Corsair’s TBT100 Thunderbolt 3 dock offers the right expandability in a well-designed package

Gaming peripheral expert Corsair has released a new Thunderbolt 3 docking station that boasts a number of useful ports, paired with aesthetics that should fit in perfectly with any of Apple’s Space Gray hardware kit. The TBT100 dock offers plenty of expandability for making your Mac the center of a temporary work-from-home office, or can provide great convenience and connection options even for more powerful desktop computer setups.

The basics

The Corsair TBT100 offers a full complement of ports powered via a single Thunderbolt 3 cable from your computer, along with a dedicated power adapter. For display, there are 2 HDMI 2.0 ports capable of 4K 60Hz output, with HDR color rendering. There are two USB 3.2 Type-C ports, one in front and one in back, as well as two USB 3.1 Type-A ports (both in back) that can all connect to both charge devices and provide data connections. A Gigabit Ethernet port provides networking, while a 3.5mm jack offers both headphone out and microphone in. There’s also an SDXC card reader that supports UHS-II speeds.

The TBT100 offers 85W power delivery via its lone Thunderbolt 3 cable for connected host notebooks, and can smart charge devices at up to 15W via the USB-C ports, or up to 7.5W via the USB-A connections.

Design and features

This is definitely one of the better-looking Thunderbolt 3 docks out there. It’s a category where it’s hard for design to stand out, since these generally all look roughly the same – metallic and plastic rectangles with a combinations of ports located front and back. Corsair’s dock doesn’t venture too far from this standard look, but the touches it adds like the gray aluminum finish and the way the aluminum continues around the rounded corners makes it a more attractive desktop addition than most.

The port arrangement is also well-conceived. Up front, there’s one USB-C port (handy for quickly plugging in a mobile device for a charge), the SD card reader (really useful for frequent use) and the 3.5 mm jack (ditto for commonly relocated items like headsets). Everything else is around back, letting you put more regularly connected cables in prime location for routing them to make them a more invisible part of your desktop setup.

Corsair’s choice to go with HDMI ports is also probably the best option on balance for most users. Many alternatives have gone with DisplayPort, but your average consumer these days is much more likely to have HDMI cables and HDMI-capable displays, and the spec still supports 4K resolution as well as HDR to get the most image quality out of any modern connected TV or monitor.

Bottom line

There are many flavors of Thunderbolt 3 docks, but the Corsair TBT100 offers a pretty perfect blend of connectivity, design and convenience relative to the pack. At $259.99, the price of the dock is also not too expensive, though it’s not cheap either. But if you’re looking for a reliable, permanent solution to a lack of connections for your home setup, this is the one to get.

This Garmin GPS aims to improve motorsport’s lap times and more

Garmin today is announcing a $999 GPS unit designed specifically for motorsports. Called the Garmin Catalyst the unit aims to be a motorsports coach of sorts, helping drivers improve lap times, and more. It’s the latest example of Garmin testing different markets now that GPS units are built-into most vehicles.

Like standard GPS units, the Catalyst mounts on the windshield and provides detailed maps for the driver. However, since this is for racing around tracks, instead of providing driving directions, the Catalyst is said to provide motorsports coaching with voice instructions and detailed analysis of the driver’s performance.

Adam Spence, Garmin product manager explains, “[The Catalyst] gathers several data metrics and identifies where laps can be seamlessly joined together to create the fastest racing line. This shows users their fastest achievable time based on lines actually driven and gives them an optimal lap they can truly achieve.”

The GPS unit uses a series of sensors and components to generate the car’s racing line on the track. The included camera captures 1080p video, which can be played back on the unit with the track data overlaid showing speed, lap data, and more.

When driving, the Catalyst is said to be able to provide adaptive instruction to the driver based on past driving laps, instructing the driver on when to turn in, apex, and exit turns along with braking data when needed. This information can playback through compatible headsets or the vehicle’s Bluetooth stereo.

Data and track information can be viewed on the device itself or exported to a mobile device or computer.

The system is the latest product from Garmin who is trying to bring its GPS know-how to niche markets. Previously, the company unveiled a similar unit for overlanding vehicles. Based on pictures, the Overlander and the Catalyst seem to use the same mounting hardware and have a similar design albeit the Overlander appears more rugged.

