baby or could result in a miscarriage. And after learning about what IVF entailed, Taha says it struck him as a “tough” deal for the woman.

“It’s completely blackbox,” he says of male fertility. “I also learned that in terms of IVF or ART [assisted reproductive technologies] everything, pretty much, is done manually. And everything, pretty much, also is done at random — you select a random sperm, they fertilize it with a random egg. Hopefully the technician who’s doing it manually knows his or her job. And in the end there’s going to be an embryo that will be implanted.”

He says he was also struck by the fact the ‘trial and error’ process only works 25% of the time in high end laboratories, yet can prospective parents between €40,000-€100,000 for each round of treatment. “This is where the idea of the company came from,” he adds. Mojo’s expectation for their technology is that it will be able to increase IVF success rates to 75% by 2030.

The team started work in 2016 as a weekend project during their PhDs. Taha initially trained as an electrical engineer before going on to do a PhD in nanotechnology, investigating new and affordable materials for use as biosensors. It was the microscopes and robotic arms that he and his co-founders, Fanny Chesa, Tobias Boecker, Daniel Thomas, were using in the labs to examine nanoparticles and select specific particles for insertion into other media that led them to think why not adapt this type of technology for use in fertility clinics — as an alternative to purely manual selection and fertilization.

“We just completely automate everything to ensure that the procedure is done faster, better and at the same time more reliably,” Taha says of the concept for Mojo. “No randomness. Understand the good from the bad.”

That — at least — is the theory. To be clear, they don’t yet have their proposition robustly proved out nor productized at this stage. Their intended first product, called Mojo Pro, is still pending certification as a medical device in the EU, for example. But the plan, should everything go to plan, is to get it to market next summer, starting in the UK.

This product, a combination of microscopy hardware and AI software, will be sold to fertility clinics (under a subscription model) to offer an analysis service consisting of a sperm count and quality check — as a first service for couples to determine whether or not the man has a fertility problem.

Initially, Mojo’s computer vision analysis system is focused on sperm counts, automating what Taha says is currently a manual process, as well as assessing some basic quality signals — such as the speed and morphology of the sperm. For example, a sperm with two heads or two tails would be an easy initial judgement call to weed out as “bad”, he suggests.

“The first product is to look at the sperm and say if this man experiences infertility or not. So we have a smart microscopy — built custom in-house. And this is where the element of the robotics comes in,” he explains. “At the same time we put on it an AI that looks at a moving sperm sample. Then, through looking at this, the system on Mojo Pro will tell us what is the sperm count, what is the sperm mobility (how fast they move) and what is the predominant shape of the sperm.

“The second part is the selection of the sperm [i.e. if the sample is needed for IVF]. Now we ensure that good sperm is being selected. This microscopy will look at the same and visually will guide the embryologist to pick the good sperm — that’s highlighted around, for example, by a green box. Good sperm have green boxes around them, bad sperm have red boxes around them so they can pick up through their current techniques the sperm that are highlighted green.”

Mojo

Based on internal testing of Mojo Pro the system has achieved 97% of the accuracy of a manual sperm count so far, per Taha, who says further optimization is planned.

Though he admits there’s no standardization of sperm counts in the fertility industry — which means such comparative metrics offer limited utility, given the lack of robust benchmarks.

“The way we are going with this is we’re really choosing the best of the best practitioners and we are just comparing our work against them for now,” is the claim. (Mojo’s lab partner for developing the product is TDL.)

“We will try to introduce new standards for ourselves,” he adds.

The current research focus is: “What are the visuals to make sure the sperm is good or bad; how to actually measure the sperm sample, the sperm count; in terms of morphology… how we can incorporate a protocol that can be the gold standard of computer vision or AI looking at sperm?”

The wider goal for the business is to understand much more about the role that individual sperm and eggs play in yielding a healthy (or otherwise) embryo and baby.

Taha says the team’s ultimate goal is “automating the fertilization process”, again with the help of applied AI and robotics (and likely also incorporating genetic testing to screen for diseases).

He points out that in many markets couples are choosing to conceive later in life. The big vision, therefore, is to develop new assisted reproductive technologies that can support older couples to conceive healthy babies.

“Generally speaking we leave our fertility to chance — which is sex… So there’s a little bit of randomness in the process. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad — it’s how the body functions. But when you hit later ages, 30 or 40, we face biological deficiencies which means the quality of the eggs are not good any more, the quality of the sperm might not be good any more, if fertilization happens with old gametes… you are not sure there is a healthy baby. So we need technology to play a role here.

