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January 18, 2019
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Is Samsung getting serious about robotics?

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A funny thing happened at Samsung’s CES press conference. After the PC news, 8K TVs and Bixby-sporting washing machines, the company announced “one more thing,” handing over a few brief moments to announce a robotics division, three new consumer and retail robots and a wearable exoskeleton.

It was a pretty massive reveal in an extremely short space, and, quite frankly, raised far more questions than it answered. Within the broader context of a press conference, it’s often difficult to determine where the hype ends and the serious commitment to a new category begins.

This goes double for a company like Samsung, which has been taking extra care in recent months to demonstrate its commitment to the future, as the mobile industry undergoes its first major slowdown since the birth of the smartphone. It follows a similar play by LG, which has offered a glimpse into its own robotics plans for back to back years, including allowing a ‘bot to copilot this year’s keynote.

We all walked away from the press conference unsure of what to make of it all, with little more to show for things than a brief onstage demo. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to spend some quality time with the new robots behind the scenes the following day. There were some caveats, however.

First, the company insisted we watch a kind of in-person orientation, wherein a trio of miced up spokespeople walked us through the new robots. There’s Bot Care, a healthcare robot designed to assist with elder care, which features medication reminders, health briefings and the ability to check vitals with a finger scan. There are also yoga lessons and an emergency system that will dial 911 if a user falls.

There’s also Bot Air, an adorable little trash can-style robot that zooms around monitoring air quality and cleaning it accordingly. Bot Retail rounds out the bunch, with a touchscreen for ordering and trays in the rear for delivering food and other purchases.

The other major caveat was look, but don’t touch. You can get as close as you want, but you can’t interact with the robot beyond that.

The demos were impressive. The robots’ motions are extremely lifelike, with subtle touches that imbue on each a sense of personality rarely seen outside of movie robots like Wall-E. The response time was quick and they showed a wide range of genuinely useful tasks. If the robots are capable of performing as well in person as they do in these brief, choreographed demos, Samsung may have truly cracked the code of personal care and retail robotics.

That, of course, is a big if. Samsung wouldn’t answer the question of how much these demos are being orchestrated behind the scenes, but given how closely the company kept to the script, one suspects we’re largely looking at approximations of how such a human/robot interaction could ultimately play out somewhere down the road. And a Samsung spokesperson I spoke to admitted that everything is very early stages.

Really, it looks to be more akin to a proof of concept. Like, hey, we’re Samsung. We have a lot of money, incredibly smart people and know how to build components better than just about anyone. This is what it would look like if we went all-in on robotics. The company also wouldn’t answer questions regarding how seriously they’re ultimately taking robotics as a category.

You can’t expect to succeed in building incredibly complex AI/robotics/healthcare systems by simply dipping your toe in the water. I would love to see Samsung all-in on this. These sorts of things have the potential to profoundly impact the way we interact with technology, and Samsung is one of a few companies in a prime position to successfully explore this category. But doing so is going to require a true commitment of time, money and human resources.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

News Source = techcrunch.com

Meet Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart

in Apps/Artificial Intelligence/Delhi/eCommerce/Food/funding/Fundings & Exits/Hardware/India/Payments/Politics/Recent Funding/robotics/Startups/TC by

The Amazon boogie-man has every retailer scrambling for ways to fight back. But the cost and effort to install cameras all over the ceiling or into every shelf could block stores from entering the autonomous shopping era. Caper Labs wants to make eliminating checkout lines as easy as replacing their shopping carts while offering a more familiar experience for customers.

The startup makes a shopping cart with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper, but it’s finalizing the technology to automatically scan items you drop in thanks to three image recognition cameras and a weight sensor. The company claims people already buy 18 percent more per visit after stores are equipped with its carts.

Caper’s cart

Today, Caper is revealing that it’s raised a total of $3 million including a $2.15 million seed round led by prestigious First Round Capital and joined by food-focused angels like Instacart co-founder Max Mullen, Plated co-founder Nick Taranto, Jet’s Jetblack shopping concierge co-founder Jenny Fleiss, plus Y Combinator. Caper is now in two retailers in the NYC area, though it plans to use the cash to expand to more and develop a smart shopping basket for smaller stores.

