Gadgets

WHILL raises $45M to help people with disabilities get around airports and other large venues

Posted by | accessibility, electric vehicles, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Last mile, personal mobility, Startups, TC, Transportation, wheelchair, Whill | No Comments

WHILL, the startup known for creating sleek, high-tech personal mobility devices, announced today that it has closed a $45 million Series C. The funding will be used for expanding into new international markets, as well as developing new products for large venues, including airports and “last-mile” sidewalk transportation. The round’s lead investors were SBI Investment, Daiwa Securities Group and WHIZ Partners, with participation from returning investors INCJ, Eight Road Ventures, MSIVC, Nippon Venture Capital, DG Incubation and Mizuho Capital.

This brings WHILL’s total funding so far to about $80 million. Founded in Tokyo in 2012, WHILL plans to open a branch in the European Union and enter 10 new European countries. It also plans to start working with partners on developing autonomous capabilities for its mobility devices, senior marketing manager Jeff Yoshioka told TechCrunch. The company will build its own sensors and cameras to use in its “mobility as a service” program, which allows users to control vehicles and call customer service through a mobile app.

One of WHILL’s biggest projects is developing an autonomous personal mobility device system for airports. Yoshioka says that an estimated 20 million people request wheelchairs in U.S. airports each year. This means they need to wait for an airline employee to bring a wheelchair to them and then push them from check-in to their gates. At the same time, it doesn’t give users a lot of flexibility.

The system that WHILL has in mind, on the other hand, would allow individuals to use an app to summon a mobility device over to them. Then they can go wherever they want — coffee shops, restrooms, shops — before heading to the gate without an assistant. Once they are done with the device, it will return to a docking station on its own. WHILL has already begun testing a similar program at Tokyo International Airport in partnership with Panasonic.

Yoshioka says WHILL will most likely pursue distribution partnerships with U.S. airlines, which are responsible for supplying and maintaining the wheelchair systems in American airports, and airports to build the necessary infrastructure.

Along with airports, WHILL wants to bring its technology to other large venues, including shopping malls and sports arenas, as well as create a system for last-mile transportation. Yoshioka notes that “there are already a lot of companies out there like LimeBike and MoBike that offer bikes and electric scooters, but there’s nothing out there for people with disabilities who can’t use those devices.”

Instead, many rely on Ubers or public transportation even for short distances. Like the airport system, WHILL’s last-mile sidewalk system will use autonomous electric vehicles that can be called to users with an app. It faces unique challenges, however, because WHILL’s devices are larger and more expensive than bikes or electric scooters, so the company needs to find safe places to dock them that are still accessible to people with limited mobility. Yoshioka says WHILL likely will focus on partnering with commercial properties to create indoor docking stations.

WHILL’s largest market is still Japan, where it has between 4,000 to 5,000 resellers. In its home market, WHILL’s devices are subsidized by the government and also available for rent. In the U.S., however, many customers need to purchase devices out-of-pocket. To make their products more accessible, WHILL launched the less expensive Model Ci (called the Model C in Europe and Japan) earlier this year. While there is still plenty of room for innovation in the wheelchair market, the Model Ci and other WHILL products compete with devices like the iBot, which can climb stairs, and the Trackchair, designed for off-road use. WHILL’s current products can’t climb stairs, but they do have the advantage of being designed for both indoor and outdoor use, giving users more flexibility, says Yoshioka.

The company also expects demand for its products to grow thanks to a rapidly aging world population, citing statistics that show there are expected to be more than 2.1 billion people over the age of 60 by 2050, up from about 900 million last year.

“We don’t necessarily see [the other companies] as direct competitors. They definitely do impact sales, because people might want something that climbs stairs instead of having better outdoor capabilities, but I think overall it’s very beneficial for the industry,” Yoshioka adds. “As a company that’s trying to disrupt the industry, it’s nice to have them around because it pushes the industry forward and opens eyes for other manufacturers.”

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Not to be overshadowed by the Apple Watch, AliveCor announces a new 6-lead ECG reader

Posted by | AliveCor, Apple, Apple Watch, Atrial fibrillation, ceo, fda, Gadgets, Health, heart attack, medicine, TC, Vic Gundotra, Wearables | No Comments

Apple’s announcement last week of a Watch with an FDA-approved ECG reader to track heart health looked to be the undoing of original ECG reader company AliveCor. But, to prove it still has a hearty pulse, AliveCor tells TechCrunch it is coming out with a “never-before-seen” 6-lead electrocardiogram (ECG), pending FDA approval.

In a care clinic, a patient typically has 12 leads, or stickers placed across their chest to pick up data from their heart. However, other ECG readers typically have one or two leads. The Apple Watch places a single lead system on the wrist. The 6-lead ECG reader is, in theory, more accurate because there are more sensors picking up more information, which could be critical in saving lives.

AliveCor’s and the Apple Watch’s current function is to pick up AFib — or the detection of an irregular heart beat. AliveCor announced earlier this month it had received FDA-approval to use its ECG readers to detect a rare but dangerous blood condition called hyperkalemia.

With 6-lead ECG readers, the AliveCor device could also pick up about 100 different diseases, according to CEO Vic Gundotra, who rattled off a bunch of long-worded maladies I can’t even begin to pronounce but he’s hoping his reader will soon be able to detect.

However, one important detection would be ST elevation — one of the key factors associated with the onset of a heart attack and which could get a person on their way to the hospital before they start displaying other physical symptoms.

