Facebook adds a battery-powered smart screen to the Portal line

The Portal line has always been a kind of odd duck in the world of smart screens. Facebook’s most significant contribution to the category is almost certainly Smart Camera, which uses AI to track a subject and pan and zoom accordingly to keep them in frame. It was the first big line to bring the clever feature to market, though Google, Amazon and even Apple have since offered their own takes on the category.

Portal’s other primary appeal (versus a Nest or Echo) is its integration with Facebook’s own software like Messenger and WhatsApp. Beyond that, the line has struggled to differentiate itself from Amazon and Google’s head start in the world of connected home hardware and smart assistants.

Image Credits: Facebook

Today’s news brings an interesting new layer to the conversation, with the arrival of the Portal Go, a battery-powered portal smart screen. The 10-inch device sports a handle on the back for quick gripping and a battery that promises five hours of standard usage and up to 14 hours of music playback with the screen off (there’s currently no specific battery-saving mode).

It’s a clever addition to the line. We are, no doubt, pushing further into tablet territory here, but I’ve felt the impulse to pick up and bring my Nest Home into the other room more than once. Your mileage will vary.

Image Credits: Facebook

I haven’t seen the thing in person yet, but I do dig the design. It’s got rounded edges around some big black bezels and a fabric-covered backing that’s been all the rage in the smart home category for several years now. The Go is propped up in a wedged design, with two front-facing speakers and a rear-facing woofer.

It’s got an ultrawide front-facing 12-megapixel camera that does the aforementioned smart panning, along a with a physical lens cover for privacy. The screen can also be titled up and down for an optimized viewing angle. The system doesn’t currently support far-field technology for a multiple speaker setup, which could complicate things as you move it around the house.

There’s also a new version of the Portal+, which features the same camera setup, coupled with a thin 14-inch tiltable display that can view up to 25 people at a time on a Zoom call. The Portal Go runs $199, while the new Portal+ is $349. Both devices are available for preorder today and start shipping October 19.

Image Credits: Facebook

Today’s news also finds Faceboook launching Portal for Business, aimed at positioning the smart screens as teleconferencing products. Per a release:

With Portal for Business, SMBs will be able to create and manage Facebook Work Accounts for their teams. This is a new account type that allows businesses to use their own company email addresses to set up Portal. These Work Accounts will also provide access to other popular Facebook work products in the coming year.

Using Portal Device Manger, IT departments can set up and remotely wipe employee machines. The system is available now as a closed beta.

WarnerMedia’s Andy Forssell will discuss HBO Max at Disrupt 2021

In May 2020, WarnerMedia launched HBO Max into a crowded streaming landscape. In spite of early struggles, the timing couldn’t have been better. When the world was stuck at home, struggling to find new sources of entertainment amid a global pandemic, HBO’s latest attempt at an app-based platform rose in the ranks alongside fellow newly launched service, Disney+.

The platform builds on HBO’s much-loved original prestige programming, while taking advantage of a day and date approach to streaming films, which many studios have opened up to amid worldwide theater shutdowns. In particular, its sister studio Warner Bros. has premiered a number of big-budget films on the service — including “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Space Jam: A New Legacy” — as the pandemic has shown no sign of slowing.

The past year has brought plenty of channels for the service, as well. Not everyone is thrilled about the pandemic trend of bypassing the theater. Sopranos creator David Chase was recently quoted as being “extremely angry” about the HBO Max release of the prequel — news that followed Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney over its own streaming release of “Black Widow.” The company has evolved strategies, removing its offering from Amazon Prime Channels and adding a lower-cost ad-based tier to Max.

WarnerMedia EVP and head of business operations for HBO Max Andy Forssell will be joining us at our virtual TechCrunch Disrupt next week on September 21-23 to discuss the service’s launch during a turbulent time, as well as what the future holds for the app, and video streaming in general. Prior to joining WarnerMedia in 2019, Forssell served as the COO of Otter Media and Fullscreen, Inc. and was the acting CEO and SVP of Hulu.

Disrupt starts next week. Get your ticket now for less than $100 before the price goes up in a few short days.

