Apple reportedly looking to subsidize Watch with Medicare plans

If nothing else, the addition of ECG/EKG reinforced Apple’s commitment to evolving the Watch into a serious medical device. The company has long looked to bring its best selling wearable to various health insurance platforms, and according to a new report, it’s reaching out to multiple private Medicare plans in hopes of subsidizing the product.

If Medicare companies bite, the move would make the $279+ tracker much more successful for older users. Along with electrocardiograph functionality, last year’s Series 4 also features fall detection, an addition that could make it even more appealing to the elderly and health care providers.

The new report cites at least three providers who have been in discussions with the company. We’ve reached out to Apple for comment, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on hearing back until the ink is dry on those deals. For Apple, however, such a a partnership would help increase the target audience for a product that’s been a rare bright spot in the wearable category.

Apple’s not alone in the serious health push, of course. Fitbit has also been aggressively pursuing the space. Today the company announced its inclusion in the National Institutes of Health’s new All of Us health initiative.

The Square Off chess board melds the classical with the robotic

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

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

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

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

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

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

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

The Sims gets its own in-game Alexa-style assistant, Lin-Z

There’s nothing like The Sims to log off from reality for a bit. Getting away from the increasingly ubiquitous world of smart assistants, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. EA announced this week that the perennial favorite life simulation series is getting its very own smart assistant.

Lin-Z is a lot like an in-game version of Alexa — or, for that matter, Google Assistant or Siri or Bixby or Cortana, et al. Accessed via a smart speaker with a familiar glowing green diamond, the assistant can play music, do trivia, tell jokes, turns lights on and off (smart home!) and order different services, like food, gardening and repair.

That feature is available this week in The Sims 4 for PC and Mac. Fittingly, the real Alexa is also getting a bunch of Sims-related skills, including trivia and the ability to play songs from the game’s soundtrack. That one’s available for users in Australia, Canada, India, the US and UK, for those looking to further blur the lines of reality.

Mental well-being took center stage at CES 2019

This week, the Las Vegas Convention Center was packed with many of the year’s biggest new devices. But over the last several years, The Sands has become the place where the real magic happens. The segment of the show known as Eureka Park is where the startups and accelerators congregate, often times showing off products that are still years away.

A quick walk around the floor (insofar as someone can walk quickly with that much humanity slowly shuffling through the halls) sheds a lot of light on the industry’s biggest trends. Plenty are holdovers from previous years — smart home and wearables continue to dominate —  but others offer insight into where the next several years of technology may be going.

One key trend that absolutely exploded this past year is mental well-being. Between the sleep, relaxation, concentration and meditation products on display, you couldn’t walk five feet without encountering another pitch. The list includes some familiar faces (to us, at least) like the Muse meditation and sleep headsets and a whole slew of new entrants.

The trajectory tracks if you consider many of these products a kind of extension of the fitness trackers that were all the rage a few years back. First startups pushed to keep our bodies in shape, moving on to sleep tracking and, eventually, our minds. The accessibility of sensors that can track things like basic brain activity have helped push the concept along.

It’s a worthy cause, of course. The proliferation of many technologies has done some pretty rough stuff to our bodies and brains over the years. Wouldn’t it be great if tech could also turn that around.

In many cases, the use is clear. Decades of scientific studies have demonstrated the value simply sitting quietly during meditation practice can have on your stress levels and mental health. If a product can help you get into a routine, great. But there’s an even larger opportunity for snake oil salespeople than we saw on the fitness side.

Certainly the FDA has a role to play, ensuring that companies can’t make untested medical claims for their products, but much of the burden here will ultimately be placed on journalist and consumer alike. When it comes to this category, the placebo effect is very real.

Anker’s PowerPort Atom is my permanent new travel companion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensel’s pressure-sensitive display tech works underwater

The Morph is a fun little computer peripheral. The small trackpad uses a series of silicone covers to recreating different interfaces, from a QWERTY keyboard to a drum pad. Ultimately, however, it’s the tech that drives the product — rather than the product itself — that may prove the most useful.

Sensel was on-hand at CES this week, in a much larger booth than the year prior. The Morph took up a chunk of the area, including a musician using different pads to play songs live. But the startup’s real star of the show were a series of thick, unbranded tablets. In a meeting with TechCrunch this time last year, the company noted that it was essentially shopping around the underlying technology for other uses. In a sense, the Morph is as much a way of proving that Sensel’s technology truly works.

Pressure Grid offers an alternative to more traditional capacitive touch, essentially building positional touch and force touch into a single sensor. It’s a less expensive way to accurately determine both the position and pressure (from 1g to 5kg) in one go. It’s also thin and capable of working with flexible displays, making the company well-positioned for what could well be the next wave of mobile devices.

And, as the company was more than happy to demonstrate on the show floor, it actually works underwater. Because what’s the fun of a waterproof phone, really, if you can use wet fingers?

Another key benefit here is the ability detect objects beyond the finger — that could mean using it with a pair of gloves or taking a regular old paintbrush to the service to draw some art. Sensel says it’s built fail safes into to the software, to cut down on false positives, which could definitely present an issue for a device that can register just about any object that comes into contact with it.

