Wearables

Where is voice tech going?

Posted by | Alexa, artificial intelligence, Baidu, Column, COVID-19, Extra Crunch, Gadgets, hardware, Headspace, Market Analysis, Media, Mobile, Podcasts, siri, smart speaker, Speech Recognition, Startups, TC, Venture Capital, virtual assistant, voice, voice assistant, voice search, voice technology, Wearables | No Comments
Mark Persaud
Contributor

Mark Persaud is digital product manager and practice lead at Moonshot by Pactera, a digital innovation company that leads global clients through the next era of digital products with a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence, data and continuous software delivery.

2020 has been all but normal. For businesses and brands. For innovation. For people.

The trajectory of business growth strategies, travel plans and lives have been drastically altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a global economic downturn with supply chain and market issues, and a fight for equality in the Black Lives Matter movement — amongst all that complicated lives and businesses already.

One of the biggest stories in emerging technology is the growth of different types of voice assistants:

  • Niche assistants such as Aider that provide back-office support.
  • Branded in-house assistants such as those offered by BBC and Snapchat.
  • White-label solutions such as Houndify that provide lots of capabilities and configurable tool sets.

With so many assistants proliferating globally, voice will become a commodity like a website or an app. And that’s not a bad thing — at least in the name of progress. It will soon (read: over the next couple years) become table stakes for a business to have voice as an interaction channel for a lovable experience that users expect. Consider that feeling you get when you realize a business doesn’t have a website: It makes you question its validity and reputation for quality. Voice isn’t quite there yet, but it’s moving in that direction.

Voice assistant adoption and usage are still on the rise

Adoption of any new technology is key. A key inhibitor of technology is often distribution, but this has not been the case with voice. Apple, Google, and Baidu have reported hundreds of millions of devices using voice, and Amazon has 200 million users. Amazon has a slightly more difficult job since they’re not in the smartphone market, which allows for greater voice assistant distribution for Apple and Google.

Image Credits: Mark Persaud

But are people using devices? Google said recently there are 500 million monthly active users of Google Assistant. Not far behind are active Apple users with 375 million. Large numbers of people are using voice assistants, not just owning them. That’s a sign of technology gaining momentum — the technology is at a price point and within digital and personal ecosystems that make it right for user adoption. The pandemic has only exacerbated the use as Edison reported between March and April — a peak time for sheltering in place across the U.S.

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EU antitrust lawmakers kick off IoT deep dive to follow the data flows

Posted by | Amazon, artificial intelligence, Asia, competition, digital markets, Europe, european union, Gadgets, Internet of Things, IoT, Margrethe Vestager, Policy, privacy, smart devices, United States, Wearables | No Comments

The potential for the Internet of Things to lead to distortion in market competition is troubling European Union lawmakers who have today kicked off a sectoral inquiry.

They’re aiming to gather data from hundreds of companies operating in the smart home and connected device space — via some 400 questionnaires, sent to companies big and small across Europe, Asia and the US — using the intel gleaned to feed a public consultation slated for early next year when the Commission will also publish a preliminary report. 

In a statement on the launch of the sectoral inquiry today, the European Union’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, said the risks to competition and open markets linked to the data collection capabilities of connected devices and voice assistants are clear. The aim of the exercise is therefore to get ahead of any data-fuelled competition risks in the space before they lead to irreversible market distortion.

“One of the key issues here is data. Voice assistants and smart devices can collect a vast amount of data about our habits. And there’s a risk that big companies could misuse the data collected through such devices, to cement their position in the market against the challenges of competition. They might even use their knowledge of how we access other services to enter the market for those services and take it over,” said Vestager.

“We have seen this type of conduct before. This is not new. So we know there’s a risk that some of these players could become gatekeepers of the Internet of Things, with the power to make or break other companies. And these gatekeepers might use that power to harm competition, to the detriment of consumers.”

The Commission recently opened up a consultation on whether regulators needs new powers to address competition risks in digital markets, including being able to intervene when they suspect digital market tipping.

It is also asking for views on how to shape regulations around platform governance.

The IoT sectorial enquiry adds another plank to its approach towards reformulating digital regulation in the data age. (Notably competition chief Vestager is simultaneously the Commission EVP in charge of pan-EU digital strategy.)

