VR optics could help old folks keep the world in focus

The complex optics involved with putting a screen an inch away from the eye in VR headsets could make for smartglasses that correct for vision problems. These prototype “autofocals” from Stanford researchers use depth sensing and gaze tracking to bring the world into focus when someone lacks the ability to do it on their own.

I talked with lead researcher Nitish Padmanaban at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, where he and the others on his team were showing off the latest version of the system. It’s meant, he explained, to be a better solution to the problem of presbyopia, which is basically when your eyes refuse to focus on close-up objects. It happens to millions of people as they age, even people with otherwise excellent vision.

There are, of course, bifocals and progressive lenses that bend light in such a way as to bring such objects into focus — purely optical solutions, and cheap as well, but inflexible, and they only provide a small “viewport” through which to view the world. And there are adjustable-lens glasses as well, but must be adjusted slowly and manually with a dial on the side. What if you could make the whole lens change shape automatically, depending on the user’s need, in real time?

That’s what Padmanaban and colleagues Robert Konrad and Gordon Wetzstein are working on, and although the current prototype is obviously far too bulky and limited for actual deployment, the concept seems totally sound.

Padmanaban previously worked in VR, and mentioned what’s called the convergence-accommodation problem. Basically, the way that we see changes in real life when we move and refocus our eyes from far to near doesn’t happen properly (if at all) in VR, and that can produce pain and nausea. Having lenses that automatically adjust based on where you’re looking would be useful there — and indeed some VR developers were showing off just that only 10 feet away. But it could also apply to people who are unable to focus on nearby objects in the real world, Padmanaban thought.

This is an old prototype, but you get the idea.

It works like this. A depth sensor on the glasses collects a basic view of the scene in front of the person: a newspaper is 14 inches away, a table three feet away, the rest of the room considerably more. Then an eye-tracking system checks where the user is currently looking and cross-references that with the depth map.

Having been equipped with the specifics of the user’s vision problem, for instance that they have trouble focusing on objects closer than 20 inches away, the apparatus can then make an intelligent decision as to whether and how to adjust the lenses of the glasses.

In the case above, if the user was looking at the table or the rest of the room, the glasses will assume whatever normal correction the person requires to see — perhaps none. But if they change their gaze to focus on the paper, the glasses immediately adjust the lenses (perhaps independently per eye) to bring that object into focus in a way that doesn’t strain the person’s eyes.

The whole process of checking the gaze, depth of the selected object and adjustment of the lenses takes a total of about 150 milliseconds. That’s long enough that the user might notice it happens, but the whole process of redirecting and refocusing one’s gaze takes perhaps three or four times that long — so the changes in the device will be complete by the time the user’s eyes would normally be at rest again.

“Even with an early prototype, the Autofocals are comparable to and sometimes better than traditional correction,” reads a short summary of the research published for SIGGRAPH. “Furthermore, the ‘natural’ operation of the Autofocals makes them usable on first wear.”

The team is currently conducting tests to measure more quantitatively the improvements derived from this system, and test for any possible ill effects, glitches or other complaints. They’re a long way from commercialization, but Padmanaban suggested that some manufacturers are already looking into this type of method and despite its early stage, it’s highly promising. We can expect to hear more from them when the full paper is published.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review

There are no secrets in consumer electronics anymore. Sometimes it’s the fault of flubs and flaws and leakers. Sometimes it’s by design. In the case of the Galaxy Note 9, it’s a little bit of both.

The Galaxy S9 wasn’t the blockbuster Samsung’s shareholders were expecting, so the company understandably primed the pump through a combination of teasers and leaks — some no doubt unintentional and others that seemed suspiciously less so.

By the time yesterday’s big event at Brooklyn’s house that Jay-Z built rolled around, we knew just about everything we needed to know about the upcoming handset, and virtually every leaked spec proved accurate. Sure, the company amazingly managed to through in a surprise or two, but the event was all about the Note.

And understandably so. The phablet, along with the Galaxy S line, forms the cornerstone of Samsung’s entire consumer approach. It’s a portfolio that expands with each event, to include wearables, productivity, the smart home, automotive, a smart assistant and now the long-awaited smart speaker. None of which would make a lick of sense without the handsets.

