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Google changes its messaging strategy again: Goodbye to Allo, double down on RCS

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 11:18 PM PDT

Google’s long-and-winding road to figuring out messaging is taking yet another change of direction after the company called time on Allo, its newest chat app launch, in order to double down on its vision to enable an enhanced version of SMS.

The company told The Verge that it is “pausing” work on Allo, which was only launched as recently as September 2016, in order to put its resources into the adoption RCS (Rich Communication Services), a messaging standard that has the potential to tie together SMS and other chat apps. RCS isn’t new, and Google has been pushing it for some time, but now the company is rebranding it as “Chat” and putting all its efforts into getting operators on board.

The new strategy will see almost the entire Allo team switch to Android Messages, according to The Verge.

In case you didn’t hear about it before, RCS is essentially a technology that allows basic ‘SMS’ messaging to be standardized across devices. In the same way that iMessage lets Apple device owners chat for free using data instead of paid-for SMS, RCS could allow free chats across different networks on Android or other devices. RCS can be integrated into chat apps, which is something Google has already done with Android Messages, but the tipping point is working with others, and that means operators.

Unlike Apple, RCS is designed to work with carriers who can develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, which could include chat apps. Essentially, it gives them a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. They don’t make money from consumers, but they do get to keep their brand and they can look to get revenue from business services.

But this approach requires operators themselves to implement the technology. That’s no easy thing since carriers don’t exactly trust tech companies — WhatsApp alone has massively eaten into its SMS and call revenues — and they don’t like working with each other, too.

Google said more than 55 operators worldwide have been recruited to support Chat, but it isn’t clear exactly when they might roll it out. Microsoft is among the OEM supporters, which raises the possibility it could bring support to Windows 10, but the company was non-committal when The Verge pressed it on that possibility.

Google has tried many things on messaging, but it has largely failed because it doesn’t have a ramp to users. WhatsApp benefitted from being a first mover — all the other early leaders in Western markets are nowhere to be seen today — and Facebook Messenger is built on top of the world’s most popular social network.

Both of those services have over one billion active users, Allo never got to 50 million. Google search doesn’t have that contact, and the company’s previous efforts didn’t capture market share. (Hangouts was promising but it has pivoted into a tool for enterprises.)

That left Google with two options, take on carriers directly with an iMessage-style service that’s built into Android, or work with them.

It chose the second option. It is far messier with so many different parties involved, but it is also apparently a principled approach.

“We can't do it without these [carrier and OEM] partners. We don't believe in taking the approach that Apple does. We are fundamentally an open ecosystem. We believe in working with partners. We believe in working with our OEMs to be able to deliver a great experience,” Anil Sabharwal, the Google executive leading Chat, told The Verge.

Sabharwal refused to be drawn on a timeframe for operators rolling out Chat apps.

“By the end of this year, we'll be in a really great state, and by mid-next year, we'll be in a place where a large percentage of users [will have] this experience,” he said, explaining that uptake could be quicker in Europe or Latin America than the U.S.. “This is not a three-to-five-year play. Our goal is to get this level of quality messaging to our users on Android within the next couple of years.”

We shall see. But at least there won’t be yet more Google messaging apps launching, so there’s that.

Don’t just stir; Stircle

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 04:49 PM PDT

Although I do my best to minimize the trash produced by my lifestyle (blog posts notwithstanding), one I can’t really control, at least without carrying a spoon on my person at all times, is the necessity of using a disposable stick to stir my coffee. That could all change with the Stircle, a little platform that spins your drink around to mix it.

Now, of course this is ridiculous. And there are other things to worry about. But honestly, the scale of waste here is pretty amazing. Design house Amron Experimental says that 400 million stir sticks are used every day, and I have no reason to doubt that. My native Seattle probably accounts for a quarter of that.

So you need to get the sugar (or agave nectar) and cream (or almond milk) mixed in your iced americano. Instead of reaching for a stick and stirring vigorously for 10 or 15 seconds, you could instead place your cup in the Stircle (first noticed by New Atlas and a few other design blogs), which would presumably be built into the fixins table at your coffee shop.

Around and around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody… oh. There.

Once you put your cup on the Stircle, it starts spinning — first one way, then the other, and so on, agitating your drink and achieving the goal of an evenly mixed beverage without using a wood or plastic stirrer. It’s electric, but I can imagine one being powered by a lever or button that compresses a spring. That would make it even greener.

The video shows that it probably gets that sugar and other low-lying mixers up into the upper strata of the drink, so I think we’re set there. And it looks as though it will take a lot of different sizes, including reusable tumblers. It clearly needs a cup with a lid, since otherwise the circling liquid will fly out in every direction, which means you have to be taking your coffee to go. That leaves out pretty much every time I go out for coffee in my neighborhood, where it’s served (to stay) in a mug or tall glass.

But a solution doesn’t have to fix everything to be clever or useful. This would be great at an airport, for instance, where I imagine every order is to go. Maybe they’ll put it in a bar, too, for extra smooth stirring of martinis.

Actually, I know that people in labs use automatic magnetic stirrers to do their coffee. This would be a way to do that without appropriating lab property. Those things are pretty cool too, though.

You might remember Amron from one of their many previous clever designs; I happen to remember the Keybrid and Split Ring Key, both of which I used for a while. I’ll be honest, I don’t expect to see a Stircle in my neighborhood cafe any time soon, but I sure hope they show up in Starbucks stores around the world. We’re going to run out of those stirrer things sooner or later.

Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 04:13 PM PDT

Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether.

Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over Wi-Fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that?

The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple of bytes.

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white.

Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful.

In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be sent with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those

A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS.

microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device.

Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it.

Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data.

The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

The making of a hardware founder

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 02:30 PM PDT

Working in tech, it's hard to avoid the many stories and congratulatory tweets about the latest company to close a funding round, and little wonder. It's a milestone worth celebrating before getting back to work. Yet what's happening in the trenches before those funding announcements roll out is often more instructive. How does one decide to make the leap in the first place? How do you mold a product or service into something that you can present to outsiders? How can you enlist people to help you when everyone you want to meet has more pressing demands on their time?

These are questions that many new founders wrestle with, including Sarah McDevitt, a college basketball star turned hardware founder whose product she hopes to have in consumers' hands by this holiday season — even while she’s acutely aware that a lot has to go right first.

McDevitt didn't anticipate being in this position five years ago when she was making a generous salary as a product manager at Microsoft, working a stone's throw from where she'd grown up in Seattle. But like a lot of founders, McDevitt eventually felt compelled to start her now two-year-old company, Core Wellness, which aims to sell meditation experiences.

We checked in with her this week about how far along she has gotten, the obstacles she wasn't expecting and where she goes from here.

TC: You played college basketball at NYU, where you also studied math and computer science. Which was more fun?

