Education

How-to video maker Jumprope launches to leapfrog YouTube

Posted by | Apps, DIY, eCommerce, Education, food, funding, Fundings & Exits, How To, instagram, Instructables, Mobile, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, Thumbtack, Video, YouTube | No Comments

Sick of pausing and rewinding YouTube tutorials to replay that tricky part? Jumprope is a new instructional social network offering a powerful how-to video slideshow creation tool. Jumprope helps people make step-by-step guides to cooking, beauty, crafts, parenting and more using voice-overed looping GIFs for each phase. And creators can export their whole lesson for sharing on Instagram, YouTube or wherever.

Jumprope officially launches its iOS app today with plenty of how-tos for making chocolate chip bars, Easter eggs, flower boxes or fierce eyebrows. “By switching from free-form linear video to something much more structured, we can make it much easier for people to share their knowledge and hacks,” says Jumprope co-founder and CEO Jake Poses.

The rise of Snapchat Stories and Pinterest have made people comfortable jumping on camera and showing off their niche interests. By building a new medium, Jumprope could become the home for rapid-fire learning. And because viewers will have tons of purchase intent for the makeup, art supplies or equipment they’ll need to follow along, Jumprope could make serious cash off ads or affiliate commerce.

The opportunity to bring instruction manuals into the mobile video era has attracted a $4.5 million seed round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and joined by strategic angels like Adobe Chief Product Officer Scott Belsky and Thumbtack co-founders Marco Zappacosta and Jonathan Swanson. People are already devouring casual education content on HGTV and the Food Network, but Jumprope democratizes its creation.

Jumprope co-founders (from left): CTO Travis Johnson and CEO Jake Poses

The idea came from a deeply personal place for Poses. “My brother has pretty severe learning differences, and so growing up with him gave me this appreciation for figuring out how to break things down and explain them to people,” Poses reveals. “I think that attached me to this problem of ‘how do you organize information so it’s simple and easy to understand?’ Lots and lots of people have this information trapped in their heads because there isn’t a way to easily share that.”

Poses was formerly the VP of Product at Thumbtack where he helped grow the company from 8 to 500 people and a $1.25 billion valuation. He teamed up with AppNexus’ VP of engineering Travis Johnson, who’d been leading a 50-person team of coders. “The product takes people who have knowledge and passion but not the skill to make video [and gives them] guard rails that make it easy to communicate,” Poses explains.

Disrupting incumbents like YouTube’s grip on viewers might take years, but Jumprope sees its guide creation and export tool as a way to infiltrate and steal their users. That strategy mirrors how TikTok’s watermarked exports colonized the web.

How to make a Jumprope

Jumprope lays out everything you’ll need to upload, including a cover image, introduction video, supplies list and all your steps. For each, you’ll record a video that you can then enhance with voice-over, increased speed, music and filters.

Creators are free to suggest their own products or enter affiliate links to monetize their videos. Once it has enough viewers, Jumprope plans to introduce advertising, but it could also add tipping, subscriptions, paid how-tos or brand sponsorship options down the line. Creators can export their lessons with five different border themes and seven different aspect ratios for posting to Instagram’s feed, IGTV, Snapchat Stories, YouTube or embedding on their blog.

“Like with Stories, you basically tap through at your own pace,” Poses says of the viewing experience. Jumprope offers some rudimentary discovery through categories, themed collections or what’s new and popular. The startup has done extensive legwork to sign up featured creators in all its top categories. That means Jumprope’s catalog is already extensive, with food guides ranging from cinnabuns to pot roasts to how to perfectly chop an onion. 

“You’re not constantly dealing with the frustration of cooking something and trying to start and stop the video with greasy hands. And if you don’t want all the details, you can tap through it much faster” than trying to skim a YouTube video or blog post, Poses tells me. Next the company wants to build a commenting feature where you can leave notes, substitution suggestions and more on each step of a guide.

