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Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Los Angeles-based Luxury Presence raised $5.4 million for its real estate marketing services

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 03:46 PM PST

Real estate is a big business in the sprawling city of Los Angeles and new technology tools to target the industry continue to attract investor attention.

The latest of these is Luxury Presence, which pitches digital marketing services to real estate agents and has raked in $5.4 million in financing to support the buildout of its services and sales teams to manage clients.

Previous investors Switch Ventures led the round, which included participation from new investors Bessemer Venture Partners and Toba Capital alongside previous investors Gerald Risk, Peter Kelly, Jonathan Erlich, and Blaine Vess.

"Our 2020 goal is to build a full digital marketing solution for real estate agents looking to build successful, lead-generating digital brands," said Malte Kramer, the company’s chief executive, in a statement. "2019 was all about building the best real estate website platform in the sector and I'm so proud of what our team was able to accomplish. Our focus was on how to make beautiful, functional and lead-generating sites that were easily customizable to fit the agent's needs and demands, and we did just that."

According to estimates from Built in LA, there are roughly 127 companies, which have raised over $5.4 billion active in the real estate industry in Los Angeles. These companies range from co-working startups like Knotel or WeWork to companies focused on servicing the real estate industry (like Luxury Presence).

In all, the sector is growing quickly as venture investors look to find markets that were reluctant to embrace technology. The traditionally opaque world of high end real estate certainly applies.

 

AutoX and Fiat Chrysler are teaming up on a robotaxi for China

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 03:40 PM PST

Autonomous vehicle startup AutoX, which is backed by Alibaba, said Tuesday that it is partnering with Fiat Chrysler partnership to roll out a fleet of robotaxis for China and other countries in Asia.

A fleet of Chrysler Pacifica is going to be in service to the public in China in early 2020, according to AutoX Passengers will be able to call a RoboTaxi using WeChat mini-program and other popular apps in China.

The partnership is an important step for AutoX, which is developing a full self-driving stack. While AutoX has been operating robotaxi pilots in California and China, its real aim is to license its technology to companies that want to operate robotaxi fleets of their own.

While the partnership might not be as critical to FCA, it would theorectically give the automaker access to a robotaxi platform that can operate in China, if it were to choose to make that move.

AutoX, which is based in Hong Kong and San Jose, Calif., already tests in California and China. The company began offering public rides in downtown Shenzhen in early 2019 and in September partnered with Shanghai to launch 100 of its robotaxis to pilot a fleet there.

AutoX CEO Jianxiong Xiao said the next challenge is to remove the safety driver and go truly driverless.

“Getting hardware ready is a crucial step towards this goal,” he said. The partnership with FCA will help it get there, according to the company.

“Achieving completely driverless operation needs a very reliable vehicle platform with full redundancy of the vehicle’s drive-by-wire system,” said Xiao. “This level of redundancy is still new and rare in the auto industry. The Chrysler Pacifica platform has proven trustworthy for driverless deployment.”

AutoX is exhibiting the Chrysler Pacifica minivan at CES 2020. The vehicle is outfitted with an array of sensors.The hybrid vehicle now has 360 degrees of solid state lidar sensors, along with numerous high-definition cameras, blind spot lidar sensors and radar sensors. AutoX has tapped Robosense and drone manufacturer DJI for its lidar sensors.

The vehicle is also equipped with a vehicle control unit, called the XCU, that AutoX developed. The XCU, pictured below, powers and integrates the self-driving stack, including sensors like lidar and radar, into the vehicle. AutoX says its XCU has faster processing speed and more computational capability, making it ideal for the complex scenarios found in China’s cities.AutoX XCU

“There are a lot more cars, pedestrians, bikers, scooters, and moving objects on the street, many of which are not following the traffic rules,” COO Zhuo Li said in a statement. “Due to the fast development speeds in China, construction and reconstruction can happen overnight. The streets can look completely different in the morning, afternoon, and at night. This requires our system to process faster and extremely accurate to recognize and track each object to guarantee safety.” 

 

Meanwhile, FCA’s autonomy strategy has largely hinged on partnering with AV developers. In May 2016, Waymo and FCA announced a collaboration to produce about 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans integrated with Waymo's self-driving system. And last year, FCA struck a deal with Aurora to develop self-driving commercial vehicles.

Last year, AutoX announced a partnership with Swedish holding company and electric vehicle manufacturer NEVS to deploy a robotaxi pilot service in Europe by the end of 2020. It received permission from California regulators to transport passengers in its robotaxis (human safety driver required). AutoX is calling its California robotaxi service xTaxi.

Plex’s secret weapon: cross-media integrations

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 01:10 PM PST

Plex’s expansion beyond a home media organizer to becoming a centralized platform for all your media, gives the company a distinct advantage. By tying all media together under one roof — streaming music, podcasts, web shows and video of all sorts — Plex is able to add interesting and unique features around personalization and recommendations.

We’re only beginning to see some of the results of these sorts of integrations now.

To start, Plex today is leveraging its TIDAL music partnership to highlight which songs appear in a TV show, episode or movie they’re watching. Currently, this works for library content only, but Plex told TechCrunch at CES this week that the feature soon will work for AVOD [ad-supported video on demand] content as well shows and movies recorded to their cloud DVR via a digital antenna.

In the months ahead, Plex will begin to roll out more cross-media integrations, it says.

Going fast: Buy a demo table at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 01:00 PM PST

Startup founders, set your sites on TC Sessions: Robotics+AI, which takes place on March 3, 2020. This annual day-long event draws the brightest minds and makers from these two industries — 1,500 attendees last year alone. And if you really want to make 2020 a game-changing year, grab yourself a demo table and showcase your early-stage robotics or AI startup in front of those big names and serious influencers.

