2020 will be a moment of truth for foldable devices

Phones were not the centerpiece at the recently wrapped Consumer Electronics Show; I’ll probably repeat this point a few more times over the course of this piece, just so we’re clear. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Mobile World Congress has mostly usurped that role.

There are always a smattering of announcements at CES, however. Some companies like to get out ahead of the MWC rush or just generally use the opportunity to better spread out news over the course of the year. As with other categories, CES’s timing positions the show nicely as a kind of sneak preview for the year’s biggest trends.

A cursory glance at the biggest smartphone news from the show points to the continuation of a couple of key trends. The first is affordability. Samsung leads the pack here with the introduction of two “Lite” versions of its flagship devices, the Galaxy S10 and Note 10. The addition of the line lent some confusion to Samsung’s strategy amongst a handful of tech analysts around where precisely such devices would slot in the company’s portfolio.

Diligent’s Vivian Chu and Labrador’s Mike Dooley will discuss assistive robotics at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI

Too often the world of robotics seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Assistive robotics, on the other hand, are among one of the primary real-world tasks existing technology can seemingly address almost immediately.

The concept for the technology has been around for some time now and has caught on particularly well in places like Japan, where human help simply can’t keep up with the needs of an aging population. At TC Sessions: Robotics+AI at U.C. Berkeley on March 3, we’ll be speaking with a pair of founders developing offerings for precisely these needs.

Vivian Chu is the cofounder and CEO of Diligent Robotics. The company has developed the Moxi robot to help assist with chores and other non-patient tasks, in order to allow caregivers more time to interact with patients. Prior to Diligent, Chu worked at both Google[X] and Honda Research Institute.

Mike Dooley is the cofounder and CEO of Labrador Systems. The Los Angeles-based company recently closed a $2 million seed round to develop assistive robots for the home. Dooley has worked at a number of robotics companies including, most recently a stint as the VP of Product and Business Development at iRobot.

Early Bird tickets are now on sale for $275, but you better hurry, prices go up in less than a month by $100. Students can book a super discounted ticket for just $50 right here.

Can a $350 headband deliver better sleep?

Sleep is the next battleground on which the war for wearable health will be waged. Smartwatch and fitness band makers have been dipping their collective toes in the water for a few years now, but there’s only so much that can be done from the wrist.

I wrote a CES trend piece earlier this week that examined what the category is going to look like in the upcoming years. It’s understandably pretty scattershot at the moment, with everything from smart beds to alarm clocks to gel cooling headbands. It’s a lot of different companies with different form factors presenting different solutions to the same simple problem: help your tech-addicted, stress-plagued brain get a decent night’s sleep for once in your life.

The Muse S was — and continues to be — the one I’m most excited about. That’s due in part to the fact that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the company’s first-generation project. As a self-diagnosed Dude Who Is Bad at Meditation, I found the brain-scanning tech legitimately helpful. If meditation is akin to flexing a muscle, the Muse headband is quite good at helping you determine which muscle to flex.

The S promises to extend that technology up to and beyond bedtime. Makes sense. Sleep is certainly a logical jump from mindfulness practice — and certainly the two things feed into each other nicely. Better meditation generally leads to better sleep, and vice versa.

I was able to pick up the new headset for CES and began using it at the show — talk about a trial by fire. Because I was using it on the road, certain aspects have really leapt out at me. The move from a rigid plastic material to fabric with a modular sensor unit is big beyond the obvious ability to wear the headset to bed (sleeping with it is another story, depending on your own habits).

The win for me here is portability. A device I can take apart and safely stick in my bag is a big deal for me. I’m on the road a lot these days, and between the plane and the hotel rooms, it can be tough to set aside time to meditate. The constant pinball machine of time zones has also severely mucked up my already iffy sleep habits. Putting on the headband, sticking in my AirPods and just being still for a while is a good ritual to cultivate.

The Muse app features a number of guided meditation and sleep sessions available via subscription (think Calm/Headspace). Seems like it would be a win-win to partner with one of the existing services, but these days every hardware startup needs a content play. The offerings are generally pretty solid, if a bit limited, though I found myself more drawn to ambient soundscapes rather than spoken guides.

One annoyance that carries over from earlier versions is the required calibration before meditation. It’s not the worst thing, but it does add an extra minute or so to your morning routine.