Poses claims there’s no one building a direct competitor to its mobile video how-to editor. But he admits it will be an uphill climb to displace viewership on Instagram and YouTube. One challenge facing Jumprope is that most people aren’t hunting down how-to videos every day. The app will have to work to remind users it exists and that they shouldn’t just go with the lazy default of letting Google recommend the videos it hosts.

The internet has gathered communities around every conceivable interest. But greater access to creation and consumption necessitates better tools for production and curation. As we move from a material to an experiential culture, people crave skills that will help them forge memories and contribute to the world around them. Jumprope makes it a lot less work to leap into the life of a guru.

You can watch my first Jumprope here or below to learn how to tie up headphones without knots:

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Google introduces educational app Bolo to improve children’s literacy in India

Posted by | Android, android apps, Apps, Education, Google, Google Play, india, Pratham Education Foundation, reading, Speech Recognition, text-to-speech | No Comments

Google is expanding its suite of apps designed for the Indian market with today’s launch of a new language-learning app aimed at children, called Bolo. The app, which is aimed at elementary school-aged students, leverages technology like Google’s speech recognition and text-to-speech to help kids learn to read in both Hindi and English.

To do so, Bolo offers a catalog of 50 stories in Hindi and 40 in English, sourced from Storyweaver.org.in. The company says it plans to partner with other organizations in the future to expand the story selection.

Included in the app is a reading buddy, “Diya,” who encourages and corrects the child when they read aloud. As kids read, Diya can listen and respond with feedback. (Google notes all personal information remains on-device to protect kids’ privacy.) Diya can also read the text to the child and explain the meaning of English words. As children progress in the app, they’ll be presented with word games that win them in-app rewards and badges to motivate them.

The app works offline — a necessity in large parts of India — where internet access is not always available. Bolo can be used by multiple children, as well, and will adjust itself to their own reading levels.

Google says it had been trialing Bolo across 200 villages in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the help of nonprofit ASER Centre. During testing, it found that 64 percent of children who used the app showed an improvement in reading proficiency in three months’ time.

To run the pilot, 920 children were given the app and 600 were in a control group without the app, Google says.

In addition to improving their proficiency, more students in the group with the app (39 percent) reached the highest level of ASER’s reading assessment than those without it (28 percent), and parents also reported improvements in their children’s reading abilities.

Illiteracy remains a problem in India. The country has one of the largest illiterate populations in the world, where only 74 percent are able to read, according to a study by ASER Centre a few years back. It found then that more than half of students in fifth grade in rural state schools could not read second-grade textbooks in 2014. By 2018, that figure hadn’t changed much — still, only about half can read at a second-grade level, ASER now reports.

While Google today highlights its philanthropic efforts in education, it’s worth noting that Google’s interest in helping improve India’s literacy metrics benefits its bottom line, too. As the country continues to come online to become one of the largest internet markets in the world, literate users capable of using Google’s products like Search, Ads, Gmail and others are of increased importance to Google’s business.

Already, Google has shipped a number of applications designed specifically for Indian internet users, like data-friendly versions of YouTube, Search and other popular services, like payments app Tez (now rebranded Google Pay), a food delivery service, a neighborhood and communities networking app, a blogging app and more.

Today, Bolo is launching across India as an open beta, while Google will continue to work with its nonprofit partners — including Pratham Education Foundation, Room to Read, Saajha and Kaivalya Education Foundation — a Piramal Initiative — to bring the app to more children.

Bolo is available now on the Google Play Store in India, and works on Android smartphones running Android 4.4 (Kit Kat) and higher. The app is currently optimized for native Hindi speakers.

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Apple unveils new in-store sessions covering photography, Garage Band, health and more

Posted by | Apple, Education, Gadgets, retail, TC | No Comments

Apple is launching 58 new Today at Apple sessions to beef up its in-store education offerings for people who want to explore Apple’s products. The sessions, which cover video, photography, accessibility, coding, music, health and more, are free to attend and available at all of Apple’s retail stores across the world.