SM: [Laughs.] In high school, I used to walk to a gym that was open at all hours of the night and play until my parents were like, ‘You have to come home.’ But I’ve always loved math and education, too.

TC: When you graduated, you went home to Seattle to work for Microsoft for five years. How did you get from there to launching a startup that makes it easier for people to meditate?

SM: I spent my last year at Microsoft on its social responsibility team, working on global education initiatives, and on a work trip, I visited a university in South Africa that was incorporating meditation into its curriculum. I was amazed at the effects that meditation had on this student population that had endured in some cases extreme poverty and violence. It was really eye-opening to me.

I soon discovered Stanford’s learning design program and it was the thing that I was looking for. I knew I wanted to study stress and what happens in our bodies and how meditation and mindfulness can combat it. I still feel lucky that I got in.

TC: Did you want to teach about meditation or did you head to Stanford thinking you wanted to start a company?

SM: I thought I’d design something for high school districts to address mental well-being for teenagers. For my master’s thesis — which had to be a design project — I’d designed a kind of mini curriculum for high school students that any high school teacher could implement. That’s what led to the idea of Core. I thought it might be hard for teenagers to buy into meditation without meaningful bio feedback, which is at the root of what we’re building. I’d also started thinking about using a physical object that could help younger students practice mindfulness.

But the more research I did, the more I realized that adults really struggle with meditation. And when you look at how stress affects our brains and bodies, it’s clearly something we should be addressing. I wanted to see if I could create something that applies to adults as well.

TC: So step one was . . .

SM: Looking for a co-founder. I knew I wanted camaraderie. But I didn’t have anyone who was in on this idea with me, so it was like finding someone to marry without dating them. I posted on collaboration boards at Stanford about the skills I was looking for — electrical engineering, app development for an early prototype. I figured I’d find someone with the skills, then work with that person for a few hours a week and see how things went.

TC: You found that person, Brian Bolze, who is also Core’s head of product. Did you know it was a fit straightaway?

SM: We had coffee and really vibe’d on our worldview and mindset around meditation and the kind of brand I'd wanted to create. Then we started working together, five hours a week, then 10, then 20. Then suddenly, it was like, ‘Hey, so are you going to stay in school?’ He eventually took that leap, and I’m incredibly thankful to have him. I think the emotional partnership is just as important as having a skills match.

TC: Core is making both hardware and software. What was building that first hardware prototype like?

SM: We started by using hobbyist materials like Arduino, and we used Stanford for 3D printing access and a hardware maker space that’s now out of business. I was also networking constantly through my Stanford classmates and previous coworkers, saying, ‘I’m looking for help with PCV manufacturing.’ or ‘Do you know someone who has invested in hardware before and can help us out.’

I was asking for a feedback as a way to get meetings. I did that a ton. Then we just started working on a prototype that was just functional enough to put in users’ hands and get feedback. The same was true with our business model. We’d ask for feedback from Stanford professors who’ve invested before, contacts I’d made, angel investors.

TC: You’ve raised a tiny bit of funding so far, from the hardware-focused venture firm Bolt and Bose, the speaker and headphones company. Can you talk about how that came together?

SM: Kate McAndrew, [a VC at Bolt] runs these women-in-hardware meetings and that’s kind of how I found my way into the community. My previous contacts were in software, so I went to her meet-ups to learn about the hardware business and eventually, over nine months, when she thought we were finally in a place to pitch Bolt’s partners, we did that.

TC: You’re based in San Francisco. Can I ask how, before you raised a bit of funding, how you were supporting yourself?

SM: Once we’d begun work on prototypes, we’d raised a friends-and-family round that we used to pay for industrial design help. Working at Microsoft, too, I’d saved a bunch of money. I didn’t necessarily have a reason why at the time but I naturally [spent] less than what I was making, knowing I wanted to enable myself some freedom. Grad school was incredibly expensive, but I did still have some savings I could live off for the first six months or so until we raised that family round.

TC: Were your friends and family receptive?

SM: It was really challenging for me personally. To go to people with this really new idea that has pretty much no validation and ask for money was hard. I did learn through that process there are a lot of people who want to support you, and a little bit from a lot of people adds up. It was enough to get to the point where we had a functioning prototype. 

TC: How far away are you from selling to your first customer?

SM: In two months, we’ll have an exclusive public launch. We’re making a couple hundred meditation trainers with the goal in mind of finding our “core” tribe — people who love Core, latch onto it and keep coming back. Once we sell that and have that engagement data, we’ll go raise a seed round.

TC: This is a hardware product and subscription software. How much will you charge and how does it work?

SM: We’re charging $199 [for the handheld trainer], along with a monthly subscription with personalized content. We’ll also be launching virtual meditation classes so that you can check in with live instructors and feel connected to a community of other people meditating with you.

TC: How are you personalizing the content?

SM: By using data to recommend to you content that we know will be effective for you. The first step [in meditation] is to turn your attention to one thing; we're helping you do that by giving you this grounding, comforting object with a pulse that guides you through breathing exercises and technique.

As for personalized recommendations, if you've been a user for a while and we see [based on biosensor data] that a body scan technique has been effective, we might say in the app, ‘Hey, this, four-minute body scan has been really effective in reducing stress so let's try this today.’

TC: How much seed funding do you hope to raise?

SM: We’re targeting $4 million, most immediately to fund a holiday launch and enter the market.

TC: And if you miss that window?

SM: I don’t think we need to wait for another. There’s huge demand for help with meditation.

TC: And you’ll be selling exclusively through your site or are you talking with possible distribution partners?

SM: We’re partnering with yoga and fitness studios on events and experiences and meditation stations. We also have some pop-up experiences planned with brands in the Bay Area.

TC: Building hardware is hard. What’s the biggest thing that’s gone wrong?

SM: First, I will say that the hardware community is extremely helpful and collaborative, unlike the world of enterprise software, which is pretty cutthroat and where people are more closed off to helping others. We’ve gotten so much help from other founders.

Still, you’re right. As one example, we were getting our electrodes from a prototyping shop in China, and they have to be stainless steel 304 to be conductive. When they sent the electrodes to us and they weren’t working, we did all this variable isolation before eventually figuring out that they’d used a different metal alloy. When we told them, they were like, ‘Yeah. They’re stainless steel 304.’ [Laughs.] It was a bad setback, but now metals testing happens much earlier in the process, and we might not have thought of that being a necessary step otherwise. You also learn the importance of a timeline buffer for things like that to happen.

TC: Are you meeting with investors yet?

SM: I'm out networking. We’re not fundraising yet, but we’re having the right conversations. That way investors are aware of what we're doing and that we're coming.

