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Main article: Wearables

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Deep data running wearable NURVV closes $9M Series A led by Hiro Capital

05:08 | 7 February

Launched at CES 2020, NURVV, a biomechanics startup, has closed a $9m Series A round, led by Hiro Capital, the sports/Esports VC fund, along with co-investment from Ian Livingstone CBE (Games Workshop co-founder) and Cherry Freeman (co-founder of LoveCrafts).

It turns out that if you can figure out how to protect a smartphone from smashing, you can also work out how high a basketball player can jump.

Jason Roberts founded Tech21, one of the world’s leading smartphone case manufacturers. He and his co-founder and wife Ulrica have now used that knowledge to launch new wearable tech product, which, when inserted into the sole of a shoe, can measure the strike of a foot on the ground, or the leap of its wearer.

The wearable uses 32 sensors fitted inside lightweight insoles to capture data from the feet at 1,000 times per second, per sensor.

The money will be used to bring NURVV’s debut product, NURVV Run, to a global market and fund further R&D.

Featured among the best lists of Wired, CNET and Gear Patrol, the wearable has also been tested by the UK’s National Physical Laboratory over the past three years,

It can measure running metrics such as cadence, step length, footstrike, pronation and balance, feeding the data into the NURVV Run coaching app to show a picture of the wearer’s running technique, and thus helping runners improve their technique and pace.

While runners are already able to collect a huge amount of data about their run, the data is always after the run. Jason Roberts, founder and CEO, says NURVV Run captures a runner’s metrics “directly from the point of action at the foot, before using live coaching to help them improve in a simple, easy-to-understand way.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Jason Roberts told me that the technology built into the sole is more “accurate than watches for steps, strides or energy dissipated. It will even detect when you are injured.”

He said “you could even broadcast a player’s live steps. Imagine if you could see that data from basketball?”

Co-founder Ulrica Roberts (pictured) added: “We kept coming back to the same question: ‘Why is running measured from the wrist, when most of the important metrics happen at the feet?… We sought out the expertise to make it happen.”

Luke Alvarez, managing Partner of Hiro, said in a statement: “Hiro is delighted to be investing in NURVV as our Fund’s fourth deal and our first Sports tech investment. NURVV’s success comes from putting the athlete’s body at the heart of everything they do. Nurvv is based on fundamental patented sensor technologies combined with deep biomechanics and data science that have revolutionary potential across sports, gaming, VR/AR and wellness.  Jason and Ulrica are extraordinary entrepreneurs and we are excited to be working with them and their team to take NURVV to the next level.”

 


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Where are wearables going in 2020?

00:04 | 7 February

Apple has throttled the competition in another category.

During the company’s recent earnings call, CEO Tim Cook noted the company’s wearable division now rivals the size of a Fortune 500 company. He failed to give more specifics, but the point is striking: between Apple Watch and AirPods, Cupertino has another juggernaut on its hands.

Apple’s wearable fortunes come from two distinct sub-categories: more mature wrist-worn devices that include smartwatches and wearable trackers (and all of the overlap therein) and fully wireless earbuds or “hearables,” as they’re sometimes known.

I’m pulling IDC numbers from December for the latest, but these seem to mostly comport with what I’ve been seeing from firms over the past year. Apple’s on top with a little more than a third of total global market share — nearly 200 percent growth over the prior year. That’s thanks in no small part to the addition of AirPods Pro to the mix. Though getting back to Apple’s recent earnings, Cook notes that three-quarters of Apple Watch purchases in the previous quarter were by people who were buying the device for the first time. So there’s plenty of growth there, as well.

Xiaomi is at a distant number two with around 15 percent of the market. That’s still a commanding presence, as the company has expanded into new markets (mostly in Europe) with devices that undercut the competition. Samsung found success at around 10 percent of the global market with its diversification (watches, earbuds and fitness trackers), while Huawei maintained a strong presence in China with 80 percent of its total shipments in its home country as it struggles with other issues abroad.

