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North ending production of current Focals smart glasses to focus on Focals 2.0

Posted by | augmented reality, brooklyn, Clothing, computing, eyewear, focals, Gadgets, glasses, hardware, interface devices, ios devices, iPhone, myo, North, north america, smartglasses, smartphone, smartphones, Stephen Lake, TC, technology, thalmic labs, toronto, Wearables | No Comments

Smart glasses maker North announced today that it will be ending production of its first-generation Focals glasses, which it brought to market for consumers last year. The company says it will instead shift its focus to Focals 2.0, a next-generation version of the product, which it says will ship starting in 2020.

Focals are North’s first product since rebranding the company from Thalmic Labs and pivoting from building smart gesture control hardware to glasses with a built-in heads-up display and smartphone connectivity. CEO and founder Stephen Lake told me in a prior interview that the company realized in developing its Myo gesture control armband that it was actually more pressing to develop the next major shift in computing platform before tackling interface devices for said platforms, hence the switch.

Focals 2.0 will be “at a completely different level” and “the most advanced smart glasses ever made,” Lake said in a press release announcing the new generation device. In terms of how exactly it’ll improve on the original, North isn’t sharing much, but it has said that it has made the 2.0 version both lighter and “sleeker,” and that it’ll offer a much sharper, “10x improved” built-in display.

North began selling its Focals smart glasses via physical showrooms that it opened first in Brooklyn and Toronto. These, in addition to a number of pop-up showroom locations that toured across North America, provided in-person try-ons and fittings for the smart glasses, which must be tailor-fit for individual users in order to properly display content from their supported applications. More recently, North also added a Showroom app for iOS devices, that included custom sizing powered by more recent iPhone front-facing depth sensing camera hardware.

North’s first-generation Focals smart glasses

To date, North hasn’t revealed any sales figures for its initial Focals device, but the company did reduce the price of the glasses form $999 to just under $600 (without prescription) relatively soon after launch. Their cost, combined with the requirement for an in-person fitting prior to purchase (until the introduction of the Showroom app) and certain gaps in the product feature set, like an inability to support iMessage on iOS natively, all point to initial sales being relatively low volume, however.

To North’s credit, Focals are the first smart glasses hardware that manage to have a relatively inconspicuous look. Despite somewhat thicker than average arms on either side where the battery, projection and computing components are housed, Focals resemble thick acrylic plastic frames of the kind popularized by Warby Parker and other standard glasses makers.

With version 2.0, it sounds like Focals will be making even more progress in developing a design that hews closely to standard glasses. One of the issues also cited by some users with the first-generation product was a relatively fuzzy image produced by the built-in projector, which required specific calibration to remain in focus, and it sounds like they’re addressing that, too.

The Focals successor will still have an uphill battle when it comes to achieving mass appeal, however. It’s unlikely that cost will be significantly reduced, though any progress it can make on that front will definitely help. And it still either requires non-glasses wearers to opt for regularly donning specs, or for standard glasses wearers to be within the acceptable prescription range supported by the hardware, and to be willing to spend a bit more for connected glasses features.

The company says the reason it’s ending Focals 1.0 production is to focus on the 2.0 rollout, but it’s not a great sign that there will be a pause in between the two generations in terms of availability. Through its two iterations as a company, Thalmic Labs and now North have not had the best track record in terms of developing hardware that has been a success with potential customers — Focals 2.0, whenever they do arrive, will have a lot to prove in terms of iterating enough to drive significant demand.

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Senegal’s NIMA Codes to launch address app in 15 African countries

Posted by | africa, Android, api, carsharing, commuting, IBM, kenya, location based service, NIMA Codes, north america, ovi, senegal, Snap, Startups, TC, transport, Uber, United States, west africa | No Comments

Senegalese startup NIMA Codes — a digital mapping service for locations without formal addresses — has upgraded its app and plans to go live in 15 African countries in 2020.

The pre-seed stage startup launched in 2018 around an API that uses mobile-phone numbers to catalog coordinates for unregistered homes and businesses in Senegal.

NIMA Codes is adding a chat tool to its platform, to help users locate and comment on service providers, and is integrating a photo-based location identifier, NIMA Snap, in the application.