LinkedIn’s AutoFill plugin could leak user data, secret fix failed

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 01:35 PM PDT

Facebook isn’t the only one in the hot seat over data privacy. A flaw in LinkedIn’s AutoFill plugin that websites use to let you quickly complete forms could have allowed hackers to steal your full name, phone number, email address, ZIP code, company and job title. Malicious sites have been able to invisibly render the plugin on their entire page so if users who are logged into LinkedIn click anywhere, they’d effectively be hitting a hidden “AutoFill with LinkedIn” button and giving up their data.

Researcher Jack Cable discovered the issue on April 9th, 2018 and immediately disclosed it to LinkedIn. The company issued a fix on April 10th but didn’t inform the public of the issue. Cable quickly informed LinkedIn that its fix, which restricted the use of its AutoFill feature to whitelisted sites who pay LinkedIn to host their ads, still left it open to abuse. If any of those sites have cross-site scripting vulnerabilities, which Cable confirmed some do, hackers can still run AutoFill on their sites by installing an iframe to the vulnerable whitelisted site. He got no response from LinkedIn over the last nine days, so Cable reached out to TechCrunch.

LinkedIn’s AutoFill tool

LinkedIn tells TechCrunch it doesn’t have evidence that the weakness was exploited to gather user data. But Cable says “it is entirely possible that a company has been abusing this without LinkedIn’s knowledge, as it wouldn’t send any red flags to LinkedIn’s servers.”

I demoed the security fail on a site Cable set up. It was able to show me my LinkedIn sign-up email address with a single click anywhere on the page, without me ever knowing I was interacting with an exploited version of LinkedIn’s plugin. Even if users have configured their LinkedIn privacy settings to hide their email, phone number or other info, it can still be pulled in from the AutoFill plugin.

“It seems like LinkedIn accepts the risk of whitelisted websites (and it is a part of their business model), yet this is a major security concern,” Cable wrote to TechCrunch. [Update: He’s now posted a detailed write-up of the issue.]

A LinkedIn spokesperson issued this statement to TechCrunch, saying it’s planning to roll out a more comprehensive fix shortly:

We immediately prevented unauthorized use of this feature, once we were made aware of the issue. We are now pushing another fix that will address potential additional abuse cases and it will be in place shortly. While we've seen no signs of abuse, we're constantly working to ensure our members' data stays protected. We appreciate the researcher responsibly reporting this and our security team will continue to stay in touch with them.

For clarity, LinkedIn AutoFill is not broadly available and only works on whitelisted domains for approved advertisers. It allows visitors to a website to choose to pre-populate a form with information from their LinkedIn profile.

Facebook has recently endured heavy scrutiny regarding data privacy and security, and just yesterday confirmed it was investigating an issue with unauthorized JavaScript trackers pulling in user info from sites using Login With Facebook.

But Cable’s findings demonstrate that other tech giants deserve increased scrutiny too. In an effort to colonize the web with their buttons and gather more data about their users, sites like LinkedIn have played fast and loose with people’s personally identifiable information.

The research shows how relying on whitelists of third-party sites doesn’t always solve a problem. All it takes is for one of those sites to have its own security flaw, and a bigger vulnerability can be preyed upon. More than 70 of the world’s top websites were on LinkedIn’s whitelist, including Twitter, Stanford, Salesforce, Edelman and Twilio. OpenBugBounty shows the prevalence of cross-site scripting problems. These “XSS” vulnerabilities accounted for 84 percent of security flaws documented by Symantec in 2007, and bug bounty service HackerOne defines XSS as a massive issue to this day.

With all eyes on security, tech companies may need to become more responsive to researchers pointing out flaws. While LinkedIn initially moved quickly, its attention to the issue lapsed while only a broken fix was in place. Meanwhile, government officials considering regulation should focus on strengthening disclosure requirements for companies that discover breaches or vulnerabilities. If they know they’ll have to embarrass themselves by informing the public about their security flaws, they might work harder to keep everything locked tight.

Square acquires corporate catering startup Zesty

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 01:30 PM PDT

Square has acquired elements of corporate catering startup Zesty . Square, which already owns on-demand food delivery service Caviar, plans to use Zesty’s assets to strengthen Caviar’s corporate ordering business, Caviar for Teams.

Neither company disclosed financial terms of the deal, but the plan is for Caviar and Zesty to operate independently in the short term.

"Restaurants turn to Caviar to reach more diners and grow their businesses,” Square Caviar Lead Gokul Rajaram said in a press release. “Expanding our corporate catering product with Zesty enables us to offer our restaurant partners another way to boost sales through higher-margin, large-format catering orders," said Rajaram, Caviar Lead at Square. "Caviar is thriving, and we're excited to supercharge its success with Zesty and double down on an area with great opportunity to drive more growth for our business."

Since its acquisition of Caviar in 2014, Square has acquired OrderAhead’s pickup business to launch Caviar Pickup and Entrees On-Trays to expand its footprint in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.

Zesty currently partners with about 150 restaurants in San Francisco, which is the only city in which it operates. Some of Zesty’s customers include Snap, Splunk and TechCrunch. Zesty, which first launched in 2013 under a different name, had previously raised $20.7 million in venture funding.

“Adding Zesty's offerings, like sophisticated menu-planning tools and algorithms, white-glove catering services, and nutrition and allergen customization, will help us expand our catering offering and even better serve companies of all sizes,” the Caviar team wrote on Medium. “Plus, it provides our restaurant partners with more opportunities to reach new corporate customers.”

Announcing how startups can exhibit for free at Disrupt SF with Top Picks

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 01:13 PM PDT

TechCrunch’s top goal at Disrupt SF (September 5-7) is to help early-stage founders get lots of attention, which is why every year we introduce more and better ways to make that happen. This year we’re adding TC Top Picks, a new program that will provide 60 top founders the opportunity to exhibit free of charge for one day in Startup Alley and three free Founder Passes for all three days of the show, including access to CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s founder-investor matching service.

Here is how founders can win a top spot in TC Top Picks. To qualify, the startup must fit in one of the categories listed below, which reflect the major tracks at Disrupt SF. The editors will pick five TC Top Picks startups for each category and they get the exhibition space with special “TC Top Picks” signage, three free Founder Passes plus a three-minute interview on our Showcase Stage.

Click here to fill out the application, which should take about five minutes. (Note we have also launched an updated application app, which allows founders to create a single application and use it across all of TechCrunch’s programs — including Startup Battlefield.

TechCrunch will notify the winners by July 20, but applications close June 29 — so don’t lose any time, apply today.

