Japan will participate in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project for the Artemis program

Japan has officially announced that it will participate with NASA’s Lunar Gateway project (via NHK), which will seek to establish an orbital research and staging station around the Moon. The Lunar Gateway is a key component of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first American woman and the next American man on the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Japan’s involvement was confirmed on Friday at a meeting of the country’s Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy, at which Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was present. The governing body accepted a recommendation from a panel established to study the possibility that Japan should indeed join NASA’s efforts.

Working with NASA on its Lunar Gateway will serve to benefit Japan in a few ways, the panel determined, including by boosting its profile as a technology leader and by strengthening U.S.-Japan relations when it comes to ensuring space is a place where international collaboration on peaceful ventures and research can take place.

Further details about how Japan will participate aren’t yet available, which makes sense given this decision has only just been made. Japanese lunar exploration startup ispace welcomed the news, and anticipates possibly being able to contribute in some capacity, specifically via the partnership it announced with Draper earlier this year.

“We welcome this development with great optimism for the future of lunar exploration, as well as the relationship between Japan and the United States,” said Takeshi Hakamada, Founder & CEO of ispace in an emailed statement. “We firmly believe the Draper-ispace partnership can complement the US-Japan efforts for a sustainable return to the Moon at the commercial level.”

Waymo and Renault to explore autonomous mobility route in Paris region

Waymo and Renault are working with the Paris region to explore the possibility of establishing an autonomous transportation route between Charles de Gaulle airport and La Défense, a neighborhood just outside of Paris city limits that plays host to a large number of businesses and skyscrapers, including a large shopping center. This is part of the deal that Renault and Nissan signed with Waymo earlier this year, to work together on potential autonomous vehicle services in both Japan and France.

This route in particular is being explored as a lead-up project to potentially be ready in time for the Paris Olympic Games, which are taking in place in Summer 2024. The goal is to offer a convenient way for people living in the Île-de-France area where Paris is located to get around, while also providing additional transportation options for tourists and international visitors. The region is committing €100 million (around $110 million) to developing autonomous vehicle infrastructure in the area to serve this purpose, across a number of different projects.

“France is a recognized global mobility leader, and we look forward to working with the Ile-de-France Region and our partner Groupe Renault to explore deploying the Waymo Driver on the critical business route stretching from Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport to La Défense in Paris,” said Waymo’s Adam Frost, Chief Automotive Programs and Partnerships Officer, in an emailed statement.

Defined routes designed to meet a specific need, especially in time for showcase events like the Olympics, seems to be a likely way that Waymo and others focused on the deployment of autonomous services will work in terms of pilot deployments, since it’s a perfect blend of demand, regulatory exemption and motivation and city/partner support.

Google brings its Jacquard wearables tech to Levi’s Trucker Jacket

Back in 2015, Google’s ATAP team demoed a new kind of wearable tech at Google I/O that used functional fabrics and conductive yarns to allow you to interact with your clothing and, by extension, the phone in your pocket. The company then released a jacket with Levi’s in 2017, but that was expensive, at $350, and never really quite caught on. Now, however, Jacquard is back. A few weeks ago, Saint Laurent launched a backpack with Jacquard support, but at $1,000, that was very much a luxury product. Today, however, Google and Levi’s are announcing their latest collaboration: Jacquard-enabled versions of Levi’s Trucker Jacket.

These jackets, which will come in different styles, including the Classic Trucker and the Sherpa Trucker, and in men’s and women’s versions, will retail for $198 for the Classic Trucker and $248 for the Sherpa Trucker. In addition to the U.S., it’ll be available in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K.

The idea here is simple and hasn’t changed since the original launch: a dongle in your jacket’s cuff connects to conductive yarns in your jacket. You can then swipe over your cuff, tap it or hold your hand over it to issue commands to your phone. You use the Jacquard phone app for iOS or Android to set up what each gesture does, with commands ranging from saving your location to bringing up the Google Assistant in your headphones, from skipping to the next song to controlling your camera for selfies or simply counting things during the day, like the coffees you drink on the go. If you have Bose noise-canceling headphones, the app also lets you set a gesture to turn your noise cancellation on or off. In total, there are currently 19 abilities available, and the dongle also includes a vibration motor for notifications.