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Dell’s U3219Q 32-inch 4K monitor provides a perfect home office upgrade

Dell has long held high esteem for the quality of its displays, and that hasn’t changed with its more recent models. What has changed is that more and more, people are looking for external monitors to complement their work laptops as they shift to more remote work – and settle in for more permanent home office configuration options. Dell’s 32-inch, 4K resolution UltraSharp U3219Q monitor is perhaps the best blend of quality, screen real estate, and connection flexibility you can get, provided your budget is in the mid- to high range.

The basics

The U3219Q has a 31.5-inch diagonal screen, with an IPS display and a matte finish that’s excellent for avoiding glare. Its max resolution is 3840 x 2160, with a 16:9 aspect ratio, and it can run at up to 60Hz refresh rate. It’s a very large display, but it feels a lot less large than it is, in part because of the extremely thin eels that surround the screen, and a relatively shallow depth. The display weighs just 12.8 lbs, which is extremely light when you consider just how much screen space it provides.

It comes with a stand that allows it to be adjusted across a range of around six inches up or down, and it’s able to be tilted up to 21 degrees, or swiveled 30 degrees in either direction. You can also rotate it from landscape to portrait, which is a handy feature for coding or document review, and it’ll still clear your desk with the integrated stand. The stand is also easy to remove, and it includes a standard 200×200 VESA mounting point for attaching it to monitor arms and wall mounts.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

For display connections, the U3219Q has 1 DisplayPort 1.4 and 1 HDMI 2.0 (both of which support HDCP 2.2 for playing back copyright protected content). There’s also a USB Type-C port which can provide DisplayPort 1.4 connectivity, as well as Power Delivery and USB 2.0 data connectivity, with a DP cable and a C-to-C cable included in the box. The monitor also features a USB 3.0 cable and port for connecting it to your computer to act as a hub, providing 2 USB 3.0 ports for accessories, as well as 2 USB 3.0 ports at the side of the display, and two of those also include charging power. While there are no built-in speakers, there is a 3.5mm audio output port for connecting headphones or an external speaker.

Dell touts the accuracy and quality of the panel, which boasts support for DisplayHDR content playback, and a factory color calibration that means it’s set to deliver 99% sRGB color accuracy out of the box, as well as 95% DCI-P3 and 99% Rec. 709 color for video. The display also features 400 nits of brightness, and 1.07 billion color depth along with impressive contrast. In short, it’s more than capable of handling even demanding video and photo editing tasks.

Design and performance

The Dell U3219Q lives up to its promises in terms of video and image quality. Out of the box, it looked fantastic when plugged into both a MacBook and a Mac mini, delivering excellent color rendering, contrast, brightness and blacks without any tuning. This is definitely a screen that has brightness to spare, useful if you’re working in a bright room with lots of natural sunlight, or if you need to crank up the brightness for specific tasks when editing photos or videos.

While the image quality is definitely a big advantage if you’re any kind of multimedia pro, that’s not the limit of who this screen should appeal to. The large size, and relatively small footprint, along with that 4K resolution, mean you can tune it to provide you with ample screen real estate depending on what resolution you choose. It’s easily able to handle multiple browser windows and applications arrayed next to one another in a variety of configurations, all while keeping text reasonable sized so that you don’t have to strain to read anything like you would running the same resolution on a smaller, but still 4K, screen.

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

60Hz means that you’ve got a plenty fast enough display for smooth desktop computing and editing even 60fps video, but it’s not quite up to the high-speed standards that gamers are looking for today. Unless you’re very resinous about that, however, it’s a perfectly fine refresh rate for just about every other use.

Dell adding single cable USB-C connectivity makes it an ideal companion for modern Mac notebooks, allowing you to move from your couch to the desk with ease. Three total inputs across HDMI/USB-C and DisplayPort also mean you can have it connected to multiple devices at once, which can come in handy for some desktop console gaming breaks during your lunch break.

Video also looks fantastic on this display, either for editing or just for watching Netflix. And at 32-inches, it’s plenty capable of doing double duty in a home office/guest room where you want to also have a TV, but don’t want to invest in a second device. You would have to figure out an audio solution in that case, but Dell makes a monitor soundbar that you can add for $69 which mounts to the screen’s stand.