Of course, Apple — which already holds 17 percent of the wearables market — could easily decide it, too, needs to add a 6-lead ECG reader to the Watch and beat AliveCor’s market yet again. But Gundotra shrugs at that suggestion.

“They could but we have some pretty good patents in the space,” he told TechCrunch, adding “Apple has done me a great service, actually. We’re a small company but you are talking to me, calling about this [because of their announcement].”

No formal name has been announced yet for the 6-lead product, but AliveCor will be working with the FDA on the regulatory pathway for it and hopes to bring it to over-the-counter consumers by 2019.

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Five security settings in iOS 12 you should change right now

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, iOS 12, lists, Mobile, privacy, Security | No Comments

iOS 12, Apple’s latest mobile software for iPhone and iPad, is finally out. The new software packs in a bunch of new security and privacy features you’ve probably already heard about.

Here’s what you need to do to take advantage of the new settings and lock down your device.

1. Turn on USB Restricted Mode to make hacking more difficult

This difficult-to-find new feature prevents any accessories from connecting to your device — like USB cables and headphones — when your iPhone or iPad has been locked for more than an hour. That prevents police and hackers alike from using tools to bypass your lock screen passcode and get your data.

Go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode and type in your passcode. Then, scroll down and ensure that USB Accessories are not permitted on the lock screen, so make sure the setting is Off. (On an iPhone X, check your Face ID settings instead.)

2. Make sure automatic iOS updates are turned on

Every time your iPhone or iPad updates, it comes with a slew of security patches to prevent crashes or data theft. Yet, how often do you update your phone? Most don’t bother unless it’s a major update. Now, iOS 12 will update your device behind the scenes, saving you downtime. Just make sure you switch it on.

Go to Settings > General > Software Update and turn on automatic updates.

3. Set a stronger device passcode

iOS has gotten better in recent years with passcodes. For years, it was a four-digit code by default, and now it’s six-digits. That makes it far more difficult to run through every combination — known as brute-forcing.

But did you know that you can set a number-only code of any length? Eight-digits, twelve — even more — and it keeps the number keypad on the lock screen so you don’t have to fiddle around with the keyboard.

Go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode and enter your passcode. Then, go to Change password and, from the options, set a Custom Numeric Code.

4. Now, switch on two-factor authentication

Two-factor is one of the best ways to keep your account safe. If someone steals your password, they still need your phone to break into your account. For years, two-factor has been cumbersome and annoying. Now, iOS 12 has a new feature that auto-fills the code, so it takes the frustration step out of the equation — so you have no excuse.

You may be asked to switch on two-factor when you set up your phone. You can also go to Settings and tap your name, then go to Password & Security. Just tap Turn on Two-Factor Authentication and follow the prompts.

5. While you’re here… change your reused passwords

iOS 12’s password manager has a new feature: password auditing. If it finds you’ve used the same password on multiple sites, it will warn you and advise you to change those passwords. It prevents password reuse attacks (known as “credential stuffing“) that hackers use to break into multiple sites and services using the same username and password.

Go to Settings > Passwords & Accounts > Website & App Passwords and enter your passcode. You’ll see a small warning symbol next to each account that recognizes a reused password. One tap of the Change Password on Website button and you’re done.

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Everyday home gear made smart

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Belkin, belkin wemo, Bluetooth, Column, electronics manufacturing, Gadgets, Google, Home Automation, iRobot, kwikset, Nest Labs, Roomba, smart devices, smart thermostat, smartphone, Speaker, wi-fi, Wirecutter | No Comments
Makula Dunbar
Contributor

Makula Dunbar is a writer with Wirecutter.

Editor’s note: This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

If you only have one smart home device, it’s likely something simple and fun like a voice-controlled speaker or color-changing LED light bulb. As you expand your smart home setup, you can begin to swap out gear that isn’t as flashy but you still use everyday.

Switching to connected locks, power outlets and smoke alarms are all simple installs that can improve your safety and comfort in your own home. We’ve pulled together some of our favorite essentials made smart for anyone looking to upgrade.

Smart lock: Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen

The Kwikset Kevo Smart Lock 2nd Gen is the most versatile smart lock that we’ve tested. Whether you prefer to use a wireless fob, smartphone app or key, you’ll be able to control the lock with all of them. When we compared it to similar models, the Kevo’s Bluetooth-activated tap-to-unlock mechanism was the easiest to use.

The second generation of the Kevo improved on security and has all-metal internal components for better protection against forced break-in attempts. With the optional Kevo Plus upgrade, you’ll add the ability to control the lock remotely and receive status-monitoring updates.

Photo: Liam McCabe

Robot Vacuum: iRobot Roomba 960

If cleaning is neither your forte or preferred pastime, a robot vacuum will come in handy. Our upgrade pick, the iRobot Roomba 960, is one of the most powerful models that we tested. It can be controlled through the iRobot Home app and uses a bump-and-track navigation system that helps vacuum an entire floor without missing spots.

If its battery is running low during a session, it’ll return to its dock to power up before finishing the job. It’s easy to disassemble for maintenance and is equipped with repairable parts that make it worth its price over some of our less serviceable picks.

Photo: Rachel Cericola

Plug-in Smart Outlet: Belkin Wemo Mini

We tested 26 smart outlet models over more than 45 hours and chose the Belkin Wemo Mini Wi-Fi plug as our top pick. If you’ve ever thought it’d be nice to remotely turn on or off home essentials such as lamps, air conditioners and fans from your smartphone, plugging them into a smart outlet makes it possible.