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What’s maybe most important, though, is that this (re-)launch sets up Jacquard as a more modular technology that Google and its partners hope will take it from a bit of a gimmick to something you’ll see in more places over the next few months and years.

“Since we launched the first product with Levi’s at the end of 2017, we were focused on trying to understand and working really hard on how we can take the technology from a single product […] to create a real technology platform that can be used by multiple brands and by multiple collaborators,” Ivan Poupyrev, the head of Jacquard by Google told me. He noted that the idea behind projects like Jacquard is to take things we use every day, like backpacks, jackets and shoes, and make them better with technology. He argued that, for the most part, technology hasn’t really been added to these things that we use every day. He wants to work with companies like Levi’s to “give people the opportunity to create new digital touchpoints to their digital life through things they already have and own and use every day.”

What’s also important about Jacquard 2.0 is that you can take the dongle from garment to garment. For the original jacket, the dongle only worked with this one specific type of jacket; now, you’ll be able to take it with you and use it in other wearables as well. The dongle, too, is significantly smaller and more powerful. It also now has more memory to support multiple products. Yet, in my own testing, its battery still lasts for a few days of occasional use, with plenty of standby time.

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Poupyrev also noted that the team focused on reducing cost, “in order to bring the technology into a price range where it’s more attractive to consumers.” The team also made lots of changes to the software that runs on the device and, more importantly, in the cloud to allow it to configure itself for every product it’s being used in and to make it easier for the team to add new functionality over time (when was the last time your jacket got a software upgrade?).

He actually hopes that over time, people will forget that Google was involved in this. He wants the technology to fade into the background. Levi’s, on the other hand, obviously hopes that this technology will enable it to reach a new market. The 2017 version only included the Levi’s Commuter Trucker Jacket. Now, the company is going broader with different styles.

“We had gone out with a really sharp focus on trying to adapt the technology to meet the needs of our commuter customer, which a collection of Levi’s focused on urban cyclists,” Paul Dillinger, the VP of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, told me when I asked him about the company’s original efforts around Jacquard. But there was a lot of interest beyond that community, he said, yet the built-in features were very much meant to serve the needs of this specific audience and not necessarily relevant to the lifestyles of other users. The jackets, of course, were also pretty expensive. “There was an appetite for the technology to do more and be more accessible,” he said — and the results of that work are these new jackets.

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Dillinger also noted that this changes the relationship his company has with the consumer, because Levi’s can now upgrade the technology in your jacket after you bought it. “This is a really new experience,” he said. “And it’s a completely different approach to fashion. The normal fashion promise from other companies really is that we promise that in six months, we’re going to try to sell you something else. Levi’s prides itself on creating enduring, lasting value in style and we are able to actually improve the value of the garment that was already in the consumer’s closet.”

I spent about a week with the Sherpa jacket before today’s launch. It does exactly what it promises to do. Pairing my phone and jacket took less than a minute and the connection between the two has been perfectly stable. The gesture recognition worked very well — maybe better than I expected. What it can do, it does well, and I appreciate that the team kept the functionality pretty narrow.

Whether Jacquard is for you may depend on your lifestyle, though. I think the ideal user is somebody who is out and about a lot, wearing headphones, given that music controls are one of the main features here. But you don’t have to be wearing headphones to get value out of Jacquard. I almost never wear headphones in public, but I used it to quickly tag where I parked my car, for example, and when I used it with headphones, I found using my jacket’s cuffs easier to forward to the next song than doing the same on my headphones. Your mileage may vary, of course, and while I like the idea of using this kind of tech so you need to take out your phone less often, I wonder if that ship hasn’t sailed at this point — and whether the controls on your headphones can’t do most of the things Jacquard can. Google surely wants Jacquard to be more than a gimmick, but at this stage, it kind of still is.