“If you walked in to a grocery store 100 years ago versus today, nothing has really changed” says Caper co-founder and CEO Lindon Gao. “It doesn’t make sense that you can order a cab with your phone or go book a hotel with your phone, but you can’t use your phone to make a payment and leave the store. You still have to stand in line.”

Autonomous retail is going to be a race. $50 million-funded Standard Cognition, ex-Pandora CTO Will Glaser’s Grabango, and scrappier startups like Zippin and Inokyo are all building ceiling and shelf-based camera systems to help merchants keep up with Amazon Go’s expanding empire of cashierless stores. But Caper’s plug-and-play cart-based system might be able to leapfrog its competitors if it’s easier for shops to set up.

Caper combines image recognition and a weight sensor to identify items without a barcode scan

Inventing The Smart Cart

“I don’t have an altruistic reason to care about retail, but I really want to put a dent in the universe and I think retail is severely under-innovated” Gao candidly remarked. Most founders try to spin a “super hero origin story” about why they’re the right person for the job. For Gao, chasing autonomous retail is just good business. He built his first startup in gaming commerce at age 14. The jewelry company he launched at 19 still operates. He went on to become an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan but “I always felt like I was more of a startup guy.”

Caper was actually a pivot from his previous entry to the space called QueueHop that made cashierless apparel security tags that unlocked when you paid. But during Y Combinator, he discovered how tough it’d be to scale a product that requires a complete rethinking of a merchant’s operations flow. So Gao hoofed it around NYC to talk to 150 merchants and discover what they really wanted. The cart was the answer.

Caper co-founder and CEO Lindon Gao

V1 of Caper’s cart lets people scan their items’ barcodes and pay on the cart with a credit card swipe or Apple/Android Pay tap and their receipt is emailed to them. But each time they scan, the cart is actually taking 120 photos and precisely weighing the items to train Caper’s machine vision algorithms in what Gao likens to how Tesla is inching towards self-driving.

Soon, Caper wants to go entirely scanless, and sections of its two pilot stores already use the technology. The cameras on the cart employ image recognition matched with a weight sensor to identify what you toss in your cart. You shop just like normal but then pay and leave with no line. Caper pulls in a store’s existing security feed to help detect shoplifting, which could be a bigger risk than with ceiling and shelf camera systems, but Gao says it hasn’t been a problem yet. He woudn’t reveal the price of the carts but said “they’re not that much more expensive than a standard shopping cart. To outfit a store it should be comparable to the price of implementing traditional self-checkout.” Shops buy the carts outright and pay a technology subscriptions but get free hardware upgrades. They’ll have to hope Caper stays alive.

“Do you want guacamole with those chips?”

Caper hopes to deliver three big benefits to merchants. First, they’ll be able to repurpose cashier labor to assist customers so they buy more and to keep shelves stocked, though eventually this technology is likely to eliminate a lot of jobs. Second, the ease and affordable cost of transitioning means businesses will be able to recoup their investment and grow revenues as shoppers buy more. And third, Caper wants to share data that its carts collect on routes through the store, shelves customers hover in front of, and more with its retail partners so they can optimize their layouts.

Caper’s screen tracks items you add to the cart and can surface discounts and recommendations

One big advantage over its ceiling and shelf camera competitors is that Caper’s cart can promote deals on nearby or related items. In the future, it plans to add recommendations based on what’s on your cart to help you fill out recipes. ‘Threw some chips in the cart? Here’s where to find the guacamole that’s on sale.’ A smaller hand-held smart basket could broaden Caper’s appeal beyond grocers amongst littler shops, though making it light enough to carry will be a challenge.

Gao says that with merchants already seeing sales growth from the carts, what keeps him up at night is handling Caper’s supply chain since the product requires a ton of different component manufacturers. The startup has to move fast if it wants to be what introduces Main Street to autonomous retail. But no matter what gadgets it builds in, Caper must keep sight of the real-world stress their tech will undergo. Gao concludes “We’re basically building a robot here. The carts need to be durable. They need to resist heat, vibration, rain, people slamming them around. We’re building our shopping cart like a tank.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Misty’s adorable robotics platform ships in April for $2,399

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The road to consumer robots is littered with the remains of failed startups. Jibo and Kuri mark two recent examples of just how hard it is bringing such a device to market. In fact, with the exception of the single-minded Roomba line, you’d be hard-pressed to name a product that has truly hit mainstream acceptance.