The original meditation is still my favorite bit here. The more the Muse senses your mind wandering, the more the sound of rain increases. Once you regain focus, the rain dies down and birds start to sing. There’s a gamified (an annoying word that is even more annoying in the context of meditation) aspect where you’re given a tally of birds at the end. It’s a silly little Portlandian aspect, but it’s useful in an era when Fitbit and the like have trained us to quantify our own health and habits.

The jury is still out on the sleep aspect for me. I’d love to revisit the topic in a few weeks and let you know if things have improved. I’m still fairly restless, and using a headband takes getting used to. There also are some practical things to deal with. For one thing, the band appears to work best when the sensor is positioned with the power light facing down, but then the light is shining in your eyes. I’ve taken to putting on a sleep mask. I’m slowly turning myself into Darth Vader each night before bed. It’s fine; I’m sure he slept like a baby.

The Muse S is available for a not insignificant $350. A year of the guided meditation service will run you close to $100 (though that’s discounted to $55 right now). The pricing is still prohibitively expensive for most users. I will, however, be continuing my time with the device. If it helps me sleep well without self-medication, it’s a small price to pay.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

TRI-AD’s James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya are coming to TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020

With the Tokyo Summer Olympics rapidly approaching, 2020 is shaping up to be a big year for TRI-AD (Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development). Opened in 2018, the research wing is devoted to bringing some of TRI’s work into practice. The organization is heavily invested in both autonomous driving and other key robotics projects.

TRI-AD’s CEO James Kuffner and VP of Robotics Max Bajracharya will be joining us onstage at TC Sessions Robotics+AI on March 3 at UC Berkeley to discuss their work in the field. The company has been working to promote accessibility, both in terms of its work in automotive and smart cities, as well as robotics aimed to help assist Japan’s aging population.

The Summer Olympics will serve as an opportunity for TRI-AD to showcase those technologies in practice. Kuffner and Bajracharya will discuss why companies like Toyota are investing in robotics and working to make every day robotics a reality.

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Crowdfunded hardware startups are breathing fresh life into music making

I love music. Seriously, it’s one of the few things that brings solace in this cold, lonely world. Want to go deep on Joni Mitchell, William Onyeabor or Pablo Casals? I’m game. Yes, I worked at multiple record stores years before TechCrunch. Yes, I will always be that guy. What I will never be, however, is a musician, professional or otherwise.

I’m resolved to this fact at this point in my life. I’ll never be a rock star like I’ll never be a professional baseball player — both facts I’ve mostly made peace with. We don’t need to go into the two years of junior high when I played the trombone, or the decade and a half I attempted to master the guitar. All you need to know is I had absolutely zero aptitude for either.

It’s not for lack of desire to make music. It’s just a straight-up, good-old-fashioned lack of talent. For precisely this reason, I view any new piece of musical equipment with great interest. There’s a ton of money to be made for the startup that can truly unlock the potential of music making for those lacking the basic skills to do so.

Roli has long been of interest to me for this reason. I was one of the first people to cover the Seaboard when it debuted at SXSW a number of years ago. It’s a fascinating instrument, letting users bend notes courtesy of a soft material makeup, but mastering it — or, really, making any music at all — requires some ability to play piano.The company’s modular block system, announced a few years ago, was even more compelling, but similarly failed to scratch that itch.

Last week at CES, the fine folks at Kickstarter introduced me to the founders of a trio of crowdfunding companies that fit the bill to some degree. French startup Joué actually went on to win top prize at our CES pitch-off this year, with its modular MIDI controller of the same name.

The device operates on a similar principle as the Sensel Morph we’ve covered before, with silicone skins that overlay atop a touch surface to offer a variety of different controllers. Joué’s take is more music-focused than Sensel’s ever was. And besides, based on a conversation with Sensel at the show, I think it’s pretty fair to say that the company is turning most of its focus away from that device, in favor of compelling touch components it’s working to build into third-party handsets.

The Kickstarter project is an impressive one, as evidenced by the brief demo. It’s extremely versatile, requiring just a new skin and sound pack for the system to take on completely different aural qualities. The company also discussed the potential for customized sound packs. Joué brought NWA founder Arabian Prince in to perform at its both all week. An odd fit for CES, to be sure, but an interesting example of the kinds of artists such a product might be able to draw. It’s easy to see musicians expressing interest in a customized pad.

