Hidden Amazon page drops hints about a ‘Fire TV Cube’

Rumors have been floating around for a few months now of a new device from Amazon that would mash-up the media streaming capabilities of its Fire TV line with the voice assistant abilities of the Echo. After leaked images turned up showing a cube-shaped device that seemed to fit the bill, people started referring to this still as-of-yet unannounced device as the “Fire TV Cube.”

Sure enough: a seemingly official page has been found tucked away on Amazon.com that mentions a Fire TV Cube, and promises “details coming soon.”

As found by AFTVNews, the placeholder splash page offers up little beyond the promise of eventual details. It’s got a big ol’ header that says “What is Fire TV Cube?”, a button to let you sign up for more details and… well, that’s about it.

There’s also a mention of a “Fire TV Cube” on this page, tucked away in Amazon’s account management backend to let folks toggle their subscriptions to any one of the dozens of newsletters/email campaigns that Amazon sends out.

According to the original leaks, the Fire TV Cube would have the speaker, far-field microphones and LED light bar of an Echo and the 4K video-capable guts of a Fire TV, allowing you to hook it up to your TV and have one device doing double the duties.

In other words: While there’s still no official word on when (or if!) this thing will actually ship, it definitely looks like they’re prepping for something behind the scenes.

Glowforge opens public orders for its desktop 3D laser cutter

Hardware startup Glowforge, which makes a desktop laser cutter and engraver for home or office use, has finally opened up sales to the general public.

The maker-targeted device, which can ‘print’ (read: engrave/laser cut) a variety of materials including leather, wood, acrylic, glass, and even the metal surface of a Macbook, starts at $2,495 for the entry level machine, rising to a full $5,995 for the pro model — which is billed as faster, able to print larger items, and capable of running for longer periods.

With a starter price-tag of $2.5k Glowforge is clearly not for everyone. Though arguably it does offer more creative bang for your buck than, say, the equally expensive Skydio face-tracking selfie drone. But horses for courses, and all that.

The Seattle-based startup has also topped up with $10M more in VC funding, according GeekWire, from existing investors True Ventures and Foundry Group — who also backed its $22M Series B, in mid 2016, and an earlier $9M Series A.

Glowforge has raised just over $60M at this point, according to Crunchbase, including pulling in almost $30M in pre-sales via a crowdfunding campaign back in 2015. We first covered the hardware startup ahead of that, when it announced its Series A.

Safe to say, it’s been a long journey to turn the founders’ novel idea and prototype into a market-ready and robust laser cutter — and get that into all its backers’ hands.

It’s also clearly been a frustrating process at times. But Glowforge now at least appears confident it can fulfill orders in a timely fashion — it’s offering a May 3 shipping date to new buyers (within the US).

That said, it does not look like all original backers have had their device shipped though.

According to founder Dan Shapiro’s comments to GeekWire, there are some backers who still haven’t got their device — for a few different reasons. “There’s some folks who haven’t replied, asked us not to send it yet, or live in a country that’s awaiting regulatory approval,” he told it.

A quasi-optional air filter component for the Glowforge — which costs an additional $995 — also isn’t shipping until November. (A note on the website says the machine can be used without it, though in that case it warns the placement of the machine “needs a window or 4″ dryer hose”.)

 

Technique to beam HD video with 99 percent less power could sharpen the eyes of smart homes

Everyone seems to be insisting on installing cameras all over their homes these days, which seems incongruous with the ongoing privacy crisis — but that’s a post for another time. Today, we’re talking about enabling those cameras to send high-definition video signals wirelessly without killing their little batteries. A new technique makes beaming video out more than 99 percent more efficient, possibly making batteries unnecessary altogether.

Cameras found in smart homes or wearables need to transmit HD video, but it takes a lot of power to process that video and then transmit the encoded data over Wi-Fi. Small devices leave little room for batteries, and they’ll have to be recharged frequently if they’re constantly streaming. Who’s got time for that?

The idea behind this new system, created by a University of Washington team led by prolific researcher Shyam Gollakota, isn’t fundamentally different from some others that are out there right now. Devices with low data rates, like a digital thermometer or motion sensor, can something called backscatter to send a low-power signal consisting of a couple of bytes.

Backscatter is a way of sending a signal that requires very little power, because what’s actually transmitting the power is not the device that’s transmitting the data. A signal is sent out from one source, say a router or phone, and another antenna essentially reflects that signal, but modifies it. By having it blink on and off you could indicate 1s and 0s, for instance.