Bottom line

Image Credits: Darrell Etherington

Office upgrades are almost a must depending on where you work, and what their evolving policy is on work-from-home vs. cautious office re-opening. The Dell U3219Q is normally $1,049, but on sale at $839.99 via Dell direct right now, which is a lot to spend on a screen – but it’s also a device you use every day, and one that you want to provide the most bang for your buck and potential longevity. I actually currently use two Dell P2715Q monitors with my work setup, and both of these early generation 4K monitors are still going strong half-a-decade after I initially bought and began using them.

Dell’s also just launched a 32-inch curved 4K monitor (S3221QS) and a 27-inch 4K (S2721QS) that pack many similarly features but at lower price points depending on your budget. The company’s reputation for high-quality displays is well-earned regardless, however, and will serve any home office well, now and into the future.

Skyrora launches its small demonstration rocket from mobile launch site in Iceland

Launch startup Skyrora had a successful test launch of its Skylark Micro rocket from Iceland on Sunday, with the rocket achieving its highest ever altitude at a height of 26.86 km (just under 17 miles). The four meter (13 foot) sub-orbital rocket took off from a mobile launch site at Iceland’s Langanes Peninsula that was set up in just a few days prior to the flight.

Skylark Micro is a vehicle that Skyrora is using to prepare the way for its eventual orbital small payload launch vehicle Skyrora XL, which it hopes to begin flying sometime in 2023. The purpose of this launch in Iceland, aside from demonstrating the flexibility of the company’s mobile launching model, was to test the electronics and communications on board the Skylark Micro, which will eventually be used for the company’s larger operational launch craft as well.

Skyrora flew a similar rocket earlier this year, with a launch from a small island off the coast of Scotland in June. That rocket only climbed to around 6 km (3.7 miles), however, making this its highest flight attempt by a wide margin. This attempt also included a recover attempt for both stages of the two-stage Skylark Micro rocket, which separated and deployed parachutes to return to an ocean splashdown, but the startup says that they haven’t been able to find either stage yet, though the search continues.

The ability to stand up and launch from another site so quickly is another key demonstration of this test. That could be a significant advantage – one that’s being pursued by a number of small payload launch startups. It’s a key capability that government and military customers are looking for in responsive launch services providers, though of course it’ll need to scale up significantly to support larger vehicles like the planned Skyrora XL rocket this company hopes to eventually field.

The Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box makes any home theater a bit more theatrical

Philips has steadily expanded its Hue line of smart lighting products to cover the entire home, inside and out. But while the ability to remotely control your lighting, including adjusting color, intensity and brightness is great, one of its more recent products focuses more on how to turn all those connected lights into a dynamic, at-home interactive entertainment experience. The Philips Hue Play HDMI Sync Box is a relatively simple device that sits between your video sources, including things like game consoles and the Apple TV, and your television, enabling synced light shows that can take advantage of a wide range of Hue products.

The basics

The Hue Play HDMI Sync Box is at core an HDMI switcher, offering four HDMI inputs and a single HDMI output.  Signals from your input devices (ie. Apple TV, Roku, Xbox, PS4, etc.) go into the box, and are passed through to the TV, with switching happening automatically depending on which device is most recently active (you can also change them manually with the app and with voice controls).

The Sync Box supports a range of modern quality standards for display and audio, and even more recently thanks to a firmware update released by Philips earlier this year. It supports 4K 60Hz resolution, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision standards, as well as Dolby Atmos surround sound. It also supports HDMI 2.0b with HDCP 2.2 compliance for copyright protection.

You will need not only Hue colored lights, but also a Hue Bridge (the second-generation, rounded square version) to ensure that the Hue Sync Box is more than just a particularly expensive HDMI hub, but it does that job very well, too. If you do have Hue products, like the Hue Play light bars that can easily mount on top of your TV stand or to the back of your TV itself, or the Hue Signe multi-colored floor or table lamps, then you can use the Sync companion app to ensure your lights reflect what’s going on on screen – for any video that plays through the box from any source.

Image Credits: Philips

Design and performance

Why would you want this? Well, mostly because it looks really, really cool. Hue Sync has already been available as a software feature for you to use with video played back on Macs and PCs, when used in combination with a monitoring tool, but that has a lot of limitations, including not being able to work with official Netflix apps and Netflix in the browser. The Sync Box eliminates any potential roadblocks and also means you can use regular streaming and gaming sources without having to run a media center PC.