That said, while the company seems to be positioning the product as perfect for beginners, I do expect there’s a reasonably large learning curve here. That seems removed somewhat from Rhythmo. The Austin-based startup’s project combines music making with a guided dip into the maker world.

It’s a MIDI controller drum kit that you make out of a cardboard box. It ships with all of the pieces, and putting it together offers a nice connection into the process of creating a musical instrument. Founder Ethan Jin let me take a constructed model for a spin on the CES floor. The demo was a little glitchy for various reasons, but it was fun. The kit features large arcade buttons that can be mapped to a variety of sounds. You can use the Rhythmo app or interface with your music software of choice in iPad, desktop, etc. It’s a fun entry into that world.

Artiphon, however, is probably closest to fulfilling my very specific desires. The company is best known for its massively successful Kickstarter project, Instrument 1. That racked in a mind-boggling $1.3 million with the promise of delivering a guitar, violin, piano and drum machine all in a single device.

The newer Orba ($1.4 million this time), however, really caught my eye. The puck-shaped device is a pocket synthesizer/looper/MIDI controller that requires little if any musical knowledge to get up and running. After a conversation with founder Mike Butera, I’ve come to regard it at a very base-level as a sort of musical fidget spinner.

That is to say, it’s simple enough that you can use it absentmindedly to make music while you pace around your apartment, trying to come up with a half-decent headline for the story of crowdfunded music projects at CES you’ve been writing (a purely hypothetical example that in no way reflects my life).

Of the three, that’s the one I’m most key to review, in hopes of finally scratching that musical itch.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Companies take baby steps toward home robots at CES

“I think there are fewer fake robots this year.” I spoke to a lot of roboticists and robot-adjacent folks at this year’s CES, but that comment from Labrador Systems co-funder/CEO Mike Dooley summed up the situation nicely. The show is slowly, but steadily, starting to take robotics more seriously.

It’s true that words like “fake” and “seriously” are quite subjective; surely all of those classified by one of us as the former would take great issue with the tag. It’s also true that there are still many devices that fit firmly within the realm of novelty and hypothetical, both on the show floor and in press conferences, but after a week at CES — including several behind-the-scenes conversations with investors and startups — the consensus seems to be that the show is slowly embracing the more series side of robotics.

I believe the reason for this shift is two-fold. First, the world of consumer robotics hasn’t caught on as quickly as many had planned/hoped. Second, enterprise and industrial robotics actually have. Let’s tackle those points in order.

As my colleague Darrell pointed out in a recent piece, consumer robotics were showing signs of life at this year’s event. However, those who predicted a watershed for the industry after the Roomba’s arrival on the scene some 18 years ago have no doubt been largely disappointed with the ensuing decades.

Dear Spotify, add rabbits to your pet playlists

I there’s one thing I know, it’s that music is the best thing our species has every created. If there are two things I know, it’s the music thing and also that that rabbits aren’t hamsters.

Listen, Spotify, I get the whole pet playlists thing. A curated playlist based on your listening preferences and a few sliders to determine an animal’s mood. It’s cute. But as one of millions of rabbit owners in the U.S. alone, someone needs to speak out for this grave oversight.

This is Lucy:

She enjoys classical piano and jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. She contains multitudes. I’m sorry to speak for her, but she’s napping right now. She’s crepuscular, which means she’s primarily awake during the morning and evening, at which point she like a little Lucinda Williams and the guitar work of John Fahey. Most days, however, it’s John Cage’s 4’33 on repeat. 

Cats and dogs. Sure, totally. Birds and hamsters, check. Iguanas as a catchall for reptiles and amphibians — not great, but points for trying, I guess. No fish on here, but I don’t know, maybe that’s difficult without some sort of underwater speaker.

But no rabbits? Perhaps we’ll see what the fine folks at Apple Music have to say about this oversight.

We’ve reached out to Spotify to inquire whether the service intends to add lagomorphs to the list.

GaN chargers are still worth getting excited about

Listen. Chargers aren’t sexy. You know it. I know. Charger companies know it, regardless of what they tell you in their pitch deck. Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to think of too many electronic accessories less utilitarian. Dongles, maybe? Cord wraps?

But I want it known that I’m still capable of being excited about them — even the wired kind — in 2020. Why? Two words: Gallium nitride. The material has a number of key applications, including next gen wireless technologies. But right now, there’s only one thing I care about: small chargers.