 


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Google’s Glass dreams live on with the arrival of enterprise hardware

22:34 | 4 February

Google Glass was ahead of its time. That’s not to say that the people who wore it out in public didn’t look like giant dorks, of course, but in hindsight it seems safe to say that the world just wasn’t ready for wearable augmented reality. The phenomenon has, however, seen a resurgence among enterprise applications, courtesy of companies like Epson and Microsoft.

Google’s ready to ride that wave. In May, the company announced the arrival of the second version of its Enterprise Edition of Glass. Today, the headset is available for developers as a direct purchase from a handful of resellers. The Android-based device, which graduated from Google X mid last year, looks remarkably like the earliest versions of Glass, albeit with a slightly refined design.

Seven years after the arrival of the original model, the Glass Enterprise 2 isn’t cheap, either. It runs $1,000 from partner sites. There are a few suggestions for potential applications, including card text, imaging samples and QR scanning.

As Lucas noted in his initial write-up, the Glass system is much more limited than the likes of the latest HoloLens, which is focused on a more XR experience. Google, instead, is focused on lightweight usability — which could certainly serve as an advantage in certain settings. Key applications for the product include settings like construction sites, where contextual environmental information can otherwise be difficult to access.

 


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Modified HoloLens helps teach kids with vision impairment to navigate the social world

22:59 | 28 January

Growing up with blindness or low vision can be difficult for kids, not just because they can’t read the same books or play the same games as their sighted peers; Vision is also a big part of social interaction and conversation. This Microsoft research project uses augmented reality to help kids with vision impairment “see” the people they’re talking with.

The challenge people with vision impairment encounter is, of course, that they can’t see the other people around them. This can prevent them from detecting and using many of the nonverbal cues sighted people use in conversation, especially if those behaviors aren’t learned at an early age.

Project Tokyo is a new effort from Microsoft in which its researchers are looking into how technologies like AI and AR can be useful to all people, including those with disabilities. That’s not always the case, though it must be said that voice-powered virtual assistants are a boon to many who can’t as easily use a touchscreen or mouse and keyboard.

The team, which started as an informal challenge to improve accessibility a few years ago, began by observing people traveling to the Special Olympics, then followed that up with workshops involving the blind and low vision community. Their primary realization was of the subtle context sight gives in nearly all situations.

“We, as humans, have this very, very nuanced and elaborate sense of social understanding of how to interact with people — getting a sense of who is in the room, what are they doing, what is their relationship to me, how do I understand if they are relevant for me or not,” said Microsoft researcher Ed Cutrell. “And for blind people a lot of the cues that we take for granted just go away.”

In children this can be especially pronounced, as having perhaps never learned the relevant cues and behaviors, they can themselves exhibit antisocial tendencies like resting their head on a table while conversing, or not facing a person when speaking to them.

To be clear, these behaviors aren’t “problematic” in themselves, as they are just the person doing what works best for them, but they can inhibit everyday relations with sighted people, and it’s a worthwhile goal to consider how those relations can be made easier and more natural for everyone.

The experimental solution Project Tokyo has been pursuing involves a modified HoloLens — minus the lens, of course. The device is also a highly sophisticated imaging device that can identify objects and people if provided with the right code.

The user wears the device like a high-tech headband, and a custom software stack provides them with a set of contextual cues:

  • When a person is detected, say four feet away on the right, the headset will emit a click that sounds like it is coming from that location.
  • If the face of the person is known, a second “bump” sound is made and the person’s name announced (again, audible only to the user).
  • If the face is not known or can’t be seen well, a “stretching” sound is played that modulates as the user directs their head towards the other person, ending in a click when the face is centered on the camera (which also means the user is facing them directly).
  • For those nearby, an LED strip shows a white light in the direction of a person who has been detected, and a green light if they have been identified.

