Chinese tech stocks tumble from more than just trade tensions

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

Reports of trade tensions between China and the US in the past few months have been hard to ignore. In early July, the US imposed $34 billion on Chinese goods, prompting the Shenzhen Component Index, dominated by technology and consumer product stocks, to fall to its lowest point since 2014, igniting fears among investors.

“The U.S. tariffs, coupled with a falling yuan, will significantly increase the cost for many Chinese technology companies that rely on imported raw materials, such as semiconductors, integrated circuits, and electric components,” Zhang Xia, an analyst for China Merchants Bank Securities, told the South China Morning Post.

Additionally, the U.S. commerce department announced yesterday it will place an embargo on 44 Chinese companies—including the world’s largest surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision—for “acting contrary to the national interests or foreign policy of the United States.” The move caused the companies’ share prices to fall by nearly six percent.

However, the focus has shifted to more than just the trade war. And a number of big Chinese tech companies have seen their share prices plummet for other reasons.

Pinduoduo, China’s latest e-commerce giant to list on the Nasdaq, found that an initial public offering (IPO) is not a panacea. Conversely, its listing has drawn attention to the company’s counterfeit products. And investors are not happy.

Tencent’s shares have nosedived by over 25 percent since its peak in January, erasing $143 billion in market value over the past seven months.

Search giant Baidu also hasn’t been immune. The company’s stock price dropped by nearly 8 percent this week following news that Google plans to re-enter the Chinese market.

Government crackdowns

While IPOs are usually a cause for celebration, Pinduoduo has proven this past week they can also be bad for business. The company—which has integrated e-commerce and social media—caters to low-income consumers living outside first and second-tier cities. It has been plagued by accusations of facilitating the sale of counterfeit low-quality goods.

Just days after going public, its share price tumbled by 16 percent, falling below its offer price of $19. The drop was, in part, initiated by requests made by television maker Skyworth to remove counterfeit listings of its products from the e-commerce firm’s marketplace.

The company announced (in Chinese) this week that it had removed 10.7 million listings of problematic goods. However, this did little to assuage concerns from investors and regulators after the latter launched an inquiry into Pinduoduo’s product listings. Its stock price dropped to 30 percent below its closing price on its first day of trading, wiping out over $9 billion in value.

This is unlikely to be helped by the fact that seven U.S. law firms have launched investigations into the company on behalf of its investors. The statement issued by the firms shows that investors suffered financial losses after Chinese regulators began looking into the company’s dealings. The company met today with regulators and agreed to improve its products’ vetting procedures.

However, it’s not only e-commerce platforms that have been affected. Video streaming service Bilibili has seen its stock price drop by almost 21 percent since July 20. The decline comes amid renewed efforts led by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to crack down on what it deems to be “vulgar” or “inappropriate” content.

The company has subsequently had its app removed from app stores in the country for one month. Nasdaq-listed Bilibili responded by saying it is “in deep self-review and reflection.”

Screenshot of the drop in Bilibili’s stock price. Accessed August 3, 2018

Rumored competition

Baidu, which runs China’s biggest search engine, found that even unconfirmed competition can cause stocks to tumble. In a move which could mark its re-entry into the Chinese market, news broke this week that Google has plans to launch an Android app that could provide filtered results to users in China.

Baidu currently commands nearly 70 percent of China’s search market. Google shut down its search engine in China in 2010 over censorship concerns, giving up access to a vast market. China’s online population now exceeds 770 million, double the entire populace of the U.S. and more than that of Europe.

Baidu’s income is still highly dependant on ad revenue, which increased by 25 percent in the second quarter. Google’s return is clearly seen as a threat, causing Baidu’s stock price to fall from $247.18 on July 31 to $226.83 on August 2. This marks the most significant fall since the company announced the departure of its chief operating officer Lu Qi in May.

Steady decline

Nonetheless, all these losses seem insignificant in comparison to Tencent’s. The company saw its stock price increase by 114 percent in 2017, reaching a record high in January 2018. However, since then, the price has dropped by nearly $130 per share, eviscerating a considerable portion of its market value. In July alone, its stock price fell by 9.9 percent. The company’s devaluation tops Facebook’s $130 billion rout following its earnings call last month.

In April, the company lost over $20 billion in value after South African investment and media firm Naspers — an early and loyal backer — announced it was trimming its stake by two percent. Additionally, Martin Lau, the company’s president, sold one million of his shares in the company. This, added to the Naspers sale and warnings of margin pressure, led to a loss of $51 billion in market value.