The Wemo Mini has proven to be reliable throughout long-term testing, it doesn’t block other outlets on the same wall plate and it’s compatible with iOS and Android devices and assistants, including HomeKit/Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. The interface of the Wemo app is intuitive and easy to use. You can view all of your connected devices on one screen, set powering timers and from anywhere power on or off a device plugged into the Wemo outlet.

Photo: Jennifer Pattison Tuohy

Smart Thermostat: Nest Thermostat E

For a smart thermostat that’s affordable and doesn’t require extensive programming, we recommend the Nest Thermostat E. After about a week, it creates a schedule after learning cooling and heating preferences that you’ve set. It isn’t compatible with as many HVAC systems as similar Nest models, but it’s easy to install and doesn’t lack any features we expect.

It does come with Eco Mode — an energy-saving geofencing feature that detects when your home is empty (or when your smartphone is nowhere near your house). The Nest app uses the same technology to set the thermostat to a preferred temperature when it senses you’re on your way home. If you don’t have your smartphone on hand, you can still operate the Thermostat E by turning its outer ring and pressing selections on its touchscreen.

Photo: Michael Hession

Smart Smoke Alarm: Nest Protect

A smoke alarm is one of the most relied-upon safety devices in every home. Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget to do routine checks to ensure it’s in tip-top shape and functioning properly. With a smart smoke alarm like the Nest Protect, we found that its simple app, self-tests, monthly sound checks and consistent alerts are enough to keep fire safety worries at bay.

It isn’t difficult to install, has a sleek design and integrates with other smart home devices like the Nest Cam (which can record video of a fire) and the Nest Learning Thermostat (which shuts down HVAC systems that may be the cause of a fire). It’s sensitive to fast- and slow-burning fires, plus it monitors homes for both smoke and carbon monoxide.

These picks may have been updated by Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and TechCrunch may earn affiliate commissions.

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The iPhone SE was the best phone Apple ever made, and now it’s dead

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, iPhone SE, Mobile, Opinion | No Comments

I only wanted one thing out of 2018’s iPhone event: a new iPhone SE. In failing to provide it Apple seems to have quietly put the model out to pasture — and for this I curse them eternally. Because it was the best phone the company ever made.

If you were one of the many who passed over the SE back in 2015, when it made its debut, that’s understandable. The iPhone 6S was the latest and greatest, and of course fixed a few of the problems Apple had kindly introduced with the entirely new design of the 6. But for me the SE was a perfect match.

See, I’ve always loved the iPhone design that began with the 4. That storied phone is perhaps best remembered for being left in a bar ahead of release and leaked by Gizmodo — which is too bad, because for once the product was worthy of the lavish unveiling Apple now bestows on every device it puts out.

The 4 established an entirely new industrial design aesthetic that was at once instantly recognizable and highly practical. Gone were the smooth, rounded edges and back of the stainless original iPhone (probably the second-best phone Apple made) and the jellybean-esque 3G and 3GS.

In the place of those soft curves were hard lines and uncompromising geometry: a belt of metal running around the edge, set off from the glass sides by the slightest of steps. It highlighted and set off the black glass of the screen and bezel, producing a of specular outline from any angle.

The camera was flush and the home button (RIP) sub-flush, entirely contained within the body, making the device perfectly flat both front and back. Meanwhile the side buttons boldly stood out. Volume in bold, etched circles; the mute switch easy to find but impossible to accidentally activate; the power button perfectly placed for a reaching index finger. Note that all these features are directly pointed at usability: making things easier, better, more accessible, while also being attractive and cohesive as parts of a single object.

Compared to the iPhone 4, every single other phone, including Samsung’s new “iPhone killer” Galaxy S, was a cheap-looking mess of plastic, incoherently designed or at best workmanlike. And don’t think I’m speaking as an Apple fanboy; I was not an iPhone user at the time. In fact, I was probably still using my beloved G1 — talk about beauty and the beast!

The design was strong enough that it survived the initially awkward transition to a longer screen in the 5, and with that generation it also gained the improved rear side that alleviated the phone’s unfortunate tendency towards… well, shattering.

The two-tone grey iPhone 5S, however, essentially left no room for improvement. And after 4 years, it was admittedly perhaps time to freshen things up a bit. Unfortunately, what Apple ended up doing was subtracting all personality from the device while adding nothing but screen space.

The 6 was, to me, simply ugly. It was reminiscent of the plethora of boring Android phones at the time — merely higher quality than them, not different. The 6S was similarly ugly, and the 7 through 8 somehow further banished any design that set themselves apart, while reversing course on some practical measures in allowing an increasingly large camera bump and losing the headphone jack. The X, at least, looked a bit different.

But to return to the topic at hand, it was after the 6S that Apple had introduced the SE. Although it nominally stood for “Special Edition,” the name was also a nod to the Macintosh SE. Ironically given the original meaning of “System Expansion,” the new SE was the opposite: essentially an iPhone 6S in the body of a 5S, complete with improved camera, Touch ID sensor, and processor. The move was likely intended as a sort of lifeboat for users who still couldn’t bring themselves to switch to the drastically redesigned, and considerably larger, new model.

It would take time, Apple seems to have reasoned, to convert these people, the types who rarely buy first generation Apple products and cherish usability over novelty. So why not coddle them a bit through this difficult transition?

