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December 14, 2018
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OffGridBox raises $1.6M to charge and hydrate rural Africa with its all-in-one installations

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The simplest needs are often the most vital: power and clean water will get you a long way. But in rural areas of developing countries they can both be hard to come by. OffGridBox is attempting to provide both, sustainably and profitably, while meeting humanitarian and ecological goals at the same time. The company just raised $1.6 million to pursue its lofty agenda.

The idea is fairly simple, though naturally rather difficult to engineer: Use solar power to provide both electricity (in the form of charged batteries) and potable water to a small community. It’s not easy, and it’s not autonomous — but that’s by design.

I met two of the OffGridBox crew, founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini and U.S. director Troy Billett, much earlier this year at CES in Las Vegas, where they were being honored by Not Impossible, alongside the brilliant BecDot braille learning toy. The team had a lot of irons in the fire, but now are ready to announce their seed round and progress in deploying what could be a life-saving innovation.

They’ve installed 38 boxes so far, some at their own expense and others with the help of backers. Each is about the size of a small shed — a section of a shipping container, with a scaffold on top to attach the solar cells. Inside are the necessary components for storing electricity and distributing it to dozens of rechargeable batteries and lights at a time, plus a water reservoir and purifier.

Water from a nearby unsafe natural (or municipal, really) source is trucked or piped in and replenishes the reservoir. The solar cells run the purifier, providing clean water for cheap — around a third of what a family would normally pay, by the team’s estimate — and potentially with a much shorter trek. Simultaneously, charged batteries and lights are rented out at similarly low rates to people otherwise without electricity. Each box can generate as much as 12 kWh per day, which is split between the two tasks.

The alternatives for these communities would generally be small dedicated solar installations, the upfront cost of which can be unrealistic for them. The average household spend for electricity, Billett told me, is around 43 cents per day; OffGridBox will be offering it for less than half that, about 18 cents.

It doesn’t run itself: The box is administrated by a local merchant, who handles payments and communication with OffGridBox itself. Young women are targeted for this role, as there they are more likely to be long-term residents of the area and members of the community. The box acts as a small business for them, essentially drawing money out of the air.

OffGridBox works with local nonprofits to find likely candidates; the women pictured above were recommended by Women for Women. They in turn will support others who, for example, deliver or resell the water or run side businesses that rely on the electricity provided. There’s even an associated local bottled water brand now — “Amaziyateke,” named after a big leaf that collects rainwater, but in Rwanda is also slang for a beautiful woman.

Some boxes are being set up to offer Wi-Fi as well via a cellular or satellite connection, which has its own obvious benefits. And recently people have been asking for the ability to play music at home, so the company started including portable speakers. This was unexpected but an easy demand to meet, said Billett — “It is critical to listen!”

The company does do some work to keep the tech running efficiently and safely, remotely monitoring for problems and scheduling maintenance calls. So these things aren’t just set down and forgotten. That said, they can and have run for hundreds of thousands of hours — years — without major work being done.

Each box costs about $15K to build, plus roughly another $10K to deliver and install. The business model has an investor or investors cover this initial cost, then receive a share of the revenue for the life of the box. At capacity usage this might take around two years, after which the revenue split shifts (from 80/20 favoring investors to 50/50) and it’s a small, safe source of income for years to come. At around $10K of revenue per year per box with full utilization, the IRR is estimated at 15 percent.

What OffGridBox believes is that this model is better than any other for quick deployment of these boxes. Grants are an option, of course, and they can also be brought in for disaster relief purposes. Originally the idea was to sell these to rich folks who wanted to live off the grid or have a more self-sufficient mountain cabin, but this is definitely better — for a lot of reasons. (You could probably still get one for yourself if you really wanted.)

OffGridBox has been through the Techstars accelerator as part of a 2017 group, and worked through 2018, as I mentioned earlier, to secure funding from a variety of sources. This seed round totaling $1.6M was led by the Doen and Good Energies Foundations; the Banque Populaire du Rwanda is also a partner.

Along with a series A planned for 2019, this money will support the deployment of a total of 42 box installations in Rwandan communities.

“This will help us become a major player in the energy and water markets in Rwanda while empowering women entrepreneurs, fighting biocontamination for improved health, and introducing lighting in rural homes,” said Ceccini in the press release announcing the funding.

