Google teams up with Samsonite to launch a Jacquard smart fabric-enabled backpack

It has been over four years since Project Jacquard, Google’s smart fabric technology, made its debut at the I/O developer conference. Launched out of what was then Google’s ATAP unit, Jacquard is currently best known for being available on Levi’s jeans jackets, but Saint Laurent also launched its $1,000 Cit-e Backpack with built-in Jacquard technology. Today, Google is adding a fourth product to the Jacquard lineup with the launch of the Samsonite Konnect-i backpacker, which, at $200 for the Slim version and $220 for the Standard edition, is a bit more friendly on the wallet than the Saint Laurent backpack.

Jacquard, in case you need a refresher, is Google’s technology for adding touch sensitivity to fabrics. That means you can touch the sleeve of your jacket or, in this case, the strap of your backpack, to trigger a handful of functions on your phone. The whole system is powered by a small tag (which you charge via a mini-USB port). That tag can also relay notifications through its built-in LED and a small vibration motor.

Image Credits: Google/Samsonite

The number of gestures — and what they can trigger — is relatively limited, especially since you can only really assign three gestures: brush up, brush down and double-tap. You can assign standard media controls to these (think brush up for “next song”), drop a pin to save a place, hear the current time, ping your phone, hear directions to your next waypoint or arrival time or trigger the Google Assistant. Gestures can also trigger your phone’s shutter to take a selfie and there’s a “light” function that lights up the Jacquard tag’s LED. Why this last function exists isn’t quite clear to me because that LED is weak. Google says it can help you get noticed in a crowd or stay visible at night, but unless you’re trying to be found in the darkest of caves, nobody will be able to see it.

As you can see, the main idea here is to let you access some of your phone’s functions while walking through the city with your headphones on.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

It’s been about a year since Google and Levi’s launched the Jacquard-enabled trucker jacket. At the time, that was the launch of Jacquard 2.0, with a couple of additional features and a new dongle that now works across products. At the time, our review and those from our peers were pretty tepid. I’m not sure it’ll be all that different this time around.

I’ve tried out the backpack for the last few days. Like before, Jacquard does what it promises to do. The gesture recognition worked as expected. Alerts from my phone made the tag vibrate and the backpack itself is comfortable, if not the flashiest entry into the market. It’s a Samsonite, though, and the target market here isn’t necessarily college students but business travelers (though that market is pretty dead for the time being).

Image Credits: Samsonite

The backpack itself comes in two versions: slim and standard. The only real difference here is that the slim version has a vertical zipper and the standard version a horizontal one. It features plenty of pockets, a padded laptop compartment and everything else you’d want from a modern backpack. I could easily see myself going on a business trip with it.

Like before, the question remains whether Jacquard is a gimmick or actually a useful technology. Thanks to the pandemic, most of us aren’t heading out as much as we used to — and we’re definitely not going on a lot of trips. Maybe it’s not the right product for this time, but I can see myself using it more than the jacket once all of this is over. Chances are I’ll use a backpack wherever I go, after all, whereas I don’t wear a jacket half the year.  The promise of Jacquard is to allow you to focus on the world around you, without the distractions of your phone. For that to work, it needs to be ubiquitous or you’ll just forget you ever had it. That works better on a backpack than a jacket — at least for me.

Whether that’s worth $200 to you is a decision you must make for yourself.

Strike Graph raises $3.9M to help automate security audits

Compliance automation isn’t exactly the most exciting topic, but security audits are big business and companies that aim to get a SOC 2, ISO 207001 or FedRamp certification can often spend six figures to get through the process with the help of an auditing service. Seattle-based Strike Graph, which is launching today and announcing a $3.9 million seed funding round, wants to automate as much of this process as possible.

The company’s funding round was led by Madrona Venture Group, with participation from Amplify.LA, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund and Green D Ventures.

Strike Graph co-founder and CEO Justin Beals tells me that the idea for the company came to him during his time as CTO at machine learning startup Koru (which had a bit of an odd exit last year). To get enterprise adoption for that service, the company had to get a SOC 2 security certification. “It was a real challenge, especially for a small company. In talking to my colleagues, I just recognized how much of a challenge it was across the board. And so when it was time for the next startup, I was just really curious,” he told me.

Image Credits: Strike Graph

Together with his co-founder Brian Bero, he incubated the idea at Madrona Venture Labs, where he spent some time as Entrepreneur in Residence after Koru.

Beals argues that today’s process tends to be slow, inefficient and expensive. The idea behind Strike Graph, unsurprisingly, is to remove as many of these inefficiencies as is currently possible. The company itself, it is worth noting, doesn’t provide the actual audit service. Businesses will still need to hire an auditing service for that. But Beals also argues that the bulk of what companies are paying for today is pre-audit preparation.