UW’s system attaches the camera’s output directly to the output of the antenna, so the brightness of a pixel directly correlates to the length of the signal reflected. A short pulse means a dark pixel, a longer one is lighter, and the longest length indicates white.

Some clever manipulation of the video data by the team reduced the number of pulses necessary to send a full video frame, from sharing some data between pixels to using a “zigzag” scan (left to right, then right to left) pattern. To get color, each pixel needs to have its color channels sent in succession, but this too can be optimized.

Assembly and rendering of the video is accomplished on the receiving end, for example on a phone or monitor, where power is more plentiful.

In the end, a full-color HD signal at 60FPS can be sent with less than a watt of power, and a more modest but still very useful signal — say, 720p at 10FPS — can be sent for under 80 microwatts. That’s a huge reduction in power draw, mainly achieved by eliminating the entire analog to digital converter and on-chip compression. At those levels, you can essentially pull all the power you need straight out of the air.

They put together a demonstration device with off-the-shelf components, though without custom chips it won’t reach those

A frame sent during one of the tests. This transmission was going at about 10FPS.

microwatt power levels; still, the technique works as described. The prototype helped them determine what type of sensor and chip package would be necessary in a dedicated device.

Of course, it would be a bad idea to just blast video frames into the ether without any compression; luckily, the way the data is coded and transmitted can easily be modified to be meaningless to an observer. Essentially you’d just add an interfering signal known to both devices before transmission, and the receiver can subtract it.

Video is the first application the team thought of, but there’s no reason their technique for efficient, quick backscatter transmission couldn’t be used for non-video data.

The tech is already licensed to Jeeva Wireless, a startup founded by UW researchers (including Gollakota) a while back that’s already working on commercializing another low-power wireless device. You can read the details about the new system in their paper, presented last week at the Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.

The making of a hardware founder

Working in tech, it’s hard to avoid the many stories and congratulatory tweets about the latest company to close a funding round, and little wonder. It’s a milestone worth celebrating before getting back to work. Yet what’s happening in the trenches before those funding announcements roll out is often more instructive. How does one decide to make the leap in the first place? How do you mold a product or service into something that you can present to outsiders? How can you enlist people to help you when everyone you want to meet has more pressing demands on their time?

These are questions that many new founders wrestle with, including Sarah McDevitt, a college basketball star turned hardware founder whose product she hopes to have in consumers’ hands by this holiday season — even while she’s acutely aware that a lot has to go right first.

McDevitt didn’t anticipate being in this position five years ago when she was making a generous salary as a product manager at Microsoft, working a stone’s throw from where she’d grown up in Seattle. But like a lot of founders, McDevitt eventually felt compelled to start her now two-year-old company, Core Wellness, which aims to sell meditation experiences.

We checked in with her this week about how far along she has gotten, the obstacles she wasn’t expecting and where she goes from here.

TC: You played college basketball at NYU, where you also studied math and computer science. Which was more fun?

SM: [Laughs.] In high school, I used to walk to a gym that was open at all hours of the night and play until my parents were like, ‘You have to come home.’ But I’ve always loved math and education, too.

TC: When you graduated, you went home to Seattle to work for Microsoft for five years. How did you get from there to launching a startup that makes it easier for people to meditate?

SM: I spent my last year at Microsoft on its social responsibility team, working on global education initiatives, and on a work trip, I visited a university in South Africa that was incorporating meditation into its curriculum. I was amazed at the effects that meditation had on this student population that had endured in some cases extreme poverty and violence. It was really eye-opening to me.

I soon discovered Stanford’s learning design program and it was the thing that I was looking for. I knew I wanted to study stress and what happens in our bodies and how meditation and mindfulness can combat it. I still feel lucky that I got in.

TC: Did you want to teach about meditation or did you head to Stanford thinking you wanted to start a company?

SM: I thought I’d design something for high school districts to address mental well-being for teenagers. For my master’s thesis — which had to be a design project — I’d designed a kind of mini curriculum for high school students that any high school teacher could implement. That’s what led to the idea of Core. I thought it might be hard for teenagers to buy into meditation without meaningful bio feedback, which is at the root of what we’re building. I’d also started thinking about using a physical object that could help younger students practice mindfulness.

But the more research I did, the more I realized that adults really struggle with meditation. And when you look at how stress affects our brains and bodies, it’s clearly something we should be addressing. I wanted to see if I could create something that applies to adults as well.

TC: So step one was . . .