The box itself is relatively large, but that seems like it’s mostly to accommodate the multiple HDMI ports. It’s very short, despite being about twice the surface area of an Apple TV, so it should be very easy to integrate into your existing home theatre setup, whatever that entails.

Setting up the Hue Play HDMI Sync Box is very easy, and requires only installing the app and pressing the sync button on your Hue Bridge when instructed to do so. As mentioned, you can plug in up to four sources and the box will switch between them automatically when you use an input device, or you can also manually change the input (and rename them) using the app. The app also allows you to tweak the intensity, brightness and responsiveness of the light, making it more subtle or more extreme, depending on your preferences and your activity. A ‘Game’ setting, for instance, sets it to maximum intensity and responsiveness for a more dynamic effect befitting fast-paced interactive content.

Image Credits: Philips

I found that the lighting was extremely good at mimicking the colors and brightness of a scene, especially if you take the time to accurately set up the position of your Hue lights for a dedicated “entertainment area” in the official main Hue app. It’s an effect that, when used in its most subtle settings, can basically fade away but still provide genuine enhancement for the watching experience, making it feel more immersive. At its maxed out settings, it’s much more noticeable, but still something that basically fades away into the background over an extended period of use, in a good way.

Especially since the firmware update, the Hue Play Sync Box has proven a fantastic addition to my home theater setup, providing an extra bit of flair to every TV watching experience. It’s obviously more effective in dark rooms, but it really seems to especially complement high-quality OLED screens that produce vibrant colors and true, deep blacks.

Bottom line

The Hue Play HDMI Sync Box is a bit of an extravagance at $229.99, but it definitely adds to the overall home TV-watching experience, for movies, streaming, and for gaming. The four HDMI inputs mean you can also use it to add more ports to your TV, if that’s something you need, and the recent updates mean you’re not going to sacrifice any video quality while doing so.

 

Abandoned mall department stores may become Amazon’s next fulfillment centers

One of the largest owners of shopping mall real estate in the United Stages, Simon Property Group, has been talking to Amazon about transforming its anchor department stores into Amazon distribution hubs, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In the case of Simon Property, the anchor tenants like J.C. Penney and Sears that used to be stable sources of revenue are now weights around the neck of the retail real estate manager, and transforming their ghostly halls of pale mannequins into warehouses for Amazon orders simply makes sense.

The transformation from showroom to storehouse for everything from books and sweaters to kitchenware and electronics won’t be too much of a stretch for the vacant storefronts of businesses that hvae both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Simon’s holdings include some 63 JC Penney and 11 Sears stores, according to the Journal’s reporting citing a May public filing from the real estate developer.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Amazon had turned to mall real estate for fulfillment centers. in 2019, the online retailer acquired a massive physical footprint in Akron, Ohio that it turned into a distribution center.

Gone are the days when gum smacking tweens and teens and their beleaguered parents would head to the local mall for a stroll around the retail block. Now shoppers prefer to peruse online and kids find Fortnite to be the Hot Topic to hang in. 

The deal, if it goes through, would be another nail in the coffin for a staple of late twentieth century culture that now mostly exists in the memory of baby boomers and Gen X consumers (thanks millennials and Gen Z).

Malls these days are lifestyle affairs that promise boutique branded shops than the sprawling department stores that had something for everyone. The big-box spaces that the Journal reported Amazon is negotiating for are the 100,000 square foot, multi-story behemoths, that are likely not long for the long tail world of niche commerce anyway.

These days, consumers are looking for brands that appeal to a persona or the bottom line of a pocketbook, and not the mass casual one-stop-shop of late twentieth century department store off-the-rack identities.

The Journal reported that, if the deals went through, Simon would like rent the space at a considerable discount to what it would charge another retailer. The paper estimated that rents could be as low as $4 per square foot to $19 per square foot, while warehouse rents average about $10.

At this point, shopping malls are looking for anything to bring in money. They’ve already tried schools, medical offices and senior living facilities, but the COVID-19 epidemic has thrown all of those plans into the abyss.

And, as the Journal notes, malls are already located in places that make them attractive distribution hubs. Amazon has bought some sites already and FedEx and DHL have done the same, according to the paper.

At this point, Amazon ownership may be a better fate for the real estate than totally abandoning it to empty space and the lingering soundtrack of 80s rock.