Alternative or complementary sources of power, such as wind, are being looked into, and desalination of water (as opposed to just sterilization) is being actively researched. This would increase the range and reliability of the boxes, naturally, and make island communities much more realistic.

Those 42 boxes are just the beginning: the company hopes to deploy as many as a thousand throughout Rwanda, and even then that would only reach a fifth of the country’s off-grid market. By partnering with local energy concerns and banks, OffGridBox hopes to deploy as many as a hundred boxes a year, potentially bringing water and power to as many as a hundred thousand more people.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Lift Aircraft’s Hexa may be your first multirotor drone ride

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We were promised jetpacks, but let’s be honest, they’re just plain unsafe. So a nice drone ride is probably all we should reasonably expect. Lift Aircraft is the latest to make a play for the passenger multirotor market, theoretical as it is, and its craft is a sleek little thing with some interesting design choices to make it suitable for laypeople to “pilot.”

The Austin-based company just took the wraps off the Hexa, the 18-rotor craft it intends to make available for short recreational flights. It just flew for the first time last month, and could be taking passengers aloft as early as next year.

The Hexa is considerably more lightweight than the aircraft that seemed to be getting announced every month or two earlier this year. Lift’s focus isn’t on transport, which is a phenomenally complicated problem both in terms or regulation and engineering. Instead, it wants to simply make the experience of flying in a giant drone available for thrill-seekers with a bit of pocket money.

This reduced scope means the craft can get away with being just 432 pounds and capable of 10-15 minutes of sustained flight with a single passenger. Compared with Lilium’s VTOL engines or Volocopter’s 36-foot wingspan, this thing looks like a toy. And that’s essentially what it is, for now. But there’s something to be said for proving your design in a comparatively easily accessed market and moving up, rather than trying to invent an air taxi business from scratch.

“Multi-seat eVTOL air taxis, especially those that are designed to transition to wing-borne flight, are probably 10 years away and will require new regulations and significant advances in battery technology to be practical and safe. We didn’t want to wait for major technology or regulatory breakthroughs to start flying,” said Chasen in a news release. “We’ll be flying years before anyone else.”

The Hexa is flown with a single joystick and an iPad; direct movements and attitude control are done with the former, while destination-based movement, takeoff and landing take place on the latter. This way people can go from walking in the front door to flying one of these things — or rather riding in one and suggesting some directions to go — in an hour or so.

It’s small enough that it doesn’t even count as a “real” aircraft; it’s a “powered ultralight,” which is a plus and a minus: no pilot’s license necessary, but you can’t go past a few hundred feet of altitude or fly over populated areas. No doubt there’s still a good deal of fun you can have flying around a sort of drone theme park, though. The whole area will have been 3D mapped prior to flight, of course.

Lifting the Hexa are 18 rotors, each of which is powered by its own battery, which spreads the risk out considerably and makes it simple to swap them out. As far as safety is concerned, it can run with up to 6 engines down, has pontoons in case of a water landing, and an emergency parachute should the unthinkable happen.

The team is looking to roll out its drone-riding experience soon, but it has yet to select its first city. Finding a good location, checking with the community, getting the proper permits — not simple. CEO Matt Chasen told New Atlas the craft is “not very loud, but they’re also not whisper-quiet, either.” I’m thinking “not very loud” is in comparison to jets — every drone I’ve ever come across, from palm-sized to cargo-bearing, has made an incredible racket and if someone wanted to start a drone preserve next door I’d fight it tooth and nail. (Apparently Seattle is high on the list, too, so this may come to pass.)

In a sense, engineering a working autonomous multirotor aircraft was the easy part of building this business. Chasen told GeekWire that the company has raised a “typical-size seed round,” and is preparing for a Series A — probably once it has a launch city in its sights.

We’ll likely hear more at SXSW in March, where the Hexa will likely fly its first passengers.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Capture lets you grab real 3D models with your iPhone X’s powerful camera

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Three dimensional modeling used to be hard. It used to require something at least as big as the Xbox Kinect to get really high quality scans you needed high-powered laser sensor systems. Now all you need is your phone and Capture.