On the IoT front, risks Vestager said she’s concerned about include what she couched as familiar antitrust behaviour such as “self-preferencing” — i.e. a company directing users towards its own products or services — as well as companies inking exclusive deals to send users “preferred” provider, thereby locking out more open competition.

“Whether that’s for a new set of batteries for your remote control or for your evening takeaway. In either case, the result can be less choice for users, less opportunity for others to compete, and less innovation,” she suggested.

“The trouble is that competition in digital markets can be fragile,” Vestager added. “When big companies abuse their power, they can very quickly push markets beyond the tipping point, where competition turns to monopoly. We’ve seen that happen before.  If we don’t act in good time, there’s a serious risk that it will happen again, with the Internet of Things.”

The commissioner’s remarks suggest EU lawmakers could be considering regulations that aim to enforce interoperability between smart devices and platforms — although Vestager also said they will be asking about any barriers to achieving such cross-working.

“For us to get the most out of the Internet of Things, our smart devices need to communicate. So if the devices from different companies don’t work together, then consumers may be locked in to just one provider.  And be limited to what that provider has to offer,” she said.

“We’re asking about the products they sell, and how the markets for those products work. We’re asking about data – how it’s collected, how it’s used, and how companies make money from the data they collect. And we’re asking about how these products and services work together, and about possible problems with making them interoperable.”

Vestager has raised concerns about the potential for voice assistant technology to lead to market concentration and distortion before — saying last year that they present an acute challenge to regulators who she said then were “trying to figure out how access to data will change the marketplace”.

The question of how access to digital data feeds platform monopolies has been a long standing preoccupation for the now second term competition chief. Although the Commission’s work on figuring out how data access changes marketplace function remains something of a work in progress.

Vestager has an open investigation into Amazon’s use of third party data on her plate, for example. It also inked a first set of rules on ecommerce platform fairness last year. More rules may be incoming in a draft proposal for reformulating wider liability rules for platforms that’s slated to land by the end of this year, aka the forthcoming Digital Services Act.

The Commission noted today that a prior sector inquiry — into ecommerce markets — helped shape new rules against “unjustified geoblocking” in the EU, although it has not yet been able to dismantle geoblocking barriers to accessing digital services across the Single Market’s internal borders.

Last year privacy concerns raised in Europe around how tech giants operate voice assistant ‘quality grading’ programs, which involved human contractors listening in to users’ recordings, led to a number of changes — including the previously non-transparent programs being publicly disclosed, and choice/controls being provided to users.

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AR 1.0 is dead: Here’s what it got wrong

Posted by | app-store, Apple, apple inc, augmented reality, consumer products, Developer, Emerging-Technologies, Extra Crunch, Facebook, Gaming, Google, hardware, Magic Leap, Market Analysis, mixed reality, Mobile, operating systems, smartglasses, Startups, TC, Virtual reality, Wearables | No Comments

The first wave of AR startups offering smart glasses is now over, with a few exceptions.

Google acquired North this week for an undisclosed sum. The Canadian company had raised nearly $200 million, but the release of its Focals 2.0 smart glasses has been cancelled, a bittersweet end for its soft landing.

Many AR startups before North made huge promises and raised huge amounts of capital before flaring out in a similarly dramatic fashion.

The technology was almost there in a lot of cases, but the real issue was that the stakes to beat the major players to market were so high that many entrants pushed out boring, general consumer products. In a race to be everything for everybody, the industry relied on nascent developer platforms to do the dirty work of building their early use cases, which contributed heavily to nonexistent user adoption.

A key error of this batch was thinking that an AR glasses company was hardware-first, when the reality is that the missing value is almost entirely centered on missing first-party software experiences. To succeed, the next generation of consumer AR glasses will have to nail this.

Image Credits: ODG

App ecosystems alone don’t create product-market fit

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Xiaomi’s Mi Smart Band 5 sports bigger display and new wireless charging system — and starts at $27

Posted by | Android, Asia, China, hardware, Health, spongebob squarepants, Wearables, Xiaomi | No Comments

One of the world’s best selling wearable lineups just added a new gadget to the mix.

