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June 20, 2019
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CES 2019

OrCam’s MyMe uses facial recognition to remember everyone you meet

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Meet the Orcam MyMe, a tiny device that you clip on your T-shirt to help you remember faces. The OrCam MyMe features a small smartphone-like camera and a proprietary facial-recognition algorithm so that you can associate names with faces. It can be a useful device at business conferences, or to learn more about how you spend a typical day.

This isn’t OrCam’s first device. The company has been selling the MyEye for a few years. It’s a wearable device for visually impaired people that you clip to your glasses. Thanks to its camera and speaker, you can point your finger at some text and get some audio version of the test near your ear. It can also tell you if there’s somebody familiar in front of you.

OrCam is expanding beyond this market with a mass market product. It features the same technological foundation, but with a different use case. OrCam’s secret sauce is that it can handle face recognition and optical character recognition on a tiny device with a small battery — images are not processed in the cloud.

It’s also important to note that the OrCam MyMe doesn’t record video or audio. When the device detects a face, it creates a signature and tries to match it with existing signatures. While it’s not a spy camera, it still feels a bit awkward when you realize that there’s a camera pointed at you.

When there’s someone in front of you, the device sends a notification to your phone and smart watch. You can then enter the name of this person on your phone so that the next notification shows the name of the person you’re talking with.

If somebody gives you a business card, you can also hold it in front of you. The device then automatically matches the face with the information on the business card.

After that, you can tag people in different categories. For instance, you can create a tag for family members, another one for colleagues and another one for friends.

The app shows you insightful graphs representing your work-life balance over the past few weeks and months. If you want to quantify everything in your life, this could be an effective way of knowing that you should spend more time with your family for instance.

While the device isn’t available just yet, the company already sold hundreds of early units on Kickstarter. Eventually, OrCam wants to create a community of enthusiasts and figure out new use cases.

I saw the device at CES last week and it’s much smaller than you’d think based on photos. You don’t notice it unless you’re looking for the device. It’s not as intrusive as Google Glass for instance. You can optionally use a magnet if the clip doesn’t work with what you’re wearing.

OrCam expects to ship the MyMe in January 2020 for $399. It’s an impressive little device, but the company also faces one challenge — I’m not sure everyone feels comfortable about always-on facial recognition just yet.

The Square Off chess board melds the classical with the robotic

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CES crowds can be tough — especially toward the end of the week. You’re physically and emotionally drained, and you’re pretty sure you’ve seen everything the consumer electronics world has to offer. And then something comes along to knock your socks off. Square Off was one such product, impressing the crowd at our meetup and walking away the winner of our hardware pitch-off.

The company’s first product looks like your run of the mill wooden chess board. And that’s part of the charm. Turn it on with the single button, and the system goes to work, tapping into chess AI software built by Stockfish and moving opposing pieces accordingly with an electromagnet attached to a robotic arm hidden under the board.

It’s an overused word in this space, but the effect is downright magical. It’s like playing chess against a ghost — and who hasn’t wanted to do that at some point? Players can challenge the board using 20 different difficulty levels or can play against opponents remotely, via chess.com.

Bhavya Gohil, the co-founder and CEO of Square Off creator InfiVention, told TechCrunch that the product started life as a college project aimed at creating a chess board for people with visual impairment. After a trip to Maker Faire Rome, however, its inventors recognized that the product had the potential for broader appeal.

One Kickstarter and another Indiegogo campaign later, the company had raised in excess of $600,000 for the project. After a year learning the manufacturing ropes in China, the company began shipping retail products in March of last year, launching a website the following month. In October, the product landed on Amazon, tripling sales for the holiday. All told, the company has sold 9,000 units — not bad for a chess startup charging $369 a pop. A majority of those (80 percent) have been sold in the U.S., with the remainder being sold in Europe.

In November, the company scored a seed round of $1.1 million. InfiVention is planning version 2.0 for a mid-2020 launch. That one will be more versatile, covering additional classic table-top games like checkers and backgammon. That version will be even more versatile when it’s opened up to table-top game developers looking to build their own titles into the platform via the app.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

GBatteries let you charge your car as quickly as visiting the pump

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A YC startup called GBatteries has come out of stealth with a bold claim: they can recharge an electric car as quickly as it takes to fill up a tank of gas.

Created by aerospace engineer Kostya Khomutov, electrical engineers Alex Tkachenko and Nick Sherstyuk, and CCO Tim Sherstyuk, the company is funded by the likes of Airbus Ventures, Initialized Capital, Plug and Play and SV Angel.

The system uses AI to optimize the charging systems in electric cars.

“Most companies are focused on developing new chemistries or materials (ex. Enevate, Storedot) to improve charging speed of batteries. Developing new materials is difficult, and scaling up production to the needs of automotive companies requires billions of $,” said Khomutov. “Our technology is a combination of software algorithms (AI) and electronics, that works with off-the-shelf Li-ion batteries that have already been validated, tested, and produced by battery manufacturers. Nothing else needs to change.”