The SE appealed not just to the nostalgic and neophobic, but simply people who prefer a smaller phone. I don’t have particularly large or small hands, but I preferred this highly pocketable, proven design to the new one for a number of reasons.

Flush camera so it doesn’t get scratched up? Check. Normal, pressable home button? Check. Flat, symmetrical design? Check. Actual edges to hold onto? Check. Thousands of cases already available? Check — although I didn’t use one for a long time. The SE is best without one.

At the time, the iPhone SE was more compact and better looking than anything Apple offered, while making almost no compromises at all in terms of functionality. The only possible objection was its size, and that was (and is) a matter of taste.

It was the best object Apple ever designed, filled with the best tech it had ever developed. It was the best phone it ever made.

And the best phone it’s made since then, too, if you ask me. Ever since the 6, it seems to me that Apple has only drifted, casting about for something to captivate its users the way the iPhone 4’s design and new graphical capabilities did, all the way back in 2010. It honed that design to a cutting edge and then, when everyone expected the company to leap forward, it tiptoed instead, perhaps afraid to spook the golden goose.

To me the SE was Apple allowing itself one last victory lap on the back of a design it would never surpass. It’s understandable that it would not want to admit, this many years on, that anyone could possibly prefer something it created nearly a decade ago to its thousand-dollar flagship — a device, I feel I must add, that not only compromises visibly in its design (I’ll never own a notched phone if I can help it) but backpedals on practical features used by millions, like Touch ID and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is in keeping with similarly user-unfriendly choices made elsewhere in its lineup.

So while I am disappointed in Apple, I’m not surprised. After all, it’s disappointed me for years. But I still have my SE, and I intend to keep it for as long as possible. Because it’s the best thing the company ever made, and it’s still a hell of a phone.

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Nintendo’s NES Switch controllers activate the nostalgia centers (and wallets) of retro gamers

Posted by | Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, NES, Nintendo, Nintendo Switch, Switch | No Comments

The news that Nintendo would be adding NES games to the Switch as part of its paid online service had a mixed reception, but the company has completely made up for this controversial decision by releasing wireless NES controllers with which to play those games. At $60 they’re a bit steep, but come on. You know you’re going to buy them eventually. Probably next week.

The controllers were revealed during the latest Nintendo Direct video news dump, alongside a host of other nostalgia bombs, like a new Animal Crossing and about a million Final Fantasy ports. But first the details of those sweet, sweet controllers.

They’re definitely NES-style down to the buttons, meaning they aren’t going to replace your existing Switch Joy-Cons. So why do they cost so much? Because Nintendo. At least they’re wireless and they charge up by slotting onto the Switch’s sides like Joy-Cons. And they do have shoulder buttons, though, for some reason.

You’ll be able to pre-order a two-pack starting on the 18th for $60, which also happens to be the launch date for Nintendo Switch Online. Yeah, it’s time to fork out for that online play Nintendo has generously given away for so long.

Fortunately, as you may remember from previous announcements, the cost is pretty low; $20 per year, and it gets you online game access and a growing library of NES classics. Ten of those games were confirmed before, but 10 more were added to the list today.

So at launch you’ll be able to play:

  • Balloon Fight
  • Dr Mario
  • Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros.
  • Super Mario Bros. 3
  • Donkey Kong
  • Ice Climber
  • The Legend of Zelda
  • Tennis
  • Soccer
  • Baseball
  • Double Dragon
  • Excitebike
  • Ghosts ‘n Goblins
  • Gradius
  • Ice Hockey
  • Pro Wrestling
  • River City Ransom
  • Tecmo Bowl
  • Yoshi

The service will also enable cloud backups of saves and possible special deals down the line. It sounds like it’s basically a must-have, although plenty of people are angry that their virtual console games have been essentially stolen back from them. At least we have the NES and SNES Classic Editions.

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JBL’s smart display combines Google smarts with good sound

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, JBL, smart speaker, Speaker, TC | No Comments

If you’re looking for a smart display that’s powered by the Google Assistant, you now have two choices: the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View. Lenovo was first out of the gate with its surprisingly stylish gadget, but it also left room for improvement. JBL, given its heritage as an audio company, is putting the emphasis on sound quality, with stereo speakers and a surprising amount of bass.

In terms of the overall design, the Link View isn’t going to win any prizes, but its pill shape definitely isn’t ugly either. JBL makes the Link View in any color you like, as long as that’s black. It’ll likely fit in with your home decor, though.

The Link View has an 8-inch high-definition touchscreen that is more than crisp enough for the maps, photos and YouTube videos you’ll play on it. In using it for the last two weeks, the screen turned out to be a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but you’d expect that given that I put it on the kitchen counter and regularly used it to entertain myself while waiting for the water to boil.

At the end of the day, you’re not going to spend $250 on a nice speaker with a built-in tablet. What matters most here is whether the visual side of the Google Assistant works for you. I find that it adds an extra dimension to the audio responses, no matter whether that’s weather reports, a map of my daily commute (which can change depending on traffic) or a video news report. Google’s interface for these devices is simple and clear, with large buttons and clearly presented information. And maybe that’s no surprise. These smart speakers are the ideal surface for its Material Design language, after all.

As a demo, Google likes to talk about how these gadgets can help you while cooking, with step-by-step recipes and videos. I find that this is a nice demo indeed, and thought that it would help me get a bit more creative with trying new recipes. In reality, though, I never have the ingredients I need to cook what Google suggests. If you are a better meal planner than I am, your mileage will likely vary.