Here are the categories we’re featuring at Disrupt SF:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) “What’s your AI strategy?” supplanted “What’s you mobile strategy? as one of THE big investor questions a couple of years ago, and venture investment in the sector doubled last year, reaching $12 billion, according to KPMG.
  • Augmented and virtual reality A strong contender for the next major platform (on par with the PC, the internet and mobile), AR/VR is a fast growing category in Crunchbase, which lists 1,993 startups, and IDC estimates 2017 AR/VR revenues will grow by 2020 to reach $143.3 billion.
  • Blockchain Distributed ledger technologies have so far produced cryptocurrency mania, digital collectibles startup CryptoKitties, a new funding paradigm called the ICO and more than 100,000 companies in Crunchbase professing a blockchain angle.
  • Biotech Whether it’s genetic manipulation through CRISPR or early cancer detection, the deep science startups in the biotech world are moving fast on the back of rapid technical advances. Funding hit a new record in 2017 of $9.3 billion, according to PitchBook.
  • Financial technology (fintech) The startup assault on the world of banking, investing, insurance and fiat currencies is in full gear, and Accenture reports the category in 2017 collected investments reaching $27.4 billion in 2017.
  • Gaming Gaming startups cut across most categories of the digital world, from AR/VR to streaming platforms to mobile, as well as entirely original concepts, like esports. Tabulating it all isn’t easy, but gamers and game tech folks know who they are.
  • Healthtech No big sector is more in need of disruption than healthcare, and $4.5 billion in venture poured into the sector last year. Crunchbase counts 20,912 companies in the category apps to track biometrics to medical records tracking (on the blockchain, of course).
  • New retail E-commerce is so 1999, and the future is new retail, manifested by direct-to-consumer brands, online to offline, or what Alibaba founder Jack Ma calls “the integration of online, offline, logistics and data across a single value chain.”
  • Mobility Getting around has never been easier, thanks to ride and bike sharing, never mind the autonomous vehicles and wearable robotics to come. Crunchbase lists 2,333 companies focused on getting people where they aim to go.
  • Privacy/security The digital vulnerability of everything from credit cards to the democratic process has spawned the creation of 5,627 privacy and security startups, according to Crunchbase, to take on a market expected to reach more than $181.77 billion by 2021.
  • Robots and automation Huge advances in sensors, AI, materials and GPUs have unleashed a surge in robotics startups, producing everything from warehouse automation to drone delivery to BigDog. IDC predicts that global spending on robotics will double from $103 in three years.
  • Space What Morgan Stanley dubbed Space 2.0 is entrepreneurship in space, whether that’s zero-g manufacturing, launch platforms, micro-satellites or space mining. Count the startups in the dozens and the market 30 years from now in the trillions, according to Merrill Lynch.

Get started on your Top Picks application here. You can also get your individual passes to Disrupt SF at the Super Early Bird Prices here.

Do you need a blockchain?

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 01:00 PM PDT

Blockchain technology is set to have a profound impact on a wide variety of industries, ranging from capital markets to the music business. While some use cases may seem obvious, the technology is still surrounded by its fair share of hype and uncertainty. As a manager, how should you approach the subject, and when should you put your money where your mouth is and actively aim to implement blockchain technology?

According to Juniper Research, six of 10 large corporations are either actively considering or in the process of deploying blockchain technology. Amongst companies that have reached the Proof of Concept stage, two-thirds (66 percent) expected blockchain to be integrated into their systems by the end of 2018.  The research claimed that those companies that would benefit most from blockchain include those with the need for (1) transparency in transactions, (2) current dependence legacy storage systems and (3) a high volume of transmitted information.

Looking at the reasons for implementing blockchain, there is an inherent risk that managers eager to explore new technologies jump to conclusions without exploring alternative options. According to the research, systemic change rather than technological may provide both better and cheaper solutions to the issue at hand.

For many corporations, the go-to approach to investigate potential use cases for blockchain is to look for inefficiencies in current processes.This approach is guaranteed to provide some results, but often the solution is to truly re-design legacy processes to fit a digital world rather than exploring new and unknown technologies.

One reason why blockchain often emerges as an answer to many problems is that it is easy to imagine high-level use cases of blockchain technology. However, as we venture under the surface of such use cases, applying blockchain technology to a known problem is all too often a theoretical solution.

If we look at it, blockchain in its simplest form is an alternative to the traditional database. Blockchain differs from a database in many ways, but the most significant exception is the decentralized nature of blockchain. While a database requires a central authority to maintain and manage data, blockchain offers a decentralized approach to storage and verification of data. However, this feature comes at a cost. Blockchains in their current state (at least public ones) have some scaling issues, making them slower than traditional databases. In addition, users must pay a fee for each “transaction” on the database, which is fluctuating and unpredictable.

A potential switch involves rethinking everything, recoding most things and betting on a new technology that will need many years of work to become as mature as whichever database you're currently using.

To make things a bit more confusing, the term blockchain has become a bit diluted as the hype has continued to bloom. Terms like permissioned versus permissionless and private versus public blockchains are circulating; the term has become so widespread that it may lose some of its meaning. Permissioned blockchains are operated by known entities such as stakeholders of a given industry, whereas private blockchains are operated by one entity. These approaches have become particularly popular in the financial industry, as they focus on immutability and efficiency rather than anonymity and transparency. However, if we look closely at the inherent properties of a private or permissioned blockchain, they resemble a shared database, and critics argue that the term private blockchain is just a confusing name for a shared database.

Estonia’s digital identity solution is an example of the use of the blockchain as a marketing tactic, as the company providing the underlying technology rebranded its offering from "hash-linked time-stamping" to "blockchain technology" just in time to ride the blockchain hype. With last year’s crypto-craze, there is no shortage of companies claiming to be a “blockchain-company” in order to boost valuations.

With this in mind, there are a couple of simple control questions to help guide one through the decision process as to whether one should explore blockchain technology or just stick with a good-old database.

First of all, if it works, don’t fix it. If you’re satisfied with your database setup today, there should be no rush to replace this. A potential switch involves rethinking everything, recoding most things and betting on a new technology that will need many years of work to become as mature as whichever database you're currently using.

Are you depending on a third party to carry out transactions or to create trust between multiple stakeholders? If the use of a trusted third party to establish and maintain trust across stakeholders is in play, it may be the time to investigate the use of blockchain technology.

On the other hand, if performance and transaction speed is the most important factor, you should stick with a database… for now.

Do you need to handle highly dynamic data with a clear audit trail? Blockchains offer a flexible capacity by enabling many parties to write new entries into a system of record that is also held by many custodians.

To make things somewhat easier, there are numerous flowcharts circulating on the internet for when to use a blockchain (many of these can be found here).

While there are many reasons to steer clear of blockchain technology, there are equally many potential valuable use cases — such as royalty distribution in the music industry, cross-border payments, management of shared ownership such as timeshares, health records and many more. For instance, a decentralized Facebook might have mitigated the current array of scandals related to deliberately spreading misinformation to influence public opinion and the misuse of personal data.