Boston Dynamics owner Hyundai deploys Spot for factory safety monitoring

Back in June, Hyundai completed a deal for controlling interest in Boston Dynamics. The Korean automotive giant no doubt has some grand plans for integrating the Massachusetts-based firm’s technology into a lot of their forward-looking concept mobility vehicles – for now, however, it’s more about putting existing robots to work.

Hyundai today announced the arrival of the drably-named “Factory Safety Service Robot.” It immediately began referring to the unit as “the Robot” for reasons of brevity in the announcement release, and I’m inclined to do the same, because who has the time to type out “Factory Safety Service Robot” a dozen times?

The Robot (see?) is essentially a modded up version of Spot designed for safety inspections at factories. Naturally, Hyundai is starting close to home, rolling out its first pilot at a Seoul plant for subsidiary, Kia.

The Spot, er, Robot, comes equipped for LiDAR and a thermal camera, which scan the space for high-temperatures, fire hazards and open doors. If it senses something off, it will send an alert through a secure site. It shares images and data in real-time, and like Spot, can either operate autonomously or be controlled remotely.


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“The Factory Safety Service Robot is the first collaboration project with Boston Dynamics. The Robot will help detect risks and secure people’s safety in industrial sites,” said Hyundai’s Dong Jin Hyun said in a release. “We will also continue to create smart services that detect dangers at industrial sites and help support a safe work environment through continuous collaborations with Boston Dynamics.”

On the whole, if you know what Spot can do, you pretty much get the gist with Robot here, albeit with additional mounted sensors. Earlier this week, Boston Dynamics announced additional data collecting features for the robot.

Tiger’s bullish robotic investments

On Tuesday, Tiger Global led not one but two big funding rounds, announcing its role in a $26 million Series A for Ambi and an additional $50 million for Locus Robotics. The firm has been so active in investing of late, that neither one of these companies cracked Alex’s coveted “Today’s Tiger round” in our daily newsletter (that honor went to a $150 million round for Indonesian fintech company Xendit).

It’s fair to say that Tiger is bullish about robotics as a category. Other rounds in recent months include $36.7 million for Rapid Robotics and $100 million for Path — both Series B. All of the rounds are head-turning in the robotics world, and they represent a broad scope under the larger robotics umbrella. Ambi and Locus both operate (though address different problems) in the logistics/fulfillment spaces, while Path and Rapid deal with construction and manufacturing, respectively.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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Certainly that last bit speaks to how diversified interest has been in the category. All of the above industries no doubt saw enough impact during the pandemic to significantly accelerate interest in automation.

Image Credits: Locus Robotics

It’s also telling that the warehouse/fulfillment side of things gets a bit of extra love. In addition to the general strains of the pandemic, there’s the fact that everyone is looking for a way to compete with Amazon. The retailer already has a massive stranglehold on these categories and gave itself a big head start in terms of automation through a series of acquisitions. It’s an industry where any competitive advantage means a lot, and companies like Locus are hoping to crack that code.

In February, the company raised a hefty $150 million, with Tiger on as co-lead. And this week, the firm returned with another $50 million. Locus’ approach to the category offers more flexibility than those companies that require a kind of ground-up rebuild. It’s an appealing option in terms of pricing and time frame, and makes a lot more sense for organizations looking for seasonable robotic help — ditto for the company’s robotics-as-a-service pricing model.

Image Credits: Ambi Robotics

Ambi, which got its first TechCrunch mention in one of these columns several months back, specializes in pick and place/sorting robots. The company came out of stealth is April and is already seeing solid adoption.

“Ambi Robotics combines cutting-edge AI technology with engaging user interfaces to transform the role of ‘item handlers’ to ‘robot handlers,’ ” CEO Jim Liefer said in a release. “With our Series A funding, we will be able to empower more companies to help their associates work harmoniously alongside robots.”

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

On the aforementioned ground-up approach to warehouse automation, Berkshire Grey this week announced its own Robotic Pick and Pack (RPP) system, designed to pack goods into shipping packages. The system has already been deployed at SoftBank Logistics’ flagship location in Ichikawa, Japan.