Simply purchase an Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package — the price includes four tickets to the event, so bring your crew, flex your networking mojo and take in some of the many discussions throughout the day. Get yours before they're gone — only eight left.

The day's programming covers a wide range of crucial issues focused on robotics and AI. TC editors conduct in-depth interviews and moderate panel discussions and Q&As with the industries' leading minds, makers, technologists, researchers and investors. You'll enjoy workshops, demos and plenty of networking opportunities.

We're talking topics that appeal to every hungry startup founder. Like a panel discussion on investing featuring Eric Migicovsky, Kelly Chen and Dror Berman — all top VCs in robotics and AI.

These folks have their fingers on the pulse of robotics, AI and automation. They'll be on hand to share insights on future industry trends, talk about the most compelling startups and what they look for when it comes to funding.

We'll be sharing details and the names of plenty more speakers in the coming weeks, so keep checking back. You can always check out last year's program to get a sense of what to expect.

Did you know we have a new twist to this year's Session? It's a pitch competition — Pitch Night. It takes place the night before, it doesn't cost a thing and it's open to founders of early-stage startups focused on robotics and AI. There's only one small hoop to jump through: apply here by February 1.

TC Sessions: Robotics+AI takes place on March 3, 2020 at UC Berkeley. Buy your Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package today, and come impress the top technologists, makers, thinkers, researchers and investors. Make 2020 your game-changing year.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Mobileye expands its robotaxi footprint with a new deal in South Korea

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 12:23 PM PST

Mobileye announced Tuesday an agreement to test and eventually deploy a robotaxi service in Daegu City, South Korea, the latest example of the company’s strategy to expand beyond its traditional business of supplying automakers with computer vision technology that power advanced driver assistance systems.

Under the agreement, which was announced at CES 2020, Mobileye will integrate its self-driving system — a kit that includes visual perception, sensor fusion, its REM mapping system, software algorithms and its driving policy that will "drive" the cars — to enable a driverless mobility-as-a-service operation in South Korea. This system's driving policy, or the decision-making of the car, is influenced by "Responsibility Sensitive Safety," or RSS, a mathematical model introduced in 2017 by Mobileye in a white paper.

Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel, has long dominated a specific niche in the automotive world as a developer of computer vision sensor systems that help prevent collisions. The company generated nearly $1 billion in sales from this business, and its tech made it into 17.5 million new cars in 2019, Amnon Shashua, Mobileye’s president and CEO and Intel senior vice president, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

But in recent years, the company has also turned its attention and resources to mapping, as well as developing the full self-driving stack to support higher levels of automated driving. Mobileye’s REM mapping system essentially crowdsources data — by tapping into the millions of vehicles equipped with its tech — to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems.

In 2018, the company expanded its focus beyond being a mere supplier and toward operating robotaxi services. Intel and Mobileye began testing self-driving cars in Jerusalem in May 2018. Since then, the company has racked up agreements, first with Volkswagen and Champion Motors. The companies formed a joint venture called New Mobility in Israel with a plan to start a self-driving ride-hailing service there.

Mobileye then made an agreement with RATP in partnership with the city of Paris to bring robotaxis to France. The company also partnered with Chinese electric car startup Nio in late 2019 to develop autonomous vehicles that consumers can buy. Under the agreement, Nio will supply vehicles to Mobileye for China and other markets.

Mobileye also announced Tuesday that China’s SAIC will use its REM mapping technology to map China for Level 2+ — a newer industry term that is meant to cover higher levels of automated driving that still require a human driver to be in the loop. Level 2+ systems often cover highway autonomy, which means the system handles driving on highways but in certain conditions requires the human driver to take over.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Investors and utilities are seeding carbon markets with new startups

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 12:02 PM PST

While most of the world agrees that carbon dioxide emissions from human activity are creating a climate crisis, there’s little consensus regarding how to address it.

One of the solutions that’s both the most obvious and, seemingly, the most difficult for the international community to agree on is establishing a market that would put a price on carbon emissions. Making the cost of emissions palpable for industries would encourage companies to curb their polluting activities or pay to offset them.

The holy grail of a global carbon market — or a collection of regional ones — has been on the agenda for climate activists and regulators since the Kyoto Protocols were ratified in 1997, but enacting the policy has proven elusive.

Now, as the results of climate inaction become more apparent, there appears to be some movement on the regulatory front and concurrent activity from early-stage technology investors to make carbon offsets more of a reality.

It’s still early days, but startups like Project Wren, Pachama and Cloverly prove that investors and utilities are willing to take a flyer on companies that are trying to enable carbon offsets for consumers and corporations alike.

These small bets for investors are complemented by the potential for outsized returns given the size and scope that’s possible should these markets actually develop.

After years of languishing in relative obscurity, global carbon markets rebounded with vigor in 2017 and into 2018, according to data from the World Bank.

Countries raised about $44 billion in revenues from carbon pricing in 2018, an increase of $11 billion, with more than half coming from carbon taxes. In 2017, the $33 billion raised by governments from carbon pricing was an increase of 50% over 2016 numbers.

However large that number may seem, it’s dwarfed by the figure required to make any real changes in industry emissions, according to the World Bank. The current pricing schemes that exist cover a small percentage of global emissions at a cost that’s consistent with achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement, the latest international treaty around climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Prices need to rise to between $40 per ton of carbon dioxide and $80 per ton by 2020 and between $50 per ton and $100 per ton by 2030.