For the unveiling, Apple brought a group of reporters to its Apple Park campus in Cupertino last week. Throughout the day, Apple took us through sample Today at Apple sessions across Apple’s three categories: Skills, Walks and Labs. Skills are quick, 30-minute sessions designed to teach you new techniques, Walks are actual physical walks with certain Apple products and services and Labs are 90-minute sessions where you create a project.

“So I think of Skills, Walks, Labs almost as, you know, Spanish 1, Spanish 2, Spanish 3,” Apple SVP of Retail Angela Ahrendts told a group of reporters at Apple’s spaceship campus last week. “I mean, most things have green diamond, blue diamond, red, black diamond, I mean, there’s always levels.”

When Today at Apple first launched, it was a bit more open. Now, it’s a lot more structured, Ahrendts said.

Beats, art and jump-cuts

First up, I participated in a Garage Band Skills session, where we learned how to quickly create a beat using the beat sequencer. This session is geared toward people who are new to Apple’s tech and may need an introduction to the product or the software.

That is designed to prepare you for the next level of sessions, Walks. At Apple’s campus, we did a photo walk using the iPad Pro with Pencil and digital illustration app Procreate. The task at hand was to walk around Apple’s spaceship campus, snap photos of colorful scenes, capture that color in Procreate and then use the app’s numerous drawing tools to create a portrait. Here’s my masterpiece.

Walks, Apple Senior Director Karl Heiselman said, has been the most popular type of session.

“We think the reason why they’re so popular is you can’t do them on the internet,” he said.

Last, but not least, we did a Lab where we learned how to create jump-cuts in the Clips app.

All of these sessions are entirely free to attend. Since launching Today at Apple almost two years ago, Apple has hosted 18,000 sessions per week. Millions of people have attended the sessions, so far, but it’s hard to get a totally accurate number, Ahrendts said.

“If you sign up, we have a number but the minute the session starts around the big screen, usually three times more people, you know, kind of hover over it,” Ahrendts said.

Apple’s in-store sessions are a way for the company to build brand loyalty and differentiate itself from the likes of Google and other hardware companies. While Apple’s online store is geared toward purchasing products and receiving customer support, its retail stores are designed to be focused on people and their experiences, Ahrendts said.

“If you’re taking the time to come into a store, we’re assuming you want a much more human experience,” she said.

Today is the biggest launch of sessions to date, with Ahrendts likening the update to its in-store sessions to updates to Apple’s digital software, “but you could assume there will always continue to be updates on our store software forever.”

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pi-top’s latest edtech tool doubles down on maker culture

Posted by | drone, edtech startup, Education, electronics, Europe, Gadgets, hardware, learn to code, London, pi-top, pi-top 4, Raspberry Pi, robotics, Startups, STEM, TC, United Kingdom | No Comments

London-based edtech startup, pi-top, has unboxed a new flagship learn-to-code product, demoing the “go anywhere” Pi-powered computer at the Bett Show education fare in London today.

Discussing the product with TechCrunch ahead of launch, co-founder and CEO Jesse Lozano talked up the skills the company hopes students in the target 12-to-17 age range will develop and learn to apply by using sensor-based connected tech, powered by its new pi-top 4, to solve real world problems.

“When you get a pi-top 4 out of the box you’re going to start to learn how to code with it, you’re going to start to learn and understand electronic circuits, you’re going to understand sensors from our sensor library. Or components from our components library,” he told us. “So it’s not: ‘I’m going to learn how to create a robot that rolls around on wheels and doesn’t knock into things’.

“It’s more: ‘I’m going to learn how a motor works. I’m going to learn how a distance sensor works. I’m going to learn how to properly hook up power to these different sensors. I’m going to learn how to apply that knowledge… take those skills and [keep making stuff].”

The pi-top 4 is a modular computer that’s designed to be applicable, well, anywhere; up in the air, with the help of a drone attachment; powering a sensing weather balloon; acting as the brains for a rover style wheeled robot; or attached to sensors planted firmly in the ground to monitor local environmental conditions.