Last year at CES I wrote about a great little charger from Anker. Since then, I’ve upgraded to a 15 inch MacBook Pro and put out the call to a couple of CES companies for something that would fulfill my very specific needs. First, it needs to charge my big computer. Second, I travel a lot, so I’d prefer it if it didn’t fall out of of the outlets that Delta sticks on their seats.

Seriously, it’s a real problem that I have. This sort of stuff matters on any flight longer than four hours.

Navitas answered the call with a pair of branded GaN chargers from RavPower and Eggtronic, at 61 and 65 watts, respectively. The primary distinction between the two is form factor. RavPower’s $36 charger is bigger and blockier, where as the significantly pricier ($100) lays flush. Honestly, preference comes down to what you need out of a charger. I was able to get both to sit in the Delta outlet, but still had them come loose a few times — which probably says as much about the airline’s outlets as anything.

Also, 61 or 65 watts isn’t going to charge up your system as fast the standard 85/87 watt brick. It’s better for keeping a system charged, and most great for portable. I’m phasing out the Pixelbook charger I’ve been using and planning to have one or the other in my backpack at all times (along with the standard MacBook charger for long trips). There’s still a ways to go for my ideal charger, but we’re getting there. 

Both are currently available for purchase.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Announcing the Agenda for Robotics & AI – March 3 at UC Berkeley

We’re bringing TC Sessions: Robotics + AI back to UC Berkeley on March 3, and we’re excited to announce our jam-packed agenda.  For months we’ve been recruiting speakers from the ranks of the most innovative founders, top technologists and hard-charging VCs working in robotics and AI, and the speaker line-up will capture the remarkable acceleration across the field in the past year. 

New for this year, we will be hosting our very first pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. There is still time to submit your application. 

And one amazing fact: 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the first use of the word “robot.” What better way to mark the occasion than to grab an Early-bird ticket ($150 savings) right now and right here before prices increase.

We’ve still got some key guests to announce, and will be adding some new names to the agenda in the coming days. In the meantime, check out these highlights:

Agenda

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:50 AM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC), and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

10:50 AM – 11:10 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ Chief Technology Office will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a workspace. 

11:10 AM – 11:30 AM

Innovation Break. Coming soon

11:30 AM – 11:40 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club

11:40 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete and Dusty builds robot-powered tools. We’ll talk with the founders of these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

1:00 PM – 1:20 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have 5 minutes to present their wares.

1:20 PM – 1:35 PM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its 5th (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

1:35 PM – 2:00 PM

Lending a Helping Robotic Hand with Vivian Chu (Diligent Robotics) and Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems)

As populations age in a number of countries, caregivers are turning to robots for assistance. We’ll discuss the role technology can play in helping care for and assist those in need. 

2:00 PM – 2:25 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (Waymo/UC Berkeley) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:25 PM – 2:45 PM

Innovation Break. Coming soon

2:45 PM – 3:10 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. 100 years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies, and stereotypes.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM 

Opening the Black Box With Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs), and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UCBerkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs, and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:00 PM – 4:20 PM 

Innovation Break. Coming soon

4:20 PM – 4:45 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (Farmwise), Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (Farmwise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

4:45 PM – 5:10 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics) and speakers to be announced

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. These companies are helping ease the first steps into the wider world of automation.

5:10 PM – 5:35 PM

Robotic Surgeons (speakers to be announced)

Robots have been part of the operating room for well over a decade, but we’re still only scratching the surface. Leaders from a number of robot-assisted surgery companies will discuss the changing role of robots in the hospital.

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Have we hit peak smartphone?

Last Halloween, we broke down some “good news” from a Canalys report: the smartphone industry saw one-percent year-over-year growth — not exactly the sort of thing that sparks strong consumer confidence.

In short, 2019 sucked for smartphones, as did the year before. After what was nearly an ascendant decade, sales petered off globally with few exceptions. Honestly, there’s no need to cherrypick this stuff; the numbers this year have been lackluster at best for a majority of companies in a majority of markets.

For just the most recent example, let’s turn to a report from Gartner that dropped late last month. The numbers focus specifically on the third quarter, but they’re pretty indicative of what we’ve been seeing from the industry of late, with a 0.4 percent drop in sales. It’s a fairly consistent story, quarter after quarter for a couple of years now.