Robotic kitchen startup YPC raises a $1.8M seed round

Montreal-based YPC Technologies today announced that it has raised a $1.8 million seed round. Led by Hike Ventures and Real Ventures, the funding includes participation from Toyota AI Ventures and Uphill Capital, among others, designed to help the company pilot its kitchen robotics technology.

Toyota’s funding came as part of the company’s “Call of Innovation,” which finds it investing in early state AI, robotics and other cutting edge technologies. “At TRI, we’re always searching for ways to amplify human ability and help improve quality of life,” TRI’s Gil Pratt said in a statement. “Through the call for innovation, we got a first-hand look at how startups like YPC Technologies are addressing the needs of people in urban communities, and we’re encouraged and excited by their efforts.”

Robotics and automation generation has been a fairly hot category for VC investment, amid the on-going COVID-19 shut down. Food robotics, in particular, have been a focus. And it makes sense, certainly. After all, providing people with sustenance is about as essential as services get. The startup’s solution is built around a robotic arm that can prepare recipes with a variety of different ingredients — similar to other models we’ve seen.

One of the subscription-based service’s selling points is that it requires a relatively small amount of space, versus a standard commercial kitchen. That makes is a bit more versitile in applications, allowing it to be deployed in not only restaurants but smaller facilities like ghost kitchens and hotels.

The company also points out that the system is designed to work collaboratively with humans, replacing repetitive tasks rather than staff positions outright.

Amazon Echo Dot with Clock review: A mostly aesthetic update

It’s been a busy few weeks for smart speakers. Amazon kicked things off in late September with newer, rounder versions of both the Echo and Echo Dot. Less than a week later, Google updated the Home, after four years, with the rebranded Nest Audio. And then, last week, Apple unveiled the long-awaited $99 HomePod Mini, finally delivering an affordable version of its Siri speaker.

Amazon, for its part, has easily offered the most regular refreshes of the three. Both the Echo and Echo Dot are currently on their fourth iterations. The Echo Dot with Clock is only on its second (having just been introduced), but for all intents and purposes, the device is basically an Echo Dot — but, you know, with a clock.

The latest update to the line finds the company offering a kind of design uniformity across the smart speakers. The Dot really does look like a diminutive version of the standard Echo. I wasn’t entirely sure how large a difference there would be between the two products, but it’s definitely pronounced. The Echo is the size of a large grapefruit and the Dot is essentially the size of a softball.

The Dot’s size lends it a good deal more flexibility in terms of placement. I could definitely see placing them in nooks and crannies throughout my place to create a kind of makeshift sound system (though the in-box cable is on the short side, so you’ll likely need an extension if you’re not close to an outlet).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The majority of the speaker is covered in fabric, though the hard plastic bottom arcs up on the back of the device, occupying a large portion of the back. This allows for the inclusion of two ports (power and auxiliary audio out), though it also limits the speaker surface area on the device, restricting a full 360 approach unlike the older hockey puck design. As such, the speaker is just front-facing, in spite of the round design.

The new Echo devices, it’s worth noting, are one in a growing number of devices from big companies that are included as part of a push toward climate consciousness. I won’t really address Amazon’s larger overall carbon footprint here, but it’s nice to see some of that trickling down into these products. According to the company, the plastics are 50% post-consumer recycled, while the fabric and aluminum (including the capable and adapter) are both 100%.

The setup process is as simple as ever. Tap a couple of buttons on the connected Echo app and you should be up and running. The status light ring has been moved to the bottom of the device — that seems to be more of a practical choice than anything. After all, the standard light ring wouldn’t really work at the top of a round, fabric-covered device.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Whether that’s a net positive kind of depends on where you put the Echo. If it’s around eye-level, great. If it’s below that, it moves the ring out of view, and you may have to rely on seeing how it reflects off the surface it’s sitting on. For my own use, it’s a small step in the wrong direction. The digital clock (the big differentiator between the two Dots) is also a bit low on the ball, leaving a lot of blank surface area up top.