It’s with that in mind, that Misty has given its substantial runway. The startup has long term goals of bringing a truly accessible mainstream robotic to market — but it’s going to take a few years and a lot of baby steps.

Things started with last year’s Misty I, a handmade version of the company’s modular robotics platform. CEO Tim Enwall tells me the company ultimately sold “dozens” of the machines, with the express plan to eventually phase the product out in favor of the more polished Misty II. The second robot is set to arrive in April, following a successful crowd funding campaign in whcih the company raised just short of $1 million.

 

At $2,399, the new Misty isn’t cheap (thanks, in part, to the current administration’s trade tariffs). But, then, mainstream accessibility was never really the point. Misty II may be reasonably adorable, but it’s a platform first. The company is current software and hardware developers and the maker community in an attempt to build a robust catalog of skills. Think of it something akin to the app store approach to creating robots.

The plan here is to have a full selection of skills in place before the company targets consumers, while having third-party developers do much of the heavy software lifting. Developers, meanwhile, get a reasonably accessible hardware platform on which to test their programs. By the time company eventually comes to market, the theory goes, Misty will have a robust feature set that’s been lacking in just about every consumer robot that has preceded it.

That means that Misty II is less personality driven that, say, Cosmo. The on-board sensors and data collection is far more important to the product’s appeal that Pixar-animated eyes.

Of course, the product’s success will hinge entirely on that adoption, and it’s hard to say how large the potential market is, especially at that price point. Misty II is reasonably sophisticated and could have appeal for educators, among others, but it’s not really the same class of product as, say, those developed by the now-defunct Willow Garage.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Walmart taps startup Udelv to test autonomous grocery deliveries in Arizona

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More autonomous vehicles are poised to descend on Arizona. This time, Walmart has signed a deal with startup Udelv to test the use of autonomous vans to deliver online grocery orders to customers.

Under the agreement, Udelv will provide its second-generation autonomous delivery van, called the Newton, to Walmart to deliver groceries in Surprise, Arizona. The trial is set to begin in February, Udelv announced Tuesday at CES 2019.

The Newton, which is being shown at CES, is based on Baidu’s latest Apollo 3.5 open-source software platform.

The Walmart pilot isn’t the only deal that Udelv has locked in and announced at CES 2019. Up to 100 Udelv ADVs will be deployed in 2019 for last and middle-mile delivery on public roads in several cities throughout the country, the company said.

Udelv announced a contract with automotive aftermarket parts distribution business XL Parts to use self-driving delivery vans in Houston, Texas. Udelv said it will provide up to 10 ADVs to XL Parts, with the first vehicle being delivered in mid 2019. 

The company, which has already completed about 1,200 deliveries on public roads in San Francisco for more than a dozen paying clients, didn’t disclose the amount of the strategic investment from Japanese business giant Marubeni Corporation.  

Udelv said the collaboration between the two companies will serve to fast-track Udelv’s expansion, leveraging the buying power and various other internal resources of the Marubeni Corporation.

The deal with Walmart is small for now, but could prove to be a turning point for Udelv, if it’s successful.

The autonomous delivery vans will operate with safety drivers until both companies, as well as regulators, deem them approved for a safe removal of the safety driver, Udelv said.

These self-driving delivery vans will be able to travel at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour on urban and suburban roads, including highways. The vans are outfitted with a cargo system designed to carry up to 32 customer orders per delivery cycle. 

Walmart’s agreement with Udelv follows Walmart’s pilot program with self-driving company Waymo that launched last year. Waymo is taking its early rider program passengers to and from a Walmart store in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. 

News Source = techcrunch.com

CES revokes award from female-founded sex tech company

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Sex tech has been done at the Consumer Electronics Show before. This year, however, seems to be different, with the organization behind CES, the Consumer Technology Association, revoking an innovation award from a company geared toward women’s sexual health.

The CTA revoked an innovation award from Lora DiCarlo, the company behind a hands-free device that uses biomimicry and robotics to help women achieve a blended orgasm by simultaneous simulating the G-spot and the clitoris. Called Osé, formerly known as Vela, the device uses micro-robotic technology to mimic the sensation of a human mouth, tongue and fingers in order to produce a blended orgasm for women.