Chinese electronics giant Xiaomi today unveiled the Mi Smart Band 5 that delivers several improvements and adds features, such as a bigger screen, new wireless charging system and women’s health mode over the company’s one-year-old Mi Smart Band 4 — while retaining its dirt-cheap price point.

The Mi Smart Band 5 features a 1.1-inch AMOLED display that is 20% larger than the one its immediate predecessor sported.

With the new band, the world’s second largest wearable vendor is also bringing a range of new animated watch faces, including characters from TV series such as Spongebob Squarepants, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Detective Conan, and eight colorful straps.

Xiaomi says the new smart band is powered by an improved processor — the name of which it did not specify — to enable tracking of menstrual cycles for the first time, and support additional features such as stress assessment that will tell the wearer when it’s a good time to relax.

The Mi Smart Band 5, compatible with iPhones as well as Android handsets, also monitors the wearer’s sleep cycle more efficiently now, adding support for REM sleep as well as evaluating deep and light sleep sessions. The company claimed its heart-rate monitoring is now 50% more precise.

One of the biggest improvements in the new band is its new charging system. This is a refreshing change as previous models in Xiaomi’s Mi Smart Band lineup have received complaints from users who described having to get the tracker out of the strap as a clumsy process. Now the company says its new magnetic charging dock automatically snaps onto the bottom of the band. Charging the band once delivers up to 14-days of continuous usage.

Like the Mi Smart Band 4, the Band 5 supports the company’s homegrown digital voice assistant XiaoAI that a user can trigger by swiping to the right of the display.

There is an additional variant of the Smart Band 5 that supports NFC. This model features support for mobile payment services, and can be used to unlock smart doors and also serve as a transportation card at select subways.

The Mi Smart Band 5 goes on sale in China next week at a price point of RMB 189 ($26.75) while the NFC variant of the band is priced at RMB 229 ($32.5). The company says the device will be made available in international markets “soon.”

Xiaomi continues to be one of the leading players in the wearable market as it aggressively refreshes and introduces new devices. In November last year, Xiaomi debuted its first smartwatch — called the Mi Watch —  that looks strikingly similar to the Apple Watch. The Mi Watch is priced at $185.

According to research firm IDC, the company shipped 10.1 million wearable devices in the quarter that ended in March this year. It is ahead of Samsung, Huawei and Fitbit. Apple maintains its top spot in the category.

Data: IDC

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TinyML is giving hardware new life

Posted by | arduino, artificial intelligence, artificial neural networks, biotech, Cloud, Column, coronavirus, COVID-19, deep learning, drug development, embedded systems, Extra Crunch, Gadgets, hardware, machine learning, manufacturing, Market Analysis, ML, neural networks, Open source hardware, robotics, SaaS, Wearables | No Comments
Adam Benzion
Contributor

A serial entrepreneur, writer, and tech investor, Adam Benzion is the co-founder of Hackster.io, the world’s largest community for hardware developers.

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

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Scandit raises $80M as COVID-19 drives demand for contactless deliveries

Posted by | 7-eleven, Alaska airlines, arkansas, barcode, Carrefour, Enterprise, Europe, fedex, Fundings & Exits, G2VP, hardware, healthcare, Instacart, inventory management, latin america, machine learning, Mobile, NGP capital, north america, ocr, Salesforce Ventures, Samuel Mueller, scandit, smartphones, swisscom ventures, Toyota, Wearables, zurich | No Comments

Enterprise barcode scanner company Scandit has closed an $80 million Series C round, led by Silicon Valley VC firm G2VP. Atomico, GV, Kreos, NGP Capital, Salesforce Ventures and Swisscom Ventures also participated in the round — which brings its total raised to date to $123M.

The Zurich-based firm offers a platform that combines computer vision and machine learning tech with barcode scanning, text recognition (OCR), object recognition and augmented reality which is designed for any camera-equipped smart device — from smartphones to drones, wearables (e.g. AR glasses for warehouse workers) and even robots.

Use-cases include mobile apps or websites for mobile shopping; self checkout; inventory management; proof of delivery; asset tracking and maintenance — including in healthcare where its tech can be used to power the scanning of patient IDs, samples, medication and supplies.