Again, I think Amazon is anticipating people will stick it around eye level, which is certainly the case if you primarily use the clock while lying in bed. The clock itself is plenty bright. And honestly, it’s nice just having a simple digital display sometimes, versus a full-on smart screen. That’s especially the case if you plan to stick it near your bed. That, after all, is supposed to be a kind of refuge from screens. That’s doubly important these days when we’re seemingly never not in front of one.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

That said, the uses for the face are pretty much limited. You get a “Hello” at launch, the time (naturally), the weather when prompted and the volume level. That last bit can be adjusted with voice or with a pair of physical buttons up top. Those are joined by the Alexa button, which fires up the assistant and the always-important microphone off. That turns red when you tap it, along with a red ring on the bottom of the device to let you known the speaker has stopped listening until it’s reenabled.

The sound quality is basically the same — which is to say, kind of what you’d expect from a $50 to $60 smart speaker. It’s good for all of the voice functionality you need, but I certainly wouldn’t rely on it as my default home speaker — even with a couple of them paired up. As an alarm clock, however, sure, go for it. It certainly beats the speaker on your phone.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The $10 price difference between the Dot and Dot with Clock is a bit of a weird one. I’d anticipate in future generations, Amazon will just combine them into one product, priced the same as the standard Dot. For now, however, telling time at a glance is going to cost you a little extra.

The new Echo arrives October 22. The Dot with Clock won’t be available until November 5.

AMC offers private theater rentals starting at $99, as cinemas continue to struggle

Like countless other sectors of the entertainment industry, movie theaters have been devastated by a global pandemic with seemingly no end in sight. Initial closings stretched on for months, as distributors have delayed their biggest films, or simply cut out the middle man by skipping straight to video-on-demand services.

Even as theaters have begun to reopen in some states, actually getting moviegoers back in seats is far easier said than done as fears over catching the highly contagious virus persist. From pop-up drive-ins to popcorn delivery services, some clever individuals have looked to ways to stay afloat during a prolonged lockdown. A number of locations have also begun offering private theater rentals — a transitional approach that offers movie fans an opportunity to return to the movie-going experience without being surrounded by strangers.

As CNN notes, mega-chain AMC has begun to offer the option through its site, with prices for renting out a theater starting at a surprisingly reasonable $99 (though not in New York, Alaska and Hawaii). Split among 10 friends, and you’re already paying less than a normal movie ticket.

Attendees can invite as many as 20 people to a screening, which consists of classic titles like “Jurassic Park” and Halloween-centric fare like “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Prices go up from there. New titles like “Tenet” and “The New Mutants” cost up to $349 for a single screening. The former, helmed by blockbuster director Christopher Nolan, was set to be a kind of litmus test for moviegoers’ willingness to return to theaters.

After months of delays, however, Warner Bros. took the relatively rare step of releasing the film internationally first, as the U.S. has continued to struggle with the spread of COVID-19. The United States’ ongoing struggles have also recently allowed China to overtake the country as the world’s largest box office. Over the summer, AMC noted that it had “substantial doubt” it would be able to withstand the pandemic.

Sony’s $5,000 3D display (probably) isn’t for you

Sony just announced a $5,000 3D display, but odds are it’s probably not for you. Primarily known for its consumer goods, the company is targeting creative professionals with the Spatial Reality Display — more specifically, those working in fields like computer graphics and visual effects for films. Basically it’s a way for artists to view their 3D creations without having to wear a VR headset.

The company’s not the first to offer up this kind of technology for a fairly niche audience. The Looking Glass display is probably the best-known offering in the space up to this point. But unlike that massive 8K screen, Sony’s product is actually designed for a single user — specifically as a screen for their desktop PC. Also, it kind of looks like an Amazon Echo Show.

Image Credits: Sony

The big differentiator between the product and existing devices is the inclusion of a sensor that determines the user’s viewing position, including vertical and horizontal access, along with distance, and tailors the image to that specific angle, adjusting within the millisecond.

