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October 23, 2018
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Hardware

HTC opens up early access to its blockchain phone

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After months of talk, HTC’s blockchain phone is finally arriving — albeit in limited quantities. The hardware maker announced today at a crypto conference in Berlin that it’s opening up access to an early version the Exodus 1 handset to “cryptographers and developers from all over the world” through its official site.

Of course, “early version” implies that we’re not dealing with anything final here. Add to that the fact that the phone isn’t expected to actually ship until December, and the thing doesn’t really feel all that much more real than it did a few months back. Still, if you believe in the tech — or at least find yourself morbidly curious about it — you can pick one up using either Bitcoin or Ethereum, naturally.

Images of the phone are still renders, but the device appears to share a lot of design language in common with HTC’s most recent flagship, the U12 — down to the translucent glass backing. That’s a good thing, honestly. Too often these kinds of novelty devices are produced by companies too focused on a single underlying technology to get the rest of the phone right. Here, at least, you know you’ll be getting a solid, working handset as the foundation.

The phone itself runs Android. From the sound of it, much of the underlying tech is about keeping the phone secure, being used to store things like keys to cryptocurrencies and, moving forward, all of the phone’s data. There’s also an interesting built in function for accessing lost data in a decentralized way.

HTC has developed a unique Social Key Recovery mechanism in case your phone is lost or stolen, or you forget your keys. It is an easy and secure way to recover keys lost in the hardware. It also ensures that HTC does not hold your keys in a central location at any point – you maintain full custody at all times. HTC allows you to pick a few trustworthy contacts, and each one of those must download a key management app. Your seed then gets split using a secret sharing algorithm and is sent to the trusted contacts. Should the need arise, you can successfully regain access to your funds.

For now, HTC is using this program to pilot the tech here — taking feedback from a small core of users. Though it’s tough to imagine this becoming much more of a mainstream device for a company struggling to stand out in the smartphone space.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Lime is building its first scooter “lifestyle brand store” in LA

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How can Lime differentiate its scooters and bikes from the piles of Birds and Spins filling Los Angeles sidewalks? Apparently with a physical storefront where it can convince customers of the wonders of on-demand mobility. According to a job listing from Lime seeking a “Retail Store Manager”, the startup plans to open a “lifestyle brand store in Santa Monica” that “will place heavy importance on brand experience and customer engagement.”

It seems Lime will rent vehicles directly from the store given the full-time manager’s role includes “monitoring inventory levels” as well as daily operations, and employee recruiting. They’ll also be throwing live events to build Lime’s hype. Given the company is calling this a lifestyle store, the focus will likely be on showing how Lime’s scooters and bikes can become part of people’s lives and enhance their happiness, rather than on maximizing rental volume.

A rendering of Lime’s new office it’s buidling in San Francisco. The design could hint at what Lime wants to do with its retail store branding.

The listing was first spotted by Nathan Pope, a transportation researcher for consultancy Steer, and later by Cheddar’s Alex Heath. We’ve reached out to Lime and will update if we hear back from the company. Glassdoor shows that the store manager job was posted over 30 days ago, and the site estimates the potential salary at $41,000 to $74,000.

The sheer number of Lime scooters in Santa Monica where the store will arise is already staggering. Supply doesn’t seem to be bottleneck as it is in some other cities. Instead, it’s the fierce competition from hometown startups like local favorite Bird that Lime wants to overcome through brick-and-mortar marketing. Often times you’ll see scooters from Lime and Bird lined up right next to each other. And with similarly cheap pricing, the decision of which to use comes down to brand affinity. According to Apptopia, Bird’s monthly U.S. downloads surpassed Lime’s in July for the first time ever, despite Lime offering bikes as well as scooters.

There are plenty of people who still have never tried an on-demand electric scooter, and going through the process of renting, unlocking, and riding them might be daunting to some. If employees at a physical store can teach people that it’s not too difficult to jump aboard, Lime could become their default scooter. This of course comes with risks too, as electric scooters can be dangerous to the novice or uncoordinated. More aggressive in-person marketing might pull in users who were apprehensive about scooting for the right reason — concerns about safety.