Other tools are being evaluated, but this set is a start, and based on a case study with a game 12-year-old named Theo, they could be extremely helpful.

Microsoft’s post describing the system and the team’s work with Theo and others is worth reading for the details, but essentially Theo began to learn the ins and outs of the system and in turn began to manage social situations using cues mainly used by sighted people. For instance, he learned that he can deliberately direct his attention at someone by turning his head towards them, and developed his own method of scanning the room to keep tabs on those nearby — neither one possible when one’s head is on the table.

That kind of empowerment is a good start, but this is definitely a work in progress. The bulky, expensive hardware isn’t exactly something you’d want to wear all day, and naturally different users will have different needs. What about expressions and gestures? What about signs and menus? Ultimately the future of Project Tokyo will be determined, as before, by the needs of the communities who are seldom consulted when it comes to building AI systems and other modern conveniences.

 


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The Apple Watch hits the gym with Connected program

16:00 | 23 January

Wrist-worn fitness trackers tend to do a fine job when exercising outdoors. For those glued to gym equipment, however, things get trickier. GPS can’t really do its job detecting distances, and machines like the elliptic tend to be even trickier.

Recent generations of the Apple Watch and WatchOS have worked to bridge the gap, with more sophisticated workout detection and the addition of GymKit in 2017. With the latter, Apple started working with equipment manufactures to ditch the 30-pin iPod machines for newer models that worked with Apple’s detection.

This week, the company takes a step further by partnering with the gyms themselves. The new Apple Watch Connected program will launch with four partners. It’s a pretty diverse quartet, ranging from old-school to boutique, including Orangetheory, Basecamp, YMCA and Crunch Fitness. And like GymKit before it, there’s a pretty good chance it will take a while to make it to your neighborhood workout facility, unless you live in a handful of metro areas, including Manhattan and the Twin Cities.

The program is designed to further bridge the gap between life inside and outside of the gym. It’s basically a four-legged stool, including GymKit-enabled equipment, an Apple Watch and iOS app (developed with Apple), accepting Apple Pay and, perhaps, most interesting of the bunch, “incentive programs.”

How each chain opts to participate is up to the specifics of their own business model. Most notably, GymKit machines may be optional, as they are in the case of Orangetheory, whose workouts are built around machine-shifting interval training. As such, the GymKit logging ultimately makes less sense.

Getting back to the incentive program, that, too, will vary a bit, depending on the nature of the deal with the gym. Take Orangetheory. Here you can can basically use activity to earn stuff like Nike and Apple gift cards. In the case of Crunch, you can earn deductions from your fees, up to $300 over two years. At YMCA, earnings go to “community initiatives,” while Basecamp’s go back to paying off the value of the Apple Watch Series 5 GPS the gym provides.

All in all, seems like a win-win for all parties. Apple gets more active engagement in a small but growing concentrated number of gyms, and gyms get to list an Apple partnership among their perks. GymKit partners, meanwhile, are set to sell a bunch more machines. There are somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 GymKit machines currently out there, a list that doesn’t include recently announced partners like Woodway, Octane and TRUE Fitness.

 


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Can a $350 headband deliver better sleep?

22:45 | 16 January

Sleep is the next battleground on which the war for wearable health will be waged. Smartwatch and fitness band makers have been dipping their collective toes in the water for a few years now, but there’s only so much that can be done from the wrist.

I wrote a CES trend piece earlier this week that examined what the category is going to look like in the upcoming years. It’s understandably pretty scattershot at the moment, with everything from smart beds to alarm clocks to gel cooling headbands. It’s a lot of different companies with different form factors presenting different solutions to the same simple problem: help your tech-addicted, stress-plagued brain get a decent night’s sleep for once in your life.

The Muse S was — and continues to be — the one I’m most excited about. That’s due in part to the fact that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the company’s first-generation project. As a self-diagnosed Dude Who Is Bad at Meditation, I found the brain-scanning tech legitimately helpful. If meditation is akin to flexing a muscle, the Muse headband is quite good at helping you determine which muscle to flex.