 

Astranis reaches key milestone with MicroGEO communication satellite, aims for service to begin next summer

Satellite telecommunications startup Astranis has achieved a key technical milestone with its MicroGEO product, a small geosynchronous communications satellite that it will use to launch its first commercial service starting next summer for customers in Alaska. This is a big milestone for Astranis because the MicroGEO satellite test article that passed this round of thermal-vacuum qualification testing will serve as the basis for a whole planned line of first products, designed to affordably provide low-cost broadband to specific geographic markets using individual spacecraft, region-by-region.

Having already successfully met its technical requirements in terms of radiation, which is particularly powerful in the target orbital band where the Astranis MicroGEO will operate in a fixed position above the Earth, this means that the startup’s tech has passed the last major technical milestone on its path to launch and operation. I spoke to Astranis CEO and founder John Gedmark about the achievement, and he said that while the MicroGEO qualification test article will still undergo a range of remaining tests ahead of its launch on a SpaceX rocket next year ahead of its planned Summer 2021 operational date, this is a big achievement that represents years of work from the team.

“It was a huge amount of work for the team, and I’m sure as you can imagine, these things do not do not come easy,” Gedmark said. “People maybe don’t understand just how extreme the temperatures are that a satellite has to operate within: We were doing testing all the way from 150 degrees Fahrenheit to -180 degree Fahrenheit. Just imagine that temperature swing on a big box of electronics.”

That is incredibly impressive, given that while they’ve improved significantly over the years, even modern consumer electronics can have challenges with much less extreme temperature swings. And qualification testing for equipment designed to work in space is actually done to a standard of both 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter and colder than expected orbital temperatures, just to provide the equipment with a safe operational buffer. Temperatures can vary so wildly because the orbital environment lacks the insulating layer of the atmosphere, meaning it gets very cold when the sun is on the far side of the Earth, and extremely hot when the sun is shining directly on the spacecraft.

The Astranis MicroGEO satellites will operate in geostationary orbit (LEO), which means they’ll sit in a high orbit (higher than what’s known as ‘low Earth orbit’ or LEO, which you may have heard of because that’s where SpaceX’s Starlink satellites work). The GEO band is where existing satellite-based communication infrastructure operates today – but these consist of very large, mostly aging and expensive satellites that provide the backbone of networks including those used for in-flight wifi and on cruise ships.

Astranis is outfitting its GEO satellites with much more modern telecommunications equipment, and making its spacecraft significantly smaller, too. The company is betting that it can deploy smaller GEO satellites much more affordably, in order to serve very specific geographies. Its first satellite will serve Alaska, as mentioned, through a partnership with existing satellite TV and internet provider Pacific Dataport. This is expected to triple the available bandwidth to the state, while keeping costs to customers affordable. After that, the goal is to continue to build and launch similar satellites to serve individual small-to-medim sized countries, states and other regions.

This model differs significantly from what SpaceX and others working on LEO communications constellations are doing. Gedmark outlined the costs and benefits of both, and why he believes what Astranis is doing is likely the better fit in terms of business model and efficiencies for a small, young company to pursue.

“We’re huge fans of what some of these other companies are trying to do with LEO constellations – it’s just very different approach,” he said “We have the ability to put up one satellite at a time and focus bandwidth right where it’s needed, and do that quickly. The smaller constellations, they are very much an all-or-nothing proposition – the entire constellation has to be in place to begin service. And then they have some other challenges ahead of them as well, like ground antennas, unique tracking.”

Gedmark notes that you need to deploy many gateway dishes all around the world in order for LEO constellations to be effective, which caries its own costs and risks. Astranis, however, is compatible with existing infrastructure already used in satellite-based internet and communications, making it much easier to get serving customers. Plus, since it can launch satellites individually to serve specific regions, it can add revenue in stages over time, whereas LEO networks will need an immense up-front capital investment before any money actually starts coming in from commercial customers.

“They certainly can be successful,” he said. “I just think I think it’s gonna take them some time and we’re optimized for speed. Whether it be a U.S. state like Alaska, or a small- or medium-sized country we can offer them some extra bandwidth they can use as soon as possible and, and get it to them at the right price.”