As cities figure out how to best regulate scooters, I hope we see a focus on uptime aka how often the scooters actually function properly. It’s common in LA to rent a scooter, then discover the handlebar is loose or the acceleration is sluggish, end the ride, and rent another scooter from the same brand or a competitor in hopes of getting one that works right. I ditched several Lime scooters like this while in LA last week.

Regulators should inquire about what percentage of scooter company fleets are broken and what percentage of rides end within 90 seconds of starting, which is typically due to a malfunctioning vehicle. Cities could then award permits to companies that keep their fleets running, rather than that litter the streets with massive paper weights, or worse, vehicles that could crash and hurt people. Scooters are fun, cheap and therefore accessible to more people than Ubers, and reduce traffic. But unless startups like Lime put a bigger focus on helments and safe riding behavior, we could trade congestion on the roads for congestion in the emergency room.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Google Home Hub review

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Shortly after announcing the Home Hub, a Google exec told me the timing was simply about “getting the product right.” Still, it’s curious launching your own entry in the space more than half a year after a trio of hardware partners debuted their own.

It’s easy enough to give the company the benefit of the doubt when you consider all of the variables in a nascent tech category that’s been around since, well, last summer. Amazon won the first to market prize with the Echo Show. It was a big, clunky thing, constructed from budget hardware — but it demonstrated the possibilities of adding a display to smart speaker.

The Echo Show 2 refined the concept, with a more thoughtful design and improved hardware, while a trio of devices from LG, JBL and Lenovo offered a glimpse at what Google Assistant could bring to the table. The Home Hub, announced a few weeks back (alongside a slew of hardware from the company), attempts to deliver that in the hardware sweet spot.

The smart screen sweet spot is, of course, a wholly subjective thing, depending on personal preferences and individual needs. It seems entirely plausible that next year will bring a Home Hub Max, but for now, Google’s settled on a seven-inch display. That puts the product in between the Echo Spot (2.5) and new Show (10-inch). But in spite of sporting the same screen size as the first-gen Show, Google’s managed to keep things compact.

I’ve seen the “ it’s just a tablet” criticism levied against the category by several angry/bored commenters. Google apparently said “screw it” and leaned in. The company insists that all of the tech was built from scratch here, but at first glance, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re looking at an OEM-ed Android tablet mounted on top of a speaker.

I wasn’t sure what to make of it, at first. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from the Home Hub. I’ve grown to like it, though. From the front, it looks a bit like a tablet floating an inch above the table, mounted at a ~ a 25 to 30 angle. The design implies a future upgrade sporting a swiveling screen with an adjustable viewing angle, but as it stands, It’s small but bright and easily spotted across the room.

The speaker stand is fully covered in in fabric, in keeping with the longstanding aesthetic of the Home line, which has since found its way into the latest generation of Echo devices. Unlike other Home products, the device doesn’t exactly blend in with its surroundings any more than your tablet of smartphone. That said, the wide range of optional screen savers offers a generally more pleasant appearance when not in use, ranging from an AI-curated selection of your Google Photos to fine art to Earth and space shots from NASA. I’m partial to the Earth images myself.

The digital picture frame didn’t die, exactly. It simply disappeared for a bit, only to return as something far more useful.

The bezel is fairly sizable, owning, in part, to the light sensor and far field microphones up top. The display is 1024 x 600, as initially suspected — confirmed, oddly enough, by this tweet. We’re not talking top of the line hardware here, but it’s certainly up to serve as a playback portal for YouTube videos. And honestly, given the size, you’re probably not going to want to watch anything much longer than that.

The absence of a camera is a bit of a curiosity in the broader context of the smart screen category. That goes double after Facebook’s recent introduction of Portal, which basically exists for that reason alone. Here’s the Google’s official line on the decision, courtesy of a blog post from VP, Diya Jolly, “We consciously decided to not include a camera on Google Home Hub, so you feel comfortable placing it in the private spaces of your home, like the bedroom.”