“Investors are increasingly pricing in lower expectations for Tencent’s interim results,” Linus Yip, a strategist at First Shanghai Securities in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg.

Yip expects the downward trend to continue, and not just for Tencent. “Overall, tech companies are facing a similar problem. They have been enjoying fast profit growth in the past few years, so it will be difficult for them to maintain similar growth in the future as the competition grows and some segments are saturated,” he said.

In Argentina, venture capital surges even as the broader economy stutters

Even as the Argentine government was announcing the biggest slide in the country’s economic output in nearly a decade, technology investors in the nation’s capital are all gearing up for record fundraising years.

Three of the country’s biggest firms (which are still small by international standards) are raising new, exponentially larger, funds in a sign that technology companies are showing promise despite the bleak picture painted by the broader economy in Latin America.

Leading the pack is NXTP Labs, the early stage investor that’s developing a regional network of accelerators and seed investment funds through partnerships that extend from Mexico City to Montevideo and Sao Paulo up to San Francisco. Despite its regional reach, home for NXTP is Buenos Aires and it’s there that the firm began accelerating and investing in early stage companies back in 2011.

NXTP has already had 13 exits, according to Crunchbase, and is perhaps the most mature of the crop of investment firms in the country. It’s also looking to be among the largest as it capitalizes on that track record of exists and a portfolio of investments that has raised follow-on capital of nearly half a billion dollars. 

The firm is currently knocking on doors to raise $120 million, a significant step up from its previous $38.5 million investment vehicle.

NXTP Labs isn’t the only firm based in Argentina that’s looking to significantly expand its capital under management. Jaguar Ventures, a firm that invests in both Argentina and Mexico, and Draper Cygnus, an Argentine-focused, Buenos Aires-based investment firm has already raised roughly $30 million of the $60 million it has targeted for its new fund,

While Cygnus is very much focused on the early-stage Argentine opportunity (which makes sense given the track record of technology companies coming out of the country — and the capital behind the firm) both NXTP and Jaguar have more of a regional perspective. And Jaguar, too, is massively increasing the size of its fund.

While its first fund was only $10 million, the new one will be closer to $60 million, according to one person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

Behind the surge of confidence in the region’s technology fortunes, despite the economic turmoil that continues to roil the region, is a growing track record of valuable companies — all with a homebase in Latin America’s largest market.

And while Brazil remains the region’s undisputed economic powerhouse, there’re growing numbers of tech giants coming from Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile, investors said.

As Gonzalo Costa, a co-founder of NXTP Labs wrote in an editorial for TechCrunch earlier this week:

For the first time, companies are raising rounds of $100 million plus. 99 (acquired by Didi Chuxing), Nubank and Rappi, have all raised mega rounds in the past two years. Others have raised large rounds, such as Selina and Movile, with $90 million-plus, or Auth0 (part of our portfolio), with $50 million rounds in 2018. But the increase in dollar amounts is not only driven by mega rounds. More than 30 transactions of $3 million or more happened in 2017, which is triple in amount of rounds of that figure when compared to 2016. This shows a market maturity not seen before.

Not only are companies attracting more capital, but entrepreneurs are launching companies across a dizzying array of technology verticals.

These are companies like NubiMetrics, which provides competitive analysis and data for marketplaces like MercadoLibre; or Satellogic, which is developing a network of satellites for earth observation (and raised $27 million last year); or Pago Rural, which provides financing options for farmers in Latin America (and is raising a $20 million round, according to sources).

It’s clear that venture capital and tech in Argentina (and across Latin America) is having a moment. But with a broader base of local capital, it’s possible that this moment could become a movement. And that would have a profound effect on economies around the world.

LG Mobile’s losses continue but now sales are falling too

Korean electronics giant LG is soaring to new heights, but its mobile division continues to lag well behind the rest of the company and the signs aren’t promising.

LG’s latest financials released today recorded another quarter of success with operating profit jumping 16 percent year-on-year to hit KRW 771 billion ($715.1 million) as overall sales rose 3.2 percent across the group. LG said its sales and profit for the first half of 2018 are at all-time highs but — and you knew a but was coming… — its smartphone division remains a significant loss-maker.

The company’s mobile and communications division — which houses LG Mobile — posted yet another quarter in the red. Sales of KRW 2.07 trillion ($1.92 billion) represented an annual drop of 23 percent, while the division carded an operating loss of KRW 185.4 billion, or $171.95 million.