Here’s COO Steve Johnson:

We believe our RPP system is the first robotic eCommerce fulfillment solution capable of completely automating the picking and packing process of direct-to-consumer orders for apparel, cosmetics, health and beauty, sporting equipment, food and general merchandise — it will transform the speed and efficiencies of warehouses and fulfillment centers around the globe. Berkshire Grey RPP excels in handling orders – the AI handles a wide range of SKUs and does so carefully – meeting even the exacting quality standards of Japanese consumers.

Image Credits: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics, meanwhile, announced an update for Spot that brings additional autonomous features to the four-legged robot. Specifically, the Spot Release 3.0 update is designed to improve the robot’s data collection capabilities. Per BD:

Schedule missions for Spot to collect photos, thermal images, point clouds, and other critical data; process that data into valuable signals at the edge with computer vision models; and create custom uploads to send those signals to your existing systems, so it’s easy to keep all of your data in one place for analysis and review. Spot Release 3.0 makes dynamic sensing available to everyone.

SOSV is building a New Jersey HAX facility for industrial, healthcare and climate startups

SOSV this morning announced work on a $50 million HAX facility in Newark, New Jersey focused on growing industrial, healthcare and climate startups. The five-year development plan utilizes $25 million from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

The facility is set to open in June of 2022, with an eye on early-stage U.S. companies working toward their seed round. SOSV notes that, while HAX’s earliest focus was on wearables, in more recent years, the accelerator has largely shifted to industrial and healthcare, which currently comprise 70- and 20% of its portfolio, respectively.

“Since 2015, HAX started investing in more industrial & health startups and today make up 90% of our new investments,” HAX Partner Garrett Winther told TechCrunch. “These hard tech startups, at their earliest stages, tend to rely on more deep science R&D, high precision prototyping, and only require one to two of their first product before raising funding. These companies also take up a lot of space, easily filling a room with their equipment and prototypes.”

Newark was chosen for myriad reasons, including proximity to New York City and universities like Princeton and Rutgers. It also, frankly, has more space than, say, Manhattan – which is a clear necessity for industrial startups. That’s a big part of the reason companies like AeroFarms and Bowery have looked toward to the area to host their massive vertical farming facilities.

The fact that the state was willing to put up around half the cost of the project likely didn’t hurt, either. New Jersey no doubt has a vested interest in welcoming hardware startups with open arms. It will be interesting to see what sort of incentives the local governments can offer to help keep them there to avoid the allure of nearby NYC.

“Growing New Jersey’s innovation economy both creates high-quality jobs today and generates opportunities for exponential returns in the future,” NJEDA CEO Tim Sullivan said in a release. “As startups become successful and scale-up in New Jersey, they build buildings, hire more employees, and become anchors for vibrant communities and small-business supply-chains.”

SOSV says the Newark location will effectively operate as a U.S. equivalent to its offices in Shenzhen, China, which afford easy access to the global supply chain. HAX also operates satellites in San Francisco, Tokyo and New York.

This is the iPhone 13

The rumors were right. The centerpiece of today’s big Apple event is the latest iPhone. The latest device lands less than a year after its predecessor, now that things have settled down somewhat on the supply chain side for Apple. Last year’s iPhone 12 was a massive seller, bucking the trend of stagnating smartphones sales, in part due to a bottleneck in sales from the unplanned delay, but also because it finally brought 5G connectivity to Apple’s mobile line.

Lucky number iPhone 13 (no skipping for superstition’s sake, mind) features a familiar design. The front notch has finally been shrunken down — now 20% smaller than its predecessor, while the rear-facing camera system has also gotten a redesign. The screen is now 28% brighter on both the iPhone 13 and 13 mini at 1200 nits.

The phone is powered by Apple’s new A15 Bionic chip, built with a 5nm processor. The CPU is 6-core that the company is calling “the fastest CPU on any smartphone.” The new 4-core GPU, meanwhile, brings advanced graphics to the handset.

The rear dual-camera system features a 12MP wide angle camera that’s capable of pulling in up to 47% more light. The new Cinematic Mode, meanwhile, brings rack focus-style shooting capable of adjusting the focus on subjects, using machine learning (you can also tap to adjust manual or switch between subjects).