Capture is a proof-of-concept for a company called Standard Cyborg led by Jeff Huber and Garrett Spiegel. These YCombinator grads have worked in a number of high-profile vision startups and raised $2.4 million in seed from folks like Scott Banister, Trevor Blackwell, and Jeff Huber.

They launched the app on December 3 and it’s already making 3D waves. The tool, which uses the iPhone X’s front camera and laser scanning system to create a live color point cloud, can create 3D models that you can view inside the app or in an AR setting. You can also export them into a USDZ file for use elsewhere. The app is actually a Trojan horse for the company’s other applications including a programming framework for 3D scanning.

“We are at the bleeding edge – deploying 3D dense reconstruction and point cloud deep learning on mobile devices,” said Huber. “We package up this core technology for developers, abstracting away all the math and GPU acceleration, and giving them superpowers in just 3 lines of code.”

I’ve tried the app a few times and the resulting scans are still a little iffy. You have to take special care to slowly scan all facets of an object and if you move, as you see below, you end up with two noses. That said it’s an amazingly cool use of the iPhone’s powerful front-facing sensors.

“Standard Cyborg is building the API for the physical world,” said Huber. “We make it easy for developers to build 3D scanning, analysis, and design into their applications. Our Capture app is a showcase of our technology that makes it easy for anyone with a FaceID-enabled iPhone to play with the technology and share scans with their friends. Our scanning SDK is launching in January and is currently in beta with a few enterprise-level sporting goods companies.”

While you won’t be scanning your loved ones into a TRON remake with this thing just yet it’s cool to think about how far we’ve come from flailing around in our living rooms with a clunky Kinect next to our TV.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Move over notch, the hole-punch smartphone camera is coming

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First it was the notch, now the hole-punch has emerged as the latest tech for concealing selfie cameras whilst keeping our smartphones as free of bezel as possible to maximize the screen space.

This week, Samsung and Huawei both unveiled new phones that dispense with the iconic ‘notch’ — pioneered by Apple but popularized by everyone — in favor of positioning the front-facing camera in a small “Infinity-O” hole located on the top left side of the screen.

Dubbed hole-punch, the approach is part of Samsung’s new Galaxy A8s and Huawei’s View 20, which were unveiled hours apart on Tuesday. Huawei was first by just hours, although Samsung has been pretty public with its intention to explore a number notch alternatives including the hole-punch, which makes sense given that it has persistently mocked Apple for the feature.

The Samsung Galaxy S8a will debut in China with a hole-punch spot for the camera [Image via Samsung]

Don’t expect to see any hole-punches just yet though.

The Samsung A8s is just for China right now while the View 20 isn’t being fully unveiled until December 26 in China and, for global audiences, January 22 in Paris. We also don’t have a price for either, but they do represent a new trend that could become widely-adopted across phones from other OEMs in 2019.

That’s certainly Samsung’s plan. The Korea firm is rolling the hole-punch out on the A8s, but it has plans to expand its adoption into other devices and series. The A8s itself is pretty mid-range, but that makes it an ideal candidate to test the potential appeal of a more subtle selfie camera since Samsung’s market share has fallen in China where local rivals have pushed it hard. It starts there, but it could yet be adopted in higher-end devices with global availability.

As the View 20, Huawei has also been pretty global with its ambitions, except in the U.S. where it hasn’t managed to strike a carrier deal despite reports that it has been close before. The current crisis with its CFO — the daughter of the company’s founder who was arrested during a trip to Canada — is another stark reminder that Huawei’s business is unlikely to ever get a break in the U.S. market: so except the View 20 to be a model for Europe and Asia.

Huawei previewed its View 20 with a punch-hole selfie camera lens this week [Image via Huawei]

Samsung hasn’t said a tonne about the hole-punch design, but our sister publication Engadget — which attended the View 20’s early launch event in Hong Kong — said it was mounted below the display “like a diamond” to maintain the structure.

“This hole is not a traditional hole,” Huawei told Engadget.

Huawei will no doubt also talk up the fact that its hole is 4.5mm versus an apparent 6mm from Samsung.

Small details aside, one important upcoming trend from these new devices is the birth of the ‘mega’ megapixel smartphone camera.