It’s a good line, certainly. And given home many of these things are destined to end up bedside, as a sort of smart alarm clock, coupled with general concern over Google’s core business of collecting data, that will likely give potential buyers some peace of mind. Nipping those privacy concerns from the electric taping webcam contingent in the bud was likely a driver here. The lack of webcam also also no doubt helped keep the price down.

Either way, the inability to video chat may well be a dealbreaker for some, given what a core feature it is on Amazon and Facebook products. If there’s enough of a user outcry for the feature, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if the company ultimately reverses course. A camera and no camera SKU seems like a pretty solid way to please everyone.

That said, you can still use the built-in mics to call folks on your contact list or “Broadcast” messages to other Home devices on your network, as a kind of makeshift intercom system.

As for the microphone, there’s a physical switch on the rear of the device, which is easily accessed without having to turn the device around. When flipped, Assistant lets you know, “the mic’s off,” along with an icon that flashes on screen. A small red light also appears next to the light sensor up top. I’ve spoken to hardware designers who’ve debated the best way to acknowledge this, given the fact that, on many cameras, the red light signals recording. Practically all have landed in the same camp as Google here, however.

The other physical button is a volume rocker, located on the left rear of the device. You can also tell the Assistant to turn down the volume for you, but the inclusion of buttons is a nice touch for easy access when the display is nearby.

The speaker is actually the cleverest bit of Google’s design here. Compare it to the new Echo Show, whose speaker surface faces the wrong direction, requiring that the product be positioned around six inches from a wall, in order to get the best sound. Or there’s the Lenovo Smart Display, whose front-facing speaker significantly increases its surface area.

With the Home Hub, a majority of the speaker still faces back, but the raised display affords the ability to blast some of that sound forward. As for sound, it’s about what you’d expect on a product in this class. Like the screen itself, it’s perfectly fine for short videos or casual music listening. I wouldn’t, however, rely on it as my primary home speaker. The Home Max, among others, does a much better job.

There’s no auxiliary out port here, either, which is something I like to see on smaller speakers. That said, Google long ago built in the simple, “Hey Google, connect to bluetooth feature,” which searches for and connects to paired devices. It’s something I use regularly to connect my laptop to the Google Max — and a feature Amazon still hasn’t added at last check.

If you’ve got multiple Google speakers set up, the easiest way to switch between them without missing a beat is through the Home app. Otherwise things can get a bit confused. Pairing them into a single group (such as Living Room), meanwhile, will break the speakers up into stereo channels, offering a fuller version of the music, from either side of the room.

It’s a nice effect, especially when paired with the Hub’s display for a visual dimension. There are still some kinks to work out here, however. For example, when I said, “hey Google, volume down,” only one speaker responded. It would be great if the system assured both sides were operating at the same level.

The Home Hub is, of course, voice first. Given its size and shape, however, it ought come as little surprise that there’s plenty you can still accomplish via touch. At any point, for example, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access brightness, volume and settings. Swipe down from the top and you get access to Broadcast and all of the home devices you’ve connected.

This control panel is one the Home Hub’s killer app. Broken down into different categories like lights and cameras (no action), the interface serves as a one stop shop for monitoring and controlling all manner of different settings on connected devices. Google’s embrace of touch controls are really what make this work, with the product serving as a kind of holy grail for home control, similar to what Apple’s been working on with its own Home app.

The device should connect quickly with all Made By or Works With Google devices. It’s a nice list, though the lack of an actual smart home hub is glaring — it’s right there in the name, in fact. The addition of Zigbee functionality was a pretty central upgrade in the last Echo Show. Google, on the other hand, is more focused on building its own ecosystem of products, as evidenced by the recent addition of GE smart bulbs that connect to Home devices via Bluetooth .