That’s compared to a quarterly profit of KRW 407 billion ($377.48 million) for LG’s home entertainment business and a KRW 457.2 billion ($424.04 million) profit for its home appliance unit, which are LG’s two stand-out business units.

There’s nothing new herelosses are commonplace for LG Mobile.

It hasn’t been break-even or profitable since 2014. Those losses have been cut by some degree since the company shook up the division with new leadership in November 2017, but there’s plenty to worry about with sales dipping noticeably over the past two quarters of business.

This time around in Q2, LG put its mobile losses down to “the slowing growth of the global smartphone market and a decline in mid- to low-end smartphone sales in Latin America.” While it claimed that the size of the operating loss was down to investments in sales and marketing ahead of the release of its next flagship devices.

There’s a hint a reorganization — perhaps even layoffs — as the company added that it would “seek to further improve its business structure” as it aims prepares to push its LG G7 ThinQ and LG V35 ThinQ devices worldwide and get ready for those new launches.

More changes are on their way, you’d imagine, as LG is surely looking for a way to stem the bleeding but also retain a mobile business has certainly been iconic despite its struggles in recent times. Perhaps the answer is a downsizing in a similar style to Sony in 2016. Back then, the Japanese firm was losing even more than LG is per quarter but it began to be more strategic with its new device launches and target sales markets. The end result of that strategy was an end to the big losses and a more sustainable mobile business.

Xiaomi goes after global markets with two new Android One phones

Xiaomi gave Google’s well-intentioned but somewhat-stalled Android One project a major boost last year when it unveiled its first device under the program, Mi A1. That’s now joined by not one but two sequel devices, after the Chinese phone maker unveiled the Mi A2 and Mi A2 Lite at an event in Spain today.

Xiaomi in Spain? Yes, that’s right. International growth is a major part of the Xiaomi story now that it is a listed business, and Spain is one of a handful of countries in Europe where Xiaomi is aiming to make its mark. These two new A2 handsets are an early push and they’ll be available in over 40 countries, including Spain, France, Italy and 11 other European markets.

Both phones run on Android One — so none of Xiaomi’s iOS-inspired MIUI Android fork — and charge via type-C USB. The 5.99-inch A2 is the more premium option, sporting a Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB or 6GB RAM with 32GB, 64GB or 128GB in storage. There’s a 20-megapixel front camera and dual 20-megapixel and 16-megapixel cameras on the rear. On-device storage ranges between 32GB, 64GB and 128GB.

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The Mi A2 Lite is the more budget option that’s powered by a lesser Snapdragon 625 processor with 3GB or 4GB RAM, and 32GB or 64GB storage options. It comes with a smaller 5.84-inch display, there’s a 12- and 5-megapixel camera array on the reverse and a front-facing five-megapixel camera.

The A2 is priced from €249 to €279 ($291-$327) based on specs. The A2 Lite will sell for €179 or €229 ($210 or $268), against based on RAM and storage selection.

The 40 market availability mirrors the A1 launch last year, but on this occasion, Xiaomi has been busy preparing the ground in a number of countries, particularly in Europe. It has been in Spain for the past year, but it also launched local operations in France and Italy in May and tied up with CK Hutchison to sell phones in other parts of the continent via its 3 telecom business. While it isn’t operational in the U.S., Xiaomi has expanded into Mexico and it has set up partnerships with local retailers in dozens of other countries.

Xiaomi has been successful with its move into India, where it one of the top smartphone sellers, but it has not yet replicated that elsewhere outside of China so far.

China is, as you’d expect, the primary revenue market but Xiaomi is increasingly less dependent on its homeland. For 2017 sales, China represented 72 percent, but it had been 94 percent and 87 percent, respectively, in 2015 and 2016.

You can now stream to your Sonos devices via AirPlay 2

Newer Sonos devices and “rooms” now appear as AirPlay 2-compatible devices, allowing you to stream audio to them via Apple devices. The solution is a long time coming for Sonos which promised AirPlay 2 support in October.

You can stream to Sonos One, Sonos Beam, Playbase, and Play:5 speakers and ask Siri to play music on various speakers (“Hey Siri, play some hip-hop in the kitchen.”) The feature should roll out to current speakers this month.

I tried a beta version and it worked as advertised. A set of speakers including a Beam and a Sub in my family room showed up as a single speaker and a Sonos One in the kitchen showed up as another. I was able to stream music and podcasts to either one.