The View 20 packs a whopping 48-megapixel lens for a rear camera which something that we’re going to see a lot more of in 2019. Xiaomi, for one, is preparing a January launch for a device that’ll have the 48-megapixels, according to a message on Sina Weibo from company co-founder Bin Lin. There’s no word on what camera enclosure that device will have, though.

Xiaomi teased an upcoming smartphone that’ll sport a 48-megapixel camera [Image via Bin Lin/Weibo]

News Source = techcrunch.com

Krisp reduces noise on calls using machine learning, and it’s coming to Windows soon

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If your luck is anything like mine, as soon as you jump on an important call, someone decides it’s a great time to blow some leaves off the sidewalk outside your window. 2Hz’s Krisp is a new desktop app that uses machine learning to subtract background noise like that, or crowds, or even crying kids — while keeping your voice intact. It’s already out for Macs and it’s coming to Windows soon.

I met the creators of Krisp, including 2Hz co-founder Davit Baghdasaryan, earlier this year at UC Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator, where they demonstrated their then-prototype tech.

The tech involved is complex, but the idea is simple: If you create a machine learning system that understand what the human voice sounds like, on average, then it can listen to an audio signal and select only that part of it, cutting out a great deal of background noise.

Baghdasaryan, formerly of Twilio, originally wanted to create something that would run on mobile networks, so T-Mobile or whoever could tout built-in noise cancellation. This platform approach proved too slow, however, so they decided to go straight to consumers.

“Traction with customers was slow, and this was a problem for a young startup,” Baghdasaryan said in an email later. However, people were loving the idea of ‘muting noise,’ so we decided to switch all our focus and build a user-facing product.”

That was around the time I talked with them in person, incidentally, and just six months later they had released on Mac.

It’s simple: you run the app, and it modifies both the outgoing and incoming audio signals, with the normal noisy signal going in one end and a clean, voice-focused one coming out the other. Everything happens on-device and with very short latency (around 15 milliseconds), so there’s no cloud involved and nothing is ever sent to any server or even stored locally. The team is working on having the software adapt and learn on the fly, but it’s not implemented yet.

Another benefit of this approach is it doesn’t need any special tweaking to work with, say, Skype instead of Webex. Because it works at the level of the OS’s sound processing, whatever app you use just hears the Krisp-modified signal as if it were clean out of your mic.

They launched on Mac because they felt the early-adopter type was more likely to be on Apple’s platform, and the bet seems to have paid off. But a Windows version is coming soon — the exact date isn’t set, but expect it either late this month or early January. (We’ll let you know when it’s live.)

It should be more or less identical to the Mac version, but there will be a special gaming-focused one. Gamers, Baghdasaryan pointed out, are much more likely to have GPUs to run Krisp on, and also have a real need for clear communication (as a PUBG player I can speak to the annoyance of an open mic and clacky keys). So there will likely be a few power user features specific to gamers, but it’s not set in stone yet.

You may wonder, as I did, why they weren’t going after chip manufacturers, perhaps to include Krisp as a tech built into a phone or computer’s audio processor.

In person, they suggested that this ultimately was also too slow and restrictive. Meanwhile, they saw that there was no real competition in the software space, which is massively easier to enter.

“All current noise cancellation solutions require multiple microphones and a special form factor where the mouth must be close to one of the mics. We have no such requirement,” Baghdasaryan explained. “We can do it with single-mic or operate on an audio stream coming from the network. This makes it possible to run the software in any environment you want (edge or network) and any direction (inbound or outbound).”

If you’re curious about the technical side of things — how it was done with one mic, or at low latency, and so on — there’s a nice explanation Baghdasaryan wrote for the Nvidia blog a little while back.

Furthermore, a proliferation of AI-focused chips that Krisp can run on easily means easy entry to the mobile and embedded space. “We have already successfully ported our DNN to NVIDIA GPUs, Intel CPU/GNA, and ARM. Qualcomm is in the pipeline,” noted Baghdasaryan.

To pursue this work the company has raised a total of $2 million so far: $500K from Skydeck as well as friends and family for a pre-seed round, then a $1.5 M round led by Sierra Ventures and Shanda Group.

Expect the Windows release later this winter, and if you’re already a user, expect a few new features to come your way in the same time scale. You can download Krisp for free here.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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