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SmartNews’ head of product on how the news discovery app wants to free readers from filter bubbles

Since launching in the United States five years ago, SmartNews, the news aggregation app that recently hit unicorn status, has quietly built a reputation for presenting reliable information from a wide range of publishers. The company straddles two very different markets: the U.S. and its home country of Japan, where it is one of the leading news apps.

SmartNews wants readers to see it as a way to break out of their filter bubbles, says Jeannie Yang, its senior vice president of product, especially as the American presidential election heats up. For example, it recently launched a feature, called “News From All Sides,” that lets people see how media outlets from across the political spectrum are covering a specific topic.

The app is driven by machine-learning algorithms, but it also has an editorial team led by Rich Jaroslovsky, the first managing editor of WSJ.com and founder of the Online News Association. One of SmartNews’ goal is to surface news that its users might not seek out on their own, but it must balance that with audience retention in a market that is crowded with many ways to consume content online, including competing news aggregation apps, Facebook and Google Search.

In a wide-ranging interview with Extra Crunch, Yang talked about SmartNews’ place in the media ecosystem, creating recommendation algorithms that don’t reinforce biases, the difference between its Japanese and American users and the challenges of presenting political news in a highly polarized environment.

Catherine Shu: One of the reasons why SmartNews is interesting is because there are a lot of news aggregation apps in America, but there hasn’t been one huge breakout app like SmartNews is in Japan or Toutiao in China. But at the same time, there are obviously a lot of issues in the publishing and news industry in the United States that a good dominant news app might be able to help, ranging from monetization to fake news.

Jeannie Yang: I think that’s definitely a challenge for everybody in the U.S. With SmartNews, we really want to see how we can help create a healthier media ecosystem and actually have publishers thrive as well. SmartNews has such respect for the publishers and the industry and we want to be good partners, but also really understand the challenges of the business model, as well as the challenges for users and thinking of how we can create a healthier ecosystem.

Watch Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency launch supplies to the International Space Station live

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will launch a cargo of experiments, supplies and small satellite payloads to the International Space Station today at 12:05 PM EDT (1:05 AM JST / 9:05 AM PDT). The payload will be delivered via a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) H-IIB rocket, packed in an H-II Transport Vehicle (HTV) unpiloted cargo spacecraft which will then rendezvous with the ISS to offload science experiments, new lithium-ion batteries for use in replacing older nickel-hydrogen ones used on the orbital laboratory.

This mission is codenamed ‘HTV-8,’ the eighth mission that MHI has run using the HTV cargo ship. It’ll launch from Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, which is on a small island off the very southern end of Japan’s Kyushu region. This is the second attempt for the launch, after the original try was scrubbed prior to lift-off due to a small fire on the launch pad, which MHI subsequently investigated and corrected.

The H-IIB rocket is a fully expendable launch vehicle, with a liquid-oxygen fueled central core, and four solid fuel boosters that surround the base to provide more lift, giving the rocket a total lift capacity of up to 18,000 lbs to geostationary transfer orbit, or as much as 36,400 lbs to low-Earth orbit.

This eighth flight for the H-IIB will also be its second last – the company plans one more flight for this configuration before focusing entirely on its forthcoming H3 medium-lift launch vehicle, which will boost cargo capacity to as much as 14,3000 lbs to geostationary transfer orbit, and which will reduce launch costs by more than half to between $50 – $65 million, in an effort to become more price competitive with emerging commercial launch providers like SpaceX . H3 is targeting next year for its first test flights, with commercial operations kicking off in 2021.

NASA will begin broadcasting the live stream of the launch above starting at around 11:30 AM EDT (8:30 PM PDT).

SmartNews’ latest news discovery feature shows users articles from across the political spectrum

Even before the 2016 election, political polarization was increasing, with Americans so entrenched in the news sources they rely on that the Pew Research Center said “liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds.” Now SmartNews, the news aggregation app that recently hit unicorn funding status, wants to give users a way to step out of their bubbles with a feature called News From All Sides.

News From All Sides is an option located under the politics tab in SmartNews’ app. A slider at the bottom allows users to see articles about a specific news event sorted into five groups, ranging from most liberal to most conservative. Now available for new users in the United States, the feature will gradually roll out as the company fine-tunes it.