The startup was already dabbling in this area, via earlier products — such as a Pi-powered laptop that featured a built in rail for breadboarding electronics. But the pi-top 4 is a full step outside the usual computing box.

The device has a built-in mini OLED screen for displaying project info, along with an array of ports. It can be connected to and programmed via one of pi-top’s other Pi-powered computers, or any PC, Mac and Chromebook, with the company also saying it easily connects to existing screens, keyboards and mice. Versatility looks to be the name of the game for pi-top 4.

pi-top’s approach to computing and electronics is flexible and interoperable, meaning the pi-top 4 can be extended with standard electronics components — or even with Littlebits‘ style kits’ more manageable bits and bobs.

pi-top is also intending to sell a few accessories of its own (such as the drone add-on, pictured above) to help get kids’ creative project juices flowing — and has launched a range of accessories, cameras, motors and sensors to “allow creators of all ages to start learning by making straight out of the box”.

But Lozano emphasizes its platform play is about reaching out to a wider world, not seeking to lock teachers and kids to buying proprietary hardware. (Which would be all but impossible, in any case, given the Raspberry Pi core.)

“It’s really about giving people that breadth of ability,” says Lozano, discussing the sensor-based skills he wants the product to foster. “As you go through these different projects you’re learning these specific skills but you also start to understand how they would apply to other projects.”

He mentions various maker projects the pi-top can be used to make, like a music synth or wheeled robot, but says the point isn’t making any specific connected thing; it’s encouraging kids to come up with project ideas of their own.

“Once that sort of veil has been pierced in students and in teachers we see some of the best stuff starts to be made. People make things that we had no idea they would integrate it into,” he tells us, pointing by way of example to a solar car project from a group of U.S. schoolkids. “These fifteen year olds are building solar cars and they’re racing them from Texas to California — and they’re using pi-tops to understand how their cars are performing to make better race decisions.”

pi-top’s new device is a modular programmable computer designed for maker projects

“What you’re really learning is the base skills,” he adds, with a gentle sideswipe at the flood of STEM toys now targeting parents’ wallets. “We want to teach you real skills. And we want you to be able to create projects that are real. That it’s not block-based coding. It’s not magnetized, clipped in this into that and all of a sudden you have something. It’s about teaching you how to really make things. And how the world actually works around you.”

The pi-top 4 starts at $199 for a foundation bundle which includes a Raspberry Pi 3B+,16GB SD card, power pack, along with a selection of sensors and add-on components for starter projects.

Additional educational bundles will also launch down the line, at a higher price, including more add ons, access to premium software and a full curriculum for educators to support budding makers, according to Lozano.

The startup has certainly come a long way from its founders’ first luridly green 3D printed laptop which caught our eye back in 2015. Today it employs more than 80 people globally, with offices in the UK, US and China, while its creative learning devices are in the hands of “hundreds of thousands” of schoolkids across more than 70 countries at this stage. And Lozano says they’re gunning to pass the million mark this year.

So while the ‘learn to code’ space has erupted into a riot of noise and color over the past half decade, with all sorts of connected playthings now competing for kids’ attention, and pestering parents with quasi-educational claims, pi-top has kept its head down and focused firmly on building a serious edtech business with STEM learning as its core focus, saving it from chasing fickle consumer fads, as Lozano tells it.

“Our relentless focus on real education is something that has differentiated us,” he responds, when asked how pi-top stands out in what’s now a very crowded marketplace. “The consumer market, as we’ve seen with other startups, it can be fickle. And trying to create a hit toy all the time — I’d rather leave that to Mattel… When you’re working with schools it’s not a fickle process.”

Part of that focus includes supporting educators to acquire the necessary skills themselves to be able to teach what’s always a fast-evolving area of study. So schools signing up to pi-top’s subscription product get support materials and guides, to help them create a maker space and understand all the ins and outs of the pi-top platform. It also provides a classroom management backend system that lets teachers track students’ progress.