For managers looking to explore blockchain, it is easy to both be dazzled by the promises of new technology as well as dismiss the unknown. In this case, it is important to stay curious and have a practical approach, while still being able to have a vision that spans beyond the daily operations.

Centrify gives states a deal on identity management software to secure midterm elections

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 12:51 PM PDT

To secure U.S. election systems from the very real threat of targeted cyberattacks, states might need to reframe their security practices to look more like they would in a tightly controlled corporate environment.

To that end, Centrify, an enterprise cloud-based identity management company, is extending its security offerings to help states cover their bases as part of a “Secure the Vote” initiative. The company is encouraging state and local election boards to employ its services for basic security measures like multi-factor authentication and user privilege management — two easy steps that could thwart potential attacks. To coordinate with states, Centrify is working with the Department of Homeland Security on the budget and procurement processes as states begin to work more closely with the agency on the challenge of election security.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Centrify CEO Tom Kemp emphasized that states could bolster election security considerably by even undertaking the most basic safety measures.

“There’s some low-hanging fruit that can be done relatively quickly,” Kemp told TechCrunch, noting that this level of precaution would only take “a couple weeks of implementation work.”

As Kemp notes, the hackers targeting state election systems generally try to compromise admin-level accounts with broad system access. Multi-factor authentication requires an external confirmation of user identity in order to log into a system and is widely considered one of the more basic and most robust cybersecurity precautions for individuals and organizations alike. Centrify eschews the “trust but verify” approach, opting instead for a zero-trust security model that verifies user identity at all levels.

State and local election boards can work with Centrify to get free access to the company’s services for eight months, though they’ll need to sign up for an annual plan to get the deal. The company will work with those groups to deploy its services, with discounted on-site rates. Because the company is already registered in the federal procurement system, states have one less hurdle to overcome if they choose to work with Centrify while taking advantage of federal assistance seeking to bolster state election security. According to a federal contractor search, Centrify’s federal contracts have included work with the U.S. Navy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“In order to secure the vote, Election Boards need to protect their election systems, and more importantly, sensitive voter registration information against bad actors,” Kemp said of the announcement. “That starts with adopting a new mindset that compromised credentials are the main attack vector.”

Russia’s game of Telegram whack-a-mole grows to 19M blocked IPs, hitting Twitch, Spotify and more

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 12:50 PM PDT

As the messaging app Telegram continues to try to evade Russian authorities by switching up its IP addresses, Russia’s regulator Roskomnadzor (RKN) has continued its game of whack-a-mole to try to lock it down by knocking out complete swathes of IP address. The resulting chase how now ballooned to nearly 19 million IP addresses at the time of writing, as tracked by unofficial RKN observer RKNSHOWTIME (updated on a Telegram channel with stats accessible on the web via Phil Kulin’s site).

As a result, there have been a number of high-profile services also knocked oput in the crossfire, with people in Russia reporting dozens of sites affected including Twitch, Slack, Soundcloud, Viber, Spotify, Fifa, Nintendo, as well as Amazon and Google. (A full list of nearly forty addresses is listed below.)

What’s notable is that Google and Amazon themselves seem still not to be buckling under pressure. As we reported earlier this week, a similar — but far smaller — instance happened in the case of Zello, which had also devised a technique to hop around IP addresses when its own IP addresses were shut down by Russian regulators.

Zello’s circumventing lasted for nearly a year, until it seemed the regulator started to use a more blanket approach of blocking entire subnets — a move that ultimately led to Google and Amazon asking Zello to cease its activities.

After that, Zello’s main access point for its Russian users was via VPN proxies — one of the key ways that users in one country can effectively appear as if they are in another, allowing them to circumvent geoblocking and geofencing, either by the companies themselves, or those that have been banned by a state.

It’s important to note that the domain fronting that Google is in the process of shutting down is not the same as IP hopping — although, more generally, it will mean that there is now one less route for those globally whose traffic is getting blocked through censorship to wiggle around that. The IP hopping that has led to 19 million addresses getting blocked in Russia is another kind of circumvention. (I’m pointing this out because several people I’ve spoken to assumed they were the same.)

Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder and CEO, has made several public calls on Telegram and also third-party sites like Twitter to praise how steadfast the big internet companies have been. And others like the ACLU have also waded into the story to call on Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft to hold strong and continue to allow Telegram to IP hop.

But what could happen next?

I’ve contacted Google, Amazon and Telegram now several times to ask this question and for more details on what is going on. As of yet I’ve had no replies. However, Alexey Gavrilov, the CTO and founder of Zello, provided a little more potential insight:

He said that ultimately they might ask Telegram to stop — something that might become increasingly hard not to do as more services get affected — and if that doesn’t work they can suspend Telegram’s account.

“Each cloud provider has provisions, which let them do it if your use interferes with other customers using their service,” Gavrilov notes. “The interpretation of this rule may be not trivial in case when the harm is caused by third party (i.e RKN in this case) so I think there are some legal risks for Amazon / Google. Plus that would likely cause a PR issue for them.”

Another question is whether there are bigger fish to fry in this story. Some have floated the idea that just as Zello preceded Telegram, RKN’s battles with the latter might lead to how it negotiates with Facebook.

As we have reported before, Facebook notably has never moved to house Russian Facebook data in Russia. Local hosting has been one of the key requirements that the regulator has enforced against a number of other companies as part of its “data protection” rules, and over the last couple of years while some high-profile companies have run afoul of the these regulations, others (including Apple and Google) have reportedly complied.

Regardless, there’s been one ironic silver lining in this story. Since RKN shifted its focus to waging a war on Telegram, Gavrilov tells me that Zello service has been restored in Russia. Here’s to weathering the storm. 

Bill Moore, Zello’s CEO, believes that there is a fight to keep fighting here. “We are small,” he said. “Technology leaders like Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook can cooperate with each other to avoid becoming a tool governments use to control speech.  We hope Amazon and Google stay firm even if the short term cost is real.”

We’ll update this post as and when we get responses from the big players. A more complete list of sites that people have reported as affected by the 19 million address block is below, via Telegram channel Нецифровая экономика (“Non-digital economy”). Some of these have been disputed, so take this with a grain of salt:

1. Sberbank (disputed)
2. Alfa Bank (disputed)
3. VTB
4. Mastercard
5. Some Microsoft services
6. Video agency RT Ruptly
7. Games like Fortnite, PUBG, Guild Wars 2, Vainglory, Guns of Boom, World of Warships Blitz, Lineage 2 Mobile and Total War: Arena
8. Twitch
9. Google
10. Amazon
11. Russian food retailer Dixy (disupted)
12. Odnoklassniki (the social network, ok,ru)
13. Viber
14. Дилеры Volvo
15. Gett Taxi
16. BattleNet
17. SoundCloud
18. DevianArt
19. Coursera
20. Realtimeboard
21. Trello
22. Slack
23. Evernote
24. Skyeng (online English language school)
25. Part of the Playstation Network
26. Ivideon
27. ResearchGate
28. Gitter
29. eLama
30. Behance
31. Nintendo
32. Codeacademy
33. Lifehacker
34. Spotify
35. FIFA
36. And it seems like some of RKN’s site itself

Cambridge Analytica was reportedly exploring an ICO

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 12:48 PM PDT

In the most 2018 thing of the year so far, Reuters and The New York Times are both reporting that Cambridge Analytica was talking to crytpocurrency experts in preparation for the launch of its own initial coin offering. Of course, things may have gotten a bit off-track when the company was revealed to have obtained the data of as many as 87 million Facebook users. Life, as they say, comes at you fast.