It bills its software as “unmatched” in terms of speed and accuracy, as well as the ability to scan in bad light; at any angle; and with damaged labels. Target industries include retail, healthcare, industrial/manufacturing, travel, transport & logistics and more.

The latest funding injection follows a $30M Series B round back in 2018. Since then Scandit says it’s tripled recurring revenues, more than doubling the number of blue-chip enterprise customers, and doubling the size of its global team.

Global customers for its tech include the likes of 7-Eleven, Alaska Airlines, Carrefour, DPD, FedEx, Instacart, Johns Hopkins Hospital, La Poste, Levi Strauss & Co, Mount Sinai Hospital and Toyota — with the company touting “tens of billions of scans” per year on 100+ million active devices at this stage of its business.

It says the new funding will go on further pressing on the gas to grow in new markets, including APAC and Latin America, as well as building out its footprint and ops in North America and Europe. Also on the slate: Funding more R&D to devise new ways for enterprises to transform their core business processes using computer vision and AR.

The need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has also accelerated demand for mobile computer vision on personal smart devices, according to Scandit, which says customers are looking for ways to enable more contactless interactions.

Another demand spike it’s seeing is coming from the pandemic-related boom in ‘Click & Collect’ retail and “millions” of extra home deliveries — something its tech is well positioned to cater to because its scanning apps support BYOD (bring your own device), rather than requiring proprietary hardware.

“COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the need for rapid digital transformation in these uncertain times, and the need to blend the physical and digital plays a crucial role,” said CEO Samuel Mueller in a statement. “Our new funding makes it possible for us to help even more enterprises to quickly adapt to the new demand for ‘contactless business’, and be better positioned to succeed, whatever the new normal is.”

Also commenting on the funding in a supporting statement, Ben Kortlang, general partner at G2VP, added: “Scandit’s platform puts an enterprise-grade scanning solution in the pocket of every employee and customer without requiring legacy hardware. This bridge between the physical and digital worlds will be increasingly critical as the world accelerates its shift to online purchasing and delivery, distributed supply chains and cashierless retail.”

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Samsung’s Galaxy Watch blood pressure monitoring app approved by South Korean regulators

Posted by | blood pressure monitor, Gadgets, Samsung, smartwatch, TC, Wearables | No Comments

Samsung Electronics announced today that its blood pressure monitoring app for Galaxy Watches has been approved by South Korean regulators. Called the Samsung Health Monitor, the app will be available for the Galaxy Watch Active2 during the third quarter, at least in South Korea, and added to upcoming Galaxy Watch devices.

TechCrunch has contacted Samsung for more information on when the app, which uses the Galaxy Watch Active2’s advanced sensor technology, will be available in other markets.

It was cleared by South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety for use as an over-the-counter, cuff-less blood pressure monitoring app. The app first has to be calibrated with a traditional blood pressure cuff, then it monitors blood pressure through pulse wave analysis. Users need to recalibrate the app at least once every four weeks.

According to a recent report by IDC, in the last quarter of 2019, Samsung wearables ranked third in terms of shipments, behind Apple and Xiaomi, with volume driven by its Galaxy Active watches. Samsung has sought to differentiate its smartwatches with a focus on health and fitness monitoring, including sleep trackers.

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WorldGaze uses smartphone cameras to help voice AIs cut to the chase

Posted by | apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, augmented reality, carnegie mellon university, Chris Harrison, Computer Vision, Emerging-Technologies, iPhone, machine learning, Magic Leap, Mobile, siri, smartphone, smartphones, virtual assistant, voice AI, Wearables, WorldGaze | No Comments

If you find voice assistants frustratingly dumb, you’re hardly alone. The much-hyped promise of AI-driven vocal convenience very quickly falls through the cracks of robotic pedantry.

A smart AI that has to come back again (and sometimes again) to ask for extra input to execute your request can seem especially dumb — when, for example, it doesn’t get that the most likely repair shop you’re asking about is not any one of them but the one you’re parked outside of right now.

Researchers at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, working with Gierad Laput, a machine learning engineer at Apple, have devised a demo software add-on for voice assistants that lets smartphone users boost the savvy of an on-device AI by giving it a helping hand — or rather a helping head.