If the Galaxy S is Samsung’s tentpole device, the Note represents what the company has deemed its “innovation brand,” the uber-premium device that allows the company to push the limits of its mobile hardware. In past generations, that’s meant the Edge display (curving screen), S-Pen, giant screen and dual-camera. That innovation, naturally, comes at a price.

Here it’s $1,000. It’s a price that, until a year ago seemed impossibly steep for a smartphone. For the Galaxy Note 9, on the other hand, that’s just where things start. Any hopes that the new model might represent a move toward the mainstream for the line in the wake of an underwhelming S9 performance can be put to rest here.

The Note is what it’s always been and will likely always continue to be: a device for the diehard. A very good device, mind, but one for those with an arm and or a leg to spare. Most of the good new features will trickle their way down the food chain to the company’s more mainstream device. At $720/$840, the S9 isn’t a budget phone by any stretch of the imagination, but at the very least, keeping it to three digits seems a little more palatable.

A good rule of thumb for a hardware review is incorporating the product into one’s own life as much as possible. It’s a pretty easy ask with a device like the Note 9, which has the advantage of great hardware and software design built upon the learnings and missteps of several generations.

It’s still not perfect by any means, and the company’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the line means there are plenty of features that never really made their may into my routine. And while, as the largely unchanged product design suggests — the Note 9 doesn’t represent a hugely significant milestone in the product line — there are enough tweaks throughout the product to maintain its place toward the top of the Android heap.

All charged up

Let’s address the gorilla in the room here. Two years ago, Galaxy Notes started exploding. Samsung recalled the devices, started selling them, more exploded and they recalled them again, ultimately discontinuing the product.

Samsung apologized profusely and agreed to institute more rigorous safety checks. For the next few devices, the company didn’t rock the boat. Battery sizes on Galaxy products stayed mostly the same. It was a combination of pragmatism and optics. The company needed time to ensure that future products wouldn’t suffer the same fate, while demonstrating to the public and shareholders that it was doing due diligence.

“What we want to do is a tempered approach to innovation any time,” Samsung’s director of Product Strategy and Marketing told me ahead of launch, “so this was the right time to increase the battery to meet consumer needs.”

Given Samsung’s massive business as a component manufacturer, the whole fiasco ultimately didn’t dent the bottom line. In fact, in a strange way, it might ultimately be a net positive. Now it can boast about having one of the most rigorous battery testing processes in the business. Now it’s a feature, not a bug.

At 4,000mAh, the Note 9 features a 700mAh increase above its predecessor. It’s not an unprecedented number — Huawei’s already hit the 4,000 mark — but it’s the largest ever on a Note device, putting the handset in the top percentile.

As far as how that actually translates to real-world usage, Samsung’s not giving a number yet. The company simply says “all day and all night” in its release. I found that to be pretty close to the truth. I unplugged the handset at 100 percent yesterday afternoon. I texted, listened to Spotify, took photos, downloaded and just generally attempted to live my life on the damn thing.

Just under 22 hours later, it gave up the ghost and after much notification-based consternation about a critically low battery, the screen went black. Like I said, it’s not crazy battery life, but going most of a full day and night without a charge is a nice little luxury — and the sort of thing all phone makers should strive to achieve on their flagship products.

The company also, kindly, included the new Wireless Charging Duo. The charging pad is not quite as ambitious as the AirPower, but unlike that product, introduced nearly a year ago by Apple, I have this in my hands right now. So, point: Samsung. Charging the device from zero to 100 percent took three hours on the dot with the $120 “Fast Charge” pad. And it’s nice and toasty now.

Memories

Okay, about that price. Again, we’re talking $999.99 to start. There’s also a second SKU. That one will run you $1,295.99. Take a moment if you need to.

That’s a silly amount of money if you’re not the starting point guard for the Golden State Warriors. So much for the rumors that the company would be working to make its devices more economically accessible. And while the premium hardware has always meant that the Galaxy line is going to remain on the pricey side, I can’t help but point out that a few key decisions could have kept the price down, while maintaining build quality.

Storage is arguably the primary culprit. The aforementioned two SKUs give you either 6GB of RAM with 128GB or 8GB of RAM with 512GB. With cloud syncing and the rest, it’s hard to imagine I would come close to that limit in the two or so years until the time comes to upgrade my handset.