Given the ease with which you can now stream to nearly every device from every device it’s clear that whole-home audio is progressing rapidly. As we noted before Sonos is facing tough competition but little tricks like this one help it stay in the race.

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Next iPhone could be available in grey, white, blue, red and orange

According to a supply chain report, Apple is preparing to release three iPhone lines this fall. One, a 5.8-inch iPhone X with improved specs and lower price. Two, a new 6.5-inch iPhone X Plus with an OLED screen. And three, a 6.1-inch iPhone with Face ID, which is said to come in a variety of colors including grey, white, blue, red and orange.

Ming-Chi Kuo reports, via 9to5mac, that the 6.5-inch iPhone X Plus is said to take the $1000 price point from the iPhone X. This will cause the next iPhone X to be less expensive than its current incarnation. The colorful 6.1-inch iPhone will be the least expensive model with a price tag around $700. Information about storage was not included in the report.

The least-expensive iPhone is said to resemble the iPhone X and include FaceID though Apple might concede the dual-camera option to the higher price models. The analyst expects this $700 option to account for 55% of new iPhone sales and increase through 2019.

If the part about the colors is correct, Apple is set introduce a slash of color to the monochrome phone market. Currently, phones are mostly available in greys and blacks with most vendors offering a couple color options through special editions. That’s boring. Apple tried this in the past with its budget-minded iPhone 5c. Making its best-selling model available in colors is a distinct shift in strategy. It’s highly likely other firms such as Samsung and LG will follow the trend and push the smartphone world into a rainbow of colors.

Big tech companies are looking at Hollywood as the next stage in their play for the cloud

This week, both Microsoft and Google made moves to woo Hollywood to their cloud computing platforms in the latest act of the unfolding drama over who will win the multi-billion dollar business of the entertainment industry as it moves to the cloud.

Google raised the curtain with a splashy announcement that they’d be setting up their fifth cloud region in the U.S. in Los Angeles. Keeping the focus squarely on tools for artists and designers the company talked up its tools like Zync Render, which Google acquired back in 2014, and Anvato, a video streaming and monetization platform it acquired in 2016.

While Google just launched its LA hub, Microsoft has operated a cloud region in Southern California for a while, and started wooing Hollywood last year at the National Association of Broadcasters conference, according to Tad Brockway, a general manager for Azure’s storage and media business.

Now Microsoft has responded with a play of its own, partnering with the provider of a suite of hosted graphic design and animation software tools called Nimble Collective.

Founded by a former Pixar and DreamWorks animator, Rex Grignon, Nimble launched in 2014 and has raised just under $10 million from investors including the UCLA VC Fund and New Enterprise Associates, according to Crunchbase.

“Microsoft is committed to helping content creators achieve more using the cloud with a partner-focused approach to this industries transformation,” said Tad Brockway, General Manager, Azure Storage, Media and Edge at Microsoft, in a statement. “We’re excited to work with innovators like Nimble Collective to help them transform how animated content is produced, managed and delivered.”

There’s a lot at stake for Microsoft, Google and Amazon as entertainment companies look to migrate to managed computing services. Tech firms like IBM have been pitching the advantages of cloud computing for Hollywood since 2010, but it’s only recently that companies have begun courting the entertainment industry in earnest.

While leaders like Netflix migrated to cloud services in 2012 and 21st Century Fox worked with HP to get its infrastructure on cloud computing, other companies have lagged. Now companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are competing for their business as more companies wake up to the pressures and demands for more flexible technology architectures.

As broadcasters face more demanding consumers, fragmented audiences, and greater time pressures to produce and distribute more content more quickly, cloud architectures for technology infrastructure can provide a solution, tech vendors argue.

Stepping into the breach, cloud computing and technology service providers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are trying to buy up startups servicing the entertainment market specifically, or lock in vendors like Nimble through exclusive partnerships that they can leverage to win new customers. For instance, Microsoft bought Avere Systems in January, and Google picked up Anvato in 2016 to woo entertainment companies.

The result should be lower cost tools for a broader swath of the market, and promote more cross-pollination across different geographies, according to Grignon, Nimble’s chief executive.

“That worldwide reach is very important,” Grignon said. “In media and entertainment there are lots of isolated studios around the world. We afford this pathway between the studio in LA and the studio in Bangalore. We open these doorways.”

There are other, more obvious advantages as well. Streaming — exemplified by the relationship between Amazon and Netflix is well understood — but the possibility to bring costs down by moving to cloud architectures holds several other distribution advantages as well as simplifying processes across pre- and post-production, insiders said.