The prototype system makes simultaneous use of a smartphone’s front and rear cameras to be able to locate the user’s head in physical space, and more specifically within the immediate surroundings — which are parsed to identify objects in the vicinity using computer vision technology.

The user is then able to use their head as a pointer to direct their gaze at whatever they’re talking about — i.e. “that garage” — wordlessly filling in contextual gaps in the AI’s understanding in a way the researchers contend is more natural.

So, instead of needing to talk like a robot in order to tap the utility of a voice AI, you can sound a bit more, well, human. Asking stuff like “‘Siri, when does that Starbucks close?” Or — in a retail setting — “are there other color options for that sofa?” Or asking for an instant price comparison between “this chair and that one.” Or for a lamp to be added to your wish-list.

In a home/office scenario, the system could also let the user remotely control a variety of devices within their field of vision — without needing to be hyper-specific about it. Instead they could just look toward the smart TV or thermostat and speak the required volume/temperature adjustment.

The team has put together a demo video (below) showing the prototype — which they’ve called WorldGaze — in action. “We use the iPhone’s front-facing camera to track the head in 3D, including its direction vector. Because the geometry of the front and back cameras are known, we can raycast the head vector into the world as seen by the rear-facing camera,” they explain in the video.

“This allows the user to intuitively define an object or region of interest using the head gaze. Voice assistants can then use this contextual information to make enquiries that are more precise and natural.”

In a research paper presenting the prototype they also suggest it could be used to “help to socialize mobile AR experiences, currently typified by people walking down the street looking down at their devices.”

Asked to expand on this, CMU researcher Chris Harrison told TechCrunch: “People are always walking and looking down at their phones, which isn’t very social. They aren’t engaging with other people, or even looking at the beautiful world around them. With something like WorldGaze, people can look out into the world, but still ask questions to their smartphone. If I’m walking down the street, I can inquire and listen about restaurant reviews or add things to my shopping list without having to look down at my phone. But the phone still has all the smarts. I don’t have to buy something extra or special.”

In the paper they note there is a long body of research related to tracking users’ gaze for interactive purposes — but a key aim of their work here was to develop “a functional, real-time prototype, constraining ourselves to hardware found on commodity smartphones.” (Although the rear camera’s field of view is one potential limitation they discuss, including suggesting a partial workaround for any hardware that falls short.)

“Although WorldGaze could be launched as a standalone application, we believe it is more likely for WorldGaze to be integrated as a background service that wakes upon a voice assistant trigger (e.g., ‘Hey Siri’),” they also write. “Although opening both cameras and performing computer vision processing is energy consumptive, the duty cycle would be so low as to not significantly impact battery life of today’s smartphones. It may even be that only a single frame is needed from both cameras, after which they can turn back off (WorldGaze startup time is 7 sec). Using bench equipment, we estimated power consumption at ~0.1 mWh per inquiry.”

Of course there’s still something a bit awkward about a human holding a screen up in front of their face and talking to it — but Harrison confirms the software could work just as easily hands-free on a pair of smart spectacles.

“Both are possible,” he told us. “We choose to focus on smartphones simply because everyone has one (and WorldGaze could literally be a software update), while almost no one has AR glasses (yet). But the premise of using where you are looking to supercharge voice assistants applies to both.”

“Increasingly, AR glasses include sensors to track gaze location (e.g., Magic Leap, which uses it for focusing reasons), so in that case, one only needs outwards facing cameras,” he added.

Taking a further leap it’s possible to imagine such a system being combined with facial recognition technology — to allow a smart spec-wearer to quietly tip their head and ask “who’s that?” — assuming the necessary facial data was legally available in the AI’s memory banks.

Features such as “add to contacts” or “when did we last meet” could then be unlocked to augment a networking or socializing experience. Although, at this point, the privacy implications of unleashing such a system into the real world look rather more challenging than stitching together the engineering. (See, for example, Apple banning Clearview AI’s app for violating its rules.)

“There would have to be a level of security and permissions to go along with this, and it’s not something we are contemplating right now, but it’s an interesting (and potentially scary idea),” agrees Harrison when we ask about such a possibility.