Sonos sues Google over alleged patent infringement on smart speaker tech

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 11:31 AM PST

Following what the company described as years of back-and-forth, Sonos has filed suit against Google for alleged patent infringements related to the company’s smart speakers. Sonos said that Amazon was also infringing on their IP, but that they can only afford to take on one tech titan.

The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Los Angeles and for the United States International Trade Commission, specifically calls out Google for five alleged patent violations, including technologies that allow their speakers to wirelessly communicate and synchronize with each other. Sonos tells The New York Times that both Amazon and Google are currently violating “roughly 100” of its patents.

“Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology," Sonos CEO Patrick Spence said in a statement to the Times. "Despite our repeated and extensive efforts over the last few years, Google has not shown any willingness to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution. We're left with no choice but to litigate."

We have reached out to Google and Amazon for comment.

Google and Amazon have both wandered headlong into hardware over the past several years, with internet-connected speakers representing one of their most concerted efforts. As the companies have built out their platforms, they have jumped into Sonos’ territory as they’ve pursued multi-room audio capabilities. The lawsuit complicates the business relationship between Google and Sonos. The Google Assistant is one of the voice assistants available on Sonos products and allows users to ask questions and control their music libraries with their voice.

The Times report details that there had been quite a bit of back-and-forth between Google and Sonos, and that Sonos has been pushing for Google to pay licensing fees on the tech and that Google’s counters were that Sonos was also using Google IP and that proposed licensing payments weren’t satisfactory to them.

For Google’s part, a company spokesperson highlighted that the companies had been in the midst of negotiations. "Over the years, we have had numerous ongoing conversations with Sonos about both companies’ IP rights and we are disappointed that Sonos brought these lawsuits instead of continuing negotiations in good faith. We dispute these claims and will defend them vigorously."

Join us for the TechCrunch 2020 book club, starting next week

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 11:15 AM PST

It's a new year, a new decade and a renewed opportunity to read great non-fiction and fiction that strikes at the heart of the ambition, power and challenges of technology and its effect on society at large.

That's why TechCrunch is launching an informal "book club" for our readers, starting next week. The idea is to bring our audience together around an important piece of writing, discuss it and, perhaps, learn a thing or two (or just enjoy great writing). This is a beta test — we are going to figure out the logistics a bit along the way ("move fast and read things").

Late last year, we published three different best-books-of-the-year lists, with recommendations from our own TechCrunch writers, Extra Crunch readers and leading venture capitalists.

I'm borrowing from Josh Wolfe at Lux Capital to select Exhalations by Ted Chiang as our first book.

As Arman Tabatabai wrote in our overview:

Chiang's newest work is a collection of science fiction short stories and novelettes that stray away from the speculative dystopian side of the genre. Using common sci-fi motifs such as aliens and AI proliferation, the selected writings instead dial-in on the characters living in these imagined universes as they examine how societal and technological evolutions impact the ethical, philosophical and cognitive aspects of the human psyche and existence.

“Exhalations” has not only been lauded by the likes of VCs, but was also selected as a top 10 book of the year by The New York Times for 2019.

For next week, we will start slowly and just read the first short story in the collection, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate." There are nine chapters in “Exhalations,” some very short, some longer, and we will balance out the reading over the next 4-6 weeks or so.

Each week, we will read a story or two from the book, and I will curate responses from any reader who wants to email me their thoughts about what they just read for a post on Tuesday (email: danny+bookclub@techcrunch.com). TechCrunch has discussion comments available on our posts, so we can continue the conversation there, as well.

Update: There is no sign up mechanism. You can follow our feed for these posts here.

Join us! And if you have feedback on this concept, feel free to email me at danny@techcrunch.com.

Samsung’s Lite devices bring the headphone jack to flagship design (sort of)

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 10:42 AM PST

Some devices need no explanation. The Galaxy S10 Lite and Note 10 Lite are no such devices. They're more nebulous, walking an interesting line, between premium and mid-range. They're a clear attempt by Samsung to change with a smartphone-buying public that has balked at the idea of $1,000+ devices.

On that front, they make plenty of sense. Things are, however, not so cut and dry. This is probably no better exemplified by the headphone jack situation. One (the Note 10) has one. One (the S10) doesn't. It's a bit of a one foot in, one foot out approach to the technology that Samsung, admittedly, has always been more cautious about abandoning than most.

The pragmatic reason for the decision, I think, is that the Note 10 Lite is the thicker of the two devices. Both feel like solid, flagship devices. The build quality is terrific on both. The Note, however, is noticeably chunkier, owing to the inclusion of the S Pen and a different screen technology. So Samsung saw an opportunity to have it both ways, plopping a headphone jack on the bottom.

The timing is interesting, as well. The company snuck out an announcement just ahead of CES. That both firmly missed the holiday season, while arriving about a month and a half ahead of its latest big phone reveal (the invitations for Unpacked went out the following day). There was also no pricing — and there still isn't here in the States. That leaves open the question of where they slot in.

Are we talking slightly below the flagship tier? Or is this Samsung's new vision for mid-tier? European pricing gives us a hint. At €599, that's pretty significantly below the lowest-tier version of its flagship counterparts. It's also a pretty decent direction below the Galaxy S10e. It will be interesting to see if that model sticks around for the S11.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

A closer look at Ballie, Samsung’s friendly robotic ball

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 10:11 AM PST

Okay, I've slept on it. I was skeptical at first, but after a good night's sleep, let's do this. I want a Ballie. All of the people and the pets in the below video seemed super into it. Where do I sign up?