According to Reuters sources, the embattled firm was looking to issue its own digital currency in an effort to raise upwards of $30 million. Understandable, perhaps — startups reportedly raised $5.6 billion through ICOs in 2017 alone. Surely Cambridge Analytica was well-positioned to get in on that action. 

The company wouldn't confirm whether it was still looking toward digital currency as a fundraising method moving forward, though it did tell the news agency that using blockchain for security purposes is still very much on the table.

"Prior to the Facebook controversy, we were developing a suite of technologies to help individuals reclaim their personal data from corporate entities and to have full transparency and control over how their personal data are used," a spokesperson said. "We were exploring multiple options for people to manage and monetize their personal data, including blockchain technology."

The Times also confirms via leaked emails that CA's work with another digital currency, Dragon Coin, “associated the firm” with a gangster know as Broken Tooth. Though Dragon Coin's founder denies any connection with Mr. Tooth.

Reddit hires former Time Inc. exec Jen Wong as COO

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 12:16 PM PDT

Reddit, one of the internet’s largest hubs for both traffic and controversy, announced today that it has hired former Time Inc. President of Digital Jen Wong to take on the role of COO.

She will be tasked with managing Reddit’s business strategy, working out of the company’s New York office. Wong left Time Inc. earlier this year when the company was acquired by Meredith Corp for $1.84 billion.

In a blog post, the company detailed the scope of her role as COO. A major focus will be building the company’s advertising strategy:

Her goals as COO will align closely with her past experience at Time, PopSugar, and AOL: using her media, publisher, advertising, and operations expertise to help us build out our offerings for users, advertisers, and partners; applying her experience building successful digital advertising offerings for internet media giants to our own ads platform; and, through it all, working to grow our business while staying true to the things that make Reddit unique.

Despite claiming 330 million monthly active users, Reddit is still a relatively small operation by Silicon Valley standards. A major part of that is that they’ve been slow to build out a sophisticated advertising product, though in recent months they’ve begun rolling out native ads in the company’s mobile apps.

"Jen is a seasoned digital veteran and successful executive at some of the biggest media companies in the world, her experience and vision will help carry Reddit's momentum forward in the years to come," Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said in a statement.

SNK may be making a mini-console stuffed with arcade classics

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 11:49 AM PDT

If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is, none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware — compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself — just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996 and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES, my eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

Lyft drivers’ lawsuit against Uber over ‘Hell’ program isn’t over

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 11:21 AM PDT

A class-action lawsuit led by a number of Lyft drivers against Uber regarding the alleged “Hell” spying program is moving forward in an amended way. The lawsuit, brought by Lyft driver Michael Gonzales on behalf of other Lyft drivers, alleges Uber wrongfully intercepted the communications and whereabouts of Lyft drivers, and resulted in the loss of revenue.

Uber reportedly used Hell to track Lyft drivers to see how many were available to give rides and what their prices were. Hell could allegedly also determine if people were driving for both Uber and Lyft.

Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley dismissed most of the lawsuit yesterday, but is allowing Lyft drivers to file an amended complaint that pertains to monetary losses as a result of unfair competition. In Judge Corley’s ruling, she determined the plaintiff did not sufficiently argue Uber’s violation of the Wiretap Act via interception of communications. Judge Corley also dismissed the plaintiff’s claim that Uber violated the Stored Communications Act and the California Invasion of Privacy Act.

Additionally, Judge Corley dismissed the claim that Uber violated the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act with leave to amend “to the extent Plaintiff can allege facts that plausibly suggest Uber violated a particular subsection of the Act.”

While Judge Corley dismissed the majority of the plaintiff’s claims, Gonzales can file an amended complaint specifically pertaining to unfair competition. From the ruling:

Plaintiff alleges that by encouraging drivers to use the Uber platform exclusively, and not also drive for Lyft, that reduced the supply of Lyft drivers thereby increasing wait times and causing Lyft drivers to experience decreased earnings; in particular, the longer wait time would cause a passenger to cancel the Lyft request and request a new ride from Uber. (FAC ¶ 9, 101, 102.) These factual allegations, which the Court must accept as true, are sufficient to satisfy the lost money or property requirement of UCL standing.

Judge Corley went on to say that Gonzales sufficiently argued he lost revenue as a result of Uber’s attempts to decrease the supply of Lyft drivers.

“Whether Plaintiff will be able to prove that allegation is a question for another day,” Judge Corley wrote.

This comes after Judge Corley dismissed Gonzales’ original complaint with leave to amend in August. Gonzales then filed an amended complaint seeking similar relief with two additional claims. The added claims alleged Uber violated the Federal Stored Communication Act and the California Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In response, Uber filed a motion to dismiss.

I’ve reached out to Uber and will update this story if I hear back.

Cheddar’s digital news network is coming to Hulu, too

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 10:00 AM PDT

Cheddar isn’t done making deals with the over-the-top streaming TV providers. Only yesterday, news came out that Cheddar was the first digital-only network to launch a channel on YouTube’s streaming TV service, YouTube TV. Today, the company is announcing a similar deal with Hulu, which will bring its programming to Hulu’s href="https://techcrunch.com/2018/01/09/hulu-17m-subscribers/"> more than 17 million subscribers.

The new distribution agreement will see Hulu adding Cheddar’s live linear network, plus exclusive morning and afternoon news briefs, key highlights and a selection of Cheddar Originals.

This combination of live and on-demand programming will be available to Hulu’s Live TV subscribers, while the daily news briefs and select other content will be made available to Hulu’s on-demand viewers.

The on-air channel will launch to Live TV viewers later this month.

This is a slightly different deal than the one Cheddar cut with YouTube TV, which was focused more on making Cheddar’s linear programming available to the service’s users. In addition, YouTube TV didn’t only add Cheddar’s flagship business news network, it also added Cheddar’s new general news channel, Cheddar Big News.