Sony says it’s a “highly-realistic, virtual environment.” It showed off an earlier version of the technology at CES this year, using a rendering of the Ecto-1 from the upcoming Ghostbusters sequel, and planned to give the press a demo of the final version of the screen, but we all had to settle for conference calls instead, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For that reason, I can’t really speak to the efficacy of the 3D imaging as of this writing.

The company consulted with its Sony Pictures wing, which used the technology for the development of CG effects for the aforementioned Ghostbusters film. Volkswagen has also been involved since the project’s early stages, looking toward the technology’s potential use in the ideation and design processes.

For everyone else, the display goes up for sale through Sony next month.

Twitter is investigating widespread outage reports

If you’re reading this, you probably didn’t get here from Twitter . The service has been experiencing widespread reports of outages for at least an hour. The issue has impacted a range of different activities on the site, ranging from newsfeeds to the ability to tweet. The company has acknowledged the ongoing problem, noting on its official status page that it is investigating things:

Update – We are continuing to monitor as our teams investigate. More updates to come.
Oct 15, 22:31 UTC
Investigating – We are currently investigating this issue. More updates to come.
Oct 15, 21:56 UTC

Twitter responded to our request for comment, stating, “We know people are having trouble Tweeting and using Twitter. We’re working to fix this issue as quickly as possible. We’ll share more when we have it and Tweet from @TwitterSupport when we can – stay tuned.”

We’ll update as we hear more.

B&O’s BeoPlay H4 headphones offer great looks and comfort, but no noise canceling

It’s easy to be smitten with the H4 at first sight. They’re a great-looking pair of headphones — one of the best I’ve seen. They sport a simple, streamlined design that feels both like an homage to older models, but modern enough to avoid the nostalgia trap.

They’re comfortable, too. Like crazy comfortable. I say this as someone who is prone to dull earaches after wearing most models of over-ear headphones for an extended period. Since Bang & Olufsen sent me a pair to test a while pack, I’ve been wearing them for hours on end, prepping for a write-up during Work From Home Week.

The headphones sport an abundance of padding on the rim of their perfectly round cups. My ears sit snuggly inside, with none of the padding pressing on the ear — something that’s often a source of pressure after extended wears. They’re fairly lightweight — that helps. At 8.3 ounces they fall in between the Bose QuietComfort 35 II (8.2 ounces) and Sony WH-1000XM4 (8.96 ounces).

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The cups are covered in leather — either matte black or limestone (kind of a cream) — coupled with a large brushed metal plate sporting the B&O logo. It complements the concentric circles. The right cup sports a volume rocker, power/pairing switch and a port for an auxiliary cable. The ear cups sport a nice, smooth swivel that should work well with a variety of different head sizes.

The sound is good. It’s nice and full — though B&O leans a bit too heavily on the bass for some tests. They’re not quite as egregious as other units, but it’s very noticeable, particularly with traditionally bass-heavy genres like hip-hop. If you’re looking for fuller, more true-to-life music replication, you’re going to want to look elsewhere.

The absence of active noise canceling is a pretty big blind spot for a pair of $300 headphones in 2020. Even if you think you don’t need the feature, trust me, there are plenty of times you’ll be glad you have it. Take my working from home adventures over the past six months: They just started construction directly outside of my window, and it’s the worst. The Bluetooth, too, is decent, but walking around my apartment, I found them quicker to cut out than, say, the Sonys.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

There are units with longer battery life, too. Given that the H4’s are collapsible and don’t have ANC, though, I’m guessing the company isn’t really targeting frequent fliers here. With a rated battery life of up to 19 hours, though, they’ll get you through a day of home use, no problem.

Google Pixel 5 review: Keeping it simple

I’m going to be totally honest with you. I don’t really understand Google’s phone strategy right now. And for what it’s worth, I’m not really sure Google does either. I wrote about it here, but I’ll save you from having to read an additional 800 words on top of all these. The short version is that Google has three phones on the market, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of distinction between them.