SmartNews News From All Sides feature

News From All Sides was created for readers who want to see other points of view, but might be overwhelmed by an online search, says Jeannie Yang, SmartNews’ senior vice president of product. It also aims to provide more transparency about news algorithms, which have been blamed for exacerbating political polarization.

Before developing the feature, SmartNews team conducted research and focus groups in places including Minneapolis and cities in North Carolina to understand how people across the country consume political news online.

“We found that across the board, the last [presidential] election was not just a wakeup call about what news reporting is, but users also expressed that they are much, much more aware of algorithms running underneath what they see. They might not know how it works, but they know there is something else going on,” Yang says.

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The political leanings of publications that appear in News From All Sides were categorized by Smartnews’ content team, which includes journalists who previously worked at the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Fox News and other major news outlets. An AI-based algorithm decides which headlines appear in each category. As the feature goes through new iterations, Yang says SmartNews will make changes based on reader feedback. For example, future versions might look at the positions taken in specific articles and include more than five categories on the slider.

News From All Sides is an eye-opener along the lines of “Blue Feed, Red Feed,” an interactive feature (now archived) by the Wall Street Journal that demonstrated how much someone’s political leanings can influence what Facebook’s algorithms display on their News Feed.

Of course, there are many people who are content to be ensconced in their own news bubbles and may not be interested in News From All Sides, even with the upcoming presidential election. Features like it won’t fix political polarization, but for people who are curious about different points of view, even ones they strongly disagree with, News From All Sides gives them a simple way to explore more coverage.

“We definitely discussed that,” says Yang. “The feature is not initially targeted to everyone. It targets people who are more political news junkies, who are checking their phones for news multiple times a day and will actively seek out other sources, so they might go on Google News and go down a rabbit hole.”

“As more readers consider how they are going to vote, it will also help them with perspectives,” Yang adds. “It’s not something that will appeal to everyone broadly, but we hope that we will adjust a pain point for this core group and then iterate it to something more universal.”

SmartNews was founded in Japan, but the slider is currently only on its app for the U.S., since political polarization is a major issue there. Yang says the feature is one part of of SmartNews’ goal to improve discovery in all news topics.

“Our mission is to break people out of filter bubbles and personalize discovery with the idea that recommendation algorithms can expand interests, instead of narrowing your interests,” she says. “We’re thinking of how to create more transparency and also expose readers to something they might not usually see, but present it in a fun way, like a serendipitous discovery.”

Watch JAXA’s HTV-8 mission launch aboard a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIB rocket live

 

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’s Launch Services division is all set to send a crucial cargo payload to the International Space Station from JAXA today. The launch is scheduled for 6:33 AM Japan Standard Time (5:33 PM ET/2:33 PM PT), and will take off from Tanegashima Island, at JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Center.

The rocket used for this launch is the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) H-IIB, and this is the eighth flight launch of the H-11 Transfer Vehicle (HTV) that MHI designed and built in Japan.

In the H-IIB configuration, the MHI-built rocket that will transport he HTV includes a liquid propellant central core, along with four solid propellant rocket boosters to give it additional life capacity. This particular mission will see the HTV loaded with 5.3 metric tons (just under six U.S. tons) of supplies for the ISS on board in both pressurized and unpressurized cargo containers which divvy up the total capacity.

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One of the crucial pieces of cargo going up is a small satellite deployment device called ‘Kibo’ created by the Kyushu Institute of Technology and the National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Science. It’ll be used to deploy a range of super compact ‘CubeSats’ also on board, including a propulsion tech demo create by the University of Tokyo and startup Space BD, which is the first company awarded a contract by JAXA to be the commercial operator for deploying smallsats from the ISS via Kibo.

NASA TV will be carrying the launch live via the stream above, with their coverage kicking off around 5 PM ET (2 PM PT/6 AM JST).