It will be a nice system when enough products have jumped on board. For now, however, the company has limited its device ecosystem a bit. That said, Google’s own device ecosystem is pretty robust at this point, between Nest devices and, of course, the Chromecast, which lets you stream video directly to the hub and control content from HBO NOW, CBS All Access, Starz and Viki via voice.

There are two more killer apps that require mention here. The first, YouTube, was already highlighted above. But Google owning the world’s largest video hosting service is pretty huge. There’s a reason it’s been the centerpiece of an on-going tug of war between Amazon and Google — not the mention the fact that Amazon’s reportedly been working on its response to the service.

The Echo’s browser-based workaround just isn’t the same. These things were built for YouTube.

The other is the depth of Assistant’s knowledge base. Google had a tremendous amount of search, context and machine learning here. And as a whole, its offering just feels smarter than Alexa. There are also nice little touches to to the interface that borrow design language from Gmail, Android and other Google properties. For example, when you open your calendar, you get a slew of dialogue boxes:

  • Add an Event to My Calendar
  • What’s My Next Meeting
  • Show My Agenda for Tomorrow
  • Set an Alarm
  • Set a Reminder

Tap one, and you can add listings with your voice. It’s one of the best on-board examples of how the touch and voice functions work in tandem.

The Home Hub, like so many of Google’s hardware devices, is the culmination of years worth of software advantages. Here, they all come together in a nice, compact package, which, at $149 undercuts the competition pretty dramatically.

There are still a number of kinks to work out and some features the company ought to mull over for generation two. But on a whole, it’s a strong first entry for Google in the smart screen space, and one that’s mostly worth the wait.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Gearing up to step into virtual reality

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

For the past two years, we’ve been closely following the advances of new VR experiences. Much of this gear is still in development, but if you’re eager to dive in and get a sense of what’s available right now, we’ve put together our current recommendations for mobile, PC, console and budget VR headsets.

The Oculus Go is light enough to wear comfortably, but it’s still a bit front-heavy. (Photo: Signe Brewster)                          

Standalone Headset: Oculus Go

The Oculus Go is a standalone headset  that doesn’t require a PC, game console or mobile phone to run. The Go comes with a sharp built-in screen and a comfortable controller that convincingly puts your hand in whatever virtual world you’re exploring. It’s compatible with Oculus games and shares the Stream VR app library with the Samsung Gear VR, so there are enough games to keep you busy for hours.

You can also watch movies and TV via streaming services. Its straps fit around the sides and over the top of your head and it’s light enough that you’ll forget you’re wearing it. Although its field of view is wider and its lenses are better than Gear VR’s, its screen resolution is lower. While you can move your head from left to right, up and down, and forward and backwards, your view won’t change when you tilt your head.

For what it currently offers, we think the Oculus Go is bit pricey, and some people might want to wait for the Oculus Quest next year. But the Go’s hardware is impressive and it’s the best overall standalone headset for most people right now.

Photo: Signe Brewster

VR Headset for PC: Oculus Rift + Touch

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned gamer, the Oculus Rift + Touch VR headset for PC provides an enjoyable experience that’s easy to navigate and deeply immersive. The Rift + Touch has three cords, one that’s tethered to your PC — which gives the system more processing power — and two that are connected to its included sensors. It’s the most comfortable headset we tested, fitting to wear over long periods of time, and easy to set up. Playing games with it calls for a bit of space; Rift recommends at least a 5-by-5 box.

We found that gameplay in a larger area (a 5-by-11 space) is even better. You’ll be able to interact within and see different parts of virtual worlds through head movements and by stepping from side to side. We like that its controllers are balanced and that the system comes with its own set of headphones. Like the Oculus Go, the Rift + Touch can be used with Oculus and Stream VR games.

Photo: Signe Brewster                                                                                                                                                   

PS4 Headset: Sony PlayStation VR Bundle

If you already own a PlayStation 4 and want to give virtual reality a try, we recommend doing so with the Sony PlayStation VR. This system’s tracking isn’t as powerful as a high-end PC’s, but it still offers an incredibly immersive experience. Tracked by the PlayStation VR camera, the Move controllers are responsive and one of the system’s best features.

