Google Assistant’s ‘Continued Conversation’ feature is now live

Google I/O was awash with Assistant news, but Duplex mystery aside, Continued Conversation was easily one of the most compelling announcements of the bunch. The feature is an attempt to bring more naturalized conversation to the AI — a kind of holy grail with these sorts of smart assistants.

Continued Conversation is rolling out to Assistant today for users in the U.S. with a Home, Home Mini and Home Max. The optional setting is designed to offer a more natural dialogue, so users don’t have to “Hey Google” Assistant every time they have a request. Google offers the following example in a blog post that just went up,

So next time you wake up and the skies are grey, just ask “Hey Google, what’s the weather today?”… “And what about tomorrow?”… “Can you add a rain jacket to my shopping list”… “And remind me to bring an umbrella tomorrow morning”…“Thank you!”

You’ll need to access the Assistant settings on an associated device in order to activate the feature. And that initial “Ok Google” or “Hey Google” will still have to be spoken to trigger the Assistant. From there, it will stay listening for up to eight seconds without detecting any speech. It’s not exactly a dialogue, so much as a way of easing the awkward interaction of having to repeat the same command over and over again. 

Given all of the recent privacy concerns that have arisen as smart speakers and the like have exploded in popularity, it’s easy to see why Google’s gone and taken all of these safeguards to assure users that the devices aren’t listening for anything beyond a wake word.

An extra eight seconds isn’t much, but those who are already skeptical about product privacy might want to keep it off, for good measure.

Bose gets into the business of sleep

You know you’ve got a problem sleeping when someone tells you that 35-percent of US adults aren’t get seven hours of sleep a night, and the number sounds remarkably low. I’m not a good sleeper. I never have been, and I’m a sucker for any gadget that comes along promising to make things better.

Sleep deprivation costs the US economy $411 billion a year. It’s bad for your health and generally turns you into a cranky piece of garbage no one want to be around. So, naturally, Bose wants to be in the sleep business. Tomorrow, the company launches SleepBuds, its first foray into helping people fall and stay asleep.

The wireless earbuds are the result of Bose’s recent acquisition of Hush, a San Diego startup behind the $150 “smart earplugs.” Among other things, the deal gave the headphone giant expertise in cramming all of the necessary components into a small footprint that sits comfortably in the ear, even when the wearer is sleeping on his or her side. The resulting hardware is roughly half the size of a penny, when you subtract the tip and hook that helps it stay firmly in place.

According to a rep I spoke with at today’s launch event, Bose was also toiling away on its own sleep solution, at the time of the acquisition. The resulting product is essentially those Hush components with the kind of polished finish one expects from Bose products, right down to the brushed aluminum charging case.

Hush’s involvement had another interesting impact on the product, resulting in Bose’s first crowdfunding effort. The original smart earplugs were the result of a Kickstarter campaign, and the companies went back to the well, launching Sleepbuds on Indiegogo as a way of essentially publicly beta testing the product.

The resulting $249 Sleepbuds are a bit of a mixed bag. They’re surprisingly comfortable, and are tough to knock loose. The silicone tips go a ways toward passive blocking ambient sound. There’s no active noise cancelling on-board, unlike Bose’s better known efforts. Instead, the on-board soundscapes (things like leaves rustling and trickling waterfalls) are designed to essentially drown out noise.

The company put us through a brief demo at a Manhattan hotel that felt more like a truncated laboratory sleep study than hands-ons on experience, running through some common New York city ambient sounds like street noise and loud neighbors.

The Sleepbuds never blocked the sound altogether. Instead it was more of a mix of sounds with the strange effect of hearing someone snoring off in the distance in a wind-swept field. You can always adjust the sound levels on the app, but you don’t want to make things too loud, for obvious reasons.

Interestingly, the company opted not to offer streaming here, instead storing files locally. There are ten preloaded sounds, with the option of adding more. This was primarily done for battery reasons. You should get about 16 hours on a charge, with 16 additional hours via the charging case. That’s about four nights of sleep for most people and seven or eight for us perpetual insomniacs.