Elliptic banks $23M to shrink crypto risk, eyeing growth in Asia

Crypto means risk. To UK company Elliptic it also means business. The startup has just closed a $23M Series B to step up growth for a crypto risk-management play that involves selling tech and services to help others navigate the choppy darks of cryptocurrencies.

The round was led by financial services and asset management firm SBI Group, a Tokyo-based erstwhile subsidiary of SoftBank . Also joining as a new investor this round is London-based AlbionVC. Existing investors including SignalFire, Octopus Ventures and Santander Innoventures also participated. SBI Group’s Tomoyuki Nii and Ed Lascelles of AlbionVC are also joining Elliptic’s board.

Flush with a sizeable injection of Series B capital, Elliptic is especially targeting business growth at Asia — with a plan to open new offices in Japan and Singapore. It says client revenues in the region have risen 11x over the past two years.

We last spoke to Elliptic back in 2016 when it had just raised a $5M Series A.

The 2013-founded startup began by testing the crypto waters with a storage product before zeroing in on financial compliance as a pain-point worth its time. It went on to develop machine learning tech that screens transactions to identify suspicious patterns and, via them, dubious transactors.

Now it offers an integrated suite of products and services for financial institutions and crypto businesses to screen volumes of crypto-flows that sum to billions of dollars in transactions per day — analyzing them for links to illicit activity such as money laundering, terrorist financing, sanctions evasion, and other financial crimes.

It’s focused on selling anti-money laundering compliance, crypto forensics and cryptocurrency investigation services to the private sector — though has also sold tools direct to law enforcement agencies in the past.

Billions of dollars in financial services terms is of course just a tiny drop in a massive ocean of money movements. And growth in the crypto risk-management space has clearly required more than a little patience, from a startup perspective.

Three years ago Elliptic’s first blockchain analytics product had 10-20 Bitcoin companies as customers. That’s now up to 100+ crypto businesses and financial institutions using its products to shrink their risk of financial crime when dealing with crypto-assets. But the more three than year gap between Elliptic’s Series A and B is notable.

“To date, we’ve focused on product development and assembling the right team as the market has matured. This new funding will help us expand in the right way, namely by making the push into Asia without diluting our focus on the US and EMEA,” says co-founder and CEO James Smith when asked about the gap between financing rounds.

He declines to comment on how far off Elliptic is from achieving breakeven or profitability yet.

“We provide best-in-class transaction monitoring products for crypto-assets, which are trusted by crypto exchanges and financial institutions worldwide,” he adds of its product suite. “Our products are used as key components of larger compliance processes that are designed to minimise money laundering risks.”

With the addition of SBI Group to its investor roster Elliptic gains a strategic partner in Asia to help push what it dubs “bank-grade risk data” at a new wave of established financial institutions it believes are eyeing crypto with growing appetite for risk as larger players wade in.

Larger players like Facebook . Elliptic’s PR name-drops the likes of Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, Line Corporation’s LINK and central bank digital currencies, as markers of a rise in mainstream attention on crypto assets. And it says Series B funds will be used to accelerate product development to support “an emerging class of asset-backed crypto-assets”.

Regulatory attention on crypto — which has been rising globally for years but looks set to zip up several gears now that Facebook has ripped the curtain off of an ambitious global digital currency plan which also has buy-in from a number of other household tech and fintech names — is another claimed feed in for Elliptic’s business. More crypto implies growing risk.

It also points to the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force’s global regulatory framework for crypto-assets as an example of some of the wider risk-based requirements and now wrapped around those dealing in crypto.

The focus on Asia for business expansion is a measure of relative maturity of interest in opportunities around crypto-assets and localized attention to regulation, according to Smith.

“Revenue growth is certainly very strong in this region. We have been working with customers in Asia for a number of years and have seen first-hand how vibrant their crypto-asset ecosystems are. Countries such as Singapore and Japan have developed clear crypto-asset regulatory frameworks, and businesses based in these countries are serious about meeting their compliance obligations,” he says.

“We have also found that traditional financial institutions in Asia are particularly keen to engage with crypto-assets, and we will be working with them as they take their first steps into this new asset class.”