“We do all that preparation work and preparing you and then, after your first audit, you have to go and renew every year. So there’s an important maintenance of that information.”

Image Credits: Strike Graph

When customers come to Strike Graph, they fill out a risk assessment. The company takes that and can then provide them with controls for how to improve their security posture — both to pass the audit and to secure their data. Beals also noted that soon, Strike Graph will be able to help businesses automate the collection of evidence for the audit (say your encryption settings) and can pull that in regularly. Certifications like SOC 2, after all, require companies to have ongoing security practices in place and get re-audited every 12 months. Automated evidence collection will launch in early 2021, once the team has built out the first set of its integrations to collect that data.

That’s also where the company, which mostly targets mid-size businesses, plans to spend a lot of its new funding. In addition, the company plans to focus on its marketing efforts, mostly around content marketing and educating its potential customers.

“Every company, big or small, that sells a software solution must address a broad set of compliance requirements in regards to security and privacy. Obtaining the certifications can be a burdensome, opaque and expensive process. Strike Graph is applying intelligent technology to this problem — they help the company identify the appropriate risks, enable the audit to run smoothly and then automate the compliance and testing going forward,” said Hope Cochran, managing director at Madrona Venture Group. “These audits were a necessary pain when I was a CFO, and Strike Graph’s elegant solution brings together teams across the company to move the business forward faster.”

Strike Graph raises $3.9M to help automate security audits

Compliance automation isn’t exactly the most exciting topic, but security audits are big business and companies that aim to get a SOC 2, ISO 207001 or FedRamp certification can often spend six figures to get through the process with the help of an auditing service. Seattle-based Strike Graph, which is launching today and announcing a $3.9 million seed funding round, wants to automate as much of this process as possible.

The company’s funding round was led by Madrona Venture Group, with participation from Amplify.LA, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund and Green D Ventures.

Strike Graph co-founder and CEO Justin Beals tells me that the idea for the company came to him during his time as CTO at machine learning startup Koru (which had a bit of an odd exit last year). To get enterprise adoption for that service, the company had to get a SOC 2 security certification. “It was a real challenge, especially for a small company. In talking to my colleagues, I just recognized how much of a challenge it was across the board. And so when it was time for the next startup, I was just really curious,” he told me.

Image Credits: Strike Graph

Together with his co-founder Brian Bero, he incubated the idea at Madrona Venture Labs, where he spent some time as Entrepreneur in Residence after Koru.

Beals argues that today’s process tends to be slow, inefficient and expensive. The idea behind Strike Graph, unsurprisingly, is to remove as many of these inefficiencies as is currently possible. The company itself, it is worth noting, doesn’t provide the actual audit service. Businesses will still need to hire an auditing service for that. But Beals also argues that the bulk of what companies are paying for today is pre-audit preparation.

“We do all that preparation work and preparing you and then, after your first audit, you have to go and renew every year. So there’s an important maintenance of that information.”

Image Credits: Strike Graph

When customers come to Strike Graph, they fill out a risk assessment. The company takes that and can then provide them with controls for how to improve their security posture — both to pass the audit and to secure their data. Beals also noted that soon, Strike Graph will be able to help businesses automate the collection of evidence for the audit (say your encryption settings) and can pull that in regularly. Certifications like SOC 2, after all, require companies to have ongoing security practices in place and get re-audited every 12 months. Automated evidence collection will launch in early 2021, once the team has built out the first set of its integrations to collect that data.

That’s also where the company, which mostly targets mid-size businesses, plans to spend a lot of its new funding. In addition, the company plans to focus on its marketing efforts, mostly around content marketing and educating its potential customers.

“Every company, big or small, that sells a software solution must address a broad set of compliance requirements in regards to security and privacy. Obtaining the certifications can be a burdensome, opaque and expensive process. Strike Graph is applying intelligent technology to this problem — they help the company identify the appropriate risks, enable the audit to run smoothly and then automate the compliance and testing going forward,” said Hope Cochran, managing director at Madrona Venture Group. “These audits were a necessary pain when I was a CFO, and Strike Graph’s elegant solution brings together teams across the company to move the business forward faster.”

Google Maps gets improved Live View AR directions

Google today announced a few updates to Live View, the augmented reality walking directions in its Google Maps app that officially launched last year. Live View uses your phone’s camera and GPS to tell you exactly where to go, making it a nice addition to the standard map-centric directions in similar applications.