The downside is pretty clear here. If you like to fall to sleep to music or podcasts or anything aside from the pre-loaded sounds, you’re out of luck. And since there’s no active noise canceling on board, these may not be the best choice for falling asleep on a long flight. In fact, plane noise is actually one of the options on-board. Apparently some people find it soothing.

There aren’t really too many non-sleeping applications here, which makes that $249 price tag a bit more prohibitive. That said, I could certainly see using these to use for meditation, if Bose ever sees fit to include a timer or maybe partner with a Headspace or Calm. But again, no streaming on board, making that a bit tougher to accomplish.

Amazon is bringing the Echo to Italy and Spain

Alexa’s slow but steady march across the glob continues, as Amazon gets ready to bring the smart assistant to Italy and Spain later this year. The AI will be joined by the company’s own Echo devices, along with with third-party hardware from Bose and Sonos.

In the meantime, the Amazon’s opening the Alexa Skills Kit to developers in those countries. It’s also making the Alexa Voice Service developer preview available to hardware developers looking to build third-party devices using the assistant and throwing in an Echo device to the first 100 devs for good measure.

Just this month, the company added nearby France to the list of Alexa/Echo markets, joining the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, India, New Zealand, Germany, Japan and Ireland. That manner of roll out takes time. In addition to priming the pump for developers, Alexa needs to be tweaked to learn not only a new language, but also accents, subtle linguistic nuances and local customs.

No word yet on the specific timeframe for launch, or which devices are coming to the aforementioned countries. France, for its part, got the Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Spot. Google meanwhile, has already added Italian support for Assistant and announced Home availability for Spain at I/O, along with Denmark, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.

Amazon rolls out Hub delivery lockers to apartment buildings across the country

Hub by Amazon has been around for about a year now. The company introduced its package delivery lockers for apartment dwellers with little fanfare, as it no doubt worked out some of the kinks in the process. This morning, it seems, the company is finally ready to officially announce the product, as it begins rolling service out across the country.

The whole thing isn’t too different from what Amazon’s offered for a while with its locker delivery locations. Here, however, the bins are located inside of apartment buildings, with access available through a key pad. The idea is to save people from having to wait for a delivery from building staff or adjust their hours so they can be home to greet the delivery person.

As a resident of an apartment building who regularly finds himself greeted with a missed delivery slip and a long line at the local post office, it’s an idea I can get behind. And honestly, I’m not a huge fan of entrusting front door (or car) access to Amazon — or anyone else for that matter. How well the whole thing will handle irregularly sized packages, on the other hand, is another question entirely.

What’s really interesting in this whole bit of news is that it’s not an Amazon-only deal. The company says it will work with “deliveries from any sender.” So, why go with Amazon versus numerous other companies that offer similar services? No doubt the price is right on this one. Amazon’s always done a great job undercutting the competition, and Hub will no doubt be any different. It’s also providing 24 hour support for the system.

The company says the service is already available to 500k residents, with “thousands more” gaining access to one every month.

‘Gaming disorder’ is officially recognized by the World Health Organization

Honestly, “gaming disorder” sounds like a phrase tossed around by irritated parents and significant others. After much back and forth, however, the term was just granted validity, as the World Health Organization opted to include it in the latest edition of its Internal Classification of Diseases.

The volume, out this week, diagnoses the newly minted disorder with three key telltale signs:

  1. Impaired control over gaming (e.g. onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context)
  2. Increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities
  3. Continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences

I can hear the collective sound of many of my friends gulping at the sound of eerily familiar symptoms. Of course, the disorder has been criticized from a number of corners, including health professionals who have written it off as being overly broad and subjective. And, of course, the potential impact greatly differs from person to person and game to game.

The effects as specified above share common ground with other similar addictive activities defined by the WHO, including gambling disorder:

“Disorders due to addictive behaviours are recognizable and clinically significant syndromes associated with distress or interference with personal functions that develop as a result of repetitive rewarding behaviours other than the use of dependence-producing substances,” writes the WHO. “Disorders due to addictive behaviors include gambling disorder and gaming disorder, which may involve both online and offline behaviour.”