Bird shuts down Circ operations in Middle East, scraps as many as 10,000 scooters

Bird has shut down scooter sharing in several cities in the Middle East, an operation that was managed by Circ, the micromobility startup it acquired in January. About 100 Circ employees have been laid off and as many as 10,000 Circ scooters have been sent to a third-party UAE-based company for recycling, according to multiple industry and company sources who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media.

The shutdown — which Bird has couched as “pausing of operations” — comes less than six months after LA-based Bird announced it had acquired its European counterpart and touted plans to expand. Bird’s decision to shut down Circ’s entire Middle East business affects operations in Bahrain, UAE and Qatar.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 Circ scooters have been sent to EnviroServe, a UAE-based company that recycles electronics and other products, multiple sources who asked not to be named told TechCrunch. Almost 1,000 of the Circ scooters were new, according to one source.

Bird said in a statement that it is not leaving the Middle East. Instead, the company said it is “pausing operations” and plans to return to the region in the fall. Bird is still operating its own service in Tel Aviv.

“Bird is currently operating in Tel Aviv and we have temporarily paused operations in other parts of the Middle East as they become increasingly hotter at this time of the year,” the company said in an emailed statement. “During this pause, we are taking the opportunity to responsibly recycle parts of the old Circ fleet that were previously used in the region. Following extreme wear and tear, the Circ vehicles no longer met our rigorous quality standards. Selling or re-use of these vehicles would potentially result in safety and reliability issues, which would not have been fair or ethical to the purchasers or potential riders. We look forward to resuming our service throughout more parts of the region later this year.”

TechCrunch learned that several companies, including Berlin-based Tier Mobility, offered to buy the Circ-branded scooters that have been taken off the streets in Dubai and other Middle East cities. Bird declined these offers, according to two sources.

In the past two months, tens of thousands of electric scooters and bikes have been scrapped in the U.S., Canada, Europe and now the Middle East as micromobility companies pull back from markets in an effort to cut costs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photos and videos showing piles of scrapped bright red JUMP bikes spread across Twitter last month and sparked widespread criticism and anger among bike advocates, urban planners and industry watchers. The bikes were part of the collateral damage that stemmed from a complex deal between Lime and Uber. Last month, Lime raised $170 million in a funding round led by Uber. As part of the deal, Uber offloaded JUMP, which it had acquired in 2018 for $200 million, to Lime. All 400 JUMP employees were laid off and at least 20,000 bikes and scooters were scrapped in the U.S. alone. Reports of JUMP bikes being pulled off streets and sent for recycling have popped up in Canada as well.

Tier Mobility CEO and co-founder Lawrence Leuschner had offered to buy the JUMP bikes. Tier Mobility also reached out to Bird.

“That has nothing to do with sustainable mobility and it needs to have consequences,” Leuschner said in a recent interview discussing the decision by companies to scrap scooters and bikes. “This is not what the industry should stand for and that’s why I have to speak up.”

Leuschner, who previously founded reBuy, a European market leader in used electronics, has said it is possible to properly and safely refurbish scooters and sell them to consumers. Tier Mobility refurbished and sold its old e-scooters to consumers after it replaced most of its fleet with newer hardware.

Circ burst on the scene in January 2019 with €55 million in Series A funding. The Berlin-based e-scooter startup, which was initially called Flash before it was rebranded, was founded by Delivery Hero and Team Europe founder Lukasz Gadowski.

The company expanded quickly across Europe and eventually into the Middle East. Just six months after it came out of stealth, Circ was in 21 cities across 7 countries — and it expanded even further throughout the rest of the year. But it encountered some of the same setbacks that other scooter-sharing companies faced in 2019. The company laid off staff in November at its regional operations and Berlin headquarters. The reduced headcount was driven by the fluctuation in users across seasons, “operational learnings” and a move to e-scooters with swappable batteries, Gadowski told TechCrunch at the time.

R&D Roundup: ‘Twisted light’ lasers, prosthetic vision advances and robot-trained dogs

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

In this edition: a new type of laser emitter that uses metamaterials, robot-trained dogs, a breakthrough in neurological research that may advance prosthetic vision and other cutting-edge technology.