“Vela does not fit into any of our existing product categories and should not have been accepted for the Innovation Awards Program,” CTA Senior Manager of Event Communications Sarah Brown said in a statement to TechCrunch. “CTA has communicated this position to Lora DiCarlo. We have apologized to the company for our mistake.”

CTA is also prohibiting Lora DiCarlo from exhibiting at CES, TechCrunch has confirmed. When asked why, Brown simply said, “Because they don’t fit a product category.”

As Lora Haddock, founder and CEO of Lora DiCarlo, notes in an open letter today, CES has recognized products like ones from B.sensory and OhMiBod, which won the Digital Health and Fitness Product category in 2016. CES also allowed a virtual reality porn company to exhibit at the show in 2017, as well as a sex toy robot for men to exhibit in 2018.

OhMiBod’s winning product in 2016

In a follow-up email, I asked Brown if she could elaborate on why OhMiBod was allowed to exhibit while Lora DiCarlo’s was not. At the time of publication, TechCrunch had yet to receive a response. It’s worth noting that OhMiBod’s product that year helps to strengthen the pelvic floor. However, OhMiBod is back this year exhibiting a remote-controlled vibrator that allows partners to control one another’s vibrators.

“There is an obvious double-standard when it comes to sexuality and sexual health,” Haddock wrote. “While there are sex and sexual health products at CES, it seems that CES/CTA administration applies the rules differently for companies and products based on the gender of their customers. Men’s sexuality is allowed to be explicit with a literal sex robot in the shape of an unrealistically proportioned woman and VR porn in point of pride along the aisle. Female sexuality, on the other hand, is heavily muted if not outright banned.”

She added, “This double standard makes it clear that women’s sexuality is not worthy of innovation. By excluding female-focused Sex Tech, CES and CTA are essentially saying that women’s sexuality and sexual health is not worthy of innovation.”

Here’s the timeline of events. Lora DiCarlo applied for the CES Innovation Award back in September. In early October, the CTA notified the company of its award. Fast forward to Oct. 31, 2018 and CES Projects Senior Manager Brandon Moffett notified the company that it had been disqualified.

In its letter to the company, obtained by TechCrunch, the CTA cited a clause that explained how entries deemed “in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with the CTA’s image will be disqualified. CTA reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any entry at any time which, in CTA’s opinion, endangers the safety or well being of any person, or fails to comply with these Official Rules. CTA decisions are final and binding.”

But Lori DiCarlo argues the device is not immoral, obscene or inappropriate. In a letter to the CTA in November, Lori DiCarlo General Counsel Kenneth N. Bass wrote:

There is certainly nothing immoral about a device aimed at women’s sexual health unless CTA is regressing more than 100 years to an era when women’s sexuality was taboo. Such devices are legal for sale in the United States, and a major public university had no problem using its resources to develop it. The device is also not obscene—it is simply an electronic device with the proper anatomical dimensions to function.

In response to the company’s general counsel, CTA Deputy General Counsel Kara Maser said the product does not fit into any of its existing product categories.

“We can understand your frustration, but hope you understand that we cannot make an award for an ineligible product, even if your submission was mistakenly allowed in the first instance,” Maser wrote. “We made an error and we are sincerely sorry for the oversight.”

But Lora DiCarlo stands firmly behind its submission into the robotics category. It was designed in partnership with Oregon State University and has applied for eight patents around micro-robotics, soft robotics, mechanical engineering for biomimetic functions and advanced material science.

“The Osé device undoubtedly falls within the classification of robotic devices. A common definition of a robot is ‘a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer,’” Oregon State University College of Engineering Research Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering John Parmigiani wrote in support of the company. “The Osé device easily satisfies this definition. The Osé device elicits an intense response from users through a series of complex actions involving biomimicry and precise applications of pressure variation, motion, and expansion. It does so automatically as programmed by computer circuit boards. It contains advanced electromechanical and micromechanical technology commonly associated with robotic products. Osé is truly unique because it is a robotic device and offers a level of sophistication not found in other products in the same market.”

Moving forward, Lora DiCarlo plans to release its product in Q3 of this year. To date, the company has raised $1.1 million in funding.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

News Source = techcrunch.com

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