Okay, let me back up a second. I'd like a little hands-on time with the robotic ball first. Or at the very least a more in-depth demo. But once we've gotten those out of the way, yeah, totally. Let's do this. I want my own BB8. I've just seen enough of these home robots come and go to be super skeptical about the plausibility of such a product both coming to market and functioning as advertised.

Even the latest version of Aibo, which is extremely impressive as far as home robotics go, still feels like a lot of unfulfilled potential at a prohibitively steep price. That's in spite of tremendous resources, multiple generations and years of iteration. It's been an incredibly tough nut to crack, and the road to success (whatever that will ultimately mean) is paved with the bodies of adorable robotic companions that died long before the their time.

It's not so much a lack of interest. Who watches a video like that and doesn't think Ballie would be a fun addition? I would, however, argue that such products deliver unrealistic expectations about what such a product would ultimately look like and how it would ultimately function in a home setting.

Baby steps. Bringing that long-promised Bixby smart speaker to market early this year is a good place to start. Next step is a designating a handful of functionalities best served by a roaming robotic ball (security, reminders, package delivery alerts) and building those in. Then deliver a device that can function consistently at a realistic price point. I'm here for it, Ballie.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Daily Crunch: Facebook bans deepfakes

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 10:02 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Facebook bans deceptive deepfakes and some misleadingly modified media

In a policy update announced late yesterday, Facebook’s Monika Bickert wrote that moving forward, the social network will take a stricter line on manipulated media content — removing content that's been edited or synthesized "in ways that aren't apparent to an average person and would likely mislead someone into thinking that a subject of the video said words that they did not actually say.”

However, edits for quality or cuts and splices to videos that simply curtail or change the order of words are not covered by the ban. So as Natasha Lomas notes, a more subtle form of political fakery will still be allowed.

2. TiVo announces a $49.99 device that combines streaming and live TV

CEO Dave Shull said the TiVo Stream 4K is launching the company "full on into the streaming wars." It’s integrated with services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO, and will also include content from TiVo+, the free, ad-supported movie and TV service that the company launched last fall. And it will include live TV and cloud DVR through Sling TV.

3. Union Square Ventures leads legal tech startup Juro's $5M Series A

Juro's business is focused on taking the tedium out of negotiating and drawing up contracts by making contract-building more interactive and trackable.

4. BMW launches gaze detection so your car knows what you're looking at

Using its AI tools, the concept car's systems can follow the driver's gaze and interpret it. That means you will be able to get more information about a restaurant, or about which movies are playing at a cinema that you're driving by.

5. Tech-driven change a key priority for new EC president

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has made responding to technology-driven change a key priority for her five-year term — which began last month — alongside challenges posed by climate change and demographic shifts, tacitly linking all three to a rise in regional unease. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Cloudflare acquires stealthy startup S2 Systems, announces Cloudflare for Teams

Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO at Cloudflare, says that this acquisition is part of a new suite of products called Cloudflare for Teams, which has been designed to protect an organization from threats on the internet. S2 developed a solution specifically to help prevent browser-based code attacks.

7. Mercedes-Benz and James Cameron built an Avatar-inspired car perfect for Pandora

Speaking of concept cars, Mercedes-Benz channeled the world of James Cameron's hit movie “Avatar” for its latest — an electric autonomous vehicle covered in bionic flaps that aims to show how man and machine can merge and live responsibly in nature.

Here’s everything Google announced at CES 2020

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 10:01 AM PST

Another year, another blast of Google Assistant news on the first official day of CES.

Google slimmed things down a touch for CES this year, though they’ve still got a big presence here. While they didn’t build a whole damn amusement park ride this time around, they’ve still got a massive two-story booth (complete with slides?) parked right outside the front doors of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

As with last year, just about everything Google is showing off at CES 2020 is focused around the company’s voice-powered AI helper, Google Assistant.

Here’s what’s new:

  • Webpage reading: Been meaning to read that long article all day, but don’t have 20 minutes to stare at your phone? Folks on Android devices will soon be able to say “Hey Google, read this page” and Assistant will fire up its neural networks to generate a pretty lifelike reading, with the system only reading the relevant text (assuming all is working as planned) while avoiding mentioning things like social sharing buttons or the page’s myriad navigation options. Google says it also wants to make the page autoscroll/highlight text as it reads, though it sounds like that may come a bit later down the road.
  • Scheduled actions: You’ll soon be able to make one-off requests for things you want to happen later in the day, like “Hey Google, turn on the lights at 6 pm.” Sorta surprising this wasn’t already a thing.
  • Sticky notes: Ever written something on a Post-it and put it wherever someone would see it as soon as they walked in the door? Google is taking that idea and putting it on their smart displays, allowing you to say things like “Hey Google, leave a note that says ‘Don’t forget to pack’ ” to pin a note to the lock screen (visible by all) accordingly.

  • Speed Dial: If that sticky notes feature is meant to replace the front door Post-it, this one is meant to replace that list of important phone numbers stuck to the fridge door for the babysitter. You’ll be able to add a handful of phone numbers to a smart display’s lock screen, allowing anyone to quickly call those contacts with a tap or voice command.
  • More businesses using Interpreter Mode: Announced at CES last year, interpreter mode allows an Assistant-powered smart display to translate a conversation between two people, each speaking a different language. Google says more businesses have committed to using it this year, including American Airlines, HSBC banks and a handful of hotels around Vegas, San Francisco, LA, Japan and Qatar.
  • Uh, forget I said that: Google Assistant isn’t supposed to record anything you say unless you start the sentence with “Hey Google”… but, well, that doesn’t always work. Sometimes things on TV will cause Assistant to perk up its ears; other times you might be mid-conversation and only realize you somehow caught Assistant’s attention when it responds “Sorry, I can’t help with that.” With that in mind, you’ll now be able to say “Hey Google, that wasn’t for you” to have it wipe its history of the last thing you said.