“What we offer right now is a reliable street-addressing product. Because it’s very difficult for people…to communicate location in Africa and a lot of services are using location. So we need a service that can communicate reliable locations,” NIMA Codes co-founder and CEO Mouhamadou Sall told TechCrunch.

By several rankings, NIMA Codes has become a top-three downloaded navigation app in Senegal (for Android and iOS). The platform has 16,000 subscribed users and has recorded more than 100,000 searches, according to Sall.

He and co-founder Steven Sakayroun (a software engineer and IBM alum) came up with the idea for assigning location coordinates to mobile numbers in previous software development roles.

“If you look at street addresses in North America, in the end they are just a way to name longitude and latitude, because the computer doesn’t know what 6th Avenue really means,” Sall said.

Because mobile-phone penetration in Senegal and broader Africa is high, mobile numbers serve as a useful reference point to attach location information tagged for both homes and businesses, Sall explained. Mobile-phones can also serve as an entry point for people to input location coordinates to NIMA Codes’ database.

There are advantages to assigning coordinates to digits, versus letters, in Sub-Saharan Africa with its thousands of language groupings, Sall explained. “Nima Codes is a cross-border and language-agnostic solution,” he said.

Mouhamadou Sall

Sall believes that will work to the startup’s advantage when it expands services and database building to all 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States by the end of 2020.

NIMA Codes is still plotting prospects for its best use-cases and revenue generation. It hasn’t secured partners yet and is still identifying how those downloading the app are using it. “Right now it’s mostly people who download the app…and register locations. Some delivery companies may be using it and not telling us,” said Sall.

Ecowas Countries

The startup plans to generate revenue through partnerships and API usage fees.

Sall believes NIMA Codes’ new image-based location and chat-based business search functions could come together — akin to Google Maps and finding nearby places — to create commercial revenue opportunities across merchants in West Africa’s large, informal economies.

Another obvious plug-in for NIMA Codes’ service is Africa’s fast-growing ride-hail and delivery markets. Sall points to 2019 data that Uber paid $58 million over three years for map and search services.The U.S. ride-hail company has also tested an image-based directions app called OKHi in Kenya. And there are reports of Uber’s imminent expansion into Senegal.

Whatever the application, Sall believes NIMA Codes is cornering a central point of demand in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The use case is so big, you need to start with something and eventually expand,” he said.

“But everything wraps around having a reliable location service for people and small business.”

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Here’s how much the all-electric Polestar 2 will cost in its launch markets

Posted by | Android, automotive, cars, Environmental Protection Agency, Google Play Store, GreenTech, north america, Polestar, Pricing, TC, Tesla Model S, United States | No Comments

Volvo group’s Polestar electric performance car sub-brand has announced pricing for the Polestar 2, the company’s second production car, a four-door mid-sized fastback that will begin production in 2020 and start shipping as early as next June. Starting prices are set at between 58,800€ (around $63,720 U.S.). Those prices include three years of service and maintenance and European value-added tax (VAT). Polestar also previously communicated that its rough guide pricing for North America was at around $63,000, so this is consistent with that, but the final actual price for American buyers will be revealed later on.

That’s a pretty competitive price in the electric performance sedan market: The Model S starts at $75,000 U.S., for instance. The Polestar 2 is really much more a competitor for the Model 3, however, and is priced more closely to a kitted out version of that vehicle.

In terms of what the Polestar 2 packs in performance, its estimated EPA range is set at around 275 miles (the Model 3 starts at 240 but ranges up quickly to 310 and 325 miles depending on battery options). It offers around 408 horsepower from its 300 kW electric powertrain, again just short of the Model 3 when that’s equipped with its dual-motor performance configuration. Polestar say that it’ll do 0 to 60mph is under five seconds, again sort of in the middle of the pack when you look at the Model 3’s full configuration lineup.

Polestar 2 019

Aside from its electric powertrain, the Polestar 2 will have some other interesting techie twists, including an infotainment system based entirely on Android OS and shipping complete with the full suite of Google services, including Google Assistant and the Google Play Store. This is a deeper integration than just Android Auto, which is powered by an Android phone and basically just displays an interface on the in-car screen.

Like the Model 3, the Polestar 2 will initially launch at a higher price point, with more affordable model variations coming later on, including a base model starting at around $45,000 U.S.