“If you’re a teacher that has absolutely no experience in computer science or engineering or STEM based learning or making then you’re able to bring on the pi-top platform, learn with it and with your student, and when they’re ready they can create a computer science course — or something of that ilk — in their classroom,” says Lozano.

pi-top wants kids to use tech to tackle real-world problems

“As with all good things it takes time, and you need to build up a bank of experience. One of the things we’ve really focused on is giving teachers that ability to build up that bank of experience, through an after school club, or through a special lesson plan that they might do.

“For us it’s about augmenting that teacher and helping them become a great educator with tools and with resources. There’s some edtech stuff they want to replace the teacher — they want to make the teacher obsolete. I couldn’t disagree with that viewpoint more.”

“Why aren’t teachers just buying textbooks?” he adds. “It takes 24 months to publish a textbook. So how are you supposed to teach computer science with those technology-based skills with something that’s by design two years out of date?”

Last summer pi-top took in $16M in Series B funding, led by existing founders Hambro Perks and Committed Capital. It’s been using the financing to bring pi-top 4 to market while also investing heavily in its team over the past 18 months — expanding in-house expertise in designing learning products and selling in to the education sector via a number of hires. Including the former director of learning at Apple, Dr William Rankin.

The founders’ philosophy is to combine academic expertise in education with “excellence in engineering”. “We want the learning experience to be something we’re 100% confident in,” says Lozano. “You can go into pi-top and immediately start learning with our lesson plans and the kind of framework that we provide.”

“[W]e’ve unabashedly focused on… education. It is the pedagogy,” he adds. “It is the learning outcome that you’re going to get when you use the pi-top. So one of the big changes over the last 18 months is we’ve hired a world class education team. We have over 100 years of pedagogical experience on the team now producing an enormous amount of — we call them learning experience designers.”

He reckons that focus will stand pi-top in good stead as more educators turn their attention to how to arm their pupils with the techie skills of the future.

“There’s loads of competition but now the schools are looking they’re [asking] who’s the team behind the education outcome that you’re selling me?” he suggests. “And you know what if you don’t have a really strong education team then you’re seeing schools and districts become a lot more picky — because there is so much choice. And again that’s something I’m really excited about. Everybody’s always trying to do a commercial brand partnership deal. That’s just not something that we’ve focused on and I do really think that was a smart choice on our end.”

Lozano is also excited about a video the team has produced to promote the new product — which strikes a hip, urban note as pi-top seeks to inspire the next generation of makers.

“We really enjoy working in the education sector and I really, really enjoy helping teachers and schools deliver inspirational content and learning outcomes to their students,” he adds. “It’s genuinely a great reason to wake up in the morning.”

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Scratch 3.0 is now available

Posted by | computing, Education, Gaming, Minecraft, Mobile, platform game, Software, Startups, TC | No Comments

The only kids’ programming language worth using, Scratch, just celebrated the launch of Scratch 3.0, an update that adds some interesting new functionality to the powerful open-source tool.

Scratch, for those without school-aged children, is a block-based programming language that lets you make little games and “cartoons” with sprites and animated figures. The system is surprisingly complex, and kids have created things like Minecraft platformers, fun arcade games and whatever this is.

The new version of scratch includes extensions that allow you to control hardware, as well as new control blocks.

Scratch 3.0 is the next generation of Scratch – designed to expand how, what, and where you can create with Scratch. It includes dozens of new sprites, a totally new sound editor, and many new programming blocks. And with Scratch 3.0, you are able to create and play projects on your tablet, in addition to your laptop or desk computer.

Scratch is quite literally the only programming “game” my kids will use again and again, and it’s an amazing introduction for kids as young as pre-school age. Check out the update and don’t forget to share your animations with the class!

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Kahoot, a ‘Netflix for education’, launches an accelerator to tap gaming and education startups

Posted by | accelerator, Apps, Education, educational gaming, Gaming, Kahoot!, Startups | No Comments

On the back of Disney increasing its shareholding in Oslo-based Kahoot to four percent last week, Kahoot today announced a new initiative that helps to position the popular startup — which already has 60 million games and has seen over 1 billion players engage on its platform over the last year — as the “Netflix for education apps.”