Developing…

Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

Apple refreshes iPad Mini with a new design, 5G and an 8.3-inch display

As expected, we’re going to be seeing a LOT of hardware at today’s Apple event. The company has already unveiled a refresh to the iPad and here’s a new version of the Mini that looks to be the small tablet’s biggest refresh to date. The new iPad Mini sports a design overhaul that closely resembles that of the iPad Pro. That’s all built around an 8.3-inch Liquid Retina display, accomplished by significantly shrinking its bezels.

There’s a lot to like about this refresh on top of the aforementioned aesthetic updates. It’s a long list that really rounds out the product’s functionality, including 5G, Apple Pencil support and a power button that supports TouchID for unlocking. The product is getting some nice upgrades inside, as well, with a CPU Apple says in 40% faster than its predecessor and a GPU that bumps performance up 80%.

The Mini starts at $499 and goes on sale next week. Pricing, naturally, goes up when you add 5G into the mix.

Developing…

Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

Live from Apple’s virtual 2021 iPhone event

It’s that time of year again. Summer is winding down, the leaves are starting to change color and Apple’s getting ready to drop a brand new iPhone on the world. Today’s big event arrives less than a year after the last big iPhone event, as Apple seems to be back on schedule, after some early pandemic supply chain issues.

I wrote a handy roundup of all the things we expect to see live on video from Cupertino, based on a slew of rumors and leaks. The big news today is almost certainly the arrival of the iPhone 13. We’re also expecting the new Apple Watch Series 7 to drop, as well as some other key hardware additions, potentially including new AirPods and additional Apple Silicon Mac models.

Matthew and Darrell are going to be heading up the liveblog team, kicking off at 10AM PT/1PM ET today. Check out the video stream here and stay put on this very page to get the up to the minute news as it arrives.

Read more about Apple's Fall 2021 Event on TechCrunch

Locus Robotics just raised another $50M

Seems Locus Robotics is striking while the iron is hot. Seven months after raising a sizable $150 million Series E, Tiger Global is investing another $50 million in the Massachusetts firm. The last round made Locus a unicorn, and this one brings the company’s total funding to around $300 million.

Locus specializes in warehouse and fulfillment robotics, making a more modular solution that doesn’t require the sort of “ground-up build” of a Berkshire Grey. The company’s approach is closer to that of Fetch, which was acquired by Zebra Technologies back in July. Locus seems prime for an acquisition from a logistics firm or retailer grappling to compete with the monolith of Amazon.

The continued funding rounds, on the other hand, seem to point to a company looking to continue to go it alone.


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CEO Rick Faulk confirmed as much with me back in February, stating, “We have no interest in being acquired. We think we can build the most and greatest value by operating independently. There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.”

Faulk adds this morning that the new funds are a kind of validation for Locus. Certainly they’re yet another sign in accelerated interest in automation amid the pandemic. “At a time of increasing volumes and ongoing labor shortages, this new round of funding underscores how critical flexible, scalable, intelligent robotics automation has become to the warehouse and the supply chain,” the executive says. “Locus is uniquely positioned to drive digital transformation in this enormous global market.”

Funding will be used to further expand Locus’ global operations.

Logistics robotics startup Ambi raises $26M

Five months ago, Ambi Robotics emerged from stealth with a $6 million raise. Today the Bay Area-based firm is back with several times that, announcing a $26 million Series A, led by Tiger Global. The new round also features participation from existing investors, including Bow Capital, Vertex Ventures US and The House Fund.

The startup first hit our radar through the involvement of UC Berkeley (and frequent TC Sessions: Robotics guest Ken Goldberg). Ambi operates in the pick and place robotics space — it’s a crowded category, but one with an intense level of interest, as more warehouse and fulfillment centers are accelerating toward automation after the shutdowns of the past year.

Ambi has already enlisted some high-profile partners, including Pitney Bowes. In spite of only coming out of stealth in April, the robotics startup began deploying its first systems — including the AmbiSort and AmbiKit — in October of last year, ahead of the massive holiday rush.


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The company’s primary differentiation is in the AI that powers its picking robotics system.

“Ambi Robotics combines cutting-edge AI technology with engaging user interfaces to transform the role of ‘item handlers’ to ‘robot handlers,’ ” CEO Jim Liefer said in a release. “With our Series A funding, we will be able to empower more companies to help their associates work harmoniously alongside robots.”

This latest round will go toward scaling both the systems and the team of humans that build them, and deploying additional units.