I’m sure those sorts of crazy media-hoarding power users do, in fact, exist in the world, but they’re undoubtedly a rarity. Besides, as Samsung helpfully pointed out, 512GB SD cards already exist in the world. Sure, that’s another $350 tacked onto the bottom line, but it’s there, if you need it. For most users, it’s hard to see Samsung’s claim of having “the world’s first 1TB-ready smartphone” (512GB+512GB) exists for little more reason than racking up yet another flashy claim for the 1960s Batman utility belt of smartphones.

Sure, Samsung no doubt gets a deal on Samsung-built hard drives, but the component has to be a key part in what’s driving costs up. For a company as driven by choice as Samsung, I’m honestly surprised we’re not getting more options up front here in the States.

Remote control

Confession: After testing many Galaxy Note models over the course of many years, I’ve never figured out a great use for the S-Pen. I mean, I’m happy that people like it, and obviously all of the early skepticism about the return of the stylus was quickly put to rest, as the company has continued to go back to the well, year after year.

But all of the handwritten note taking and animated GIF drawing just isn’t for me, man. I also recently spoke to an artist friend who told me that the Note doesn’t really cut it for him on the drawing front, either. Again, if you like or love it, more power to you, but it’s just not for me.

As silly as the idea of using the S-Pen as a remote control might appear at first glance, however, it’s clear to me that this is the first use of the built-in accessory I could honestly see using on a daily basis. It’s handy once you get beyond the silliness of holding a stylus in your hand while running, and serves as a handy surrogate for those who don’t own a compatible smartwatch.

The S-Pen now sports Bluetooth Low Energy, allowing it to control different aspects of phone use. Low Energy or not, that tech requires power, so the stylus now contains a super conductor, which charges it when slotted inside the phone; 40 seconds of charging should get you a healthy 30 minutes of use. Even so, the phone will bug you to remind you that you really ought to dock the thing when not in use.

The compatible apps are still fairly limited at launch, but it’s enough to demonstrate how this could be a handy little addition. Of the bunch, I got the most out of music control for Spotify. One click plays/pauses a song, and a double-click extends the track. Sure, it’s limited functionality, but it saved me from having to fiddle with the phone to change songs went I went for my run this morning.

You’ll need to be a bit more creative when determining usefulness in some of the other apps. Using it as a shutter button in the camera app, for instance, could be a useful way to take a selfie without having to hold the phone at arms’ length.

The entire time, I wondered what one might be able to accomplish with additional buttons (volume/rewind/gameplay)? What about a pedometer to track steps when you’re running on the treadmill without it in the pocket? Or even a beacon to help absent-minded folks like myself find it after we invariably drop it between couch cushions.

But yeah, I understand why the company would choose to keep things simple for what remains a sort of secondary functionality. Or, heck, maybe the company just needs to hold some features for the Note 10 (Note X?).

Oh, and the Blue and Lavender versions of the phone come in striking yellow and purple S-Pens, with lock-screen ink color to match. So that’s pretty fun.

Hey man, nice shot

Nowhere is the Note’s cumulative evolution better represented than the camera. Each subsequent Galaxy S and Note release seem to offer new hardware and/or software upgrades, giving the company two distinct opportunities per year to improve imaging for the line. The S9, announced back in February, notably brought improved low-light photography to the line. The dual aperture flips between f/1.5 and f/2.4, to let in more light.

It’s a neat trick for a smartphone. Behold, a head to head between the Note 9 (left) and iPhone X (right):

Here’s what we’re dealing with on the hardware front:

  • Rear: Dual Camera with Dual OIS (Optical Image Stabilization)
  • Wide-angle: Super Speed Dual Pixel 12MP AF, F1.5/F2.4, OIS
  • Telephoto: 12MP AF, F2.4, OIS
  • 2X optical zoom, up to 10X digital zoom
  • Front: 8MP AF, F1.7

This time out, the improvements are mostly on the software side of things. Two features in particular stand out: Scene Optimizer and Flaw Detection. The first should prove familiar to those who’ve been paying attention to the smartphone game of late. LG is probably the most prominent example.