The S promises to extend that technology up to and beyond bedtime. Makes sense. Sleep is certainly a logical jump from mindfulness practice — and certainly the two things feed into each other nicely. Better meditation generally leads to better sleep, and vice versa.

I was able to pick up the new headset for CES and began using it at the show — talk about a trial by fire. Because I was using it on the road, certain aspects have really leapt out at me. The move from a rigid plastic material to fabric with a modular sensor unit is big beyond the obvious ability to wear the headset to bed (sleeping with it is another story, depending on your own habits).

The win for me here is portability. A device I can take apart and safely stick in my bag is a big deal for me. I’m on the road a lot these days, and between the plane and the hotel rooms, it can be tough to set aside time to meditate. The constant pinball machine of time zones has also severely mucked up my already iffy sleep habits. Putting on the headband, sticking in my AirPods and just being still for a while is a good ritual to cultivate.

The Muse app features a number of guided meditation and sleep sessions available via subscription (think Calm/Headspace). Seems like it would be a win-win to partner with one of the existing services, but these days every hardware startup needs a content play. The offerings are generally pretty solid, if a bit limited, though I found myself more drawn to ambient soundscapes rather than spoken guides.

One annoyance that carries over from earlier versions is the required calibration before meditation. It’s not the worst thing, but it does add an extra minute or so to your morning routine.

The original meditation is still my favorite bit here. The more the Muse senses your mind wandering, the more the sound of rain increases. Once you regain focus, the rain dies down and birds start to sing. There’s a gamified (an annoying word that is even more annoying in the context of meditation) aspect where you’re given a tally of birds at the end. It’s a silly little Portlandian aspect, but it’s useful in an era when Fitbit and the like have trained us to quantify our own health and habits.

The jury is still out on the sleep aspect for me. I’d love to revisit the topic in a few weeks and let you know if things have improved. I’m still fairly restless, and using a headband takes getting used to. There also are some practical things to deal with. For one thing, the band appears to work best when the sensor is positioned with the power light facing down, but then the light is shining in your eyes. I’ve taken to putting on a sleep mask. I’m slowly turning myself into Darth Vader each night before bed. It’s fine; I’m sure he slept like a baby.

The Muse S is available for a not insignificant $350. A year of the guided meditation service will run you close to $100 (though that’s discounted to $55 right now). The pricing is still prohibitively expensive for most users. I will, however, be continuing my time with the device. If it helps me sleep well without self-medication, it’s a small price to pay.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

 


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Mojo Vision’s AR contact lenses are very cool, but many questions remain

16:00 | 16 January

Companies keep trying to make glassholes happen. Understandably. After the smartphone and the wrist, the face is the next local battlefield for computational space, if decades of science fiction movies have taught us anything. But we’ve seen the Google Glass, the Snapchat Spectacles, The Magic Leap, the whatever that thing that Samsung just semi-announced was.

Contact lenses have been mentioned in that same conversation for some time, as well, but technical limitations have placed the bar much higher than a heads-up display standard pair of spectacles. California-based Mojo Vision has been working on the breakthrough for a number of years now, and has a lofty sum to show for it, with $108 million in funding, including a $58 million Series B closed back in March.

The technology is compelling, certainly. I met with the team in a hotel suite at CES last week and got a walkthrough of some of the things they’ve been working on. While executives say they’ve been dogfooding the technology for some time now, the demos were still pretty far removed from an eventual in-eye augmented reality contact lens.

Rather, two separate demos essentially involved holding a lens or device close to my eye in order to get a feel for what an eventual product would look like. The reason was two-fold. First, most of the work is still being done off-device at the moment, while Mojo works to perfect a system that can exist within the confines of a contact while only needing to be charged once in a 25-hour cycle. Second, the issue of trying on a pair of contacts during a brief CES meeting.