The one catch: As with most new Google Assistant features, the company isn’t getting too specific about when this stuff is rolling out, saying only that it’ll come “later this year.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Samsung’s knife-wielding robotic chef is all flash

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 10:00 AM PST

Last year, we asked whether Samsung was getting serious about robotics. A year later, we're not any closer to answering the question. This year's presser played out roughly the same as last on the robotics front — all flash and little productizing to show for it.

Samsung's approach to robotics thus far appears to be the model of many other big electronics companies. It's flirtation with a technology that brings some sense of showmanship to the stage and booth. There's no better example than Bot Chef. I got a preview of the tech in Samsung's booth this week, pitched as "an extra set of hands in the kitchen."

You can't fault the technology for not being ready for prime time, at this point, of course. That's not really the point yet. The question, however, is how serious Samsung is about bringing a pair of robot arms to kitchens across the globe to sauté tofu and liberally apply Sriracha. I would love to say "very," and that the different demos were things the company was actively pursuing delivering on these products.

The futuristic theme of last night's keynote, however, implied that the company is offering up hypotheticals for what a future could look like — not what it will. Even Ballie, which seems a more realistic addition to the company's smart home strategy is also still very much conceptual. As with last year's robot demos, I wasn't able to get an answer from the company about how much of the robot’s functions were autonomous and how much were choreographed. It’s a cool demo regardless. But is it a serious one?

At the end of the day, I hope Samsung is getting serious about the category. The company has tremendous resources and a lot of smart people. If it really takes the leap, it could be a key player in making robotics more mainstream among consumers. For now, however, I'm unconvinced.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

American Airlines starts trialing Google Nest Hubs as translators in its lounges

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 10:00 AM PST

Delta is keynoting CES today and launching a slew of updates to its digital services. Its competitors don’t want to be left behind, of course, so it’s probably no surprise that American Airlines also made a small but nifty tech announcement today. In partnership with Google, American will start trialing Google Nest Hubs and the Google Assistant interpreter mode in its airport lounges, starting at Los Angeles International Airport this week.

The idea here is to make it easier for the company’s customer service teams to provide personalized service to its customers when no multilingual representative is available. Because the interpreter mode supports 29 languages, including the likes of Arabic, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese, the Assistant should be able to help in most cases.

“The science fiction universal translator is now science fact,” said Maya Leibman, American's chief information officer. “Incorporating technology like the Google Assistant's interpreter mode will help us break down barriers, provide a worry-free travel experience and make travel more accessible to all.”

While this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking new airline experience, what we’re seeing here is how the airline industry is now starting to see technology as a way to differentiate. There is only so much you can do once a customer has boarded (though a good seat, meal and friendly service sure help). What the airlines want to do, though, is extend their relationship with their customers beyond that initial booking experience and the flying experience, with more proactive services through its mobile apps and other touchpoints. That’s pretty clear from Delta’s announcements today, and the rest of the industry is pushing in the same direction.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Damon Motors targets Tesla owners with its 200 MPH hyper-safe e-moto

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 10:00 AM PST

Damon Motorcycles doesn’t want to become the Tesla of e-moto companies. But the startup does believe its EV two-wheeler is the first to capture the ethos of Tesla owners.

That’s the target market for Damon’s new $24,995 Hypersport, according to CEO Jay Giraud.

The Vancouver-based startup unveiled the e-motorcycle today at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, after offering a teaser in December.

Damon’s Hypersport has a 200 mph top-speed, 200 miles of highway range, 147 ft-lbs of torque, charges to 80% in 20 minutes and weighs less than 500 pounds, Giraud told TechCrunch on a call.

The company’s new EV is cloud-connected, manages performance through digital riding modes and will get riders from 0-60 mph in less than 3 seconds.

These specs alone would make the Hypersport impressive in an increasingly competitive e-moto market, but they’re only part of the Damon package. The seed-stage company also creates proprietary, digital safety technology engineered to overcome (what it sees as) common flaws in motorcycle design.

Damon Motorcycles Hypersport Sensors

"We're trying to change the industry by addressing the issues of safety and handling and comfort and the problems that have persisted with everyone in the industry, including all the e-moto companies today,” Giraud told TechCrunch in December.

To that end, Damon has positioned its Hypersport as an ultra-fast, smart and safe motorcycle by infusing it with unique tech features. To start, the EV is equipped with the company's CoPilot system, which uses sensors, radar and cameras to detect and track moving objects around the motorcycle — including blind spots — and alert riders to danger.

Damon Motorcycles CoPilot

Damon has also addressed the one-size-fits-all problem in motorcycle design, integrating a system on its Hypersport for adjustable ergonomics. The startup's debut EV allows riders to electronically shift the motorcycle's windscreen, seat, foot-pegs and handlebars to accommodate different positions and conditions — from upright city riding to more aggressive high-speed runs.

Damon is taking pre-orders for its Hypersport and will skip dealers, opting for a direct-to-consumer sales and service model.

The company enters a stagnant American motorcycle market that’s becoming crowded with EV offerings. New motorcycle sales in the U.S. have dropped by roughly 50% since 2008 — with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40 — and have never recovered, according to Motorcycle Industry Council stats.