“Imagine a couple at the age of 40 who want to conceive a baby ten, twelve years from now. What happens if this couple have the possibility of the sperm of the man to be shipped somewhere, the egg of the woman to be shipped somewhere and they get fertilized using high end technology, and they get informed once the embryo is ready to be implanted. This is where we believe the consumer game will be in the future,” he says.

“We envisage ourselves going from just working with clinics in the coming ten years… making our AI and our robotics really flawless at manipulation, and then we are envisaging of having as consumer-facing way where we ensure people have healthy babies. Not necessarily this will be a clinic but it will be somehow where fertilization will happen in our facilities.”

“I’m not speaking about super humans or designer babies,” he adds. “I’m speaking about ensuring at a later stage of the conception journey to have a healthy baby. And this is where we see ART can actually be the way to procreate at later stages in order to ensure that the baby is healthy then there should be new technologies that just give you a healthy baby — and not mess up with your body.”

Of course this is pure concept right now. And Taja concedes that Mojo doesn’t even have data to determine “good” sperm from “bad” — beyond some basic signifiers.

But once samples start flowing via customers of the first product they expect to be able to start gathering data (with permission) to support further research into the role played by individual sperm and eggs in reproduction — looking at the whole journey from sperm and egg selection through to embryo and baby.

Though getting permission for all elements of the research they hope to do may be one potential barrier.

“Once the first module is in the market we will be collecting data,” he says. “And this data that we’ll be collecting will go and be associated with the live births or the treatment outcome. And with that we’ll understand more and more what is a good sperm, what is a bad sperm.

“But we need to start from somewhere. And this somewhere right now what we’re relying on is the knowledge that good practitioners have in the field.”

Taha says he and his co-founders actively started building the company in January 2018, taking in some angel investment, along with government grants from France and the EU’s Horizon 2020 research pot.

They’ve been building the startup out of Lyon, France but the commercial team will shortly be moving to the UK ahead of launching Mojo Pro.

In the short term the hope is to attract clinics to adopt the Mojo Pro subscription service as a way for them to serve more customers, while potentially helping couples reduce the number of IVF cycles they have to go. Longer term the bet is that changing lifestyles will only see demand for data-fuelled technology-assisted reproduction grow.

“Now we help streamline laboratory processes in order to help the 180M people who have fertility problems have access to fertility at an affordable price and reliable manner but also we have an eye on the future — what happens when genetic testing… [plays] an important role in the procreation and people will opt for this,” he adds.

 


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Mustang Mach-E: 5 Tech and Design Details That Stood Out

10:07 | 18 November

Ford finally showed the world its highly anticipated all-electric crossover, the Mustang Mach-E. The vehicle, which was unveiled Sunday at the Hawthorne Airport and in Tesla’s backyard, marks a series of firsts for Ford and the Mustang badge.

It’s the first vehicle to come out of Team Edison, the automaker’s dedicated electric vehicle organization. It’s not only the first electric Mustang, it’s also an SUV. 

TechCrunch has had an up close look and ride in the Mach-E. While there’s a lot to highlight, here are some of the details that stood out.

Door handles

Ford went an entirely new direction with the door handles on the Mustang Mach-E. You won’t find any Tesla lookalike door handles here. The doors seem to be lacking handles at all. A closer look though reveals illuminated buttons on the B and C pillars. The front doors also have a small, protruding handle located just under the button to grab onto.

Pressing the button for the backdoor immediately pops it open just slightly. Then the passenger reaches into the ajar door to hit the latch. This might sound dangerous and apt for a crushed finger. Except there’s an immediate safety in place that doesn’t allow the door to close.

Owners will be able to also use their smartphone to unlock the Mustang Mach-E. This phone as a key technology is new to Ford.

Tech tray

It’s a seemingly small detail, but so many automakers ignore that their customers have smartphones and want to put these devices somewhere other than a cup holder. Behold the tech tray, which has wireless charging pad.

The cup holders, located just below the tech tray, can be used to hold actual cups.

Infotainment system

The 15.5-inch screen will get a lot of attention, perhaps because its location and vertical placement is reminiscent of the Tesla Model S. But then there’s the physical dial placed on the bottom of the screen to control the volume.

Ford Mustang Mach-E screen

While not everyone will love this feature, it’s interesting how this dial came to be. Team Edison was assembled in 2017 to do more than create a new electric vehicle. It was created to do it differently and much faster than a typical vehicle program.