For now, here’s the full list of the prices for the initial markets here Polestar 2 will be available first:

  • Norway NOK 469,000
  • Sweden SEK 659,000
  • Germany EUR 58,800
  • United Kingdom GBP 49,900
  • The Netherlands EUR 59,800
  • Belgium EUR 59,800

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North now offers Focals smart glasses fittings and purchases via app

Posted by | Android, augmented reality, brooklyn, Canada, Clothing, eyewear, Gadgets, glasses, hardware, iOS, iPhone, north america, smartglasses, Startups, TC, technology, thalmic labs, toronto, ubiquitous computing | No Comments

North’s Focals smart glasses are the first in the category to even approach mainstream appeal, but to date, the only way to get a pair has been to go into a physical North showroom and get a custom fitting, then return once they’re ready for a pickup and final adjustment. Now, North has released its Showroom app, which makes Focals available across the U.S. and Canada without an in-person appointment.

This approach reduces considerable friction, and it’s able to do so thanks to technology available on board the iPhone X or later — essentially the same tech that makes Face ID possible. People can go through the sizing and fitting process using these later model iPhones (and you can borrow a friend’s if you’re on Android or an older iOS device) and then North takes those measurements and can produce either prescription or non-prescription Focals, shipped directly to your door after a few weeks.

The Showroom app also includes an AR-powered virtual try-on feature for making sure you like the look of the frames, and for picking out your favorite color. Once the Focals show up at your door, the final fitting process is also something you can do at home, guided by the app’s directions for getting the fit just right.

Should you still want to hit an actual physical showroom, North’s still going to be operating its Brooklyn and Toronto storefronts, and will be operating pop-ups across North America as well.

Focals began shipping earlier this year, bringing practical smart notification, guidance and other software experiences to your field of view via a tiny projector and in-lens transparent display. North, which previously existed as Thalmic Labs and created the Myo gesture control armband, recognized that they were building control devices optimized for exactly this kind of application, but also found that no one was yet getting wearable tech like smart glasses right. Last year, Thalmic Labs pivoted to become North and focus on Focals as a result.

Since launching its smart glasses to consumers, it’s been iterating the software to consistently add new features, and making them more accessible to customers. An early price drop significantly lessened sticker shock, and now removing the requirement to actually visit a location in person to both order and collect the glasses should help expand their customer base further still.

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Delane Parnell’s plan to conquer amateur esports

Posted by | accelerator, Alexis Ohanian, Amazon, Apps, Brian Wong, Canada, coach, delane parnell, detroit, esports, Facebook, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, league of legends, Los Angeles, Ludlow Ventures, Matt Mazzeo, Media, national basketball association, north america, Personnel, Peter Pham, playvs, Riot Games, rocket fiber, Rocket League, science, serial entrepreneur, Sports, Spotify, Startups, Talent, TC, Twitch, United States, Venture Capital, video game | No Comments

Most of the buzz about esports focuses on high-profile professional teams and audiences watching live streams of those professionals.

What gets ignored is the entire base of amateurs wanting to compete in esports below the professional tier. This is like talking about the NBA and the value of its sponsorships and broadcast rights as if that is the entirety of the basketball market in the US.

Los Angeles-based PlayVS (pronounced “play versus”) wants to become the dominant platform for amateur esports, starting at the high school level. The company raised $46 million last year—its first year operating—with the vision that owning the infrastructure for competitions and expanding it to encompass other social elements of gaming can make it the largest gaming company in the world.

I recently sat down with Founder & CEO Delane Parnell to talk about his company’s formation and growth strategy. Below is the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Founding PlayVS

Eric P: You have a fascinating background as a serial entrepreneur while you were a teenager.

Delane P.: I grew up on the west side of Detroit and started working at the cell phone store of a family friend when I was 13. When I turned 16 or so, I joined two guys in opening our own Metro PCS franchise. And then two additional franchises. And I was on the founding team of a car rental company called Executive Rental Car.

Eric P: And this segued into tech startups after meeting Jon Triest from Ludlow Ventures?