The bundle we recommend comes with two Move controllers, a camera, and the Skyrim VR game — it’s important to note that PlayStation VR bundles are frequently discontinued and the only difference in the newer versions have been the featured game. Unlike our VR headset for PC picks, PlayStation VR does not have separate screens for each eye and it has a higher refresh rate for a high-quality visual experience. The headset fits more like a hard hat as opposed to goggles, but it’s one of the most comfortable headsets we tested.

Photo: Signe Brewster

Mobile Headset: Samsung Gear VR

Samsung Gear VR is the best VR headset made for a phone — but it’s only compatible with Samsung Galaxy and Note smartphones. It can be used with a broad variety of apps and games, and overall offers the best mobile VR experience. We like its UI and that there’s more to explore within its app ecosystem than with than with our runner-up pick, the Google Daydream View.

Its headset has adjustable straps, comfortable padding and a lens adjustment dial. The Gear VR’s controller is intuitive, easy to hold and connects to your phone over Bluetooth. Instead of tracking every hand movement, the remote is primarily limited to pointing and clicking, but its trigger button and trackpad feel natural and still give you a sense of immersion. It’s a bit heavier to wear than other mobile VR headsets we tested, but it fits better to the face for some and is more secure.

Aside from puzzle, shooting and adventure titles, you can download any Oculus games you already own and play them with the Gear VR for free. If you don’t own one of Samsung’s flagship phones, we recommend the Google Daydream View, or the standalone Oculus Go.

Photo: Signe Brewster

Budget VR & AR Headset: Merge VR/AR Goggles

If you don’t need the absolute best experience and want an inexpensive way to try VR for the first time, Merge VR/AR Goggles for Google Cardboard is the best offering. Compared to the other six budget headsets we tested, we preferred its combination of adjustability, price and comfort. It’s an upgrade from Cardboard and is still compatible with Google’s ecosystem of apps.

We like that it doubles as an augmented reality headset that can be paired with the Merge Cube and Merge’s curated VR library. You can play games, go on virtual expeditions, and watch films with the Merge VR/AR Goggles. It works with more phones (including iPhones). But that makes the quality feel a bit lower than experiences tailored for specific mobile systems. So long as you have a smartphone with a large screen and high resolution you’ll get a decent introductory VR experience.

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

News Source = techcrunch.com

TrackR is rebranding to Adero as it looks beyond small devices to track lost items

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When TrackR raised $50 million from investors that included Amazon a year ago, the Santa Barbara startup made a big splash in the growing market for small connected dongles that you could attach to “dumb” objects like keys to keep tabs on their location. But times for the company have been challenging since then. It’s weathered layoffs; a succession of natural disasters; and its co-founders stepping away from exec roles as CEO and president. Those events took their toll: we discovered that TrackR quietly closed an additional, small amount of funding earlier this year — but on a valuation of $40 million, a 73 percent drop compared to less than a year before.

Now it looks like the startup is about to enter another new phase. TrackR is launching a new brand, Adero, and sources say it is widening its focus to other uses for its tracking technology, taking TrackR beyond the circular Bluetooth fobs that form the core of its service today.

TechCrunch first learned of the brand change from an anonymous tipster, who said he’d noticed a legal name change for the company on Carta, from TrackR to Adero, “to match their new focus on home solutions.” Another source said that TrackR had been talking to retailers to sell what sounds like a larger connected home solution, although the outcome of those discussions is not clear.

We have also noticed that TrackR has been discounting its existing stock, a sign that it could be trying to clear the decks for whatever is coming next. Contacted for this story, a spokesperson did not comment on whether it would continue to sell products like the TrackR Bravo and Pixel — only that it would continue to support them.

“TrackR will continue to support all products we’ve sold into the market,” he said. “Both the battery replacement program and the Crowd Locate network are both active.”