Twisted laser-starters

We think of lasers as going “straight” because that’s simpler than understanding their nature as groups of like-minded photons. But there are more exotic qualities for lasers beyond wavelengths and intensity, ones scientists have been trying to exploit for years. One such quality is… well, there are a couple names for it: Chirality, vorticality, spirality and so on — the quality of a beam having a corkscrew motion to it. Applying this quality effectively could improve optical data throughput speeds by an order of magnitude.

The trouble with such “twisted light” is that it’s very difficult to control and detect. Researchers have been making progress on this for a couple of years, but the last couple weeks brought some new advances.

First, from the University of the Witwatersrand, is a laser emitter that can produce twisted light of record purity and angular momentum — a measure of just how twisted it is. It’s also compact and uses metamaterials — always a plus.

The second is a pair of matched (and very multi-institutional) experiments that yielded both a transmitter that can send vortex lasers and, crucially, a receiver that can detect and classify them. It’s remarkably hard to determine the orbital angular momentum of an incoming photon, and hardware to do so is clumsy. The new detector is chip-scale and together they can use five pre-set vortex modes, potentially increasing the width of a laser-based data channel by a corresponding factor. Vorticality is definitely on the roadmap for next-generation network infrastructure, so you can expect startups in this space soon as universities spin out these projects.

Tracing letters on the brain-palm

Xiaomi’s investment house of IoT surpasses 300 companies

Xiaomi, the Chinese comapny famous for its budget smartphones and a bevy of value-for-money gadgets, said in a filing on Thursday that it has backed more than 300 companies as of March, totaling 32.3 billion yuan ($4.54 billion) in book value and 225.9 million yuan ($32 million million) in net gains on disposal of investments in just the first quarter.

The electronics giant has surely lived up to its ambition to construct an ecosystem of the internet of things, or IoT. Most of its investments aim to generate strategic synergies, whether it is to diversify its product offerings or build up a library of content and services to supplement the devices. The question is whether Xiaomi’s hardware universe is generating the type of services income it covets.

Monetize from services

Back in 2013, Xiaomi founder Lei Jun vowed to invest in 100 hardware companies over a five-year period. The idea was to acquire scores of users through this vast network of competitively-priced devices, through which it could tout internet services like fintech products and video games.

That’s why Xiaomi has kept margins of its products razor-thin, sometimes to the dismay of its investees and suppliers. Its vision hasn’t quite materialized, as it continued to drive most of its income from smartphones and other hardware devices. Services comprised 12% of total revenue in the first quarter, although the segment did record a 38.6% increase from the year before.

Over time, the smartphone maker has evolved into a department store selling all sorts of everyday products, expanding beyond electronics to cover categories like stationaries, kitchenware, clothing and food — things one would find at Muji. It makes certain products in-house — like smartphones — and sources the others through a profit-sharing model with third parties, which it has financed or simply partners with under distribution agreements.

Xiaomi’s capital game

Many consumer product makers are on the fence about joining Xiaomi’s distribution universe. On the one hand, they can reach millions of consumers around the world through the giant’s vast network of e-commerce channels and physical stores. On the other, they worry about margin squeeze and overdependence on the Xiaomi brand.

As such, many companies that sell through Xiaomi have also carved out their own product lines. Nasdaq-listed Huami, which supplies Xiaomi’s Mi Band smartwatches, has its own Amazfit wearables that rival Fitbit. Roborock, an automatic vacuum maker trading on China’s Nasdaq equivalent, STAR Market, had been making Xiaomi’s Mi Home vacuums for a year before rolling out its own household brand.

With the looming economic downturn triggered by COVID-19, manufacturers might be increasingly turning to Xiaomi and other investors to cope with cash-flow liquidity challenges.

Along with its earnings, Xiaomi announced that it had bought an additional 27.44% stake in Zimi, the main supplier of its power banks, bringing its total stakes in the company to 49.91%. Xiaomi said the acquisition would boost Xiaomi’s competitiveness in “5G + AIoT,” a buzzword short for the next-gen mobile broadband technology and AI-powered IoT. For Zimi, the investment will likely alleviate some of the financial pressure it’s feeling under these difficult times.

Competition in the Chinese IoT industry is heating up as the country races to roll out 5G networks, which will enable wider adoption of connected devices. Just this week, Alibaba, which has its finger in many pies, announced pumping 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) into ramping up its Alexa-like smart voice assistant Genie, which will be further integrated into Alibaba’s e-commerce experience, online entertainment services and consumer hardware partners.