Sensel says it’s already begun working with industry partners to implement this technology into commercial device. Of course, like 3D touch before it, incorporating pressure sensitivity is going to take some customer training to make using it a natural part of day to day computing. 

A Pong table managed to wow CES 2019

That’s not the kind of headline one expects to write going into the week. But here we are. Universal Space’s analog Pong table is a mindblower in a whole unexpected way. The tabletop machine goes more retro than retro by bring pong into the real world through the magic of magnets (some day, perhaps, we’ll discover how they work).

There’s a square “ball” and a pair of rectangular paddles on either side, moved back and forth by spinning a wheel. Like the classic game, spinning faster and hitting corners puts a little English on it, as they say in billiards. Players score by striking the opposite side the ball. From there, you tap an orange arcade button to fire it back.

It’s really a thing to behold — even more so in single player mode, where the machine controls the other panel. You’ve got easy, medium and hard options for that. I’d start off slow, because there’s a bit of a noticeable lag that takes some getting used to.

It’s a neat parlor trick, and one that will almost certainly get party guests excited. It’ll cost you, though — $3,000 to be precise. The arcade model is an additional $1,500. It’s a lot to pay for what feels like a kind of one trick pony. Like the original Pong, it’s hard to imagine it holding one’s attention long enough to justify the price.

Taking a stroll with Samsung’s robotic exoskeleton

Samsung’s look but don’t touch policy left many wondering precisely how committed the company is to its new robots. On the other hand, the company was more than happy to let me take the GEMS (Gait Enhancing and Motivation System) spin.

The line includes a trio of wearable exoskeletons, the A (ankle), H (hip) and K (knee). Each serve a different set of needs and muscles, but ultimately provide the same functions: walking assistant and resistance for helping wearers improve strength and balance.

Samsung’s far from the first to tackle the market, of course. There are a number of companies with exoskeleton solutions aimed at walking support/rehabilitation and/or field assistance for physically demanding jobs. Rewalk, Ekso and SuitX have all introduced compelling solutions, and a number of automotive companies have also invested in the space.

At this stage, it’s hard to say precisely what Samsung can offer that others can’t, though certainly the company’s got plenty of money, know how and super smart employees. As with the robots, if it truly commits and invests, if could produce some really remarkable work in this space.

Having taken the hip system for a bit of a spin Samsung’s booth, I can at least say that the assistive and resistance modes do work. A rep described the resistance as feeling something akin to walking under water, and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better analogy. The assistive mode is a bit hard to pick up on at first, but is much more noticeable when walking up stairs after trying out the other mode.

Like the robots, it’s hard to know how these products will ultimately fit into the broader portfolio of a company best know for smartphones, TVs and chips. Hopefully we won’t have to wait until the next CES to find out.

Amazon hires Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin as Director of Alexa Gadgets

Amazon has hired Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin to head its Alexa Gadgets division, TechCrunch has learned. Laughlin spent eight years at Disney, most recently as the SVP and General Manager of Games, Apps and Connected Experience at the entertainment giant’s Consumer Products and Interactive Media division.

According to his LinkedIn profile, the role found Laughlin overseeing apps, connected hardware and games for Disney and Lucasfilm. The gig also involved AI, IoT and AR/VR. Also, lots of Muppets.

Amazon has since confirmed the hire. A spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch, “I can confirm that Kyle Laughlin has joined Amazon as Director, Alexa Gadgets. We’re very excited to have him.”

The gig appears to revolve around the newly defined “Alexa Gadget” category, which the company describes as “fun and delightful accessories that pair to compatible Echo devices via Bluetooth.”

Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch after eight years at Disney. Examples of current Alexa Gadgets include the Echo Wall Clock and Gemmy Industries’ connected Big Mouth Billy Bass and Dancing Plush Animatronics.

In a few short years, the Echo has transformed from smart speaker to a category defining, industry driving project. Alexa has become a huge business for Amazon and left everyone else struggling to catch up. Alexa Gadgets is a big push from Amazon to grow the smart assistant’s ecosystem beyond the smart speaker, through a wide range of connected devices.

Emtek introduces August-powered smart locks

Looks like August’s big news for the show wasn’t doorbell, after all. Rather, the smart lock maker announced this morning that it will be bringing its technology to three new locks from Emtek.

Like August, Emtek is a part of the Swedish conglomerate Assa Abloy. The implementation of the technology will be similar to August’s relationship with fellow Assa Abloy brand, Yale, where the more tech-savvy start will essentially power the lock’s smart capabilities. August branding won’t appear on the locks themselves, but its app will be required to interact with the technology.

Two of the three will include August’s Auto-Unlock, DoorSense and Auto-Lock tech. The locks will come in keypad or keyed models, priced at $440 and $370 — around $100 pricier than August’s own models. The difference is apparently due to the more premium materials used in Emtek’s version.

The new locks will be available in showrooms where Emtek hardware is sold this spring.