Camera hardware is pretty great across the board of most modern smartphone flagships. As such, these new features are designed to eliminate the current weakest link: human error. Scene Optimizer saves amateur photographers from having to futz with more advanced settings like white balance and saturation.

The feature uses AI to determine what the camera is seeing, and adjusts settings accordingly. There are 20 different settings, including: Food, Portraits, Flowers, Indoor scenes, Animals, Landscapes, Greenery, Trees, Sky, Mountains, Beaches, Sunrises and sunsets, Watersides, Street scenes, Night scenes, Waterfalls, Snow, Birds, Backlit and Text.

Some are pretty general, others are weirdly specific, but it’s a good mix, and I suspect Samsung will continue to add to it through OTA updates. That said, the function itself doesn’t need a cloud connection, doing all of the processing on-board. The feature worked well with most of the flowers and food I threw at it (so to speak), popping up a small icon in the bottom of the screen to let me know that it knows what it’s looking at. It also did well with book text.

The success rate of other things, like trees, were, unsurprisingly, dependent on context. Get just the top part and it identifies it as “Greenery.” Flip the phone to portrait mode and get the whole of the trunk and it pops up the “Tree” icon. I did get a few false positives along the way; the Note 9 thought my fingers were food, which is deeply disturbing for any number of reasons.

[Without Scene Optimizer – left, With Scene Optimizer – right]

Obviously, it’s not going to be perfect. I found, in the case of flowers that it has the tendency to oversaturate the colors. If you agree, you can disable the feature in settings. However, you have to do this before the shot is taken. There’s no way to manually override the feature to tell it what kind of object you’re shooting. That seems like a bit of a no-brainer addition.

[Super slow-mo matcha under the flicking lights]

Flaw Detection serves a similar role as Scene Optimizer, helping you avoid getting in your own way as an amateur photog. The feature is designed to alert you if a shot is blurry, if there’s a smudge on the screen, if the subject blinked or if backlighting is making everything look crappy. In the case of lens smudging and backlighting, it only bothers with a single alert every 24 hours.

The blink detection worked well. Blur detection, on the other hand, was a bit more of a crap shoot for subjects in motion and those that were too close to the lens to get a good focus. The feature could use a bit of work, but I still think it’s one of the more compelling additions on the whole of the device and anticipate a lot of other companies introducing their own versions in the coming year.

Design Note

The more the Note changes, the more it stays the same, I suppose. As expected, the design language hasn’t changed much, which is no doubt part of what made Samsung CEO DJ Koh think he could get away with using the device in public ahead of launch. The footprint is virtually the same in spite of the ever-so-slightly larger screen (6.3 > 6.4-inches, same 2,960 x 1,440 resolution) — from 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm on the 8, to 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm on the 9.

That’s perfectly fine. Samsung’s done an impressive job cramming a lot of screen into a manageable footprint over the past several gens. The only major change (aside from the lovely new blue and purple paint jobs) is the migration of the fingerprint sensor from the side of the camera to underneath it.

This was a clear instance of Samsung responding to feedback from users frustrated by all the times they mistook the camera for the fingerprint reader. The new placement helps a bit, though it’s still fairly close to the camera, and the fact that both are similar shapes doesn’t help matters. Thank goodness for that new smudge detector.

Oh, and the headphone jack is still present, because of course it is. For Samsung, it’s an important way to distinguish the product and approach from a world gone dongle mad.

Note on Notes

Oh Bixby, you eternal bastion of unfulfilled potential. A full rundown of new features can be found here. Overall, the smart assistant promises to be more conversational, with better concierge features. That said, Samsung’s once again tweaking it until the last moment, so I can’t offer you a full review until closer to the phone’s August 24 street date.

So stay tuned for that, I guess. I will say that the setup process can be a bit of a slog for a feature designed to make everything easier. Playing with Bixby voice required me to navigate several pages in order to connect the two. Thankfully, you should only have to deal with that the one time.

Samsung’s continuing to tweak the internals to make its device more suitable for gaming. The water-carbon cooling system tweaks the liquid cooling system found on the device since the S7, to help diffuse heat more efficiently. The large, bright screen meanwhile, is well-suited to mobile gaming, and the 6GB model handled Fortnite fairly well.