How the look and functionality of the infotainment system was developed is an example of this newfound nimbleness. A group of just over a dozen people with minimal oversight started with a research trip to China. Further customer research revealed that people wanted native apps in their car’s infotainment system and they didn’t want to learn anything new, Philip Mason, who is on Team Edison’s user experience, said during a backgrounder event prior to unveiling.

A prototype of physical dial was put together quickly — no fancy prototypes — and research groups responded positively.

The infotainment system is also cloud connected, allowing it to show traffic in real-time in navigation feature, has natural language, activated by one of four “wake words” like OK, Ford, and allows users to create personal profiles. The system learns the behavior and likes of the user over time.

And the entire system will be updated and improved via over-the-air software updates.

Vegan interior

Ford is hardly the first to move away from leather for its interior. Tesla has dropped leather and the Porsche Taycan is also vegan. Now the interior of the Mustang Mach-E also qualifies.

The synthetic material is among the better faux leather materials TechCrunch has come across. Even the steering wheel, a challenging area for synthetics, feels good.

Ford Mustang Mach-E interior

Frunk

A front trunk in an all-electric vehicle is nothing new. The Mustang Mach-E doesn’t have the biggest frunk on the market; it’s not the smallest either.

But there is something interesting about this 4.8-cubic-inch frunk. It’s drainable and plastic lined. Josh Greiner, senior interior designer on the Mach-E, was quick to note during a backgrounder prior to the unveiling that the frunk could be packed with ice and used while tailgating.

 


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Northzone raises new $500M fund to back startups in Europe (and the East Coast, US)

03:00 | 18 November

Northzone, the European VC firm that’s probably best-known for being an early backer of Spotify, has raised a new $500 million fund, which it claims was oversubscribed and will reach its final close imminently.

Dubbed “Northzone IX,” the new fund pretty much represents business as usual for Northzone and will be used to invest primarily at Series A and B, with “selective” Seed investments (as many Series A firms increasingly do).

Geographically, Northzone is targeting Europe and the East Coast of the U.S., and is eyeing up early-stage consumer and enterprise companies that are addressing “large and established industries saddled with legacy technology”. This includes financial services, healthcare, education, mobility and construction.

The VC firm is also announcing two promotions. Hello Fresh co-founder Jessica Schultz and Dots co-founder Paul Murphy have been promoted to General Partners, in addition to existing GPs Pär-Jörgen Pärson, Jeppe Zink, and Michiel Kotting.

“Tech businesses are becoming giants in new industries like construction, food, and finance,” says Murphy, during a telephone interview alongside Schultz and Kotting. “And these industries are 4 trillion to 10 trillion in size, so quite a bit bigger than media, which is where most of the focus has been in the past few decades. I think it’s exciting, we look at huge addressable markets, both in terms of existing incumbents, and consumers and users and businesses. But it’s also challenging because it means we do sort of become, you know, pretty deep on multiple industries, instead of just one”.

To manage this, Murphy explains that Northzone takes a “thematic approach” to investing, whereby themes cut across sectors. “So it could be a certain theme that leads us to a finTech investment or to a mobility investment,” he says. “We try to let the themes take us where they take us, instead of having to focus in on one particular sector”.

“I think our strategy is still looking for founders with huge ambition and conviction to build transformative businesses,” adds Schultz.

With an avalanche of new European VC funds being announced — I chalk this up as the fourth I’ve covered in the last week, I posit that we could be in a bubble or at least somewhat frothy times.

“I think that there’s always cycles,” says Murphy. “And I think where we are in this cycle, there’s a lot of people that are speculating. I think the broad macro climate indicates that we’re maybe at the high end of that cycle, and tech is core to many, many countries’ economy now. So I don’t want to claim that we’re immune to any sort of downturn that may come.

“That said, as I mentioned before, tech is now going after industries that are exponentially larger than what they’ve gone after in the past. There is a whole lot of opportunity out there. Yes, there’s more funds than ever, but if we want to fully capture all of the opportunities that exist around the world in tech, I think we need many more funds than exists today”.

“I think that’s where we have the benefit of history a little bit, as we’ve been in the business for 23 years now,” says Schultz. “We’ve seen a lot of the downturns from dot com boom to the financial crisis in 2008. And I think that also gives us a little bit of a perspective on the opportunities you get in the downturns and also the important areas to focus on during challenging market conditions. As Paul said, we think there will still be a lot of opportunities regardless of the economic cycles”.