However, YouTube TV is catering to a younger demographic who may be more familiar with the Cheddar brand, and more attracted to digital networks in general, rather than their cable TV counterparts. That fits well with Cheddar’s own viewership demographics — 1 in 5 millennials (ages 18 through 24) know of Cheddar, and they’re “decades” younger than those who watch traditional news networks, the company notes.

For Hulu, the new addition means it’s gaining a network that could make its service more appealing to “cord nevers” — the (often young) group of consumers who are choosing never to sign up for a pay TV subscription in the first place. These users still want access to TV news, though, says Hulu.

"Our live TV viewers watched more than 24 million hours of news in the first quarter of 2018, so clearly they are hungry for news content," said Tim Connolly, SVP, Head of Partnerships and Distribution at Hulu, in a statement about the deal with Cheddar. "We're happy to partner with a post-cable millennial-focused network like Cheddar to pack even more value into our live offering and give our younger viewers access to a greater, more diverse selection of live news options,” he said.

Cheddar has shifted away from consumer-facing subscriptions and is now an ad-supported network. Around 95 percent of revenue comes from ads and sponsorships. The company may be sharing a portion of ad revenue with streamers as part of these deals.

Live TV services are only one way Cheddar is being distributed. The company has a number of deals across the web and mobile devices, including on Sling TV, YouTube TV, Philo, Comcast X1, Altice One, Pluto, Molotov in Europe, Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, Amazon and elsewhere. This month, it will also launch a show on Snapchat. Thanks to this wide distribution on tech platforms, Cheddar is seeing hundreds of thousands of daily live viewers and hundreds of millions of video views a month on social platforms.

Apple has a new iPhone recycling robot named ‘Daisy’

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 10:00 AM PDT

Meet Daisy. Apple's latest recycling robot was revealed, not coincidentally, a few days before Earth Day, in a press announcement summing up the company's recent environmental accomplishments. The new ‘bot is an update to Liam, the recycling robot the company announced back in 2016.

Daisy was developed in-house by Apple engineers, using some of Liam's parts — a recycling of sorts. The industrial robot is able to disassemble nine different versions of the iPhone, sorting all of their reusable components in the process. In all, Daisy is capable of taking apart a full 200 iPhones in a given hour, proving a solid alternative to traditional methods that can destroy valuable components in the process. Any connection to HAL 3000, however, is surely coincidental. 

Along with Daisy, Apple's also using the occasion to announce GiveBack, an addition to its recycling program. For every device customers turn in or trade from now until April 30, the company will make a donation to Conservation International, a Virginia-based environmental nonprofit. Eligible devices will still qualify for an in-store or gift card credit. 

For good measure, there's also a new Apple Watch challenge coming for Earth Day, encouraging people to get outside on Sunday and enjoy the planet. The announcements come a week after Apple announced that it had achieved its goal of powering its global facilities with 100 percent renewable energy.

Laura Tyson will be speaking at TC Sessions: Robotics May 11 at UC Berkeley

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 09:30 AM PDT

We're less than a month out from TC Sessions: Robotics, and we've still got some key names to share with you for the big event. We've already announced some of the top names in robotics, including Playground's Andy Rubin, Boston Dynamics' Marc Raibert, Ayanna Howard of Zyrobotics, Chris Urmson of Google and UC Berkeley professor and SuitX founder, Homayoon Kazerooni.

Today we're excited to add Laura Tyson to the list. Tyson is the faculty director, Institute for Business & Social Impact at Berkeley's Haas Business and Public Policy Group. She has previously served as the director of the National Economic Council and the chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton.

Tyson will be joining us to discuss the impact of AI and automation on economics and the human workforce, along with Fetch Robotics CEO, Melonee Wise and more, in a panel moderated by Ars Technica editor-at-large and author of Autonomous, Annalee Newitz.

In addition to all of our great human speakers, we've also got some really exciting robotic demos. UC Berkeley's Ken Goldberg will be bringing along Dex-Net. The system utilizes an off-the-shelf industrial robotic gripper designed by ABB. Trained using a deep neural network and 6.7 million data points, the system is able to perform extremely dexterous pick and place functions — a major hurdle in the world of industrial robotics.

Dex-Net will be joined by the some of the industry’s most cutting-edge robots, including Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini and Agility Robotics’ bipedal Cassie.

Click here to see the full agenda, workshop schedule and to check out more speakers.

Buy your ticket today.

Student tickets are just $45 — you can book those here.

We're always on the lookout for great sponsors; connect with us here about sponsorship opportunities for this landmark event.

 

Crypto-collectibles and Kitties marketplace Rare Bits raises $6M

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 09:00 AM PDT

Rare Bits wants to be eBay for the blockchain, where you buy, sell and trade non-fungible crypto-goods. After CryptoKitties raised $12 million from Andreessen Horowitz last month for its digital collectibles game, there’s been an explosion of interest in the space. But without a popular marketplace, it’s hard to find the goods you want at the right price. Now a team of former Zynga staffers is building out the Rare Bits crypto-collectible auction and commerce site with a $6 million round led by Nabeel Hyatt at Spark Capital, and joined by First Round Capital, David Sacks’ Craft Ventures and SV Angel.

Because of the Ethereum ledger, for the first time, users can truly own their digital items,” says co-founder Amitt Mahajan. “Previously in mobile or social games, virtual items earned through play or by spending money were actually owned by the company operating the game. If they shut down their servers, the items would go away and users would be out of luck. We believe this new asset class represents a paradigm shift in digital property whereby centralized assets will be moved onto decentralized systems.” For now, Rare Bits isn’t slapping any extra fees on its marketplace, compared to paying up to 1 percent on other marketplaces like Open Sea, or even more elsewhere. Instead, if a crypto-item developer charges a fee on secondary sales, say 5 percent, they’ll split that with Rare Bits for arranging the transaction.

Rare Bits lists more than 500,000 items from a dozen games, including CryptoPunks, Ether Tulips, CryptoBots, CryptoFighters, Mythereum and CryptoCelebrities. Users get the benefit of having all their crypto-collectibles in a single wallet. They can see historical pricing before they buy anything thanks to the transparency of the Ethereum ledger, whether they want to “Buy Now” or win an auction. The collectors can also see related items rather than transacting in a vacuum. One item sold for more than $10,000, and sales in the 5-10ETH range ($555 each today) aren’t uncommon.

Rare Bits founders from left: Danny Lee, Payom Dousti, Dave Pekar and Amitt Mahajan

Mahajan, Danny Lee and Dave Pekar all met after selling their gaming startups to Zynga . [Disclosure: I know Pekar from college.] Their fourth co-founder, Payom Dousti, worked at fintech VC fund 1/0 Capital and sold his sports analytics startup numberFire to FanDuel. With experience across the gaming, virtual goods and crypto space, Mahajan tells me, “We thought long and hard about potentially building blockchain-based games ourselves, but ultimately decided that there was a larger opportunity in focusing on crypto-based property as a whole.” The Rare Bits exchange launched in February and did more than $100,000 in transactions in its first month.