In spite of what may appear to be universal symptoms, however, the organization is quick to note that the prevalence of gaming disorder, as defined by the WHO, is actually “very low.” WHO member Dr. Vladimir Poznyak tells CNN, “Millions of gamers around the world, even when it comes to the intense gaming, would never qualify as people suffering from gaming disorder.”

Fitbit employees charged with stealing Jawbone trade secrets

Six current and former Fitbit employees have been hit with a federal indictment over the theft of trade secrets from one-time rival, Jawbone. All had worked for Jawbone for at least a year between 2011 and 2015, before jumping ship and getting hired by the company’s chief competitor.

The allegations have been floating around for a while. Look, we even made a graphic for the stream of allegations being lobbed back and forth between the wearable makers.

Shortly before Fitbit’s 2015 IPO, Jawbone filed a suit alleging that Fitbit had attempted to recruit nearly a third of its employees. The suit was seemingly resolved late last year, however, through a global settlement between both parties.

“In a trade secret misappropriation case brought by Jawbone in the International Trade Commission in 2016 that involved these same individuals,” Fitbit said in a statement given to TechCrunch this morning, “a federal administrative law judge during a nine-day trial on the merits found that no Jawbone trade secrets were misappropriated or used in any Fitbit product, feature or technology.”

Jawbone, of course, has since fallen on tough times. The company was liquidated roughly this time last year, as CEO Hosain Rahman set out to create a related health startup. As far as the DOJ was concerned, however, the story isn’t finished just yet.

“Intellectual property is the heart of innovation and economic development in Silicon Valley,” Acting U.S. Attorney Alex Tse told MarketWatch “The theft of trade secrets violates federal law, stifles innovation, and injures the rightful owners of that intellectual property.”

Update: Rahman has provided TechCrunch the following statement,

We believe the Justice Department’s indictment of six current and former Fitbit Inc. employees for stealing trade secrets from their former employer, Jawbone, validates the claims we made in our 2015 lawsuit against Fitbit . On behalf of former employees, investors, suppliers and others associated with Jawbone, we look forward to seeing justice take its course in this case.

Sphero raises $12M as it focuses on education

This year has been a rough one for Sphero. The Colorado-based toy robotics startup kicked off the year with dozens of layoffs, a result of tepid interest in its line of Disney-branded consumer products.

Here’s a little good news, however. The company has raised another $12 million, bringing its total up to around $119 million, according to Crunchbase. The latest round will go into helping shape the BB-8 maker into an education-first company.

“The recent round of funding has currently raised $12 million, and we anticipate at the time of final closing up to $20 million may be raised in total,” Sphero said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. Funding has/will come from existing and new investors and will be used for working capital as we engage in a larger strategy that focuses on the intersection of play and learning.”

It’s a tricky play, given how overcrowded the world of coding toys is at the moment, but Sphero has long been building out its play in the space, in tandem with its more consumer-focused offerings.

Following the success of its The Force Awakens BB-8 tie in, the company quadrupled down on its involvement with Disney’s accelerator, releasing high-tech toys based on Spider-Man and Lightning McQueen from Cars.

“[Education] is something we can actually own,” the company told me after the layoffs were revealed. “Where we do well are those experiences we can 100 percent own, from inception to go-to-market.”

This AR guppy feeds on the spectrum of human emotion

Indiecade always offers a nice respite from the wall of undulating human flesh and heat that is the rest of the E3 show floor. The loose confederation of independent developers often produces compelling and bizarre gaming experiences outside of the big studio system.

TendAR is the most compelling example of this out of this year’s batch. It is, simply put, a pet fish that feeds on human emotions through augmented reality. I can’t really explain why this is a thing, but it is. It’s a video game, so just accept it and move on.

The app is produced by Tender Claws, a small studio out of Los Angeles best known for Virtual Virtual Reality, an Oculus title that boasts among its “key features”: 50-plus unique virtual virtual realities and an artichoke screams at you.

TendAR fits comfortably within that manner of absurdist framework, though the title has more in common with virtual pets like Tamagotchi and the belovedly bizarre Dreamcast cult hit, Seaman. There’s also a bit of Douglas Adams wrapped up in there, in that your pet guppy feeds on human emotions detected through face detection.