The new features Google is introducing today include the ability to invoke Live View from the transit tab in Google Maps when you’re on a journey that includes multiple modes of transportation. Until now, the only way to see Live View was when you were asking for pure walking directions.

 

Image Credits: Google

 

 

If you’re like me and perpetually disoriented after you exit a subway station in a new city (remember 2019, when we could still travel?), this is a godsend. And I admit that I often forget Live View exists. Adding it to multimodel directions may just get me to try it out more often since it is now more clearly highlighted in the app.

Google Maps can now also identify landmarks around you to give you better guidance and a clearer idea of where you are in a city. Think the Empire State Building in New York, for example.

Image Credits: Google

These new landmarks will be coming to Amsterdam, Bangkok, Barcelona, Berlin, Budapest, Dubai, Florence, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Kyoto, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Milan, Munich, New York, Osaka, Paris, Prague, Rome, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo and Vienna, with more to follow.

If you’re a regular Live View user, you’ll know that the actual pin locations in this mode can sometimes be off. In hilly areas, the pin can often be hovering high above your destination, for example. Now, Google promises to fix this by using a combination of machine learning and better topographical maps to place the pin exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Also new is the ability to use Live View in combination with Google Maps’ location sharing feature. So when a friend shares their location with you, you can now see exactly where they are in Live View, too, and get directions to meet them.

IonQ claims it has built the most powerful quantum computer yet

Trapped-ion quantum computing startup IonQ today announced the launch of its latest quantum computer, which features what IonQ calls “32 perfect qubits with low gate errors.”

Using IBM’s preferred quantum benchmark, IonQ expects to hit a quantum volume of 4,000,000. That’s a massive increase over the double-digit quantum volume numbers that IBM itself recently announced and it’s a pretty extraordinary claim on IonQ’s side as this would make its system the most powerful quantum computer yet.

The (well-funded) company has never used this metric before. Through a spokesperson, IonQ also noted that it doesn’t necessarily think quantum volume is the best metric, but since the rest of the industry is using it, it decided to release this number. The company argues that its ability to achieve 99.9% fidelity between qubits has allowed it to achieve this breakthrough.

“In a single generation of hardware, we went from 11 to 32 qubits, and more importantly, improved the fidelity required to use all 32 qubits,” said IonQ CEO and president Peter Chapman. “Depending on the application, customers will need somewhere between 80 and 150 very high fidelity qubits and logic gates to see quantum advantage. Our goal is to double or more the number of qubits each year. With two new generations of hardware already in the works, companies not working with quantum now are at risk of falling behind.”

the ion trap at the heart of IonQ's next-generation system

Image Credits: Kai Hudek, IonQ

It’s worth noting that IonQ’s trapped-ion approach is quite different from IBM’s (or D-Wave’s for that matter) which uses a very different technique. That makes it hard to compare raw qubit counts between different vendors. The quantum volume metric is meant to make it easier to compare these systems, however.

“The new system we’re deploying today is able to do things no other quantum computer has been able to achieve, and even more importantly, we know how to continue making these systems much more powerful moving forward,” said IonQ Co-Founder & Chief Scientist Chris Monroe. “With our new IonQ system, we expect to be able to encode multiple qubits to tolerate errors, the holy grail for scaling quantum computers in the long haul.”

Using new error correction techniques, IonQ believes that it will only need 13 qubits to create a “near-perfect” logical qubit.

For now, IonQ’s new system will be available as a private beta and it’ll be interesting to see if its early users will back up the company’s claims (unsurprisingly, given the magnitude of IonQ’s claims, there’s a bit of skepticism within the quantum computing community). Later, the company will make it available through partners like Amazon with its Braket service and the Microsoft Azure Quantum Cloud.

IonQ Enclosure — the outer enclosure for IonQ's next-generation system. It doesn't just look cool, it also creates a highly stable environment (acoustics, temperature, humidity) for the system.

Image Credits: Kai Hudek, IonQ

Google launches the $499 Pixel 4a 5G

As expected, Google today officially launched the 5G version of its Pixel 4a phone at its annual hardware event.

Given all the previous leaks, there were no real surprises left and Google had already announced the $499 price. We now have a launch date, though. It’ll launch in Japan on October 15 and then come to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States at an unspecified date in November. That’s somewhat of an odd launch schedule, to say the least.

The new phone, together with the new Pixel 5, is now available for pre-order in the Google Store.

The $499 phone is a bit of a mix between the non-5G version of the Pixel 4a and the newly announced Pixel 5. It features a larger edge-to-edge OLED display than both the Pixel 5 and $399 4a, at 6.2-inch, but uses the same mid-range Snapdragon 765G CPU as the Pixel 5, combined with 6GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage (with no other storage options). There are two cameras, including one with an ultrawide lens and yes, there’s still a headphone jack, too.