What I find surprisingly useful is the display’s integration of Google Duo. I’m aware that the Allo/Duo combo is a bit of a flop, but the display does make you want to use Duo because you can easily have a video chat while just doing your thing in the kitchen. If you set up multiple users, the display can even receive calls for all of them. And don’t worry, there is a physical slider you can use to shut down the camera whenever you want.

The Link View also made me appreciate Google’s Assistant routines more (and my colleague Lucas Matney found the same when he tried out the Lenovo Smart Display). And it’s just a bit easier to look at the weather graphics instead of having the Assistant rattle off the temperature for the next couple of days.

Maybe the biggest letdown, though (and this isn’t JBL’s, fault but a feature Google needs to enable) is that you can’t add a smart display to your Google Assistant groups. That means you can’t use it as part of your all-house Google Home audio system, for example. It’s an odd omission for sure, given the Link View’s focus on sound, but my understanding is that the same holds true for the Lenovo Smart Display. If this is a deal breaker for you, then I’d hold off on buying a Google Assistant smart display for the time being.

You can, however, use the display as a Chromecast receiver to play music from your phone or watch videos. While you are not using it, the display can show the current time or simply go to blank.

Another thing that doesn’t work on smart displays yet is Google’s continued “conversation feature,” which lets you add a second command without having to say “OK, Google” again. For now, the smart displays only work in English, too.

When I first heard about these smart displays, I wasn’t sure if they were going to be useful. Turns out, they are. I do live in the Google Assistant ecosystem, though, and I’ve got a few Google Homes set up around my house. If you’re looking to expand your Assistant setup, then the Link View is a nice addition — and if you’re just getting started (or only need one Assistant-enabled speaker/display), then opting for a smart display over a smart speaker may just be the way to go, assuming you can stomach the extra cost.

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Kano’s latest computer kit for kids doubles down on touch

Posted by | alex klein, computing, connected devices, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, Kano, learn to code, London, Minecraft, Raspberry Pi, United Kingdom | No Comments

Learn-to-code startup Kano, whose products aim to turn kids into digital makers, has taken the wraps off the latest incarnation of its build-it-yourself computer kit.

With the new flagship Kano is doubling down on touch interactions — urging kids to “make your own tablet”. The Computer Kit Touch packs a 10.1″ HD touchscreen, along with Kano’s now familiar bright orange wireless keyboard which comes with a built in trackpad.

While touch is becoming increasingly central to its products, Kano says the keyboard remains an important component of the product — supporting text-based coding apps which its platform also provides access to, as well as the more approachable drag-and-drop block-based coding systems that do really benefit from having a touchscreen to hand.

The kit, which Kano says is generally (but not exclusively) aimed at the 6-13 age range, is on sale from today, priced at $279.99 — via its website (Kano.me), as well as from selected retailers and e-tailers.

The Raspberry Pi powered computer is also getting increased storage capacity in this upgrade — of 16GB. But the main refresh is around updating Kano OS, Kano’s kid-friendly Pi topper, with expanded support for touch controls, according to founder Alex Klein .

Last year Kano combined touch and keyboard based interaction into a single product, the Computer Kit Complete — calling that a DIY laptop.

The 2018 refreshed version looks much the same, with enhancements generally behind the scenes and/or under the hood.

“The big moves this year are advancing the software and content ecosystem,” says Klein. “How it’s all integrated together.”

He points to another coding kit the team has up for pre-order, slated to ship next month — a co-branded Harry Potter gizmo in which kids get to build a motion-sensitive “coding wand” and use it to cook up their own digital spells, helped along by Kano’s software — adding: “With the Potter kit we’re bringing Kano code — to create a system, the ability to blend and change physics engines and sounds and particle systems — to tablets. So we’ve now got a touch-based interaction model for that e-product, as well as mouse and keyboard, and so we’ve brought that software system now to the Computer Kit Touch.

“You can code by dragging and dropping blocks with your fingers, you can paint and draw. You can change the pitch of a loop or a melody by running your fingers up and down and then using a change of a parameter mess with how quickly that melody changes, mess with the number of layers, you can make a beat or a loop using a touch-based digital audio workstation style X-Y plane. You can go into any one of our creative coding apps and pull in touch-based interactions, so instead of just using a mouse, a click and point, you can make an app that responds to swipes and taps, and different speeds, and in different locations.”

“On the touch kit itself there’s also a set of new content that demystifies how touchscreens work and peels back the layer of the screen and shows you what’s behind, and you’re kind of touching the intersection of the different copper wires and seeing what’s happening beneath,” he adds.

“There’s obviously a big hardware upgrade with the new ability to touch it, to take it with you. We’ve refined a lot of the components, we’ve improved the speed, the battery life. But really the core of it is this upgraded software that integrates with all the other kit.”

Talking of other kit, the learn-to-code space is now awash with quasi-educational gizmos, leaving parents in Western markets spoiled for choice of what to buy a budding coder.

Many more of these gizmos will be unboxed as we head into the holiday season. And while Kano was something of a startup pioneer here — a category creator, as Klein tells it — there’s now no shortage of tech for kids promising some kind of STEM-based educational benefit. So it’s facing an ever-growing gaggle of competition.

Kano’s strategy to stand out in an increasingly contested space is to fix on familiar elements, says Stein — flagging for example the popular game Minecraft — which runs on the Kano kit, and for which there’s a whole subsection of the Kano World community given over to hacking Minecraft.