It’s launching Kahoot! Ignite, a new accelerator for like-minded startups that are pushing the boundaries of education through gaming and other means.

In addition to that, Kahoot today also said it would move stock exchanges in its home market of Norway, going from the smaller OTC exchange to the Merkur Market, which CEO and co-founder Åsmund Furuseth explained in an interview is also an exchange for private companies, but one that will be able to provide more transparency to the startup’s bigger investors en route to an eventual full public listing. As of last week’s Disney news, the startup is now valued at $376 million.

Participating in the Ignite accelerator, Furuseth said, will give Kahoot the option to invest in startups in each cohort, and if it makes sense for the startup in question, they will build content that will be usable on the Kahoot platform.

“We have close to $30 million in the bank and are in a financial market where we can get more capital,” he said. “We don’t need to invest, but if we want to, we can.” 

The startup today has some 60 million games on its platform, with a good portion of those created by users themselves (making it more like a YouTube than a Netflix). The idea is that bringing in outside developers (in this case, by way of the accelerator) could inject more innovation and interesting takes on the concept of “educational gaming” — not unlike how Netflix and Amazon engage outside studios to develop originals for its platform, alongside what they develop themselves or buy in through deals with rights holders.

In addition to the carrots of investment and distribution on the Kahoot platform — which is likely to hit 100 million monthly active users this month (Furuseth said he was confident of the number today) — Kahoot is offering mentorship to potential cohorts in areas like monetization and product development. Given the fact that educational aides can come in all shapes and sizes, that might not take the form of a piece of content for the Kahoot platform.

“Putting something on Kahoot could be an outcome, but we’re also interested in ‘network products,’ which have the same desire to enable learning,” Furuseth said.

The company today has a double focus, with games for K-12 students as well as for enterprise environments. “Learning is the main topic,” he added. “We like to have the mix.”

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Disney’s invested in educational gaming app Kahoot, now at a $376M valuation

Posted by | Apps, Education, Gaming, TC | No Comments

When Kahoot, the startup that operates a popular platform for user-generated educational gaming, raised $15 million in October of this year, we mentioned that Disney had a stake in the company by way of the Disney Accelerator, and it had an option to become a larger shareholder if it exercised its warrants.

Now with some 60 million games on its platform, today Kahoot announced that this has come to pass: Disney is taking that option, working out to a four percent stake in the startup at a $376 million valuation, based on the current share price of 28 Norwegian kroner (shares of Kahoot are traded on the Norway OTC as an unlisted stock). It makes Disney’s stake in the app worth about $15 million, although the actual value of the warrants Disney is exercising is smaller than this.

Kahoot declined to comment for this story beyond the investment announcement posted on the exchange, but for some context, this is a nice bump up in Kahoot’s valuation from October, when it was at $300 million. Other sizeable and notable investors in the company include Microsoft and Nordic investor Northzone (which has backed Spotify and other significant startups out of the region).

On the part of Disney, it’s not clear yet whether its Kahoot stake will lead to more Disney content on the platform, or if this is more of an arm’s length financial backing. The two have already put Lucasfilm content on Kahoot and there may be more to come. The entertainment giant has made nearly 50 investments by way of its accelerator program. In some cases, it increases those to more significant holdings, as it has in the case of HQ Trivia, SpheroEpic Games (the company behind Fortnite, a very different take on gaming compared to Kahoot), Samba TV and more.

Disney has been dabbling in both gaming and education as vehicles to market its many brands, and also as salient businesses of their own — no surprise, given that one primary focus for it has been on younger consumers and their needs and interests.

In some cases, it seems it may use strategic investments to do this, for example with Disney-themed nights on HQ Trivia. Interestingly, although it doesn’t appear that Disney invests in the Indian educational app Byju’s — which itself just raised $300 million — the educational app, which has been described as “Disneyesque,” teamed up with Disney in October to develop co-branded educational content, another sign of Disney’s interest in the field.