The Pixel is a portrait of a hardware division in transition. That applies to a number of aspects, from strategy to the fact that the company recently saw a minor executive exodus. It’s pretty clear the future of Google’s mobile hardware division is going to look quite different from its present — but 2020’s three phones are most likely a holdover from the old guard.

What you’re looking at here is the Pixel 5. It’s Google’s flagship. A device that sports — among other things — more or less the same mid-range Qualcomm processor as the 4a announced earlier this year. It distinguishes itself from that budget handset, however, with the inclusion of 5G. But then here comes the 4a 5G to further muddy the waters.

There are some key distinctions that separate the 5 and 4a 5G, which were announced at the same event. The 5’s got a more solid body, crafted from 100% recycled aluminum to the cheaper unit’s polycarbonate. It also has waterproofing and reverse wireless charging, a fun feature we’ve seen on Samsung devices for a few generations now. Beyond that, however, we run into something that’s been a defining issue since the line’s inception. If you choose not to use hardware to define your devices, it becomes difficult to differentiate your devices’ hardware.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Since the very beginning of the Pixel line, the company has insisted that it will rely on software advances to push the products forward. It’s a nice sentiment after years of feature arms races between the likes of Apple and Samsung. But that means when it comes time to introduce new devices, the results can be fairly lackluster. That certainly applies to the Pixel 5.

From a hardware perspective, it’s not a particularly exciting phone. That’s probably fine for many. Smartphones have, after all, become more commodity than luxury item, and plenty of users are simply looking for one that will just get the job done. That said, Google’s got some pretty stiff competition at the Pixel 5’s price point — and there are plenty of Android devices that can do even more.

There are certainly some upgrades in addition to the above worth pointing out, however. Fittingly, the biggest and most important of all is probably the least exciting. The Pixel 4 was actually a pretty solid device hampered by one really big issue: an abysmal battery life. The 2,800mAh capacity was a pretty massive millstone around the device’s neck. That, thankfully, has been addressed here in a big way.

Google’s bumped things up to 4,080mAh. That’s also a pretty sizable bump over the 4a and 4a 5G, which sport 3,885mAh and 2,130mAh, respectively. That extra life is extra important, given the addition of both Battery Share and 5G. For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that I still live in an area with basically no 5G (three cheers for working from home), so your mileage will vary based on coverage. But using LTE, I was able to get about a day and a half of use out of the handset, besting the stated “all-day battery).

This is helped along by a (relatively) compact display. Gone are the days of the XL (though, confusingly, the 4a 5G does have a larger screen with a bit lower pixel density). The flagship is only available in a six-inch, 2,340 x 1,080 size. It’s larger than the Pixel 4’s 5.7 inches, but at a lower pixel density (432 versus 444 ppl). The 90Hz refresh rate remains. Compared to all of the phones I’ve been testing lately, the Pixel 5 feels downright compact. It’s a refreshing change to be able to use the device with one hand.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The camera is probably the aspect of the handset where the opposing hardware-first and software-first approaches are the most at conflict with one another. Google was fairly convinced it could do everything it wanted with a single lens early on, but eventually begrudgingly gave in to a two-camera setup. The hardware is pretty similar to last year’s model, but the 16-megapixel 2x optical telephoto has been replaced by a 16-megapixel ultra-wide. Whether that represent progress is largely up to your own personal preference. Frankly, I’d prefer a little more non-distorted zooming.

Google, of course, is building on a solid foundation. I really loved the Pixel 4’s photos. The things Google’s imaging team has been able to do with relative hardware constraints is really impressive, and while you’re lacking the scope of a premium Samsung device or high-end iPhone, casual photo snappers are going to be really happy with the shots they get on the Pixel 5.