Delane P: He got me a ticket to the Launch conference in SF, and that experience inspired me to start a Fireside Chat series in Detroit that brought in people like Brian Wong from Kiip and Alexis Ohanian from Reddit to speak. Starting at 21, I worked at a venture capital firm called IncWell based in Birmingham, Michigan then joined a startup called Rocket Fiber.

We were focused on internet infrastructure – this is 2015-ish – and I was appointed to lead our strategy in esports. So I met with many of the publishers, ancillary startups, tournament organizers, and OG players and team owners. Through the process, I became passionate about esports and ended up leaving Rocket Fiber to start a Call of Duty team that I quickly sold to TSM.

Eric P: What then drove you to found PlayVS? Did it seem like an obvious opportunity or did it take you a while to figure it out?

Delane P.: What esports means is playing video games competitively bound to governance and a competitive ruleset. As a player, what that experience means is you play on a team, in a position, with a coach, in a season that culminates in some sort of championship.

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Global smartphone growth stalled in Q4, up just 1.2% for the full year: Gartner

Posted by | Android, Apple, Asia, China, Europe, Gadgets, gartner, huawei, iOS, iPhone, latin america, Middle East, Mobile, north america, Samsung, Samsung Electronics, smartphone, smartphone market, smartphones, Xiaomi | No Comments

Gartner’s smartphone market share data for the just gone holiday quarter highlights the challenge for device makers going into the world’s biggest mobile trade show, which kicks off in Barcelona next week: The analyst’s data shows global smartphone sales stalled in Q4 2018, with growth of just 0.1 percent over 2017’s holiday quarter, and 408.4 million units shipped.

tl;dr: high-end handset buyers decided not to bother upgrading their shiny slabs of touch-sensitive glass.

Gartner says Apple recorded its worst quarterly decline (11.8 percent) since Q1 2016, though the iPhone maker retained its second place position with 15.8 percent market share behind market leader Samsung (17.3 percent). Last month the company warned investors to expect reduced revenue for its fiscal Q1 — and went on to report iPhone sales down 15 percent year over year.

The South Korean mobile maker also lost share year over year (declining around 5 percent), with Gartner noting that high-end devices such as the Galaxy S9, S9+ and Note 9 struggled to drive growth, even as Chinese rivals ate into its mid-tier share.

Huawei was one of the Android rivals causing a headache for Samsung. It bucked the declining share trend of major vendors to close the gap on Apple from its third-placed slot — selling more than 60 million smartphones in the holiday quarter and expanding its share from 10.8 percent in Q4 2017 to 14.8 percent.

Gartner has dubbed 2018 “the year of Huawei,” saying it achieved the top growth of the top five global smartphone vendors and grew throughout the year.

This growth was not just in Huawei “strongholds” of China and Europe, but also in Asia/Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East, via continued investment in those regions, the analyst noted. Its expanded mid-tier Honor series helped the company exploit growth opportunities in the second half of the year, “especially in emerging markets.”

By contrast, Apple’s double-digit decline made it the worst performer of the holiday quarter among the top five global smartphone vendors, with Gartner saying iPhone demand weakened in most regions, except North America and mature Asia/Pacific.

It said iPhone sales declined most in Greater China, where it found Apple’s market share dropped to 8.8 percent in Q4 (down from 14.6 percent in the corresponding quarter of 2017). For 2018 as a whole iPhone sales were down 2.7 percent, to just over 209 million units, it added.

“Apple has to deal not only with buyers delaying upgrades as they wait for more innovative smartphones. It also continues to face compelling high-price and midprice smartphone alternatives from Chinese vendors. Both these challenges limit Apple’s unit sales growth prospects,” said Gartner’s Anshul Gupta, senior research director, in a statement.

“Demand for entry-level and midprice smartphones remained strong across markets, but demand for high-end smartphones continued to slow in the fourth quarter of 2018. Slowing incremental innovation at the high end, coupled with price increases, deterred replacement decisions for high-end smartphones,” he added.

Further down the smartphone leaderboard, Chinese OEM, Oppo, grew its global smartphone market share in Q4 to bump Chinese upstart, Xiaomi, and bag fourth place — taking 7.7 percent versus Xiaomi’s 6.8 percent for the holiday quarter.

The latter had a generally flat Q4, with just a slight decline in units shipped, according to Gartner’s data — underlining Xiaomi’s motivations for teasing a dual folding smartphone.