In a bid to revive sales and the interest of younger riders, in 2019 Harley-Davidson became the first of the big gas manufacturers to offer a street-legal e-moto for sale in the U.S. — the LiveWire — which is a forerunner to an HD product-line of electric-powered two-wheelers.

Harley Davidson Livewire static 1

Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire

Harley’s entry followed several failed electric motorcycle startups — Alta Motors, Mission Motors and Brammo — and put it in the market with existing EV ventures, such as Zero  — which debuted its $19,000, 120 mph SR/F in 2019.

High-performance Italian EV company Energica has expanded marketing and sales in the U.S., and 2020 should also see e-moto debuts by California-based Lightning Motorcycles and Fuell, a French and American-founded company with plans to release the $10,000, 150-mile range Fllow.

Hows does Damon Motorcycles scale in a contracting U.S. motorcycle market with expanding EV entrants?

The company’s CEO, Jay Giraud, believes the startup’s melding of superior performance and safety features will give Damon a comparative advantage over other offerings.

He also sees Damon’s Hypersport (and planned subsequent models) as the first motorcycles that can sell to an existing but largely untapped e-moto market segment: Tesla owners.

“They know electric drive…they know what insane acceleration feels like…and they appreciate tech that makes the safety of the EV, on top of the unbelievable performance,” said Giraud — who co-founded Damon with fellow Canadian Dominique Kwong.

Damon Founders Jay Giraud and Dominique Kwong

Jay Giraud and Dominique Kwong

But are four-wheel Tesla owners really potential motorcycle buyers?

“Sure they are,” said to Giraud. “Tons and tons of Tesla owners own motorbikes and over 1,700 people who filled out an interest form on our website told us they were [Tesla] owners.”

Damon is banking on what Giraud referred to as the Tesla-effect. “Within about six months of owning a Tesla…people start looking around for what else in their home and garage should be electric. And those are the customers we’re going after first,” Giraud said.

So time and sales stats will tell if Damon can attract affluent four-wheel EV owners to buy $25,000, 200 mph electric motorcycles.

We’ll also see if the company’s innovative design can create a Damon effect — shifting market expectations on OEMs and e-moto startups to offer both high-performance and extensive digital-safety features on motorcycles.

As Zume layoffs loom, a look back at SoftBank’s troubled investing year

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 09:56 AM PST

Changing from the highest-flying conglomerate and most famous capital vehicle to troubled icons of misplaced exuberance, it’s tough to be SoftBank and its Vision Fund today. Despite the occasional good story, it’s been a tough run for the pair.

But lost in the continuous drip of bad news concerning the Japanese firm and its globally backed, gravity-bending fund is the scale of its myriad problems. When taken into account as a group, however, it’s easier to see how many things have go south in rapid succession. So let’s do that.

What follows is a semi-comprehensive list of what’s gone wrong for SoftBank and the Vision Fund recently, starting in the second quarter of last year. You could go back further, but by my estimation, we’re picking up when things began to go sideways for a number of Vision Fund bets at once.

Timeline

April, 2019: Layoffs at Wag! One of the SoftBank Vision Fund’s oddest bets, a $300 million bet on a dog-walking startup, ran into trouble last April when it executed its second round of layoffs.

May, 2019: Uber’s IPO disappoints. Uber’s IPO did not go well. After setting an initial $44 to $50 per-share IPO price range, the company failed to boost the interval, instead pricing at $45 per share. That valued the company at $75.46 billion (undiluted), far under what the company had hoped and bankers had intimated it might be worth. Uber then opened down, and is worth just $31.95 per share today, or about $54.5 billion. SoftBank had invested in the company at both $48 billion and $70 billion.

June, 2019: New CEO at Brandless Another huge bet by SoftBank, Brandless, got a new CEO after losing its preceding chief executive in March due to “tensions with SoftBank.” That long of a CEO gap and the implied executive turmoil wasn’t great news for the company that SoftBank had purchased 40% of for $240 million. (Update: The $240 million figure represented several pieces of a multi-part investment; TechCrunch has learned that the Vision Fund put in a smaller $100 million investment.)

August-October, 2019: WeWork files, falls apart. WeWork fell apart during the third and fourth quarters of 2019. The company’s IPO filing was a hot mess, its management conflicted, its investors oddly passive until the car was out past the cliff and over the water, and the real estate business was overvalued, to boot. It also lost a lot of money. After pulling the IPO and taking a huge loss, WeWork bailed out its former star investment and is working to save it.

September: Compass loses several executives. Compass, another SoftBank-backed startup that had raised more than $1 billion, lost a number of executives that Crunchbase News summarized as follows: “Compass Execs Leave In Another SoftBank-Fueled Real Estate Exodus.” At the time the startup stressed its hiring pace in contrast with headlines.

October, 2019: Layoffs at Fair. Fair, valued at $1.2 billion after raising a half billion from SoftBank and others, laid off 40% of its staff, TechCrunch reported in October. And it lost its CFO.

December, 2019: Layoffs at Katerra. There were layoffs at SoftBank-backed, modular construction startup Katerra a few times during 2019 it seems, but the one we recalled best was the decision to cut 200 jobs and shutter a factory. That happened in December. (Adding some context here, that particular factory shuttering came after the company announced a factory location in California.)

December, 2019: OneConnect IPO goes poorly. OneConnect, a SoftBank-backed, China-based company that provides tech to banks, priced its IPO at $10 per share in December, under the $12 to $14 per share range it had hoped for. The company went public worth $3.7 to $3.8 billion, depending on your sums. Both figures were drastically under the Vision Fund’s $7.45 billion post-money valuation that was affixed during a huge private investment. The value of the company has risen since, however, to just over $12 per share.