The phone comes in white and black.

Given that the 5G chips and larger screen are more power-hungry than those on the regular 4a, it’s no surprise that Google bumped up the battery from 3140 mAh to 3885 mAh, too. Google promises a 48-hour battery life with its extreme battery saver mode.

The Pixel 4a 5G doesn’t feature water resistance, which the $699 Pixel 5 does offer.

Overall, the 4a (5G) is a bit of a strange one, with specs closer to the Pixel 5 than the 4a and dual cameras, something the 4a is missing.

“With 5G gaining moment, we wanted to make this technology available at an affordable price,” Google’s product marketing manager for the Pixel line, Maya Lewis, said in today’s announcement.

Twilio launches an app for frontline workers, a free 1:1 video toolkit and a new IoT platform

Twilio is hosting its annual Signal conference today and as usual, the company is using the event to launch a host of new products and features. For the most part, especially if you’re a web or mobile developer, these are not groundbreaking new features. The core Twilio services, after all, have been in place for a while now. Instead, today’s announcements build out some of the edges of the overall Twilio product ecosystem.

The most interesting launch — at least from the perspective of most developers — is probably the general availability of Twilio’s Video Web RTC Go. The free video service allows you to add 1:1 video chats to your web and mobile applications. The company notes that this is not a free trial, but you are limited to 25 GB of bandwidth through Twilio’s relays per month, or about 100,000 participant minutes. You also get logging and diagnostic features. So freemium, I guess, but with generous limits to get you started. If you need more, you can upgrade to a higher tier later.

“Twilio Video WebRTC Go is a free tier and a free offering for developers to get started building those one to one video connections for things like distance learning, client consultations — all of those things that you might have a need for in these new use cases that we’ve seen evolve through the pandemic,” Quinton Wall, Twilio’s Senior Director for Platform and Developer Experience, told me. “And what we really wanted to do is take away all the barriers and make a free tier — and a perpetually free tier — that gives them all the tools that they need to build on top of WebRTC to get going. ”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The second major announcement is the launch of Twilio’s latest IoT service: the Microvisor IoT platform. Twilio acquired IoT hardware and software specialist Electric Imp earlier this year and when it first launched its IoT efforts, it started with cellular connectivity through its Super SIM product. The idea behind the Microvisor IoT platform is to give embedded developers all the tools they need to build connected devices and the lifecycle management tools to keep them updated and secure.

As Evan Cummack, the GM of Twilio IoT, told me, as the company dug deeper into the IoT market, it found that a lot of projects were failing.

“When we really dug into what was going on with our customers individually, what we saw was the reasons for a lot of these failures,” he explained. “Sometimes it was a fundamental misjudgment in terms of what end-users wanted, or the end-user experience, or value and business models, but a lot of the time, it was a technical failure, or it was that the technical challenges were so steep that the ROI equation fell apart. You couldn’t deliver substantial enough value in order to justify the technical effort required.”

With Electric Imp, Twilio bought a full-stack platform — and there are others like it on the market. But as Cummack noted, most businesses aren’t buying those. Instead, they are trying to build their solutions from scratch and Twilio’s hypothesis was that they were doing so because they wanted to be able to write native code for these devices. Combining that with the convenience of a full-stack platform is difficult.

Image Credits: Twilio

The solution the team came up with combines this new software platform with a recent hardware innovation by Arm: TrustZones. But with Arm’s TrustZone hardware isolation feature at its core, the Microvisor platform only runs on devices that use the latest Cortex M-based processors, which obviously means its not a service you can use to upgrade your existing solutions. In return, users get secure boot features, over-the-air firmware updates and secure tunnels to connect to their devices, in addition to remote debugging features.

Also new today is Event Streams, a new API that helps developers aggregate data from all of their Twilio-powered experiences across voice, SMS, wireless connectivity through Super SIM, TaskRouter and more. The idea here is to give users a better understanding of how these channels are being used — and less so for understanding their bills and more for helping them build tools that allow businesses to better understand how they are interacting with customers.

Image Credits: Twilio

Lastly, there’s Twilio Frontline. This isn’t really a developer product but a React Native-based app for frontline workers who may need to communicate with customers. Think of an employee in a store who needs to talk to a customer who is waiting outside. The app focuses on chat, with support for SMS, WhatsApp, and web-based and in-app chat clients. Frontline can also be integrated with existing enterprise authentication and CRM systems.