And, well, aside from block-headed Minecraft characters it’s hard to find a character more familiar to children than the fictional wizard Harry Potter. So you can certainly see where Kano’s trying to get with the coding wand.

“We broke our first month pre-order target in one day,” he says of that forthcoming e-product (RRP ~$130). “There was massive coverage, massive traffic on our site, it was picked up all over the place and we’re very happy with the pre-orders so far. As are our retail partners.”

The Potter co-branding play is certainly Kano trying to make its products cast a wider spell by expanding the appeal of coding from nerdy makers to more mainstream child consumers. But how successful that will be remains to be seen. Not least because we’ve seen this sort of tactic elsewhere in this space.

Sphero, for example, is now rolling back the other way — shifting away from Star Wars co-branded bots to a serious education push focused on bringing STEM robotics to schools. (Although Kano would doubtless say a programmable bot that rolls is not the same as a fully fledged kit computer that can run all manner of apps, including familiar and fashionable stuff like Minecraft and YouTube.)

“We’re very pleased to see that this category that we created, with that Kickstarter campaign in 2013 — it’s become more than what some people initially feared it would be which was niche, maker ‘arcanery’; and it’s becoming a major consumer phenomenon,” he says. “This notion that people want to make their own technology, learn how to code and play in that way. And not just kids — people of all ages.”

On the hard sales front, Klein isn’t breaking out numbers for Potter kit pre-sales at this stage. But says the various incarnations of its main computer kit have shipped ~360,000 units since September 2014. So it’s not Lego (which has also moved into programmable kits) — but it’s not bad either.

In recent years Kano has also branched out into offering Internet of Things kits, previewing three code-your-own connected devices in 2016 — and launching Kickstarter campaigns to get the products to market.

It’s since shipped one (the Pixel kit) but the other two (a build-it-yourself camera kit and a DIY speaker) remain delayed — leaving crowdfunder backers waiting for their hardware.

Why the delay? Have Kano’s priorities shifted — perhaps because it’s focusing efforts on cobranded products (like the Potter wand) vs creating more of its own standalone devices?

“We are still committed to shipping the speaker kit, the camera kit,” Klein tells TechCrunch. “A big reason for [the delay] is not only the fact that the company is in a position now where we have mass distribution, we have great partners — perennially testing new product ideas — and we want to make sure that products are going to resonate with, not just a small group of people but many, many people, of many different age groups and interests before we release them.”

He also points out that any backers of the two devices who want refunds can get them in full.

Though he also says some are choosing to wait — adding that Kano remains committed to shipping the devices, and saying for those that do wait there will be a few extra bells and whistles than originally specced out in the crowdfunder campaign.

The delay itself looks like the market (and consumer tastes) moving quicker than Kano predicted — and so it finds itself wishing its products could deliver more than it originally planned (but without a wand to wave to instantly achieve that).

This is also a pitfall with previewing anything months or years ahead of time, of course. But the expense and complexity of building hardware makes crowdfunding platforms attractive — even for a relatively established brand like Kano.

“The delay is really unfortunate,” he adds. “We did say they would ship earlier but what we have done is we’ve offered any backer a full refund on the camera and the speaker if they don’t want to wait. But if they do wait they will receive incredible camera, incredible speaker. Both of them are going to benefit from the advancements made in low cost computing in the last year.

“The speaker as well is going to have elements that weren’t even part of the original campaign. On our side it’s critical that we get those products absolutely right and that they feel mass, and that they demystify not only coding and the Internet of Things, which was part of the original purpose, but in the case of the camera and the speaker there are elements that have come to the fore in more recent months like voice interaction and image recognition that we feel if our mandate is to demystify technology and we’re shipping a camera and a speaker… that’s kind of part of it. Make it perfect, make it of the moment. And for any backer who doesn’t want to wait for that, no problem at all — we’ll refund you 100%.”

Beyond reworking its approach with those perhaps overly ambitious connected devices, Kano has additional release plans in its pipeline — with Klein mentioning that additional co-branded products will be coming next year.

He says Kano is also eyeing expanding into more markets. “There’s a significant market for Kano even beyond our traditional leading position amongst 6-13 year olds in the US and the UK. There’s a really strong market for people who are beyond the US and the UK and we’re now at a scale where we can start really investing in these distribution and localization relationships that have come our way since year one,” he says.

And he at least entertains the idea of a future Kano device that does away with a keyboard entirely — and goes all in on touch — when we suggest it.

“Would we move to a place where we have no keyboard in a Kano computer? I think it’s very possible,” he says. “It might be a different form factor, it might be smaller, it might fit in your pocket, it might have connectivity — that kind of stuff.”

Which sort of sounds like Kano’s thinking about making a DIY smartphone. If so, you heard it here first.

The five and a half year old London-based startup is not yet profitable but Klein flags growth he dubs “fast enough” (noting it doubled sales year-over-year last year, a “trend” he says continued in the first half of this year), before adding: “It’s not impossible for us to get to profitability. We have a lot of optionality. But at the moment we are making investments — in software, in team — we have partner products coming out like Harry, we’ll have more coming out next year. So in terms of absolute positive EBITDA not yet but we are profitable on a units basis.”

Kano closed a $28M Series B last year — and has raised some $44.5M in all at this stage, according to Crunchbase. Is it raising more funding now? “I think any entrepreneur who is looking to do something big is always in some sense keeping an eye out for sources of capital,” replies Klein. “As well as sources of talent.”