A final note

The next smartphone revolution always seems to be a year away. The potential arrival of a Samsung device with a foldable display makes the notion of carrying a massive device around in one’s pocket almost quaint. For the time being, however, the Note remains one of the best methods for transporting a whole lot of screen around on your person.

A lot has changed about the Note in the past seven years, but the core of the device is mostly the same: big screen and stylus coming together to walk the line between productivity and entertainment. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s too expensive for a lot of us. But it remains the phablet to beat.

Femtech hardware startup Elvie inks strategic partnership with UK’s NHS

Elvie, a femtech hardware startup whose first product is a sleek smart pelvic floor exerciser, has inked a strategic partnership with the UK’s National Health Service that will make the device available nationwide through the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare service so at no direct cost to the patient.

It’s a major win for the startup that was co-founded in 2013 by CEO Tania Boler and Jawbone founder, Alexander Asseily, with the aim of building smart technology that focuses on women’s issues — an overlooked and underserved category in the gadget space.

Boler’s background before starting Elvie (née Chiaro) including working for the U.N. on global sex education curriculums. But her interest in pelvic floor health, and the inspiration for starting Elvie, began after she had a baby herself and found there was more support for women in France than the U.K. when it came to taking care of their bodies after giving birth.

With the NHS partnership, which is the startup’s first national reimbursement partnership (and therefore, as a spokeswoman puts it, has “the potential to be transformative” for the still young company), Elvie is emphasizing the opportunity for its connected tech to help reduce symptoms of urinary incontinence, including those suffered by new mums or in cases of stress-related urinary incontinence.

The Elvie kegel trainer is designed to make pelvic floor exercising fun and easy for women, with real-time feedback delivered via an app that also gamifies the activity, guiding users through exercises intended to strengthen their pelvic floor and thus help reduce urinary incontinence symptoms. The device can also alert users when they are contracting incorrectly.

Elvie cites research suggesting the NHS spends £233M annually on incontinence, claiming also that around a third of women and up to 70% of expectant and new mums currently suffer from urinary incontinence. In 70 per cent of stress urinary incontinence cases it suggests symptoms can be reduced or eliminated via pelvic floor muscle training.

And while there’s no absolute need for any device to perform the necessary muscle contractions to strengthen the pelvic floor, the challenge the Elvie Trainer is intended to help with is it can be difficult for women to know they are performing the exercises correctly or effectively.

Elvie cites a 2004 study that suggests around a third of women can’t exercise their pelvic floor correctly with written or verbal instruction alone. Whereas it says that biofeedback devices (generally, rather than the Elvie Trainer specifically) have been proven to increase success rates of pelvic floor training programmes by 10% — which it says other studies have suggested can lower surgery rates by 50% and reduce treatment costs by £424 per patient head within the first year.

“Until now, biofeedback pelvic floor training devices have only been available through the NHS for at-home use on loan from the patient’s hospital, with patient allocation dependent upon demand. Elvie Trainer will be the first at-home biofeedback device available on the NHS for patients to keep, which will support long-term motivation,” it adds.

Commenting in a statement, Clare Pacey, a specialist women’s health physiotherapist at Kings College Hospital, said: “I am delighted that Elvie Trainer is now available via the NHS. Apart from the fact that it is a sleek, discreet and beautiful product, the app is simple to use and immediate visual feedback directly to your phone screen can be extremely rewarding and motivating. It helps to make pelvic floor rehabilitation fun, which is essential in order to be maintained.”

Elvie is not disclosing commercial details of the NHS partnership but a spokeswoman told us the main objective for this strategic partnership is to broaden access to Elvie Trainer, adding: “The wholesale pricing reflects that.”

Discussing the structure of the supply arrangement, she said Elvie is working with Eurosurgical as its delivery partner — a distributor she said has “decades of experience supplying products to the NHS”.

“The approach will vary by Trust, regarding whether a unit is ordered for a particular patient or whether a small stock will be held so a unit may be provided to a patient within the session in which the need is established. This process will be monitored and reviewed to determine the most efficient and economic distribution method for the NHS Supply Chain,” she added.

Google plans to roll out digital wellness features in Pie but Apple’s already got ’em

Google hopes to add a few digital wellness features to its latest desserted update, Pie (out today) but Apple is already on this health track with its latest update for iOS 12.