Google Meet and other Google services go down (Updated)

Google’s engineers aren’t having a good day today. This afternoon, a number of Google services went offline or are barely reachable. These services include Google Meet, Drive, Docs, Analytics, Classroom and Calendar, for example.

While Google’s own status dashboards don’t show any issues, we’re seeing reports from around the world from people who aren’t able to reach any of these services. Best we can tell, these issues started around 6pm PT.

It’s unusual for this number of Google services to go down at once. Usually, it’s only a single service that is affected. This time around, however, it’s clearly a far broader issue.

We’ve reached out to Google and will update this post once we hear more about what happened.

Update (6:30pm PT): and we’re back. It looks like most Google services are now recovering.

 

Amazon’s Alexa becomes a better conversationalist and can now ask you questions, too

At its annual hardware event, Amazon today announced new capabilities for its Alexa personal assistant that will allow it to become more personalized as it can now ask clarifying questions and then use this personalized data to interact with the user later on. In addition, Alex can now join a conversation, too, starting a mode where you don’t have to say ‘hey Alexa’ all the time. With that, multiple users can interact with Alexa and the system will chime in when it’s appropriate (or not — since we haven’t tested this yet).

As Amazon VP and head scientist Rohit Prasad noted, the system for asking questions and personalizing responses uses a deep learning-based approach that allows Alexa to acquire new concepts and actions based on what it learns from customers. Whatever it learns is personalized and only applies to this individual customer.

When you ask Alexa to set the temperature to your ‘favorite setting,’ for example, she will now ask what that setting is.

In addition, Alexa can now adapt its speaking style depending on the context, based on the team’s ability to better understand how to generate a natural-sounding voice for Alexa. In an example today, Amazon showed what that means when you ask it to play music for example, with Alex having a bit more pep in its voice compared to its regular, somewhat monotone voice.

The real breakthrough, though, is the conversation mode. In today’s demo, the company showed how Alexa could work when you’re ordering a pizza, for example. One of the actors said she wasn’t that hungry and wanted a smaller pizza. Alexa automatically changed that order for her. The team calls this ‘natural turn taking.’

Language learning service Babbel says it has now sold over 10M subscriptions

Babbel, the popular Berlin-based online language learning service, today announced that it has now sold a total of 10 million subscriptions to its service. For a language learning service, that’s quite a substantial number, especially given that Babbel doesn’t really offer a free tier. In part, the company’s march to 10 million subscriptions was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Babbel had already seen accelerating growth before, in no small part thanks to its aggressive expansion in the U.S. where Babbel’s subscriber volume and revenue have tripled year over year.

Image Credits: Babbel

The fact that growth accelerated during the pandemic actually came as a bit of a surprise to the team. Typically, at least in the U.S., demand for language learning is somewhat seasonal and users are often motivated to learn a new language because they are preparing a big trip to Europe, for example.

“We know that in the U.S., we typically find the number one motivation that our users give for why they would want to learn a language is travel, which of course, makes sense, because that is your chance to use the language,” Babbel US CEO Julie Hansen told me. “And in fact, last year, there was record travel from the U.S. to Europe. […] I was very, very concerned for the prospects of our business, not to mention the prospects of our national health.”

But with a bit of lag, after the lockdowns in the U.S. (and around the globe) started, Babbel saw an increase in interest in its service because people wanted to use this time for self-improvement. At the same time, Babbel — like so many other education-related services — launched free tiers for high school and college students, too. Hansen said the company saw at least a “couple of hundred thousand” downloads from those initiatives alone. With that, the company’s user base now also skews a little bit younger (though Hansen also credited the company’s advertising on social and especially TikTok for this).

“You can literally draw a graph per country with the date of school closures, the date of lockdown — and then maybe a day or two for the first couple of Netflix series to go by — and then language learning picked up quite quickly,” Babbel CEO Arne Schepker said.

One area that has been challenging is B2B sales, where Babbel (and its competitors) saw an immediate slowdown, but as Hansen noted, some companies also started leaning more into digital training for their employees, maybe in part because they replaced in-person classes with tools like Babbel. Yet, despite the overall slowdown, Babbel still doubled its B2B revenue year-over-year and recently signed on its fellow Berlin -based company Delivery Hero as one of its customers.

Image Credits: Babbel

Ahead of the pandemic, Babbel also started investing in its language travel business after it acquired LingoVentura in 2018. And while the team believes that this business will pick up again over time, Schebker acknowledged that nobody is traveling right now, so this business is currently in a holding pattern.

Looking ahead, the company will soon launch what Hensen called “other learning methods,” but the team isn’t quite ready to talk about these yet beyond the fact that Babbel plans to embrace “a multitude of learning experiences” to meet learners where they are.