SM: Looking for a co-founder. I knew I wanted camaraderie. But I didn’t have anyone who was in on this idea with me, so it was like finding someone to marry without dating them. I posted on collaboration boards at Stanford about the skills I was looking for — electrical engineering, app development for an early prototype. I figured I’d find someone with the skills, then work with that person for a few hours a week and see how things went.

TC: You found that person, Brian Bolze, who is also Core’s head of product. Did you know it was a fit straightaway?

SM: We had coffee and really vibe’d on our worldview and mindset around meditation and the kind of brand I’d wanted to create. Then we started working together, five hours a week, then 10, then 20. Then suddenly, it was like, ‘Hey, so are you going to stay in school?’ He eventually took that leap, and I’m incredibly thankful to have him. I think the emotional partnership is just as important as having a skills match.

TC: Core is making both hardware and software. What was building that first hardware prototype like?

SM: We started by using hobbyist materials like Arduino, and we used Stanford for 3D printing access and a hardware maker space that’s now out of business. I was also networking constantly through my Stanford classmates and previous coworkers, saying, ‘I’m looking for help with PCV manufacturing.’ or ‘Do you know someone who has invested in hardware before and can help us out.’

I was asking for a feedback as a way to get meetings. I did that a ton. Then we just started working on a prototype that was just functional enough to put in users’ hands and get feedback. The same was true with our business model. We’d ask for feedback from Stanford professors who’ve invested before, contacts I’d made, angel investors.

TC: You’ve raised a tiny bit of funding so far, from the hardware-focused venture firm Bolt and Bose, the speaker and headphones company. Can you talk about how that came together?

SM: Kate McAndrew, [a VC at Bolt] runs these women-in-hardware meetings and that’s kind of how I found my way into the community. My previous contacts were in software, so I went to her meet-ups to learn about the hardware business and eventually, over nine months, when she thought we were finally in a place to pitch Bolt’s partners, we did that.

TC: You’re based in San Francisco. Can I ask how, before you raised a bit of funding, how you were supporting yourself?

SM: Once we’d begun work on prototypes, we’d raised a friends-and-family round that we used to pay for industrial design help. Working at Microsoft, too, I’d saved a bunch of money. I didn’t necessarily have a reason why at the time but I naturally [spent] less than what I was making, knowing I wanted to enable myself some freedom. Grad school was incredibly expensive, but I did still have some savings I could live off for the first six months or so until we raised that family round.

TC: Were your friends and family receptive?

SM: It was really challenging for me personally. To go to people with this really new idea that has pretty much no validation and ask for money was hard. I did learn through that process there are a lot of people who want to support you, and a little bit from a lot of people adds up. It was enough to get to the point where we had a functioning prototype. 

TC: How far away are you from selling to your first customer?

SM: In two months, we’ll have an exclusive public launch. We’re making a couple hundred meditation trainers with the goal in mind of finding our “core” tribe — people who love Core, latch onto it and keep coming back. Once we sell that and have that engagement data, we’ll go raise a seed round.

TC: This is a hardware product and subscription software. How much will you charge and how does it work?

SM: We’re charging $199 [for the handheld trainer], along with a monthly subscription with personalized content. We’ll also be launching virtual meditation classes so that you can check in with live instructors and feel connected to a community of other people meditating with you.

TC: How are you personalizing the content?

SM: By using data to recommend to you content that we know will be effective for you. The first step [in meditation] is to turn your attention to one thing; we’re helping you do that by giving you this grounding, comforting object with a pulse that guides you through breathing exercises and technique.

As for personalized recommendations, if you’ve been a user for a while and we see [based on biosensor data] that a body scan technique has been effective, we might say in the app, ‘Hey, this, four-minute body scan has been really effective in reducing stress so let’s try this today.’

TC: How much seed funding do you hope to raise?

SM: We’re targeting $4 million, most immediately to fund a holiday launch and enter the market.

TC: And if you miss that window?

SM: I don’t think we need to wait for another. There’s huge demand for help with meditation.

TC: And you’ll be selling exclusively through your site or are you talking with possible distribution partners?

SM: We’re partnering with yoga and fitness studios on events and experiences and meditation stations. We also have some pop-up experiences planned with brands in the Bay Area.

TC: Building hardware is hard. What’s the biggest thing that’s gone wrong?

SM: First, I will say that the hardware community is extremely helpful and collaborative, unlike the world of enterprise software, which is pretty cutthroat and where people are more closed off to helping others. We’ve gotten so much help from other founders.