Digital wellness allows users to keep track of time spent on and unplug from your digital device when needed. Google announced the new wellness features coming to Android at I/O in May, including a dashboard for digital wellness, or the ability to track just how much time you spend on your device, an app timer that lets you set time limits on apps, a new Do Not Disturb feature which silences pop-up notifications and Wind Down, a feature to help you switch on Night Light and Do Not Disturb when it’s time to hit the hay.

Apple is also making digital wellness a focus. New features in this space were announced during its WWDC conference earlier this summer and the company has included an updated ‘Do Not Disturb’ feature in the iOS 12 update, also out today.

Several studies have suggested the importance of unplugging and breaking our addictions to our smartphones for our sanity’s sake and it seems Google would like to help us do just that with these new features. However, the new digital wellness features aren’t quite available in the latest Pie update, out today. We’ve asked Google why not and will update you when and if we hear back on that.

Meanwhile, Apple continues to roll ahead, adding its own controls to help iPhone owners curb their app and screen time usage. Similar to Android’s future offerings, iOS 12 includes a dash with a weekly report on how you spend time on your device. A feature called Downtime helps you schedule time away from your screen (versus just leaving your phone somewhere, seeing a notification and being tempted to pick it up), a feature to set time limits on apps and a way to block inappropriate content from reaching your screen as well.

Apple beats Android in this department for now but those features will supposedly be made available to everyone with a Google phone eventually. For those wanting to check out the new digital wellness features for Android, you can still do that today but only if you happen to have a Google Pixel — and only if you’ve signed up for the beta version.

Scientists successfully transplant lab-grown lungs into pigs

Lab-grown organ transplants aren't right around the corner, but they may considerably closer than you think. University of Texas Medical Branch researchers have successfully tested bioengineered lungs in adult pigs, with no signs of medical complica…

JetLenses aims to save you a bunch of money on your contacts

A Y Combinator-backed startup, JetLenses, is taking on the major contact lens e-commerce sites, like 1-800-Contacts, Lens.com, and other online ordering systems offered by major retailers, such as Walmart. The startup’s goal is to bring down the cost of prescription products by automating the overhead associated with these businesses, in areas like prescription verification, order tracking, compliance and fulfillment, then pass those savings on to customers.

The company also promises fair and transparent pricing, so there aren’t surprises at checkout, and offers customers free shipping on their orders.

JetLenses was founded by Dhaivat Pandya, the son of an eye doctor who studied Statistics and Computer Science at Harvard. His background allowed him to identify the market inefficiencies in this business, in order to develop a new solution, he says.

“It was a space where doing this kind of work – engineering and data science – would have an immediate impact that I could see on a day-to-day basis,” Pandya explains as to why he decided to target the prescription lenses market. “A lot the reason why contact lenses are so expensive is just overhead,” he says.

Around 20 percent of the time, the online sites run into issues when verifying customer prescriptions. For example, the eye doctor may have relocated their practice, and their phone and fax numbers changed.

This ends up eating away a lot of time in terms of human labor, as staff has to research if the practice still exists and locate their new contact information before they can proceed with the verification. JetLenses, meanwhile, will instead try to first match the doctor’s information to a data set it maintains of existing practices to find a match, then locate the new phone number and fax automatically

It also automatically faxes the office to verify the prescription, and processes the doctor’s office response.

The company is leveraging data science around the logistics of order fulfillment, too, in order to determine which fulfillment partner to use for each incoming order.

These sorts of engineering tasks may already be common to larger e-commerce shopping sites, but haven’t really been put to work in the prescription lenses market, Pandya says.

He says JetLenses’ lower pricing comes from these improvements – it’s not just slashing prices to attract customers.

“Our margins are basically identical to others in the space,” he notes. “The goal is not to alter the business by just selling [lenses] for cheaper.”

While not a comprehensive review, I tried out online ordering on JetLenses before speaking to the company, to see how it compared with my usual site, 1800Contacts.com. I was fairly surprised to find that a 6-pack of my Acuvue Oasys for Astigmatism lenses were $32.99 on JetLenses, compared with the $51.99 I usually pay. (1800Contacts encourages shoppers to buy 4 boxes per eye at once, to get a $40 rebate on these lenses. But that’s a lot to spend all at once.)