 

India’s Cashify raises $12M for its second-hand smartphone business

Cashify, a company that buys and sells used smartphones, is the latest India startup to raise capital from Chinese investors after it announced a $12 million Series C round.

Chinese funds CDH Investments and Morningside led the round which included participation from Aihuishou, a China-based startup that sells used electronics in a similar way to Cashify and has raised over $120 million. Existing investors including Bessemer Ventures and Shunwei also took part in the round.

This new capital takes Cashify to $19 million raised to date.

The business was started in 2013 by co-founders Mandeep Manocha (CEO), Nakul Kumar (COO) and Amit Sethi (CFO) initially as ‘ReGlobe.’ The business gives consumers a fast way to sell their existing electronics, it deals mainly in smartphones but also takes laptops, consoles, TVs and tablets.

“When we began we saw a lot of transaction for phone sales moving from offline to online,” Manocha told TechCrunch in an interview. “But consumer-to-consumer [for used devices] is highly opaque on price discovery and you never know if you’re making the right decision on price and whether the transaction will take place in the timeframe.”

These days, the company estimates that the average upgrade cycle has shifted from 20 months to 12 months, and now it is doubling down.

With Cashify, sellers simply fill out some details online about their device, then Cashify dispatches a representative who comes to their house to perform diagnostic checks and gives them cash for the device that day. The startup also offers an app which automatically carries out the checks — for example ensuring the camera, Bluetooth module, etc all work — and offers a higher cash payment for the user since Cashify uses fewer resources.

 

A sample of the Cashify Q&A for selling a device.

Beyond its website and app, Cashify gets devices from trade-in programs for Samsung, Xiaomi and Apple in India, as well as e-commerce companies like Flipkart, Amazon and Paytm Mall.

Used device acquired, what happens next is interesting.

The startup has built out a network of offline merchants who specialize in selling used phones. Each phone it acquires is then sold (perhaps after minor refurbishments) to that network, so it might pop up for sale anywhere in India.

With this new money, Cashify CEO Manocha said the company will develop an online resale site that will allow anyone to buy a used phone from the company’s network. Devices sold by Cashify online will be refurbished with new parts where needed, and they’ll include a box and six-month warranty to give a better consumer experience, Manocha added.

Today, Cashify claims to handle 100,000 smartphones a month, but it is planning to grow that to 200,000 by the end of this year. Cashify said its devices are typically low-end, those that retail for sub-$300 when new. A large part of that push comes from the online site, but the startup is also enlarging its offline merchant network and working to reach more consumers who are actually selling their device. That’s where Manocha said he sees particular value in working with Aihuishou.

Cashify is also developing other services. It recently started offering at-home repairs for customers and Manocha said that adding Chinese investors — and Aihuishou in particular — will help it with its sourcing of components for the repairs service and general refurbishments.

Cashify estimates that the used smartphone market in India will see 90 million phones sold this year, with as many as 120 million trading by 2020. That’s close to the 124 million shipments that analysts estimate India saw in 2017, but with surprisingly higher margins.

A reseller can make 10 percent profit on a device, Manocha explained, and Cashify’s own price elasticity — the difference between what it buys from consumers at and what it sells to resellers for — is typically 30-35 percent, he added. That’s more than most OEMs, but that doesn’t take into account costs on the Cashify side which bring that number down.

“When I sell to a reseller, the margins aren’t that exciting which is why we want to sell direct to consumers,” the Cashify CEO said.

The startup has plenty going on at home in India, but already it is considering overseas possibilities.

“We will focus on India for at least next 12 months but we have had discussions on markets that would make sense to enter,” Manocha, explaining that the Middle East and Southeast Asia are early frontrunners.

“We are working very closely with one of the Chinese players and figuring out if we can do some business in Hong Kong because that’s the hub for second-hand phones in this part of the world,” he added.

Truecaller makes first acquisition to build out payment and financial services in India

Sweden’s Truecaller started out life as a service that screens calls and messages to weed out spammers. In recent times the company has switched its focus to India, its largest market based on users, adding services that include payments to make it more useful. Now Truecaller is putting even more weight behind its India push after it announced its first acquisition, mobile payment service Chillr.

The vision is to go deeper into mobile payments and associated services to turn Truecaller into a utility that goes beyond just handling messages and calls, particularly payments — a space that WhatsApp is preparing to enter in India.