Christian Smith, who had been the company’s president but quietly left his executive role at the startup at the end of last year, had once described a bigger vision of targeting enterprises in an IoT play, although it’s also not clear if this is part of TrackR’s plan now, or if it ever will be.

Whatever the pivot will entail, it is happening at a critical time. The company quietly raised $10 million in July, at a $40 million valuation according to Pitchbook. It was a clear downround: TrackR was valued at $150 million when it raised $50 million a recently as August 2017. Investors were not disclosed in the most recent funding, but previous backers of the company, in addition to Amazon, include Foundry Group, NTT, and Revolution.

“As our valuation reflects, at the start of this year, we made a conscious decision with the support of our board to build a new future instead of chasing incremental growth,” a spokesperson said of the reduced valuation. “The future we’re building revolves around helping our users proactively manage the chaos of life. We’re excited to reveal the first chapter of our new story in a few weeks.”

TrackR is expected to make an official announcement of its plans towards the end of November, we understand. It declined to comment on the new brand or direction for this article.

But we found a trail of records connecting TrackR to Adero dating from the middle of this year — an indication that the startup has been working on this strategy for at least six months.

Starting in May 2018, Trackr registered three trademarks for Adero. One filed in May of this year describes Adero in fairly generic terms: “Telecommunications services, namely, electronic transmission of data, messages, graphics, images, audio, video and information among users relating to locating, managing, organizing, and tracking assets, devices, and objects.”

Another trademark application details “cloud based software for tracking, organizing, and managing assets, objects, and devices; providing an interactive website featuring non-downloadable software that allows for the tracking, organizing, and managing of assets, objects, and devices; providing temporary use of non-downloadable cloud-based software for sharing information about, organizing, and managing networked wireless devices; providing temporary use of online non-downloadable software that shares information and data between electronic devices within a community of users; providing an on-line network environment that features technology for sharing, organizing, and managing data between wireless devices.”

A third describes hardware to manage such a service.

Trackr also registered separate trademarks around the same time is for a brand called “Activefield,” which might be one of the components of the Adero solution. (Its descriptions match those of the Adero trademarks.)

In addition to that, a Twitter profile for Adero features a picture of Santa Barbara — the homebase of Trackr. And ownership of the Adero.com domain, meanwhile, was transferred in May 2018, although the owner is not listed publicly (not unusual with domain applications). (An older Adero that some might remember was a telecoms company that had raised nearly $97 million in the first dot-com wave but then — like so many other startups of the time — shut down.)

IoT or bust

Trackr’s shift speaks to some of the challenges that have hung over the market for IoT when it comes to consumer services.

There is a lot of exciting potential in having all of the physical things in your world able to “speak” and for you to be able to control them by way of data, but there are also hurdles.

To name just two, the market is full of competition, not just between lookalike dongles, but also between a wide range of products that are all getting connectivity built into them, removing the need for the dongle to begin with. This all makes for difficult margins.

Second, although we have seen a flood of products hit the market, it’s still early days when it comes to understanding just how strong demand is for these products, and what it is that consumers ultimately will want to invest in. “Issues around interoperability, security and privacy concerns, and the cost of devices will continue to be leading inhibitors to the market’s growth,” IDC analyst Adam Wright noted in a recent report.

As it happens, both TrackR and its closest competitor Tile have reportedly had disappointing sales in key periods like the holidays, and tellingly Tile has also seen a series of recent changes.

In September, the company appointed a new CEO, CJ Prober, as it took on a new strategic investment from Comcast that points to its own efforts to widen its business beyond its square trackers. It also moved into subscription services, with the launch of a new device with a battery that can be replaced by way of a subscription.

For its part, Tile last month said that it has sold more than 15 million of its square devices, accounting for some 95 percent of the market in the US (according to estimates from NPD), while TrackR’s most recent update of 5 million shipped dates from 2017. In the wider game of economies of scale that underpins so much of the hardware business, those figures may have been the writing on the wall for TrackR.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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