JetLenses will honor the manufacturer rebates, too, and works with customers’ vision insurance plans.

The website itself is a little wonky in parts, but it’s only been online since the fall. You’ll need to know your lens brand and do a search rather than try to browse your way. as the site navigation is somewhat lacking, I found. But to save nearly $20 a box? Worth it.

JetLenses isn’t the only contacts lens e-commerce startup out there right now. Another, Hubble, raised $73.7 million last year for its own brand of daily disposable lenses, sold on subscription. That’s the not route JetLenses is going.

Instead, it aims to apply these data science techniques to other prescription businesses, like dental products or prescription creams.

For now, the startup is focused on raising a seed round following Y Combinator’s Demo Day to scale the business more quickly.

 

Check out this first of its kind, direct-to-consumer urine-testing app with FDA clearance

Urinary tract infections are highly uncomfortable and distracting, and they are very common for women because of the female anatomy. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, many women experience more than one infection during their lifetimes.

Many of the afflicted try resolving the infection on their own — using heating pads, drinking more water, taking pain medications. But often, these infections become quickly more advanced, a doctor is called, an in-patient visit is made, and the whole terrible episode is only ended after a trip to the pharmacy for some antibiotics.

Until now, at least.

A young San Francisco-based startup called Scanwell Health just this week began selling directly to consumers the first and, for now, the only FDA-cleared urine testing app that allows someone to test their urine at home using a paper test strip and a camera phone. (Its app uses sophisticated color metrics to analyze the strip and determine what’s what.)

The kits are just $5. A call to Scanwell to confirm the results — it relies on outside physicians — will cost another $25. But that prescription service will also call in an order for antibiotics immediately if there’s an infection. (Users can also order the antibiotics, but it takes a couple of days for them to arrive.)

The startup — which has so far raised just $120,000 from Y Combinator — was founded by Stephen Chen, a Harvard MBA who has the kind of backstory that makes investors slobber.

Right out of school, he joined Teco Diagnostics, a now 33-year-old maker of in-vitro diagnostics and medical devices, first as an R&D manager and later as a GM. Using what he’d learned there, he left Teco in 2013 to create a separate company, Petnostics, which makes a urine test for pets that can help identify a range of issues, from diabetes to kidney stones to bacterial infections. He even pitched the company on the show “Shark Tank,” which was hosting open tryouts within distance of his home a couple of years ago, and he landed $300,000 in exchange for 20 percent of the company.

While the exposure was great, the terms were not, suggests Chen, who says he ultimately didn’t take the money. He didn’t need to, apparently. Petnostics is still a going concern and it has generated enough revenue to support the development of Scanwell, which Chen says was always part of his master plan. In fact, Chen started the FDA approval for Scanwell nearly three years ago. The reason: UTI testing for humans is a much bigger market, especially when factoring in the billions of dollars that are wasted on emergency room trips for UTIs each year. Though hard to fathom, a visit to the ER for the condition can cost a stunning $2,600.

What happens from now depends on how effectively Scanwell reaches its target market, but so far, it seems, so good.

Though the direct-to-consumer service will take some time (different states have different regulations around over-the-phone prescription services), people in California and select other states can use the service today. In the meantime, Scanwell is making its kits available on as many college campuses as possible, given UTIs tend to be prevalent at schools because students are sexually active.

The company is also looking to work more closely with insurance companies, arguing it can help them improve their own quality ratings by using Scanwell kits to reduce Medicare and other insurance payouts.

Not last, the four-person team is already working on other urine-based tests, including a test that identifies chronic kidney disease, and another test for cardiovascular diseases.

Says Chen, “Paper tests are so cheap. They can reach people through the mail. It’s kind of like when AOL used to send out a bunch of discs. We can work with health providers to work with their patient populations and reach them more effectively through home tests.”

Hopefully, they’ll agree with Chen. Certainly, as he notes, home access to diagnostics is “long overdue.”

Study backs blood test that gauges seriousness of concussions

Remember how the FDA approved a blood test that could determine the severity of a concussion? It's now clear just why the FDA gave its approval. The Lancet Neurology has published the study at the heart of the decision, giving you a chance to verif…