With some CryptoKitties selling elsewhere for as much as $200,000, investors liked the idea of taking a cut of everyone’s transactions rather than just launching another digital trading card. That led Rare Bits to raise a $1 million seed from Macro Ventures and angels like Steve Jang and Robin Chan. As scaling issues threaten to prevent the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains from supporting micropayments and mainstream commerce, new use cases like crypto-collectibles are taking the spotlight.

Now with the $6 million Series A, Rare Bits is bringing in some heavyweight angels from the world of gaming. That includes Emmet Shear and Justin Kan, the co-founders of Twitch. Former Dropbox execs and married couple Ruchi Sanghvi and Aditya Agrawal are also in the round, alongside Greenoaks Captial MD Neil Mehta and Channel Factory CEO Tony Chen.

The team hopes the runway will help it secure partnerships with developers and creatives to publish new collectibles for the blockchain that have a home on Rare Bits. Mahajan says, “People are viewing these items as assets that can be invested in instead of liabilities that are one way transfers of value towards the developer, it’s one of the major changes in this ecosystem versus traditional virtual items.”

Rare Bits will have to deal with the inherent scaling troubles of the Ethereum blockchain it operates on. For now, it’s refunding users the “gas” it costs to execute purchases and sales on its marketplace in a timely manner. Those range from a few cents to a few dollars, depending on network congestion. But Rare Bits could be looking at a steep bill or be forced to push those fees onto users if it gets popular enough.

There’s always the danger that CryptoKitties and the like are just the new Beanie Babies — valued today, but worthless when the fad dies. Rare Bits benefits from getting to follow the trend to whatever crypto-collectible is in vogue, and just has to hope the whole concept doesn’t fade.

But Rare Bits has a hedge against that. “While today most of these items are items from games and collectibles, we envision that we will see licenses, tickets, rights, even tokenized physical goods represented as digital assets,” Mahajan tells us. It’s now building a Fan Bits feature that will let YouTube creators, Twitch streamers and Instagram celebrities create crypto-based collectibles “to engage with their audience and let their fans support them,” he explains. You might one day be able to buy and resell a meet-and-greet pass for your favorite band.

“Our ultimate goal is to convince millions of new people to begin owning and transacting crypto-based property,” says Mahajan. But the founders will probably be okay regardless. “Like anyone crazy enough to start a crypto app company this early, we started buying and HODLing BTC and ETH years ago.”

Walmart launches ‘Check Out With Me’ for on-the-spot checkouts in hundreds of US stores

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 08:37 AM PDT

Walmart announced on Thursday it’s beginning to test new technology that arms store staff with mobile devices for checking out customers from the floor. The devices will first be put into use in Walmart’s “Lawn & Garden Centers” in more than 350 U.S. stores, where there’s the most need for a mobile checkout experience like this.

Before, customers shopping for items like mulch, soil or flowers may have had to go inside the physical store to pay for their Lawn & Garden purchases, which was often challenging due to the size and weight of these items. Now, they’ll be able to pay on the spot with store staff’s help.

The new service, which Walmart is calling “Check Out With Me,” involves store employees wearing a small carrying case equipped with a Bluetooth receipt printer. Their cellular device works as the barcode scanner and the credit card swiper for the transactions.

Staff assists the customers by scanning large items — like bags of mulch — while it’s still on the shelf, so customers don’t have to load heavy carts and push them through the store or to one of the Lawn & Garden Center’s fixed checkout stations. They can just carry them straight to their car parked nearby.

The service will help Walmart with its sales that take place outside the Lawn & Garden Center, too.

“During the summer, we also sell a lot of items like mulch, live plants and potting soil outside of the store — similar to Home Depot or Lowe’s,” a spokesperson said. “This new option allows people to pay for those items on the spot versus paying in the store then going outside to load the items.”

The retailer says it’s not hiring additional staff for Check Out With Me, but will use existing employees for the service.

This isn’t the first time Walmart has used mobile technology to speed up checkouts. The company also offers Walmart Pay for in-store checkout, which involves scanning a barcode on customers’ phones to pay at the register. And its Sam’s Club warehouse club offers Scan & Go, which lets customers skip the checkout line by scanning items as they shop, then showing their e-receipt at the door on their way out.

Upgrades that make checkout quicker are especially important to retailers today in light of increased competition from Amazon, which has now established a physical presence through Whole Foods, its own bookstores and its new Amazon Go stores.

In the latter, customers don’t have to check out at all — cameras, AI systems and sensor technology let them simply grab items and leave. The idea is to offer a faster way for consumers to buy items, while also tying their day-to-day purchases to their Amazon account to get a more holistic view of the shoppers’ habits. Other companies are offering similar systems for other retailers, like AiFi, IMAGR and Standard Cognition. And Walmart has been said to be testing checkout-free technology, as well.

In the meantime, Check Out With Me is available in more than 350 U.S. stores, starting today. That’s a small subset of Walmart’s 4,700 U.S. stores, but the company considers the rollout a “test” for the time being.

3D-printing marketplace Shapeways raises a $30 million Series E

Posted: 19 Apr 2018 08:34 AM PDT

Investors, it seems, aren't entirely soured on the world of 3D printing. The technology is still making progress in the enterprise sector, and Shapeways is certainly continuing to make a case for it in the world of online marketplaces. This morning, the New York-based company announced the closing of a $30 million Series E. 

The round, led by Lux Capital, puts its total funding north of $100 million. That's no small chunk of change, particularly as 3D printing has lost much of its luster in the consumer world over the past several years. But the company has been a bit of a quiet success in 3D printing, selling the technology as a service along with an Etsy-like online marketplace, rather than attempting to convince early adopters to spend $500-$1,000 on a desktop machine.

After a long search, the company appointed Gregory Kress its new CEO, back in February. At the time, he explained his vision of playing a stronger role in the world of hardware prototyping/startup incubation. "We can help them to market it and develop and sustain a small business," said Kress. "I see Shapeways shifting from delivering one niche of that customer experience to truly helping our creators from almost a platform perspective and allowing us to become a one-stop shop."

Now flush with extra cash, Shapeways is going to take that expansion further. "The capital will be used to accelerate company growth and launch additional services to support Shapeways' overall vision to become the complete end-to-end platform helping creators 'design, make, and sell,' regardless of 3D modeling experience," the company writes in a press release tied to the funding announcement.

That starts with the introduction of the new Design With Shapeways tool, which is designed to walk creators through the 3D-printing process, starting with a 3D file, 2D drawing or even just an idea. The new Spring & Wonder line, meanwhile, offers a hands-on approach to creating personalized jewelry through the service.