Kahoot has been around in one form or another since 2006 — originally as a gamified education concept called Lecture Quiz before launching as Kahoot in 2013 — but has seen a sharp rise in users in the last few years on the back of strong growth in the U.S. — benefiting from a wider trend of educators creating content on mediums and platforms that they know students already use and love.

Kahoot’s last reported user numbers come from January, when it said it had 70 million registrations, but its CEO and co-founder Åsmund Furuseth told TechCrunch in October that it was on track to pass 100 million by this month. Kahoot didn’t release updated figures today, but my guess is that Kahoot has hit its target (maybe even passed it), and that is one reason Disney decided to exercise its investment option.

Kahoot is not your average gaming company: some games are created in-house, but the majority of them are user-generated — “Kahoots” in the company’s parlance — created by the people setting the learning tasks or those trying to create a more entertaining way of remembering or learning something. These, in turn, become games that potentially anyone can use to learn something (hence the name).

There have been about 60 million of these games created to date, a pretty massive amount considering this is educational content at the end of the day.

Kahoot has developed its business along two avenues, with games for K-12 students and games for business users, building training and other professional development in a wrapper of gamification to engage workers more in the content. 

In practice, about half the games in Kahoot’s catalogue are available to the public and half are private, with the split roughly following the company’s business model: games made for corporate purposes tend to be kept private, while the educational ones tend to be made publicly available. The business model also follows that split, with Kahoot’s business users accounting for the majority of its revenue, too.

Updated with more clarification on the investment.

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Amazon debuts a scale model autonomous car to teach developers machine learning

Posted by | Amazon, AWS, AWS re:Invent 2018, deep learning, Education, Gadgets, machine learning, race car, TC | No Comments

Amazon today announced AWS DeepRacer, a fully autonomous 1/18th-scale race car that aims to help developers learn machine learning. Priced at $399 but currently offered for $249, the race car lets developers get hands-on — literally — with a machine learning technique called reinforcement learning (RL).

RL takes a different approach to training models than other machine learning techniques, Amazon explained.

It’s a type of machine learning that works when an “agent” is allowed to act on a trial-and-error basis within an interactive environment. It does so using feedback from those actions to learn over time in order to reach a predetermined goal or to maximize some type of score or reward.

This makes it different from other machine learning techniques — like Supervised Learning, for example — as it doesn’t require any labeled training data to get started, and it can make short-term decisions while optimizing for a long-term goal.

The new race car lets developers experiment with RL by learning through autonomous driving.

We are pleased and excited to announce AWS DeepRacer and the AWS DeepRacer League. New reinforcement learning powered AWS service and racing league ML powered cars. #reInvent pic.twitter.com/9Qmmqj4Ebw

— AWS re:Invent (@AWSreInvent) November 28, 2018

Developers first get started using a virtual car and tracks in a cloud-based 3D racing simulator, powered by AWS RoboMaker. Here, they can train an autonomous driving model against a collection of predefined race tracks included with the simulator, then evaluate them virtually or choose to download them to the real-world AWS DeepRacer car.

They can also opt to participate in the first AWS DeepRacer League at the re:Invent conference, where the car was announced. This event will take place over the next 24 hours in the AWS DeepRacer workshops and at the MGM Speedway and will involve using Amazon SageMakerAWS RoboMaker and other AWS services.

There are six main tracks, each with a pit area, a hacker garage and two extra tracks developers can use for training and experimentation. There will also be a DJ.

The league will continue after the event, as well, with a series of live racing events starting in 2019 at AWS Global Summits worldwide. Virtual tournaments will also be hosted throughout the year, Amazon said, with the goal of winning the AWS DeepRacer 2019 Championship Cup at re:invent 2019.

As for the car’s hardware itself, it’s a 1/18th-scale, radio-controlled, four-wheel drive vehicle powered by an Intel Atom processor. The processor runs Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, ROS (Robot Operating System) and the Intel OpenVino computer vision toolkit.

The car also includes a 4 megapixel camera with 1080p resolution, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, multiple USB ports and battery power that will last for about two hours.