Still, you’re right. As one example, we were getting our electrodes from a prototyping shop in China, and they have to be stainless steel 304 to be conductive. When they sent the electrodes to us and they weren’t working, we did all this variable isolation before eventually figuring out that they’d used a different metal alloy. When we told them, they were like, ‘Yeah. They’re stainless steel 304.’ [Laughs.] It was a bad setback, but now metals testing happens much earlier in the process, and we might not have thought of that being a necessary step otherwise. You also learn the importance of a timeline buffer for things like that to happen.

TC: Are you meeting with investors yet?

SM: I’m out networking. We’re not fundraising yet, but we’re having the right conversations. That way investors are aware of what we’re doing and that we’re coming.

SNK may be making a mini-console stuffed with arcade classics

If you’ve worked through the amazing selection of games provided by the NES and SNES Classic Editions, you may be in luck: SNK, the legendary arcade game creator behind the likes of Metal Slug and Samurai Shodown, is teasing what looks like its own tiny arcade cabinet.

Teased as part of the company’s 40th anniversary, the shrouded gadget definitely doesn’t look like a NEO-GEO, or even a NEO-GEO Pocket. Gizmodo notes that the description mentions a “new game machine,” but no details beyond that. The tall, boxy outline suggests a small arcade cabinet, and the slab in front of it looks a lot like an arcade controller.

It wouldn’t be a particularly original creation — there are dozens of tiny arcade cabinets with built-in games, but the truth is, none of them is particularly good. They’re novelties, perfectly fun for a laugh, but the hardware — compared with the impressive solidity of real arcade controllers and the NEO-GEO’s itself — just isn’t there.

If I had to guess, I’d say this is an arcade cabinet-style console with improved internals, a decent screen to accommodate games newer than 1996 and a separate, perhaps even wireless arcade controller. Price… I’d put it at $200 or $250. Extra controller (and you’ll want it), my guess is $60. I could easily be way off, though. Maybe they’d even let us plug in our old Tanksticks?

An original NEO-GEO controller. You can feel the sturdiness from where you sit.

Inside, you’ll probably find a generous helping of SNK classics, likely limited to arcade and NEO-GEO titles. Even without SNK’s classic games for home consoles like the NES, my eyes were watering as I scrolled down the list of games the company has put out and which may end up on this device.

King of the Monsters 2? Last Resort? Twinkle Star Sprites? King of Fighters, Samurai Shodown and all the other fighters? Not to mention Metal Slug and its sequels. The amount of quarters I’ve sunk into these fantastic, beautiful games is uncountable.

If SNK is smart, they’ll make it possible to add new games to the system, too. There are plenty to choose from, as the company catered to a number of niches. Having them available for a few bucks each would be a dream — and anyway, if this isn’t a possibility, people will just hack new ROMs onto the system.

Whatever the case is, you can be sure I’m already jockeying for position to review the thing. I’ll let you know the second I hear anything.

Are hardware makers doing enough to keep Android phones secure?

For all the good of Android’s open-source approach, one of the clear and consistent downsides is that the onus to issue software updates falls on the manufacturer. That can mean frustration for those waiting for the latest and greatest feature updates — and in some cases, it can put your phone at risk with delayed or missed security updates.

A pair of researchers at Security Research Labs recently shared a study with Wired highlighting some of these risks. The team’s findings are the result of testing 1,200 Android handsets from all the major manufacturers over the course of two years, examining whether manufacturers had offered the security patches as advertised.

According to SRL, missed security patches were discovered on a wide range of different handsets across manufacturers. Sony and Samsung were both flagged as having missed some security patches — in some cases in spite of reporting that they were up to date. “It’s almost impossible for the user to know which patches are actually installed,” one of the researchers told the site.

Xiaomi, Nokia, HTC, Motorola and LG all made the list, as well, while TCL and ZTE fared the worst in the study, with, on average, not having installed more than four of the patches they claimed to have installed on a given device.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Google pointed to the importance of various different means used to secure the Android ecosystem. The company believes that the SRL findings might not tell the full story when it comes to keeping devices secure.

“We would like to thank Karsten Nohl and Jakob Kell for their continued efforts to reinforce the security of the Android ecosystem,” the company writes. “We’re working with them to improve their detection mechanisms to account for situations where a device uses an alternate security update instead of the Google suggested security update. Security updates are one of many layers used to protect Android devices and users. Built-in platform protections, such as application sandboxing, and security services, such as Google Play Protect, are just as important. These layers of security—combined with the tremendous diversity of the Android ecosystem—contribute to the researchers’ conclusions that remote exploitation of Android devices remains challenging.” 