I will say that I was impressed by the heads-up display capabilities. In the most basic demo, monochrome text resembling a digital clock is overlaid on images. Here, miles per hour are shown over videos of people running. The illusion has some depth to it, with the numbers appearing as though they’re a foot or so out.

In another demo, I donned an HTC Vive. Here I’m shown live video of the room around me (XR, if you will), with notifications. The system tracks eye movements, so you can focus on a tab to expand it for more information. It’s a far more graphical interface than the other example, with full calendars, weather forecasts and the like. You can easily envision how the addition of a broader color palette could give rise to some fairly complex AR imagery.

Mojo is using CES to announce its intentions to start life as a medical device. In fact, the FDA awarded the startup a Breakthrough Device Designation, meaning the technology will get special review priority from the government body. That’s coupled with a partnership with Bay Area-based Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

That ought to give a good idea of Mojo’s go to market plans. Before selling itself as an AR-for-everyone device, the company is smartly going after visual impairments. It should occupy similar space as many of the “hearable” companies that have applied for medical device status to offer hearing-enhancing Bluetooth earbuds. Working with the FDA should go a ways toward helping fast-track the technology into optometrist offices.

The idea is to have them prescribed in a similar fashion as contact lenses, while added features like night vision will both aid people with visual impairments and potentially make those with better vision essentially bionic. You’ll go to a doctor, get prescribed, the contact lenses will be mailed to you and should last about the length of a normal pair. Obviously they’ll be pricier, of course, and questions about how much insurance companies will shell out still remain.

In their final state, the devices should last a full day, recharging in a cleaning case in a manner not dissimilar from AirPods (though those, sadly, don’t also clean the product). The lenses will have a small radio on-board to communicate with a device that hangs around the neck and relays information to and from a smartphone. I asked whether the plan was to eventually phase out the neck device, to which the company answered that, no, the plan was to phase out the smartphone. Fair play.

I also asked whether the company was working with a neurologist in addition to its existing medical staff. After 10 years of smartphone ubiquity, it seems we’re only starting to get clear data on how those devices impact things like sleep and mental well-being. I have to imagine that’s only going to be exacerbated by the feeling of having those notifications more or less beaming directly into your brain.

Did I mention that you can still see the display when your eyes are closed. Talk about a (pardon my French) mind fuck. There will surely be ways to silence or disable these things, but as someone who regularly falls asleep with his smartphone in-hand, I admit that I’m pretty weak when it comes to the issue of digital dependence. This feels like injecting that stuff directly into my veins, and I’m here for it, until I’m not.

We still have time. Mojo’s still working on the final product. And then it will need medical approval. Hopefully that’s enough time to more concretely answer some of these burning questions, but given how things like screen time have played out, I have some doubts on that front.

Stay tuned on all of the above. We’ll be following this one closely.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

 


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After delays, noise-adapting NuraLoop earbuds are coming soon and sound great

01:30 | 12 January

A few buffet mistakes aside, NuraLoop were the biggest disappointment of my 2019 CES. When the headphones showed up at the show as dummy units, it hurt my heart a little. The original Nuraphones made an appearance on my 2017 best of the year list, and the idea of a portable version I could take on long flights seemed almost too good to be true.

And for a full year, it was exactly that. Understandably, the Australian startup ran into a few roadblocks attempting to bring the product to market. It’s still a young company, even though its first gen product when over remarkably well. The noise-adapting headphones were extremely well thought out, right down to the package.

The hangup for their portable, in-ear counterparts is pretty surprising, to be honest. For much of the year, Nura just couldn’t crack the code of the cable, of all things. It’s a doubly odd sticking point, given how many of its competitors have ditched the cabling altogether. It should be noted up front, however, that the decision to keep things tethered is more pragmatic than aesthetic (honestly, it wouldn’t have been choice from a design standpoint).