The app is designed for two players, both holding onto the same phone, feigning different emotions when prompted by a chatty talking fish. If you fail to give it what it wants, your fish will suffer. I tried the game and my guppy died almost immediately. Apparently my ability to approximate sadness is severely lacking. Tell it to my therapist, am I right?

The app is due out this year for Android.

Check out this adorable Bluetooth controller for the Nintendo Switch

8bitdo debuted a bunch of gaming controllers at E3 this week, but honestly, we only care about one. The Zero 2 is an adorable little Bluetooth controller that fits in the palm of your hand. It’s compatible with all sorts of systems, including desktop computers and Android devices, but the size makes it perfect for playing the Nintendo Switch on the go.

And as you can see by the “classic” color scheme above, the peripheral maker was clearly interested in evoking some serious Nintendo nostalgia, with a device that looks a lot like a Super Nintendo controller at first glance.

The Zero 2 sports four number buttons, select, start and a D-pad on the front, with L and R buttons up top, flanking a microUSB port. All have a solid click to them, though the company didn’t have a full operational unit we could play with (the controller isn’t coming out until the end of the year).

I suspect that the diminutive size means it won’t be ideal for long gaming marathons, but it does beat having to hold the Switch for an extended period. Better still, it can be connected to a keychain, so you’ll never lose the thing.

No pricing has been announced.

How Nintendo regained its footing with the Switch and smartphones

As recently as a couple of years ago, Nintendo very much felt like a company at a crossroads. The Wii U presented a rare major misfire for the gaming giant, while its executives stubbornly clung to a strategy that actively excluded smartphones.

The Nintendo of 2018, however, feels newly invigorated. In January, the company announced that the Switch had blown past the Wii’s record to become the fastest selling U.S. console, with 4.8 million units moved in 10 months. These days, that number is closer to 5.9 million in the States, with 17.79 million units sold globally as of April, by NPD’s count.

“We learned from previous launches,” Nintendo executive Doug Bowser (different Bowser) said in an interview with TechCrunch upstairs at the company’s E3 booth. “We made sure we launched with great content. And then we’ve had a steady drumbeat of new titles.”

The company addressed that issue with the launch of the flagship Zelda title Breath of the Wild, alongside the console. This time two years ago, the company’s booth was awash with Zelda imagery, made up to look like a small-scale version of Hyrule. In 2018, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the clear focus, as its E3 presence has shifted to something more tournament style, with large screens displaying the mega-crossover fighting game.

For the company, those two titles represent the company’s first-party play for an “active gamer” segment — a more direct take on the likes of PlayStation and Microsoft. Nintendo’s family-friendly approach is still present in those titles it produced in-house, but things have softened a bit, perhaps, when it comes to embracing third-party titles.

“Our goal with Nintendo Switch is to appeal to a broad audience,” said Bowser. “That goes well beyond family-friendly titles, and obviously with some of the third-party content we’ve brought to the platform, there’s more mature content. We want to make it accessible, but clearly when it comes to our own IP, it’s in a more family-friendly arena.”

Today’s release of Fortnite for the Switch is a pretty clear example of this. It’s a big win for both parties, as the fast-selling console gets access to the large cross-platform title. But even that is a far cry from some of the extreme gore we saw on the big screen last night at Sony’s big kick-off event.

For younger players, the 3DS/2DS is still going surprisingly strong for an eight-year-old system. 2017 actually saw a jump in consoles sold over the year prior. “Younger consumers are coming in through our 2DS and 2DS XL platforms,” said Bowser. “It’s a great entry point for us. As long as consumers are voting, we’ll continue to support it.”

And for all of its early foot-dragging, mobile has clearly been a boon for the company. First-party games like Super Mario Run and third-party partnerships like Pokémon GO have gone a ways toward spreading the gospel of Nintendo IP. Late last month, Niantic announced that its AR game had hit a staggering 800 million downloads.

The newly announced Switch titles Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee represent another step toward a more open, cross-platform Nintendo, as well. The Poké Ball Plus peripheral lets users capture Pokémon on the mobile title and utilize them into the Switch game. It’s a compelling bit of synergy that could point a ways forward, wherein smartphones and the Switch play even more nicely together.