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Night Sight has been improved and now turns on when the phone’s light sensor detects a dark scene. My morning walks have gotten decidedly darker in recent weeks as the season has changed, and the phone automatically enters the mode for those pre-dawn shots (COVID-19 has made me an early riser, I don’t know what to tell you). The feature has also been added to portrait mode for better focused shots.

The Pixel’s Portrait Mode remains one of the favorites — though it’s still imperfect, running into issues with things like hair or complex geometries. It really doesn’t know what to do with a fence much of the time, for instance. The good news is that Google’s packed a lot of editing options into the software here — particularly for Portrait Mode.

You can really go crazy in terms of bokeh levels and placement and portrait lighting, a relatively subtle effect that lends the appearance of changing a light source. Changing the effects can sometimes be a bit laggy, likely owing to the lower-end processing power. All said, it’s a good and well-rounded photo experience, but as usual, I would really love to see what Google’s imaging team would be able to do if the company ever gives it a some real high-end photography hardware to play around with. Wishful thinking for whatever the Pixel 6 becomes, I suppose.

In the end, the two biggest reasons to recommend upgrading from the Pixel 4 are 5G and bigger battery. The latter is certainly a big selling point this time out. The former really depends on what coverage is like in your area. The 5G has improved quite a bit of late, but there are still swaths of the U.S. — and the world — that will be defaulting to LTE on this device. Also note that the $200 cheaper 4a 5G also offers improvements in both respects over last year’s model.

Still, $700 is a pretty reasonable price point for a well-rounded — if unexciting — phone like the Pixel 5. And Google’s got other things working in its favor, as well — pure Android and the promise of guaranteed updates. If you’re looking for something with a bit more flash, however, there are plenty of options in the Android world.

Microsoft reverse engineers a budget computer with the Surface Laptop Go

The Surface Laptop Go joined me in the woods last week. It lived in my backpack for a few days and came along for a 20-mile hike through footpaths and across bridges of questionable integrity.

It is, without a doubt, light. It’s certainly lighter than the MacBook Air I also packed for the trip, at 2.45 pounds to the Apple device’s 2.8. It doesn’t sound like a ton, but when you’re devoting eight hours to hiking up and down mountains, every fraction of a pound makes a big difference to your lower back. And while (sadly) I don’t hike every day, lugging around a heavy laptop can really do damage over time.

The screen brightness, on the other hand, is lacking. Not surprising, really, for a low-powered, low-cost device. It will do the job indoors, but combined with a reflective screen finish, it’s pretty tough to see anything on the screen outside, even at the highest brightness. That’s probably not a deal breaker for most, but it does feel like one of a number of corners the company cut in an effort to bring the cost down.

At its heart, the Laptop Go is a case study in reverse engineering a budget laptop. It’s the product of an expanding focus for the Surface line. Once almost exclusively Microsoft’s attempt to showcase what its software could do on premium, custom-built hardware, the brand has evolved in a lot of different directions.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The company’s attempts to lure creative professionals away from Apple coexist with its exploration of budget devices. The Laptop Go firmly falls within the latter category. Following in the lines of the Go, the device seeks to answer the question of whether the hardware principles it has spent years developing across the Surface line can be applied to a budget device.

It’s an understandable — and commendable — effort on that front. Delivering a truly premium laptop experience at a rock bottom price is a win-win. Of course, there’s a lot to contend with here. For starters, getting prices down is a matter of determining which sacrifices you’re willing to make. Then there’s the fact that a lot of companies have already put a lot of work into building hardware for Chrome OS and Windows 10 S.

When Microsoft launched the latter operating system a few years back, it did so on the Surface Laptop. It was a strange decision: offering its Chromebook competitor in the form of a device starting at $999. It took a few years, but the company finally has an appropriately priced devices for the operating system, starting at $549. One lesson the company learned from the original Laptop and fellow Surface brethren is the importance of design.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

The Laptop Go is a nice-looking, budget laptop. It’s fairly sleek and sits nicely alongside other members of the Surface family. The top and keyboard case are made of aluminum. That’s coupled with polycarbonate composite resin that feels fairly plasticky to the touch. On the tactile front, the keys are a bit soft/gummy for my tastes and will take some getting used to — but it certainly beats typing on the vast majority of keyboard cases.