As CEO Dragan Petrovic mentioned in a briefing at the show this week, the customer base for the original over-ears includes a pretty strong base of professional musicians, The cable includes a magnetic adapter for an analog headphone jack, so they can be used on stage monitors. There are a number of other times that still require capable — I’m writing this on a plane, for example. What am I supposed to do, just stare at Gemini Man?

There are other benefits, including a stated 16+ hours of battery life, without requiring a charging case. Also, you can wear them around your neck while not in use, if that’s a thing you like to do.

It’s never fun to have to delay a product, of course. In the year between CESes, Apple launched the AirPods Pro. The devices are two distinctly different approaches to the category, but Apple’s product does edge into NuraLoops’ territory, with a built-in fit check and great noise canceling. Again, different products with different audiences, but one has to wonder how many folks waiting for the NuraLoop pulled the trigger on the new AirPods, instead.

I’m happy to report that the sound quality on the NuraLoop is still extremely excellent. Sure, you lose the over-ear immersive bass effect without the ear cups, but the customized sound profile is still firmly in tact. The calibration is more or less the same, and when you’re done, you can swap between profiles to see how big a difference the customization makes (hint: it’s big).

The headphones are a bit on the bulky side. I’m definitely going to go exercise with them as soon as I get a review pair to see how well they stay put. The control scheme is clever — a touch well on the outside of each ear that perform a variety of different functions.

The year-long wait was less than ideal, but if you held out, you’ll probably find them worth it. The Nuraloop are another excellent product from the small Australian startup, which has managed to distinguish itself well in an overly crowded category. They run $200 and will start shipping in March.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

 


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Samsung hints at AR ambitions, shows off prototype glasses

06:49 | 7 January

What a weird Samsung press conference. The company didn’t waste time on the familiar. Things like Galaxy phones and washing machines got little love on stage tonight. Instead the company was focused on a workout exoskeleton and a friendly robotic call assistant.

And then there’s was AR. The technology was more hinted at than outright explained. First it took part in the aforementioned GEMS workout, in which the wearer took out her pair of “Samsung AR glasses.” That demo involved an AR assistant that was, admittedly fairly creepy.

The subject was dropped a bit, only to come back to it a little while later. First there was am uplifting video featuring Gear VR headsets repurposed to help vision impaired users see their loved ones (definite tear jerker material), followed by what appeared to be a different take on the AR glasses, complete with a camera in the middle of the frames.

Of course, we need to use the same caution here that we have with all of the other strange stuff shown off on stage tonight: this is all that prototypes. At best, it’s a potential roadmap. At worst, it’s speculative fiction. Either way, I wouldn’t wager a good deal of money on the the company replacing Gear VR with a pair of AR sunglasses this year.

That said, given larger industry trends, it’s completely understandable why the company is exploring such potential paths.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

 


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Samsung’s GEMS exoskeleton is now an ‘immersive workout experience’

06:21 | 7 January

Remember the G.E.M.S. (Gait Enhancing and Motivation System) exoskeleton Samsung introduced last year? Plot-twist. It’s a workout device now. One of the weirdest elements of a super weird keynotes was actually a fascinating pivot.

I wore a prototype of the device lates year, which offered both walking assistance and resistance. The latter is what’s at play here, with the robotic wearing giving you increasingly difficult workouts.

That pairs with AR glasses and a handset, giving you a creepy ass AR workout instructor Like Ballie before it — not to mention all of the different Samsung robotic offerings — the exoskeleton is still very early stages. Keep in mind, the theme of the night was “Age of Experience,” meaning that basically everything we saw tonight was conceptual. 

In Samsung’s defense, this application could provide a clearer revenue path. There are already a number of companies vying for the assistive wearable exoskeleton category. Samsung is potentially going after an even larger portion of the population, essentially serving as an at-home gym. Though if and when such a device does come to market, it’s likely going to be a lot more than a monthly gym subscription.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

 


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