The key to VC investing, regardless of cycle, is to stay disciplined “and look for the fundamentals of the businesses” that fit a long term view of how the world is changing.

Somewhat related to this, although Northzone isn’t able to disclose a list of its LPs — who are said to be a mixture of existing investors and new ones — General Partner Michiel Kotting says the majority are in Europe.

“We have always maintained that as a European product, we want predominantly European investors behind us. So it’s an awful lot of European but we’re not one of these EIF [European Investment Fund] dominated funds at all. And we also have systematically stepped up Asian and U.S. LPs in recent years. But the key thing for us is, we learned that lesson a decade ago, you can’t be a European product and be dominated by U.S. or Asian LPs. Because when a financial crisis comes around, they tend to drop those sort of products first. So we’ve always made sure that we have a natural alignment with our LP base”.

 


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Max Q: SpaceX starts building out its production Starlink constellation

02:11 | 18 November

There’s literally a lot more stuff in space than there was last week – or at least, the number of active human-made satellites in Earth’s orbit has gone up quite a bit, thanks to the launch of SpaceX’s first 60 production Starlink satellites. This week also saw movement in other key areas of commercial space, and some continued activity in early-stage space startup ecosystem encouragement.

Some of the ‘New Space’ companies are flexing the advantages that are helping them shake up an industry typically reserved for just a few deep-pocketed defence contractors, and NASA is getting ready for planetary space exploration in more ways than one.

1. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites

The 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched this week are the first that aren’t specifically designated as tester vehicles, even though it launched a batch of 60 earlier this year, too. These ones will form the cornerstone of between 300-400 or so that will provide the first commercial service to customers in the U.S. and Canada next year, if everything goes to SpaceX’s plan for its new global broadband service.

Aside from being the building blocks for the company’s first direct-to-consumer product, this launch was also an opportunity for SpaceX to show just how far its come with reusability. It flew the company’s first recovered rocket fairing, for instance, and also used a Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time – and landed it, so that it can potentially use it on yet another mission in the future.

2. Rocket Lab’s new room-sized robot can don in 12-hours what used to take ‘hundreds’

Rocket Lab is aiming to providing increasingly high-frequency launch capabilities, and the company has a new robot to help it achieve very quick turnaround on rocket production: Rosie. Rosie the Robot can produce a launch vehicle about once every 12 hours – handling the key task of processing the company’s Electron carbon composite stages in a way that cuts what used to take hundreds of manual work hours into something that can be done twice a day.

3. SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire test

This is big because the last time SpaceX fired up the Crew Dragon’s crucial SuperDraco thrust system, it exploded and took the capsule with it. Now, the crew spacecraft can move on to the next step of demonstrating an in-flight abort (the emergency ‘cancel’ procedure that will let astronauts on board get out with their lives in the case of a post-launch, mid-flight emergency) and then it’s on to crewed tests.

4. Virgin Galactic’s first paying customers are doing their astronaut training

It’s not like they’ll have to get out and fix something in zero gravity or anything, but the rich few who have paid Virgin Galactic $250,000 per seat for a trip to space will still need to train before they go up. They’ve now begun doing just that, as Virgin looks to the first half of next year for its first commercial space tourism flights.

5. TechStars launches another space tech accelerator

They have a couple now, and this new one is done in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, along with allied government agencies in The Netherlands and Norway. This one doesn’t require that participants relocated to a central hub for the duration of the program, which should mean more global appeal.

6. NASA funds new Stingray-inspired biomimetic spacecraft

Bespin’s cloud cars were cool, but a more realistic way to navigate the upper atmosphere of a gaseous planet might actually be with robotic stingrays that really flap their ‘fins.’ Yes, actually.

7. Blue Origin’s lunar lander partner Draper talks blending old and new space companies

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced a multi-partner team that will work on the company’s lunar lander, and its orbital delivery mechanism. A key ingredient there is longtime space industry experts Draper, which was born out of MIT and which is perhaps most famous for having developed the Apollo 11 guidance system. Draper will be developing the avionics and guidance systems for Blue Origin’s lunar lander, too, and Mike Butcher caught up with Draper CEO Ken Gabriel to discuss. (Extra Crunch subscription required)

 


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Army photogrammetry technique makes 3D aerial maps in minutes

23:45 | 16 November

Aerial imagery is a common asset in military matters, but 3D maps can be difficult to collect on short notice without specialized equipment. This new photogrammetry technique from the Army Corps of Engineers, however, can make accurate 3D maps from ordinary aerial footage in just minutes.