The company also pointed us to this year in review post, which sheds a bit more light on the matter.

Amazon officially owns Ring, so let’s talk product integration

Amazon’s acquisition of Ring officially closed today. Now the companies (or company, rather) are marking the occasion by discounting the Ring Video Doorbell $30, down to $100 — because what better way to celebrate scalability and maximum distribution than a price drop?

Amazon is quick to note in its press material that the Ring name is sticking around — for the time being, at least. The company’s products will be joining a bunch of other smart home devices under the Amazon umbrella, including the company’s own Cloud Cam and various devices by one-time competitor, Blink.

Among other things, that means that existing customers shouldn’t expect service interruptions with the product. That said, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see the company pushing toward an Alexa-based smart home hub solution to rival offerings like Apple’s Home app. Certainly it would make sense for the company to try to put everything in the same place — and could ultimately make things a bit less fragmented for the consumer.

A recent interview with Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff also hints at what the company will ultimately look like in relation to Amazon’s Key service, which met with mixed reviews at launch.

“As it relates to Key, that’s obviously one that we’ll look at pretty closely,” he told CNET. “I wouldn’t want to make any commitments at this point in time, but it’s certainly one that’s on the list that we’ll start thinking about.”

Not super insightful, but about as much as one can expect from the head of a company recently purchased by Amazon. While Siminoff says Ring will stay relatively independent, maintaining its Santa Monica office, becoming a piece of Amazon’s smart home play likely means deeper and deeper integrations with the company’s home hardware offerings.

Amazon’s clearly been eying the company for a while. The company backed Ring through the Alexa Fund, which has become a bit of a funnel for future acquisitions of late, as it looks to leverage the Echo/Alexa’s success into an all-out smart home takeover.

Dutch uni spinout gets $1.2M for its zero ink printing tech

Tocano, a spinout from Delft Technology University in the Netherlands which is working on an inkless printing technology, has closed a €1 million angel round to fund the next stage of its tech development and move a step closer to building its first commercial product.

The startup began as the graduate student project of co-founder Venkatesh Chandrasekar who, along with fellow student Van der Veen, founded the business in 2015, gaining early backing from the university.

The team now consists of eight employees and is part of the business incubator Yes!Delft.

Now it’s true there are already some ‘inkless’ printing technologies in use commercially. One we covered back in 2009 is Zink: A color printer which doesn’t require ink cartridges in the actual printer; but does require special Zink photo paper which has colored ink embedded in it. So an ‘inkless printer’, technically, but not actually ink-less technology.

Tocano’s tech — which it is branding Inkless — has a much cleaner claim to the name because it doesn’t involve having to use ink-saturated paper. Nor any other type of special paper, such as thermal-coated paper — which is another type of inkless printing already in use (such as for receipts).

Rather they are using an infrared laser to burn the surface of the paper — so carbonization is being used as the printing medium.

And they claim their technique is able to produce black and white printing with blacks as dark and stable as ink-based prints. Though, clearly, they’re still early in the development process.

Here’s a photo of their current prototype, alongside a sample of text printed with it:

The angel funding will be used to try to reach what they dub “a competitive printing performance”. After which they say they’ll need to raise more money to build the first product — so they’re already planning the next financing round (for the end of the year).

“With this money we can make our technology ‘development-ready’, which means that we can meet the required quality and speed performance requirements so that we can begin with the development of our first product”, says co-founder and CEO Arnaud van der Veen in a statement.

“[The] next round will either be financed by strategic partners or venture capitalists. The first meetings have already taken place.”

If they can successfully productize their laser carbonization technique the promise is printing without the expense, waste and limits imposed by ink refills plus other consumables.

“I always compare this to the transition from the analogue camera to the digital camera,” says van der Veen.  “Suddenly people were able to make unlimited photos and it was not needed to replace the films. Likewise, with our printing solutions, refill and replacement of ink and consumables will not be needed.”

Though quite how expensive the next-gen laser printer machines themselves will be if/when they arrive on shop shelves remains to be seen.

Tocano says its first product will be aimed at industrial users for packaging and labelling use cases — such as printing barcodes, shelf life data and product codes on packages and labels.

Its ambition is to range out after that, bringing additional printer products to market targeting other business users — and eventually even the consumer market.

“Our first product will fit [the packaging/labelling] market but after that we will make the technology accessible for production printers, office printers, consumer printers and receipt printers. In all these market we can offer the same advantages, a cheaper and more sustainable printer without any hassle with ink, cartridges or toners,” he adds.