He points by way of a connected aside to this study of C-suite execs, carried out by Stripe and Harris poll, which found that access to software developers is a bigger constraint than access to capital, saying: “I read that and I thought that that gap — between the 1% of 1% who can develop software or hardware and the rest of us — is exactly the challenge that Kano set out to solve from a consumer and education perspective.”

“In terms of fundraising we do get a lot of inbound, we have great investors at the moment,” he adds. “We do know that the scale of this particular challenge — which is demystify technology, become synonymous with learning to code and making your own computers — that requires significant support and we’ll be continuing to keep our eyes out as we grow.”

 

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The 7 most egregious fibs Apple told about the iPhone XS camera today

Posted by | Apple, Apple Hardware Event 2018, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, iPhone XS, Photography | No Comments

Apple always drops a few whoppers at its events, and the iPhone XS announcement today was no exception. And nowhere were they more blatant than in the introduction of the devices’ “new” camera features. No one doubts that iPhones take great pictures, so why bother lying about it? My guess is they can’t help themselves.

To be clear, I have no doubt they made some great updates to make a good camera better. But whatever those improvements are, they were overshadowed today by the breathless hype that was frequently questionable and occasionally just plain wrong. Now, to fill this article out I had to get a bit pedantic, but honestly, some of these are pretty egregious.

“The world’s most popular camera”

There are a lot of iPhones out there, to be sure. But defining the iPhone as some sort of decade-long continuous camera, which Apple seems to be doing, is sort of a disingenuous way to do it. By that standard, Samsung would almost certainly be ahead, since it would be allowed to count all its Galaxy phones going back a decade as well, and they’ve definitely outsold Apple in that time. Going further, if you were to say that a basic off-the-shelf camera stack and common Sony or Samsung sensor was a “camera,” iPhone would probably be outnumbered 10:1 by Android phones.

Is the iPhone one of the world’s most popular cameras? To be sure. Is it the world’s most popular camera? You’d have to slice it pretty thin and say that this or that year and this or that model was more numerous than any other single model. The point is this is a very squishy metric and one many could lay claim to depending on how they pick or interpret the numbers. As usual, Apple didn’t show their work here, so we may as well coin a term and call this an educated bluff.

“Remarkable new dual camera system”

As Phil would explain later, a lot of the newness comes from improvements to the sensor and image processor. But as he said that the system was new while backed by an exploded view of the camera hardware, we may consider him as referring to that as well.

It’s not actually clear what in the hardware is different from the iPhone X. Certainly if you look at the specs, they’re nearly identical:

If I said these were different cameras, would you believe me? Same F numbers, no reason to think the image stabilization is different or better, and so on. It would not be unreasonable to guess that these are, as far as optics, the same cameras as before. Again, not that there was anything wrong with them — they’re fabulous optics. But showing components that are in fact the same and saying it’s different is misleading.

Given Apple’s style, if there were any actual changes to the lenses or OIS, they’d have said something. It’s not trivial to improve those things and they’d take credit if they had done so.

The sensor of course is extremely important, and it is improved: the 1.4-micrometer pixel pitch on the wide-angle main camera is larger than the 1.22-micrometer pitch on the X. Since the megapixels are similar we can probably surmise that the “larger” sensor is a consequence of this different pixel pitch, not any kind of real form factor change. It’s certainly larger, but the wider pixel pitch, which helps with sensitivity, is what’s actually improved, and the increased dimensions are just a consequence of that.

We’ll look at the image processor claims below.

“2x faster sensor… for better image quality”

It’s not really clear what is meant when he says this. “To take advantage of all this technology.” Is it the readout rate? Is it the processor that’s faster, since that’s what would probably produce better image quality (more horsepower to calculate colors, encode better, and so on)? “Fast” also refers to light-gathering — is that faster?

I don’t think it’s accidental that this was just sort of thrown out there and not specified. Apple likes big simple numbers and doesn’t want to play the spec game the same way as the others. But this in my opinion crosses the line from simplifying to misleading. This at least Apple or some detailed third party testing can clear up.

“What it does that is entirely new is connect together the ISP with that neural engine, to use them together.”

Now, this was a bit of sleight of hand on Phil’s part. Presumably what’s new is that Apple has better integrated the image processing pathway between the traditional image processor, which is doing the workhorse stuff like autofocus and color, and the “neural engine,” which is doing face detection.

It may be new for Apple, but this kind of thing has been standard in many cameras for years. Both phones and interchangeable-lens systems like DSLRs use face and eye detection, some using neural-type models, to guide autofocus or exposure. This (and the problems that come with it) go back years and years. I remember point-and-shoots that had it, but unfortunately failed to detect people who had dark skin or were frowning.

It’s gotten a lot better (Apple’s depth-detecting units probably help a lot), but the idea of tying a face-tracking system, whatever fancy name you call it, in to the image-capture process is old hat. What’s in the XS may be the best, but it’s probably not “entirely new” even for Apple, let alone the rest of photography.

“We have a brand new feature we call smart HDR.”

Apple’s brand new feature has been on Google’s Pixel phones for a while now. A lot of cameras now keep a frame buffer going, essentially snapping pictures in the background while the app is open, then using the latest one when you hit the button. And Google, among others, had the idea that you could use these unseen pictures as raw material for an HDR shot.

Probably Apple’s method is a different, and it may even be better, but fundamentally it’s the same thing. Again, “brand new” to iPhone users, but well known among Android flagship devices.