December, 2019: SoftBank gives up on Wag. SoftBank gives up on Wag, selling its stake back to the company at a loss.

Earlier on and January, 2020: Problems at OYO. It’s hard to draw a start and end to OYO’s problems. You could point to the odd banking behind its latest funding round, which raised eyebrows. Or this from October. But it seems that lately things have been even more worrisome. A New York Times piece published at the start of the year noted that “at least part of Oyo's rise in India was built on practices that raise questions about the health of its business.” SoftBank is a heavy backer of Oyo.

December, 2019: Brandless revenue down by half. The Wall Street Journal reports that Brandless’s “sales volume as of August had fallen by about half from a year earlier.”

January, 2020: Knives out for Uber CEO. A piece in The Information makes it clear that some folks historically associated with Uber are not pleased with its CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. The company’s share price remains depressed and the company’s unprofitability appears stickier than some anticipated. Including the CEO.

January, 2020: Layoffs at Zume Pizza. This was not a surprise. But it was sad all the same (layoffs impact working people who have bills to pay; fret not for the capital class). Zume intends to shed 80% of its staff, despite having raised $375 million from the Vision Fund. Perhaps robotic pizza cars, or whatever their last idea was, were a bit far off.

January, 2020: The Vision Fund dinged for breaking term sheets. Finally, Axios recently reported that the Vision Fund was breaking term sheets with founders, a big no-no in venture. This led to public shaming by other venture players, an almost unthinkable occurrence back when the Vision Fund was hot — and feared.

And that’s just what I recalled this morning. I’m sure there are other, recent examples of issues with SoftBank and Vision Fund investments.

Will there be a Vision Fund 2 as it was originally detailed? If not, who is going to keep the Vision Fund’s unicorns afloat? Is there enough capital in the market to do so, without a Vision Fund 2?

This autonomous security drone is designed to guard your home

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 09:40 AM PST

One of the new products unveiled at CES this year is a new kind of home security system — one that includes drones to patrol your property, along with sensors designed to mimic garden light and a central processor to bring it all together.

Sunflower Labs debuted their new Sunflower Home Awareness System, which includes the eponymous Sunflowers (motion and vibration sensors that look like simple garden lights but can populate a map to show you cars, people and animals on or near your property in real time); the Bee (a fully autonomous drone that deploys and flies on its own, with cameras on board to live-stream video); and the Hive (a charging station for the Bee, which also houses the brains of the operation for crunching all the data gathered by the component parts).

Roving aerial robots keeping tabs on your property might seem a tad dystopian, and perhaps even unnecessary, when you could maybe equip your estate with multiple fixed cameras and sensors for less money and with less complexity. But Sunflower Labs thinks its security system is an evolution of more standard fare because it “learns and reacts to its surroundings,” improving over time.

The Bee is also designed basically to supplement more traditional passive monitoring, and can be deployed on demand to provide more detailed information and live views of any untoward activity detected on your property. So it’s a bit like having someone always at the ready to go check out that weird noise you heard in the night — without the risk to the brave checker-upper.

Sunflower Labs was founded in 2016, and has backing from General Catalyst, among others, with offices in both San Francisco and Zurich. The system doesn’t come cheap, which shouldn’t be a surprise, given what it promises to do on paper — it starts at $9,950 and can range up depending on your specific property’s custom needs. The company is accepting pre-orders now, with a deposit of $999 required, and intends to start delivering the first orders to customers beginning sometime in the middle of this year.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Delta Air Lines bets on AI to help its operations run smoothly in bad weather

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 09:30 AM PST

Delta Air Lines, in its first-ever keynote at CES, today announced a new AI-driven system that will help it make smarter decisions when the weather turns tough and its finely tuned operations get out of whack. In a first for the passenger airline industry, the company built a full-scale digital simulation of its operations that its new system can then use to suggest the best way to handle a given situation with the fewest possible disruptions for passengers.

It’s no secret that the logistics of running an airline are incredibly complex, even on the best of days. On days with bad weather, that means airline staff must figure out how to swap airplanes between routes to keep schedules on track, ensure that flight crews are available and within their FAA duty time regulations and that passengers can make their connections.

“Our customers expect us to get them to their destinations safely and on time, in good weather and bad,” said Erik Snell, Delta's senior vice president of its Operations & Customer Center. “That's why we're adding a machine learning platform to our array of behind-the-scenes tools so that the more than 80,000 people of Delta can even more quickly and effectively solve problems, even in the most challenging situations.”

With ConnectionSaver, United recently launched a tool that helps ground staff make the right decisions to hold planes at the gate for a few minutes to allow all passengers to make tight connections when things go awry. Delta’s new tools take this a step further, though, by modeling all of the company’s operations.

The new platform will go online in the spring of this year, the company says, and, like most of today’s AI systems, will get smarter over time as it is fed more real-world data. Thanks to the included simulation of Delta’s operations, it’ll also include a post-mortem tool to help staff look at which decisions could have resulted in better outcomes.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Delta Air Lines shows off its smarter travel app, an exoskeleton and more at CES

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 09:30 AM PST

Over the course of the last few years, we’ve seen a number of new companies come to CES to brandish their consumer electronics chops as their own industries went through significant disruptions thanks to new technologies. The most obvious example of this is the car industry, which now has a major presence at both CES and MWC. Now, the airline industry is also getting in this game, as Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian used his first CES keynote to show off his company’s efforts to use technology to improve the flying experience.