The team was due to present the research at ACM CHI — but the conference was canceled due to the coronavirus.

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Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Posted by | Amazon, ambient intelligence, Apple, Bluetooth, computer security, contact tracing, coronavirus, COVID-19, estimote, Gadgets, gps, hardware, Internet of Things, manufacturing, mobile devices, science, smartphone, smartphones, Startups, steve cheney, TC, technology, ubiquitous computing, wearable devices, Wearables, world health organization | No Comments

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically for curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be co-located at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing — in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person — at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide-band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this — we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone — something Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

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Desperate to exit, a $10B price tag for Magic Leap is crazy

Posted by | Apple, augmented reality, Daqri, Facebook, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Google, hardware, johnson & johnson, Magic Leap, Microsoft, Microsoft HoloLens, Startups, Sundar Pichai, TC, Wearables | No Comments

Augmented reality headset maker Magic Leap has struggled with the laws of physics and failed to get to market. Now it’s seeking an acquirer, but talks with Facebook and medical goods giant Johnson & Johnson led nowhere according to a new report from Bloomberg’s Ed Hammond.

After raising over $2 billion and being valued between $6 billion and $8 billion back when it still had momentum, Hammond writes that “Magic Leap could fetch more than $10 billion if it pursues a sale” according to his sources. That price seems ridiculous. It’s the kind of number a prideful company might strategically leak in hopes of drumming up acquisition interest, even at a lower price.

Startups have been getting their valuations chopped when they go public. The whole economy is hurting due to coronavirus. Augmented Reality seems less interesting than virtual reality with people avoiding public places. Getting people to strap used AR hardware to their face for demos seems like a tough sell for the forseeable future.

No one has proven a killer consumer use case for augmented reality eyewear that warrants an expensive and awkward-to-wear gadget. Our phones can already deliver plenty of AR’s value while letting you take selfies and do video chat that headsets can’t. My experiences with Magic Leap at Sundance Film Festival last year were laughably disappointing, with its clunky hardware, ghostly projections, and narrow field of view.

Apple and Facebook are throwing the enduring profits of iPhones and the News Feed into building a better consumer headset. Snapchat has built intermediary glasses since CEO Evan Spiegel thinks it will be a decade before AR headsets see mainstream adoption. AR rivals like Microsoft have better enterprise experience, connections, and distribution. Enterprise AR startup Daqri crashed and burned.

Magic Leap’s CEO said he wanted to sell 1 million of its $2300 headset in its first year, then projected it would sell 100,000 headsets, but only moved 6,000 in the first six months, according to a daming report from The Information’s Alex Heath. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai left Magic Leap’s board despite Google leading a $514 million funding round for the startup in 2014. Business Insider’s Steven Tweedie and Kevin Webb revealed CFO Scott Henry and SVP of creative strategy John Gaeta bailed in November. The company suffered dozens of layoffs. It lost a $500 million contract to Microsoft last year. The CEOs of Apple, Google, and Facebook visited Magic Leap headquarters in 2016 to explore an acquisition deal, but no offers emerged.

Is AR eyewear part of the future? Almost surely. And is this startup valuable? Certainly somewhat. But Magic Leap may prove to be too little too early for a company burning cash by the hundreds of millions in a market newly fixated on efficiency. A $10 billion price tag would require one of the world’s biggest corporations to believe Magic Leap has irreplicable talent and technology that will earn them a fortune in the somewhat distant future.

The fact that Facebook, which does not shy from tall acquisition prices, didn’t want to buy Magic Leap is telling. This isn’t a product with hundreds of millions of users or fast-ramping revenue. It’s a gamble on vision and timing that looks to be coming up snake eyes. It’s unclear when the startup would ever be able to deliver on its renderings of flying whales and living room dinosaurs in a form factor people actually want to wear.

 

One of Magic Leap’s early renderings of what it could supposedly do

With all their money and plenty of time before widespread demand for AR headsets materializes, potential acquirers could likely hire away the talent and make up the development time in cheaper ways than buying Magic Leap. If someone acquires them for too much, it feels like a write-off waiting to happen.

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