“This is what you’re not supposed to do, right, shooting a photo into the sun, because you’re gonna blow out the exposure.”

I’m not saying you should shoot directly into the sun, but it’s really not uncommon to include the sun in your shot. In the corner like that it can make for some cool lens flares, for instance. It won’t blow out these days because almost every camera’s auto-exposure algorithms are either center-weighted or intelligently shift around — to find faces, for instance.

When the sun is in your shot, your problem isn’t blown out highlights but a lack of dynamic range caused by a large difference between the exposure needed to capture the sun-lit background and the shadowed foreground. This is, of course, as Phil says, one of the best applications of HDR — a well-bracketed exposure can make sure you have shadow details while also keeping the bright ones.

Funnily enough, in the picture he chose here, the shadow details are mostly lost — you just see a bunch of noise there. You don’t need HDR to get those water droplets — that’s a shutter speed thing, really. It’s still a great shot, by the way, I just don’t think it’s illustrative of what Phil is talking about.

“You can adjust the depth of field… this has not been possible in photography of any type of camera.”

This just isn’t true. You can do this on the Galaxy S9, and it’s being rolled out in Google Photos as well. Lytro was doing something like it years and years ago, if we’re including “any type of camera.” Will this be better? Probably – looks great to me. Has it never been possible ever? Not even close. I feel kind of bad that no one told Phil. He’s out here without the facts.

Well, that’s all the big ones. There were plenty more, shall we say, embellishments at the event, but that’s par for the course at any big company’s launch. I just felt like these ones couldn’t go unanswered. I have nothing against the iPhone camera — I use one myself. But boy are they going wild with these claims. Somebody’s got to say it, since clearly no one inside Apple is.

Check out the rest of our Apple event coverage here:

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XS, XR, XS Max? The difference between the new iPhones

Posted by | Apple, Apple Hardware Event 2018, Apple Hardware Event 2018 - iPhone, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, Mobile, TC | No Comments

XS is the normal one. XR is the cheap one. XS Max is the big one. That’s a good start to understanding Apple’s confusing naming scheme for its new line of iPhones. Apparently jealous of Android’s fragmentation, Apple decided it needed three different models, three different storage sizes and nine different colors.

You can think of the XS as the updated iPhone X, the Max as the new Plus and the XR as a revival of the great-for-kids budget iPhone SE. Here’s a comparison of their features, prices, options and release dates.

The iPhone XS — standard, smaller, sooner

Apple’s new flagship phone is the iPhone XS. If you want the best Apple has to offer that will still fit in your pocket, this is the one for you.

It’s got a 5.8-inch diagonal OLED “Super Retina” HDR screen with 458 pixels per inch, which is actually taller than the old 8 Plus’s 5.5-inch screen, but it’s a little thinner, so it has less total screen volume. Dual 12 megapixel cameras offer stabilization and 2X optical zoom, plus the new depth control Portrait mode feature. It’s $999 for the 64GB, $1,149 for the 256GB, or $1,349 for the 512GB.

It comes in silver, gold and space gray, all in stainless steel that’s waterproof to two meters. Pre-orders start Friday, September 14th, and they ship and hit stores on September 21st.

The iPhone XS Max — bigger screen, bigger price

If you love watching movies, browsing photos and shooting videos on your phone, you’ll want the iPhone XS Max.

The 6.5-inch OLED “Super Retina” HDR screen is the biggest ever on an iPhone, dwarfing the 8 Plus’s screen, yet with a similar device size since the XS Max takes up more of the phone’s face. The twin 12 megapixel lenses stabilize your images and offer 2X optical zoom, as well as Portrait mode depth control.

It also comes in stainless steel silver, gold and space gray that are all waterproof to two meters, and costs $100 more than the XS at $1,099 for 64GB, $1,249 for 256GB or a whopping $1,449 for 512GB. As with the XS, pre-orders start Friday, September 14th, and you can get it in your hands on September 21st.

The iPhone XR — colorful, cheaper, duller

Don’t need the sharpest or biggest new screen and want to save some cash? Grab an iPhone XR. Its size comes in between the XS and XS Max, with a 6.1-inch diagonal LCD “Liquid Retina” screen with 326 pixels per square inch.

Fewer pixels and no HDR display means the XR won’t look quite as brilliant as the XS models. The XR also only has one 12 megapixel camera lens, so it doesn’t offer stabilization or 2X optical zoom like its XS siblings, but it still gets the cool Bokeh-changing Portrait mode depth control.

The XR is only waterproof to one meter instead of two like its expensive sisters, and lacks 3D Touch for quick access to deeper features.

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As a bonus with the XR, you do get 1.5 hours of additional battery life and six color options in the aluminum (“aloominium” if you’re Jonny Ive) finish: white, black, blue, yellow, coral and red. And it’s cheaper at $749 for 64GB, with $799 for 128GB and $899 for 256GB.

If that’s not cheap enough, you can now get the iPhone 7 for $449 and the iPhone 8 costs $599 — though there are no more iPhones with headphone jacks now that the 6S and SE are getting retired. In hopes that you’ll buy a pricier one, the XR arrives a month later than the XS models, with pre-orders on October 19th and shipping October 26th.

Apple may find this level of customization lets everyone find the right iPhone for them, though it could simultaneously produce decision paralysis in buyers who aren’t confident enough to pay. While it’s a headache at first, you’ll end up with a phone fit for your style and budget. Though without a ton of improvements over the iPhone X, you might not need an “iPhone Excess.”

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