Truecaller doesn’t have WhatsApp -like scale — few companies can match 200 million active users in Indua, but it did recently disclose that it has 100 million daily active users worldwide, while India is its largest country with 150 million registered users.

Truecaller has raised over $90 million from investors to date, according to Crunchbase. TechCrunch reported in 2015 that it was in talks to raise $100 million at a valuation of around $1 billion, but a deal never happened. Truecaller has instead raised capital from Swedish investment firm Zenith. Chillr, which offer payment services between over 50 banks, had raised $7.5 million from the likes of Blume Ventures and Sequoia Capital.

Truecaller isn’t disclosing how much it has paid for the deal, but it said that Chillr’s entire team of 45 people will move over and the Chillr service will be phased out. In addition, Chillr CEO Sony Joy will become vice president of Truecaller Pay, running that India-based payment business which will inherit Chillr’s core features.

“We’ve acquired a company that is known for innovation and leading this space in terms of building a fantastic product,” Truecaller co-founder and CSO Nami Zarringhalam told TechCrunch in an interview.

Zarringhalam said the Truecaller team met with Chillr as part of an effort to reach out to partners to build out an ecosystem of third-party services, but quickly realized there was potential to come together.

“We realized we shared synergies in thought processes for caring for the customer and user experience,” he added, explaining that Joy and his Chillr team will “take over the vision of execution of Truecaller Pay.”

Truecaller added payments in India last year

Joy told TechCrunch that he envisages developing Truecaller Pay into one of India’s top three payment apps over the next two years.

Already, the service supports peer-to-peer payments following a partnership with ICICI Bank, but there are plans to layer on additional services from third parties. That could include integrations to provide services such as loans, financing, micro-insurance and more.

Joy pointed out that India’s banking push has seen many people in the country sign up for at least one account, so now the challenge is not necessarily getting banked but instead getting access to the right services. Thanks to gathering information through payments and other customer data, Truecaller could, with permission from users, share data with financial services companies to give users access to services that wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.

“Most citizens have a bank account (in each household), now being underserved is more to do with access to other services,” he explained.

Joy added that Truecaller is aiming to layer in value-added services over its SMS capabilities, digging into the fact that SMS remains a key communication and information channel in India. For example, helping users pay for items confirmed via SMS, or pay for an order which is tracked via SMS.

The development of the service in India has made it look from the outside that the company is splitting into two, a product localized for India and another for the rest of the world. However, Zarringhalam said that the company plans to replicate its approach — payments and more — in other markets.

“It could be based on acquisitions or partners, time will tell,” he said. “But our plan is to develop this for all markers where our market penetration is high and the market dynamics are right.”

Truecaller has raised over $90 million from investors to date, according to Crunchbase. TechCrunch reported in 2015 that it was in talks to raise $100 million at a valuation of around $1 billion, but a deal never happened. Truecaller has instead raised capital from Swedish investment firm Zenith.

New technology can see your body through walls

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has created a system that can see your body through walls, recreating your poses when you walk, sit, or simply stand still. It uses RF waves to sense where you are and then recreates your body as a simple stick figure. It’s called RF-Pose.

From the release:

The researchers use a neural network to analyze radio signals that bounce off people’s bodies, and can then create a dynamic stick figure that walks, stops, sits and moves its limbs as the person performs those actions.

The team says that the system could be used to monitor diseases like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis (MS), providing a better understanding of disease progression and allowing doctors to adjust medications accordingly. It could also help elderly people live more independently, while providing the added security of monitoring for falls, injuries and changes in activity patterns.

The team is primarily interested in using this system for healthcare, allowing for passive monitoring of a subject inside a room without cameras or other intrusions. “All data the team collected has subjects’ consent and is anonymized and encrypted to protect user privacy,” wrote the researchers. “For future real-world applications, the team plans to implement a ‘consent mechanism’ in which the person who installs the device is cued to do a specific set of movements in order for it to begin to monitor the environment.”

The researchers trained the neural network by showing a machine a video of a person walking next to the RF interference they made as they moved. They then overlaid stick figures on the movement and trained the network to do the same automatically. Because RF signals are ubiquitous, it was easier to use than other sensing technologies.

Interestingly the researchers never trained the system to see through walls but it was able to “generalize its knowledge to be able to handle through-wall movement.”

“If you think of the computer vision system as the teacher, this is a truly fascinating example of the student outperforming the teacher,” said researcher Antonio Torralba. There is no word if the system will be used other commercial purposes.