The team makes some bold claims. The product allows users to charge a 60kWh EV battery pack with 119 miles of range in 15 minutes as compared to 15 miles in 15 minutes today. “The technology works with off-the-shelf lithium ion batteries and existing fast charge infrastructure by integrating via a patented self-contained adapter on a car charge port,” writes the team. They demonstrated their product at CES this year.

Most charging systems depend on fairly primitive systems for topping up batteries. Various factors — including temperature — can slow down or stop a charge. GBatteries manages this by setting a very specific charging model that “slows down” and “speeds up” the charge as necessary. This allows the charge to go much faster under the right conditions.

The company bloomed out of frustration.

“We’ve always tinkered with stuff together since before I was even a teenager, and over time had created a burgeoning hardware lab in our basement,” said Tim Sherstyuk. “While I was studying Chemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa, we’d often debate and discuss why batteries in our phones got so bad so rapidly — you’d buy a phone, and a year later it would almost be unusable because the battery degraded so badly.”

“This sparked us to see if we can solve the problem by somehow extending the cycle life of batteries and achieve better performance, so that we’d have something that lasts. We spent a few weeks in our basement lab wiring together a simple control system along with an algorithm to charge a few battery cells, and after 6 months of testing and iterations we started seeing a noticeable difference between batteries charged conventionally, and ones using our algorithm. A year and a half later of constant iterations and development, we applied and were accepted in 2014 into YC.”

While it’s not clear when this technology will hit commercial vehicles, it could be the breakthrough we all need to start replacing our gas cars with something a little more environmentally friendly.

A first look at Twitter’s new beta app and its bid to remain ‘valuable and relevant’

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Twitter has made a name for itself, at its most basic level, as a platform that gives everyone who uses it a voice. But as it has grown, that unique selling point has set Twitter up for as many challenges — harassment, confusing way to manage conversations — as it has opportunities — the best place to see in real time how the public reacts to something, be it a TV show, a political uprising, or a hurricane.

Now, to fix some of the challenges, the company is going to eat its own dogfood (birdfood?) when it comes to having a voice.

In the coming weeks, it’s going to launch a new beta program, where a select group of users will get access to features, by way of a standalone app, to use and talk about new features with others. Twitter, in turn, will use data that it picks up from that usage and chatter to decide how and if to turn those tests into full-blown product features for the rest of its user base.

We sat down with Sara Haider, Twitter’s director of product management, to take a closer look at the new app and what features Twitter will be testing in it (and what it won’t), now and in the future.

The company today already runs an Experiments Program for testing, as well as other tests, for example to curb abusive behavior, to figure out how to help the service run more smoothly. This new beta program will operate differently.

While there will only be around a couple thousand participants, those accepted will not be under NDA (unlike the Experiments Program). That means they can publicly discuss and tweet about the new features, allowing the wider Twitter community to comment and ask questions.

And unlike traditional betas, where users test nearly completed features before a public launch, the feedback from the beta could radically change the direction of what’s being built. Or, in some cases, what’s not.

“Unlike a traditional beta that is the last step before launch, we’re bringing people in super early,” Haider said.

The first version of the beta will focus on a new design for the way conversation threads work on Twitter. This includes a different color scheme, and visual cues to highlight important replies.

“It’s kind of a new take on our thinking about product development,” explains Haider. “One of the reasons why this is so critical for this particular feature is because we know we’re making changes that are pretty significant.”

She says changes of this scale shouldn’t just be dropped on users one day.

“We need you to be part of this process, so that we know we’re building the right experience,” Haider says.

Once accepted into the beta program, users will download a separate beta app – something that Twitter isn’t sure will always be the case. It’s unclear if that process will create too much friction, the company says, so it will see how testers respond.

Here are some of the more interesting features we talked and saw getting tested in the beta we were shown:

Color-coded replies

During the first beta, participants will try out new conversation features which offer color-coded replies to differentiate between responses from the original poster of the tweet, those from people you follow, and those from people you don’t follow.

In a development build of the beta app, Haider showed us what this looked like, with the caveat that the color scheme being used has been intentionally made to be overly saturated – it will be dialed down when the features launch to testers.

When you click into a conversation thread, the beta app will also offer visual cues to help you better find the parts of the thread that are of interest to you.

One way it’s doing so is by highlighting the replies in a thread that were written by people you follow on Twitter. Another change is that the person who posted the original tweet will also have their own replies in the thread highlighted.

In the build Haider showed us, replies from people she followed were shown in green, those from non-followers were blue, and her own replies were blue.

Algorithmically sorted responses

One of the big themes in Twitter’s user experience for power and more casual users is that they come up with workarounds for certain features that Twitter does not offer.

Take reading through long threads that may have some interesting detail that you would like to come back to later, or that branches off at some point that you’d like to follow after reading through everything else. Haider says she marks replies she’s seen with a heart to keep her place. Other people use Twitter’s “Tweets & Replies” section to find out when the original poster had replied within the thread, since it’s hard to find those replies when just scrolling down.

Now, the same kind of algorithmic sorting that Twitter has applied to your main timeline might start to make its way to your replies. These may also now be shown in a ranked order, so the important ones — like those from your Twitter friends — are moved to the top.

A later test may involve a version of Twitter’s Highlights, summaries of what it deems important, coming to longer threads, Haider said.