It’s available for sale on Amazon here.

more AWS re:Invent 2018 coverage

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The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

Posted by | adafruit industries, Anki, artificial intelligence, Asia, BBC Micro, Disney, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, Gift Guide 2018, hardware, Kano, littlebits, makeblock, mattel, robotics, TC | No Comments

The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


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Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts.
Age: 6+


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Scared to trade stocks? Titan algorithmically invests for you

Posted by | Apps, betterment, eCommerce, Education, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, hedge fund, Mobile, Recent Funding, robo investment, Startups, stock trading, TC, titan, Wealthfront | No Comments

Titan could put an end to stock market FOMO. The app chooses the best 20 stocks by scraping top hedge fund data, adds some shorts based on your personal risk profile and puts your money to work. No worrying about market fluctuations or constantly rebalancing your portfolio. You don’t have to do anything, but can get smarter about stocks thanks to its in-app explanations and research reports. Titan wants to be the easiest way to invest in stocks for a mobile generation that wants an affordable coach to guide them through the market themselves.

“Our goal is to take things that aren’t accessible [in wealth management] and make them accessible, starting with hedge funds,” says Titan co-founder Joe Percoco. That potential to democratize one of the keys to financial mobility has won Titan a $2.5 million seed round from Y Combinator’s co-founder Paul Graham, president Sam Altman and partners including Gmail creator Paul Bucheit. The rest of the capital comes from Maverick Ventures, BoxGroup and Liquid2 Ventures.

Titan is where investing meets virality,” says Graham. “Those are two very powerful forces.” Since TechCrunch broke the news of Titan’s launch in August, it’s doubled its assets under management to $20 million and hired its first non-founder engineer.

Now it’s launching in-app educational videos so stock market dummies can get up to speed if they want to understand where their money’s going amidst a swirling see of financial news. “There are so many different headlines telling so many different narratives,” Percoco tells me. “Everyone is searching for explanations in a voice they trust. An ‘ETF’ can’t talk back. Sometimes a human face is better than writing. A video can really help people make choices.” Here’s its two-minute video about Facebook’s Q2 earnings a few months ago, explaining why the share price crashed 25 percent:

Percoco and Clayton Gardner met on their first day of Wharton business school, while their third co-founder was earning a hedge fund patent and studying computer science at Stanford. They went on to work at hedge funds and private equity firms like Goldman Sachs, but got fed up just growing the fortunes of the already rich.

So they started Titan to invent a modern, mobile version of BlackRock, the investment giant founded in the 1980s. Titan uses the public disclosures of hedge funds to find consensus around the 20 best performing stocks. With as little as $1,000, users can let Titan robo-manage their investments for a 1 percent fee on assets. Users provide some info on how big they want to gamble, and Titan personalizes their portfolio with more or less conservative shorts to hedge their bets.

Titan’s simplicity combined with the sense of participation could help it grow quickly. It sits between do-it-yourself options like Robinhood or E*Trade, where you’re basically left to fend for yourself, and totally passive options like Wealthfront and Betterment, where you’re so divorced from your portfolio that you’re not learning. Managed hedge funds and fellow active investment vehicles like BlackRock with a human advisor can require a $100,000 minimum investment that’s too steep for millennials.

“Even the best hedge fund in the world is only going to send you a PDF every 90 days,” Percoco explains. But Titan doesn’t want you nervously checking your portfolio non-stop. “Our median user checks the app once per day.” That seems like a healthy balance between awareness and sanity. It thinks its education and informative push notifications make it worth a higher required investment and fees than Wealthfront charges.

Essentially, Titan is a stock trading auto-pilot merged with a flight simulator so you improve your finance skills without having to fear a crash. Percoco tells me the sense of accomplishment that engenders is why clients say they’re telling friends about Titan. “When I invest, I look for companies that are growing quickly and making a huge positive impact on the world. Titan is one of those companies,” investor Altman says. “I think they could improve the financial well-being of an entire generation.”

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