Bastian showed off the company’s new vision for its Fly Delta app, for example, which is maybe the most important touchpoint between the airline and passengers today. The company wants to transform the app into a “digital concierge that anticipates customer needs.”

In practice, that means the company will soon launch a new feature that tells you when it’s your time to board, for example. While you can obviously already get a notification when your flight boards, this new feature, which is launching next month, will tell you when your group is boarding (and with Delta’s whopping nine boarding groups, that is actually quite useful) or which security checkpoint at the airport would be best for you, given which gate you’re leaving from.

Bastian also said that the app may soon let you choose seats through an AR experience and may feature proactive weather alerts that could affect your future flights (something that I’ve seen United do in recent weeks as well).

The company also announced an extended partnership with Lyft, which builds on the company’s existing partnership that allows Delta fliers to earn miles when booking Lyft rides, for example. Now, the app will highlight this partnership in more places, but more importantly, the companies are looking at a dedicated premium Delta-Lyft experience at some airports (though what exactly that is meant to look like remains to be seen), as well as the ability to use frequent flier miles to pay for rides.

"Instead of checking one app for traffic, another for airport parking and a third for TSA wait times, Delta is building the capability to simplify travel by helping you manage everything from ridesharing and in-flight entertainment to bag delivery and hotels," Bastian said. "We're excited to start exploring these possibilities with an innovative leader like Lyft, with whom we share a passion for making the customer travel experience even more rewarding."

Bastian also highlighted the company’s work with Misapplied Sciences, which makes displays that can show different content to multiple viewers in parallel. You can think of it as a large display that sits in a public space (like an airport) and shows you where your next gate is, for example.

Delta will first test Misapplied Sciences’ Parallel Reality experience in Detroit later this year. Almost 100 customers will be able to use the display and see personalized content about their travel — including wayfinding, flight information, boarding times and — most importantly — upgrade status. All of this will be opt-in, Delta stresses, and no customer information is stored (beyond what Delta already knows about your travels, of course).

“We are looking forward to bringing this to life with Delta. The team there quickly saw the value the Parallel Reality experience would bring to its customers and had the vision, brand and resources to help bring it to market,” said Albert Ng, Misapplied Sciences CEO. “While we will start with Delta customers in Detroit, eventually Parallel Reality technology can be used to create seamless, engaging and personalized experiences in nearly any out-of-home venue — ranging from stadiums to theme parks to convention centers and more.”

As for the exoskeleton, that’s sadly not meant for passengers who want to quickly get from gate to gate. Instead, Delta is partnering with Sarcos Robotics to test how its employees could use them for lifting heavy objects, for example. Sarcos says its exoskeleton could help an employee lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours without fatigue (though I think I would get bored after lifting weights for eight hours…).

Once those exoskeleton-enhanced airport workers have loaded your bag and you’re comfortably sitting in your seat, Delta also wants to improve its on-board entertainment. Starting this year, the company plans to test a “binge button” that will let you watch entire seasons of a show uninterrupted. In addition, it will also offer a recommendation feature with personalized options based on your previous viewing behavior, as well as a “do not disturb” and “wake me for meal service” setting for its economy class customers on some long-haul flights.

All of these updates sound useful (even though most fliers would probably prefer an extra inch or two of legroom and seat width over any of these). Delta has recently improved a lot of the actual flying experience with better food options, even in economy, and other changes. It’s only a natural move to extend this to the digital experience that has now become the most important way for the company to interact with its customers.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

6 VCs explain why seed investors now favor enterprise startups

Posted: 07 Jan 2020 09:12 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Today we’re digging into seed-stage companies, the vanguard of the venture market. In particular, we’re trying to understand why the ratio of seed deals now favor enterprise startups over their consumer-focused brethren. The fact that seed investors recently inverted their preferences, cutting more checks to enterprise (B2B) startups in 2019 than consumer-oriented companies (B2C) was news.

We wrote about the trend here, as regular readers will recall.

To better understand what’s going on, I spoke with a number of early-stage venture investors who recently dropped by Equity, came highly recommended by peers, and several I know personally. The goal was to get a handful of inputs from different firms to get under the skin of the trend.

What in the hell is going on in seed? Let’s find out.

Why are enterprise seed deals on top?

This morning we’ll hear from Jenny Lefcourt at Freestyle Capital, Jomayra Herrera of Cowboy Ventures, Hunter Walk from Homebrew, Iris Choi of Floodgate, Sarah Guo from Greylock and Ajay Agarwal of Bain Capital Ventures. As you can see, we picked a list of investors form firms of different sizes, theses and focus. However, each investing group either focuses on early-stage investments that include seed deals or dabbles in them.

Here’s what we want to know: why did the the majority of seed deals swap from consumer-focused startups to enterprise-focused deals? 

Our investing group detailed a number of explanations, a handful of which echoed each other. To best convey their thinking, we’ll quote each investor at moderate length. If you are in a hurry, the most common point made against consumer-focused seed deals is go-to-market difficulty in the current market.

Other reasons include price, secular changes to the technology landscape, and the changing experience profile of the investing class themselves. (Minor edits made to select responses for clarity.)

Freestyle’s Jenny Lefcourt said via email that consumers are an increasingly difficult cohort to sell to, because they “became fickle with the proliferation of VC-backed, consumer-focused startups over the past few years.” As a result, consumers became “harder and more expensive to acquire and even harder to retain,” meaning higher customer acquisition costs (CAC) and lower lifetime value (LTV).