Photogrammetry is the process of comparing multiple photos of the same location or item to produce a 3D map of it. It’s a well-known method but in some cases is still reliable on human intelligence to determine, for instance, which frames of a video should be used to produce the best results.

Ricky Massaro from the Army’s Geospatial Research Laboratory in Virginia has mitigated that problem and produced a highly efficient photogrammetric method that can turn aerial imagery into accurate 3D surface maps in near real-time without any human oversight.

This image shows the depth map as color – red being higher. It was created from combining multiple 2D images.

The system was tested by the 101st Airborne, which flew a drone over Fort Campbell in Kentucky and mapped a mock city used for training exercises. It was also deployed in Iraq for non-combat purposes. So this isn’t stuck in a lab somewhere — it’s been put to work, and is now being publicized because the patent filing is in and the Army is now negotiating to commercialize the system.

“Whether it’s for soldiers or farmers, this tech delivers usable terrain and intelligence products fast,” said Quinton King, a manager at TechLink, the Defense Department’s commercial tech transfer organization. “And I’m happy to help companies learn how they can leverage Dr. Massaro’s work for their own products or applications.”

The real-time photogrammetry wouldn’t replace lidar or ground-based mapping systems, but act in concert with them. Being able to produce accurate depth from ordinary aerial imagery, and without having to send tons of data to a central location or involve human experts, makes it adaptable to a variety of situations. If you’re curious about the specifics, you can check out the patent application here.

 


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This Week in Apps: Apple’s vaping app ban, Disney+ gets installed, apps gear up for Black Friday

18:41 | 16 November

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support, and the money that flows through it all. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

As mid-November rolls around, we’re looking at a few big stories, including Apple’s decision to ban an entire category of apps due to health concerns, the launch of Disney+ from an app perspective, what Black Friday will mean for e-commerce apps, and more.

Fast Facts

With Disney+’s huge launch (10+ million users!) on everyone’s minds, it’s time to think about what these streaming newcomers mean for the overall landscape and the app stores. In this case, it seems that Disney+’s user base was highly mobile. The company itself announced more than 10 million users, while data on the Disney+ app’s first few days indicates it now has over 10 million downloads. It seems like consumers definitely want to take their new streaming service with them everywhere they go.

  • In 2020, App Annie forecasts consumers will spend more than 674 billion hours in the Entertainment and Video Player and Editor categories worldwide on Android phones, up from an expected 558 billion hours in 2019. Thanks to Disney+, Apple TV+ and soon, HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi, to making the landscape both richer and more complicated.
  • On its launch day, Disney+ hit #1 by iPhone Overall downloads at 8 AM in the U.S. and at 11 AM in Canada — an indication of the ability that strong IP has can really excite consumers to come out in droves. (Unfortunately, that led to some launch day glitches, too.)
  • Apptopia estimated Disney+ was downloaded 3.2 million times in its first 24 hours. The firm also estimated users collectively spent 1.3 million hours watching Disney+ on day one — ahead of Amazon Prime Video, but well behind Netflix.

  • Sensor Tower waited to collect a little more data instead. It found that the Disney+ app was installed approximately 9.6 million times in all available markets (the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands), since its U.S. launch on Tuesday, Nov. 12. For comparison’s sake, HBO Now’s U.S. launch only saw 180,000 installs in its first three days — or 2% of the Disney+ total. Combined with the test period installs in the Netherlands, the app has now been installed over 10 million times.
  • The hype around Disney+ has had a halo effect. Hulu and ESPN, which were offered in a bundle with Disney+, also grew as a result of the Disney+ launch. Sensor Tower found combined users of the apps in the U.S. and Canada were up 30% in the past week over the week prior.

Headlines

Apple removed all vaping apps from the App Store, citing CDC health concerns

The CDC says 42 people have died due to vaping product use and thousands more cases of lung injuries have been reported from 49 states. Now, Apple has made the controversial decision to remove all 181 vaping-related apps from its App Store — including those with news and information about vaping and even vaping-related games, Axios reported this week.

Some say Apple is helping to protect kids and teens by limiting their exposure to e-cigarette and vaping products, which are being used to addict a younger generation to nicotine and cause serious disease. Others argue that Apple is over-reaching. After all, many of the lung illnesses involve people who were vaping illegally obtained THC, studies indicated.