The port situation is mixed. I like that Microsoft opted to include both a USB-A and C port, straddling the line between backward compatibility and futureproofing. Though at this point, I think the safest bet is to go multiple USB-C ports. The other side sports only one port: a Surface dock connector. The company is no doubt maintaining the connection to keep the product working with existing accessories, but the time feels right to drop it in favor of USB charging.

Internally, things are kind of a mixed bag, as well. The 10th-gen Intel Core i5 chip comes standard. That’s a generous inclusion for a $550 laptop. But the base model defaults to 4GB of RAM and 128GB. You’re going to want to upgrade those — and that’s where you start losing the budget thread.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Our review unit had 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage — not bad. But that’s going to set you back $900. Suddenly you can see how you’ve quickly left the cheap laptop realm. The fingerprint sensor is also only tacked on as part of an upgrade for $699 and up. It’s also, weirdly, the one part of the keyboard that illuminates — albeit around the border. The exclusion of a backlit keyboard seems like an odd oversight here.

All said, the Laptop Go isn’t a bad first attempt to offer a truly budget entry. As I said with the original Surface Laptop, I’d recommend upgrading out of Windows 10 S the moment you get the device for a majority of users. But otherwise the system works reasonably well as a lightweight, good-looking secondary device. But if you’re not in a rush for such a thing, it will likely pay off to see what Microsoft can do with the device a second time around.

Apple’s iPhone 12, 12 mini, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max: what’s the difference?

Gone are the days a company like Apple could simply roll out a single flagship handset or two. Consumer demands have evolved quite a bit in the more than 13 years since the company released its first smartphone, and its offerings have had to evolve with it. That means now, more than ever, offering a broad range of choice in terms of feature set, size and price.

Apple actually announced four phones at today’s event: the iPhone 12, 12 mini, 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max. Add to that the fact that the company is keeping the 11 around at a lower price point, and that leaves iOS devotees with more options than ever when it comes to purchasing a new handset, with starting prices ranging from $599 to $1,099. And, of course, configurations go up from there.

All of the new devices announced today share some key common features: 5G connectivity, the new magnetic MagSafe connector, OLED displays and the A14 chip, for starters. They also get the new iPad Pro-style design, complete with straight edges that allow for the placement of additional antennas for the next-gen wireless connectivity. From there, however, things get more complicated. There’s a range here in size, cameras and capacity for starters.

Here’s a handy chart to keep it all straight:

Beats announces $50 Bluetooth earbuds

Apple clearly has plenty to announce during today’s big iPhone event. That means, as usual, its Beats line didn’t really get any love. The company is much more content to focus on its own audio offerings, instead. But the Apple-owned brand had some news to share today, as well.

In contrast to Apple’s offerings, the new Beats are pretty firmly focused on price. At $50, the Beats Flex are about a third the launch price of their predecessors, the similarly named BeatsX. It makes sense, certainly; as pricing has come down pretty significantly on wireless earbuds in the last few years, Beats is trying to carve out space well below $100.

The headphones feature a similar yoke form factor, dangling around the wearer’s neck when not in use. A magnetic mechanism pauses the music when the buds snap together — a different approach than the ambient sensors more expensive models use to pause playback when the wearer removes a bud from their ear.

Audio has been improved courtesy of a new acoustic driver and a microphone that’s been improved from the BeatsX. The battery, too, gets a major upgrade. It’s now rated at a healthy 12 hours — meaning you’ll get through a day without needing a charging case. Good news, since there’s no charging case here, to speak of. There’s quick charging, as well, courtesy of the USB-C port. You should get about an hour and a half of playback with 10 minutes of charging.

The headphones are up for pre-order today and come in four colors.