“We believe that crypto-assets will play an increasingly important role in our everyday lives and are shaping the future of banking. Our investment in Elliptic is a further commitment to this belief and to SBI Holding’s appetite to help build the digital asset-related ecosystem,” adds Yoshitaka Kitao, CEO of the SBI Group, in a supporting statement.

“Elliptic’s pioneering approach is enabling the transparency, integrity, and trust necessary for this vision to become reality. We are seeing a growing demand for their services across our portfolio of crypto-assets related companies and view Elliptic as best-placed to meet this considerable opportunity.”

While Elliptic’s business is focused on reducing the risk for other businesses of inadvertently transacting with criminals using crypto to launder money or otherwise shift assets under the legal radar, the proportion of transactions that such illicit activity represents in the Bitcoin space represents a tiny fraction of overall transactions.

“According to our analysis, approximately $1BN in Bitcoin has been spent on the dark web, so far in 2019, on items ranging from narcotics to stolen credit cards. This represents a very small share of all Bitcoin activity — less than 0.5% of Bitcoin payments over this period,” says Smith.

Not that that diminishes the regulatory risk. Nor, therefore, the business opportunity for Elliptic to sell support services to help others avoid touching the hot stuff.

“Crypto money launderers are continually developing new techniques to cover their tracks — from the use of mixers to transacting in privacy coins such as monero,” Smith adds. “We are also constantly innovating to keep pace with this and help our clients to detect money laundering. For example our work with researchers from MIT and IBM demonstrated the application of deep learning techniques to the identification of illicit crypto-asset transactions.”

Mario Kart Tour arrives on iOS and Android on September 25

Nintendo’s next mobile game, Mario Kart Tour, will be available on iOS and Android devices starting on September 25. The official Twitter account for the game revealed the launch date, and shared the pre-registration link where users of both platforms can sign up to get the game when it launches.

The mobile instalment of Nintendo’s incredibly popular cart racing franchise was originally announced last year, and at that time had a planned launch window of sometime before the end of March 2019. Nintendo later updated that date to sometime during this summer, in order to “improve [the] quality of the application and expand the content offerings after launch,” according to a statement in one of the game-maker’s earnings reports.

September 25 is actually technically after the end of summer, the last day of which is officially on September 23, but it’s pretty close. Nintendo also released Dr. Mario World earlier this year, so it’s been a busy year for the company in terms of launching mobile adaptations of its popular franchises.

Mario Kart Tour had a closed beta in the U.S. and Japan, which was Android-only, earlier this year. Details from the beta include a look at the rather expansive roster, as well as a lot of in-game purchase mechanics that might frustrate fans of the main series.

Japan’s ispace now aims for a lunar landing in 2021, and a Moon rover deployment in 2023

One of the private companies aiming to deliver a commercial lunar lander to the Moon has adjusted the timing for its planned mission, which isn’t all that surprising given the enormity of the task. Japanese startup ispace is now targeting 2021 for their first lunar landing, and 2023 for a second lunar mission that will also include deploying a rover on the Moon’s surface.

The company’s ‘HAKUTO-R’ program was originally planned to to include a mission in 2020 that would involve sending a lunar orbital vehicle for demonstration purposes without any payloads, but that part of the plan has been scrapped in favor of focusing all efforts on delivering actual payloads for commercial customers by 2021 instead.

This updated focus, the company says, is due mostly to the speeding up of the global market for private launch services and payload delivery, including for things like NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, wherein the agency is looking for a growing number of private contractors to support its own needs in terms of getting stuff to the Moon.

ispace itself isn’t on the list of 9 companies selected in round one of NASA’s program, but the Japanese company is supporting American non-profit Draper in its efforts, which was one fo the chosen. The Draper/ispace team-up happened after ispace’s initial commitment to its 2020 orbital demo, so its change in priorities makes sense given the new tie-up.

HAKUTO-R will use SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for its first missions, and the company has also signed partnerships with JAXA, Japan’s space agency, as well as new corporate partners including Suzuki, Sumitomo Corporation, Shogakukan, and Citizen Watch.