This isn’t the first time Apple has banned a category of apps because of what appear to be moral concerns. The company in the past had booted apps that promoted weed or depicted gun violence, for example. In the case of vaping apps, Apple cited the public health crisis and youth epidemic as contributing factors, telling Axios that:

We take great care to curate the App Store as a trusted place for customers, particularly youth, to download apps. We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence, to determine risks to users’ health and well-being. Recently, experts ranging from the CDC to the American Heart Association have attributed a variety of lung injuries and fatalities to e-cigarette and vaping products, going so far as to call the spread of these devices a public health crisis and a youth epidemic. We agree, and we’ve updated our App Store Review Guidelines to reflect that apps encouraging or facilitating the use of these products are not permitted. As of today, these apps are no longer available to download.

Existing users will still be able to use their apps, but new users will not be able to download the banned apps going forward.

Minecraft Earth arrives 

Minecraft Earth launched early last week across 9 countries on both Android and iOS and now it’s come to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and several other markets. Some expect the app will rival the success of the AR breakout hit, Pokémon Go, which was thought at the time to be the precursor to a new wave of massive AR gaming titles. But in reality, that didn’t happen. The highly anticipated follow-up from Niantic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite didn’t come close to competing with its predecessor, generating $12 million in its first month, compared with Pokémon Go’s first-month earnings of $300 million. With Minecraft Earth now sitting at No. 2 (c’mon, you can’t unseat Disney+) on the U.S. App Store, it seems there’s potential for another AR kingpin.

App Annie releases a user acquisition playbook

A top name in App Store intelligence, App Annie this week released a new how-to handbook focused on user acquisition strategies on mobile. Sure the free download is just a bit of lead gen for App Annie, but the guide promises to fill you in on all you need to know to be successful in acquiring mobile users. The playbook’s arrival follows App Annie’s acquisition of adtech insights firm Libring this fall, as it expands to cover more aspects of running an app business. Just as important as rankings and downloads are the very real costs associated with running an app business — including the cost of acquiring users.

 


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Those crappy pre-installed Android apps can be full of security holes

02:00 | 16 November

If you’ve ever bought a low-to-mid range Android phone, there’s a good chance you booted it up to find it pre-loaded with junk you definitely didn’t ask for.

These pre-installed apps can be clunky, annoying to remove, rarely updated… and, it turns out, full of security holes.

Security firm Kryptowire built a tool to automatically scan a large number of Android devices for signs of security shortcomings and, in a study funded by the US Department of Homeland Security, ran it on phones from 29 different vendors. Now, the majority of these vendors are ones most people have never heard of — but a few big names like Asus, Samsung, and Sony make appearances.

Kryptowire says they found vulnerabilities of all different varieties, from apps that can be forced to install other apps, to tools that can be tricked into recording audio, to those can silently mess with your system settings. Some of the vulnerabilities can only be triggered by other apps that come pre-installed (thus limiting the attack vector to those along the supply chain); others, meanwhile, can seemingly be triggered by any app the user might install down-the-road.

Kryptowire has a full list of observed vulnerabilities here, broken down by type and manufacturer. The firm says it found 146 vulnerabilities in all.

As Wired points out, Google is well aware of this potential attack route. In 2018 it launched a program called the Build Test Suite (or ‘BTS’) that all partner OEMs must pass. BTS scans a device’s firmware for any known security issues hiding amongst its pre-installed apps, flagging these bad apps as ‘Potentially Harmful Applications’ (or ‘PHAs’). As Google puts it in its 2018 Android security report:

OEMs submit their new or updated build images to BTS. BTS then runs a series of tests that look for security issues on the system image. One of these security tests scans for pre-installed PHAs included in the system image. If we find a PHA on the build, we work with the OEM partner to remediate and remove the PHA from the build before it can be offered to users.

During its first calendar year, BTS prevented 242 builds with PHAs from entering the ecosystem.

Anytime BTS detects an issue we work with our OEM partners to remediate and understand how the application was included in the build. This teamwork has allowed us to identify and mitigate systemic threats to the ecosystem.

Alas, one automated system can’t catch everything — and when an issue does sneak by, there’s no certainty that a patch or fix will ever arrive (especially on lower end devices, where longterm support tends to be limited.)

We reached out to Google for comment on the report, but have yet to hear back.

 


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