The time-based view is not going to completely leave, however. “The buzz, that feeling and that vibe [of live activity] that is something that we never want to lose,” CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey said last week on stage at CES. “Not everyone will be in the moment at the exact same time, but when you are, it’s an electrifying feeling…. Anything we can do to make a feeling of something much larger than yourself [we should].”

Removing hearts + other engagement icons

Another experiment Twitter is looking at is what it should do with its engagement buttons to streamline the look of replies for users. The build that we saw did not have any hearts to favorite/like Tweets, nor any icons for retweets or replies, when the Tweets came in the form of replies to another Tweet.

The icons and features didn’t completely disappear, but they would only appear when you tapped on a specific post. The basic idea seems to be: engagement for those who want it, a more simplified view for those who do not.

The heart icon has been a subject of speculation for some time now. Last year, the company told us that it was considering removing it, as part of an overall effort to improve the quality of conversation. This could be an example of how Twitter might implement just that.

Twitter may also test other things like icebreakers (pinned tweets designed to start conversations), and a status update field (i.e. your availability, location, or what you are doing, as on IM).

The status test, in fact, points to a bigger shift we may see in how Twitter as a whole is used, especially by those who come to the platform around a specific event.

One of the biggest laments has been that on-boarding on the app — the experience for those who are coming to Twitter for the first time — continues to be confusing. Twitter admits as much itself, and so — as with its recent deal with the NBA to provide a unique Twitter experience around a specific game — it will be making more tweaks and tests to figure out how to move Twitter on from being fundamentally focused around the people you follow.

“We have some work to do to make it easier to discover,” Dorsey said, adding that right now the platform is “more about people than interests.”

While all products need to evolve over time, Twitter in particular seems a bit obsessed with continually changing the basic mechanics of how its app operates.

It seems that there are at least a couple of reasons for that. One is that, although the service continues to see some growth in its daily active users, its monthly active users globally have been either flat, in decline, or growing by a mere two percent in the last four quarters (and in decline in the last three of the four quarters in the key market of the US).

That underscores how the company still has some work to do to keep people engaged.

The other is that change and responsiveness seem to be the essence of how Twitter wants to position itself these days. Last week, Dorsey noted that Twitter itself didn’t invent most of the ways that the platform gets used today. (The “RT” (retweet), which is now a button in the app; the hashtag; tweetstormsexpanded tweets, and even the now-ubiquitous @mention are all examples of features that weren’t created originally by Twitter, but added in based around how the app was used.)

“We want to continue our power of observation and learning… what people want Twitter to be and how to use it,” Dorsey said. “It allows us to be valuable and relevant.”

While these continual changes can sometimes make things more confusing, the beta program could potentially head off any design mistakes, uncover issues Twitter itself may have missed, and help Twitter harness that sort of viral development in a more focused way.

Anker’s PowerPort Atom is my permanent new travel companion

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I had fight a couple of coworkers for this thing. It’s a strange thing to fight over, I realize, but we are strange people with a strange job. And more importantly, I won. I’m plugged into the PowerPort Atom as I write this. It’s keeping my 13-inch MacBook Pro alive via the plane power outlet tightly squeezed behind my legs.

I travel a lot, and I try to travel light. Determining what goes into and what stays out of my carryon feels a bit like stocking delivery rockets for the International Space Station sometimes. But I feel pretty confident in saying that this tiny little plug just scored a permanent spot. Well, until the PowerPort Quark comes along, I guess.

One of the beauties of Apple’s switch to Thunderbolt 3/USB-C is the modularity of it all. I’m sure Apple will tell you to stick to official and officially licensed products, but the ability to mix and match these things has given us some solid options, and Anker’s right there to reap the benefit.  The products the company makes are rarely flash or sexy, but they’re often genuinely useful in a way few accessory manufacturers can claim.

As someone who has owned a lot of Apple Chargers over the years, it’s pretty remarkable what Anker has done here. I’d recently switched to Google’s PixelBook charger for travel, but that has nothing on this. Hell, the Atom is smaller than some phone chargers I’ve used over the year.

It’s small and white,  with a single USB-C port. It’s not quite as slim as, say, a standard iPhone charger, so it can get a bit tight with alongside some larger chargers (RavPower’s dual-USB charger, for instance), but it frees up a lot of space. And in scenarios like the plane I’m typing this from, you’re a lot less likely to accidentally knock it out with your leg, leaving you fumbling blindly to plug it back in.

It’s not a perfect thing, of course. It can get quite hot to the touch when charging something large. And don’t even think about charging up, say, your 15-inch Pro. With certain outlets in certain scenarios, the charging process could be downright sluggish. I can’t remember ever seeing “Estimated Charging Time: 10 hours” before.

For the most part, I’d recommend the Atom for those instances when you want to maintain a charge, rather than filling the battery up quickly. I full expect to continue to bring the full-size charger along with me for when I get back to the hotel and need to fill it back up for the night. 

In a  an ideal world, Anker would have somehow squeezed in an additional USB-C or full-size USB port to charge two devices at once, but that kind of request is probably flying too close to the sun here.  And hell, at $30, one is still an excellent deal. 

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