Because, well, with eye-catching innovation stalled among the usual suspects (who’re nonetheless raising high-end handset prices), there’s at least an opportunity for buccaneering underdogs to smash through, grab attention and poach bored consumers.

Or that’s the theory. Consumer interest in “foldables” very much remains to be tested.

In 2018 as a whole, the analyst says global sales of smartphones to end users grew by 1.2 percent year over year, with 1.6 billion units shipped.

The worst declines of the year were in North America, mature Asia/Pacific and Greater China (6.8 percent, 3.4 percent and 3.0 percent, respectively), it added.

“In mature markets, demand for smartphones largely relies on the appeal of flagship smartphones from the top three brands — Samsung, Apple and Huawei — and two of them recorded declines in 2018,” noted Gupta.

Overall, smartphone market leader Samsung took 19.0 percent market share in 2018, down from 20.9 percent in 2017; second-placed Apple took 13.4 percent (down from 14.0 percent in 2017); third-placed Huawei took 13.0 percent (up from 9.8 percent the year before); while Xiaomi, in fourth, took a 7.9 percent share (up from 5.8 percent); and Oppo came in fifth with 7.6 percent (up from 7.3 percent).

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Chat app Line’s games business raises $110M for growth opportunities

Posted by | anchor equity partners, Apps, Asia, Fundings & Exits, game publisher, Gaming, Indonesia, Japan, Kakao, korea, line, line corp, messaging apps, Nintendo, north america, Software, taiwan, TC, Thailand, Ticket Monster | No Comments

Messaging app firm Line has given up majority control of its Line Games business after it raised outside financing to expand its collection of titles and go after global opportunities.

The Line Games business was formed earlier this year when Line merged its existing gaming division from NextFloor, the Korea-based game publisher that it acquired in 2017. Now the business has taken on capital from Anchor Equity Partners, which has provided 125 billion KRW ($110 million) in financing via its Lungo Entertainment entity, according to a disclosure from Line.

A Line spokesperson clarified that the deal will see Anchor acquire 144,743 newly created shares to take a 27.55 percent stake in Line Games. That increase means Line Corp’s own shareholding is diluted from 57.6 percent to a minority 41.73 percent stake.

Korea-based Anchor is best known for a number of deals in its homeland, including investments in e-commerce giant Ticket Monster, Korean chat giant Kakao’s Podotree content business and fashion retail group E-Land.

Line operates its eponymous chat app, which is the most popular messaging platform in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan, and also significantly used in Indonesia, but gaming is a major source of income. This year to date, Line has made 28.5 billion JPY ($250 million) from its content division, which is primarily virtual goods and in-app purchases from its social games. That division accounts for 19 percent of Line’s total revenue, and it is a figure that is only better by its advertising unit, which has grossed 79.3 billion JPY, or $700 million, in 2018 to date.

The games business is currently focused on Japan, Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, but it said that the new capital will go toward finding new IP for future titles and identifying games with global potential. It is also open to more strategic deals to broaden its focus.

While Line has always been big on games, Line Games isn’t just building for its own service. The company said earlier this year that it plans to focus on non-mobile platforms, which will include the Nintendo Switch among others consoles.

That comes from the addition of NextFloor, which is best known for titles like Dragon Flight and Destiny Child. Dragon Flight has racked up 14 million users since its 2012 launch; at its peak it saw $1 million in daily revenue. Destiny Child, a newer release in 2016, topped the charts in Korea and has been popular in Japan, North America and beyond.

Line went public in 2016 via a dual U.S.-Japan IPO that raised more than $1 billion.

Note: The original version of this article was updated to clarify that Lungo Entertainment is buying newly issued shares.

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BMW acquires Parkmobile parking app to help tackle city traffic

Posted by | automotive, automotive industry, BMW, bmw group, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, north america, parking, TC, transport, Transportation | No Comments

 BMW has acquired Parkmobile, an app that provides guidance and services for those looking for parking in North America, including on-street and garage parking payments and spot reservation. BMW Group had already held a minority investment in the company, and owned its Parkmobile Group Europe affiliate, but today it increased its holdings to reach majority ownership of Parkmobile, LLC, which… Read More

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